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.
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.
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.
Since sport utility vehicles were invented for California yuppies, it makes perfect sense that this California market also has the awesome terrain to use these rugged rigs. After the first shopping cart door ding or windshield crack, most folks are open to taking their utilitarian vehicles on dirt roads, but some will only dream about it.
Here at Total Escape, we are here to change all that. The fear of outdoors, the unknown, the capability, the driving skill. Your SUV is a good reason to be outdoors in the golden state, at bare minimum. No excuses. Enjoy the California you never knew – and sometimes that means getting off the pavement. Yes, more than 2 miles.
SUV trail – any path, dirt road or route that can be driven on; high clearance vehicle are often necessary, 4×4 needed on occasion. National Forests, canyons, deserts, mountains, country lane style drives, some classic routes skirt the wilderness boundaries. We have it all for ya here. Rock crawling Rubicon adventures, all the way down to the leisurely ‘Sunday drive’ thru a forest to a meadow for a picnic.
Dust, dirt, mud, snow. Beyond the county line, way back there, where you can discover ghost towns, old mines in the desert, hot springs, historic lodges, petroglyphs, river gorges, fire lookouts, waterfalls, and so much more.
Fish Creek Wash
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Ocotillo Wells, CA
Explore Anza Borrego State Park desert deeper for the secluded hidden treasures. Find yourself traveling the east San Diego county desert, on Highway 78 eastbound on the way to the Salton Sea. Passing the turn offs for Borrego Springs, slow down and look for the intersection of off-roaders & ATVs @ Ocotillo Wells, California. Ocotillo Wells State Vehicluar Recreation Area is on the north (left) side of the highway and Split Mountain is on the right.
From highway turn south (right) on to Split Mountain Road, which leads to numerous back road destinations. Ranch homes and private property line the first mile of the road, neighborhood general store and a tiny saloon, RV park and an ATV rental shop.
Old Kane Springs Road is a main dirt road that parallels the highway from the narrows at San Felipe Wash to the Salton Sea. Old Kane Springs Rd intersect the Split Mountain route about 1 mile south of highway.
Split Mountain ranger station is before the Elephant Trees nature trail. Near the railroad track, the paved road turns into Fish Creek Wash near Fish Creek Campground. If you have a low rider passenger car, you might wanna park it here and walk in to the canyon. Within the first few miles there is a lot to explore – fossils in walls, huge cliffs, wind caves, narrow canyons.
The actual “split in the mountain” section is located just beyond the campground on a sandy desert road.
Wind Caves are on the left side, just beyond the split
Fish Creek Wash continues south, deep into the Carrizo badlands where 4×4 is definitely needed. The trail system eventually loops back over to paved S2 @ Canebrake, via Pinyon Mountain w/ the Squeeze, or Canon Sin Nombre. Unlimited primitive camp sites, found inside every other nook and cranny. Numerous hidden slot canyons, sandstone cliffs and wide sandy washes becomes a literal maze of off-road trails so you better carry a good back roads topographic map.
Well off Highway 78, past the busy OHV area, quads at Ocotillo Wells, past all the rural homes & the redneck bar, past the Elephant Trees hike – where the road goes from pavement to graded dirt to a wild desert wash, in a few short miles. If you don’t know where you are, then you’re almost there.
This is a large wild desert wash with huge unstable walls, several areas for wind caves and a few historic markers. Lots of 4×4 trails beyonf Split Mountain, to the south. No real water in sight, except maybe the puddle you are standing in as it starts to poor. The soft sand can give way to a few heavy rain drops. May not be a great area to be during a serious storm or flash flood possibility, unless you want to get buried alive. Check the weather forecast in advance.
A ratty, small developed campground of Fish Creek is on the left side, upon the ledge. Fish Creek Campground is picnic tables & a pit toilet – at most. Ya may as well camp out in the open, off road, like the pioneers did. You can do that out here in Anza Borrego. (Just keep it clean & carry a metal fire container.)
Split Mountain, Anza Borrego Desert State Park
This portion of the “mountain” is less than a mile from Fish Creek Campground. Fossils can be found in these walls. Shade is good in summer months, when day temps reach 100+. The rest of the year is ideal weather. This mountain split from water, erosion, mega force. High walls, wind caves, desert washes, great primitive camping & 4×4 routes.
This desert scenic drive will require you to get that SUV dusty. 4 wheel drive not required. No RVs past the campground. All low lying passenger cars are warned, there are uneven areas, soft sand & boulders.
Duh, do not attempt this one when desert flash floods are possible.
On the north end of Bishop CA, running parallel to & on the west side of Hwy 6, is a long dirt road called Fish Slough Rd. Indian petroglyphs can be found out here & also on the ridges along Chalk Bluff Rd (to the south). The entire region is called a volcanic tableland & hot springs are very common in this region. The Owens River Gorge & Lake Crowley are to the west. High clearance vehicles are recommended for traveling these back roads, but 4×4 is rarely needed.