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Winter Camping Destinations in The West

Nina Fussing - Anza Borrego

Winter camping has always been one of my favorite things, not because I’m a winter person per se, but rather because I’m drawn southwards like the birds towards warmth and sunshine. Thankfully, we spent 8 years on wheels. During that time, our RV took us to two spots that particularly spoke to us; the Southwest desert, and the Southern California coast.

We spent over 5 winters RVing these areas, hopping between the two depending on mood and weather, so we fell in love with them both. They’re unique in their own way though and offer very different camping and activity experiences. So, if your RV is pulling you West this winter, maybe this will give you some inspiration for the journey ahead.

The Southwest Desert

Nina Fussing - Quartzsite Arizona

The desert may seem like a barren and lonely place, but in the winter, it is one of the most beautiful spots I know.

The landscape is just mesmerizing, and in the late afternoon when the sun sweeps its gold across the hills and the sky explodes into a million surreal colors, it’s simply a magical place to be.

Winter is the active season in the desert, too, so most of the major towns in AZ and CA have plenty of activities happening. There are weekly farmers and flea markets in just about every town, big winter festivals (e.g. Lake Havasu Hot Air Balloon Festival), massive gem shows (e.g. Tucson Mineral and Gem Show), excellent food festivities (e.g. Indio Tamale Festival) and wonderful music events (e.g. Blythe Jazz Festival, Ajo Fiddle Fest).

Plus of course, there’s the biggest gathering of RVs in the world!

Every year during the last 2 weeks of January, over 100,000 RVers converge on the sleepy little town of Quartzsite, AZ for the annual Quartzsite Sports, Vacation and RV show. It’s a boondocking mecca and one of the biggest RV parties you’ll ever attend. Plus, if you like convergences and mingling with other RVers, there’s every conceivable group from the alternative to the conventional, including Escapees & Xscapers, both of which hold convergences here. It’s something I recommend everyone experience at least once in their RV lives.

Why We Love It

We love wintering in the SW desert primarily for the wide, open landscapes, the extensive hiking & biking trails, and the fact that we can just travel at our own leisure for practically zero cost. It’s not the warmest winter spot in the USA, and it can get notoriously windy too, but it’s dry (zero bugs), daytime temps are just perfect and if we want space to ourselves, we can just drive out and find it.

Desert Camping Options

There are plenty of ways to camp in the desert, but our absolute favorite is boondocking (free camping). There’s ~14 million acres of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, as well as several large conservation areas and wildlife refuges where you can camp for free for up to 14 days at a time. For longer-term stays, you can buy an LTVA (Long Term Visitor Area) recreation permit for $180. The permit gives you unlimited camping for up to 7 months at 7 specific BLM areas, some of which offer trash, water and dump station too.

For those not into boondocking, the Arizona State and Regional Parks are lovely and offer wonderfully spacious campsites in beautiful locations for around $22-$40/night. Finally, there are plenty of private park options ranging from casual to super snazzy, as well as several absolutely lovely SKP parks that are both warmly welcoming and super easy on the wallet.

Nina Fussing - Yuma

Some of Our Favorite Spots

Nina Fussing Buenos-Aires-Boondocking

Anza Borrego Desert (CA), Quartzsite BLM & Kofa National Wildlife Refuge (AZ), American Girl Mine BLM (Yuma, AZ), Catalina State Park (Tuscon, AZ), Lost Dutchman State Park (Apache Junction, AZ), McDowell Mountain Regional Park (Fountain Hills, AZ), Sams Family Spa (Desert Hot Springs, CA), SKP Saguaro Co-Op (Benson, AZ).

What's the Season?

In our experience, the desert stays pretty hot until around mid-November when the weather suddenly switches, and it becomes beautifully cool. It stays on the cool side of nice (mornings can be very chilly, afternoons generally lovely) until around mid-March when it starts to warm up again. We usually head out of there by then.

The Southern California Coast

Nina Fussing - San Diego

Not many folks think of the California coast as a winter camping destination, but it's actually one of my favorite times to visit.

Winter is the low season, so RV parks are easier to get into and places that might only offer daily rates in summer will switch to much lower monthly rates in winter. Plus, the weather is moderate, sunny, and pleasant, beaches are relaxed (fewer people), and you still get to enjoy all the cool coastal towns, just without the massive summer crowds.

We’ll typically drive from the desert to the coast to get our “city fix” when we’ve become dusty from boondocking. It really offers the perfect counter-balance.

Nina Fussing - San Diego

In San Diego, you’ve got tons of unique beach communities, over 150 breweries, masses of awesome food spots, great surfing and some of the loveliest beach-front biking trails I know (bike to beer, anyone?). Move up north to Ventura and you can park your rig with a 180-degree view of the ocean. Then drive the coast into Pismo Beach where, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the monarch butterfly migration. If you’re not, you might just see the poppies bloom into carpets of bright orange on the hills. Either way, you’re won’t be disappointed by the scenery.

Why We Love It

Beach, beer, views and city life…. need I say more? The Southern California Coast offers the perfect combination of activity and relaxation. It’s doesn’t have the wide-open empty spaces of the desert, and it’s not free (no BLM land, sadly), but it delivers sweeping vistas of the ocean with the bonus of a craft brew at the end of the day.

Nina Fussing Rincon-Panorama

California Coast Camping Options

There is a large selection of private and state parks along the coast, as well as Elks Clubs (if you happen to be a member) that range in price from $20/night to $150/night. Private parks will take any sized rig and since winter is the low season they are generally fairly easy to get into (do book ahead for monthly rates, however). CA state parks are popular and generally quite expensive, plus many of them are limited in the size of rigs they can accommodate (30-35 foot is often the max). We’ve stayed at a few in our 40-footer, but generally don’t use them as often as other states. County parks are a great option as they are generally both reasonable and accessible.

Some of Our Favorite Spots

Mission Bay RV Park (San Diego, CA), Santee Lakes (San Diego, CA), Rincon Parkway (Ventura, CA), Pismo Beach State Park (Pismo Beach, CA),

What's The Season 

California coastal weather is pretty moderate all winter, so you can easily camp from October through April without breaking a sweat. Starting around mid-May, summer prices kick in and we generally head north of the border.

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Author

Nina Fussing

Nina Fussing (SKP#106238) is a blogger, photographer and all-around nature-lover who spent 8 years fulltime RVing with her hubby & 12 paws around USA. They are now in Europe continuing the adventure there. 
Follow their story at: wheelingit.us

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