Random Travels – February and March 2015

Recently we’ve been focusing on reviews of national parks we’ve visited instead of the weekly blog. In between national parks though we’ve stumbled across some interesting places we thought we should share with friends and family. We also thought we’d fill you in on how the daily traveling is going. Salton Sea When we decided we didn’t want to stay at Slab City we backtracked to the Salton Sea. Although beautiful and a great bird watching habitat the Salton Sea has it’s oddities. First of all, it is smelly. It has a strong sulfur smell. What you think is sand along the shores is actually millions of barnacle shells! Everywhere! When you take a closer look there are also fish bones everywhere. Pretty much the only thing that can live in the highly salinated water (25% saltier than the Pacific) is Tilapia. But due to occasional algae blooms using up all the oxygen and suspected contaminants running off in to the sea from local agriculture they die off in the thousands and wash up ashore. It’s a really, really strange place, but beautiful! The birds seem to love it. There were many bird watchers in the area who came there to see the huge variety of birds who use the Salton Sea as an important stop on the Pacific Flyway.

Los Algodones, Mexico While staying in Quartzsite, AZ (see previous blog post) we made a day trip to Los Algodones, Mexico. Just across the border is a tiny town catering to Americans seeking cheap dental, optical and, as scary as it may sound, plastic surgery. There must be 50 dental/optical places within a 4 block area. You can buy all sorts of pharmaceuticals without a prescription. We stocked up on antibiotics for the occasional sinus infection. Alongside all of the pharmacies and clinics street vendors are selling bags, clothes, blankets, trinkets, artwork and the like. You have to barter for everything or you’ll get ripped off! After buying our antibiotics, a bag and blanket we went for some cheap nachos and margaritas, all the while being shown various jewelry and other things we could purchase right at the table. It very much reminds me of trying to walk down the street in Vegas or the game area of the state fair.

Lost Dutchman State Park We met up with cousins Sara and Andy near the Phoenix area prior to our arrival in Sedona. This was our first real up close encounter with the Saguero cactus! You know, the tall one with arms. We had a nice leisurely stroll up to the Superstition mountains complete with some wildflowers starting to bloom! Lost Dutchman is a great escape in the Phoenix area with lots of trails to explore.

Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles If you’ve never eaten chicken and waffles, which is a southern tradition, add it to your list! Recommended by Sara and Andy we went to Lo-Lo’s in Phoenix and it blew our minds. Yes, fried chicken alongside waffles, and of course syrup, spicy collard greens, kool-aid and banana pudding for dessert! Wow. We still talk about it.

Traveling We are refining our routine for making and breaking camp since we’re doing it a lot more often. We’ve updated our “pre-flight checklist” to include those little things we often forget about like latching the sliding doors and making sure we know where the cat is before leaving. We’re also getting better at finding free locations to camp and places to dump/refill our tanks. For stays of more than one night we want to find a more scenic place, and one where we can up our slides out. This includes a lot of BLM land and some casinos. For a quick stop and sleep situation we fall back on Walmarts and truck stops, maybe even a rest stop. The noise at these places doesn’t bother us and it’s nice (at truck stops and rest stops) to know it’s designed for big rigs and we can pull in after dark without much research. Our nicest free locations so far have been by Death Valley (unknown land owner), BLM land by Quartzsite, forest service land near the Grand Canyon and a gift shop by the Petrified Forest that provided free spots with picnic tables.

We’ve found that we look for and use Flying J locations quite often since they usually have an RV dump station that, with a membership, can be used for $7.50 and includes fill up of fresh water which can sometimes be difficult to find, especially in the desert. There is typically a fuel station right at the dump station so you can do it all at once. RV Issues In the past couple months we’ve had a couple small issues and one fairly big one. Our hot water heater quit working again and this time cleaning the connections didn’t work. We talked to a knowledgeable guy at a RV parts store near the Salton Sea who recommended replacing the fuseable link and ta-da! At one point our fridge pilot light wouldn’t stay lit. Megann had the idea to clean out the burner tube and intake with the vacuum and ta-da! The only other repair was replacing some rivets that hold the piston arms for our overhead storage cabinets. For some reason these things break a lot so we carry a rivet tool and assortment of rivets. The big issue we had to deal with was the front windows next to the driver and passenger seats. They are double pain and had gotten some condensation in between. We had hoped that death valley would dry it out, like it did with our skin, but no such luck. We couldn’t put off fixing it any longer as it interfered with our ability to use our side mirrors. We were able to find a specialty place in Phoenix that had the glass we needed on hand. They were able to fix us up in a matter of hours. Daily life In the last month or so we have learned a few things. One, our cat is a jerk, well we kind of knew this, but it has definitely been confirmed. He continues to destroy things, mainly upholstery and cords for our electronics. We recently bought seat covers and 50 feet of wire cover to protect all of our cords. We have found though that if we clip his nails often he claws much less and does less damage. Two, while dry camping and conserving water we’ve become able to take a really good shower, even shaving legs using only 1 gallon of water each! Three, cooking in a super small kitchen is tough and we don’t like doing dishes so we try to cook in large batches so we have left overs for 3 or 4 days. We also purchase groceries about a week at a time due to the smaller fridge and storage space. Four, National Park Passes are awesome! We bought one ($80) and can now enter any national park, monument and a few other places for free all year. It’s already paid off in a big way since some of the parks we’ve been visiting are over $20 per person. And a plug for those over 62, you can get a lifetime pass for $10! Money well spent if you ask me, especially since one pass admits 4 people (any number of people in your vehicle with the senior pass). Here’s an update on the dogs for those who are interested. Dexter is his usual high anxiety self. Although better most of the time while outside he still has meltdowns when seeing other large dogs. He barks less inside most of the time but is still scared of the stove/oven and sometimes gets really nervous while were going down the road. In between nervous spells he wrestles with the cat and sleeps next to Bailey. Bailey is the polar opposite, being pretty much chill most of the time but she still loves her outside walks and is easily distracted by a treat when she sees other dogs. Her life is all about food and sniffs! We do feel though that she is very near the end of her life although still happy today. The inoperable tumor is growing and is most likely cancerous so it’s only a matter of time. Fortunately for her she’s had a long life full of adventures but we are going to miss her so much when the time comes!

The Near Future We will continue to explore Northern Arizona and Utah’s National Parks and natural wonders on our way North to the West Yellowstone area at the beginning of May. We report for duty at Yellowstone Holiday on May 11th for orientation and will be working there, on the shore of Lake Hebgen for the summer! Our next blogs will cover our amazing time spent in the Camp Verde/Sedona area, Grand Canyon National Park, Canyon De Chelly and Monument Valley on the Navajo reservation, and the Moab Utah area including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.


Joshua Tree National Park

We recently spent a couple of days at Joshua Tree National Park in California. Here’s an overview of what we did and our general impressions of the park. Enjoy!

Where to Stay

Free Places

There are actually several free options for staying near Joshua Tree National Park. In the town of Yucca Valley there is a Walmart. We stayed there one night without any issues from management. We even did some fairly significant repairs to the RV in the parking lot using an angle grinder and they didn’t bat an eye. There is also some BLM land both North and South of the park. Our impression of the North side was that it looked like Walter White had set up a meth kitchen out there. It didn’t make us feel warm and fuzzy. Everyone there might have been sweet wonderful people, but we just had a bad feeling about it. The BLM lands on the South end seemed better, much more level and easier to get there. However, one ranger did say they had heard of people getting robbed in both locations.


In the end we ended up staying at one of the campgrounds. None of the campgrounds provide hookups, but there are two parks that have water and a dump station available. For those with large rigs rangers at the Visitor Centers can provide a list of campgrounds with space for 35′ and over. However, some campgrounds are limited to 25′ total length (including tow vehicle). In the NE area the ranger suggested two campgrounds for the vicinity to large rock formations; Jumbo Rocks and Belle. We chose Belle ($10/night) because of it’s smaller size and more private spaces (in some areas).  We lucked out and secured an awesome spot with room for our RV and a really private picnic area between two sets of large boulders. Spot #4 if anyone is interested! By Friday evening our campground was full – by Saturday mid-day all campgrounds in the park were full and they are almost all first come-first serve.

What to See

Most of what Joshua Tree is famous for can be found in the North Eastern part of the park and this is per a ranger at the Joshua Tree visitor center.

Visitor Centers

There are three main visitor centers, one at each major entrance into the park. The visitor centers are a great place to chat with a Ranger, they always have great suggestions about what to see.

Roadside Signposts

There are numerous exhibits along the road side throughout the main roads in the park. You can learn much about the plants, animals, desert ecosystems and geology just be stopping at them. You will see if you drive throughout the park that some of them are repeated, probably because they are targeting visitors from different entrances who will exit the same way.

Geology Tour Road

Marked as a high clearance vehicle only road this one-way 18 mile drive takes you through 16 stops. At each stop you take out your guide and read highlights about that point of interest. This road is marked as high clearance but, a Honda Crosstour went through ahead of us and didn’t have any problems. However, that might be a different story if it had been raining.

Cholla Cactus Garden

This “garden” is an easily accessible area of the park that seems to be a fantastic environment for the Cholla Cactus because there are hundreds of them in this one spot. All over the ground there are little baby Cholla that have dropped off the bigger plants. It kind of looked like Tribbles had invaded. There is a trail that wanders through the plants. Along the route there are numbers stops where you can learn more about the area. Unfortunately, all of the guides were gone when we got there. If you plan on seeing this area we suggest asking for a guide at a visitor center when you arrive. We also suggest you stay on the trail and don’t touch the cacti no matter how much you may want to. When we arrived we saw three girls picking cactus needles out of their shoes and one lady yelling at her boyfriend in some Latin language while trying to pick needles out of her hand.

Ocotillo Patch

Another easily accessible site is the Ocotillo patch. The Ocotillo is a strange tree that looks dead most of the year so spring is the best time to view it – when it is leafing and blooming. The tree basically looks like a bunch of relatively straight brown branches reaching up out of the ground for the sky. In the spring however they grow tiny little leaves all along these branches and bloom a tuft of red at the very end of the branch. We were lucky to visit at just the right time!

Park Boulevard

This is the main road coming in from Joshua Tree and has some of the best views of rock formations and Joshua Tree’s in the park. You will likely drive it on your way to your other destinations and you can’t beat the sights from here of the parks main attractions. If you only have a couple of hours just drive through from the town of Joshua Tree to highway 10 or back around to 29 Palms.

Skull Rock

Near the Jumbo Rocks campground is a huge boulder that looks surprisingly like a giant skull. It’s a great photo-op!

Arch Rock Trail

At White Tank campground there is a short loop trail among the awesome rock formations that leads you to a rock archway. Along the way there are signposts with geological information. We saw multiple lizards along the trail!

Rock Climbing

This isn’t something we did, but there were a ton of people out climbing the giant rocks. It might be a popular spot for climbing newbies because the rocks are rough and seem to provide a lot of grip. Of course that is just speculation. It is fun to sit and watch if it interests you.

There are many more things to see throughout the park that we didn’t make it to, especially hikes, additional 4×4 roads, 49 Palms Oasis and Keys Ranch (you have to sign up). We would have needed a couple more days to further explore.

Outside the Park

Sky’s The Limit

Just outside of the parks north entrance, near the Oasis Visitor Center, is the Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center. We took a tour of their observatory and Orrery, which is a mechanical model of the solar system. Theirs was about 1:2000 scale which means it took up about a football field. We also got a chance to look through a telescope at the sun, a special sun only type so we didn’t burn our eyes out. The volunteers who work here are extremely knowledgeable and very enthusiast and passionate about astronomy. On Saturday evenings they have a night program for star-gazing and it’s all FREE!

Nearby towns

Very close to the park are the towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twenty Nine Palms. We only spent time in Joshua Tree. It has a kind of it a hippie vibe with hand painted cars/buses around and a hint of patchouli oil in the air. The people were all very friendly. We liked it.


  • Pick up a schedule for the Ranger programs. We have been to several and always have a great time and learn something new!
  • If you are an RV with toad they want your toad to be connected on the way in – they will try to charge you for both. We have an annual pass and disconnected prior to entry for ease of navigation in campgrounds. We asked her if she wanted us to hook back up so we didn’t have to pay entry for our toad and, I’m guessing to avoid holding up the line, she let us in but said we needed to be hooked up on the way out.
  • Keep your eyes and ears out for rodents in your vehicles. Our neighbor got a rodent in their RV and we had one in our Jeep! Rodents of various types abound in this desert landscape and the smell of food in your rig is hard to resist. We have a cat in our RV so we think his smell kept them out of our RV but the enticing smell of spicy peanuts in the Jeep without a cat was too much for them to resist!

Death Valley National Park

We recently we spent several days in Death Valley National Park. Below you’ll find a summary of our experience which will hopefully inform those who would like to visit the park and possibly convince those who haven’t considered it to make a visit!



Death Valley National Park is the largest park outside of Alaska and has more roads than any other national park. It is located in South-East California bordering Nevada, West of Las Vegas. We were amazed by the vastness of the park and diversity of the geological formations to be seen. We spent four days in the park and still had to leave much of it unexplored.

Where to Stay

There are a number of campgrounds within the park, most of which are centrally located. Most have a limited amount of RV hookups or none at all. There are two ranches that offer room rentals for those not wanting to rough it, including a pool, tennis court and spa services, all with a western flair. Rates that we saw for RV sites with hookups ranged from $35 to $38; rates without hookups ranged from $12 to $20. There are also backcountry camping options available for those with 4 x 4 vehicles or who are backpacking. We stayed at a place outside the park called “the pads”. The GPS coordinates are 36.339178,-116.600926. It appears to be an abandoned RV park and what remains are the concrete “pads” for the old sites. It provides dozens of perfectly level places to park your RV if you don’t mind not having hookups – and it’s totally free. On a busy holiday weekend we were there for 4 nights and there was plenty of space. Our nearest neighbor was at least 2 football fields away. We heard about it on freecampsites.net. Since it’s at around 3000 ft. elevation it offered cooler temperatures than within the park where you are near, at, or below sea level.

Our spot at "The Pads"

Our spot at “The Pads”

What to See

Due to the vastness of the park the points of interest are fairly spread out – take the travel time in to consideration when planning your visit. Some, including one of our favorites (The Racetack), require high clearance vehichles to reach. For those that don’t own a high clearance vehicle you can rent one right in the park. There are even some tours that will do the driving for you. Despite spending four days in the park there is a lot we did not see. Here is an overview of what we were able to experience on our visit.

Easiest To See – Sites Without Hikes or 4×4 Drives

The Sky – Death Valley has been designated an International Dark Sky Park due to it having some of the darkest night skies in the United States. With the naked eye you can see the Milky Way, hoards of constellations and even the orangish light of the Andromeda Galaxy. We attended one of the free night ranger programs as the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and were able to look through a telescope to take a closer look at one of those very bright stars we had been seeing each night. Turns out it was Jupiter!


Badwater – At 282 below sea level Badwater is the lowest point in North America. High above on a nearby cliff there is a sign that makes sea level to show the perspective from where you’re standing. There is a paved road that leads right up to Badwater which makes it one of the busiest places in the park. There isn’t actually a lot to look at here other than the sea level sign. There is a pool of salty water siting within salt formations however, we thought the formations were much more impressive at Devil’s Golf Course. Badwater is worth visiting though since it’s not every day you get to see the lowest point in North America.


Devil’s Golf Course – An immense area of knee-high salt formations that have been eroded by wind and rain. The formations are jagged spires and incredibly sharp. The name comes from the saying that it is “so incredibly serrated that only the devil could play golf on such rough links”. Just a short drive down a gravel road it’s worth the stop.


Artist Drive – A nine mile, paved scenic loop (limited to vehicles under 25′ in length). The hills in this area a multi colored due to the presence of various minerals. The pastel colors range from light pink to teal. It is almost like someone spray painted the mountains – it’s a pretty cool drive.


Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center – Contains a small exhibit on animals and plants that can be found in the park, culture of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe which actual still live in the park and the park’s mining history. It is also the location of many of the free ranger programs. You will also find multiple rangers here that can provide tips and directions.



Ubehebe Crater – The crater wasn’t on our original list of must-sees but was along our route to something else so we stopped and we were glad we did! Not visable from the road below is a surprisingly deep volcanic crater. There is also a 1.5 mile loop around the main crater and along another smaller crater for those interested.


In addition to the main attractions there are interpretive sign posts at various locations along the roadside in different areas explaining geological formations, etc. There are also some mining site remnants that we didn’t happen to stop at.


Short Hikes – High Clearance 4×4 Not Required

Natural Bridge Canyon – 1.5 miles up a gravel road to the parking area. At the time this road was beyond the “washboard” phase and could be better described as moguls however still passable with a sedan. The natural rock bridge is a 1/2 mile walk up a gradual incline through a canyon. Along the way there are areas in the rock that appear to have been eroded away by non-existent waterfalls. The canyon hike continues another 1/2 mile past the natural bridge but we turned back at that point.


Golden Canyon – Short gravel road to trail head that was in pretty good condition. The trail consists of a canyon walk in a golden-red rock canyon. The canyon walls contain fragments of other types of rock imbedded in the walls. There is supposed to be an interpretive guide however there weren’t any left when we were there. Total length of trail is one mile with a red cathedral rock about 1/4 of the way.


Mosaic Canyon – Our favorite of the canyon walks that we did is Mosaic Canyon. It is a fairly easy walk up to a narrow canyon of smoothed down marble – it is truly unique and breathtaking. The first 1/2 mile has the coolest narrows and a couple small slick rock scrambles. This is a really great look at a unique geological formation. The trailhead is a short drive up a gravel road that is in fairly good condition. If you’re only up for one short hike, of the ones we visited, this would be the one we would recommend.


Fall Canyon – Short drive up a gravel road to parking area (also the exit of Titus Canyon drive). This is a 3 mile up a canyon varying in width greatly along the way from 100 ft. wide down to an arms span at different areas. There are unique rock formations and evidence of old water erosion all along the way. This hike was a bit more strenuous than the others listed not just because of the distance but that the canyon floor is loose rock the whole way so on the way up it’s kind of like walking in sand. After 3 miles you arrive at a 35 ft. dry fall – a hollow in the rock where the canyon is only shoulder width wide. There is a route you can scramble up a few hundred feet back on the trail and supposedly arrive at another dry fall in 2 miles however the climb was a little too sketchy. We also got to see some wild flowers at the beginning of the hike!


High Clearance and/or 4×4 Required Sites

Many of the roads within the park are designated as high clearance vehicle required and some are 4×4 required. We only went on a few miles of 4×4 required roads and not those described to us as being really hard-core. We never used four-wheel drive however I can see how in some areas, in damper conditions the deep dust/sand could be an issue. We saw some cross over SUV’s on the high clearance roads and they seemed to do fine. If you have heavy-duty tires (all terrain or mud tire) we would recommend letting down your tire pressure for a more comfortable ride since the roads are quite bumpy and washboarded.

Titus Canyon Drive – This is a 27 mile one way road through the largest canyon in the park. Inside the canyon you will see a variety of rock formations, a small ghost town, petroglyphs, a chance at seeing big horn sheep (we did not) and an awesome narrows section in the last 5 miles that will really impress. Give yourself 3 hours to get through the canyon so you have plenty of time to enjoy all it has to offer. This is high on our list of must do’s in the park.


Racetrack (Moving Rocks and Grandstand) – The road to the racetrack is no joke. You don’t need four-wheel drive but the road is VERY rough and it’s not wide enough most of the time for two vehicles to pass each other without one driving up on the burm – which contains sharp rocks. Heavy duty tires are highly recommended, they have a lot of flat tires out there. It’s also a busy road and people tend to drive fast, including the tour companies. The drive there has some pretty cool views, including an area with fairly large Joshua trees compared to other areas of the park. Once arriving at the racetrack the first thing you’ll see is the grandstand – a large black rock formation jutting up from the dry lake bed like an iceberg. It’s pretty spectacular! On the opposite end of the racetrack you will find the famous moving rocks. You can see the tracks left in the dried lake bed by the rocks while they were moving – really amazing! We thought it was well worth the drive to see such a unique act of nature – highly recommended!


There are a ton of back country roads in the park, many that can take you to remote areas to camp and enjoy the night sky and some, from what we hear, require experienced off roaders and narrow wheelbase 4×4’s. We only scratched the surface in this area so we can only imagine the fun to be had in this category if that’s what you’re in to.


  • Don’t underestimate how large the park is and how long it will take you to get from place to place, just on the paved roads. Many of the high clearance roads are limited to 35 mph (if you can even get going that fast without your car rattling apart) so factor in the slower speeds not just the distances.
  • If in doubt stop and get gas. You’ll be tempted to wait because it’s expensive in the park and not high quality but you’re going to have to do it so just bite the bullet and do it. Stovepipe Wells will have cheaper gas than Furnace Creek by about 10 cents per gallon, but you are still going to be paying about a buck more than the going rate outside the park.
  • Be cautious on the roads! People speed – a lot, they are distracted, there are bicyclists, motorcyclists, runners and people walking across the road. We came across a motorcycle accident while we were there and nobody wants to end their weekend that way. Medical help is at least an hour away on a main road.
  • It’s a really, really DRY heat. The highest temperature while we were there was 88 – nothing compared to summer temperatures but it wasn’t the temperature that was affecting us. The humidity level is so low we could barely drink enough water even when we weren’t sweating. Our lips were continually chapped and we both got scabs in our nostrils! Drink lots of water and take a lot with you – more than you expect to use. A great place to fill up water bottles is as the Stovepipe Wells ranger station. It’s not crowded and they have a dispenser outside.
  • BYOF – Bring your own food! Neither general store we visited have much in terms of groceries although Furnace Creek had much more selection than Stovepipe Wells. A six-pack of micro-brew is going to cost you $15 though!


For being the hottest place on earth and driest place in North America, Death Valley really surprised us! We were truly in awe of the vast unfamiliar landscapes and could have spent much more time exploring all it had to offer. We personally would not recommend visiting during the summer months but during the winter season it is a fascinating good time.

A few more pics, including camping in Hidden Valley