Off-Road Travel: Ocotillo Wells SVRA

Mar. 03, 2011 By Jaime Hernandez
Enjoying off-roading with family at Ocotillo Wells SVRA (Photo: Esteban Hernandez).

One of our favorite places to go off-roading is Ocotillo Wells in Southern California. Located by the Salton Sea and spanning from San Diego County to Imperial County, the special vehicle recreation area (SVRA) offers over 85,000 acres of off-road terrain ranging from dirt and sand to rocks and even mud. Itís the largest off-road area in the California State Parks system.

Ocotillo Wells is lovingly called ďRock-a-tilloĒ by the regulars due to the occasional rocks found on trails, washes and hills. The massive OHV recreation area is great for all types of off-roading adventures including dirt bikes, ATVs, dune buggies, Jeeps, 4x4s and UTVs.
(Left) Rain fall is minimal in Ocotillo Wells, but when they do get rain it quickly finds voids in the floor and fills them. We encountered this massive water deposit on Coahuila trail only one day after a major storm in San Diego County. (Right) Trails are well marked in Ocotillo Wells SVRA. A system of dirt roads connects different parts of the park, leading to side trails, spurs and open play areas. Numerous mud hills, sandy washes and rocky desert terrain keep it interesting.

Ocotillo Wells SVRA offers scenic and challenging tight trails. Safety flags on ATVs are enforced (Photo: Lorena Young).

Whatís nice about Ocotillo Wells is that itís big and spread out for wide-open riding. There are flat areas for beginners to ride, small hills and single-track trails for intermediate and advanced, and massive hills to climb and jump for experts and pros.

Ocotillo Wells is the playground of many X-Games freestyle riders like Tommy Clowers and Ronnie Renner. If youíre lucky, you might spot them catching big air and tearing it up on the hills.


So now that youíre pumped about Ocotillo Wells, letís talk about some important stuff. If youíve never been here, itís a good idea to stop by the Information/Visitor Center at the Ocotillo Wells Ranger Station. There you will find maps, the latest trail conditions and other important information.

The Discovery Center also has a very nice exhibit area that teaches about the local flora and fauna, history and off-road safety. This is worth stopping to see and can be a fun experience for both adults and kids. 

One of the exhibits we really liked was the one on old WWII bombs and ammunition remnants found at Ocotillo Wells. During WWII, part of Ocotillo Wells was designated as military training and firing range.

New Discovery Center at Ocotillo Wells SVRA.

Even if youíre a long time visitor, stop by and chat with the Ranger about land issues, whatís new and anything off-road. Youíd be surprised how well received those questions might be.

Hereís a FREE Map of Ocotillo Wells SVRA

Another good resource for detailed routes with GPS coordinates and waypoints is the California Funtreks guide that includes Ocotillo Wells. An electronic version of individual trails is available on


Besides the amazing terrain and wide-open land to ride, there are historical and natural sights to visit during your trip to Ocotillo Wells. In 2010, a Self-Guided Oil tour was established with site markers around the park that give detail about each area. In the early 1900s, there was a lot of oil exploration activity in Ocotillo Wells. Some remains of the wells are still visible today, and with the new information markers itís easy to find and read up on the rich history.

Some of the other things you must visit are the natural phenomenas of Ocotillo Wells. All are accessible with off-road vehicles.

BLOW SAND HILL Ė One of Ocotillos Wellsí popular spots is a massive sand dune nestled on the side of a mountainside. Itís a fun place to ride your off-road vehicle up and down. On weekend nights, the side of the mountain is lit up by off-roaders zipping up and down Blow Sand Hill. Itís silky sand is visible from Hwy 78.


GAS DOMES - The volcano-like mud hills are interesting to stop and visit. Gas bubbles surface to the top of gray liquid oozing out the top of the gas domes. There are a total of three easily accessible on Gas Dome Trail.

ARTESIAN WELL - Accessible via Campbell Wash, this natural in Ocotillo Wells is the result of geothermal water found under the surface. Water bubbles to the top of a pipe that feeds a manmade water trough. The pool of water then cools down and feeds the soil and Palm trees planted next to the artesian well, creating a mystical desert oasis.

SHELL REEF Ė This area is known for having ancient fossils and is protected. A short hike from the side of the road into the enclosed area will provide interesting fossils of marine life that existed in this area. A steep hike to the upper crust of Shell Reef will reveal oyster shells, clams, scallop shells and even parts of reef that are 4 million years old.

PUMPKIN PATCH Ė This unique landscape is the result of wind and water continuously eroding the surface soil. The sandstone formations are natural cementing of sand with pieces of shell, sand and insects over millions of years. No Charlie Brown here.

The difficult and tight terrain of the Truckhaven hills and adjacent badlands makes short-wheel based vehicles the preferred type of 4x4 to explore this area.  Dirt bikes and ATVs are also a good way to meander through this wondrous section of Ocotillo Wells SVRA. 

The Truckhaven Hills are located in the North/East section of the park, across S-22. This area is home to the famous Tierra Del Sol Safari (a.k.a. TDS Safari). The annual event brings thousands of off-road enthusiasts together for a weekend of 4x4 fun.  More info at

Here are some event articles on TDS Safari:

48th Annual Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari

Full-size Chevy 4x4 Truck on Rollover hill -  Truckhaven, CA. 

For the hard-core off-roader, Truckhaven offer extreme hill climbs that will make even the seasoned driver excited.

If fun and scenic 4x4 trails is more your thing, thereís plenty of that at Truckhaven. Here we found an arch big enough for a Jeep to go through.

NEW Truckhaven 4x4 Area with obstacle course to open March 3, 2011.
Stay tuned for update.

Ramadas with partial shade make a great base camp. Make sure to arrive early to claim yours. 
Ocotillo Wells is great for camping in an RV or even a tent. Itís open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Camping is available throughout the park. There are restrooms and shade ramadas at the Quarry, Cove, Main Street, Holly Road, and Hidden Valley.

Pay showers are also available in Holmes Camp and Ranger Station Road if you need to wash off that dirt.

If you need to stock up on supplies, help fixing your vehicle or want a bite to eat, there are plenty of options in the towns of Borrego Springs, Salton Sea and Ocotillo Wells. There are also hotels if youíre not the camping type.

The best time to visit Ocotillo Wells SVRA is during fall to spring. It gets too hot during the summer months, with temperatures well over 100-degrees Fahrenheit.

Ocotillo Wells SVRA can also be enjoyed at night. Off-Road sunset with Anza-Borrego in the background.

Ocotillo Wells has a lot to offer. Itís the perfect destination for your next off-road adventure.
So start making plans and hit the road!


Ocotillo Wells SVRA

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