What if you were offered eleven-days with no responsibility on the condition that you have to leave your house? That was our situation when people wanted to rent our house, through Airbnb, in late March. We decided to not spend more than the rental income so that ruled out airplanes and rental cars.
So, what’s the answer? ROAD TRIP!!!
What do you do? Where do you go? The entire west coast was within range. We ruled out north, still too cold and too much chance of rain. And we ruled out snow; this is a spring trip.
A Roadtrip is as much about what you discover along the way as where you land each night. Checking off places you’ve always thought to visit and a reconnaissance to identify new places for future trips. We had been trying to figure out a time to visit friends in La Jolla for a long time but we could never quite fit in a visit. We flip down to LA at the drop of a hat, but somehow San Diego is in another regional and cultural sphere, not to mention 10 hours away not 6.
So, that was to be our start and got us all the way, almost to the Mexican border, with ten days to wend our way back to Oakland. We chose to stop in Joshua Tree in the high desert, Ojai in the coastal mountains north of LA and Yosemite Valley in the Sierra and explore alternate routes north through California on routes that kept us mostly off of freeways.
We touched almost every environment in California, each awe inspiring, each enhancing our already considerable gratitude that this state is our home, and yet we hadn’t even reached the upper third.
Here’s our route, approximately 1,400 miles, but a third of that on the first day.
Leg One – Oakland to La Jolla
On the road by 6:15. In La Jolla at 4:00, 487 miles, almost 10 hours.
Everybody I’ve spoken to as I write this has an opinion about this drive and their own strongly held view of how best to survive. They all use the word survive, nobody is indifferent. For what it’s worth, we change drivers every 90 minutes. Two easy shifts each and we’re in LA. It’s that simple. Six hours, including stops, is an average of 62 mph. Clearly somebody’s exceeding the speed limit at some point. We chat, we listen to music, currently the soundtrack from Hamilton, sometimes This American Life, or even just stare out the window silently for miles on end. It goes by in a flash. If you leave early, you’re there for lunch.
But first a pet peeve. Highway 5 is two lanes each way with lots of trucks. The speed limit it 75 mph but the predominant speed for cars is between 80 and 85 and sometimes a little more. The speed for trucks is 55 mph.
“I’m driving at the speed limit, so why shouldn’t I just stay in the left lane. Eventually I would have to move left to go around those pesky trucks. All that lane changing would be dangerous. They really shouldn’t allow trucks on this road anyway. The others should just get in line behind me. I’m doing everybody a favor.”
I imagine that’s what people who clog the left lane on I-5 are thinking or they’re simply oblivious, following the leader. The law and reasonable thought is that everybody stays on the right except to pass. Yet on Highway 5, everybody seems to camp in the left lane causing all kinds of chaos. There, I’ve vented. Thank you, this really did help and I’ll never mention it again.
The trip has two distinct parts. Bay Area to LA and LA to San Diego. That begs the question of where is LA? But I will leave that aside.
How can I capture the 5 – 6+ hour dash from the Bay Area to Los Angeles on Highway 5?
I’m always amazed how fast you get from the middle of the city to wide-open farmland, against a brutal commute the opposite direction. Less than an hour.
Then the endless valley, though every season brings something new; late winter and spring are green with patches of wildflowers and flowering fruit trees. Summer, brown. Please disregard the feed lots, and the angry water signs.
Owning land along the highway apparently constitutes free speech. “Congress Created Dust Bowl” “Dams not Trains” “Is Growing Food Wasting Water?” The dissonance is striking as we pass by two-hundred miles of vibrant crops while the land under Bakersfield sinks from over pumping of ground water and us city folk, who only use 20% of state water aren’t flushing at home and cut back 20% during the drought. “Congress Created Yellow Bowl.”
Then the Grapevine, a short ride up the Tehachapi mountains through a 4,000 ft. pass. Each year at the top of the hill, for just a week, there can be an amazing display of wildflowers, but not on this trip. We saw it in 2008, by accident, and have tried to time it again and again, but without success.
Wildflowers are elusive and perhaps should just be discovered by happenstance. We had chanced into a superbloom and got on your hands and knees to take photos. I think this is a lesson in not trying to recreate a perfect moment.
Several years ago, during the California drought we planned a spring trip to LA passing through the Antelope Valley and stopping at the California Poppy Reserve at what was touted to be the height of the “bloom.” We arrived at the visitors’ center and were told by two sincere curators. “If we went up the trail to the left we would come across a flower.” Following their instructions, after a five-minute walk, we did come across a single poppy. We continued on to LA and back up to the Bay Area on Highway 101 passing plenty of beautiful wild flowers, but only that one flower at the reserve. There were more poppies in our Oakland front yard.
The truth is, this year the entire state will be a super bloom all spring and summer from now through even the late summer in the high sierra meadows for us to all enjoy without trying.
And finally the long descent from high desert into the suburbia and haze of the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles beyond.
Let’s discuss food. It all depends on timing. If we don’t leave too early, our first choice on any road trip is Beauty’s Bagles in the Temsecal area of Oakland.
Great bagels, very busy with a young crowd, but well worth any wait. We don’t eat there but love to eat our take-away on the road. Cream cheese and lox on everything bagel, tomato, onion & capers, closed as opposed to open and an 8oz cappuccino. For Susan substitute goat cheese and a regular coffee. They’ll sometimes, but not always, cut the bagel into four pieces rather than two for easier on-the-road eating. Is there a hands free snack food app? You’re good for most of the trip and maybe, with a bag of trail mix (or chips and jerky from the quick stop) you can wait until lunch in LA.
On the road we suspend our normal reluctance to patronize fast food outlets and plan which of four In-and-Out Burgers, the top of the fast food chain, we will visit. If you leave, as we did this trip, at 6:30, there is one at the Grapevine, a little more than four hours out. You get there at 10:30 just after they open. Let’s call it brunch. If you leave a little later there is one at Santa Nella, 90 minutes out. Or perhaps you’re better off at the location at Kettleman City, just about exactly half way.
Animal style. A patty ( or two if you order the double) marinated in mustard, and served Bic Mac style with lettuce, tomato, and a sauce. You can eat the regular burger while you drive, but animal style requires a stop
That’s it. There is nothing more to know about food on Highway 5. If you must, go ahead and google “Best Food on I-5” but I won’t be your enabler by providing a website. This is not a place to linger.
Then there’s the slog from LA to San Diego. As much as the trip to LA is a rural blur this next leg is a clogged freeway passage through grim urban sprawl. You could simply take I-5 the whole way but locals and Waze takes you from Highway the 5 to the 210 to the 2 back to the 5 then to the 710 connecting to the 60 and then back to the 5 avoiding a couple of epic LA traffic jams. In LA’s golden highway years, the 50’s and 60’s, freeways all had descriptive names: The Santa Monica Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Ventura freeway, but now they have largely lost their names and freeway numbers are prefaced with “the.” The trip continues on the 5, all the way to the San Diego area, with not a single break in the sprawl except the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. Near La Jolla, the 810 finally connects to the 52 and drops into La Jolla. Three hours and 150 miles, that’s only 50 mph with no stops, a different deal. Now a deep breath, you’re there.
We went there to visit friends and family and that’s what we did. My recommendation is, like us, to make friends with folks who have a place overlooking the ocean. Sitting on the terrace enjoying a glass of wine we thought that half people passed by on the rocky beach just below us wanted to be us the other half hated us.
The beach in La Jolla is rocky and in the city, not the Southern California beach one usually expects. But, if you head out to La Jolla Shores there’s a wonderful flat beach.
It’s perfect for swimming, boogie boarding and beginning surfers and you can walk on this broad flat beach past the Scripts Institute pier for miles as far as Blacks Beach, a renown nude beach, and beyond for miles more. Pay attention, the beach route to Blacks is blocked at high tide and the alternate cliff access can be treacherous.
Leg 2 – La Jolla to Joshua Tree
233 miles, almost 5 hours
For the next leg of the trip we were heading into the teeth of what had been described as the 100-year wildflower bloom in the Anzo-Borrego Park, but it seemed to unfold in the southern deserts a week before we arrived. “You shudda been here yesterday.” We paused at the appointed places saw some hillsides of flowers at other places, saw lakes and beautiful desert valleys and on to Joshua Tree.
Heading out of the park and on to the shores of the Salton Sea a desolate, very down-on-your-luck desert community. It was past lunch time and we stopped at the Mexican restaurant in Red Earth Casino, just about depressing as you might imagine. I was rebuffed on ordering quesadilla as they were out of cheese, so settled for a hamburger, not cheeseburger and a quite welcome beer. On a roadtrip, not every stop can be wonderful. Sometimes you just have to stop and eat or get gas. After lunch we pressed on to our desert hideaway past 29 Palms.
What we missed along the route:
California Wolf Center
Salton Sea/Slab City – More Slab City
It’s a magical event to sit in the middle of the deep high desert looking out over only sand and rock and sparse desert vegetation to the barren mountains beyond, with only the blush of the soft wind and the buzz of the universe in your ears. At night, away from city lights, sitting under the arc of the starry sky, bundled against the cold in the winter, glad for the hint of cool in the summer.
Fifteen years ago Gregg Davis bought his first house in the desert and has since created Joshua Desert Retreats, 13 great stylish homes, off the beaten path and way off the beaten track in the high desert near Joshua Tree National Park just beyond 29 Palms California. We’ve stayed with them four times over the last ten years and are never disappointed.
The homes are all beautifully decorated in a whimsical desert fashion; no two the same. All are isolated giving the feeling of being almost alone in the desert. Some are so far down dirt roads that you actually are alone in the desert. My favorite sign, eastbound just outside 29 Palms is “No services next 100 miles” That’s the direction most of houses face, away from the blazing western sun, staring into the abyss.
If you have 4-wheel drive you can explore out in that 100-mile zone. There are people living out there completely off-the-grid, but I think one should give them wide berth.
The stars in the moonless sky stretching to the horizon are like a prehistoric sky, then one high jet, then another heading to and from LAX 150 miles to the west and the low yellow glow of Los Angeles on the horizon. A full moon erases the stars from most of the sky, casting a silver light on the desert, quite light enough to walk around.
In the park we came across an other worldly landscape, wildflowers in some areas, groves of Ocotillo, Cholla cactus, and blooming Yucca and Joshua Trees.
This desert has the distinction of being on the boarder of the Colorado Desert to the south and the Mohave Desert to the north and on the junction of the continental plate and the Pacific plate. The rock formations are towers of lava that seeped up in spaces in the plates and then cooled, exposed by erosion.
The landscape is like neither of the two adjacent deserts. And, of course there are the wildflowers.
We’ve hiked on many trails, some to mountain tops and one into what was a completely isolated canyon that had no access until 1958 and has many plants unique in the world. We’ve hiked to several Oases, groves of palm trees in desert canyons where springs surface.
The hike to Lost Oasis, almost 8 miles with a lot of up and down. Over each rise you think you’ll see the oasis, only to see the trail snake through the next valley and disappear arouund the bend.
But there are other oasis more easily accessible. The park roads are good but if you have 4-wheel drive and even more enthusiastic vehicles with high clearance, there are miles of dirt road to explore, some leading to long ago abandoned mines.
We have only visited in the winter and early spring when the weather is mild. Even so, in later March it can get into the 80’s. I’ve been through deserts in 120-degree weather, so I actually can imagine what it’s like in the summer. Don’t do it.
Leg 3 – Joshua Tree to Ojai
225 miles, about 4 ½ miles.
Still in search of the “bloom of the century,” we headed out of Joshua Tree, avoiding the freeway route that Siri and Wazee kept trying to reroute us, crashing through LA freeways. Our route went through the town of Yucca Valley and northwest up Old Woman’s Springs Road, Highway 247, through Flamingo Heights, Johnson Valley, and Lucerne Valley north of the San Gabriel and were rewarded with beautiful open, almost empty desert. There were still groves of Joshua Trees, and fields of wildflowers. To the south were the San Gabriel Mountains with snow-peaked Big Bear and Arrowhead, shielding us from LA. The road less taken, and it did make all the difference.
Well, for a time. From Apple Valley through Victorville until we crossed I-5 was and a slog through miles of strip malls, stop lights, and scrub desert. We did have a delightful lunch at the Littlerock Grill, in, appropriately, the almost not a town of Littlerock, just east of Palmdale, a good Yelp find when we needed lunch along the way. Once we crossed I-5, we drove through a beautiful agricultural valley, no longer desert but coastal mountains, on highway 126, though Fillmore and up a mountain canyon to the plateau at Ojai.
Ojai is more than a bit cute and more than a bit expensive, but still, I like Ojai. There are lots of places to hike, good places to stay and eat. It’s the Napa Valley of Los Angeles where Angelinos come for a weekend to unwind. We stayed at the Emerald Iguana Inn, which unlike its sister inn, the Blue Iguana Inn, is six blocks out of town and a little more economical. But there are beautiful rooms and suites in a garden setting surrounding a pool. Because of Airbnb income, we could afford the best room. We were only there for one full day, and just relaxed, took the walk to town and stopped in at the Ojai Valley Museum and found that the town was put on the map by Edward Libby, the founder of Libby-Owens Glass. We had a nice meal at Osteria Grappa one night and bought a chicken and salad at the grocery down the block the next night and ate in. We read and wrote. All getting ready for the final leg of our journey to Yosemite.
Leg 4 – Ojai to Yosemite
296 miles, 6 hours
We took Highway 33 north from Ojai driving up and down mountain roads that were so lightly traveled that CALTRANS had not bothered to clear rather large rocks from the road, giving new meaning to the oft seen signs,” Look Out for Falling Rocks.” After a couple of hours, we dropped out of the mountains on to the southern end of the Corrizo Plain. This is the area between Highway 5 and 101 where the San Andreas Fault spreads out and the landscape ripples for 75 miles north. Roads cross it at various points, but there’s almost no reason to drive its length. This were we really came face to face with the “bloom.” Not just hillsides of flowers but whole mountain ranges swathed with yellow. You can even see it from space.
This ends in the towns of Maricopa, Taft, and a big oil field, We didn’t have time to visit the Oil Museum and Buttonwillow, our favorite town name on I-5. From there is the uneventful trek on I-5 to Highway 41, through Fresno and on to Yosemite and that breathtaking first view of the valley.
What can I say about Yosemite? I have so many memories over 45 years
The snowy winter night I took my 8-year-old daughter owling in the hip deep snow in the woods, acting out one of her favorite books, Owl Moon. The first time Susan and I made it to the top of Nevada Falls together and again the first time we did it again after she survived cancer. A perfect dogwood in bloom in a shaft of sunlight against a dark forest. The granite and the water, the granite and the water, the granite and the water and the blue of the sky at 10,000 feet. The sounds of the wind in the high country in it’s different moods through the trees, in the meadow and across the expanse of bare granite above the tree line. Waking at dawn at a high country lake tinged with mist, stirring up the fire for a cup of coffee and sitting as the sunrise warmed me.
We only stay in the Valley in the late fall through early spring when it is much less crowded. All the rooms are often full but the tent cabins and campsites are largely empty and during the week there are few day users.
This was the trip of waterfalls. California has just experienced the winter with the highest rainfall on record and the falls are booming. And not just the falls we have all heard of, Yosemite Falls, Bridalvale Falls, Vernal and Nevada Falls but all around the valley water is shedding off the granite walls in unnamed falls and rivulettes. We secured one of the few rooms at Yosemite Lodge where you can see the falls from the room through the trees and fall asleep to the rumble of the water.
The Merced River through the valley was full and wide and with a unique green glow. We did a 10-mile hike around the valley from the lodge up past the Awahnee Hotel (I won’t use the new name) up to Mirror Lake, which, with all the water, is actually a lake again, not a sandy meadow, and up to the Vernal Falls bridge. Our last day of the trip, we just sat and read and wrote, sitting on our terrace with the view of the falls, with only a stroll to the Village for lunch.
I’m going to pause my description about Yosemite, saving it for my upcoming love story “The Essential Yosemite.”
Leg 5 – Yosemite to Oakland
200 miles 4 to 6 hours
We’re ready to go home. There are two routes from Yosemite Valley to Oakland. One is down highway 140 along the Merced River, through Mariposa, to Merced then across the valley. This is the fastest route almost 4 hours. The other is up over Highway 120 to the junction of the Tuolumne Meadow road, through the Park to Groveland, toward Sonora and Oakdale, Escalon, Manteca, Tracy and home. The same mileage but about an hour more. We most often take that route, since it’s much prettier with less freeway and just outside the park entrance there are several great hikes, Carlon Falls trail, Hetch Hetchy, Early Intake. The choice was taken from our hands; Highway 120 was closed due to a road washout, so we drove down the Merced River which crashed and bubbled through the canyon dotted with….more wildflowers.