Unplugging 101: Autumn Camping In The Cuyama Badlands

It's no secret that the outdoors is good for the mind, body and soul. So why does the end of summer signal an outdoors hiatus for most people, especially camping?  Fall is a strange kind of twilight zone between summer and the holidays where cold weather and the end-of-year work homestretch discourages most people from getting outside.

But we're not most people - and we don't keep secrets (not very well anyways). Here's a summary of our recent trek north of Los Angeles, and tips on how to make autumn weather camping doable, and enjoyable. 

In desperate need of some R&R, we set out to find the perfect location for a fall camp sojourn close enough to LA that would take little time and effort to get to, but with the feeling that you've dropped out of society for a bit, a.k.a unplugged.

Enter: Cuyama Badlands, at Songdog Ranch. If you haven't heard of it, Songdog Ranch is an insanely cozy rustic campground in the middle of the Cuyama Valley located on the northern end of the Los Padres National Forest. The 160-acre property is owned and operated by Jim, an ex-fireman from Santa Barbara, down-to-earth businessman and an overall super nice guy. We enjoyed chatting with him for almost an hour - he had some great stories to tell.

The campsites sit at about 2,000 feet elevation with gorgeous open desert vistas that will make you wonder why you don’t get away more often. Situated on top of a large mesa facing west, the sites overlook a valley dotted with agriculture fields with desert hills that create a nice frame for sunsets. The relatively low elevation helped keep the temperature at a reasonable high of 70 and low of 30 around 5 am. For this time of year, that's about as good as it gets. With the right gear, it's totally doable.

The sites are far apart and offer some privacy. They're spread out across a few tiny hills, so you're not butted-up next to neighbors. They are large enough to hold a few tents easily. 

It gets better. There's running water for dish cleanup, AND super clean bathrooms (outhouse) a few minutes walk away. It's so clean and safe here, I'd be 100% comfortable taking little kids. Even the wild and rowdy ones. Especially those ones, because it's not as easy to bother other campers.

There's a pergola covering a picnic table for shade, and well, rustic cuteness. It doesn't hurt as a backdrop for awesome photos.

Sunset around a campfire and chairs

Pro tip 1: We're huge proponents of investing in the proper gear, including down jackets, mummified down sleeping bags and other insulated but functional accessories that make it easy to enjoy 40 degree nights. With a basic thermal set, down jacket and wool socks you won't feel a thing. Even when you're away from the fire. 

Warning: the campsite does have wifi, but it was pretty easy for us to lock up and forget about our phones for the duration of the trip. 

A huge bonus was the adorable local ranch dog Gypsy, who made a guest appearance and kept us company for almost our entire trip. The occasional treat helped sway her.

Petting a dog at campground

Pro tip 2: hot liquids really hit the spot when it's cold out. We made a big pot of soup in advance and brought it with us. We packed various teas and used a jet boil to boil water in 30 seconds. 

There's also tons to do and see in the area. There's a local hike you can do that takes you up to the peak where you'll brush past endless aisles of Buckwheat, pinion pine, juniper/oak and other chapparal. Not too far off is the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge where you can view Condors and other birds. 

Silhouette of a girl during sundown

Pro tip 3: Take some Birkenstocks or slides to slip on with wool socks for late night bathroom breaks, to keep your toes toasty and well, functioning. These are great for hopping around between outfit changes and other chores without buckling down to lace up boots every time.

Just two hours from Los Angeles, this was the perfect location, giving us a much-needed respite from city life, and ample space to spread out with a cot, some good food and the company of great friends. The sunsets are incredible, the sites were beautiful, and the location was perfect. We couldn't recommend this place enough. Next time you're looking for a quick getaway, alone time outside for some TLC, or a fun group gathering, consider Songdog Ranch - you will not regret it.

Now back to our holiday prep and Thanksgiving recovery. Where did I put my water bottle?


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