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Car Camping Near San Diego (5 Free Spots)

When I first came up with the idea to convert my car into a camper, I dreamed of taking it to San Diego. The only issue was that there are so many regulations on where you can sleep in your car and campgrounds are expensive. So, I did a ton of research and drove around the area. Here’s what I found.

Although car camping on most streets in San Diego is illegal, you can either reserve a campground or take part in dispersed camping outside of the city. Otay Mountain Camp and Descanso District are dispersed camping spots near San Diego. Most campgrounds require paying a fee, while the dispersed campgrounds are free.

Let’s see which other dispersed camping spots there are around San Diego, along with campgrounds.

Where Can You Car Camp Around San Diego?

Dispersed CampingReservation?Cost
Otay Mountain Camp (Otay Truck Trail)NoFree
Cleveland National Forest (Cottonwood Falls Camp)NoFree
Anza-Borrego Desert State ParkNoFree
Fiesta Island (Day use only)NoFree
Mission BeachNoFree
San Elijo State BeachRequired$15-$75
Silver Strand State BeachRequiredStarting at $50
San Onofre State BeachRequiredStarting at $35
South Carlsbad State BeachRequiredStarting at $35

5 Dispersed Camping Spots Around San Diego (Free)

1. Otay Mountain Camp

Lower Otay Lakes in Otay Mountains

Coordinates: 32.61659303, -116.7840705

Located 50 minutes east of San Diego, Otay Open Space Reserve is classified as land owned by BLM which you can camp on for free.

Campers can take the Otay Mountain Truck Trail and can camp anywhere along the road.

Remember, this is a dispersed camping spot so there are zero amenities. Also be sure to pack-in, pack-out!

Otay Mountain Wilderness is known for its off-road and hiking trails. The area has beautiful sunsets and clear night skies. If you come at the right time, up in the mountains you will be level with the clouds, which is super dreamy.

If you get tired of the desert, Otay Lake is located on the north side of the reserve.

2. Cleveland National Forest

Cleveland National Forest

Cleveland National Forest has a few different spots you can take part in dispersed camping at:

  • Descanso (619-445-6235)
  • Palomar (760-788-0250)
  • Trabuco (951-736-1811)

Download the Dispersed Camping Wilderness Permit for the Palomar and Descanso Permit and San Mateo Wilderness Permit

You can stay on these dispersed lands for up to 14 days.

When in Cleveland National Forest, you can choose from mountains, waterfalls, and creeks.

Not to mention, the forest has its own observatory along one of its trails in the Palomar district.

U.S. National Forest says to attend the observatory you need an “Adventure Pass: To purchase a pass for this location visit a Cleveland National Forest office, find a local Adventure Pass vendor or purchase online at”

3. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Camping in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is only allowed on specific BLM land or designated campgrounds. Below are a few BLM areas around the park along with their coordinates.

  1. Coyote Mountains Wilderness (32.803753, -116.075627).
  2. Cottonwood Campground (32.800240, -116.338262)
  3. Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness (33.007513, -116.456406)
  4. Lark Canyon Campground (32.727884, -116.273656)

The park is known for their beautiful rugged, tall desert landscape and badlands.

While staying in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, be sure to drink tons of water as summer temperatures can reach up to 125°F.

4. Fiesta Island

While it is illegal to sleep overnight at Fiesta Island, I still wanted to share as it is one of the most popular day spots for van-life in the country and happens to be located in San Diego.

You can park right along the ocean from 6am-10pm.

A lot of people living out of their vans will come here and make use of the fire pits, dog park, and over 20 miles of beach.

5. Mission Beach

Directly across from Belmont Park in Mission Park, there is a parking lot that says “Overnight Parking Allowed”. Not to mention, this area is right next to the beach.

Just be stealthy and look at signs before choosing where to park as rules are constantly changing regarding sleeping in your car.

4 Campgrounds Around San Diego

1. San Elijo State Beach

San Elijo State Beach

The campground at San Elijo State Beach is situated on a cliff overlooking the ocean less than half an hour from San Diego.

The state beach provides a stairwell straight from the campsites down to the actual beach. The beach also offers swimming, surfing, and picnicking.

The campground provides restrooms, showers, fire pits, and even a camp store.

Camping reservations can only be made through Reserve California at 

2. Silver Strand State Beach

Nestled in the embrace of the Coronado Peninsula, the beachside campground offers unrivaled views of both the San Diego Bay and the expansive Pacific Ocean.

The beach is popular among surfers and fishermen, while the back bay area attracts bird watchers and boating enthusiasts

The campsites offer amenities including electrical hookups, restrooms, and showers, making it a comfortable stay despite the rustic surroundings. Venturing beyond your campsite, you may explore the nature trails, engage in beach volleyball, or even spot dolphins swimming offshore.

Camping reservations can only be made through Reserve California at 

3. San Onofre State Beach

 San Onofre State Beach

San Onofre is known for their rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, and thunderous Pacific surf. This iconic destination hosts the San Mateo Campground, a stone’s throw away from the world-renowned Trestles surf break.

The campsites, tucked away in a coastal canyon, offer a sense of seclusion while providing essential amenities like restrooms, showers, and fire pits.

Camping reservations can only be made through Reserve California at 

4. South Carlsbad State Beach

South Carlsbad State Beach

The campground caters to car campers, tent campers, and RV campers with amenities including restrooms, showers, and electric hookups.

The campground has 223 campsites and about 1/3 are located on a bluff overlooking the beach and Pacific Ocean.

A stairway provides direct access to the beach below, a haven for swimming, surfing, fishing, or simply hanging out under the California sun.

The nearby Coastal Rail Trail offers an opportunity for biking or a leisurely walk.

If none of these spots suit you, check out Hipcamp. You can find tons of campsites on their website that are not too expensive.