Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Sue and Mo at Harris Beach
Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Thursday, January 25, 2024

01-23-2024 Visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Mo and I have traveled south to Desert Hot Springs almost every year since 2010.  One of the things we love about visiting Desert Hot Springs on the northwestern rim of the Coachella Valley is the proximity to Joshua Tree National Park. 

We waited for an almost sunny, almost warm day during our visit this year to trek east to the southernmost boundary of the park.  

It all felt incredibly familiar as we approached the Mecca exit on I-10, memories welling up between us like old movies. We tried remembering which year we boondocked outside the park north of the freeway...2014. New Year Boondock Which year did we drive out to Keys View overlooking the Coachella Valley toward the west and the magnificent eastern slope of Mt San Jacinto? 2013. Back Roads

It was when we returned home late in the afternoon and I once again had access to the blog and photos that we realized that our last visit to Joshua Tree was back in 2015 Joshua Tree Heaven

It seemed so familiar and impossible to believe that it had been nine years since we meandered along the road that bisects the park.

With two weeks at Catalina Spa and RV Resort, we had plenty of time to take a day and visit Joshua Tree once again.  Established as a National Monument in 1936, it was renamed a national park by Congress with the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. Today the park protects 792,510 acres of which more than 80 percent is managed as wilderness.

The most familiar images of the park are the huge granite boulders that are so prominent in the northern portion of the park.  The park can be accessed from the north through the community of Twenty-Nine Palms and from the south about 25 miles west of Indio north of I-10.  The road that meanders through the park is narrow and a bit winding in places and the speed limit is kept below 45 mph.  

There are a few other 4x4 dirt roads that enter the park over remote mountain ranges.  In 2013 Mo and I made an attempt to cross into the park via one of these back roads but were blocked by rocks and boulders too rough to navigate.  After an entire day traversing dirt roads when we returned home that night and checked out our route on the internet we discovered that we were less than 1/4 mile from getting all the way through.

As we entered the park this week, memories of that trip bubbled up, in addition to New Year's Eve in 2014 when we watched the desert sky from the southern boundary of the park on our way to Florida.

This time we had no need to explore rough back roads even though the Tracker is fully capable of doing so.  Instead, I wanted to stop in at the Visitor Center and see if there was a new tee shirt available before continuing north. 

There is something so incredibly spectacular about seeing miles and miles of unspoiled desert stretching in all directions.  Here there are no telephone poles, no ramshackle desert trailers, no solar farms, and few fences to mar the view.  I felt my eyeballs stretch out in ways that can only happen in the desert with unlimited vistas.  I love that feeling.

The namesake of the park is the wild armed Joshua Tree, growing on the southern edges of the Mojave Desert.  Here in Joshua Tree, the Mojave meets the northern perimeter of the Colorado Desert, a subdivision of the greater Sonoran Desert.  It is in the northern part of the park where most of the campgrounds are located, set among the picturesque granite boulders.

A campsite in the Jumbo Rocks Campground

Two of the campgrounds are first come first serve but the main campground at Jumbo Rocks is now reservation only.  I wanted to walk the short desert trail from the Jumbo Rocks Campground to Skull Rock.  We hiked that trail on our last visit in 2015, when we were lucky enough to snag a campsite for a single gorgeous night.

Our drive north had been uneventful, with very little traffic until we arrived at the Skull Rock viewpoint.  Cars were lined on both sides of the road for some distance from the actual trailhead.  Mo and I looked at each other and said, "No Way!"  

We continued a mile or so north to the Jumbo Rocks Campground where there were many signs for the Skull Rock Trail, but many more signs saying no parking for trail.  After meandering around the campsites a bit, we drove back to the main road and decided to park behind the long line of cars backed up to view the infamous rock.  

We skipped the main route, walking south into the desert on what appeared to be a trail and within minutes we were on the actual Skull Rock Trail that I remembered hiking in 2015.  The trail was lovely, and very nearly empty of people, but once we got closer to Skull Rock there were hordes of people on all sides of the road and climbing all over the rocks near the viewpoint.  People were lined up in groups taking selfies and groupies, and climbing around in all directions.

We waited a bit before attempting to get a photo or two before we walked back to the car along the busy highway. We traveled back east toward the Live Oak picnic area.  Here a dirt road meanders past the bathrooms with easy pull-offs and great views.  Despite the sunshine, the air was cool and the wind was chilly.  We chose to eat our little picnic in the car.

After relaxing a bit, we found another side road that led to an area that for some reason most cars avoided and enjoyed the peace and quiet and savored the uninterrupted views toward the south.  

On the way back out along the main road, we took a side road to another picnic area and trailhead called Split Rock.  By the time we got there, that parking lot was almost completely full and once again there were people everywhere.  

I took the obligatory shot of Split Rock to prove we had been there and we hightailed it out of that area and turned back south toward the Cottonwood Visitor Center and the Southern Entrance.

Sometimes when we have visited the park we have traveled from south to north and then exited at Twenty Nine Palms and returned to Catalina through Yucca Valley and then down the hill to Desert Hot Springs.  From experience, we knew that route was often heavily trafficked, and instead decided to return home the way we had come that morning.

We passed one of the more popular sites along that road, the Cholla Garden.  The parking lot was packed by this time of day and I was glad that we had stopped for a photo or two earlier in the day as we passed by on our trip north.

There is something about the way that the spines of the cholla cactus catch light that makes taking photos of them completely irresistible.  Known as the "jumping cactus" they are notorious for getting caught on clothing and shoes and are extremely painful to remove.  

The list of plants and animals that call this landscape home is long and varied.  After winter rains, sometimes there is an abundance of wildflowers but we were a bit too early for that show this year.  

We did see one lonely coyote cross the road, and a couple of ravens kept us company during our lunch.

The 25-mile section of I-10 is a bit harrowing with heavy truck traffic and narrow lanes due to construction, but once we made the turn to Dillon Road, it was an easy trip. Mattie was waiting patiently for our return after just six and a half hours alone in the MoHo.  We are lucky that she is such a patient dog when it is called for.  As with most National Parks, dogs are not allowed on the trails and we decided it was best to leave her at home in the cozy rig.

It was a wonderful day and I am sure will remain a highlight of our time spent in the southern deserts this year.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

01-15-2024 Traveling South Part 2

A favorite photo of the Golden Gate Bridge that I took from the deck of a cruise ship in 2012

Just a quick shout out to a few of you who said you would be fearful of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in a motorhome.  It isn't difficult.  The lanes are well-marked, and the lanes go where they are supposed to go.  After crossing the bridge from the north, the RV lanes are also well marked and you don't even need to stop, just go slow enough for the license plate readers to scan your information and eventually, you will get a bill.  The lanes are not terribly narrow.  Stay on the right in a larger rig and you will be fine.  I was much more nervous driving the MoHo on the interstate east of San Antonio with lanes narrowed horribly during construction.  Crossing the bridge is truly gorgeous.  Every time we do it I exclaim how much I have forgotten the beauty of this bridge.

Above are a couple of photos I took from the passenger seat when Mo was driving back in 2011.

Once we passed Salinas, we were reminded of the legendary rough pavement of Highway 101.  Everything in the rig that normally doesn't rattle much was making its presence known, and it was with great pleasure that we pulled into our overnight stop at Camp Roberts RV Park.

From Wiki:   Camp Roberts is a California National Guard post in central California, located on both sides of the Salinas River in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties,[1] now run by the California Army National Guard. It was opened in 1941 and is named after Corporal Harold W. Roberts, a World War I Medal of Honor recipient.[1] Nearby communities include San Miguel, Heritage Ranch (Lake Nacimiento), Oak Shores (Lake Nacimiento), and Bradley, all unincorporated. The nearest incorporated city is Paso Robles. Camp Roberts is roughly 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Fort Hunter Liggett.

Camp Roberts is one of the bases where Mo did her Army Reserve training when she lived in California. It was just before 5 when we arrived and the gate guard pointed us toward the camp without mentioning that we needed to check in at the billeting office in the other direction.  It wouldn't have mattered because we found out later that the office closed at 4:30.

We had no site assigned, no email or text message confirming our arrival, and found out the next morning that the RV camp was in the process of switching the camp operation from billeting to the Military Welfare and Recreation office. Since I am not a military person, I had to research what billeting actually was, discovering it has to do with housing for military personnel. In the meantime, we only knew that we were to be in an area of the park with no hookups since all the full hookup sites were occupied by working military for the winter.

We drove around a couple of times before deciding to settle in on the flat grassy area by some picnic tables.  Opening the door to the western skies and open fields, we were thrilled by the open space and beautiful view.  With Highway 101 just east of us we were happy that the sound didn't travel and we weren't troubled by noise at any time.  We figured if we weren't supposed to be there, sooner or later someone would come and tell us.

Our night passed without incident and at 8:30 the next morning the person in the billeting office answered my phone message. She let us know about the changes and took our payment of $5 for the overnight for the rig and an extra $5 for Mattie over the phone so we did not have to return to the billeting office.  She entered our information into the system and told us that the next time we planned to stay at the camp it shouldn't be a problem.

We traveled south on 101 toward Paso Robles and turned east on Highway 46 toward Bakersfield. At first, the road was lovely, with rolling hills showing a touch of green.  

However, as we dropped down the slopes on the western side of the great San Joaquin Valley the lovely views deteriorated into a few miles of oil wells that covered the landscape as far as we could see.  I know people complain about windmills, which I happen to think are quite lovely, especially compared to this.  

As we continued east and then onramped I-5 toward the south, we saw a huge billboard advertising Blue Beacon Truck Wash.  We discovered this wonder on our trip east in 2022 and decided that a few miles out of our way to get the job done was worth every mile.  With just over 100 bucks for both the MoHo and the Tracker, including RainX rinse and tire treatments for all ten tires, it was worth every penny as well.

We originally planned to clean the rigs at the free car washing area at Orange Grove RV Park, but that would have been a lot of work and it was wonderful to simply sit inside the MoHo and watch it get cleaned to a brilliant sparkle.

A few miles later, we settled into Orange Grove RV Park, a destination we have enjoyed for more than a decade on our way to Desert Hot Springs.  However, the cost is getting higher each year and the amenities are getting to be less of a draw.  Silly as it sounds, the free fresh donuts and coffee in the office every morning are now only offered on Friday and Saturday mornings.  The worst part is that the orange trees are mostly empty, and the few oranges Mo picked for us when she took Mattie for a walk were hard and sour.  There is no longer cable or free WiFi as there used to be.  For some reason instead of putting us on the nicer side of the park to the south, they keep cramming us into the shorter spaces and more cramped sites on the north side of the office.  When I request a site on the south side, they say those sites are saved for bigger rigs.  So much for that.  I am reasonably certain that we will not stay there again, the era has ended.

The last time we saw oranges like this on the trees at Orange Grove RV Park was in 2016

Instead, in the future, we will drive the extra 40 minutes or so from Bakersfield to Tehachapi and stay at the park we enjoyed last year on our trip south.  I discovered last year that I can buy a huge bag of truly sweet oranges for just $8 just around the corner from Orange Grove RV.  Just a short hop off of Highway 58 on our way up the pass in the future will ensure a great stash of sweet oranges during our time in the Southern California desert.

The trip over Tehachapi Pass the next morning was uneventful, with little wind and mostly sunny skies.  The desert looked as welcoming as ever, and it seemed that in no time we were driving down our familiar road toward Desert Hot Springs and a welcome two weeks of the simple life at Catalina Spa and RV Resort.

Let the fun begin.

Monday, January 15, 2024

01-11-2024 Traveling South Part 1

Catalina Spa has several pickleball courts

It happens almost every year.  We know that the best way to survive chilly, foggy winters in Grants Pass is to leave, at least for a little while.  We have traveled south to the deserts of Southern California for 14 years now.  Sometimes leaving immediately after Christmas and other times waiting until February.  Each year I think maybe we should have gone earlier or later, and sometimes our timing is absolutely perfect.

This year it was perfect.  We are settled in at our favorite little spot at Catalina Spa in Desert Hot Springs, delighting in the pleasant temperatures and lack of wind that can make visiting the Coachella Valley a bit challenging at times.

After our morning walk, I checked in with family back in Oregon.  My daughter Melody and her husband Robert are stuck at home with solid ice sheets all around them.  Neighbors who have attempted to drive have had the unhappy experience of sliding sideways into fences.  Not a time to go anywhere.  The kids have no power and the house is cold.  Their house, built in 1908, no longer has a fireplace, and their heat needs electricity to run.

Daughter Melody and husband Robert live in the house on the left just past the telephone pole

My friend Jennnifer, from book club, just messaged me with a photo of down trees on her property and said we are lucky to be away since there is no power and no internet.  I think we picked the right time to be gone this time around.

I watched the sunrise this morning, filling the sky with brilliant color by 7:00 AM.  Within minutes we were in the pool, with water temperatures at a somewhat cool 85 degrees or so instead of the 95 degrees we are used to here.  

Only managed half an hour before we retreated to the hot tub which was not as hot as usual but still wonderful.  Seems as though there is some work happening on the wells that supply the resort.  No worries, the sun is shining, the dog is napping in the warm light, and Mo is outside in shorts and a tee shirt doing computer work.

When we left on Thursday, January 11, the light snow from the previous couple of days had melted entirely.  This time we decided to take an alternate route south, traveling over to the coast before continuing down Highway 101.  

Our route into California on Highway 199 was only delayed for 15 minutes or so with a pilot car navigating our line of vehicles along the worst of the damage from the summer fires along the Smith River.  It is a curvy road with steep dropoffs, and the forced slowdown makes for a nice, easy, stress-free drive.  There is even time to look at the gorgeous Smith River, flowing high and full after all the rain recently.

We traveled on a day when I knew that one of our favorite places would be open, the Chart Room in Crescent City.  It isn't perfect, but their fish and chips are one of the best, with truly superb cole slaw and tartar sauce that tastes like my version, hot salty fries, and fresh cod done well.  

We bought lunch and ate in the MoHo, watching the sea lions on the docks, and listening to their constant barking.

Highway 101 was open all the way, with a short stop at the slide that has been under construction and repair for years now.  Our destination for the evening was the Heights Casino, with overnight camping without hookups for $20 bucks. It is money well spent.  There is level pavement to park and all-night security which we appreciate.  We went to the casino where we were required to sign up for a player's card that included $10 in free money to play.  

It is so funny because Mo and I have been to casinos rarely in the last few years and we don't recognize any of the machines.  Penny machines have little signs that say the minimum bet for a single pull is 80 cents or more.  You can drop 20 bucks in just a few minutes that way!  Still, we basically broke even for the evening and enjoyed 90 minutes or so of entertainment. Our evening meal was the delightful leftovers from lunch, heated in a hot skillet to keep the fish and fries nice and crispy.

The next morning was still cloudy but no rain dampened our drive toward Santa Rosa where we had reservations at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.  The northern portion of Highway 101 is spectacular, with butter-smooth pavement and the gorgeous redwoods on either side of the road.  I took few photos, having traveled this route many times in the past, and it was my turn to drive. 

Settling into the RV park was a bit disconcerting, with a camp host who was less than understandable in her directions to our site.  If you ever try to stay there, keep in mind that the campsite signs on the posts are opposite of the direction they should be and it was very confusing.  We did settle in and enjoyed clam chowder from home for our supper that evening.  We thought we could possibly go see some of Santa Rosa, but directions to any of the sites seemed excessively complex, so instead we simply found a WalMart to replace the small electric heater I managed to leave behind at home when loading the MoHo.

The weather was cool and damp and walking the parks didn't seem particularly enticing.  We did at least have a chance to check out our route for getting back on the 101 Freeway the next morning before settling in for the evening.

My reason for booking the fairgrounds is that it was the most reasonably priced park close to San Francisco.  Our route south included driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and down Highway 1 to Montara, where Mo lived for many years.

The next morning we departed by 8 and were delighted to see that traffic into the city on a Saturday morning wasn't too bad.  I was especially happy to see this since I am the one who usually drives first in the mornings.  The bridge was beautiful, even in the overcast skies, and following the Google Girl directions toward Highway 1 South and Half Moon Bay was easy.  The toll booths are completely automated, with a bill to come in the mail based on our license registration.  We have no idea how much it cost.

Mo's once-upon-a-time home in Montara

We parked the MoHo at the mall in Half Moon Bay, and unhooked the Tracker for a drive back to Montara, stopping in Moss Beach to check out the home Mo bought there before moving to the "ranch" in Montara.  Mo was shocked at the changes in both towns and didn't recognize much as we traveled up the hills toward her Moss Beach home.  The vegetation has grown so much that everything looks completely different.  Mo was overwhelmed by the number of cars parked on the narrow streets and decided that the entire area was much too claustrophobic to ever consider living there again.

We then continued north toward Montara and after a bit of wandering finally found the road to her home that she owned until she moved to Oregon.  The new owners love privacy and have surrounded the place with high impenetrable hedges making it hard to see the barns and pastures that were once occupied by horses that she boarded for people who became lifelong friends.

As we peered through an opening in the hedge, Mrs. Navarro, a lovely lady who lived there when Mo did, stopped to say hi.  Her family owned a nursery across the road from Mo's place and after all these years she remembered Mo and her dogs.  

I think she thought I was Mo's friend Carol, but she was incredibly sweet. She offered us branches of fragrant eucalyptus, but I said our car was too crowded.  Mo has no idea of her age, but she was old when Mo lived there.  It is amazing how well she has aged.  When I asked her how old she was she laughed and said, "I am pretty sure I am over 55".

We drove back to Half Moon Bay and enjoyed some time walking the streets of what is now a very upscale little town.  There were many "home decor" shops, art galleries, wine and cheese shops, and tucked away in the midst of it I found a delightful yarn shop.  I walked out $130 bucks later with some gorgeous cashmere and alpaca yarns to hopefully stimulate my knitting habit once again.  Yarn shops can be devastating to the pocketbook! 

Mo was disappointed that our plans didn't include an overnight in the area.  Next time we will plan for that so that Mo can connect with the many friends she has there

It was early afternoon when we departed the area and continued south on 101 toward Watsonville.  The strawberry fields were green but it was much too early for the legendary flavorful strawberries that grow there.  We saw no artichokes, another crop for which the area is famous.  By the time we reached Salinas, home of John Steinbeck's famous novel East of Eden, the sun was out a bit.

Our destination was Camp Roberts.