As 2 O.C. campgrounds reopen for overnight stays, campers free from home lockdown rejoice – Orange County Register

Maria Pope showed up at 7 a.m. Saturday to the entrance of O’Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon, eager to get a camping site made available after a two-month, coronavirus shutdown of camping, hiking and fishing at wilderness and regional parks in Orange County.

OC Parks opened a reduced number of camping sites and the parking lots (for day users) at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park in San Juan Capistrano and at O’Neill beginning Saturday, May 16, along with access to parking lots and restrooms at other regional and wilderness parks. Anglers were able to return to Irvine Lake in Silverado for fishing during regular weekend hours.

Pope’s Volvo wagon idled fourth in line for what the OC Parks website had announced earlier in the week as a first-come, first-served opportunity to rent a camping spot, spaced far apart to allow for adequate social distancing. Pope wanted to escape the confines of her townhome in Laguna Woods.

But when she got up to the park ranger’s kiosk, she learned all the sites at O’Neill were taken. Given the pent-up demand, the county had decided to take phone reservations to alleviate crowding that morning. Pope asked the ranger to please check and make sure there was nothing left.

She wound up snagging one of the last of the 37 spots, down from O’Neill’s normal 92. At Caspers park, there were 32 sites, less than half the usual 75. It, too, was at capacity.

Pope hadn’t seen her children and grandchildren for weeks, She booked 10 nights, so they could come visit and enjoy a break from confinement at their yard-less homes.

“This was like the last spot. The ranger was really scrounging,” Pope, 58, said as she spread her tent on the ground beneath the shade of a California scrub oak, where she already had stretched the not-yet-used hammock her children gave her for Christmas.

“I’m just ready to be out of the house.”

At $20 a night, her campsite was a bargain, said Pope, who retired as manager of facilities, operations and maintenance at John Wayne Airport 18 months ago. She felt safe from the virus in the outdoors, even though she planned to wear a mask when her guests arrived. Other campers and day users were far enough away, but visible.

“Even though I’m not talking to them, I feel like I’m with people. … It’s really nice to be outdoors — trees, greenery, birds, fresh air.”

Deeper into O’Neill park, Oliver Benson, 3, stepped among the rocks in a creek, his shoes and socks soaked as his father helped him stay upright in water that sometimes reached to the edge of his shorts. He is a special needs child with a rare genetic disorder known as CTNNB1, and this was like physical therapy for Oliver, who has cerebral palsy and developmental delays.

Unable to attend his horseback sessions at the Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding in San Juan Capistrano, temporarily closed out of COVID-19 precaution, Oliver’s main exercise these days are walks along the greenbelt with his mom and dad, Brandon and Krissy Benson, near their condo in Lake Forest. His physical therapy, speech therapy, and preschool classes are all online for now.

“This is the first week we’ve been here because of the lockdown,” Brandon Benson said of their day visit to O’Neill with Oliver’s grandmother, Sandy Tolzda. All three adults are working from home now and relished the mile-long walk they took along the creek.

“Every day, ‘Outside. Outside’,” said Krissy Benson, a seventh grade teacher, stretching her arm out to mimic the way Oliver points toward the door at home. “We’ve been cooped up. So it’s great to get out.”

Evan Winn, 7, couldn’t have agreed more.

Right after their car pulled up, Evan bolted for a swing attached to a tree limb overhanging the spot his family would share with close friends. Evan, his sister, June, 3, their parents, Andy and Ashley Winn, and their pet Goldendoodle, Murphy, drove up from San Diego County to meet the family of three, who live in Rancho Santa Margarita and booked the site.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended limited close contact with people outside one’s household — indoors and outdoors — the two families, each with their own tents, felt safe around each other.

“We do an annual camping trip,” Ashley Winn said of the two families. “We were scared we weren’t going to be able to do it this year. But then there was this. It’s awesome.”

If you go

To book a campsite, guests should call the park offices: 949-923-2210 for Caspers; 949-923-2260 for O’Neill. The sites at both parks include equestrian camping. More information is available at

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