A few days ago, I found myself daydreaming from my desk about my next camping excursion. With my heart set on pines and alpine lakes, I got to planning—but was promptly stopped in my tracks by the weather forecast. With highs barely reaching the low 40s, it was clear that the summer camping season was officially over (for this warm-blooded Californian, anyway).
Was I disappointed? No way! The onset of fall means a whole ‘nother kind of outdoor exploration is finally accessible again: the desert. As mountain conditions creep toward first snow, the desert air cools to perfection. Bright blue skies, uniquely diverse flora, and a refreshingly arid climate provide a welcome change of scenery and the perfect setting for fall camping.
Whether you’re a desert camping aficionado who’s already fallen in love with sands that stretch to a low horizon or a newbie who doesn’t know a cactus from a pincushion, this list of California’s best desert camping destinations will redefine your definition of paradise.
Joshua Tree has been an Instagram darling for years, and it’s not hard to see why. A 3-hour drive from Los Angeles, the park is covered in endless swaths of its namesake: the Joshua tree. This spiky yucca plant with skyward-reaching branches seems like something straight off the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. You’ll be amazed by the giant sandstone boulders just begging to be climbed—and those wanting to get off the ground (amateur scramblers and serious rock climbers alike) can find plenty of attractive options.
Joshua Tree gets crowded on fall weekends, so you may want to strike a balance of privacy and convenience by trying to get a site at Jumbo Rocks Campground. This spot is aptly named—many of the campsites are in nooks among the boulders, lending a welcome sense of solitude. Climb up on the rocks to watch the sunset, a spectacular sight when the pink sky is highlighted by the silhouettes of the Joshua trees.
During prime camping season, it can be tough to snag a spot at Jumbo Rocks. Never fear—set up a free Hipcamp Alert to get notified when a spot opens up, or check out some of the rad Hipcamps just outside the park below, many with more space and privacy.
If you love the otherworldliness of Joshua Tree but crave more adventure (and fewer people), Mojave National Preserve will be your jam—you’ll enjoy a similar landscape without the throngs of weekend warriors. This sprawling preserve is best suited for those prepared to rough it, as many of the roads require high-clearance vehicles, and services are few. But the extra planning is worth it. In a weekend, you can visit a lava-formed cave, massive sand dunes, and the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world.
You can pitch your tent anywhere in the preserve that calls your name (so long as you stay half a mile from the road), but those who prefer a more established campground can try Mid Hills. This tent-only campground maintains an off-the-beaten-path vibe, and at over 5,000 feet of elevation, it tends to be cooler than the rest of the preserve. No campfires are allowed, which is an advantage in this case—the night sky is a sight to behold, and the stars seem that much brighter without the glow of a nearby flame.
When people think of Death Valley, many envision a sizzling stretch of nothing as far as the eye can see. This couldn’t be more untrue in late fall, when temperatures drop to comfortably toasty levels and leave the park ripe for exploration. Our country’s most expansive national park is full of surprises: from the shimmering salt flats of Badwater Basin to the snow-dusted peaks of the Panamint Range, one could happily spend weeks adventuring here—on foot, on horseback, or behind the wheel of an off-road vehicle—and never tire of the magic.
Death Valley’s campgrounds are as varied as its geography, some on remote plateaus and others adjacent to restaurants and swimming pools. Our in-the-park pick, particularly for tent campers, is Texas Spring. Its central location is a perfect jumping-off point for day trips to Death Valley’s far reaches, and its placement on a hilltop lends to sweet sunrise views. Keep in mind: Like most other campsites in the park, Texas Spring’s 92 sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Show up bright and early, or look to one of the private Hipcamps nearby—some on the California side, and others in Nevada.
Though not a desert in the traditional sense, Pinnacles National Park is still best visited after the stifling summer temperatures ease up, giving way to mild days and crisp evenings. The land that makes up the tiny park was formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, creating unique geography that packs quite a bit of punch in its 42 square miles. Many of the park’s highlights can be taken in on a 9-mile loop trail, which takes campers to high peaks and through an incredible talus cave, providing views of the park’s namesake spires for much of the way.
Pinnacles’ sole campground, Pinnacles Campground is a conveniently short distance from all amenities, and a shuttle makes frequent runs from its campsites to parking lots and trailheads. Campsites can be reserved six months in advance, but free Hipcamp Alerts also allow campers to snag last-minute cancellations that open up. Large group spots are also available, and even the smaller sites feature barbecue grates and fire rings. The campground’s many oak trees are a nice touch.
Haven’t heard of the Cuyama Valley? You’re in good company—this seldom visited area is one of California’s best kept secrets. A stretch of mystical high desert terrain nestled in the San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountains, the badlands provide enough solace and untapped wilderness for the most intrepid of travelers. Hike through one of the canyons in the badlands’ gnarled folds, keeping your eyes peeled for Chumash petroglyphs and taking in the smell of juniper and pinyon pine.
No matter what part of the California desert you’re heading to for your next fall camping trip, there’s a Hipcamp in every corner. Use our interactive fall foliage map to find out exactly when to time your trip for peak foliage.
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