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Backcountry hidden pleasures:   Our guide to unique lodging adventures in San Diego’s beautiful backcountry

By Jack Riordan

Photo, left: The Desert View Trail at the Burnt Rancheria Campground is a very easy and dog-friendly one mile scenic loop through the campground to a rewarding view of the desert floor below.  Photo by Jack Riordan.

November 1, 2017 (Mount Laguna) -- Nestled in the pines, beneath a blanket of starlight, you’ll find Burnt Rancheria.  As part of the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area in the Cleveland National Forest, this lush east county campground sits at 6000 feet above sea level, offering dream-like mountain scenery, as well as an easy escape from the day to day life in the city.

Our goal with this trip was to get into the mountains and catch the peak of the Orionid Meteor Shower, an annual occurrence resulting from our planet crossing the orbit of the famous Halley’s Comet.

Photo, right:  Delicious S’mores are the perfect way to end the day.  Photo by Jack Riordan.

Burnt Rancheria did not disappoint. Framed by towering Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pine trees, an infinite backdrop of stars and galaxies gave way every few minutes after midnight to dazzling streaks of light across our San Diego sky.

In fact, due to its elevation and lack of light pollution, the San Diego State University Observatory hosts stargazing parties at the campground on weekends over the summer. This schedule can be obtained at the Laguna Mountain Visitor Center, or by calling (619) 473-8547.

Photo, left:  The Orionid Meteor Shower as seen from Laguna Mountain in October 2014.  Photo by George Paice.

Conveniently located off of Interstate 8 and the spectacular Sunrise Highway, and a mere 50 miles from downtown San Diego, Laguna Mountain is a wide open playground for hikers, runners, cyclists, mountain bikers, nature lovers, families, kids, and even your dogs!

In the late 1800’s cattle ranchers and developers were encroaching on the area. In an attempt to quell their progress, native Digueños set a key ranch house ablaze, burning it to the ground, and the name Burnt Rancheria just sort of stuck. But don’t let that sordid history deter you, today it is as peaceful as can be.

Photo, right:  What better way to spend a weekend than swinging in the mountain breeze with a good book?  Photo by Jack Riordan.

Burnt Rancheria is a 111-site campground, 50 of which are “walk-in”, or first come first served, sites. All sites have paved parking spurs, many of which are accessible and long enough to accommodate mid-size travel trailers and RV’s. Each site also has a standard sized fire pit, and a clean metal picnic table. Most sites are very flat and level, and those that have any slope seemed to have designated tent spots that had been graded flat.

Photo, left:  Cherry Loop Site #84 at the Burnt Rancheria Campground, just before sunset. October 21st, 2017.  Photo by Jack Riordan.

Although most of the reservation sites did have wooden shade covers over the tables, the walk-in sites seemed to be more spacious, and tucked deeper into the conifers. We arrived at around 4pm on a Saturday, without reservations, and stayed in Site #84, which was part of a double site with #83. This meant shared parking and not a whole lot of room between sites. Fortunately, although the campground was very busy, nobody arrived to claim the other half while we were there. These two sites would be ideal for two families looking to take a trip together.

Photo, right:  At 6000’ above sea level, the air is crisp and cool up on Mount Laguna – perfect for a toasty campfire!  Photo by Jack Riordan.

The campground in general is immaculate, especially the restrooms. There are many less desirable “vault” style toilets scattered conveniently about. But a short walk will take you to very nice restrooms with flushing toilets, running water, coin-operated showers, and electrical outlets if you need one to charge your phone or device. On that note, there is a good 4G signal up there.

Photo, left:  Camping, quiet streets, and changing fall colors – key ingredients for awesome childhood memories.  Photo by Jack Riordan.

Vehicle traffic inside the campground is minimal, and is kept to a slow pace due to the narrow roads and the various loops that make up the map. This makes it a great place for kids to safely ride their bikes, and for families and their dogs to walk off your S’mores.

The Desert View Trail is a very easy dirt path that winds roughly one mile through the campground and rewards you with a seemingly endless view out to the desert floor 6000 feet below.

Photo, right:  Another look at the Desert View Trail. If you want to see the full view, come and camp in East County San Diego!  Photo by Jack Riordan.

For those looking for a longer hike, the very popular Pacific Crest Trail can be accessed from Burnt Rancheria allowing adventure seeking campers and distance runners the opportunity explore a section of the 2,650 mile trail that runs all the way from Mexico to Canada.

Photo, left:  Cherry Loop Site #84 at the Burnt Rancheria Campground.  Photo by Jack Riordan.

Also well within walking distance of the campground is a quaint restaurant and tavern (open seasonally and typically only on weekends), and a well-stocked general store (open daily). Vehicle traffic on Sunrise Highway is minimal, but the cars going by can be moving fast, so always be aware and use caution when crossing.

The campground was active during daylight hours, and gradually calmed down to near silence after the 10pm “Quiet Hours” went into effect. We did not experience a single bug while we were there in late October. Not a fly, not a mosquito…nothing! There were, however, enough signs posted about the threat of rattlesnakes that we kept a vigilant eye on our campsite and along the trail as we hiked.

Overall, I definitely recommend the Burnt Rancheria Campground up on Mount Laguna, in gorgeous east county San Diego.

Happy camping, everybody!


Burnt Rancheria Campground

  • Contact Info: (619) 473-0120
  • GPS Info (Latitude, Longitude):

    32.86139, -116.41611

    32°51'41"N, 116°24'58"W
  • Directions: Located 50 miles east of downtown San Diego, California.

    From I-8 East take the Sunrise exit.

    Go roughly ten miles to Milepost 23 – look for the Burnt Rancheria sign

    Stop at entrance for campground information and Camp Host.
  • Cost: $24 per site, 2 vehicle/8 person max
  • Camping Season: Late April – Late October, call campground for details

  • Day Use: Yes. $5 per car for hiking/biking, $10 for daylight campsite use
  • Handicap Accessible Campsites: Yes

  • RV Accessible: Yes, 30-40 foot max length

  • RV Hookup/Dump: No

  • Potable Water Available: Yes

  • Restrooms: Yes. Vault and full service w/ running water

  • Showers: Yes, coin operated

  • Campfire Allowed: Yes, in designated fire pits

  • Firewood Available: Yes, $6 per bundle from Camp Host
  • Pets: Dogs allowed but must be kept on a leash no longer than 6’
  • Preferred Sites: 35 (spacious), 51-61 (back up to open space), 83/84 (for a larger group)

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the County of San Diego for providing a Community Enhancement Grant to support our “Backcountry Hidden Pleasures” weekend getaways coverage.

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A Favorite Camp

Me and my sons stayed there so many times, the desert view is great and you can see the milky way when you get away from the camp fire.