Camp Pendleton: Fast Facts, Climate, Cost Of Living, Schools, Housing, Employment, Recreation

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Budget Vacation Destination

The sun sets into a haze of orange and pink as a few scattered surfers try to catch the last waves of the evening. Joggers and couples holding hands stroll the strand. Aaaah, southern California!

Maybe that is why visitors to the beaches of Camp Pendleton, located between Los Angeles and San Diego, are surprised when their idyllic scene is interrupted by the clank and rumble of an amphibious assault vehicle rolling into the water from the marina behind them and attack helicopters hovering overhead.

Make no mistake, the beaches of Camp Pendleton are among the world’s finest, but they are home to the U.S. Marine Corps – not just sunbathers.

As long as the training activity is not distracting and short car trips are part of the plan, Camp Pendleton can be the ideal place to “base” a southern California vacation, no matter what may be on the itinerary. The discounted tickets available in person with an ID at Information, Tickets & Tours (ITT) and the inexpensive lodging options on base can save hundreds of dollars for military families wanting to see the best of southern California.

Something For Everyone

The moderate climate year-round draws vacationers for the sunshine, but snow-lovers can enjoy a day on the slopes at the Big Bear ski area only two and a half hours away and be back on the beach that night. All the major attractions are within a two-hour drive, from Hollywood to Mexico. And Pendleton itself has something to offer everyone, without ever having to leave base.

Camp Pendleton is huge – more than 200 square miles – and geographically diverse, including 17 miles of undeveloped oceanfront, with coastal mountains and wetlands inland.

Pendleton’s geographical diversity offers a variety of places for visitors and residents to enjoy the outdoors. The base itself has a golf course, paintball park, horse stables, hobby shops, bowling alley, year-round outdoor swimming pools, a new state-of-the-art fitness facility and more. The miles and miles of trails and dirt roads around Pendleton are great places for running, hiking or mountain biking (especially on weekends when there is typically limited or no training activities). Lake O’Neill in the center of base has fishing, paddle boating, RV parking and campsites. (Trailers and camping equipment are available to rent on base at Recreation Equipment Check-out.) For a vacation with everything, visit the southern California attractions – Disneyland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, etc. – during the day and still sleep under the stars at Lake O’Neill at night.

Coastline is a relatively small part of Pendleton’s geography, but it gets a lot of attention from visitors and locals alike. Surfing, swimming and boating are allowed in certain areas on base, and the base marina gives lessons and rents equipment. Camping on the beach is allowed, as are campfires in the approved containers. Picnic facilities and cabanas are available with reservations.

Beach cottages, RV hook-ups and campsites can be rented at the Del Mar and San Onofre beaches, but make reservations early since they fill up months ahead of time. The Del Mar cottages have been built new this year, yet they still rent for less than an average motel room. (For more information, go to

Wet And Wild

While enjoying the beach, also keep an eye on the water. Whales, dolphins and even a rare shark sighting have been reported from Pendleton’s shores, so bring binoculars.

Visitors to base are almost sure to see animals around, whether at sea, in the air or on land. Pendleton is home to hundreds of species of mammals and birds, including 17 that are considered threatened or endangered. Bird-watchers may find Pendleton a great place to see birds that have otherwise disappeared from the quickly changing southern California landscape, and various species of endangered birds can be found at both beaches and inland areas.

While exploring Pendleton, be aware of the wild residents (not the ones in camouflage) and give them space. Deer, rabbits, raccoons, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, rattlesnakes and tarantulas all share the hills with Marines, as do lots of other critters. From endangered fairy shrimp in freshwater pools to non-native bison inhabiting the remote areas of base, wildlife is carefully managed and protected to ensure maximum benefit to both the animals and the Marine Corps.

Aside from balmy weather and occasional palm trees, inside Pendleton there are few reminders of the stereotypical southern California image. The rugged terrain in Pendleton’s interior looks much as it did in the 1800s, when it was a large cattle ranch. These days, instead of cattle grazing, Marines and vehicles can be seen dotting the hills, helicopters fly overhead on training missions, and blasts from artillery training are common.

Most of the activity comes from the I Marine Expeditionary Force, which is based at Camp Pendleton. More than 45,000 Marines and Sailors serve in I MEF and its components. Additionally, Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, School of Infantry, the Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity and various other tenants are part of the community within Camp Pendleton. More than 60,000 civilian and military personnel are at work on base each day, and thousands of families reside within Pendleton’s gates. Life on Pendleton is thoroughly modern, but in a rustic setting.

Whether coming for two days or for a two-year duty-tour, Camp Pendleton offers unique and abundant activities and opportunities both on and off base. Bring the sunscreen and be ready for an adventure the movies can’t match.

Camp Pendleton At A Glance

Camp Pendleton is located 38 miles north of San Diego, CA, and borders the southern edge of Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. Military is a major presence in San Diego County, with more than 300,000 military-related residents. Camp Pendleton occupies more than 125,000 acres, and five other main military installations and numerous smaller sites are located throughout the county.

Housing: Camp Pendleton’s base housing came under the management of a private company in 2003, and nearly every unit on base will be renovated in the next few years. There are nearly 6,800 units located in communities across the base. The wait for a two- or three-bedroom unit is less than six months, but expect to wait up to a year for four or five bedrooms. Off-base housing is available, but anywhere in the local area is going to be expensive. Outlying areas may have cheaper rent, but gas adds up fast at $2 per gallon.

Cost of Living: The cost of living in southern California is much higher than most other places in the U.S. Gas prices are highest in California, and commutes between 15 and 50 or more minutes are commonly required to get around, just because Pendleton is so vast. Discounted gas is available on base, and use the commissary to help cut food costs.

Schools: Children living on base attend elementary schools near their housing, some on base and some off. Seventh through twelfth graders typically go to public schools in the nearest community. Preschoolers can choose between private off-base facilities or one of the Child Development Centers on base.

Adult Education: On-base extension classes are offered by various colleges and universities, and the local area is home to an impressive number of educational institutions of all types. More information can be found at the Joint Reception Center on base.

Debt Relief: There are numerous debt relief programs for California, as the state is one of the most populous and debt-distressed in the United States.  If you are a resident of California and find you need help, check out our resource page for debt relief in California.

About The Author

George Morris

In his 40-plus-year newspaper career, George Morris has written about just about everything -- Super Bowls, evangelists, World War II veterans and ordinary people with extraordinary tales. His work has received multiple honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association. He avoids debt when he can and pays it off quickly when he can't, and he's only too happy to suggest how you might do the same.