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Carmageddon Camping in California

Author: Amelia Hesson
Date of Trip: July 2011

Carmageddon Camping in California 07/15-07/16/2011

We found Carmageddon last Friday as we set out for Los Prietos campground in the Padres National Forest located in the Mountains behind Santa Barbara. At 2pm Friday afternoon the 101 freeway in Ventura was like a parking lot and it stayed this way until we reached Santa Barbara. I think many people intended to be far from Los Angeles this weekend in order to avoid Carmageddon; this must be why there was no traffic in the LA at all. While it normally takes us 20 minutes to get to Santa Barbara, this day it took over an hour. The expectation of Carmageddon came alive and followed us from Ventura through Santa Barbara!

We were headed up for a dry camping experience in our RV, no hook ups but lots of beautiful nature and a place to park. When we finally reached our destination we were in for a rude awakening! The camp host laughed at our 30 foot Winnebago and told we would not fit on the site that was rented to us, and even if we could we would not be able to drive our rig up to the site because of all the low trees and narrow roads. We were supposed to be in site#14 and were reassigned to site #3. He told us that we were not the first RV’ers to discover that sites in this campground were not RV friendly, which did not help matters at all. We had nowhere to go.

I had gone on the site and searched for an RV site that would accommodate my 30’ rig and Los Prietos came up, so I booked it. I picked a site from several open sites and attempted to get information about the campground, which was difficult to find, and most of the RV reviews were over 4 years old. I should have paid attention to the negative comments about people not being able to fit their rigs in, but these were giant 40 foot class A rigs and we have a smaller class C 30 footer. I’m so tech savvy that I neglected to call them and ask about the site, choosing to rely on web info instead. I figured the Reserve America website would not rent me a site I couldn’t fit in or get to and I was so wrong about this!

Before I go on let me tell you about this area, it’s located in the Los Padres National Forest and alongside the Santa Ynez River on a road called Paradise. If you take highway 154 off the 101 in Santa Barbara you will follow it up and across the San Marcos Pass, at the top you will see the turnoff for Paradise road. An interesting thing to note here is that at the intersection of Paradise road and Stagecoach road there is a restaurant called the Cold Spring Tavern which was established in 1865 and is one of the oldest continually operated restaurants in California. They make great burgers, also a good place to buy supplies.

Following Paradise further brings you to many crossings on the Santa Ynez River, and you will pass several federal campgrounds built by the conservation corps in the 1930’s (Fremont, Paradise, Sage Hill, Upper Oso, and Los Prietos among the better places) and some private equestrian campgrounds as well. There are usually 8 or more crossings opened but this year they closed the road beyond “First Crossing” because a bridge was damaged by the large amount of water they got this year. Most of the campgrounds are before first crossing, and Los Prietos is closest to easy river access at a day use area called White Rock.

Anyway we pulled into the campground late in the afternoon and stopped at the camp host who promptly started to laugh at us which was very upsetting, and this vacation was starting to feel like a bummer in the making. We were given an alternate site, which we barely fit into, but we could not open the side door with out running into a tree and damaging the RV. The worst part here was that everybody around us was very upset that a big 30’RV was ruining their nature views (we were) and I heard a few people asking why we were ruining their experience. In turn I had to ask them the same question!

Los Prietos is a nice place for tent camping but a terrible place for bringing your RV, unless you like sticking out like a sore thumb and dealing with hostile campers. At first I thought the whole bunch of campers surrounding us were nasty and mean until I realized that we were the only RV in the place. The minute I realized that we probably did not belong there I knew if I were tent camping I would hate to see a big RV blocking my views. Years of travel enable me to see other’s perspective much clearer, and I am thankful for that.

We decided to leave the next day; we were very uncomfortable being the only RV in the campground, we could not use the awning, and had a tough time stabilizing our 30’ rig on a 22’ concrete pad. Pulling out of the site we damaged the undercarriage of our RV because it was too low and we could not maneuver around parked cars in the next campsite. Before we departed the area we visited the Los Prietos Ranger station to ask about which campground we could actually fit in, he directed us to Paradise where we did find a more RV friendly campground. I’m not sure I’ll be back to this area in my new RV, but it is nice to know there is a place for us.

On our way back to Ventura, we enjoyed the morning visiting Lake Cachuma, with its beautiful full hook up sites, each large enough to have grass, trees, a table, and a fire pit. Next time, this is where we will camp. I was shocked to see that on a Saturday in the middle of summer, there were plenty of open campsites for all types of camping; full hook-ups, partial hook-ups, and tent camping. This is an incredible Santa Barbara County campground with a giant pool, restaurants, stores, miles of green lakefront sites, and room for all types of campers. This is definitely a be-back.

Monday morning I called National Reserve Recreation System to find the source of this issue, because I wanted a refund and I needed to cancel an upcoming weekend that I had booked at Los Prietos and I did not think it fare to charge me a cancellation fee. What a nightmare. The NRRS uses private companies to rent out sites, Reserve America is the main one, and Reserve America informed me that they contracted out to independents and it was those independent companies’ responsibility to check the campsites, gathering parameters for each site so the appropriate site is matched to the appropriate RV/Trailer/Tent campers. They were not able to help me and I was directed to a long line of recorded phone prompts, which aggravated and frustrated me to no end. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for this problem which is not right! Finally an hour and a half into this call I got to the correct person who did cancel my reservation, and did refund my 2nd night at Los Prietos, and hopefully this person will take my feedback and help others avoid these bummers. Geesh!

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