The Great Winter Vancation: Camping Reviews

A lot of people ask me about where we stayed in the van — and I’ve noticed that expectations are all across the board. Campgrounds? Parking lots? The side of the road? Wal-Mart?!?!

For the most part, campgrounds were the obvious choice, though we ventured to BLM land when we could, and we actually did end up on the actual side of the road once twice.

For the camp-curious, read on … 

Joshua Tree National Park — Overflow Camping
Would camp again? Possibly
Cost: $0

There are two areas of BLM land that the National Park Service advertises as alternatives for visits to JTNP. Since the park proper experiences full campgrounds on a regular basis, it can often be a challenge to find a spot. In fact, this is so regularly a chjtnp-overflowallenge, that the NPS has published these outside-of-the-park locations on their website. You can actually download a PDF brochure of the locations (which is a wise idea since you likely won’t get service inside the park).

We parked in the area south of the park, west of Cottonwood Springs Road, as we were headed east on the 10 freeway the next morning. We had a few neighbors, but for the  most part, we were far from them all with only a short drive down a dirt road. We could see the freeway, but it was hard to hear over the gale force winds that rocked us to sleep (and back awake) all night. The area was reasonable enough, the view was pleasant … the winds were incredible. It’s not always windy near Palm Springs, but it often is. I’d camp here again, but only if it were the most convenient option. Definitely bring earplugs.

Molino Basin Campground – Tucson, AZ
Would camp again? Definitely
Cost: $10 or $5 w/interagency pass

Ever since last winter, when we spent a week in Tucson, climbing around Mt. Lemmon, I wanted to camp in this area. We were not disappointed. Molino Basin CG is the first campground as you drive north from Tuscon on the Santa Catalina Highway and is the only one open in the winter months. There are well maintained pit toilets, and each site has a fire ring, and a picnic table with shade structure and was accessible by the average car. Several spots can accommodate a van or RV and the rest are walk-up. The cost is only $10 a night; $5 if you have an Interagency Pass. The views were amazing, and the nights were quiet, with the occasional car headed up or down the mountain.

We spent two nights here — it was affordable, peaceful and very pleasant. We are definitely staying here again on our next trip through Tuscon.

Holloman Lakes BLM Land, NM
Would camp again? Yes
Cost: $0

I found this spot of BLM land on with a random internet search for campsites. I was a little apprehensive as it was nestled between an air force base, a missile range and White Sands National Monument. Also, I read that it was downwind of a waste treatment facility.


However, we had a really pleasant night here. The Holloman Lakes, while technically waste water from the AFB, are actually a wildlife refuge and important bird area in NM. We experienced a phenomenal sunset before a storm rolled in, and as one other online reviewer experienced, a law enforcement vehicle drove through the area in the morning without incident. There was one other tent and one RV parked further up the road from us. My only concern here was lack of convenient places to relieve oneself. Thankfully, the town of Alamogordo is not far from here.

Villanueva State Park, NMvnsp
Would camp again? question unclear!
Cost: n/a

I can’t technically say we camped here. Villanueva SP is a tiny little thing at the end of a long road. While I agree that it was really pretty in the daylight, I regret that we rolled up 20 minutes after the front gate was locked.

This would be our first night camping on the side of the road. My fears were that some authority would be none too pleased that we pretty much just stopped in front of the gate to eat and sleep, but in fact, they completely ignored us when they came to open up the gate the next morning. Both sides of the fence were quiet and calm and we were close enough to hear the Pecos River. I wouldn’t go out of my way to come back, but if I was in the area, I would give this park a shot. The morning hike was worth it.

Joe Skeen Campground — El Malpais National Conservation Area, NM
Would camp again? yes
Cost: $0 (option for donation)

As you drive south on the 117 from interstate 40, you will pass through the El Malpais National Monument, National Conservation Area and back again on what feels like several occasions. As we searched for a place to park the boat, it was unclear what type of camping activity was permitted, so we opted for the security of an establish campground.

holloman-lakes-1-of-1When we arrived, we were completely alone, and found that the fee receptacle had been turned into a donation box, noting that camping was at no charge. We were able to take our pick of sites, complete with tables, shade structures and fire rings. There were pit toilets onsite, however, we did not use them, so I can’t speak to their cleanliness. The view of the conservation area was outstanding and if it weren’t so cold, I would have really enjoyed this spot. It wasn’t super convenient, but a good spot if you’re in the area.

Mountain Springs Road – Mojave Desert, AZ
Would camp again? probably not
Cost: $0

Our second night on the side of the road. I think this might have been the closest we got to arguing during the whole entire trip. We left central New Mexico and drove all the way to California in one day, after short hikes at El Morro NM and Petrified Forest NP. And we didn’t take the most direct route.

Needless to say, it was a very long day; we found a relatively flat, uninhabited spot of dirt just far enough away from interstate 40, west of Needles, CA, and called it a night. The advantage here was that the weather was much warmer, there was no wind and we were alone. 

Sawtooth Canyon Campground – Lucerne Valley, CA
Would camp again? Always
Cost: $0

I was hesitant to post this at all since it’s one of our favorite places to go and it feels like I’m giving up a secret. But it’s not really a secret. Sawtooth Canyon, AKA New Jack City, is one of our favorite climbing areas and is only about two hours from home. It was the perfect final destination on the Great Winter Vancation and we decided to spend our last two days on the road here.

Campsites are laid out in what seems like a random assortment of clusters. There’s a large group site at one end, a smaller site that’s basically in the parking lot at the base of the crag, a couple of isolated sites, and a few other sites grouped together. You’ll also find an interesting playground of fake dinosaur bones. It’s very desert.

I won’t link to it’s location, but if you make it out there some day, look for the Creaky Sausage Boat and say hello.

Total cost of 9 nights camping: $10 !!

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