Joshua Tree National Park – November 2019

Joshua Tree National Park Sign

Hannah – Age 6 – National Park #9

As we were leaving Death Valley, snow began to fall and the weather was definitely changing. We took a detour from google maps to drive through the Mojave National Preserve.  It was a very windy day and we hardly saw any other vehicles throughout the entire preserve.  We would have liked to stop and explore more, but rain and snow were also in the forecast to hit Joshua Tree in the next day or two, so we knew our time was limited.

We arrived at the Joshua Tree National Park Oasis Visitor Center in the city of Twentynine Palms in the mid-afternoon.  The visitor center was small and crowded.  My mom and Hannah shopped the gift store while I tried to talk to a ranger.  It was so busy that I believe I ended up talking to a gift store employee.  He handed me a map and circled the main areas to visit, along with some really random sites that were not even on the map.    Map of Joshua Tree

Park Sites and Hikes – Day 1

Split Rock Hike
  • Split Rock Hike – 2.5 Mile Loop – This was my favorite hike we did and it is not even shown on the map.  If you look on the map it is located where the picnic table is above Jumbo Rocks – an off shoot on the other side of the road.  I am not sure why it is not called out – maybe it is a new trail.  Near the parking lot sits a huge boulder with a big split down the middle, giving it the obvious name “Split Rock”.  We started down a path nearby, not sure if we were actually on the loop trail or not, but it quickly became clear that we were.  It was a really fun trail with a lot of little ups and downs, and rocks for Hannah to climb in and around.  When we were about one mile in, the clouds started to get dark and we could tell it was going to rain soon.  We made it back to the car just in time.  We drove through the rest of the park that day in the rain.
Split Rock Hike
  • The Tallest Joshua Tree in the Park – This is also not on the map and was not as impressive as it sounds.  The “ranger”/gift shop employee made a point to star the location on my map, so we were looking for signs and other people to be stopped taking photos of it.  When we saw it, we were pretty underwhelmed and laughed that were looking so intensely for it.
Tallest Joshua Tree in the Park
  • Keys View – This looks like it would have been a pretty amazing view overlooking the Coachella Valley and it is also wheelchair/stroller accessible.  Unfortunately it was pouring rain when we got there, which did not stop us from getting out and running the 500 feet to the top to see it, but it would definitely be more beautiful on a sunny day.

As we drove out of the park that evening, we saw the most beautiful and close up rainbows I have ever seen.  They appeared to come down 100 feet off the road and it seemed there was a new one every corner we turned around.  The rain had slowly turned to snow and we were looking forward to getting back down from the elevation and checking into our hotel.

Rainbows at Joshua Tree

Twentynine Palms – Night 1

We once again had reservations at the Holiday Inn.  We found out when checking in that a lot of backpackers/campers were coming down from the park to try to find a hotel given the rain and snow forecast, so I was very glad we had the reservations booked ahead of time. (Thanks Mom!)  I did some research before booking this one and knew Hannah would LOVE that it had an outdoor heated pool. Of course, I was expecting outside temperatures to be higher than 40 degrees when I booked it.  But sure enough, that pool was heated to at least 80-90 degrees and it was actually pretty comfortable to swim in.  The best part was the view of Joshua Tree National Park in the background. 

Swimming in the outdoor pool with Joshua Tree in the background

It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so our dining options were limited.  We ended up finding a pretty nice Mexican restaurant open, and made a stop at the liquor store to help us celebrate Thanksgiving the next day. 

Park Sites and Hikes – Day 2 (Thanksgiving Day)

We woke up to unexpected sunshine and decided to get up to the park as early as possible to hike a few trails we missed yesterday. 

  • Skull Rock – This is just a stop along the side of the road.  It was packed the day before but was nearly empty this morning.  Hannah and I enjoyed climbing all over the rocks around here and into the small crevices. 
Skull Rock
  • Barker Dam – 1 mile loop – The Barker Dam loop was really nice and pretty flat.  Apparently in the spring there is water in the dam area, but it was completely dry when we visited.  The hike leads you through a ton of cool Joshua Trees.
Barker Dam Trail
  • Hidden Valley – This is a very popular loop hike and it was pretty crowded by the time we got there.  It was also getting cold outside, so my mom waited in the car.  Hannah and I started the hike and shortly decided to head back as it looked very similar to the other hikes we had already done.  And Hannah had enough hiking for awhile.

Frozen at Frozen 2

It was still relatively early when we got back to the hotel room.  We let Hannah watch some of the Macy’s Day Parade while we planned the rest of the day.  We heard there was a movie theater in the next town over, Yucca Valley, and Frozen 2 had just come out, so we decided that would be a fun thing to do that afternoon.   It was raining in Twentynine Palms, but snowing in Yucca Valley.  Being from Wisconsin, a little snow did not worry me.  I was more nervous about the California drivers handling the snow, but it wasn’t too bad of a drive and it was really pretty seeing a snow fall on the Joshua Trees – something that doesn’t happen too often here.

What we did not realize was that the movie theater did not have heat!  Since it was around 30 degrees outside, the theater was probably around 50 degrees.  We all kept our jackets, hats, and mittens on the entire movie.  We were literally “frozen” at Frozen 2. 

Lessons Learned

Some of the best sites at the National Parks are not even on the map!

Barker Dam Hike

Death Valley National Park – November 2019

Death Valley Park Sign

Hannah – Age 6 – National Park #8

The drive from Ventura to Pahrump, NV (a city outside of Death Valley National Park) was a long one, and it was the first time I had ever encountered a dust storm.  My phone would buzz a weather alert and a few minutes later visibility would be less than five feet in front of us.  The wind was incredible.  We stopped for lunch in Barstow, one of the only larger cities between LA and Death Valley, and could barely make our way into the restaurant without getting pelted with sand in the face. 

After the long and somewhat stressful drive, we were happy to see the city ahead of us.  We were unsure what to expect in this city and were surprised when we saw a lot of casino advertisements.  We then recalled that we had crossed the border into Nevada.  In fact, our hotel, the Holiday Inn, shared a parking lot with a large casino next door. 

The Pour House for the Win

After a quick google search, we decided on the Pour House for dinner, which I later realized was actually inside a Best Western about a mile away.  Now, call me elitist, but normally I wouldn’t think of restaurants inside Best Western hotels to be anything special.  However, we were pleasantly surprised at this one!  We walked in and saw a mini bowling alley that costed $1 or $2 per game that kept Hannah busy while my mom and I ordered a margarita and looked over the menu. 

The surprises of this restaurant kept on coming!  In addition to the American food on the menu, there was a complete Indian menu included (which you do not see online).  The waitress came over and told us the Indian food was amazing and explained that the Indian food is more “family-style”.  We ordered a vegetarian masala (or something similar to that) over jasmine rice with a side of the most delicious garlic naan bread I’ve ever tasted.   She wasn’t kidding – the food was plentiful and mouth-watering.  We ended up taking leftovers that fed us the following night as well.

Death Valley

The next morning we drove the 30 minutes to Death Valley National Park.  The park seemed massive as we made our way to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.  Hannah LOVES the visitor centers and this one was definitely impressive.  We met with a ranger and she gave us a map that she went over with us, highlighting the various hikes we should do and even suggesting certain times to visit a few stops to coincide with sunset and/or ranger talks.

By the time I finished with the ranger, Hannah was long gone in the museum with my mom.  The museum was impressive with a lot for Hannah to look at, touch, and read.  We learned the following as we walked through, giving us all the more appreciation of this park. 

Death Valley Fun Facts

  • Hottest place on EARTH – Death valley holds the record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded at 134 degrees
  • Driest place in the United States – The average rainfall is less than two inches per year, and some years Death Valley does not get ANY rain
  • Lowest point in North America – Badwater Basin at Death Valley are 282 feet below sea level
  • Largest National Park in the lower 48 states – 3 million acres of desert wilderness
  • The mineral borax was mined in a part of Death Valley in the late 1800s.  In the 1920s, mining had slowed, so the Pacific Coast Borax Company transitioned the area to tourism and built the Furnace Creek Inn on the land, which is still in operation today.  The company fought to protect the land and Death Valley was deemed a national monument in 1933, and it became a national park in 1994.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – Hannah and Grandma

A Day in the Park

We had a full day of “drive, park, hike, repeat” that day.  I am going to give you a quick overview of each place we stopped without going too crazy in depth or this post would go on forever. Map of Death Valley

  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – Impressive views and easy to access sand dunes right off the road.  Although nothing can quite compare to Great Sand Dunes National Park, this was a really fun stop.  The sand was a great temperature too for going barefoot!
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
  • Mosaic Canyon – We had to drive about three miles off the main road on a very washed out skinny road, but it wasn’t as bad as the ranger told us it would be.  The hike was full of fun canyons, slides, and rocks to climb on.  This was my favorite hike of the day.
Mosaic Canyon
  • Salt Creek Interpretive Trail – Less than one mile boardwalk hike where you MIGHT see fish.  Unfortunately it was pretty dry while we were there, so this was not the most exciting hike.  Plus one of us was getting hungry. At this point, we were driving past the Visitor Center again, so we stopped in to use the restrooms and ate our lunch (PB&Js and apples) in the car on the way to the next stop.
  • Golden Canyon – You can see in the photo why this might be called “Golden Canyon”.  This was definitely Hannah’s favorite hike of the day.  While my mom waited below, Hannah led me on an off-shoot steep canyon hike.  We finally couldn’t make it up any higher in the skinny canyon, and the hike down was challenging, to say the least, in our flip flops.  I would highly recommend tennis shoes for such hikes, but it’s hard coming from Wisconsin in November, and not wearing flip flops in anything over 60 degrees!
Golden Canyon
  • Badwater Basin – This is the lowest elevation in North America at 282 ft. below sea level.  I’ve heard that the salt flat here changes in its appearance depending on the time of year, etc.  The salt was slippery, and Hannah decided to jump over a puddle, slipped, and fell into a pile of salty, dirty water.  Needless to say, our time at Badwater Basin was cut a little short. 
Badwater Basin
  • Artists PaletteThere is a one-way drive off of Badwater Road that passes by a place called the Artists Palette, which is aptly named.  It is incredible to see and we were so busy admiring the views and the colors (and driving), that we didn’t take any photos!  However, I linked to google images so you can see what I mean.  Also, it was fun to drive the tight, winding road knowing it was one-way.  And Hannah liked all of the crazy turns and ups and downs.
  • Zabriskie Point – This is a gorgeous overlook spot.  It’s about a ¼ mile walk up a paved path to the viewpoint.  It was the perfect way to end our day as we were all pretty tired and had probably done around 5-6 miles of hiking with all of our stops.  The view was gorgeous and a good reminder of how big this park is. 
Zabriskie Point

The Eyes of a Six Year Old

To pass the time throughout the day on the drive from point to point, Hannah kept a notebook of all the things we were doing and seeing.  She had written a page for each stop we made. One night, while I was writing this blog, she came over and handed me her notebook to help me remember each of the stops we made.  It was so amazing to read her notes and see “Deth Vally” through the eyes of a six year old.

Hannah’s notes from the drive in to Death Valley National Park

Lessons Learned

“There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand.  There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”  ~ Edward Abbey

Channel Islands National Park – Santa Rosa Island – November 2019

Hannah – Age 6 – National Park #7

Since my dad had accompanied us on a National Park trip a few years earlier, we decided to invite my mom along on a vacation.  I knew my mom would like to have the trip planned out a little more than I typically do, which ended up working out great.  It forced me to look ahead at hotels which ended up being a very good decision on this trip, in hindsight.  We planned to visit three National Parks – Channel Islands, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree.  This trip involved a lot of driving, so it was nice to have another adult along in the car! 

I researched the different islands that make up Channel Islands National Park and the various options that were available for ferries to the islands.  We decided to go with Island Packers, which is located right in Ventura Harbor.  In November, they are not as busy and only offered a ferry out to one island (Santa Rosa Island) on the day we were booking.  I booked our tickets about two months in advance, which totaled $221.00 for one senior, one adult, and one child.

Channel Islands National Park

The Hotel

We flew in around 7pm on a Saturday night, took a bus to the car rental, and then drove about an hour and a half to Ventura, CA.  We stopped for some basic groceries on the way, as I had read that there is not any food or drink on the island.  I had booked two nights at the Holiday Inn in Ventura Harbor that was walking distance (one mile) to the ferry we were taking the next day out to Santa Rosa Island, one of the islands that makes up Channel Islands National Park. 

View of Ventura Harbor from our Holiday Inn hotel room

A Late Night Trip for Medicine

A few hours after our heads hit the pillow, Hannah woke up with a severe ear ache.  She was crying and in a lot of pain.  She had some ear pain during the flight, so I believe this was just some after affects.  However, I was concerned this could go into the next day and I did not want to be away from the mainland for an entire day if she was still hurting. 

My mom cuddled with her while I spoke to the front desk.  Unfortunately they did not have any Children’s Tylenol on hand and they even called the hotel next door, but no luck.  I ended up driving a few miles down the road to a grocery store that was open late.  Although I know I could have handled the situation on my own, I was very grateful to have my mom there to help and to not have to drag Hannah out of bed in the middle of the night when she was not feeling well. 

Thankfully, the medicine kicked in and she slept the rest of the night.  She was back to her bouncing-off-the-wall energy level self by morning!

The Walk to the Ferry

We had to leave the hotel before breakfast was put out, so we had some coffee and granola bars that we purchased the night before, and made some PB&Js to take with us.  We packed up our daypacks, which included the PB&Js, apples, snacks, water, hats, mittens, sunscreen, and a lot of layers of clothes/jackets.  It was pretty cool in the morning and we had a one mile walk to the ferry.  The weather was forecasted to hit the mid-70s, but I was not sure how that would feel out on the boat or island.  We walked along a harbor with all kinds of sail boats and fishing boats.  We finally arrived at the ferry, checked in, and spent at least 15 minutes perusing the gift shop.  Hannah had her eye on several items that we said she could consider and pick one out at the end of the trip.

The Ferry Ride to Santa Rosa Island

It was a three hour ferry ride out to the island.  I wasn’t sure how Hannah would handle that long of a trip.  We started sitting at the top back of the two-tiered ferry but we soon got cold and went underneath to warm up.  We brought a deck of cards and started playing a card game at a table, but within five minutes of playing, there was an announcement that dolphins were spotted.  Hannah and I immediately went to the front of the boat. 

The captain had spotted a large pod of dolphins and turned the boat around to circle them.  The dolphins played and jumped alongside the front of the boat for at least ten minutes.  This happened several more times on the ride out to the island.  I ended up hanging out near the front of the boat most of the rest of the trip, talking with a number of people – a local man from Ventura who has been to several of the other islands, a family on break who were camping on Santa Rosa for a few days, and a very friendly Island Packers employee named Sam who was great at spotting wildlife. 

A dolphin playing with our ferry

Hannah split her time between me in the front and my mom in the cabin – running out every time they announced more dolphins.  She was ecstatic at how close they were and how fast they could swim.  We also saw two seals playing in the water not far off the coast of one of the islands we passed. 

Santa Rosa Island

As the boat slowed down to dock at the pier on Santa Rosa Island, I could tell the temperature had heated up.  We got off the boat and assembled for some basic instructions such as where the bathrooms were located and what time to be back on the ferry to leave.  Our plan was to hike the three mile round trip to Water Canyon Beach and back.  After taking off our layers and applying sunscreen, we set out on our hike.  Unfortunately we took one wrong turn which added about a half mile to our expedition. 

Map of Santa Rosa Island

The Coastal Road was an open dirt road along an old cattle ranch and airstrip, overlooking the ocean on one side, and a large foothill on the other side.  There were trails and dirt roads all over the island, a camping area, and only two locations that I knew of that had potable water – near the bathrooms and at the campground.  There was no shade as we walked along the road, and the sun was beating down on us.  We were all getting warm.  Hannah was also tired from the travel and late night ear ache the night before.  And as most any tired six year old might do, she was complaining about how hot she was, how hungry she was, and how long the hike was.  These can be tough moments. 

Coastal Road to the beach

Water Canyon Beach

I knew she would perk up as soon as we hit the beach and she was able to feel the ocean at her feet.  I just needed to motivate her for one more mile.  We talked about how excited we were to eat our PB&Js we made, and that Grandma had packed some extra yummy snacks.  We talked about how warm (or cold) we thought the ocean would be.  At one point, I walked faster ahead of them to see how close we were to the hill leading down to the ocean (and let’s be honest, to escape the whining for a minute).  We finally arrived at the beach and it was just as I had expected.  Hannah RAN to the ocean, which was colder than she thought it would be.  She went in up to her shorts.  I told her she could go all the way in, but she decided it was a little too chilly.

Hannah loving the ocean

Upon seeing the sand dunes that had built up along the coast, she of course decided she was no longer hungry at all and she just wanted to go play on the dunes instead.  We left Grandma with the snacks in the shade to rest and set off on our way to the top of the dunes.  Hannah rolled down, ran down, skipped down, and worked her way back up countless times as I sat at the top, enjoying the view and snapping some photos of her.  This was probably my favorite moment of the entire trip.  She got to see firsthand how the hard work of the hike in the hot sun paid off with a gorgeous view and nature’s best playground.

Playing on the Sand Dunes at Water Canyon Beach – Santa Rosa Island

More Exploring

We made our way back to Grandma and finished our lunches.  I am happy to report that the hike back to the pier was much more pleasant.  We arrived at the pier a little early, so Hannah and I trekked down an old rusty ladder to the beach below to explore more before leaving.  At low tide, this beach will connect to the beach we were at earlier in the day.  There were a lot of fun tide pools, caves, and big rocks formations that Hannah enjoyed discovering on this part of the beach. 

One of the many caves along the shore

The Ferry Ride Back to Ventura

On our ferry ride back to Ventura, we took a route closer to Santa Cruz Island.  Sam, the ferry employee I mentioned earlier, made sure Hannah and all the other small kids were up front when the captain drove the ferry into Painted Cave that was used in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  We continued to find dolphin pods the entire way home, and the captain never hesitated to slow down or even circle them to get them playing.  The object was not to get us back to Ventura as quickly as possible, it was to give us the most enjoyable experience on the water they could, and they definitely did just that.

Humpback Whales!

Over the loud speaker we heard the captain say, “Folks, Sam just thought he saw some calm water up ahead which can sometimes mean humpback whales are nearby.  If you don’t mind, I am going to shut down the motor and we are just going to sit here for ten minutes to see if we can get them to surface.”  Sure enough, not five minutes later, we had two humpbacks within 50 feet of our boat.  They breached the surface several times and then swam under the boat and off into the sunset.  It was an incredible experience.  Everyone on the boat got to see and experience these two enormous animals in their natural habitat, all thanks to Sam’s incredible eyes and the captain’s patience. 

Humpback Whales at Sunset – Photo Credit: Chris Brown, fellow National Park enthusiast

After the sunset, it was getting cold.  Hannah and my mom stayed in the cabin.  I, of course, loving the water and the ferry experience, ended up at the front of the boat again, talking with the local guy from Ventura and getting some restaurant recommendations for dinner that night.  He introduced me to another guy who was a fellow National Park enthusiast.  We enjoyed comparing notes on parks we’ve visited and where we plan to go from here.


We arrived pretty late at night back at the harbor and as promised, allowed Hannah to quickly make her gift shop purchase of a seal magnet and dolphin stuffed animal.  Being a Sunday, it was relatively quiet, but I could tell the harbor shops and restaurants looked like a pretty great place to be on a warmer weekend night.  We were very hungry and the restaurant suggestion – Brophy Bros. Seafood Restaurant & Clam Barwas hitting the spot!  My mom and I shared the seabass and it was amazing! 

Lessons Learned

One, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.  The Island Packers ferry crew did such an amazing job at slowing down our journey both to and from the island to give us the best experience possible.  The ferry ride, which I was initially concerned about the length of it, was one of the best parts of our adventure to Channel Islands National Park. 

Two, it might be about the journey, but the destination sure would be nice when you have a whining kid!  Kids are kids… they are going to whine sometimes.  It’s inevitable.  Take a deep breath and try to pass the time talking about things that interest your kid.  My husband Jim used to do this with me on really long backpack trips.  I recall a specific day we backpacked 20 miles.  We were both tired and exhausted at mile 13, but we knew we had to go another 7 miles before setting up camp for the night.  We happened to recently get engaged, so on that last 7 miles, Jim and I went back and forth discussing various wedding ideas – some realistic, some crazy wild ones that we knew would never actually happen.  I am not sure if he was quite as interested in that topic as I was, but it sure made those 7 miles go a lot faster than the previous ones!

Three, always seek the advice of a local when determining your restaurant selection!

Playing on the beach. Behind us is the pier on the left and the ferry on the right.

Petrified Forest National Park – November 2018

Hannah – 5 years old – National Park #6

The drive to the Painted Desert Visitor Center at Petrified Forest National Park was only about an hour and a half from Chinle.  It was Thanksgiving Day, and the park was busier than I had expected for the holiday.  The weather was cold, cloudy, and windy, and to be honest, Hannah and I were both a little “parked out” at this point in the trip.  Nevertheless, we persisted and enjoyed learning about the petrified wood, but I did not push her on any long hikes and all of our stops were relatively short.

The road through the park is one long road that has a visitor center on each end.  If I recall correctly, it’s about a 45 minute drive without stops from one end to the other.  We first stopped at the Painted Desert Visitor Center off of I-40, got a park map and had a ranger circle about six stops that were worthwhile along the park road.  Map of Petrified Forest National Park

What is Petrified Wood?

First, the question everyone is probably thinking… what is petrified wood?  I am going to give you a very basic overview of my understanding.  Millions of years ago, logs were carried down a river and buried deep under the sediment.  Oxygen was quickly cut off from the logs which started a fossilization process.  Over time, minerals were absorbed into the wood and crystallized, forming the solid quartz petrified wood we can see today in the park. 

Jasper Forest
Petrified log at Jasper Forest

Drive, Stop, Drive, Stop…

  • Painted Desert Inn – Our first stop was the Painted Desert Inn, a historic building from the 1920s that was originally built out of petrified wood, but not long after was renovated with an adobe façade.  There is an impressive view of the odd terrain from the rim.
painted desert inn
Hannah hanging out at the Painted Desert Inn
  • Chinde Point – Another overlook similar to the view at Painted Desert Inn.  We did not stay long here as it was windy and cold, and Hannah and I were both excited to see the petrified wood closer up
  • Pronghorns! At some point along the drive, we saw an entire herd of pronghorns grazing, which were beautiful animals and fun to see an animal we had never seen before. 
  • Puerco Pueblo – A short walk leads you around the ruins of a Pueblo village and we saw some very old hieroglyphics.
  • Blue Mesa Loop – A short loop drive off the main road where the coloring in the rock appears to be a tint of blue instead of the reds and oranges as typically seen in the park.
  • Agate Bridge – The bridge, a petrified log that creates a bridge because the ground below it has washed out from flood waters, is literally steps from the parking lot.  Today it is reinforced with concrete to preserve it.  There was an interesting saying that I liked posted near the bridge: “In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.  Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.”  ~Lao Tzu
Agate Bridge
Agate Bridge
  • Jasper Forest – Finally, we were walking amongst the HUGE petrified wood and it was so impressive.  Both of us kept picking up the wood/rocks and being amazed at how it felt, how it looked, and how smooth it was.  We took a bit of a longer walk at Jasper Forest and sat out on the rocks talking for probably an hour. 
Jasper Forest
Jasper Forest
  • Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center – Hannah is a sucker for the park museums and found the archeological digging site they had at this one for kids to be a blast.  She would go in the next room and make me hide the bones in the sand, and then she would come back and use the tools available to locate the bones I hid, being careful not to damage them.  We must have done this at least five times.
  • Giant Logs – There was a short trail right outside the visitor center with a ton of giant petrified logs.  If you have very little time to explore the park and want to see what it is best known for, this short little trail would be a great place to start.  If my memory is correct, at least some of the trail is paved for accessibility and strollers!

Lesson Learned

When you as an adult are tired and a little sick of sight-seeing, your kids probably are too.  There is no harm in skipping a few stops or just seeing what you can from the car.  When something is really interesting (like wood turned to glittery quartz), trust me, those kids will find their energy again!  And hopefully you can locate yours somewhere too!