By Fred Swegles
Another of those cool local things that you used to be able to do has gone by the wayside—a do-it-yourself tour of Camp Pendleton on a public bus from San Clemente to Oceanside.
I hadn’t realized that North County Transit District had ended the link until a reader stopped me on our Pier one day, telling me how much she had enjoyed a 2007 article I had written about the bus ride.
I checked and, sure enough, the NCTD’s Route 395 bus stop no longer exists along our southern boundary.
My 2007 article, titled “A road less traveled: The $2 tour of scenic Camp Pendleton,” described what you could see during a one-hour, 20-minute ride across the base. It was a throwback to California in the 1940s.
“The ride reaffirmed for me how lucky I’ve always felt we are to have Camp Pendleton next-door to San Clemente and urban Orange County,” I wrote. “It’s a 17-mile open buffer between us and Oceanside. Imagine if it were all developed. It’s almost like living next to a 200-square-mile national park.”
I have no idea if many readers subsequently took their own $2 bus ride there. Eventually, I guess heightened security or low ridership halted the bus connection. Route 395 still exists, but only from Oceanside into the interior of the base.
Fortunately, with a little energy, initiative and a bicycle, you can still experience a taste of Camp Pendleton from San Clemente.
You need to drive to Oceanside first and apply for a bicycle permit at Camp Pendleton’s main gate. I did that in September. The digital identification card is free, good for a year.
On Dec. 9, I decided to embark on my adventure. I discovered it is 23 miles from Cristianitos Road to Oceanside Transit Center, as the bike glides.
The first segment is a 5-mile stretch of San Onofre State Beach along former Highway 101. Then, a gap in a fence warns that you’re now under scrutiny, traversing a military base.
As I pedaled south, I felt a pang of nostalgia, realizing I hadn’t been on this patch of ground since the 1960s, in a car. The old highway closed and I-5 replaced it. I’d often been to the state park but never south of the fence along the abandoned highway.
Halfway to Oceanside, cyclists turn inland, tunneling under the freeway. Then, 11 miles into your ride from Cristianitos, you arrive at Camp Pendleton’s Las Pulgas gate. A sentry scans your bicycle pass.
Bicyclists are required to stick to the designated route. Don’t stray, as I did see military police.
Soon you veer right onto Stuart Mesa Road, which looked familiar. Now I was back on the bus route I’d ridden in 2007. I missed some cool stuff I had seen farther north on my 2007 bus ride, like Camp San Onofre and the School of Infantry, but this was still scenic and fun.
I passed “Tank Crossing” signs, a military tent camp, directional signs leading to firing ranges and convoys of Marine Corps vehicles. I waved to the troops. Thanks for their service.
You get pretty far inland off I-5 but can see rest stops and the Navy’s hovercraft base. Passing Camp Pendleton’s 31 Area, I heard a rather vigorous military chant. Those Marines, like the convoys, were doing duty on a Sunday. Hats off to those who put their lives on the line to protect us.
Crossing over the Santa Margarita River, I was impressed at how full it looked after recent rains. Turning right onto Vandegrift Road, I encountered traffic. Be safe.
Passing Camp Pendleton’s Pacific Plaza shopping center, I noted Panera Bread, a McDonald’s, numerous shops, a commissary, Marine Corps Exchange and $3.09 gas that was 20 cents cheaper than at San Clemente’s Arco that day.
In Oceanside, gas was only $2.99.
Passing Oceanside Pier on my e-bike, I reached the transit center after more than two hours on the road. I opted to take the easy way back to San Clemente: Metrolink. It’s a scenic 20-minute train ride, and you can take your bike.
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 46 years of experience reporting in the city.