Canon Sin Nombre – Anza Borrego
Mud Caves and Slot Canyon Hikes
Desert Slot Canyons – South Anza Borrego State Park region, just off County Road S-2 east of the ‘badlands overlook’ view point is a whole network of narrow walkways & skinny canyon trails to explore. Some are so tight you have to turn side ways to fit through. There are more than one of these sandstone topless caverns. Finding a new one each time you visit is a fun challenge. Just north in the Diablo canyon there are dry mud tunnels & trails as well. Explore & be careful not to get lost. And don’t camp at the canyon openings during the threat of heavy rains…duh.
Drive down steep, sandy road into Canon Sin Nombre entrance (the dirt road just to the north of Badlands Overlook). A high clearance vehicle is recommended and 4WD may be required in soft sand. 2WD SUVs/trucks should keep their speed up through the soft sandy areas & try not to turn or stop suddenly. Go slow in narrow sections of the canyon & slow over the rocks to save your oil pan.
Clock your mileage 1 mile exactly from the paved road (s2) & park out in desert wash, pull over between the smoke trees. Hike over to the left side & look for an opening in the canyon walls to a deep secluded trench. A campsite may exists here.
Hike up the first canyon which does require some rock scrambling. The gorge lets you out at the very top with an impressive view over the Sweeney Pass area. The canyon walls are so tight in some spots you may have to turn sideways to fit through. Upper body strength is needed to climb high ledges & boulder scramble through this natural maze.
Once on top, wander on the ridge & check out the views; keeping to the right & then follow the next wash down to start the much longer & easier exit. Hike down in the main slot canyon which leads out to a big camp site & clearing. Exit slot area and turn right, walking back to the vehicle in the big wash.
This particular hike is a blast on a full moon night, but not for a first timers try.
Best time to visit: October – April
HIGH CLEARANCE VEHICLE access to reach trailhead. Moderate hike, boulder scrambling w/ dangerous mud walls. Flash floods here are possible during rains.
Plenty of 4×4 roads, SUV trails, & box canyons in the desert region.
Great Overland Stagecoach Route of 1849 San Diego County Rd S2 San Diego County Highway S2
The awesome southern California desert, a stretch of road that traverses north-south direction on the west side Anza Borrego Desert; from Interstate 8 up to to Lake Henshaw @ San Felipe Road. Driving north you gain elevation from sandy badlands into the mountains, but trees are few and far off. Exit I-8 at 400′ elevation above sea level and gradually climb to 3000′ – over near Lake Henshaw & Palomar Mountain.
San Diego Road S-2 is about 50 miles long, through very scenic desert with interesting vegetation and paved the whole way. Perfect for RV travelers, as it has many camping options – from freebie, primitive camp spots to private campground resorts. Palm canyon hide-aways, secret shady spots, endless hiking canyons, and a campground with hot springs.
S2 Road intersects California SR 78 at Scissors Crossing and continues north through the barren San Felipe Hills. The Southern California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail parallels the ridge line on the east side, with the town of Borrego Springs lying behind that ridge at 590′ elevation. The historic mountain town of Julian sits in the hills above Banner Grade (Hwy 78).
The lands surrounding Las Vegas are NOT managed by the NPS, National Park Service – but Lake Mead is considered a National Recreation Area. Hoover Dam is located at the south end of Lake Mead, then the Colorado river connects further down stream to Lake Mohave.
Tourist are no longer burdened by the constant flow of traffic over the dam, because a beautiful, new bypass bridge has been recently built above the dam.
Boating, kayaking, fishing, hiking, off-roading and camping are popular attractions at both the reservoir lakes. Mohave Lake is lesser known and therefore, less crowded. 4×4 may be need to reach certain coves at Mohave.
Most of the public lands in this Vegas desert are managed by BLM or the USDA National Forests. The Great Basin National Park is located in central Nevada, nearly 300 miles NW of the city of Las Vegas.
Red Rock Vegas
Some folks know these rock walls as Red Rock Canyon, or Red Rock Park near Vegas – but the official name now ‘Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area’ and the lands are managed by the BLM.
The closest red rock park to Las Vegas, this one is located at the far west end of Charleston Blvd. – an easy exit to find off the freeway Interstate 15. Day hikes, rock climbing, mountain biking, picnics and a large BLM campground. This desert range can get very windy and the only campground around is poorly located along the busy highway, on a ridge. Bring good tent stakes and be prepared for serious wind. Better camping options can be found over at the higher elevation Mount Charleston, see below.
Vegas Valley of Fire
This beautiful desert park is 60 miles N of Vegas and well worth the day trip to explore native petroglyphs, hike among red rocks, sandy washes and just relax to take in breathtaking vistas. See more about the Valley of Fire State Park
Mount Charleston Camping
Several developed campgrounds are available in a pine forest setting. Some may charge a nightly fee, or a day use fee. Mary Jane Falls is well worth the hike. Two lodges grace this mountains, The Mount Charleston Resort is the big log and stone cabin along a straight away on Kyle Canyon Road #157. The Mount Charleston Lodge is above at 7717′ elevation and has a popular restaurant and nice modern mountain cabin rentals.
Frazier Park and neighboring towns, like freeway-close Lebec and Gorman, is where the Los Angeles hills meet the Kern County mountains. Mojave Desert meets to Coastal Range. EXIT I-5 @ Tejon Pass (elev 4144′)
Wildflower hills, seasonal creeks, forested peaks, high desert canyons. Bike trails, hike trails, off road routes. High elevation backpacking, hang gliding, mountain biking and camping in every direction.
High desert washes, oak creeks, pinyon pine forests, mountain meadows and numerous peaks – Frazier Peak, Reyes Peak, Alamo Mountain, Mount Pinos, Mount Abel (Cerro Noroeste) and north facing San Emigdio ridge.
Many dirt roads are gated seasonally for wet weather or snow. Call rangers to find out which routes are open before you plan your weekend. Or have a plan B and C camp site ready if route is closed. Flashfloods, thunderstorms, and erosion means you may all-of-a-sudden need to use your 4WD. This is the mountains after all. UNpredictable weather is common.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park & Borrego Springs Campgrounds
Anza Borrego Desert is the largest of the California State Parks. Borrego Palm Canyon Campground is the official name of this popular palm oasis & developed campground located very close to Borrego Springs CA. Hike or bike to town. There is also a private RV Park named Palm Canyon Resort in town, just to confuse you.
Desert wildflowers blooms, popular hiking & biking trails, plus mud caves & slot canyons draw plenty visitors here, mostly in the winter months. Summer high temps exceed 90 degrees for months at a time.
There are hundreds of miles of dirt roads to explore, and one could easily spend every weekend for a full year, checking out all there is to see in this vast desert, where elevations range from near sea level to 5000′ peaks.
Vern Whitaker Horse Camp
equestrian campground w/ corrals, 10 camp sites, flush toilets
elev, 960′, located N of Borrego Springs, near scenic and rugged Coyote Canyon. reservations accepted
Backcountry Campgrounds Anza
16 miles east of Borrego Springs on County Road S-22
Blair Valley Camping Area
open car camping & RV spots, vault toilets
on SAN DIEGO County Rd S-2 near Highway 78 jct
Bow Willow Campground
elev, 950′, hwy access, 16 camp sites, pit toilets, overnight fee
near Sweeney Pass & badlands overlook; located on S-2, 9 miles N of Interstate 8
Canon Sin Nombre
off S-2 near Sweeney Pass; entrance near Badlands Overlook; slot canyon hikes
Coyote Canyon Camping
N of Borrego Springs via Di Giorgio Road
rugged backcountry dirt road, tent camping only
car camping near ocotillo gardens; 4×4 needed @ creek crossing & Sheep Canyon
Culp Valley Campgound
elev, 3400′, hwy access, 8 camp sites, pit toilets, free camp
located on S-22, atop Montezuma Grade
Culp Valley Boulders
elev, 3700′, dirt road access, primitive camp sites, free
located off S-22, 4×4 near Montezuma Grade
Fish Creek Campground
Hwy 78 near Ocotillo Wells & Split Mountain
elev, 280′, dirt road access, 8 camp sites, pit toilets, free camp
from hwy, go 12 milies south on Split Mountain Road
5 mi. south of Borrego Springs on County Road S-3 & right on Yaqui Pass Road, go 6 miles to camping area on right side
5 mi. south of Borrego Springs on County Road S-3 & right on Yaqui Pass Road, go 4 miles to camping area on left side
All Desert Campgrounds Nearby
AGUA CALIENTE HOT SPRINGS
(San Diego County Park)
88 camp sites for tents & RVs, flush toilets, overnight / day use fees, 760-765-1188
located on Co. Rd S-2, 22 miles N of Interstate 8 (closed June-Aug)
BOX CANYON RDMecca, CA – in between Joshua Tree NP and Anza Borrego Desert
BLM camping in Box Canyon & Mecca Hills Wilderness Park
LEAPIN LIZARD RV RANCH
(Private Campground Resort)
85 acres, 60 camp sites
located on Split Mountain Road, Ocotillo Wells, CA
OCOTILLO WELLS SVRA
(State Vehicular Recreation Area)
elev. 160′, 4×4 and off road camp sites for trailers & RVs
no water, no hook-ups, pit toilets, no fees, 760-767-5391
located on Highway 78 (closed June-Sept)
(OHV trails & camp spots)
elev. 300′, 4×4 and off road camp sites for car camping, touy hauler trailers & RVs
no water, no hook-ups, no fees,
located on S-22, East of Borrego Springs, CA
(San Diego County Park)
44 camp sites for tents & RVs, no hook-ups, toilets, overnight / day use fees, 760-765-1188
located on S-2, 22 miles N of Interstate 8 (closed June-Aug)
FREE CAMPING ANZA– Let us also remind you that this is the best place to camp in California for primitive car camping (camping outside of a developed campground). Open all year long – always! Super secluded, darkest skies, free and always located on the back roads. 4×4 is not required in all areas, so there are plenty of options. Blair Valley or Coyote Canyon Gardens are popular camp spots, but there are thousands of hidden canyons and washes in this giant State Park, just awaiting your tent. You’ll need a decent topographic map. For more info on free camping click here.
Carrizo Gorge Goat Trestle – via Mortero Wash. Near the south end of Anza Borrego State Park is the infamous ‘goat trestle’, one of the largest wooden rail road trestles in the US.
This hike can be reached by driving N on County Road S2 (from I-8) into Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Near park boundary keep your eyes peeled for Mortero Canyon Rd (signed) on the left side. This is a sandy dirt road, accessible by passenger car, that leads out to the train tracks & then past to the Mortero Big Boulder campsites. Park at rail road tracks near water tank & start hike from here.
Ground was broken on September 7, 1907 by San Diego’s Mayor, John Forward and the construction of the 140 mile route was completed on November 15, 1919. The first through train was the called the “Golden Spike Limited”, named after the $286 golden spike, which John D Speckels drove into the ground near tunnel #8.
The Goat Canyon Trestle was built in 1932 to re-route tracks due to a landslide.
Passenger Cars Ran until 1951.
The route through Carriso Gorge was closed temporarily by Tropical Storm Kathleen in September of 1976.
And was reopened 1981, and then closed again by recurring storms.
Kyle Railways ran freight cars until mid 1984.
The Carriso Gorge section has fallen into disrepair with two trestles being burned and the collapse of two tunnels as the result of fires. The trestles have been rebuilt and one of the tunnels has been repaired but as of 2002 this scenic section of track is used mostly by hikers and mountain bikers. The sounds of the trains exist only in our imagination.
Other Facts: Derailed cars are from 1984 and were filled with bags of cement. Laborers were brought in to unload the cement but the cars were left. The Goat Canyon Trestle is 185″ tall and 600″ long. During its use it was the tallest wooden structure in daily use. This trestle was designated a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1986. Carrizo means “reed grass” in Spanish. Total cost of construction was $18 million.
In 1979 the SD & AE west of Plaster City was sold to the Metropolitan Transit Development Board for $18.1 million. SD&A was said to stand for “Slow, Dirty and Aggravating” because of the high temperatures, smoke and open windowed trains cars.
The majority of California cities are located near sea level, with low lying farmlands and populated coastlines common throughout world geography. California has super diversity w/ the population, as well as the elevation and the terrain. Vast rugged deserts bordering Nevada, from high deserts (8000′ @ Bodie ghost town) to low deserts (below sea level for Mecca) near the Salton Sea. Towering granite peaks with minimal vegetation, to fern canyons and redwood groves at the coast, California has quite the unique landscape.
The beautiful golden state is also home to the highest and lowest point within the lower 48 states; and those points are only about 100 miles apart – Death Valley (-282′ elev) and Mount Whitney (14,494′ elev).
MTN TOWN: upper elevation mountain towns w/ forests and flowing water, are primarily located in the Sierra Nevada range which runs the backbone of California in a north-south direction, separating the Pacific Ocean from the Great Basin. High altitudes are abundant in California, especially in the Eastern Sierra – but most are only accessible by foot.
The coastal mountain range and the Sierra Nevada encompasses most of Central California. The rest of the space is dedicated to large cities, farmlands and farming towns – which are most lower elevation. Orchards and vineyards can be found in the foothills (200′-2000′ elevation)
Northern California has more mountains and rivers, generally higher elevations and plenty more space to explore. Secluded forests, rivers, creeks, lakes, and reservoirs can be found above 2000′ elevation, north of Sacramento. The bigger mountains in the far north part of the state are part of the Cacade Range, which is volcanic in nature. (Mt. Lassen & Mt. Shasta). More water, more trees and more land – NorCal is very different than the lower half of the golden state.
Snow is always a factor in mid to high altitude towns with road conditions being unpredictable with each mountain range and each micro-climate. Winter months range from late October to May, so be warned. Above 3000′ elevation usually gets some snow. Serious snow above 5000′. Some High Sierra Passesdon’t open until JULY (Yosemite Hwy 120 & Sonora Hwy 108). Carry tire chains or have 4×4 to travel safely on snowy roads. Guard rails are seldom around every curve.
Winter wet weather doesn’t need to put a damper on your outdoor exploring, if you can get your hands on a 4×4 vehicle. Almost any SUV or truck with 4 wheel drive is capable of driving through some snow or mud. Just how deep is the mud (underneath the snow) is usually the big question. Many National Forests and State Parks close certain dirt roads due to over-use, or to control soil erosion and prevent the deep muddy ruts which are costly to re-grade come springtime. Call ahead to the rangers to find which back road routes are indeed open, or bring your printed topo map and wing it.
The California destinations listed below are popular winter spots for off roading enthusiasts. Some places may be busier than others. The dirt roads surrounding these spots are real treasures, so try to plan an all-day loop trip if possible. Camping w/ a campfire permit is an option on many back roads. Plenty lodging in nearby small towns if winter camping is not your thing.
Tribal lands are mostly located in rural regions which always have plenty of dirt roads to explore. Get a good back roads map for the public lands nearby, parks, BLM, National Forest. If the overnight camping is dropping into the twenties or teens, then know the forecast. A good rule of thumb for California hotel stays: If the low temps overnight are below the cost of a hotel room at the nearby casino, the comfy lodge might be well worth considering.
@ California – Arizona border.
The Laughlin casino in the middle of nowhere, right on the Colorado River. Jet ski rentals, swimming pools and spas, restaurants, RV park. The historic Mojave Trail, aka Mojave Road, starts next to the property.
Gold Country Casino
@ Lake Oroville, California
Sierra Nevada mountains Northern California. Conveniently located near Feather River (all 4 forks) and Plumas National Forest, with Berry Creek and Bucks Lake Wilderness to explore. Snow often closes the highest elevations.
@ Pine Valley, East County San Diego
Great bouldered mountains with back road exploring, hiking, mountain biking trails, all easy access from Southern California. Get a Cleveland National Forest map and expect some road closures near Laguna Mountain Sunrise Highway, especially when it snows.
Diamond Mountain Casino
Susanville, Northern California
Located in between US Highway 395 and Mount Lassen, the scenic Susan River region has lots to offer for the outdoor enthusiasts. Plenty of roads to explore, some big lakes too. Many Forest roads could be closed due to snow, so be warned and call ahead to the ranger.
The whole Carson City area in Nevada has some excellent dirt roads to explore. Old mines, caves, many miles of pinyon forests. Lake Tahoe is nearby with luxury resorts, casinos and snow skiing.
If you just can’t stand the cold and snow, then warmer climates lie to the south. Baja California is a tourist/traveler and off-roader haven in the wintertime.
Jawbone Canyon for Thanksgiving weekend will get dirt bikes by the thousands and big families. Christmas is busy around the Palm Spring desert destinations – like Joshua Tree. Easter weekend is popular w/ wildflowers and campers in Anza Borrego Desert.
Occasionally, wide graded dirt roads lead to secondary routes, so overnighting it with a motorhome on the back roads is very possible (if deep mud is not present). RV camping is quite the tradition for Southern Californians. Desert off roaders in tow, all over the Mojave. Steer clear of busy family groups. Pick a lesser known area to camp and explore. Get your real topo maps out and choose easy access from pavement, but wide graded dirt roads are best. Plenty roads like this in the Eastern Sierra, on the east side of US Hwy 395. RV campers that follow Total Escape might very well be interested in testing the limits of their recreational vehicle, slowly.
Before AWD got marketed as 4WD, Total Escape was way out there exploring in a 2 wheel drive and posting it online for you. All wheel drive station wagons should stick to the paved and plowed roads. If you plan to do a lotta dirt road driving in the old Subaru, keep the rock crawling to a minimum. If not, you may want to invest in a skid plate for the oil pan. Nothing beats first hand experience and learning ahead of time how your car will behave before you loose control on icy dark steep roads. Go practice with the emergency break and get the vehicle in a wide open snow plowed area if possible, just avoid the temptations to get wild. Don’t get the doughnut urge and plant yourself in a tree. Remember, it’s not like the commercial showed us, those are closed roads they are filming on.
If you plan to be off roading in snow or mud at all you might want to consider some important safety items: tire chains for snow, a tow strap and tire plugs for flats. If you own a high clearance 2WD SUV, you could benefit from running chains on all four tires when snow is present. How deep the snow gets and how steep the hills are, determines how far you can go without a real 4 wheel drive. Some choose to rent a 4WD for the weekend road trip.
Carry these items when traveling in winter conditions:
tools, jumper cables, tow strap, emergency gear, first aid kit, real boots, extra clothes, blankets, flashlights, food, drinking water, cell phone, maps
This autumn meteor shower peaks in mid November & a great weekend for planning a desert camping trip around. Look in the eastern part of the nights sky these shootings stars, up to 10 per hour. Pre-dawn viewing is always best for meteor showers.
California Deserts are wonderful at this time of year. Many folks plan Thanksgiving celebration around this outdoorsy celestial event.
An autumn meteor shower peaks in late October & perfect for planning a camping trip, cabin weekend or fishing trip around it. Eastern Sierra Nevada destinations are wonderful at this time of year, as fall colors w/ aspens peak as well. Look in the southeastern part of the nights sky these shootings stars, up to 12 per hour. Pre-dawn viewing is always best for meteor showers.
East of Lake Isabella and west of Walker Pass, there is a small community called Canebrake along Highway 178 Canebrake Road, a graded dirt road climbs up into pinyon pine forests. Lamont Peak (aka Lamont Pinnacles) is a decent hike & rock climbers dig it too.
Chimney Creek Campground is along the main road and has RV access (28′ max), for the motorhomes who do not mind a little dirt road driving. Easy trail access to numerous area hikes. The PCT is routed close by.
Long Valley Campground is tucked way back in the boonies with trailhead leading into the granite Dome Lands; Fishing and river access to the South Fork of the Kern.
Long Valley Loop Road circles the Chimney Peak Wilderness, which skirts the Domeland Wilderness. THE LOOP is washed out and ROAD is NOW CLOSED in one portion. See BLM web site for up to date info.
San Diego Deserts, San Ysidro Mountains
Montezuma Grade Montezuma Highway, Hwy S-22
High desert elevations, large boulders, highway w/ primitive campground. No trees, but much vegetation; flat parking, large tent spots, picnic tables, vault toilet. High desert mountain pass, with boulders, canyons and many dirt roads to explore.
• Elevation: 3,350′
• Number of Sites: 10
• Vehicle Accessibility: all
• Campsites Reservation: No
• Camp Fee: No
• Length of Stay: 10 Days
• Season: October – May
• Trailheads: Grapevine Canyon, Pena Springs, Anza Borrego & PCT (Pacific Crest Trail)
hike highcountry borrego
Culp Valley Trail, Grapevine Canyon, Montezuma Valley, Pena Springs, San Ysidro Mountains.
Kelbaker Road is one of the well-traveled back roads in the Mojave Desert connecting two major Eastern California routes of Interstate system. The I-40 to the south and the I-15 to the north, spanning 50 miles from one to the other.
Kelbaker Rd continues south to T up w/ historic Route 66 near Amboy, CA. Gasoline is very iffy in Amboy, so remember gas up in Barstow.
This region is super scenic portion of Kelbaker Road, which cuts thru the western edge of Mojave National Preserve. The Kelbaker pavement reaches to an elevation of 4024′ at Granite Pass, about 6 miles north of the exit @ interstate 40. Boulder outcroppings, bare mountain peaks, secluded cove camp sites w/ dirt roads, and old mines all over. Joshua tree forest and pinyon pine forest encircle the Mid Hills region.
Some roads are suitable for passenger cars, but many are not. Dirt slides, erosion gullies, wash outs and rocks are common on these roads, so drive slow and pay attention.
There are private property ranches, active railroad tracks & BLM lands along the Kelbaker route. Some of the boundaries of NPS have been extended, so best to bring a map.
Free camping is abundant in this desert region, but it’s all primitive w/ no facilities and all are on dirt roads when your turn off Kelbaker. Some of the best camping areas are around 4000 feet (above sea level), so serious wind and even snow is quite possible in the winter months. Go prepared w/ plenty firewood.
Historic Mojave Trail (aka Mojave Road) is out this way. Dirt bikes, off roaders love this trail that connects the Colorado River @ Avi Casino to Afton Canyon near Barstow.
WILDFLOWERS – joshua tree, yucca, barrel cactus
Higher elevation deserts bloom in late Spring, generally March thru May. Perfect rainfall timing in the autumn, can determine wild blooms and flora months later. Providence Mountains SRA can be a good location for wildflower viewing.
Kelso Depot: historic spot, centered around the old train depot, which has been restored and has become the new visitors center and museum. Totally worth a 2 hour stop and HIKING/WALKING stretch break. The road heads north from Kelso and the name changes to: Kelbaker-Cima Road
Cima Store, 20 miles to the north is one of the few businesses in this region. Post Office next door, maybe. Cima Road connects to I-15 in approximately 15 miles north. Kelbaker Road splits again and it heads up to I-15 @ Baker, CA
Dirt roads, backroads, desert trails, OHV routes, single tracks, dunes, fire roads, gravel roads, 4×4 roads
When you wanna explore a new area, California has plenty of public land to offer. Off Road Maps can get you away from the crowds & the main staging areas. Maps can show you prime areas to ride & camp that you may not have ever imagined. Secluded, wide open, or freeway close. Terrain – the endless deserts, the mountain foothills, the higher hills , way above the city. The choice is yours.
Whether you seek secluded stream side camp sites, with some fishing or a dusty, long, desert trail that spans the entire Mojave desert, you can find these secret spots with good old fashioned topographic maps. Hard copies! The real deal. No cell signal? No problem.
Awesome California locations w/ off-road trails nearby. DanaMite has compiled a list of first-hand knowledge information, links, photos, campsites, maps, all revolving around rural California. Check out the ever growing list and get ready to explore the back roads, like never before.
OHV area, motor vehicle use, 4×4 camps, dirt trails, forest routes; Download maps for various off-roading areas in California.
What the heck is it ???
4WD = 4 wheel drive
4×4 = (same as above)
2WD = 2 wheel drive
4×2 = (same as above)
AWD = All wheel drive
SUV = Sport Utility Vehicle
MTB = Mountain Bike
MX = Motocross (dirt bike motorcycle)
SNOMO = Snow Mobile (sled machine)
GAS-POWERED RECREATION: The past two decades have emerged with vehicle redesigns from well known brands, creating a number of new “utility vehicles” for the sport of off-roading (otherwise known as, burning gasoline while recreating in the outdoors). Here is a breakdown on the acronyms, but they all basically refer to much of the same “off road type vehicles”.
ATV = All Terrain Vehicle (quad)
MOHUV = Multipurpose Off-Highway Utility Vehicle
ROPS = Roll Over Protection System
ROV = Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle
RUV = Recreational Utility Vehicle
SxS = Side by Side Vehicle (2 seated)
SSV = (same as above)
UTV = Utility Task Vehicle
Common abbreviations for off-road on public lands:
OHV – Off Highway Vehicle SVRA – State Vehicular Recreation Areas BLM – Bureau of Land Management NFS – National Forest (USDA) MVUM – motor vehicle use map (NFS)
PVT – private land / keep out
MTR – motorized
RD – road
CO – county
RTE – route
SR – state route
FR – forest route / road
EXT – exit
CK – creek
EL – elevation
MT – mountain
STA – station (ranger/fire station)
PO – post office
Around 2012 the National Forest Service printed up a bunch of nice off-road maps for various popular regions of California. Oddly, they told me not to sell them and I never heard anything about them again after that. Not even sure if these above are available to the public, but if you dig around you might find ’em. Call the rangers, they might know.
If interested, you could call the ranger station and ask about any local off-road maps, and availability. Mostly they have freebie one page print-outs, black & white — to keep the crowds where they want them. Other times they might have real color, printed maps for sale at the station. Maps that can get you deeper into the terrain, with wild edges of reality nearby. 4×4 maps, OHV map, MVUM
BLM Maps (Bureau of Land Management)
Government agency that manages large amounts of California land. Public lands that do not fall into the National Forest or National Park or State Park realm. BLM oversees some mountain areas, river canyons and primarily, desert regions within California. Visit a local BLM office to see the selection of area maps.
Decent & FREE: dirt road maps can be found at BLM ranger station, south of NEEDLES, on US Hwy 95. Explore Turtle Mountain and find free camping IN ROUTE; Eastern California Desert.
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.
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.
Fortunately, those places do not allow driving on the dunes, which is exactly what the off-road boys want to do. Sand flying, motors screaming, music blasting, bon fires blazing and no silence found until the wee hours of early morning.
Autumn, Winter & Spring are the busy months for ‘froaders in the deserts, since summer temps can soar into triple digits heat daily.
Camping out near “the dunes” is usually a big, freaking, free-for-all, outdoors with the latest in motorized toys. Recreation Vehicles encircling bonfires (camp formation for a large group), toy box haulers, trailers, families, and maybe a massive BBQ setup.
OHV (off highway vehicle) Vehicular Recreation Area
California BLM Desert Sand Dunes
Below is a list of California Sand Dunes overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
Arroyo Salado / Ocotillo Wells
Motorcycle, 4WD, ATV, Dune Buggy / Sand Rail
Located 10 mi. west of Highway 86 on Highway 78. Rolling hills and sand washes. Designated “Open Area” consisting of 4,800 acres. Adjacent to Ocotillo Wells Vehicular Recreation Area. Near Split Mountain, Anza Borrego Desert
Dumont Dunes Mojave
Motorcycle, 4WD, ATV, Dune Buggy / Sand Rail
Located 30 mi. north of Baker on Hwy 127, off Dumont Dunes Rd. Steep and tall sand dunes. Designated “Open Area” of 8,150 acres. South of Death Valley National Park.
Glamis / Gecko Road
Motorcycle, 4WD, ATV, Dune Buggy / Sand Rail
Holiday weekends = NUTS!! Approximately 22,000 acres. Located 25 mi. east of Brawley on HIGHWAY 78. Sand Dunes. Designated “Open Area” Danger: Adjacent to military bombing range. Contact the El Centro BLM
Imperial Sand Dunes / Buttercup Valley
Motorcycle, 4WD, ATV, Dune Buggy / Sand Rail
Approximately 11,000 acres. Located 10 mi. southeast of Niland on the Niland Glamis Rd. Sand Dunes are designated “Open Area”. Watch for closed area boundary at south end of area. CA Highway 78 near Brawley. Contact the El Centro BLM
Mojave El Mirage / Shadow Mountains
Motorcycle, 4WD, ATV, Dune Buggy / Sand Rail
Located 10 mi. west of Adelanto on Crippen/El Mirage Road. Dry lake Bed. Heavy use area. many non-motorized and motorized recreation – including aircrafts. Area consists of 24,000 acres.
Plaster City / Yuha Basin
Motorcycle, 4WD, ATV, Dune Buggy / Sand Rail
South side of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. 15 mi. west of El Centro. Located on county Highway S-80. Consists of 41,000 acres of rolling hills and desert flats. Military bombing range north of area is closed to entry. Contact the El Centro BLM
Motorcycle, 4WD, ATV, Dune Buggy / Sand Rail
Located 15 mi. NW of El Centro via Highway S-8, Huff, and Wheeler Roads. Varied terrain consisting of 13,000 acres; dry lakes, badlands, rocky mountains, and sand dunes. Military bombing range north and south of area is closed to entry. Contact the El Centro BLM
Rasor OHV Recreation Area
Motorcycle, 4WD, ATV, Dune Buggy / Sand Rail
Located 45 mi. northwest of Barstow, CA on Rasor Road. Sand washes and dunes, mesquite thickets. Designated “Open Area” consisting of 22,500 acres. Contact theBarstow BLM
Rice Valley Dunes
Motorcycle, 4WD, ATV, Dune Buggy / Sand Rail
Located 5 mi. south of Rice Valley off of Highway 62. Access is Santa Fe Road. Sand dunes. Designated “Open Area” consisting of 3,770 acres. Area of little use. Danger: Contaminated with unexploded ordinance.
Access to wild land, open spaces, parks, forests, lakes, mountain peaks, public land – USDA National Forests, National Parks, State Parks, BLM. There is more public land available in the west half of the U.S., than anywhere else in the nation. This is one of the top reasons people relocate to the West Coast.
California’s Public Lands for Recreation
Federal lands, government managed parks, USDA National Forests, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuge, BLM, State Parks, State Forests, County Parks, Regional Open Spaces
California National Parks– most National Parks are so crowded you can’t even enjoy the experience in the summer time. Try the off-season times for your best stay. Neighboring National Forests are a much better bet for abundant space, privacy & less taxing on the wallet for fees. These popular (NPS) parks are subject to federal budget cuts and closures.
California National Forests– protected wilderness areas throughout state are surrounded by National Forests (NFS), and most National Parks (NPS) are surrounded by National Forests. Tons of small campgrounds & primitive spots for real seclusion. Get a free fire permit & camp almost anywhere you want. Use that SUV exploring the many dirt backroads & find that perfect camp spot (for free).
California State Parks – local California parks with a lot to offer the day hikers, picnicking family, tent camper or RV camper. From warm dry deserts soaking in a hot springs to the foggy coastal redwoods, these state run parks encompass a large section of California terrain. These parks are subject to state budget cuts and closures.
BLM: Bureau of Land Management – mostly desert regions on the east side of California. A few coastal redwoods, some river canyons in the Sierra Nevada, many off road areas (OHV) in various mountain ranges. These federal lands are open spaces, generally a free for all on recreation. Allowable = off roading, target shooting, open camping, campfires, bonfires. Geared toward OHV use, RVs and hunting.
Coastal California – Southern California beach camping is crowded & sparse, because of developed cities. Central Coast & Northern California offer many more choices in this category.
California Mountains – pine forest, mixed oaks & a variety of vegetation. Water sources such as lakes, stream & waterfalls make this choice the perfect camping spots. Granite peaks, high elevations wilderness areas throughout state & surrounded National Parks. Plenty backpacking options & dirt road primitive spots for the ultimate in privacy.
Countryside in California – coastal hills or mountain foothills. These rolling hillsides offer small creeks, oak trees & plenty of wide open spaces. Lakes & Reservoirs are located within these regions. Most campgrounds are fairly close driving distance to towns or cities. Wine country or gold country, California has it.
California Deserts – perfect for every season except summer, these vast spaces will humble just about anyone. Primitive camping galore & designated areas for real off-roading.
City CA / Urban Villages – not the best for really getting away from crowds, but can be an excellent opportunity to visit a city without spending big bucks on lodging. Or could just be a perfect one-nighter for getting familiar with camping. Most campsites are located in the foothill area behind suburbs, in county parks or even coastal.
San Diego Backcountry
600,000 acres of SoCal desert
BLOOM: mid-March thru May Anza Park elevations range from low to high. Lowest near eastern border (next to the Salton Sea) to the upper reaches of the western slopes @ 4000′. Wide, deep, sandy, long desert washes, native petroglphs, wind caves, slot canyons and split mountain. This uncrowded state park has the most acreages than all of the parks.
Camp in a developed campground, a small back country site or camp primitive on nearly any dirt road. Car camping to 4×4, this park has lots to offer folks wishing to really escape. No ground fires allowed, so bring your metal campfire bucket and large trash bag to carry out your ashes. The last thing you want is to scar these pristine white desert washes.
Steep rocky canyons on the Laguna mountain foothills can be challenging terrain, so bring good, sturdy hiking boots. Wildflowers can be abundant on certain years. Lower elevations sprout up first; Higher elevations along County Rd S-2 & S-22 bloom later in Spring. By June 1st most of the color is gone in and around Borrego Springs, so this is a real Winter and Spring vacation kinda spot. California desert wildflowers include primrose, barrel cactus, prickly pear, monkey flower, ocotillo & many more.
This is the largest State Park in California and “open car camping” is allowed on the back roads. (also referred to as primitive camping, free camping or 4×4 camping) One of the few places in Southern California that you can camp outside of a developed Campground and still have a campfire. You gotta bring a large metal bucket to have your campfire in – as ashes scar white sandy washes and ground fires are not allowed.
California Highway 78 cuts across Southern California and right thru the middle of the largest State Park in the lower 48. Anza Borrego Desert State Park is a place that must be visited more than once to really take in all the beauty it has to offer. Free camping in Southern California is abundant here, if you are willing to follow the primitive camp fire rules of the park and you are comfortable camping away from developed campgrounds.
North-South:San Diego County Road S2 skirts the western border with Laguna Mountain towering above. It starts at Ocotillo @ Interstate 8 and heads Northwest to Lake Henshaw at Warner Springs.
East-West: a major route S22, connects Ranchita /Montezuma Valley to the Borrego Valley, and continues East to the Salton Sea. The center of the parks is pretty much the town of Borrego Springs, where the State Parks visitors center is located. San Diego County Road S3 leads from Hwy 78 down the the town of Borrego Springs Valley.
free camping: While the camping facilities listed above provide picnic tables and toilets, or more luxury camping… Total Escape thinks the best part of camping in Anza Borrego Desert is the vast amount of free, open camping available on most back roads. Hundreds of dirt roads lead off in all directions, so you can find the peace and solitude that few inside busy campgrounds ever experience.
Many Anza desert routes are sandy washes, dirt roads, some for high clearance vehicles only, or 4WD in several canyons. Often there is no signs telling you need 4×4 to proceed. May only find out when its too late and you’re stuck.
Have a good dirt road map with you and know your vehicles limitations. Passenger cars should be very cautious off road. Cell phone coverage is spotty out here in the most remote wilderness areas.