Road conditions on dirt roads change with the weather and the seasons. This route can be rocky and uneven in spots. One lane road, on a big hill w/ minimal pullouts. Snow is possible, during winter & springtime. This route often closed during winter months – or for rock slides. Trailers and RVs are not recommended on this dirt road, although small motorhome campers can try.
Elevation approx 6000′ @ HWY
w / route continuing up to Toro Peak @ 8740′
NFS local camp sites:
Santa Rosa Campground
Santa Rosa Springs Campground
Bare bones, primitive camp sites. Tables, fire rings. Must have a campfire permit for this region. Vault toilets? None.
Did I mention the wind yet? Tall trees do block a majority of the wind, but some areas get whipping – so choose your tent site wisely. And stake it down well, before that quick day hike. Since this is a mountain ridge line, expect thunderstorms, wind and possibly light snow.
The big, famous Palm Canyon in Palm Springs starts below. The impressive desert canyon trails lead up to highway 74. Continue on foot uphill, southbound, cross the pavement, and end up in this Toro Peak region. Small campgrounds, few people, great views over the desert. Pick a smog free weekend (with wind) for best Coachella Valley views.
Gourmet Food Court, Champagne Bars, Margarita Island, Winery Row. Celebrated local restaurants offer a wide variety of food; eclectic lineup of Southern California musicians and live music performances.
Bluegrass Festival. Hot air balloons, vendor booths, & lost of music & food. Two day lineup of traditional and progressive Bluegrass bands brings together music lovers from all walks of life. 40+ years running.
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.
Los Coyotes Campground is a tribal camp, located on Hot Spring Mountain in North San Diego County. High desert chaparral, oak groves and boulders.
Maps Mountains / Desert Topo / San Diego Area Maps
Heart Bar to Big Bear Lake, via the dirt road
San Bernardino National Forest
Big Bear Back Roads
Highway 38, East of Heart Bar @ Road #1N02
alt big bear
This 8 mile long forested, dirt road begins right off Hwy 38, just east of Heart Bar Campground and is an easy turn to miss. One tiny, brown sign is all that is found (on the guard rail). Driving too fast, you are bound to miss it.
The unimproved route heads north through the National Forest, up and over and around SugarLoaf Mountain (elev 9952′), then down to the Big Bear Lake region.
Several primitive sites – yellow post camp sites – can be found way back in here, but you might NOT be able to have a campfire (depending on fire restrictions). Check w/ local rangers before you head out.
Forest roads are often closed (gated) during the winter, when snow and rain make a muddy mess of the terrain. Rock slides are also common in wetter months. Call the local rangers to inquire on road conditions or if this route is open.
The whole Big Bear Mountain area is a SoCal favorite forest destination, for weekenders and travelers alike. Mountain biking, hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, camping and 4-wheeling.
Plus the recreational lake is full of more water recreation w/ tourist shops and restaurants. Stay away from the crowds and take the back roads for adventure and recreation. Spend less money, stay outta town and camp for free.
On the eastern mountain slopes of Big Bear Lake, Holcomb Creek creates a forested sage valley – called Holcomb Valley, located only a few miles away from the big lake. A graded dirt road leads out to this pine forest & a prime campground area. Perfect location for picnics and sightseeing.
Although the developed campground is open all year long, please take into consideration that SNOW and mud is the norm for winter months.
Nice shady sites to beat the summer heat. Camp spots spaced out fairly well. Hikers parking lot is located at one end of the campground. Bears are well known in the region, so please lock all food in the provided metal bear lockers.
The epic Pacific Crest Trail runs right through the Holcomb Valley. Doble Trail Camp is out this way for PCT parking, next to Holcomb Valley Road #3N16 which encircles this whole forested area inside San Bernardino National Forest.
Holcomb Valley has a historic cabin to see. Numerous old mines exist around this area. Nearby Gold Mountain is a popular 4WD route.
The dirt back road leads east down to the high desert @ Highway 162. Down to Pioneertown and Yucca Valley, and eventually Joshua Tree National Park.
Canon Sin Nombre – Anza Borrego
Mud Caves and Slot Canyon Hikes
Desert Slot Canyons – South Anza Borrego State Park region, just off County Road S-2 east of the ‘badlands overlook’ view point is a whole network of narrow walkways & skinny canyon trails to explore. Some are so tight you have to turn side ways to fit through. There are more than one of these sandstone topless caverns. Finding a new one each time you visit is a fun challenge. Just north in the Diablo canyon there are dry mud tunnels & trails as well. Explore & be careful not to get lost. And don’t camp at the canyon openings during the threat of heavy rains…duh.
Drive down steep, sandy road into Canon Sin Nombre entrance (the dirt road just to the north of Badlands Overlook). A high clearance vehicle is recommended and 4WD may be required in soft sand. 2WD SUVs/trucks should keep their speed up through the soft sandy areas & try not to turn or stop suddenly. Go slow in narrow sections of the canyon & slow over the rocks to save your oil pan.
Clock your mileage 1 mile exactly from the paved road (s2) & park out in desert wash, pull over between the smoke trees. Hike over to the left side & look for an opening in the canyon walls to a deep secluded trench. A campsite may exists here.
Hike up the first canyon which does require some rock scrambling. The gorge lets you out at the very top with an impressive view over the Sweeney Pass area. The canyon walls are so tight in some spots you may have to turn sideways to fit through. Upper body strength is needed to climb high ledges & boulder scramble through this natural maze.
Once on top, wander on the ridge & check out the views; keeping to the right & then follow the next wash down to start the much longer & easier exit. Hike down in the main slot canyon which leads out to a big camp site & clearing. Exit slot area and turn right, walking back to the vehicle in the big wash.
This particular hike is a blast on a full moon night, but not for a first timers try.
Best time to visit: October – April
HIGH CLEARANCE VEHICLE access to reach trailhead. Moderate hike, boulder scrambling w/ dangerous mud walls. Flash floods here are possible during rains.
Plenty of 4×4 roads, SUV trails, & box canyons in the desert region.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA MTS:
Big Bear Area Camping; Crabflats is on dirt road – Road# 3N16
North of Green Valley Lake, off Hwy 18. Between Big Bear Lake & Lake Arrowhead, California.
OHV trails abundant in this region, so expect some 4x4s, dirt bikes and engine noise. Looking for peaceful camp, try Heart Bar Camp.
Crab Flats Campground
• Elevation: 6,200′
• Number of Sites: 28
• Camping Reservations: Yes
• Sites Available: 3 first come
• Vehicle Accessibility: RV 15′ max
• Length of Stay: 14 Days
• Water: No Piped; seasonal creek iffy
• Toilet: Vault
• Season: Open APR-NOV
• Fee: Yes
• Operated By: National Forest Service
• Closest Town: Lake Arrowhead, CA
San Bernardino National Forest
Big Bear Discovery Center
Big Bear Lake, CA
The overdeveloped Orange County coast is packed with condos, homes, parks and beaches, coastal villages, restaurants, shops and train tracks, so campgrounds in this region are few and far more popular than one might expect. Since Los Angeles has very limited beach camping options, most tourists wander further south for SoCal beach camping on the OC or San Diego coast line.
blue links lead to State Park pages with camp reservations.
Orange County Coast Campground reservations are highly recommended all year long, so make sure to plan ahead.
Being the largest State Park inside California, Anza Borrego has certain advantages. Lots of land to explore, abundant dirt roads, free camping and a very diverse terrain. Located in SoCal, this desert has lots to offer the outdoor enthusiasts, all year round.
Anza Borrego Desert
with hundreds of miles of dirt roads to explore
SUV / 2WD / AWD / 4WD / 4×4 / OHV
The Anza Borrego desert, in east San Diego County, is quite large and very easily accessible from Southern California. The park spans mid-elevation, mountain foothills (3000′ elevation) down to dry lake beds near sea level. Large, vast and varied terrain – and full of vegetation in certain spots. Borrego Desert Wildflower blooms attract thousands of visitors between March-May each Spring.
While the majority of the dirt roads inside the ANZA DESERT are passable with a regular passenger car (on most days), some specific areas and routes are indeed considered “too hairy” and may require a 4 wheel drive. Rains change landscape fast in this region, so know before you go.
FLASH FOOD WARNING: Wet weather (anywhere nearby) can make a mild, soft, sandy wash into a wild, flowing river. On occasion desert washes are ‘washed out’ during big rain, often becoming mini rivers that can swallow your vehicle; Road and weather conditions can change suddenly in the California deserts. Wind can also play a huge factor in a selecting a decent camp site. Know the weather report in advance and always be on the watch for big clouds on mountains to the west.
Deep sand washes, steep sandy hillsides, boulder passes, rock yards to boulder hopping, soggy bottoms to straddling ruts, the deserts of SoCal are indeed fun and challenging. Enjoy your public lands responsibly and pick up some litter, stay on the trail and do not target shoot inside park boundaries.
To find these off-roading areas: OHV routes, camp areas and gear heads galore. Or try avoid them. Keep reading.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park itself is NOT AN OFF ROAD PARK. If you want the free-for-all, open, OFF-ROAD areas, with sand dunes and terrain to explore, then the list above should help. Some places can be secluded and private for camping, and only one Jeep may pass by (for the whole weekend).
On the other end of the spectrum, most OHV camping areas are closer to paved routes and busy w/ motorized activity. On weekends, traffic, events and crowds are the norm. ATV, dirt bikes, buggies, quads, jeeps, families, RVs. Often, a big noisy scene.
Seeking to travel to distant places to avoid crowds? then this site can help point to the best destinations. Follow links, browse images, get a decent topo map – and discover private desert camping for free.
other awesome anza trails & canyons
most w/ 2WD access; high clearance vehicle is preferred (and as usual, 4WD may be needed in storm conditions). Not all 4×4 routes will be signed. Signs get washed away in desert areas, so don’t count on them. Have a good hard-copy, topo map handy – just in case.
Wetlands in the desert? Not that rare, water does flow downhill. Some established well-traveled roads may have added gravel to the soggy marsh areas, but many water crossings are bare, and vulnerable to erosion. Try to avoid driving in and around water. DRIVE SLOW through water where route crossing is obvious. Wildlife need these water sources to survive, so don’t muck it up.
Palm canyons and large boulders are numerous in this desert, water sources scarce. Camping near palms can be limited to walking distance. Several palm oasis camps along San Diego County Road S-2, some RV accessible. Even the county-run Hot Springs Park has some palms. Of course, Palm Canyon is the State Park Campground. Visitors Center headquarters in downtown Borrego Springs has the most popular hikes, hotels, restaurants, with abundant campground camping. Very walk-able town. Super hot during summer, triple digits!
back roads: weekends
Weekends are always busier than week days, in general, all over Cali. Keep that in mind when seeking seclusion. Camping in Anza Borrego desert is always best at least 2 miles off the pavement, well away from the traffic on the highway and for those masses seeking the easy camping.
OPEN-CAMPING: camping outside of developed campgrounds, also referred to as ‘primitive camping’ is quite common in Anza Borrego desert. Many Borrego Camping Areas are accessible with regular cars, close to main roads and usually have no bath rooms, or facilities. The further you drive from the pavement, the more likely you are to encounter obstacles like boulders, deep ruts, soft sand and uneven terrain.
San Diego Backcountry
600,000 acres of SoCal desert
BLOOM: 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.
Southern California / San Jacinto Wilderness Area / San Jacinto Mountain / Palm Springs Mountain Hike
The well-photographed snowy mountain backdrop behind the desert deluxe resort-land known as Palm Springs, Mount San Jacinto is the second tallest peak in Southern Cal.
Mighty San Gorgonio peak, across to the east – on the other side of the valley, is the very highest mountain in this desert region. Granite Jacinto peak is located in between the mountains of Idyllwild and the low deserts of Palm Springs.
Day hikes, picnic in the forest, backpacking, horseback rodes w/ SUPER easy access via the fantastic Palm Spring Tram ride, up to 8000′ elevation.
The San Jacinto Wilderness is managed by 2 different agencies: The National Forest Service and California Department of Parks & Recreation.
If you are camping overnight in the forest, you must get your wilderness permit from the agency that administers the area where you plan to spend the night. Day-use permits can be obtained on the day of your trip by visiting one of the ranger stations below. Day-use permits issued by either agency are honored by both, except during the busy summer months when permits to enter the Wilderness via Devil’s Slide Trail can be obtained only from the National Forest Service.
Camping permits can be obtained in advance by mail, in person, or online w/ PDF. National Forest Service accepts requests up to 90 days in advance; Mount San Jacinto State Park accepts them up to 56 days in advance. You can also get them on the day of your trip, if any are available at that time.
USDA National Forest Service
San Jacinto Ranger District
54270 Pine Crest Ave
Idyllwild, CA 92549
Mount San Jacinto State Wilderness
25905 Highway 243
Idyllwild, CA 92549
Indian Flat Campground is located on the seasonal San Luis Rey River in rural North San Diego County. From I-15 @ Temecula, CA travel eastbound on Highway 79. Look for the tiny turn off (on left side) for forest road #9N05, sorta near glider airport located west of Warner Springs. This poorly paved backcountry route (half dirt/mud at times) is also known as both Indian Flats Road or Lost Valley Road.
Graded dirt road (paved in some portions) travel is approximately 6.5 miles to campground, look for gate and turn off on the left side. When you see the giant boulder near the entrance, you’ll know you’ve made it to the right place.
Oak trees and a few pines, plenty shade, boulders and mountain scenery, this is a great small campground that is well away from everything in Southern California. Seasonal creek-sized river and boulder waterfall often dries up in late summer. This means a wet spring is the best time to visit this camp. Hiking, mountain biking trails and hammock spots. Pacific Crest Trail access.
• Elevation: 3,600′
• Number of Sites: 17
• Camping Reservations: None
• Sites Available: First come, First serve
• Vehicle Accessibility: Length 15′ max.
• Length of Stay: 14 Days
• Water: No Piped; Seasonal creek nearby
• Toilet: Vault
• Season: Closed for mud & snow during winter months
• Fee: Yes
• Operated By: National Forest Service
• Closest Town:Warner Springs, CA
Rock Climbing in SoCal is limited to the awesome southern deserts with boulders, boulders & yep, more boulders. Joshua Tree is well known, but Mojave deserts boulders have much to offer, with less crowds. Meaning you’ll get more on exploring new routes, off the beaten path.
Bishop in the Eastern Sierra has the Buttermilks, but we wanna cover stuff further south for climbers. Numerous crags and peaks can be found in the mountain regions of San Diego. Many destinations are also great camp spots.
Good granite is hard to come by & big granite walls are non-existent down south. The most popular piece of Southern California granite among climbers is that of Tahquitz Peak in Idyllwild CA
Big Bear Lake
Bouldering @ various places
Idyllwild Rock Climbing
Tahquitz Peak in San Jacinto Wilderness: Tahquitz Peak Lookout stands at 8846′ elevation, towering above the pine village of touristy shops & cafes below. It’s a small slice of the Sierra Nevada (fabulous blue granite feeling) in SoCal & the rock climbers love it. Humber Park is at the base of the peak. The park is a family & tourist destination, especially during snow days. Paved parking lot is at the very top of the neighborhood, a well signed route. Follow the brown “Humber Park” signs. Hmmm, now is that ta-keets, ta-quits? Just ask a local – who grew up in Idyllwild.
San Diego County climbing destinations:
El Cajon Mountain
Valley of the Moon
For more on California rock climbing places, check out a few of our favorites resources: