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Gather your friends and get ready to hit the road; the best off-road destinations for camping in California are calling your name.
5 min read
May 16, 2021
Does the sound of packing up remote camping essentials, blasting your camping playlist, and going off the grid appeal to you? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Whether in the deserts or at the beach, off-road camping in California is an experience you simply can’t miss if you love outdoor adventures.
The Golden State, with its varied terrain and amazing climate, spoils you for choice when it comes to nature-filled escapades—off-road camping is no exception. Gather your friends and get ready to hit the road; the best destinations for camping in California are calling your name.
Big Bear is a treasure trove full of off-road trails to explore. Some roads are partially maintained, while some are completely rugged. When the rest of SoCal is too hot to camp during the summer, Big Bear still has your back.
If you’re not experienced in 4x4 camping or are unfamiliar with the area, try a guided tour first. Trail Recon offers tours in the Big Bear area in three difficulty levels. Join one of the tours to build a community before off-road camping in California.
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Pismo Beach is one of California’s best beach camping destinations, especially when it comes to off-road camping. You’ll likely run into other fans of Southern California off-road camping at Oceano Dunes along the coast. However, make sure to come with your own off-highway vehicle (OHV), because rentals are currently unavailable for safety reasons.
Get your SUV ready to explore one of the best desert parks in SoCal for backroad adventures. The roads at Anza-Borrego are easily accessible year-round, but they can get a little too hot during the peak summer months.
Canyon Sin Nombre, Truckhaven Hills, and Oriflamme Canyon are a few of the better-known spots in the park. Drive along badlands, caves, canyons, and wildflowers. For free overnight 4x4 camping in California, check out Blair Valley and Coyote Canyon—you’ll have full seclusion and gorgeous dark skies that are perfect for stargazing all to yourself.
Los Padres National Forest may have the most 4x4 accessible campsites out of all the off-road camping spots in California. Quatal Canyon takes you to the red high deserts, whereas the northern portion of the park provides plenty of dirt roads and primitive campsites. If you have the time and means, check out Blue Ridge, Cuyama Peak, and Ballinger Canyon for chills and thrills.
Get away from the popular rock formations and go further into the desert to explore the true beauty of the large SoCal desert. Make sure to stay on the established roads designated for 4x4 driving to avoid harming the desert ecosystem. The park doesn’t allow visitors to camp wherever they want, so make sure to book a spot at one of the designated grounds.
For a fun discovery, drive along Covington Flat to get to some of the largest Joshua trees and pinyon pines in the park.
Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino National Forest is a scenic spot with plenty of OHV camping areas. The most popular spot for off-roading here is the Pinnacles OHV Staging Area. The nearest campground to the off-road trails is the North Shore Campground—which is also located right by the lake. When you're done 4x4 camping in California, stretch your legs and trek the North Shore National Recreational Trail.
As long as you don’t visit during the summer, you’ll have a fun time off-road camping at this California spot. Drive along Racetrack Valley Road and you’ll pass mountains, a Joshua tree forest, and a mysterious natural wonder known as the Racetrack Playa.
Stay at the Wildrose Campground which tends to stay cooler than the rest of the sites in the desert. Or, head towards Mahogany Flats Campground for a forest feel. Whatever you decide to do, don’t forget to pack plenty of water—dehydration is a real issue while off-road camping in California’s Death Valley.
While the northern area of Big Sur offers five-star resorts and luxurious bohemian getaways, the southern part is largely undeveloped and perfect for off-roading. Enjoy the rugged coast and beat the crowds—drive along the coastline to check out the coolest natural attractions.
Don’t forget to stop your car and trek awesome hiking trails along the way—the McWay Falls Trail is a must-do. Stay overnight at the Prewitt Ridge Campground. Often described as the most beautiful car camping spot in the state, Prewitt Ridge elevates your 4x4 camping experience in the best way.
4x4 camping in California’s forests has never looked so good. Sequoia National Forest covers a large portion of the Southern Sierra and offers scenic OHV routes for days. Camp along the Kern River and make sure to explore the forested backroads of the sprawling Big Meadows.
Dumont Dunes in Mojave offers a classic off-road camping experience in the California deserts. Over 7,000 acres in size, the remote location, and variety of terrain here attract thrill-seekers of all kinds.
Primitive camping is permitted almost anywhere on the flats, but there are very few amenities. Make sure to bring your own water and food to avoid facing unforeseen challenges in the dry and arid desert.
The Gold Lake area provides a distinct off-road camping adventure in Northern California each season. This NorCal destination sees a lot of snowmobile traffic during the winter months, while fishing and camping enthusiasts flock to the area in the summertime.
You’ll have the option of choosing between both developed and primitive camping spots. The campsite most 4x4 campers live by is Smith Lake. This campsite is somewhat secluded on the borders of Tahoe and Plumas National Park—you need a good topography map to find it. Once you do, you’re in for a treat of solitude and scenery.
Inyo National Forest is loved for its expansive network of OHV routes to explore—around 2,200 miles to be exact. You’ll face breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada, drive by historic mines and structures, and discover amazing camping spots. The Laurel Lakes OHV Route, Buttermilk OHV Road, and Deadman Pass OHV Route are among the more popular destinations to explore.
Everything you need to elevate your California off-road camping experience is found in Mendocino National Forest. Dirt roads, hiking trails, lakes, equestrian trails, creeks, forests, wildlife—you name it, Mendocino has it.
The southern end of the Grindstone Ranger District has some of the most challenging OHV routes in the state. Fouts Springs offers amazing camping facilities for off-roaders. Do we hear an off-road camping getaway in the making?
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