The Deserts of Southern California
Mojave National Preserve: We headed back into the desert after leaving Las Vegas, and turned off the interstate into Mojave National Preserve (named after the desert in which it exists). A long scenic road winds south through the park, passed all the Joshua trees, and we were on the lookout for camping. We followed the signs and soon found ourselves on a dirt road. It seemed a bit strange that the campsite would’t be on a paved road (most national camp sites are), but a passing Ranger confirmed we were on the right track and so on we went bumping along the increasingly rough road as it led up into the hills. Eventually we did find the campground and pulled into a site that, while a little windy, offered a spectacular view of the valley, desert, and sunset. While we were impressed, Dodgy (our van), hadn’t enjoyed the drive as much. Hanging from its wires like a cartoon eyeball, one of the headlights had broken off its brackets and popped out. Ben got creative with some rope and we were able to anchor the light back in place temporarily. The next day, we continued on our way, but one wrong turn out of the campground and suddenly we were in a maze of backcountry dirt roads. While the GPS did it’s best, it didn’t know the difference between a semi-maintained backcountry road and a poorly maintained road meant for off-road vehicles. We did our best and, an hour or so later, got ourselves back onto pavement and out of the Park – with our jury-rigged light still in place and just enough gas to get us to a station.
Joshua Tree National Park: Joshua Tree isn’t unique for the trees (Mojave has lots too), but it is unique because it overlaps two bordering deserts (the Mojave and the Sonoran). The difference between the two deserts is mostly elevation (the Mojave is about 3,000 feet higher than the Sonoran) and, of course, that means lots of different plants and cacti. Joshua Tree is the more visited and accessible of the two parks, and has some amazing teddy bear cholla and octillo forests. We took a few hikes, including one on local geology, and got the headlight fixed in a nearby town.
Palms to Pines Scenic Byway: Another gorgeous drive, this one through the mountains east of Los Angeles. A steep set of switchbacks leads up a mountain outside of Coachella, and then the road follows the summit with spectacular views before dropping back down into a populated valley where we grabbed a more major highway into Los Angeles, the city of Angels.
Bonus: Salvation Mountain (a large, weird, and colourful alt-christian monument built by one man).
Los Angeles, California
Good friends of Ben’s had recently moved to Santa Ana (just south of Lost Angeles but part of the urban sprawl that covers this part of the coast), so we stopped for the weekend to visit. Mike and his partner Seiko were super-awesome hosts, and we continue to crave more of the traditional Japanese dinner that Seiko made us.
The Beaches: Mike and Seiko took us on a tour of the local beaches and towns. Los Angeles and Orange counties are definitely places built for drivers as it’s difficult to get anywhere without a car. Luckily, we could all fit in their vehicle and Dodgy got a much deserved break. Despite the smog, the weather in L.A. is pretty perfect, combining the sunny heat of the desert with the moisture of the ocean. Both of us felt an instinctual relief with the sight of the sea and all the lush plant life that depends on water. We enjoyed four beaches: Laguna Beach with it’s rocky outcroppings, Newport beach with it’s sandy beach, quaint (but expensive) beach houses and pier, Huntington Beach which is popular for surfing, and Long Beach where we got to take in the massive Queen Mary (an old ocean liner permanently tied up to the dock).
Hanging with friends: We had a wonderful time with Mike and Seiko, exploring a bunch as well as just relaxing in their awesome apartment, drinking, and hanging out with their two gorgeous and adorable cats, Lemon and Ash. At some point on our trip, we decided to wait for the Pacific coast before eating sushi again. So, with that goal in mind, we headed to Sushi on Fire as a group and had a delicious meal. We also had some good beer and food at the Belmont Brewing Company which is right on the beach.
Downtown Los Angeles: As stated earlier, most of this part of California is just urban development, so it took an hour of highway driving to get from Santa Ana to downtown Los Angeles. The only reason we knew we’d arrived was because the buildings were so much older (and okay, there were some skyscrapers). Downtown L.A. is actually pretty cool. Grand Central Market had a bunch of great vendors and then there’s The Last Bookstore – probably one of the coolest book shops we’ve found on the trip (super tall ceilings, multiple floors, and a horror section located within an old bank vault – what!?). After a drive through Chinatown we stopped at Skylight Books which has an amazing selection of super-radical books. Then we headed up to the Griffith Observatory to get a sight of the Hollywood sign, but the Observatory itself is pretty sweet. For lunch we had some amazing Thai food at Bulan Thai Vegetarian, headed to Venice Beach for some coffee but it was super windy so we didn’t stay long before heading up the Pacific Coast highway through Santa Monica (which also seemed cool) and out of town.
Bonus: Rose Bakery Café (we had an amazing veggie replica of a fast food burger).
Side note: Gas prices in California have, so far, been substantially more expensive than the rest of the country. Cheap gas costs the same here as in Big Bend State Park in remote southern Texas.