Haleakala National Park

Haleakala National Park is definitely at the top of my favorite national parks list. The national park is a volcano divided into two sections. The summit district is at the top of the volcano with a mars looking landscape and the Kipahulu district is on the backside near the ocean and has the most gorgeous rainforest that you get to by driving one of the world’s most beautiful drives. The drive isn’t for the faint of heart but it’s bucket list worthy for sure.

Haleakala National Park

We flew in from the Big Island in the afternoon and picked up our rental camper van from Campervan Hawaii. This van itself was a highlight of this trip! We then stopped at Safeway to purchase the most expensive groceries of our lives and finally hit the road for the campground near the top of Haleakala.

Our sweet campervan!

Summit District

There are only six campsites at Hosmer Grove Campground and reservations are really hard to get. We were hoping for two nights, so that we could spend more time at the summit, but were only able to secure one night. We got to the campground after dark and left before the sun so I have no idea what anything other than the bathroom looks like. One of the coolest things about the campervan is that we didn’t have to set anything up. We pulled into our parking spot, put the shades in the windows, and went to sleep. I get the van life movement.

Lights of all the other cars driving up the Haleakala switchbacks for sunrise

One of the top things to do in Haleakala is to watch the sunrise from the top of the volcano. You are above the clouds so the sunrise is magical. The internet had lots to say about this and I was a little nervous about whether it would be as epic as it was made out to be. It was. The top of the volcano is really cold and windy, so bring as many clothes and hand warmers as you can. We bundled up in as much as we could and walked over to grab a spot. Getting in the park before sunrise requires a permit but there were still a lot of people there for sunrise. Don’t let that scare you though. I actually thought that is part of what made it so moving. We were standing next to strangers waiting and hoping to catch a beautiful sunrise. Eventually everyone starts chatting with each other, sharing hand warmers, holding each others cameras. You learn what brought people to such a moment. Some for fun, some to remember loved ones.

Sunrise in Haleakala National Park

Before the sun rose the sky started changing colors and the second the sun peeped the clouds someone started singing a Hawaii chant which they continued until the sun was fully above the clouds. Talk about a magical, beautiful, moving moment. It’s one that will stay with me forever. We waited a bit to watch the sky a little longer but by this point we were frozen. Another perk of the campervan is we could make more coffee in the parking lot!

Heading out on a cold & windy hike into the crater

We sat in a the van for a bit, drinking coffee and warming up, while waiting for the temperature outside to rise. Eventually we got out of the warm van and hiked into the crater. I walked a little ways. The Husband walked a little farther than me. The elevation at the top of Haleakala is 10,000 feet so walking out of the crater is no joke.

Haleakala National Park crater from the Sliding Sands Trail
Haleakala National Park crater from the Kalahaku Overlook

Kipahulu District

While we were only able to get one night at Hosmer Grove, we were able to secure two nights at Kipahulu Campground which is in the section of the national park near the ocean. It’s one of my all-time favorite campgrounds. Getting there is not for the faint of heart though. First, we had to drive down from the top of Haleakala which is a very windy road full of tight switchbacks. Once we got down from the mountain we had to drive around the island of Maui to get to Kipahula. To get there you take the famed Road to Hana! Honestly, it was a lot to drive in one day because both driving down the volcano and driving the Road to Hana requires a lot of intense concentration.

Sunset from the Kipahulu Campground

The campground is a grassy area with picnic tables. One of the coolest things is that the campground is right on the ocean. There’s no beach, just lava rocks, but you are probably 30 feet from the ocean, and serenaded by the ocean every waking moment. Heaven on earth. And if that isn’t enough, there is an epic hike that starts just outside of the campground.

Kipahulu Campground

The next morning we walked a short distance from the campground to the start of the Pipiwai trail. We started the hike first thing in the morning and I’m glad we did because the trail was busy as we were walking back. If you plan to hike this trail, please wear proper hiking footwear and take your 10 essentials. The trail is wet, muddy, and steep in some parts. We saw people in all kinds of craziness, like flip flops and a 16oz bottle of water.

Pipiwai Trail

This is one of the most magical trails I’ve hiked. You start out in the rain forest, a thick rainforest with not a lot of air flow, and a decent incline. At this point I was questioning my life choices. Eventually we made it to the banyan tree and took a quick picture break.

Banyan tree on the Pipiwai trail

Sometime after that we entered the bamboo forest. Coolest part of the hike for sure! The bamboo clanking around sounded like wind chimes. And there was air flow again!

Epic bamboo forest on the Pipiwai trail

After the bamboo forest we crossed a few water falls and eventually made it to the end to see more waterfalls. It felt like a scene from Jurassic Park. You’re able to get closer to the falls than this picture and we did. The canyon walls are so high you have to be pretty far back to get multiple falls in one shot. Waimoko Falls on the left is 400 ft.

Waterfalls at the end of the Pipiwai trail

On our way back to camp we swung by the Pools of ‘Ohe’o near the visitor center. Apparently back in the day you could swim in these but that is no longer the case. We visited in March which is the rainy season and all the water looked liked chocolate milk.

Pools of ‘Ohe’o

We loved our time in Haleakala National Park. We wanted to spend more time at the summit exploring the crater but will have to save that for another trip. Camping in Kipahulu was epic and such a perfect location. Not only were we within walking distance from trails and the ocean, Hana is just down the road and we were able to leisurely explore the area. Overall a fabulous few days.

A Visit to the Big Island of Hawaii

The Island of Hawaii, or the Big Island as most everyone knows it by, has so much to do. It made for a perfect start to our (rainy) Hawaii trip.

We started our Big Island visit by visiting Hawaii Volcanos National Park and stayed at the Volcano House hotel in the park. We had a blast and you can read more about that in my post.

The national park is closer to the town of Hilo and there is lots to do and see in the area. The Wailuku River State Park was a fun surprise. There are two viewpoints in this park and both are right off the parking lots. The first viewpoint is an 80-foot waterfall called Rainbow Falls. We happened to visit in a very rainy season and the waterfall was raging. There weren’t any rainbows but the sheer power of the water was even better.

Rainbow Falls

Right next to the water fall is a huge banyan tree. I don’t know that this was the biggest we saw but it definitely had the most branches.

Just up the road from Rainbow Falls is Boiling Pots. The name comes from when the water is raging, like it was, the water looks like it’s boiling. There was no charge for this park and both sections were worth the stop.

Boiling Pots

Lava Tree State Monument was a cool stop. This was one of the first places we stopped in Hawaii and we were blown away by the flora. It’s a little out of the way but I’m glad we made the drive.

Lava Tree State Monument

Just around the corner from Lava Tree is an area where recent lava flows covered the road. The location is on Google and is known as End of the Road. It’s a crazy thing to see. In general there is lots of this in Hawai’i, in particular on the big island, so if you’ve already seen lots of lava this may not be as exciting. For us it was at the beginning of our trip and was so cool.

End of the Road

The Panalu’u Black Sand Beach was one of our favorite stops. It had been raining for a few days and sunshine was predicted for a few hours so we drove to the beach. We got there early in the morning and were two of four people there. The beach was beautiful and peaceful and just perfect. Not only is the sand black and the beach lined with coconut palm trees, it is known for green sea turtles sun bathing on the shore. Because we were there so early the turtles were still making their way to the beach. We watched them slowly swim to the shore and work their way up the beach. It was a site I will never forget. Eventually more people showed up, including the life guard who created barriers around the sea turtles because they are protected and tourists don’t have boundaries. For whatever it’s worth, the black sand is beautiful but is not comfortable to walk on. It’s crushed lava rock.

Panalu’u Black Sand Beach

We had some time to kill on our way to the airport so we stopped at Pu’uhonua o Honaunu and Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Parks.

Pu’uhonua o Honaunu National Historic Park was fascinating and gorgeous. A section of the park was a sanctuary for people who broke sacred laws (kapu) but first they had to make it there by swimming across the bay and walking across the lava rocks. That’s crazy to think about. I’m definitely grateful to be living in this century.

Pu’uhonua o Honaunu National Historic Park

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park was interesting too. We didn’t have as much time here but walked down to the beach where we saw lots of sea turtles (!!) and a fishpond and fish trap. Native Hawaiians created a fishpond where they could capture and hold fish until they were ready to eat them. Within the pond were fish traps built out of rocks. During high tide the water would bring in the fish and as the tide would leave the fish would get stuck in the traps as the water lever went down. Genius. I love learning how people used to lived.

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Parks

We stayed at the Volcano House most of the time except for the last evening when we stayed at a treehouse in the jungle. The treehouse was a neat experience but probably not something I would do again for a number of reasons. You have to climb a 15 foot ladder to enter or exit. I knew that when I made the reservation but my brain didn’t really process what that meant. I don’t love heights so climbing a wet, wooden ladder with a bag on my back wasn’t my favorite. The rain forest was gorgeous though and we were surrounded by the sound of the rain forest….coqui frogs included. Like all night long. It was neat for one night. The treehouse was off the grid, cool idea, but the lead acid battery for the solar was inside the treehouse (which is tiny) and did not have a vent to the outside. That’s dangerous and it made sleeping a little unnerving. We let the host know but I’m not sure if they made any changes. For that reason, I would not recommend the Air BnB but it was a once in a lifetime stay.

And a random shoutout, the macadamia nut milk lattes at Kona Coffee & Tea are AMAZING!

I’ll leave you with a funny tidbit. Hawaiians love Toyotas. In particular, lifted Tacomas. Their police vehicles are 4Runner’s. We’re Toyota fans so we support their love. I’ve just never seen so many lifted Tacomas in one place. It’s pretty comical.

After the Big Island we hopped over to Maui for a few days. It’s not a bad way to spend a week if I do say so myself. 🙂

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

The Hawai’i national parks have always been on our bucket list but weren’t something we expected to visit anytime soon. We were planning to take a trip somewhere in March and still trying to figure out where to go. I casually suggested Hawai’i if we could do it cheap and next thing you know I was trying to figure out it. Spoiler alert: Hawaii and cheap cannot be used in the same sentence. We did it as inexpensive as we could but honestly, once I had researched everything there was no way we weren’t going to make it happen.

We flew into Kona and rented a car through Turo. It was my first Turo experience and I loved it. I’m all for anything I can do myself. We left the airport, picked up our car which was waiting for us in the airport parking lot, and hit the road to Hawai’i Volcanos National Park. It’s a two hour drive which after a 5.5 hour flight was a little long, but sometimes that’s how ya roll.

Drive to Hawaii Volcanos National Park

We stayed at the Volcano House because we wanted to be near the crater so we had the best chance of seeing lava. Unfortunately for us, the volcano stopped erupting several days before we arrived. We saw a tiny orange glow the first night but then it stopped. The Volcano House made a great home base though.

When I first started planning for Hawaii, so many of the top things to do lists were suggesting visiting active lava flows. I eventually learned that lava flows come and go, which makes sense, and seeing active lava is not something you can really plan for. Just an FYI if you are planning a trip and expecting to see lava flowing into the ocean like I was. Prior to our trip, I followed USGS Volcanoes and Hawaii Volcanos National Park on social media so I could stay current on the lava situation. Between when we booked our trip and arrived, Mauna Loa erupted once and Kilauea started and stopped multiple times. Basically, don’t get your hopes up.

We visited in March and it was really rainy. The side of the island where the national park is is more rain foresty so that means it rains often. Be sure to bring a rain jacket but don’t let the rain prevent you from planning a trip. Granted I live in the desert and rain is a treat, but the rain added to the adventure.

We don’t own rain jackets so we borrowed some from friends for this trip. On our first full day on the island we woke up to rain but were really excited to use our rain jackets so we hopped in the car and set out to adventure in the rain. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Our first stop was Crater Rim Drive to see into the crater. It was pouring rain so I’m not sure why we actually left the hotel but we thought our rain jackets were going to save us. They didn’t. Turns out, the rain jacket I borrowed was actually a wind breaker, and rain jackets don’t protect your pants from the rain. We were sopping wet in about 60 seconds.

We got back in the car, went back to the hotel, and changed into dry clothes. Because my rain jacket was actually a wind breaker, the down jacket I was wearing underneath ended up soaking wet. Overall this was a hilarious and humbling experience. Just a reminder of how little we can actually control in life. After using a hair dryer to dry my down jacket, we drove into Hilo so I could buy an actual rain jacket. We learned two lessons in this experience. 1. Exploring in light rain is fun. Pouring rain does not make for a good experience even if you are fully waterproof. 2. Make sure your gear is actually waterproof.

Over the next two days we explored as much of the park as we could in short bursts. Rain was is the forecast so we didn’t want to do anything that would leave us out in the elements for hours on end. That meant shorter adventures but we still saw so much and had a blast. The Chain of Craters Road is 18.8 miles and takes you from the visitor center all the way to the ocean. It’s a beautiful drive with stops all along the 18 miles. Some of our favorite stops were:

Thurston Lava Tube. The lava tube itself was a little anticlimactic but the area is beautiful. Oh, and it was raining so being in the tube gave us a quick rain break.

The entrance of the Thurston Lava Tube
Inside the Thurston Lava Tube

The parking lot for the lava tube is on the opposite side of the road of the trail…just a little FYI. There is a trail right in front of the parking lot so we started down that. Eventually we turned around and figured out where to go. The walk to the lava tube is through the rain forest and the flora is just gorgeous.

Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone Hike. This hike starts at the Mauna Ula Trailhead parking lot. It takes you through a lava flow from the 1969 – 1974 eruption of Kilauea and to the top of the Pu’u Huluhulu cinder cone. The trail is marked with cairns so be sure you’re paying attention.

We were hiking in a drizzle so we basically had the trail to ourselves. The contrast between the lava and flora is beautiful. The lava carrot below is one of my favorites. Nature is the coolest.

Holei Sea Arch. The Chain of Craters road ends at the parking lot for the Holei Sea Arch. It’s a 90 foot arch carved cut into the lava flows by the sea.

Holei Sea Arch

The drive down to the sea is gorgeous. Prior lava flows ran all the way to the ocean and you can see it on the drive. When it was active it looked like a lava water fall running off the cliffs.

The sea arch is a short walk from the parking lot. In general there isn’t much to do down here but it is gorgeous.

Just passed the arch we noticed a small grouping of coconut palm trees so we walked over. I’m not sure of the story behind them. They either grew out of the lava or the lava somehow missed them. So random.

On our way back up the road we stopped at the top of the hill to eat lunch and take in the view one last time. The reflection of the clouds on the ocean was breathtaking. I could have stayed there all day.

Our final night in the park we ate dinner at the Volcano House. Exploring and hiking all days works up an appetite and the food was fantastic. The restaurant overlooks the crater so we were treated to sunset with dinner.

We had a great time and are glad we made the trip to Hawai’i Volcanos National Park.

Death Valley National Park

If I’ve learned nothing else from this past year, it reminded me how important it is to do the things you want while you can. As such, my travel list has grown substantially. It’s possible all this time at home has provided extra time for wanderlust and list creating.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park was on my list because it’s a national park but it was never a priority. The hottest place on earth? Meh. I mean, what’s really great about that? Boy was I wrong! Death Valley is so cool! We were there for three days and only scratched the surface. Little Miss was supposed to join us but ended up having a conflict so we brought a couple friends. Traveling with friends is so much fun! We arrived in the afternoon and tried to squeeze in a few sites before dark.

Badwater Basin

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. The area is covered in salt flats that you can walk out on. We walked out a ways but the scenery wasn’t changing so we turned around. Apparently we stopped too soon and if you walk out farther the salt flats start to get really cool. Next time.

Right next to Badwater Basin is the Devil’s Golf Course. We almost didn’t stop here and I’m so glad we did! Pictures do not do the area justice. Those are not rocks but rather rock salt that has been eroded by wind and rain to create the jagged spires you see. They are fascinating to see in person!

As we worked our way back to camp we drove Artists Drive Scenic Loop. It’s an 8.5 mile one way drive that winds through hills splashed with different colors.

Artist Palette

We had a little bit of daylight left after we finished the scenic drive so we stopped at Golden Canyon. We didn’t get very far in but what we saw was so cool. Apparently Star Wars was filmed in the some of the canyons back in the day and Golden happened to be one of the locations.

DAY 2

Our goal for the morning of Day 2 was the Ubahebe Crater and we stopped at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes on the way. If you haven’t been to sand dunes before, they’re similar to Las Vegas. Everything looks close but you soon find out your destination is miles away.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

We planned to hike to the highest dune at only a mile away. Easy peasy, right? Not! We got 1/2 or 2/3 of the way there and decided we were good. The constant up and down sand hills is tiring. The dune we were going for is the tallest one you see in the right side of the picture below.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

We read that it’s best to visit Ubahebe Crater earlier in the day as the wind picks up in the afternoon. That’s not a joke. We left camp later in the morning that planned so by the time we made it to the crater is was close to lunchtime. The wind is legit and was making it so hard to walk. You can walk around the entire crater but we opted for only a short section. Pictures do not do the crater justice. It’s huge and so cool in person.

Ubahebe Crater

The picture below is an accurate depiction of how windy it was. We planned to have a nice picnic lunch on the edge of the crater but instead huddled behind the truck in the parking lot.

If you are planning to visit the crater, the turn off of 190 is not well marked. We were traveling north on 190 and completely missed the turn off. Next thing we know we were at the sand dunes, which at this point we didn’t realize are after the turn off. Once we left the sand dunes we kept on driving and eventually realized we were driving west, towards the other exit of the park. Nothing like adding a bunch of unnecessary miles to the day!

After lunch we worked our way back to camp and stopped at the Keane Wonder Mill & Mine. It was a gold mine in the early 1900’s and we spent some time exploring the area. I love seeing bits of history and imaging what it would be like to be alive during that time. I cannot, however, imagine mining in Death Valley pretty much anytime of year.

Keane Wonder Mill & Mine

After our mine exploration we headed back to camp. The boys had to do a little camper maintenance (change a broken leaf spring on a trailer) and they needed enough daylight to get the task done. Once the sun set, we watched a movie outside. Is there anything cooler than watching a movie outside while camping? I think not.

DAY 3

On our third day and final day in the park, we got up early to watch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point. It’s a short walk from the car but a very popular destination. Get there early to ensure a parking spot. This view of Death Valley is stunning. Even if you don’t get here for sunrise, be sure to stop by.

Full Moon Setting from Zabriskie Point

Our next destination was Dantes View, a viewpoint 5,500 feet above the valley floor. On the way, we drove through the 20 Mule Canyon which was a fun little side trip. Dantes View is 25 miles from Furnace Creek and not really worth the drive in my opinion. The view was nice but the drive was long and it was really windy up there. Personally, I’d rather have spent that time exploring the other areas of the park.

Dantes View

Next up, the boys wanted to ride Artist Drive so we picked up their bikes and dropped them off. Man, that road is steep! The picture below is one of my favorite from the trip. I was driving up the road and looked in my rear view to see this image. So I stopped and took a picture.

Riding Bikes on Artist Drive

And they rode their mountain bikes which makes it extra hard. But now they can say they rode in Death Valley!

Artist Palette

We visited in February 2021 and unfortunately, the Visitor Center was closed due to the pandemic. But we did get to see the iconic sign! The temps were perfect when we were there.

Our last stop was Harmony Borax Works. I had no idea borax is mined in California nor what it’s used for other than my favorite ant bait, but now I do! Borax was found in Death Valley in 1881 and a plant built shortly thereafter. The borax had to be hauled from Death Valley to the nearest railroad. They filled wagons, like the ones in the picture below, full of borax and then had 20-mule teams haul it 165 miles to the railroad. You know how on your box of borax is says 20 mule team and has a picture of mules and wagons? Now you know where that came from. Just another one of the many reasons I love national parks.

Harmony Borax Works

Unfortunately, our time in Death Valley had to come to an end but we will be back. There is still so much to explore. We stayed at the Sunset campground which is literally a parking lot. Most of the campgrounds in Death Valley do not take reservations but after speaking with a ranger, I learned they rarely fill up. We visited the end of February and the campground was hardly full. If you aren’t able to make a reservation I wouldn’t worry too much.

Full Moon Rising at the Sunset Campground in Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is barren and there is not much shade. I would not recommend visiting in the summer. The gas was stupid expensive so make sure you fill up before entering the park. I can’t think of any other tips other than to add Death Valley to your bucket list.

One our way home from Death Valley we stopped at Lake Mead for one night. We stayed at the Lake Mead RV Village at Boulder Beach. The sites are a little close together but you’re camping close to the lake so that’s expected. We weren’t right on the lake but it isn’t a far walk. Boulder Beach Campground is right next door and would be a great place to stay also.

In order to build the Hoover Dam, a railroad was built to carry the supplies to the dam. A section of the Hoover Dam Railroad system still remains and has been converted to a hiking/biking path. I LOVE the Rails-To-Trails system! This trail has five tunnels, gorgeous lake views, ends at the Hoover Dam parking garage, and there are signs all along explaining how the railroad and dam were built. Once again, the boys rode their bikes and the girls walked. If you’re in the area, I’d suggest checking it out.

That’s a wrap on the Death Valley National Park recap! If you’ve been to DV, what did you think? Hopefully you loved it it as much as we did!

A Solo Camping Trip in Joshua Tree National Park

After hearing that I went on a solo camping trip, several friends commented that they’d love to embark on a solo trip but don’t think they could do it. First of all, you are stronger than you think and you can certainly do it! Second, if you’d rather go on a girls trip let me know and I’ll tag along. 😉 I wrote this post in a way that will hopefully take you on this journey with me. Grab a drink and a snack because this one is a little long!

I’m not normally big on birthday celebrations but I turned 40 this year and wanted to ring in the decade right. There was no way I was going to do anything remotely close to the normal grind on my 40th. I wanted fun, new and epic. The problem was that my birthday was in the middle of the week and my husband is out of PTO. At first I felt sorry for myself, then I thought about trying to convince someone to come with me, and then I realized that I can do things by myself. The idea made me a little nervous so I knew I needed to make it happen. And that’s how this trip was born.

Leading up to the trip, the campsite was booked, the park was researched, dates were taken off work, but I kept the idea very quiet. I told only a couple people who needed to know, like my husband, and a few coworkers who happened to see some cryptic markings on my calendar. By keeping it quiet I was leaving room to back out as I still wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea.

MONDAY EVENING: I decided I wasn’t going. I thought of all the reasons why it was unsafe, stupid, thought of all the what if’s, and firmly told my husband I was staying home.

TUESDAY MORNING: I was driving home from the gym, thinking about what I would do instead of solo camp and realized that I was giving in to fear and that I’d probably regret not going for the rest of my life. I got to work and mentioned this to a coworker who proceeded to give me the best pep talk (we all need someone like this in our lives!), wrapped me in a virtual hug and by the end of the conversation the trip was back on. But for real this time. I spent the rest of the day frantically shopping and packing. And overpacking.

WEDNESDAY MORNING: I planned to leave early Wednesday morning but ended up having to work for a few hours. I finally got on the road around 11am. Google told me Joshua Tree National Park (JT) was five hours away but with stops and such it took about six. One thing I missed driving solo is a navigator. I knew there’d be no gas in the park but had no idea where I would need to stop to get gas. I could have figured this out ahead of time but am not used to planning to this level.

There were still so many unknowns at this point on the trip so the decision of where to stop for gas carried more weight than normal. I knew I was getting close to JT and saw three names on a sign so I decided I’d stop at the last one which was presumably the closest to JT. Turns out, the last one is just a road. At this point I was regretting not stopping at every gas station I passed but I kept going. The point of this trip was to work on not letting fear take over. I saw a sign for an upcoming summit and assumed it was just the top of a pass. I guess it was but they also had gas! And the General Patton Memorial Museum and Matzner Tank Pavilion. That was a fun stop and a huge sigh of relief. I filled up on gas, took a few pictures and headed to JT.

Of course, I had to stop for the obligatory sign picture.

Shortly after I entered the park I stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center to get a map. There were six kids, probably more like college students, there also and they asked me to take their picture. They handed me a disposal camera and a polaroid. The encounter made me chuckle and also reinforced that I’ve lived long enough now to see my childhood regain in popularity. I guess that’s fitting for 40. I made my way towards the campground and enjoyed the quiet drive through the park.

Along the way I stopped at the Cholla Cactus Garden. Living in the desert myself, cholla are not new to me so this sign made me laugh.

Cholla Cactus Garden

I arrived at the Jumbo Rocks Campground just before sunset. Surprisingly, I still remembered how to set up the tent! I got everything set up and popped open a bottle of wine. I didn’t want to deal with cooking on this trip so I brought oatmeal bars for breakfast, wraps for lunch, and backpacking meals for dinner. The only cooking I had to do was boil water for coffee and dinner. Backpacking meals really aren’t that great when not backpacking but they still beat having to actually make and clean up a meal.

Jumbo Rocks Campground campsite

I ate dinner sitting in a chair and watching the sunset. At this point the stress of the day was starting to melt away but it was also starting to get cold. I retreated to my tent pretty early with the plan of reading but was so tired I crashed. Several hours later I was reminded of the downside to tent life when the wind picked up and it felt like my tent was going to fly away. This went on for a while so I ended up playing games on my phone for a few hours.

THURSDAY – MY BIRTHDAY!: When I awoke the next morning I was glad to see I hadn’t blown away during the night. I boiled some water for coffee and got back in bed.

I opened my book and started reading and since I had no required agenda, I kept pushing my self imposed deadline back. I read for an hour or two before finally getting out of bed to start the day.

I finally made my way out of my tent to explore the park. I had no real plans other than to stop wherever I wanted. The first stop was the Hall of Horrors. I wasn’t sure what that was and was surprised to find there was no map or explanation. Fortunately the area is really pretty and walking around is fun on its own.

Hall of Horrors

The area has these huge rock piles surrounded by Joshua trees. For size reference, the trees are typically 20 – 40 feet high so those rocks are huge.

Hall of Horrors

After the Hall of Horror I drove up to Keys View. The vista was pretty but there wasn’t much to do. I left and headed back down the hill/mountain.

View from Keys View

Next stop was the Cap Rock Nature Trail. This is a super easy trail with an explanation of the flora and fauna along the trail. I took a picture of my 4Runner and an outhouse with the trees and rocks to share a little size perspective. Since I was solo there are no people in any of my photos so this is it.

Cap Rock Nature Trail
Cap Rock Nature Trail

At this point it was around lunch time and I wanted to go to the town of Joshua Tree. I stopped at the ranger station to buy a few things and a local cafe where I found a piece of peanut butter chocolate cheesecake (gluten free and vegan!) which I saved for later.

I had read that the Black Rock area was supposed to be the best in the park and that they have some of the largest Joshua trees. This area is not connected to the main part of the park and you access it from the town of Yucca Valley (right next to the town of Joshua Tree). The area was not what I was expecting. There were lots of Joshua trees but I found the ones in the larger park to be more scenic. The campground was also a little rundown looking.

Black Rock area

I decided I didn’t want to explore any further and headed back to the main park. Once again, I could have used a navigator. I wasn’t using my GPS because I thought I knew where I was but I was wrong. After taking several wrong turns, I finally pulled over and started the GPS.

Pro tip: the Joshua Tree entrance seems to be the most popular and can get super backed up. Most importantly, they have the park sign blocked off so you cannot get a picture with it. Gasp! I know. Fortunately, I came in through the Cottonwood entrance and already had a sign picture but if you too are a sign picture junkie, make sure to visit one of the other entrances.

The drive into Joshua Tree National Park

By this point in the day, all the stress from the previous day was gone and I was loving life and my solo adventure. The next road I drove by said there was a trail so I took the left. This was my new plan. Just turn when prompted. The trail was the Barker Dam Nature Trail. JT has quite a few nature trails and they are all awesome and a great way to learn about the park. The first half of the trail takes you along rocks and eventually on rocks to the Barker Dam. Ranchers dammed the area years ago to collect water for their cattle. There was no water when I visited in mid-April but supposedly the area fills after rainstorms.

As you leave the dam area you enter a more traditional JT walk; through huge boulder fields and Joshua trees. It’s stunning, really. Towards the end of the trail there is a short side trail to some petroglyphs. This hike is listed as easy but there are a few areas around the dammed area where you are walking on rocks and down rock steps.

At this point in the day it was mid-afternoon so I kept telling myself after *this* stop I’m going back to camp to read and relax. And then I’d see another pullout and be drawn in. The next one was the Hidden Valley Nature Trail. A narrow gap in the rocks opens to a valley where a cowboy gang used to hide their illicit cattle. They’d rebrand them and sell them off in other states. The area is a big bowl surrounded by towering rocks. It’s a popular rock climbing area and I was able to watch a guy climb. I couldn’t see a rope so I thought he was free soloing (I watched Free Solo and am pretending like I know the lingo) which I was in awe of. Now that I’m home though I can see his rope. His climb was still incredible nonetheless.

This trail is listed as easy but that’s not true. The trail is just over a mile and there’s not much elevation change but there are so many rocks to navigate. On several occasions I though I was lost but someone had used spray paint to mark the trail. Not sure if that was legal or illegal but either way I’m grateful. I would not attempt this trail if you have any mobility issues. It’s a beautiful hike though.

View from the start of the Hidden Valley Nature Trail

And because it’s 2021 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, I took a selfie with my mask. Because why not. The trails were much more crowded in the afternoon and most people were good about mask wearing when passing.

My book was finally calling me and I was ready to sit down. I took a few more pictures along the way, stopped at a few road side signs, and made my way back to camp. Once back at camp, I moved my chair into the shade, put up my feet and opened my book. Life. Is. Good.

There was a trail near the campground to Skull Rock. It’s a “famous” rock formation in the park. I figured since I was so close I couldn’t not see it. I put the book down, grabbed my backpack and hiked another 1.7 miles to see Skull Rock. I would say it’s the most overrated formation in the park. It’s hard to get a picture of it because there are rocks in front of it and there are people everywhere. It’s not too far off the road but I wouldn’t go out of the way to see it.

Skull Rock

Once back at camp, I read until dinner time when I made another backpacking meal and drank some more wine. Dinner was not doing it for me but that might be because the cheesecake was calling my name. I decided to get the cheesecake from the cooler as a reward for when I finished dinner. I started with just one bite and planned to go back to my dinner but threw in the towel and ate cheesecake for dinner. It was heavenly and exactly what a girl should have for dinner on her 40th birthday. I even sang myself happy birthday in my head. 🙂

I alternated between reading, eating cheesecake, drinking wine and watching the sun set. This exact scenario is now what my dreams are made of.

Eventually it got too cold and I retreated to the warmth of my bed where I stayed awake until my book was finished. I read the Lost Apothecary and it was so good! One of the main characters is named Caroline so that was fun.

FRIDAY: Fortunately, there was no wind that night so I slept like a baby and woke up at 4:50am. A little earlier than I would have preferred but it worked. As I laid in bed waiting for the sun to rise, I listened to what sounded like two owls hooting. Maybe it was just one but the sound was alternating locations. And at one point the coyotes chimed in. This went on for a while. I finally got up when it was light out and made some coffee and took a few pictures of the sun rising. The campsites are close together so I was trying to wait a little bit longer before making too much noise. Around 6am I decided it was late enough and packed up.

Sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park

The drive out of the park was breathtaking. I was driving east as the sun was rising so all the plants were glowing and the mountains were in layers. Once again I took way too many pictures. I stopped at the cholla cactus garden again and took a few (or 100) more pictures, stopped at the ocotillo garden, and made my way to the Cottonwood Spring Oasis.

This landscape is so cool. It’s barren desert and then all of a sudden there’s a grouping of palm and cottonwood trees. Apparently this is the result of a crack in the earths crust.

Cottonwood Spring Oasis

I took a few pictures, walked around, and sat on a bench and listened to the birds chirping. There was a bird that was standing on top of a hill that had its wings spread open. It was the strangest thing. It was like it was warming its wings or showing off. I sat there for a few minutes expecting him to take off but instead he kept spinning in circles.

At that point it was time for me to leave. Someone was coming over at 4pm so I had to get back home. I stopped at the nearest gas station to get coffee for the drive home. Gas station coffee is hit or miss and this was totally a miss. It tasted like dirty water but that’s how it goes some days. And with that I was on the road home.

It’s taken me a few days to really digest my trip. I am so glad that I went and so grateful to everyone who encouraged me even when I started to doubt myself. This is the exact trip I envisioned when I wanted my 40th to stand out. I’m not sure if solo trips will be a regular thing in the future but I loved every moment of this one.

A couple things to note regarding Joshua Tree National Park. There is no cell service in the park. Like none. Pretty much as soon as I passed the entrance sign my phone stopped working. I do appreciate a forced break from the connected world so while this can be a little unnerving, it’s also always so lovely. There is also no water in the park. Make sure you take all you need plus a little extra.

Yosemite National Park

*For the beginning of this road trip check out Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

After Sequoia we headed to Yosemite.  Yosemite spans nearly 1,200 square miles but the majority of the visitors stay within the seven square mile area know as Yosemite Valley.  Many of Yosemite’s well know features can be accessed or seen from the valley.   Read more

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

After our Yellowstone trip we fell in love with the National Parks.  We immediately started planning our next National Park trip and picked Yosemite as the destination.   Read more

Yellowstone National Park

*For the beginning of this road trip see the Grand Teton National Park post.

I don’t even know where to begin with Yellowstone.  This is definitely someplace to add to your bucket list.   Read more

Grand Teton National Park

This is the first of several posts about our trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  This is the trip that started our love affair with the National Parks.  Read more

Zion National Park

My husband and I recently celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary and went to Zion National Park in Southern Utah for a long weekend.  We had a wonderful time and couldn’t have picked a better time to go.   Read more