Family Camping at California’s Lake Piru

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Get brave and dirty! Try a campout with your preschoolers!
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Last weekend, we took the kids camping at Lake Piru in Los Padres National Forest near Ventura, Calif. Our boys, ages 2 and 4 years, were very excited, and spent the week before our trip “practicing” in their turtle-shaped tent at home. My husband has his father’s old 1985 speed boat, and we were curious about how our little ones might fare on a cruise about the lake. (They’ve been boating on it since birth, but each time seems to be an entirely new adventure!)

The campsite at Lake Piru is a lot less rural than I’d hoped—tiny spaces in a former olive orchard butting up to neighboring campers on either side—and while the fabulous sunsets, and chocolate brown cows on the surrounding picturesque hills created a tranquil setting, the overall “campground” aspect felt a little more like tailgating than getting back to nature. Like all things in life, even strangers camping only 50 feet away (with their late-night banter and dubious musical tastes) have a silver lining; So much exposure to other campers allowed our children fleeting interactions with other young ones new to the concept. The boys also made friends with rollicking doggies of all shapes and sizes, and (truth be told) I’m neither ready to go “deep woods” with a 2- and 4-year-old just yet, nor am I ready to stray too far from a decent coffee place when I know I’ll be spending the night on a blow-up mattress.

The economy what it is, the boat launch was virtually deserted all weekend, with only a lone skier on the lake, although it is a popular spot for trout, northern black bass, catfish, bluegill, sunfish and crappie fishing. We enjoyed high-speed rides with our friends and little guys, who were both giggling hysterically and urging their father to go faster, faster! When we let down our anchor in a quiet bay, they thought nothing of jumping right in the lake–I was so impressed! 

One unexpected benefit of the empty boat launches was the combination of wide open space and the perfect kite-flying wind caught between the mountains and water. (My husband scoffed when I packed a kite: “how do you suppose we’ll fly a kite in the woods?”) When I pulled out our Mater and Lightning McQueen kite, the boys cheered! The string was nowhere to be found, so I removed the kite’s tails, connected them, and we used them as a makeshift string. The wind picked the kite right up, and we were off and running! 

While we had packed a toy bulldozer and an excavator, along with some sand toys, the boys ignored them. They were too interested in exploring rabbit holes, and collecting sticks, and throwing stones into the woods. One thing that surprised me was the ongoing ordeal about who was going to collect the water and help scrub the dishes after every meal. To be fair, I put them both to work, but they weren’t happy about it. They each wanted to be “the one” who helped. (This is the kind of debate I’d like to see more often!)

Each night, the boys were exhausted. When we tucked them into bed, the would roll about in huge fits of giggles—they were so thrilled to be sleeping in a tent! They were giving us big kisses and hugs and cheering, and it was nothing short of adorable. Until early in the morning, when our littlest early-riser had me up at 5am, walking the perimeter of the campground, again and again, until around 8 am, when he finally settled down enough to eat breakfast—or rather, pick the chocolate chips out of the otherwise nutritious trail mix.

Check out the slideshow! After reviewing our fun, I realized we all need our hair cut.

Rebecca Lacko
A columnist and fiction writer, Rebecca Lacko chronicles the sometimes chaotic adventures of exploring the world with her husband and two sons.

Her food column, The Unassuming Foodie, has been featured in a celebrity charitable cookbook, which was the finalist in the cookbook category of the 2009 National Best Books Awards sponsored by USA Book News. Her blog, Rebecca Lacko allows a perfect distraction from writing her first fiction novel about a hopelessly dysfunctional Orange County family unraveling at the seams.
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