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Summer rush: Cerro Alto makes for reliable, no-frills camping 

Trying to reserve campsites on the Central Coast during the summer is almost so fruitless that it makes the prospect of camping inherently less fun. Big Sur? Try looking six months earlier! Even local favorites like Montaña de Oro and San Simeon State Park are booked weeks in advance.

click to enlarge PERFECT WEATHER I snapped this shot of the last light at Cerro Alto campground. The weather was perfect during this weekend in August—one of the warmest camping experiences I can remember. - PHOTOS BY PETER JOHNSON
  • Photos By Peter Johnson
  • PERFECT WEATHER I snapped this shot of the last light at Cerro Alto campground. The weather was perfect during this weekend in August—one of the warmest camping experiences I can remember.

Yes, there are many walk-up campsites throughout the region to choose from. But, come on—sometimes you just don't feel like getting up early and trekking out somewhere that you don't know for sure will be available. And sometimes you just want that effortless glamping experience with friends.

Cerro Alto Campground, off Highway 41 between Atascadero and Morro Bay, is a seeming exception to this unfortunate summer rule. Reservations here are still competitive, no doubt, but it's reasonable. A group of my friends and I decide relatively last minute to book a site for a weekend in August without issues.

Situated in the Los Padres National Forest about 1,000 feet above sea level, Cerro Alto has 22 campsites spread out over about a mile, with a well-maintained single lane road connecting them all. Is this camping that overlooks a Big Sur cliff with views of the ocean? No, you're in a pretty standard oak, pine, and sycamore forest. Is it as secluded and serene as a backpacking campsite? Nope, the campsite next to us has a generator blaring most of the day, and our site is right by the main parking lot with about a dozen cars in it.

So what does Cerro Alto have? No. 1, availability! But also, all the basic stuff you want out of camping: easy parking, a nice big fire/cooking pit, picnic tables, ample space, firewood for sale on-site, and trails to explore.

The bottom line is, regardless of your location and its prestige, camping on the Central Coast in the summer is a special experience.

On this August trip, we have perfect, sunny weather during the day, and even better night temperatures (I even get too toasty at one point in my sleeping bag). My friend, who loves to go all-out on cooking when he camps, makes shakshuka—an Israeli poached-egg dish in a spiced tomato sauce—for dinner. Before the trip, we make an over-the-top Trader Joe's run for the ingredients and later help him prepare the feast—easily the best camping dinner I've ever had.

click to enlarge FIRE My friend likes to go all-out on cooking when he camps. So we made shakshuka and grilled corn and sausages after a rather absurdly elaborate grocery shopping trip. - PHOTOS BY PETER JOHNSON
  • Photos By Peter Johnson
  • FIRE My friend likes to go all-out on cooking when he camps. So we made shakshuka and grilled corn and sausages after a rather absurdly elaborate grocery shopping trip.

When morning comes, getting out is easy. Our car is 20 feet away, and there's a trash and recycling bin nearby to clean up. Within a half hour of leaving, we're back in civilization. To be sure, this isn't the spectacular, idyllic camping experience that some people envision on the Central Coast, but it did the trick for us.

Thankfully, places like Cerro Alto still exist around here—places you can spontaneously camp at without getting disappointed. That said, next time, I'll book it a week earlier; I'm pretty sure we got the least appealing site out of the 22! Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson is making Big Sur reservations for Summer 2020. Reach him at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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