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).
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.
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
California State Park Sierra Hot Spring Camping Resort open all year
South of Lake Tahoe, hidden in a forest meadow near the small town of Markleeville, sits this super scenic, year-round camping resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Popular place for senior travelers, RV campers, families, snow skiers, and tourists.
No lodging available, no cabins. Only Campground Camping – Reservations are recommended. This is a popular destination for the Eastern Sierra Tahoe region. May thru September are peak season. During mid-winter a portion of the campsites are closed and the remainder may be on a first come, first serve basis. State Park is located 4 miles west of Markleeville, at the end of Hot Springs Road.
cross country skiing
Piped water, flush toilets, showers, this is luxury camping by State Park standards. Hiking, fishing, stargazing. Quite an ideal spot, especially if you visit during a slow time. Surrounded by mountains that top 10,000′ elevation, expect to see some snow in the winter months.
The hot pool resort is open to the public for day soaking w/ a fee. Wheelchair accessible areas. The pool hours tend to fluctuate with the seasons, so be prepared for anything. Even a snow storm!
Grover Hot Spring Campground
• Elevation: 5800′
• Number of Sites: 75
• Vehicle Access: RV 27′ max
• Campsites Reservation: Yes
• Camp Fee: Yes
• Length of Stay: 10 Days
• Season: Open all year
• Trailheads: Carson River
Take the road next to the Ranger Station (South of Bridgeport, along Hwy 395); Drive up the hill and past the rock quarry. Bear right & look for dirt parking lot. Two pools, short walk, no shade, wonderful views of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Popular with local commuters and travelers, with easy access off the highway. Great spot for views westward w/ sunset picnic and soak.
No overnight camping allowed at Travertine hot springs (posted signs)
Plenty of great, free, camping nearby:
Primitive or developed Campgrounds.
San Diego Backcountry
600,000 acres of SoCal desert
BLOOM: February thru May Anza Park elevations range from low to high. Lowest near eastern border of park (next to the Salton Sea) to the upper reaches of the western slopes @ 4000′ of the Laguna mountains. Lower elevations sprout up first; Micro flowers, Easter-egg-color splendor in the dry washes. Higher elevations bloom later (along w/ areas on San Diego County Rd S-2, the Great Overland Stage Route)
Drive from Temecula to Warner Springs, and then proceed east – out to the Salton Sea via Back Road Highway #S22 (Montezuma Grade). A great route to take thru the Borrego State Park – for the full gamut in vegetation & altitude. Grapevine Canyon is an alternate off road route down a scenic canyon. Culp Valley has a small campground, plus lots of boulders and decent views to the Borrego Valley. Off the highway, on dirt, one-lane side roads lead to many primitive spots. Perfect for private picnics, stargazing or overnight camping.
Mojave Reservoir @ Colorado River: AZ / NV / CA
@ the V, bottom of Nevada state = Arizona – Nevada – California, all merge together
The Colorado River travels through the southwest desert, splitting the Grand Canyon and further south, separating California from Arizona at the southern tip of Nevada. Agriculture lines the big river down to Baja, Sea of Cortez, Mexico.
Up near Las Vegas and down to Searchlight, NV
Above Hoover Dam is Lake Mead, sediment from Utah National Parks. Red dirt and silt shorelines. South of Hoover dam is a super deep rock gorge w/ hike-in hot springs. Beyond that, this beauty called Lake Mohave – with the super clear water, secluded coves and abundant fishing.
Lake Mohave: elevation 647′
Desert peaks in this region are around 2000-3000′ elevation. Mohave Lake is actually a wide section of the Colorado River, spanning the region from massive Black Canyon south to busy Laughlin w/ river casinos. This lake is long and skinny in spots with lots of shoreline cliffs, canyons and coves. Minimal vegetation, so please bring your own firewood and don’t chop down the few trees trying to survive. Summer temps exceed 100 degrees, so plan your visit for the winter time.
Lake Mohave Ranger Stations
boating, camping, fishing, hiking, hot springs, kayaking, off-road, picnics, viewpoints
El Dorado Canyon Road, main paved route can be accessed near California’s state border. North of Searchlight, Nevada – off main highway 95, on side route 165 to Nelson, NV
Secluded dirt roads up and down canyons near El Dorado Canyon Rd. Minimal vegetation, maximum open scenery and dark skies. Kayak rentals @ El Dorado Canyon.
desert badlands erosion
4×4 camping routes: 15 day camping limit
Find your own route with many to choose from, drive the soft sandy washes (with a few boulders to dodge) and camp for free, right at the waters edge. Adventurers: Only for the self-contained campers. Some routes marked 4WD only, so pay attention to signs. AWD (all wheel drive) vehicles should fare well on the sandy roads; but standard passenger cars and vans will need to keep their speed up in the soft sand areas.
No garbage collection. Pack it in, pack it out.
No facilities, no fees. No buildings. No campfire rings, no picnic tables, very few vault toilets. Bring your shovel!
Driving off the roads is strictly prohibited. Primitive camp sites can be found both at numerous coves and also inland inside the canyons. The ridges get windy in the deserts, but are favorable for night sky views and self contained camper vans.
Always know the weather forecast, cuz flash floods are possible and these dirt roads will be impassible during big rain. This is the main drainage to the big river!
Most desert washes here are signed routes 4×4, but mini vans, AWD sport-wagons, trucks, SUVs, small RVs can all be found camping near Lake Mohave. That is – if you know how to ‘drive off road’, which is not fast, but not too slow either.
Avoid getting stuck in the deep sand: keep speed up, do not turn sharply and do not brake hard. Carry tow strap in case you need an emergency pull. Be nice to strangers and you may find help.
Campfires are allowed, but you need to bring firewood. Dogs are allowed. Party animals tend to trash these desert coves, so be warned that there is a fair amount of litter. Bring a black trash bag and take some out! This trash problem could get the area closed off to vehicles so keep that in mind.
The canyons here have giant power lines that cross @ Aztec Wash; they can easily be avoided.
4×4 recommended @ MOHAVE:
Eagle Wash Road #46 – popular spot
Montana Wash #45 – camping ok
Placer Wash #47 – no camping
The rangers don’t wanna be pulling your ass out of the sand, which is why they post the 4×4 signs. Don’t expect to find help without walking a few miles first, or waiting several hours.
Several wilderness areas are located along the west side of this lake & river. Often dirt roads will parallel a portion of the wilderness boundary, providing excellent access to secluded coves and beaches. Emergency CALL boxes are placed in remote parts of these shores.
Ireteba Peaks Wilderness (northwest, next to El Dorado Canyon)
Nellis Wash Wilderness (western side)
Spirit Mountain Wilderness (southwest)
Bridge Canyon Wilderness (southwest, near Laughlin)
developed campground, boat launch, marina, lodging, hiking, picnic areas
Mojave Desert – This river-created lake is located on the Colorado River, in between Las Vegas, Nevada and Needles, California. The river water here is crystal clear, very swimmable and the fishing is decent. No paved boat ramps
nearby towns: (with elevation)
Bullhead City, AZ (540′)
Laughlin, NV (535′)
Kingman, AZ (3340′)
Nelson, NV (2954′) Nipton, CA (3042′) Oatman, AZ
Searchlight, NV (3470′)
If you’ve had it with the traditions, the big meal prep, or just sick of the family. Maybe you are a solo traveler, or a new transplant to California and need to explore more. Take a holiday away – for once this time.
Camping for turkey day? What a concept.
California is the perfect place for camping, all year long!
Stick to the lower elevations, look for canyons, and seek seclusion
California mountains often have snow during November. Avoid camping in snow @ 4000-5000′ elevation and above; Freezing temps above 3000-4000′ elevation.
Deserts, coastal regions and foothills are top choices for late Autumn car camping. Always check the weather ahead of departure, and have a plan B as an alternative. NorCal will be much wetter than the rest of the state.
MEALS: Prepare dinner meals ahead of trip departure. Bake turkey days before your trip and create meals based around that. Make mash potatoes at home and don’t forget to bring the butter. Pack pre-baked turkey for sandwiches, plus other quick snacks & meals for on-the-go travel.
Desert Camping is premium at this time of year. Luckily the eastern half of Southern Cal is desert. The lower the elevation, the better the temps will be overnight. Be prepared for wind when the ‘storm fronts’ approach, the winds do get a cranking! Dirt roads can become flowing washes during a good rainstorm, so know the weather forecast.
Coastal campgrounds may need advanced reservations. Be prepared for wet weather, especially up north. The redwoods groves are gorgeous anytime of year.
Gold County Reservoirs are prime areas for relaxing in nature, while everyone else is out shopping. Oak hills, rivers and canyons. RV campers love these large lakes; boating, fishing, mountain biking trails, kayak rentals, hiking near historic Gold Rush towns.
River Canyons of California are always beautiful destinations in the autumn months. Many campgrounds can be found at lower elevation, river access areas. California’s abundant Hot Springs are also top picks for holiday weekends.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park is always a nice, easy and relatively close get-away for any holiday. Open camping on the backroads (for free) makes it one of the most attractive camping options in all of SoCal. Many dirt roads are accessible for passenger cars, if extreme caution is used. Don’t plan on driving more than a few miles on dirt.
Masses of off roaders love to camp out, especially on Thanksgiving weekend. Wheel all day, eat, drink, bon fires every night and rumor has it ‘they roast their big bird outdoors – deep in a dirt pit’. Really? El Centro, Glamis, Imperial Dunes, Ocotillo Wells, Truckhaven Hills, Johnson Valley. All popular off roading areas in Southern California, so consider yourself warned.
Mojave Desert, near US Hwy 395 Jawbone Canyon expect to see RVs, toy-boxes and families outside enjoying the weekend. OHV style. Often the group tries to create a round corral with their huge convoy of vehicles, to keep thru traffic to a minimum around “their camp”. Just stay well away from those gear-heads. In general, it is a very busy area around Mojave up to Hwy 178 during the holidays. Try high desert Horse Canyon instead.
Saline Valley Hot Springs
Saline Valley Warm Springs
NORTH Death Valley National Park, in a super remote desert valley located in the vast mountains in between Big Pine CA Route 168 & Death Valley (west) Highway 190.
Inyo National Forest: Inyo mountains are a towering range of high elevation desert peaks running in between Owens Valley and Saline Valley.
desert wilderness access: 4 dirt road routes lead into Saline Valley – 2 backcountry 4×4 trails from the upper reaches of the park and 2 main dirt roads. All routes require a high elevation pass, so snow is likely in winter months (Nov-May).
Wilderness routes road conditions can change often, seasonally with winter snows, mud and summer thunderstorms. The most popular access are the main routes (both long dirt roads, subject to snow and closure at any time) – the North Pass (Big Pine) and the South Pass (Panamint). Detailed directions on those further below. Both backcountry roads Steele Pass and Lippincott Road, originate from the northern, desolate areas of the National Park and both require 4 wheel drive, with a recommended locking differential. No developed campground facilities. Clothing optional my ass — nudity is the norm here.
Since the challenging drive in to this remote desert valley is so grueling and time consuming, plan to spend a minimum of 4 nights. Anything less is way too rushed to totally enjoy the experience. Best way to enjoy this place is a full week off of work, and as much firewood, food and ice as you can haul. Some folks spend weeks camping here. The NPS limits your camping stay to 30 days! If you plan on driving out to Lone Pine for camping supplies and returning the same day, you best leave at dawn – cuz the entire round trip ‘beer run’ will take 6 hours or more.
High clearance vehicle a must & 4 wheel drive is highly recommended in all this region. All wheel drive wagons and passenger cars have been known to bottom out, break down and pop tires out here in the harsh conditions, so a first challenge may be to obtain a dependable and capable off-road vehicle.
Topographic GPS & decent back road maps are highly advised. One way drive is easily 4 hours, from any paved highway. Pack like you’re gonna live out here, if need be. Warning: this is a very long off-road journey for any average camping trip. This isn’t a weekend kinda place. First timers beware – it’s a full day journey to travel here!
Air Strip? The fly in option is a dirt landing strip called ‘Chicken Strip’, but National Park Service has yet to closed it.
NORTH PASS to Saline Valley Road:
from Big Pine, take Hwy 168 N from Hwy 395, turn right onto Death Valley Road (some maps may have this one listed as Waucoba Springs Road or just Waucoba Road). Proceed on the main route to the hard to read entrance sign marking the Saline Valley Road, past a few old structures and down to the main valley. Winter snow can be deep, so carry chains. 4×4 is best to access this remote valley, AWD high clearance might make it and normal passenger cars, 2WD SUVs should be warned about weather and access to the real world. Many times all mountain passes are snowed in – people do get trapped at Saline and cannot get out for weeks. So take that into account when requesting days off of work for this epic journey.
SOUTH PASS to Saline Valley Road:
from Olancha, take Highway 190 E, turn N off Hwy. 190 to Saline Valley Rd. Rugged 50+ mi. of hard core dirt roads. 4×4 and high clearance a must. Winter months expect snow, springtime rock slides and summers torrential downpours cause overflowing creeks w/ impassable washouts. Grapevine Canyon can be a challenging drive, but with patience and skill you can be down on the main valley floor in about an hour and a half (if you’re lucky). Did I mention the dozen or more miles of heavy washboard road conditions, at the base of the alluvial fan of mountain rock? Newbies and first timers should attempt the North Pass.
Near the marsh, when you finally reach the sand dunes area, you know the turn off is close-by, so slow down and stop to read the landscape. Know that the hot springs are located above the sand dunes to the east slope of the red volcanic mountains. When you see the metal bat sign and the mass of palm trees in the lower grove, you know you’ve arrived.
You’ve only truly arrived, when your whole body is immersed in hot water looking up at the stars and you learn to relax again. Breathe the deepest you have all year.
CAUTION: Stopping for those vehicles distressed on the side of the road is also a common practice. Many people break down on this route, Jeeps slide off cliffs. Harsh landscapes, plus weather are unforgiving and people die, so realize that this camping trip is no walk in the park.
Saline Valley Road Conditions & discussions can be found on Saline Valley Talk, the Saline Valley Message Board forum.salinepreservation.org
California 4×4 – here is search term popularized by the SUV & the anxious city driver who wants to hit some dirt. Gone are the days when peeling out in the back of the Ikea parking lot adventure. You seek real trails & cool spots & Total Escape is here to deliver.
Take your muddy or dusty vehicle to work on Monday (unwashed), just to prove you did something adventurous this past weekend! Once they see the photos, the co-workers will be envious… cuz they watched TV (and wasted 17 hours).
BTW, TV = nothingness
This entire web site was started around California back roads & self guided tours. You finally found us! Gotta get the 4wheel drive SUV into action (at least once per year – so the differential oil wont get like glue) & this web site can help you find the secrets spots of California.
Anza Borrego Desert & Los Padres National Forest has the most 4×4 trails in all the SoCal region. Big Bear forest has some, but the crowds are thick on any given weekend. Angeles has Azusa & Lyttle Creek; Idywild has a few virtually unknown spots. Mojave desert & the Eastern Sierra have plenty to see, volcanoes, ghost towns, old mines, petroglyphs, all reachable with stock SUV. Inyo high country has some incredible sights, but only accessible half the year. You will need 4 wheel drive part time or full time on these trails listed below. AWD doesn’t count! Clearance and 4 wheel traction are key for control w/ rock crawling and deep sand.
Searching for the extreme, rock crawling, hard core 4×4 stuff, go to the off-road races — or take your time & plan your adventure well. Chances are you’ll need a small team of people to explore these black diamond routes, a good forest map, plus very capable 4 wheelin’ rigs.
Red Mountain 4×4 Trail near Shaver Lake
Find California 4wheel drive roads below. Some of these routes will require a four wheel low range, with a transfer case. Do not attempt these with a new AWD SUV. Expect body damage on any 4WD trail.
Deep Creek Trail, near Skyforest Lake Arrowhead CA
Gold Mountain Trail, near Big Bear Lake CA
Pipes Canyon, near Big Bear Lake CA
San Diego 4×4 Trails –
Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, Lake Henshaw
Valley of the Moon, Jacumba CA
Now, not every road is gonna need 4×4 all the time. Most of the dirt back roads can easily be passable in a 2WD in dry months, but forget that in winter or any good rain storm. Total Escape has compiled a huge list of Southern California Back Roads, for your viewing pleasure.
Kern River Valley is one of the all time favorite Sierra Nevada destinations for SoCal escapees. First, it is the southern most ‘big river’ action for the Sierra range. The drive up from Los Angeles is easy access; only a coupe of hours. California Highway 178 leads from Bakersfield up the mountain to Lake Isabella (exit at 155 for Kernville destinations). The 178 continues east past the rural communities of Onyx, Canebrake, Weldon, and then on to the Northern Mojave desert & US Highway 395
Second, Kern has an abundance of outdoor recreation, from fishing to boating, river rafting to kayaking, backpacking, mountain biking, rock climbing, horseback riding, hiking, camping, & soaking. Kernville is the “recreation headquarters” for the region, where you can find rafting outfitters, camping supplies and rental equipment.
Third, the mountain scenery is very diverse – with the dry shores of Lake Isabella, the granite lined Kern River, or the ridges with towering cedar forests, plenty sugar pines, plus a few Sequoia groves; Tons of dirt back roads to explore, granite & gorges for the rock climbers, prime wilderness access & several primitive hot springs.
The whole area is encompassed by the Sequoia National Forestwith wilderness areas to the North & East. Giant Sequoia National Monument is located along the Western Divide Hwy in the northern portion of the National Forest.
Whether you’re an RVer wanting a developed campground near town, a fisherman needing a primitive site right on the river, or a backpacker seeking the high country, the Kern has a little bit of everything. High elevations beyond 8000′ ridge lines, or the lush Lower Kern under 2000′ with granite boulders lining, Kern has it. 4 wheelers will love the extensive network of dirt back roads, or maybe the OHV areas of Keysville. Lake Isabella has numerous oak lined campgrounds & boat rentals available too. Summer is not the best time to visit as the temperatures soar to 100 degrees & the city crowds come in full force to the Kern Valley. Springtime, the best season to visit runs from March to May, or Autumn cools for September to December.
Eastern Sierra Destination: June Lake and Mammoth Lakes, CA
The Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains run the length of US Highway 395, through most of the eastern side of California. Mammoth mountain is a volcano, so naturally hot springs come with the package. These hot tub destinations listed here are mostly part of the Long Valley Caldera, an ancient volcanic table land. North of Bishop and near the snow ski destination towns of June Lake and Mammoth, California in Mono County, California.
(This region is not to be confused with Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, nor the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota.)
Backroads Camping is allowed throughout Inyo National Forest, but there is private ranch lands mixed in w/ public lands. Respect property boundaries, and speed limits around gates and intersections.
Camp sites are not located next to the soaking tubs. A few may be within walking distance. Parking is often limited at these remote, public use hot pools. Total Escape TIP: Behind Lake Crowley: abundant, free camping – wide graded dirt roads (RV and passenger car suitable). Inyo National Forest Map is recommended.
Eastside of Highway 395
Casa Diablo Hot Springs near the Mammoth exit, is a location noted on most maps, but this seems to be the geothermal power plant for the region. If you are looking for hot springs tubs to soak in, you’ll need to get off the main drag for those beauties, way off the highway. On to dirt roads perhaps.
Inyo Forest Road #3S45, Hot Creek Hatchery Road
(near Mammoth Airport)
Minimal dirt road driving. A very popular spot where hot springs are located within the big creek, so you can feel cold and hot water flowing by you. Scalding can occur near vents underwater, so use caution when wading. Large parking lot overlooks the soaking area and creek canyon. Swimsuits required.
Little Hot Creek Hot Springs
also known as – “Lil Hot Creek”
Benton Crossing Rd
Inyo Forest Road #2S84, Benton Crossing Road
This rural intersection at US Hwy 395 is known for the little green church on the corner. Turn east off the highway on to this road> Pull over, get out and stretch. Look at your maps, get the GPS out and then start your exploring. FIrst timers might be able to find a soaking tub within half an hour, if you don’t get lost.
Inyo Forest Road #2S07, Whitmore Hot Springs Rd
Whitmore Tubs Road
a major graded dirt road that leads north off of the paved road, becomes Owens River Road and connects back to US395 several miles to the north.
Several primitive hot tubs can be found on dirt roads in this region, which lead off the main paved road. At night these remote pools can be hard to find with no signage, no street lights and pitch black darkness. Plus the mud blogs and grassy fields all around make the landscape difficult to navigate. If you plan a nighttime arrival, then plan to drive in slowly around the pools, have your GPS handy and look for steam in the air. Cut your headlights if you see other cars or people, and proceed slowly and be friendly.
Hill Top Hot Springs
also known as – “Hilltop or Pulky’s Pool”
Crab Cooker Hot Springs
also known as – “Fleur de Lys”
Shepard Hot Springs
also known as – “Shepard Springs”
The Tub Hot Springs
Whitmore Hot Springs
904 Benton Crossing Road
Mono County Park w/ large public swimming pool & day use fee
also known as – “Whitmore Tubs, Whitmore Springs”
Wild Willie’s Hot Spring
also known as – “Wild Willy’s, Crowly, Crowley Springs”
Inyo Forest Road #3S11, Minaret Summit Rd
This wilderness region is located the on the west side of Mammoth Mountain, accessible by the paved Minaret Summit Road, which closes due to deep snow and is generally only open during summer months.
Red’s Meadow Hot Springs
developed campground w/ wooden sheds for baths: showers & tubs.
near Devil’s Postpile National Monument
also known as – “Red’s Meadow Hot Showers”
Iva Bell Hot Springs
remote, wilderness; hike-in hot springs.
south of Mammoth & Rainbow Falls, via trail #2622
also known as – “Fish Creek Hot Springs”
Saline Valley Hot Springs primitive springs. Very remote desert wilderness area, 60 mile rugged dirt road – high clearance vehicle required; 4×4 access year round. Clothing optional. Nudity out in nature is the norm!
South Death Valley –
Shoshonesmall hot springs resort camps. Swimsuits required.
Tecopa Hot Springscounty park hot springs w/ bath house, rustic resorts & RV parks. Swimsuits required.
Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs are not hot springs destinations, although the names seems to imply they might be. The historic Inn at Furnace Creek in the center of the Death Valley National Park has palm trees and pure luxury – deluxe guest rooms, massage & spa services, pools and tennis, restaurants, but no mineral hot springs source. Death Valley Junction, home of the infamous Amargosa Opera House, does not have hot tubs, nor a pool, nor even a restaurant. South end of the park speaks more to the RV campers.
Small town of Shoshone is a little more appealing (visually) than Tecopa Springs, so keep that in mind when wondering what to expect. Cabin rentals at Delights Hot Springs Resort are old, rustic and the whole place is a little “rough around the edges”.
California has many natural hot springs, most requiring a drive into the mountains. Some are rustic resorts, some are developed campgrounds, most are located on paved roads. The very remote tubs are the ones hidden in the secluded wilderness – only accessible by foot.
Plan to camp overnight? Fire Permits are required if you plan to build a campfire or use a camp stove.
HIKE-IN ONLY HOT SPRINGS
Buckeye Hot Springs requires a steep half mile trail down to the creek edge. N of Bridgeport. Eastern Sierra @ Buckeye Creek Road #017.
Deep Creek Hot Springs is a SoCal favorite, but with that convenience comes the crowds. Located on the desert side of the mountains from Lake Arrowhead.
Gaviota Hot Springs is a short hike along a lush canyon. Close to US Hwy 101 and located in between Goleta and Solvang.
Kern River Gorge, Sequoia NF – Both Jordan Hot Springs & Kern Hot Springs accessible only by backpacking many miles, from Jerky Trailhead. Backpack and horseback access only. Golden Trout Wilderness.
Remington Hot Springsrequires a steep but short half mile trail down to the river edge. Lower Kern River. Old Kern Canyon Road @ Remington Trailhead# 32E51 – Remington Ridge Trail is a multi-use trail. Bike, hike, horseback on oaks hills. Wildflowers in Spring.
Sespe Hot Springs requires an 18 mile round trip hike. Usually enjoyed as an overnight backpacking trip. A very challenging and long trek as a day hike. Los Padres National Forest.
Sykes Hot Springs requires a strenuous 10-mile hike from Big Sur Station. Hike inside of Los Padres NF. Usually enjoyed as an overnight backpacking trip, or a very long day hike for the fittest of folks.
Agua Caliente Hot Springs County Park is a remote 910-acre San Diego County Park next to the Anza Borrego Desert. A developed hot springs, picnic area & a large campground. This desert destination is perfect for California winter recreation, offering a small air strip for small plane pilots.
Located North of Interstate 8 on San Diego Road S-2 on the south end of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Local mountain’s seismic forces created the fault that runs beneath this region & forces water up to the desert surface. A decent water supply also supports plant life & wildlife.
For minimal crowds AVOID THIS PLACE on holiday weekends or peak winter months. Spring & Autumn are excellent times to visit here, but watch the weather forecast for any heat waves. Who wants to soak when it’s 100 degrees outside?
2 natural hot mineral pools:
large outdoor pool is kept at natural 96 degrees
glass walled indoor pool is heated & has bubbling jets
spring-fed, warm showers are available
hiking trails, horseshoe & shuffleboard
Agua Caliente Campground
140 campsites – tent sites & RV hookups w/ dump station. Shady trees only at some camp sites. Indoor pool, outdoor pools, maybe a hike-in primitive tub too. Individual campsites may be reserved up to 12 weeks in advance 858-565-3600
This place was the alternate choice to Miracle Hot Springs, but since that one is now closed – this is the main attraction out along the lower stretch of the Kern River. National Forest Hobo Campground is a few miles away and there is also plenty primitive style camping options if you so choose.
Remington is by far, one of the nicest primitive hot tubs in the whole region and easy to access. If you can find it, the rewards are great!! Can be crowded on weekends. If the dirt parking lot is totally full, come back later or wait it out. You can find travelers, mountain bikers, dirt bikers, hikers, backpackers, campers, off-roaders, RVers, burners, desert rats, military boys, local kids, LA couples, techno DJs from Russia – a wide variety of people soaking at this not-so-secret spot.
These unique hand-crafted stone tubs are located on the Lower Kern, overlooking the big river and the fish. 3 volunteer built cement & river rock hot spring pools sit adjacent to the Kern River. There is also another small cooler tub on the trail perched above the thick brush.
This prime recreation spot is located a few miles west of Hobo Campground (old Miracle Hot Springs) is sometimes busy: dirt parking lot, minimal sign & the tubs are not viewable from the road. From parking area you must hike down a steep grassy trail for about a mile.
Bring towels, beverages & everything you will need from the vehicle, as turning around to go back & get everything half way down will prove to be a challenging trail up. Boulders & oaks on steep hillsides. A few campsites down along main trail. Wildflowers here are wonderful in Spring (April-May). Please pick up litter & keep this place beautiful.
West of Kernville & Lake Isabella, CA
along Kern River in the Lower Kern Canyon Gorge, Southern Sierra Nevada mountains
Remington primitive hot springs are located inside the lower Kern Canyon, southwestern part of Sequoia National Forest. Take Highway 178 east to the 4 lane portion, look for Borel Road right turn which climbs a steep hill up to Old Kern Canyon Road. At this stop sign you will see a sign for Remington Trail (3.5 miles) pointing to the right.
Remington Trailhead (signed) & dirt parking lot across from trail, is located on Old Kern Canyon Rd, which runs parallel to the 4-laner Hwy. 178 on the opposite side of the Kern River. The well known Kern Canyon Road is also labeled as “Cort 214” on GoogleMaps.
Remington Ridge Trail #32E51 – Mountain bike, hike and horseback trail
Minimal camping spots & very little privacy at the main parking lot at Remington Hot Springs. The best tent camping is located down on the trails, so you may choose to hike-in to the secluded oak and beach camps below. No facilities at Remington, no tables, no toilets, so come very prepared to “rough it”.
Sandy Flat Campground and Hobo Campground are a few miles to the east, on the same Kern Cyn Road; Breckenridge Campground is on a tall pine ridge just to the south, but requires a long drive around the mountains, or a rugged vehicle for a steep dirt road.
Folks seeking more seclusion can choose to primitive camp along the narrow paved road leading to the west. Motorhome campers like the option of road side boondocking with great views; several level pullouts can accommodate most any camper. 4×4 camping is closer to Lake Isabella @ Keyesville or BLM River Camping. Primitive camp spots on numerous dirt roads are located in this Lower Kern River area, but you will need to check with Sequoia National Forest ranger for gate closures, fire permit & fire current restrictions.
From Lake Isabella down to Bako, along Hwy 178, numerous natural hot springs can be found in this lower Kern river canyon. Old Kern Canyon Road has plenty of primitive spots to camp along the road, way above the Kern River. This Southern Sierra Nevada scenic route, a 20 mi winding narrow paved road, is the old highway that leads up to Bodfish CA.
At least a dozen dispersed camp sites can be found along the Old Kern Cyn Rd, some spots with views over canyon, some hidden & shady, many spots are level & large – suitable for RVs. No facilities, no fees, just a flat, dispersed site. Campfire permits are required for fires outside of developed Campgrounds & fire restrictions are often high, so no fires are allowed much of the year. Most of the gates on the Lower Kern are now locked & only accessible by Forest Service personnel, ranchers or local rafting companies with permits.
2 developed Lower Kern Campgrounds are located on the Old Kern Canyon Road, which parallels the 4 lane portion of the highway: Hobo Campground & Sandy Flat Campgrounds, if you really need a picnic table & bathroom. You can reserve camps by clicking the links.
Miracle Hot Springs – next to Hobo Campground. This hot tub park is closed for good. A few portable bathrooms, picnic tables & trash bins, the hiking trails clear; 2 shallow pools partially filled. Maybe enough room to soak your butt, but not fully submerse yourself. Someone really needs to renovate this place! Update 2012 – the signs for Miracle are now completely gone.
This one is by far the most popular now that Miracle is gone. The hike-in only access doesn’t deter people much and many choose to set camp overnight close by. The local authorities are always making the rounds to double check on the area – which is good for security and bad for the 2 AM party animals.
Democrat Hot Springs
private resort now open? Heck, I dunno. (2017, democrathotsprings.com is down. They might be trying to promote a River Festival held in May.)
The hotel and cottages were constructed to accommodate guests that came in stage coaches to dine and relax during the early 1900’s. Five springs on the property flow at 115 degrees into large soaking tubs and a swimming pool. Closed to the public for more than thirty years, the resort is once again ready to be brought to life for groups and private events only.
The hot springs listed below are Private Property, so don’t get caught – and don’t get shot:
Delonegha Hot Springs
Concrete tubs were built by homesteaders, later a hotel and boarding house were constructed. Stage coaches from the San Joaquin Valley took 2 days to get visitors to this area. The hotel closed in 1912, when more accessible areas of Democrat and Hobo were built. Remaining cement tubs run along a rock peninsula overlooking the Kern River; water temperatures average 112 degrees. This private property is fenced.
Scovern Hot Springs
Also known as the Hot Springs House. 1902 mud baths were being offered and the wooden tubs were replaced by galvanized tubs. A swimming pool and bath houses were added when the Scoverns bought the property in 1929. Bath house burned to the ground in 1971 and only a vacant lot remains. Steam can still be seen in the fields across from the springs, where water runs at 140 gallons a minute @ 115 degrees.
Sespe Hot Springs is one of the hottest thermal springs in the California coastal region. The unique springs, leaking from a cliff high above, leaves a red mark down the white rock wall and it is too hot to touch near the source. Scalding is possible in Sespe Gorge!
Several clearings and tent spots are located in the sandy canyon, between the cottonwood grove and the springs source. Stack river rocks and boulders to create your own soaking tub and relax. Do bring your backpack and plan on spending the night, cuz if not it’s an 18 mile RT hike (done as a day hike – it can be very long and rough). Weekdays are best for seclusion and having the whole place to yourself. Weekends are the prime time for SoCal trekkers to arrive.
Grade Valley Road – The access to Sespe Hot Springs trailhead is via Lockwood Valley Road; west of Frazier Park about 12 miles. Take the backroad #7N03 (Grade Valley / Mutau Road) southbound into the forest and traverses 13 miles of rough dirt road to reach the small dirt parking lot. Deep inside this route, you are now totally surrounded by Sespe Wilderness. Both Thorn Meadows Campground and Half Moon Campground are located back here on the main dirt road. A dead end dirt road is the trailhead for Sespe Hot Springs.
Via Johnston Ridge – The access trail is LONG, with a lot of up and downs, changing in elevation, thru pinyon pine forest and oaks, along dry dusty ridges, very exposed. Cottonwood trees line the large canyon at the Hot Springs.
Ventana Wilderness is a 40 mile stretch of protected land located in the Santa Lucia Mountains on the Big Sur coastline in between the Monterey peninsula and the Nacimeinto-Fergusson Road #4004. Fort Hunter Liggett lies to the east side and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Ancient volcano peaks called “cones” line the pine ridges – Ventana Cone, Ventana Double Cone, South Ventana Cone, Black Cone & Cone Peak.
Cone Peak – 5155′ elevation Los Padres National Forest
San Antoni River
Sykes Hot Springs
Tassajara Hot Springs
MIRACLE HOT SPRINGS on Lower Kern River is now closed!
Hidden well by the dense vegetation, this multi-tub location provides a peaceful setting along the Kern River. Located on the Old Kern Canyon Road, (aka Old Kern Road) that parallels the main 4-laner Highway 178. The broken and dismantled tubs are inside a grouping of granite boulders, overlooking the Lower Kern River. NFS Campground is walking distance away. Week days you can have the place to yourself for picnics, river fishing and hiking. Mountain biking and hiking trails at Remington trailhead.
DanaMite’s Tip: This place has no operating hot pools unless you plan to physically dam up a tub with a few found rocks. Rangers do not like this practice. If you wanna camp at Hobo Campground you can walk over & hike around to check it out. Worth a look.
Camping available next door at Hobo Campground. A few primitive spots are located on the Old Kern Canyon Rd. Free car camping, and some sites big enough for level RV camping. See the rangers at the lake for Sequoia National Forest ranger and fire permit and check fire current restrictions.
Remington Hot Springs is only 2 miles down river, but it does require a short hike and it gets very busy on weekends!