Gone are the days of ‘beach blanket bingo’ where film crews glamorized California – the beautiful people, the nice vehicles, the sport of surfing and the glorious beaches. There are very few places left on the California coast that you can actually drive a vehicle on the sand, right next to the ocean. The military bases, oil corporations and the utility companies have the front row seats to the Pacific genocide, and the rest of the population is restricted with extreme limited access.
Baja California has minimal regulations on coastal access with a car. No pavement, no signs, no cell phone signal, and no help for miles – something to consider if you get stuck south of the border in Mexico. Baja has numerous places to explore below Ensenada, but asking locals is always a favored approach. Pay attention to private property signs and always close the cattle gate (if you found it closed).
Southern California, no beaches allow vehicle traffic. San Diego offers a sliver of sand @ Silver Strand SB, which is a developed campground for motorhomes and car campers, located right on the beach south of Coronado, CA. Fiesta Island in Mission Bay, San Diego allows driving on sand and a favorite among active dogs, but not camping is allowed. In Los Angeles you can park a motorhome at a sandy, paved campground for a hefty overnight fee. Dockweiler Beach, right near the Chevron plant and LA sewage treatment facility. Sounds delightful, not.
Ventura & Santa Barbara Coastal Regions have many awesome State Beaches, but none allow vehicles on the sand.
Red, White and Blue Beach – nude beach w/ campground (now closed); north of Santa Cruz, CA
Usal Beach Campground – redwood creeks and forests meets coast and cliffs. Camp fee for overnight use. Long dirt road access. No RVs!
Black Sands Beach (OHV 4×4 trail, now closed to all vehicles) near Shelter Cove, CA
after-the-fun maintenance tip:
Salt water and sand is very corrosive to metal – which will rust your truck or car badly. Now that you’ve had fun on the beach, we remind you to clean the underneath of your vehicle ASAP. Spraying powerful hose in your wheel wells and all underneath the vehicle. You might need to lay on the ground and get wet to do this job properly. Some car wash places might be able to do this service for you, but it will cost ya.
Open Camping in Quatal Canyon Hwy 33 @ Ventucopa, California. OHV trails and red dirt canyons; Hike into Chumash Wilderness. The main Quatal Road #9N09 is graded (annually) and usually passenger car accessible; side routes to camps in the big wash or up any canyons may require high clearance or 4WD vehicle. No services in this canyon at all; Cell service is minmal. Gasoline is somewhere along the hwy (near a pistachio orchard).
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
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.
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.
The mysterious topographic map maker, Landon Crumpton, is gone. Although his Baja Almanac book of the Mexican peninsula is still as popular as ever.
The Total Escape crew has been using this amazing topo map for Baja Mexico since our the very first excursions in 1990. Click below to read more about the famous, hard-to-find Baja Almanac publication.
jeepers, gear-heads, wheelers, ‘froaders, dirt bikers, anything with a motor
Here at Total Escape we love driving on dirt back roads so much, DanaMite created a whole freaking web site about it! Whether you like to “wheel” your Jeep, truck, SUV, ATV, UTV, or an all-wheel- drive sportwagon – we have the California terrain covered. Detailing the dirt – from basic gravel roads and forest routes to High Sierra rock climbing routes; Trailheads, campsites, maps and much more. Mountains to deserts and everything in between.
The list below is of awesome California locations that do have off-road trails surrounding them. Some destinations listed are heavy use off-road – with OHV parks or camping nearby, while others are simply scenic dirt backroads or forest roads for easy driving. Topographic maps can be found for most areas, and should have all roads displayed, dirt and paved routes, as well as campgrounds, hiking trails and trailheads.
Mason Valley Truck Trail refers to a network of dirt roads on the west side of San Diego County Road S2, on the steep mountain slopes overlooking the desert badlands of Anza Borrego State Park. These primitive back roads lead up to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on the edge of Laguna Recreation Area.
Oriflamme Canyon, Chariot Canyon & Rodriguez Trail are all in the area. Chaparral mountain trails lead off in many directions with dead end canyons and side routes. This high desert region consists of private property, ranches with gates, various trails and desert dirt roads – between 2400′ and 4000′ elevation.
A good portion of the lands on the west side of paved S2 are not inside the State Park boundary, but Oriflamme is the exception. The Anza Borrego Desert State Park borders includes this particular back road canyon, almost up to the Cleveland National Forest. Awesome locals little secret!
Oriflamme Mountain @ 4611′ elevation
Chariot Mountain @ 4644′ elevation
The main access to Mason Valley Truck Trail is located near the bottom of Box Canyon (on Co. Rd. S2). The sign at the turn off reads Oriflamme Canyon. The first sandy mile or so gets kinda confusing, as the ranch road, dirt trails and natural desert wash merge with the seasons and rains. You might encounter locked gates if you take the wrong turn. In the wash look for signage for Oriflamme.
Approximately 2 miles from S2 the dirt road splits. To the left is Mason Valley Truck Trail, which continues up Oriflamme Canyon and into wooded Chariot Canyon, eventually connecting with Hwy 78 (at Banner Grade). And the other choice on the right is a rugged 4×4 route called Rodriguez Truck Trail which is 7 miles long and meets back up with the main Oriflamme road about a mile from the highway. These back roads encircle the biggest peak around called Chariot Mountain.
Mountain bikers, hikers, horses and vehicles all use these routes, so be prepared to see others out exploring and please, always yield to equestrian traffic.
Several open, free camp spots lower in the canyon w/ large cottonwood trees. More hidden camps to be found higher up the mountain. A decent topo map, a campfire permit and a metal fire bucket is highly advised.
PCT: Pacific Crest Trail traverses the ridge line near 4000-6000′ and the desert valley below is nearing 2000′ elevation. The ambitious plan for the California Riding and Hiking Trail is still under construction and routed nearby as well.
Butterfield RV Ranch and the historic adobe Vallecito Stage Stop, are the closest thing to civilization you will find around these parts Don’t count on gasoline or cell phone coverage anywhere near here.
small campgrounds and secluded camps, accessible by dirt bikes or 4-wheel drive vehicles
4×4 camping in California
Okay, you got your 4 wheel drive vehicle dirty, it is now several years old & maybe you even have a scratch or two. Now is the time to finally start using that beast for real off road adventures. The real edge-of-wilderness trips you dream about when your sitting in your cubical wondering what life is really about. Fishing, camping, off roading and enjoying nature, of course!
4×4 camping in California is plentiful. California has trails for OHV use – which means ‘off highway vehicle’, that can accommodate your machine. These remote camps are always primitive camp sites, with picnic tables, fire rings & maybe a pit toilet (if you are lucky). You can find total seclusion on these back roads & trails, well away from the developed campgrounds & RV parks.
Anza Borrego Desert 4×4 Trails – pretty much everywhere in Borrego desert is off road heaven. Minimal pavement and maximum desert means dirt road galore, white sandy washes, slot canyons, badlands, wind caves, wildflowers, petroglyphs, boulder outcroppings, old railroad trestles and so much more. The San Diego desert elevations range from near sea level to 4000′ on the eastern slopes of Laguna Mountain.
San Bernardino National Forest – has a few trail camps for 4×4 enthusiasts. John Bull Trail (near Holcomb Valley) has one real awesome spot with great views over the desert night lights. Holcomb Creek Trail also has a few spots near the creek. Overall this area is somewhat crowded for wheelin’ (especially on the weekends), as the population is so dense nearby.
Los Padres National Forest – the most 4×4 camping readily accessible to Southern California. Tis is the best kept secret for Angelinos wanting an escape. The southern portion of the forests has Tecuya Ridge #9N22, with several camps only minutes from I-5. Out west, Cerro Noroeste Road has the Blue Ridge & Quatal Canyon #9N09. Hwy 166 leads to Miranda Pines towering above the fields of Santa Maria & so much more. 2 OHV parks in the area: Hungry Valley & Ballinger both serve the OHV crowds. The northern section of Los Padres (near Big Sur) has plenty of dirt roads & primitive camps, but none are truly 4×4 routes, as most can be accessed easily with a passenger car.
Sequoia National Forest– Southern Sierra Nevada area has 4×4 camping right along the Kern River, near Keyesville, at the junction where Hwy 178 meets Hwy 155. Also, further up the Kern, Forest Rd#22S82 leads to primitive Camp 4, where there are several spots near granite pools, that can only be accessed by 4 wheel drive.
Sierra National Forest– central Sierra forest has plenty of 4×4 routes that lead to granite rock gardens & mighty fine, secluded, forested camp sites. Gorgeous Red Lake & Coyote Lake are popular spots that require some technical skills & much patience to access. Both are frequented by fishermen & horses. Bald Mountain trailhead has awesome creekside camps on Rock Creek. Up near Wishon Reservoir is the dead end trail of Spanish Lake. Onion Springs Meadow is awesome back behind Edison Lake. Near the granite wonderland Courtright Reservoir is the infamous Dusy Trail signed #28E34 (aka #7S32, the Dusy Ershim), second only to the Rubicon Trail for high Sierra granite.
Stanislaus National Forest– camping in the Crandall & Niagara Creek OHV section of the forest, right off Hwy 108. Elevations range from 5000′-7000′. Higher up on the other side, Levitt Lake (access road near Levitt Falls) on the east end of the mountain range, east of the Sonora Pass sign.
El Dorado National Forest – has the area called Rock Creek for off roading in the Gold Country. Plus the ever popular Rubicon Trail starts hear (near Georgetown) & leads 20 miles across the High Sierra Nevada granite slabs to Lake Tahoe.
Lakes Basin Recreation Area – Northern Gold County, just above the Yuba River. Gold Lake has many campable lakes. The area sees a lot of snowmobile traffic during winter snows, but warmer months are the time for fishing and camping. Most of the big lakes have small developed campgrounds, some are minimal, or primitive style camp sites on dirt roads without facilities. Maybe a picnic table at most.
Smith Lake is a place that fishermen and 4×4 love. It is small, secluded and kinda hard to find. You’ll need a good topo map of the region. Situated on the border of Tahoe and Plumas National Forest off the Gold Lake Hwy (aka Road #24). The PCT cuts thru this Lakes Basin area w/ Sierra Buttes There are dirt roads and off road trails leading deep into the backcountry from the Packer Lake and Gold Lake areas.
Plumas National Forest – out near Quincy, somewhere off the long and winding La Port Road, a few decent 4WD trails thru forest. Access ridge lines or the big river. Great fishing, amazing scenery & very secluded.
(north of La Porte Road)
– Feather River access
@ Cleghorn Bar Campground, 4 campsites (Road #23N24)
@ Stag Point Campground, 5 campsites (Road #22N80Y)
@ Hartman Bar NRT to Dan Beebe Camp (Road 94 to #22N42Y)
(south of La Porte Road)
– Poker Flat Camp near Sawmill Ridge & Table Rock (Road 800)
This coastal range is dirt road heaven, graded dirt roads, ridge routes, hiking trails, equestrian trails, big lakes, small lakes, creeks, meadows, forests, wilderness and 4×4 routes. Snow can be the most fun and challenging for the 4WD crews. Mud, snow, some road closures seasonally. South of Snow Mountain Wilderness, plenty off road trails leading to peaks and ridge lines. Numerous small campgrounds to choose from, trailheads everywhere, acres and acres of wild mountainous areas, and a lake resort nearby. Lake Pillsbury is kinda the center of all the 4×4 action in Mendo.
Off road destination, palm canyon in Baja California Norte
East of San Diego
SW of El Centro / Mexicali
Imagine a palm oasis canyon in a remote area of the Baja desert; Cool springs that feed the lush landscape with huge boulders & cliff diving waterfalls. With each campsite featuring it’s very own custom hot springs tub. This place was a paradise 20 years ago, but is now over-developed w/ large groups, parties and camping families. If you can handle the 30+ miles of unimproved dirt roads, this spot is worth a visit mid-week. Winter months are prime time to visit the desert. Temperatures are moderate, days are pleasant & midweek has minimal tourists. Avoid holiday weekends as crowds a can get rowdy and disrupt the peaceful setting. Summer is triple digit heat for months. This canyon is hard to reach and inside a third world country, but well worth the distant journey.
Plenty of great hiking and petroglyph canyons, cool pools and waterfalls, granite boulders, soothing warm waters & gorgeous desert scenery. Summers are usually roasting out here, so plan your vacation accordingly. Palalpas (built for shade) add to the charm & unique look. Each campsite is unique & has a different lay out. Reservations are recommended.
A family run set of campgrounds within a steep palm canyon. Hot Springs are piped to individual pools at each campsite for a maximum of privacy. A cold creek runs through the canyon as well, feeding the palm grove below & waterfalls way up canyon. A desert oasis set upon the slopes of the Sierra Juarez Mountains in Baja.
getting there is a journey –
Recommended high clearance vehicle, sport utility vehicle, or truck. The last 35 miles of the trip is through rough & rugged sandy roads.