Lake Havasu State Park


Well, it’s been a pretty hectic last couple of months, but it’s almost spring break, and for many of us in Arizona and Southern California that means one thing – Havasu. If you’ve never been to Havasu for spring break, you’re simply missing out (just do a google search, pictures are always better than words). However, Havasu is actually a great destination year round, and Lake Havasu State Park is the go-to campground. Here’s our latest review from our recent stay in December of 2013. If you’re looking for primitive boat-in campgrounds around the lake, here’s a list of both BLM and AZ State Park managed sites.

Lake Havasu State Park Entrance
Lake Havasu State Park Entrance

If you haven’t been to Lake Havasu State Park recently, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the changes that have been made. Arizona State Parks have just completed a total renovation of the campground, mainly installing new electric boxes and running water at each campsite as well as completing a new nature trail (check out a great article on the upgrades from the golakehavasu blog). The new electric outlets will be a godsend for those of you visiting in the summer, as temperatures average above 105 degrees, and often top 115, especially in July. The sites have also been newly graded, and bathroom facilities were improved too.

Besides the new 50 amp electrical boxes, the best part of Lake Havasu State Park is its location. The park is about a 5 minute drive from the London Bridge, and maybe 10 minutes from downtown. Many of the campsites are right on the lake, and most at least have a lake view, yet there’s also a solid buffer of natural area between the campground and London Bridge Road. Also, it’s important to note that Google Maps will really not help you find this place. As of March 2014, it still directs you to a pin point south of town in the middle of nowhere. The park’s main entrance is off of Industrial Blvd., about a mile or so north of the London Bridge on State Route 95 in downtown Lake Havasu City. Route 95 is the only road connecting Lake Havasu to the outside world, but it’s a beautiful drive, especially from the south. If you’re coming from Phoenix or LA, the quickest way is to take the I-10 to Quartsize, where you exit on the 95 and go north through Parker (if you have some extra time, make sure to stop at Parker Dam and the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge). If you’re coming from Flagstaff or Vegas, take the 95 south off I-40.

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Lake Havasu State Park Map (click to enlarge)

Lake Havasu would be a great place to stay if it was just for location, but the campground is actually really nice, especially since the renovation. We stayed at site #34, which was right on the lake. Our other favorite sites were 16, 10 (great shade), and 7 & 8. Most of the sites in the interior of the campground didn’t have much natural shade, but there is a shade structure at every site. Of course, for those of you staying in RV’s, it won’t make much of a difference, but if you’re planning on sweating it out in a tent over the summer, best of luck! There’s really not too much site to site separation either, so privacy can tend to be minimum. Again, keep in mind this campground hasn’t been renovated to specifically suit tents, but I also imagine that most people who will come here for spring break aren’t necessarily concerned about privacy.

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Our campsite, #37. The lakeshore is about 25 yards to the right of the frame.

An interesting wrinkle here is that lake-side campgrounds are actually charged a higher fee than the other sites. Beachfront sites are 3, 4, 7, 8, 10, 14, 16, 34, 36, 38, 40, and 41, and are charged at $35 per night (the regular rate is $30). Reservations through the AZ State Parks can be made here or by calling (520) 586-2283 (there is a $5 non-refundable reservation fee). I think the extra fee is definitely worth it, if just for the fact that you’re ensured a little more privacy. It’s also important to realize that these are beachfront sites in terms of location, but not every site enjoys beach-y sand. At our site, #37, the same gravel/rock surface stretched all the way to a rocky shoreline, which definitely wouldn’t be ideal to layout or play on.

As you can imagine, this campground gets absolutely packed, and not just at spring break (so you know, ASU, which has the earliest spring break of the major Arizona universities, is on break this year the week of March 10th). Almost every weekend from March to October is full, especially in years like this where summer seems to have started early. The busiest season is from Memorial Day to Labor Day, where almost every weekend is booked solid and there are over 1,000 boat launches per weekend. However, our favorite season to go to Havasu is October-Novmember and February-March. Winter temperatures are definitely cooler, but if you’re fine with 70 degree weather and want to avoid the crowds, that’s the time to go.

If you do go, know the rules. Arizona State Parks strictly enforces a fireworks ban and applicable drinking laws, and will often suspend campfire privileges during particularly windy days. There can be up to 12 people per campsite, but only 6 of them can be adults. Quiet hours are from 10pm to 6am, and the person who registers for the campsite is responsible for all the campsite activities (interesting this is mentioned eh?) Showers are available here, but are only available to registered campers.

Bottom line, if you’re looking to visit Havasu and camp while you’re there, this is your best option. The proximity to London Bridge, downtown Lake Havasu City, and the waterfront location of the campground add up to the best camping experience in Lake Havasu. Make sure you make your reservations early, especially for the busy season, and check out the AZ State Parks list of area attractions.

Think we missed something? Have an additional question? Want to tell us a really awesome story of your last trip to Havasu? Leave us a comment! We’d love to hear from you!

Jumbo Rocks Campground


Check out our “Vlog” video from Jumbo Rocks. Special Thanks to  The Perks, a small band out of Southern California, for the soundtrack, as well as Lowepro, who generously sent us their new Rover Pro 45L AW camera bag to use!

Jumbo Rocks is aptly named, and is the biggest campground in Joshua Tree National Park. If you’re looking for a campground full of great sites, easy access to trails, and big huge boulders to climb when you step out of your tent, this is the place to be.

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Joshua Tree Park Map (click to enlarge)

Spot Jumbo Rocks? It may be a little difficult – Joshua Tree encompasses almost 800,000 acres, or over 1200 square miles. However, navigating the park is relatively easy. Most will enter from the north, at either the town of Joshua Tree or Twentynine Palms. For those traveling from Arizona or other areas of southeastern California, the best entrance is from the south, off I-10 near Chiraco Summit. Arizonians – don’t exit the 10 at Desert Center, unless you’d like a long, boring detour around the park to the Twentynine Palms Entrance. Likewise, for those coming from LA, the quickest way to Jumbo Rocks is to take the 62 Freeway north to Yucca Valley and the Joshua Tree entrance.

Joshua Tree is also unique in that there are two big campgrounds that are located in secluded, dead-end areas right inside the northern boundary (Blackrock & Indian Cove), while the northeast area of the park is congressionally protected wilderness.  There are basically 3 paved roads, and almost all of the attractions are centrally located in the northwest area of the park. The California Riding & Hiking Trail winds across the park, while there are a handful of popular off road opportunities as well.

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Jumbo Rocks Campground Entrance

Jumbo Rocks might not be centrally located, but it’s pretty close. Skull Rock Trail departs right from the campground (across from the amphitheater and site 93), and the hike we did, the Lucky Boy Vista-Quen Mine Loop Trail (near the bold B on the map north of Jumbo Rocks), was just a short drive away. Ryan Mt. Trail and Cap Rock are a short 10 minute drive west, while Arch Rock and White Tank are about the same distance east.

The proximity to other campgrounds is important, since all sites at Jumbo Rocks are first-come, first-serve the entire year (the only reservations accepted in Joshua Tree are for Black Rock and Indian Cove for the peak months of October through May – to reserve these campgrounds visit Recreation.gov). Jumbo Rocks is the biggest and one of the most popular campgrounds in Joshua Tree, so if you’re arriving during the peak months of May – October, plan accordingly. Even though we visited over the week of Christmas, there were a decent amount of people both in the campground and the park. It will get cold in the winter, for us it got to a low of 41 degrees at night, while barely creeping over a perfect 65 during the day. In the summer, it will be hot. Jumbo Rocks sits at 4,400 ft., but it’s still a desert!

Jumbo Rocks Campground
Jumbo Rocks Campground Map (click to enlarge)

Jumbo Rocks has 124 sites, and is only $10 per night. Site 122 is wheelchair accessible, and is actually a pretty nice site (don’t choose this site unless it’s the last free site available!) The campground has its own amphitheater, a recycling station, baskets for used propane bottles, and wildlife proof trash bins scattered throughout. The toilets are chemical – there is no available water in this campground. The nearest water is located in Twentynine Palms, where you can either fill up at the Visitors Center or just buy water at the Circle K off Hwy 62 (if you’re entering the park off I-10, you can fill up on water at the Cottonwood Visitors Center when you stop to pay your park entrance fee).

Most of the sites in this campground are incorporated into the rocks, with some even on the rock formations themselves. Most have a fair degree of privacy, although some are crammed because of where they’re located. The campground is divided into a handful of loops, while the main road has campsites on it as well. Obviously, the further into the campground you go the less traffic there is, but beware that during peak season there will be over 100 campers passing the first few sites.

The map is very helpful, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Sites 4-9 are walk-ins, so although they look like they’re smashed right up against the road, they may actually be quite appealing for those who are up for walking their gear a little bit further into the rocks (good strategy for shade in the warmer months, but in the winter it will get pretty cold!) Loop 17-24 backs up to a more gradual slope of rocks, and might be a good place for families with younger children who want to explore the rocks but can’t tackle the bigger formations. Loop 25-41 is decent, but it elevates into a more desert-like area, with no rock formations right in the sites, which may be a deal breaker for some (like us) who love the rocks. Same goes for 42-64 and 72-76 (the loops to the bottom of the campground map are more desert, while the main road and top loops are in the rocks).

Our campsite, #77

We stayed at site #77 at the far end of the campground, a large yet private site that backed up right to the giant boulders. Our favorite sites were 10 & 11 for a group, 33, 41, 77-81, 87, 95, 101, and 120. The sites to stay away from are 65-67, if only because of their proximity to the bathroom.

If you want to get a better feel for what the rocks are really like, check out our Vlog video posted above, or check out the link to the Skull Rock Trail. The rock surroundings just have a special draw – I’m not exaggerating when I say you can come to Jumbo Rocks and never leave the campground. We highly recommend coming out and enjoying this campground.

Of course, our trip wouldn’t be complete without a hike. We chose the Lucky Boy Vista-Quen Mine Loop Trail because of the proximity to Jumbo Rocks, and we also were looking for a casual hike that wasn’t too treacherous. Queen Mine actually ended up being pretty cool – well worth the hike and the spotty trails, and you can actually enter the mine at one point if you’re so inclined.

Pine City Map Custom V2
Pine City Backcountry Map

This is another confusing map, and the same one you’ll get if you visit a ranger station (click here for the entire, un-cropped map). The Desert Queen Mine Road is a dirt road that branches off from the main road (Jumbo Rocks is cut off in the map, but is directly below Face Rock, a short 5 minute drive) that will end up at a parking lot at the B symbol on the map, where the Backcountry Board is. From there, there are three trails from the parking lot. Choose the one that heads to Desert Queen Mine, which may be hard to figure out since none of them are marked (the trail you want heads almost due east, while the Pine City Trail heads north). Continue to the end of the trail to see a sweeping view of the mine and the valley (see in the pictures below). However, to actually get to the mine, you need to look for the remnants of a small, well-hidden stone house to the right of the trail, before you get to the overlook. The trail down to the mine begins behind that house, which will take you down into the valley and then the trail up the side of the hill to the mines openings (this trail isn’t officially marked on the map, but it is decently maintained and the only way to get down the hill).

Once you’re in the valley, it’ll be quite clear where the pathway is to get up the side of the hill. The NPS has blockaded most of the mine entrances, but the main one near the top of the hill is actually still open – if you’re skinny enough! We were actually quite startled when we were checking out the entrance and then heard voices emanating from the mine’s depths, and it wasn’t until a young couple emerged that we figured it out what it was.

The hike is maybe 2 miles roundtrip if you stop at the mine like we did, but it’s beautiful, and checking out the mine is pretty cool. You can continue from the mine back to the loop  that continues to the Split Rock Loop Trail. Again, even though there are many Carins that help guide you, the trails are not heavily travelled, and it may become easy to get disoriented. We lost the trail when coming back up a wash that had just flooded. Even though the only thing we had to do to get back on route was climb a small hill, it can still be disorienting.

In conclusion, we loved Jumbo Rocks and Joshua Tree National Park. We will definitely be back to explore other campgrounds and hikes within the park, hopefully soon during the off-season months of January-March. We highly recommend this campground, and would definitely not mind returning.

Think we missed something? Have an additional question? Want to tell us a really sweet hiking spot that you discovered on your last trip to Jumbo Rocks? Leave us a comment! We’d love to hear from you!

Picacho State Recreation Area



Picacho State Recreation Area, or Picacho SRA, is a beautiful estuary that protects 8 miles of the California side of the Colorado River. The park has a rich history of mining and the old town of Picacho, but now is a haven for birds and birdwatchers, boaters and anglers, and – of course – campers.

The view of the Colorado River from the Upper Dock

Picacho SRA might be most notable for its sheer remoteness. The quickest and most accessible route is from Interstate 8 in Yuma (from the east) or Winterhaven (from the west). Although only about 24 miles north of I-8, the trip can easily take over an hour, depending on how well your car handles the 18 miles of dirt road. The road is well-maintained and often graded, but can be rendered impassable during monsoon season from flooding. 2WD and low clearance vehicles should have no problems, and trailers and RV’s work as well when the road is in good condition. California State Parks reminds all visitors to travel prepared through the desert, as there can sometimes be a lengthy period of time before someone passes you if you become stuck (and there is absolutely no cell coverage anywhere inside the park, or within about a 15-mile radius). Keep water, some snacks, and a shovel in your car at all times, and some warm clothes are not a bad idea during the winter months. Remember, the nearest hospital is in Yuma, a long, slow drive back. Stay with your vehicle, it’s much easier to spot from the air than a wandering person.

If you’re coming east from Arizona, take the Giss Pkwy exit from I-8, pass under the freeway, and then make a quick right onto S. Gila St. Make another right on 1st St., which will take you back under I-8 before crossing the old railroad bridge into California and the Quecahn Indian Reservation. Stay on that street, which is now Quechan Dr., until you reach the T-intersection with Picacho Rd, where you’ll make another right. Stay on Picacho for a couple miles until you pass over the All-Ameircan Canal, where you’ll make a left to head to the park and the pavement will end (the intersection is marked, but can be disorienting at night).

If you’re coming west from California, exit at Winterhaven Dr., and make a left. You will quickly approach the intersection with Picacho Dr. Make a right, and stay on that road until the above-mentioned left onto the dirt road. If you’ve never been to the Yuma area before, don’t be disoriented by the odd border lines. I-8 will parallel the Mexican border until the intersection with CA-186, where it then begins to parallel the Colorado River and Arizona (you can actually travel another 25 miles south through Arizona from Yuma to the Mexican border at San Luis). The official directions from the park can be seen here.

The dirt road connecting the park to Winterhaven and Yuma

Surprisingly, Picacho is actually known better for its wildlife than for its camping. The park sits on an important stretch of the Pacific Flyway, one of the main migratory paths for birds flying to the warmer temperatures of Central and South America for the winter. Fishing is a big draw, and is allowed 24hrs/day for licensed CA fishermen, or licensed AZ fishers with a Colorado River stamp. Bald eagles are routinely spotted here, as well as other birds such as quail, herons, woodpeckers, geese, and many others. Bighorn sheep are known to appear, as are mule deer and antelope. Wild burros are present as well; we actually saw one wandering through the campground at night when we arrived. Beware – if you visit during the active mosquito season (March through October), know that samples of West Nile Virus have been reported within the greater lower Colorado River, between Blythe and Yuma. Bring plenty of repellant and be aware of your surroundings.

I highly recommend you make the trip to Picacho with a 4WD car, as a huge element of recreation in the park is centered around exploring in your vehicle. Although it is explicitly outlawed to use off-road vehicles such as ATV’s or blaze your own path through the desert, the extensive miles of (dirt) roads are beautiful in their own right. All of the roads we travelled on were in good shape and are 2WD passable, but I’m guessing it’s easier to justify the expensive tow to your insurance company if you’re following the 4WD regulations throughout the park. An exception is Railroad Canyon, which was easily passable in my 2WD car even though non-4WD vehicles are not officially recommended (for reference, I drive a Toyota Rav4 with off-road tires). Otherwise, roads north of Taylor Lake are off limits. However, the sign at the Taylor Lake Overlook stipulates that 2WD Vehicles are prohibited, while the official park map only says 2WD is not recommended. If I had to bet, I would say that most 2WD would manage the roads north of Taylor Lake, as long as you’re visiting during a period of dry weather and low traffic.

Picacho SRA Park Map (click to enlarge)

There are 6 total campgrounds within the park: 3 boat-ins (Carrizo, Paddlewheeler, & Taylor Lake), 2 4WD accessible (The Outpost & 4 S Beach), and the Main Campground. For this review, we’re going to focus on the two that are fully accessible for those with 2WD cars – Taylor Lake and the Main Campground. There are also 2 group sites, 2 group canoe sites near the lower dock, and other BLM camping opportunities along the Picacho Rd. on BLM land and in the greater Yuma area. You’re also allowed to camp along the California shore of the river, save the two protected sites of Picacho Docks and the Stamp Mill site, and not at or between the two dock sites.

Overnight parking for boaters who are camping on the river is permitted in the parking area across from the group canoe camps at the lower dock. All boat-in sites are first-come, first-serve. The following boat-in sites have picnic tables, fire rings, and chemical toilets:

Outpost Camp – Three sites, cars or boaters ok.
4 S Beach Camp – Large open area, cats or boaters ok.
Carrizo and Paddlewheeler Camps – Two large sites each, boat/canoe campers only. No vehicles allowed.
Taylor Lake Camp – Four family sites – limit eight people per campsite. Cars or boaters ok. Read on to see pictures and a short write-up of Taylor Lake.
Group Canoe Camps – Two boat-in camps, located by the lower dock. For use of large groups over 15 people. Reservations are highly recommended during peak season. Call 760-996-2963.

The “Main Campground” isn’t officially named, so for our purposes we’ll continue to call it the Main Campground. 1 campsite per night is $20, with each additional vehicle (up to 3) an additional $5. A senior citizen discount is available for those over 62 years of age, but is only $2 off a campsite, and $1 off day use fee. The boat use fee is $5, with the river parking lot costing $10 per night.  For day use, a single vehicle is $5, regardless of people. For the boat-in campsites at Outpost and 4 S, there is a minimum $25 fee, with an additional $5 for each person after 5. Bail is set at a minimum of $71.50, so make sure to pay it!

Our tent at campsite #37

The main campground is comprised of 54 sites, the ranger office and amphitheater, the old cemetery (more on this later), a solar shower and toilet facilities, some porta-poties and some recently installed solar toilets. Every site has a picnic table and fire ring, and many have shade structures. There is drinking water available at spigots throughout, as well as walking access to the upper dock and Stewart Lake Trail. Some campsites have old concrete pads, relics of an old squatters town that flourished along the river before the park was established. An RV dump station is available, although none of the roads within the campground are paved.

The Main Campground Map (click to enlarge)

The campground is huge, and the bottom half (on the map above, 48, 49 & below) is much more spread out than the top half. There is a nice ridge that divides 45 & 47 from 41-43, while another hill separates 36 from 27-30. 22, 24, and 25 all back up onto a steep wall of rock, as well as 39 & 40. 53 backs up to the cemetery, which was exhumed from its old location years ago when the river threatened to overtake it. The area between 46 and 53 is open and flat, and so is the loop 2-12. The camp hosts stay in site #1, and as in most state parks, were a wonderful retired couple who spared over 30 minutes to chat and tell me more about the park.

We stayed at site #37, which was nice and secluded. 41 is a good site nearby, as it’s very private and backs up to the hill. 29 & 30 are a good group site, as they are very close to each other and shaded by gigantic tamarisk trees (no guarantee those will stay there forever – tamarisk is an invasive species that is playing havoc with the Colorado River ecosystem). The upper loop is the shadiest, but also more cramped than the bottom loops. Three campsites are handicapped accessible, while others are useable thanks to the old concrete pads.

Fees are due upon entering the park, although there is no ranger station. If you forget to get cash before you travel to the park (like myself), you’re able to obtain a fee envelope to send in your monies later. Don’t worry, the camp-hosts make sure to get your registration number and VIN, so it’s not possible to cheat the park (and with 18 miles of dirt road back to civilization, I wouldn’t test my karma either). There is a limit of 8 people and 3 vehicles per campsite, and remember, no OHV vehicles are allowed (that means rhinos, quads, gators, golf carts, ect.) Wood gathering and cutting is not permitted, but firewood is sold by the Camp Hosts for $6 a bundle. Quiet hours are from 10pm to 6am, and generators may be operated between 10am and 8pm only.

Reservations are not accepted for any drive-in campgrounds at Picacho, but with the number of sites available it’s usually not a problem to find one that’s free. However, weekends can become pretty busy, especially during peak season, which ranges from  October through early April. The inverted winter season is because of the drastic summer temperatures that occur in the park, which can often top 120 degrees. In July, the average temperature is 108 degrees; in August, 107. October’s average high is 90, but November drops to 75, and December gets even cooler with a high of 68 and low of 38. February begins to warm again at 74, while April sticks in the high 80’s with a low of 53.

Drive-in group campsite #1

Besides from the two group boat-in sites by the Lower Dock, there are two drive-in group sites, off of the main park road just past the entrance. Site #1 sits to the right of the loop, and is partially shaded, as you can see in the picture above. Site #2 sits opposite, and is directly in the sun. Both sites are $75 per night, and reservations are recommended for peak months and the weekends. The sites have their own bathroom facilities (porta-poties), as well as water. You’ll like that the distance from the main campsite allows for a little bit more lenience on noise, but you’re still right over the hill from the camp hosts, so don’t take it too far.

Taylor Lake Campground

The hidden gem of this park is Taylor Lake Campground. A popular boat-in stop, Taylor Lake is the other campground you can reach by 2WD, and is only 2 miles from the entrance station. Take a quick left after entering the park, or drive through the main campground, and you will soon come to a junction, with the campground sitting on the bluffs above you to the right. The views are incredible. In the picture, you see the new toilet facilities and boat ramp that were just recently installed, as well as sites 2 & 3. This picture is taken from site #4, which has the best view of any campsite in the park that we visited.

Taylor Lake campsite #4

Campsite #1 is on the hill opposite #4, and also has some nice views, but is more exposed and less impressive than #4. All regulations still apply at Taylor Lake, and these campsites go fast during peak use days. If you’re intent on getting this site; come early, set-up and pay, and then make the short drive back to explore the rest of the park. Conversely, Taylor Lake Viewpoint is just over the hill, while the road continues on towards the north and Carrizo Camp.

As you can see, Picacho SRA was a beautiful destination, and we will definitely return to camp at campsite #4 at Taylor Lake. If you’re up for the drive and the park’s remoteness, and especially if you bring a 4WD vehicle, the park is full of adventure and opportunity. For photographers, don’t forget a telephoto lens, or a pair of binoculars for those who enjoy bird-watching. We recommend going anytime between October and April, especially during the week, when the park is often nearly deserted. You can find more information on the park’s website here, and check out a few other photos below from our full day’s adventure!

Stayed at Picaho SRA already and think we missed something? Planning a trip and have a more specific question? Leave us a comment below! And as always, make sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like us on Facebook! We’re your Camping Companion!

Mather Campground – Grand Canyon National Park


Mather Campground is the main campground on the West Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, located right outside Grand Canyon Village. With over 300 sites, Mather is one of the biggest campgrounds we’ve been to, but it’s usually full every single night, and is open year-round. We’ve already been to Mather twice, once in the heart of winter and again in the peak of summer. This review will focus on what the campground is like in the summer, but check out the video below of our winter trip, where we stayed the first night at Mather before backpacking through the canyon (you can see this video under the TentTalk Travels page as well).

As you can see, the campground is open year round, although there are only a few loops open during the winter months. The campground sits at just a few hundred feet below 7,000ft., so prepare for biting cold and snow in the winter, with more moderate summer temperatures usually around the 70-80’s. The main attraction here is tent camping. RV’s are welcome, but there are no hookups inside the campground, although Trailer Village has them just down the road. Leashed pets are allowed, and showers are laundry are available (as well as soap for those who left theirs at home). There are a handful of group sites, which are usually used by some of the large bus tour groups, and a few communal sites, designed for bikers and backpackers to share (only available from March 1st until mid-November).

Fees are $18 per site per night, including a maximum of 2 vehicles, 6 people, and 3 tents per site (a vehicle that is towing a trailer, pop-up, tent trailer, fifth wheel, or a motor home pulling a vehicle is considered two vehicles.) Golden Age or Access passport holders pay ½ price year round, but the passport number is needed when making reservation and passport holder must be camping at the site. If you’re planning on staying from March until November, it is highly recommended you should make reservations, although with so many sites available you can usually find one without too much advance notice. During the winter months, the campground office is closed and online reservations are not available. Sites are on a first come first serve basis using the self-pay machine located at the campground office at the entrance to the campground (during the winter months, shared Hiker/biker campsites are not available).

Mather’s Campground Map (click to enlarge)

Like I said, this campground is massive. The park entrance is off Market Plaza Road, with the dump station and shower and laundry facilities immediately to your right. The campground office is up the road a short ways, where you will register and can find the pay phone and bulletin board. Notice that the Grand Canyon Shuttle stop is right by the entrance. The shuttle runs all across the South Rim, from Hermits Rest and the Hermit Trailhead in the west to the South Kaibab Trailhead and Yaki Point in the east. Buses operate on 4 interconnecting but independent routes, and you can find all the South Rim Shuttle information here. The Campfire Circle is hidden to the left of the road as you travel into the campground before reaching the entrance to Aspen Loop and the group sites of the Sage Loop. As the map shows, every loop has its own bathroom and water spigot, with trails connecting the loops together.

Mather Campground entrance

All sites are assigned, and don’t plan on changing your site when you arrive. Group sites S1, S2, S3, S6, and S7 may have up to 50 people and three vehicles, while sites S4 and S5 may have up to 25 people with two vehicles. Quiet hours are 10 pm to 6 am, and generator hours are limited to 7–9 am and 6–8 pm (generators may not be used in Pine Loop). Check in begins at noon, and check out at 11 am, but if sites are available, you can renew after 9 am. The campground is open 24/7, so you can show up at 1am and get your site registration at the ranger station, as long as you come by in the morning and check in (the park gates are open at night as well, so not a worry if you come after-hours). Stays are limited to 7 consecutive days and 30 days per calendar year. Fires are limited to camp stoves and fire rings provided at each site, and firewood can be bought at the store in the Grand Canyon Village (along with a variety of food and other supplies, like replacement string for tent poles). The Park Service recommends you store food and trash in your vehicle or hardsided containers. The Grand Canyon hosts a variety of wildlife— elk, deer, ravens, ground squirrels, and even mountain lions (when we visited, a herd of elk were wandering through the campground, and are regular visitors to the village).

Aspen loop

In no particular order, we loved sites 18, 73, 180, 192, and 294. Numbers 9, 60, 84, 112, 125, 154, 173, 188, 189, 293, and 300 were also good looking sites. As always, we look for sites that are relatively clean, spacious, private, and overall well-designed. The only sites we really didn’t like were 163, which was really rocky, and 174, which had little shade and no privacy. Try to avoid the bottom of Aspen Loop, which backs up to the shower and laundry facilities, and if you’re going to stay in Pine Loop, the top half is better than the bottom, with all of the top sites having more shade and privacy. In our opinion, there is no preferred loop or one loop to completely avoid; most sites are nice, the entire campground is well maintained, and there are only a handful of sites that may leave you wanting.

The gallery above is from our recent trip in the Summer of 2013. Below, you can see some of the pictures from our winter trip, in December 2012.

In conclusion, Mather is simply a great campground, especially at $18 per night. Most sites are nice, the campground itself is well maintained, and there are a lot of amenities that you will love if you’re a tent camper (we’re looking at you, showers). Mather’s location is almost as great as the sites itself – with walking access to the Grand Canyon Shuttle, you can get to the most popular viewpoints, the general store and bank, and El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodges, all without needing to take your car. Because of all of these reasons, this campground is almost always full, especially from May to September. If you’re looking for a more intimate place, there are a handful of nearby National Forrest Service campgrounds outside of the park, which are often used as overflow areas during peak summer months (Mather is the only campground in Grand Canyon Village, and the other NPS campground at Desert View is over 25 miles away and doesn’t accept reservations). If you plan ahead, you should not have a problem.

You can make reservations for Mather Campground at recreation.gov,  see the campground brochure here, and visit the Grand Canyon National Park Camping Page for even more info. The Grand Canyon National Park Service website is an excellent resource for any and all questions about the greater park.

Stayed at Mather already and think we missed something? Planning a trip and have a more specific question? Leave us a comment below!

Kayenta Campground – Dead Horse Point State Park


Dead Horse State Park sits at the end of Utah 313, occupying a slim peninsula that  ends in Dead Horse Point, a spectacular viewpoint of the Colorado RIver as it meanders towards Canyonlands National Park. Here is a great little video interview about the park from the Colorado River Re-Storied team, featuring ranger Megan Blackwelder.

Although Dead Horse Point is considered a “Moab-area” park, it is actually a 40 minute (30 mile) drive from Moab to the parks entrance. Taking US 191 north out of Moab will take you to the junction with Utah 313, which then climbs back south onto the plateau. After a few miles, you will approach an intersection, where the 313 makes a left and continues to Dead Horse Point (if you stay straight, the road will take you into Canyonlands National Park). There are a handful of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites along the 313 that you can opt to stay at if Dead Horse Point is full, including Cowboy and Horsethief, as well as the group site Lone Mesa.

Moab regional map

The park is open year round from 6am to 10pm, but only collects fees from 9am to 7pm (as of August 2013). It is $10 per each vehicle per day, up to 8 passengers. If the entrance kiosk is closed, they ask you to pay a fee at the self-serve fee station at the visitors center, located a few miles into the park, perched on the eastern-facing edge of the point. The visitors center is open from 8 to 6 in the summer (Mar 15 to Mid-Oct), and 9 to 5 in the winter (Mid-Oct to Mar 14), and has a small “food-truck” like cafe, Pony Expresso, where you can grab basic snacks and drinks. Each campsite goes for $25 per night, or $3 per person at the group site (located before you reach the visitors center on your left), with a minimum of 25 and maximum of 30 people.

The View southwest from Dead Horse Point at sunrise

The point itself is the main attraction at the park, and you can see why. The Colorado River gracefully weaves through the sandstone of the plateau 2,000ft below, making its famous incise meander. There are bathrooms at the point, as well as a handful of picnic sites with parking and shade structures. The point itself is mostly paved, with a small lookout deck and shade structures. Many people will camp at Kayenta for the sole purpose of catching the sunrise over the canyons, especially photographers. Getting there around 6am (in the summer) will ensure you catch the best colors and mildest temperatures, or, if waking up early isn’t your thing, arriving at the point before 6pm to catch the sunset is equally as rewarding.

Kayenta itself is located just past the visitors center on your right (if you’re heading towards the point). It’s about a quarter mile or so from the point, so within walking distance if you want to take the trail that parallels the rim. The dump station is in the front of the campsite, as well as the dumpster. The campground is set around a 1 way loop that climbs up a gentle slope, with site 1 at the bottom and 11 at the top.

Kayenta Campground map

As you can see, the campground itself is pretty small, and with only 21 sites, it often fills up quite quickly. Reservations are recommended, most likely won’t be able to just pull up to the entrance station and get a site. All sites have their own dirt tent pad, paved driveway or pull-through, and most have ample space and privacy. There is no distinction between RV and tent sites, all sites have an electric plug-in (so for those of you going to take photos at the point, bring an extension cord and set up shop!) No wood fires are permitted, but there are charcoal grills in each site.

Make sure to bring your own water. Although you can buy water bottles at the concession stand and get drinking water at the park, there is no recreational vehicle water services (and no showers). The park actually purchases and trucks in water from the City of Moab, so although there are flush toilets, the water does not come from the surrounding area. This also goes for all other campgrounds along the 313 and Canyonlands National Park, as there are no wells at all on the plateau. The campground is right around 6,000ft in elevation, so even on the hottest days in the summer, it likely won’t get too much hotter than mid 90’s. The night we stayed it dipped to around 75 degrees, completely comfortable, but not so warm that you’ll want to skip on a sleeping bag. In the winter, it does snow at the park, and will often get very cold at night.

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Our campsite, Site #2

Our favorite sports were 3 (great view), 11, 13, 16 (own pull-through away from road), and 17 (the most private). Our least favorite was campsite 2, which didn’t have any privacy. However, we stayed in a tent, if you brought an RV or a camper, #2 would be a preferred site because of its easy access. Also, make a note where the bathroom is – when it’s 2 in the morning and you’re staying in site 19, walking 5 minutes around the loop to use the restroom can be pretty annoying.

In conclusion, although we probably wouldn’t reserve site #2 again unless we had to, we would definitely come back to Kayenta and Dead Horse Point State Park. Catching a sunset or sunrise from the point should be on everyone’s to-do list while in Moab, and the campground itself is well maintained and only a short drive away from Canyonlands National Park. However, if you’re looking for a quick site to stay in that doesn’t require a 40 minute drive from downtown, you’re best served staying somewhere else.

You can make reservations on Utah State Parks ReserveAmerica, and see more info about the park on their website here.

Stayed at Kayenta already and think we missed something? Planning a trip and have a more specific question? Leave us a comment below!

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Summer Camping 2013 – Arizona, California, Colorado & Utah


It sure has been awhile. Between classes, work, a new home, and more work, the weekend camping trips haven’t been as regular as they were in the past. Besides, Phoenix is just getting downright hot (although USA Today recently put together a great list of places to try to escape the furnace).

Well, it’s time to make up for it.

Over the months of June and July we will be travelling to a number of destinations throughout Arizona, Utah, and Colorado that have been on our bucket list for quite some time. We’ll begin to post our reviews after our trip, likely late July and into early August. There are also quite a few old California destinations that we will be updating and adding from last year.

Keep an eye for reviews, photos, and videos from these sites:

Havasu Falls Campground, Havasupai Indian Reservation, Arizona
Mather Campground, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Spruces Campground, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah
Timpooneke Campground, Mt. Timpanogos Wilderness, Utah
Little Mill Campground, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah
Tanners Flat Campground, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah
Horsethief Campground, Bureau of Land Management, Moab District/Highway 313, Utah
Cowboy Campground, Bureau of Land Management, Moab District/Highway 313, Utah
Lone Mesa Campground, Bureau of Land Management, Moab District/Highway 313, Utah
Willow Flat Campground, Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Matterhorn Campground, Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest, Telluride, Colorado
Cold Springs Campground, Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest, Colorado
Reverend’s Ridge Campground, Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Colorado
Moraine Park Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Aspen Glen Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park, Utah
Goose Island Campground, Bureau of Land Management, Moab District/Highway 128, Utah
Dead Horse Point Campground, Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
Drinks Campground (Lower/Middle/Upper), Bureau of Land Management, Moab District/Highway 128, Utah
Hal Canyon Campground, Bureau of Land Management, Moab District/Highway 128, Utah
The Bluffs Campground, San Onofre State Beach, California
San Mateo Campground, San Onofre State Beach, California

Make sure to keep up with us on Instagram, at @tenttalk (you can see the photos online as well at instagram.com/tenttalk), like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter. This is going to be a summer to remember!

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A cement truck barrels by our campsite at Goose Island, Moab, UT.

P.S. – We’d love it if you checked out our “Moon-Lit Camping” photo at Outdoor Photographer’s your favorite places contest, and the Official Federal Recreation Lands 2013 Photo Contest, Share the Experience.

Serrano Campground – Big Bear Lake


Serrano Campground is a beautiful year-round campground nestled right by the shore of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forrest. Run by California Land Management, Serrano is only 10 minutes away from (the city of) Big Bear Lake and 15 from The Village at Big Bear. This is one of the few campsites that remains open year round, and is a very popular destination for its proximity to the water and the East Drive Boat Launch, as well as the trailhead of the popular Cougar Crest Trailhead. Check out the Vlog below to check out a running video compilation of our stay!

As you can see in the video, Serrano is designed in harmony with the pine trees and has very spacious sites. It has 98 tent sites and 30 full hookup sites. There is a 2-day minimum stay on weekends, 3 days if it’s a holiday weekend. It’s $28 per night for just a single site, with a $5 charge for an extra car. A double site is $56; check the map below for the few double sites throughout the campground. For a hook up site for an RV, it’s $38, where an RV and tow vehicle or truck and 5th wheel/trailer is considered one vehicle. There is a dump station within the campground. Overflow parking is available on North Shore Lane. The campground is split basically half and half between the sites with hook-ups and normal tent sites. In our opinion, the tent sites are far better than the RV hookups: further from the highway, under the tall pine trees, and more spacious. Reservations can be made 6 months to the day in advance, and there are definitely weekends where you will need to reserve your site this far in advance (think 4th of July, Labor Day, and major Big Bear events like the upcoming film festival). Even during weekdays in the summer be prepared to reserve in advance unless you’re open to reserving different campsites on different nights. Firewood can be purchased from either the hosts or the front office for $7.

Serrano Campground Map

The campground is split into 4 separate loops; Summer Wind, Strawberry, Lake View, and Evening Star. The best sites are located in Lake View and Evening Star, except if you’re in an RV and Snowberry is your only option. The best sites are #6, 100, 116, 122, 130, 131, and 132. Besides #6, all of these sites are in the last two loops, where the pine trees begin. Theres very few actual bad sites. Try to avoid 111, which is small, right next to the bathroom, and doesn’t have shade. Also, be aware that sites #16-24 are right below North Shore Drive (Highway 39). There’s usually not much traffic at night, but it’s more pleasant without the noise of cars driving by. The map above cuts off the rest of North Shore Lane, which continues west past campsites 112/113, 114, and 115. There’s very light traffic, with access to the Big Bear Shores RV Resort and a general store at the end, but those sites are still very close to the road.

What this map also misses is the complex network of trails that wind their way around the north shore of Big Bear Lake. Near the campground entrance is a confluence of the Alpine Pedal Path and the Cougar Crest Trailhead, where you can choose to take a stroll (or bike ride) north through the Meadows Edge Day Use Area (more on that later) or begin your stroll to the Big Bear Discovery Center (the new nature and information building), or hike up the Cougar Crest Trail. The Alpine Pedal path continues East all the way until the Stanfield Cutoff, and also runs West to the town of Fawnskin; a great way to access the lake or just enjoy the scenery. Even if you don’t bring a bike, the walk down the Alpine path brings you right along the edge of the lake. Unlike the south side of Big Bear Lake, where almost all lakeside property is private and developed, the north shore is devoted to public access and is mostly managed by the forrest service. The Cougar Crest Trail is one of the most popular hikes of Big Bear, and for good reason. Although it is only about 5 1/2 miles roundtrip, there is some serious altitude gain until you reach the summit of Bertha Peak at 8,200 feet. If you want to read more about Big Bear Hikes, we typed out the official Forrest Service guide at the bottom of our review.

 

We stayed in site 100, one of the sites we recommend. Like the other sites we picked, it had a decent amount of privacy, has copious amounts of shade, and was also more than large enough for our needs. Personally, we loved the feel of camping among the pines as well. There was also abundant water pumps around, about 1 for every 2-3 campsites. If you decide to wash your dishes in one, beware that it is not allowed by the management since the soap pollutes the drainage systems (the water is ground filtered again, and not sent to treatment). Obviously it is not very convenient to wash dishes in the bathroom sinks, which we guess is the alternative. We were also right by the bathrooms, which happened to be a pleasant surprise. The bathrooms were kept very clean, had sinks and paper towels, and also had electrical outlets, where one very popular guy had set up a USB charging hub to charge over 6 phones at once. There are also showers available. Each loop of the campground has its own bathroom building, so there usually isn’t a ridiculous line, even in the morning.

Although there is a small general store right down North Shore Lane, most people prefer to stock up at the Big Bear Lake grocery stores. For even lazier people (like us after a long hike), there are many restaurants near the Stanfield Cutoff as well, although nothing beats taking the extra 10 minutes to drive into Big Bear Village to enjoy the shopping and ice cream shops. We decided to grab pizza from Red Barron Pizza for our second night (we did cook some awesome bean and cheese quesadillas the first night, so we deserved a break from cooking and dishes), which was awesome – if you’re looking for good Big Bear pizza that’s the place. Serrano isn’t the closest, but the stores are easy to find and are only a few minutes away. There are also some stores in Fawnskin, but not on the scale of the chain groceries back in Big Bear. Fawnskin is more the place for a more local fare, such as cafes and small stores.

Our tent set up at Site 100

The most pleasant surprise about Serrano was really how close to the lake we were, and that we had access to it as well. Without even venturing down the Alpine Pedal Path, we discovered a short path through the grass to the shore, where you could wade into the lake for a great view of the solar observatory. The Meadows Edge Day Use Area entrance is directly across from the entrance to the campground, only a short stroll from your campsite. If you’re looking for a good spot to picnic, this place can’t be beat. Don’t be fooled by the photo below – this place was pretty busy on a Wednesday morning – just imagine a Saturday morning. There are a few spots like the one in the picture, close to the parking lot and bathrooms, in the shade, and within a stone’s throw of the water. There were also multiple paths that wound their way throughout the pine trees to explore. More picnic tables were located further away from the water in a more wooded setting as well. You need to buy an adventure pass to park in the Day Use Area, which are sold at the campground and the Discovery Center. If you want to launch boats, you have to travel further East on Highway 38 to reach the boat landing.

The best spot for a picnic at The Meadows Edge Day Use Area

If you couldn’t tell, we really enjoyed our stay at Serrano, and are planning on going back to Big Bear in the near future. It’s hard to beat the location of Big Bear, both the lake and city itself as well as the proximity to LA. The beautiful hikes combined with the endless opportunities of the lake make an abundance of activities for both energetic outdoor adventurers and overworked vacationers looking for an escape. Reservations can be made at Recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. The campsite numbers are 909-866-8550 or 909-866-8021. We also included a map of the area below for your reference, and continue reading to explore the Big Bear Valley Hiking Guide below! As always, let us know if we missed anything or if you have your own observations of your recent trip to Serrano, we’d love to hear about it!

Big Bear Valley Hiking Guide

The Alpine Pedal PathVery Easy3/12 Miles – Travels along the edge of Big Bear Lake from the Solar Observatory west of the Serrano Campground to the Stanfield Cutoff. It is not flat, but its ups and downs are fairly gentle. Part of this path branches off at the entrance to the Serrano campground to pass under Highway 38 to connect with the Cougar Crest Trail and reach the Big Bear Discovery Center.

The Woodland Trail (1E23)Easy1 1/2 Mile Loop – This path starts and ends at the trailhead off Highway 38, only .2 miles west of the Stanfield Cutoff. It is an imperative trail with 20 posted markers, ideal for families with small children or anyone looking for an easy and educational day away from the shops of the Big Bear Village. Pamphlets are available at the trailhead. An Adventure Pass is required for parking.

Champion Lodgepole Pine Trail (1W11)Easy – .6 Miles Round Trip 
Bluff Mesa Trail (1W16)Easy.8 Miles Round Trip
These companion paths are located on the south side of Big Bear Lake. After driving up Mill Creek Road (Forrest Road 2N10) for 4 1/2 miles, make a right on Forrest Road 2N11, where after a mile you will find the trailhead of the Champion Lodgepole Pine Trail. The .3 mile trail ends at the Champion Lodgepole Pine, one of the largest Lodgepole Pine trees in California. From here, the Bluff Mesa Trail begins, which ends at the popular Bluff Mesa Group Campground .4 miles away. No bicycles are allowed, and visitors are asked to stay on all trails to not disturb the beautiful meadows alongside, which are full of wildflowers in the spring. An Adventure Pass is required for parking.

Castle Rock Trail (1W03) - Moderate to Difficult2.5 Miles Round Trip – The most popular trail in all of Big Bear begins shorty before the Dam on Highway 18 (1.1 miles east of the dam to be exact). The only parking available is 50 yards east of the trailhead alongside the highway, and as you can image, it fills quickly. The elevation gain is what makes this trail difficult, despite only being 2.5 miles roundtrip. After climbing over 500 feet in less than a mile and a half, you will reach the popular granite rock outcropping, where most will stop and enjoy a picnic lunch. The more adventurous types will test their rock climbing skills by clawing their way up to the top of the rocks, where the view of the lake is wonderful. An Adventure Pass is required for parking.

Pineknot Trail (1E01)Moderate to Difficult - 6 Miles Round Trip – This trail begins at the Aspen Glen Picnic Area and runs south until reaching aptly named Grand View Point at 7,784ft. Serious hikers can make this trip in 3-4 hours, but most will plan on spending some time at the summit with a picnic lunch while enjoying the view. An Adventure Pass is required for parking.

Gray’s Peak Trail (1W06)Moderate to Difficult7 Miles Round Trip
Hanna Flat Trail (1W05)Moderate9 Miles Round Trip 
This trailhead is located on the west side of Highway 38, .6 miles west of Fawnskin, across from the Grout Bay Picnic Area (this trailhead is in the center of a blad eagle wintering habitat area and is closed to all public use from Novemeber 1 to April 1). The trail will merge with forrest road 2N04X after a half mile, where it will then join forrest road 2N70. Go straight, not left, and continue to the beginning of Gray’s Peak Trail. From there, it is about 2 3/4 miles to the top of Gray’s Peak. The trail fades as you get to within 1/4 miles of the summit, and gets increasingly more difficult as you will have to navigate buckthorn and figure ways over and around boulders. The trail to Hanna Flat begins 50 yards past the Gray’s Peak Trail sign on the right and continues for 4 miles to the Hanna Flat Campground.

Cougar Crest Trail (1E22) – Moderate to Difficult – 4 1/2 – 5 Miles Round Trip 
Cougar Crest is one of the most popular and well maintained trails in the Big Bear area. It starts .6 miles west of the Big Bear Discovery Center (across highway 38 from the Serrano Campground), where you can park for free until 6pm. In the first mile there is only a gentle uphill increase, but in the 2nd mile you will begin to pick up serious altitude. The Cougar Crest Trail ends at the Pacific Crest Trail, where most will continue to the east (right) on a dirt maintenance road for a half mile to the summit of Bertha Peak, 8201 feet, and home to a large amount of transmitting equipment at the top. From here, you are treated to a 360 degree view of the Bear Valley, Holcomb Valley, and even the Mojave Desert.

Paso Picacho Campground – Lake Cuyamaca S.P.


If you’ve been following us recently, you know our affection for Lake Cuyamaca State Park, and it was only a natural decision for us to go back and visit for a second time. As you may know, there are two campgrounds within the state park boundaries: Green Valley and Paso Picacho.

This post is about our experience at Paso Picacho Campground, the larger of the two campgrounds within the park. Green Valley, the smaller, southernmost campground, is not reviewed in this post. You can see the review of Green Valley Here.

 
Rancho Cuyamaca (Cuyamaca Rancho in native Spanish), a state park gem

Paso Picacho is a large campsite, with 85 sites spread out over 5 loops: Manzanita (C1), Live Oak (C2), Ceder (C3), Coulter (C4), and Cypress (C5). Two group campgrounds are also available, as well as day use parking, an RV dump station, a day use picnic area, and a Cal Fire Station. The day use parking area is designed to be used for hikers accessing the four main trails that leave the campground – 1) Azalea Glen Loop Trail, 2) Look Out Fire Road (to the top of Cuyamaca Peak), 3) Stonewall Peak Trail (more on that later), and 4) Cold Stream Trail (to the Visitor Center). Branching off of those main trails are ones that lead you south to the Green Valley Campground, east to the Los Vaqueros Group Horse Campground, and north to the Stonewall Mine. As you can imagine, the day use area gets packed during the summer, as Piso Picacho serves basically as the hub for excursions into the rest of the park, another reason in favor of camping here! If you’re not staying the night at either Piso Picacho or Green Valley, be prepared to fork over an $8 day use parking fee.

Piso Picacho (as well as Green Valley) are open on the reservation system from spring to fall. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table and fire ring, although for you RV folks there are no sites with hookups. Firewood can be purchased from the campground hosts for $8, who are located at at site 42 (the location and price may have changed since we last visited – if in doubt, ask a Ranger or explore the main campground road; the hosts are usually pretty easy to spot!). Any additional vehicles above the included one car are $8 apiece, with a usual limit of no more than 3 cars per campsite. Also, there is a limit of 8 people per campsite (keep reading for the good adjacent sites to book together if you have a larger group). If you’re bringing your dog, you’re in luck, they are allowed, but are only permitted to hang around the campgrounds, picnic areas, and paved roads (which includes the Cuyamaca Peak Fire Road). They cannot be left unattended.

Food wise, the nearest store is a couple miles away North on State Route 79 in the actual town of Cuyamaca (by the lake), and is basically only a convenience store. It’s useful to stock up for a day of hiking (think chips, nuts, bars, waters ect.) but it won’t provide a very sustaining dinner. You have to drive all the way to Julian for an actual supermarket, and this is where we picked up our meat and sausages for dinner. The store is a family run business, so don’t drive out there at 10pm and expect it to be open. Alternatively, Julian has an abundance of great dining to choose from, including the famous apple pie shops (Julian Pie Company is our personal favorite, but I know many people who will defend Moms Pies to the death – either way you can’t go wrong). I’d recommend you stock up on snacks once in Julian so you don’t have to shuttle back and forth between your campsite and the town. It’s about 15 minutes to Julian from Piso Picacho. If you’re interested in checking out more of what Julian has to offer, check out the Julian Chamber of Commerce Page.

As for all state parks, reservations can be made at Reserve America. Remember to choose a site at Piso Picacho, as listings for both Green Valley and Piso Picacho come up on the Cuyamaca camping list. To read more about the park itself, check out the State Park Page. If you’d like to see more detailed versions of the maps included below, follow this link. This park also receives support in part through
Paso Picacho Campground Map

Our favorite sites at Piso Picacho are 9, 30, 40, 41, 49, and 58. If you’re going with a larger group, consider booking two adjacent sites such as 47 & 48 and 83 & 84. Remember, these are just our personal favorites: sites that have a good blend of shade, privacy, and usability. In our opinion, there is not one bad campsite there, but we would also try to avoid the sites right by the two trailheads within the campground: 78 and 85. Also, 13 & 71 are right next to the showers, while the Azalea Loop Trail passes right behind site 1.

Piso Picacho is open on the reservation system from spring to fall, with reservations not required in the off months. If you do choose to come in the wintertime, be prepared for snow. Although rare, Piso Picacho does sit above 5,000 feet in elevation. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table and fire ring, although for you RV folks there are no sites with hookups. Any additional vehicles above the included one car are $8 apiece, with a usual limit of no more than 2 cars per campsite. Also, there is a limit of 8 people per campsite. If you’re bringing your dog, you’re in luck as they are allowed, but are only permitted to hang around the campgrounds, picnic areas, and paved roads, and cannot be left unattended. There is a 14 day stay limit while in season (March-November), which expands to 30 days in the winter offseason. Seniors, you can get $2 off your campsite fee if you’re 62 and older, and 1/2 off with ADA (with vehicle placard or CA Parks ADA Access Card). Remember to check in if you come late! As with almost all sites, the gates reamin open after hours, you just have to make sure you come back in the morning to check in. Remember, Reserve America lists all of the Cuyamaca Campsites in one listing. MAKE SURE TO CHOOSE THE APPROPRIATE CAMPGROUND. Make sure the campsite starts with P0 (indicating Paso Picacho) and also includes the word “Paso” in the description.

Our site, #9, was half shaded, half exposed, giving us the perfect shade during the day while letting us gave up into the stars while sitting around the campfire at night

Something unique to Piso Picacho is the availability of cabins. As you can see on the map above, there are 5 cabins sprinkled throughout the campsite, with cabins 3 & 4 right next to one another. The names of the cabins are listed on the left side of the map, with their numbers corresponding to their location on the campsite loops. There’s also a ‘Nature Den’ cabin, a space rented out to different groups throughout the year. Often times, larger families will reserve the 3 & 4 cabins together, and cabin 1 is bordering the fire road without any shade. I have never stayed in a cabin like the ones at Cuyamaca, and predictably they’re extremely hard to get a reservation for, but if you’re sick of pitching a tent for the night, they’re a cool alternative to look into.

Before you read any further and get excited about a future trip, please make sure you have a reservation made. In peak season, from April to October, reservations are needed weeks in advance, especially for the weekends. The proximity to San Diego, although great for travel time, is also your worst enemy – everyone knows about this park and this campsite, and most people who come once will come back. Also, Piso Picacho is a favorite of the San Diego college kids; SDSU, USD, and CUSD are all within short driving distance of the park. Although the Rangers are strict on noise, don’t be surprised if you’re kept up late at night if you’re staying over the weekend.

On a different note – if you’re weary about returning to Cuyamaca after the Cedar Fire, don’t be. Although the fire ravaged the park, the fire crews were miraculously able to save the campsite itself, and all of the original trees within the campsite were saved. Save one or two sites in the Manzanita loop, all campsites are mostly shaded underneath the trees. In the picture above, you can see the difference. The grove of trees to the right is the campground, while all of the trees behind it leading up to Cuyamaca Peak were charred. Although the forrest of 10 years ago is gone, there is plentiful new growth as a new ecosystem is emerging and thriving. Just bring a little extra sunscreen and a hat, as most trails lack shade.

This picture is looking west over the campground (the grove of trees on the right), while the Cuyamaca Peak Fire Road winds its way up the middle towards the top of Cuyamaca Peak after originating from Highway 79
Admiring the view south, looking towards the Visitor Center and Green Valley Campground from Stonewall Peak Trail. Vegetation has filled in nicely, but you can also see the grey skeletons of many roasted trees still adorning the hillsides throughout the park. Below, the steps leading up to the peak and the trail with Stonewall in the background.

If you read our last review of the Green Valley Campground at Lake Cuyamaca, we did the second most popular hike in the park up Cuyamaca Peak (taking the fire road of the same name). This time around, we did the most popular: the 2 mile trail to the top of Stonewall Peak. The trail was well marked, smooth, and although at a constant climb, was never strenous. The view at the top was one that rivaled the one from Cuyamaca Peak, and large swaths of sunbathed rocks were perfect for our lunch as well as sunbathing/napping.

The view north from the very top of Stonewall Peak. On the left, Highway 79 snakes down from  Piso Picacho and winds around the lake and the small village of Cuyamaca on its way to Julian.
Overall, we really enjoyed our weekend at Piso Picacho, even more so than our stay at Green Valley. You can’t go wrong with either site at Rancho Cuyamaca, as each campground has its distinct advantages. However, considering the shortened driving distance to Julian, the access to the trailheads of the two most popular hikes in the entire park, the relatively short 10 minute drive to the falls at Green Valley, and the beautiful shaded campsites, we would have to give the edge to Piso Picacho. Of course, all of those advantages mean that you will have more competition to get a campsite, so make sure to plan ahead and reserve a spot, especially during the peak season and weekends. Make reservations by calling (760)765-3020 or visiting Reserve America, while inquiries to the Park can be sent to cuyamaca@parks.ca.gov. Let us know about your stay or ask us a question in the comments!

Los Prietos Campground – Santa Ynez National Recreation Area


Los Prietos Campground is one of the many campgrounds that lay along the Santa Ynez river in the Santa Ynez National Recreation Area, due north of the town of Santa Barbara. Other campgrounds within the recreation area include the smaller Fremont Campground, Paradise Campground, and the upper and lower Oso and Camuesa campgrounds. At the time of our visit in mid July 2011, the Oso and Camuesa campgrounds were closed as a result of heavy rain that destroyed the bridges leading to them. Unfortunately, with the budget shortfalls affecting both the state and federal parks systems, these roads had no timetable of reopening, but are likely repaired at the time of this post.

The campground is open April 1st through October 30th. There are a total of 37 campsites with fire rings, barbecue, and a picnic table at each site. Most sites can be reserved on Reserve America, but there are a select few available on a first come, first served basis. For reservations, you are required to book at least 4 days in advance, and each campsite is $20 per night. Los Prietos has the luxury of flush toilets and and garbage bins, but there are no RV hookups available. Firewood can be purchased from the camp host, who will likely visit you in their golf cart to check you in when you first arrive. White Rock Day Use Area is less than a quarter mile away as well.

NFS Map of Santa Ynez Recreation Area. Note the location of the Los Prietos Campground (in Pink)
A view of the Santa Ynez River Valley from the Vista Point on Highway 154

Getting to Los Prietos can be a little bit of a challenge, especially at night, which of course is when I got there. Remember to account for traffic on the 405 from LAX through the Santa Monica Mountains and on the 101 through Thousand Oaks, as well as construction in Ventura. Once you get to Santa Barbara, look for the exit to the Chumash Highway, Route 154. It isn’t an obvious intersection and can be easy to miss, so keep your eyes out. Once over the San Marcos Pass, the turn off is called Paradise Road – if you hit Lake Cachuma, you’ve gone too far. Paradise road was reduced to a one-lane road at a certain section at the time of my visit, and was controlled by a traffic light that regulated traffic flow at the point where erosion from the river compromised the road – another thing to watch for (again, likely fixed by now, but you never know!)

The campsite itself is hard to miss, as long as you’re paying attention to the marked NFS signs. We had site # 30, right in the middle of the camp. The map is displayed below.

Campsite Map of Los Prietos

The campground is laid out on the side of a hill, and stretches more sideways than vertically. The sites towards the inside of the campground are largely exposed, and there isn’t much separation by the way of trees or bushes throughout the majority of the campsite. The loop towards the right of the map above has the best campsites, best according to privacy and division. The two creeks displayed in the map are rather misleading – they are only filled with water when it rains. If you do nothing else at this campsite, don’t book the campsites directly near a bathroom. Although the toilets are flush and it never went past 80 degrees when I was visiting, the stench often wafted over to where my site was 50 yards away. Sites I would recommend – in no particular order, although #15 and #16 were unanimous favorites of my buddies – are  #15, 16, 6, 11, 17, 19, 20, and 22.

A look at the campground from my site – notice the beautiful oak tress and lack of separation between sites
My Campsite, #30

The best part of this campsite is hands-down the proximity to the Santa Ynez river, which in rainy years flows steadily all year round. I recommend avoiding the main tourist river access points, such as the one  almost directly across the road from the campsite. The spot that we found was past the Lower Oso day use area, where you park before walking along the river, past the main day use area. There’s a small trail right next to the edge of the river, find it and take it for a few hundred yards and you’re at the swimming hole. This is the only point we found all day where the water is deep enough to actually swim in (of course all dependent on the year’s rainfall). The water is clean and warm; plan on spending a solid chunk of time, and bring a picnic lunch and some cold drinks!

The swimming hole

Overall, we really enjoyed our time at Los Prietos. It isn’t the coolest campground around, but its location can’t be beat. Even if you chose not to go swimming in the river, you’re within a half hour of both Santa Barbara and Solveng, as well as the great fishing of Lake Cachuma and the beautiful Santa Barbara coastline. Just make sure to check the conditions of the river before you leave, as this last year has been a tough one for rain (a good site for river information is Friends of the River). Click here to make reservations, and let us know what you think of the site below in the comments!

Stone Creek Campground – Mt. San Jacinto S.P.


Mt. San Jacinto State Park encompasses the mountain of San Jacinto and surrounds the mountain town of Idyllwild. Better known as the mountain that towers over Palm Springs or the mountain that you take the tram to, Mt. San Jacinto has a summit of 10,834 feet and is protected by both the San Bernadino National Forrest and the Mt. San Jacinto State Park. There are over 10 campsites throughout the area, some within the state park and some within the national forrest. For this trip, we stayed at the Stone Creek Campground, one of the two developed campsites within the state park.

Stone Creek campground is a relatively small 50 site campground about 6 miles away from downtown Idyllwild off of SR 243. The easiest way to reach the campground is to take Interstate 10 to Banning, where you will exit on SR 243 going South. The 243 is a very small and windy road, and it scales the northern face of the mountain that rises straight up from the desert floor. Be careful and drive slowly and safely. After you climb the mountain, the turn to the campsite can be easy to miss at night since the sign announcing the turn off the highway isn’t very big, so turn around if you hit the small town of Pine Cove to the south or if you pass Lawler Lodge to the north. State Parks usually leave their campgrounds open throughout the night, meaning if you don’t get off work until late then you can still arrive after hours, which meant 12:30am in our case. Don’t forget to check in with the camp host if you arrive during standard hours.

Map of Idyllwild and Stone Creek

Keep in mind that Stone Creek is a different campground then the Idyllwild campground (see Map above). Although both are administered by the same state park, they are nothing alike each other. Stone Creek is about 6 miles from the actual town of Idyllwild, while the Idyllwild campground is right next to the main ranger station in town. Also, Stone Creek is less developed, meaning amenities such as showers are only available at the Idyllwild campground. Firewood can’t be brought in, so you’ll have to shell out the $6 per bundle (don’t hold me to that number, it’s subject to change). The high elevation means that the campground is seasonal, usually open from early April to late September, so make sure to check the Reserve America website to make sure the campground is open. Stone Creek campground reservations are open through mid-September,  after, first come – first served camping available based on weather (snow) conditions.

If you can’t see the map, the full PDF version can be found here.

The hike I decided to tackle on this trip was the Devils Slide Trail. Although it looks easy on the map at only 2.5 miles, it actually gains 1,600 feet in elevation, bringing you to Saddle Junction at the top. It’s a doable hike, but be prepared for a decent challenge if you aren’t accustomed to it. Don’t forget your water, the temperature is usually in the 90’s during the summer months. If you’re not looking for too intense of a hike after scaling Devil’s Slide, I highly recommend is to take the pacific crest trail south from the Saddle Junction towards Tahquitz Peak. Otherwise, there are other trails that can take you all across the mountain and up to the various peaks. Personally, I was content with finding rocks overlooking Idyllwild to lay out and sunbathe on. If you’d rather stick nearer to the campground, the Marion Mountain trail starts a short drive up the forrest service access road from the campground. Don’t forget to get your hiking and wilderness permits from the forrest service office in Idyllwild!

Stone Creek Campground Map

The campground is shaped exactly like the map above, except that it is laid out on the side of a hill and is relatively well spaced out. The middle road, campsites 38-50, are the sites to avoid, for they all have relatively little privacy and are generally close together. Sites along the fringe of the campsite are the ones I would recommend, since they offer the most quiet and privacy. We stayed in site number 12, and although the map shows it to be right next to the bathroom and nature trail, it actually proved to be one of the best campsites, in my opinion, throughout the site. Since the campsite sits at an elevation of 5,700ft, the main vegetation is pine trees, although in a few sites additional shrubbery serves as a great separation. Bear lockers are also installed, but there was never any instructions or urgings from the hosts to put them to use. The only thing against this campsite were the flies, they got to be so bad that I made the ten minute drive to Pine Cove just to get bugspray. I don’t know if I just smelled particularly attractive to flies that evening or what, but don’t forget the bug-spray.

Our Campsite #12
Overall, Stone Creek was a great campsite, and our campsite was very private and quiet. The surrounding State Park and national forrest hikes are well worth the effort, and the town of Idyllwild is filled with cool diners and shopping. Again, don’t forget the bug-spray! Reservations can be made here, or click here to visit the State Park’s website.