Camping at Doheny State Beach, CA

Train to bike from downtown San Diego.

A very low tide at Doheny State Beach. (Stock photo)
  • A very low tide at Doheny State Beach. (Stock photo)

Our growing family of four is always up for an adventure, and recently we began mulling over this idea of a bicycle-train-camping expedition. Unsure if we'd be getting in over our heads, we decided to jump anyway. We gleefully reserved our campsite at Doheny State Beach and booked Amtrak tickets to San Juan Capistrano.

Getting there: bike, trolley, Amtrak

Getting ready to load up on the trolley.

Getting ready to load up on the trolley.

Waking up early, we stacked our bicycles high with camping gear and snacks to hold the kids over until we made it to San Juan for lunch. Doheny has a grocery store close and is accessible by bike, and in this particular case my sister was meeting up with us via car so we gave her the main grocery list.

The ride to the closest trolley stop was drizzly and gray, but our campsite was booked and we decided to go through with it regardless of the weather. Thankfully, our San Diego–bred children did not see this as a negative point. Our plan was to take the trolley to the Santa Fe Depot downtown, then transfer to a northbound Amtrak train.

Bicycles are welcome and free on the trolley and Amtrak trains, but you must make an advance reservation on the Amtrak to secure one of the eight available spots. Try not to travel during rush hour – everything gets congested and it’s just easier to maneuver bicycles onto public transit without extra bodies in the way.

Catching and disembarking the train at the Santa Fe depot turned out to be a good option, unintentionally. It’s the end of the line and affords travelers more of a window to comfortably load and unload gear. A nice Amtrak worker helped us board, then pointed us in the direction of the Velcro straps to tie everything down. We loaded up our bikes and grabbed our seats to enjoy the short one-hour jaunt up to San Juan.

San Juan Capistrano

San Juan is a cute little town with a great coffee shop called Hidden House that roasts their own beans. Mouth-watering aromas waft through the streets of the historic town, beckoning day-trippers in for a fresh cup. Try their bacon bagel bomb, or whatever it's called; you can't miss it, and it's delicious.

The San Juan Creek Trail is directly west of this house, just past Zoomars Petting Zoo. The trail is currently under construction, but bright orange signs lead the way to an easy detour for part of the trail.

It’s an easy, flat 3.7-mile ride directly into Doheny campground, which we arrived at shortly. A fortunate recommendation from a local led us to Jon’s Fish Market for lunch, where piping hot, tasty fish and chips were promptly served. It was a little on the pricey side, but from our observations seemed to be one of the more affordable places around. Expect to spend $12 for a fish and chips platter, with kid’s corndogs available for just a couple of bucks.

Doheny Beach camping and exploring

Playing at Doheny State Beach.

Playing at Doheny State Beach.

The campsites at Doheny State Beach are minuscule. Our daughters are more accustomed to the pine trees and rambling chaparral that tend to overrun Southern California’s mountain campgrounds, and our youngest daughter promptly began a tirade about how tiny and bare it was. This, of course, was imminently forgotten when we walked over the berm a few yards away and onto the sprawling white beach. The campground does offer a few beachfront sites that are literally on the sand and come with your own personal bonfire pit; they looked to be well worth the extra $30 per night.

Veggie dogs over the fire were our dinner that first night. It rained on us, and the kids danced and played in the rain while eating wet 'dogs as we adults huddled under the beach umbrella. That first night we all went to bed wet and unsure of what the following day would bring. We had no plans and only hoped that the weather would get better so we wouldn’t have to ride home in the rain.

Checking out fish at the Ocean Institute.

Checking out fish at the Ocean Institute.

Waking up to a beautiful blue sky that following morning was an unexpected and welcome blessing. After enjoying the sun and some beach time, we rode our bikes about a mile to check out the tidepools at The Ocean Institute. The Institute itself is closed to the public during the week, but the tidepools located directly behind the Institute are open all the time, with docents readily available to help answer questions. They also randomly have guided walking tours for $2 each when they are publicly closed, which we happened to time right. These tours last about an hour and you essentially get to walk through the entire Institute with your own private docent. It was a gorgeous spot, well worth the short trip and time spent on the tour.

That night we made pizza over the campfire and went to bed early, sleeping blissfully with heads full of campfire dreams. The morning came earlier still, as it tends to do on camping trips. We wandered over to the beach with our coffee and sand toys for one last stretch before breaking down camp and loading it back onto our bicycles.

Getting back

The short journey back to San Juan was slow and lovely, and we left time to wander around the historic town. For lunch, we checked out El Campeon based on another recommendation and enjoyed some legitimate Mexican food for a good price. Side note: always talk to local folks when you're trying to figure out a place to eat; they know more than the guidebooks.

Ending our Amtrak journey.

Ending our Amtrak journey.

Our train ran late and had we planned it better, we would have left time check out the San Juan Mission. Next time.

We arrived back in San Diego during rush hour, which we had purposely tried to avoid. Sure enough, the trolley police almost kicked us off for taking up too much room with a big bike trailer. Smooth talking, along with our wide-eyed children, ultimately bought us a pass and eventually we made it back home only slightly harassed. All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and we hope to do a bigger train bikeventure in the future.

Miles: approximately 12.5 via bike, 156.5 via Amtrak and trolley.

Money spent: $152 for Amtrak and trolley, $35 for shared campsite, $50 for groceries, $49 for eating out, $8 for Ocean Institute, $7 for firewood = $301 for three days and two nights of quality family fun.

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I love this article. Something I never would have thought doing. Tell us more about "campfire pizza" How do you do that.

Hey, there! Thanks =) It was fun. Campfire pizza was an experiment that actually came out fantastic! I wanted to do an entire blog on it, but broke my phone and lost my step-by-step pics. Basically, we took flour, sugar, a pinch of salt and yeast for pizza dough (you can pre-measure and pack it in a Ziploc,) and once we were there we mixed in the appropriate ratio of water and oil and kneaded it until it was stretchy. We left it in the back of my sister's car where it was nice and warm while we went on our ride to the Ocean Institute and when we got back it had like tripled in size. Perfect for making pizza! We separated it into smaller portions, then started the fire while it sat for a quick second rise. You have to have one of those firepits with a grill over it, like most campsites come with. Once the fire is going, lower the grill and make sure the logs are distributed semi-evenly. Stretch the dough to the right shape, throw it on the grill and cook it until it bubbles and sets, maybe 3 minutes. Promptly pull it off, flip it over and put sauce and toppings on the grilled side. Throw the pizza back on the grate (the side that hasn't been grilled should now be facing the fire) and cook until the cheese melts, just another few minutes.

The pizza was incredible! We saved the last dough and covered it with peanut butter, banana slices and broken chocolate for a dessert pizza. Damn, I wish I still had those pics =) Try it! You won't be disappointed. Thanks for reading!

we've decided to STOP going to doheny after a few trips there for two reasons: there is always a copious amount of trash in the water, and the tidal surge there is strong and often dangerous for children under age 10. there are other great places to camp at the beach (even closer to home, like san onofre, or further up the coast at el capitan near santa barbara, montana de oro near cal ploy SLO, or in big sur) that make doheny less of an attractive option.

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