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THE STATE'S GREAT OUTDOORS: CALIFORNIA'S NETWORK OF BEACHES, FORESTS, SITES REVS UP FOR TOURISTS.

Byline: Larry Gerber Associated Press

Ranger Alfred H. McClary, at age 75, has seen so much of his beloved desert that his eyes wear a permanent smile. He knows things out here are not always what they seem.

These badlands, for starters. As a recreation deal for off-roaders, they're not bad at all. At least the price is right.

``No fences, no gates, 42,000 acres. We don't collect fees here,'' McClary says.

California's Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area is one of the last free rides in the nation's biggest state park system, which went through a run of layoffs, reassignments and reorganization during the recession of the early '90s, and lost most of its federal aid.

Visitors to California state parks this summer will find user fees for parking, camping and the like edging up, but no across-the-board increases, said Ken Colombini, spokesman for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Californians also will find their parks reaching out to new customers - offering wilderness training for women, running snowshoe walks and flower tours for a fee, selling coffee mugs and T-shirts via the Internet. And they'll find some new territory, including a new park near Gilroy where they can scale ``Spikes Peak.''

Park rangers and volunteers across the state are gearing up for what's expected to be a record number of beachgoers, hikers, picnickers and other users; they expect this year's visitor count to top last year's 70 million.

The department reorganization favored field staff over office help, transferring people from desk jobs to the front lines. More than ever before, officials say it's the users who are deciding how the parks will run.

In this dune buggy playground 40 miles north of Mexico, that could mean something as simple as a hot bath. McClary points to a shower that delivers three minutes of solar-heated water for a quarter, installed by popular demand.

``We go according to what the people who use the place want,'' said the ranger. The agency wasn't always so responsive, McClary allowed, ``but we are heading in that direction now.''

The state parks often are eclipsed in the public mind by California's world-famous national treasures such as Yosemite and Death Valley.

But the department's responsibility is huge - nearly as big as Delaware at 1.4 million acres. And it's wildly diverse - swimming beaches, mountain and desert wilderness tracts, historical sites.

This off-road park is the biggest of eight run by the state.

Drivers here can disappear into a sea of sand, cholla and gangly ocotillo cactus. Places such as Blow Sand Hill and Tarantula Wash await.

``Nothing like it,'' said buggy driver Phil Johnson of San Diego.

Compared with other state park systems, California's is ``phenomenal'' in its diversity and leadership, said Barry S. Tindall, director of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association in Arlington, Va.

Guests can swagger like gunslingers through the wickedest town in the West. The ghost town of Bodie, infamous as the gambling and murder metropolis of the Mono Lake gold fields, once had 10,000 people.

One park is for worship. The 123-year-old Joss House in Weaverville, 50 miles west of Redding, commemorates thousands of immigrants who worked the placer mines. It is still a working temple.

For indoor types, the service operates 61 rooms at Big Sur Lodge south of Carmel.

The newest park is Pacheco State Park east of Gilroy, added this year as ``unit'' No. 265. Hikers can climb 1,927-foot Spikes Peak.

``There's something for everybody, all right,'' said Joanie S. Cahill, nature interpreter at giant Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

With 600,000 acres abutting the off-road terrain of Ocotillo Wells, Anza-Borrego is the giant of the system. Tindall puts it on his top 12 list of the nation's ``notable'' state parks.

The department is budgeting $186 million this year, a modest increase. Layoffs and reassignments during the lean years were aimed mostly at getting people out of offices and into the field, said Colombini.

Much of that budget will be raised through user fees.

Ocotillo Wells, for example, is financed mostly by dune buggy registrations: $20 for a two-year sticker.

Day-use fees statewide run from nothing to $6. Campers pay $7 to $29 a night for use of the 17,500 tent and RV sites statewide.

Out here on the desert, McClary and his fellow rangers have something more basic on their minds as temperatures begin topping 100 before noon and Californians pack their minivans for the cool of the mountains or coast.

The rangers are loading their vehicles - two Broncos, a Humvee and a Suburban - with extra water that could mean life to a stranded motorist or to the Mexicans they sometimes find wandering across the border, looking for work and lost.

On Location

For information about the state's network of parks, contact the California Department of Parks and Recreation, (916) 665-2777.

California parks by the numbers:

The parks:

264 park ``units,'' among them 66 beaches, 46 historic sites, 16 nature reserves and seven off-road vehicle areas.

1.4 million acres, nearly the size of Delaware.

280 miles of coastline within park boundaries; 811 miles of lake, reservoir and river frontage.

3,000 miles of trails.

17,500 campsites.

11,000 picnic sites.

The people:

70.7 million visitors in 1995-96 fiscal year.

2,700 employees in department.

11,500 volunteers working in parks.

The money:

$181.5 million budget for 1995-96; $186 million requested for the next fiscal year.

35 percent of funding comes from ``user'' fees such as parking and camping charges.

Day-use fees range from zero to $6; camping fees from $7 to $29 a night.

CAPTION(S):

4 Photos, Box

Photo: (1--color) The scarred hills of Malakoff Diggins State Historical Park show the effects of hydraulic mining so prevalent in California during the early part of the century.

(2--color) Columbia's City Hotel is just one of the restored 19th-century structures comprising the town, now a state historical park.

(3--color) At Fort Ross State Historic Park, visitors can see one of the few Russian outposts established in the state.

(4--color) Lovely vistas - private coves, green meadows, sea lions lounging on shore and on rocks in the Pacific Ocean - await visitors to Point Lobos State Reserve near Carmel.

Susanne Hopkins/Daily News

Box: On Location (see text)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jun 15, 1997
Words:1047
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