I began car camping in the Borrego desert while in college as an easy, inexpensive “weekend away from the city”. Cheap, literally dirt cheap outdoor vacations. Free camping, if you really know the good areas.
Whether you dig hiking or biking on dirt, sleeping in the dirt (tent camping) or wheelin in the dirt, we have the TOTAL DIRT on California. Back Roads, Hot Springs and tons of outdoor destinations inside the golden state. Nearly 3 decades online, we’ve been here from the start.
Dirt roads, dirt campsites, dirt trails. Desert dirt, mountain dirt, coastal cliffs to country canyons w/ huge reservoirs. All California dirt, terrain, forests and water too.
California Fire Lookouts for Rent
US Forest Service Cabins
Rent a secluded cabin with an amazing view, a historic tower for wildfire spotting, or a USFS guard station – hidden deep inside USDA California National Forests. Several of these NFS lookouts have been closed recently, so the ones listed below have links to status and reservation information.
Dirt road access is common to reach these remote locations. Some require stair climbing, or steep access hikes. Winter months are usually snowy, inaccessible and sometimes dangerous for these high country locations. Access roads suffer from closures due to rock slides or landslides. Check with the locals ranger station for current conditions.
A few of these rentals are open all year long – in the southern part of the golden state.
on the Lassen National Forest map this huge meadow area along Highway 36 is marked as “Childs Meadows”
Childs Meadow sits at 5000 feet in elevation, on the edge of the Mill Creek drainage, just south of Lassen National Park. The meadow spans from Mill Creek, eastward along State Route 36 for many miles. Gurnsey Creek flows down Wild Cattle Mountain, near the resort, crosses the pavement, and heads east to meet up with the Deer Creek drainage above Chico, California
This sacred meadow was the summer camp and ceremonial ground for native tribes that existed long before the white men showed up. The meadow basin was originally owned by J.C. Tyler who used it for summer grazing land. He established a resort about 1864 and by 1896 it was a regular stage stop for travelers.
In 1900, Tyler sold the land to Abner Nanny who used it for summer grazing. Frank Childs purchased it in 1909 and also grazed livestock there seasonally. By the late 1930s a service station and cafe had been established. Then came cabins that were the precursor of the privately owned Childs Meadow Resort, which burned down some time later. These days Highlands Ranch Resort is the newest place to call this location home.
Lassen: Childs Meadow (before the fire)
July 2011 vs. July 2021
What a difference a decade makes. Drought in California makes a green meadow brown!
RENOVATED (2017) across the street Village Inn at Highlands Ranch
MOUNT LASSEN MEADOWS
Lassen Peak @ 10,457 feet has the highest known winter snowfall amounts in California. There is an average annual snowfall of 660 inches, and in some years, more than 1,000 inches of snow falls at its base elevation of 8,250 feet.
and a month later (after I start this post)…
AUG 2021 the DIXIE FIRE
As for the spelling on the name: Childs Meadows is commonly seen on USFS maps, and found inside a book called Tehama County Place Names.
Most locals know it as Childs Meadow, but it also seen spelled with an apostrophe s – Child’s Meadow
Interstate 8 EAST from SD / exit Ocotillo. SD county road # S2, the south end near the State Park boundary. Gorgeous every season but summer. Great winter camping close to SoCal.
This dirt road is located in a desert wash area, which starts west – off the paved road S2. The signed white desert wash is a suitable drive for passenger cars (most years). But you best have 4×4 if the rain gets going good. Low riders should watch for the ridge lines – as they are naturally rockier places and could take out an oil pan of a mini SUV (at a high rate of speed).
The giant boulders garden at the far end of this route have nice views of the Imperial desert floor. Better from the top of the boulders too; numerous primitive camp sites are tucked into the coves, surrounding the big boulders.
No toilets; no shade; no water; minimal vegetation. At night the stars are heavenly, but you can see city lights from Calexico and Mexicali.
From this area you can hike or mountain bike up to the “old goat trestle” and numerous historic train tunnels @ Carrizo Gorge Goat Trestle (not to be confused w/ the wildflower destination called Carizo Plains in Kern Co). BRING A HARD COPY topographic MAP of this area, if you wish to explore past camp. Moderate hike, an all day adventure. Bring lunch and water!
SAN DIEGO Backcountry Map
this waterproof map has the entire State Park covered with all back roads, trailheads, campgrounds and railroad tracks
When you decide to stop the car, look around for the best spot. Park off the road way and preferably in a turn out or camp spot. Turn off the engine, get out of the automobile, stretch your legs, breathe, look, close your eyes – tight and breathe deeply, then open and look around you again. This particular place is special, you can just feel it. Walking around the boulder area, be cautious of snakes.
On the boulders – closely examine them, climb on them, get to the top; you will find (Native American) Indian grinding holes called mortars or morteros.
great side trip option: Across the paved road (SD County Road S2) on the opposite side of the valley is a nice hike to Sand Dollar Hill. (I’m sure this isn’t the real name). Dirt road leads up to a dirt parking area for hikers. Busy lil place sometimes. These desert dirt hills have wind caves and chunks of sand dollars scattered all over them. The real ocean floor way out here, east in the Anza SD desert… how cool is that?
great side trip option:Canon Sin Nombre is just up the road a piece, N on S2, on the EAST side of the road. Amazing viewpoint turn out, right on the highway, overlooking the impressive topography and badlands. If you have a high clearance SUV or any truck you can drive down into the sandy tight, rocky wash. It meets back up with another main wash way back there.
Tons to explore back here. Off roader should think Tread Lightly on this turf and primitive car campers should use a Leave No Trace approach. White sand, deep sand, caves, smoke trees, and the best slot canyon climbing & hiking this side of the Anza Borrego State Park.
step 1. kill your television step 2. get outside, everyday step 3. sleep overnight, under the stars
For those who may be still trapped in TV-Land, welcome to Total Escape, a dedicated web site all about the “real world” of wilderness and non-fiction, California style.
Before I started my web business people would suggest to me that I need to write a book. So I naturally chose the world wide web. Now decades later, they are still asking the same question. “Why don’t you write a book on this stuff?”
I say “I did, it’s online. On the internet already. Go look.”
Puzzled, they would turn away to gaze at their device.
Total Escape was created in the web 1.0 days (1996), so I could easily keep track of my many travels, the awesome destinations, my recommendations, my travel logs, zillons of photographs, camping trips, the back roads, signs, maps, GPS, all of it. I worked my day job doing 3D & then moonlighted starting this small web biz. My biggest draw to the internet format at first was being able to update outdoor info instantly. Secondly, it was the ability to work from anywhere with a phone line. (56k anyone?)
No toxic inks, no newspaper. No glossy mag. No waste. Just free digital energy about outdoor destinations, transferred across the cyber waves, just for you the avid Escaper.
Then came the buy-out offers and seasonal magazine ideas from sources in San Diego. By late 2003, none had solidified. Several print magazines did however mention totalescape.com in a few articles, which resulted in some nice traffic spikes. Eternally grateful for the early on-lookers and participants!
Quite personally, I had already had my share of smelly inks, papers & paints in art college. Working in a computer career field, I was fully aware of the web in the early 1990’s. I was ready for the computer age & the internet. Eager in fact! Ready to make that leap from graphics & print concepts over to web windows was all I thought about for years.
I did not want to print anything; waste anything. I wanted my biz to be state of the art, futuristic – so here I am, 26 years later. WOW!
Thousands of photos, hundreds of destinations, all local to California. All by itself, Total Escape is a Parks and Recreation Magazine online – and always updating.
Aspen Groves are easy to recognize with their thick stands. White trunks with dark knots, slender, with oval shaped leaves. Growing in a network of roots, which are found lining creeks, alpine lakes, or spilling out from higher elevations, along scenic canyons.
The unique round leaves which can turn spectacular colors in the fall season. The fluttering and flapping of the oval-shaped, thick, green leaf is a sure sign of summer. When breezes get cooler, Autumn is only a few weeks away and as quick as the cold comes in, what a short and special show they put on.
California Fall Colors
Aspen trees can be found at higher mountain elevations in California, usually above 4000′ – all the way up to about 10,000′ or higher, depending on the mountain range and local water flows. Groves have an extensive root systems underground, so they often withstand wildfires and can come back after the rest of the forest is gone.
Beavers build dams in creeks around aspen trees, fishermen and campers love to camp next to aspens, and lovers carve their initials into their white bark. These trees do indeed take a beating, from all angles, winter weather included… so stop from cutting them!
summer and autumn
These deciduous trees are naked half the year, typically from November to April, as winter buries them in snow and ice. Time is of the essence, limited to Summer and Autumn – to enjoy their shade and the beauty of the groves. Scenic meadows and fishing creeks are just an added bonus for searching out the aspen.
Aspens can be found in hidden canyons, primarily along the Eastern Sierra US Hwy 395 and surrounding mountain lakes. Some Sierra Passes have decent displays of color as well – like Carson Pass Hwy 88 and Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Hwy 120.
Below is a list of Total Escape’s favorite aspen areas of California
California is currently the #1 travel destination in the country. Travel and tourism totals $80 billion annually in California, support jobs for a million Californians and generate $5.3 billion in state and local tax revenues.
Total Escape is the independent travel site for the golden state. We also list some other resources below.
locals prefer…. Total Escape, California, Off the Beaten Path
(before the dot com crash, before digital cameras, before GPS, before social media & way ahead of smartphones)
Sole creative force of Total Escape, Dana Williams left her 3D animation career to start living and working her dream job, online and off. Utilizing artistic talents, computer skills, a vast knowledge of the California landscape and a simple love of nature, to make it all come together for a killer web site called Total Escape. Over 25 years online means fresh content & updates every month; reworking web code every few years to keep up with various browsers, apps, maps, and wildfires.
“travel agent to the back woods”
Living close to the earth with organic gardening and rural living, DanaMite strives to offer California residents, new-comers and visitors unique, local destinations, concentrating on the outdoors – well away from overcrowded, busy, urban cities and tourist traps. Total Escape can show you how to discover the secret, hidden spots on your public lands that the gov web sites will not even dare to mention.
the independent source for California travel
NO CORPORATE sponsorship No venture capital No government subsidies No annoying pop-up ads
No scripts chugging bandwidth No membership needed
Decades without a television set lends plenty of time for studying terrain, topographic maps, GPS coordinates and thousands of photographs to compile more than 8000 pages on just California travel. Far from the daily grind of everyday life, DanaMite continues in educating the public about local travel, camping, family farms, organic cafes, outdoor recreation, respecting the land, responsible use of our resources & how to get more enjoyment out of weekend travels.
Bear Fire, North Complex Fire @ Berry Creek, CA
No this is not Sequoia National Park, nor Giant Sequoia National Monument, although certain historic groves did burn this past summer – inside Mountain Home SF.
This Sequoia here, is the best tree in our front yard.
Some say that older Sequoia trees can withstand fire, but not if the fire burns the crown (tippy top). Since our tree is young (60+ years old), compared to most Sequoia trees, we’re not too sure if ours will survive. But we have been watering it for months and hoping for a good winter rain w/ snow.
UPDATE DEC 2021
Puff of green started appearing late Spring. However minimal, I still got excited enough to photograph it.
We watered this Sequoia all summer (2021) long and now we have a good rain spell in Autumn heading into Winter, so I am hoping our Sequoia – plus the neighbors 2 Sequoias, can make a serious come back.
Will keep posting our growth progress, as soon as I see more green – mid 2022.
No one is sure when these Sequoia trees in the Berry Creek region were established, since these pre-date our knowledge and the county records.
June & Curly may have planted these back in 1950; or maybe Mr. Coe or Sorensen around 1960. Could it have been the Maidu tribe (native Americans) who transplanted seeds from south to north? Doubtful.
Why are most California Granges now called Guild Halls?
Simply, it’s FOOD politics.
Corporate food power versus local food production: organic, GMOs, bees, pesticide drift and a host of other issues. In 2011, all hell broke loose with the historic Grange Halls – newly elected officials, and the national goals versus the local community interests.
The following year California was voting to label GMO foods, a proposition which educated millions of eaters and chemical corporations spent gazillions opposing the bill, but it was only narrowly defeated. The National Grange was standing on the opposite side from the California State Grange on this important food issue. This may be when the chasm began to widen.
Hippies, yuppies, left coast thinkers. Fruits, flakes and nuts! Tree huggers, eco-terrorist. Damn liberals. Food and California.
Remember that half of California voters knew about genetically engineered ingredients a decade ago. Many of them made diet decisions based on new information readily available. Maybe they sometimes exercise outdoors, and dig this web site. Others choose to ignore the food topic and ingredients listed. Call it denial. Call it an obesity epidemic.
Although the labeling law did not pass, many companies begin putting NON-GMO labels on the front of the food packages anyway. Health food manufacturers, now major brands, especially food produced inside California.
The local food movements in cities and in rural communities started growing, prior to the year 2000; Grange membership began increasing (for the first time since the 1950s) as young farmers and organic farmers took a new interests in “creating community” and finding a cleaner, greener way to the future of food.
Now we have farmers markets and CSA’s (community supported agriculture programs) all over the nation. Fresh food deliveries on a weekly basis. Awareness has only been accelerating on the food topic – with organic food sales rising steadily over the past few decades.
The California State Grange backed 2012’s Proposition 37, which mandated labeling of genetically modified foods….
The National Grange suspended the California State Grange’s charter in September 2012, and revoked it in May 2013
We are anti-pesticide, anti-fracking but we are for food sovereignty. The National Grange is dynamically opposed to all of those. They are pro-GMO, pro-pesticides, pro-big farming as opposed to small and local farms. Politically there is a dynamic difference.
Food Movies: Food Documentaries, GMO Movie, Farm Documentary Films
Thousands of places – all local, in California; Millions of possibilities for your road trips.
25 years worth of photographs: the ever-growing Total Escape image bank is on flickr
Recent feeble attempts at trying to manage over 50,000 photos from 2+ decades worth of California travels has lead me to flickr.com.
Residing in several locations – first, Southern California, then the Kern County mountains, then over to the Central Coast, San Luis Obispo county and now living in Northern California – traveling all over California to explore. Utah, Baja, Sierra Nevada, Shasta, the Lost Coast, Lakes, Deserts, mountains – all of it. All California back roads & small towns.
Why should a small biz like me need to pay for monthly bandwidth hosting photos, when most of you just wanna look at beautiful vacation photos? (bored at work presumably).
Way back sometime, I decided flickr was an easy enough venue for me to host my best work for you to see, plus tell stories, rave reviews, add recommendations. From mud-whomping to hot springing, petroglyphs, fishing creeks, hiking, camping – DanaMite has a lot of adventures, ready to share & inspire you to get outside this weekend.
While the majority of this image library is not focused on Southern California, it can lead SoCal residents to where they really wanna go – REAL WILDERNESS. California is a big, tall state with forests, mountains and lakes.
Sequoia Groves: Forest Rd# 21S94
Sequoia National Forest
SEPT 2021: Closed due to the Windy Fire
This impressive backcountry route is inside the newly formed Giant Sequoia National Monument. From the Western Divide Highway this graded route leads from an area North of the Trail of 100 Giants to the back edge of the Tule Indian Reservation. The 20 mile route turns north towards Coy Flat Campground (20 spots @ 5000′) & then meets up with Camp Nelson, California.
The Summit National Recreation Trail cuts right thru this region & there are many dirt roads meandering off of the main route# 21S94.
There are a few hidden Sequoia groves back here, great for day trips & picnic spots:
Peyrone Grove (via road# 22S91)
South Peyrone Grove (via road# 22S03 & trail #31E41)
Twenty five years ago, when I began this outdoor web site for California, did I ever imagine ‘times like these’ – where we would be held up inside our homes during summer, as annual wildfires destroyed our vast and beautiful forests. Frightened to breathe the toxic, smokey air outside. Saddened by news of yet another town or historic structure burning to the ground. Checking the destruction daily online, in hopes of more containment, fresh photos or any good report.
Now I fear Total Escape may become photographic documentation of how beautiful California once was.
Most California National Forest are currently closed!
Lassen Volcanic National Park is CLOSED due to damages from the Dixie Fire.
In case you missed it: 2020 was the worst year for wildland fires in California history, but 2021 is shaping up to be just as bad. Many forests, roads, trails, campgrounds and parks listed below have been closed to the public for the 2021 season, and possibly longer.
BIG SUR COAST Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP
SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS Big Basin Redwoods SP
Butano Redwoods SP
Boulder Creek, CA
Expect that campfire rules will be tighter in the future, overall. Campfires will likely be restricted to ‘only inside developed campgrounds’. Or only allowed during the wet season on the backroads or in the backcountry.
*Unfortunately, this is not a complete list of all the closures inside California parks and forests. I am adding more to this list, as more places burn. This page is a work in progress for autumn 2021
The Western Divide Highway, at 6000 feet elevation, connects the Kern River Valley w/ granite peaks, dome rock, aspen groves & the Giant Sequoia trees! This is one of the southernmost Sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The easy hike is more of a nature trail, wheel chair accessible & approximately 1 mile long. Large Sequoia trees, picnic grounds, near campground.
SEPT 2021: Closed due to the Windy Fire
On busy weekends and holidays the rangers charge a “day use” parking fee, for those wishing to park in the paved parking lots. Avoid this fee by finding additional parking along the highway. Only a few good free parking spots along this busy 3 mile stretch of highway, and don’t forget to park all the way off the pavement.
SOUTHERN SIERRA: Great destination for camping families & sightseers traveling through the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains.
Western Divide Campgrounds
The USDA National Forest Campground across the road from the Trail of One Hundred Giants is called Redwood Meadow Campground. There is also a separate parking lot for the picnic grounds w/ a similar name.
Giant Sequoia National Monument has numerous dirt back roads for free, primitive, car camping. You’ll need a good topo map to find the best ones. Some roads may be muddy, overgrown or extremely rocky, depending on recent weather. Know you vehicles limitations. There is no tow truck service available way back here in the boonies.
There once was a time when we connected more with nature. Before we closed ourselves off, behind the doors and windows, behind the computer screens, before the internet became part of daily life.
Overweight and obesity is now epidemic in America (as if you didn’t notice). Fast food feasting and soda pop, GMO-gut disorders – and yet we’re still frustrated or disappointed with life; Addicted to television, processed food, copious amounts of sugar, daily coffee, smoking, prescription drugs, and what else.
Wi-fi streaming, video games, always indoors, online, enjoying air conditioned cubes. Inactive physically, emotionally vacant, bored with our choices and always on social media.
Stop and think. Look what has happened to us.
Is this the life you envisioned?
Cooking over a camp fire and real conversation are just a few examples of what we have lost in our modern world of technology, fantasy and face-time. Fresh air, wild flowers, alpine lakes, star filled skies and total silence – all still exist in certain areas, but you must know where to look. Birds and bees, wildlife is disappearing at extinction levels. Pollution, powerful corporations and politics.
Stop and look. See what has happened to earth.
Is this the world you envisioned?
Gone! Away, split, out of town. Off work, out of school, on vacation. Outdoors, always. Far, far away. Unplugged, out of range, vacant lands, big trees, open skies, clear views. California is the land of dreams. Opportunity, fantasy, education, agriculture, terrific terrain and epic scenery. Campfires, waterfalls and mountain meadows are waiting for you.
Taking time off of work – or your typical daily routine – is often rewarding physically as well as mentally. Imagine a week away in a gorgeous location, with minimal to do. Really relax, zone out, chill. Gaze at the water, nap in a hammock, find wildflowers, deer bones, or bear fur on a tree. Cook over the campfire, stargaze every night.
Running to a general store for ice will be your biggest task of the week.
Wilderness boundary, abundant dirt roads and freedom; cell phone calls dropped. Beyond the city limits. Well past the county line.
Roads do lead out of the matrix, if you desire to follow them. Concentrate on a new reality – and disconnect long enough to commune with nature. Find the free time to really relax and re-evaluate life. Explore other options, consider real life in the bigger picture. Hike, bike, walk, camp, birdwatch. Be outdoors, often!
Cheap Road Trips
Total Escape is your California planner. We’ve been doing this “region” for more than 30 years, always focusing on the back roads. Discover hidden secrets, meadows and unknown waterfalls. Find free campsites, canyons, rivers, creeks and new places to explore.
Sierra Madre Ridge is forest road #32S13, which parallels Hwy 166 (Cuyama River) for over 50 miles on the Sierra Madre Ridge at approx. 5000 feet elevation.
NOTE: A good stretch of this dirt road is closed to vehicle traffic. Although it connects to Santa Barbara Canyon near Ventucopa, you cannot drive it. Only hike or mountain bike!
NFS Gate locked at the HOG PEN trailhead, and from there you can bike or walk all the way the other end at Santa Barbara Canyon near Cuayama Fire Lookout @ Dick Smith Wilderness
Small campgrounds in the region:
off Highway 166 Miranda Pine Campground (on 32S13 @ 11N03) Bates Canyon Campground (via Cottonwood Canyon Rd) also known as White Oaks Campground Aliso Canyon Campground (via Aliso Canyon Road) not accessible by vehicle, from dirt road 32S13; only by trail
in the backcountry Painted Rock Camp (hike-in) Sycamore Camp (hike-in)