That night, we check into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which occupies more than 1,000 forested acres, including a 200-plus-site campground serving a good portion of upper Big Sur's summer car-camping ranks. There's also a lodge here and (never a great omen for a campground) a gift shop.

"Keep an eye out for kids on bikes," the ranger says when we check in, handing over a campground map and circling our site number.

Looping through the large, filled campground, we spot volleyball nets, dogs in porta-kennels, a makeshift soccer field, a guy working underneath his pickup, 1,200 or so hammocks and, yes, kids on bikes. Not your classic image of Big Sur tranquillity. But our campsite looks serene, tucked beneath a grove of towering redwood trees with a squawking blue jay welcoming us from a low-hanging branch. At least until a large, raucous group at the site next to ours starts belting out "Happy Birthday" to someone named Ernie.

Turns out we're smack in the middle of a family reunion gathered here to wish Uncle Ernie a happy 60th. Just our summer luck.

"This place seems even nuttier than the first one," says Jackson, as the group breaks into several soul-shattering rounds of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

We rejuvenate with a late-day hike to Pfeiffer Falls and a nice overlook at the crest of the park's Valley View Trail. But when we return, our neighbors are in the process of committing car-camping's most unforgivable cardinal sin. Pinching our firewood.

"Sorry," says a red-handed reunioner dropping a bag of logs sitting right beside our tent. "I thought it might be ours."

Nutty is one thing, but attempted firewood theft — a first in my lengthy camping experiences — is another. It's time to move. The park staff relocates us to a quiet overflow site along the Big Sur River where the blue jay and our gratitude for the California State Park system returns.

"We don't get too many of those bad groups, but when we do it's usually during the summer," says a ranger named Joe, bringing by some complimentary firewood and a familiar bit of advice. "If I were you, I'd do the Big Sur camping thing in the fall."

Next time.

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