Where to Ride Your ATV in San Diego, CA

You love the varied beauty of San Diego, from its beaches to its mountains, and now you’re looking for some ATV trails while you’re at it. Where can you ride your new ATV in this part of Cali?

Here are some exemplary ATV riding trails in the San Diego area:

  • Corral Canyon OHV Area
  • Ocotillo Wells State Recreation Area
  • Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area
  • Boulder Creek Road
  • Cedar Creek Road
  • Bonita Cove Park
  • Lark Canyon OHV Area
  • Bear Valley Road

In this guide, we’ll take you through each of these riding trails, filling you in on pertinent details like where you can ride and what to expect. You’re not going to want to miss it!

1. Corral Canyon OHV Area

Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains is Corral Canyon, a valley that showcases the terrain across the coast of Malibu. 

The off-highway vehicle or OHV area in Corral Canyon is more than 50 miles. 

Some of the OHV areas of interest include Bronco Peak, which has an elevation of 4,169 feet, and the Corral Canyon Campground with an elevation of 3,400 feet.

If you’re looking for thrills on your ATV, you will not be disappointed in the slightest by the OHV areas at Corral Canyon!

You can gauge which areas are for off-roading by looking for the OHV trail markers. The markers include both decals and signs with recommended usage, location, and difficulty level. 

If you see a marker with a red slash, you’re not permitted to ride there. Otherwise, all other OHV areas are fair game!  

2. Ocotillo Wells State Recreation Area

San Diego County’s Ocotillo Wells has its own state recreation area that’s rife with open spaces, routes, and trails for off-highway adventures in your ATV. 

There are more than 85,000 acres of space for riding in all.

If you venture beyond the boundaries of the SVRA, you’ll find further land areas that are managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management or BLM that are available for off-roading as well.

Once you’ve ridden towards the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, you’ve gone too far, as this area does not welcome off-highway activities. You’d need a highway-legal vehicle to explore the 600,000 acres.

Here are some areas within the park where you can ride on your ATV.

Pumpkin Patch

No, not a literal pumpkin patch, but a part of Ocotillo Wells’ landscape that has seen significant effects of surface soil erosion from both water and wind. 

That’s left exposed areas of sandstone, the concretions that are quite round in shape just like pumpkins!

The concretions form when insects, sand grains, or shell pieces attach to sand particles, latching on like cement. 

Avoid riding on any pearls when in the Pumpkin Patch so others can enjoy the natural wonders of this area.

Gas Domes

Another peculiarity in the area is the gas domes. When the water gets muddy, sizable gas bubbles from waterholes emerge. 

It’s worth seeing and riding through but leave the gas domes be please!

Shell Reef

The soil of Shell Reef is covered in oyster shells that have fossilized with time. Reef pieces are scattered about, as are whole shells. 

Shell Reef may be as old as four million years, which explains why so many of the oyster shells have fossilized. 

Leave the shelled hills and climb other nearby hills in the reef, of which there should be plenty.

Barrel Springs 

Barrel Springs attracts a lot of wildlife as it’s a continually moist area.

Look for coyotes around the oasis, as they’ll be thirstily sipping from the springs. Mesquite roots emerge from the dunes as well.

If you see a fenced-off area around the dunes, leave it be. The shrubs are needed to keep the sand dunes intact, so you want to stay away to preserve the ecosystem.

Devil’s Slide

Ascending 200 feet, Devil’s Slide is a sand and granite island that’s quite the challenge for OHV riders like yourself to conquer. 

The mountaintop is ancient and thus is decomposing, but the desert varnish atop the rocks makes Devil’s Slide look newer. 

So why the name Devil’s Slide? Well, some San Diegans say the area is haunted, especially the mine shafts. 

Blowsand Hill 

The moniker for Blowsand Hill is only natural considering how much sand the wind blows in around here. 

The dune has been created by many sandstorms that can carry the sand for miles and miles. 

On the weekends, Blowsand Hill is quite the popular spot for ATV enthusiasts and other OHV riders. 

3. Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area

You won’t find more massive sand dunes in all of California than at the Imperial Sand Dunes

The Recreation Area is where you’ll want to make a beeline on your ATV. There, you can explore the hilly terrain across over 40 miles. Most of the sand bands have a width of five miles on average.

Some of the dunes ascend a dizzying 300 feet up so you can launch yourself off and have a heart-pounding experience every time. 

You will need a permit to ride your ATV at the ISDRA according to the Bureau of Land Management if you’ll be on the dunes between October 1st and April 15th

If you buy the permit onsite, it costs $50. You can buy ahead of time and pay only $35. 

Do you plan to return to the Imperial Sand Dunes soon? You can always buy a season permit for $150. 

The speed limit here is 15 MPH. 

4. Boulder Creek Road 

Closer to Descanso, Boulder Creek Road is 21 miles long and known for its challenging features that will demand the best of you but won’t be the most strenuous ride you ever do in the area.

The highest point of elevation is 2,926 feet along the point-to-point route. 

Since you’ll often share the road with other motorists, and not necessarily all off-road enthusiasts either, be sure to take it a little easier than you would on most routes. 

5. Cedar Creek Road

Along Forest Route 13S11 is Cedar Creek Road, which is northwest of Descanso. 

This too is considered an easier driving route, so for ATV beginners looking to cut their teeth, start here! 

The conditions of Cedar Creek Road are often dry, and there’s enough ground clearance on either side that you should have no issue passing through any parts of the route. 

The views that reward you for your efforts are the biggest payoff, and you’ll love the lack of obstacles if you’re still learning how your ATV controls. 

Once you arrive, take some time off your ATV to venture across the hiking trails, as they’re worth exploring by foot! 

6. Bonita Cove Park

On 1100 West Mission Bay Drive, you’ll find Bonita Cove by South Mission Beach. 

Bonita Cove Park offers an 11.7-mile looping trail with islets and waterways that surround you as you go along. 

The peaceful, beautiful atmosphere is sure to kindle your spirits until you get through to the end. 

You’re not too far from the Fiesta Island Trail if you feel like taking a walk after you conclude your off-roading adventure.

Bonita Cove Park is open between 4 a.m. and 10 p.m. each day, so don’t stay too late! 

7. Lark Canyon OHV Area

ATV riders must add the Lark Canyon OHV Area to their shortlist of places in San Diego to explore. 

Lark Canyon expands 31 miles. The trails are mostly designed for motorcycles because those are narrow, streamlined vehicles. 

If you’re going to ride any other vehicle but a motorcycle, then it must be 40 inches in width or smaller.

ATV riders have noted that some of the narrower parts of the trail are a bit tough to navigate on their vehicles, which is something to keep in mind before you set out. 

Once you’re out in the thick of this McCain Valley Resource Conservation Area, you can always go camping until the sun rises tomorrow. It’s quite an experience if you get to do it!

You’re outlawed from cross-country travel, and you need either a red or a green sticker as an off-road vehicle. The season for red stickers begins on October 1st and lasts until April 30th

8. Bear Valley Road 

Deep within nearby Pine Valley is Bear Valley Road, an expansive trail that’s 18.3 miles long. 

Welcoming off-road motorists, mountain bikers, and hikers, Bear Valley Road attracts quite a varied crowd. 

It’s unlikely you’ll be there alone, so make sure you’re sharing the road with others! 

The highest point of elevation is 2,276 feet, which is sure to offer some incredible views of the surrounding forests as well as the wildlife that call this area home. 

You will need an Adventure Pass for off-roading, which is a type of recreation pass. 

Here is a handy link with information on where you can purchase your Adventure Pass ahead of your trip to Bear Valley.

9. Thomas Mountain Road 

When coming up from the south, you can take I-15 north until you reach Highway 79 South, then continue to Highway 371. If you turn left and drive for 20 miles, you’ll reach Thomas Mountain Road.

Marked by only a dirt sign, Thomas Mountain Road offers an exceptionally tall elevation of 6,825 miles. 

Open year-round, Thomas Mountain Road is composed of small rocks, minor ruts, and a few washboard areas. 

Most of the trail is packed dirt, which makes traversing it on your ATV or any other off-road vehicle rather easy. 

The loop is 14.5 miles and takes about an hour and a half to complete when driving at a moderate pace.

You’re also not too terribly far from Lake Hermit, a water storage reservoir within the San Jacinto Mountains that keeps 14,000 acre-feet of water. 

10. Wagon Creek Falls 

Near Mount Shasta, Wagon Creek Falls is an excellent place for ATV exploring. 

Regarded as an out-and-back trail, Wagon Creek Falls is a mere 12.1 miles. Off-roaders, mountain bikers, and hikers converge here regularly.

The highest point of elevation is 2,539 feet, which is fine if you’re not in the mood for thrills. 

Instead, venture out here for the gorgeous natural views, such as Cali forests, abundant wildflowers (depending on the season), and rushing waterfalls. 

11. Smugglers’ Cove Trail

Located on 1100 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in San Diego, Smugglers’ Cove isn’t too far out from Ventura.

The 7.7-mile trail may be short, but it’s considered more difficult than most of the trails we’ve examined to this point. 

Along your route, you’ll see the beach at Smugglers’ Cove as well as Scorpion Beach. 

The latter beach is a great place for camping at the Scorpion Campground if you’re eager for an overnight stay under the stars. 

The max elevation of the trail is 1,414 feet. Besides the beach, Smugglers’ Cove is beloved for its views, and it’s a prized area for bird-watching. 

Visit Our UTV/ATV Page for More Great Content!

Final Thoughts 

As this list proves, the San Diego area has no shortage of fun, heart-pounding, exciting trails, pathways, and parks to ride an ATV or other OHV. 

Always be respectful of other motorists and pedestrians when riding and take care to avoid damaging natural landmarks such as dunes or shell beds with your ATV. 

By following the rules, everyone who’s interested can continue to enjoy riding ATVs in San Diego for a long time to come! 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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