Joshua Tree National Park

“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.” –Jeannette Walls

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When our time in Slab City had come to an end, we headed an hour north to Joshua Tree National Park. As we picked the spot we would camp in for the week, I looked over at I-10 in the distance and thought about all the times we have passed this area during the years we lived in Arizona. I never gave much thought to the beauty that was hidden along this stretch of highway. It’s funny how much you start to notice when you’re no longer so distracted.

The tree itself, is an interesting sight. I saw Dr. Seuss in the makeshift structure of Salvation Mountain and the theme continued here in Joshua Tree. The harsh desert creates interesting characters. In the several days we stayed here, we found striking contrasts in our experiences. The days were hot and the nights were cold, we had peaceful days with no one around and we had busy nights with neighbors playing EDM music till 3 AM. We met wonderful individuals then met drunk ones who like to heckle rangers. But in the end, we found a way to balance our encounters, learn to be flexible and walk away with a memorable experience.

Camping details:

Camping ranged from $15-$20/night inside the park. Due to Joshua Tree being located in California and near major cities, the best thing to do is plan ahead and reserve a campsite prior to leaving.We were also unaware until we arrived that it was a holiday weekend. Dates and time often becomes irrelevant when living on the road! So the park was full and every campground was packed during our stay.

Lucky for us, we planned on BLM camping. Free is always better! The area is located just outside the south entrance along I-10. When we arrived, there were several RVs parked in the area so it’s very hard to miss. The downside to BLM camping is that it is completely primitive meaning no toilets! But, if you can dig yourself a deep hole or hold it in until you get inside the park, it’s totally worth all the money you can save. The upside is it’s free and you can gather vegetation for campfires at night.

Here’s a tip: Find dead and fallen ocotillo branches for fire. Take a walk around your campsite and don’t be afraid to venture out. Ocotillo branches are lightweight and long so you can drag a bunch back to your site. Check out the boys gathering wood below.

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What to do:

Day 1: When arriving at any national park, make sure the Visitor’s Center is your first stop. I grabbed a newsletter and brochure that listed all the hiking and off-road trails. On our first day we decided to hike around the Cottonwood Spring area and up to Mastodon Peak.

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We had an awesome time roaming around this area. Riley walked around with his Jr. Ranger booklet filling out the questions and got a kick out of the old mines around the loop. We climbed to the top of Mastodon Peak which gave us an amazing view of the park. The trail up the peak is not maintained, but it’s really short and not difficult.The narrow climb combined with the rocks can be intimidating and caused several people to turn around, but I recommend giving it a try if you have proper footwear.

Day 2: On our second day, we needed to buy groceries so we drove through the park to Twentynine Palms. The south visitor center to the north visitor center is about 40 miles and since we were driving at slow speeds through the park, it takes quite a while to get from one end to another. We stocked up on food and supplies so we didn’t have to make that trip twice.

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Joshua Trees at dusk on our way back to camp

Day 3: We decided to go off roading on Pinkham-Canyon road and bushwacked through a random hill for some exercise. Be sure you have 4wd if you decide to do this! There were a couple areas where our truck worked hard in the sand. It was a bumpy and fun ride, and even for a holiday weekend, there was no one out there! Here is the info from the NPS website:

Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon Roads
This challenging 20-mile (32.4-km) road begins just south of Cottonwood Visitor Center, travels along Smoke Tree Wash, then cuts down Pinkham Canyon, exiting onto a service road that connects to I10. Or you can pass Pinkham Canyon and continue on to Thermal Canyon Road. Sections of these roads run through soft sand and rocky flood plains. Drivers should be prepared and should not attempt travel on these roads without a high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicle and emergency supplies. “

Day 4: We drove halfway through the park and explored some of the boulders! There was a ton of running, jumping and climbing. A simple day without any plans, and we had the best time.

Day 5: We hiked Ryan Mountain then headed over to some more boulders and jumped around. The trail on Ryan Mountain was fairly crowded, but overall it was a good hike with nice views.

 

Overall, a fun and relaxing 5 days for us at Joshua Tree. If you go, we recommend: camp for free so you can stay longer, talk to a ranger to attend the free events, do some hiking, and don’t be afraid to explore off road away from the crowds. Have fun!

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Jack enjoying the desert views.
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Gorgeous desert sunset from our free campsite!

 

 

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Crater Lake National Park

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Wizard Island

When our time in Ashland ended, we made our way east to Crater Lake National Park. Prior to our visit, I did some research on the lake and found amazing photos of the park during summer. The crystal clear lake, awesome trails and beautiful flowers was an enviable sight, but I had to keep in the mind that our visit would not match the online photos. It was January and cold, so we braced ourselves for a less than ideal setting.

Here are some cool facts about Crater Lake:

  • Crater Lake was formed 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama erupted and collapsed. Rain and snow filled the caldera and created the lake.
  • Crater Lake is 1,943 feet deep making it the deepest lake in the U.S. and the ninth deepest lake in the world.
  • Crater Lake is the snowiest inhabited place in the United States averaging about 44 feet of snow per year.
  • There are no streams in or out of the lake. The water is maintained by precipitation and evaporation which makes the water clear, blue and pristine.

We were slightly unprepared for camping in the park. The directions we found on freecampsites.net were unclear, so we stopped at Beckie’s Café right outside of the park and had dinner. Beckie’s, by the way, was a good find. The prices were cheap and they had veggie burgers! After Beckie’s, we saw a couple parking lots for sledding areas. There were other RV’s parked and one big rig although there were signs that said a permit was needed for parking. Since the place looked isolated, we figured it was okay to park for the night.

The next morning, we woke up to a few inches of snow covering the truck and trailer. We laughed at how snow is such a quiet intruder. We immediately headed to the park and the Visitor Center which is a good place to watch the orientation video and talk to a ranger about sights to see. Riley loved the orientation video and for a 5 year old, he came out of there with a pretty good understanding of how the lake was formed.

“The volcano goes BOOM and it all fell down to make a hole. The rain and the snow melted inside the hole and made the lake.” -Riley

After the Visitor’s Center, we headed out towards the gift shop located by the lake. We had a snack, purchased a sticker then walked around outside to take photos. For a few minutes, the clouds parted and we were able to get a clear view of the lake. We stood there in awe of how blue and pristine the water looked that we were no longer bothered by the cold air on our faces or the feeling of our boots sinking into the deep snow.

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Our time at Crater Lake felt like a gift. There was a part of me that was afraid of disappointment since the entire park was buried in powder, but we left feeling grateful for the experience. There was so much peace and silence as we looked over the lake; so much wonder and amazement as we walked through the deep snow. We felt like we had the whole place to ourselves and that can be a rare feeling at a National Park.

Until we meet again, Crater Lake. Next stop, Oregon Coast!

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Yosemite National Park

“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news” -John Muir

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It’s not hard to understand why John Muir was so inspired by Yosemite. The deep valleys and massive stone walls are mesmerizing. Everything from the trees, to the flowers, to the waterfalls, to the ability to view wildlife in their beautiful habitat could captivate anyone, even those who don’t deem themselves as “nature lovers”.

Our time at Yosemite was short. After Monterrey, we headed inland towards our cabin in the Sierras where we planned on spending Thanksgiving and the first 3 weeks of December. Visiting Yosemite in the winter seemed less ideal than visiting in the warmer months, but we were in the area and had to take the opportunity.

Let’s just say that our time in Yosemite did not go as planned. The initial site we planned on camping at felt too far from the park, so we decided to drive straight to Yosemite and camp in the park. When we arrived at the park, we found that camping was $16/night. It was cold and getting late so we figured we’d set up for the night and figure something else out in the morning. We took a loop around the campsite and had no idea that taking that loop would change our plans for the rest of the night.

We found a man standing alone next to his car. He was wearing a bright safety vest and had a look of defeat on his face. His name was Darrell and his old Buick was filled with papers and his belongings. Did he live in his car? Was he camping in his car? We greeted him with a “how are you?” and he replied that he wasn’t good and that he needed some gas. He asked us to drive him to the gas station 5 miles away. He explained that he had a leak in his fuel line. He was in the campsite helping a couple from Oregon who had broken down. He said that as he was helping them, all of his fuel leaked out and now he was stuck. We offered to help, so he quickly grabbed his gas can. I jumped out and let him sit in the front seat.

As we went through the gates of Yosemite, he smiled at the rangers and said “hey, it’s me again, just grabbing some gas”. They smiled back and acted as if they were familiar with him. That eased my mind about letting a complete stranger in our car. I mean it was only 5 miles, right?  He was a nice man and everything seemed normal until we started making small talk. We asked him how long he was staying at Yosemite. He said he was just passing through and was very vague about his destination. We asked where he was from and he answered, “here and there” then said he spent some time at a nearby town. His responses were strange. I figured maybe he was living in his car, but was too embarrassed to tell us.

The more he talked, the more I got uncomfortable. You see, we meet a lot of people on the road and often, people are talkative. The conversation usually goes the same direction… we share where we are from and details of our road trip, and the other person usually does the same. The conversation then leads into details about places to camp, places to visit, places to hike, stories about the road. Darrell was unable to have a genuine conversation which made me question his honesty.

Then it got worse. He told us he was working for the park as a campground host. Since we have always been intrigued by camp hosting, we asked about his position and what perks he receives. He quickly replied “uhh yeah, I get a free spot to camp, that’s it”. He then followed that up with “details” about Yosemite to make it appear that he was knowledgeable about the park. As he explained that all of the Visitor Centers were closed for the season, I got a knot in my stomach. The Visitor Center was open and this guy was definitely not a camp host!

In what felt like the longest 5 miles, ever, he then started to reassure us that he was a good person. He promised us that he had never been to prison and that his record is clean. I sat quietly in the back pretending to play with my phone thinking the topic he brought up was awkward and unnecessary. We finally arrived at the gas station and he got what he needed. The ride back was quiet and uncomfortable. Clayton stayed friendly, but I could tell he was giving up on the conversation. There is no point in trying to talk to somebody when everything they are saying is a lie. We continued to nod as he continued to make up facts about Yosemite. At that point, I felt like nodding guaranteed our safety.

After 5 long miles back to Yosemite, we arrived at our campsite to an even more unsettling scene. There were 2 ranger vehicles circling the lot. Our trailer was sitting alone on one end of the campsite while Darrel’s car was sitting alone on the other end. Were they looking for him? Did the rangers at the entrance notify somebody he was with us? We dropped him off and watched him walk towards the rangers with his hands up. We waited for a ranger’s approval to leave and quickly drove away when they waved. After that strange encounter, we decided we didn’t want to camp inside Yosemite alone.

Note to self: If someone needs gas, just grab their gas can and get it for them!

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Pondering with John Muir…. maybe we shouldn’t give rides to random strangers…

Here is what we did instead: Yosemite Lakes RV Resort at 31191 Hardin Flat Rd., Groveland, CA 95321 (same turn as the gas station). Located 5 miles from the west gate entrance to Yosemite National Park. We paid about $40 in December. Many amenities including a club house with showers, laundry, wifi, satellite TV, and a billiards room. https://www.thousandtrails.com/california/yosemite-lakes-rv-resort/

A couple photos from our short time in Yosemite! And yes, the Visitors Center was open and it was amazing. Don’t miss the short movies they have to offer!

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Death Valley National Park

 “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the word.”   -Gustave Flaubert

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By the time we arrived at Death Valley, we had explored brightly colored rock formations and canyons that were so tall, we were often in disbelief. Now we were in the desert where the scenery was completely different, and yet we were feeling the exact same way as we did in Utah: small and insignificant. Almost every day, I reflect on that. I find it funny that we place negative connotation on those 2 words. We learn from a young age that being small is a temporary stage. As we age, that small feeling we had as a child begins to fade. Our culture teaches us that our size equals importance and as along as we don’t feel small, we can conquer the world.  On an individual level, of course we are all significant. I like to think I am important and that the world somehow benefits from my presence. But I have come to understand that on a larger scale, I’m really not a big deal.

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I now see that our exaggerate beliefs about the importance of our existence is detrimental to ourselves and to the world. The way we destroy land for buildings, destruct habitats for goods, or kill animals is justified because it provides us with something we “need”. I am guilty of being a part of that, but I am now grateful that I can see my place in a different light. If there is anything I appreciate on this trip, it’s the ability to feel small and insignificant. I stood on a hill in Death Valley and I accepted that. I am tiny. This desert will continue to live years and years after I am gone and I find that humbling. I am grateful for the ability to feel humility over and over again while we travel. With this humility, I am learning how to distinguish a “need” versus a “want” and my respect for Mother Nature continues to evolve and grow.

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We found ourselves at Death Valley the day after we left Zion. The drive is about 4 1/2 hours total, but we split the drive in two by spending the night in Las Vegas. We unexpectedly found ourselves spending the night at a Love’s truck stop in the outskirts of Vegas when we couldn’t figure out where we were going to camp. It may sound a bit sketchy to those who aren’t familiar, but our night at Love’s was pretty legit. We appreciated the availability of restrooms, food and coffee right outside our trailer door. In a sense, the convenience was a bit luxurious compared to what we’ve been experiencing so far.

Love’s is known as a big truck stop and overnight stays are not uncommon. We did ask the workers inside if it was okay for us to park in the main parking lot even though we were certain there would be no issue. The next morning, we contemplated visiting the strip, but decided not to since it was early in the morning. We’ve visited Vegas many times before and figured we’d enjoy Death Valley much more.

The entrance fee for Death Valley is $20 for 7 days. Payment for the park can be accepted at self-service kiosks located at different areas in the park. There are also several campsites located throughout the park and some sites are free (check the NPS website for specific details). Since it was November, the park was fairly crowded. The sun felt warm, but the wind was cool. After experiencing freezing temps in Utah, it felt like summer time for us. We passed a couple campsites filled with RVs and the view looked very familiar. I pictured the scene from Independence Day when all of the RVs are driving through the desert to fight the aliens. The open desert was filled with several campers enjoying the sun.

We spent most our time in the Furnace Creek area. Zabriskie Point was definintely a favorite for us. It might have been because the badlands had awesome colors mixed in, but the view point was an incredible sight to take in. We stopped for lunch at the 49’er Café located on highway 190 in Furnace Creek. Our server was really friendly and also used to live in Colorado Springs! The prices were a bit high. We split a veggie burger and Riley ordered mac and cheese, making our bill over $20. Cooking our own food would have been more budget friendly, but the wind was blowing at 30mph making less than ideal cooking conditions.

Our recommendation when visiting Death Valley is to stop by the Visitor’s Center. There you can watch the orientation video to learn about the land and pick out which sights you want to see.

Interesting facts about Death Valley:

 The lowest point in North America is Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level.

The highest ever recorded temperature in the US was in Death Valley, 134 degrees on 7/10/1913

 

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Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) covers 415 square miles in northern Colorado. The park has 2 main entrances, one in Estes Park and another in Grand Lake. We took our first trip to this famous park in mid September and our timing was amazing. The weather was warm with a tinge of coolness and the Aspen trees were in full yellow bloom. The scenery was spectacular and if we ever make another visit, we’d prefer to return in the fall.

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Some basic info if you plan a visit:

We entered the park through the Estes Park entrance. From Colorado Springs, drive time is about 2-2 1/2 hours.

There are 5 campgrounds in the park and one campground is for tents only. Make reservations ahead of time!! It fills up fast.

It’s a National Park, therefore dogs are not allowed anywhere. Although I saw many people breaking that rule, we kept our dog in the car when we went outside to take pictures. We were unaware of this rule and decided not to hike within the park because we didn’t want to leave Jack unattended.

Entrance fees are the following:

  • Automobile – $20 and valid for seven consecutive days, including the date of purchase
  • Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles and mopeds – $10 per person, not to exceed $20 per vehicle. Valid for seven days including the date of purchase.

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We left Colorado Springs around 6:00 PM on a Friday night. Since we planned our trip last minute, per the reservation site, there was no availability in any of the campgrounds in the park. We decided to take our chances and try the Olive Ridge campground which is about 30 minutes outside of Estes Park and in the Roosevelt National Forest. Olive Ridge is located on Highway 7 along mile marker 14. Reservations are not required, so our tip is to get there early before the weekend campers get in. A camp host is available to pay the $16 fee and several vault toilets are spread out around the campground. It is bear country, so be aware of what you bring and how you are storing your food.

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When we arrived around 9 PM, we drove the loop around the campsite and found that there was no availability. This came as no surprise since it was a Friday night and campsites in Colorado tend to fill up quickly. As we exited, we did not find any signs that indicated parking along the road was prohibited. We didn’t have a tent to set up, so we parked in front of the information sign and quickly jumped inside of Bear. Falling asleep was an easy task and before we knew it, sunlight was beaming through the windows waking us up for the day.

We woke up around 7 AM and opened up the back of the trailer to make breakfast. While we grubbed on freshly made breakfast burritos and hot coffee, a camper on her way out stopped by to let us know that she was leaving for the day and that we should snag her campsite. I grabbed Riley and we quickly ran over to the vacant campsite while Clayton headed over to the camp host to pay for the spot. As soon as we arrived at the site, a car pulled up and asked if we were taking the spot. I apologized to the woman, but I was also thankful we got there a minute before her! Sprinting to the campsite sure paid off!

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Where we parked for the night.
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Breakfast burritos with “meat” and eggs in a spicy tortilla.

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Once we got settled, we met our campsite neighbor who told us there was a back entrance to RMNP that has access to several trails. We decided to head that way and found there was no entrance fee. We found a full parking lot of hikers and tourist, and a couple rangers that welcomed us into the park. When we talked to the rangers, they informed us that dogs are not allowed in the park and that we had to leave Jack in the car. That sure put a damper on our plans.

We decided we didn’t want to leave Jack, so we drove back out to the highway and found a trail just outside of RMNP. The Tahosa Valley Trail followed right along the National Park boundary and unfortunately, the National Park had the better trails and views. As beautiful as the scenery was, the trail followed right along Highway 7 which didn’t make for ideal hiking conditions. The last thing I want to hear while hiking is cars passing by.  As we hiked for about an hour, the trail eventually turned away from the road and began to incline towards the mountains. By this time, I had lost my motivation to continue on and the idea of a nap sounded better. We headed back to Olive Ridge where I immediately headed over to the hammock and fell asleep. By the time I woke up, it was time for dinner and smores by the fire. The day didn’t turn out as we had planned, but it was still a very good day.

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Since we were forced to change our hiking plans because of Jack, we decided the following day would be dedicated to sightseeing through RMNP. We woke up around 9, ran around the campsite and rode our bikes. We left the campground around 11 AM and drove to the Estes Park main entrance into RMNP.

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Some points of interest to look out for when heading towards Estes Park is Chapel on the Rock and The Stanley Hotel. Chapel on the Rock is located in Allenspark right along Highway 7. In 1993, Pope John Paul II visited and blessed the chapel. There were pictures of the Pope located inside and we found that pretty exciting. As we drove through Estes towards RMNP, we passed the famous Stanley Hotel which is known for it’s paranormal activity and inspiring Stephen King to write “The Shining”. Although everyone told us we had to visit The Stanley and do a ghost tour, there were just too many people! I asked Clayton to pull over so that I could take a quick photo of the hotel. A tour of The Stanley would have to wait for another day, preferably on a weekday!

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The Stanley

We spent the next few hours driving through the park on Trail Ridge Road (one of America’s most scenic drives) and stopping at the various pull outs to look at the view and take photos. The park was extremely packed because it was the weekend. We often found ourselves behind a long line of cars and having difficulty finding parking at the pullouts and at the gift shops. As we started to make our descent through the end of the park, we also started getting really hungry. Luckily, we found a large picnic area that was completely empty. Since we had the whole parking lot to ourselves, we parked and set up our chairs. It was so quiet, peaceful, and scenic. Just the perfect place to have lunch.  After about an hour, we packed up and continued our way out of the park. Lucky for us, just as we approached the exit, we saw elk grazing in the field. When we exited, we found ourselves in Grand Lake. We were in complete awe by the lake and the Aspens. How lucky were we to experience the “gold rush”. Fall in Colorado is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had!

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Grand Lake

Overall, a scenic and relaxing weekend. Although our plans for strenuous hikes and exploration through the forest didn’t go as planned, I actually enjoyed the change of pace. I was grateful for the beautiful views, and the opportunity for quality time and relaxation with the boys. My advice if you plan on visiting RMNP: make camping reservations, visit in the fall, and leave the dogs at home.

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