How to visit 5 National Parks in 10 days…just knocking around

The question is…could we really knock around in five National Parks in 10 days? Hmmm. We were making our way through Newark Liberty Airport and I was feeling that Melissa was not showing her usual level of excitement. So I asked her if something was wrong and she said, “I’m just afraid that we bit off more than we can chew.” Well…yeah…FIVE parks in TEN days. What WERE we thinking? Let the adventure begin!

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Five destinations…but first…we were going to visit San Francisco. We made the decision to fly into San Francisco, drive to the five national parks beginning at Pinnacles National Park and ending up at Joshua Tree National Park and then fly home from Los Angeles.

Basically, we would have a full day at each destination, with a day of travel leading up to it. It was ambitious and we knew that. But we also tend to come up against the unexpected…that’s part of the adventure.

I don’t feel like United is the friendly skies anymore

Flying out to San Francisco was another long flight for us. I could write an entire essay on the absolute nonsense and insanity of air travel, but that is a story for another time. It is clearly evident that airline service is not only not what it used to be…luxurious and comfortable…but inconvenient, annoying, and even somewhat painful.

There is definitely less leg room and the seats are certainly narrower. And if you happen to have Vegetable Lasagna sitting next to you, then they are hogging the armrest and shoving their elbow in your side. One of us always has the middle seat and I just LOVE having a stranger caressing me for five hours or so.

Food service? Yeah right. The “food service” was a choice of a TINY bag of pretzels, a piece of chocolate the size of a Hershey’s kiss, and a “fruit bar” the size of my thumb nail. Seriously? THIS is your meal service? By the time we got to the cruising altitude, my stomach was sucking up against my spine.

And the flight attendants seemed so very happy…more like annoyed…bothered. Then why are you here? If you hate people just as much as we do, then you are in the wrong line of work. Perhaps that is why United changed their tag line?

One bathroom was out of order, and as the line was getting long at the back of the plane, I stepped one foot passed the imaginary line into the galley…only to make room so the person could have enough space to open the door…and I was IMMEDIATELY vilified by the flight attendants who were back there standing around complaining about their lives.

Our arrival into San Francisco was disappointing from the start. We always like to take our first picture at the “welcome” sign. But there really was no elaborate sign, rather, there was a sign that I could have made on my laptop and had it printed out at Staples.

We stopped to get our vehicle at Alamo and, just our luck, the guy at the counter was friendly…very friendly. Melissa was texting me from where she was standing with our bags about my “new friend” as I was explaining our ambitious itinerary. It turned out that he was from New Jersey and not too far from us. And after learning what our plans were, he told me how crazy and fun he thought we were, and then upgraded us to a larger and more luxurious vehicle. Thanks Alamo!

The vehicle would be important as we would be spending a LOT of time in the car, driving from one destination to another. And the rides would be just as interesting and adventurous as the destinations themselves. Someone once said, “Getting there is half the fun…”

San Francisco had its ups…and it had its downs.

We had arrived into SFO early and we were definitely not going to be able to check into our accommodations at the Home Suites by Hilton 2 in South San Francisco near the airport. We stopped in to see about leaving out belongings but we were deterred by the dismissive attitude of the front desk people and we just wanted to be on our way. We had just the rest of the day and maybe part of the next morning to get in some sights, before we needed to be on the move to the first National Park.

We made our way to downtown and to find some place to eat. We immediately got smacked with urban blight as we turned onto Sixth Street and saw the epitome of homelessness. We have seen homeless people in many other places, but it seems like San Francisco, at least parts of it, and specifically the Tenderloin section, takes it to a whole other level. There are tents and other structures on the sidewalks right along the street.

San Francisco’s Sixth Street homeless population

You can tell that it was once a thriving community as the old, or rather ancient, neon signs of hotels and other businesses long since gone, remain as remnants of yesteryear. The best way to describe it? If you know Back to the Future II, when Marty goes back to an alternate 1985 when Biff owns the casino and Hill Valley has become an urban slum…there you go. It was horrible.

We did emerge from the Tenderloin area and came upon Little Italy. Searching for a local establishment we found Mama’s across from a park and there was a long line down the block. It’s an institution…and well worth the wait. There was a very big selection of dishes, the portions were huge, and the food was delicious. Hard to make a bad choice. The only word of caution? The bathroom is outside the building, a tiny old facility tucked away. Charming.

After the great meal, it was time to make our way around the “streets of San Francisco.” There was a show called The Streets of San Francisco. Melissa? You know…with Karl Malden. Who? Michael Douglas. She knew THAT name. But it ran from 1972 to 1977 and, of course, Melissa wouldn’t have seen it. And she lets me know that.

But she DID see Full House and Mrs. Doubtfire. So we made our way over to take pictures in front of those residences that were used for the exterior shots. And it was disappointing to discover that the Tanner residence was NOT across the street from a park. Oh well…the magic of TV.

The STEEP streets of San Francisco

The TV show aside, the streets of San Francisco can be VERY steep. You have to wonder how people can parallel park their cars on such a steep angle. A lot of the streets have head on parking instead. Many of the streets are on an angle that exceed 20%. If you don’t grasp that incline, climb a few flights of stairs.

One of the most famous streets in San Francisco is Lombard Street, famous for its multiple tight hairpin turns on a residential, well-manicured, and meticulously landscaped street. Cars are lined up to make the drive down the one-way decline…the top of the street is at the crest. And photogs are at the bottom just trying to capture the perfect view of vehicles coming down or their loved ones in the foreground of a selfie.

San Francixco’s Lombard Street

Lombard Street at 31%, as amazing as it is, is not even the steepest street. That honor belongs to Bradford Street at 41%.

We made a quick ride over to see the Golden Gate Bridge and took some pics. There was a storm kicking up and the waves were crashing along the rocks, but there were still some brave souls heading out under the Bridge in a kayak.

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge

After finally checking into the hotel, we changed and headed out to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner at Pier Market. It’s a nice and casual seafood (what else?) place with some local offerings…including Dungeness crab. I had a pasta meal with that. Melissa…didn’t.

Along Pier 39 there were dozens of sea lions lounging about and barking, some being mischievous and boarding the boats docked for the night.

Then we walked to the original Ghiardelli’s, about a mile away. And, of course, more inclines. Once we got there, we saw that there was a VERY long line for seating in the restaurant. But there was also a smaller takeout location along the street. We each got a sundae and, after a couple of spoons…the thought was “What’s the fuss?” And it was VERY expensive. Melissa finished her sundae. Alan…didn’t.

The next morning we wanted to get a little bit more of the San Francisco experience in – trolley car and sour dough bread – before we got on the road.

We got to the Hyde Street and Beach Street turn around station where the Powell/Hyde cable car ride begins its run. We bought round trip tickets…round trip. We were on the third car to head out to start the day…and planned to take it to the end – Powell and Market Streets – and back. The ride took us through some neighborhoods and sights we had seen while driving and there were a few really good picture spots.

There was a young man with an older woman sitting across from us. The woman OBVIOUSLY was on board to do her own personal photo shoot. She kept…STRIKING A POSE…over and over again…at each spot…at every angle. Ya know…I understand that the young kids are in it for the social media posts…but this woman was WAY over the top. And once she got WAY over ME…I finally had to push my elbow back into her and yelled, “ENOUGH ALREADY! Stop TOUCHING me!” She disembarked at the next stop. Too bad! I paid for my ticket. She paid for her ticket. I have just as much right to my space as she does to hers…she does NOT have a right to MY space.

When we finally reached the end at Powell and Market, we were told we all had to get off and re-board on the opposite side. Oh…okay. We took a couple of pics and then when we got to the sidewalk and looked at where we had to re-board…there were THRONGS of people waiting for cars to go back in the other direction. Where did these people come from? There were only two cars that left prior to us. There were HUNDREDS more people. Perhaps there were people STARTING there and heading in the opposite direction? Nobody ever told us about this. There was AT LEAST an hour wait to get back on a car.

San Francisco cable car

But we paid for a round-trip ticket. Don’t care. We decided to get a taxi back to where we parked the car. Getting the taxi was easy. The drive back…wasn’t. The vehicle stunk like an animal had died in it days before, and the driver was making all kinds of strange noises clearing his throat and sinuses. Melissa kept texting me…”Alan, I’m going to be sick.” I was torn between laughing like my 12-year-old self and projectile vomiting out the window. Next stop? Getting sourdough bread for lunch!

We headed back to Fisherman’s Wharf and Boudin Sourdough for fresh sourdough bread. Again, I had Dungeness crab soup in sourdough bread and Dungeness crab cake. Melissa…didn’t.

We made one more stop for gelato at Mara’s Italian Pastry back in Little Italy. We had walked passed the day before and with so many flavors, we couldn’t leave without a sampling. It was well worth the stop. If we had more days, we would have sampled more. But we had to get moving as we had a long way to go.

But wait, there’s more. Melissa wanted to make a stop to see the “Painted Ladies,” a row of Victorian homes on Steiner Street across from Alamo Square Park. It was a bit anti-climactic as it was gloomy, blustery, and raining by this time and smack in the middle of the view…a U-Haul truck. I mean, it IS a residential neighborhood but who wants a U-Haul truck in their picture…other than U-Haul?

San Francisco’s Painted Ladies

As for me…I was channeling my brother David and thinking about how he was searching for some Grateful Dead place with a friend back in his youth. I didn’t know that he never found the place, but we found the “Grateful Dead house” not far from the Painted Ladies. It was nothing special. To quote Melissa…”Eh….”

I can’t leave San Francisco without mentioning that I had to voice a complaint with the management of Home Suites 2 by Hilton in South San Francisco. I was told by the front desk person that the GM’s name was Walton Xu and that he was not in yet that day, and would phone me by day’s end. He didn’t. And never did. A week later I phoned Hilton Corporate. I got some guy on the other end of the phone who was obviously NOT in the Continental United States. After a lot of back and forth, he kept asking me what my complaint was. At that point, the original complaint had become irrelevant and my MAIN complaint was that the GM NEVER got back to me. THAT was my complaint. To date, it has never been addressed. I have NEVER been contacted by Hilton even after I posted a negative review on Google. Check back with me for further updates. I bet Paris Hilton doesn’t have to deal with such nonsense.

Pinnacles National Park

The Route – straight shoot on US 101 (137 miles)

The drive to Pinnacles National Park would take us on a 137-mile ride along US 101. It’s not exactly a straight shoot, there are some places where you have to deviate from one main road and cross through an area and continue on to another main road. We drove passed the expected California orange groves, olive groves, and some other produce, as well as working oil fields.

We had researched Pinnacles National Park and there was every indication that the closest lodging was in Soledad. However, Soledad was still a good distance away. If you Google it, you will find that the Park is a mere 10 miles from Soledad. But that is the West Entrance. And you can’t get there from Soledad. Not easily anyway. So you have to go “around” the mountain to get to the East Entrance. That means another 21 miles further south on US 101 and then 30 miles on a long and winding road between the mountains of the Diablo Mountain Range.

We stayed at a Motel 6 in Soledad…we could have been closer at another Motel 6 in King City, but Soledad was a bit more appealing…a quaint small town with access to a small strip mall with all of the modern conveniences.

We arrived after dark and decided to get dinner at the restaurant that shared a lobby with the Motel 6. From the outside, it looked like a diner. But once inside, it is a specialty eatery with some eclectic offerings on the menu. There were a number of interesting “salad” options. And why not? Because it turns out that Soledad is in the Salinas Valley which is known as the Salad Capital of the World. This area is the most productive agricultural region in California. And the salads? Lived up to the reputation.

The next day we got up early, loaded up on supplies, and headed to the first National Park on our itinerary. The 50-mile drive was the start. It was up and down, winding around, with farmlands and ranches housed on the sides of mountains. Cows were literally on the sides of the steep inclines. I remember going through Iowa in my college days and thinking back about “cow tipping.” That was on flat ground. How do these cows not tip over on the side of a mountain?

We got to the Park’ entrance sign and we realized we forgot to pack something…of all things…the tripod. And as luck would have it, there is not a single vehicle passing by or, better yet, stopping by so that they can take our picture and we can take theirs. It’s something that is commonly done. But you have to have people. So we struggled to set up the phone and tried to get the right angle and, after multiple tries, we were satisfied. Well, I wasn’t satisfied and Melissa had enough so…

Pinnacles National Park entrance sign

There was no real welcome center at Pinnacles. We came upon a camp store and education center, but neither was open when we arrived. So we continued on to the parking area for Moses Spring Trail as that was the trail we had selected so we could trek through Bear Gulch Cave.

Pinnacles National Park Moses Spring Trail

The Moses Spring Trail was three miles out and back…some of it a loop…that takes you along a beautiful path of woods, along streams, through a cave, in and out of very tight spaces, up a number of narrow stairs, to an elevation of over 900 feet, and then back down.

Pinnacles National Park WARNING! Must have LIGHT!

The pass through Bear Gulch Cave was an amazing test of dexterity…and so well worth it. We have to give a shout out to Melissa’s Dad, Bob, and Lili for the Christmas present of the head lamp. Because you don’t make it through the Cave without the light. It’s dark. And the sign warns you. But we got to see it and it was great! Thanks Dad and Lili!

Pinnacles National Park Bear Gulch Cave

After emerging from the Cave, we made our way to the Reservoir, under a HUGE dangling rock and up a steep metal stairway. Once up at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, you could see out to the Pinnacle Peak. The entire trail leading to the Cave and then the Reservoir was magnificent, but do not take anything for granted on this one. It sounds like a lot of fun…and it is. But it is NOT easy. Not being prepared is a huge mistake at any place, and this is no exception. This is a moderate hike and even difficult in some places.

Pinnacles National Park Bear Gulch Reservior

We didn’t get to see any wildlife…like mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes…but our friends Donna and Susan told us about some Japanese beetles and an active beehive on another trail close by. OK…not friends. Melissa always says, “We’re not here to make friends.” But we were eating our snacks…at a picnic table near the parking lot and, APPARENTLY, something about one of us said….”Pick me…pick me…talk to me please.” Actually…they were eavesdropping on our conversation…and so Donna and Susan regaled us with their find of some “wildlife” on another path nearby.

It was still early and we wanted to get in another hike, so with the advice of our friends, we headed out onto the Sycamore Trail…just in time to try out our new rain gear. We did see the Japanese beetles all over the sides of the path, attached to trees, the rails of a wooden bridge, on just about everything. It was a while before we would come upon the beehive…and just about the time we decided to turn back around and head back to the car. And…lo and behold….Donna and Susan. Yes…yes…we found the Japanese beetles and the beehive. Yes. Thank you.

The long drive to the Park, the strenuous hikes, and the long drive back…now we were looking for a good meal. We are always looking for good Mexican food and Soledad is like being in a small town in Mexico.

We found a small family-owned place that was really quaint – Taqueria Comidas Sabrosas. But…the owners did not speak English. And while I used to be able to hold a full conversation in Spanish…it’s been too many years since I needed to use it so there are a lot of words I wasn’t quite sure of. Thankfully, there was another couple eating dinner and the woman was kind enough to assist…”asado o frito?” Thirty years ago I would have understood and responded with ease. But I was tired…and….well…just thankful for the woman who interrupted her own dinner to assist with ours.

Oh…she was asking me about the fish…pescado…grilled or fried.

Sequoia National Park

The Route – Back on US 101 south to CA 198 east (176 miles)

California Route 198 took us through some long roads…and very long stretches between towns or cities. Long periods of nothing. But not “nothing.” There was very picturesque scenery along the way.

Abandoned businesses along the way to Sequoia National Park

Melissa discovered that Sequoia National Park will not permit you in the Park, depending on the weather, if you don’t have chains or cables on your tires. Well…we didn’t know that and we didn’t have that. So we needed to find a place to get some before we got closer to the Park and further away from civilization.

 We found an Auto Zone in Hanford, CA, right off of 198. The workers were gracious enough to explain that we didn’t necessarily need to have the cables or chains ON the tires, so long as we had them IN the vehicle so that we could quickly place them on the tires in the event of bad weather and/or Park requirements. And we could return them if the packaging was not opened and the seal not broken. So basically a $300 deposit. Believe it or not, we ended up passing a place that rented them just before we would hit the Park grounds. Who knew?

We got to the Park entrance and the sign was unlike any of the others that we have seen at the other National Parks. But at least this time there were many other people and we all took turns taking each others’ pictures.

Sequoia National Park entrance sign

Speaking of turns…the rest of the way to our destination would be on a LONG and WINDING one-lane, twisty-turny…hairpin twisty-turny road. Beautiful views…some nice pull-offs and lookouts, but a lot of places with no barrier…NO barrier. TWENTY TWO MILES. I was white-knuckling it, of course. Melissa? Not fazed in the least. If we’re near the water…yes…but this stuff doesn’t bother her. I was so tense from holding the steering wheel that my body felt like it does after I work out for the first time in months.

We finally got to an elevation where we were entering what is called the Giant Forest…there is a truly naturally formed “welcome” of Giant Sequoias as you make your way between four trees that gives you your first “wow” moment.

Sequoia National Park…natural welcome

Giant Sequoias are extremely special as they only grow at exceptional altitudes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Driving through the Giant Forest was an experience in itself. It almost looked fake…like a movie set.

Sequoia National Park Generals Highway

We finally arrived at Wuksachi Lodge and it truly was in the middle of nowhere…smack in the middle of Sequoia National Park. Elevation? 7,000 feet.

The place is rustic. There is the main building and then three other buildings that house the guest rooms. It kind of reminded me of Disney’s Wilderness Lodge Hotel. Until we got to the dining room. Then it was like Homowack and Kutcher’s in the Catskills.

It was New Year’s Eve and there was a set menu and no reservations. First come, first served. And while the dinner hours usually begin at 4 p.m., that evening it started at 5 p.m. And there was already a line. So although we wanted to freshen up a bit before dinner, we were hesitant to leave the building and not get on that line. Because we knew that anyone staying at the Lodge was going to be there…I mean…where else are they going to eat? There IS no other place to eat.

It really was an experience like the hotels in the Catskills. Think “Dirty Dancing.” The staff were all seasonal and lived on the premises. I was told that there was ONE “crazy person who drives up and down the mountain on that winding road every day.” Everyone was nice…but there was a distinct feeling that this was not something they had a lot of experience in, nor did they seem to have a lot of enthusiasm. In fact, the season would be ending in just a of couple of days, and the Lodge would be closing, so perhaps they just couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there?

The meals were expensive and just okay. Well, maybe less than okay. But when you’re stuck, you’re stuck. And how can they run out of something that they are offering on a set menu when you are one of the first ones at a table? And, of course, there will be the buffet breakfast in the morning. I would rather eat my protein bars.

We got an early start in the morning because parking is VERY limited but they do have a shuttle. We didn’t want to be tied to someone else’s schedule so we took the car and found parking on the side of the road.

Our first stop was to see the General Sherman Tree…named for the Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman…which is known to be the largest tree by volume on Earth.

We then went to take a short “hike” on the Big Trees Trail. A lot of the trails are not really hikes…they are safely manicured or structured (with wood planks) walks and are very safe and, for the most part, handicap accessible. But they are very family and kid friendly, even if you have a stroller.

Melissa hugging a Giant Sequoia in Sequoia National Park

And the trees really are BIG trees. No picture you take will ever do it justice. There was a TV show called Land of the Giants. My parents took us to Universal Studios in California when I was a kid and we were on a part of the set from the show…where everything was just so large. For me, that’s what it felt like…just like being on the set of Land of the Giants.

Kings Canyon National Park

The Route – Generals Highway (26 miles each way)

You really can’t go to Sequoia National Park without a quick jaunt…on another twisty-turny road to Kings Canyon National Park. It was 26 miles on Generals Highway and…um…it might as well have been closed.

Nothing was open. The restaurant was closed. We were going to get lunch! There was a convenience store open…and the shelves were almost stripped bare. We ended up getting a couple of pre-packaged sandwiches…reminding us to BE PREPARED!

And where’s the sign? You know…to take a picture? Oh…that’s at the other entrance of the Park…miles away…you can drive to get there…but you can’t now…because it’s closed. What IS open?

The main attraction here is the General Grant Tree…named after, who else, General Ulysses S. Grant…which is the second biggest in the world after the General Sherman. Doesn’t make any sense…I believe that General Grant outranked General Sherman in the Union Army. So why would Grant not have the bigger tree? Another thing to keep me up all night.

Kings Canyon National Park General Grant Tree

There were a LOT more people visiting the General Grant Tree than there had been at the General Sherman Tree. But I think that it was pretty much because it was the only thing to see at this Park since everything is pretty much closed.

One of the Park rangers let us know about a small sign that has the Park name on it. It took a while…but we found it. But, of course, we were the only two schmucks on the side of the narrow road trying to get a pic…and taking a hand-held selfie wasn’t cutting it. AHHHHHH…the bag of tire cables! I placed the bag on the hood of the car and positioned the phone…viola!

Kings Canyon National Park sign

The ride back was more of an adventure than the Park itself. Because the clouds came rolling in. We were at 8,700 feet and the visibility was at some points…absolutely ZERO. So think about driving a twisty-turny road that, at some points, goes along the edge of a mountain with no way to see in front of you. If we go over the side…Melissa’s parents will kill me.

Generals Highway on the way back from Kings Canyon National Park

Most of the way I drove so slow that I could have RUN quicker back to the Lodge. The thought of food was at the forefront. Until we realized that we are going to have the very same choices as the night before. Looking forward to getting down off the mountain.

Before we turned in for the night, we took some time outside in the pitch black darkness, and peered up at the sky to see so many stars. Very easily we could make out the constellation Orion. The air was crisp and felt so “clean.”

Death Valley National Park

The Route – Generals Highway to CA 180 to CA 99 to CA 58 to I-395 to CA 178 to CA 190 (355 miles; 7 hours turned into 9)

We left Sequoia National Park…at 7,000 feet and 31 degrees…headed back down that winding road to an elevation of 800 feet and a mild temperature of 54 degrees.

We got a quick bite at the Sequoia Coffee Company. A very nice selection of healthy sandwiches as well as specialty coffees – refreshing after the meals we had and to fuel up for the long road ahead. LONG road.

Before we got to the beginning of our long stretch we came upon an old-fashioned roadside stand. We picked up a couple of huge oranges…for the road…and then we came upon some more orange groves. We followed the signs that led us to a store that had fresh oranges, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a menagerie of other fruits and nuts local to the area. We picked up some great varieties of trail mix. I was going to send a crate of oranges home…but Melissa asked, “Who sends a crate of oranges?” Well…I know some alter cockers who used to ship them from Florida.

Oh…and I did get to return those cables to another Auto Zone! Thanks for the loaner Auto Zone!

On the road to Death Valley National Park through the Mojave Desert

We made our way from one road to another, on and on through the Mojave Desert. It was kind of spooky because there were long stretches where we were the only ones on the road. We even drove past some old abandoned buildings and vehicles. We saw railroad tracks that seemed like they led to nowhere, but could see freight trains off in the distance. And then we came upon what really is a ghost town…at least it’s getting there.

Trona, California now has a population of 87 people. It looks run down and desolate. However, it’s the only indication of civilization for miles…in either direction. There are rickety old buildings crumbling, and automobile graveyards. There are issues of frequent earthquakes, but the bigger issue is contamination from toxins.

Abandoned business and vehicle graveyard in Trona California

We finally made it to the Death Valley National Park entrance sign. And, luckily, there were two young people who happened to be stopping right behind us. We quickly took the pictures and got back on the road as it was getting dark rather quickly and we still had a LONG way to go.

Death Valley National Park entrance sign

We drove for miles at night, in pitch black darkness…up and down, sometimes winding, but impossible to see over each crest. It was VERY disconcerting.

We arrived at Stovepipe Wells Village which is truly like an old Western village with hotel, restaurant, saloon, and general store.

It is somewhat dated, but perfect for the situation. We went to the restaurant to grab dinner, and it was a buffet. It is always a buffet. It was okay…but it was very limited. And we would find that out in the morning for breakfast as well. At least it wasn’t as expensive as the Lodge in Sequoia…this was reasonable considering it was an all you can eat buffet.

Death Valley was amazing. Think about it. We went from 31 degrees and an elevation of over 7,000 feet in Sequoia National Park the day before to 72 degrees and -282 feet…that’s 282 feet below sea level.

Death Valley National Park Badwater Basin

After being at the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea a year before…we were at the lowest point in North America at the Badwater Basin. It looked like snow but it was salt. And there’s never any water…except for now…an unusual phenomenon…because of an unusual amount of recent rainfall. It’s something that happens every few decades. It was actually disappointing – regardless of the “phenomenon” because Melissa wanted to see the salt…in the basin….not the lake it had temporarily become.

We hiked in the heat to see the Natural Bridge, drove Artists Road and Artists Palette, and climbed Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, and Mesquite Sand Dunes. A number of the sites were settings for Star Wars. And a lot of it really does resemble Tatooine.

Death Valley National Park Natural Bridge

We missed sunset at Mesquite Sand Dunes but we were lucky enough to be out there when a storm came blasting through. The Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel even lost power for a time.

The next morning we started off the day by watching the sunrise from the Mesquite Sand Dunes…where I later did my best Clark Griswold…from the National Lampoon movie Vacation?

Alan channeling Clark Griswold

I was totally disappointed that we did NOT see the Roadrunner nor Wile E. Coyote (Super Genius). So we drove to Rhyolite, Nevada to see the old ghost town that people say is a “must see.” There we saw a ruin where Alanis Morrisette filmed a music video. It was really an “eh” moment. It was VERY cold and VERY windy. I don’t think it was really worth the drive and the time because the buildings were so decayed and you couldn’t venture close to them let along go IN them.

We then took a short ride to Beatty for something to eat at a nice little café before backtracking for the long drive to our last stop on this journey. Beatty was the kind of town you might see in a movie or on a TV show. It was small, it was kinda old looking, and there were slot machines everywhere. I mean, it WAS Nevada. But the café was on a corner that must be a main turn for commercial traffic because there were a lot of tractor trailers making that turn during the 45 minutes we sat there.

We had to drive through Trona again on the way back. We gotta do some investigating with THAT town. But if what the locals say is true…we ain’t interested in any investment property there. We have had enough of that sort of thing in Sayreville.

Joshua Tree National Park

The Route – CA 190 to I-395 to I-15 to I-215- I-10 (258 miles)

After our great stay at the Wigwam Motel in Kentucky, we had planned to stay at another Wigwam Motel on Historic Route 66 in San Bernardino. But after seeing the neighborhood, and noticing a defense tool in the background (see pic), and thinking of what Melissa’s mom would say…naaaaah…needed a quick change of plans. one the nation’s leading crime-ridden cities in the country. They beat out New York City…they beat out Camden, New Jersey…CAMDEN!

Wigwam Village San Bernardino California

We ended up at the Hampton Inn near Palm Springs and a lot closer to Joshua Tree National Park than we would have been staying in San Bernardino…if we had made it through the night, that is.

Because of all of the delays, and the late hour, we had to cancel dinner plans with my childhood friend…Steve Lennard…who I haven’t seen in 50 years. It would have to wait one more day.

Joshua Tree entrance sign

Last stop on this National Park tour was Joshua Tree. It was a lot colder and more windy than we expected. We got our picture taken at the entrance sign, and then made our way eight miles into the Park to get to the Welcome Center. But…we needed to reconnect with Steve and, we realized, like every other National Park…no cell signal.

So we drove back the eight miles to the entrance sign where I have a cell signal and quickly shot off a text message. And then we drove back the eight miles. And guess what? I did not fill up with gas.


I went into the Welcome Center and asked where the nearest filling station was located. I was told that it was 34 miles up the road, just outside the other entrance. The gauge said I had 43 miles left. There’s something to this “be prepared” thing. At least we had loaded up on peanut butter and jelly for our lunch on the trails.

Joshua Tree National Park has an amazing variety of cacti; the rock formations are a wonder as you feel like you are on another planet..people climbing all over the rock formations, I can just see an accident waiting to happen. And, well, the Joshua Trees, although not as mighty and majestic as the Sequoias, they are just as unique.

Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park

What is a Joshua Tree? It’s not actually a tree. It’s a desert plant that stores water and can live for a very long time. They are pretty much found in the Mojave Desert and are very distinctive and striking. They were named for the biblical figure Joshua by the Mormon settlers in the 19th century.

The Park was a bit more crowded than the other Parks we had been to on this trip…especially around some of the more popular sites like Skull Rock and Elephant Rock. There weren’t many people around the cactus garden, but, I guess, people weren’t there to see cacti, they were there to see Joshua Trees.

Joshua Tree National Park Skull Rock

Yet again, there is wildlife advertised. And we finally got to see some wildlife…a scorpion that some family found under a tree root. No roadrunner, no coyote, no big horn sheep, no tortoise, no jackrabbit, no snake. The closest to a wild animal we saw was a stray cat that ran under our car in a Target parking lot.

To be honest…we kinda cut the day in Joshua Tree National Park a bit short. The weather wasn’t conducive to spending a lot of time outdoors and it was all beginning to catch up to us.

We were finally able to meet up for dinner with Steve and Susan…after 50 years…and a day. It was nice to catch up and reminisce. A nice conclusion to this amazing journey.

Dinner with friends in Palm Springs California

LAX and the United Club

The Route – I-10 to I-215 to CA 91 to I-710 to I-105 to CA 1 (123 miles)

We flew out of LAX and finally got to sit, eat, and relax in the United Club. After the sand, the dirt, the wind, the rain, the snow, the cold…we were getting ready to board yet another long flight home. The rain before the storm?

We felt tired…but accomplished. Five National Parks in ten days. Some would call us nuts…some would call us adventurous. Well…until the next adventure…

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