Sawtooth Canyon & Yosemite

Sawtooth Canyon BLM
Nights: 3
Hikes: 1

After our truncated stay in Death Valley we needed to find somewhere to hang out before heading toward Sacramento to get new tires on the Airstream. Between us and that other valley lay the Sierra Nevada mountains and everywhere we looked still had a chance of snow, so we opted to head south before heading north. With several BLMs to choose from near Barstow CA, we picked Sawtooth Canyon because someone compared it to the rocks of Joshua Tree. Plus it was only one mile down a dirt road and the other BLM was four.

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We drove in to find a beautiful campground surrounded by the dark, jagged rocky hills that give this campground it’s name. We saw several spots where climbers were honing their skills, and even though this is BLM, there were designated sites with tables and fire pits, many already occupied. We nestled the Airstream against the rocks.

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There was even a dinosaur playground!

With Chuck nursing a sore knee (an old injury aggravated by twisting his ankle), I climbed to the top of the rocky hill behind our trailer on my own.

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The next day I made my way up one of the higher hills to see the views.

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View back toward the campground. Our trailer is by the white patch in the middle.
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Not sure why someone piled these rocks like this.

I was disappointed to find that on the other side was a valley much like the one we had come through, but excited by all the wildflowers and budding cacti I found hiding among the rocks.

Our last night a Subaru and small trailer splashed with graphics pulled up next to us. They were Subaru/Leave No Trace traveling trainers (lnt.org) and spend nearly 250 days a year on the road camping. They were in town to lead training at the local BLM office and for local students. We got to chat a little and swap favorite camping spots. Cool that these campers are spreading the word about treading lightly on our beautiful lands.

Park of the Sierra Escapees Co-op
Nights: 3
Highlight: Yosemite, our tenth national park!

Along highway 99 in southern CA there are not many good spots to camp. We didn’t want to venture too far toward the mountains because the weather was predicted to get cold. We finally settled on another Escapees park in the foothills, figuring we could crank up the heat if necessary. As a bonus it was just an hour outside Yosemite.

Leaving Sawtooth we headed west and near the town of Mojave we saw lots of commercial airplanes. Surely there couldn’t be a busy airport here in the middle of nowhere. Googling it later, we found out it was an airplane graveyard where they store old planes for parts because of the dry desert air. We also started to see wind turbines. As we climbed through the pass there were hundreds of them in various designs, big and small. Then we hit the other side of the pass we started to see rolling green hills scattered with oak trees and lichen covered boulders. Definitely a change of scenery from where we’d been. These were the rolling hills I remember from my youth in California.

Going over the pass on highway 58 was not bad (yay, no snow!), but heading up highway 99 we found the going tough. The road is crumbling, the onramps are short so we were nearly squashed between semis, and the towns are sketchy. By the time we arrived we were worn out.

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Love that redbud tree in bloom behind us!

This park was very different from the other Escapees parks we’ve visited. The sites are spread among hills with mature trees giving it a bit more of a campground feel. We could see signs of spring everywhere with daffodils, iris, and wildflowers in bloom. Our spot was at the top of a hill with views of the green valley to one side and the distant casino to the other. We pulled in just as it started to rain, then hail, then the sun came out. Yep, it’s spring.

The next day was slated to be sunny so even though we would have liked a day to rest we decided to take advantage of the sunshine and visit Yosemite on Thursday and do laundry on rainy Friday.

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Driving on highway 41 we curved back and forth climbing up and down hills. I tried not to look at the drop off as we saw signs for 4000, then 5000 then 6000 feet. Funny, less than a week ago we had been sweltering in Death Valley and now we were staring at snow on the side of the road. I was glad we hadn’t left too early or there would have been ice on the road. Chuck was glad we weren’t towing the trailer. In spite of all this, it was a great way to approach Yosemite. We came through the famous tunnel to a spectacular view of the valley that took our breath away.

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It looked almost unreal, the sun bringing everything into sharp focus: El Capitan, Half Dome and several waterfalls gushing with spring rain. It was amazing!

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El Capitan

We took a short walk to the viewpoint for Bridal Veil falls. You could feel the spray coming off like rain even from a distance and we decided not to get any wetter.

Even on this weekday in early spring the park was busy and we were glad we did not wait until summertime to visit. Parking lots were already full so I can’t imagine trying to find parking then. Visiting Yosemite Village we walked through the visitor center, the Ansel Adams gallery, the old post office, and the museum. Everywhere you turned there were spectacular views of the cliffs and waterfalls.

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Upper Yosemite Falls
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Love all that mist!
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Half Dome
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Yosemite Falls

Taking a different route out of the park we found highway 140 covered by a slide. It looked like it had been there a while as they had installed some pretty serious one lane bridges to detour around it. With the length restrictions for the detour our trailer would have been too long so I guess we lucked out that I hadn’t been able to find a campground in the park.

I’d love to make a return trip to Yosemite when we can take a hike and view more of the wonderful sights, perhaps during fall when the leaves on the trees would color the hills although a spring visit will be hard to beat with the gushing waterfalls and magenta red bud trees popping against the green hills.

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I got to put our 10th sticker on the map!

Joshua Tree Rocks!

Joshua Tree South BLM
Nights: 7
Hikes: 1

While the Joshua trees are cool, it the rocks that make this park special. In some places they look like they’ve pushed straight up through the ground to rise above the surrounding desert.  In other places it appears some giant has been stacking them like blocks, but in actuality it’s erosion that’s done the work over thousands of years.

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We opted to stay at the Joshua Tree South BLM*. With the other areas of the park at higher elevations, we knew they would be cooler at night in early March. Plus this spot is convenient since it’s immediately outside the southern entrance and not far off the freeway. After first heading 8 miles into the park to dump tanks and fill our fresh water at the Cottonwood Spring campground, we were set to enjoy another free boondocking spot.

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We spent our first full day driving through Joshua Tree to get oriented. This is another huge park like Big Bend and Glacier, with vastly different areas. In the south you have the Colorado Desert, like we found in Anza-Borrego, but as you go north you climb into the Mojave Desert where you find the Joshua trees and giant boulders that are favored by climbers. As we drove from the south looking out at the red mountains similar to those of Anza and seeing the same ocotillo, cholla and creosote bushes I was thinking maybe I’ve had enough of the desert.

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Cholla forest – some taller than me!

Then as we moved into the Mojave section of the park near White Tank huge boulders were suddenly rising out of the ground and joshua trees began to appear. Wait, this is a whole different desert!

We stopped for lunch among the boulders at Live Oak picnic area and it was tempting to climb them, but as Chuck’s ankle was still healing we opted to stay on the ground.

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The park was busy on this Friday and the campgrounds were full. We drove through Jumbo Rocks, right in the heart of the park, to see if we wanted to move up there after the weekend but found the spots crammed together amongst the boulders. Even though there were some sites for larger trailers and motorhomes, they were basically parking spots along the side of the road, making for a very narrow path through the campground. We decided this tight, chaotic campground was not a place we wanted to risk bringing the Airstream. Rocks (and passing vehicles) leave big dents!

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Stopping at Hall of Horrors, we saw someone attempting to walk a tightrope strung high between two rocky hills. It was obviously pretty tricky as he kept falling off and having to pull himself back up. Thank goodness he had a safety harness! Sorry, I didn’t get a photo.

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Joshua Tree bloom

Deciding to make a loop out of the drive we exited the park in the quirky town of Joshua Tree, where we stopped at the small visitor center. Then we headed east along highway 62 to Twentynine Palms, stopping for a snack, before heading back back into the park. We were both getting tired so skipped the visitor center there. Kinda strange that this park has two visitor centers that are not actually in the park, but it looked like most folks stayed in this northern region to visit the park. The drive ended up being a very long loop, but we felt like we got a good view of the park.

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Saturday turned into chore day. We headed into Indio to do laundry and grocery shop. Our first stop though was the #4 restaurant in the US on Yelp, TKB Bakery & Deli. Funny that here in the middle of nowhere is a sandwich shop with so many reviews. I was excited they had gluten free bread so I could enjoy a turkey club and picked up a couple of gluten free muffins and cookies to enjoy later. With the very personable owner keeping things lively I could see why this place is so popular.

After seeing the park on our drive, I knew I wanted to spend time among the giant boulders. So we headed for the Split Rock Trail, a 2.5 mile loop that shouldn’t be too hard on Chuck’s healing ankle. It was a great hike among the rocks, each turn giving a different scene of amazing boulders.  We even saw a pair of climbers on one of the rock faces.

Afterwards we drove up to Keys View touted as a great vista, only to be disappointed that it was mostly a view back into the valley where Indio and Palm Springs are located and not a view into the park. Our last stop was the short trail to Arch Rock, a hidden gem in the White Tank Campground.

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Since it was a long drive to the heart of the park from where we camped and Chuck’s ankle still needed rest, we decided not to do any more hiking, which is fine because it leaves us something to look forward to if we ever return. I think next time I’ll try to get a reservation at one of the northern campgrounds that has trails and rock views right in the campground.

We visited the General Patton museum just a few miles up the freeway at Chiriaco Summit and found out this whole area (a  350 x 250 mile stretch of CA, NV and AZ) was used as a military training ground in the early 1940s. Patton figured it was perfect to prepare troops for the desert conditions in North Africa. Over 1,000,000 service men and women trained here. I couldn’t believe they limited them to one canteen of water per day. How they did not all die of heat stroke is a mystery.

It was the 30th anniversary of the U2 album that made Joshua Tree famous so of course we had to listen to it while we were here. Turns out the famous cover photo was not taken in the park but near Mojave Desert Preserve. That’s ok. It turns out I’m not sick of this desert so that’s our next destination.

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Maybe we’ll see even more wildflowers there. They were just starting to pop out here.

As we pulled out Thursday morning, I spotted a desert tortoise on the side of the road. A rare sighting and a fine ending to our time here!

*BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management. They manage public land for various uses including grazing, camping, and off-roading. While areas can vary a lot you’ll usually find no amenities like tables, water or restrooms so it’s great that we travel with our own. 🙂 If you are set up to be off-grid and can navigate some dirt roads they are often great places to camp.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Nights: 9
Hikes: 4
Bikes: 1
Bug Bites: 0 (got to love bug-free winter time)
Injuries: 1 😦

We were starting to feel the itch and knew it was time to leave Yuma but still wanted nice weather. I had seen pictures of metal sculptures on Instagram that piqued my interest about Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and there seemed to be plenty of boondocking and good weather so off we went not knowing much else about the area.

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We found a spot at the edge of the huge gravel boondocking area.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is rare in that even though they have a developed campground they allow dispersed camping anywhere in the park with a few rules. We chose the Rockhouse Road area, a former BLM site that is now part of the park. There were lots of others there too, but plenty of space for everyone. With trash, recycling, and water available at the visitor’s center on the outskirts of town we were set.

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Thanks to recent rains there was more green than we expected for a desert.

After a month of full hook-ups we wondered if it would be hard to switch back to the boondocking lifestyle. We really don’t live much differently one way or the other, but when dry camping monitoring resources (power, water, wastewater) is key.  We monitor the weather to gauge our solar power input and enact water saving measures to make our fresh water last longer and keep our grey water tank from filling up too fast. Yes, that means back to navy showers and putting a pitcher under the faucet while waiting for the water to get hot and, where possible, dumping dish water in the bushes. It was good to find that we had no trouble sliding into water saving mode and with all the sunshine we were making way more power that we were using. Lasting 9 days was pretty easy, especially since we got to enjoy a beautiful area free of charge.

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The evening view from out our door.

We found plenty to do right at our site when we weren’t enjoying the views. A fellow camper told us about the rock art hidden in the hills above the campground. (If you look west to the hills, the rock art is behind the one with the big gash running down it.) Heading that way we saw trails going up either side so we made a loop out of it. From the top we enjoyed a nice view of the campground and saw even more trails to follow further but headed back down.

We rode our bikes down the road, struggling through the sandy spots to Clark Dry Lake. It was covered in cracked mud from the recent rains and although it looked like there was water in the distance, Chuck rode out to confirm it was just a mirage. Heading back was a bit harder as we had to come uphill through the soft spots and fight the wind, but it made for a good workout. During our stay we saw many jeep excursions heading out the road, but never explored further into the canyon ourselves. Something to save for next time.

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Clark Dry Lake
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Found art in the campground

We did visit all 100+ metal sculptures in the area (get a map at the park visitor’s center or Chamber of Commerce). They were the idea of Dennis Avery, who funded the project and placed the giant rusty artwork on his land, Galleta Meadows, north and south of town. The artist, Ricardo Breceda, sculpted the creatures, many of them prehistoric beings who would have roamed this area, over several years beginning in 2008. His artistry is amazing.

We even had a little fun posing with some of the sculptures.

The state park has a nice visitor’s center on the edge of town with displays about the history, geology, and wildlife in the area. We walked the nature trail that identifies some of the plants and a paved trail to the campground that has a scaled representation of the solar system with the visitor’s center as the sun.

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Another day we came back to do the Palm Canyon hike, one of the most popular of the parks many trails. You can pay $10 to park at the trailhead in the campground or park for free at the visitor’s center and walk a little over a mile to start the hike. Thus our 3.5 mile hike turned into 6 miles. We weren’t too impressed with the palm canyon (the one at KOFA was hard to beat) but there were some good views, especially on the way down via the alternate route.

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Our enjoyment was interrupted though when Chuck badly twisted his ankle climbing over a large boulder. He had to grit his teeth and limp the last 2 miles and spent the next 2 days implementing R.I.C.E. That ended our hiking in the area although I took a couple of hikes exploring the hills in the campground on my own.

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View from the top of the hill I hiked up.
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View looking down from the hills toward the campground.

Wildflowers were just starting to bloom here and there. We saw desert lily, lupine, jojoba, and others. In another week or two they said the bloom, and the crowds, would be phenomenal. In fact after we left someone sent us a post about the “superbloom” happening this year.

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The state park completely surrounds the charming little town of Borrego Springs. Visiting the Friday morning farmer’s market we scored fresh strawberries, baby kale, oranges, lettuce and pea pods, even though some of the vendors were already packing up at noon (the market goes until 1pm). We also heard that the grapefruit at Seely’s Ranch are great, but didn’t head out that way. I wandered for nearly an hour in a great shop, Borrego Outfitters. In addition to a good selection of outdoor and casual clothing and shoes, they had gifts, wine, kitchen items, kids crafts, hats, hiking gear and so much more. On the advice of another camper we found a small grocery store, Desert Panty, that was much more reasonable than the bigger Central Market. Sadly, we never got a chance to check out the Red Ocotillo restaurant that was recommended by two different people.

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With so much more to explore in California’s biggest state park and some favorites to return to, I’m sure we’ll be back again!