Panoramic views. Stunning mountaintop vistas. Verdant forests and jewel-toned lakes. It’s no wonder why San Bernardino National Forest camping is so popular. Offering an escape from the hustle and bustle, this paradise of over 823,000 acres in southern California attracts scores of visitors each year.
Looking for your next wilderness escape? Here’s everything you need to know as you plan your own camping adventure.
What to Expect
Located about 100 miles outside of Los Angeles, this national forest features mountains, lakes, and rivers. Because this area endures heavy winter storms, the peak window for San Bernardino National Forest camping is typically May through October. Visitors hoping to avoid the intense Californian summer heat may want to opt for spring or fall.
While there is no official admission fee, a National Forest Adventure Pass is required for many areas (denoted by signage). This vehicle permit must be displayed when parked in a recreation fee area. However, there are a few annual “fee-free” days when the pass isn’t required.
What Type of Camping is Offered
Depending on your preferences, various options and amenities are available for San Bernardino National Forest camping. From “roughing it” with primitive camping at yellow post sites to tent and RV camping at family-friendly campgrounds, the beautiful southern California backcountry has something for everyone.
Yellow Post Site Camping, Primitive Camping, and Dispersed Camping
For adventurous travelers, San Bernardino National Forest camping at yellow post sites and other designated primitive areas is a great choice. Dispersed camping is also an option for those seeking total immersion in nature.
Various “yellow post” sites throughout the area are free first come, first serve camping spots. Accommodating up to eight visitors, these locations have a campfire ring, picnic table, and space for two vehicles.
There are also several dedicated primitive San Bernardino National Forest camping areas. These locations offer similar amenities but can accommodate more guests. If you are camping with a larger group or hoping to meet other campers during your stay, a primitive camping site may be right for you.
It’s important to note that yellow post sites and primitive camping areas have basic campfire rings available for use. However, if you plan to enjoy a bonfire, remember that you’ll need to obtain a California Campfire Permit first. Also, since the area is prone to wildfires, it’s a good idea to check current fire restrictions.
If camping at a predetermined site just isn’t your thing, dispersed camping is another option. Visitors may set up tents in almost any area of the forest; specific guidelines can be found on the official Forest Service website.
If you’re excited about your upcoming San Bernardino National Forest camping adventure but are still fond of having access to hot showers and flushing toilets, a campground could be exactly what you’re looking for.
There are numerous campgrounds to choose from within the area. Reservable via Recreation.gov, these sites can be a perfect option for those traveling with children, offering a range of opportunities for memorable family fun.
It’s also worth noting that the national forest boasts several beautiful horse trails, making it a popular destination for devoted equestrians. If you’re interested in traveling with your horses, check out a specialized equestrian campground.
When it comes to San Bernardino National Forest camping in an RV, many options are available at different yellow post sites, primitive camping areas, and campgrounds.
However, since there is variation in the topography of this area, keep in mind that not all sites will be accessible by RV. It’s best to read a particular site’s information on Recreation.gov beforehand to see if it can accommodate your vehicle.
The San Bernardino National Forest does not manage any cabin rentals, but you can rent cabins nearby through services like Campspot or Tripadvisor. If you’re seeking a comfortable place to stay, consider a hotel or bed & breakfast in a nearby town.
Best Camping Spots
Barton Flats Campground
Located off the Rim of the World Scenic Byway, Barton Flats is a nature lover’s paradise, giving visitors easy access to several popular hiking routes. Nearby, Jenks Lake and the Santa Ana River provide ample opportunities for fishing.
San Bernardino National Forest camping at family-friendly Dogwood is sure to be a hit with all ages. An amphitheater offers interpretive programs on weekend nights, and nearby Lake Gregory boasts all sorts of aquatic fun. The town of Lake Arrowhead also has restaurants and quaint shops to visit.
Marion Mountain offers primitive camping close to nearby rock climbing areas for both tents and RVs. Visitors can also enjoy a number of stunning hikes via the Marion Mountain Trail.
Things to Do
Mountain Climbing for Majestic Views
We started by telling you about those amazing views and vistas, which means hiking to the best spots for taking in the scenery is a popular activity in San Bernardino National Forest. These are some of the destinations you should plan to visit!
On an almost 8-mile hike from the Big Bear Discovery Center to the summit, travelers to Bertha Peak will enjoy the pine-studded scenery. At the end of the Cougar Crest Trail, you’ll take in a beautiful view of Big Bear Lake.
San Gorgonio Mountain
A classic attraction of San Bernardino National Forest camping is San Gorgonio Mountain, the tallest peak in southern California at about 11,500 feet. Several trails, including the Vivian Creek Trail, will take you to its summit. However, the steep elevation increase promises an intense workout, so make sure you’re up for the challenge!
San Jacinto Peak
The 11.8-mile hike up the Marion Mountain Trail is a strenuous one. But visitors who make it to the top are rewarded with a picture-perfect panorama of both the ocean and the Palm Desert.
If you’re not quite up for hiking but still want to spend time outside enjoying nature, visit these less-strenuous trails for short, intermediate, or longer outings.
Santa Ana River Trail
Many San Bernardino National Forest camping visitors enjoy this major thoroughfare for pedestrians and cyclists. The trail is still a work in progress, but one day it will run to the Pacific. Currently, it’s popular for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
River Monte Trail
At a leisurely 2.5 miles, this trail starts at the Barton Flats Campground and ends at the Rio Monte Panorama, overlooking the stunning gorge of the Santa Ana River Valley.
Dogwood Trail and Enchanted Loop Trail
Under a mile each, these two short trails are great options for families with younger children. Located within the Dogwood Campground, they offer scenic views of the surrounding woodland.
Fun on the Water
Of course, the best camping trips involve some water activity! Check out these options for cooling off or for sport.
Lake Gregory is a popular destination for many San Bernardino National Forest camping guests. It features a beach as well as opportunities for boating and fishing. For the kids (and the kids-at-heart), there is also an inflatable water park playground and water slides.
Jenks Lake and the Santa Ana River
Jenks Lake is a perfect spot for canoeing and kayaking. Fishing is popular here and on the nearby Santa Ana River; visitors often catch largemouth bass, catfish, and rainbow trout.
Wildlife and Vegetation
As you explore, you may glimpse some bighorn sheep, perhaps the most iconic animal in the area. The forest is also home to mule deer, bobcats, black bears, coyotes, and mountain lions.
With bears around, it’s important to bring safe food storage to prevent any unfortunate run-ins with the “locals.” Keep this in mind as you pack for your trip.
Whether or not you’re a seasoned bird watcher, the forest’s feathered friends are not to be missed. Bald eagles, turkey vultures, and mountain quail can all be spotted on a San Bernardino National Forest camping outing.
Other Animal Residents
Of course, it wouldn’t be the southwestern US without snakes. While many of the area’s serpentine residents are harmless to humans, rattlesnakes do pose a threat. Stay safe while hiking and rock climbing by wearing over-the-ankle hiking boots and never placing your hands and feet where you can’t see them.
There are many other interesting (and non-venomous!) reptiles and amphibians in the region, including the southern alligator lizard, Pacific treefrog, and arboreal salamander.
Trees and Plants
While other parts of California are known for redwoods, the San Bernardino area boasts a host of trees all its own. Verdant cedars, firs, oaks, and pines carpet the hills of this woodland wonderland. The forest also harbors many endangered plant species, including the Santa Ana River woolly-star, bird-foot checkerbloom, and marsh sandwort.
Plan Your San Bernardino National Forest Adventure Today!
No matter what your perfect trip looks like, the San Bernardino National Forest camping scene has something for you. Whether you’ll be climbing mountains, relaxing by the lakeside, or making family memories, this Californian paradise is sure to please.
There are 154 national forests found in 40 states throughout the US. To learn about others you’ll want to visit, check out our Camping Guides page.
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Lauren Reder is a librarian and writer for Apple Pie Media. With a bachelor’s in Classics and a master’s in Library & Information Science, she finds her work deeply fulfilling and enjoys having the opportunity to learn something new every day.
When her nose isn’t buried in a book, this Cincinnati native loves being outdoors, spending time at her local parks, and going on road trips to pursue new adventures. As a wheelchair user, Lauren is always looking for new ways to participate in recreational activities. She’s forever on the hunt for new accessible trails, and when none can be found, she has been known to do a bit of off-roading in her chair! Lauren is eager to share what she’s learned with others and provide information to help everyone enjoy the great outdoors.