While camping is an ideal way to enjoy the great outdoors, the gizmos and accoutrements available to ease our transition from urban living can easily distract from the experience. Without a doubt, a camping excursion should not pose a survival challenge; but less is more. Minimalist camping can make sleeping under the stars more meaningful than peering at them through an RV moon-roof. Around San Diego, tent-only campgrounds are few and far between – you can count them on one hand; however, each offers minimal amenities to maximize your camping experience.
Keep It Rugged
The enormous Cleveland National Forest spans 460,000 verdant acres and provides recreational opportunities such as hiking, fishing, climbing and mountain biking. Though you will find visitors and locals alike regularly partaking in its many activities, the forest maintains both its natural beauty and its appealing wilderness. After persisting through the oaks and pines in daylight hours, preserve your ruggedness at one of its most bare-bones campgrounds. Indian Flats is a tent-only campground containing only 17 sites, each with a fire ring, and three vault toilets. If you're feeling especially ambitious, locate the campground's access to the esteemed 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail.
In addition to its natural, panoramic escapes, Cleveland National Forest houses the essential Palomar Observatory. The observatory utilizes a 200-inch telescope -- which was the world’s largest until recently -- and attracts amateur astronomers to its Explore the Stars parties during significant celestial events. When the party’s over, take advantage of the adjacent, tent-only Fry Creek Campground. With 20 sites and two vault toilets, the campground is a primitive experience that affords the region’s clearest stargazing. Come morning, bask in the visual and olfactory splendor of surrounding woods before setting off on the short loop trail circumventing the campground.
Doane to Earth
Amid the dense woods and meadows of Palomar Mountain State Park in North San Diego County, Doane Valley Family Campground -- one of two in the park -- hosts 18 tent-only sites clustered in a separate portion of the campground. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring and sits near restrooms, showers and drinking water taps. What differentiates these tent-only sites from standard ones is car access -- meaning there is none. The walk from the parking lot will likely motivate essentials-only packing and a greater natural connection with the campground and Mount Palomar.
Parched and Primitive
For some of the greatest wildflower displays in Southern California, you will have to hit the trails of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. While the flourishing desert lies over 100 miles from downtown San Diego, it marks the eastern border of San Diego County. The desert is the last of California’s state parks to allow dispersed camping. Following a few regulations -- such as raising campfires and camping 100 feet from the road -- you can pitch tent anywhere along the trails of the park. If you would prefer hiking without your tent and sleeping bag, you’ll find nine primitive campgrounds available throughout the park that host undeveloped sites containing only a fire ring. These sites are perfect for quickly pitching tent before setting out to see blooming cacti and desert wildflowers. Bring at least twice as much water as you imagine you'll need.
- Forest Camping: Cleveland National Forest
- USDA: Cleveland National Forest: Indian Flats Campground
- USDA: Cleveland National Forest Visitor Guide
- Reserve America: Fry Creek Campground
- USDA: Cleveland National Forest: Fry Creek Campground
- Reserve America: Palomar Mountain SP, CA
- Palomar Mountain State Park: Camping
- Borrego Springs Chamber & Visitors' Bureau: Camping
- USDA: Cleveland National Forest: About the Forest
- Reserve America: Palomar Mountain SP, CA: Campsite Map