Southern California has been my home for nearly twenty-six years now. During that time, I have discovered countless hidden gems in the form of campgrounds, hiking trails, scenic spots, and more. However, after my recent trip to Mt. Laguna, I'm shocked that I was never aware of such a stunning area -- and so close to home!
During my search for new and unique camping spots in Southern California, I came across an intriguing listing for tree tents in Julian. The listing boasts hassle-free glamping in Tentsiles, complete with a kitchenette and all the necessary accessories. I've had my eye on Tentsiles for a while and have been wanting to try one out, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I immediately contacted the host, Shantel, who was graciously willing to accommodate both me and my best friend, Charlotte, for two nights so that we could experience first-hand what all the fuss is about.
Giddy with excitement at the prospects of a luxurious girls' camping trip, Charlotte and I packed our bags. Since we are both typically more rugged campers, we were very hesitant to pack lightly. The listing claims that all you need is your cooler and food, but surely that wouldn't be enough....
We packed folding chairs, several suitcases of clothes and toiletries, a mountain of blankets, towels, a cooler of food and wine, and a duffel of camping essentials, then we embarked on the two-hour drive up the mountain.
The campground is located about a half-hour out of Julian, a cute little historic town nestled in the mountains (if you haven't experienced Julian, put it on your to-do list!). As soon as we entered Cleveland National Forest, we realized we were in for a treat: expanses of untouched land bordering the Anza-Borrego Desert and a beautiful, winding road through sprawling plains, rocky mountains, and perilous cliffs.
Laguna El Prado Group Campground is just off the main road and easy to find, not to mention huge. There are roughly a hundred sites, a handful of which are owned by Shantel and used for Tentsiles. The rest are all regular (yet spacious) tent and RV sites. The Tentsiles are located at the very back of the campground, where visitors have complete privacy from the other sites.
Shantel was a fantastic host -- she greeted us when we arrived and showed us around her sites. We were to stay in a two-person tent, but in preparation for Memorial Day weekend, there were larger Tentsiles pitched, as well as a gorgeous bell tent. Charlotte and I had the honor of touring the different tents and hammocks, which we had all to ourselves since we were the only ones there. Since we had the place to ourselves, we took full advantage: we climbed inside the massive double-bubble (two-tiered and large enough for a family of eight), lounged on the hammocks, and gawked at the luxurious bell tent. It truly felt like an adult playground for us.
After snapping at least a hundred photos, we cracked open a celebratory bottle of wine and began unpacking. It quickly became clear that we did, indeed, over-pack. The site had everything we could possibly need, down to shampoo, Kleenex, and even a selection of teas. The site even comes with camp chairs (we set up our personal chairs inside the kitchenette for convenient snacking), a decorated picnic table, an array of spices and cooking essentials, and a rack full of lighter fluid, dish soap, and propane for the camp stove. Shantel truly has thought of everything, even the lighting, which I was thrilled to see consisted primarily of my absolute favorite -- solar-powered Lucis!
Next, it was time to explore the grounds. The bathrooms and showers were only a short walk away, and very clean. A few minutes down the road there was a trail-head leading out and around the lake. The sun was already beginning to set, so we decided to save the hike for the morning. We noticed that all of the sites were large and strategically-placed so that no one felt cramped or crowded next to their neighbors. It's rare to find such a comfortable and beautiful campground, and even if Tentsiles aren't your thing, the regular sites at Laguna el Prado are stunning!
We woke up bright and early our second day and hiked over to the lake. It was more of a nature walk than a hike, which was right up our alley, and we snacked in a little grotto of pine trees over-looking the lake. Other than one particularly-aggressive wasp, it was a pleasant walk.
Afterward, we popped into Julian for a bit, since Charlotte had never been there. I was excited to show her around the main street with all the cute shops and boutiques. Then I introduced her to some of my favorite Julian attractions: the Blue Door Winery, where we had a delicious sangria, Mom's Pies, where we had (duh) their famous apple pie, the Old Julian Book House, and of course the beautiful and historic town cemetery.
Then, showers and lunch. Since glamping isn't glamping without decadent food, we had pan-fried lemon-pepper salmon with a side of Caesar salad and, of course, a fine chardonnay. We dined at our picnic table in the balmy shade of the pines, then grabbed our favorite books and climbed up onto the largest hammock around to do some light reading. As far as good afternoons go, this one is going to be hard to top: great food, great wine, great company, and a great view. Who could ask for anything more?
As night fell, we dragged out our mountain of blankets and huddled by the fire as long as we could. Make no mistake -- the days up there are hot, but the nights are extremely cold. After plenty of wine and cracking jokes around the fire, we retired to our little Tentsile nest in the trees.
We were incredibly sad to leave, but I am already planning my next trip up there. One of my favorite things about Shantel's operation is that she and her husband make conscious efforts to reduce the impact of camping on the environment, while making it accessible to people of all experience levels. They have done their research and take all of the appropriate steps to keep their trees happy, as well as their guests. The hospitality we found there was unparalleled and I'm so happy to have found such an awesome location close to home; I'm very thankful to Shantel for making this experience happen. This spot is at the top of my list... I am almost certain I will revisit again before the season is over and I simply can't wait!
To see more photos from the trip, including shots of Shantel's glorious bell-tent, scroll through the gallery below! And leave a comment -- what's the best hidden gem in your area?