Camping in Los Padres National Forest

Camping & Hiking Expert Hannah K. shares the details of her recent camping trip to Los Padres National Forest and the adventures she had while there.

A woman walks on a grassy trail.

Los Padres National Forest. Photo by Erin O'Brien

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Los Padres National Forest is huge. Located in southern and central California, Los Padres spans the coast from Ventura to Monterey counties and extends inland. Elevations range from just under 8,850 feet to sea level. There is plenty to do—in fact, it can be overwhelming.

On a recent trip to Los Padres in the Santa Barbara/Ventura region, I decided to do absolutely nothing. Typically, my plans are to wake up early, hike, get to camp late, go to bed, and do it all again the next day. I never get to enjoy just being at camp. For my birthday this year, I challenged myself to do something different. If you are looking to plan a slower-paced trip, here is what I did and the gear I brought with me.

I had planned a two-night trip with my boyfriend. Actually, he planned it. The first night, we stayed in the town of Santa Barbara. We drove up from Los Angeles early that morning. We opted to take Highway 1, the scenic route, and stopped at Somis Nut House along the way. If you’re into nuts covered in seasoning, this is the place for you.

Once we got to town, our first stop was the Gaviota Hot Springs and Trespass Trail. It is a heavily trafficked trail so I recommend going during the week. The trail is a 6.6-mile loop with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain. We went on a Tuesday morning and had the hot springs to ourselves. The hike was fairly easy to follow with some good elevation, but it is doable in Tevas or Chacos.

Image of hot springs with light blue water.

Photo by Reiseuhu

Follow the smell of rotten eggs (sulfur) and you will find the springs that have amazing ocean views. There are six natural springs, the one at the highest elevation also being the hottest at 104 degrees Fahrenheit. We slowly worked our way up but didn’t quite make it. Go on a winter day and the springs will warm you right up.

After we finished in the springs, we went to the beach to rinse off the sulfur smell, walk around the dock, and head to our Airbnb. The next morning, we hit the road and drove about 25 minutes to the entrance of Los Padres National Forest. Our first stop was the Chumash Painted Cave Trail. There is a trailhead about two miles from California Route 154, but we opted to pull off on the side of the road and walk a few hundred feet to the entrance of the cave. The paintings are vivid and bright, but they are unfortunately gated off due to graffiti and etchings that people have added to this historic art site.

Petroglyphs on a rock wall.

Photo by Lyle Wilkinson

From there, we drove further into the park to Upper Oso Campground, site #9. It is important to note that we had not reserved a campground prior to showing up. There were plenty of sites available; however, not many campgrounds were open due to a previous fire (we had researched this before leaving). After driving by many closed campgrounds and a flock of wild turkeys, we ended up at Upper Oso Campground, site #9. It is a smaller campground, with ten spots total and eight for reservation only. It was exceptionally quiet and peaceful.

Keep in mind that to access this campground, you must have a four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicle to cross the river and flash floods may occur. Thankfully, the river was empty when we arrived and my not-4WD vehicle made it across perfectly. There were confusing signs about needing a different kind of pass than the adventure pass we had, but once we arrived at camp, the host named Sunny confirmed that the signs were not accurate.

It was a private site in a well-kept campground, hosted by Sunny and her dog, who came over when we were eating dinner. We arrived at camp by 12:30 and immediately ate lunch. The sun was out but not hot, and it had rained just a few days prior. Behind our site was a stream that was now empty and covered in fresh mud. After eating lunch, we decided to collect some mud and make fresh pottery. A few hours after the pottery was drying in the sun, we smashed them! It was great.

While our pottery was baking, we did a variety of other activities. However, it wasn’t about hiking or exerting ourselves. It was a trip planned with the intention of truly relaxing and hitting the reset button, so we did. We read. I journaled. I also did some meditation/breathwork and a very mild yoga session. We played some card games. My boyfriend taught me how to play Ninja and I lost many times (I blame it on his incredibly long arms and legs). I sunbathed in our hammock. Most excitingly, I set up my new-and-improved and very homemade car-camping setup.

A car-camping setup.

Photo by Josh Duke

Earlier in the year, I had enlisted the help of my uncle to create a platform on the back of my 2007 Toyota RAV4. I wanted it to be easily removable and multipurpose. Part of the platform can slide out and be used as a kitchen table to cook on, the entire setup collapses into the trunk if I choose to have the back seats up, and it has eight inches of space underneath the mattress (many layers of foam) for all the gear we need.

Some of my gear included my bear canister, my Mpowerd Luci lantern, cooking items like my Soto Amicus Stove Cookset Combo, as well as other personal items.

After we finished setting up and smashing our homemade pottery, the sun had started setting and it was cooling off. We washed off, changed into our warmer layers, and took a quick walk around the campground by the nearby trail. We watched the sunset from this beautiful small peak behind our campground and went back to camp to make dinner.

I was feeling a bit restless—I was not used to sitting around. I tried to change my perspective from “sitting around” to “enjoying the little things,” and that is when my day changed. I finally felt this sudden rush of relaxation and gratitude take over and my mood changed. I went from feeling antsy to accepting that this was a different kind of trip. I told myself that it was okay to not follow the mentality of the “grind” and to take moments to stop and relax. It’s okay to not “send it” on the trail but to “send it” at camp instead.

I highly recommend trying a new kind of trip, whatever that may mean to you. Adventures can look and feel differently for everyone, so embrace your new adventure! Hit up a Camping & Hiking Expert to get some gear recommendations and chat about all things outdoors.

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Written By
Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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