Elsewhere in the country, people who love camping have to either wait out the long winter months or contend with snow and sub-freezing temperatures. But those of us in or near the California deserts are lucky: we can engage in our favorite pastime year-round. The desert offers winter climates ranging from invigoratingly brisk to just plain warm, and with a little planning you can camp just as comfortably in January as you can in May. Here are some of our favorite places for desert winter camping, ranging from primitive unmarked sites with no amenities whatsoever to campgrounds with hookups and vending machines.
Mesquite Springs Campground, Death Valley National Park
For many westerners, winter camping in the California Desert means Death Valley National Park. This means that the Park's more popular campgrounds near Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells often fill up fast in the winter, especially on holiday weekends.
Fortunately, the Park offers an alternative: Mesquite Springs Campground at the north end of the Valley. At about 1,800 feet in elevation this campground will be a bit cooler than the sites at sea level and below, but on most winter days in Death Valley that's not a bad thing. This part of the Valley is far less crowded, meaning you have a chance to hear something other than car engines and RV generators.
The campground has 30 sites for car camping, many of which abut a deeply incised wash that runs southward down the middle of the Valley floor. It's a great place for observing nature, with evening coyote concerts most nights I've spent there.
Panamint Springs, Death Valley National Park
If even Mesquite Springs campground is full -- which does happen on weekends -- there's another option in the environs of Death Valley National Park that may yet have spaces available: the privately owned Panamint Springs Resort just 70 miles away. In the Panamint Valley just east of Death Valley, the Resort's campground lies at about 2,000 feet in elevation. Winter temperatures average in the 50s or 60s with nighttime drops into the freezing range, uncomfortable for the unprepared but a piece of cake if you have warm clothes and a good sleeping bag. Campsites start at $7.50 a night, with showers included.
The resort also has a small, funky but comfortable motel in case you chicken out at the thought of sleeping out, and the restaurant has the best burgers within 50 miles. Also the only burgers within 50 miles. Though the resort is absolutely the busiest place in the Panamint Valley, it gets really quiet once the traffic to the park's main attractions dies down in the evening. If you find a campsite away from the road, you can enjoy the Panamint Valley -- one of California's most underrated wonders -- with almost no sonic intrusion at all from other members of your species.
Hole In The Wall, Mojave National Preserve
The Mojave National Preserve's most-developed campground is also its most winter-ready, even though its 4,400 foot elevation might make it a little chilly at night. The Hole In The Wall Campground on Black Canyon road (at the end of the pavement) offers sites with a great view of the towering volcanic rock walls that give the campground its name -- and which also cut down a bit on winter winds. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, for a modest fee, and facilities include potable water, pit toilets, picnic tables and fire rings.
This is also one of the darkest parts of the Preserve, shielded from the lights of Las Vegas to the north and the sprawling cities of California to the west; many groups use this area for astronomical observation. And winter nights are long, so you might as well make the most of it!
Corn Springs, East of Joshua Tree National Park
The Chuckwalla Mountains sit in the transition area between California's high and low deserts, and thus enjoy winter temperatures somewhat warmer than those in the Mojave Desert. Corn Springs Campground, tucked into a canyon in the Chuckwallas at about 1,600 feet, can enjoy temperatures on winter days that reach up into the 70s -- though do bring layers.
The BLM-operated campground at Corn Springs has nine sites with drinking water, picnic tables and shade ramadas. The campground offers vault toilets and a half-mile, easy interpretive hiking trail that offers a chance to learn a bit about the palm oasis ecological community.
The campground is ten miles off Interstate 10 at the Corn Springs exit, and the road should be passable by passenger cars. But make sure you have a working spare: the canyon probably won't have cell service anytime soon. The nearest amenities other than water and shade are 17 miles away in Desert Center, so plan ahead.
Chuckwalla Valley, East of Joshua Tree National Park
One of the chief joys of camping at any season in the California desert is the prevalence of open areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Generally, if camping isn't specifically banned on a bit of 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.
There's a lot of qualifying 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 set for a bit of primitive camping, you might consider heading slightly downhill into the Chuckwalla Valley to get under a bit more of the atmosphere. Chuckwalla Valley is a bit less camping-friendly than it once was, what with industrial-scale solar projects slated for some of the best open-desert campsites in Riverside County, but there are still a few places left in the neighborhood that haven't been fenced off and bulldozed. West of Desert Center between that small town and the edges of Joshua Tree National Park, for instance, you can find a wide spot on a dirt road and pull up among the ironwoods, set up camp, and enjoy a long weekend without seeing another person.
One good spot I've used myself: take the Eagle Mountain Road exit off Interstate 10 and head north for just over two miles. At that point, a well-maintained dirt road, kept up by the Metropolitan Water District, angles off to the left. Turn onto it. The road's the property of the MWD, but they won't chase you away if you behave yourself. Before long as you proceed along the road 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, more or less secluded campsites. Pull in and enjoy.
This is desert camping at its most primitive, and you're on your own for amenities. Remember, even in winter you'll need at least a gallon of water per day per person. There's no plumbing out here either, so be prepared to rough it. Most people get by with the old cat hole method. As more people camp in the outback, we may find ourselves having to use more creative methods. You can always check with the local BLM for their advice.
Arlington Mine, Near the Colorado River Valley
As long as we're talking primitive camping, we might as well discuss a truly isolated spot in California's largest ironwood forest. Getting there will not only require a good high-clearance vehicle and enough water and supplies, but a good sense of direction and a better map than we can offer here. Before you visit this campsite get the Blythe and Eagle Mountain maps from the BLM. They're a few dollars each.
The place has no formal name, but it's between the Palen and McCoy mountains west of Blythe. To get there, take the Lovekiln Road exit off I-10 just west of Blythe, then head north on the road -- which will angle northwest and become Midland Road -- for about 16 miles. A dirt road will head off to the left, marked "Arlington Mine Road." Take it. The next 12 miles will put those maps to good use, as Arlington Mine Road is one of a braided chain of roads of use that head off into the desert, and taking your time to make sure you have the right road is well advised. About 11 miles from the pavement Arlington Mine Road will lead you to the north end of the McCoy Mountains, then curve around the range and land in a wash. Beyond the wash you'll absolutely need four-wheel drive, but whether you have 4WD or not the wash isn't a bad place to stop, among a thick linear forest of ironwood trees following the wash.
It's not quite as remote-seeming here as it once was: the Genesis Solar Project is about ten miles south, and it'll provide a source of light at night that may or may not bother you. Still, it's ten miles away and easy to ignore when there's so much close at hand in the ironwood forest to pay attention to. And elevation here is only about 900 feet above sea level, so the night shouldn't be a lot colder than if you'd stayed in Palm Springs.
Borrego Palm Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Any list of winter California desert campsites that ignored Anza Borrego Desert State Park would be flawed. The state park, California's largest, enjoys both a low desert setting and southern latitude that offer about as warm a desert camping setting as California can claim. And the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, just inside the park from the town of Borrego Springs, has over 100 sites, some of them ADA compliant, some of them with hookups, and all of them just a few easy trail miles from California's third-largest native desert fan palm grove.
As a place to sit and relax, admittedly, this campground is kind of close to town -- you won't find much desert solitude here. (Although having breakfast places just a couple miles away isn't the worst thing in the world.) Where this campground really shines is in its potential as a base of operations. You can hike up into Borrego Palm Canyon for miles and miles, or head east in the car and explore come of the canyons cutting into the south slopes of the Santa Rosa Mountains, and come back to a centrally located campfire.
This campground is popular, though, and sites do get claimed quickly. Check with the park office before you set your plans in stone.
Tuttle Creek Campground, Owens Valley
Winter camping in the Owens Valley sometimes strays out of the strictly defined 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 snow-capped High Sierra. But what the valley lacks in winter comfort it more than makes up for in staggering beauty.
Traditionally, laid-back low impact campers have headed for the Alabama Hills, a small range near Lone Pine that would be incredibly well known if only they weren't upshadowed by Mount Whitney, just a few miles east. There are many dispersed, free campsites throughout the hills in little coves and canyons, and as a result the Alabama Hills are well-loved. To the point where the BLM and local wildlife and commerce groups are officially discouraging people from camping there. Camping in the Alabama Hills means packing everything out when you leave, and that means everything -- see the "creative methods" link in the Chuckwalla Valley entry for more on that.
Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives, and a quick stop at the Interagency Visitor Center just south of Lone Pine can furnish you with a list of options. One alternative that the BLM specifically recommends to would-be Alabama Hills campers is the Tuttle Creek Campground, which is being kept open year-round these days specifically to divert people from the Alabama Hills. The campground is about a mile west of the Hills, on a broad alluvial slope with excellent views of both the hills and the Whitney crest. Vault toilets are available; the water supply is turned off for the winter so you'll want to inquire at the Visitor Center whether you'll need to haul in your supply from town. Campsites cost $5 per night on a first-come first-served basis.
To get to the campground drive 3.5 miles west of Lone Pine on Whitney Portal Road, then 1.5 miles south on Horseshoe Meadow Road. Follow the signs.
Moabi Regional Park, Colorado River Valley
This is one of the California desert's hidden gems, passed by millions of people a year crossing the Colorado River on I-40. A regional park operated by San Bernardino County, Moabi Regional Park -- aka Park Moabi -- sits on an old channel of the Colorado River at 450 feet above sea level, 12 miles east (in Interstate terms) of Needles. At first glance, this park may seem dispiritingly oriented toward the motorized recreation crowd: it's got a ramp for launching power boats, it's got a designated ORV area (lately closed) and it's got an almost completely paved campground for RV enthusiasts. But head out along the park road toward the river, then check out the 24 tent camping sites up and down "Peninsula Way."
Many of the sandy sites are screened from their neighbors (admittedly, in invasive tamarisk and Arundo, but screened nonetheless), and most sites have their own little bit of beach frontage right on the river. And with the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge's square miles of marshes right there across the river, temperatures are often incredibly pleasant even in the depths of winter. I've sat in my campsite there at night in late January with only a t-shirt as I watched the stars wheel overhead. A great spot for considering your proper place in the universe, especially with the transcontinental traffic on I-40 just a couple of miles away.
What's missing from this list? Let us know in the comments section below.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.