Our goal leaving L.A. was to head north and see the big trees. Sequoias and redwoods can be found about 6 hours away from Los Angeles County. We planned to head to a county park near Bakersfield and then evaluate the weather in the various big tree locations like Yosemite, Big Sur, Sequoia National Park and a couple of state parks. Unfortunately Big Sur was closed for flood and fire damage, Yosemite and Sequoia were icy and the state parks were some combination of icy or flooded. We decided we would have to leave the trees for another time.
From Bakersfield was stayed a night at beautiful Red Rocks State Park, which was probably our best campsite in California. We backed right in amongst the buttes and enjoyed exploring the odd formations and slots in between them.
Even the dogs got involved.
Thankfully, Bakersfield and Red Rocks were more in the $25-$30 per night range than the $50 to $65 we had had to pay closer to the coast. February was our first month to top our $900 monthly budget for campground spots. We came in at $1164 for the month. Nobody said California was cheap!
On the way to Death Valley, we stopped at Cesar Chavez National Historic Site and learned a little bit. Can’t say I’d ever studied labor history very much, but it was an interesting stop and another Junior Ranger badge for Braden.
Death Valley National Park
While we were disappointed not to see the big trees (Jess had said previously she wasn’t going back to California unless she got to see the Sequoias or redwoods), getting to go to Death Valley was a very nice consolation prize.
We stayed at a ridiculously cheap casino right across the Nevada state line called Longstreet Inn and Casino RV Resort. If you have an image of Caesar’s Palace, you are thinking of the wrong casino and there was nothing resorty about it. There were 3-4 people in the gaming area most of the time we were there, and the dress code seemed to be white undershirt and basketball shorts. One old guy with a pot belly was even walking around barefoot. The RV park out back was decent though, (with useable wi-fi and a petting zoo) so overall it was not a bad basecamp to explore Death Valley.
The vistas at Death Valley were surprisingly stunning. You can just feel the torture those mountains have endured from eons of scorching heat. Luckily for us, the highs were only in the 70s while we were there in February.
You might say we hit a real low point of the trip at Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 ft below sea level. The park service has cleverly put a sea level sign two hundred feet up on a hill near the parking lot at the basin.
Death Valley is also known as the hottest place on Earth. It holds the world record for hottest air temperature at 134 F. It is also the driest place in the United States getting less than two inches of rain per year and in some years there is no rain at all.
In the park, we hiked several trails but the only wildlife we saw were bats and ants. We wondered what either of them ate. It was truly about as desolate of a place as could be found, but desolate in a beautiful way. The overlook at Zabriskie Point was possibly the prettiest vista of the whole trip to this point. It was right up there with Jenny Lake at the Tetons and the buttes in the Badlands.
As far as human-sightings go, we saw a guy unicycle up a trail and a weird double decker bike. At the park, we were still in California so a little weirdness is to be expected after all.
From Death Valley, we drove through Las Vegas to Lake Mead National Recreation area. It was close enough to Las Vegas to see the light from the Luxor pyramid beaming into the sky at nights, but a long way from the craziness of the Strip.
While the park and lake itself were pretty, the best part was being a four-mile bike ride from the Hoover Dam. We biked on a dam sightseeing trip to the dam twice on a dam trail that passed through old dam railroad tunnels built to help get dam supplies to dam workers. It was a good dam bike ride!
The bridge from Nevada to Arizona that overlooks the dam (there’s a dam sign at the dam overlook) was possibly the windiest place I have ever been in my life. I felt like I had to hold tight to Braden’s hand to be sure he didn’t blow away. I am a substantial person, but I still thought the wind might knock me off my feet.
We hiked several trails there including Owl Canyon which was our first slot canyon we’d ever been in. Slot canyons are the really narrow ones, and while this one didn’t have anything too extreme, it was still a highlight of this part of the trip for me. The canyon floor was littered with the bones of mice and other critters that had apparently been owl dinner, but we didn’t see any owls.
On our last evening there we drove up to Valley of Fire State Park which was an incredible landscape of weathered sandstone with portholes, “beehives,” and little passages in the rocks. If we could do it again, we would have given ourselves more time there.
It was toward the end of our stay that Jess found an article saying that Lake Mead was the “deadliest national park.” Luckily, we didn’t become a part of those statistics.
On our only previous trip to Las Vegas we had seen several families with children in the casinos and wondered why they brought their kids to Sin City? This time, we were that family.
Our first night in Las Vegas we parked at the Luxor, walked through to Excalibur and then New York New York. We had a good time playing the kids games in the “Fun Dungeon” at Excalibur and Braden (and the grownups) had fun just looking at the lights and sights.
We drove down The Strip to Treasure Island so Braden could check out the big fancy Marvel store they have there that includes life size models of the Avengers.
Part of the reason we were in Las Vegas was that we needed an airport. After planning and booking our swing through the West, I was asked to speak at the Telco Executive Forum at a resort in Miami. The conference was a big opportunity so my boss agreed to fly me out of Las Vegas to Miami and and back. Jess said she was ok with me leaving for a night as long as she and Braden were somewhere that felt safe. We booked two nights at Oasis RV Resort, the swankiest RV park of the entire trip. It came with 24-7 security guards at the gates and great ratings online. I would fly out at 7 in the morning, get to Miami by 4, give my presentation at 9 a.m. the next day and then take an afternoon flight back to Las Vegas so I’d only miss one night with them.
The night before I left, we had to stop at a mall to pick up a sport coat for me to wear and Braden and I hopped into a Regis for a haircut. I learned that at mall salons in Las Vegas, one should always ask for a price, because Braden and I together cost more than $70 for haircuts. But hey, at least we looked good.
The presentation went great, but the crazy schedule over three timezones felt about like you would expect. On the flight back, I sat next to an Argentinian family who spoke zero English and we limped through discussions about air travel, Florida, life in Argentina, gauchos and climate change on my rusty Spanish. On their first trip to the US, they were seeing Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I thought about explaining that America was not really like those three cities, but decided I was a few semesters short on Spanish to go that far.
Around my flights, we scheduled in some fun, seeing the fountains at the Bellagio and checking out Ethel’s Chocolate Factory. Braden had watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in California so his current plan was to run a candy factory and he enjoyed the tour. The peanut butter filled candy at Ethel’s was incredible and the staff even let us have our pieces for free. I guess they heard how much we spent on the haircuts!
Oddly, we brought some rain with us from Southern California to Las Vegas. While it was weird for it to have rained on us in L.A., it was even weirder to get rained on Las Vegas. Go figure.
Once we had done everything we thought we should do in Sin City, we turned east and headed for Utah.