An Easy RV Camping Adventure Near San Diego
by Chris Emery of OutdoorSoCal.com
They say that with age comes wisdom. If so, my choice to rent an RV for a long weekend is clearly a sign I’m getting older because it’s one of the best choices I’ve made in a while.
Over the recent Thanksgiving school break, my family and I planned a three-night trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, an outdoor wonderland located just a couple of hours east of our home in San Diego. I am the publisher and editor of OutdoorSoCal.com, and was planning to collect information to flesh out a guide to the park we offer on the site.
The thought of chilly nights and mornings in a tent — especially with a 5-year-old in tow–made an RV especially appealing. So I went online and happened upon AdventureKT and booked a Winnebego Travato, one of the smaller Sprinter-esque RVs they rent out.
Todd, who owns AdventureKT with his wife Katie (coincidence?), walked me through the workings of the RV. This was the first time I’d rented a motorhome-style RV with all the bells and whistles — kitchen, toilet, shower, heating, cooling, fridge, freezer, you name it. I’ll be honest, I think I retained about 80 percent of what Todd told me, but enough stuck to keep the land yacht sailing. (More later about my RV captaining fails.)
That evening we packed up and headed towards the desert. For dinner, we stopped in Julian, an old mining town in the Cuyamaca Mountains that rise up between San Diego and Anza-Borrego. We ate at Julian Brewing Company, and three hikers, who were just finishing up a four-month through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail which runs through the area.
From there it was downhill to the desert. I’d booked a couple of nights at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, the largest campground in Anza-Borrego, and one that offers easy access and amenities for RVs. The first night of our adventure, however, I wasn’t able to reserve a site, so we would need to either boondock or find a spot at a first-come, first-served campground. Fortunately, Anza-Borrego has eight official primitive campgrounds that don’t require reservations. It was already dark when we pulled up to Yaqui Pass Primitive campground, situated in a mountain pass about 10 miles west of the town of Borrego Springs, the epicenter of Anza-Borrego.
Yaqui Pass (not to be confused with Yaqui Wash, a different campground further west) is essentially a large gravel parking lot. There are no bathrooms or other amenities. It’s relatively smooth and flat, which makes it a good spot to park an RV overnight. When we arrived, there was only one other group RV camping at the campground.
With the lights of the RV turned off, the milky way cut a swath across the star-filled sky. Anza-Borrego is an International Dark Sky Park, an official designation for what regular visitors have long known. It’s really an extraordinary place to take in the night sky. The Travato sleeps three, based on our experience. There is a bed for two in the back, and the dinette folds up to form a second bed. You could theoretically sleep two on the dinette bed, but it would be tight.
The next morning, we got up early and hiked to the Bill Kenyon Overlook, a short hike to a stunning 360-degree view of Anza-Borrego. The desert came alive in the early morning light, and we grabbed a photo of the three of us framed by tall ocotillo and surrounded by rocks and cactus – which we ended up using it for our Christmas cards.
Returning from the hike, we ate breakfast, packed up the RV and headed for Borrego Springs. Friends from San Diego were meeting us that night to camp together at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, but we had some time to kill before the would arrive in Anza-Borrego.
Borrego Springs centers around a large park inside of a traffic circle known as Christmas Tree Circle, which has a number of restaurants on its fringes. We grabbed lunch at Kesling’s Kitchen, a restaurant right on the circle, which is part of Borrego Art Institute, a non-profit gallery and creative space dedicated to the cultural enrichment of the community of Borrego Springs, California. (As a side note, one nice thing about a smaller RV like the Travato is how easy it is to drive and park. We had no problem parking in the spots in front of the restaurant, and that was true with parking spots throughout the trip.)
After breakfast, we headed to the Anza-Borrego visitor’s center, operated by California State Parks. The visitor’s center is located a couple of miles due west of Christmas Tree Circle, just south of Borrego Palm Canyon Campground. The building is set in the ground so that when you first pull up, all you see are some restrooms next to the parking lot. From the parking area, a path brings you around to the front of the building, made of rugged stone walls. The big front doors have handles shaped to look like the areas indigenous big horned sheep.
If you are headed to Anza-Borrego, the visitor’s center is worth a stop. The building and surrounding desert landscape are striking and the exhibits inside are museum quality, covering everything from the geological history of the region, local wildlife, and the indigenous peoples that have called the region home for thousands of years. It’s also a terrific place to get information on trails, camping and road conditions. The desert is prone to flash floods that can make roads impassable and heavy rains can make mud pits out of some of the primitive camping areas, so it’s a good idea to check on the roads ahead of time if you’ll be exploring in an RV.
Our friends called while we were entertaining ourselves at the visitors center, and we decided to hike The Slot, a classic Anza-Borrego slot-canyon trail, before heading to the campground. The slot is about a 20-minute drive southeast of Borrego Springs, and a little tricky to find. The road gravel road to the trailhead is easy to miss, and the tiny road sign doesn’t help matters. Even though I’d set the mileage tracker on the RV, I blew right by it the first time and we had to circle back. The road is gravel with a good amount of washboarding, so the RV shook while we drove. It was a good reminder of why the doors of the inside cabinets lock shut.
The Slot is a fun hike. It’s only about a mile long, and winds through a steep and very narrow canyon. The trail gets so narrow in places, that I had to take off my backpack to squeeze through. Our son, Kai, and our friends two kids loved exploring the canyon, as there is a surprising geological twist around each corner. As you approach the trailhead, it’s worth keeping a close eye on kids, because the canyon drops off steeply in places along the approach trail.
By the time we finished hiking The Slot, it was time to check-in at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, which is a mile or so from the visitor’s center. The campground comprises three loops, one of which is dedicated to RV camping and offers full hookups. I’d snagged a reservation in the southmost loop, which allows both tent camping and RVs (but no hookups). Our space was arranged such that the side door of the RV opened right onto the site’s picnic table and shade ramada, which was convenient for bringing food from the RV to the picnic table.
This is a well-maintained campground. The bathrooms and shower facilities are elegant in their utilitarian simplicity. Everything is built to last and clearly well cared for (shout out to the state park service).
That night, we grilled marshmallows over the sites firepit and admired the stars, which weren’t as distinct as they’d been at Yaqui Pass, but were still better than anything you can see in most parts of the country.
Borrego Palm Canyon Campground is a great base of operations for exploring Anza-Borrego, especially the northern half of the park near Borrego Springs. There are several hikes nearby, including three that start at the campground. Borrego Palm Canyon Trail is a popular Anza-Borrego hike that brings you to a palm oasis just 1.5 miles from the campground and is a good choice for hiking with kids (as long as they can make the 3-mile round trip, or you can carry them in a backpack). The Visitor’s Center Interpretive Trail and the Panoramic Overlook Trail, a short, steep hike, also start at the campground.
The next morning, we opted to try Panoramic Overlook Trail, as our friends had to get back to San Diego. The trail heads south for a few hundred yards from the campground along the base of the mountains before angling steeply upward. While this trail is not long, it will get you breathing quickly. It climbs about 265 feet in a quarter-mile to the overlook. We never made it to the top.
As we neared the overlook, the sides of the trail dropped off steeply and we decided it wasn’t prudent to continue on with a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old in tow. Also, the 3-year-old, our friends’ daughter, had a painful run-in with a cactus that required the attention of a pair of tweezers. Still, we got high enough to enjoy the epic views of Borrego Springs and the surrounding mountains and deserts.
That night, our friends headed back to the city and my wife, son and I had the campground to ourselves. Or we thought. At 11 pm a loud knock on the RV door woke me from contented slumber. I peered out through the side door window and was met with the aggressive beam of a flashlight in the face.
“Sir, is everything alright in there.”
It was a woman’s voice, speaking in the matter-of-fact tone of a police officer. I pulled my pants on and opened the door, and stepped out to greet the two park rangers who were shining lights on me.
“Sir, you’re lights are flashing and we are checking to make sure everything’s alright,” the officer repeated.
Sure enough, the parking lights on the Travato were flashing every 10 seconds or so. Problem was, I had no idea why. I checked the carbon monoxide center inside and scanned the dashboard for some signal, but couldn’t find anything to tell me why the lights would be flashing. After 5 minutes or so, the rangers must have figured we were fine, and they were dealing with an RV newbie, and moved on to less hopeless causes.
An hour of internet searching and reading the owner’s manual for the RV later, I realized that the sliding side door wasn’t closing all the way because the dinette bed where I was sleeping was in the way. I gave the door a good push, and the annoying light show stopped at long last.