Pine Creek Road (Mt. Laguna) Free Dispersed Camping Area

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If you’re looking for an amazing free campsite just an hour from San Diego, look no further than the Pine Creek Road dispersed camping area. Situated just outside of the incredible Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, it’s perfectly located for exploring some of the most beautiful places in Cleveland National Forest. Expansive mountain views, high desert scenery, and large, private sites make this a top dispersed camping destination in Southern California.

Pine Creek Road Dispersed Camping Area Guide

Location & Overview

The Pine Creek Road dispersed camping area is located about 60 miles east of San Diego in the Cleveland National Forest. The closest town is Mt. Laguna, which is tiny hamlet with a store and a couple of hotels. There are several great trailheads within a few miles of Pine Creek Road, including Penny Pines and Storm Canyon Vista, both of which provide access to the Pacific Crest Trail. The Noble Canyon Trail is an epic mountain biking trail that intersects with Pine Creek Road.

To get to the camping area from San Diego, you’ll take the I-8 east to Sunrise Highway. Head north on Sunrise Highway for about 14 miles until you see Pine Creek Road on your left. There is a sign for the road, although it can be easy to miss. You’ll start to see sites a couple miles down the road, after passing the “Leaving Mount Laguna Recreation Area” sign.

Pine Creek Road is paved, making it accessible for most vehicles. However, the road is very narrow, has lots of potholes, and can get extremely windy, so RVs and trailers should use caution. There are not many areas to turn around until you reach the first campsite. Soon after, you’ll see a dirt loop off the main road on your right. There are a few nice campsites along this loop and more further along the road.

The Google Street View image below shows the turn off to Pine Creek Road when coming from the south along Sunrise Highway. You can click to move the image and look around the area.

This map shows the location of the first few campsites along Pine Creek Road.

What Are the Campsites Like?

One of the best things about the Pine Creek Road dispersed camping area is how private the sites are. Sites are well spaced and surrounded by trees and shrubs, providing a sense of seclusion. There’s not a ton of shade to be found lower down, but there are more oak trees as you head higher up which offer nice coverage.

Although there are no formally marked sites along Pine Creek Road, established sites have been carved out and are easy to spot by the dirt driveways leading to them. Boulders have been placed in areas where camping or turning around is prohibited. Most sites are flat and many are spacious enough to accommodate camper vans or RVs. You won’t find any picnic tables, fire rings, or other amenities as this is true primitive camping. Many sites have amazing views of the surrounding mountains.

This video gives a good sense of what campsites look like along Pine Creek Road.

Rules & Regulations

Pine Creek Road is in Cleveland National Forest and all of the general dispersed camping rules apply. These include the following important guidelines:

  • Camping is permitted for up to 14 days within a 30 day period
  • Pack out all trash and abide by Leave No Trace principles
  • A free permit is require for any remote (dispersed) camping in Cleveland National Forest (more on this below)
  • Charcoal and wood fires are NEVER allowed when dispersed camping in Cleveland NF.
  • Camp stoves are typically allowed, unless seasonal fire bans prohibit them.
  • Pets are welcome and should be kept on a 6 foot leash

Additionally, camping is not permitted within the Mount Laguna Recreation Area, so be sure you wait until you’ve passed the signs indicating that you’ve left the recreation area before selecting a campsite.

Download Our FREE Dispersed Camping Cheat Sheet

Our free printable cheat sheet outlines how to find the perfect dispersed campsite for your next trip.

Permits

As we mentioned in the previous section, a permit is required for all dispersed camping in Cleveland National Forest. Permits can be obtained via email and are completely free. To get a permit, simply complete the form and email it to the Descanso Ranger District. Soon (typically within two business days), you’ll get your permit emailed back to you. Contact information and more details can be found here.

Additionally, if you plan on parking at any of the more popular trailheads in the area, you’ll need to purchase an Adventure Pass. Passes can be purchased online and you can opt for a 24-hour pass ($5) or an annual pass ($30).

Leave No Trace Dispersed Camping

One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping is to follow Leave No Trace principles. The wilderness here is fragile and it is our responsibility to minimize our impact and keep these areas open and beautiful for future campers.

Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:

  • Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that allows dispersed camping.
  • Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
  • Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
  • Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. (Other than trash of course!)
  • Minimize campfire impacts: Remember that campfires and grills are never allowed along Pine Creek Road.
  • Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
  • Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.

You can read more about the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping here.

Green mountains in the Mt Laguna Recreation Area, near Pine Creek Road dispersed camping area.

Cell Service, Amenities, and More

There’s not much in the way of cell service along Pine Creek Road. AT&T and Verizon tend to be spotty and T-Mobile’s signal is virtually nonexistent. Even with a booster, most boondockers and campers have reported being unable to work there, although it may be enough for streaming and simple tasks. The bottom line? Don’t count on having cell service when camping in the Pine Creek Road dispersed area.

Camping along Pine Creek Road is a true wilderness experience and you shouldn’t expect to find much in the way of amenities. Be sure to bring enough water, bury human waste (or use a portable toilet), and pack out all trash. If you need to refill water, you can use the pump at the nearby Penny Pines Trailhead. Come ready to be self-sufficient and you’ll have a wonderful experience!

What to Bring

As we mentioned above, there are no amenities at the Pine Creek Road dispersed camping area, so it’s important to pack in everything you’ll need.

While we’re sure you’ll already have the essentials like a great tentsleeping bags, and camp chairs,  below are some of our essential items :

  • Shade canopy– Not all sites at here are shaded, so it’s a good idea to bring your own shade structure.
  • Coleman Camping Stove – This classic piece of gear is perfect for cooking up deluxe campsite dinners.
  • Portable water container – There is no water source in the camping area, so a good portable water container is a must.
  • Cooler – Keeping food and drinks cool is critical when camping. We can’t recommend Yeti enough!
  • Portable toilet – Easier than digging a hole in the hard packed desert ground and infinitely more luxurious!
  • Map – We prefer downloadable GPS maps via the Gaia GPS app. You can get 20% off your annual membership here.
Dispersed Camping Checklist

Our dispersed camping checklist has everything you need.

Want to know the essentials for your next camping trip?

Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.

Have a Great Trip!

That’s it! Hopefully we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great dispersed camping trip at the Pine Creek Road dispersed camping area.

Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!

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