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Have ‘vanlifers’ hit the gas out of La Jolla Shores? Divers and locals say yes

Camper vans are parked along with smaller vehicles along Neptune Place in La Jolla's Windansea area the morning of June 28.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

However, as increased enforcement, unhappy residents and other factors discourage van camping in The Shores, there’s been an uptick in reports of it at Windansea.

High gas prices? Emboldened residents? Police presence?

For one reason or another, the “vanlifers” who descended on La Jolla Shores last year, irritating divers and residents, seem to have moved on to other areas of La Jolla.

In late 2021 and early this year, camper vans were seen parked in dense groups along Vallecitos, a short street where the westernmost block has limited parking next to the south side of Kellogg Park.

However, it is against San Diego municipal code to live in one’s vehicle “unless the street or public property is specifically authorized for such use.”

The “vanlife” trend made popular on social media, and even more so amid the stay-at-home, work-remotely lifestyle stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, has made its way to La Jolla Shores, according to chagrined divers and residents there.

Habitation includes “sleeping; bathing; preparing or cooking meals; possessing or storing items that are not associated with ordinary vehicle use, such as a sleeping bag, bedroll, blanket, sheet, pillow, used bedding, kitchen utensils, cookware, cooking equipment, camping gear, food, water, personal grooming items” and more, according to the code.

Earlier this year, City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said he wanted increased police presence in the area to let people know that sleeping in cars is not allowed.

“When we heard what was happening, we alerted the San Diego Police Department, because it is not legal under city ordinances,” LaCava said. “People were taking advantage and hoping there is no enforcement, and when they find there is, the hope is that they move on. That seems to be working out in The Shores. The message is getting out there.”

Another message that has gotten out is that residents are unhappy with the vanlifers. A user-generated camping website that lists La Jolla Shores as a location for camper vans has among its comments, “A local guy drove by in his car, honked and yelled loudly, ‘Time to go, you’re not welcome here’ at 11 p.m.”

Another commenter said: “Do not recommend staying in this area. Overnight parking is illegal in parking lots and on streets. I spent three nights here. Bathrooms are filthy, lots of homeless roaming during all hours. Recreational use starts around 4 a.m. with swimming, kayaking and scuba diving. All recreational users are very noisy, talking, laughing and banging gear. Someone shook our van at 5:30 a.m. and woke us up. ... We left immediately. We did not feel welcome here!”

A person uses a sink at the Kellogg Park restroom facility in La Jolla Shores after emerging from a van parked nearby.
A person uses a sink at the Kellogg Park restroom facility in La Jolla Shores early this year, reportedly after emerging from a van parked nearby.
(Courtesy photo)

Whatever the reason, one scuba diver who was once troubled by camper vans taking away parking in the early morning when she would frequent The Shores said she has seen fewer vans on Vallecitos and in the general area.

She questioned whether it was the result of an increase in enforcement or the change in the season.

“The vanlifers were here all winter and now the weather is likely better wherever they’ve come from, so maybe they went home,” said the diver, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wanted to avoid potential confrontation with campers. “Then there is inflation in the cost of gas and food here, which is for the most part higher than elsewhere in the country.”

Echoing that observation, La Jolla Shores Association President Janie Emerson said she has not heard “a peep” lately in terms of complaints from beach-goers about camper vans.

But have the vanlifers moved out, or just moved on?

LaCava said his office is now getting reports of camper vans in La Jolla’s Windansea area.

“We’re asking for enforcement there,” he said. “The goal is compliance … and to educate people, not to ticket them.”

Camper vans are seen near La Jolla's Windansea Beach.
(Courtesy of Preserve Windansea Beach Association)

Comparing the situation to the Whac-A-Mole arcade game, LaCava said, “We’re seeing that when we disperse people from one area, they will go somewhere else.”

A member of the Preserve Windansea Beach Association confirmed that there are “camper vans at Windansea, parking almost every day and on feeder streets in Windansea, especially on Nautilus [Street],” and that debris has been left on Windansea Beach.

The member, who also requested anonymity to avoid conflict with campers, added that “things are exacerbated at the Windansea parking lot when the city adds [portable toilets], which attracts campers.”

Before the influx of camper vans, the city proposed prohibiting parking in the Windansea parking lot at night.

The La Jolla Parks & Beaches board lent its support last July to a proposal to install signs prohibiting parking between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. However, LJP&B will recommend that parking be barred only from 1 to 4 a.m. The proposal must be ratified by the California Coastal Commission before it can go into effect.

According to a memo issued in July by San Diego Parks & Recreation Department Director Andy Field, “the parking lots in coastal parks (Sunset Cliffs, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla) and several in Mission Bay Park routinely attract large numbers of illegal campers, gang members and large parties” that result in gang-related criminal activity such as assaults and vandalism, misuse of city property such as loitering and illegal parking, and party-related offenses such as noise and public intoxication. “Based on recent observations of after-hours activity and requests made to secure those areas at night, the city is considering … [parking lots] for overnight closure.”

The popularity of vanlife took off with the COVID-19 pandemic. With many people working from home, home could be anywhere.

Sydney Ferbrache, who writes about living in her van on her blog, “Divine on the Road,” said the presence of one camper van tends to encourage others.

“When you pull into a lot or an area and see a couple of vans, you know there is a community,” she told the La Jolla Light. “You can feel vulnerable when you are the only one. You get to La Jolla and find any beach parking lot and half are vans. That’s always exciting.” ◆