2016 Califorina National Parks Roadtrip

Trip Report – California’s National Parks

On Saturday, Kari-Lise and I  returned from a ten-day road trip through California. 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Parks in America, so we planned on hitting as many Parks as we could. We don’t vacation like normals; laying on the beach isn’t for us. We tend to focus on adventure while on our travels. It’s a big world, and there’s a lot out there to see. As I joked on Twitter: relaxing is boring.

Since sunsetting the Friday Link Pack, I decided to try and make this blog a bit more personal. So, I figured it’d be fun to do a quick post compiling a trip report, share some of our experiences and a few photos. If you want you can click to view them larger, all photos were taken with my iPhone 6s. Since this trip was themed around National Parks, I’ll break it down by Park in the order of visitation. First up…

1. Yosemite

Yosemite Valley floor
From the Yosemite Valley floor looking South

We started with America’s third National Park, established in 1890. Strangely, until last week I’d never been here. Despite having family living in California and making multiple trips to the state as a kid, Yosemite was never a destination. It’s a remarkable place and both Kari-Lise, and I left stunned by its majestic beauty. I could see why John Muir (one of my personal heroes) fell in love with the place. It leaves you feeling small and insignificant. It makes you appreciate the world on a more primal level.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

—John Muir, The Yosemite

Wildlife was out in full, we met a momma black bear and her cub, they were far away and while she was keeping an eye on us, we didn’t approach. We also saw mule deer and a lone coyote. We hiked the east side of the valley floor along the base of Half Dome and away from the campgrounds and parking lots. While it was an enjoyable hike, we didn’t discover until too late that there was a shuttle to take you to Glacier Point, and we could have hiked from there down to the valley along the Panorama Trail. Next time.

Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point
Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point

There is still so much that we left unseen. We didn’t even get to Tioga Pass, Tuolumne Meadows, and missed Hetch Hetchy completely. We’ve read nothing but good things about all those areas. Yosemite is big and a day and a half wasn’t enough time. There have already been several discussions in the Alexander household about a return visit so we can spend a bit more time spent among the spires of Yosemite.


2. Kings Canyon

Driving Highway 180 towards Kings Canyon
Driving Highway 180 towards Kings Canyon

Second Park on our trip was America’s 26th National Park, established in 1940. This park was significantly more remote than the others, but the drive out there was incredible and worth the time. To get to the park you have to pass through Sequoia National Forest on Highway 180—the only way in and out.

Last year, a fire tore through the central portion of the valley, which left bare mountains dotted with blackened ghost trees and slopes covered in wildflowers. A thunderstorm was rolling down the canyon as we passed through and the rumbles could be heard echoing for miles. It’s way out there, and since we weren’t staying nearby, we didn’t get a chance to hike any portion of the park. We just passed through, poked around for a few hours and then headed off to the next park on our list.


3. Sequoia

Hiking through Mineral King Valley
Hiking through Mineral King Valley

America’s second National Park, established in 1890, was third on our list. If I had to pick a favorite park from this trip, Sequoia wins. It was stunning. It was everything I love in National Parks. Huge sweeping vistas, massive trees thousands of years old, and cold alpine valleys dominated our days.

We hiked up in Mineral King—an incredible subalpine valley—on our first day. When we got there, we noticed quite a few of the backpacker’s cars were wrapped in tarps. Which we found strange. It wasn’t until later that we discovered that the yellow-bellied marmots of Mineral King are addicted to antifreeze and will chew through anything to get at it. While usually dangerous to animals, for whatever reason these marmots don’t die from ingesting the coolant. The Rangers have taken to calling them super marmots. Thankfully our rental car was unaffected.

Spiderweb gate installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps outside Crystal Cave
Spiderweb gate installed by the CCC outside Crystal Cave

On our second day, we checked out the big trees around General Sherman (the largest tree by volume in the world), but the highlight was Crystal Cave. If you visit, make sure to book your tickets in advance. The tour through the cave was about an hour and well worth it. Happy we spent some time there. It also has a cool spiderweb gate entrance that reminded me of a fantasy novel.


4. The Channel Islands

Island Fox on Santa Cruz island
Island Fox on Santa Cruz Island

The 40th National Park established in 1980 is often referred to as America’s Galapagos! No, for real. The archipelago is home to over two thousand plant and animal species, one hundred and forty-five of which are found nowhere else on the planet. The highlight was, of course, the island fox, who are plentiful (despite being nearly extinct two decades ago) and completely unafraid of people. They were everywhere.

Sitting offshore at Santa Cruz
Sitting offshore at Santa Cruz Island

Halfway into our hike about five miles from everything, we stopped to check out a songbird hanging on a bush. When randomly this older, wrinkled, nearly naked, and quite tan uh… gentlemen, wandered past us. He reminded me of those old white people you see in tropical locations, those who have spent decades in the sun and wear only thongs, the sun-worshipper type. He noticed that we were watching the songbird, smiled at us, and told us that it was a songbird, and then he went along his way. He was quite friendly, but it was strange seeing him so far out. Here we were five miles from anything, and this guy looks like he’s wandering along a resort beach. Now, you have to realize, outside of Park and Nature Conservancy staff the Channel Islands are completely uninhabited. Yet, here was this guy in his thong and flip-flops moseying like a local and heading even deeper into the island. He wasn’t with us on the catamaran on the way in, so maybe he landed on a different beach? Perhaps he works there? It was surreal.

Overlooking sea caves on Santa Cruz island
Overlooking sea caves on Santa Cruz Island

We finished our hike around a small portion of the island, had lunch overlooking some rock formations and watched flights of pelicans fly below us as we took in the incredible views. Both of us wished we had more time; there are many more islands and all are distinct from each other, so there is still so much to see.


5. Pinnacles

Upper portion of Balconies Cave Trail
Upper portion of Balconies Cave Trail in Pinnacles

So, we were supposed to have a down day. But as I mentioned at the start of this report for us down days are tedious. We had wanted to visit America’s newest (#59) National Park, but we were afraid we might have to miss it. Thankfully, we got the itch for a long drive and I’m glad we made the three-hour journey north.

Pinnacles is the sight of an ancient volcano along the San Andreas fault. It’s also the home to California condors, and its trails are lined with amazing talus caves. The caves were impressive and easily the highlight of our visit. Though, I’ll admit that it was a bit creepy to crawl through building-sized boulders along the fault line. After the coolness of the caves, we found the remaining trail sunbaked and exposed. We spent a few hours hiking and emerged tired and sweaty and starving.

Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to see any condors. But in the 100° heat I’m wagering they were spending as much time as they could in the shade.


6. Joshua Tree

Joshua tree at sunset
A Joshua tree at sunset

Joshua Tree might be one of my favorite places on the planet, it’s the 52nd National Park established in 1994, and last on our trip. I’m not normally a “desert” person. I prefer snow-covered mountains, damp temperate forests, and Pacific Northwest islands to vast wastelands of the desert. But there’s something about Joshua Tree that haunts me. The strange vegetation, large piles of boulders, and the silent solitude are captivating. It’s easy to see why I’m not alone in falling in love with the place.

Joshua Tree Homesteader Cabin or Fallout set piece?
Joshua Tree homesteader cabin or Fallout set piece?

We stayed at this incredible little homesteader cabin that we found on AirBnB. It was remote and raw and served perfectly as a basecamp for our explorations into the park. Summer is the slow season at Joshua Tree, and I can see why the temps were crazy high (reaching 110° during the day) which meant we were up very early so we could hike and enjoy the park. The hike we did was incredible. We saw jackrabbits, cottontails, antelope squirrels, and lizards of all shapes and sizes all over the place. This was our second visit to Joshua Tree in a year, and we’ll probably be back again. There’s just something about it. It’s hard to stay away.


While attending Lilac City Comicon, I had someone ask me where I get my ideas. It’s a common question, and one of my answers (among many) was travel. It’s so critical to my process, and I find it stretches me as a person. (Even something as safe as our National Parks here in America.) It forces me to get out of my small box and face things I wouldn’t typically face on a day to day basis. There’s a quote from Mark Twain I’ve posted on here many times before, but it’s one I love:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

As a writer, I ask readers to go on journeys with me, so it’s on natural that I should take some myself. It’s one thing to write about the heat of the sun beating upon your neck, it’s another to experience it. A cleft of rock can inspire a thousand tales, a family of marmot running across a subalpine meadow can spark ideas for plots, and meeting interesting people along the way can usher forth a whole civilization of rich characters. Tales, plots, and characters that I might never dream up sitting in my home office. Travel isn’t necessary for writing, but I think it can go a long way to making someone a better writer. At least it does for me.

So that’s our trip! The total stat breakdown:

  • 10 Days
  • 6 National Parks
  • 59.2 Miles Hiked
  • 2159 Miles Driven

It was unbelievable, and I’ll be the first to admit it was tough coming back to work on Monday. But such is life; besides I have books to finish, stories to tell, after all, these pages don’t write themselves.

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