If your idea of a great day out involves wind whipping through your hair and dirt grinding between your teeth, you may be an off-roading junkie. Off-roaders from all over the country flock to southern California where nearby mountains and deserts make for some of the best recreational playgrounds on the West Coast. Fortunately for Orange County off-roaders, they won’t have to travel far to engage their four-wheel drive. Some of the best sand dunes, mountain trails and desert washes can be found within a three-hour jaunt of OC.
Glamis Sand Dunes
1661 S. 4th St.
El Centro, CA 92243
No local off-roading guide would be complete without mention of Glamis Sand Dunes. Located at the south end of Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area off Highway 78, Glamis is arguably the most popular off-road destination in Southern California. Sand sports rule in Glamis where ATVs, dirt bikes and trucks jump, spin and race around a 45-mile dune field. While this open recreational area may be vast, you might have to share with hundreds of thousands of other visitors on certain holiday weekends.
Big Bear Trails
40971 N. Shore Drive
Fawnskin, CA 92333
If desert roads aren’t your speed, check out the many primitive vehicle trails in Big Bear. In these mountains in the San Bernardino National Forest, you’ll find more than a thousand miles of 4×4 trails to traverse. While you’re there, check out gold rush country in Holcomb Valley or stop in for some local history lessons at the Big Bear Discovery Center. Big Bear’s off-roading scene includes steep and rocky climbs and canyons full of springs, rivers and meadows. Enjoy a three-hour historical tour across 20 miles or just pack along a picnic basket and smell the wildflowers in bloom.
Goler Wash & Mengel Pass
Death Valley National Park
If your off-roading vehicle has some clearance and is up for the challenge, fill up on a tank of gas and head for the hills near Death Valley National Park. At Goler Wash, you’ll encounter variable road conditions, quaint cabins and abandoned mines. Head towards Mengel Pass and you’ll run into narrow canyons and rocky climbs all the way to Barker Ranch. This unassuming structure was the infamous hideout of serial killer Charles Manson and his gang. If your adventure slows to a crawl at this point, rev it up with some good old-fashioned rock stacking.
Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area
46001 Orwin Way
Gorman, CA 93243
Located in the Tejon Pass north of Los Angeles, Hungry Valley covers an expansive 19,000 acres and offers more than 130 scenic miles of trails to traverse in your truck, ATV or dune buggy. This California State Vehicular Recreation Area is the second largest unit of the State Park’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division. The trails are varied and are great for off-roading experts and novices alike. With elevations ranging from 3,000 to 6,000 feet, you’ll find some snowfall in the winter and hot and dusty conditions in the summer. Visit in the spring and fall for the most pleasant climate and enjoy the scenery and more desirable road conditions.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
200 Palm Canyon Drive
Borrego Springs, CA 92004
Anza-Borrego Desert is another popular destination for jeeps and off-road vehicles. As the largest state park in California, this desert expanse offers more than 500 miles of dirt roads and 12 wilderness areas. Off-roaders who slow down just enough to smell the wildflowers will also want to hit the brakes for some bighorn sheep, kit foxes and roadrunners. Visitors interested in history and rock art can four-wheel drive their way to seven areas throughout the park that have been designated as cultural preserves.
Related: How To Take An RV Roadtrip
Truc Dever is a freelance writer covering all things Orange County. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.