Spring in Southern California

(9th – 26th February, 2016)

With blue skies and a spring like 20 °C we left Las Vegas behind us and headed for the second time in the direction of California. We took the US 95 in southern Nevada heading first for the infamous area 51.  Curious, we tried very hard to see anything interesting but alas there was absolutely nothing to see except endless desert – no Aliens, UFOs, experimental Aircraft, or other strange things from all the conspiracy theories – all a big disappointment really! The only thing that even suggested at something out of the ordinary was the Alien Shop at a nearby gas station, other than that there wasn’t anything of interest to see.  Since it was close to dusk we drove a bit off the road in search of an out-of-the-way spot to camp for the night in the hope of at least seeing a UFO… though sadly we saw nothing but the twinkling of the night sky above us.

Super Bloom in Death Valley

At the mention of “Death Valley” we immediately thought of the unbearable heat, and in summer that is exactly what you would get, however at the beginning of February the temperatures were about as perfect as one could hope for. On top of that it was apparently the best time to visit. Something quite rare happened in the desert: It had rained a few times a couple of weeks prior to our visit, and the valley had come alive. Everywhere we looked tiny flowers were sprouting out of the dry cracked earth transforming the harsh landscape into a soft flowery carpet. The desert was in full bloom! As we later found out it hadn’t bloomed so intensely in over a decade – an event that drew nature lovers and photographers from all over the country – and we were there completely clueless as to what was going on. Right place, right time! Not only that but we soon realized that we had the best weather of our trip so far! A perfect 20 – 25°C, dry, no wind, little to no mosquitoes and at night it cooled only slightly.  Not to mention a grandiose night sky and a desert in full bloom! And all that in Death Valley – who would have thought?

Free Toast

We first visited the northern part of the park.  The landscape was overwhelming and even in spring it was obvious that we were in one of the driest places on earth. We drove directly to the edge of the impressive Ubehebe crater and stopped to make a couple of sandwiches for a picnic.  There was a light breeze and in the maximum 5 minutes it took to cut the tomatoes and cheese our freshly cut bread was turned into toast! We also had to hurry with our sandwiches since the lettuce started to wilt and go limp; our freshly peeled mandarin orange started to shrivel before our eyes! Impressive! It must be a real hell on earth in Summer. The trail around the crater didn’t take too long but we took extra water to be on the safe side– a golden rule in Death Valley!  The trail was impressive with some spectacular views but with the harsh sun and wind we almost got a sun burn by the time we got back to the car.

In the “Shark Tank”

Our first night was at Stovepipe Wells Campground, one of the not-so-nice campgrounds in Death Valley (it’s only a huge gravel lot); though, it was quite practical since it is situated in the middle of a valley directly behind wonderful sand dunes. A great starting position to hike the Mosaic Canyon, we had no idea that there were canyons in Death Valley or in fact that you could do any real hikes at all, which made our visit even more interesting as we discovered how much there is to do. So, we got up early the next morning, hiked the canyon and then quickly headed to the next and much nicer campground.  It was Thursday before a long weekend, add to that the 10-year super bloom; we were worried that we wouldn’t get a camping spot if we didn’t get there early.  As it turned out we were right to worry as when we arrived at the Texas Springs campground we luckily managed to secure one of the last spots! To be on the safe side we booked it for the entire long weekend. Which turned out to be another good decision as the next morning, or better said in the middle of the night the craziness started.  People started arriving at 2 am in the morning on Friday circling the campground like sharks in a tank looking for a spot or checking the individual tickets to see who was leaving in the morning in hopes of securing a spot.  As we climbed out of our tent in the morning we were bombarded from every side, “Are you leaving?” and had to look at the disappointed faces as we answered with no. When we started to pack our roof top tent to go on a day trip the “sharks” started circling again. With a sort of desperation, they circled the camp over and over “Are you leaving?”, “Are you leaving?” For a brief moment, we thought of holding an auction for our spot, we could probably make a fair sum of money to pad our trip fund especially since the only spots available were on an ugly parking lot without shade or fire rings and packed in like sardines. Though in the end we decided to enjoy the spot ourselves. We did worry a bit however, that if we left on our day trip that we would come back in the evening to find that someone had taken over our camp – the little ticket that proclaimed it as ours for the next 3 days would have disappeared. So, we chained our camping chairs to the picnic table and informed our neighbor that we would be coming back in a few hours, you never know.

The lowest point in North America

Death Valley is one of the lowest places on earth and with Badwater Basin being 85.5 m (282 f) below sea level it is the lowest point in North America.  We walked a bit over the salt flats and imagined how it must have been for the first settlers as they passed through in the full heat of summer only to find the water of Badwater Basin salty and undrinkable.  The temperatures can reach a horrific 50°C! We also read about swallows falling dead out of the sky and other horrible stories of days gone by.

Of forms and colors

On our way back from Badwater we decided to take a detour through Artist Drive; a loop trail through a phenomenal landscape of rock formations and colors with the highlight being the Artist Palette. The name couldn’t have been more appropriate as the colorful rock formations really do look like an artist’s palette: all manner of reds, greens, violets, and gray tones arranged in the most fantastic of forms.  It also made a perfect picnic spot to enjoy our sandwiches all the while admiring the forms and colors arrayed before us. As we once again turned onto the main road to head back to our campground we noticed that the number of cars travelling the roads had dramatically increased. It was no wonder either; the view of a blooming desert landscape is a seldom event. Everywhere we looked people were taking photographs among the blossoms, of course we took our fair share of photos too.

The next day we headed out for another canyon hike – this time in Golden Canyon.  There too the desert was in full bloom! From every crack and miniature fissure sprouted tiny flowers bringing life to the raw desert landscape. Another highlight of our visit was Zabriskie Point where we looked out upon a sea of petrified dunes undulating into the distance – a majestic and unforgettable view.  That evening we started a campfire, admired the canopy of stars above us and just enjoyed being there. It was by far the most comfortable camping weather we have had since the start of our trip, which seemed almost ironic that the best weather of all would be in Death Valley.

After 3 days and with some regret, we broke our Texas Springs camp and headed onward. Shortly after Badwater we were just about the only car on the road.  Our path led us south over a lonesome gravel and sand track called the Harry Wade road through a landscape that was completely different from the rest of Death Valley. With the changed landscape we soon spotted different types of flowers that seemed to grow only in that part of the Valley.  We stopped a few times to take photos and within a few hours we neared the limits of the National Park.  Death Valley was an amazing experience and a big highlight of our trip!

Joshua Tree National Park

From one impressive landscape, we drove almost seamlessly to the next, as after only a short drive – with an overnight stop in the middle of nowhere – we arrived at Joshua Tree National Park. We had seen Joshua trees before a few times and were always excited to see the strange trees but in nowhere near the quantity of the national park, or in combination with the magical landscape and certainly not in full bloom!  Apparently, we were there at the right time of year again; though it did have its down side: High season, meaning the park was pretty full.  At the more popular campgrounds we witnessed almost the same daily game as in Death Valley.  Though, we did have a bit of luck after a night at the huge campground of Jumbo Rocks. We ended up scoring a perfect spot at the much smaller White Tank campground.  We set up our camp between Joshua trees, Yucca palms and huge boulders and had an absolutely fantastic view of the desert landscape and a billion billion stars in our own personal planetarium – it couldn’t have been better!  The weather, however was not quite as comfortable as in Death Valley – it was much cooler and there was often a strong and apparently typical wind that shook our rooftop tent at night, which kept us awake at times.

The next day, Ingo, Elvira, and Perla, whom we first met in Utah, arrived at our campground taking the last available spot almost directly across from us.  We were surprised and pleased to see them again and decided to spend a few days hanging out together. We cooked and BBQ’d and exchanged travel stories. Elvira made Chocolate Bananas (Banana stuffed with Swiss chocolate wrapped in tinfoil and set over an open fire, YUM!) From then on, a must every time we had a BBQ!  Gary and Ingo changed the rear brake pads on the Landy and the time flew by. In the end, it was hard to say goodbye and drive in separate directions.

Joshua Tree National Park was also interesting because the Mojave and Colorado desert meet splitting the park into two distinct eco systems, with plants we had never seen before.  On our way south we crossed the border into the Colorado desert with an immediately noticeable change in the landscape.  We strolled through a Cactus garden with completely foreign cacti and passed fields of Ocotillo, which almost looked like land seaweed; if we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes we would have thought it came from another planet.

Preparing for Mexico

Mexico was no longer too far away and so we took the opportunity, at the next larger town, to take care of a few things.  After all we had no real idea how it would be on the other side of the border, where the next larger supermarket would be or what they would have available.  So, we bought some things that we figured we couldn’t do without and we also went to the bank to get some Pesos.  Apparently in the USA getting foreign currencies (or maybe it was just because it was Mexican Pesos) is a major undertaking requiring a lot of official paperwork, passports, address, a credit card, and an hour or more of waiting before they finally handed us some pesos. What a huge bureaucratic nightmare! Nevertheless, with a feeling of accomplishment, we set once more towards the border where we spent the night at the Anza Borrego State Park and finally left the desert landscape behind us.  The more south we drove the greener the landscape became, sand gave way to grassy pastures, bushes gave way to trees and finally pine forests, which we hadn’t seen for months.  The road led us through an idyllic hilly landscape and quaint tiny villages, where we indulged in some of the best apple pie we have ever had, and finally to Potrero which, abuts the Mexican border.  We camped at the local campground and were pretty excited: Just over there was the Mexican border and in the morning we would cross!

Insurance Drama!

The only thing that we were missing for our border crossing was the obligatory auto insurance, since our North American insurance didn’t provide coverage any farther south.  There are a couple of insurance companies offering policies directly at the border so we headed out rather early to make sure we could get everything sorted out quickly and be on our way.  The border town of Tecate was only a few kilometers away and a few hundred meters before was a rather strange village of sorts consisting of a few shops and rundown buildings where we apparently were supposed to get our auto insurance. Although we were still on the USA side of the border it definitely had a different look and feel from any other place that we had been.  We headed for a small rather shabby looking convenience store where a rather bored looking lady halfheartedly inputted our auto information into a computer all the while loudly chewing her gum.  After what seemed a lifetime she informed us in her decidedly broken English the costs for a half year of coverage: $175. “How high is the coverage?” we asked her “I don’t know” came the reply. “Well that is kind of important to know.” We insisted. Whereupon she punched a few buttons on her computer rather snappishly, and after another few minutes of searching she stated the figure: $50,000. We thought we might have misheard so we asked her to repeat the number but it stayed at the 50,000. “You must be joking!” We answered indignantly, shocked and at the same time slightly amused since it didn’t even come close to what we were told was the minimum required coverage amount of $300,000. “That’s what we have.” She answered unimpressed with out reply and in the same bored tone as before.  Ok, well she didn’t close a deal with us.  We turned around and headed out the door.  What now? We saw another shabby building across the way offering insurance as well and decided to check it out.  We entered the building a little uncertain of whether we were in the correct place as there were many abandoned rooms to the right and left but no sign indicating that there was anything there.  A man sitting on a backless broken office chair silently pointed the direction to us – apparently it was obvious what we wanted, or it was the only occupied room.  A short walk later we stood before a door without any indication of what waited for us on the other side. We entered hesitantly and were surprised to meet a much friendlier lady who actually introduced herself as an insurance broker.  The condition of the room looked nothing like one would expect though, with missing and water damaged ceiling panels, an old office table, two shabby waiting room chairs, a computer from the early 90’s and a printer, and that’s it. Blank dirty walls, no cabinets, shelves, folders, or pictures on the walls, absolutely nothing.  She also entered our data into the computer and informed us it would be $260 for a half-year – quite a bit more as the other place.  This time however, with coverage of $300,000 and we could go up to 500,000 for $20 more.  We were, however, a little unsure at this point with the whole affair.  Maybe all Mexican auto insurance offices looked like that – we simply didn’t know and didn’t want to run the risk of paying and finding out later that the insurance company doesn’t actually exist.  There were no other options at the border and as luck would have it Ingo had told us that they got their Mexican insurance from AAA.  So, we decided against the insurance and with that headed to San Diego and the next nearest AAA.  The border crossing would have to wait until tomorrow, there was no way we were going to be able to do it all in a single day. As the triple-A is like the ADAC it has a trust worthier reputation to begin with, not to mention the building was modern had a complete ceiling, pictures on the wall, friendly well-dressed staff with modern computers and office chairs that had all their wheels! So, in the end the decision turned out to be a good one as we managed to get a full year of insurance with a coverage of 500,000 dollars for $125.  The extra work and delayed crossing had paid off.  We spent another night at Potrero satisfied with the day’s work and just as anxious or maybe even a little more so.  Our Mexican adventure would start in the morning!

More Photos on Flickr: Southern California