meghan lee harris

August 21, 2020

30 Trips Around the Sun in Cali – from the desert, the mountains, the coast, and back

So I feel somewhat guilty for taking the time to blog our personal travels amidst a busy wedding season! However I have a lot of wedding couples requesting this blog to help plan their own honeymoons! SO…if COVID has your honeymoon plans like ?!!?! I’ve got you.

This particular trip takes us all over Central California, however if you scroll to the very end I’ve also included some of our all time favorite US destinations in states such as Tennessee, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Montana, the good ole Midwest too, and of course – California. And because we’re not really “city peeps” and prefer to take in as much nature as possible when we travel, all of the locations on our list are social-distancing friendly 🙂 Especially if you’re gonna rent a van and road trip it vs. hotel stays!

If you read my latest travel blog of our time spent in SoCal then you know I’ve been longing to get back to Cali. I had plane tickets and an itinerary all set to go for celebrating my 30th golden birthday in Iceland, but when we got closer to date (and we were still kicked out of the UK) I realized it was time to devise a Plan B back to the golden state of Cali.

Ever since our first month-long van trip out west, we’ve been dying to get back in a van. Soo we decided to rent a van and explore the remaining bucket-listed locations of California. Actually the more I devised this Plan B, the less I worried about Iceland, and when we were down to the wire and I realized that Iceland was ultimately a no-go, I of course was pretty bummed we wouldn’t be able to FINALLY get overseas. But I didn’t have to feel too sad or overwhelmed. I had already built up excitement a road trip through Cali. Now having only two weeks until leaving for our trip, I quickly threw together a route, booked a few campsites a long the way, and off we went!

VEGAS BABY

Soo having just 10 days, we didn’t quite have time to road trip it all the way from Wisconsin to California. Instead, we flew into Vegas & rented a van there through Escape Campervans. We scored an awesome deal (I wanna say like $35/day!?! Literally no one was traveling yet end of June as everything was just finally reopening). This company has TONS of different designed vans all painted by local artists, and are located in several areas throughout the west, so next time you travel check to see if they are located by you! It was way more fun for us than when we hopped from hotel to hotel. Vanlifing always makes a road trip really feel like a road trip and you get so much more experience & stories out of it. We were paired with an optical illusion design van & decided to name her Trippy aka “Trip.” I hoped so badly Trip would make it all the way to the coast, through the mountains, and back. The mileage on her scared me & also the breaks were a little sketchy — eep! But the trade off was that she had everything we needed. A bed in the back that could fold back up into a couch, a sink, cabinets, solar panel for the mini fridge (THE BEST), and a fold up table. We were SET!

DEATH VALLEY DEATH TRAP

Just outside Vegas is vast, desolate desert. We had always wanted to drive through Death Valley and check out the lowest and hottest point in the US, Badwater Basin. However after driving nearly an hour to the park, the entrance was closed. It was also predicted to be 114 degrees and the thought of driving three hours through a National Park – with no cell service and an old van in this crazy desert heat – didn’t sound much appealing anyway. The only reason we were going to try to go through Death Valley was because it would have saved us a loooot of driving time, as our next location was driving through the  Sierra Nevada valley to get to Big Pine to camp.

So we had to turn around, hook all the way to Highway 15, and take a bit of a detour, I luckily got cell service and rerouted us all the way down and around. About an hour later somewhere in between Death Valley and the town of Baker we realized we were seriously in the middle of nowhere Desert USA. Definitely no service. Wondering how many dead bodies were buried out here “Breaking Bad” style. There is literally no reason for ANYONE to be out this way unless you’re up to some shenanigans.

We started passing by like 20 or so rental vans, all parked on the side of the road. Still in the middle of nowhere. Alex and I were like OKAY something sketchy is totally going down there omggg I don’t want to be a witness. Then we passed by about 20 or so cops all with their lights on, heading straight to the group of vans. I turned to Alex and was like “how funny if one of those cops comes behind us thinking we’re a part of it” Cause for some reason it just occurred to me that Woah – we are in a rental van too. Not just any rental van either, we had the one that was hand painted in total trippy graffiti. Well another 5 seconds later and my wish came true. We were being pulled over. In the middle of a drug raid in the middle of the desert.

I watched the cop in the mirror slowly and steadily coming towards our van, gun pointed up and ready. I rolled my window down and anxiously awaited him to just get to the dang window already cause my pounding heart couldn’t take all this.

When he got to the window, he said he was checking for fireworks and asked us what we were doing out here & so we (like a thousand words per second) explained this is a rental van and we’re doing a road trip yada ya, we were trying to go to Death Valley but it was closed cause it’s too hot. He was trying to make sense of our route in his head and I was like WELL I have it all on maps on my phone I CAN SHOW YOU OUR ROUTE IF YOU WANT!?! As I’m already leaning over and trying to grab my phone on the van floor (looking back, this was NOT a smart move I am very very lucky that this guy had great instinctual abilities to realize we were truly just two lost doofs and not a threat).

“Oh I see, yes…I know where you’re going. Big Pine you’ll like it there. Honestly the best thing that could have happened to you today was skipping Death Valley. It’s way too hot to be out there. Do you mind if I quick send the K9 unit over?”

Me without wasting a second ” YES SEND EM ON OVER 👏🏻 ” (he never sent them over).

10 hours of scenic valley driving later (no joke, it took forever), we arrived at Big Pine just in time to climb the scariest hill up to find a campsite. Thankfully there was a few left for us & we crashed as soon as it was dark for what would be an *epic* hike the following morning.

BIG PINE, YOU FIIINE

We woke up at the crack of dawn, eager to conquer the 16 mile hike up and around 7 alpine lakes. This would be my last day in my 20’s and couldn’t think of any better way to cap off the decade. I had stumbled upon this location while googling random areas on a California map. I really wanted to live in the outskirts of Vegas but Alex hates the desert, so I was trying to find a place that was close enough to Vegas but offered some evergreen trees + cool temps for Alex. That way we could have the BEST of both worlds.

Well, somehow I came across Lone Pine and then Big Pine and it all just looked incredible. And better yet, it was pretty off-the-instagram radar which is SUPER hard to come by these days. I then researched and found that the drive up the Sierra Nevada valley is one of the most scenic so I knew I had to make this a part of our trip. Plus it made sense with our original plan of seeing Yosemite National Park, which would have been on the way up to Lake Tahoe. But Yosemite was limiting the number of passes each day and the availability didn’t work very well with our trip. We would have been suuuper rushed, and no one wants to rush Yosemite. Sooo we will just have to return to Cali again to *finally* cross off Death Valley & Yosemite (as if I was mad for a reason to come back!)

Anyways back to the hike. For some reason I was expecting this to completely ruin me. But this hike was so enjoyable, such a steady incline and beautiful open mountain views the whole first half of the way up. After zigzagging through the woods for what felt like forever we finally made it to First Lake, and stopped to soak in the view before taking 50 more steps over to Second Lake for an even more impressive view. What was most impressive though, was that we had this all. to. our. selves. It was a Sunday, yet no one was here for a full hour straight. We felt so lucky, and never have we ever been this alone in a place this gorgeous.

After about an hour laying in the sun, shoes and socks off, we heard a few people beginning to come and wanted to let others enjoy the main view. So we stood up to get ourselves ready again and WOWAAHHH. There’s a reason you don’t want to stop moving halfway through a long hike. We were so stiff! Luckily, it was all downhill and we made it back in much shorter time than it took to get up. We started around 9am & finished around 3, with stopping multiple times. Totally doable for a day hike.

I mentioned there were seven lakes, although I would have loved to do all seven (all are relatively close by in a loop) We heard that after first & second lake, the others aren’t as impressive so decided just to head back…but now in hindsight I wish we would have done all 7 cause when can you nonchalantly mention you once hiked 16 miles up a mountain and passed by 7 lakes all in one day? Probably not often.

Afterwards we got back to camp & ate a ton of trail mix (for some reason we forgot to go grocery shopping prior?) We were so parched and thirsty and craved a mighty meal of carbs, but survived instead on trail mix, cheese itz and water. Alex passed out cold at like 6pm which made for a veryyy very long night. Keep in mind, there was still no cell service for me lol.

THIRTY, NOT SO FLIRTY, BUT THRIVING

June 30, 2020. Weather: perfect. All 30 years of my life I never can recall a rainy day on my birthday. I’ve always loved having a birthday set exactly halfway through the year, in the heat of summer sunshine. We started off this particular birthday by living to actually see a day in my 30’s, testing the van breaks all the way down our first mountain. Then it was another long day of driving through the Sierra Nevada valley. It was a beautiful drive & we were just so anxious to get to Lake Tahoe and get ourselves a hotel bed & shower and some actual eats at a local restaurant.

We took a quick stop at Mono Lake nearby, cause after visiting the Salton Sea we realized we love looking at dried, washed up desert lakes haha. This one’s water used to source LA (crazy) and now that they realize the lake is drying up at rapid rates, they are trying to reverse the damage done so the water levels don’t keep dropping. The crazy rock formation is called Tufa and basically is limestone that forms when water from heated underwater hot springs rich in calcium meet with the carbonates in lake water (reference: google).

An hour before sunset, we finally arrived to South Lake Tahoe and checked into our hotel at Hotel Beckett – highly recommend cause it’s super close right on the downtown area with gorgeous mountain views & the inside is soooo cute! The bathroom was also HUGE. Having come from not having one for a few days this made me very happy.

We got a bite to eat – the Thai Chicken Curry pizza at Base Camp Pizza to be exact. It was incredible. Then walked to see the lake for sunset (harder to do than it would seem as much of South Lake Tahoe shorelines are gated off and very residential).

We went to the G store as well and loaded up for the following days. Got a slice of chocolate cake and a candle and Alex sang me happy birthday outside the hotel late at night. I even caught it on video to savor forever. It was a very fun night chilling by the fire, despite it being just the two of us (now 30 year olds!!) we made it a really fun, low key golden birthday.

WILD WINDY KAYAKING

The next morning we got up early to travel to the north side of Lake Tahoe, where we would be renting a clear bottom Kayak. Quick note: if you think these are cute, they are. But if you think you’ll be actually kayaking in them – you won’t LOL. The bottoms are actually flat so they barely move, and Alex and I are pretty decent kayakers. We thought we’d have time to make it to the recommended areas like Secret Cove and Hidden Beach…however we didn’t even make it around Crystal Bay during our 4 hour rental. It had already taken us an hour and a half to “float” that far, and we knew we’d be battling choppy waters on the way back now that it was 10am and the boats were coming out. That being said, I don’t think it was super necessary to go that far, I really just wanted to find some jumbo rocks to play around on and kayak through, which we found nearby on the north end and I’m sure are located throughout the whole lake!

After kayaking we decided to hike the Eagle Lakes Wilderness trail to get a beautiful bird’s-eye-view of Lake Tahoe and another more remote alpine lake (can ya tell we looove our alpine lake hikes?) This hike was much shorter than our last, although definitely a climb to the lake. It was also a muuuch smaller lake. We got there and found a secluded spot on the shore off the to the left. As Alex was taking video of me about to dip into the water I swear I saw a brown bear dash by on the trail behind Alex. Alex, who was busy pointing a camera at me, of course didn’t see it run *behind* him so it must not be true. Will remain a lifelong debate.

Then after this hike we decided to do ONE more hike, the iconic Rubicon Trail. A much more beginner’s hike although it was still pretty strenuous going down the hill to the shoreline from the road up top. The trail is VERY long and connects two different state parks. I heard the area by Emerald Bay is the most beautiful and it happened to share the same parking lot as the hike we just did at Eagle Lake, so we got very lucky (parking here is a B!)

Honestly we didn’t really hike the Rubicon long cause it felt a little tooooo touristy but we did it to say we did it. And we LOVED the giant redwoods. The way the light falls between the trees, ugh. Pure heaven.

LAKE TAHOE TO NAPA TO SAN FRAN TO MONTEREY IN A DAY = WHAT WAS I THINKING

The next day we had another looong day of driving ahead. Ya know, I probably should have made this two separate trips: Vegas + the Sierra Nevada mountains (including Yosemite & Death Valley) in one trip, and The Coast as another. But you just never know when you’re going to get the time to travel again, so I just couldn’t resist trying to see it all. The plus: we got to see it all. The downfall: We got to see it all for like one second. Haha, but hey. We were there, we saw it. And now we always know where we want to “revisit” again when the time comes!

We stopped to rest our feet in Napa at my favorite winery from our first van trip we took back in spring 2018. Napa Valley is all so beautiful, but these textures, omg. Even more beautiful than I remembered.

Unfortunately due to having to still drive akjdglksdajgdsja miles we couldn’t stop and drink the wine. But I took a swig of my Barefoot Moscato I had left over in the back of the van just to say I did LOL. Then it was onto the coast <3333

We finally arrived in San Francisco and got in and got out of there as quickly as possible once we went over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. There was a jumper on the bridge and I am hoping everything worked out okay in the end… afterwards I googled Golden Gate Bridge to see if anything was in the news but there is on average one person every two weeks. Ugh, I didn’t like reading more into it so I stopped researching. We have heard great things about San Fran but honestly Alex and I were having minor panic attacks being on constant ramps and 5 lane highways and seeing homes stacked and literally connected to eachother and their driveways basically a foot away from the highway. It took two hours to get out of this traffic, and by this point we were so beat out of shape lol.

Eventually we made it to Monterey and drove a little inwards to the beautiful Carmel Valley for sunrise and to make camp. We got to enjoy sitting by the pool and these views from the van before a much needed sleep.

DRIVING THE HWY 1 CALI COAST

You would have thought we would have given us a day to rest, but the coast is very long. And if we wanted to get back to Vegas in time for our flight, it meant we would have to keep moving. Poor Alex. This is when I really regretted not breaking this up into two trips. However, I still am so happy we got to see the coast. I mean…just look at it. It made my photographer self very happy & out of our whole trip I definitely took the most photos here. We must have stopped every 5 minutes to get out and look at the next view around the corner. It was all spectacular, especially the first part by Big Sur. After many years talking about it, we finally can say we drove Highway 1!

We made another pit stop at Morro Rock. One of my bucket list items was to touch the actual rock. I bike this beach on my Pelaton for my 5 minute cool downs / meditation but never quite made it to the rock. I saw this location was on our route so I figured real life would be the time.

So turns out the rock is huge, and there is actually a shortcut and separate parking lot right up against the rock and so after spending time at the beach (and realizing it would haven taken hours to walk to the rock) we cheated a little, drove closer and voila – finally touched that dang rock!

After Morro Rock we still had a bit of a drive through the hills to our next campsite in Ojai, California. The scene quickly changed to this rust colored grass and twisty trees. It was a nice break from all the scary cliff driving. By now we were nearing the outskirts of LA so this is a beautiful town of so many incredible mansions and celebrity homes. We camped up on the hill and googled which celebrities all lived below us and watched the sunset over the town.

ONE LAST STOP AT THE MAGICAL JOSHUA TREE

Before making our way back to Vegas we decided to spend our last night in Joshua Tree. My happy place. We drove through Thousand Oaks and Calabasas and I tried to find the K krew from the highway. Once we saw the magical field of wind turbines I knew we were coming into Palm Springs. It was Fourth of July and I was worried we wouldn’t be able to find a campsite in Joshua Tree but turns out there are tons to choose from. We got really lucky with site #14 at Ryan Mountain campground and had so much seclusion + had these awesome jumbo rocks to gaze at and climb (if it weren’t 108 degrees!)

It was actually so hot that once we got there we couldn’t do anything other than lay in the van where there was shade and turn the AC on every now and then, although it quickly heated back up (Even at night it was still in the 90s but we managed to still sleep through it. Thanking the long drives for that!)

I had packed two nice dresses and despite the major unshowered vanlife hair at this point, got a little dolled up to take some pics as a new 30 year old woman. So here’s being 30, camping in my favorite place on earth and afterwards watching the brightest full moon rise over the mountain and the Joshua Trees casting eerie shadows against the night sky.

The next morning, we made the final trek from Joshua Tree to Vegas through the Mojave Desert. Our flight wasn’t until midnight but we had to drop the van off by 4pm. So it made for a long night at the airport. But it gave me plenty time to look back on this trip and just be so thankful for all the beauty there is to see in our own country, always just a road trip away.

Annd, without further adieux, for anyone having to reroute their overseas travels or honeymoons and needing to come up with some local destinations instead, here is a list of some vacations/road trips we’ve taken and love, as well as some that are still on our bucket list!

US DESTINATIONS WE **LOVE** // FOR YOUR VACATION / HONEYMOON IDEAS:

  1. Glacier National Park, MT – the mountains are calling and you MUST GO. Seriously. If heaven was on earth, it would be here. Get your hiking boots ready & get life-changed. Read/see all about our trip here.
  2. Yellowstone National Park, WY – if just chilling in nature, crazy & beautiful geothermal activity, and taking drives and watching buffalo roam sounds up your ally then Yellowstone is perfect! Make sure to avoid summer months though, or you’ll be caught in a line ride the whole time. We chose opening week of April & felt we were the only ones there & it was spectactular. Other option: October
  3. Zion National Park, UT – This is the place to REALLY get adventurous + take in some red rock views. Angel’s Landing is one of the most dangerous hikes in all of US and not for the faint of heart, but if you can make it to the top it is certainly worth it (I wouldn’t know, I’m faint of heart LOL). We’ve also always wanted to hike the Narrows but the water was too high in spring. This is a place we will have to return to! The park is much smaller than the other parks, and is super accessible by free shuttle to all the different stops. Stay outside the park at Under Canvas Zion in a cute little canvas tent for a one-of-a-kind glamping experience! (note: these are also at some other National Parks too!)
  4. Palm Springs & Joshua Tree National Park, CA – Okay sooooo this might be my favorite place on all the earth, even though I love the mountains. Something about the desert just speaks to my soul (We stayed for a few months one winter and I talk about this area a lot HERE.) The Joshua Tree are just so whimsy & fun and I legit can’t get enough of them. The towns outside the park are also really cultural and small (they don’t allow any chains – everything is local). Vegas is a short drive away through the Mojave Desert, otherwise Palm Springs is directly below and we also LOOOOVE it there! Rent an airbnb with a pool and enjoy the desert heat!
  5. Outskirts of Vegas – who knew that going to Vegas meant more than casinos + nightlife! Red Rock Canyon, Valley of Fire (do the Fire Wave hike), Hoover Dam and Lake Meade area, plus so many awesome hot springs hikes (some of my favorite hikes still to date, ask me for the deets!). Death Valley is also nearby as well as Zion. Honestly a lot is a day trip away from Vegas but no one ever thinks about it unless you live out that way! It’s a great place to fly in, do the Vegas things & also see a lot of cool nature.
  6. Sedona, Arizona – Okay sooo there’s tons to see in Arizona. Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Saguaro National Park, Scottsdale was a cute town!, but my favorite would have to be Sedona. There’s just something godly about this place, where the red rocks meet up with sage greens and make unique structures and endless hiking. It’s also a very artsy town and there’s tons of restaurants, boutiques, and things to do! We shot Kim & Nick’s wedding here, and now I have to go back and do more personal exploring!
  7. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee – Okay so I CAN’T leave out this place cause it’s super special to us. Alex and I got engaged in one of these rental cabins overlooking the Smoky mountains (there are thousands of these cabins to choose from! And most are surprisingly so affordable + include pool tables and hot tubs with mountain views on the deck!) We loved it so much we returned here for our honeymoon! Tons of interesting things to do nearby such as Smoky Mountain National Park, town of Gatlinburg for your free shots of moonshine (and Dollyworld, if that’s your thing :P)
  8. MIDWEST – If you’re from where I’m from, getting time in beautiful nature doesn’t mean ya have to cross the entire country! We did a Lake Superior Road Trip including Duluth MN + Apostle Islands, WI + Porcupine Mountains, Upper Michigan. And it was SO incredible! Read all about our trip in our 2019 year in review!

REMAINING US DESTINATIONS ON OUR BUCKET LIST:

  1. Grand Tetons – a 2020 couple of mine just honeymooned here & it wasn’t really on my radar until I saw pictures in their stories! And it’s near Yellowstone so you could probably hit up both if you wanted! Make sure to also check out Jackson Hole, Wyoming – a quaint town of 10,000 people surrounded by beauty. It’ll make you want to live out in the country <33
  2. Oregon & Washington – We really didn’t get to see a whole lot here on our first van trip. But if you love mountain air and waterfalls, and mossy green forests (Washington!) then this is your mecca. Another fun idea would be driving the coast as most of the mountains and views are on the western half of these states, stopping at various places along the way!
  3. Charleston, SC & Savannah, GA – we actually have never made it down to the East Coast and the “southern charm” states. Our eyes always wander west, but there’s tons of history and adorable culture to see out this way that we’d love to get around to!
  4. MOAB – really all of Utah we still need to see!
  5. Bryce Canyon – another Utah National Park we really need to see & have heard is a favorite amongst many national park enthusiasts!
  6. Yosemite – one of these days we WILL get there. And it’s located next to all the areas on the first half of our trip above in case you wanted to venture around more places while you’re in the area  ;):)!

 

+ Our list is always growing. There’s always more to discover and explore in the incredible US. Is there a place we’re missing from the list? Let us know in the comments below!

If you made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read all about our Cali trip (and maybe even stumbled upon some other trip ideas along the way!) I hope you have gained some inspo for your next case of wonderlust!

 

Stay wild,

Meghan

So I feel somewhat guilty for taking the time to blog our personal travels amidst a busy wedding season! However I have a lot of wedding couples requesting this blog to help plan their own honeymoons! SO…if COVID has your honeymoon plans like ?!!?! I’ve got you.

This particular trip takes us all over Central California, however if you scroll to the very end I’ve also included some of our all time favorite US destinations in states such as Tennessee, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Montana, the good ole Midwest too, and of course – California. And because we’re not really “city peeps” and prefer to take in as much nature as possible when we travel, all of the locations on our list are social-distancing friendly 🙂 Especially if you’re gonna rent a van and road trip it vs. hotel stays!

If you read my latest travel blog of our time spent in SoCal then you know I’ve been longing to get back to Cali. I had plane tickets and an itinerary all set to go for celebrating my 30th golden birthday in Iceland, but when we got closer to date (and we were still kicked out of the UK) I realized it was time to devise a Plan B back to the golden state of Cali.

Ever since our first month-long van trip out west, we’ve been dying to get back in a van. Soo we decided to rent a van and explore the remaining bucket-listed locations of California. Actually the more I devised this Plan B, the less I worried about Iceland, and when we were down to the wire and I realized that Iceland was ultimately a no-go, I of course was pretty bummed we wouldn’t be able to FINALLY get overseas. But I didn’t have to feel too sad or overwhelmed. I had already built up excitement a road trip through Cali. Now having only two weeks until leaving for our trip, I quickly threw together a route, booked a few campsites a long the way, and off we went!

VEGAS BABY

Soo having just 10 days, we didn’t quite have time to road trip it all the way from Wisconsin to California. Instead, we flew into Vegas & rented a van there through Escape Campervans. We scored an awesome deal (I wanna say like $35/day!?! Literally no one was traveling yet end of June as everything was just finally reopening). This company has TONS of different designed vans all painted by local artists, and are located in several areas throughout the west, so next time you travel check to see if they are located by you! It was way more fun for us than when we hopped from hotel to hotel. Vanlifing always makes a road trip really feel like a road trip and you get so much more experience & stories out of it. We were paired with an optical illusion design van & decided to name her Trippy aka “Trip.” I hoped so badly Trip would make it all the way to the coast, through the mountains, and back. The mileage on her scared me & also the breaks were a little sketchy — eep! But the trade off was that she had everything we needed. A bed in the back that could fold back up into a couch, a sink, cabinets, solar panel for the mini fridge (THE BEST), and a fold up table. We were SET!

DEATH VALLEY DEATH TRAP

Just outside Vegas is vast, desolate desert. We had always wanted to drive through Death Valley and check out the lowest and hottest point in the US, Badwater Basin. However after driving nearly an hour to the park, the entrance was closed. It was also predicted to be 114 degrees and the thought of driving three hours through a National Park – with no cell service and an old van in this crazy desert heat – didn’t sound much appealing anyway. The only reason we were going to try to go through Death Valley was because it would have saved us a loooot of driving time, as our next location was driving through the  Sierra Nevada valley to get to Big Pine to camp.

So we had to turn around, hook all the way to Highway 15, and take a bit of a detour, I luckily got cell service and rerouted us all the way down and around. About an hour later somewhere in between Death Valley and the town of Baker we realized we were seriously in the middle of nowhere Desert USA. Definitely no service. Wondering how many dead bodies were buried out here “Breaking Bad” style. There is literally no reason for ANYONE to be out this way unless you’re up to some shenanigans.

We started passing by like 20 or so rental vans, all parked on the side of the road. Still in the middle of nowhere. Alex and I were like OKAY something sketchy is totally going down there omggg I don’t want to be a witness. Then we passed by about 20 or so cops all with their lights on, heading straight to the group of vans. I turned to Alex and was like “how funny if one of those cops comes behind us thinking we’re a part of it” Cause for some reason it just occurred to me that Woah – we are in a rental van too. Not just any rental van either, we had the one that was hand painted in total trippy graffiti. Well another 5 seconds later and my wish came true. We were being pulled over. In the middle of a drug raid in the middle of the desert.

I watched the cop in the mirror slowly and steadily coming towards our van, gun pointed up and ready. I rolled my window down and anxiously awaited him to just get to the dang window already cause my pounding heart couldn’t take all this.

When he got to the window, he said he was checking for fireworks and asked us what we were doing out here & so we (like a thousand words per second) explained this is a rental van and we’re doing a road trip yada ya, we were trying to go to Death Valley but it was closed cause it’s too hot. He was trying to make sense of our route in his head and I was like WELL I have it all on maps on my phone I CAN SHOW YOU OUR ROUTE IF YOU WANT!?! As I’m already leaning over and trying to grab my phone on the van floor (looking back, this was NOT a smart move I am very very lucky that this guy had great instinctual abilities to realize we were truly just two lost doofs and not a threat).

“Oh I see, yes…I know where you’re going. Big Pine you’ll like it there. Honestly the best thing that could have happened to you today was skipping Death Valley. It’s way too hot to be out there. Do you mind if I quick send the K9 unit over?”

Me without wasting a second ” YES SEND EM ON OVER 👏🏻 ” (he never sent them over).

10 hours of scenic valley driving later (no joke, it took forever), we arrived at Big Pine just in time to climb the scariest hill up to find a campsite. Thankfully there was a few left for us & we crashed as soon as it was dark for what would be an *epic* hike the following morning.

BIG PINE, YOU FIIINE

We woke up at the crack of dawn, eager to conquer the 16 mile hike up and around 7 alpine lakes. This would be my last day in my 20’s and couldn’t think of any better way to cap off the decade. I had stumbled upon this location while googling random areas on a California map. I really wanted to live in the outskirts of Vegas but Alex hates the desert, so I was trying to find a place that was close enough to Vegas but offered some evergreen trees + cool temps for Alex. That way we could have the BEST of both worlds.

Well, somehow I came across Lone Pine and then Big Pine and it all just looked incredible. And better yet, it was pretty off-the-instagram radar which is SUPER hard to come by these days. I then researched and found that the drive up the Sierra Nevada valley is one of the most scenic so I knew I had to make this a part of our trip. Plus it made sense with our original plan of seeing Yosemite National Park, which would have been on the way up to Lake Tahoe. But Yosemite was limiting the number of passes each day and the availability didn’t work very well with our trip. We would have been suuuper rushed, and no one wants to rush Yosemite. Sooo we will just have to return to Cali again to *finally* cross off Death Valley & Yosemite (as if I was mad for a reason to come back!)

Anyways back to the hike. For some reason I was expecting this to completely ruin me. But this hike was so enjoyable, such a steady incline and beautiful open mountain views the whole first half of the way up. After zigzagging through the woods for what felt like forever we finally made it to First Lake, and stopped to soak in the view before taking 50 more steps over to Second Lake for an even more impressive view. What was most impressive though, was that we had this all. to. our. selves. It was a Sunday, yet no one was here for a full hour straight. We felt so lucky, and never have we ever been this alone in a place this gorgeous.

After about an hour laying in the sun, shoes and socks off, we heard a few people beginning to come and wanted to let others enjoy the main view. So we stood up to get ourselves ready again and WOWAAHHH. There’s a reason you don’t want to stop moving halfway through a long hike. We were so stiff! Luckily, it was all downhill and we made it back in much shorter time than it took to get up. We started around 9am & finished around 3, with stopping multiple times. Totally doable for a day hike.

I mentioned there were seven lakes, although I would have loved to do all seven (all are relatively close by in a loop) We heard that after first & second lake, the others aren’t as impressive so decided just to head back…but now in hindsight I wish we would have done all 7 cause when can you nonchalantly mention you once hiked 16 miles up a mountain and passed by 7 lakes all in one day? Probably not often.

Afterwards we got back to camp & ate a ton of trail mix (for some reason we forgot to go grocery shopping prior?) We were so parched and thirsty and craved a mighty meal of carbs, but survived instead on trail mix, cheese itz and water. Alex passed out cold at like 6pm which made for a veryyy very long night. Keep in mind, there was still no cell service for me lol.

THIRTY, NOT SO FLIRTY, BUT THRIVING

June 30, 2020. Weather: perfect. All 30 years of my life I never can recall a rainy day on my birthday. I’ve always loved having a birthday set exactly halfway through the year, in the heat of summer sunshine. We started off this particular birthday by living to actually see a day in my 30’s, testing the van breaks all the way down our first mountain. Then it was another long day of driving through the Sierra Nevada valley. It was a beautiful drive & we were just so anxious to get to Lake Tahoe and get ourselves a hotel bed & shower and some actual eats at a local restaurant.

We took a quick stop at Mono Lake nearby, cause after visiting the Salton Sea we realized we love looking at dried, washed up desert lakes haha. This one’s water used to source LA (crazy) and now that they realize the lake is drying up at rapid rates, they are trying to reverse the damage done so the water levels don’t keep dropping. The crazy rock formation is called Tufa and basically is limestone that forms when water from heated underwater hot springs rich in calcium meet with the carbonates in lake water (reference: google).

An hour before sunset, we finally arrived to South Lake Tahoe and checked into our hotel at Hotel Beckett – highly recommend cause it’s super close right on the downtown area with gorgeous mountain views & the inside is soooo cute! The bathroom was also HUGE. Having come from not having one for a few days this made me very happy.

We got a bite to eat – the Thai Chicken Curry pizza at Base Camp Pizza to be exact. It was incredible. Then walked to see the lake for sunset (harder to do than it would seem as much of South Lake Tahoe shorelines are gated off and very residential).

We went to the G store as well and loaded up for the following days. Got a slice of chocolate cake and a candle and Alex sang me happy birthday outside the hotel late at night. I even caught it on video to savor forever. It was a very fun night chilling by the fire, despite it being just the two of us (now 30 year olds!!) we made it a really fun, low key golden birthday.

WILD WINDY KAYAKING

The next morning we got up early to travel to the north side of Lake Tahoe, where we would be renting a clear bottom Kayak. Quick note: if you think these are cute, they are. But if you think you’ll be actually kayaking in them – you won’t LOL. The bottoms are actually flat so they barely move, and Alex and I are pretty decent kayakers. We thought we’d have time to make it to the recommended areas like Secret Cove and Hidden Beach…however we didn’t even make it around Crystal Bay during our 4 hour rental. It had already taken us an hour and a half to “float” that far, and we knew we’d be battling choppy waters on the way back now that it was 10am and the boats were coming out. That being said, I don’t think it was super necessary to go that far, I really just wanted to find some jumbo rocks to play around on and kayak through, which we found nearby on the north end and I’m sure are located throughout the whole lake!

After kayaking we decided to hike the Eagle Lakes Wilderness trail to get a beautiful bird’s-eye-view of Lake Tahoe and another more remote alpine lake (can ya tell we looove our alpine lake hikes?) This hike was much shorter than our last, although definitely a climb to the lake. It was also a muuuch smaller lake. We got there and found a secluded spot on the shore off the to the left. As Alex was taking video of me about to dip into the water I swear I saw a brown bear dash by on the trail behind Alex. Alex, who was busy pointing a camera at me, of course didn’t see it run *behind* him so it must not be true. Will remain a lifelong debate.

Then after this hike we decided to do ONE more hike, the iconic Rubicon Trail. A much more beginner’s hike although it was still pretty strenuous going down the hill to the shoreline from the road up top. The trail is VERY long and connects two different state parks. I heard the area by Emerald Bay is the most beautiful and it happened to share the same parking lot as the hike we just did at Eagle Lake, so we got very lucky (parking here is a B!)

Honestly we didn’t really hike the Rubicon long cause it felt a little tooooo touristy but we did it to say we did it. And we LOVED the giant redwoods. The way the light falls between the trees, ugh. Pure heaven.

LAKE TAHOE TO NAPA TO SAN FRAN TO MONTEREY IN A DAY = WHAT WAS I THINKING

The next day we had another looong day of driving ahead. Ya know, I probably should have made this two separate trips: Vegas + the Sierra Nevada mountains (including Yosemite & Death Valley) in one trip, and The Coast as another. But you just never know when you’re going to get the time to travel again, so I just couldn’t resist trying to see it all. The plus: we got to see it all. The downfall: We got to see it all for like one second. Haha, but hey. We were there, we saw it. And now we always know where we want to “revisit” again when the time comes!

We stopped to rest our feet in Napa at my favorite winery from our first van trip we took back in spring 2018. Napa Valley is all so beautiful, but these textures, omg. Even more beautiful than I remembered.

Unfortunately due to having to still drive akjdglksdajgdsja miles we couldn’t stop and drink the wine. But I took a swig of my Barefoot Moscato I had left over in the back of the van just to say I did LOL. Then it was onto the coast <3333

We finally arrived in San Francisco and got in and got out of there as quickly as possible once we went over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. There was a jumper on the bridge and I am hoping everything worked out okay in the end… afterwards I googled Golden Gate Bridge to see if anything was in the news but there is on average one person every two weeks. Ugh, I didn’t like reading more into it so I stopped researching. We have heard great things about San Fran but honestly Alex and I were having minor panic attacks being on constant ramps and 5 lane highways and seeing homes stacked and literally connected to eachother and their driveways basically a foot away from the highway. It took two hours to get out of this traffic, and by this point we were so beat out of shape lol.

Eventually we made it to Monterey and drove a little inwards to the beautiful Carmel Valley for sunrise and to make camp. We got to enjoy sitting by the pool and these views from the van before a much needed sleep.

DRIVING THE HWY 1 CALI COAST

You would have thought we would have given us a day to rest, but the coast is very long. And if we wanted to get back to Vegas in time for our flight, it meant we would have to keep moving. Poor Alex. This is when I really regretted not breaking this up into two trips. However, I still am so happy we got to see the coast. I mean…just look at it. It made my photographer self very happy & out of our whole trip I definitely took the most photos here. We must have stopped every 5 minutes to get out and look at the next view around the corner. It was all spectacular, especially the first part by Big Sur. After many years talking about it, we finally can say we drove Highway 1!

We made another pit stop at Morro Rock. One of my bucket list items was to touch the actual rock. I bike this beach on my Pelaton for my 5 minute cool downs / meditation but never quite made it to the rock. I saw this location was on our route so I figured real life would be the time.

So turns out the rock is huge, and there is actually a shortcut and separate parking lot right up against the rock and so after spending time at the beach (and realizing it would haven taken hours to walk to the rock) we cheated a little, drove closer and voila – finally touched that dang rock!

After Morro Rock we still had a bit of a drive through the hills to our next campsite in Ojai, California. The scene quickly changed to this rust colored grass and twisty trees. It was a nice break from all the scary cliff driving. By now we were nearing the outskirts of LA so this is a beautiful town of so many incredible mansions and celebrity homes. We camped up on the hill and googled which celebrities all lived below us and watched the sunset over the town.

ONE LAST STOP AT THE MAGICAL JOSHUA TREE

Before making our way back to Vegas we decided to spend our last night in Joshua Tree. My happy place. We drove through Thousand Oaks and Calabasas and I tried to find the K krew from the highway. Once we saw the magical field of wind turbines I knew we were coming into Palm Springs. It was Fourth of July and I was worried we wouldn’t be able to find a campsite in Joshua Tree but turns out there are tons to choose from. We got really lucky with site #14 at Ryan Mountain campground and had so much seclusion + had these awesome jumbo rocks to gaze at and climb (if it weren’t 108 degrees!)

It was actually so hot that once we got there we couldn’t do anything other than lay in the van where there was shade and turn the AC on every now and then, although it quickly heated back up (Even at night it was still in the 90s but we managed to still sleep through it. Thanking the long drives for that!)

I had packed two nice dresses and despite the major unshowered vanlife hair at this point, got a little dolled up to take some pics as a new 30 year old woman. So here’s being 30, camping in my favorite place on earth and afterwards watching the brightest full moon rise over the mountain and the Joshua Trees casting eerie shadows against the night sky.

The next morning, we made the final trek from Joshua Tree to Vegas through the Mojave Desert. Our flight wasn’t until midnight but we had to drop the van off by 4pm. So it made for a long night at the airport. But it gave me plenty time to look back on this trip and just be so thankful for all the beauty there is to see in our own country, always just a road trip away.

Annd, without further adieux, for anyone having to reroute their overseas travels or honeymoons and needing to come up with some local destinations instead, here is a list of some vacations/road trips we’ve taken and love, as well as some that are still on our bucket list!

US DESTINATIONS WE **LOVE** // FOR YOUR VACATION / HONEYMOON IDEAS:

  1. Glacier National Park, MT – the mountains are calling and you MUST GO. Seriously. If heaven was on earth, it would be here. Get your hiking boots ready & get life-changed. Read/see all about our trip here.
  2. Yellowstone National Park, WY – if just chilling in nature, crazy & beautiful geothermal activity, and taking drives and watching buffalo roam sounds up your ally then Yellowstone is perfect! Make sure to avoid summer months though, or you’ll be caught in a line ride the whole time. We chose opening week of April & felt we were the only ones there & it was spectactular. Other option: October
  3. Zion National Park, UT – This is the place to REALLY get adventurous + take in some red rock views. Angel’s Landing is one of the most dangerous hikes in all of US and not for the faint of heart, but if you can make it to the top it is certainly worth it (I wouldn’t know, I’m faint of heart LOL). We’ve also always wanted to hike the Narrows but the water was too high in spring. This is a place we will have to return to! The park is much smaller than the other parks, and is super accessible by free shuttle to all the different stops. Stay outside the park at Under Canvas Zion in a cute little canvas tent for a one-of-a-kind glamping experience! (note: these are also at some other National Parks too!)
  4. Palm Springs & Joshua Tree National Park, CA – Okay sooooo this might be my favorite place on all the earth, even though I love the mountains. Something about the desert just speaks to my soul (We stayed for a few months one winter and I talk about this area a lot HERE.) The Joshua Tree are just so whimsy & fun and I legit can’t get enough of them. The towns outside the park are also really cultural and small (they don’t allow any chains – everything is local). Vegas is a short drive away through the Mojave Desert, otherwise Palm Springs is directly below and we also LOOOOVE it there! Rent an airbnb with a pool and enjoy the desert heat!
  5. Outskirts of Vegas – who knew that going to Vegas meant more than casinos + nightlife! Red Rock Canyon, Valley of Fire (do the Fire Wave hike), Hoover Dam and Lake Meade area, plus so many awesome hot springs hikes (some of my favorite hikes still to date, ask me for the deets!). Death Valley is also nearby as well as Zion. Honestly a lot is a day trip away from Vegas but no one ever thinks about it unless you live out that way! It’s a great place to fly in, do the Vegas things & also see a lot of cool nature.
  6. Sedona, Arizona – Okay sooo there’s tons to see in Arizona. Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Saguaro National Park, Scottsdale was a cute town!, but my favorite would have to be Sedona. There’s just something godly about this place, where the red rocks meet up with sage greens and make unique structures and endless hiking. It’s also a very artsy town and there’s tons of restaurants, boutiques, and things to do! We shot Kim & Nick’s wedding here, and now I have to go back and do more personal exploring!
  7. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee – Okay so I CAN’T leave out this place cause it’s super special to us. Alex and I got engaged in one of these rental cabins overlooking the Smoky mountains (there are thousands of these cabins to choose from! And most are surprisingly so affordable + include pool tables and hot tubs with mountain views on the deck!) We loved it so much we returned here for our honeymoon! Tons of interesting things to do nearby such as Smoky Mountain National Park, town of Gatlinburg for your free shots of moonshine (and Dollyworld, if that’s your thing :P)
  8. MIDWEST – If you’re from where I’m from, getting time in beautiful nature doesn’t mean ya have to cross the entire country! We did a Lake Superior Road Trip including Duluth MN + Apostle Islands, WI + Porcupine Mountains, Upper Michigan. And it was SO incredible! Read all about our trip in our 2019 year in review!

REMAINING US DESTINATIONS ON OUR BUCKET LIST:

  1. Grand Tetons – a 2020 couple of mine just honeymooned here & it wasn’t really on my radar until I saw pictures in their stories! And it’s near Yellowstone so you could probably hit up both if you wanted! Make sure to also check out Jackson Hole, Wyoming – a quaint town of 10,000 people surrounded by beauty. It’ll make you want to live out in the country <33
  2. Oregon & Washington – We really didn’t get to see a whole lot here on our first van trip. But if you love mountain air and waterfalls, and mossy green forests (Washington!) then this is your mecca. Another fun idea would be driving the coast as most of the mountains and views are on the western half of these states, stopping at various places along the way!
  3. Charleston, SC & Savannah, GA – we actually have never made it down to the East Coast and the “southern charm” states. Our eyes always wander west, but there’s tons of history and adorable culture to see out this way that we’d love to get around to!
  4. MOAB – really all of Utah we still need to see!
  5. Bryce Canyon – another Utah National Park we really need to see & have heard is a favorite amongst many national park enthusiasts!
  6. Yosemite – one of these days we WILL get there. And it’s located next to all the areas on the first half of our trip above in case you wanted to venture around more places while you’re in the area  ;):)!

 

+ Our list is always growing. There’s always more to discover and explore in the incredible US. Is there a place we’re missing from the list? Let us know in the comments below!

If you made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read all about our Cali trip (and maybe even stumbled upon some other trip ideas along the way!) I hope you have gained some inspo for your next case of wonderlust!

 

Stay wild,

Meghan

30 Trips Around the Sun in Cali – from the desert, the mountains, the coast, and back

August 21, 2020

  1. Linda Van Fossen says:

    Beautiful story And pictures! And great information if traveling. I enjoyed the tour! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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