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 (for this warm-blooded Californian, anyway) the summer camping season was officially over.
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 is cooling to perfection. Bright blue skies, uniquely diverse flora, and a refreshingly arid climate provide a welcome change of scenery.
Whether you’re an 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 National Park has become an Instagram darling in recent years, and it’s not hard to see why. A three-hour drive from Los Angeles, the park is covered in endless swaths of its namesake, the Joshua Tree. The 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 — amateur scramblers and serious rock climbers alike will find attractive options.
Joshua Tree gets crowded on weekends, so you’ll want to strike a balance of privacy and convenience 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, the pink sky highlighted by the silhouettes of Joshua Trees. Get there early, as spots fill up fast.
During prime camping season, it can be sometimes impossible to snag a spot at Jumbo Rocks. There are some pretty rad Hipcamps near the park though that are definitely worth checking out!
If you love the otherworldliness of Joshua Tree but crave more adventure (and less 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: 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 that calls your name (as long as you stay half a mile from the road) but for those who prefer a more established campground, try Mid Hills. This tent-only site 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 fires 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 wrong, especially in late Fall when temperatures drop to comfortably toasty levels, leaving 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, via 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 pick, particularly for tent campers, is Texas Spring. Its central location is a perfect jumping off point for day trips to the park’s far reaches, and its placement on a hilltop lends to sweet sunrise views. Keep in mind: like most other campsites in the park, this one is first-come, first-served.
There’s also a pretty cool Hipcamp nearby—but on the Nevada side!
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 nine mile loop trail, which will take you to high peaks and through an incredible talus cave, providing views of the park’s namesake spires for much of the way.
There is only one campground at Pinnacles; thankfully, you can reserve a site up to six months in advance. The Pinnacles campground is, as you would expect, a conveniently short distance from all amenities, and a shuttle makes frequent stops at the parking lots and trailheads. Large group spots are available, but even solo travelers at smaller sites have barbecue grates and fire rings at their disposal, and the property’s many oak trees are a pleasant touch.
Just outside of the park is Bar SZ Ranch—a working family-owned ranch where you can enjoy horseback riding, skeet and target shooting, hayrides, feeding animals, archery and roping. Yee-haw!
Haven’t heard of the Cuyama Badlands? 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 bandlands’ gnarled folds, keeping your eyes peeled for Chumash petroglyphs and taking in the smell of juniper and pinyon pine.
The Songdog Campsites are a fantastic option for bedding down in the area. Located on a 200 foot tall mesa, the sites are scattered with plenty of room for privacy, all with breathtaking views of the valley below. One lavish “glampout” is also available, complete with a gorgeous canvas tent, firewood, and everything you need to cook a meal as beautiful and satisfying as your surroundings.
Jennifer Kotlewski is a Los Angeles based writer, humanitarian, and nature junkie. You can see what kind of trouble she’s currently getting into via instagram @jenkotlewski.