1000 miles of California National Parks

After our 3 days in Disney parks and L.A., we took our Kia Sedona for a 1000-mile road trip to explore some of the natural beauty of southern California, starting with Channel Islands National Park.  Have you ever been to Channel Islands National Park?  No?  You should fix that.

We got up early Friday morning and boarded the ferry for Scorpion Cove on Santa Cruz Island for a guided 3-mile (or so) hike across America’s equivalent of the Galapagos Islands (i.e., they were never connected to the mainland and have animals and plants not seen anywhere else in the world!).  The children especially loved spotting the numerous island foxes.

And the harbor seal.

And the sweeping views of the ocean from atop the cliffs, whilst I tried to push back fears of their bodies plummeting hundreds of feet onto those rocks by the water you see in the picture below:

It’s among the least-visited and most remote of the national parks (and perhaps the newest, as it was established in 1980), and it was a great way to spend an entire day of peace, quiet, and no cellphone signal.  The children completed the park’s junior ranger program and got their badges just before our ranger guide boarded the 4pm ferry off the island. We had seafood for dinner in the Ventura harbor after taking the 4:30pm ferry back to the mainland.

The next morning (Saturday), we headed east into the California wilderness; our first stop was Manzanar National Historic site, because not every national park or historic site celebrates our country’s achievements; this one, of course, reminds us of our mistakes. Before visiting Manzanar, I knew very little about how we treated Japanese-Americans after the Pearl Harbor bombing; I certainly didn’t realize we sent over 100,000 of them to these “camps” to live and prohibited their returning to California for several years after they were “released.”  The displays at this site (models of the homes they lived in, recorded interviews with some of the occupants, and written accounts from children) were heartbreaking and moving.  The stop was well worth the time and the few miles out of the way to Death Valley.  The children learned a great deal during their junior ranger programs, and we enjoyed the windy landscape at the base of the Sierra Nevadas as we explored the grounds.

We re-boarded our Kia minivan and headed southeast to Death Valley National Park, the hottest, lowest, and driest spot in the U.S., arriving just in time to get the kids’ junior ranger books before the visitor center closed at 5pm.  Dinner was at the Toll Road Restaurant next to our hotel at the historic Stovepipe Wells Inn.  There was an outdoor pool the kids badly wanted to enjoy, but the strong, sandy winds would have made that an unpleasant experience, I’m sure, as I envisioned that time I visited the hangar where my dad worked once in high school and saw the machine they used to clean aviation engine parts with sand particles, and I had no desire to be shiny and metallic that evening.

We hiked a salty creek and saw endangered pupfish, which are like tadpoles, but bigger, and in saltwater, and more endangered.

I’m not sure what I expected to find in Death Valley on Sunday morning, but what we saw was much, much more.  We hiked sand dunes where the Tatooine scenes from “Star Wars” and “Return of the Jedi” were shot.

We saw the “Devil’s Golf Course,” where chucks of crystallized salt formations create razor-sharp terrain that seems to go for miles along the desert floor.

We saw what appeared to be a giant lake nearly 300′ below sea level that was actually a salt flat we could hike out to and stand where the hottest air temperature on Earth was recorded.

We drove on a trail cut between rocks seemingly painted by an artist, as yellows, reds, blacks, browns, and greens reflected on either side of us.

We re-boarded our minivan and headed south toward the Mohave Desert, determined to let the kids get another junior ranger badge and hike atop the Kelso sand dunes there.

Sadly, we ran out of time (in my bride’s estimation–she didn’t want to be stuck atop a 600′ sand dune at nightfall with 3 children and a 3-mile hike back to the car; I wanted to go for it) and did not make it to the top of the Kelso dunes, but we came close. 

It was after 6pm, and we had an hour or so to our hotel at 29 Palms Inn just outside Joshua Tree national park, so we headed south again, arriving about 7:30pm to dinner and live music by the 9,000-year-old Oasis of Mara.

Monday morning, we arose for breakfast at the inn before heading into our last national park, Joshua Tree, where I made immediate notice of the streets’ having no names.

We drove through acres and acres of the funny-looking yet beautiful joshua trees towering above the otherwise scraggly desert vegetation.  We stopped at Skull Rock and climbed the course sandstone boulders while chasing lizards and one large gila monster.

We had the picnic lunch our inn packed us atop an overlook above the San Andreas fault.  Luckily, nothing shook.

After lunch, we went back by the visitor center to let the children turn in their junior ranger workbooks and earn yet another badge + patch before returning to our Kia Sedona to head to I-1o and the airport, which was about 2 hours away. Our flight left just before 5pm (we made it by a few minutes) and landed after midnight Atlanta time. It was 2am by the time we were all home and in bed, so we let the children go to school a couple hours late, because we’re complacent like that.

This was an amazing trip.  We covered over 1,000 miles.  We drove past 8-figure houses in Beverly Hills and dilapidated ghost towns along abandoned highways.  We drove next to the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Nevadas; we went through multiple mountain ranges and crossed numerous deserts, all in just a few days.  I’m grateful to Kia for letting us use the Sedona, which was perfect for our family of 5 to explore everything from the urban streets of Los Angeles to the dirt roads of Death Valley.  Our family will never forget our California adventures, and we can’t wait until time to embark on the next one!


  1. Pretty Bride

    It’s true. This whole trip was absolutely magical. Death Valley might as well have been another planet, and would have been incredible all by itself, but all the things we saw on this trip combined… Amazing!

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