Before children, camping was a dirty adventure. We slept on the ground with only a thin layer of stuffed polyester protecting our bodies from the rocks. We cooked on grills powered by fires we painstakingly built from twigs and newspapers. We brought our own toilet paper and peed in nature.
After my first son was born, lack of sleep meant I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm for the great outdoors. It just wasn’t going to happen. And then it did. We started renting RVs, I acknowledged we had moved into a new vacation bracket – and it was still good.
In early May, we were invited to the Kampgrounds of America KOA Ventura Ranch campsite. Who knew there was a secluded paradise nestled between a couple of ghost towns only an hour’s drive from Los Angeles?
We arrived at the site, picked up our keys at the general store and got a glimpse of the weekend itinerary. There were so many activities to enjoy, I felt like we were going to relive our childhood summer camp days, only with our kids! We were directed to a deluxe cabin that looked like it had very little to do with camping, except for the magnificent surroundings in which it was set.
Something unique to this camp site was the preponderance of peacocks strutting around. We later learned they have been there for generations. The first of them arrived as a gift from an Australian head of state to the chief of the Chumash Indian tribe that once owned and lived on the land. The boys couldn’t wait to explore, and luckily we brought their bikes.
We started the next day at the site’s rock climbing tower. For $10, visitors are able to scale the tower and gently return to Earth. The boys must have gone up and down 20 times each. Mommy made it to the top once – almost. The rock climbing wristband also includes access to a peddle car track, and the boys jumped into the peddle cars and pretended they were racing for their lives in a mad desert quest.
Next it was arts-and-crafts time and we created our souvenir: a tie-dyed KOA t-shirt. What a wonderful keepsake and genius marketing move.
We ate lunch fast so we could quickly get to our next activity: zip lining. There are two platforms, an 800-foot one and a 650-foot one. Riders – who must weigh 70 pounds or more to ride alone, and can ride tandem if they weigh less – speed along at 25 mph. It costs $15 for the first line and $25 for both.
There are 485 KOA campsites around the country, some of which are privately owned. Ventura Ranch KOA owner Scott Cory loves his work and spent the weekend helping guests with a variety of activities – including spending hours on the hot platform strapping people safely onto the zipline. Cory, who took over the once-dilapidated county campsite five years ago – has big plans for expansion. He wants to extend the length of the zip line ride. He’s building more teepees, deluxe cabins and luxury tents for next season and is adding two new water slides to the pool area by 2018.
Our next activity was mining for gems in the KOA mining station. Mining is free, but you have to buy a bag of goodies ($7-$25) to participate. First you dump the contents of the bag into the sifter. Then you submerge the pans into the water to let the water uncover your treasures.
After cashing in our treasures, we decided to explore the various nature paths surrounding our campsite. We’d heard about the lovely Big Foot Trail and, though we knew we’d be going on the Big Foot hike later with the group, we decided to see if we could find him on our own first. The trail led down to the river bank, which, of course, led to the discovery of rocks, which led to the boys throwing them.
Along the way, we passed some of the other cool accommodations available to guests. There is a row of super deluxe cabins that were first featured on NBC TV show “American Dream Builders,” a reality show where contestants competed to design the cutest little space. Corry bought the cabins after the shows aired and now rents the spaces out. We saw a cute little playground featuring what appeared to be a stranded spaceship. The boys went on a short space mission while we appreciated nature.
That night, after dinner, we went with a bigger group on an actual search for the legendary Big Foot. We found him, but as luck would have it, my camera wouldn’t take snap his picture, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. When the kids couldn’t stay awake another minute, Daddy and Mommy still found the energy for a quick campfire to round out the day.
We had to say goodbye to all our new friends after breakfast the next morning, and before the boys were even done swallowing their food, they were asking when we could come back.