Our guide to unique lodging and adventures in San Diego’s beautiful backcountry and inland areas
Story by Jonathan Ronald Goetz
Photos by Jonathan Ronald Goetz, Ronald Goetz, Miriam Raftery, and County of San Diego, Department of Parks and Recreation
June 18, 2018 (Campo) – People have been hiking, fishing and camping in the area today known as Lake Morena as well as the surrounding creeks and mountains for over 12,000 years, starting with the Kumeyaay, Luiseño, Cupeño and Cahuilla Native American tribes.
Today, much of this area in southeast San Diego County is preserved for the public to enjoy. At an elevation of 3,000 feet, the park has mountain, desert and coastal habitats including over 3,250 acres of dense chaparral, ancient oaks and open grasslands surrounding the lake, the most remote reservoir in San Diego County, according to ranger Jessica Geiszler..
Lake Morena County Park remains one of the most affordable and inclusive places around, with boating from $12-$50, nightly tent-site for $22, RV for $31 or cabins starting at $50.
The lake itself is a reservoir fed by Cottonwood and Lake Morena creeks. It’s stocked with freshwater fish including trout, bass, catfish, blue gill, crappie and carp. For the latest fishing info, you can call the fishing hotline at 619-478-5473. Fishing permits are required.
There’s a dock where you can rent boats or kayaks to while away the hours afloat on the sparkling waters of Lake Morena fishing or simply enjoying the scenery and serenity. You can also bring personal watercraft such as canoes and float tubes (waders are mandatory) but swimming and direct skin contact with the water is not allowed. Watercraft must also be inspected by park staff for Quagga mussels before use. Water levels fluctuate by season and annual rainfall levels.
The park includes eight miles of trails for hiking and leashed dogs are allowed, too. For the adventurous, try hiking the famous Pacific Coast Trail which begins near Mexico 22 miles to the south and extends all the way to Canada. The entire trail runs 2,643 miles; We interviewed Dana Law, who hiked the entire trail. Hear our interview. There’s also a scanvenger hunt-oriented TRACK trail for kids that connects to the Pacific Crest Trail. The park is a popular stopping point for backpackers along the journey at the park’s east end.
Rangers lead education events each month. Learn more by visiting www.SDParks.org.
Cozy wood cabins sleep up to four and come with a desk, chair, light, heat, as well as queen and bunk-bed platforms. There are no mattresses, so bringing an air mattress, sleeping pad or memory foam mattress topper for comfort, plus sleeping bag or blanket and linens, is recommended.
All campsites at Lake Morena County Park – cabins, tents, and RV hook-ups, have an open fire-pit so you can light up the night with stories and song. Quiet time starts at 10 p.m. so no fires after 11 p.m. Firewood is available at the ranger's station for $5. No fires are allowed during red flag warnings issued by the National Weather Service, which are typically noticed in advance of the affected days.
Day-use hours for Lake Morena are from 9:30 a.m. until sunset, daily. Parking at Lake Morena is $3 per vehicle. Campers have 24-hour access, and anglers are welcome to walk in at sunrise as long as they check in at the ranger station.
You may also rent the pavilion, a large hall with tables, for family events or weddings. Contact the park at (619) 579-4101 for details.
Call (858) 565-3600 to reserve your campsite or cabin or visit www.sdparks.org to book your campsite online.
Nearby Lake Morena Village has a small store and the Oak Shores Malt Shop A few miles away, along historic highway 94, the small town of Campo has a couple of restaurants serving up tacos, burgers and sandwiches.
Campo has several sights worth visiting including the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum, where you can ride a vintage train on weekends and walk through historic railway cars in the museum’s exhibit area.
Across the street, the Campo Stone Store is a county-run landmark and museum dedicated to the colorful history of the site, where the infamous Campo gunfight took place in 1875 (hence the reason the stone-fortification was added in 1885). Downstairs, the museum is preserved as the store run by the Gaskill Brothers. Upstairs is a museum dedicated to history of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black Civil War Cavalry brigade last stationed at Fort Lockett in Campo through World War II.
Campo is also home to the Motor Transport Museum and further north, near I-8, the Golden Acorn Casino, which also has the Golden Grill restaurant.
We visited the Manzanita High Mountain Rendevous in May, held in Morena Village and snapped some pictures during this annual event, which recreates a mountain man “rendezvous” encampment of the 18th and 19th centuries. You can watch or try your hand at skills such as tomahawk throwing and black powder shooting, or buy wares from traders selling goods.
The Pacific Southwest Railway Museum offers holiday family fun including a Polar Express train ride each December with Santa Clau, a Bunny Train at Easter time and a Pumpkin Express ride in October that includes a visit to a pumpkin patch.
Rangers at Lake Morena Park lead a variety of seasonal activities, from animal tracking classes and ranger led hikes to a salute to military families over Memorial Day weekend. Check at the visitor center or visit www.sdparks.org to find more information on activities. Also see the Lake Morena County Park's brochure.
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.