We were back in California for our 2024 spring break, this time in the south. We flew into Los Angeles, and visited Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Channel Islands before wrapping up with a day around Hollywood.

Part 1: Death Valley

We had the early flight out of Denver, which required us fighting our way out of our frozen driveway after receiving two feet of snow a couple of days before. It was a white-knuckle drive to the airport over slick freeways. Suffice it to say we were very happy to arrive to sunshine and high 60’s in SoCal.

We drove straight from LAX to Death Valley, arriving through the north entrance on Highway 190. We swung by the Ubehebe Crater for a quick walk up to the rim. The wind was howling, so we decided to make this a short stop and get back down to the basin. Our next stop was the Harmony Borax Works and some views of the setting sun before making our way down to the Death Valley Inn where we would be spending the next couple of nights.

The next day I woke up early to catch the sunrise. The problem was that it was pitch dark, and I had never been in the valley before. I randomly chose a spot along the road and hiked out into the valley floor hoping to catch some decent compositions. Landscape photographers will tell you this is a horrible idea. The compositions didn’t turn out great, but I did catch some decent light. Then it was back to the hotel for breakfast with the family.

We headed out to explore the lower part of the park. Our first stop was Artist’s Drive, which takes you past some colorful viewpoints in the eastern foothills. Then we drove down to Sidewinder Canyon, where the ranger said we would find some interesting slot canyons to explore. This took us through some narrow openings and steep scrambles in a near cave-like setting.

Next up was Badwater Basin. This is normally where you walk out onto the salt flats at the bottom of the valley and get to experience the lowest point in North America at 280 feet below sea level. The extreme storms in southern California this spring have created a temporary lake in the basin, which opened up the unique opportunity to wade out into the salt water. This was one of the main attractions during our days in Death Valley.

Our last stop of the day was Natural Bridge, a short hike up a steep incline to see a unique rock formation similar to those in Arches national park. After a full day in the sun, we were ready to head back to the Oasis for some ice cream and pool time!

On Monday I awoke early again to try to catch a reflection of the Panamint Range in Lake Manly at sunrise. This time I at least had an idea of where I was going, but unfortunately the lighting didn’t cooperate. I got a couple of decent shots that may be once in a lifetime.

For our last activity in the valley, we hiked Desolation Canyon. The park ranger recommended it over the heavily trafficked “Golden Canyon” (where parts of Star Wars were filmed). This was a long, steep hike up some pretty barren terrain, once again dotted with steep dry falls that we had to scramble over. We were wondering if it was worth the effort, but that was answered with a resounding yes on the way back down. The views exiting the canyon are much better than those on the way in. Lara even had fun climbing down the rock walls!

We left the park on our way to Palm Springs, but first drove up to Dante’s View, a panoramic viewpoint high in the eastern range along Death Valley. The wind was howling, but this was a great place to see the entire valley sprawled out in front of you. I think I have my next Death Valley sunrise location planned!

Part 2: Joshua Tree

Tuesday morning we headed into Joshua Tree for the first time. Staying in Palm Springs is not the best option for this park. It took us over an hour to get to the entrance. At the visitor center, the ranger warned us that during spring break the park would be as crowded as Disney Land. Yikes! Luckily, that was a bit of hyperbole. The park was crowded, yes, but we were able to get around and see the sights we wanted to see.

Our first stop was the Contact Mine trail. It’s about a 2 mile out and back, with about 700 feet of elevation gain – most of which is at the end. The trail wanders through some typical desert landscape, culminating at an old mining location with rusty equipment strewn about. We were the only people on this trail. It was an excellent start to the day.

We drove to the southeastern end of the park to see the Choalla Gardens, then stopping for a picnic lunch before heading back along the main road past Skull Rock, the 40 foot Joshua Tree (not worthwhile!), and on to the Barker Dam and Wall Street Mill for our last hikes of the day. Apparently old mining sites were a theme for our day. The Wall Street Mill had an abandoned gold mill, with several 1930/40’s work trucks around the property. It was a different vibe for a national park, but we enjoyed both sites.

On Wednesday we went back into the park for one last hike. This time we struck out for the Lost Horse Mine. In theory, it was a 4 mile out and back to see an old gold mine. The mine is located on a loop, and unfortunately, we started off on the wrong way around the loop. We were about a mile in when we realized it, meaning that turning around and going back would be just as long as going all the way around the loop. We decided to continue on, stretching the day’s hiking into a 6.8 mile venture.

It was a pleasant hike. The weather was beautiful – spring time in the desert, and the back side of the loop was very quiet. We didn’t run in to too many people until we made it back around to the mine. There were sweeping views out over the desert, which provided a great perspective on the park overall.

Joshua Tree isn’t the type of place that pulled us in too strongly. I can see coming back for some star gazing and astrophotography, and found a few additional places I’d like to photograph in the future (check out the rocks near the Hemingway stop early on a summer morning). We’re glad we came to experience it.

Part 3: Channel Islands

Visiting the Channel Islands is a unique experience among the national parks. The islands are only accessible by boat and, depending on time of year, your options for reaching them are pretty limited. We chose a ferry to Scorpion Harbor on Santa Rosa island and planned to explore most of the eastern part of the island with the time we had.

On the trip out to Santa Cruz, we came across a large pod of common dolphins that the crew estimated to be 500 or more. This distracted us for a while as the captain maneuvered the boat around to create wake patterns for the dolphins to surf. It was pretty entertaining, but it was really just the opening act.

A little further on as the water got deeper, we were teased with a sighting of what the captain guessed was a grey whale. We circled around for nearly 15 minutes waiting for it to surface again, but never got the opportunity. Luckily, we soon spotted another whale in the vicinity. A humpback was breaching and slapping the water repeatedly with it’s tail and flippers. The captain thought this was likely because it had snagged on some sort of fishing gear and was working its way free. Hopefully it was not that serious, but it resulted in a heck of a show. Every couple of minutes, the whale would leap out of the water, then slap it’s tail on the surface on the way down. Even with this regularity, it was difficult to grab pictures. I probably snapped 50 images. The one below is one of the better ones.

We pressed on to Scorpion Harbor. After landing, we immediately headed for the hills. We hiked along the Cavern Point trail and out to Potato Harbor. It was a gorgeous day with plenty of sun, a few wispy clouds, and very pleasant temperatures. We ended up hiking another 6 miles or so before our return boat to Ventura was scheduled to depart.

The cruise back to the mainland had a couple more interesting viewing opportunities. A pod of at least 5 humpbacks was surfacing a mile or so from the boat. We couldn’t get close enough for great photos, but it was interesting to watch them nonetheless. Then, we came across another pod of dolphins. These were bottlenose dolphins, and they put on quite a show – leaping out of the water and spinning around. It was like a huge Sea World show, but in the open ocean. Very cool!

All of this excitement had us pretty tuckered out, and once again we didn’t make it back to the hotel until about 9:00. We quickly cleaned up and got situated for the next day, which was our Universal Studios tour.

Part 4: Hollywood

Last but not least, we spent a couple of days in the city. The first day was dedicated to Universal Studios, where we rode all of the rides (most of them 2-3 times) and generally gawked at the various movie-themed attractions around the park. The studio tour was a big hit. We had signed up for a special tour experience that gave us more time around the back lots. We were allowed in to one of the sound stages where they are currently recording Quantum Leap, walked through an enormous costume and prop warehouse, and saw several outdoor sets where many famous movies were filmed. It was fascinating.

On the final day of our trip, we planned to wander the streets of Hollywood and hopefully go to the Griffith Observatory for views of the city. Mother Nature had other ideas and decided to dump some rain throughout the morning. We managed to walk down Hollywood Boulevard to Mann’s Chinese Theater and reading some of the stars in the sidewalk, but when we drove up the hill to the observatory, the rain just socked us in. It was time to head home and rest up for the real world.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Fantastic pictures as usual. Loved the ones from Death Valley. Was anything said about replanting Joshua trees when you were at
    the park? Did you g o to the Channel Island with the scub-jays? Love you all Mom and Grandma Dani

  2. Absolutely awesome documentary and pictures! Another great family adventure wih many different sites and experiences. Thank you, Christopher, for the time and effort you gave to put this post together. It is always fun to see what your family is up to!! Love, Mom

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