Backpacking to La Jolla Canyon – Point Mugu State Park, CA

Point Mugu State Park Directions:

Head 21 miles north from Malibu along the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway1), or South 15 miles from Oxnard along the same. The official address of the Point Mugu State Park is 9000 West Pacific Coast Highway, but you’ll see the signs along the road once you make it to the campground.

Point Mugu Campground Details:

There are three different campgrounds in Point Mugu State Park, two for car-camping and one for backpacking. Car campers should try to make reservations for Thornhill Broome Beach or the Sycamore Canyon Campground. These fill up just about every weekend (even in Winter), so be sure to use Reserver America or call the Rangers well in advance of your trip.

Point Mugu State Park Trail Map

Point Mugu State Park Trail Map

Thornhill Broome Campground offers 69 sites, all directly on the beach, each with its own picnic table and fire ring. There’s no shade whatsoever here and the sites are fully exposed to frequent wind-storms, so make sure to bring a tent and protection or you’ll be in for a windy time. There are no flush toilets and only a couple outdoor, cold-water showers. RVs are allowed, but no hookups are provided.

Sycamore Canyon Campground is more developed, with hot showers and flush toilets. It’s on the Eastern side of PCH, but offers quick access to the beach and plenty of shade at each of its 58 sites. Each campsite offers a fire ring and picnic table, and some of them are relatively private.

The La Jolla Canyon Campsites must be hiked into at about a mile from PCH.The Rangers are only aware of the couple group sites available, and have no idea that there are also 9 individual spots. You may have to argue to get a permit for the smaller campsites, but its worth it since they’re very private, and well worth the short hike. There’s plenty of shade and a couple of porta-potties here, but no running water. You’ll need to carry in all of your supplies.

With that said, here are the details of my recent trip in April, 2010.

With all of the recent rainfall and the official beginning of wildflower season two weeks ago, I figured this weekend would be the perfect time to return to Point Mugu. I’d been there two or three times before, but it had always been dusty, dry, and brown. It seemed ripe as a Spring destination though, and my instincts were correct. This place is breathtaking right now!

Hiking Into Point Mugu State Park via Mugu Peak Trail

Hiking Into Point Mugu State Park via Mugu Peak Trail

Camping overnight at the walk-in campground sites in La Jolla Canyon requires first registering with the ranger station at Thornhill Broome Beach. It’s an easy spot to find, just across the Pacific Coast Highway from Sycamore Canyon, but the Rangers don’t seem to know a whole lot about the area they manage.

Point Mugu State Park Trail Scenery

Blue Skies & Beautiful Scenery

In fact, when I arrived on Saturday afternoon (having not called ahead, of course) I was informed that they were full up. I was essentially shit out of luck, and I wasn’t too happy about it since I’d just driven through LA Marathon traffic for two and a half hours. Making matters worse, the Ranger said told me that all four of his camp sites were already reserved, with five groups amongst them.

Early Blooming Wild Flowers

Early Blooming Wild Flowers

This wouldn’t have been so aggravating, had I not known that there were at least double that many sites in La Jolla Canyon. I guess that no one from the National Parks Service has been in there lately, just like none of the Rangers at Joshua Tree had ever seen Munsen Canyon. Seriously NPS; get it together already. Stop claiming that my destinations are “inaccessible”, “too dangerous” (Devore Campground), or “non-existent”. I’ve accessed them, they’re not dangerous, and there are NINE additional campsites in La Jolla Canyon. I’ve even got the pictures to prove it.

"Dr. Seuss" Canyon - Point Mugu State Park

“Dr. Seuss” Canyon – Point Mugu State Park

Once a line of cars had built up behind me during our discussion, the Ranger asked me to pull off to the side and said he’d call his supervisor to double check my assertion. I did as he asked and waited patiently for about 10 minutes, stretching the stiffness out of my legs and watching the waves crash along the beach shore. It was a beautiful day, but seemed spoiled by the prospect of having to drive all the back home to Irvine. I did not want to lose this fight.

Pond in La Jolla Canyon – Point Mugu State Park

Fortunately, my persistence paid off. After a few more minutes I walked up to the Ranger’s booth and asked if he’d had time to contact his supervisor. “Let’s get her right now,” he said, picking up the phone. After salutations he dove right into it:

“I’ve already got five groups in four sites, but this guy here says there are more spots. Earlier they told me not to let anyone else in, but… what? Yeah? Ok, thanks.”

He turned back toward me and quietly remarked “She said to let you in.” I paid my $7 for the camp-site reservation and parking (a great deal since it’s $8 just for day-use permits in Point Mugu State Park) and was on my way back across the highway. I triumphantly texted Sean to let him know that my earlier message about not being able to get a spot had now been rendered invalid.

Wild Datura Growing in La Jolla Canyon

Following final preparations, I started the familiar hike through rolling hills and coastal scrub, though I was shocked by the area’s drastic change in appearance- Everything was green!

La Jolla Canyon Greenery – Point Mugu State Park

Flowers were blooming on the hillsides, grasses has grown in every bare patch of soil, and Spring appeared to be in full bloom. It’s incredible how massive a transformation this place undergoes. From a dust-bowl in Summer, to a gorgeous blanket of grass in the Spring, Point Mugu is like the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the California State Park system. I’m certainly going to be avoiding it in the Summer, Fall and Winter from now on.

Purple Flowers in the Meadow

Maybe 15 minutes into the hike I came around a bend in the trail approaching the rocky canyon and staircase-like ascent into the Park’s higher elevation area when I stumbled across a large group of people sitting under a gigantic oak tree. Ten to fifteen twenty-somethings were all crowded around a couple grungy looking dudes holding musical instruments, and for a second, I thought I’d walked up on a band of gypsies (some of them looked pretty dirty- not that I care).

La Jolla Canyon Self Portrait – Point Mugu State Park

The sound of this wilderness band (guitar, harmonica, and some kind of drum set) followed me the rest of the way through the canyon, making for an odd but interesting soundtrack. It was certainly a different sort of backpacking experience to be taking in live music while in transit, and I have to say it was quite enjoyable. As far as folksy back-country rockers go, they were pretty damn good too, and now I wish I’d stopped to get their name. Hopefully someone who was there ends up somehow finding this post. One can hope, right?

How Many Miles to PCH?

How Many Miles to PCH?

The rest of the hike to La Jolla Canyon’s campground went pretty quick. All told it’s hardly 2 miles from PCH- just the kind of “piddly shit” backpacking that I’ve come to hate (yet love). It’s not quite enough of a trip to get the real feeling of being out there battling with nature, but just enough distance that I can carry a ton of extra gear (two down jackets, my tripod, extra lenses and filters, etc.). On the way I was treated to hundreds of yards of vegetation tunnels, absolutely breathtaking trees in full bloom, and unfortunately a ton of mosquitoes. I guess they come hand in hand with the beauty, but the bugs sort of ruined it for me.

Beautiful Bridge Along La Jolla Valley Loop Trail

The mosquitoes were swarming around me for most of the last mile or so, giving me flashbacks of last Summer’s maddening infestation during the Rae Lakes trip (Blog post not yet written). Stopping my hike for even the ten seconds required to take a photo meant having to swat one or two of the bastards from my forearms, and I’m against killing of any sort. It’s a rough spot to be put in, as a vegetarian and believer in equanimity, to have to battle off a ton of bugs. I don’t want to kill the stupid things, but it’s nearly unavoidable because of how fragile they are! I couldn’t take more than three frames in a row without getting bit, so I gave up on photographic efforts and pressed on to camp, figuring I’d return to shoot the area early Sunday morning.

Mount Mugu’s Summit – Point Mugu State Park

Arriving at the campground I found it quite noisy. The Ranger had been right – and as an Eagle, I should have known better – Boy Scout troops are loud! But even worse, someone had brought in a radio and they were blasting it at full volume, right in the middle of the solo campsites. I got as far from them as I could, heading all the way to campsite number 9 (the last one) before dropping my pack to reassess my options.

Wildflowers Near Mt. Mugu’s Summit

My site seemed somewhat small (hardly enough space for two tents), but it was well outfitted with a picnic table and excellently cleared of debris. Whoever carved these spots out of the surrounding trees did a really good job of making sure they’d stay that way. Those same trees also provided me with some lovely shade, and the cleared canopy offered an excellent view of the sky. I figured it’d be best to set up sans-tent so I could look out on the stars at night, like I’d done on the recent trip to Munsen Canyon in Joshua Tree.

Scattered Wildflowers on Mount Mugu

Five minutes later the arrival of more flies than I’ve ever seen before changed my mind, and I decided to try and go for a hike until the bugs went to sleep (which typically happens just after dusk). I snatched my camera and made my way back down the trail, heading North toward the Navy’s Radar Facility that overlooks the entire area.

California Poppies in Point Mugu State Park

It’s an eerie site, the peaceful rolling hills, gorgeous wildflowers, and deep blue sky, juxtaposed with one of the largest radar dishes and military observation facilities in Southern CA. And if I’m not mistaken, Point Mugu’s military base even houses some of our Anti-Ballistic Missile interceptors, which is both pretty cool, and entirely ridiculous (a conversation for another day!).

Tunneling Train Vegetation Near La Jolla Canyon

I hiked back and forth along the trail, looking for the best spots to take a self-portrait, and played around with the long shadows of the late afternoon sun. I planned out my shots for the next morning and afternoon, paying attention to the direction of the sun across the sky and the relief of the terrain. I was pretty stoked for a full day of shooting, especially since I had so many potential subjects and had seen nothing but deep blue skies all day long.

Gorgeous Wildflowers in Point Mugu (Anyone Know What These Are Called?)

By the time I made my way back to camp, the mosquitoes had gotten much worse, so I felt compelled to set up the tent. I hid inside it until just after dark, waiting for them to finally disappear (which they eventually did), then tried something that I’ve never done before. I had the ingenious idea (never doubt an Everyday Inventor!) of sliding my sleeping pad out the tent’s vestibule so I could gain an unobstructed view of the moon and stars, which I later observed for some time while meditating to the sounds of croaking frogs.

My Every Day Invention – Optional Night Sky Views

On Sunday morning I woke up much later than expected, some time around 10, and was greeted by heavily overcast skies. For a bit I thought it might even rain, but it never got too nasty. All that overcast skies do here in Southern CA is ruin photography, which is probably why we pay so much for rent! Unfortunately, all the skies in my Sunday shots are completely blown out, making for some ugly images, which was a bit of a let down. I was really hoping to shoot the entire area so I wouldn’t have to return later (since it’s a pretty long drive for me), but now it looks like that’s inevitable. Next time I’ll bring bug spray =)

More Incredible Wildflowers

In spite of the weather, I had a great day, with an awesome afternoon meditation in a field of tall grasses. I sat and watched the wind play with the reeds while listening to the sounds around me and was just taken away by the area’s beauty. It was almost as if time had stopped. There I was, in the ‘ancestral environment’, making my way through a grassy savannah to parts unknown, and carrying all that I owned on my back. It all seemed so natural. And it’s moments like these that I truly feel alive. It’s moments like these that can’t be had in a cubicle, or trapped within walls or under a ceiling of any sort. If you haven’t been outside lately, make sure to do so soon!

Dr. Seuss Like Scenery in the Canyon

Though I didn’t have a map, I figured I had enough daylight to get myself lost and found again, so I headed North on an unmarked path, hoping it would lead me closer to the radar installation. It did for some time, before veering directly towards the ocean and taking me straight up Mount Mugu. I hadn’t really planned on climbing it, but it was totally worth the extra exertion! This isn’t that tall a “Mountain” (and personally I’d say it’s more like a “hill”), but it sure was steep heading up. By the time I reached the top my calves were burning like they haven’t in years.

Alternate View From Mt. Mugu’s Summit

The view from up there was tremendous, and the wildflowers near the summit were just absolutely splendid. This is a spot I’d highly suggest visiting, no matter how long it takes to drive there. The scenery is unmatched; rolling green hillsides, a gigantic meadow in the valley floor, interesting terrain with tons of relief, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands resting just off the coast. Truly a sight to behold, and one well worth the extra mileage. I sat up top and marveled at the scenery while eating my typical lunch of bread, cheese and grapes. In terms of trail-food, this is the apex of culinary art.

Mushroom Dandelion Plant Portrait (What Are These Called?)

On my way back out of the park I promptly got myself lost and ended up circling around for about two and a half additional miles, but I wasn’t in a rush, so it wasn’t too much of a problem. I’ve been wanting to increase my mileage recently anyway and I got a much better work out because of the added distance, so I might use this same strategy on future trips. Next time I visit Mugu though, I’ll certainly be bringing along map- or taking a picture of the one at the trail-head before departing (that’s a pro-tip for you newbies out there).

More Crazy Foliage in Point Mugu’s Canyon

In a nutshell, despite the bugs and foul weather, I had myself a great time at Point Mugu. I’d certainly recommend the place as a day hike. However, due to the bugs, you might want to consider camping or backpacking elsewhere, unless your idea of “getting into nature” involves a lot of sitting in your tent. But if you want to catch Mugu’s beauty, you better get out there soon, because it’s already drying up. In a month or two it’ll probably be back to the dust-bowl I’d always experienced before, so grab your gear and get moving you couch-potato!

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7 Responses to Backpacking to La Jolla Canyon – Point Mugu State Park, CA

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Backpacking Point Mugu – Camping La Jolla Canyon | Chayacitra --

  2. JWK says:

    I am thinking of trying out Point Mugu this week or the next and was glad to find your site. I have never been there so I was looking for a better place for camping/day use. I gather you were able to camp at Devore Campground which is in La Jolla? Do you know anything about the Thornhill campground?

  3. Tim says:

    Hi JWK- actually Devore Campground is located in the Angeles National Forest North East of Los Angeles.

    There are, however, great campgrounds at Point Mugu, in the aforementioned La Jolla Canyon. You’ll need to reserve a site with the Rangers at Thornhill Broome Beach State Park, which is just across the Pacific Coast Highway. You could try car camping at Thornhill, but it’s completely exposed to the ocean and does not allow any day usage. It’s also usually packed, especially at this time of year.

    I’d definitely call ahead to make sure there’s room in La Jolla Canyon. It’s a long drive and they were absolutely packed the last time I was there!

  4. Charlie says:

    Why are you chewing out the NPS, La Jolla and Pt Mugu are State Parks, not managed by NPS. NPS’s only campground in the entire mountain range is at Circle X

  5. Tim says:

    Sorry – I don’t know who’s in charge, but whoever runs the show over there needs to get their shit together. It’s ridiculous that the administration wouldn’t even be aware of how many campgrounds they have. I find that completely unacceptable, considering sustainability is their job. If they can’t track the number of campgrounds in a tiny area like Point Mugu, how can I reasonably expect them to know what’s going on in the bigger parks?

  6. Chrystal87 says:

    Do you have a number we can call to make a reservation to camp out?

  7. Katrat13 says:

    Those daisy-like flowers are Giant Coreopsis.  They grow near the coast and bloom in early spring.   

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