There’s nothing like the freedom of off-roading. Once you get a taste of that freedom, you’ll never go back.
If you’re a fan of exploring the natural landscape from the comfort of your vehicle and you’re in the area, you need to check out these 16 must-see off-road trails near San Diego.
Top offroading Trails in San Diego
1. Boulder Creek Road
Boulder Creek Road is a great off-roading trail to explore if you’re looking to challenge yourself with a more demanding route.
This trail is near Descanso, California, and runs about 21 miles long with an elevation gain of 2,926 feet. Because it’s a more difficult off-roading trail, it’ll take you around an hour to complete. The roads aren’t too bumpy, and most off-roaders say the trail is mostly gravel and smooth dirt.
Boulder Creek Road offers a scenic drive through Cleveland National Forest. Because it’s open all year, you can explore this breathtaking trail in all its glory any season. Whatever time of year you do visit, you’ll be able to enjoy incredible views of the mountains. Boulder Creek Road is a one-way trail, but it usually isn’t very crowded, either.
However, it’s important to note that this trail doesn’t allow dogs, so keep your furry friends at home.
2. Cedar Creek Road
Also near Descanso, California, Cedar Creek Road is a decently difficult loop trail that runs 7.7 miles through Cleveland National Forest. It has an elevation gain of 1,548 feet. Although it’s a trail that hikers commonly take on, it’s also a great off-roading challenge.
If you’re thinking of trying out this trail, you’ll want to visit sometime from April to September — that’ll be the best time to enjoy the scenery. With this off-roading trial, be sure to soak in as much sun as you can while appreciating the breathtaking mountain and forest views.
For this trail, you’ll need an adventure pass on display in your vehicle if you’re in the forest for recreation purposes. For daily passes, the Southern California Daily Pass is for you, costing only $5.
If you’re interested in long-term passes, check out the Southern California Annual Forest Adventure Pass for $30, which lasts a year.
To take it up a notch, there’s also the America the Beautiful Annual National Parks Pass for $80. This pass includes all national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges, as well as all U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sites, Bureau of Reclamation sites, and Bureau of Land Management sites.
You can also add on the Southern California Second-Car Annual Forest Adventure Pass for $5 if you’d like friends or family to join you in another motorcycle or car. However, you have to purchase this pass when you buy the Annual Forest Adventure Pass.
These are all valid for an entire year.
3. Chariot Canyon – Oriflamme Canyon
Oriflamme and Chariot Canyon is an intermediate trail near Julian, California, in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It runs 10.7 miles with an elevation gain of 2,132 feet. Despite it being a pretty popular trail, it also offers some peace and quiet if you go during less busy hours.
This scenic trail doesn’t have much shade and is a bit more rocky and tight in some spots (especially once you reach the middle of the trail) than other trails. You might have to make your way around some ruts and boulders, too. Once you reach the summit, you’ll be treated to the gorgeous views of the Anza Borrego desert.
You’ll probably need a four-wheel drive for Oriflamme and Chariot Canyon. Keep in mind that your vehicle has to be highway legal. Off-highway vehicles (OHVs) aren’t allowed. Like Boulder Creek Road, dogs aren’t permitted on this trail either.
4. Upper Coyote Canyon Trail
The Upper Coyote Canyon Trail is an out-and-back, 17-mile trail in close proximity to Borrego Springs, California.
This trail, in particular, isn’t for beginners; it can prove pretty difficult for even the most experienced off-roaders. Upper Coyote Canyon Trail also has an elevation gain of 2,194 feet.
Upper Coyote Canyon Trail is perfect if you’re in the mood for some scenic driving without running into lots of hikers or other off-roaders. It’s generally pretty secluded and quiet. You’ll be able to drive through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and witness the stunning desert views for yourself.
But just like Oriflamme and Chariot Canyon, OHVs aren’t allowed; only highway-legal vehicles can venture onto this trail.
If you’re considering bringing your dog, go right ahead! Dogs are not only welcome but are also allowed to be off-leash in some places in case you have to make a bathroom stop.
5. Santa Ysabel Truck Trail
The Santa Ysabel Truck Trail is a 5-mile trail with an elevation of 529.81 feet. Although it’s a bit rocky and rutted, it’s still considered an easy trail: perfect for those who don’t have a lot of off-roading experience.
This shelf-road trail is pretty narrow and will lead you right through the Cleveland National Forest. You’ll drive alongside the Santa Ysabel Creek and will be able to see clear views of the mountains.
Because this trail is well-traveled, you probably won’t be alone, even if you go on holidays and weekends. Still, it’s well-maintained, which is a huge plus.
However, when there’s severe weather or a high fire risk, some of the gates throughout the trail might be locked and will be at the rangers’ discretion.
The best times to enjoy the spectacular views of the Santa Ysabel are spring, summer, and fall.
6. Lake Murray
Another easy, beginner-friendly trail, Lake Murray’s route runs 5.7 miles near La Mesa, California, at an elevation of 108 feet.
This out-and-back route is within Mission Trails Regional Park and is really popular thanks to its ideal fishing and bird-watching spots. That being said, this might not be the trail for you if you’re looking for a more secluded, quiet spot.
Because the trail is open year-round, like the Boulder Creek Road trail, you’ll have the opportunity to explore it and its incredible views during any season. It’s likely that you’ll get to see wildlife and native plants, like wildflowers.
It’s also accessible if you use a wheelchair or other mobility devices. There are accessible spaces and bathrooms as well.
Although dogs are allowed, make sure to bring their leash.
7. Proctor Valley Road Trail
If you’re looking for an easier trail, the Proctor Valley Road Trail should be a viable option for you. This out-and-back trail near Chula Vista, California, runs 7.9 miles at an elevation of 393 feet.
This gorgeous trail is quieter and more secluded, so you’ll be able to do some off-roading without running into lots of other people exploring. Some off-roaders even prefer driving through this trail at night. Early in the morning is another popular time to go.
Luckily, Proctor Valley is open all year round and, as you might expect, offers stunning views no matter the season. In warmer weather, you’ll be able to spot blooming flowers amongst lots of greenery.
Feel free to bring your dogs; just make sure you bring their leash, too.
8. Corral Canyon OHV Trail
Like the Proctor Valley Road Trail, the Corral Canyon OHV trail is quiet and secluded. Near Campo, California, this out-and-back trail is 13.8 miles long and considered decently challenging. Corral Canyon OHV goes through the Cleveland National Forest and has a 1,368-foot elevation gain.
The trail is a bit narrow, but because the route isn’t as populated, you shouldn’t run into many other off-roaders.
Corral Canyon OHV — similarly to Cedar Creek Road — also requires off-roader drivers to have an adventure pass on display. You should be able to take this route with a two-wheeler, but it might be best to tackle Corral Canyon with a four-wheel drive.
Among the breathtaking mountain and river views, you’ll also be able to enjoy the wildlife. There are many off-shoots to explore, too.
9. Wagon Creek Falls from Deer Creek
For a more challenging off-road trail, you might want to check out Wagon Creek Falls from Deer Creek. It’s a 12.1-mile out-and-back trail close to Mount Shasta, California, with an elevation gain of 2,539 feet.
Wagon Creek Falls usually isn’t super crowded, so you probably won’t run into many other off-roaders while you’re exploring. However, this trail can be difficult due to the heavy brush and large boulders, both of which can scratch or damage your vehicle. You might also run into some wildlife, including bears, so be aware.
The most ideal times to visit Wagon Creek are from April to November. This is the best time period to enjoy the spectacular views of Mount Shasta. As you drive, there are a few creeks that should be visible along the route.
Like other trails, such as Lake Murray, dogs are permitted but must be leashed at all times.
10. Sugarpine Mountain OHV Trail
The Sugarpine Mountain OHV trail is located near San Bernardino, California, and runs nearly 18 miles within the San Bernardino National Forest at an elevation of 4,343 feet.
This out-and-back trail is very popular amongst off-roaders. Even so, there may be times you can enjoy some peace and quiet throughout the day. It’s an intermediate off-roading trail and gets narrow at some points. There are also some brush and boulders to be aware of. Also, if the weather is severe enough, it may be even more difficult.
Sugarpine Mountain is open all year round and, as you guessed, a gorgeous route whatever month of the year. When off-roading through this trail, you’ll be able to take in the beautiful forest views along with any critters that may happen on your path.
Be advised that an adventure pass is needed within your vehicle if you’re using the forest for recreation purposes.
As with Wagon Creek Falls, dogs are welcome on the Sugarpine Mountain OHV trail but must be on a leash when outside.
11. Strawberry Lake OHV Trail
The Strawberry Lake OHV trail is 16.4 miles long at an elevation of 2,162 feet, and you should keep in mind that this out-and-back trail is pretty difficult.
Although it’s not the steepest trail, the route can get narrow and technical. There are also lots of boulders to navigate around, and you might need some ground clearance and a spotter. If you’re inexperienced with off-roading, consider saving this trail for after you’ve got some other trails under your belt.
Located near Shaver Lake, California, Strawberry Lake is pretty secluded, giving you some time to spend alone with your thoughts.
From April through September, you’ll be able to explore the Strawberry Lake OHV trail at its best times. Even before you make it to the stunning Strawberry Lake, there are a few other lake passings on the way. This trail is a great way to beat the heat of the Central Valley.
12. Palomar Divide Road
Despite being a whopping 25.1 trail, the Palomar Divide Road is an easy route for off-roaders. It’s close to Aguanga, California, and is a popular trail for many activities besides off-roading, from mountain biking to bird watching. Even though it’s easy, you’ll need a high-clearance four-wheel drive for this trail.
Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the solitude. Combat that by planning to tackle the trail outside of peak hours.
With the Palomar Divide Road, you’ll get to enjoy the views of the Cleveland National Forest all year round. Palomar Divide is also a great trail to catch a glimpse of the sun as it sets.
For most of this route, you’ll need a street-legal vehicle. OHVs aren’t allowed.
If you have a pup, feel free to bring them! Just don’t forget their leash.
13. Bear Valley Road
Another easier off-roading trail is Bear Valley Road. Designed for beginners, this 18.3-mile out-and-back trail runs close to Pine Valley, California, and has an elevation gain of 2,276 feet.
Of the Greater San Diego area, Bear Valley is one of the closest OHV opportunities. The trail also connects to the Corral Canyon OHV through the Kernan Cycle trail, but this area is only accessible if your vehicle is less than 53 inches in width.
A bit dusty on sunny days, the Bear Valley Road trail can have some steeper, rockier parts. A four-wheeler would be best for this route to enjoy the gorgeous sights of the Cleveland National Forest.
Although it’s the perfect spot for many activities, like hiking and mountain biking, it’s not likely that you’ll run into lots of other off-roaders on Bear Valley Road. Don’t forget that you need an adventure pass to display in your vehicle when exploring the forest for recreational purposes.
14. Black Mountain Truck Trail
Located close to Ramona, California, Black Mountain Truck Trail is 14.2 miles of out-and-back trail at a 3,051-foot elevation. Although it’s not the easiest, it’s also not the most difficult.
During quieter times, it’s a great trail to clear your mind with some off-roading. Keep in mind though, if there are others on the trail, it can be a little tight when passing other vehicles.
From January through December, the trail is open and ready for you to explore. You can see how the Cleveland National Forest changes with the seasons. The views are stunning no matter what time of year. To do your exploring here, you’ll need an adventure pass displayed in your vehicle. Black Mountain Truck Trail is also only for license-plated vehicles.
Like Palomar Divide Road, dogs are free to join you but need to be on a leash.
15. Santiago Peak
Santiago Peak runs through the Cleveland National Forest at 17.2 miles and a 4,773-foot elevation gain. It’s a decently challenging trail for off-roading. This point-to-point trail is popular among off-roaders and hikers alike but is a great trail to enjoy the solitude.
Albeit gorgeous, Santiago Peak is also rocky and has little shade. It’s best to visit from November through March for the best views. You’ll be able to take in all that the Cleveland National Forest has to offer, wildlife and plant life alike.
You’ll also need an adventure pass in your vehicle for this trail, too. Bring your dog if you’d like, but be sure to bring their leash, too.
Keep in mind that the trail is sometimes closed for fire hazards. As of 2022, Santiago Peak is closed.
16. Bee Canyon Truck Trail
Last but certainly not least, we have Bee Canyon Truck Trail. This out-and-back trail runs 15.5 miles near Hemet, California, at an elevation gain of 2,657 feet. Like Santiago Peak, it’s moderately challenging for off-roaders, featuring some muddy and rutted areas, among other obstacles.
Bee Canyon Truck Trail is open all year, and you can enjoy its beauty in spring, summer, fall, and winter. Soak in all the glorious views of San Bernardino National Forest, from creeks to dry brush and wildlife. In fact, most of these trails can be completed with a two-wheel drive.
Keep in mind that Bee Canyon Truck Trail is susceptible to seasonal road closures.
For this trail, you need to bring your adventure pass.
Other Worthy Trails to Check Out
If you’re into off-roading, you’ll also want to keep these worthy trails in mind to explore, including:
- Otay Mountain Truck Trail
- Smugglers Cave
- Anderson Truck Trail
- Santiago Peak
- Thomas Mountain Road
- Fiesta Island
- Double Peak Park
- Bonita Cove Park
What to Wear While off-roading
When you’re off-roading, it’s important to look and act the part. In general, wearing long-sleeved tops is the best option so you can protect yourself from the sun’s rays as well as cuts and abrasions.
Durable pants are also a must. Make sure your clothes are too loose either; they could get caught or snagged during your off-roading trip. You may be interested in our post about what to wear ATV.
You’ll also want to bring some important items, such as:
- An extra key for your vehicle
- A first-aid kit
- A spare tire
- A tow strap
- Bottles of water
- A jack and tire iron
- Your tool kit
No matter where you are in your off-roading journey, there are plenty of trails near San Diego for every skill level.
Step out of your comfort zone and enjoy a moderately challenging trail like Bee Canyon Truck Trail, or ease into off-roading through an easier trail like Lake Murray. Whatever path you take, be sure to drink in all the glorious views you’re sure to see during your off-roading plans.
I’m William Guzenski, ASE certified master automobile technician & automotive expert. I love to attend race events and car shows throughout the country. I also loves to travel 40-foot motorhome, exploring abandoned mines and ghost towns. I’m currently building another car for Bonneville Salt Flats and will be campaigning a drag car at several events.