Open car camping, also called remote camping, primitive camping or dispersed camping (always FREE of charge), as well as backpacking, is allowed in several places throughout San Diego County, including Cleveland National Forest, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Pine Creek Wilderness, Hauser Wilderness, Sawtooth Wilderness, Agua Tibia Wilderness, and various BLM land .

NO campfires are permitted in the Cleveland Natl Forest (and attached wilderness areas) . Your best option to have a campfire is either Anza Borrego Desert State Park or BLM land.  From approximately April through September lower elevation camps will be very hot.

Cleveland National Forest

All 3 Ranger districts offer remote camping, also known as “dispersed camping”. Please remember: wood or charcoal fires are never allowed outside of developed campgrounds or picnic areas in the Cleveland National Forest. However, portable stoves or lanterns that use pressurized gas canisters, or liquid fuel (kerosene or white gas) are permitted unless elevated fire conditions are in effect.

  • Descanso – permit required (not allowed in the Laguna Recreation Area). (619-445-6235)
  • Palomar – permit required (call the district office for allowable locations). (760-788-0250)
  • Trabuco – permit required (only allowed in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness). (951-736-1811)

You may camp a maximum of 14 days out of 30 days within the Cleveland National Forest.
Click here for the Descanso District Remote Camping Guide
Click here for Cleveland Wilderness Permit Page (each district has a separate permit)
MVUM (Motor Vehicle Use Map) (showing where dispersed camping is restricted and roads that are open for travel)

Laguna Mountain Recreation Area – (Sunrise Highway or County S-1) 45 miles East of San Diego via Interstate 8

  • Pine Creek Road
  • Noble Canyon
  • Kitchen Creek Road (may encounter US Border Patrol)

Palomar Mountain – (Highway 76) 35 miles North of San Diego via Interstate 15

  • No back roads camping is allowed in this forest

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Roadside dispersed camping is allowed in most areas, subject to the following rules:

  • No camping more than one full car length from any paved or dirt roads (ie. don’t drive across open terrain)
  • No camping within 100 feet of any natural water source
  • Garbage collection is not available except at developed campgrounds and the visitor’s center
  • Metal containers must be used for all campfires

Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails or cross-country. However, dogs are allowed on a leash (no longer than 6 ft) within campgrounds and on the more than 500 miles of dirt roads within the park. Dogs or cats must sleep in a tent or vehicle at night. The desert can be a challenging place for dogs, and there are many hazards present. Dogs can also put pressure on native wildlife, and for that reason, cannot be left unattended at any time. Firearms and fireworks are not allowed anywhere in the park. The operation of powered unmanned aircraft, including drones, is prohibited.

For more info: Anza Borrego State Park

Upper elevations (1500-3000′)

  • Oriflamme Canyon (via County S-2)
  • Blair Valley (via County S-2)
  • Culp Valley (via County S-22)

Lower elevations (up to 1500′)

  • Split Mountain
  • Old Kane Springs Road
  • Pinyon Wah
  • Nolina Wash

There are also nine designated primitive campgrounds available:

  • Arroyo Salado – 16 miles east on County S22
  • Culp Valley– 10 miles southwest on County S22
  • Canon Sin Nombre– via County S2, enter at Badlands Overlook
  • Coyote Canyon – North of visitor center, rough 4×4 roads past the Desert Gardens
  • Blair Valley – Hwy. 78 to County S-2 south for 5 mi., look for the open area to the left
  • Yaqui Well – 5 mi. south on County S3, then right on Yaqui Pass Rd., then drive 6 miles to the open area on the right.
  • Yaqui Pass – 5 mi. south on County S3, then right on Yaqui Pass Rd., the drive 4 miles to the open area to the east.
  • Bow Willow – Two sites and a non-flush pit toilet at this remote campground.