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Places to Ride: Southern California’s Ocotillo Wells SVRA

Map of Ocotillo Wells SVRA area.
Map of Ocotillo Wells SVRA area.

Some of the most diverse, challenging and impressive off roading available in Southern California can be found all in one place; the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area.

This vast area boasts some 80,000 acres with several different types of terrain, satisfying riding passions ranging from trails, roads, and washes to narrow canyons or wide open deserts, mountains, a sand dune, and enough technical riding to test both your skill and endurance.

Ocotillo Wells SVRA is located on State Highway 78, right around the San Diego/Imperial County line. It offers a relatively close OHV area for much of San Diego and Imperial counties, and is well within day-trip range from either.

The Ocotillo Wells SVRA is run by the California State Parks Department, and it borders some pretty big sections of OHV area to the South across the 78 which is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Pumpkin Patch
The Pumpkin Patch

Ocotillo Wells offers several skill levels of riding ranging from young children on their first ride around camp to the most seasoned hard-core veteran looking for their next adrenaline rush. You can literally spend all day riding and not ride the same trail twice. At the southwest end of the SVRA, there is a children’s track available for kids.

Several trails, washes, and roads that run through Ocotillo Wells have “street signs” at some of the intersections. It’s truly an odd sight when you’re riding in the middle of the desert on a trail and come across a street sign at an intersection. But as odd as it is to see these “street signs” in the middle of the desert, it makes it a very simple matter to plan your rides or to find your way if you lose your bearing.

There are even some GPS-based routes available to guide you on rides throughout Ocotillo Wells, including some that take you on exciting night rides, or day rides for the family that include hitting up Blu Inn for ice cream, or stop for what at least one San Diego rider claims are “the best Milkshakes in all of the desert” at Superburger.

If you are a camper, you'll appreciate the beautiful sunsets.
If you are a camper, you'll appreciate the beautiful sunsets.

Camping & Amenities
There are several different options for camping in Ocotillo Wells. Obviously, if you’re self-contained, you can camp just about anywhere you can get your rig to. There are also some popular spots, like Holmes Camp or near the Ranger Station and Blowsand Hill. Camping throughout Ocotillo Wells is free, so is regular day use. Depending on where you camp, you can get access to things like vault toilets and shaded areas with picnic tables. The Ranger Station has a dump station.

Along State Highway 78 lies the small town of Ocotillo Wells, California. This town offers amenities such as gas, food, vehicle repair, and lodging. There is also the San Diego County Airport which is really nothing more than a small dirt landing strip.

There are several very distinct aspects of Ocotillo Wells SVRA that you simply will not find in other riding areas.

View from Shell Reef.
View from Shell Reef.

Shell Reef
Arguably, one of the most significant and impressive of the distinct aspects of Ocotillo Wells is Shell Reef. This mountain is a huge depository of fossilized oyster shells 6 million years old, which are nearly 100 miles away from the ocean in the middle of the California desert.

Shell Reef was formed about 4 million years ago during vicious upheavals in the earth’s crust which pushed mountains skyward from the sea. While much, if not all of that area is open to ATV and other off road use, people are encouraged to stay off of the reef in order to preserve the natural beauty.

Pumpkin Patch
Another interesting phenomenon that occurred in this area over millions of years are thousands of small and large round rocks which were formed over time from what is referred to as the “natural cementing of sand particles to a small object.” These small objects could be anything from a piece of broken sea shell to an insect. They are formed much the same way as a pearl is formed inside an oyster.

These “desert pearls” of sandstone are being exposed over time as wind and rain erode the surrounding terrain. There are constantly new pearls being exposed, so like Shell Reef, it is requested that you not ride in that area and the surrounding ridges in order to help preserve this fascinating natural phenomenon.

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