We dropped down into Southern California via Route 66, lined with the iconic yellow wildflowers that followed us throughout our trip. As we skirted the Mojave the landscape shifted again, as valleys flattened and horizons widened until we hit the fringes of Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree is hot, as in hip, in case you haven't noticed. The buzz is big, and we had definitely been looking forward to visiting ourselves. Apparently, so had half of Los Angeles from appearances. Oh, Joshua Tree, you are beautiful, but so busy. Even mid-week our dream of securing a campsite in the park (ideally in one of the smaller campgrounds) was just a dream, everything was completely full. RV's crammed into campgrounds so tightly there was hardly room to maneuver and hiking was definitely a group activity.
Bummed to not spend the night in the park, we examined the nearby BLM options, to feel a little less than inspired given their flat dustiness that boasted none of the iconic plants of the region. So we made lemonade out of lemons, took a night off of the roof and camped at the incredible Lazy Sky instead. Our accommodations for the night were a brilliantly appointed tipi filled with beautiful textiles and quirky mid-century touches. The tipi, one of two on the property, is joined by a safari tent, yurt and vintage trailer all circled around a central shed that houses the communal kitchen and bathroom. Everything here is perfect - we were ready to extend our stay indefinitely.
Back to Joshua Tree - if you go, there are a few things not to miss, the cholla cactus garden is an expansive gathering of the furry and photogenic cacti stretching out across the valley. For a quick and easy hike, Hidden Valley provides the opportunity to explore the park's iconic boulders and do some very accessible scrambling. To sum up Joshua Tree, if you are looking to experience your National Park with a side of solitude, this is not for you, we recommend Big Bend for that. However, if you are interested in a trip that combines the beautiful wilderness found in Joshua Tree with hip glamping and/or the destination cities of Palm Springs or LA, this is a great option.
By late afternoon we turned North towards Death Valley, first stopping in Pioneertown to split a rack of ribs at Pappy and Harriet's (not to be missed) and then our vehicle departed earth's orbit as we launched to the moon for an otherworldly night of camping.
Not really, but kind of.
Instead we followed some online advice, plugged a set of GPS coordinates into our map and followed an increasingly suspect dirt road for miles along abandoned train tracks, through salt flats until celestial pinnacles rose in the shadowy distance. We set up camp in high winds tucked along the edges of this geological oddity and awoke to a surreal landscape at dawn. This is Trona Pinnacles.
Given more time (and a little less wind) we would have loved to hang around the pinnacles and do some exploring & hiking, but time is never on our side and we had a date with Death Valley.
From Trona to the Panamint Springs entrance to the park, you drive through a microcosm of the Death Valley landscape, salt flats and all, then climb up to a mountain pass before descending rapidly into the valley itself to the Stovepipe Wells visitor's center. A pro-tip for future travelers, avoid gassing up in Panamint if you can, the nearly $5 a gallon price tag was significantly higher than the rates inside the park.
Winds remained high throughout our visit to Death Valley nearly knocking us over as we explored the salt flats at Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the United States at 282' below sea level). We passed on the dune hike - no need for additional sand-blasting, and instead took the scenic Artist's Drive Loop for beautifully colored badlands and delightfully twisty roads.
Our hike for the day was one of the most popular in the park, Golden Canyon an easy 4 mile out and back that gave us respite from the winds as we navigated deep multicolored sand stone walls leading to monumental red cliffs that provide vantage points on the valley below.
The continued winds presented us with some challenges as we considered our backcountry primitive camping options for the evening. Unlike Big Bend where you reserved a backcountry site at the Ranger Station, or Joshua Tree where you were restricted to established campgrounds (all very full) Death Valley is a free for all. Aside for certain restricted areas, you can camp almost anywhere in the park off of dirt roads as long as you are at least a half a mile away from the paved road. Keying off of the protection we found on our hike and some solid advice from a ranger, we made our way into the canyons East of Zabriskie Point and found a sheltered spot tucked into the side of the mesa.
High winds and blowing sand make for incredible sunsets. We hiked to the top of our mesa to take in all of the intense color and swirling clouds.
The following morning, after a few final shots of the incredible technicolor formations at Zabriskie - we pushed out of the park via the ghost town of Rhyolite (a worthy detour if you have the time).
Abandoned train depots and bank buildings mark the boom and bust of a mining town that once supported a population of 5,000 in the early 19th century. A great peek into the old west.
Onward now - to Nevada, state number five of our journey.