Mojave Mini-Adventure

Where do you want to go for vacation? Ask a hundred people this question, and you may receive as many answers. But I would bet few if any would say “the desert.” Why? Because there is nothing there? Because deserts are massive desolations? Maybe that is the exact reason you should visit a desert, at least for a day and a night. The guys and I will always remember our stay in the Mojave Desert as one of our favorites from the entire road trip!


Distant granite spires, Mojave Desert.


Peyton (left) and Daniel set up tents at a roadside camp.

Arriving in Baker, California late in the afternoon, we filled up on ridiculously overpriced gas and set about finding a place to crash for the night. We picked out a little spot near the granite spires about 50 miles south of Baker on Kelbaker Road, a rough highway straight through the desert that probably never sees much traffic. Windows down, music blaring, eyes peeled for tortoises—there were flashing signs requesting the latter—we cruised through the Mojave watching the sun sink as we approached an area we hoped would provide a good campsite. Nearing sundown we picked a dirt road, and drove down it until we found a suitable area partially concealed from the road with no vegetation where we could pull over and set up camp. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended for these roads, and we soon found out why. Luckily it only took a little pushing and some well-placed rocks under tires to get the truck moving through the sand.


Traveling Wall-e hangs out on a branch, Mojave Desert.


The sun sets, Mojave Desert.

Seeing an opportunity after we parked, I immediately set my bike up and tried riding around the area. While the unpacked sand was impossible to ride, the road provided a somewhat stable surface for the large mountain bike treads. It was still slippery, in some places more than others, and provided a fun little challenge for higher speed downhill sections of the road where I often ran into patches of sand that tried to spin my tires out from under me and send me spiraling into the cactus-filled brush lining the road. Knowing that dark was falling, I peddled back to the truck to shoot some obligatory sunset photos and help make camp.


The sun blazes across the horizon line, Mojave Desert.


Sunspots captured in red, green, and yellow, Mojave Desert.

As dark began to set in, we realized it wasn’t the intense darkness that we had expected, and few stars were becoming visible. To the south we noticed a bright glow, vocalizing that it was probably a little town that put off enough light in the dark desert to be seen. Then, the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen crept over the horizon line and began rising at such a pace that we could actually see it moving. The amount of light reflected by that full moon was astonishing. It blocked out all but a few of the brightest stars and provided light for us to easily explore the area without flashlights. We hiked down the dirt road toward looming hills surrounded by shrubs and short cacti shrouded in shadows. The eerie experience could not be duplicated in any other environment. Alone in the desert, we strode along for hours without another soul around for miles except the occasional car we witnessed passing by on Kelbaker Highway.


The moon rises over distant hills, Mojave Desert.


Long exposure of a dirt road and a car on the distant Kelbaker Highway, Mojave Desert.

For me, the isolation created an introspective mood, giving me a greater inner connection to the life around me. The life that thrives in the desert is different from what most of us are used to. There were no bright greens and yellows that we love so much in deciduous forests and the pastures that speckle them. No deep, rich, black soil. No towering, majestic evergreens. No deep blue lakes. Yet there was still life, stripped to the dull greenish gray necessities and fighting with all it could muster just to survive. There is something beautiful about that natural struggle. It encompassed the universal conflict of life against death without any distractions, and it highlighted that even in some of the most barren environments, life can prevail.


Roadside camp, Mojave Desert.


Close-up roadside camp, Mojave Desert.

Between midnight and 1 a.m. we arrived back to our camp to get some sleep before the next day’s drive. After waking up to the heat of the sun on our tents, we made breakfast and coffee. Still sore and stiff from our Grand Canyon hike, Daniel, Peyton, and I elected to work out the soreness with a bike ride, so we peddled as far down the dirt road as we felt comfortable and cruised back. We rode on the highway some too, giving me the idea of going back one day for a cycle trip down one of the desert highways. I was a little sad to leave the Mojave after spending so little time there, but at the same time I was excited for our upcoming two night stay in Santa Barbara.


Peyton (left), Peyton (center), and Peyton (right), Mojave Desert.


Long exposure of the dirt road leading to granite hills, Mojave Desert.

Grand Adventure – Lousy Plan

Daniel, Peyton, and I arrived in Mather Campground close to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park late in the evening of May 20 and set up camp in near dark once again. At least this time it wasn’t hailing on us like in our previous one night stop in Santa Fe. After a quick camp stove meal, we planned out how we would experience the Grand Canyon the next day and then retired to get the best sleep we could on the hard, cold ground. Our idea was simple enough and was actually a suggestion from a book I read: we would hike down the Bright Angel Trail, 8 miles into the canyon to the Colorado River, eat our lunch, and hike back up.


The Grand Canyon from a viewing point along the Rim Trail, South Rim.

We were all in fairly good shape, so we judged that with approximately 30 pounds of gear on each of our backs we could make the hike in about 8 hours. Looking back now, that assumption is hilarious and a little embarrassing.


Nearing Indian Gardens Campground, Grand Canyon.

After parking and receiving directions from an old cowboy with an appropriately horseshoe-shaped mustache, we made our way to the trailhead. With a cautious skip in our step, we eagerly began our walk into the canyon with barely a pause to actually appreciate its magnificence from the top. Our first few hundred yards of hiking were marked by a zealous reprimand from a park ranger who saw Daniel stepping up onto a worn path to a restricted “Dangerous Overlook.” Daniel unfortunately missed the Do Not Enter sign just before being sternly instructed to stay off the rocks.


Canyon walls tower above rough vegetation.

Despite several areas under trail maintenance and a hectic, crowded pathway, we reached Three Mile House, a rest stop and water refilling station, rather quickly; I think I spent a majority of that section of twists, turns, and switchbacks with my mouth gaping and my head on a swivel. Viewing the canyon from even just inside offers a perspective that the Rim just can’t provide. It’s difficult to describe the vastness of the Grand Canyon at all, but it’s even harder to describe the feelings that arise from looking up at its walls while also peering into its depths.


Taken approximately 2.5 miles from the Colorado River on the Bright Angel Trail.

We hiked on at a level pace, passing through the Indian Gardens campground and beginning our final 3.5 mile descent to the Colorado River. Three miles from the canyon base, we came across a sign warning that a down-and-back hike should not be attempted in a day due to exhaustion, but we had come too far to turn back without seeing the river that cut such a massive expanse into the earth. Daniel, later regretting his comment, said something about the sign being for people who weren’t young and in shape.


The Bright Angel Trail nearing the Colorado River.

About two miles from the bottom, my right shoulder and Daniel’s as well had nearly locked up from soreness, but we pushed on and arrived at the Colorado 3.5 hours after entering the canyon. It was a great feeling sitting on the rocks, eating lunch, and watching the mighty river rush by. It was a great feeling until we began looking back toward the Rim and thinking about the return back up.


Colorado River from the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Frequent breaks—including one long rest on an upturned wheelbarrow in a shallow cave—characterized the ascent back to Indian Gardens. The weight we were carrying nagged and slowed us more than ever. After resting on a bench in a crowded clearing near some too-bold squirrels, we refilled our water supplies and lumbered out of the camp towards the steep uphill climb out of the canyon.

I began struggling first on the way out. I knew how tired I was, and I made the decision to not push myself too hard. Instead I slowed my pace and began taking breaks again. Daniel and Peyton would move on and take longer breaks while waiting for me to catch up. Then Daniel, plagued with knee pain and hip pain that began on the trip down, started to hang back with me. Peyton was in the best endurance shape of the three of us, and we lost sight of him pretty quickly.


Various rock formations stand out within the Grand Canyon.

Daniel and I trudged headlong up switchback after switchback trying not to stare at the rock walls towering hundreds of feet above us. We kept an efficient system of pace where I would walk slower while he moved ahead; then he would have to stop and take a break. I caught up and took shorter breaks before we moved on to do it all again, over and over, for what actually was hours. Then, when we thought we were getting close, the Three Mile House showed up to tell us how we had not even hiked halfway from Indian Gardens.


Grand Canyon nearing sunset.

I’ve blocked most of the rest of the hike from my memory, but I do know at one point, I saw Daniel swaying and his eyes shifting in and out of focus. I remember telling him to walk closer to the inner wall and stay away from ledges at that point. Then a mile from the top, a Good Samaritan stopped and gave us a Clif Bar (we had eaten all of our food), an energy gel, and a Gatorade. Those gave us enough of an energy boost to get to the Rim without another rest. We found Peyton waiting at the top—where he had been for about an hour and a half—with snacks from the gift shop. It took a total of 11.5 hours for Daniel and me to hike down and back, not including the time spent for lunch. We descended about 4,500 feet and ascended the same to get out. Needless to say, our bodies were wasted from exhaustion and sore for the next 4 days or so. Yet despite our poor planning and obvious ignorance about the difficulty of the hike, we made it and saw one of the most amazing landscapes in our country in the process.

To top things off, we checked out the visitor center the next morning and found a list of hikes and their difficulties. Just the hike down to the river was labeled as very difficult; down and up was labeled as “Not a day hike.” Long story short, had we seen a sign at the top of the canyon warning against day-hiking the Bright Angel Trail to the river and back, we probably would have only gone a few miles and come back. However, thanks only to our ignorance and sheer determination, we now have this crazy adventure to remember for the rest of lives.


Travelling Wall-e poses by the Grand Canyon at a viewpoint along the Rim Trail, South Rim.