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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Winter Bicycle Camping vrs Summer Bicycle Camping in San Diego County

Winter bicycle camping in San Diego County

I suggest that during winter in San Diego you stay within the city when bicycle camping.  Winter - whatever images that may evoke to those of you who don't live here - is extremely mild in our fair city.  It generally amounts to a little rain, nothing more.  Some occasional flooding.  But snow within the greater San Diego area is virtually unheard of.

Greatest weather in the country.  Bar none.

To those unfamiliar with our little corner of the world, though, in wintertime San Diego's east county does indeed get snow.  That fact may be amazing to some people who believe 100% of San Diego is 100% warm 100% of the time.  Well, I'm afraid nothing is 100%.

The San Diego skyline is dwarfed by the snow-capped Cuyamaca Mountains on Monday, March 13 [2011]. The photo is shot from Rosecrans National Cemetary in Point Loma.  (c) NANCEE E. LEWIS / Union-Tribune

The east county in the months preceding and following winter can get some pretty severe rainstorms, some nasty winds, it can get plenty cold.  But in comparison to much of the rest of the country the nastiness is short-lived and soon things are once again serene and beautiful.  Lovely little county we have here.

Here's another "amazing" little fact.  During a winter snow, you can actually stand on a precipice in the Lagunas (extreme east county) and look down upon the desert.  Barren, forlorn, vast, empty... meanwhile you'll be standing in snow.
Sunrise Highway view over Anza Borrego 3/06/11.  (c) Google Maps.

In any case, I don't recommend bicycle camping in the mountains of San Diego County during the coldest months of winter.

Our east county winters are blessedly short.  By April the chilly unpleasantness is pretty much a thing of the past.  [Edit: that's what I had thought, but please refer to this post: Bicycle Camping in the Cuyamacas in April.] Thus, April and May are great months for bicycle camping in or near the mountains.  True, you can still get stuck in a pounding rainstorm... and I mean it pours in the mountains.  But that can happen anywhere.

The hot weather in the mountains gets started by May and by June it is well underway.  Very hot for extended rides, or touring fully loaded with camping gear.  People do it to be sure, but it can be a hot, stuffy, aggravating, unpleasant experience.

The times for bicycle camping in the mountains - in my opinion - are spring and fall.  Not too hot; not too cold.

During the winter stay in the city.  There are plenty of campgrounds that accept bicycle campers; the winter weather is more than tolerable in the city, either mildly chilly or, at its worst, a little wet. 

During the summer... well, please keep reading.

Summer bicycle camping in San Diego County

Let's stick with the topic of our east county mountains for a minute. As the months advance to summer, those days scorching and lingering and the nights suddenly cool, that's when the nasty critters come out for their nocturnal hunting.  Scorpions, tarantulas, snakes... in the mountains in the summer months be careful when pitching a tent as the sun goes down or you might wind up spending the night with some pretty bad company.  If you exercise common sense precautions, though, lots of people do camp in the mountains during the summer and enjoy it immensely.

We call these "alligator lizards."  They're common throughout Southern California... one time I even found one in the kitchen in my house in National City.  Including the tail they're easily over a foot long.  Not poisonous... not the least bit dangerous, but they will nip if they feel endangered.  Personally I liked having that lizard around the house because they eat bugs.  Picture from (

For myself, when I think of bicycle camping in the summer that means beaches.  Beaches.  The perfect - perfection hardly begins to describe it - location for summer days and evenings.

That begs the question: where are the beach campground locations in San Diego?  Well, there aren't a lot of them that accept bicycle campers.  Off the top of my head I can think of the following:

  • Campland-on-the-Bay
  • San Elijo State Beach
  • So. Carlsbad State Beach
  • ...I want to say Guajome Park but that's inland.  Enough so that it doesn't radiate "beachiness."

Of these, Campland-on-the-Bay is by far the most expensive.  Not that I blame them.  This is a family-oriented park, a great place, right in Pacific Beach.  Located on Mission Bay, close to restaurants, bars, and fairly close to the beaches, this is some prime real estate.  They want to keep the clientele respectable.  A family from Arizona, or Minnesota, or North Dakota... you name the place... would do well to spend a week at Campland during a San Diego vacation.  They'd love it!
(c) Campland on the Bay/Acorn Interactive

Of course Campland's emphasis is on RVers and people pulling trailers.  Not surprising, because that's where the money is.

For us tent campers, during summer (Memorial Day through Labor Day) it's $42 per night for a "primitive" site - meaning no amenities at all - this borders on the outrageous.  Only KOA rivals them for expensive campsites.  I haven't spent the night at Campland yet but when I do I plan to first wash and polish my bike as well as clean up my panniers and oil my chain.  And shave.  Damn straight, they want respectability I'll give it to 'em!

To be honest with you whereas they have no express policy against it, I don't think they really want to encourage bicycle camping.  Shame, because we bicycle campers are a nice bunch of eggs... wouldn't you agree?

San Elijo State Beach campground I have touched on before.  San Elijo is, hands down, my favorite campground.  There's some indefinable quality about it... something in the air, maybe... that engenders a sense of serenity, peacefulness, reflectiveness.  I don't express myself well about these things but I'm trying to say that I always enjoy my time at San Elijo.
Waiting for the "green flash."  View from San Elijo campground.  Just by looking at this picture I can smell the cook fires and taste the beer...

At San Elijo you can get the hike-n-bike rate of $6 per night... provided they believe you are a bicycle tourer and not some wino trying to get into the park and create mischief.  Again, respectability is the name of the game.  Once in the park no one discourages you from drinking but they do prefer you do it quietly.  I have no problem with that.

I have never camped at So. Carlsbad State Beach campground which is a little surprising when you consider how many times I've bicycled past there.  It's a beautiful facility that I imagine is similar to San Elijo, also offering panoramic ocean views and stunning sunsets.  There's also a rumor that they offer hike-n-bike rates but I'm unable to confirm that at this time.  I'll know before the summer's out, that's for sure.
So. Carlsbad State Beach campground.  (c) SoCalHiker (

A word about both San Elijo and So. Carlsbad: the Amtrak passes very close to both parks.  It is not unusual for the train guy to lay on the horn in the middle of the night.  Some people complain that keeps them awake at night.  Personally I don't have a problem with it.  I like the sound of trains passing by and if a horn wakes me, I drift back to sleep almost immediately.  If you're a light sleeper I imagine this could be an issue.  Amtrak isn't going to stop blowing their horn, so decide accordingly if this is a deal-breaker with regard to these campsites.

The trade-off in vista, serenity, access to some nice restaurants and shops, and in general just the whole beach scene is - to me - vastly in favor of visiting these parks.

Another park I've never stayed at is Guajome County Park campground.  I've ridden through there and my impression is: it's far enough inland to possibly be a little hot in the summer.  The only reason I'm including it is because it's located in Oceanside... but my thought is: why would you camp in Oceanside but forego the beach scene?   There is nothing "beachy" about Guajome.

I do intend to one day stay at Guajome, but not during the summer.
Guajome County Park.  (c) San Diego Parks & Recreation

If anyone knows of any other beach-proximity campground that accepts bicycle campers I'd sure like to hear about it.

Over and out, Slo.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for putting up such a great list of campsites. Personally, I will be checking out So. Carlsbad for the hike and bike. A lot of national parks have bike trails in different parts of the park, and you can't ride from one to another - but there are hiking paths that go between them. I have a Montague folding bike so I can actually carry my bike on my backpack going through the no-bike areas. So I get the best of both worlds from the hike and bike experience.