When I think of winter camping, shivers run up my spine. I’m not a fan of cold weather, but, if you head to So. California, then winter camping heats up.
The list below is by no means comprehensive, in the description of each camp spot, or in depth of the list. I have lots of favorites—this list represents a few to inspire you to get curious about winter camping (and to do a bit more research on your own). Don’t wait—go camping!
Joshua Tree National Park
One of the crown jewels in California’s parks system is Joshua Tree National Park, which covers nearly 800,000 acres, named for the otherworldly, twisted Joshua trees (Yucca Brevifolia) that dot the park. Along with Joshua tree forests (don’t think Redwoods), you’ll find cholla and ocotillo cactus, fan palm oases, and rock formations.
Joshua Tree National Park, designated a national monument in 1936 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became a national park in 1994. The Park lies at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado deserts.
JT is ideal for winter camping; days are mild, but night temperatures can drop dramatically. Be prepared with warm clothes, a good sleeping bag, and a hot water bottle (my secret weapon against cold nights).
There are nine established campgrounds throughout the park. Weekends get busy, but if you enjoy surreal terrain, stargazing, and rock climbing, this is the place for you. Also, you can wild, or dispersed, camp on BLM land, just be sure to observe posted signs—don’t be that camper.
Pro tip: Bring everything you need with you. There are no stores nearby, and no water at most campgrounds, except for water and dump stations at Black Rock and Cottonwood Campgrounds. Pack everything out (as you would, anyway), and be forewarned—you won’t get Wi-Fi or a cell signal in most parts of the park.
Anza-Borrego State Park
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Anza-Borrego Desert, it’s not only the largest state park in California’s system, it’s a stone’s throw (sort of) from where I live in San Diego. Due to its southern latitude, it stays pretty warm throughout the winter (but cold nights), making it an ideal winter spot.
The Borrego Palm Canyon Campground (near the town of Borrego Springs—the last stop for supplies before you get deeper into the desert) has 100+ camping sites. Some sites have hook-ups and are ADA compliant, but, because of the proximity to town, you won’t feel like you are getting the desert quietude many of us yearn for when we spend time among sand and cactus.
In addition to Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, you’ll find two other campgrounds where you can reserve a site (some ADA): Tamarisk Grove and Vern Whitaker Horse Camp.
Although it’s winter, bringing water with you is essential. It’s unlikely you’ll see temps veering toward 100 degrees, but the air is dry and dehydration is a danger. Cell reception is spotty, and flash floods can happen, etc. Check this publication from CA State Parks: Tips to Safely Enjoy Anza-Borrego Desert State Park This Winter for best practices. There’s a visitor center in town that’s worth a stop to check for weather news or events and activities. Oh, Borrego Springs is a Dark Sky community.
San Elijo State Beach Campground
Most people think of beach camping as the quintessential summer activity, but I suggest winter beach camping as the perfect time to watch the waves roll in. It’s when most of the generators droning on either side of you tourists have left for the season.
San Elijo State Beach Campground, in San Diego’s North County, features 162 tent and RV sites, each with a picnic table and fire pit. If you plan right, you might snag a spot with a view of the nightly sunset show—sunset and crashing waves are an unbeatable combo.
San Elijo is family-friendly, with a gentle beach break and shallow shoreline. Also, there’s a day-use area, showers, and a taco shop across the street—sounds near-perfect to me!
Even in winter, camping spots get scooped up quickly, so make reservations to ensure you get a spot. Pro tip: your pup is allowed on the beach, on a leash.
Leo Carrillo State Park
Leo Carrillo State Park is a beach camping option in the Los Angeles area (Malibu). It’s an excellent place for swimming, surfing, and just plain ol’ beach bumming. The beach features caves, tide pools, and reefs that are ripe for exploration. The campgrounds many sites take shade under the canopy of giant sycamore trees, where numerous birds can be seen and heard. In addition to fire rings, there and token-operated showers, and some sites offering electrical hook-ups. Leo Carrillo is a great place for some backcountry hiking, too.
Check in at the visitor center for interpretive displays and additional information about the park’s flora and fauna.
According to the park’s website:
The park was named after Leo Carrillo (1880-1961), actor, preservationist and conservationist. Leo Carrillo served on the California Beach and Parks commission for eighteen years, and was instrumental in the state’s acquisition of the Hearst property at San Simeon. He was related by blood and marriage to a long line of distinguished original Californians.
There are many winter camping spots, but this should give you enough inspiration to find a place that suits you. Most importantly, don’t delay, grab some gear, and get out there!