Our annual pilgrimage to the desert last Thanksgiving felt like a return to our road trips of yore. We had a few goals in mind, but no explicit itinerary. We felt this acutely on our first night, fighting exhaustion in order to find a place somewhere around Lake Tahoe to park our Escape Campervan. Turns out most of the places we’d researched in advance were closed for the season, so we had to head all the way up to Sugar Pines Point State Park for the night.
The next day we planned to make it to Bishop and meet up with our friends Julie, Patrice, and their daughter Eva, who were there spending the week rock climbing. We’ve intersected with them during several of our previous Thanksgiving adventures, including Mojave and Joshua Tree. That night we celebrated one of their climbing friend’s birthdays at the local bowling alley before returning to their campground for drinks and climbing stories around the firepit.
We said our goodbyes on Thanksgiving Day and continued on towards the Alabama Hills, at least until Stephanie discovered on the map that we could enter Death Valley from the north, just east of Big Pine. Change of plans. We made it all the way to the Eureka Dunes that afternoon, which after several hours of exploring, we decided would be a splendid place to spend the night.
The one place we really wanted to see in Death Valley was the Racetrack Playa. It’s an area where large rocks appear to have moved of their own volition, leaving tracks in the surface of a dry lakebed. But when we got to the Visitor’s Center at Scotty’s Castle to inquire about the road there, we were very strongly advised not to take it unless we had off-road tires, which our converted minivan most certainly did not. This was a bit of a let down, but we didn’t want to risk stranding the rental and paying out the nose to have it towed. We got a campsite at Mesquite Springs Campground, and then went to explore the rim of the nearby Ubehebe volcanic crater just before sunset.
Since we couldn’t take the road to the Racetrack, the next morning we decided to drive the 27-mile Titus Canyon Road instead, which turned out to be a ton of fun. We both agreed to return to Death Valley at our earliest convenience with a proper off-road Jeep—whether rented or our own! After lunch in Stovepipe Wells, we left the park and headed in the direction of the Alabama Hills, eventually making it to the impeccable Tuttle Creek Campground nestled in the shadow of Mt. Whitney.
We spent the better part of the next day exploring the surreal rock formations of the Alabama Hills and the captivating Lone Pine Film History Museum. We had set our sights on spending the night at Red Rock Canyon State Park, but the day’s light was already diminishing when we arrived, so we decided to continue in the direction of home, eventually stopping for the night at the lovely Kern River County Park on the outskirts of Bakersfield.
The next day, we didn’t mess around, we got straight on I-5 and headed home. One measure of a good road trip: returning by a different road than the one from which you left. All told we covered 1100 miles in 7 days, cutting a wide arc around the incomparable Eastern Sierras.