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).
If you are imagining a forested alpine lake near Palomar Mountain, this is not it. Henshaw is a countryside area w/ meadow setting near ranches with open skies and open terrain. Can be windy at times! Can be hot in late summer.
Perfect remote spot for stargazing. Henshaw is the nearest body of water to Mount Palomar & is located on Hwy. 76, but the terrain is quite the contrast to the pine topped mountain nearby.
TREES: Lake Henshaw has very few trees; mostly large open spaces & fields surrounding it. Cattle grazing & rolling hills w/ mountain backdrop. Stargazing and fishing cabins is more fitting of a description. This bare bones basic, little cabin resort offers a true get away from civilization for maximum relaxation close to SoCal cities.
Lake Henshaw specs: elevation: 2740′ surface area: 1137 acres
Indian Flats Campground is located on a dirt road off Hwy 79, near Warner Springs CA. Boulder ridges & manzanita surround this oak filled secluded canyon. Small seasonal creek & waterfall is a short walk from campsite.
Maps Mountains / Desert Topo / San Diego Area Maps
San Diego Coastal Campgrounds
Mission Bay & North County
SD Beach RV Parks & Camping
San Diego’s mild climate means camping is available all year round. Winter storms can get windy and rainy, but most campgrounds are still open. From north county where the coastal cliffs overlook the ocean, to downtown bay side marinas w/ RV camping, to camping right on the sand w/ ocean crashing just feet away. Bike paths are common around downtown San Diego, so you can bring your bike or skates.
San Diego has 2 BAYS, both located along Interstate 5: The main bay downtown is called San Diego Bay (one of the deepest on the west coast) and the other a few miles north, is named Mission Bay (a man-made coastal waterway w/ green parks and paved bike trails).
Reservations are required at almost ALL coastal campgrounds, especially around holidays, any 3 day weekends, and all summer long. Tons of tourists flock to Southern California and this is a very popular coastline – with busy little cities and crowded beach towns. Beware: if you are seeking secluded camping – this would not be the place.
San Onofre State Beach Camp Pendleton or Camp Nuclear; I-5 freeway close
in between Oceanside & San Clemente, CA
There are numerous private RV resorts, some quite large, like KOA and GoodSam parks located in and around San Diego county. Most are metro-close and not located on the beach. This list is primarily coastal camping options for the San Diego region.
Coastal hikes are the mildest trails California has to offer, ranging from scenic strolls along the base of beach cliffs to steep redwood forested canyons. From Torrey Pines in San Diego to the multiple redwood parks along the North Coast, there is no shortage of hiking near the coastline. Southern California has more beaches than parks, with tide pool areas being a favorite destination for many. Central Coast has lush, fern canyons with year-round flowing creeks and numerous bluffs and rugged beaches. Bay Area has hiking trails nearly everywhere – along the bay, in the woods or on the coast. NorCal has all the wilderness, parks and remote beaches one could ever hope for. What are you waiting for? Get out there.
Big Sur – Partington Cove – Spend a whole day just hiking in a redwood canyon and cove near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. From rocky shorelines at the historic point, to scenic tree lined waterfalls to redwood forest and tall ocean view hillsides, the Central Coast offers plenty to do & see. Picnic paradise, wade in a small pool, or just sit & watch the waves crashing.
San Diego Deserts, San Ysidro Mountains
Montezuma Grade Montezuma Highway, Hwy S-22
High desert elevations, large boulders, highway w/ primitive campground. No trees, but much vegetation; flat parking, large tent spots, picnic tables, vault toilet. High desert mountain pass, with boulders, canyons and many dirt roads to explore.
• Elevation: 3,350′
• Number of Sites: 10
• Vehicle Accessibility: all
• Campsites Reservation: No
• Camp Fee: No
• Length of Stay: 10 Days
• Season: October – May
• Trailheads: Grapevine Canyon, Pena Springs, Anza Borrego & PCT (Pacific Crest Trail)
hike highcountry borrego
Culp Valley Trail, Grapevine Canyon, Montezuma Valley, Pena Springs, San Ysidro Mountains.
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.
California Highway 78 cuts across Southern California and right thru the middle of the largest State Park in the lower 48. Anza Borrego Desert State Park is a place that must be visited more than once to really take in all the beauty it has to offer. Free camping in Southern California is abundant here, if you are willing to follow the primitive camp fire rules of the park and you are comfortable camping away from developed campgrounds.
North-South:San Diego County Road S2 skirts the western border with Laguna Mountain towering above. It starts at Ocotillo @ Interstate 8 and heads Northwest to Lake Henshaw at Warner Springs.
East-West: a major route S22, connects Ranchita /Montezuma Valley to the Borrego Valley, and continues East to the Salton Sea. The center of the parks is pretty much the town of Borrego Springs, where the State Parks visitors center is located. San Diego County Road S3 leads from Hwy 78 down the the town of Borrego Springs Valley.
free camping: While the camping facilities listed above provide picnic tables and toilets, or more luxury camping… Total Escape thinks the best part of camping in Anza Borrego Desert is the vast amount of free, open camping available on most back roads. Hundreds of dirt roads lead off in all directions, so you can find the peace and solitude that few inside busy campgrounds ever experience.
Many Anza desert routes are sandy washes, dirt roads, some for high clearance vehicles only, or 4WD in several canyons. Often there is no signs telling you need 4×4 to proceed. May only find out when its too late and you’re stuck.
Have a good dirt road map with you and know your vehicles limitations. Passenger cars should be very cautious off road. Cell phone coverage is spotty out here in the most remote wilderness areas.
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.
By far one of the best viewing areas for native California desert flora in the whole state. Autumn rain amounts determine the next year’s Spring bloom. If it rained real good all over SoCal before New Years Eve, chances are better for a favorable showing of color.
Low elevations, washes, badlands, dry lake beds bloom first in February, followed by March for mid altitude canyons and mountains. Highest desert peaks may not bloom until May.
April is usually the best month for the wildflowers; it is also the prime time for Spring Break camping. Open car camping for free – all over this huge California State Park. The tourists typically head over to the town of Borrego Springs, to Borrego Palm Canyon and the visitors center; but the REAL wildflowers are along remote stretches of highway, and on the DIRT BACK ROADS. Many roads are passenger car accessible, for at least the first mile, so don’t think you must have a 4×4 vehicle for just simple exploring.
Back a couple of decades ago, inspiration and research for creating this very web site began in the deserted hills behind San Diego. Escaping the city at every chance, some feel the rat race more than others. Luckily the desert is close and there is plenty of space for everyone. California boulders and badlands, hot springs, pine meadows, great views, oak forests creeks, coastal cliffs and lush canyons near downtown, SD does have some awesome hiking trails – even a few waterfalls too.
Balboa Park Christmas Lights
December Nights in Balboa Park, San Diego
Balboa Park December Nights Southern California’s premier holiday festival.
37 years running; Friday and Saturday night in early December
The event brings families and friends together to spread holiday joy, learn more about the cultural value of Balboa Park and kick-off the “most wonderful time of the year.”
Participating Balboa Park museums open their doors free of charge from 5-9 pm both evenings and more than 350,000 visitors are expected to experience the joy of San Diego’s largest free community festival. Those who attend will participate in a truly multicultural experience, enjoying food, music and entertainment from around the world.
Revelers can watch top-notch musical and dance performances, enjoy delicious and diverse food choices and help spread a heavy dose of holiday cheer. Some of the more well-known traditions include food from around the globe at the International Christmas Festival at the House of Pacific Relations Cottages; the annual Santa Lucia Procession at the Plaza de California; unique gift shopping at the museum stores and with the artisans of Spanish Village; and musical and dance presentations from the San Diego Junior Theatre, San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, Del Cerro Baptist’s Christmas Story Tree, and more.
Ramona Music Fest always has great music, good food and decent beer, with prizes and auctions from community donors. Kid friendly and hosted at the Ramona Outdoor Community. Cheer on emerging local talent, outstanding performers, and have a great time at this one day event – come hungry and bring the kids.
Held at the Ramona Outdoor Community Center, also called the Rodeo/Fair Grounds. The venue is located at the northeast end of downtown Ramona, accessed via Third Street.
One of the largest FREE music street fairs in California. Over 90 live music acts on 7 stages, 4 beer gardens, Giant Carnival rides and 300 craft & food vendors.
Two day Music Festival covers many blocks of Adams Avenue, only a few miles from downtown San Diego. Held in late summer near 35th Street to 32nd Street. Adams Ave Street Fair is Southern California local fun.
San Diego holds a couple of Greek Festivals during the year & this one is located in the North County Coastal area of Cardiff. Greek food, live music, dancing and marketplace. Saints Constantine & Helen Orthodox Church, 3459 Manchester Ave. Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA 92007
East San Diego County Road S2 winds thru the lower passes & washes of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. On the edge of the State Park boundary Vallecito is a small campground & park, but it was a stage coach route in the 1800’s.
California Historic Marker #304
VALLECITO STAGE STOP – A 1934 reconstruction of Vallecito Stage Station (originally built in 1852) on the eastern slopes of the mountains in the high desert. A super important stop on the first official transcontinental route, serving ‘The Jackass Mail‘, the Butterfield Overland Stage Line, and the southern emigrant caravans.
camp sites: 44
first come, first serve
Campfire pits, picnic tables, bathrooms, & historic buildings; 22 sites are tents only. RV 40′ limit; Additional 8 equestrian campsites w/ corrals. No RV hookups, no dump station. No piped water. No gasoline, no store, no amenities. No firewood, no collecting of firewood. No shade trees, just tall desert brush. Arrive adequately prepared for real desert roughin it.
A neighboring and more rural stage coach stop is further down a long wash, to the south east. Getting there usually requires 4×4, since you must ford a muddy desert wash w/ creek & deep holes. There are no signs out in this sandy desert wash, so you best have a good map and a compass. The Old Carrizo Stage Station site is accessible by 4 different dirt roads (desert washes) off the paved highway. None of these are well signed at the highway: Vallecito Creek, Willow Creek near Mountain Palm Springs, Carrizo Creek near Bow Willow, and Canyon sin Nombre.
Agua Caliente, Bow Willow Campground, Canebrake, Sweeney Pass, the badlands overlook, mud caves and slot canyons are all located south of Vallecito. California SR 78 and Blair Valley are north of Vallecito.
Vallecito is located at the apex of the gap in the Carrizo Badlands created by Carrizo Creek and its wash in its lower reach, to which Vallecito Creek is a tributary. Once a seasonal village of the native Kumeyaay people, on a trail across the desert from the Colorado River, this oasis, became a crucial stopping place for Spanish and then Mexican travelers to recover from the desert crossing between Sonora and New Mexico to California. The non native settlement of the site began in 1850, as a camp with a one room sod warehouse as the U.S. Army Depot Vallecito for the supply of Fort Yuma. It was later increased in size and became a store, a stage station, and a ranch house. read more on wiki
Another Vallecito, California?
Yep! Small community of about 400 folks in the Sierra foothills. Gold Country region, up off the Historic 49 and it used to be called Murphy’s Old Diggings.
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