From November through April, Southern California’s blazing hot deserts cool down and transform into pleasant, tranquil camping destinations with wide open desert views. Just last weekend I camped for three nights out in the Glamis sand dunes, and it was sunny and 70 degrees each day—and that was in January! Below are a few of my favorite RV camping destinations in Southern California’s deserts. None of these spots require a reservation, most of them are free to camp, and a couple require a permit for a small fee. Read on for more information about these remote, beautiful desert boondocking spots.
Trona Pinnacles – Free Camping
Located off highway 178 near the town of Trona, California, the Trona Pinnacles are a curious geological formation that tower over the desert in this BLM area. There are more than 500 tufa spires rising out of the Searles Lake dry basin, and it’s a picturesque place to visit and camp. Camping is free and dispersed. There’s one bathroom located in the camping loop, and no running water.
LATITUDE / LONGITUDE 35.68143, -117.39033
Google Map Location
Ocotillo Wells – Free Camping
I’ve been camping and off-roading in Ocotillo Wells for the past eight years, and I love it so much that I normally make the trek multiple times each season. Camping is FREE and entrance to the state park is FREE! The off-road trails are diverse and fun to explore— there are washes to blast through, technical trails to traverse, and landscapes that make you feel like you’re walking on Mars. There’s a ton of geological action at work in Ocotillo Wells, such as the active Gas Domes, the odd pumpkin-shaped formations in the Pumpkin Patch, and the oyster shells at Shell Reef. And for the Jeep enthusiasts out there, the scenic Tierra Del Sol trail is a must-do! There are many places to park your RV and camp for free at Ocotillo Wells—visit my post “Ocotillo Wells Best Campsites” for an explanation of the different areas and GPS coordinates.
Camping in the Badlands in Ocotillo Wells.
Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area – Free Camping
If you like to cruise endless desert dirt roads, crawl up rocky trails, and blast through dry lake beds, then Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area is a must do. Johnson Valley is located in Southern California’s high desert in Lucerne Valley off of Highway 247. My favorite camping spot in Johnson Valley is located off of Camp Rock Road. There are huge boulders and rocky hills that surround this camping area, with lots of open, flat areas for RVs and trailers. My group likes to make a big camp circle with our RVs to claim our spot. There are vault toilets, so tent camping is possible, but there’s no running water. Camping is dispersed and free.
Johnson Valley Camping Spot Near Camp Rock Road
GPS Coordinates: 34.492189, -116.826942
Our big RV circle in Johnson Valley.
Glamis Sand Dunes – Camping Permit Required
One of my favorite desert camping destinations is Glamis, officially called the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. It’s located in the southeast corner of California and borders Mexico, and it happens to be an offroading playground with giant, smooth sand dunes that stretch for miles. Camping in Glamis is primitive; there’s no running water but there are scattered pit toilets, so your best bet is RV camping, although I did tent camp for the first few years out there and it is definitely doable. A weekly permit is required to camp; it costs $35 and can be purchased online. I’ve camped at three different areas at Glamis: Gecko Road, the Flats and the Washes. Read more about these Glamis camping spots in my post “Glamis Camping 101.”
Our camping crew out in the washes in Glamis.
Dumont Dunes – Camping Permit Required
Most people drive past Dumont Dunes on their way to Death Valley and wonder, “Are those giant sand dunes out there?” Yes, they are in fact sand dunes, and they are tall, steep, and incredibly fun to traverse in a dune buggy, side-by-side, dirt bike, or quad. Dumont Dunes Off-Highway Vehicle Area is located about 31 miles north of Baker, California and is accessible via Dumont Dunes Road. The dunes rise above the desert floor to create a towering, sandy, off-roading playground, and they are surrounded by rocky, dirt trails that jet out into the Mojave desert. I’ve camped at Dumont Dunes many, many times—my family embarks on a yearly memorial camping trip and occasionally we will head to Dumont Dunes to ring in the new year. Camping is primitive, there’s no running water but there are pit toilets scattered throughout the main camping area. It costs $20 to camp for the week, and there’s a pay station when you drive in on Dumont Road. Visit my post, “Dumont Dunes Camping and Off-roading” for camping GPS coordinates and more details about the area.
In Dumont Dunes you can camp fairly close to the dunes, and kites are a must have for the kids.
Thinking about camping in the desert this winter? Here’s my list of essential RV camping gear that I always pack.
// Water – Always bring your own water when camping in the desert, especially in remote locations like the ones I mention above. These are the water jugs I like to use; you can set them on a table and they have an easy-to-use spigot. Even when we RV camp and have a full tank of fresh water, we bring a few of these extra water jugs.
// Kites – Southern California’s deserts can get windy, so if you’re bringing kids along (and you should, my kids love the desert) plan on packing a kite for those windy afternoons. A huge kite like this is super fun and this single-line parafoil kite flies incredible and comes in a convenient, compact stuff-sack bag.
// Sand Toys – These are another must-have for the kiddos. If your kids enjoy playing at the beach, they’ll love playing with their sand toys in the desert dirt and sand. Don’t forget about construction trucks, they are perfect for the desert too!
Playing in the super soft sand near the swing set in Glamis, all they need are sand toys!
// Baby Play Yard – Babies love camping! My kids started camping when they were eight weeks old, and they’ve come along with my husband and I for every desert camping trip since they were born. There’s more prep and planning when you’re bringing a baby, and this Summer Infant Pop N’ Play Foldable Play Yard was one of the most useful baby camping items I ever bought. It folds up to about the size of a standard folding camp chair, and it keeps your baby safe from crawling too far from camp or from eating too much dirt. We always supervised our kids when they were playing in the play yard, and they loved it!
A baby play yard provides a safe place to play when camping with a baby. Always supervise babies in play yards.
// Comfy Camp Chairs – These KingCamp Moon Saucer Camping Chairs are super comfortable and perfect for sitting around the campfire. They fold up easily for transporting and I’ve noticed that they feel more supportive than a standard folding camp chair. I’ve been using these for two years and they have held up really well.
Parker prefers his tiny camp chair over the KingCamp chairs. But these KingCamp chairs are super comfy!
// Camp Table – KingCamp also makes a small, fold-up camp table that is perfect for setting up near your camp chairs or setting outside your RV. We use our folding table for setting helmets on, drinks, snacks, you get the idea!
// Kettle and French Press – COFFEE–it’s mandatory on all my camping trips. I use a plain old 8-cup camp kettle on the stove to heat up the water, then I use an insulated steel french press to make a big batch of hot camp coffee. The coffee stays hot for hours in this french press, and this method requires only a camp stove to make. I have an RV so I could use a regular coffee maker, but it’s nice to just fire up the stove in my little kitchen and avoid kicking on the loud generator first thing in the morning.
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