Death Valley National Park
This national park, which at 3.4 million acres is the biggest in the lower 48 states, is one of the continent's most extreme places: a mountain-ringed Mojave Desert basin with 550 square miles below sea level, boasting one of the highest temperatures recorded on Earth: 134 degrees. Summers can be dangerously sweltering and dry, so many come to camp in winter, when highs are usually in the 60s and 70s and lows often in the 40s. There are opportunities for camping at both established campgrounds--as at Panamint Springs, Wildrose and Mahogany Flat--and in dispersed fashion in the enormous backcountry.
Mojave National Preserve
The 1.6 million acres of Mojave National Preserve--third biggest area managed by the Park Service in the lower 48, after Death Valley and Yellowstone national parks--encompass portions of the Mojave, Great Basin and Sonoran deserts. Given such a broad area, its ecological and geological diversity are substantial. Developed campgrounds, roadside camping and wilderness backpacking are all possible within allowed areas of the preserve.
Joshua Tree National Park
This nearly 800,000-acre park is named for the evocative Joshua trees that form stunted forests within its portion of the Mojave Desert; these biggest of American yuccas are also seen in other parts of the region, including Death Valley. The park also features Sonoran Desert and montane habitats, and contains one of the rarer ecosystems on the continent: the fan-palm oasis. Backcountry camping gets you out into the deep wilderness; there are also nine established campgrounds. Winter temperatures are usually mild but bring warm clothes for chilly nights.
The Bureau of Land Management administers vast amounts of acreage in southern California. Winter camping possibilities include the Imperial Sand Dunes, the Mule Mountain Long-term Visitor Area and the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The camping options on BLM lands are often primitive campgrounds or backpacking. California state parks are also potential destinations: Mount San Jacinto State Park, for example, which is open all year and features developed, rustic and hike-in campsites for those looking to do snow recreation.