Best Places to Go Camping in San Diego County

Mike Peterson

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Credit: Andrew Gloor

California is known for having plenty of natural beauty. And San Diego County, located at the very southwestern tip of the state, has its own share of nature to enjoy.

While you might only think of San Diego as a beachtown, it's actually the most biodiverse counties in the U.S. You'll find beachfront camping, desert camping, and mountain forest camping -- all within the borders of San Diego County. Here are some top picks for places to go camping in the area.

5. Anza-Borrego State Park

Best season: Fall/winter, early spring

More information: https://www.parks.ca.gov/

Reservations: https://reservecalifornia.com

Anza-Borrego State Park is the largest state park in California, and offers plenty of different camping opportunities. However, keep in mind that this is a desert. It gets extremely hot in the summertime, so it's best for the cooler months of the year.

There are established campsites here that require a reservation, including at the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground. You'll also find free primitive campsites at Peg Leg and Culp Valley. Additionally, there's also dispersed camping throughout the park -- you can camp anywhere for free, as long as you follow certain guidelines.

Because of its size, there's a lot to do in Anza-Borrego State Park. Popular attractions include Maidenhair Falls, which is a waterfall hike located in a literal desert oasis. You can also try your hand at spelunking at the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves. If you time it right, you may also find yourself amid a bloom of desert wildflowers during early spring.

4. South Carlsbad State Beach

Best season: Year-around

More information: https://www.parks.ca.gov/

Reservations: https://reservecalifornia.com

San Diego is known for its beaches, and you can camp at them at Carlsbad State Beach. A popular destination for local and non-local campers alike, Carlsbad State Beach Campgrounds tend to go quickly during the summer but provide an awesome beach camping experience if you can nab a spot.

You'll find literally hundreds of campsites at this beachfront campground, including options for text or car camping and RV sites. There are restrooms and pay showers available throughout the campgrounds. You'll also find volleyball courts, a camp store, and other amenities.

Since it's a beach campsite, you can expect activities like swimming, sunbathing, fishing, and surfing. Unlike most other campground areas on this list, you're also just a short walk or drive from the restaurants and shops in Carlsbad.

3. Laguna Mountain (Cleveland National Forest)

Best season: Spring/summer/fall

More information: https://www.fs.usda.gov/

Reservations: https://www.recreation.gov/

The Laguna Mountain region of San Diego County sits at a high enough elevation to ensure cooler temperatures throughout the year. While there's often snow in the winter, you'll find plenty of dense brush and forest land through the other seasons.

There are several campgrounds in the area, including Burnt Rancheria, Cibblets Flat, and Laguna. Burnt Rancheria is the largest and features several loops of campsites. Each site is equipped with fire rings and picnic tables, and there are restrooms and coin-operated showers available at the site.

As far as outdoor activities, you'll find a range of them. Burnt Rancheria provides easy access to a portion of the Pacific Coast Trail, for example. You'll also find a small, abandoned mining town just to the north.

2. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Best season: Spring/summer/fall

More information: https://www.parks.ca.gov/667

Reservations: https://reservecalifornia.com

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is a beautiful area of San Diego County located a short drive away from the mountain town of Julian, California. It offers a lush woodland environment and plenty of activities for outdoors enthusiasts.

There are two main campgrounds in the area: Green Valley Campground and Paso Picacho. Both feature flush toilets, showers, and campsites with firerings and picnic tables. Green Valley Campground has a waterfall and stream running through it.

You'll find plenty of hiking around this area, if you're up for it. There are more than 100 miles of trails throughout Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Some notable peaks include Stonewall Peak and Cuyamaca Peak.

1. Palomar Mountain

Best season: Spring/Summer

More information: http://www.parks.ca.gov/

Reservations: https://reservecalifornia.com/ or https://www.recreation.gov/

Widely known as one of the only places in Southern California with a Sierra Nevada-like atmosphere, Palomar Mountain is a perfect mountain getaway for locals and tourists alike. You'll find beautiful forests with pine, cedar, and fir trees that provide plenty of shade for most campgrounds in the area. Because it's a mountain, it does snow in the winter.

You have several choices here, including the state-run Doane Valley Campground, as well as the federal Fry Creek Campground and Observatory Campground. All are excellent choices, but are very popular -- so make sure to get a reservation far in advance.

There are plenty of trails throughout Palomar Mountain, including many popular hikes around the State Park. You can also try your luck at fishing Doane Pond. The Palomar Observatory is also a short hike or drive away for those interested in astronomy or the stars.

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Mike Peterson is a journalist, editor, and yoga teacher based in North San Diego County. He's a fan of indie bookstores, local craft beers, and excellent tacos.

San Diego, CA
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