Ocotillo Wells is such a hidden gem, that I debated not even posting about it on the blog (OR geo-tagging it on Instagram)… Sometimes when I find a place that’s just SO great, I don’t want to tell anyone about it.
Current thoughts on geotagging…
In fact, there’s a rising trend within the outdoor community to NOT geotag your location on social media when visiting a spectacular place. I know, I know. It feels weird. Let me explain.
With the rise of social media + Instagram, some long held “secret” spots in the great outdoors have become not-so-secret thanks to geotagging. These spots, which were once quiet places to find solitude in nature, have become overrun with Instagram trophy hunters (yes, this is a thing)
A perfect example of this is Horseshoe Bend in Arizona (you’ve probably seen it on your Instagram feed before). This scenic spot used to average a few thousand annual visitors — now, it’s on track to hit 2 million annual visitors. Almost all credit this astronomical growth to the park’s popularity on Instagram.
Some places are being absolutely destroyed by the sheer amount of people visiting them. The magic is gone, they’re crowded, and they most definitely aren’t places of solitude anymore.
A lot of people who go to these places are only there to get a pic for the gram – ew.
I’ve recently cut back on geotagging the very specific outdoor places we go to — like, cool secluded parts of a trail, or hard to find views. General geo-tags are a bit more ok!
Of course, I LOVE sharing adventures with you guys and will continue to do so. I’ll always share the places we go to in blog posts — in my mind, detailed blog posts attract people who are really looking for the adventure experience, and not just the trophy pic!
By sharing just general locations, it keeps wild places wild.
Back to Ocotillo Wells, the 80,000 acre off-road playground. Ocotillo Wells is a massive state vehicular recreation area about an hour and a half from San Diego.
You’re able to drive all over the entire park! This is MAJOR. Most “off-roading” is actually on designated trails (for obvious reasons, protecting natural habitats and all that).
Not only is it an unrestricted space for off-roading, but you can also camp ANYWHERE as well. For free. No advanced registration required.
To make things even better, there are a few really nice campgrounds throughout the park that have lots of individual campsites — complete with shelters, pit restrooms, fire rings, and picnic tables.
Ocotillo Wells is right next to the Anza-Borrego Desert (one of my fav deserts! you can see a post on it HERE). Much like Anza-Borrego, this place can be downright deadly if you don’t prepare well. People have died here. Always plan ahead, plan for the worst, and always tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back.
Our camping recap
When we arrived in Ocotillo, the first thing we did was stop at the Ranger Station/Discovery Center (5172 Highway 78 Borrego Springs CA 92004). The ranger there was SO informative and friendly. He gave us the lowdown on campsites (like which ones are best), and some cool spots we should seek out on the trail. There are also free maps, flush restrooms, and showers here.
After that, we hit the dirt. It was a weird feeling being able to just veer off the paved road, and forge ahead into the desert. We spent the first day exploring, but made sure to get back to camp before dark. You are able to camp anywhere in the park. So if you want total solitude, you can drive out and get it.
We opted to camp at one of the built campsites. We were there on a Sunday night so there were a TON available, and we didn’t have anybody near us. Lucky for us it wasn’t too windy — since it is a desert I’ve heard it can get very windy and sandy at night.
It was really nice having the fire pit + picnic table + shelter at the campsite. There were also pit toilets not too far away. It got pretty cold at night, which is to be expected of the desert. There were a TON of coyotes. As soon as dusk hit we saw a couple drifting near our camp, taunting Shadow. She was on edge for most of the night as she felt an incessant need to be on watch and growl at them.
If you camp at Ocotillo Wells I highly recommend you put a light on your dog at night. We have a clip-on LED light (like something you’d get at a running store) that we put on Shadow’s reflective harness. We also had her leashed because of all the coyotes. Dogs get lost in Ocotillo Wells ever year (lots of vehicle noise, wild animals, fireworks, etc), so be aware of that.
That next morning, we woke up with the sun. We built another fire (because it was pretty chilly) and sipped hot coffee while we got warmed up. For breakfast we wrapped a couple of Trader Joe’s breakfast burritos in foil and put them in the coals to heat them up.
The second day we ventured much farther into the park and visited a few scenic points. The off-roading opportunities were ENDLESS. It was shocking how much the scenery would change the farther we went. At some points there were sand dunes, othertimes there was terrain that looked like Mars.
As the sun set we raced towards the last scenic point we had circled on our paper map — an arch big enough to drive our Jeep under.
There was SO much to see at Ocotillo Wells, you could really be there for a whole week and not get bored. I can’t wait to go back.
A few things to note:
The “desert season” for Ocotillo Wells is during the fall through spring. It can get very crowded (relatively speaking) during holiday weekends, or just weekends in general.
If you don’t have a 4 wheel drive vehicle, I would not recommend Ocotillo Wells. You need to have a set of wheels to explore the park. If you don’t have a 4wd drive vehicle, you can always camp there and rent a side-by-side, ATV, or dirt bike.
You can drive anywhere, except over historical sites, fenced off areas, or shrubbery/plants.
Even though it may feel like Ocotillo Wells is a “free for all”, remember to respect the land. It’s a privilege to be able to use this land for off-roading. Pick up your trash. Don’t be an idiot. And don’t ruin it for generations to come : )