Our friends in the Tucson area recommended visiting Whitewater Draw to see the sandhill cranes during their migration. It looked like an easy place to add to our route, plus there is free camping at the trailhead.
We pulled into Whitewater Draw well after dark and grabbed the last open campsite (there are only 5). As we were getting ready for bed, I noticed a strange sound. I cracked open the window and the van was overtaken by the sound of thousands of sandhill cranes calling at once.
I set an alarm for a pre-dawn wake up time. In the morning, we bundled up in several warm layers and I filled two mugs with hot coffee. As soon as we stepped out of the van, I noticed swirls of cranes flying overhead. Several other bird-watchers were already out on the trail, cameras and binoculars in hand. We slowly meandered out to the edge of a pond, amazed at the sheer quantity of avian life. Sandhill cranes are gigantic birds, so it’s exciting to only see a few of them. My brain did not know what to do with the large volume of birds in front of me.
I tugged my hat down over my ears. It was bitterly cold outside. But the pink sunrise, silhouettes of birds in flight, swaths of cartoonish birds in the lake and a warm beverage in my hand was just what I needed this morning.
As sunrise led into proper morning, more and more birds abandoned the icy ponds in search of a meal. The ducks swimming about the water’s edge seemed to relax a bit as their monstrous cousins gave them more space to spread out.
Before we set out on this trip, Aaron frequently commented on how he was excited to travel long-term so that we’d have more opportunities to see fleeting natural phenomena. This experience was what we were hoping for as we planned our travels. Taking suggestions from locals, checking newspapers and flyers in coffee shops, scanning social media coming out of the places we visit…these are all ways to get keyed in to unique experiences that you can’t just do anywhere at anytime.
And now, some interesting information about sandhill cranes!
The oldest known sandhill crane skeleton dates back to 2.5 million years!
Sandhill cranes can get up to 4 feet tall and weigh 12 pounds.
It’s one thing to read about these facts in a book or on the internet, and it’s another to see cranes with your own eyes. If you get a chance to visit sandhill cranes while they’re on their journey, you’ll fall in love with these incredible creatures.
We stayed with friends in Sierra Vista for a couple days, and they recommended hiking right from their backyard into the mountains. I couldn’t resist. With a hand-drawn map in my pocket, I walked along the neighborhood streets, admiring all the southwest architecture and noticing…a blimp? I sent a pic to my friend Sarah, who’s obsessed with all things aviation. She quickly fired back an article written from the perspective of a local who first learned about the blimp on a field trip in kindergarten. (It’s a great article, you should definitely read it). I scanned the article as the cold air froze my face and my heart sunk yet again; more surveillance. I guess that’s the tradeoff people need to learn to live with in a border town. I hate it.
Soon, I reached a backdoor entrance to Brown Canyon Ranch. The open desert scrub gave way to a mixed coniferous forest, which provided a nice wind buffer. By this point, I had already seen plenty of people out enjoying the trails. Mostly older folks, all on foot except for one cyclist. Despite it being mid-week and with weather coming in, everyone seemed to be having a great time!
The novelty of snow crunching underfoot on a trip to Arizona made me smile. Back in Bend, my friends were lamenting how they hadn’t been able to get their skis out yet. Everything seemed topsy-turvy. I climbed the trail into the Miller Canyon Wilderness, enjoying the water trickling in the canyon. According to my offline map, the trail should intersect with another one that traverses across to Ramsay Canyon. I planned to take the connector trail, come down through Ramsay Canyon and walk the road back to Brown canyon and to my friends’ house. They did not know I had this grand plan, of course, but how could I resist the lure of a loop over an out-and-back hike?
I tried to stay on the main trail in the canyon, despite several offshoots going off in every direction. After passing the Pomona Mine junction, I stayed left, presumably on the main trail. The snow got a little deeper, and I found myself sharing the trail only with deer prints. When I checked my map, it appeared I was off trail, but I could see water bars and other engineered features, so I kept going. Eventually my track joined the one on the map; maybe the trail was re-routed and the apps were not updated.
It was so peaceful along this stretch of the hike. Snow fell, sometimes in delicate sprinkles and sometimes in a hurry. I caught glimpses of the higher peaks through gaps in the trees. I kept moving because I had all my layers on and it was still chilly, but so many times I wanted to stop and soak in all the magic that was happening.
When I arrived at the Hamburg trail, which led down into Ramsay Canyon, I saw a flurry of human tracks. I followed them down into another gorgeous canyon lined with many different trees I didn’t bother to identify. While looking for a place to paint, I stumbled across a signed viewpoint and headed that way. I found a beautiful spot to sit. It had a clear, unobstructed view upcanyon. And the full force of the weather was upon me. I knew as soon as I sat down, the clock was ticking.
I made it about 20 minutes before my fingers were so cold I could barely hold the brush. DONE! I said, and quickly packed up my things. I held on to my open sketchbook as I hiked, hoping the paint would dry before I got down to the Nature Conservancy building.
When I arrived, I ducked inside to use the bathroom, which was lovely and warm. I chatted with a friendly volunteer and wandered through the small gift shop before continuing my walk. I still had to hike out of the canyon and get back into the neighborhoods!
As I passed through the parking area and down the road, I heard a flurry of squawks and saw some movement. Turkeys! So many turkeys, hanging out in a small greenspace. Walking up the road. Making a commotion. There were a couple groups of at least 20 each. As I kept wandering down the road, they wobbled up toward me. After the turkeys, then there were deer. First one, then another, then many more. The longer I walked, the more wildlife I saw, and all of it was located out of the boundary of the Nature Conservancy site. I had dreaded this road walk when I planned this hike, but it turned out to be one of my favorite parts! The sun had come back out, I was warm and comfortable, there was so much to look at.
The last major turn took me down a dirt road to Brown Canyon Ranch. I found a trail that roughly paralleled the road and walked on that. The wind was blowing fiercely by the time I made it to the ranch, so I went inside to get a break. The ranch had been preserved with furniture, books and interpretive exhibits inside. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t just walked 10 miles.
I braced myself for going back out into the wind and took a detour along a nature trail and pond. There, I saw a red tailed hawk, roadrunner and a single ring-necked duck floating on a small pond. The rest of the hike involved walking back along the side streets in Sierra Vista. What an excellent way to spend a day!
One more hike on the last day of the year. We parked overnight at the trailhead, where we watched another stunning sunset. And that put me in position to get a dawn start on this hike. We had plans for an early dinner with a friend outside of Tucson, so I wanted to have plenty of time.
The trail to the lookout is fairly well maintained and easy to follow. I appreciated the cool temperatures the early morning brought, even if that meant I had to rally before dark. I seemed to chase the same two deer up the trail as I hiked, although I couldn’t be sure. I was certain of how beautiful it was, with sotol, agave and prickly pear dotting the desert landscape. Gorgeous golden hills extended in all directions and each turn of the trail brought a new perspective to the mountain I was on.
At the small lookout site, only a foundation remained. I sat on its edge and ate a snack as I contemplated my next move. I had about a mile of bushwhacking to the true summit and my head swirled with the numerous reports I read of the route the night before. It would be tricky getting off the backside. Follow the cairned route. No, don’t follow the cairned route. It’s easy. It’s hard. Yeah, that’s what good the internet provides. I knew I’d just have to figure it out on my own.
I was not a huge fan of how the descent looked off the summit. Below my feet were what appeared to be loose aggregations of boulders held together by prickles and spines. I carefully descended right of center to avoid the worst bits and then veered back toward the ridge proper. Once I got back on track, I still had to figure out my way through or over the maze of boulders between the lookout and the summit. Occasionally, I stumbled across a cairn, but no two cairns were visible at the same time so they were pretty useless. I kept my eyes looking ahead at the destination and tried to avoid the worst of the vegetation and drop-offs.
It was slow but not too awful. Only a few moves required my full attention. I noticed specific kinds of debris along the way: a torn backpack, a shoe, a can of snuff, an empty tuna packet. Flotsam from migrants or smugglers traveling between the US and Mexico. As I’ve come to spend time along the border, the politics, tensions and humanity of this invisible line is very apparent. I paused to think about the difficulty of traversing a landscape like this when your life depends upon it, versus being out on a fun little day hike. I only had to walk on this ridge for a mile, what about those who need to travel tens or hundreds of miles? In the heat, with no water sources and with every plant trying to tear the flesh from your bones? It’s incredible that anyone makes it through.
At the summit, I enjoyed the serene landscape and plotted my return. I tried to follow the cairns back, which I almost did. When I lost them for good, I stood and looked around for any sign of the route. I didn’t find it, but I did notice three furry tails sticking into the air like periscopes: coatis! It was my first wild sighting. When I worked in a zoo right out of college, I took care of a couple coatis. Otherwise, I likely wouldn’t have known of their existence.
I was so glad to have let the cairns pull me off course for this chance sighting. Once they shuffled off, I fought my way back on the ridge and found the cairns again. I followed them until they petered out again. At that point I ended up in a thicket of catclaw acacia just below the lookout. It tore at every piece of clothing and square inch of exposed skin as I moved along the shortest path through it. Then, at the base of the previously intimidating, crumbly step that I avoided on my way down, I realized it actually wasn’t that bad. I scurried straight up the rock and landed right on top of the concrete lookout base. It’s amazing how something can look completely different from an alternate perspective.
Not too far down the trail, I ran into my first people of the day. Then a couple more. I raced down the path so that we’d have plenty of time to make it to my friend’s house for dinner. I couldn’t help but stop at all the interesting little cacti and towering dead agave plants. It still feels like such a foreign landscape, everything so curious and inviting!
We spent the night among the saguaro at Picacho Peak State Park (pronounced pee-KAH-cho). In the morning, we weighed our hiking options. We could drive to the trailhead, do the short but steep hike up the peak and back, or we could hike from the campground. I thought the flat trail leading to the trailhead would be a nice warmup for the main course, so that’s what we did.
Along the flats, we heard and saw many birds that we were just getting to know, like the cactus wren and gila woodpecker. At the trailhead, we paused to look at the map and prepare for the steep switchbacks that were soon to come. I had read a little about this trail so I knew there were cables and ladders near the top. It sounded like a fun adventure.
We arrived at the cables much sooner than necessary; they felt like a nuisance on some of the earlier sections. Maybe, I thought, they were useful when the ground was wet? It seemed like an over-engineered situation for most people.
At the saddle, before the real climbing began, we ran into a volunteer ranger. He was friendly and offered up some useful tips for the next portion of the hike. He also confirmed that our plan to climb to the top and the circle around the backside was a good one. With that, we started hiking…down! The trail drops several hundred feet before ascending again. Now, I was sure glad for those cables! Some of the rock was steeply slanted and slippery, with plenty of exposure to cactus-studded slopes below.
We encountered many other groups on the final ascent to the summit. Some were wearing santa hats and there were choruses of “Merry Christmas!” every few minutes. The mood was fun and cheery; everyone seemed to be having a great time.
When we got to the summit, a huge cloud bank had taken over the sky. With the sun tucked behind the huge gray drapes, temperatures dropped quite a bit. Most people were dressed lightly for a quick Arizona mountain hike. But we’d packed fleeces and wind layers so we could hang out on top as long as we wanted. We ate lunch, then I painted and Aaron read his book. It stayed fairly quiet up there as people came and quickly left.
On the way down, we followed the cables back to the junction with the Sunset Vista trail, which looped around the south side of the mountain. Here’s where we found the steepest and most fun section of cables bolted to a long slab. Conveniently located indents in the rock created a stair-step pattern that made me question whether they were added by humans or not. Starting from the top, we couldn’t see where the cables ended up; they disappeared into the abyss. Good times.
The backside of the mountain was refreshingly quiet. We enjoyed the variety of scenery and all the cactus. A short road walk from the trail led back to the campground. If I were to do it all over again, I’d choose to do it the same way. But maybe in spring when all the wildflowers are blooming!
With rain in the forecast and having no prior experience dispersed camping in Arizona, I decided our best bet would be to camp in actual campgrounds. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I didn’t want to get stuck in the mud. We were fast approaching the Christmas holiday and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find a place to stay, but I lucked out and booked 3 nights at Lost Dutchman State Park.
As we pulled into our campsite, I was thrilled to see it guarded by a huge saguaro! Another bucket list item checked off. Previously, I’d only seen saguaro cactus in the roadrunner cartoons. I’d been dying to see one in real life. And here they were, all over the park. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to stay in a campground.
Later that afternoon, I got sick and tired of being sick and tired so I decided to take an easy walk. I threw on my backpack, which is always ready to go, and set off on a trail in the campground. Within 5 minutes of walking, I saw the flash of shiny feathers: a roadrunner! Then, the quick blur of a rabbit’s tail. Gila woodpeckers clinging to the sides of the saguaro. Chattering curved-bill thrashers. It was a wildlife paradise. And the backdrop to this nature show: the dramatic, towering spires of the Superstition Mountains.
According to my research, there is one thing to do here, and that is to climb the Flatiron. It is only six miles roundtrip, but with 2600′ elevation gain and some steep sections, it would be a push. I was still feeling pretty sick, but with the rain coming the next day I knew this was my only chance. I left early and loaded up a bag with supplies so I could take all the time I needed. Being under the weather is no fun, but I knew I’d feel better after hiking up a hill.
I followed the trail as it gradually ascended the slopes below the striking massif in front of me. At the base of Siphon Draw, a large gully slicing into the rock cliffs, the trail steepened. I began seeing a few other hikers on the trail. I let them pass me, opting to take lots of rest and move as slowly as my body needed to. It was so beautiful; I was in no rush.
The trail abruptly ended at a slickrock bowl that funneled into the gully. The inviting, smooth rock ended all too soon. Not entirely sure where to go at this point, I followed the path of least resistance into a brushy cactus slope to my right. Had the other hikers gone left? It looked like that led to a dry waterfall! Stopping to catch my breath and blow my nose, I looked up and saw an old man tying his boot. “Oh hi!” I said, and we exchanged some pleasantries. I picked up on his New England accent right away so we chatted some more. It was his first time on the route as well, and he also seemed unsure which way to go. “This way looks good,” I said and took off up the hill. He started up behind me at an even slower pace. I didn’t want to wait for him, but I felt bad leaving him behind.
Just as I had that thought, I saw a couple headed towards me, then I heard some more voices. Of course, this is a popular route, there will be plenty of people to keep eyes on that guy. I pushed ahead.
From that point on, I picked my way up the gully one step at a time. I kept seeing more people, headed up and headed down. People hiking solo and people in groups. Old people, young people, kids, families. People with no backpacks, people with supplies, people with water bottles. People in jeans, shorts, t-shirts, hiking garb, track suits. I actually couldn’t believe how many people were up here in this pretty gnarly, dirty chute. It felt more like New England hiking than west coast hiking, a very rough, get-to-the-top kind of route. Either the people out here are really badass or oblivious to the hazards; I guessed a bit of each.
Near the top of the gully, I got stuck behind a large group of hikers who were calling out every single move for every single person. I stopped and waited for them to figure it out, then started walking again. I didn’t mind the break. Well, after repeating this about ten times and getting pretty annoyed I finally grabbed an opportunity to pass. That obstacle sorted, I had one more to go: a ten-foot vertical step. Wait, what? If I hadn’t seen people coming down that section I would have been really confused where to go. But there it was. I wasn’t too concerned about getting up but I knew I’d hate coming down. I figured if all these yokels could do it, I’d sort it out later. Up I went and hurried off to the viewpoint.
It was an absolute circus of people when I got up there, all talking loudly for some reason, so I took a quick picture and scampered off. I saw two alternate highpoints to scramble to from the top of the Flatiron and decided to head toward Ironview Peak.
Its summit is guarded by a labyrinth of gendarmes. Not to mention all the cactus, too. I carefully sniffed out a path between all these obstructions, which meant some crawling under, scrambling over and squeezing in between those big rock spires. After 20 minutes or so, I looked up towards the final section and saw two heads looking down at me.
“Is there an actual trail up here?” I asked. They mentioned something about a path marked with cairns, then we talked a but about hiking in the area. Once we parted ways I was just a few minutes away from the summit marker. From that peak, I delighted in views of the Superstitions that I couldn’t get from the Flatiron. I was in awe. Once I found a good sit spot, I ate my lunch and did some painting. A curious rock wren kept me company most of the time. Crows circled overhead. This place was magic.
On the way down, I was able to pick up my pace. I lingered on top; I knew Aaron would be wondering what took me so long. Luckily my snotty airways were not a hindrance coming down and my legs felt strong. Once I got to that wall I’d been dreading, I was very close to asking someone below to spot me. But he left before I could utter the words. Alone, I remembered what I observed on my hike up and rehearsed the moves in my head. I really hate downclimbing. But, I pulled it together and it was easier than I thought. With that behind me, it was easy to scramble the rest of the route down to the trail. I messaged Aaron to let him know my ETA and happily bounded down the remainder of the hike.
Camping in the rain
The rest of our time at Lost Dutchman was pretty chill. The campground is quite nice. I loved being surrounded by Saguaro cactus. There were many other cool cacti and plants and spring must bring bursts of wildflowers. The dreary clouds and moisture had its own charm as well.
We took a couple of field trips, one to the Goldfield Ghost Town for dinner and holiday lights (skippable) and the Superstition Mountain Museum. I really enjoyed the history museum, especially because we had the whole place to ourselves! We learned a ton about the myth of the Lost Dutchman mine that drew many a prospector trying to strike it rich. Plus displays teaching about Native Americans, infrastructure, natural history and more. There were several walking paths and outdoor exhibits that would have been nicer on a warm, spring day. But it was brown, drizzly and cold. The highlight for me was finding a small covey of Gambel’s quail, a new quail for my list!
The Capoeira bonanza left me with a wretched cold. We had five days to get to a show in L.A., so we decided to soak up some sun on the California coast. I mapped out a route that had us driving 1-3 hours per day, landing at a state park each time. It’s the best way to see the coast, which is notoriously unfriendly for boondocking.
Sunset State Beach
We rolled into Sunset State Beach late in the evening on December 11, after spending the day in Cupertino. I’d managed to pull myself out of bed for a minute to walk to a nearby produce market and stock up on all the fresh foods. The next morning, Aaron woke up early and drove to the park’s day use area by the beach. Once I had enough energy to mobilize, I staggered out of the van onto the sand. The sun was intensely bright. A steady wind blew across the beach. I clung onto my mug of tea and slowly ambled across the broad expanse. Hundreds of birds were enjoying the day, giving me plenty of entertainment as I wandered along the shoreline. I found a spot to sit and watch them: curlews, sandpipers, plovers, gulls. The sun felt good on my skin.
I walked back to the van in time for lunch. We ate at one of the picnic tables as if we were in our own private patio. There weren’t many other people in the parking lot. Later that afternoon, we moved the van to a small pullout at Garrapata State Park where Aaron did some work and I took a short walk down to the beach. It was just before sunset, a really pretty (and cold) time for exploring.
Pfeifer Big Sur
We still had to make the drive to Pfeifer Big Sur, arriving around sunset. Because there are so many big trees in this area, it felt very dark and gloomy. We didn’t have any time to wander around the park. I remember the drive in being pretty, and that’s all. By the time Aaron had to set up shop in the morning, we needed to be out of the park. And since the highway is indefinitely closed south of the park, we had to do a big loop to get back on the coast. It was kind of a ridiculous route, but it’s the best we could do within the parameters we had.
Unfortunately, the closest place with an easy place to park and access to services was Salinas. It was a dire, depressing town with the most sterile looking library I’d ever seen. It’s where I ended up dragging my very sick carcass to find a restroom. And, like most libraries in California that I’d visited, I was greeted by a security guard upon entry. Instead of funding programs to help people who need it, we seem to have an endless amount of money to police and terrorize and punish them instead.
Hearst San Simeon
After work, we finished the drive to Hearst San Simeon State Park and found our spot in the primitive camping area. And early the next morning, with no time to enjoy the park, we pressed on. This is our routine. We pulled into the Elephant Seal viewing area, however, which would give us an opportunity to see something cool later. The California coast was going by so fast. And I was still sick as a dog.
At 2 pm, I’d finally mustered up the strength to crawl out of the van. I wandered out to the boardwalk and was stunned to see SO MANY elephant seals sprawled out on the beach. I didn’t know they were going to be so close and that there would be hundreds of them. Males, females, babies. Seals in the water, seals in the beach. Stationary seals, flapping seals. Seals making their guttural calling sounds, seals snoozing peacefully. It was way cooler than I thought it would be. I walked around for about an hour, then brought Aaron out to see them, too. That was an experience I wouldn’t soon forget.
We rolled into camp at Pismo State Beach minutes before sunset and we raced to the edge of the campground to catch it. Our little use trail petered out above a steep drop into pools of water. We found ourselves stranded above the sand. It was a nice little viewpoint, however, so we took in the scene and retreated to the van. Behind us, we could hear the buzz of traffic and see the lights of a tourist strip. It felt like we were camping smack in the middle of town. An odd place for a state park, I thought.
I had grand plans to do a little city walk the next day but my energy levels were in the tank. I laid low until the noon checkout time, then we headed up the road a couple minutes to the Monarch Butterfly Grove. This was another unexpected delight. We strolled along the short path through the garden, surrounded by towering eucalyptus trees. I pointed at a few butterflies flitting about overhead. Cool, monarchs! Then we rounded a corner and stopped where several people were standing. There were viewing scopes pointed at the trees. WHOA. MONARCHS. They clustered by the hundreds on branches dangling from the canopy. Hundreds more floated in orange blurs in the sky. I’d never seen so many butterflies in one place. It was the elephant seal experience all over again.
If I were to do it all over again, I’d spend two days at each campsite and I’d plan on not being sick (as if you can do that). We had to breeze by a lot of interesting things. I’d also like to return once the highway south of Big Sur is open. But I remind myself that I can’t see and do everything on any given trip, and the things left undone just mean that the next time I’m in the area, I know exactly where to go first.
When we sat down to make a rough sketch of how to spend a two-year road trip, one thing was certain: we needed to visit the place where our Capoeira school started. We’ve got so many friends in the Bay Area who we met through Capoeira and we wanted to experience being on their home turf. It just so happened that near the time we planned to visit, Mestre Acordeon would be putting on a huge, five-day event called Pôr do Sol. So, we spent a little over a week taking classes and hanging out in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco before diving into an intense five days of Capoeira.
Capoeira and van travel
We reached out to one of the local mestres ahead of our trip and he set us up with one of his students for a place to stay. It can be quite difficult to find overnight parking for a van within city limits in many states, so we have learned to get connected with locals before driving our van into a city. Our host and friend offered up a parking spot in a gated lot at his apartment, which was a perfect base of operations for most of our stay. In order to not irritate his neighbors too much (there’s always one grumpy neighbor), we found some alternative parking for a few nights here and there so we didn’t take up that spot for two weeks straight.
I made a list of seven schools I really wanted to visit while in the area; we only made it to three: UCA Lua de Prata, UCA Hayward and Castro Valley Capoeira. But we were able to get a wide variety of instruction during the Pôr do Sol event and we prioritized going to schools led by the teachers we know best. I think we made the most of our visit without breaking our bodies!
Big city treats
After having spent the bulk of our trip in rural Oregon, we were eager to take advantage of big city options like FOOD. If I could imagine it, it was here. We ate Afghan ice cream, Georgian cooking, fancy cocktails, Algerian pastries, delicious Mexican food. As much as I love preparing our own meals, I was not going to miss out on the diversity of cultures and flavors to be found here.
In addition to ethnic restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries, I also found a variety of ethnic grocery stores. We found several nice little groceries selling Middle Eastern, Mexican and Asian food. It was a great opportunity to switch up some kitchen staples, sample unfamiliar spice mixes and try new recipes.
Another experience I love to have in big cities is exploring museums and gardens. Our garden tour began with the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. I learned about the AHS reciprocal gardens, ROAM and NARM programs when researching our visit. With an annual membership at any museum or garden in the program, you unlock free visits to hundreds of other museums and gardens across the country! Since we’ll be spending a lots of time on the road looking for places like these, purchasing an annual family membership was a no-brainer. It was only $95/year. It won’t take us long to more than get our money’s worth, plus we’re supporting a really cool garden. If you have a local museum or garden on any of the lists above, I highly recommend signing up for an annual membership and take advantage of all the benefits!
I spent one morning hiking Mission Peak. I found a loop online that went up and over the summit, linking a less-commonly used trail up and a popular trail down. Without thinking, I did the loop in the reverse order, which worked out fine. Shortly into the hike I crossed paths with an older man hiking down. He was wearing an 80’s sitcom dad sweater and had a big smile on his face. “You’re a hardcore hiker,” he said to me. Then, pointing to himself said, “I’m a softcore hiker. I turned around right up there.” We had a nice little conversation and that set me up for a really enjoyable hike that day. I encountered many more people than I’m used to when hiking, but everyone was just so happy to be there that the crowds actually enhanced my experience.
And then there was ice cream. We had three notable ice cream stops in the Bay Area. Here they are in chronological order:
Kabul Icy Treats Cafe. O M G. We ordered the Sheeryakh and split it. Scoops of ice cream piled high atop a bath of cream. Delicate pistachio, rose and almond flavors infused the delicious dessert. I didn’t even know I needed this in my life.
Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience. Our friend in San Francisco recommended this place, so we wandered in to check it out. The entire store was overwhelming, but it took us no time at all to get through the ice cream line (unlike at the Tillamook factory) and sit down to decadent sundaes. Another win.
Fenton’s Creamery. After all the Capoeira had finished, we treated ourselves, upon another friend’s recommendation, to this restaurant. We were so hungry that we ordered a meal and then a big dessert. Each of us had no problem crushing all that food. Capoeira leaves a big hole in your belly!
With a little planning, local knowledge and flexibility, you can spend time in city limits in a camper van. We enjoyed this taste of city life and will definitely use these skills in the future. But for now, it’s time to camp on public lands once more.
If you want to see red rocks, you’ve got a lot of options. A quick Google search lets me know that there are:
Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV
Red Rock State Park, Sedona, AZ
Red Rock Park, Church Rock, NM
Red Rocks Park, Denver, CO
But today we ventured to Red Rock Canyon State Park, located east of Bakersfield, California. I’d never heard of this one, but we were in the area. Our tour began at the visitor center, as it usually does. Visitor centers are usually hosted by informed staff or volunteers who are happy to offer up advice or suggestions for activities. I’ve gotten a wide range of information from such people, and usually I’m able to learn something new. Whenever possible, I recommend talking to someone who knows the place before you step foot on it, if you’ve done extensive research or none at all.
This visitor center also had a few displays on native inhabitants, geology and wildlife. A great opportunity to begin to understand where we were.
We began our hike along a nature trail leading up from the parking area to a viewpoint. Along the way, we stopped to read the information in the brochure about each numbered sign (I love a nature trail brochure). From that vantage point, I began to see what the topo lines on the map I scoured the night before actually meant. We followed some user paths on a quest to make an off-trail loop through some of the park’s spectacular rock formations. This would turn out to be a non-trivial objective.
We found ourselves on top of a canyon with steep-sided walls dropping into a series of washes below. The rock formed crumbly slopes or vertical drops, neither was good for un-roped travel. So after several thwarted attempts to get down into the wash, I finally found a break in the cliff band. We gingerly made our way down the moderately steep, grassy slope to the badlands underneath. Safely down in the flats, we meandered between hoodoos, slots, arches and other features eroded from the volcanic ash and sandstone.
Long afternoon shadows gave the rock walls more depth and mystery. The cliffs standing above us on our snack break looked like drapes cascading down from a tall mansion window. The whole place gave me Cathedral Gorge vibes.
We delighted in the silence that came from being off trail, then braced ourselves for the inevitable return to the state park slew of people. For being a holiday weekend, it actually didn’t feel that crowded. We ran into folks within a 10-minute radius of the other parking area, then it was back to quiet. A wash paralleling the road helped us loop back to where we started a few hours earlier. I did not see any desert tortoise or other creatures I’d hoped to run into, but it was still a delight to be out there. We found many flowers in bloom, including the surprisingly beautiful desert dandelion. I’m still in awe that things are colorful in late November!
If you like cool rocks, choose-your-own-adventure style hiking and desert weather, this park is your jam. It’s pretty out there, but a worthy stop on any road trip if you’re in the area. I’d definitely go back in the early spring or after a rainstorm. I bet the wildflowers really put on good show then!
This hike falls squarely into the “because it’s there category” that has become all so common on this trip.
There are countless mountains I’d like to climb, I’ve got list after list after list. However, what I’m able to climb is highly dependent on where specifically we park the van. I can try to find strategic camping, as I did here, or else I need to wake up, look around and point at the closest blip on the horizon.
In my research, I found some route descriptions for Black Mountain #6 (numbered because it has a common name) but they all started from a gnarly road on the other side of the peak. I’ll take an easier drive and longer hike than an annoying drive an shorter hike any day. I found a nice dispersed campsite roughly 5 miles due west of the summit. So on this lovely fall morning, I picked out an old road heading roughly in the direction I wanted to go and started walking.
I could have easily blasted through the road walk, but I kept stopping to ogle the wildflowers. They were everywhere! Evening primrose, desert calico, so many GDYC‘s. Not to mention all the Joshua trees and cholla cactus, looking sparkly in the sunshine. It was so beautiful! I followed the road up to what appeared to be an old mine, then I picked a ridge and followed it up to the horizon. The tricky thing about walking to the horizon is that you never quite get there…
Once I reached one bump that led to another, then another. A sinuous ridge of blocky sub-peaks eventually put me on track to reach the summit of Black Mountain #6. I knew I reached it when I opened an ammo canister to find no less than five notebooks filled with entries dating back to 1970. A popular place, it must be on some important list!
To me, it was just one of those “hey I think I can walk there from the van” peaks. Regardless of its overall popularity, there was no one else there on this day, so I enjoyed a long summit break by myself. Then I roughly retraced my steps to the van. In the last mile, I pulled out my little trash bag and stopped to pick up any garbage I found along the road. I filled it up with cans and bottles by the time I returned. This is a good habit to get into on your next hike, if you don’t do this already.
All day I scoured the landscape for desert tortoise, tarantula, rattlesnake, anything to indicate I was in the desert. I did at one point see a flash out of the corner of my eye: a jackrabbit. Later, another flash: a coyote. Mammals are cute and all but you never get to really see them. If you find a reptile or insect, at least you get some time to enjoy them!
Minus the constant drone of ATVs ripping around the nearby roads, this area was quite nice. In the wilderness, where motor vehicles are not allowed, there is lots of room to roam around and explore. I’d come back here, maybe not on a holiday weekend, maybe when the flowers are in peak bloom.
Our first real foray into a big city with the van took place in Las Vegas. It was a place I could convince both my brother and some college friends to fly in for a visit. So, Aaron and I began our trip by parking for a night outside our friend’s house in Henderson.
While Aaron worked the next day, I plotted a roughly 9 mile course from the van to the Vegas strip, where I’d meet my brother and his wife. I love taking city walks as a way to get acquainted with a new place. Besides, I’ll travel hundreds of miles out to a remote wilderness to do a ten mile walk, why not do it in an urban location?
I fell into a rhythm, threading my way through park trails that connected to city sidewalks. I wandered along walled-off communities and into more friendly looking neighborhoods. It was impossible to plan a route that didn’t parallel the airport or major highways, so I spent much of the time trying not to duck under low-flying aircraft. I found the Vegas area pretty pedestrian-friendly, as drivers waited patiently for me to cross, no one cut me off and I never felt unsafe being surrounded by so many cars.
When I arrived at the strip, my brother sent me a string of text message clues to get me from where I was to where he waited for me. We had lunch, then visited the Hello Kitty Cafe and played black light mini-golf in a Twilight Zone themed room. What a surreal day.
Many people do not know that Las Vegas is a very convenient hub for outdoor activities like rock climbing, hiking and canyoneering. I had been aware of this for years, but never had the opportunity to take advantage of its proximity to varied park and recreation areas. I booked a limited-entry permit for Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to take my visitors on a pretty desert hike. We explored some washes and slickrock adjacent to where people were climbing on the gorgeous red rocks. Then we continued the drive to the other side of the loop road and hiked into a deep, shaded gash in the cliffs appropriately named Icebox Canyon. What a sharp contrast to the hot, sweaty hike we’d just done!
Later that weekend, my friends Sue and Karen arrived. We also hiked in the Red Rocks area as well as in the nearby Rainbow Mountains Wilderness. This area did not require permits and it was easy to find a parking spot late on a Saturday morning. We scrambled to a few highpoints and did plein air painting at scenic vistas each day that we hiked. I introduced Sue to painting outdoors last year, so I was thrilled to see that she showed up with her own kit on this trip! I set Karen up with supplies and the three of us created art, capturing the scene in three different ways.
There were so many places I didn’t get to on this visit: Sloan Canyon, Mt. Stirling, Charleston Peak, Lake Mead. That just means I’ll be back.
Viva Las Vegas
During our visit, Las Vegas was preparing to host a Grand Prix race. Some iconic sites were inaccessible, traffic was even crazier than usual and massive bandstands were being built up along the strip. The wealth on display was so immense, and in sharp contrast to the unhoused people on the street. People desperate to make a buck selling trashy trinkets outside shops selling ridiculously priced designer bags and things literally no one needs. How inhumane this society is that enables such disparity; I couldn’t help but think about this as I walked through crowds of blissfully unaware vacationers.
Unable to solve the persistence of inequality in those moments, I had no choice but to join the mass of tourists shuffling along the busy streets.
We ate at restaurants for nearly every meal, which completely blew out our budget for the month. The food was expensive and mostly not that great. Drinks also cost way more than they would anywhere else. I had to grit my teeth and not sweat the prices, knowing we’d be back on the road, preparing our own food in the van soon.
With each pair of visitors, I spent quite a bit of time walking along the strip and in the surrounding areas. It’s definitely something I’d recommend doing once in a lifetime. It was unlike any other walk I’d ever taken. Well into the night, lights shine brightly from every hotel, casino and monument. There are fountains and public art and replicas of world famous architecture everywhere. And there are always so many people out and about, you’ll never feel alone.
The Vegas experience I just had to have was partaking in a street daiquiri from one of the many daiquiri bars I’d seen on the strip. Sue joined me in imbibing during one of our long evening walks while Karen made the probably better decision to stick to water instead. Although we didn’t have too far, as the crow flies, to get back to our room, pedestrian connectivity was not good in this part of town. We kept running into dead ends or highways that required us to walk several miles out of the way. Drinking and walking doesn’t suit me well, but I got to cross off that item from my to-do list.
Tips for van travelers
Vegas is a pretty fun place to visit for all sorts of people. Whether you love nightlife, the outdoors, museums, parties, restaurants or people watching, there’s something there for you. Be prepared to spend a lot of money while you’re there, because everything costs money and even things you’re used to paying for cost more.
I spent a lot of time reaching out to AIrBnB hosts about if it was legal/possible to park my van in their lot. This was a surprise. Many hosts operate under HOA’s that do not allow oversize vehicles or vans specifically. Or, they only had access to parking structures with ceiling heights too low for the van to fit. And while some hotels do allow oversize vehicle parking, it is typically for an additional fee. You’ll have to consider the size and type of your vehicle before booking a place to stay.
Once you’re there, I’d recommend using Uber/Lyft/taxi to get to places in town and only take your vehicle out to drive to trailheads and activities outside the city. It’s much less stress trying to deal with maneuvering and parking a large vehicle in such a congested place. And if you want to take a walk, try to plan a route on Google Maps so you don’t get stuck where the sidewalks disappear into freeways, gated lots and parking garages.
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