Category Archives: California

Camping the California coast

December 11-15, 2023.

Sunset State Beach > Pismo Beach

Classic coast sunset

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.

Curlews

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.

The depressing Salinas library

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.

Elephant seal stack

Pismo Beach

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.

Pismo beach sunset

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.

All the monarch butterflies

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.

Capoeira and more in the Bay Area

November 26- December 10, 2023.

Hayward Capoeira crew

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!

Pôr do sol performance

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.

Algerian pastries, anyone?

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!

Hanging in the botanical garden

Other highlights

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.

Near the top of Mission Peak

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!

Fenton’s Creamery

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.

Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

November 25, 2023.

4.7 mi. | 550′ ele. gain | 3:30 hr.

Photo album

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.

Cholla

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.

Rocky wonderland

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!

Black Mountain #6

November 24, 2023.

12.3 mi. | 2330′ ele. gain | 6:30 hr.

Photo album

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.

Desert calico

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!

You can blame the LA chapter of the Sierra Club for all the visitors 🙂

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.

Joshua trees line the desert floor

Lava Beds National Monument

October 29- November 1, 2023.

lava beds national monument
The lava landscape

Photo album

Lava Beds is a low-key National Parks Service site in Northern California. I’d been there twice before and knew that it would be an interesting place to hole up for a few days no matter what the weather did. There are many things to do, from learning about the Modoc war to exploring caves to hiking across the lava landscape. Since I’ve written in detail about the caves before, I’ll highlight some of the other things we did on this trip.

Unmarked caves

Our friend LeeAnn drove down to spend a few days with us before we left the Pacific Northwest for good, so I had a hiking buddy while Aaron was working. One day, we decided to take a hike and poke our heads into a few caves we noticed on our maps that were not labeled on the official park map. When we inquired about them at the visitor center, they wouldn’t even give us any information. So we packed up our helmets, headlamps and gloves and followed our curiosity.

I’m not going to be the one to blow up information on caves that aren’t on the beaten path, so you’ll have to follow your curiosity as well. We ended up walking by a few caves we weren’t expecting. Some of these caves were open to explore, while others had posted signs saying “Cave closed.” Whether it was to protect hibernating bats or to protect us from unsafe conditions, they didn’t need to tell us twice! If there was a “do not enter sign” in front of a tantalizing hole in the ground, we did not go inside.

Would you wander in there?

No worries though, because there were several openings that were free to explore. It was a little scarier for me to walk into a cave that I had no map or information for. We stayed close together, moved slowly and marveled at being in a place that most visitors don’t get to enjoy. One cave started inside a massive entrance and ended at a small passageway at the other end! But most were out-and-back excursions.

If you’re really into caving, I’m sure you know where to find more details on the 700+ unmarked caves scattered throughout the park. I was content with poking my head into a handful of caves off the main cave loop. If you do venture off the beaten path, be sure to do it with a friend or two, carry three sources of light and let someone else know where you’re headed.

Hiking trails

I spent one full day exploring the trails on the surface of the park, including some trails on my map but not theirs (are you sensing a theme?). Before LeeAnn left for Oregon, we hiked up the trail to Schonchin Butte. This steep, 0.7 mile trail spirals right up to the summit just like my favorite Pilot Butte trail back in Bend. The difference today was the overwhelming smell of smoke in the air from prescribed burns nearby. Lucky for us, the hike began on the shady side of the butte so we were walking up the hillside in cool, morning air.

Fire lookout

A beautiful fire lookout marks the summit. It is a working lookout during the summer, but it was locked up for the season when we visited. We took the little loop trail around the summit crater and enjoyed 360-degree views of the surrounding lava beds.

Our next stop: Captain Jack’s Stronghold. LeeAnn took off for home and left me behind to start walking back toward the van. But first, I wanted to spend some time among the lava caves and fortresses in which the Modoc Indians took their last stand against the U.S. government troops. I read about how the remaining native families tried to defend their homeland against the invading colonizing forces and how this narrative continues to play out across the world today. Then, I slowly walked the half-mile short loop, stopping at each numbered post and tried to imagine what the interpretive brochure might say (since none were available). I wondered how the NPS currently framed the settler vs. native interactions here. I thought about how I was raised to believe the myths of the “land of the free” and how I’ve had to re-learn American history and un-learn the propaganda that was taught in schools. It was a heavy morning. The smoke only made it more heavy.

lava beds national monument
Medicine pole at Captain Jack’s Stronghold

From there, I walked along the road for a couple miles to a trailhead that didn’t exist on the park map but that I saw on the Google satellite images. As I approached the alleged trailhead, I slowly looked for signs of the trail. Aha! Found it. The “Sheepherder trail” was clearly an old road that was filling in with grass and tumbleweed. I saw a few somewhat recent boot tracks on it and started walking. My planned route would take me on a north-south line between the road and the campground. While I would have very much enjoyed a 15 mile walk back to the van on most days, I knew the smoke would make my walk really challenging and I plotted a few different ways to get to the road where Aaron could pick me up sooner.

I used my trail spidey-senses to follow the old two track as it wound its way between gentle hills and piles of lava rock. The tumbleweed really liked to collect in the low places between hills, which aligned almost exactly with the road. I was glad that I chose to wear long pants and actual shoes and that tumbleweed isn’t covered in thorns. I pushed through the dry vegetation for miles before finding a place to stop and eat my lunch.

A cairn miles from any marked trail

Along the way, I stumbled across a few seemingly arbitrary posts indicating a wilderness boundary. I also found one section of trail that was marked with obvious cairns, but they often were not in view of each other. They stopped and started arbitrarily and not near any trail junction. It was the wild west out there. I continued on, following the “Powerline Trail” around Hardin Butte and onto the “Hardin Butte trail.” All of the trail names in quotes do not officially exist.

I noticed that an actual trail to marked points of interest were just north of my location. I struck off between outcrops of lava to find this trail. It was surprisingly not as hard as I thought and soon I found myself looking at a sign entitled “Last Victory for the Modoc.” The last part reads: “Many Modoc were not interested in indiscriminate killing, but were determined to defend their land and culture. After this battle, they were never again successful in doing so.” This read to me as very cold and dehumanizing, as if people who had inhabited land for many thousands of years had no right to continue living there because a bunch of white guys with guns said “mine now.” I sat on that wall, awash in those heavy feelings again.

One mile of trail led to the parking lot. Just before arriving there, I veered off on a short spur to Black Crater. This area had several interpretive signs describing the lava features visible from the trail. I walked among the familiar terrain, very ready to get out of the smoke.

Camping

The campground at Lava Beds National Monument has 43 sites, which are all first-come first-serve. At only $10 a night it’s the best deal around (besides dispersed camping). We found one of the few sites that we could squeeze in the van and a little car in the same parking area. Our site overlooked a large grassland with just a few trees. It had a picnic table, fire ring and a grill. A heated, lighted bathroom with a flush toilet was a quick walk away. And there was a water spigot just across the road.

We managed to scavenge enough firewood from nearby campsites to have a nice fire each night. Most of the sites were empty; only 2 or 3 sites were occupied each night. I remember having a similar experience the last time we camped there. But even better than the campfire were the epic sunsets and moonrises each evening. Even with the light of the moon, thousands of stars spread like glitter across the sky. What a beautiful and quiet place to be outside.

Moonrise over camp

South Warner Wilderness

May 29, 2022.

6.8 mi. | 2000′ ele. gain | 3:30 hr.

south warner wilderness

I had one final peak in me on our grand, Grand Canyon road trip. Plan A involved driving from Arc Dome Wilderness north through Austin and Winemucca into southeast Oregon and poking around some desert canyons and mountains to finish our tour. But, the forecasted thunderstorms made us shift our course west towards Reno and then up into southeast California instead. There, a little-known place called the South Warner Wilderness (which had long been on my “someday list”), called my name.

The night before my hike, we found a quiet, free, campground in the woods to stay nearby. We assembled some dinner with the remaining supplies in our food box and read stories from our Grand Canyon deaths book.

Again, Aaron agreed to drop me off at a trailhead so I could burn some energy while he stayed behind to do some work. I waved goodbye at the Pepperdine trailhead. Snow dusted the ground, even in late May.I could already tell I was walking into an adventure.

The closest highpoint, the poorly named Squaw Peak, was my chosen destination for the day. I didn’t want to leave Aaron there for too long. This off-trail destination is encircled by two trails: summit trail and Squaw Peak trail. Ironically, neither of those goes to the summit of Squaw Peak. Seriously, who was in charge of naming things there?! In my mind, I envisioned a loop in which I’d take one trail to get up the peak and the other to come back down. Here’s how it went.

south warner wilderness

After a short ascent through the forest, the trail leads across a beautiful, windswept, rocky landscape. The trail became challenging to follow under the light snow cover since there was no clear path through the trees. Everything looked like a path. Somewhat luckily for me, someone had just set off on this trail right before me so I could see his footprints. However, I’ve learned not to trust other people’s footprints in the snow. I proceeded with caution.

I got especially confused at one tricky switchback near a runoff ravine and some thicker trees that had me literally going around in circles for a bit. With the help of some shifting visibility and my GPS app, I eventually got back on track. I veered off the summit trail and followed a steepening ridgeline up to the top of the peak at 8646′. The last stretch of the ascent involved icy snow in the trees and then a mix of icy and powdery snow over boulders and stubby shrubs. It was tricky, slow going, but I topped out just after 1 pm. I found a summit register made from PVC pipe and caps, but the darn thing was frozen shut! I tried with all my might to open it up but I failed.

Wearing all of my layers, I hunkered down away from the wind and munched on some Cheetos as I contemplated my route out. I could make the easy choice and go back the way I came, but where’s the fun in that? From the top I could see steep, snowy cliffs below me. And to my right there was a bouldery pile leading to a snow slope that seemed within my abilities to navigate with the gear I had. Somewhere, beneath that snow slope, was the other trail that would loop me back.

I chose the latter.

It was fun to descend the slopes once there were no boulders sticking out! I practically ran down with the aid of my microspikes and poles. That is, until I got to a surprise marshy stretch that was hidden beneath the snow cover. Carefully, I poked my way along the edge of the marsh, trying to keep my feet dry. I could hear the water running below. There’s nothing worse than being cold and wet, so I tried to keep myself in the cold and dry. Eventually, I found the actual trail, veering off of it slightly whenever it made a weird stream crossing. I preferred to cross the streams where they were melted out and in full view; the sound of water beneath snow is not one of my favorite sounds.

After making it back to familiar territory, I picked up the pace. Much of the snow dusting I began walking through had melted during the sun breaks, so it was almost like hiking an entirely new route! Up ahead, I saw a couple of hikers stopped and looking closely at the ground. I thought maybe they had found a cool flower or rock or something. As I approached them, they pointed at me and said “hey, it’s you!” Apparently they’d seen an unusual track in the snow and were trying to figure out its origins. The track? My hiking pole snow baskets. We all laughed. I was glad to have given them an interesting forest mystery to solve while they were out and about.

Overall, this was a fun adventure that only served to get me more curious about this area. I’ll have to come back another time, with more time, and see what other wonders await me.

Trona Pinnacles

April 3-4, 2019.

Photo album

After saying goodbye to Joshua Tree, we drove out to Trona Pinnacles for an evening of camping and casual exploring. As we drove down a washboard road and crossed into BLM land we caught sight of the tufa pinnacles off in the distance.

It was an alien landscape, as expected. About a dozen blockbuster movies were filmed, at least in part, out there. But I wasn’t interested in that. I did want a free place to crash for the night and a chance to watch a pretty sunset. I hoped that there wouldn’t be too many people out there and I was sort of right.

There was enough space among the rock formations for people to spread out. Lee Ann and I picked a spot with no other campers in sight and set up our tent. Then, we walked the road encircling the largest cluster of rock spires to look for wildflowers.

We saw lots.

I was amazed at the swaths of color that carpeted the sandy soil. It was no Joshua Tree superbloom, but it was still mighty spectacular. We walked slowly and stopped any time we saw a “new” flower. Although I couldn’t identify most of them, they still took my breath away.

We also collected trash along the way, which we disposed of in our car garbage bag or repurposed when possible (a binder clip came in handy).

LeeAnn was on dinner duty that evening, so she prepared a warm and hearty meal as I wrote in my journal and watched the sun go down. We had a small campfire, because we could, and got to sleep shortly after dark.

While the Trona Pinnacles is not a great destination, it makes for a great rest stop if you’re in the area.

Hiking the south side of Joshua Tree

April 2-3, 2019.

Photos from Joshua Tree south

Lost Palms Oasis

Although we knew the Lost Palms Oasis would be a sea of humanity, we decided it was a unique enough experience that we wanted to check it out. So we hit the trailhead bright and early. There were only a few cars in the parking lot, and much to my surprise, palm trees stood just feet away from the pavement. I guess we didn’t have to do any hiking to see an oasis, after all.

The trail was very well-graded and lined with a dense profusion of flowers. We stopped frequently to assess our finds. Now in the Colorado desert, there were many new shapes and colors to see. The northern half of Joshua Tree sits in the Mojave desert. Each desert encompasses different ecosystems with their own characteristic flora and fauna. It was is we were hiking in a brand new park.

Desert aster

Partway up the trail, LeeAnn stopped in her tracks. Just to our left she pointed out a desert tortoise, tucked securely in his shell. I had never seen a desert tortoise. We stood there for many minutes, as groups of hikers passed by seemingly unimpressed by the lowly reptile. Eventually he crawled away slowly, stopping every other step to munch on the flowers surrounding him. Imagine what it would be like to wake up and walk through an endless salad bar…

Desert tortoise!

The day quickly warmed up and we happily descended into a canyon to sit in the shade at the oasis. Several groups had set up shop under the trees so we explored around to find a quiet patch of sand near a few giant boulders. In the shadow of the rocks we ate some food and planned our next move.

Palm tree oasis

The oasis was pretty sweet but the day was young, and it felt like too soon of a turnaround point. A few continuations were described in the book so we attempted to follow the directions. We quickly got off the route and decided to just ramble around until we got tired of it. That led us to a few cool discoveries: scattered bits of a sheep skeleton, huge canyon views and our own private oasis. The palm trees were massive; I appreciated just how big they were as I walked right underneath them, touching the bark and crunching my feet on the fallen fronds. After ambling through a lovely ocotillo garden we decided to go roughly back the way we came. Our path took us through a massive boulder pile, requiring some tricky maneuvering. And I got to walk across a fallen palm tree just for fun.

The hike back was very hot and by the time we got to the car we thought we’d seek shade for a quiet afternoon of book reading and napping.

Just out for a walk

Sand dunes

With bellies full of taco salad, the dinner we made in the parking lot, we walked cross country in the direction of the sand dunes. Now, “dunes” is a bit of a misnomer. Compared to the sand dunes I’d visited at Mojave National Park, Death Valley National Park and the Oregon Dunes, these were nothing. As we walked closer and closer to our purported destination we wondered if we even had the right place.

As we approached, however, something magical happened. At our feet we identified a new variety of plant life—flowers that only grew in sand dunes! Sand verbena, sand lilies and dune primrose put on a glorious show.

The most spectacular bloom, by far, was the sand lily. Standing tall in the fading daylight, they barely budged in the strong wind. Their stout, trumpet-shaped flowers looked like they belonged in a fancy bouquet, not growing out of the dust.

Sand lily

While the dunes themselves were nothing to write home about, the wildflowers provided a pleasant surprise.

Rambling

The following day we decided to take one more hike before leaving Joshua Tree behind. Again, we arrived early at a quiet parking area and set off into the desert.

We had a route in mind but got off course immediately (we wouldn’t find this out until much later). It was no matter, though, because we were immersed in the continued beauty and intrigue of what we discovered. At the parking area we saw one little caterpillar crawling along the ground. As we hiked, we saw one more. Then another. Then swarms of them, covering particular flowering shrubs; the shrubs convulsed under the weight of the bugs. Around us, boulders and wildflowers dotted the landscape. More unfamiliar trees, shrubs and flowers appeared: smoke tree, desert lavender, wishbone bush.

Hungry, hungry caterpillar

As we hiked in, several hikers passed us on their way out. Early risers! The last couple we passed asked if we’d been on that route before. They ended up turning around because the route disappeared. Ha! They’re not as savvy as us, I thought, as we bid them good day.

We approached a rockpile that must have been where that couple turned back and we walked straight over it. On the other side, when we stopped to assess our location, we noticed that we could see a road to our left. That shouldn’t be! I took out my phone and looked at the map. Ah, not only were we off-route, so were all the people who had come before us. We re-oriented ourselves to get back on track and aimed for a notch on the horizon that would put us in the correct canyon.

Our mistake led us to a wonderful, sandy walk among cactus, sage and desert dandelion. Jackrabbits occasionally exploded out from behind a bush and ran off into the distance. The sky overhead was blue and clear. Getting temporarily re-routed in the desert is generally very forgiving, as long as you know how to get back on track and are carrying enough water.

Off trail adventures

Our return hike got us back on the planned route, where we found blooming beavertail cactus, caterpillar-annihilated shrubbery and petroglyphs. It was a fantastic way to end our visit to this incredible national treasure.

On the drive back through the park, we noticed something remarkable: people were pulled over everywhere, and crowds were randomly tramping across the flower beds within fifty feet of the road. I couldn’t believe it.

If you want to get away from the madness, all it takes is the ability and desire to hike a half mile away from any road, ranger station or popular trail. The solitude is yours if you’re willing to put in a tiny bit of effort. Much of the park’s true beauty is found just off the beaten path. Remember though, especially for off-trail travel: Leave No Trace.

Hiking the north side of Joshua Tree

April 1, 2019.

Photos from Joshua Tree north

After four days of attending a movement festival on the outskirts of LA and being around a ton of people, LeeAnn and I were ready for spending quiet time in the desert.

We arrived early Monday morning at the Visitor’s Center in the little town of Joshua Tree, armed with questions for the staff. I already had a good idea of what I wanted to do in our precious few days in the park, but having local knowledge never hurts.

The ranger immediately squashed our dreams of blissful hiking in solitude. “There’s no camping available in the park, don’t even try. It’s busy everywhere. You’ll never get away from the crowds. Good day.”

I stormed out in a huff. Was it worth being there? The parking lot was already swamped at 8:30 am and our camping options seemed limited to a big gravel parking lot full of RVs outside the park. Should we just move on? But, I’d done all that research!

We had a brief chat outside and weighed our options. There were a few off-trail routes nearby that I wanted to try, so we angled for those first.

I pulled into an empty parking area and got out of the car. My jaw dropped. We were surrounded by a vast array of wildflowers that displayed every color of the rainbow. They sprouted from the sand, filling the gaps between the rocks and spreading across the broad washes. It was incredible! Surely we were in paradise.

Umm, where are all the flowers?

As we packed up for the hike, a man wandered over and asked, “so where have you seen good wildflowers in the park?” I looked at him aghast. Did he not know he was in the middle of wildflower central in that very spot?

We left him behind and set out on our cross-country route. It would be short but steep, just the way I liked it.

As we scrambled over the sticky, granite boulders we left all semblance of civilization behind. We spotted occasional boot prints in the sand but we were otherwise on our own. I stopped frequently to admire the flowers: desert chicory, Mojave yucca, desert dandelion, creosote bush, desert Canterbury bells, wild heliotrope and many others.

Scramblin’

And the barrel cactus. I don’t know why, but those stout cacti just bring a smile to my face. They stood tall among the rocks and I wandered from one to the next, taking pictures and soaking in every little detail. We chased cacti all the way up to a saddle and I checked my GPS track. Nope, that was not our route.

Barrel cactus. Doesn’t it just make you happy?

We took a snack break and contemplated our descent to get back on track. It wasn’t too challenging and soon found ourselves in a sandy wash that led to the second half of the loop. There, yucca plants dominated. Each spiky stalk was topped with a huge cluster of cream-colored flowers. I’d never seen so much yucca in bloom at once.

During the entire four-hour hike we saw exactly zero people. Suck it, ranger.

Desert dandelion.

We moved the car to a second off-trail hike. This one was a bit more popular, as we started seeing people right away. But the hike led us up a canyon toward a steep slot. To our surprise, a trickle of water streamed down the canyon floor and we had to hop from one side of the stream to the other a few times as we approached our destination. We did some creative scrambling to avoid the wet, slippery rock and along the way LeeAnn found a rattlesnake! I just caught up to her as is slithered beneath a rock. Exciting.

The slot was not in a great viewing position so we clambered up the rock slab to the side of it to get a closer look. Above the slot, the terrain opened up and I could see endless possibilities for exploring.

But, it was hot and we were tired from our morning adventure. We decided to follow the water towards the slot and sit in the shade for a bit before returning.

“Croak, croak.” A huge sound reverberated off the rock walls. A frog? Up here? We scanned the edges of the rushing water to find our loud amphibian friend. Where was that sound coming from? I was at a loss. We took off our shoes to soak our feet in the water. And then, LeeAnn spotted it.

Can you see me?

A tiny frog blended in perfectly with the smooth, speckled granite near our feet. We inched closer to watch him. He entertained us for the next twenty minutes. I was impressed with his ability to jump and stick to nearly vertical rock.

I had not expected to encounter water, let alone frogs, in the hot and arid Joshua Tree desert. Day one was already full of surprises.

As we drove through the park to our planned campsite, we made one quick stop at the side of the road. We had to: we discovered our first octotillo. This unusual plant is made of tall, thick stems that reach 10-20 feet into the sky. Each stem is covered in small leaves and intimidating spines. Some of the stems were topped with a drooping cluster of bright red flowers. It was a remarkable sight, and well worth the stop to examine these wild-looking plants.

Octotillo up close.

The takeaway lesson here is: if you want to find solitude, read a book. Most park visitors will go online to search for hikes and use the park’s official map. If your route isn’t on the map, you’ll likely find a little peace and quiet.

Hiking Santa Cruz Island

March 26-27, 2019.

Photos from Channel Islands National Park.

We arrived early at the dock, excited for our foray to Santa Cruz Island. We decided to camp for a night on the island in order to have more time to explore and not feel rushed by a ferry schedule.

The boat ride to the island was the first part of our adventure. Along the way, we stopped to watch wildlife: sea lions, whales and dolphins. The dolphins seemed to enjoy swimming and playing in the wake of the boat. Everyone staggered to the railings to watch the scene unfold in the water. It was more exciting than I thought it would be. There were so many dolphins, so close to the boat!

Upon our arrival, we lamented the amount of time it took for them to unload our gear. We stood around, watching time tick away, as every last item was unpacked from the boat. It was nearly lunch time.

We decided to hike into camp and set up our tent, then eat lunch, before starting our hike for the day. The initial plan was to do the long hike on day 1 and a shorter hike on day 2, but after some thought we flipped our plan around.

Smuggler’s Cove

With full bellies, we began the 8-mile out and back hike to Smuggler’s Cove. The route follows a dirt road all the way across the island and ends at a small beach on the other side. As we walked, I admired the delightful flowers and grassy meadows that lined our path. We hiked at a comfortable pace in the heat of the day. I felt as if I was walking through a postcard because all the colors were so bright and clear. The road wasn’t nearly as charming as a trail would be, but the scenery was mesmerizing enough to take my mind off the road.

Along the way we passed many hikers on their way back to the ferry. We were passed by one couple rushing along, hoping to make it to the beach before they had to catch their boat. A few minutes later, they passed us again headed the other way. “We ran out of time,” the lady said. I was immediately glad that we’d decided to spend the night on the island. We casually finished the walk to the beach, where we spotted our first island fox.

A descendant of the mainland gray fox, the island fox is a species unique to the Channel Islands. In fact, six of the eight islands have resident fox populations, which are all distinct from each other. We first spotted a fox sniffing around a picnic table, looking for scraps. It was lethargic, moving slowly and without a care in the world that we were nearby. I admit I was a bit disappointed on seeing this animal. It had clearly become acclimated to humans and didn’t behave in a fox-like manner.

LeeAnn and I found a spot on the sandy beach to lay out our towels and sit down for a snack. Before getting too settled I suggested taking a dip in the ocean. We had to, it was right there! We stripped down to our underwear and ran into the ice cold water. It took my breath away. I fought the waves for a few minutes and reveled in the fact that just a few days ago I was complaining about the cold and wet spring we were having in Bend and now I was making the choice to freeze my butt off in the California sun.

Back on the beach we dried off and watched another fox rooting for bugs among the rocks behind us. After a relaxing rest we packed up and sauntered back along the dirt road to our camp.

As the sun began to set, the wind picked up and we retreated to the shelter of our tent for a long sleep.

Montanon Peak

The following morning we got up early to eat breakfast, pack up and stashed our gear near the dock. We planned on a ten-mile day to the highest point within the National Park boundary on Santa Cruz island.

Our hike began under partly cloudy skies. Tall plants closely lined the singletrack trail we followed through Scorpion Canyon, the thick dew soaking our pants and shoes. But the pretty wildflowers and colorful rock distracted us from the slight discomfort. Besides, I was really excited to climb a mountain today, my first since I injured my hip nearly 2 months prior.

Our route took us up the canyon, past some old oil extraction machinery and up a rutted, old road. We ascended to a saddle where the official trail dropped down the other side, heading towards Prisoners Harbor and the Nature Conservancy land. At that location we turned straight up the ridge on a well-defined use trail to the summit. Along the way we were treated to a lush alpine rock garden. Succulents, unusual wildflowers and native shrubs spread out as far as the eye could see. And that wasn’t too far; the clouds had steadily rolled in as we made our way towards the summit.

We arrived at the radio tower and looked at the ridge ahead. “Is that bump higher?” I asked. I couldn’t tell for certain, but I hadn’t come all that way to stop a few feet short of the summit, so we kept on walking. At the next bump, we sat down for a snack and some summit victory photos.

After a long rest we started hiking back. Out of nowhere, it started pouring rain. We dashed beneath the solar panel array at the radio tower and put on our raincoats. But it was all for naught; the rain cleared just a few minutes later and the humid air felt stifling. We wrestled with layers for the rest of the day as rain intermittently spattered down from the sky.

We saw no one on our way up the mountain, but suddenly we passed several groups headed in the opposite direction. The day hikers had arrived.

My hip was sore those last few miles. I was a little thrilled when we were finally done. We had some time before the boat arrived so we hunkered down near our pile of overnight gear and dozed in and out of sleep.

The ferry ride back was just as thrilling as the ride in. Again, a huge pod of dolphins surrounded the boat. We stopped for quite a while to watch whale spouts far off in the distance; I didn’t move from my seat. Whale watching is not my favorite thing to do. But the dolphins— those were exciting.

All in all, I had a lovely visit to Santa Cruz island. I was amazed by the diversity of plant life across the island. From coastline to canyon to meadow to alpine zone, there was so much to see in such a small place! I’m now very curious what the other side of the island looks like…