Driving north from San Diego along the coast on Interstate 5, a traveler passes mile after mile of houses, malls, businesses, and roadways. Every now and then you glimpse the ocean off in the distance or see a grassy hillside, but otherwise you are confined to a virtual corridor of development.
Then suddenly, just north of Oceanside, the landscape opens up. To the west is the ocean, while to the east flatlands and rolling hills covered with coastal sage scrub extend as far as the eye can see, with only here and there a building or a road. Along this stretch of highway you might actually spot a hawk circling overhead, hunting for its meal among the abundant little critters in the underbrush, or perched atop a telephone pole. This is coastal southern California as it used to look before sprawl took over, and it's still here because you're in Camp Pendleton. Like many military reservations in California, this 125,000-acre Marine Corps base, owned by the Department of the Navy, contains some of the last wild land in its region; this area would likely have been developed years ago if not for the base. San Mateo Creek, one of the last coastal streams in southern California that has no dams or other man-made barriers, flows from its headwaters in the Cleveland National Forest through Camp Pendleton to meet the ocean. Southern steelhead were thought to be extinct south of Malibu Creek until they were found in San Mateo Creek in 1999.
Camp Pendleton also contains a state park, created in the 1970s through a lease agreement with the Navy. San Onofre State Beach gets about 2.5 million visits each year, and in 2005-06 was the sixth-most-visited of California's state parks. Reservations for its two campgrounds fill up months ahead, and the 161-unit San Mateo Campground is usually booked solid for the summer. A 1.5-mile trail leads from that campground to Trestles Beach. There are 4.5 miles of beaches within the park, reached by six trails cut through the bluffs. The park is known worldwide among surfers for its surfbreak, Trestles, which is the only stop in the continental United States on the World Championship Tour. Although it is close to San Clemente and I-5, San Onofre State Beach can feel like back country. It might not be this way for much longer, though, if an Orange County toll road authority has its way.