Approximately 20% of California’s land is desert, located in Mono, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, Imperial, Riverside Counties… most falling in the eastern portion of California. Almost all of the Baja California peninsula is desert, right down to the beaches on the Sea of Cortez. The Mojave joins in Sonoran desert in Joshua Tree National Park, which is reason enough to explore this fabulous landscape. Anza Borrego Desert has way more cacti and vegetation than the barren Death Valley terrain. But Death Valley offers abundant acreage, seclusion, hot springs, scenic canyons, mining history, the tallest mountain peaks and the lower point in the nation. Inyo has impressive mountains that sit just east of the Sierra Nevada and is a volcanic wonderland along Highway 395 with indian petroglyphs, cinder cones and ancient lava flows.
Before you can choose the ultimate place for your tent, you must decide where it is you wanna sleep OUTDOORS. What ultimate location? Your destination can play a huge factor in you getting a peaceful nights rest. And do you really need a campground? Or, are you ready to try to rough it, without the amenities? Best camping is off-the-beaten-path, and usually on the back roads. Trailhead camps, 4×4 camps, best view camps, creek camps; Dispersed camping, often called primitive camping. Focusing here on car camping, tent camping and backpacking routes.
Just choosing a flat tent spot isn’t good enough anymore. You crave the best camping experience and seek real nature, with minimal crowds. No annoying neighbors, no parking hassles, no traffic or cars passing by. We at Total Escape are here to help you get to your wilderness goals and experience nature like never before. Right here, right now and it doesn’t hafta cost you a dime.
California Camping Destination:
Let’s start with a terrain overview. California has it all – mountains, deserts, coastal, rolling oaks with rivers in the countryside, plus the infamous wine country and developed campgrounds within city limits. Desert camping in summer months should only be attempted by the experienced camper who loves 90+ temperatures. Mountain camping in winter can be freezing, so make sure you have the proper gear. Good maps are a must have and the readily available National Forest maps are your best avenue for getting and staying away from the masses. Visit our Destinations page to decide what kinda place you wanna ‘call home for the weekend’.
If you are the “I don’t care where I sleep kinda guy, as long as I can do/see this many things” all crammed into a 3-day holiday weekend, then you best do your research ahead of time. Get a good map, measure the mileage, plan picnic stops and sightseeing. Plan to set camp in a central location close to the main highway to call home-base, so you can be off exploring as much as possible.
Schedule in some “down time” or a full day for relaxing. Calculate driving distances and pad it w/ an extra hour. Maybe make a campground reservation if you are visiting a National Park or busy State Park. If you plan to wing it without reservation, always have plan B or plan C options already picked out. With millions of residents and tourists on the west coast, chances are you won’t be the only person wanting to do Big Sur, Yosemite or Point Reyes that particular weekend.
for a Good Nights Sleep @ the Camp Site
Bring a decent Sleeping Pad. Air Mattress with the inflator pumps will be the most luxury, without sleeping directly on the hard ground. Therm A Rest sleeping pads are another fine option, for those who like to travel light and still have air underneath them. Extra blankets, always.
Flat & Soft ground is the goal in choosing the best tent spot. Park your vehicles over the rocky slanted ground and keep the best flat areas for your camp site.
Do not pitch a tent in a meadow, no matter how inviting it looks. Wetlands and meadows are fragile ecosystems, an area that should be protected.
Look at the big trees above your sleeping spot and examine them. Do not place your tent near or underneath a dead tree or a dead limb. Trees do break and fall, especially if winds pick up. This could be a life or death choice, so remember to look up.
Bring abundant good tent stakes and USE them. Yellow plastic stakes are for soft cedar and sand. Thin aluminum stakes are for backpackers. Large steel nail stakes (some w/ plastic tips) are best stakes for all-around terrain.
Bring a mallet to pound stakes or use big rocks to hammer them. Gloves are also a good idea!
Never underestimate the use of a big tarp and some rope.
Guy lines help hold a tent in place when windy weather turns to big storm. If wind is in the forecast, then do this task before you head out on your day hike away from camp.
Make sure selected tent site is flat. Lay on the ground to check it out.
Place head of bedding up hill (if any slant can be noticed)
Tents should be at least 10 feet away from your campfire. At least 100 feet away from a creek or lakeshore.
Beach camping at the ocean edge; Know the high tide mark; place tent accordingly.
Slot canyons are awesome, sandy, narrow washes, many with cliffs and caves. In the desert badlands these can become raging rivers w/ flash floods. When rain is heavy in the mountains many miles away, you could get flooded in the low lands. If you hear any thunder – RUN to high ground. Better off picking another camp site, than to die by a wall of water!
Shade in the Desert sounds like an oxymoron, unless you find a place with high cliffs, or slot canyons. Tamarisk trees and palm canyon locations are usually an oasis of RV tourists & travelers. Hot Springs are also busy spots. Pinyon pines, juniper and over-sized manzanita can be found in higher elevation deserts above 1000′. The prime desert camping season is generally October thru March, as April can easily soar close to 90 degrees high.
Some people swear by the open spaces and back road camping options, as they have more seclusion, plenty privacy and best off all, no campground fees. You might need a GPS and a high clearance SUV to reach some of these camp spots, but you will be blessed with a unique secret spot to call your own.
Campgrounds come in all styles these days: From small primitive camps on a creek to the luxurious RV resorts with laundry room and showers. And then there is everything in between. This web site Total Escape specializes in FREE camping on the back roads and the smallest of campgrounds.
Reservations are usually accepted at the most popular camp locations, many are wide open on weekdays and the majority of campsites overall are available on a first come, first serve basis.
No Soap in Streams, Creeks or Lakes: Even Biodegradable Soap is not good for the poor fish downstream.
Bring a bucket or wash tub – Wash dishes, clothes & yourself 100′ from streams & lakes
Food put away & dishes washed up before bed time. Keeping a clean camp will lessen the chances of wildlife or a bear visit
Use existing campsite or rock campfire ring to prevent impacting new areas
Pitch tent in cleared camp spots only (when primitive camping). No need to trample new spots.
Do not set a tent up in a meadow, next to a creek or on a lake shore. It’s too fragile an environment.
Bring extra trash bags (heavy duty lawn type is best) for cleaning any litter you might find at your selected camp site.
Sometimes you’ll need to shovel out the whole fire pit (full of glass and trash) to start a fresh new campfire. Building your fire on top of somebody else’s mess means you’ll be inhaling all their left-over garbage.
Camp Kitchen Outdoors
Try to keep all food, drinks and cooking to one area of the camp. If you plan to cook over the campfire, this choice will make much more sense. Setting up kitchen area in between the tent and the campfire is usually an excellent spot. Having the vehicle close by for proper food storage is also advised, or use bear boxes if available. If you choose to hang your food in the tree, bring adequate ropes and bags.
The last person still up around the campfire at night should double check the cleanlness camp before retiring for bed. Chances are there is a half-eaten snack or left over beverage that could attract the animals. Oh no, the GARBAGE!! Don’t forgot to put your garbage bag away at night, or dispose of it in a proper trash container. Double bag your garbage if you are concerned with it leaking or smelling up the vehicle.
Being the largest State Park inside California, Anza Borrego has certain advantages. Lots of land to explore, abundant dirt roads, free camping and a very diverse terrain. Located in SoCal, this desert has lots to offer the outdoor enthusiasts, all year round.
Anza Borrego Desert
with hundreds of miles of dirt roads to explore
SUV / 2WD / AWD / 4WD / 4×4 / OHV
The Anza Borrego desert, in east San Diego County, is quite large and very easily accessible from Southern California. The park spans mid-elevation, mountain foothills (3000′ elevation) down to dry lake beds near sea level. Large, vast and varied terrain – and full of vegetation in certain spots. Borrego Desert Wildflower blooms attract thousands of visitors between March-May each Spring.
While the majority of the dirt roads inside the ANZA DESERT are passable with a regular passenger car (on most days), some specific areas and routes are indeed considered “too hairy” and may require a 4 wheel drive. Rains change landscape fast in this region, so know before you go.
FLASH FOOD WARNING: Wet weather (anywhere nearby) can make a mild, soft, sandy wash into a wild, flowing river. On occasion desert washes are ‘washed out’ during big rain, often becoming mini rivers that can swallow your vehicle; Road and weather conditions can change suddenly in the California deserts. Wind can also play a huge factor in a selecting a decent camp site. Know the weather report in advance and always be on the watch for big clouds on mountains to the west.
Deep sand washes, steep sandy hillsides, boulder passes, rock yards to boulder hopping, soggy bottoms to straddling ruts, the deserts of SoCal are indeed fun and challenging. Enjoy your public lands responsibly and pick up some litter, stay on the trail and do not target shoot inside park boundaries.
To find these off-roading areas: OHV routes, camp areas and gear heads galore. Or try avoid them. Keep reading.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park itself is NOT AN OFF ROAD PARK. If you want the free-for-all, open, OFF-ROAD areas, with sand dunes and terrain to explore, then the list above should help. Some places can be secluded and private for camping, and only one Jeep may pass by (for the whole weekend).
On the other end of the spectrum, most OHV camping areas are closer to paved routes and busy w/ motorized activity. On weekends, traffic, events and crowds are the norm. ATV, dirt bikes, buggies, quads, jeeps, families, RVs. Often, a big noisy scene.
Seeking to travel to distant places to avoid crowds? then this site can help point to the best destinations. Follow links, browse images, get a decent topo map – and discover private desert camping for free.
other awesome anza trails & canyons
most w/ 2WD access; high clearance vehicle is preferred (and as usual, 4WD may be needed in storm conditions). Not all 4×4 routes will be signed. Signs get washed away in desert areas, so don’t count on them. Have a good hard-copy, topo map handy – just in case.
Wetlands in the desert? Not that rare, water does flow downhill. Some established well-traveled roads may have added gravel to the soggy marsh areas, but many water crossings are bare, and vulnerable to erosion. Try to avoid driving in and around water. DRIVE SLOW through water where route crossing is obvious. Wildlife need these water sources to survive, so don’t muck it up.
Palm canyons and large boulders are numerous in this desert, water sources scarce. Camping near palms can be limited to walking distance. Several palm oasis camps along San Diego County Road S-2, some RV accessible. Even the county-run Hot Springs Park has some palms. Of course, Palm Canyon is the State Park Campground. Visitors Center headquarters in downtown Borrego Springs has the most popular hikes, hotels, restaurants, with abundant campground camping. Very walk-able town. Super hot during summer, triple digits!
back roads: weekends
Weekends are always busier than week days, in general, all over Cali. Keep that in mind when seeking seclusion. Camping in Anza Borrego desert is always best at least 2 miles off the pavement, well away from the traffic on the highway and for those masses seeking the easy camping.
OPEN-CAMPING: camping outside of developed campgrounds, also referred to as ‘primitive camping’ is quite common in Anza Borrego desert. Many Borrego Camping Areas are accessible with regular cars, close to main roads and usually have no bath rooms, or facilities. The further you drive from the pavement, the more likely you are to encounter obstacles like boulders, deep ruts, soft sand and uneven terrain.
Ancient volcanic peaks mix with Sierra Nevada granite rock, pine forests and fresh, clear, clean mountain water! California, of course.
Stanislaus Forest Road #7N01 leads down from Highway 4 to this popular series of alpine lakes and reservoirs. Camping, fishing, hiking and mountain biking. Sailing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, floating and fishing are also popular water activities.
Rules of the Reservoir:
10 mph speed limit on Western Arm.
No motorized boating in Eastern Arm.
Camp only in developed Campgrounds.
2 NFS Campgrounds at west end of lake:
Spicer Campground (60 sites)
Spicer Group Camp (75 people max)
Campgrounds only open June-September. Some campsites at the campground are wheelchair accessible.
Additionally, Stanislaus River Campground w/ only 8 sites, is located just off the main access road #7N01, right near the river.
Numerous smaller lakes in the region make this a hot spot for summer vacations. Union and Utica Reservoirs (both with dirt road access) are good for kayaking and canoes, while power or sail boats prefer the larger Spicer Lake. Summit Lake and Elephant Rock Lake are perfect for quite picnics and day hikes. Trails (many unmarked) connect the lakes to each other. Area gets buried with snow in winter, so these roads are generally only open half the year.
winter road closure, annually
Check with local rangers on road access and conditions.
Rd# 6N06, climbs to mountain scenery at upper elevations, well of the main highway. Route is a 2-lane wide road at times, narrower and private towards the end of roads; several dirt roads, overgrown 2 tracks w/ many camp sites to choose from. Dispersed primitive camping requires a camp fire permit.
OHV off-roaders will only find dead ends on dirt route 6N06. NO motorized access in nearby wilderness. Wheelers should try south of Highway 108 @ Niagra Campgrounds; Niagra Off Road #5N01 for all the noise-makers, gear heads, dirt bikes, and toy boxes. Niagra Creek, Niagra OHV, Niagra 4×4.
Forest Road #7N83 – Clark Fork Rd
Paved spur road, off Highway 108, Sonora Pass
Stanislaus National Forest
Clark Creek, flows west to Middle Fork Stanislaus River
Horse camping, Campground Camping, close to trailheads
NFS Campgrounds on this road:
Clark Fork Campground
Clark Horse Campground
Sand Flat Campground
Clark Canyon is a popular horse camping area in Stanislaus, located in between 9000′ – 10,000′ elevation peaks. This Sierra Nevada area is known for volcanic features and nice meadows. A small set of (hidden) cabins and pay phone along highway will be the best landmark for identifying the Clark turn off.
Hiking trailheads on this road:
Iceberg Meadow Trailhead
Carson Iceberg Wilderness Area
Forest Road #6N06, a dirt road to higher elevations and primitive camps, is also close by. Traversing up above the Fence Creek Campground (NFS).
Spicer Meadow Reservoir can also be found on various publications, listed as Spicer Meadows, Spicer Mdws, Spicer Lake and Spicer Reservoir.
Ebbett’s Pass is California State Route (SR 4) Highway 4, which cuts thru the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountains (east-west). Wilderness peaks and rivers surround this whole region. Deep snow pack is common, so much of this region is off-limits half the year (or more). Always check with local rangers by phone before venturing out, as winter conditions can keep these roads closed late into the year.
N of Arnold, California; Continue up SR 4. Passing Calaveras Big Trees State Park & Camp Connell; After Big Meadow Campground, take the paved right turn for Spicer Meadow; This is forest road 7N01. Meandering thru a forest and descending in elevation, road will dead end at Spicer Reservoir.
7N01, the main paved mountain road, is located on the south side of the highway. The highway turn off reads ‘Spicer Reservoir’. Suitable for travel w/ RVs and trucks with boat trailers. Quite curvy, scenic and about 7 miles long. There are developed campgrounds in the vicinity.
The dirt side roads off the pavement can be narrow, muddy, rocky and overgrown, so be cautious when exploring. Choosing a dispersed camp site should be done during daylight hours, and will require a campfire permit ahead of time. Use an existing camp site whenever possible, instead of creating new ones.
Several man-made reservoirs attract outdoor seekers, mountain bikers, campers, canoes and fishermen. Kayakers tend to love Union and Utica, but power boats and sail boats prefer Spicer Lake.
Volcanic features mix with Sierra granite in this part of the forest, and geologic formations make for interesting hikes. Mountain biking is common around these lakes, as well as day hiking and backpacking.
NFS Campgrounds in the region:
Stanislaus River Campground
Spicer Group Camp
Campgrounds only open June-September. Some campsites at the campground are wheelchair accessible. Boat ramp located near campgrounds.
Left fork turn off, Dirt Road #7N05 leads out to Utica & Union Reservoirs. No motorized boats allowed on those two lakes. No developed campgrounds back that way either. No RV spots; only primitive style camping.
Another dirt road treks steeply up the hill from Union Reservoir to Lake Alpine (at the highway). That primitive truck trails is actually a (somewhat designated, but not well-signed) 4×4 route and suitable for high clearance vehicles only.
Spur Road #7N29Y is a small dirt road which leads a couple miles into the forest, over to trailheads and primitive camping options. Ideal for accessing all the lakes (on foot) from this prime location. A fire permit is required. No water, no bathrooms, no facilities.
7N01 – Los Padres NF
There is another Forest Road in California named 7N01, but that one is a 4×4 OHV access route @ Dutchman Campground, located in south part of Los Padres National Forest. We have mention of it on the page for Frazier Park Camping.