For my birthday in December, I received a brand new, very cool tent. I had been thinking about upgrading for a while and had my eye on the Cabela's 10x10 Outback Tent Lodge. There's nothing wrong with my old tents, and I will probably continue to use them on lighter, less glampy trips, but I was looking for something a little larger and more comfortable.
The box had been sitting in my house for the past few weeks and I was dying to take her out for a spin. I circled President's Day weekend on the calendar and anxiously counted down the days. And after much anticipation, we finally packed up and drove up the hill to gorgeous Valley Center. We had been hoping for something a little further from home (my boyfriend, Ryan, has been gunning for Red Rock all year), but we didn't have the time to make a long drive and instead opted for something local.
Lilac Oaks Campground is similar to Dixon Lake in the sense that it is a hidden gem here in North County San Diego: it is only minutes from our home and yet you feel like you could be hours outside of city limits. Because half of the property is available for long-term RV rental, the campground is the perfect combination of nature and amenities -- clean bathrooms, warm showers, coin-op laundry, and sites that offer both solitude and amazing scenery in the heart of Valley Center. This is not a rugged campground by far, but make no mistake -- even hardcore nature lovers will not be disappointed: large, old oaks providing plenty of shade, an adorable duck pond, and a wide variety of sites to suit every mood.
So let me tell you... this new tent is awesome. The moment we pulled it out of the bag, we immediately recognized the quality of the materials. Tough, durable nylon, carbon fiber poles, self-cinching guy lines, and hooked stakes that are not messing around... at the end of our trip, the stakes were so strong and stubborn that we were forced to dig them out of the ground with a hatchet. Despite its size and weight, the tent went right up with no issue. Other than our Kelty Acadia 6, I think this was the easiest tent setup I've ever done.
Once you figure out how to work around the center support pole - which allows for a whopping 8.5-foot ceiling height - there is an incredible amount of space inside. Because the bottom foot of the walls erect vertically, then slope inward to the top, the 10x10 footprint feels much roomier than the average slanted-wall tent; it makes a world of difference in what you can fit inside the tent, as well as the livable space.
I loaded the tent up with all of my favorite decor, as well as a few new items I recently picked up. I was immediately in love with the setup: a sitting "room," a comfy sleeping area, a storage corner for luggage and basics, and a dog accessory corner (consisting of a storage tower filled with dog supplies, because my babies are as spoiled as I am). Even after I was finished, there was still plenty of room inside for moving around, and I realized we could have brought twice the supplies without any storage issue!
Because San Diego was expecting a cold snap, we opted for function over fashion when it came to the bed. We ditched most of the cozy blankets and pillows and brought along our Teton queen sleeping bag and Ryan's trusty old Cabela's bag, which survived both of his deployments and many cold desert nights. To put as much between us and the frozen ground as possible, we layered the open Cabela's bag on top of a queen air mattress, then threw our super comfy Teton on top. The Teton is rated for below freezing temperatures, but even so, it was seriously frigid out there after the sun went down.
Our poor dogs... they're tough little things but terribly pampered -- and at the end of the day, they are not built for cold weather. According to some of my reading, little Phoebe only has an optimal temperature range of about 20°, so the near-freezing nights kind of crushed her spirit. But we did our best to make them warm and comfortable; we brought along both of their beds and an entire collection of blankets specifically for their use, as well as their own personal storage tower filled to the brim with dog sweaters, scarves, beanies, leashes and harnesses, treats, food, several bowls, and a selection of their favorite toys.
Like I said, they're terribly pampered.
During the day, we spent most of our time relaxing (our favorite camping activity). Unfortunately, the campground does not allow hammocks due to brittle oak branches, but this was only a minor inconvenience for us. Our first evening there (Friday) was spent setting up, with barely enough time to warm ourselves by a fire before bedtime. Saturday afternoon, we opened a chilled bottle of one of our favorite wines and lounged in the shade. I had intentionally picked one of the shadier spots available for ultimate relaxation. We took a short lunch break to snack on some Asian cucumber salad, which I had prepped before leaving home, and walked the dogs around the campground to explore, but for the most part it was a lazy day.
That night, after the four of us had crawled into bed to escape the cold, I had the displeasure of being awoken by footsteps crunching around our site. My first thought went to a small scavenger -- perhaps a raccoon or possum. But after a few seconds, I realized that the footsteps were that of a much larger animal or, perhaps, a person. I froze and held my breath, listening to the footsteps come closer and closer to the tent, until I could sense that they were just outside the tent door.
By this time, I was almost certain it was a serial killer invading our campsite, intending to sneak into our tent and murder us in our sleep. I considered waking Ryan, who was blissfully snoring beside me. But just as I reached to shake him awake, the invader took a few more steps and caught themselves in the scarce light outside, casting a disproportioned - but very clear - shadow across the wall of our tent: it was an incredibly large canine of some sort.
I heard it sniff at our tent door and I instinctively felt for Phoebe and Mattis to be sure that they were indeed safe inside the sleeping bag with us. The creature paced slowly around the perimeter of our tent, sniffing the whole way. As I listened, I suddenly heard a shout from a nearby campsite: one of our neighbors had spotted the thing lurking and brought it to the attention of his companion: "Wolf! Look -- it's a huge wolf!" My heart pounded and the dogs stirred inside the sleeping bag... but within seconds the creature was gone, back to wherever it had come from. I breathed a sigh of relief and laid back in bed, but I didn't sleep well that night.
Sunday morning, I fried up some scrambled eggs and brewed some coffee using a little drip-brew we brought back from our Costa Rica trip a few years back, and we discussed the night's event over breakfast. Unbeknownst to our camp neighbors, wolves don't live in the area. We concluded that it was probably a coyote scavenging for camp scraps and agreed to keep a very close eye on our little dogs for the rest of the weekend. Mattis is just large enough to make an inconvenient target, but 10 lb. Phoebe has "coyote snack" written all over her.
It was a little colder than the previous day, so I left Ryan to build a fire while I went into town for a few supplies. There's a little grocery located about ten minutes from the campground, so I buzzed over to pick up some wine, a few snacks, and a couple more gallons of water. By the time I returned, the fire was blazing and we settled down for the afternoon. I did some reading in my tent sitting room (perhaps inspired by the previous night's excitement, I read a few selections from my favorite gothic horror book) while Ryan and the dogs napped in the sleeping space. It was a perfect day and exactly what we needed after a busy start to the new year. Dinner was a prepped hobo meal of beef and veggies (super yummy) and we followed it with some classic s'mores and a bottle of wine. As far as meals go, it was hard to beat.
As night fell, so did the temperature. Despite their blankets, the dogs began to shiver and so did we. As the wind picked up, we decided to retreat into the tent for the rest of the evening, where we played a few lively rounds of Uno and devoured a sleeve of Thin Mints. The dogs hunkered down and eventually we called it a night.
I was startled awake at some late hour by a terrible racket nearby. The wind was howling outside, a low sprig of leaves was slapping against the top of our tent, and somewhere just outside of the campground, a pack of coyotes had caught some poor, screaming creature and were cackling up a storm. The dogs grumbled a bit, but I settled them and tried my best to go back to sleep. Just as I was beginning to drift off, I was again awoken by a familiar crunching of footsteps outside the tent. I didn't have to see it to know it was the same creature that had visited us the previous night. I gently woke Ryan and whispered that the thing was back. We lay there for a bit, listening while it circled our tent. As it came around the bed side, Ryan grabbed a flashlight, slowly unzipped the window flap, and (despite my protests) peered outside.
I held my breath as he shone the light around, and after a few seconds he sat back with a grunt. I asked what it was and he replied that it was just a dog; just a massive, white dog. He must have startled it, because it disappeared once more into the night. We pondered the incident for a few minutes, then went back to bed. The coyotes continued howling somewhere in the hills. Again, I didn't sleep well.
Monday morning and another breakfast, then we packed up. Checkout time was noon, and we were anxious to be home anyway. We had enjoyed our trip immensely, but there's something really satisfying about arriving home early in the day after a camping trip -- one of the perks of staying local. We wanted enough time to unpack, degrime ourselves and the dogs, and prepare for the rest of the workweek. The office was closed due to the holiday, so I slipped a note under the door notifying them about the mysterious white dog. I wouldn't call myself an overly concerned person in general, but I figured the groundskeepers should know about a large dog lurking around every night, even on the off-chance it was just a harmless stray looking for scraps.
We were home by noon and unpacked quickly, anxious to do laundry and bathe the dogs. They were exhausted after the weekend; it was Mattis' first camping experience and he seemed to actually enjoy it, and Phoebe tolerated the whole ordeal with her typical stoicism. Ryan and I got a much-needed retreat to start out the new year. Overall, I would say it was a successful trip for everyone. Lilac Oaks has made its way onto my list of local favorites, and I can't wait until the next opportunity to use my sweet new tent. As for the hulking white dog... I'm almost certain it was just a lonely stray and not the monster my sleepy imagination made it out to be, and I'm hoping the groundskeepers deal with it gently and responsibly. We went looking for nature and wildlife, and although it wasn't strange or exotic, wildlife we found. That's the beauty of camping -- you just never know.