California never ceases to amaze me. I’m a native Californian and while I may have seen my fair share of its natural beauty over the course of my lifetime, there are certainly a lot of places I appear to have missed. One of those places is Joshua Tree National Park, so we set this as our Spring Break destination. Having done a bit of research on the camping options, we quickly learned that most of the campgrounds in the park operate on a first come, first served basis. That sounded appealing to me; just hitch up and go, no plans, no hurries.
We’d spent the past several camping trips sort of practicing in terms of being self contained for a week at a time with few or no services. Much of the thermal cooking experiments were roughly aimed at preparing for this week. Meal planning has been highly entertaining and we came up with the following menu to cover us for eight dinners: Grilled Pizza x2, Fajitas x2, Chicken Curry, Chicken Teriyaki, and Chili. We also packed enough for breakfast, snacks, lunches, and (for me) sufficient alcohol to last the entire time. (Note: it included a six-pack of wine bottles stashed in the car, plus beer and instant margaritas) It turns out there is actually civilization out here, and we could have gotten by with less shopping, but that is hardly the point.
Saturday we pulled out around 10 and just started heading south. We stayed on 99 rather than 5 and that was at least somewhat more scenic. I must say, we were pretty giddy with the feeling of freedom and mused that we could have been happy just camping out in the parking lot of the first rest stop we hit (Enoch Christoffersen for those keeping score). But we moved on.
We made it as far as Barstow, where there was a decent KOA and a short shot to the park for the next day. Yeah, it was by the highway, and yeah, it was a tightly packed stopover, but it was plenty pleasant enough and I saw a roadrunner in the morning! That was super exciting. It looked exactly like the cartoon. And it was literally running. How fun is that? So I took an extremely blurry picture.
Sunday we drove about 90 miles to Joshua Tree National Park. We’d heard that all of the sites can and do fill up in March and April, especially on the weekends. But, as we were arriving on a Sunday, we remained hopeful. We stopped briefly at the visitor center before entering the park and an ominous display board had all the campgrounds listed as “Full”. We fended off despair and asked the ranger at the counter. He said we should “scoot on in” through the North entrance and that around noon on Sundays, many people pull out. We counted trailers going the opposite direction as we drove and tried not to have expectations. This kind of thing is perfectly suited for people who are loosey goosey, come what may, live in the moment, chill kind of people. We are not these people. We were super tense.
By the time we started searching for sites in the Jumbo Rocks campground, we were in a tizzy and ready to pounce on the first empty site, but also super anxious about how to fit into the weirdly oriented spaces. The campground is kind of like the “Cars” ride at Disneyland; lots of narrow, winding, unrealistically scenic little meandering roads. But also dotted continuously with back-in sites or sort of park-along-side-it sites. I think technically, if you factor in the lengths of both Dory and Bruce, we do not fit any of these. So we’d see places where I wasn’t totally sure I could fit, but I also saw them being scooped up by other arriving campers. So we got into a bit of frenzy and just decided to grab a spot. I backed Dory in quite well, thank you very much, but had to totally block any possible entry or exit along the road as I was doing so. Luckily, no one was waiting impatiently on me, but it was just a matter of time.
So… in our unhitching procedure, we got flustered. We removed the tongue wheels and started to attach them to Dory and then realized we needed to pull forward onto our Anderson Leveler to raise the starboard side. Richard set the wheels on the ground and re-hitched to Bruce. And then I drove Bruce over the top of the wheels as I was backing up. I mean, not completely over the top of them, I would have heard that. I just mean the bottom of the sway bars pinned the tongue wheels and totally bent them out of shape. I noticed this when I got out of the car, but also noticed people were coming. So we just pushed forward. I was also aware that it was a barely legal squeeze to get both Dory and Bruce in the site, but what were we going to do? Leave that site to look for better and then have them all taken? Oy. Stressful.
I need to start taking data on this, but it seems that we require about four hours to process and come down off stressful moments like these. We set up in our site, drove around to get a lay of the land, and then went to the visitor center outside the park just so we could get cell service and we could contact our BFF Randy as well as post to Altoistes to ask for advice. During this time, Richard felt bad about setting the wheels on the ground, and I felt worried about how we were going to eventually get up our driveway the next weekend.
Both Randy and the Altoistes once again exceeded my expectations. Within a half hour, we had assurance that there is “a guy who totally knows how to fix this kind of thing” as well as links to local RV repair centers who might have backup jockey wheels we could use in a pinch. Seriously amazing. By the time we drove back to camp, we were fine. Super stressed around 2, fine and “no worries” by 6. It really helps to have an excellent community.
Grilled pizza under the stars, plus a glass or two of wine for me, put us in a perfect mood to start exploring the park for real.
Our first full day in Joshua Tree was excellent. We started the day with a gorgeous little hike from our campground to a place called Skull Rock. You know the movie “Galaxy Quest”? And you know the alien monster named Gorignak who was completely made out of boulders? This is where he comes from. We saw lots of Gorignak formations all over the place. Plus, there were desert wildflowers and blooming cacti. The geology in this area is unreal.
After the hike, Richard got ready for a bike ride up to a place called Keys View. I gave him a head start, gave an Alto tour to a camper, and met him there. From the peak, you get to enjoy a spectacular view of the valley to the south of Joshua Tree. You can even see Palm Springs. I sagged him on the way back to camp and took pictures.
Dinner that night was a delicious Shuttle Chef Teriyaki Chicken and Minute Rice. Richard cooked up some onions and garlic in oil with some ginger. Then he put in some boneless chicken thighs, a little water, and added veggies and Teriyaki sauce. He boiled it for ten minutes, then into the thermal cooker for about three hours. It came out at 178º and perfectly cooked. For the rice, he put ½ cup each of brown and white rice in a Thermos, boiled 1 cup of water, poured it in, and timed 30 minutes. Fabulous.
Tuesday we went on a “challenging” hike up to the top of Ryan Mountain. Richard kind of talked me into this one. The description sounded like a mile and a half straight up hill and that was pretty much accurate. Luckily, the scenery made it worth it and it wasn’t too hot. There were lots of warning signs at the trailhead about carrying enough water and I’m sure it’s very easy to get serious dehydration. There is no shade the entire way up and much of the climb is literally staircases made out of rocks. But, at the top, we were rewarded not only with a glorious view, but 4G cell service. Amazing. We may be here at just the right time of year, but man, the flowers were stunning. Whoever is the gardener out here should be very proud.
We got down and back to Dory around 3 and I passed out for a nap inside. Richard napped later and I followed a Jack Rabbit around the campground. We were treated to a beautiful sunset and I took more pictures than necessary to capture it. I like the progression of colors though, so I can’t pare them down any further without being sad. We had a thermal dinner of chicken curry with rice as we watched the beauty unfold. Perfect.
The site next to us has been empty since the first night. The person who was there Sunday did not remove her reservation slip, and it does not seem like there were any park rangers on duty Monday. We were unsure whether we should take it down to let others know the space was free, but actually, after Sunday, there were many spaces free, so we passive aggressively got the whole area to ourselves. If you go to Joshua Tree, I advise you to look at the dates on the little orange reservation tickets clipped to the site markers, because it is entirely possible they are out of date and the rangers just haven’t gotten around to taking them down.
On a solar note, we have been very pleased with how well the solar panels have been keeping up with the fridge. We’ve gotten the battery down to 74% overnight and it’s bounced right back up to 94% by the end of the next day. The fridge keeps meat frozen, freezes ice, and keeps the rest of the contents plenty nice and cold. When there’s no shade blocking the panels, we get up to 9 amps in per hour, plenty to over cover any usage, and we’ve been charging laptops too. As far as that goes, we could stay out here a good long time with no worries as far as battery power. We over prepared in the way of water too. We brought along our portable grey water dump tank, but since discovering the Aquabot, we seem to be good for at least four days without needing to dump either tank (yes, we’re still taking two showers daily). We filled a blue “Jerry” can with extra water, but I don’t think we’re going to need it. Still, there is no water anywhere in our campground, so better to be safe on that. And if we needed to, we could fully empty the grey tank. Thing is, we’d need to lift the portable tank into the car and bring it with us to the dump station many miles away. Not an appealing idea really.
Wednesday we did some regrouping. First though, we had to drive over to another campsite on the West side of the park to dump our tanks when we met another Alto owner. How crazy is it to have someone from Maryland come talk to you at a dump station in Joshua Tree and start chatting about Denis, Danielle, and Frederic?? He had also heard of the Facebook group and was surprised when I told him I was the one who started it. 15 minutes of fame through a trailer enthusiasts group? I’ll take it. Nice way to connect with fun outdoorsy people.
Our tentative plan beyond Joshua Tree was to maybe head up Highway 395 through Mammoth and Devil’s Postpile, then over the Sierras via Highway 80. As soon as we left the park and got service, we started doing things like check weather over the pass. It looked as though snow might be on the way, not a lot, but enough to make us go hmm. Then we did some more checking and discovered that Devil’s Postpile is not actually open until after Memorial Day. More hmm. So we shifted some thinking and stopped to have coffee and look at maps in a lovely Barstow Shell station. There we came up with a Plan B of visiting Death Valley instead. Makes more sense to visit deserts in April than the mountains, we decided. See? We can be flexible.
So we drove 260 miles (total from Joshua Tree) to Lone Pine and found a nice Good Sam campground with hookups and a fun campground store. Lone Pine is apparently the portal town to Mt. Whitney and we sure could see Mt. Whitney from “downtown”. It’s a very cute little location and should be a nice jumping off point for Death Valley tomorrow. In the meantime, we are charging the coffee machine battery, bluetooth speaker, laptops, and are basking in all the internet connectedness.
As for MPG, we’ve been averaging 17-18 overall, even factoring in the climbs.
Our site in Joshua Tree was #24 in Jumbo Rocks campground. There are no services there, no water, and only pit toilets. Very beautiful and unusual campground!