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Cleveland National Forest Camping Guide

There is an undeniable beauty to be explored within national forests, and Cleveland National Forest is no exception. Located just an hour’s drive east of San Diego, it offers incredible camping in the southern California mountains.

Here’s how to get the most out of your Cleveland National Forest camping experience!

A picturesque waterfall inside Cleveland National Forest.

What to Expect in Cleveland National Forest

Cleveland National Forest is split into three “ranger districts” each overseen by a different ranger. These districts are Descanso, Palomar, and Trabuco.

Descanso is the furthest north, Palomar is in the middle, and Trabuco is the furthest south.

The most important things to prepare for on your Cleveland National Forest camping trip are the regulations on setting campfires.

Marah macrocarpus, or wild cucumber, growing in Cleveland National Forest.
Marah macrocarpus growing in Cleveland National Forest.

No wood or charcoal fires will be allowed if you plan to remote camp.

If you book a site in a campground, you will be allowed to have a wood or charcoal fire, but only in designated areas. Fire rings and grills are provided in most campgrounds.

This national forest is vulnerable to wildfires. Do not set fires—even small, “safe” ones—where you aren’t supposed to.

Camping in Cleveland National Forest

Beautiful view of snow-covered mountinas are part of a Cleveland National Forest camping trip.

What To Consider Before Booking

There are many things to be aware of when booking a Cleveland National Forest camping trip.

First, you can only visit for up to 14 consecutive days annually.

Second, you’ll want to decide what time of year you want to visit. There’s some debate over the best time to visit Cleveland National Forest.

Most sources seem to agree that fall, winter, and spring are the best times to visit. California summers are notoriously hot and can make camping activities less enjoyable.

Others say it’s better to avoid the winter months due to the drop in temperature, especially for tent campers or backpackers.

Foggy weather in Cleveland Nationa Forest.

Overall, it seems best to avoid visiting during the summer months. Many trails are known to get uncomfortably—or even dangerously—hot in the summer.

If you do choose to visit during the summer months, try to plan any hiking excursions or other strenuous activities for the earlier hours in the day. Heat stroke is no joke!

Best Spots for Group Camping

There are three main group campgrounds in the Descanso district: El Prado Group Campground (Big Sage, Buckwheat, Manzanita, Whitethorn, and Yerba Santa); Horse Heaven Group Campground (Buttercup, Hollyhock, and Lupine); and Wooded Hill Group Campground.

In Palomar, you’ll find Crestline Picnic Area and Falcon Group Campgrounds (Lupine, Sage, and Yarrow).

Best Spot for Tent and RV Camping

The Burnt Rancheria Campground, located in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area of the Descanso district, is the most highly recommended for tent campers.

While you can camp here with your RV, you won’t find any hookups—electrical or otherwise—nor will you find any dump sites.

However, there is a dump station located nearby.

If you choose to set up your tent here, good news! There are restrooms, showers, and potable water all available to you.

More good news for those hoping to get some tourism in: the Laguna Mountain Recreation area is less than an hour away from San Diego!

Best Spots for Remote Camping

In all three districts, you are required to have a permit to engage in remote (also known as “free” or “dispersed”) camping in Cleveland National Forest, depending on where you go.

(If you aren’t familiar with free camping, you can learn all about it in our Guide to Free Camping.)

In the Palomar district, you’ll need a permit no matter where you choose to pitch your tent for remote camping.

In Trabuco, there’s only one area where you’re allowed to remote camp. If you were hoping to set up shop anywhere outside the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness area, you’re out of luck.

Even though remote camping is only allowed in one place within this district, you will still need a permit.

In the Descanso district, you can remote camp just about anywhere. However, you still need a permit to camp outside the Laguna Recreation Area.

The only time you will not need a permit to remote camp is if you stay inside the Laguna Recreation Area.

You can print out the permit for Descanso and Palomar and take it with you. If you want a permit to stay in Trabuco, you’ll need to apply for it online.

Things to Do

A sign for the Pacific Crest Trail.


The top attraction of the Cleveland National Forest is the Pacific Crest Trail! This 110-mile stretch of trail can be explored in all kinds of ways.

You can backpack, day hike, or even explore on horseback!

You can choose your own adventure, so to speak, by choosing different routes according to the difficulty level you’re comfortable with.

However, remember that you may need a hiking permit in certain areas. Even if you’re only planning to day hike, double-check the permit requirements!

Fishing and Hunting

Fishing and hunting are permitted in season within Cleveland National Forest with the proper licensing.

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding is permitted across the PCT if you prefer to ride rather than hike. However, this isn’t your average leisurely trail ride. It’s important to prepare yourself properly before undertaking an equestrian adventure like this.

If you do choose to explore the trail on horseback while camping in Cleveland National Forest, good news! There are plenty of options for equestrian camping there, too.


A spotted owl sitting in a tree.


On your Cleveland National Forest camping trip, you can expect to spot many bird species.

Some species are rarely seen outside California, including California Quail, California Thrashers, and the California Towhee.

If you’re very lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a Spotted Owl, considered a near-threatened species.


You need to watch out for one particular insect when camping in Cleveland National Forest. There is a prolific pest living in the area called the Goldspotted Oak Borer.

This insect is considered an invasive species. It settles in certain kinds of trees (mainly Coast Live Oaks, Black Oaks, and Canyon Live Oaks, hence the name!) and kills them slowly.

Goldspotted Oak Borers are the reason for firewood regulations throughout the National Forest. Campers are encouraged not to transport firewood outside the area where it was purchased.

Cleveland National Forest is also home to the Laguna Skipper butterfly. This is an endangered species, so if you see parts of the forest cordoned off in order to protect it, steer clear!

A brown and white spotted mountain skipper butterfly.


While you won’t have to worry about bears on your Cleveland National Forest camping trip, do keep in mind that this is mountain lion territory.

While encounters with these big cats are very rare, make sure you keep your kids close. You want an eye on them at all times.

On a more friendly note, you also may spot mule deer, various species of bat, and black-tailed jackrabbits!


While mountain lions are a rare sight, rattlesnakes are not. It’s extremely common to spot a snake while camping in Cleveland National Forest.

It’s recommended that you hike in thick, high-top hiking boots. (You can take a peek at our recommendations if you need them!) It’s also recommended that you wield a long stick and poke it ahead of you on the path.

Better a rattlesnake strikes the stick than your leg!

If bitten by a rattlesnake, remove any tight clothing as quickly as you can in preparation for swelling.

Keep the bite below heart level and contact emergency services.

Contrary to popular belief, you should not apply a tourniquet when bitten by a rattlesnake.

Make Sure To Bring

When you leave for your Cleveland National Forest camping trip, be sure to bring along…

  • Any required licenses or permits
  • Plenty of water
  • A water filter in case of emergency
  • Quality hiking boots with high tops
  • A hiking stick

Enjoy Your Cleveland National Forest Camping Trip!

View of hills at sunset in Cleveland National Forest.

Whether you enjoy the scenery through backpacking, parking your RV, or riding on horseback, camping in Cleveland National Forest is a can’t-miss opportunity!

To learn about more great national forest destinations, check out our other National Forest Camping Guides!