Open car camping, also called remote camping, primitive camping or dispersed camping (always FREE of charge), as well as backpacking, is available in several places throughout San Diego County, including Cleveland National Forest, and Anza Borrego Desert State Park, and various BLM (Bureau of Land Management). The following wilderness areas offer the best wilderness experience: Pine Creek Wilderness, Hauser Wilderness, Sawtooth Wilderness, Agua Tibia Wilderness .
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.
Check out our San Diego County Trail Map to help you find and explore these areas.
San Diego County – Road Closures and Traffic Controls
Cleveland National Forest
Cleveland is divided into 3 Ranger districts: Descanso, Palomar and Trabuco. All 3 districts offer dispersed camping and a permit is required for all overnight use. 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. Pack out all trash and waste. You may camp a maximum of 14 days out of 30 days within the Cleveland National Forest.
Cleveland NF Resources:
- Cleveland Wilderness Permit Page (each district has a separate permit)
- Cleveland Pacific Crest Trail Page (including re-supply points)
- Cleveland PCT Map
- MVUM (Motor Vehicle Use Map) (showing where dispersed camping is restricted and roads that are open for travel)
- Cleveland Trail and Road Closures (updated regularly)
Descanso – (619-445-6235)(Sunrise Highway or County S-1) 45 miles East of San Diego via Interstate 8
- Descanso Wilderness Permit Application – Complete and email to: SM.FS.DescansoRD@usda.gov
- Descanso District Dispersed Camping Guide
- No dispersed camping is allowed anywhere in Laguna Mtn Rec Area (see below for other locations to camp)
- Pine Creek Road and Noble Canyon Trail
- Pine Creek Wilderness and Hauser Wilderness
- Kitchen Creek Road (may encounter US Border Patrol)
Palomar – (760-788-0250)(Highway 76) 35 miles North of San Diego via Interstate 15
- Palomar Wilderness Permit Application – Complete and email to: SM.FS.PalomarRD@usda.gov
- No dispersed camping is allowed along County Roads S6 or S7 (call for other locations to camp)
- Barker Valley (off Hwy 79, Palomar Divide Rd, north of Warner Springs)
- Agua Tibia Wilderness (off Hwy 79; Dripping Springs Trailhead)
Trabuco – (951-736-1811)(Hwy 74) between Orange County and Lake Elsinore
- San Mateo Canyon Wilderness Trails (off Hwy 74 Ortega Hwy; San Juan or Tenaja Trailheads)
- San Mateo Canyon Wilderness Application – Complete and email to: SM.FS.firstname.lastname@example.org
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 drones, is prohibited.
Anza Borrego Resources:
- Anza Borrego State Park – The State Park homepage
- Anza Borrego Map – A very detailed and up-to-date-map
- Borrego Wildflowers – The best wildflower report, providing year round updates
- Desert USA Wildflower Update – a great resource for wildflower reports
- Anza Borrego Foundation Wildflower Update – another great resource
Upper elevations (1500-3500′)
- 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 Wash
- Nolina Wash
There are nine primitive campgrounds in Anza Borrego:
- Arroyo Salado (850′) – 16 miles east on County S22
- Culp Valley (3300′) – 10 miles southwest on County S22
- Canon Sin Nombre (600′) – via County S2, enter just north of Badlands Overlook
- Sheep Canyon (1625′) – North of visitor center, rough 4×4 roads past the Desert Gardens
- Blair Valley (2540′) – Hwy. 78 to County S-2 south for 5 mi., open area to the left
- Yaqui Well (1450′) – 5 mi. south on County S3, then right on Yaqui Pass Rd, drive 6 miles to the area to the east.
- Yaqui Pass (1700′) – 5 mi. south on County S3, then right on Yaqui Pass Rd, drive 4 miles to the area to the east.
- Fish Creek (320′) – 9.5outh of Hwy78 via Split Mtn Rd.
- Mountain Palm Springs (740′) – 0.3 mi west of S2. Can access 5 groves of palms.
Bureau Of Land Management (BLM)
San Diego County does NOT have a large amount of BLM land. Neighboring Imperial County has over 1.3 million acres! The most accessible in San Diego is off Hwy 94 on Marron Valley Rd, near Dulzura, with several remote camping areas. More remote wilderness options are McCain Valley and Beauty Mountains Wilderness.
Most BLM public lands are open to dispersed camping, provided it does not conflict with areas posted “closed to camping”. Dispersed camping is allowed on public land for 14 out of 28 days. Camping limitation rules vary per office. No camper shall leave any personal property unattended for more than 10 days.
- Marron Valley Rd – As of 2023, the access gate on Marron Valley Road used to access the Donohoe Mountain area is now closed and you must drive to the end of the pavement then double back on Otay Truck Trail, making it an extra 2.5 mi. Also, there is heavy border patrol presence and recreational shooting as well.
- McCain Valley Rd – Hwy 8 (Exit 65). Lots of great car camping including the Lark Canyon camping and OHV area. There are a huge amount of wind turbines in this area. At the end of McCain Valley Rd, a backpacker can access the Sawtooth Mountains Wilderness.
- Beauty Mountain Wilderness – This amazing and little used area straddles San Diego and Riverside Counties, and has plentiful camping areas for both the backpacker and the truck camper. Cooper Cienega Truck Trail is a 4×4 “wilderness corridor” allowing access to CA 371 in Riverside County.