A quick alert to be careful about heading out on our trails as it’s not like walking around the block. Wear good walking shoes for good grip, be careful to not stumble (a walking stick is often a good aid, especially when up and down hill hikes), be  prepared for the heat, and go with knowledgeable leaders in the back country. Finally, understand that Tom Leech has no liability for troubles on the trails. 

More than Nine Campgrounds Available + Activities for the Entire Family

With more families opting to stay in San Diego in favor of “staycations”, the County Department of Parks and Recreation is inviting the public to experience all nine of its County parks. Per  Renée Bahl, Director of the County Department of Parks and Recreation. “We offer more than just a campground; each park offers a variety of programs and activities that are fun, educational, and even relaxing.”

Agua Caliente.  A desert oasis with two mineral spring pools is known for its beauty and solitude.
Dos Picos.  Sheltered by steep, boulder-strewn mountain slopes and ancient oak groves, this park offers a variety of ranger-led programs, including rock painting and nature hikes.
Guajome.  A blend of history and rich natural habitats (including a small but serene lake), this park offers miles of hiking trails, and its historic Rancho Guajome Adobe.
Lake Jennings.  Experience a relaxing sense of country life without getting too far away.
Lake Morena.  The spectacular lake is a magnet for anglers, yet the 3,250 acres of this County park offer something for every outdoor enthusiast, from hikers to picnickers to campers.
Potrero.  Quiet solitude describes this park, but it’s also near some adventurous places, such as historic Campo and the colorful Mexican town of Tecate.
Sweetwater Summit.  Hikers, bikers and equestrians will enjoy many miles of trails and modern campsites.
Vallecito.  The reconstructed sod Butterfield Stage Station is at the heart of this desert refuge, which is a great home base from which to explore the wonders of the Anza-Borrego Desert.
William Heise.  Forests of oak, pine, and cedar surround peaceful mountain meadows and provide an undisturbed setting for miles of scenic hiking and equestrian trails.

Specific information is provided for all County campgrounds, and many more, in Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping by Tom Leech & Jack Farnan, available at many bookstores, and


Originally appeared in San Diego Magazine Outdoors Forum January 2006

Anytime beyond the summer season represents prime time outdoors opportunities in our own Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This is our nearly 600,000 acre gem a couple hours drive east from downtown San Diego. So why not get out there and enjoy it?. This Forum looks at some of the many desert camping possibilities, with most provided by Forum readers. But first the Forum quiz. In what part of the State Park is Agua Caliente Campground located?

NEW DESERT BOOK.  This is a timely addition to outdoors enthusiasts and this Forum’s feature. Robin Halford’s Hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert: Over 100 Half-Day Hikes is published by the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association. I put this in the “must-get” category for those who hike (or want to get started hiking) the many trails in our local desert. Directions, maps, descriptions and conditions, all important out here, are provided. Some of the hikes are easy, others can take as long as six hours. Lots of sketches of creatures and cacti can help you identify those as you trek along.


Here are a few camping favorites in the central/southern desert of Forum readers (and a couple of my own), with trails to get out and wander on.

Bow Willow, favorite of Forum reader Paula
“January 2006 and 71 degrees in the mid-afternoon as we drive out on the sand-covered road leading to Bow Willow – in hopes that we’ll find an available campsite at our favorite Borrego campground. Clear air – blue skies – quiet – wind-free – the day after a big storm went through Southern California. What a treat to be here! Ah yes, a campsite – not the favorite, but it will do. Why did we come here, yet again? The small circle of 13 shaded (sort of) tables with fire rings on the south side – and the wonderful rock-encircled camp area on the north side, with a clean restroom in between — is perfect for people like us, who don’t need a lot of facilities – having nothing to plug in! There are a lot of different birds to be seen, including the elusive (I’m told) Phainopela. (It’s an elusive name, anyway!) Coyotes serenade and sometimes trot by in sight of camp. Many times we seem to be the only people “home” in the daytime – giving us the privacy to work on musical arrangements, while everyone else is away, hiking the hills and canyons behind us and to the north. We have enjoyed our past experiences here so much that, when it came time to name our acoustic trio, Bow Willow was the name on which we all agreed.
“Now the tent is set up – and the telescope – the moon-sliver looking spectacular close up.  Dinner will be ready soon. On this trip we find that new shade structures are being built to replace the old, funky shelters, which gave such character to the place. We prefer the old look – but this attention to the campground should mean that it has survived budget cuts and will be around to welcome us back on the next trip. And today, everything was perfect!”  To get there: I-8 out to Ocotillo, north on S2 about 17 miles, see sign, drive west onto dirt road (regular cars OK).

Mountain Palm Springs, favorite of Forum readers Doris and Ed
“This is our favorite camp spot. It’s located between Bow Willow campsite and Agua Caliente County Park.. It’s a primitive campground with no water (best kept secret). Great hiking to several palm groves. Seems like the end of the world! Quiet, wonderful opportunities for star watching.”  To get there: Also on S2, just a short drive further north from Bow Willow.
For descriptions of hiking possibilities from here and Bow Willow, check Forum archives 4/2004.

Agua Caliente County Park, a favorite of readers Alex and Janet
“We recently returned from a midweek 3-day, 2-night campout at Agua Caliente, complete with HOT springs and BIG tub (holds 30). This is always a great time to visit the park. We virtually had the place to ourselves. Sometimes it got so busy (hmmmm) that there were at least three other campers/RV’s, but we always had the hot tub to ourselves. A wee bit cold at night, although no wind, lovely full moon, and beautiful quiet clear sunny days. It can get too busy during the season, but we just love the serenity when it is less occupied. Great for the kids or grandkids. And at this time of year, the bunnies, quail, mourning doves and occasional roadrunner just invade the campsites. They just haven’t got the fear of humans at this time. And, there is the famous moonlight trail (been there, done that) but try it in the moonlight! Many other hikes and activities. While we usually enjoy the solitary desert washes and primitive campsites, this was a refreshing invigorating treat. Enjoy the season, and if there was ever a reason, the desert is really the place to get away from it all.”  To get there: Just off S2 about half-way between I-8 at Ocotillo and Highway 78 at Scissors Crossing. (O.K. the Forum quiz was a trick question. Agua Caliente is outside the State Park.)

Blair Valley, a favorite of Forum reader Nikki
This is primitive camping area, surrounded by mountains, loaded with history, and with several trails for exploration (Nikki likes the one in Smugglers Canyon and the pictograph trail). To get there. From Scissors Crossing, head south through Shelter Valley to the 6-mile marked entrance.

Plum Canyon, another favorite of Forum readers Alex and Janet
This is in the bare sand category, meaning no facilities, just stake out your own spot and settle in. Like many of the side canyons along 78, this heads back several miles along the rock formations. You’ll find some good camp sites along the way, well-protected from wind and providing solitude and starry skies. The California Riding & Hiking Trail and other trails provide some good hiking and views.  To get there: From Scissors Crossing, about 4 miles on 78, dirt road off to the right (south).

Yaqui Well/Tamarisk Campgrounds
This is a popular area midway in the State Park. Yaqui Well is a primitive campground on the west side of S3 highway . It’s also a popular stop for day visitors. Tamarisk is a developed campground on the east side of S3. This is in a grove of tamarisk trees, which as imports unfortunately take water away from native plants, by emulating Ross Perot’s famous “sucking sound.” This vicinity gives access to some good exploring — to hear the many birds chirping along the Yaqui Well Nature Trail (1.6 miles round trip) or to hike up the marked 1 mile Cactus Loop Trail Nature Trail, across from Tamarisk. More good exploring east of Tamarisk.  To get there: From Julian, take 78 east, pass Scissors Crossing to intersection with S3. Turn north toward Borrego Springs and immediately are the two campgrounds.

So there are some camping possibilities – thanks readers. If you have some of your favorites you’d like to share, email them to me.

Not familiar with the desert? Right now many organizations sponsor guided hikes. The State Park Visitors Center is always worth a visit, especially to desert newcomers. Guides can give you ideas and answer your questions (such as do I really want to drive my Ferrari down that dirt road?). Films, displays, maps, books and gift ideas. Call them for information about desert conditions (760-767-5311). Also check out the gift shop/bookstore/information center run by the Anza Borrego Desert Natural History Association. It’s just off Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs. As wildflower season approaches, find out where the blooms are from the wildflower hotline at 760-767-4684.

For the full story about this topic and many more for the whole county, pick up a copy of Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping by Tom Leech & Jack Farnan at: many bookstores,