Dispelling the Confusion About Free Camping in Anza-Borrego State Park

With a widespread increase of visitors to outdoor spaces across the country, those in charge of parks are looking for new ways to deal with crowds and increase access for visitors. Often, as is the case with California State Parks, they want to get feedback from those who use those parks before making any changes.

An airstream camping in the California desert.
Coachwhip Canyon | Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – Photo by: Brian

Currently, California State Parks has an online survey for visitors to two San Diego County parks including Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. While the two parks are just miles from one another, they could not be more different. Cuyamaca sits at a higher elevation and has meadows and thick oak forests with winding streams, while Anza-Borrego is a massive desert area and often attracts crowds in the winter looking to beat the cold weather. The two prove why San Diego County is said to be the most biological diverse places in the lower 48 states.

Thanks in part to grants funded by the 2018 passing of Proposition 68, a measure that would help fund more park projects in California, there are separate improvements planned for both parks.

What are those improvements? Let’s take a look.

For Cuyamaca Rancho, park officials say they want to improve parking, especially after receiving a piece of land from CalTrans, California’s Department of Transportation. Because of the park’s close proximity to the City of San Diego, they often deal with crowds and parking issues, so the survey is heavily focused on how to relieve this.

At Anza-Borrego, a proposed change impacts camping, which seems to have created some confusion and concerns for park-goers.

“We had signs on some of the sites for this proposal and within the last two weeks we kind of moved that to social media to make sure we were capturing everybody’s comments, and getting everyone that uses the park and who have visited in the past and saw the survey up,” said Ray Lennox, the District Superintendent for the Colorado Desert District.

Lennox oversees both of these parks and a third one in the southern part of the state. He says Anza-Borrego is truly unique due to its massive size. It’s the largest park in the state, covering more than a thousand square miles.

Lennox says they are looking to create more what they call paid “primitive sites” that are located in different areas around Anza-Borrego. Right now there are a handful of these sites that offer shade structures, vault toilets, and some fire rings. The distinction between these primitive sites and dispersed camping is what is causing some confusion.

Due to the park’s size, and more than 500 miles of dirt road, the park has a lot of camping options, but the majority of campsites are what they call “dispersed backcountry camping.” These are sites that operate like a lot of BLM land and visitors can simply pull over and set up camp. Dispersed backcountry camping is currently and will remain free for the foreseeable future.

“With the dispersed camping there really isn’t a cost (for the park),” said Lennox. “Ground fires are only legal in containers. So what you’ll see a lot of times is people bring their own fire ring and set it up and they take everything with them when they’re gone. There’s no cost associated with it.”

This allows the park to continue the free camping access, however the same isn’t true for their primitive sites that do have boundaries and some amenities. Understanding the difference between the two is what caused confusion and had some worried they were losing the backcountry sites. As of now, the park is only looking to create more of the primitive sites with a fee, but they’re waiting to receive the feedback. Lennox and other park officials hope this is made clear, and want visitors to know there are even more camping options when visiting Anza-Borrego.

“I think the biggest thing is that there are various camping opportunities from free to cabins and RV hookups within the park,” said Lennox. “So I think there’s something for everybody who wants to come and recreate responsibly.”

With the added grants, Lennox says the park is also looking to increase signage to help people get around and add more interpretive signs that explain the different regions of the park.

As of now, park officials say they plan to keep the survey up until Friday, April 16.