Our first year on the road, 6 years ago, we did cities, museums, paying activities and organized campgrounds most of the time. We quickly realized that it wasn’t sustainable for our limited budget… Fast forward to now, we very rarely pay for campgrounds, only do free activities and go to the restaurant once every two months. However, we couldn’t pass on San Francisco. We had spent 10 days here in 2015 and our dear friends who had been living in the Mission District for decades showed us around to many cool spots. I reached out to Liza for her suggestions for ways to explore SF, Berkeley and Oakland on the cheap.
There are good spots to spend the night for free on iOverlander around Berkeley, but with all the bikes we have on the Westy, we decided to go for a campground this time (Anthony Chabot Regional Park). That is one of the downside of our current set-up… So with that expanse, we knew we had to be even more thrifty.
In Berkeley, we went to check out the amazing grocery Berkeley Bowl and had fun looking at all the cool produce, we checked out a few bookstores (Pegasus was great) and thrift shops on Telegraph Ave, and drooled over the menu of Chez Panisse and the Cheeseboard. If you want a quick meal on a budget, check out the food court right by the Imperial Tea Room, they have amazing sushis to go.
We went to have an early dinner at Vik’s chaat to beat the crowds. Chaat is Indian street food (and it doesn’t mean you eat it in the street here… it’s a big open area behind an indian grocery store). It’s very decently priced (not cheap, nothing is cheap here, but their weekday specials are the best deals, we got 2 of those to share and a few sides) and we discovered new-to-us food (do not skip the cholle bhature if you go!). We then bought what we needed at the store to make a delicious saag paneer at home the next day (for a little over 20$) and some more Indian fare.
We ended the night walking the streets of Oakland and tasting the ice cream at Humpry Slocombe (get their Blue Bottle vietnamese coffee flavor).
Another fun outing would have been to go to Ranch 99 in Richmond (about 20 minutes North of Berkeley, depending on trafic). It’s an asian mall with lots of cool things to see and eat - I hear the dim sums are great. I also really wanted to tour the St. George Spirits distillery in Alameda, but the tours were only on the weekends and children under 21 are not allowed on the premises. There is also Faction Brewing that sounds like a great place to enjoy a beer on an open deck (dogs and children allowed) and watch the city from across the water.
In San Francisco, we went straight to the Mission District to find a spot to park since it was Thursday and we walked around on Guerrero. The Mission was once a multicultural neighborhood of artists and intellectuals and is now an enclave for the privileged… It is still a beautiful place to visit, but it is also a pretty sad reality. Only white college-educated professionals with double income can *maybe* afford it… There are tent and tarp cities on many street corners (and even more in Berkeley and Oakland)...
We went into chez Panisse (one of the best bakeries) and quickly got out when we saw the prices (as tempting as their offers were, we cannot fork out 5,50 US$ for a pain au chocolat - that’s almost 8$ CAN - or 6$ for a *short* baguette!). We checked out Bi-Rite Market around the corner, but the prices were also too high for our budget (they sold the Chez Panisse Country loaf for 11$...) and went to their Creamery across the street instead where we shared a large size bowl (4 flavors) for 7,50$ (always share! That’s the best way to sample the good food on a budget).
We checked out some cool stores on Valencia, a used and new Scifi and mystery bookstore (Bordelands book), a really beautiful store selling *nomad tools* (mostly amazing journals, charging stations and cute slippers...), JF and I had a coffee at Rituals (the beans a very pricey, so we didn’t buy any…), I went to drool over all the Italian goodies (and Amari!!) at Lucca Ravioli Company (and only left with a jar of passata, I’m such a good girl). We then went to Buffalo exchange - a thrift store - where we found amazing deals. The girls really needed puffy coats and wind breakers and we left with a brand new looking REI insulated vest (19$), a Montbell 800 coat (22$) and a Nike windbreaker (12$).
We thrift about 85 % of our clothes (the 15$ is mostly bike shorts, sneakers and bike shoes). We are by no mean an example of anything… Heck, we still forget our cloth grocery bags way too often. When we lived in the farm, we were much greener in many ways, but I'm pretty sure our ecological footprint was still bigger there than on the road… Anyways, I’m very aware that the #vanlife is simply a new iteration of privilege, so I’m not gonna play holier than thou. We just thrift a lot, it’s good for the planet and good for the budget.
We had an early dinner of burmese food that was delicious. Again, we shared 5 dishes (2 were appetizers) that were simply amazing. If you go to Burma Love, do not miss their Platha & Dip, Nan Pia Dok and Rainbow salad (people rave about their tea leaf salad, but we were not crazy about it). The calamari melt was amazing but too greasy for my taste (my family loved it!).
We then headed to Japantown for desert! Japantown is a cool indoor mall (sprawling on both sides of Webster street over 6 blocks - we parked at the Safeway for free parking and got a few things from there). We had read about an ice cream and crepe shop (Belly Good café and crêpe) that made cute little animal face deserts and Mara really wanted one, so she did and we shared a few taro bubble teas (super reasonable prices). We had planned to sample the ramen at Marafuku, but we were not hungry anymore and everything was closing down.
Walking around, we could witness the Japanese "kawaii" phenomenon. Kawaii in Japanese translates roughly as "cuteness", and is a big part of the Japanese popular culture. Kawaii encompasses all the ultra "cute" creatures of Hello Kitty, Pikachu and the numberless anime characters, not to mention all the accessories with big-eyed, baby animals, pink hearts… So if you know Mara, you know she was all over that
One of the coolest spots in SF to see or photograph the Golden Gate Bridge is Crissy Field that you get to by driving through the Presidio (which also has some museums). Crissy Field is on the water and there is a narrow beach right there where you are so close to best close up view of the bridge. There is free parking and the beach is off leash dog friendly- it is just gorgeous. Also if you like fresh clams and oysters, the best place is Swan Oyster Depot- tiny place south one long counter and there is a line down the street to get a seat at the counter- usually an hour wait, but so worth it. Just fresh shucked clams and oysters, clam chowder, big hunks of sourdough bread and cold beer and wine! Also go for a stroll in the Golden Gate Park and drive by the Conservatory of flowers, one of the most beautiful building in SF, and head to the Huntington Falls and Stow Lake and ride the Carousel and visit the Arts Studio, where you can see stained glass artists and jewelers at work. There is a great used book library not too far on Clements called the Green apple books. Go see the Diego Riviera mural at the SF Art institute. You can roam the halls and look at studios. Don’t miss Burma superstar (lots of vegan and vegetarian option, the Rainbow salad was AMAZING). Check out Mission Dolores, it is the first Spanish Mission was created in 1791. It is San Francisco's oldest standing building. There are lots of amazing murals initiated by the Chicano Art Mural Movement of the 1970s and inspired by the traditional Mexican paintings made famous by Diego Riviera. Some of the more significant mural installations are located on Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley. In North Beach district, you can go to Lombard street (the world’s steepest and more crooked street in the world) and check out City Light Bookstore where Jack Kerouac and his friends used to meet for literature and poetry readings. Go to Caffe Trieste, known as the beatnik hangout of the '50s. Their home-roasted coffee is impeccable.
So that is to say: cities are never cheap, but there are ways to make then budget-friendly. Ask the locals you know (in person or online), focus on ethnic food (forget the pretty restaurants, go for the hole-in-the-wall places full of locals, Yelp is your friend). Spend time walking the isles of international markets and buy stuff to cook at home (or in your bus). Share to taste a little of everything.
Also note that our girls often offer to pay if they want something special. We don’t do allowances, but our girls have money from gifts and work they did. They are very reasonable (it’s not always been that way for all 3). They know that our lifestyle doesn’t allow us to splurge (and are very aware of our budget situation since Stout got sick), they also have a clear sense of what they need vs. want (and very little space to put it, be it clothes or books or else), so they choose wisely. And that helps.
There are many places to camp along the Pacific Coast Highway. Most are overpriced, crowded and noisy. This one is no exception, but if you are lucky enough to reserve site 7, you have a little slice of paradise to yourself (for $36, no services). Be advised that it requires some maneuvering to back into the site (to have your door facing the ocean), especially if the nearby sites are occupied, but it is well worth it. Dogs are allowed to be off leash on the beach.
We have decided to camp at Texas Spring Campground, since it is the cheapest and the more beautiful. There are no services and a no generator rule. There is a dump, water and toilet on site. Note that for 5$ per person (during the week, $10 on weekends), you can access the hotel warm fed spring pool and showers. The pool was just too cold - 85 F - to be comfortable when we were there (it was cold and windy that night). Note that you only need one card ($5) to enter the pool and shower area and that there is no lifeguard or staff on duty there, so decide accordingly ;)
There are more hikes and sights to see in Death Valley, but some were closed when we were there since the recent rains had washed out the roads or there were closures due to construction. We wanted to hike Mosaic Canyon, check out Scotty’s Castle and bike Titus Canyon, but couldn’t.
We passed on the Mesquite sand dunes since we had just been at the Kelso dunes in the Mojave desert (that are bigger and more impressive) and the Racetrack (those moving rocks that have left tracks behind them) since it is located at the end of rough dirt road and is an adventure in itself.
*Be advised that exiting Death Valley through the west (road from Stovepipe Wells to Panamint Springs) requires driving a very long twisty downhill section that could be hard on your brakes if you tow a trailer or drive a motorhome. We separated the Westy from the bus for the long climb and descent and it still was a bit nerve-wracking, glad we have a brake retarder on the bus. A friends’ brakes caught on fire there. Be warned and drive slow.
Interesting facts about Death Valley:
Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the Lower 48 at a whopping more than 3.4 million acres.
The highest recorded temperature in the world was recorded in Death Valley’s Furnace Creek at 134 Fahrenheit in July, 1913. For almost one hundred years, a false recording made in Libya overshadowed Furnace Creek’s claim to fame. In 2012, however, the record went back to Death Valley after it was concluded that the Libyan recording was made in error.
Death Valley is only 76 miles from the highest point in the country, Mt. Whitney, which tops out at an elevation of 14,505 feet. In other words, the lowest and highest points in the contiguous U.S. are less than 100 miles apart!
There is every year an ultramarathon in Death Valley called the Badwater 135, which links these two points! The race organizers description goes like this : Covering 135 miles (217 km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA, the Badwater 135 is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet. The start line is at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280’ (85m) below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300’ (2530m), which is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The Badwater 135 course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600’ (4450m) of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100’ (1859 m) of cumulative descent.
From this blog.
If you are just driving through the Mojave desert, you might think it is a big expanse of desolate land; but once you take some time to explore its remote corners, you realize it’s a pretty special place with singing sand dunes, lava tubes, cinder cones, abandoned mines and the highest concentration of Joshua Trees in the world. (Near the cross on the Teutonia peak trail, you will find the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world. Most people assume it is in Joshua Tree National Park, but it is actually here in Mojave National Preserve.)
While you are there, take a look at the Cima Dome. Most people would probably go past it if they didn’t know it was special but once you notice it, it is pretty crazy. It looks like the land is being viewed through a fisheye lens (from this site, lots of great info on the area).
We decided to stay at the Hole in the Wall campground since it is located right next to the Rings Trail and since it is one of the only places in the park where we knew we would have decent connexion for work. This campground is 12 bucks a night, first come first served and has water. It is a great spot to stay at and has amazing surrounding mountains and views.
You can camp at most spots in Mojave National Preserve as long as they have fire pits set up. This allows you to be able to camp in some amazing places. Just be sure to respect the environment if you chose a spot like this. Know that the connexion is very spotty in the Preserve and that most place won’t have signal strong enough to allow you to work.
There is no gas and no food in the park, and many of the backroads are washboards and only accessible by 4 x 4.
The story of the Kelso Depot
The first depot was built in 1905, when the Union Pacific wanted a foothold on the West Coast, but the actual building was built in 1924 and included a conductor’s room, telegraph office, baggage room, dormitory rooms for staff, boarding rooms for railroad crewmen, a billiard room, library and locker room.
Originally, the restaurant and telegraph office each had three shifts, operating around the clock. This continued through the boom years of the 1940s, when Kaiser’s Vulcan mine caused Kelso’s population to grow to nearly 2,000. The closing of the mine coupled with diesel engines replacing steam resulted in the UP moving jobs and families out of Kelso. In 1985 the UP decided to close the Kelso Depot entirely.
Believing that the now empty building would become “a target for vandalism, unauthorized entrance, and a legal liability,” the UP Division Superintendent made plans to raze the building. Local residents and others across the region heard about the proposed demolition and began to publicize the building’s plight.
They organized into the Kelso Depot Fund and set about saving the building. While they were able to stop the demolition, the costs of restoration grew too expensive for the group and they turned to local politicians and the federal government for assistance. Members of Congress from the area went to work, and by 1992, the BLM had the title to the building. Renovation of the Kelso Depot began in 2002. The building reopened to the public as the new visitor center for Mojave National Preserve in October, 2005.
Petrified wood is pretty cool the first time you see it, but a bit less exciting on the third or fourth time… We went to Petrified Forest National Park mostly to see the Painted desert, those colorful layered hills you see in the background. It’s too bad there are not longer hikes in the park. I would have loved to get lost in that unique landscape.
I've spent many hours in nature lately, in silence, on my bike, meditating on the part of me that is afraid of not offering my girls a more normal teenage life full of activities and peers on a daily basis. What if we stick to the fact that our family culture is to live on the road, away from a busy calendar? How do I know what is best for them at this stage of their lives? I can listen to their desires (which ebb and flow and change with their hormonal cycle...) or I can simply hold the bar, as I did all those previous years and say: this is our family, this is what we do. I will make sure you get a great online education and a high school diploma while living on the road. I wonder if we have become a generation of parents who cater too much to their children's desires. If I struggle with this transition, if living in a house for 4 years, needing a second income and vehicle, yearning to be out in nature in my bus, to have more quality time with them does not feel right... is it still the right thing to do for them? I don't know. I truly don't know.
My friend @reneetougas wrote a beautiful series on her blog on homeschooling the high school years. She asks an important question:
"Perhaps in the same way that schooling parents ask homeschoolers - how do you manage to be with your kids all day? Which for me is incomprehensible to answer since my reverse question is how can you stand to not be?" I still cringe when I hear parents cheer because school is about to finally resume after spring break. I mean, I get it, being surrounded by young children all day is hard work and wanting some alone time is totally human. But I feel like we don’t know how to be together anymore. We find it intimidating. Here, take my phone. And draining. Yes, you can go on Netflix.
Why is that? Can’t we just have a good time together? Have meaningful conversations? Have we become so busy that we need to schedule fun times and laughter fits?
You know, we did not wake up one morning and saw that all the stars had aligned, that all the conditions had come together and decided not to send our girls to school. It is rather the opposite. We decided to not send them to school, then we invented the circumstances that made that possible.
We were very excited to check out Crested Butte, but we knew it was rather late in the season… I had taken notes from Pedaladventure’s great post on that fun adventure town, but we ended up just exploring it on foot and Westfalia instead of riding the trails (already covered in snow).
We boondocked here a few nights, near Almont.
And woke up to this!
It was beautiful… but a bit cold for camping.
In Fruita, we rode some great trails in the Kokopelli trail system.
Then, we went to explore the Rabbit Valley area, still technically in Fruita, but closer to the Utah border.
And rode this amazing trail all around the rim you see down there (called Western Rim).
It’s now in my top 3 trails.
You can see the Colorado River down there.
We also rode a few trails on 18 road (still Fruita) for Mathilde’s birthday (we love PBR, Joe’s Ridge and Mojo).
As I’ve shared here before, one of our girls wants to go to school, have external academic and biking motivation, deadlines, a schedule, to be graded… She is an organizer that thrives on structure. She makes lists, plans and wants to know what’s coming. Her Christmas gifts are ready weeks in advance.... You get the idea...
I was hoping that providing as much structure as possible with a Google calendar and online classes with clear external deadlines, timed tests and grades would satisfy her… But she says she’s done with life on the road. She wants stability. A totally normal desire. We knew it would very likely come, but still hoped it might not. Of course, it is out of the question to leave her with friends or family and keep travelling. It's not an option for us. We travel to have more time together.
A few people have asked us why we would settle down if one child wants to settle down and another one wants to keep traveling. Why would we put more importance on the desire to settle down than on the one to keep on traveling? Is is because it is what is expected or more *normal*? Teenagers need a group of peers, need space from their parents, etc. Of course, their life on the road provides plenty of that with bike teams and races, tons of friends of all ages we meet along the road, lots of time alone either in the bus while the others are gone riding or time alone on rides, daily texting with friends, etc… but it’s not the same as being in one fixed location.
So, this is our work right now: finding out what is fear of not offering a normal teenagehood to our girls and what is sticking to our family values and the needs of the other members of the family?
Some might philosophically say that kids will be angry at their parents nonetheless, that they will turn out fine anyways, that we adapt to anything… and there is truth to that of course, but these are key years in one’s life and I don’t want to rob them of these important years. We have a huge decision on our hands...
Another very important aspect of this decision is my mental health. I’ve talked about it here before. I take meds all year round and use my light therapy glasses everyday of the fall and winter EVEN on the road during Arizona winters. I need to be active outside in the sun almost everyday to keep anxiety and depression at bay. The first winter I spent in the south in my entire life was a game changer: I realized I could feel good all year, have energy and drive to do things and not wake up with an elephant on my solar plexus and struggle to get out of bed. I was 35. And I never looked back. Since then, I spent one winter in Quebec and it was really hard. You’ll tell me winter is hard on you too, but when you suffer from SAD, it’s a different level of hard. I don’t ever want to go through this again. Especially not when my girls are going through a major transition like entering high school.
So yes, this is a big factor and a top priority. It might sound egocentric, but if I’m sick, nothing is going to work. So yes, we could veto another 3 years on the road and tell our daughter that we will make sure she has high quality online classes and that she can settle down in 3 years when she goes to University. But that doesn’t feel right to force her into that life against her will… but then, settling down means forcing her sister into a life she doesn’t want either… And that’s where we will have to make a hard decision.
It’s no secret that we are not excited about settling down (we don't even know WHERE we would settle down at this point, but it would very likely be in Canada). Settling down means finding a home base and furnishing it (we have a big dog and finding a furnished rental is very unlikely). We don’t own anything anymore. Settling down IS a big deal. This bus is the home in which I lived the longest in all my life. I don't want to sell it. Same for the Westy. But in the North, these are not winter vehicles and need to be put in storage when not in use… And problems show up… Which also means that we'll need a car (or two) and another job to pay for it all…
So, it’s not a matter of simply *trying it for a year*. If we settle down, it will likely be at least for the next 4 years (or until our youngest is done with high school)... because we won’t turn things around again. Especially since the daughter who wants to settle down wants to do it because she is done leaving friends behind.
A part of me wants to believe that we can turn this into an adventure… If we find an interesting school in a new location where we can live in the bus for part of the year (and maybe an AirBnB for the few colder winter months…), that maybe could work. But the other part of me is like: are you crazy? No friends or family around in such a tough transition. No way!
And I dream of Europe...
I’m sure many of you wonder why I share all this personal stuff here. There are a few reasons. First, this is how I think. By sharing ideas and listening to feedback. It helps me frame my ideas and make sense of it all. Also, and above all, I feel like there are not many families on the road with teenagers and I know I wanted to hear their stories when my girls were smaller, so that’s mainly why I share mine here. It’s the same reason why I started blogging 10 years ago: to connect with likeminded people who questioned the mainstream path. There is less and less of us on that path when the children turn into teenagers and I feel like we need to hear the voices of these parents, their worries, their reflexions and yes, their fears… Because as much as we exude confidence, when you make a choice that is outside the norm, the fears are always there in the back of your mind, nagging. But you turn away from them and look at your teenagers and see that so far, you have done a decent job and that maybe you know the path… against all odds.
I have so much to say about this different life we live together that I am writing a book right now. If you feel encline, let me know in the comments what you would like to find in that book.
These huge dunes look totally out of place at the edge of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains. Located in south central Colorado (about 2.5 hours from Colorado Springs and nearly four hours from Denver, they lie at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They are the tallest sand dunes in North America.
There are no official trails into the dunes and because of the soft, ever-shifting sand, possibilities for exploration are limitless. It is permitted to walk anywhere, and one popular target is the top of the tallest dune, which conveniently is only half a mile from the edge. Still, the journey takes up to one hour and it is often a case of one step up, half a step down. It is easier to walk along sand ridges, rather than up the side of the dunes. The surface temperature of the sand can rise to over 140 F in the summer, much too hot for barefoot walking, and very hard on your dog’s paws (bring booties). Note that this is one of the rare National Parks where dogs are allowed on hiking trails. It is written everywhere that you need to keep your dog ON LEASH. I know the dunes feel like a sandbox of epic proportions, but please respect that rule so we can keep coming here with our pups (most people had their dogs off leash…).
It is often windy on the dunes (it was when we were there) and it was not a pleasant experience. Wear long pants and non-mesh shoes (or walk barefoot if the sand is cool enough), a windbreaker and buff and tight-fitting hat, as well as sunglasses if you plan to hike the dunes on a windy day. It will make your journey much more fun.
You can also rent sand board or sand sleds to play on the dunes just outside the park (regular sleds or snowboards don’t work well on dry sand). Another amazing feature of the Great Sand Dunes is Medano Creek - a small stream fed by melting snow that is only about ten miles long and flows most strongly during spring and early summer. It starts in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, runs along the east edge of the dunes and disappears below ground in the valley.
It is also a great area for stargazing and there are often ranger-led astronomy programs in the park. A really unique experience would be to camp overnight in the dunes (when weather is calm and clear to avoid blowing sand or dangerous thunderstorms with lightning). You can pitch your tent anywhere in the dune field that lies outside the day-use area. You'll have a minimum hike of 1.5 miles over the dunes, but will experience a unique overnight setting. Don’t forget that hauling your gear up slippery sand dunes is quite the workout.
There is a limit of 6 people per party, and limit of 20 parties in the dune field per night; permits are first-come, first-served (gas stoves only; no campfires). Dogs are not permitted in the dunes backcountry.
Though not inside Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Zapata Falls is a terrific little hike (0.8 miles) during a visit to the area and a fun place to cool off from the hot sun in the summer since you have to walk in the water to get there.
There are a few options for camping in the area. The Piñon Flats Campground is run by the National Park Service, with 44 sites that are first-come, first-served and 44 that visitors can reserve in advance.
For those traveling in 4WD vehicles, there are 21 campsites along Medano Pass Road within the park that are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Outside the park, there is the San Luis Wilderness area, which was a state park until last year, where you can camp FOR FREE WITH 30/50 AMP power, sheltered picnic tables and fire ring in a gorgeous setting. Too good to be true? That’s what we thought, but we had a hard time leaving.
If you type Moab on the Home page search bar of the blog, you'll see a ridiculous number of posts pop up. We just love Moab and have been coming here every year for the last 5 years. The more helpful post for bike trails and general info that I wrote is this one and this one contains more photos or trails (all the info is still good, except that the coffee at Bike Fiend was NOT good this year, stick to Moab Coffee Roasters and the good cheap laudromat by the Village Market and Chili Pepper Bike shop is not a Domino Pizza and you are left with very few options for laundry... We ended up going to Moab Laundry (that we call the Gringo Laundromat, because it's pack full with travelers and it's ridiculously cheap and the driers take forever to dry... buuut, it's right by the City Market AND Gearhead (where you can fill your jugs with delicious spring water for free), so we can kill 3 birds with one stone.
Coming here every year for a while also means that we have seen the effects of more and more people camping on the public lands and that every year, we camp a little further away... Last year, we stayed on Dalton Wells Road since Willow Springs Road was packed and this year, after spending a few very noisy days on Dalton Wells with people riding and racing their OHV all day long in front of our bus, we moved further out of town.
There has been lots of discussions on Instagram lately among the vanlifers about the repercussions of sharing the exact coordinates of these free campsites (and other beautiful locations). Many of us feel directly responsible for drawing crowds there (and some of us truly are... I know I am for at least a few spots I first reviewed on Campendium). It’s a complex issue and many of us stand on the fence here. We’re not a select little group who should be the only ones to have access to this information. HOWEVER, as Kerri McHale (@asolojourner) says: “There’s surely enough info already out there to get anyone’s feet wet; even if every single one of us stopped geotagging today. (…) This land is open to everyone, and everyone’s free to explore it. We’re not putting up “no trespassing” signs; were just not putting up neon arrows to the road here”.
Of course, I will keep sharing these special spots with people I know. And I will keep sharing them here on the blog. I receive lots of messages from friends and acquaintances (and readers!) planning trips and never refuse them a piece of advice. However, I know these people and know they will not trash them. “These places are our second homes, our refuges”, as Kerri McHale says. She continues: It’s not good for everyone to crowd onto one pinpoint on a map—it changes the land, even when people *aren’t* trashing it. I’ve talked to many locals lately, who see places they’ve come back to for decades overrun and trashed. I once thought, “I don’t have that many followers…how could I really be affecting this?” But that’s kind of like saying, “I’ll just drop this one coke can on the ground. No one comes around here anyway,” isn’t it?
So if you have read this far, let me share with you here one of Moab's best kept secret: Mary Jane Canyon. When the crowds are invading Arches and Canyonlands National Parks (and Corona Arch trail too now...), there are a few hidden gems that you will likely only have to share with a few other hikers if you are willing to drive a few extra miles (or 20). Last year, I told you about the Fisher Towers (still our favorite hike in the area!) and this year, we discovered Mary Jane Canyon. Unfortunately, we didn't get to go all the way to the end where the true gem is: a beautiful 30 feet high split waterfall INSIDE the slot canyon because we ran out of light. It is a long hike (9 miles/14 km round trip) mostly IN the water, so plan accordingly. It is however perfect on a hot day when the crowds are all at Grandstaff Canyon (aka Morning Glory, aka Negro Bill Canyon) to get their feet wet. Some people have reported being able to keep their feet dry by rock hopping, but it'll be a lot of work (and you'll likely slip and get wet or injure yourself). You CAN be in the water 90% of the time, but you will likely have to be walking in it at least 50% if you follow the trail that meanders in and out of the creek. We don't have Keens, so we simply used our regular sneakers with wool hiking socks and it was perfect. JF did it in his Chaco sandals and said it was not ideal because the sole became abrasive under his feet after a while. If you have weak ankles, brink hiking poles. The water was pretty shallow when we did it at the beginning of April (mostly ankle deep, some spots mid-calf) and cold but not freezing. We called the BLM field office in Moab beforehand since it had rained a few days prior, but they said they do not monitor the water level there, so I guess it is not as likely to get flash floods there. The water level does vary during the year and it is usually dry at the end of the summer.
Once you reach the trail head, make sure you take the right trail. The more obvious one is for Professor/Sylvester Creek, which is NOT where you are going. The trail to Mary Jane Canyon is just across the parking lot by a no camping sign. The best info I found about it is on this blog (with photos of the trail head). The canyon walls get higher as you hike further into the canyon, and eventually will reach upwards of 100 ft. I also read that there are several side canyons that allow for exploring tighter slot canyons.
In their book Utah Canyon Country, Kathy and Craig Copeland warn the hikers pretty clearly about Bell & Little Wild Horse canyons: The circuit linking the two canyons is a merry-go-round of enthusiastic hikers: kids sprinting away from their ambling parents, young couples lugging babies in backpacks, seniors cautiously shrouded head-to-toe in sun-barrier clothing, experienced trekkers sheepish about participating in such a carnival yet enjoying it too. (…) Hiking here is like joining a hikers’ pride parade. It’s an act of solidarity with your comrades: the people raising hikers-to-be. Not convinced? Then come here simply to marvel at the bizarre beauty of the San Rafael Reef. These canyons are so extraordinary they’ll command your attention while the party swirls on without you.
Little Wild Horse Canyon (2-4 miles round trip to simply explore the first section of LWH Canyon or 9 miles to do the loop hike with Bell Canyon, easy, dog-friendly but lots of people, VERY HEAVY traffic):
There were over 60 vehicles in the parking lot when we arrived at 3 pm on a Monday afternoon (granted, it was during Spring Break, but still!). We decided to go find a camping spot on Little Wild Horse BLM just a few minutes from there and waited for the crowd to leave. We started our hike in the canyon at 6 pm and had the place pretty much to ourselves. It was AMAZING. We hike pretty fast, but we were able to see a lot of Little Wild Horse Canyon and return by 8 pm. It is undeniably the most beautiful slot canyon we have seen when taking in consideration the minimal approach and how easy it is to hike it (no technical challenge at all).
Most people simply walk a few miles into Little Wild Horse Canyon and turn around (like we did), but you can also do it in a loop starting with Bell Canyon and returning through Little Wild Horse Canyon. I believe it would be doable the other way around too (but you might want to double check that in case there are obstacles) in order to avoid the crowd if you start very early from LWH canyon.
To also check in the same area:
Crack Canyon (7 miles round trip, easy with a few obstacles requiring some gymnastic efforts, dogs allowed, but has to be pretty athletic, moderate to low traffic)
Chute Canyon (4.5 miles round trip, easy, dogs allowed, moderate to low traffic)
I'm not going to keep you from paying $15 to go into Goblin Valley State park and spend an hour (or less) climbing on goblin-like rock formations (why on earth do they allow people to climb on such fragile formations, I don't know...), but if you do and you have bikes, go explore a much less crowded area of the park with really nice easy bike trails and ride The Dark Side of the Moon to get very close to the San Rafael Swell.
Hole-in-the-Rock Road has the biggest concentration of slot canyons in Utah. It is 57 miles one-way and 4 x 4 is strongly recommended for the last 7 miles. There was LOTS of wash board on this route when we were there and driving it in our van wasn't fun. We decided NOT to drive the 50 something mile required to get to some of the canyons we wanted to explore and stuck to the canyons located on the first 15 miles of the road for that reason.
There are no route markers on most canyon trails (sometimes a cairn here and there). You need a map and some navigation skills.
As the Copelands put it in their book: Hiking, particularly when routefinding rather than heedlessly following a trail, reboots our connection with nature. It requires us to engage directly. And canyon country is the ideal place to venture into trail-less terrain.
These places invite exploration, but if you want to veer off the path, you should stay on the cattle trails to avoid destroying the fragile desert crust. Do not add cairns, do not write with mud on the canyon walls, keep your voice down (and teach this to your kids). Enthusiasm is beautiful, but this is not an amusement park. Be respectful of others who are likely to look for a more contemplative experience.
Big Horn canyon (5 miles round trip, easy, dog-friendly, moderate traffic): Big Horn Canyon is an interesting tributary of Harris Wash in a rarely explored part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was our best *discovery*. The wide range of colors, textures and formations took our breath away. The canyon deepens quickly, eventually reaching a depth of 400 feet, and forms slot-like channels of varying narrowness mixed with wider, flat sections. It has two forks and all could be seen in five hours though adjacent parts of Harris Wash, and especially some of its nearby side canyons, are also worth visiting.
We have a tradition to pick a birthday hike (or ride). I had picked Little Death Hollow, but it was closed since a cow was stuck in it and someone else had been charged by an aggressive cow… So back to the drawing board we went and decided to check out Zebra Canyon.
Zebra slot canyon (5 miles round trip, easy to get there/moderate, some stemming required in the canyon, canyon is not dog-friendly, high to moderate traffic): This is a very short slot canyon (200 m) that require some wiggling and stemming to get through. It often contains water and quicksand. When we did it, there was two 50 feet-long sections of mid-calf freezing cold water. The slot canyon is reached after a 2 miles beautiful approach walk down to Harris Wash. There are not route markers here and it can be confusing for many. Make sure you have a map.
In many of these canyons, you will see Moqui Marbles. They are sandstone balls cemented by a hard shell of iron oxide minerals. They tumble from the pale, cream-colored navajo sandstone beds, when wind and water wash away the softer rock. The children of the Indian tribe who lived there were known to play with these stones, particularly the smaller stones, and used them like children today use marbles, hence the name Moqui Marbles.
The curious rocks have inspired fantastical tales of fairies, meteorites and dinosaur eggs, but their origin is fairly mundane. Water flowing through sedimentary rock leaves behind minerals that glue together masses of sand, mud or other particles.
Collecting them is prohibited. Please be respectful.
In my research online, I actually discovered that some people are selling them on eBay as shaman stones having special powers. I’m pretty sure this is bad Karma...
To also check in the same area:
Devil’s Garden Hoodoos (stroll around, up to a few miles, perfect natural playground for kids, a few arches and funky hoodoos, 12 miles from Highway 12 on Hole-in-the-Rock road).
Peekaboo and Spooky Canyons (4.8 miles round trip, moderate, not dog-friendly, heavy traffic): These are undeniably the most visited canyons on Hole-in-the-Rock Road and for good reasons. The approach is short and the experience is unique. However, you might have to wait in line to enter through Peekaboo… it’s that crazy busy. People usually hike up Peekaboo and down Spooky (DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS HIKE IF YOU ARE IN ANY WAY OVERWEIGHT, these canyons are so narrow that people got stuck). Spooky will force even the most slender lanky types to carry their packs over their heads, turn sideways and wiggle through. There are a few chokestones and short drops. If you are #ho shapeshifter, you can also attempt Brimstone Canyon located at the same trailhead (darker and more obstacles, great to check you immunity to claustrophobia). We hiked these almost six years ago with the girls and it was quite the adventure (read the whole story here!)
Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral (9.2 miles round trip), moderate, dog-friendly, moderate traffic)
Note that there are many more very interesting canyons to explore on Hole-in-the-Rock Road (Davis Gulch, Llewelyn Gulch, Reflexion Canyon, Willow Gulch, Fortymile Gulch, Egypt 3, Spencer), but many require a 50 mile drive on that often very wash boardy road (it was in very rough shape when we were there).
We camped at this BLM while exploring this area.
When we started traveling around the US 6 years ago, Zion and Bryce National Parks were the new Grand Canyon. Crowds were filling every trail and people that had never hiked in their life showed up on Angel’s Landing trail wearing flip flops and carrying a tiny 250 ml bottle of water they had just bought at the lodge. Now, mainly thanks to social media, Utah’s slot canyons seem to be the new Zion. Whereas we had enjoyed Peekaboo and Spooky Canyons with only a few other adventurous parties 6 years ago, the Escalante Visitor Center ranger told us to stay away from it because there were line-ups of people trying to get in and out. And many of them were not serious hikers, even less slot-canyon savvy.
We knew that Willis Creek slot canyon and Lower Calf Creek Falls would be busy, but we didn’t expect to have people literally crawl under us inside Zebra Canyon (I wish I was joking). It was just ridiculous. Granted it was Spring Break, but we never expected it to be THAT busy.
One of our best experience was at Big Horn Canyon, where we started early and had the place mostly to ourselves until we were on our return. It was also quite special since we *discovered* one of the side slot canyon and ventured inside it not knowing what we would find. It ended in a gorgeous cathedral-like cave. The experience is just not the same at all. Of course, nobody likes busy places, but a crowded slot canyon is just not fun. And can border on dangerous.
Mostly, people are not aware of canyon etiquette. They are loud (and their voice reverberates on the canyon walls and don’t give people space to enjoy the spectacular sections of a canyon. Don’t be these guys. This is not a race, this is an experience. Many are there to have a contemplative experience and don’t feel like chatting. Canyons invite silence and respect.
Here are short description of every canyon we visited (note that there are many more and in other areas of Utah too). These are all accessible from Route 12. To simplify things I have separated them in 4 different posts.
More info can be obtained online or at the Escalante Visitor Center for directions. ALWAYS stop at the nearest visitor center to get information about the state of the trail and the risks of flash floods.
When hiking Willis Creek, we camped on this BLM.
From Cannonville (Skutumpah Rd):
Willis Creek (4.8 miles round trip, easy, very dog-friendly, high traffic): Many slot canyons are accessible only after a 2-3 miles hike in a usually pretty sandy wash (in full sun), but Willis Creek is an exception, which explains why it is so popular. In some books it is describes as the best bang for your buck experience, and I guess it is true if you are in a rush or you want an easy mostly flat hike with no obstacles to climb. However, unless you go very, very early or late in the day, expect to be with a crowd. From the parking lot, the trail quickly drops into the canyon, within 5 minutes, you will see sculpted Navajo sandstone walls rise on both sides. You will go into many sections of slot canyon that alternate with short sections of wash. This explains why it is easy to get good pictures in Willis creek: the narrow sections are not very long allowing ample light to come in. It is a 20 minutes drive down unpaved Skutumpah Road (from Cannonville, on Hwy 12). It is not big-rig accessible (you can leave your rig for the day at the Cannonville Visitor Center or at a nearby BLM).
To also check in the same area:
Lick Wash Canyon (8-mile round trip, easy, dog friendly, moderate traffic). We did it almost 6 years ago and didn't find it particularly interesting.
Right on Route 12, between Escalante and Boulder:
Lower Calf Creek falls (6 miles round trip, easy, very dog-friendly, high traffic): Note that this is not a slot canyon, but a hike that leads you along high sandstone walls (with a few petroglyphs) to a beautiful waterfall. The hike in itself is beautiful from the start. It is a great hike to do if slots canyons are vulnerable to flash floods. There are some sandy sections and some ups and downs. In warm weather, people swim in the pool at the bottom of the fall.
The weather was unusually warm in Prescott for this time of year, so that meant we could comfortably camp (0 degrees nights and nice warm days) and most of the bike trails were rideable. Our original plan was to go on a BLM camping spot on Thumb Butte Mountain, but there was snow and mud on the steep climb to get there, so we turned around and went to White Spar Campground. For $10/night, you get a big asphalted lot with a picnic table and fire rink and access to a bathroom. There is no water on site at this time of year, but it’s easy to go dump and fill at Affinity RV for free. AND there are lots of bike trails that start right from the campground (Twist and Shout, Apple Blossom, Goldwater Lake). We rode a lot during our stay here and checked out many different areas. The number of bike trails here is just incredible! I think the favorite was Badger Mountain and Sundog and we also liked the new trails at Spence Basin (Tunnel Vision), but there were many more that we liked. Prescott has over 250 miles of beautiful trails. The Trailfork app is the best app to use for this area, as well as the PMBA website for trail conditions.
On the other side of town, there are two reservoir lakes (Watson Lake and Willow Lake) surrounded by the Granite Dells, a landscape reminescent of the Alabama Hills (where you can ride some pretty technical trails), and completely different from the area where we were camped.
Last year, the McDowell Meltdown was JF and Mara's first ever bike race. You might remember that they had registered just for fun. This year, they came in a little more prepared (but not super well-trained since they both got a nasty bug over the holidays). They still did great and had a good time.
Some of you have asked why Aisha and Mathilde did not do the race. The answer is that they simply didn't feel like it. They might or might not ride the other races in a few weeks. Our girls are free to choose, of course! As for me, I'm not interested in racing (nor am I in racing shape!).
We had never stayed at the McDowell Mountain Regional Park campground (we rarely pay for campsites), but this was well-worth it since they could pre-ride the course during the week and because there are also tons of trails that you can ride right from your campsite. We explored some trails, but there are still lots we haven't had a chance to ride. There are all types of trails, from wide sandy washes to steep rocky trails.
The sites are huge and well-spaced, they all have power and water ($30), but make sure you reserve in advance online because they fill-up pretty quickly at this time of year. If the campground is full, there is an overflow where you can stay for $20/night with no services, but access to showers and dump station.
Don't you just love it when you are with people with whom everything is so easy and simple and fun? I've said it before and I'll say it again: these guys feel like family! We spent a wonderful laid back weekend with them in the Dragoon Mountains, also called Cochise Strongholds. I've written on the blog about this place a few times already, so if you want more practical info about the camping or rock climbing, just search the blog with the hashtag cochise.
We just love this place. There is an incredible sense of peace in these mountains. I love watching every sunrise and sunsets from the top and see how the orange light plays with the dry grass. Some people have compared it to some areas in Australia and even the African Savannah. I cannot help but think about Cochise and his troops who hid in those mountains for 2 years...
P.S. There is a pretty cool story about that van… We bought it from a gut that had imported it from California in 2000, used it, crossed Canada in it with our big St. Bernard to move to the Yukon, and sold it in 2005 to our friends Antonio and Pascale when I was expecting Mathilde (we camped in it with the twins in the Yukon, BC and Alaska – the first time they were only 2 months old!). Antonio and Pascale were moving to San Diego for Pascale’s postgraduate study, so the van was going back to its original home. Many years later, while he was working on the van, Antonio came across the manufactured date… which happened to be on his exact birthday. Not only the same year and the same month, but the same day too! How cool is that! So Tony the van, turned 40 on the same day as Antonio! And they are both off to many more adventures!
My head is full of the pictures I didn't take. The harsh living realities of so many people, the trash everywhere, the striking contrasts between the expat houses and the locals’. It's always disturbing, and I hope I never become insensitive to it. As soon as we crossed into Mexicali, we were in a different world. The honking, the smells, the poverty, people selling stuff at every intersection, from tortillas and neon cotton candy to airplane models and cheap copycat go-pro cameras, Mexicans sellers got you covered. You need an alternator? Ramon is selling some from the back of his pick-up. Dreaming of a fuzzy leopard stirring wheel covers? That guy is coming to your car window with his selection. Guys would show up at our campsite, invariably presenting us with the same fare someone else offered us a few hours priors: *almost gratis* bracelets and hammocks. The weathered down musicians coming to our tables at night in the restaurants, dragging their old amplifiers behind them (everything has to be loud in Mexico, especially the music!)...
As we drove back to the border through the desolate suburbs of Mexicali, I was reminded of a conversation a friend had a long time ago with a Buddhist monk. She was telling him that her brother was dying of cancer while she was living a happy healthy life and how unfair this was. After a few minutes of silence, the monk simply looked at her with his wise eyes and said: Who said it would be fair?
We were dealt a pretty awesome hand while many are struggling pretty hard to get enough food to eat for their family. Life isn’t fair, indeed and traveling is quite humbling.
We had visited the Grand Canyon 5 years ago with the girls and it was still one of the highlights of our first year on the road, mostly because of our memorable hike into the canyon in the dark to watch the sunrise from Ooh Aah Point.
Last year, JF had decided that he wanted to run/hike the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim for his 40th birthday, that is from the South Rim to the North Rim and back, a 74 km feat with a crazy elevation change of 3,368 m. It was quite a challenge! I was glad his cousin Martin was joining him. Our friends Antonio and Pascale (and the boys!) came all the way from Tucson to spend the weekend with us. It was really cool to see the boys reaction to seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. We had a beautiful day of hiking with them to Ooh Aah Point and many beautiful discussions as usual.
On the Sunday, Martin and JF left camp at 4:30 am and had only told us that they estimated it would take them between 12 to 16 hours to complete their adventure. So, the girls and I arrived at the Canyon Rim as the sun was disappearing. Lots of people were still coming up from the Bright Angel Trail before darkness fell. A worried friend was calling a name down into the canyon, the shuttle buses were packed with day trippers going back to their cars and hotels. Quickly, night fell and we could barely see down into the canyon, the bright half-moon illuminating only a few sections of the trail. Two rangers walked down with flashlights and came back 25 minutes later with an exhausted man. The girls and I got our hopes up every time we saw two headlamps down below on the trail, we tried to listen for familiar voices, knowing quite well that after 73 km, it was very likely that the boys didn’t have the energy to talk anymore. We were almost alone at the trailhead now, an eerie feeling in a place so busy during the day. A woman waiting for her friends sat nearby and started playing the flute. We sat in silence with the warm wind on our faces, listening to her melodious complaint.
We waited some more, danced and did jumping jacks in the moon shadow to stay warm, talked about fear and the ball that settled in our stomachs as time went by. After 3 hours of waiting, we finally heard from them (they had a pocket of connexion in the canyon). They were exhausted, but OK, and only 3.5 km away. We jumped in relief and joy and craziness took over as the building anxiety dissolved. It was hard to keep quiet but we wanted to surprise them! Finally, we saw one headlamp and a familiar shape. The girls were sure it was JF, but I couldn’t recognize his gait… and well, there was only one headlamp… it couldn’t be them… But as he neared the last switchback, we could see clearly that it was an exhausted JF, leaning on his poles as he painfully climbed the last stretch. The girls ran down the trail, screaming their joy and congratulations. We had never seen JF that exhausted! Martin was right behind (he had lost his headlamp). They had spent 15 and a half hours in the Canyon going from the South Rim to the North Rim and back (74 km). What an accomplishment! They both agreed that the last 20 km were too much before falling into bed, without dinner or celebratory beer.
We spent most of our days in our climbing harnesses, taking turns on the routes, just shouting next when a climber was done. The bus door would open and another eager climber would spill out, pausing what he was doing. We translated and cooked in our harnesses. We were a funny sight, but it was wonderful to have so many great routes right by the bus. This place is so great! These perfect campsites are available for free (Sawtooth Canyon Campground: GPS 34.6703, -116.984)
The surrounding landscape is breathtaking. Most campsites are very private. There are 16 sites, and the campground is opened all year round. Each site has a picnic table, grill and fire pit. There are vault toilets. No potable water or dump station available on site. If you come from Barstow (25 minute drive), you can fill your water tank with potable water at the Flying J gas station. There is a big Vons grocery store there too. You must pack out your garbage as there is no trash can at the campground.
You will have to drive around to find the best spots for signal. Site 2 had great Verizon signal. The sites just behind the rocks don’t have signal, but the ones further at the back seemed to have good signal too. It can get very windy, very quickly, so don’t leave awnings out or things outside that could fly away. The only downside of this place is that there is a lot of broken glass everywhere (watch out for your dogs’ paws). We also encountered two tarantulas during our stay. The site is used by boy scouts association on weekends, so we were happy to be further from the crowd (who sets up at the far end where there is a group campsite area).
There are tons of amazing rock climbing routes right behind the sites, so be aware that you might have climbers in your backyard (or on your site) if you chose a site by climbing routes (look for bolts on the walls). Site 2 is just by the Valentine Wall and the Welcome Wall and we climbed all the routes on these two walls. We then moved on to the Boy scout Wall (near the group campsite area) on warmer day (it’s in the shade all day). There are many more walls to explore and we will be back when the weather is cooler.
The Alabama Hills are probably the free camping spot that made boondocking what it is today. It's also a very unique location where more than 400 movies were shot (lots of cowboy movies, but a few Sci-Fi too... remember Tremors?). After having heard so much about this place and seen so many pictures, I was afraid to be disappointed. It is a super vast area where you can find a secluded spot between boulders and have climbing routes right in your backyard while looking at the sunset over Mount Whitney. Sounded too good to be true. Well, it almost is... if you need decent signal to work. But if you don't (we had 5 days off for Mathilde and JF's birthdays), it really is the perfect boondocking spot.
For the work week, we ended up moving 5 miles away at Tuttle Creek Campground where there is very good Verizon signal (and beautiful campsites) for $8/night.
As for climbing in the area, there are tons of sports routes. The granite is similar to Joshua Tree, there are lots of slabby routes with small crimpy holds. We loved The Tall Wall (Rotten Banana, Bananarama, Banana Split), the Hoodgie Wall (Ankles Away, Leonosphere) and had fun on the short routes in the Candy Store for quick afternoon climbs after work. We didn't make it to the Arizona Dome.
We went to visit the Lone Pine Film History Museum and had delicious burgers (skip the fries, get the beer battered onion rings) at The Alabama Hill Café (note that it is only open from 7 am to 2 pm every day, no dinner hours).
The grocery store in town is nothing great. It's pricey and the quality of the produce and meat is not great. You can dump ($5, no fresh water at the dump) and fill (for free, near site 50 by the out house) at Tuttle Creek Campground. You can also fill with water in town at the gas station near the city park.
One of the things your learn after many years on the road is that if you find a gem of a secret spot to camp in, you don't share it on social medias or camping sites/apps. Another thing that you learn is that if there is a long weekend coming, you stay put. Even if you would really like to go climbing at Owens River Gorge and take advantage of that long weekend yourself (because no, we do not make our work schedule and have full days off only on weekends). On long weekends, you stay around camp and explore less popular spots. For your own sanity.
There is a lot to do in the Mammoth Lakes ares. There is an awesome bike resort with lots of amazing trails. Mammoth Mountain closes mid-September, but the trails remain open for riders to enjoy. At 9,000 feet of altitude, it can get cold at this time of year. We went riding in 3 degree C weather (that's 35 F). There is also a great brewery (Mammoth Brewery), perfect for an after-ride brew and delicious meal.
There are also many hot springs in the areas, the most popular being Hilltop (aka Pulkey's) and Wild Willy's. These are often full of people. The thing is, most of the springs are bathtub size and can sit 4 to 5 persons at most (Wild Willy being the exception, there are a few pools there that can accommodate more people), so if you get there and they are full, the courtesy is to leave (not wait there or worst, try to squeeze in). Many of these are clothing optional too.
We really liked Rock Tub since it is right by the little parking area and you don't have to hike to find out if it's full or not. The first time we tried to go to the hot springs, on a very cold night after our bike ride, we found it full, so we turned around, checked out Hilltop and Wild Willy's which were also full... It's the reality of it... It's high season here and there are not secret spots anymore. So we came back the next day in the afternoon and lucked out as the man bathing there was just done. During the hour we were there, 3 or 4 cars drove in, saw that the tub was busy and turned around. The water gets pretty dirty from all the people (even if there is a constant flow in and out. There is a plug at the bottom, so you can empty the tub and let it fill back up. You can also bring a brush to scrub the slippery algea that covers the bottom if you want. Obviously, don't use any soap in the tubs!
We also explored Shepard's Tub and the Crab Cooker, that are *a bit* less busy. We ended up camping there for 2 nights and enjoying Shepard's Tub and the Crab Cooker morning and night. It was heavenly after a day of climbing! If you decide to go camp near a hot spring, remember that this is a public place and do not hug the tub (or park very near it). People will likely come and go every hour or so (and at every hour of the night on weekends!), so be warned.
Hot Creek used to be a hot spring in the 60's and 70's. We met a man at Shepard's who used to be a guide and would bring tourists there. He said there was a huge pool where there was always 50 to 60 people. It has been closed for 15-20 years because too many deaths happen there. He told us that most deaths were caused by people trying to rescue their dogs who had fallen in the blue pools of death (the beautiful Icelandic blue pool in the picture above) which is and has always been scalding hot. It is nonetheless a geological wonder where the cold water from the glacier meet the bubbling water from the underground volcanic activity. The ground is unstable in the area because of fumaroles and occasional geyser action also.
Devils Postpile (a National Monument) is an unusual rock formation of 60 feet high basalt columns. It looks like a tidy lumber pile created by OCD giants. They were formed when lava erupted in the valley nearly 100,000 years ago and filled the area to a depth of 400 feet. Then, glaciers overrode the fractured mass of lava. As you can see on the pictures taken from the top, the glaciers cut the hexagonal basalt towers, leaving behind something that looks like a tile floor. The John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail merge into one trail as they pass through the monument.
Obsidian Dome is not your typical cone-shaped dome, but more like a big pile of shiny black rock. It is indeed volcanic glass that was formed by an explosion (a Phreatic Blast) when magma reached the water table, turned the water to steam, cooled and then turned to rock. There is not much else to do there than to simply scramble up and look at the beautiful obsidian formations (be careful, it is slippery). Obsidian is the sharpest natural material known to man, obsidian rocks have played a significant role in the evolution of homo-sapiens' tool-making ability. During the Stone-Age and beyond, obsidian rocks have played a major part as primary cutting tools in many cultures.