Santa Rosa, California

Santa Rosa is about an hour north of San Francisco. We stayed there because it has a good selection of stores, including an REI, and we needed to prepare for a 4 day/3 night backpacking trip. We’ve done a lot of hiking on this trip, but to start backpacking we needed to get pretty much everything, including a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a pack for Brian (I had a pack that my sister gave me a couple years ago), a cookstove, and backpacking food. We went to REI and grocery stores about a dozen times, considering and reconsidering items. We are really excited to go backpacking, but it is a lot of effort! Next time it will be easier to prepare.

On a sunny day, we drove to the coast to visit Point Reyes National Seashore. When we started to get close, the fog got thicker and thicker. The ocean has a big impact on the weather at the coast!

We walked out to the point, where there are stairs leading to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, but they are closed on weekdays. It seems to be the mascot of the park, since everything in the gift shop features the lighthouse. I’m skeptical that it exists, because I saw no evidence of it.

We did see some beautiful windswept cypress trees, and whale bones near the lighthouse visitors center. The fog condensed in the trees and fell on us like rain as we walked through them.

There’s a spot where trees were planted in 1930, and now form a tunnel over the road. There are no other trees in this area but these, so they really stand out.

On the inland side of the point the fog wasn’t as thick, and we could see a colony of elephant seals. We watched them for awhile, and they were making so much noise!

On the north side is a Tule Elk preserve. We saw a few elk when we drove up there and walked down to the beach. All different kinds of wildflowers were blooming.

In spite of the missing lighthouse, there was still a lot to see at Point Reyes.

Russian River Brewery is a popular brewery in Santa Rosa. They are famous for their Double IPA Pliny the Elder, which isn’t distributed outside of the west coast. It is famous because it was the first really good beer of its kind, and was rated the number one beer in America for years. We went there on a Wednesday during Happy Hour and ordered the full sampler of all the 20 beers they had on tap.

We were excited to try Pliny the Elder, and it was good. We enjoyed tasting all the different beers (and stuck around for a few more pints and a pizza), but they focus on bitter IPAs and sour beers, which aren’t my favorite. We liked Pliny the Elder, Hop Queen, and Tempo Change the best.

We stayed at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds for a week and a half. Fairgrounds RV Parks are pretty much parking lots, but they tend to be cheap and can be convenient. There were bad fires in this area about 6 months ago, and the fairgrounds RV Park was mostly full of FEMA trailers housing people displaced by the fires.

While we were in Santa Rosa we spent some time relaxing too, and resting up for the next bunch of traveling, including our first backpacking trip!

Day 589 | Mile 61,391

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San Francisco, California

We went to San Francisco mainly to see friends, but did some sightseeing while we were there. It is a really beautiful city with a lot of park space and gorgeous cliffs. The Golden Gate Bridge looks great from every angle and put the Full House theme song in my head all week.

We first stayed at Anthony Chabot Regional Park on the east side of the bay. It was a little out of the way, but was full of eucalyptus trees and wild turkeys. We visited our friends Jeff and Sarah and their son in Concord, California. After enjoying their hospitality for a few days, we had them over to the campsite for dinner and a campfire.

Then we moved to San Francisco RV Park (a Thousand Trails Collection campground), which is on the coast south of the city, in Pacifica. There was a short trail near the campground with a great view, but there was a fence up on the coast at the campground because the cliff is eroding.

We visited parts of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, which is made up of dispersed sites throughout the San Francisco area. We started at the Sutro Baths ruins. The Sutro Baths were saltwater swimming pools built in an inlet in 1896, that burned down in 1966. Only a few walls and foundations remain.

Nearby, outside of the Cliff House, we visited the Camera Obscura. It’s a funny little building that was built in 1946, though there were prior versions there before. It projects the world outside the building onto a large bowl using a lens and mirror and natural light. It rotates around and the projection rotates on the bowl. After we went inside and saw it through a few rotations, Brian went outside so I could see him reflected by the camera obscura.

We hiked on the coastal trail in Land’s End park to the hidden labyrinth and a beautiful view of the Golden Gate bridge.

Another day we went downtown to Pier 39 and ate seafood and saw the sea lions just off the pier.

We walked along the coast to Fisherman’s Wharf, and stumbled upon the Musee Mechanique. It is an arcade full of vintage games. We played pinball, did love tests, arm wrestled, sat in the magic fingers chair, and watched weird little shows put on by mechanical figures. One machine had a sign on it saying “If you are easily offended, do not play this machine”. Of course we fed it our quarters, and it was just fart noises.

We visited Ghirardelli Square and ordered an ice cream sundae.

We experienced the hills in San Francisco walking to the crookedest street, and then ate in Chinatown.

We got there too late for Dim Sum, fortunately we had already had a dumpling-fest earlier in the week. The Peking duck was crispy and delicious, and the won ton soup was ridiculous, it could’ve been our whole meal.

We also went into the Mission district and walked down Castro street.

There is so much to do in San Francisco. We thought about visiting Alcatraz, but Brian had already been and we decided we didn’t have time during this visit.

It was so nice to catch up with old friends, most of whom I’ve only seen a handful of times in the last decade. We had some nice dinners, and really enjoyed catching up, eating, and drinking with Aaron and Sammi, Scott and Bonnie, and Colleen and Joey.

Grace and Julie gave us a great tour of Presidio Park. We ate lunch together at the food truck picnic, and saw Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire sculpture, a 100 foot sculpture made from cypress tree trunks.

There are quick stop restaurants in the bay area serving poke bowls, where we get to customize the bowl with the ingredients we like. It’s like a Subway, only with sushi ingredients like rice, raw fish, seaweed salad, and sauces.Brian immediately became obsessed. We ate at these places at least a half a dozen times in a couple weeks.

On our way north out of town we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. We stopped just after at the viewpoint, and decided to walk over the bridge. I’m not exactly sure why, but this was so fun. The weather was beautiful and views were amazing, and we saw sea lions, dolphins, Alcatraz, and the city skyline. The only irritating part was the bikes on the bridge. Bikers are supposed to stay on one side and the walkers on the other side, but this didn’t always happen.

When we got to the other side, we went to the cafe and ate clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl with an up close view of the bridge. It felt very San Francisco-y.

Day 579 | Mile 61,031

Pinnacles National Park and Monterey Bay Aquarium

About 80 miles southeast of San Francisco is Pinnacles National Park. It has only been a National Park since 2013, though it became a National Monument way back in 1908. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we visited because it is a National Park. We learned that the name “Pinnacles” refers to the rock formations leftover from a dormant, eroded volcano.

Aside from these formations we also saw wildlife, wildflowers, and Talus caves, which are caves made by giant boulders falling onto narrow gorges. It’s a small park, less than 42 square miles, so we planned to spend three days there. It gets hot in the summer, but the temperature was in the 60s while we were there, and it felt great.

The first hike we took was the High Peaks Trail/Condor Gulch Trail loop. We added on the Moses Spring/Bear Gulch Cave/Rim Trails which made it about a 6 mile hike. The extra trails took us through the Bear Gulch Cave, which involved going up a steep staircase and under huge boulders.

The cave was pretty modified with stairs and handrails to make it easy to get through. It was dark, so we put on headlamps.

When we got out of the cave there was a reservoir, where we stopped to have a snack. The squirrels were aggressively eyeing our food, so we aggressively told them to beat it.

After the Talus Cave, the trail climbs 1,300 feet up into the pinnacles. We were amazed at the colorful lichen covering the rocks; brown, yellow, many shades of green, and even orange.

Most of the elevation gain was hiking switchbacks, but there were areas where the trail helped us out, with railings and footholds.

When we got up high, the views were incredible.

We were in the area where the California Condors nest. We saw huge black birds flying, but couldn’t really pick out the condors, since there are other vultures and ravens, too. One flew overhead and landed near us, and we could see that it was a condor. They are pretty funny looking birds, they look like they are wearing feathery turtlenecks.

The California Condor was nearly extinct in the 1980’s. A captive breeding program was put in place and they have been reintroduced to some areas of California, as well as Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks. Conservation efforts have been successful, but they are still critically endangered, their biggest obstacles are habitat destruction, power lines, and lead poisoning from eating animals shot with lead bullets.

The next day we went for a much flatter hike, about five miles round-trip on the Old Pinnacles Trail to the Balconies Cave. There were many types of tiny colorful wildflowers blooming.

Brian loved the pine cones from the Coulter pine trees, also known by their more descriptive name, Big-cone pine. They look like spikey footballs, and can be 10 pounds when fresh, so we didn’t spend too much time under Coulter pines!

When we got to the cave, it wasn’t immediately clear where the trail was, and we had to climb over rocks and a stream to get into the cave.

Once we were inside (and it was dark), we might not have known the trail continued past the first “room” if not for a little arrow pointing to a passage. This cave was a little more interesting to navigate than the Bear Gulch Cave and we were also the only ones in it.

After the cave, the Balconies Cliffs Trail climbed a bit to show off some nice views while we made it back to the Old Pinnacles Trail for a flat walk back.

Both trails were really interesting and beautiful, and Pinnacles National Park exceeded our nearly nonexistent expectations! We stayed in the campground in the park (on the east side, the east and west sides of the park actually don’t connect by a road). They offered RV sites with electric hookups, and we booked the last available one. There was a lot of wildlife to be seen. Acorn woodpeckers were flying to a granary tree. In the campground we saw many quail, vultures in a tree nearby, and raccoon paw prints all over our truck!

On a rainy day, we drove west to the coast to visit Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was busy, even on a Monday! We spent all day at the aquarium, seeing their large variety of animals.

Brian loved that they didn’t just have “flashy” and “glamorous” species like penguins, and sea otters, but also weird and interesting species.

They had a special exhibit on Tentacles, which had octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus. It was mesmerizing to see them change colors before our eyes.

There is a large tank that is kelp forest habitat, which is native to the Pacific Ocean. The leopard sharks and school of sardines were fun to watch. We also loved the jellyfish and large colorful anemone.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium emphasizes the environmental impact of fishing, the importance of eating seafood that is sustainably harvested, and the negative impact of human behavior and plastic in the ocean. They have a program called Seafood Watch that makes recommendations for which types of seafood are most ocean-friendly. It isn’t always fun to hear about, but it’s important, and they do a good job of educating and increasing awareness.

Day 567 | Mile 60,581

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park wasn’t the first National Park in America, but it was the first federally protected land. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln set aside the Yosemite Grant to the State of California.

Yellowstone later became the first National Park because the land fell into three territories that weren’t yet states. Yosemite was a state park until John Muir (a wilderness deity in California) and others advocated for it to become a National Park in 1890, for additional protection. It became the fifth National Park.

We camped at Yosemite Lakes RV Park (a Thousand Trails Campground), about 5 miles outside the entrance to the park. The day that we arrived at our campsite, Yosemite Valley was closed. There was a two-day rain storm and the park predicted flooding. It was closed for about a day and a half. When we went into the valley a day later, the water had receded, but it was still a bit soggy.

From the rain, and the spring snow melt, the Merced river was rushing, and the waterfalls were flowing fast.

The sheer granite cliffs make Yosemite National Park a world famous place for rock climbing and strenuous hiking, but we sought out some easier hikes.

We hiked about a 5 mile loop around Mirror Lake. The section of the trail to the lake was really crowded, but it thinned out after we got on the longer loop.

We heard from another hiker that a section of the trail was underwater, and we would have to scramble over some rocks to continue. It turned out to be about a half an hour of climbing over rocks and fallen trees, through the woods next to the trail, that was under about a foot of water. It made the hike a lot more interesting.

The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is within Yosemite National Park and is the primary water source for the city of San Francisco, and produces clean hydroelectric energy. It is controversial, because the Hetch Hetchy Valley was once similar to Yosemite Valley, and even though it was part of a National Park at the time, it was flooded to create the reservoir.

We went to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and hiked over the dam and around the reservoir until the trail ended at a damaged bridge, about 5 miles round trip. The plants near the cliffs were so interesting. The trail was a little soggy, and at times turned into a creek.

In Yosemite Valley, we went on a Ranger Walk and learned about acorn woodpeckers, who store acorns in holes they make in dead trees, turning them into granary trees. We liked the Ranger, who is getting a masters degree in Park Member Experience. That sounds interesting, especially as the National Parks keep getting more crowded.

The south section is the historical heart of the park. There are old log buildings and a covered bridge from Yosemite’s pioneer history. There is also a grove of Sequoias, but it was closed for repairs.

Even though we visited in April, before the summer rush, there were a lot of people there. Visitors all concentrate in the Yosemite Valley, which is only 6 square miles, so it did feel crowded.

Yosemite National Park is very obviously beautiful. We enjoyed hiking there, and gawking at the cliffs and tall waterfalls.

Day 563| Mile 60,215

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks

Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park share a border and management. The parks are in the Sierra Mountains and include Giant Sequoia forests, mountain wilderness, and the deep and dramatic Kings Canyon.

Our visit was a bit early, and we often underestimate the effect of elevation. There were wildflowers in the foothills, and snow in the mountains. Every time we were near snow, there were kids throwing snowballs at their parents. It looked like snow was a rare sight for many of them!

The road into Kings Canyon was still closed for the season. We took a hike around Hume Lake, which was pleasant even though it wasn’t that interesting. The drive to the lake featured a view into the canyons.

Both Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park’s protect Giant Sequoia trees. They can live to be 3,000 years old and are the largest living thing in the world. They can grow to be 311 feet and 40 feet in diameter at the base. The Sugar Pines in the area are tall too, but we could always pick out the Sequoias by their reddish bark.

They only grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet elevation. So there weren’t many to begin with. After loggers set their sights on them in the 1880s, and started cutting them down, Sequoia and General Grant (later changed to Kings Canyon) National Parks were created in 1890 to protect them.

When the trees were first protected, the park tried to put out and prevent fires, but they didn’t understand that they need natural fires to reproduce. They make tiny seed cones that only open when heated by fire. The Sugar Pine trees have the largest cone of any pine trees, you’d think the world’s largest tree would be the one with the big cones.

Adult trees can live through most fires because the bark is very thick, but are left with gnarly scars. Some trees have trunks that we could walk into or through. It’s hard to believe those trees are still alive, but they are.

In Kings Canyon, there is in an area of Sequoias called Grant’s Grove, named for the biggest one there, and the third biggest tree in the world, the General Grant tree.

There is also a downed tree that is hollow that we walked through. Once the trees fall, they can stick around for hundreds of years.

A ranger recommended a hike on the Trail of Sequoias and Crescent Trail, which he said was 7 miles, though he didn’t know the trail’s current condition. These are winter trails, so they are marked with blazes on trees.

To get to the trail, we parked at the parking for General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world. It’s not the tallest, but the trunk is so thick that it’s the biggest by volume. The area with the famous named trees was busy, but once we got past this, it was just us and the trees.

The trail was mostly clear, but had patches of snow. We had on inappropriate footwear (non-waterproof hiking shoes), and our feet were soon soaked and cold, and stayed that way for the whole hike.

The snow slowed us down, and it was hard to make good time with our necks craned upward the whole time. Brian loves the big trees. I know this, because he regularly examined them, and then exclaimed, “I love the big trees”.

We eventually decided that the ranger must not have counted the hike from the parking area to the start of the trail (past General Sherman), when he told us it was about 7 miles, because it was closer to 10 miles!

We drove out of Sequoia, on a steep switchbacking road. Brian pulled off at a pullout near the river, and talked me into climbing down the slope, because he wanted to see the river. Of course when we got back to the truck and continued down the road, there was a great view of the river!

We camped at Sequoia RV Park, near the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. The campground wasn’t anything special, but the manager was nice, and there were full hookups. It was a good spot to explore the parks from, we drove a windy road through National Forest and National Monument land to get to the Kings Canyon entrance, but it wasn’t as difficult of a drive as the southern, Sequoia entrance, and it was very scenic.

Day 555| Mile 60,529

Santa Barbara, California and Channel Islands National Park

We decided to visit Santa Barbara after learning that there is an island National Park just off the coast. My cousin Sarah lives in Santa Barbara, and there are great wine regions nearby, so we had plenty of reasons to visit.

We stayed on the other side of the mountains from Santa Barbara, at Rancho Oso RV park. We stayed there because it is a Thousand Trails campground, and it was fine, except for a lack of cell service.

We met up with my cousin Sarah downtown, and she showed us the Santa Barbara courthouse, where she’ll be getting married soon. It’s a beautiful building, and we climbed the clock tower for a great view of Santa Barbara and the mountains.

Afterward, we walked down State street (the shopping district) to the wharf. Then we did a little wine tasting, and her fiance met us for dinner. It was a great time catching up!

Solvang is a Danish village in the Santa Ynez valley northeast of Santa Barbara. We went there for breakfast, and had Danish sausage and pancakes. We had a little time to kill before we visited a couple wineries, so we walked around the town and visited a Danish bakery where we bought… Danishes! For some reason, wineries don’t open until 10 or 11 am.

Brian had visited Demetria winery about 10 years ago, and liked it so much that he wanted to visit again. We didn’t have an appointment, but they fit us in since it was early on a weekday. The drive through the winery was picturesque, with the grapevines growing on the hills. The grapes weren’t growing yet, but the hills were much greener than usual, since the area had a lot of rain the week before. We tasted wine outside on the patio, the only ones there.

We also visited Riverbench winery, where we liked the wine, but not as much as Demetria. We called it a day after two wineries. Wine tasting is expensive, especially when we like the wine enough to buy some.

The last day of our visit we went to Channel Islands National Park. It’s made up of five islands, which are off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Anacapa Island and Santa Cruz Island are about an hour boat ride away. Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands are further away. They have always been isolated from the mainland so they have unique ecosystems. The sea around the islands is a giant kelp forest.

We chose to visit Santa Cruz Island. It’s the biggest island (in Channel Islands and also in California, 96 square miles!), and has the most hiking trails. We booked a day trip on the Island Packers Ferry. Our boat left at 8 am, and it was foggy and chilly. We brought jackets and dressed in layers, and were glad we did, because we sat up top on the boat and it was windy! We saw a seal and a pod of dolphins on the way there.

We first went to the campground to look for Island Fox. They are native to the Channel Islands and so freakin’ cute. They are about the size of cats, and seemed to resemble their behavior at times.

We heard that we would definitely see some near the campground, where they try to steal food from people.

I’ll admit, after they cooperated with our photo shoot (they aren’t scared of people) I had to resist trying to coax one into my backpack. They are just the right size for a trailer pet!

When we finally tore ourselves away from the foxes, we went for a hike. There is a trail right on the coast of the island, that shows off the rocky cliff. Many days the mainland and all the other islands can be seen from the trail, but the day of our visit was foggy. It was fun to see the fog drift in and out, and climb right up the cliffs and wash over the hills.

We had a picnic lunch at Cavern Point, and when we sat down to eat we couldn’t see anything past the rock we were sitting on. After just a few minutes, the fog blew away and an amazing view popped out!

When we got to Potato Harbor, the view was mostly fog. We could hear a seal (ort ort ort!) but couldn’t see it.

We were planning to hike back on the inland trail, but the coastal trial was so nice that we took it back too. Even without a long view out to sea, there was plenty of beauty. Succulents and a large variety of plants grew on the cliffs, and some flowers were blooming.

A prescribed burn had gotten out of control a few days prior, and they cancelled trips to the island for two days before our trip was scheduled, so I was glad to be able to visit.

After we finished the trail, we went to the beach to crawl on the rocks and see what we could find. We found some crabs. I was following Brian out, and he hopped up on a rock just in time for a wave to come in and soak my feet! I had wet feet all the way home on the boat.

On the boat ride home, we saw the pod of dolphins again! There were hundreds of them, and they swam near the boat for probably 15 minutes. It was amazing to see them all jumping through the air. It was a great way to end our long, tiring day on Santa Cruz Island.

Day 548 | Mile 59,863

Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park

Driving south out of Death Valley, we stopped at a market. We were in line to buy a loaf of freshly baked date bread, and a couple of ladies told us that the date farm where the bread was made is in Tacopa, just a few miles away. They also suggested we may not want to take the trailer down the steep winding road to the farm.

We didn’t have any cell service, but were able to follow their directions and signs to China Ranch Date Farm. There was a gravel lot at the top of the hill, where we unhitched the trailer. We went to the gift shop and bought date milkshakes (that were more like date blizzards), a date cookie, and two pounds of assorted dates. It’s a good thing I discovered I like dates. Brian thought it was so cool to be able to buy so many varieties of dates!

We boondocked inside Mojave National Preserve. We knew there were some other campers nearby, but we couldn’t see anyone around! It was really peaceful and quiet.

Mojave National Preserve is a big place that has volcanos, desert, sand dunes, and Joshua Tree forests. We went to the volcanic area to see a lava tube. It was only a short walk from the car to the entrance of the tube, and we passed small openings in the earth. We peaked inside and tried to guess how far down they went. When we got to the largest opening, I was relieved to find a ladder!

We passed four other people getting into the lava tube, but when we were down there, we had it all to ourselves. There was a squeeze where we had to bend over to fit through, but then it opened into a big room.

We could see the openings in the ground that we looked into before. They let light stream into the lava tube in beams. We were lucky to see the light beams, they kept disappearing and reappearing as clouds went overhead, until it eventually disappeared for good. It was actually raining a little bit when we left the lava tube.

It rained off and on throughout the day, but cleared up enough for Brian to make a fire and cook steaks over it for dinner. It was nice to sit out by a fire with no one around.

The next day we drove to another area of the park (Mohave is pretty big), to the Teutonic Peak area, where there is the densest Joshua Tree Forest. Joshua Trees are funny looking, with different shapes and sizes and numbers of branches. Seeing all the trees together almost looked a little grotesque. It was fun to look at each one, they seem to have different personalities, like Saguaro cactuses.

We climbed up on some of the rocks, and avoided stink bugs that showed us their butts when we walked by.

Before we left the park we stopped at the visitors center, which is a converted train station and a beautiful building.

We moved a few hours to Joshua Tree National Park, and boondocked on BLM land on the north side of the park. The area was basically a big field where many other people were parked too, but it was a great option for us. Near the park and free! And all the campgrounds in the park were full.

We were surprised to find out that Joshua Tree is such a busy and popular park. We went to the visitor center just outside the park, and the ranger warned us how busy it is during the whole month of March, because of spring break. We asked if there were any ways to avoid the crowds, and he recommended arriving very early, before sunrise, and then recommended all the most popular hikes/areas in the park. Maybe, due to the park’s relatively small developed area, there aren’t better ways to avoid the crowds.

We visited the park two days, and each day arrived at sunrise and left by noon or 1 pm. In the mornings we heard and saw birds, and once heard a whole pack of coyotes going nuts. We aren’t morning people, but the colorful sunrise on the second day made getting up early worth it.

The two most popular attractions in the park are Joshua Trees and rocks, and we saw a lot of both. The Joshua Trees in this park looked healthier and fuller than the ones at Mohave.

The granite rock formations at Hidden Valley were fun to crawl up on. We thought we would just do the one mile hike pretty quickly, but it was so nice there, and pretty quiet so early in the morning, so we took our time.

We also did the Split Rock Trail and the Cap Rock Nature Trail, which were also pretty short easy hikes, but Hidden Valley was our favorite.

At the overlook at Keys View we could see down into the Coachella Valley.

Joshua Tree National Park includes both Colorado desert and Mohave desert, which are very different. The Colorado desert is lower and hotter than the Mohave Desert, and contains spikier plants. There is an area called the Cholla Cactus Garden, that is full of cactus.

While we were in Death Valley, our truck started going into limp mode. It had been happening more and more, so we wanted to get it fixed before we had to tow again. The Ford dealer in the area couldn’t get us in until the day after we were planning to leave, but they did have a throttle body in stock. Since this was the part that needed replaced last time we had this problem, Brian bought the part and installed it himself. So far, it seems to have fixed the problem!

Day 542| Mile 59,185

Death Valley National Park

We tried to make good time getting to Death Valley, but it still took us three and a half days to drive the 2,100 miles. The first couple days through the Midwest were pretty boring, but it got a whole lot more pretty once we passed Denver. Driving on I70 through Colorado and Utah showed off snow-capped mountains and dramatic canyons.

By the time we made it to the park we were so ready to get out and explore. Most of the campgrounds in Death Valley are no reservation, no hookup campgrounds, and rarely all fill up. We camped at Sunset campground in the Furnace Creek area. Furnace Creek is the heart of the park because it is a natural oasis, in the dry valley.

Death Valley is an extreme place. It is the largest National Park in the United States, outside of Alaska. It also has the lowest point in North America, and is one of the hottest places in the world. The valley is entirely surrounded by mountains, and the hot dry air gets trapped, and keeps getting hotter. Fortunately in March the temperature usually gets into the high 70s during the day, and 50s at night.

It is so dark in Death Valley at night. It felt especially dark after spending three nights in Walmart parking lots. The wind howled the first few nights. I don’t think we’ve been in stronger sustained winds! We assumed the tired people we saw in the park were tent camping.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, and it’s what I thought of when I thought of Death Valley. It’s a salt flat, and we walked out into it until the salt and mud formed a hexagon pattern.

There are several areas of salt flats, some looked even saltier. Tasted salty too!

We found the Devil’s Golf Course even more interesting. The salt and mud have formed knee-high spikey knobs, that are strong enough to walk on. We walked out on them, and it was pretty tricky to stay upright. There was a warning posted that if you fall on them, they will cut you!

Erosion of the mountains creates sand, and there are a couple of areas where the sand is trapped, making sand dunes.

We walked into the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, and avoided the popular trail up the biggest dune to have more solitude. Sometimes we would step on hard packed sand, and other times sink right in.

The morning after a few days of strong winds they looked pristine. The wind left such interesting patterns in the sand.

It was fun to find animal tracks, and try to guess who had left them.

Desolation Canyon is behind an area called “Artist’s Palette” because the canyons are made up of multicolored rocks in pastel pink and blue. We hiked over three miles round-trip into the canyon.

After we hiked about a mile and a half of the trail, there was a side trail that went up a hill. We went up, and Brian pointed to the tallest peak around, and said we were going up that. I said no, but he talked me into it. About two thirds of the way up, I panicked. Some combination of the howling winds, dizzying height, and crumbling ground got to me. I basically clutched the trail and refused to move. Brian talked me into scooting myself the rest of the way.

The view from the top was breathtaking, but it was hard to enjoy it too much, knowing I still had to make my way down. I scooted down the whole way on my butt, stopping to panic again in about the same spot.

It was not the most graceful I’ve ever been, but at least I had an audience of 6 other hikers who stopped and sat down to watch. I’d love to say that I’m glad I did it, and it was worth it in the end, but nope. I think it was dumb. No view is worth risking falling off a mountain! Brian disagrees. People clearly climb up it, there were a few footholds carved into it, but it wasn’t established enough of a trail to make me comfortable that it was safe.

Death Valley has had native people living in it for thousands of years. There are petrogylphs remaining. In the 1800s, during the gold rush in California, homesteaders and miners came through the area, and it was used for mining. Some silver mining was done, and they made charcoal in kilns to use in the smelters. Ten 25 foot high kilns were built in 1877 and only used for a couple years.

Borax was mined in Death Valley starting in the 1880s. We went to a ranger talk at Harmony Borax Mine. Before it started, Brian questioned whether I really wanted to listen to a talk about Borax mining. It is surprising that I voluntarily seek out things that I would’ve found so boring if my parents had made me do them as a kid. It was an interesting talk! We learned that ’20 Mule Team Borax’ was transported out of Death Valley on wagons pulled by 18 mules and 2 horses, and the trip took 30 days round trip. It’s hard to believe it took so much work to make laundry detergent.

We drove on the unpaved high clearance road through Warm Springs Canyon. It was about 14 miles out to the remains of a White Point Mine, and we saw burros on the way. The mine remains were interesting to see, but it’s surprising that when a mine closes, they don’t have to remove everything.

Aside from the burros, and some lizards, the only other wildlife we saw were the endemic Salt Creek Pupfish. A boardwalk took us passed the creek, and the fish that live there are tiny, only about an inch long. They live in this one extremely isolated shallow creek, and can survive the large range of winter and summer temperatures.

We also drove Titus Canyon road, an unpaved, thankfully one-way road. It climbs up a plateau, and over Red Pass (where the dirt is red), and down into Titus Canyon. Tall walls came up around us, and there was barely room for a car to make it through. It’s hard to believe the canyon is passable by car.

After driving Titus Canyon road, we ended up in the middle of the park, so we went north to see Ubehebe Crater. The view from the parking lot was so nice, and the wind had picked up again, so we skipped the hike around the crater’s rim.

We spent about five days at Death Valley, and we filled long days to see as much of it as we could. We were amazed at not only the vastness of the park, but also the beauty. Every direction had towering mountains on the horizon and something fascinating right in front of us.

Day 537| Mile 58,450

Key Largo, Florida

This was our first repeat visit, and the reservation we planned the farthest ahead for! Since we knew we were going to Florida to visit Disney (thanks to Brian’s sister’s planning), we decided to go to the Keys again. The state parks in the Keys book up SO fast, that we really had to hustle for this reservation. We made it 11 months in advance, and woke up at 5 am (darn time zones) three days in a row to get a spot. We literally had a single chance to click at the perfect time each morning to get one of the available sites.  It was very satisfying when we were able to reserve 13 nights at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The state park has full hookups, and at half the price of a private campground in the area, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular.

Because we had our visit planned in advance, we arranged for my mom to come visit! She joined us for the second half of our stay. We were feeling pretty tired from Disney and we’d already explored the area, so we took it easy until Mom arrived. Also, it was windy the first half of the week, so the conditions weren’t good for snorkeling or fishing. The one thing we did a lot of is eat seafood. Brian cooked whole tilefish, whole lionfish, and snapper filets. We also went to Island Grille for tuna nachos, and recreated a version at home.

We went on a hike in Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park (otherwise known as DJKLHBSP to the locals), which is right next to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We got a permit to hike on the backcountry trails, but when we got there, we learned that the trails were all paved roads, except for a short section that went towards the coast. At the end of the trail, there was a bunch of trash. It must’ve blown in from the hurricane. It was kind of shocking to see, and really made me think about where our trash ends up. There was a toilet seat hanging in a tree, lots of buoys and other fishing gear, and all kinds of plastic containers that were swept around in the ocean long enough to have all their labels scrubbed off.

We did see damage from Hurricane Irma across the Keys, more in the south. A lot is cleaned up, but many signs were missing, and a lot of construction is going on.

We rented kayaks at John Pennekamp, and went kayaking through the mangroves. It was a little tricky because the wind tried to blow us into the trees, and the narrow trails were two-way. We took a chance on a double kayak, even after being told that they are also known as ‘divorce kayaks’. We managed to operate it pretty well, and I only considered jumping out and swimming back once or twice.

We drove to West Palm Beach to see my friend Carly who was visiting her family. I vastly underestimated Miami traffic, and what I thought would be a 2.5 hour drive took us about 4 hours. It was great to see her, and her family was so nice. They showed us around their beautiful house and sun porch, introduced us to their dogs, and we had cuban takeout and talked. It was a great night.

After my mom came to visit, we picked up the pace and saw a lot. The first day we drove to the north side of the Everglades and took the Shark Valley Tram Tour.

The tram tour is a great way to see alligators and lots of birds including great blue heron, egrets, ibis, and anhinga. We saw a baby gator (babies have yellow stripes) and a nest of baby anhinga. After the tram tour we drove into the main entrance of the park and walked on the boardwalk at the Anhinga Trail.

We visited Robert is Here fruit stand to buy exotic fruits and a few of their delicious smoothies. We bought guanabana, papaya, black sapote, key limes, and passionfruit to make more smoothies.

The next day we drove from Key Largo at the north end of the Florida Keys, 100 miles down to Key West, which is the southernmost tip of the Keys. We ate sandwiches at Cuban Coffee Queen, while a stray rooster stalked our crumbs, and then popped into shops as we walked to the Hemingway House.

Brian snuck off to have a cigar while mom and I toured Ernest Hemingway’s house. The tour guide told us about Hemingway’s life and wives, and his time in Key West in the 1930s. All through the house and property were six-toed cats that are descendants from Hemingway’s cat. There are now 54 cats on the property. They are a major part of the experience, yet a tour guide didn’t seem amused when I told her I was just there for the cats.

After the tour we met back up with Brian at Blue Heaven where we had a couple drinks and mile-high key lime pie before we walked to Mallory Square for the sunset celebration. Then we drove home the 100 miles and saw a couple Key Deer on Big Pine Key.

The next day Brian hired a guide and went fly fishing in the shallow flats between southern florida and the Keys. He fished for tarpon, and saw some and cast to them, but didn’t get any to bite. He did catch a few speckled sea trout, which made a tasty dinner!

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Mom and I had better luck with tarpon! We drove to Islamorada and ate lunch at the Hungry Tarpon, and then we bought a bucket of fish to feed to the tarpon. We managed to get a few fish to the tarpon and jacks, and a few fish were taken by the pelicans, one right out of my hand! The pelicans are so aggressive there!

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The best part was when a manatee swam right up to the pier to see what we were doing. He (or she) seemed really interested in us! A few people pet it, and I tried so hard, but my arm wasn’t quite long enough. One woman thought her toddler wanted to meet the manatee so she dangled him head first by his feet down off the pier. He screamed! Others tried to feed it fish, which it ignored, since manatees (sea cows) eat grass (obviously).

Afterward we went to the Wild Bird Sanctuary. We took mom to a lot of the same places we enjoyed going to when we visited last year. We didn’t make it to the turtle hospital on Marathon this time, there are so many good wildlife experiences in southern Florida! We also checked out the artists’ village and its giant lobster.

The activity I was most interested in was snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Brian and I did this last year, but it was windy and the sea was choppy and we didn’t see much. This time the conditions were much better. We signed up for the extended snorkeling trip (4.5 hours), but they didn’t get 10 people to sign up for it, so we ended up on the 2.5 hour regular trip. I don’t know why the extended trip isn’t more popular! So, we snorkeled on the Grecian Rocks reef, and it was great! The water was so clear and there were fish everywhere. We saw barracuda, parrotfish, snapper, hogfish, small colorful reef fish, all kinds of coral. I must’ve brushed some fire coral with my forearm and it stung afterward. Mom and I wore new full face snorkels, which were so easy to breathe in. Brian wore goggles and a nose plug, so he didn’t have to shave his beard this time. He did cut it short though, to help with the Florida heat.

We had a great visit with my mom. Unfortunately, the first day of her visit, while we were on the Everglades Tram Tour, someone got into our truck and stole two brand new camera lenses and some other things. We just bought a fancy new camera and three lenses, and having things stolen from us was really upsetting. Fortunately, we had the camera body and most expensive lens, our phones, and our wallets with us. Also, we have full-timer insurance (from Foremost) on the trailer, which acts like a homeowners policy, so it covered the loss. Having things stolen from us has made me a bit more uneasy with leaving things in our truck or trailer.

Our time on the Keys with my mom flew by, and when it was time to go, we drove up to Gainesville, Georgia with my mom to visit my cousins Don and Diane. We had a great visit and were very well-fed for a few days to finish off our February of Family Fun! When we left Georgia, we were planning to head west, but instead headed back to Michigan to attend a funeral. Then we will be off to the west!

Day 518| Mile 54,319

Disney World!

Brian’s sister Erin planned a trip to Disney World for our niece Quinn’s fourth birthday, and invited us to join them!

Erin booked sites in Disney’s Fort Wilderness campground a year and a half ago. Brian’s parents came too, and camped in their new motorhome, so we had three campsites in a row. They also rented a golf cart, which made it much easier to get around the huge campground. There is a bus line in the campground, that we took a few times.

The first evening we went to a campfire and singalong in the campground and Chip and Dale were there! Quinn played with other kids and made friends.

The next day we went shopping at Disney Springs because I couldn’t go to Disney World without mouse ears. In the evening we went to the Hoop de Doo Revue, which is a family-style fried chicken and ribs dinner, with a western musical show. Dinner was delicious, and the singing and dancing were fun to watch.

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We bought four-day park tickets, and spent two days in Magic Kingdom, a day in Epcot, and a day in Animal Kingdom.

The first thing we did in Magic Kingdom was take Quinn to get her princess makeover at the Bibbity Bobbity Boutique. She was excited to pick out a princess dress and get her hair, makeup, and nails done by her fairy godmother.

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We met princesses, went on the Small World ride, and watched the Mickey’s Philharmagic Concert, which was really cute. We rode the Seven Dwarves Mine Ride, and it was a bit faster and more roller coaster-y than I expected. Quinn was not pleased. I would’ve been scared of it, had I known what it was like. I have about the same tolerance of roller coasters as a 4 year old. I got worse about rides, too, as the trip went on. I asked the employees working the lines if the rides were scary, or how bad the drops were. I think they all assumed I was asking for Quinn. Nope, I am actually that much of a wuss.

We ate at Be Our Guest, the restaurant in Beast’s Castle, and we did the Belle experience, which was interactive. Brian was a knight.

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We took a break in the afternoon, and came back later and rode the Peter Pan ride, the Little Mermaid ride, met Ariel, and rode the Dumbo ride and the tea cups. Brian and Andrew made themselves dizzy.

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The next day we went to Epcot and it was so hot and there wasn’t much shade. We had breakfast in Norway and enjoyed riding the Frozen ride and meeting Elsa and Anna. We walked through a few of the countries before we overheated and went back to camp to rest.

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We came back later, and the countries were so crowded! We did some of the classic rides, which are a bit dated. We liked the Finding Nemo ride. The International Festival of the Arts was taking place, and we ate at a couple of the food stands and “appreciated art”.

We ate fish and chips in England and watched the fireworks and the light show on the lake. We had the most fun at Epcot at night!

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We liked Animal Kingdom more than we expected to! We ate breakfast at the Tusker House with Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and Daisy! It was cute meeting the characters in their safari outfits. The best part was when Quinn told Daisy she was her favorite.

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Then we went to Pandora and rode the Flight of Passage ride. We were lucky (which really means, Erin planned well) to have fast passes for this ride, because the line got up to four hours long! It was a great ride! It was a virtual reality ride, which I prefer (because I’m a huge wuss). It really felt like we were flying!

We boarded jeeps for the animal safari and rafts for a water ride. We watched the Bug’s Life show in the Tree of Life, and no one liked it when it felt like bugs were crawling on us! The Lion King show was really good.

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Pandora was really beautiful, Brian and I decided to stay after the rest of the family left and see it after dark. At night there was a light show projected onto the Tree of Life.

Our last day in a park was Valentines Day, and we went back to Magic Kingdom. It was cooler than the other days (high 70s rather than 80s) and it felt really nice. We started the day with breakfast in Cinderella’s castle. Quinn wore the beautiful Snow White dress that Peggy made for her, which was the perfect outfit for meeting all the princesses. Before we ate, we got to meet Cinderella and Prince Charming.

We were crossing the park when we ran into a parade with a dance party!

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We rode the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and Aladdin’s magic carpet ride, and visited the Tiki Room, where we heard the only song that stuck in our heads worse than “it’s a small world, after all” (“At the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room…”). We rode the monorail and cars in Tomorrowland. The monorail goes into Space Mountain, which is all dark, and just being near the roller coaster made me nervous!

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Brian’s family left midday for a break, but Brian and I stayed. We saw the afternoon parade, which was a series of colorful floats that filled me with Disney spirit!

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We visited the Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor, which is a comedy show where the animated characters interact with the audience. As we were filing in, Brian wanted to switch seats with me so I could see better, which put me on the aisle. As soon as they started shining a spotlight on people and asking them questions, I got nervous. The very first question was asked to the girl sitting behind me, and for a second I thought the light was shining on me. The relief I felt when I realized it wasn’t was replaced with panic when they called on me! There were probably at least a hundred people watching the show, so I really didn’t think I was likely to be called on. I think I did okay while I let a monster “read my mind” and guess the number I was thinking of ( though Brian tells me I should’ve picked pi).

We ate a fancy dinner at the Skipper’s Canteen before meeting back up with the family for the Magic Kingdom light show. It was definitely worth sticking around for the light show, which is projected onto the castle. We all loved it!

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There are Photo Pass photographers throughout the parks that took pictures and link them to our account. Erin bought all ours in advance, so I made sure to stop at as many as possible. I think I had the most fun with this, I just love photos! The most fun was the “magic photos” where they took our picture, and added something to them afterward.

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We ate some tasty food in Disney! We weren’t expecting too much, because a few years ago we went to Universal Studios, and the food wasn’t impressive. I think the rides are better at Universal Studios, but the food, parades, characters, and overall experience at Disney can’t be beat!

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We tried to do Disney on a 4 year old’s schedule, and Erin did a great job of planning breakfasts as the main event of the day, and planning in rest breaks mid-day. But, Disney is not a easy place, and it tires out even the most active kid! She had such a good time until she couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore, now matter how hard she tried.

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The last day of our trip we didn’t go to a park. Quinn took a pony ride, and we went to the campground pool, and Brian and Andrew took Quinn fishing. We had dinner and many drinks at the Cuban restaurant at Disney Springs, and Quinn danced!

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Brian liked Disney more than he expected to. It’s kind of like a kid-friendly Las Vegas. It was a really great week of Disney family fun!

Day 505 | Mile 52,209