Brian’s Travel Spot: The Grand Adventure, Part I

My hire car for the drive from Phoenix to San Francisco, parked up on the side of the road in the Joshua Tree National Park. The striking blue paint job made it easy to find in car parks!Welcome to the third instalment of this, the latest in the occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series, which document my various travels. The first two parts of this particular Travel Spot, which covered my first visit to Phoenix in October 2016 and my return in January 2017, were rather portentously entitled “Phoenix and the Grand Adventure”. This, the third part, is the start of the Grand Adventure itself, a road trip that would ultimately see me driving over 1,200 miles, starting in Phoenix and ending, almost exactly seven days later (to the hour!) in San Francisco.

However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. After spending a week in Phoenix, where I was attending a four-day long business meeting, I set off in my hire car, a rather striking blue Ford Fiesta, with the intention to drive west to Los Angeles, then north up the California coast, mostly along Highway 1, ultimately ending up in San Francisco.

You can following my journey in this post, starting with my drive west from Phoenix. As is usual with my Travel Spot series, I will update this post as I go, so don’t forget to check back regularly for updates.

You can see what I got up to after the gallery.

  • My final morning in Phoenix and I'm not impressed by the clouds on the horizon.
  • And what's this on the car in the car park after work? So, it does rain in Phoenix after all!
  • Before setting off, note the mileage (it's actually 17,156: I took the photo in Wickenburg!)
  • After an hour and a half on the road, I reached Wickenburg. This is a fairly accurate representation of the weather!
  • However, my room in the Super 8 was spacious and comfortable...
  • ... including this rather dark, closet-like space at the back by the bathroom.
  • I spent a lot of time at the table by the window...
  • ... where I found that the box which my new kettle came in made an excellent laptop stand.
  • As well as being large and spacious, I found that the Super 8 had rather good coffee...
  • One of my guilty secrets: I rather like Denny's. This was my first visit for dinner though.
  • The folllowing morning dawned bright and sunny, although not exactly warm.
  • Check out that blue sky though!
  • The breakfast room at the Super 8 was pretty good though: you could sit outside...
  • ... although I ended up inside where it was a bit warmer!
  • Time to say goodbye to the Super 8 as I set off on the drive to Joshua Tree.
My final morning in Phoenix and I'm not impressed by the clouds on the horizon.1 And what's this on the car in the car park after work? So, it does rain in Phoenix after all!2 Before setting off, note the mileage (it's actually 17,156: I took the photo in Wickenburg!)3 After an hour and a half on the road, I reached Wickenburg. This is a fairly accurate representation of the weather!4 However, my room in the Super 8 was spacious and comfortable...5 ... including this rather dark, closet-like space at the back by the bathroom.6 I spent a lot of time at the table by the window...7 ... where I found that the box which my new kettle came in made an excellent laptop stand.8 As well as being large and spacious, I found that the Super 8 had rather good coffee...9 One of my guilty secrets: I rather like Denny's. This was my first visit for dinner though.10 The folllowing morning dawned bright and sunny, although not exactly warm.11 Check out that blue sky though!12 The breakfast room at the Super 8 was pretty good though: you could sit outside...13 ... although I ended up inside where it was a bit warmer!14 Time to say goodbye to the Super 8 as I set off on the drive to Joshua Tree.15
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After a week of relatively good weather in Phoenix, I set off on Friday night after the end of my meeting in an almighty rain storm. This was the tail end of one of a series of storms that had been battering the Californian coast for the previous two weeks, bringing torrential rain and causing a lot of damage and disruption. Fortunately for me, by the time the storm reached me, it was relatively mild. It didn’t really affect the drive, but it did rather ruin the prospect of any decent views along the way.

My ultimate target in the first stage of my drive was the Joshua Tree National Park in California, a mere 280 miles due west of Phoenix, or to put it another way, around five hours of driving. In the dark. After a full day at work. So I decided to break my journey in Wickenburg, 60 miles, or about an hour’s drive northwest of Phoenix. Well, an hour’s drive on empty roads. Without the rain. More like 90 minutes on Friday evening in the rush hour. On a road system that really does not cope well with rain.

That said, the drive was pretty straightforward. As I’ve said before, navigation in the US is relatively easy: I had a list of four roads pinned to my dashboard: 101 (west), I17 (north), 74 (west), 60 (west) and that was it. Just follow the sign posts when you reach the junctions. Once I had negotiated the log-jam that was 101 (think M25 in the rush hour for UK drivers), the traffic was free-flowing and I made good time to Wickenburg. I suspect that there were some good views along the way, particularly along Highways 74 and 60, but due to the rain, I didn’t get to see very much.

My hotel in Wickenburg was a Super 8, a basic motel, which did the job given that I was there for just one night. In its favour, my room was spacious and comfortable, the free Wifi worked and the breakfast room was pleasant and spacious (which is not always the case in the US), serving a free breakfast of toast, cereals and pastries. The other thing that the Wickenburg Super 8 had going for it was that there was a Denny’s across.

Denny’s is one of my guilty pleasures. For those not in the know, Denny’s is a nationwide diner chain which I have a soft spot for, having visited one on my first ever trip to the USA back in 1998. I make no great claims for the quality of Denny’s, merely that it is a consistent provider of the sort of comfort food which I love. Normally I go there for breakfast, or pancakes (often, not but always, at the same time). However, on this occasion I went for dinner and had a very fine omelette.

When it comes to Wickenburg itself. I can’t really say very much about the town. I was there for one night, arrived just before night fall in a rain storm, and what little I saw of it was on the drive down the main street when I set off the following morning.

You can see what I got up to on my drive to Joshua Tree after the gallery.

  • The day dawned relatively brightly in Wickenburg, with the promise of good things to come.
  • My route options for the day. I decided to go the more northerly route.
  • My first stopping-point: the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge.
  • I went as far as where US 95 crossed the river (bridge on the right).
  • This is the Bill Williams River (flowing left to right) just before it empties into Lake Havasu.
  • I love the way that the water has sculpted the hills.
  • The road carries on north, but this was as far as I was going. For today, at least.
  • On my return, I stopped at the lake's southern edge. US 95 crosses the river in the distance.
  • Looking, as best I can, the length of Lake Havasu to the north.
  • I also stopped to admire the mountains on the far (eastern) side of the lake...
  • ... seen here in more detail.
  • One last look at the lake.
  • By now it was definitely lunch-time (1.30) so I stopped at this little diner.
  • It was a cosy spot...
  • .. and I didn't mess around: eggs, home-fries and pancakes.
  • Next stop, the small (in width) but impressive Parker Dam built in 1934-38.
  • Lake Havasu, seen from the California side of the dam.
  • I'll leave you with one of the dam's spare turbines. For scale, it's about 6m tall!
The day dawned relatively brightly in Wickenburg, with the promise of good things to come.1 My route options for the day. I decided to go the more northerly route.2 My first stopping-point: the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge.3 I went as far as where US 95 crossed the river (bridge on the right).4 This is the Bill Williams River (flowing left to right) just before it empties into Lake Havasu.5 I love the way that the water has sculpted the hills.6 The road carries on north, but this was as far as I was going. For today, at least.7 On my return, I stopped at the lake's southern edge. US 95 crosses the river in the distance.8 Looking, as best I can, the length of Lake Havasu to the north.9 I also stopped to admire the mountains on the far (eastern) side of the lake...10 ... seen here in more detail.11 One last look at the lake.12 By now it was definitely lunch-time (1.30) so I stopped at this little diner.13 It was a cosy spot...14 .. and I didn't mess around: eggs, home-fries and pancakes.15 Next stop, the small (in width) but impressive Parker Dam built in 1934-38.16 Lake Havasu, seen from the California side of the dam.17 I'll leave you with one of the dam's spare turbines. For scale, it's about 6m tall!18
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There was more rain overnight in Wickenburg, but it had cleared up by the following morning, leaving me with blue skies and the prospect of a great day ahead. Even so, I still set off later than I meant to (a common theme for the rest of the week: I am so not a morning person).

A word about driving. I am not a huge fan of driving. I don’t mind it, but I can’t say I enjoy it, particularly not in the UK, where the traffic often makes it stressful. For me, it’s still just a method of getting from A to B and I can’t wait for the advent of driverless cars. This trip is a good example. Even though the driving and navigation were easy (generally, get on the road, point the car west, set cruise-control and go) every stage would have been improved had the car driven itself.

While the drive was straightforward and there was virtually no traffic, the requirement to keep the car on the road seriously hampers my enjoyment. I want to look around, take photos, soak in the landscape, all things I can’t do when I am stuck behind the wheel. I felt I saw so little of the environment around me compared to what I would have seen had I not been required to drive.

My destination, Twentynine Palms, on the northern edge of the Joshua Tree National Park, is about 200 miles due west of Wickenburg across the Sonoran Desert, or 220 miles if you stick to the roads (highly recommended). The total drive is, according to Google, 3½ hours, which is a little too long for me in one go without a break. I had two potential routes, both starting with US 60 (West). I could then either drop down to I-10, the main east-west interstate, which would add another 20 miles to the journey, although not much more time, or I could take a more north-westerly direction along SR 72 before joining US 95 (North) to the town of Parker, near the Arizona/California border.

I went for this second route because it gave me more options to break my journey. Depending on how tired I was and how well the drive was going, I could stop at Parker itself, or carry on north on US 95, up the Colorado River to Lake Havasu and the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge. This would put another 20 miles each way on the drive, and probably an hour of driving, but give me a chance to see some dramatically different scenery, including the Parker Dam, one of several hydroelectric dams on the Colorado River and the one that’s responsible for Lake Havasu.

The early part of the drive was uneventful. US 60 is like a major (UK) single-carriageway A-road, while SR 72 was clearly a less well-travelled route (I drove the full length of SR 72, all 37 miles of it). On both roads, I hardly saw any other traffic, and the towns I passed through along the way were hardly major (there wasn’t a town with a population of over 2,000 people). It was just a case of set cruise-control, put on some podcasts from the wonderful Penny Dreadfuls Show and admire the scenery.

For most of the journey, I was following the line of the Arizona and California Railroad, a freight-only line. Sadly I did not see any trains along the way. The landscape is (to me) very alien; flat, desert scrub, with sudden, distant mountains (which came a lot nearer at the junction with SR 72). It was also unexpectedly green. Not verdantly green, you understand, just that there was a lot more plant-life than I was expecting. On the other hand, it was January, the temperature was in the mid-teens (⁰C) and the area had just had quite a bit of rain. I was probably seeing it at its least typical. That said, I doubt I would have enjoyed the summer heat…

All this dramatically changed when I got to Parker, a town of some 3,000 souls which felt a lot bigger. Suddenly the highway became multi-lane and I swung north along US 95, which was a modern, three-lane highway as it climbed out of Parker, following the line of the river with some dramatic sweeps and curves.  Slowly it dropped down to two lanes, then one, and I found myself driving along the southern edge of Lake Havasu (a reservoir). After two hours of desert landscape, it was a real shock to be back where water, and water erosion, dominated.

My turnaround point was where US 95 crossed the Bill Williams River (the closest I’ll get to having a river named after me!) as it flowed into the eastern end of Lake Havasu. From there, I went back, had lunch in Parker Dam at a lovely, little diner, then went to see the dam itself, built between 1934-38. I would have liked to have driven down western (Californian) side of river, along the winding Parker Dam Road, but I was short on time, so went straight back down US 95.

You can see how the last part of my drive to Twentynine Palms went after the gallery.

  • Not long after leaving Parker, I was in California, at Vidal Junction. Just 93 miles to go.
  • However, I stopped to have a look around. This is a 180 degree panorama, looking west.
  • The distant mountains always come out a lot smaller and less dramatic in the photos though.
  • Although a good zoom lens helps!
  • More mountains, this time to the south of the road.
  • And here in close-up.
  • The mountains to the north of the road.
  • Again in more detail.
  • Further details of the mountains north of the road.
  • The rain in Wickenburg had passed this way earlier. I was grateful for the blue skies.
  • You don't say! More seriously, I was glad that I didn't have to drive out here in that rain.
  • Back on the road and more mountains to the south of SR 62.
  • The road is flat and straight for most of the way.
  • More mountains. I could have taken 100s of photographs like this.
  • The mountains in detail.
  • At some point this road will have to turn or we'll go straight into that mountain!
  • One of the bizarre stands of tanker-wagons that I occasional passed.
  • The mountains are on either side of me now!
  • Okay, road. I'm serious. We need to go around these mountains!
  • Fortunately we did get around them. More mountains, this time to the north of the road...
  • ... and seen here in more detail.
  • This was one of the few points where you really got to see the road in the distance.
  • I'm now driving along the north edge of Joshua Tree, seen here to the left of the road...
  • ... and here in more detail.
  • I arrived at Twentynine Palms, and, since I'd crossed into California, I got an hour back!
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From Parker, it was pretty much due east to Twentynine Palms, the northern gateway to the Joshua Tree National Park. Just after Parker, I crossed the Colorado and entered California, turning left and following SR 62. Not long after that, SR 62 crossed SR 95 going north at Vidal junction. There wasn’t a lot there, except for a Californian highways inspection point where I was obliged to stop, so I thought I might as well get out and have a look around.

It was the first time that I’d actually been out in the desert landscape that I’d been driving through. Having grown up with tales of the Sahara, desert, in my head, still means endless vistas of shifting sands. Despite having seen numerous westerns and many more films set in the southwest of the USA, I’m still surprised when deserts aren’t sandy.

The landscape here was very typical of that I’d been driving through: flat, with interesting mountains on the horizon in every direction. Nearer to hand, there was plenty of scrub and a small tree or two. There was also a good deal of water from the recent rainstorms: looking at how much water was left standing by the side of the road, I was very grateful that I hadn’t been doing this drive the previous day, when I suspect I would have had pretty treacherous road conditions to deal with.

As it was, I had blue skies and mild temperatures, ideal weather for both driving and for exploring the Joshua Tree National Park, so I decided to press on. A sign helpfully informed me that it was a mere 93 miles to go and although I was trying to hurry along (I wanted to get to Twentynine Palms in time to at least explore some of Joshua Tree before sunset) I couldn’t help myself, stopping to look at, and take pictures of, the landscapes along the way. With hindsight, I regret not stopping on the drive to Parker and taking some photos there as well, although the landscape is very similar.

Not too long after Vidal junction, I re-joined the Arizona and California Railroad, only now and then I came across isolated groups of tanker wagons left standing on the rails. And still no trains. Not that I have any idea how frequently the line is used, but you would think that they could have run a train just for me…

The only settlement that I passed along the way was Rice, a town with a population of precisely zero, my first ever ghost town, although I didn’t realise it at the time. Not that there’s much to see from the road. Which is why I didn’t notice… I left the railway for good just west of Rice and the landscape continued to impress as the mountains closed in on both sides.

I passed the junction with SR 177, which headed off south to I-10 (this is the way I would have come had I taken the southerly route) and before long was driving along the northern boundary of the Joshua Tree National Park. The road followed the park’s boundary for about 15 miles, with the mountains coming right up to the road on either side, but after that, it dropped away to the south and I started seeing cars again as I began to approach Twentynine Palms and return of civilisation.

You can see what I got up to in Joshua Tree National Park after the gallery.

  • I arrived at Twentynine Palms in time to drive south into Joshua Tree National Park.
  • It's a long drive down the access road, with the distant mountains getting ever nearer.
  • This is in the actual park, looking back towards the entrance (off to the right).
  • The distant mountains north of the park...
  • ... and the closer mountains, inside the park.
  • First proper stop & my destination that evening: Skull Rock. Why is it called that, I wonder?
  • I'd come for the sunset and the sky was looking suitably dramatic.
  • I decided to go for a walk along the Skull Rock Trail. It was well-marked, but quite subtle.
  • Skull Rock wasn't the only interesting rock formation out there though.
  • In fact, it was full of weird-shaped boulders and outcroppings, such as this one...
  • ... and this one.
  • There were also some dramatic panoramic landscapes to be had, like this one...
  • ... or this one.
  • By now the setting sun was casting a golden light on the rocks...
  • ... and the sky was still being fairly dramatic too!
  • It wasn't all dramatic rocks though. There were plenty of flora too, such as this desert pine.
  • There were also lots of yukkas, like this, fairly traditional one...
  • There were also taller examples, such as this one...
  • ... and also this one.
  • And finally, looking rather yukka-like, the eponymous Joshua Tree.
  • This is a larger example, with a shadow-selfie for scale.
  • By now I had reached the Jumbo Rocks Campground and I decided to wait there for sunset.
  • Everything was looking particularly golden in the setting sun.
  • The varied colours across the landscape also caught my eye...
  • It really was a magical landscape.
  • I'll just leave this here.
  • Unfortunately for lovers of glorious sunsets, all the dramatic clouds had cleared away.
  • Clouds really do make a sunset. Without them, you just get very blue skies...
  • ... and a pale glow beyond the horizon.
  • Some clouds made a belated effort to turn up and look pretty.
  • Is it me, or is that the Starship Enterprise?
  • A lonely Joshua Tree on the horizon...
  • ... and one in more detail.
  • Of course, as soon as the sun had gone, the dramatic clouds made a comeback!
  • And boy were they dramatic.
  • I leave you with this final shot of the Joshua Tree National Park at dusk.
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One of the nice things about driving west and into California is that I got an hour back. Instead of arriving at four o’clock in the afternoon, I arrived at three o’clock. I know it makes no practical difference, but it really lifted my mood. I dropped my stuff at my hotel (another Motel 6) and headed straight back out, driving into the Joshua Tree National Park to catch the sunset.

Like most American national parks (certainly the ones I’ve been to) you need to pay an entrance fee, in this case $25 for a car, which gets you seven-day access. It might seem a lot, but I have no problem with it, since all the money goes to the upkeep of the park. The parks are also very accessible (which is partly where the money goes).

My destination that evening was Skull Rock, a 20-minute drive into the park. I could have gone further, and, with hindsight, maybe I should have done, but I was aware that night was coming and I didn’t want to spend all my time in the car. In that sense, Skull Rock seemed like a good compromise.

Even on that short drive, I went through some fairly dramatic scenery, with a climb up a long valley, mountains (the same ones I could see from my motel) to my right before turning right (west) to drive up into the foothills of the mountains themselves, which is where you find Skull Rock. In all, from the park entrance, it’s about 16km and a climb of around 600m.

When I got to Skull Rock, I parked up across the road and, with about 30 minutes to go until sunset, I decided to walk the Skull Rock Trail, a relatively well-marked, 3km circular trail that would bring me back to my car (which was at the eastern end of the loop) and, hopefully, give me a good view of the sunset along the way.

The trail took me through a magical landscape of desert scrub, with weird, wind-eroded rock formations (Skull Rock being the most obvious of them), plus a variety of the local flora, including my first Joshua Trees, which are members of the genus Yucca (although I believe that they are actually trees: biology is not my strong point!).

Although I really enjoyed my short ramble, the sunset itself was a little anti-climactic. In the half-hour leading up to sunset, the sky had been suitably dramatic, with lots of clouds, but these all disappeared as the sun dipped below the horizon, leaving a deep blue sky, but little else.

One thing I noticed was that it was pretty cold up there, both a function of the altitude and of the loss of direct sunlight. I was glad that I’d worn my coat and brought both my gloves and my woolly hat along! I wandered back to the car along the northern part of the Skull Rock Trail and then headed back down to Twentynine Palms.

Of course, since it had been clear at sunset, I’d hoped for clear, desert skies and a decent view of the Milky Way, but no sooner had the sun gone down than the clouds came back and I never did get a good view of the night sky!

At some point I hope to tell you what I got up to in my one full day in Joshua Tree National Park and go on to tell you about the rest of my Grand Adventure, but that’s all there is for now.


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