Those of us lucky enough to live in California have the added good fortune that we can go camping year-round. I enjoy camping and I love the landscape of the desert, but I’m really not interested in camping in 100+ degree heat. I made that particular mistake one spring break in Lake Havasu, AZ. One of many mistakes I made that trip – but that’s another story.
I recently started asking my friends and co-workers for their reccomendations on the best places to go desert camping in winter. Luckily, most of my friends work in recreation, so they gave me some great tips. With a little planning, I found that you can camp just about as comfortably in December as you can in May. Here are some of the best reccomendations for winter camping in the California desert, ranging from primitive to managed.
Borrego Palm Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Almost all California camping guides list Anza Borrego Desert State Park as one of the best. California’s largest State Park offers arguably the warmest winter desert camping experience that California can claim. The Borrego Palm Canyon Campground has over 100 sites just a few miles from California’s third-largest native desert fan palm grove. This campground is awesome to use as a base to hike up into Borrego Palm Canyon, or you can head east and explore the canyons in the Santa Rosa Mountains.
This campground is kind of close to the town of Borrego Springs, so you won’t find much desert solitude here. For some campers, having civilization (i.e. Starbucks) just a few miles away will keep them happy no matter what the temperature is. This campground is popular and sites do get claimed quickly. Check with the park office before you solidify your plans.
Corn Springs, East of Joshua Tree National Park
The Chuckwalla Mountains are situated in the area between California’s high and low deserts, and typically have winter temperatures warmer than the Mojave Desert. Corn Springs Campground sits in a canyon in the Chuckwallas at around 1,600 feet. You can often enjoy winter temperatures that reach up into the 70s, but you should definitely bring layers.
Corn Springs has nine sites with drinking water, picnic tables and shaded bungalows. Vault toilets are available about a half-mile away and there is an easy interpretive hiking trail that gives you a chance to learn about palm oasis ecology. The campground is ten miles off Interstate 10 at the Corn Springs exit. Unfortunately, there are no cell phone towers in the area, and they probably won’t have service anytime soon. Plan out your trip ahead of time – the nearest amenities (other than water and shade) are 17 miles away in Desert Center.
Chuckwalla Valley, East of Joshua Tree National Park
There’s a lot of desert east of Joshua Tree that stays fairly warm in winter. If it’s colder than you’d like at Corn Springs and you’re packed for remote camping, consider heading into the Chuckwalla Valley. Sadly, many of the best open-desert campsites in Riverside County have been slated for industrial solar projects. Fortunately, there are still a few places left in that haven’t been fenced off or bulldozed. For instance, just west of Desert Center, at the edges of Joshua Tree National Park, you can find wide spots on dirt roads and pull up among the ironwoods, set up camp, and enjoy a long weekend without seeing another person.
Another great spot in the area is off the Eagle Mountain Road exit on Interstate 10. To get to the camping area, head north on Eagle Mountain for just over two miles, at that point turn off onto a well-maintained dirt road that leads off to the left. Before long you’ll see the beginnings of an ironwood forest. For about a mile there are a few side roads running off to the left that lead to good, secluded, campsites. Pull in and enjoy. You are on your own for amenities. Don’t forget, even in winter time you need at least a gallon of water per day, per person. There’s no plumbing out there either, so be prepared to rough it. The road is the property of the Metropolitan Water District, but they won’t chase you away if you behave yourself.
Mesquite Springs Campground, Death Valley National Park
Sitting at about 1,800 feet, this campground is slightly cooler than the sites at or below sea level, but on most winter days in Death Valley, that’s not a big deal..
There are 30 campsites, many of which are along a deep wash that runs south down the middle of the Valley floor. It’s a great place for observing nature and taking photographs. If you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a coyote “concert” at night. The campground is off Scotty’s Castle Road, about 38 miles north of the junction with State Route 190. Drinking water, fireplaces and flush toilets are provided.
Panamint Springs, Death Valley National Park
If Mesquite Springs campground is full, there’s another option in the Death Valley National Park that might have sites available. Panamint Springs Resort is a privately owned campground about 70 miles away. The campground lies at about 2,000 feet in Panamint Valley just east of Death Valley. Winter temperatures average in the 50s or 60s with nighttime drops into the freezing range. It can be uncomfortable for the unprepared, but just fine if you have warm clothes, a good sleeping bag, and maybe someone to snuggle with.
The resort also has a small, funky motel and restaurant. Although the resort is probably the busiest place in the Panamint Valley, it gets really quiet once the traffic dies down in the evening. If you find a campsite away from the road, you can enjoy yourself with almost no contact with any other people.
Tuttle Creek Campground, Owens Valley
Winter camping in Owens Valley often strays out of the boundaries of “comfortable.” It gets cold here at night, with the valley floor more than a mile high and cold air running downhill off the High Sierra snow. But what the valley lacks in winter comfort it more than makes up for in beauty.
Relaxed, low impact, campers will want to head out for Alabama Hills, a small range near Lone Pine. There are many free, rustic, campsites throughout the hills in the little coves and canyons. As a result, the Alabama Hills are well-loved. The Bureau of Land Management and local wildlife groups are officially discouraging people from camping there. Camping in the Alabama Hills means packing everything out when you leave, and that means everything (including everything that comes out of your body).
Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives. The Interagency Visitor Center just south of Lone Pine can provide you with a list of options. One, that the BLM specifically recommends, is the Tuttle Creek Campground which is kept open year-round specifically to divert people from the Alabama Hills. The campground is about one mile west of the Hills, on a slope with beautiful views of the crest of Mt. Whitney. Vault toilets are available but the water supply is turned off for the winter so you’ll need to pack your own or pick some up in town. Campsites cost $5 per night on a first-come first-served basis.
Moabi Regional Park, Colorado River Valley
Park Mobai (as it’s commonly known as) sits on an old channel of the Colorado River at 450 feet above sea level, about 12 miles east of Needles. At first glance, this park may appear to be geared toward the “motorized” recreation crowd. It has a boat launch, a designated ORV area, and an almost completely paved campground for RV campers. But never fear, if you head out along the park road toward the river you can check out the 24 tent camping sites up and down Peninsula Way. Many of the sandy sites are screened from their neighbors and most have their own patch of beachfront on the river. Right across the river is the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge marshes and the temperatures can be pleasant even in the middle of winter.
Hole-In-The-Wall, Mojave National Preserve
The Mojave National Preserve’s sits at 4,400 feet, making it a little chillier at night. This campground is located in one of the darkest parts of the Preserve, shielded from the lights of Las Vegas to the north and the cities of California to the west. In fact, it’s so dark and clear that many professional astronomy groups use this area for observation. The Hole-In-The-Wall Campground offers sites with a great view of the massive volcanic rock walls that give the campground its name. These walls also serve the purpose of cutting down the winter winds. Campsites are available first-come first-served, and facilities include picnic tables and fire rings.
One of the joys of camping in the California desert is the abundance of open areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management. If camping isn’t specifically banned on BLM land, you can usually set up there as long as you stay 300 yards from water sources and don’t block roads. In general, it’s best to use places that look like people have camped on them before.