San Diego

11 Peaceful Camping Spots Worth the Drive From San Diego

Because sometimes you just want to pack up and head for the woods.

We’re officially in the dog days of summer, when everyone is normally crowding the beaches, hitting beer and taco festivals, dancing on rooftop bars, and enjoying our endlessly sunny weather. But, alas, COVID-19 has changed things. That doesn’t mean you have to spend the summer indoors though -- luckily, there are plenty of places to get some space and camp out within just a few hours of SD. Of course, camping now is a little different. Group campsites aren’t available, and regular sites are limited to those in your own household. Masks are required when social distancing is difficult, such as on narrow trails and in common areas like restrooms. And because conditions can change rapidly, you’ll want to check your park’s webpage before heading out, even if you’ve got a reserved campsite, to make sure it’s still open. Of course, with so many enchanting places to visit, how do you decide where to spend your weekend or vacation? No worries, we’ve narrowed it down to these 11 great places you shouldn’t miss. 

Mount Laguna

Distance from SD: About 55 miles
For those who are looking to get in touch with nature but still want access to some necessities, there are several campgrounds to choose from in the Cleveland National Forest on Mt. Laguna. Sites at Boulder Oaks and Cibbets Flat campgrounds are first come, first serve, and if you’re more of a planner, you can reserve spots at Burnt Rancheria. There are plenty of mountain biking, hiking, and backpacking trails to explore in the area and if you need supplies you can always stop by the Laguna Mountain Lodge. It has a general store selling everything from beer to firewood, plus rooms and cabins if you decide to bail on the camping idea altogether.

La Jolla Indian Campground

Distance from SD: 57 miles
Just a short drive North of SD County is the La Jolla Indian Campground. If you want to get away from the city for the weekend this is a great spot to enjoy some fresh air, build a campfire, roast some s’mores, and go tubing down the San Luis Rey River. Online reservations are required, and outside firewood is prohibited due to the gold spotted oak borer, but there’s a general store near the campgrounds where it can be purchased, along with gas, food, ice and other necessities.

Mount Palomar

Distance from SD: About 65 miles
If you’re into astronomy, you should check out the Observatory Campground on Mt. Palomar. You can explore the surrounding forest by bike or hike during the day and get up close and personal with the cosmos at night. The site is just a two-mile hike from the observatory itself and they have astronomy events at the campground on some weekends during the summer. The observatory isn’t the only reason to visit Mt. Palomar though -- you can camp out in several other campgrounds on the mountain while doing a little stargazing on your own.

Crystal Cove State Park

Distance from SD: 86 miles
If you want to do some camping near the beach without going all the way to Catalina, Crystal Cove State Park is an option not too far from San Diego right between Laguna Beach and Newport Beach. There are several areas to camp within the park that will not only give you access to both the beach and backcountry hiking trails, but getting to them is a great workout. As with a lot of areas in SoCal, you can’t camp right on the beach here. You’ll park in the El Moro lot and then it’s a three-mile trek to the campgrounds up the hill. You can mountain bike, day hike, or check out the tide pools and lounge on the beach.

Catalina Island

Distance from SD: 86 watery miles
There is so much more to Catalina than just Avalon. Campsites are available both on the beach and further inland where you can enjoy the beauty of Catalina without dealing with a mob of tourists. Several locations on the island can be booked up to a year in advance, and you should definitely do that before taking the ferry all the way out there. They also have equipment rentals available so that you don’t have to haul all of your camping gear on the ferry if you don’t want to. Again, do this in advance or you might find yourself sleeping with your head in the sand. Your options range from tent cabins to primitive campsites and secluded boat-in camping.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Distance from SD: About 88 miles
The desert is not everyone’s ideal camping destination, but there is so much to see and explore in the massive Anza-Borrego State Park that you’re definitely going to want to stay a few days to check it all out. The park has four actual campgrounds, but if you have no need for picnic tables or flush toilets then there are plenty of free primitive camping spots and they also allow roadside camping if you really want to rough it. While you’re there be sure to check out the Pictograph Trail to see rock paintings made by the Kumeyaay Indians thousands of years ago. Hellhole Canyon might sound like the last place you’d ever want to be, but the 5.5-mile trail leads you to Maidenhair Falls, a 20-foot waterfall close to Borrego Springs. There are also slot canyons, wind caves, and several other beautiful destinations out in the desert that you don’t want to miss.

Lake Arrowhead

Distance from SD: About 130 miles
Camp out near Lake Arrowhead surrounded by the pine trees of the San Bernardino National Forest. The North Shore and Dogwood Campgrounds are both nearby with plenty of sites available that have fire rings, bathrooms, etc., but if you really want to get away from it all, remote camping is also an option in the forest with the right permits. Either way, you should head down to the lake to take a dip, water ski, or take a boat out on the water. You should also take advantage of the list of hiking trails that will lead you all over the forest. Deep Creek Hot Springs/Goat Trail will lead you to (you guessed it) hot springs. You’ll also run into the Pacific Coast Trail which follows the creek along the way.

Mission Springs PCT Trail Camp

Distance from SD: About 134 miles
If you really want to get away from it all, come out here. The only way to access this campground is by hiking there from the Pacific Coast Trail  (access via the Fish Creek Trail is currently closed). There are two remote campsites out there that have nothing more than a picnic table and fire ring but plenty of fresh air and peace and quiet. You don’t have to be hiking the entire PCT Wild-style to camp here, but you might get the chance to meet some interesting thru hikers who are resting for the night.

Tram camping

Distance from SD: 141 miles to the tram, plus hiking to campsites
Hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and take a ride 2.5 miles up the mountain in one of the world’s largest rotating tramcars. From the top, you can hike to six campgrounds within seven miles of the tram. A permit to camp is only $5, but come prepared since none of these campsites have water available and there are definitely no stores nearby. While you’re there, you can take a hike up to San Jacinto Peak, the second-highest point in SoCal.

Joshua Tree National Park

Distance from SD: 164 miles 
There are a couple of ways to experience Joshua Tree. One way is to book a room at a hotel in town, then drive through the park to “ooh” and “aah” at the scenery from the comfort of your air-conditioned car. The other way (aka the better way) is to camp out in the desert to experience the total darkness of a starry desert night or a glorious J-Tree sunrise first-hand. There are nine campgrounds throughout the park where you can do just that. During the scorching summer months they are mostly first come, first served, but in the busier fall-spring season you’re better off making a reservation. If everything fills up, there is always the alternative to pitch your tent on the BLM land outside the park.

Salton Sea State Recreation Area

Distance from SD: 182 miles
To some, the Salton Sea is a fascinating place to explore and check out the migratory birds, to others, it’s just a creepy place in the middle of nowhere that smells pretty bad. No matter what your opinion is, there are places where you can camp at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. Several actually. Since it’s a million degrees out there in the summer, their busy season is from November to May. There are RV spots that require a reservation, but visitors are welcome to tent-camp without a reservation any time.

Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks, and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.
Sara Norris is a contributor for Thrillist. 
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