Johnathan Skinner, director of the park and recreation department at Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve

Editor’s Note: Writing on LinkedIn, Johnathan Skinner, director of park and recreation at Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve in the Greater San Diego area, explained that the park department was contacted by a local reporter that wanted to review the department’s new (well 2011 new) cabins for an article on Staycations. “We set her up with a two-night stay in one of our floating cabins during a slow time of the week. I think this little investment will pay off when people are looking for alternatives of staying in San Diego but not ‘staying’ in San Diego.” The reporter’s article, published in the Mission Times Courier, follows.

Forget forking over a thousand bucks for a Lake Tahoe vacation. Santee Lakes, which is just 15 minutes away, offers a much-needed – affordable – break for anyone looking to escape the frenetic pace of everyday life.

The cabins at Santee Lakes are perhaps San Diego County’s best kept secret. Ten cabins, including three floating cabins, sit so peacefully by Padre Dam’s Santee lakes that the getaway’s proximity to the busy 125 and 52 highways feels almost surreal.

The Santee cabins debuted two years ago as the perfect camping trip for the kind of person who loves the 21st century in all of its high-tech glory – the kind of person like my husband, who bristles at the thought of unplugging for even a day.

One of the floating cabins at Santee Lakes.

When I first suggested we take our 4-year-old daughter for a brief staycation at the cabins, he looked at me as though I were suggesting we retrace Lewis and Clark’s Western Trail by foot.

“Cabins as in Abe Lincoln log cabins,” he asked, already rolling his eyes at the idea of roughing it.

“No, cabins as in better-than-tents, electricity-and-plumbing-included cabins,” I said. After looking it up online (www.santeelakes.com), Derek acquiesced to a three-day stay.

As we pulled into Santee Lakes the first day of our stay, the ranger at the gate asked us if we had reservations. We discovered we would need to keep a tag on our mirror to let lake staff know we were guests. The cabins and campgrounds are actually really secure. After-hours guests have to use a code to get in and out of the park, and to get to the floating cabins, you need a key to unlock a gate.

Our cabin just happened to be the middle floating cabin. At first glance, it seemed to be a tad too close to the cabins flanking ours until we saw how much space the cabins actually have to offer. It helped that our neighbors were completely uninterested in getting to know us. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding among us – they fished while we sat on our deck and enjoyed ducks and coots swimming by. It was a comfortable relationship between strangers as we nodded our greetings and went about our separate stays.

The three floating cabins at Santee Lakes.

As we ventured deeper into the cabin, we were pleasantly surprised by its modernity. The kitchen offered a full-size refrigerator, sink, stove and a microwave. There was also a coffee pot for morning brew. And while it’s difficult to resist the lure of Santee’s newly built Chick-fil-A, there’s nothing like enjoying bacon and cheese hot dogs lakeside with the family.

The bathroom and bedroom were similar to the size of something you might find on a cruise ship, but were still very accommodating, considering we were staying amid nature. Still, we decided against using the air conditioner and heater, choosing instead to learn the hard way about how cold it can be on the lake in the morning. Because we’re such camping novices, we didn’t bring enough blankets and arrived only with two sleeping bags and a warm blanket for our daughter, who slept peacefully through her parents’ late-night tug-of-war over the top sleeping bag.

The next day we used our nearness to invite several friends over with their children. As we took turns taking the pedal boats out onto the lake to feed ducks, the guys grilled chicken and hot dogs on the deck. Eventually, the lot of us wound up inside, watching Wreck-It Ralph with the kids. We were relieved to discover the cabins are pretty effective when it comes to noise control – our neighbors had no idea they were next to a barrel of monkeys.

Floorplan for the floating cabins at Santee Lakes

Our friends had such a great time on the lake they decided to book reservations for their families. We quickly discovered, however, that we weren’t the only ones clued in to the destination’s greatness. The customer service agent kindly informed us we should call the soonest possible to book the rooms – six months in advance. She wasn’t kidding – the last day of our break my husband and I decided to see if we could extend the stay only to discover the cabin was immediately booked the next day.


Despite the Santee cabins’ new place in our hearts, there was one thing we could have done without – bugs. No, not bugs as in, “Oh, look, it’s a roly poly,” but bugs as in, “Egad! The little green guys are in attack mode! Close your mouth and guard your teeth!”

While harmless, the bug issue was enough of an irritation to keep us inside the cabin at night, when the artificial bright porch light’s contrast against the inky night attracted a multitude of random insects. It wasn’t until we headed down to Lowe’s for a Citronella candle – still managing to avoid Chick-fil-A – that we could step onto the gently swaying deck at night.

Nevertheless, once our flying guests were dissuaded from joining us, Santee Cabins again became a Shangri-La for our busy minds. We’re looking forward to our next stay, one in which we will be armed with Citronella and extra blankets.