Desert Camping in California: The Ultimate Guide

Desert Camping in California: The Ultimate Guide

Camping in itself is an exhilarating experience. It gets us away from the constant barrage of city lights, screens, and light pollution that lives with us. It helps us reconnect with nature and, just as importantly, helps us connect deeper with those we hold dear. 

Sweltering days and cool nights in the middle of a gorgeous, arid space can make for incredible memories and experiences. In California, in particular, there are countless possibilities for desert camping. 

Olivers loves the great outdoors. Below, we’ll be showcasing the best of desert camping in California, so you can plan your next trip.

What Makes Desert Camping Special?

Desert camping varies from traditional camping in several ways. Most notably, the sort of preparation you need to perform is much more extensive.

The desert is a beautiful land of varied extremes. The days can grow unbearably hot and the nights unendurably cold. Sunscreen, warm and cold-weather clothing and coverings, and plenty of hydration are a must when camping on the West Coast

Trail markers can also be few and far between. Dedicated GPS devices and cell phones are both essential to keep you on target and prevent getting lost. 

Flash floods are also a serious risk when desert camping, especially in Southern California. To avoid getting caught up in one, set your campsite at a high elevation and away from a water source. This way, even if a flood catches you unaware, you’ll likely be in a place of safety.

You’ll also want to be prepared for wildlife, both for observation and safety purposes. Venomous snakes and killer bees both proliferate in the desert but can be avoided with caution. To escape bees, the best option is simply to run, covering exposed skin as you go. 

Many venomous snakes in California deserts only attack when provoked. Staying aware of your surroundings, wearing long pants, and not disturbing potential hiding places can keep you safe. 

Once you’ve had your precautionary measures in place, it’s time to choose your desert. There are three major deserts in California, all in the eastern part of the state. The Mojave and Sonoran Deserts are both in the southeast portion of the state. The Great Basin desert is more centralized and is vastly different from the other two in terms of climate.

Now that the essential aspects of preparing for your trip are covered, we’ll next highlight these three major deserts. Each one has its own unique flora, fauna, and ecosystem. 

Camping in the Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert is arguably one of the most iconic in terms of its ecosystem. It is home to Joshua Tree National Park, where yucca tree branches stretch to the sky.

Joshua Tree National Park is easily accessible by car and is located conveniently near the resort town of Palm Springs. Before or after your trip, you can easily take a visit to its gorgeous vistas. During your trip, you can see cactus gardens, impressive rock formations, and more.

The desert is also home to one of the most inhospitable parts of the country if not the planet. Death Valley is perfect for the most dedicated adventurers; its rock formations will transport you to another world. If you want to visit Death Valley, do so in the winter. Temperatures range from a low of 38 degrees in December to a high of 82 degrees in March.

We can’t recommend Red Rock Canyon or the Mojave Nature Preserve enough if you are venturing closer to Las Vegas. Mojave Nature Preserve offers views of a Joshua Tree forest even larger than the namesake park. You can also hear singing sand dunes, a natural phenomenon caused by shifting sand and air. 

For rock climbers, the sights to be had at Red Rock Canyon are second-to-none. Rich Aztec sandstone and sedimentary rocks are often the highlights of the camping experience. 

The Mojave desert forms one of the most iconic desert landscapes in the country. For our next highlight, we’ll be going somewhere completely different. 

Camping in the Great Basin Desert

The Great Basin Desert is located in the watershed of the Sierra Nevada. As a result, it gets significant snowfall in the winter months compared to the other two deserts. Whether you want to visit in verdant summers or blistering winters, you’ll receive extraordinary views.

Admittedly, only a small fraction of the Great Basin Desert is in the state of California. If you want to make the most of your exploration, you’ll need to travel to the next state over. Great Basin National Park, located in central Nevada, provides one of the most recognizable parts of the desert.

The peak months for camping in the Great Basin National Park run from summer to early Fall. Currently, there are five open campsites, three of which take reservations from May to either September or October. The others are first-come, first-served; travelers can’t book a reservation. 

If you are visiting the Great Basin Desert, you’ll want to bring plenty of water: At the moment, no water is available at any of the campgrounds, though the Lehman Caves Visitor Center has water.

The highest point of elevation for mountaineers is Wheelers Peak, which reaches a height of over 7,500 ft. Often, this peak is capped with snow. The base of the mountain provides an entrance into one of the must-see sights of the Great Basin Desert. 

The Lehman Caves provide guided cave tours to help you explore a vast underground ecosystem. With a year-round campsite at the base, there’s no excuse not to visit them.

Camping in the Colorado Desert

The majority of the Sonoran Desert is actually south of the border; the portion in the U.S. is the Colorado desert. Unlike the Mojave Desert, which reaches a five-figure elevation, this area is known as the Low Desert. The majority of the Colorado Desert lies below 3,000 feet in elevation, dipping to a low of 275 feet.

Numerous valleys cut through the Colorado Desert. These include Palo Verde and the Coachella Valley, among others. The latter is home to music festivals throughout the year, making it a high-value destination for music lovers. 

The Salton Sea is among the many essential sites in the Californian portion of the Colorado Desert. It provides a very different type of camping experience due to its proximity to this artificial lake. The Salton Sea once dried up but has since been reformed due to irrigation. Though it has been polluted, it is currently the focus of a massive clean-up effort within the state. 

More notably, the area is home to a variety of artists and artworks. The most immediately visible of these is Salvation Mountain, a medium-sized hill entirely covered in paint. This labor of love required decades to design and implement.

For a more traditional view, head to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The state park is officially designated a dark-sky park, restricting light pollution to provide unfettered views of the sky at night. During the day in the summer months, you can explore fields of wildflowers that bloom every season. For a camping site that’s beautiful any hour of the day, this state park provides much to love.

Choosing Your Campsite

Each desert offers a vastly different view of the world around us. Underground caves, beautiful flowers, harsh rocky deserts, and singing dunes all feature in California’s ecosystem. Once you’ve chosen where to set up camp, consider following up by making a checklist for all the gear you need


Floods - Joshua Tree National Park I US National Park Service

Weather - Death Valley National Park I US National Park Service

The Vegetation of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts I California Department of Conservation

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