It’s hot. We’ve been cooped up for months. Fireworks still go off every night. There’s mold in the jam, freaky child-in-furniture trafficking conspiracies online, full-grown adults throwing tantrums in grocery stores, and we’re running out of things to binge-watch on TV. Oh, and then there’s the widespread political and social unrest. As apocalyptic feelings stir up, getting out of the house and in touch with nature has gone from desire to necessity.
If you hear the call of sunshine, lush trees, big rocks, cloud-kissing mountains and rushing water, get in the car and hit Route 395. This highway is a nature and roadside attraction lover’s dream, stretching from Hesperia in the Mojave Desert all the way to the Canadian border in Laurier, Washington. There’s tons to explore as the road passes our oldest trees, tallest mountain, volcanic wonderlands and desert dreamscapes. Here’s a teeny-tiny taste from a recent three-day escapade.
Be Kind of Prepared
Spontaneous trips are a little more complicated these days but still possible if you’re marginally prepared. First, research the campgrounds. Some are open, others aren’t. Many campgrounds keep a few sites available on a first-come, first-served basis, and there are lots that can be reserved ahead of time. Most reservations must be made at least 48 hours in advance.
Second, in addition to state, county and private campgrounds, there are dispersed campsites all over the place, which are generally free and typically managed by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. These primitive campsites lie off the beaten path and offer no amenities but might appeal to those seeking more isolation. For reasons beyond logic, no single source provides all the pertinent information on all the campsites in an easy-to-read and comprehensive manner. Hence, the need to supplement with apps like Allstays, The Dyrt and Campendium, which allow you to navigate an interactive map featuring every kind of campground with links to photos.
Third, bring cash. Almost all campgrounds are cash-only if you didn’t reserve in advance. Otherwise, if you drive 20 miles on a winding road to reach paradise only to realize there are no ATMs in the woods, you’ll be bummed.
First Stop: Red Rock Canyon State Park
With all this in mind and packing more water than we could possibly drink — always do this — we hit the road on a Thursday to beat the weekend warrior crowd, taking the 5 to the 14, which eventually meets up with Route 395. About two hours from L.A. sits Red Rock Canyon State Park, established in 1968, not to be confused with the Red Rock Canyon Parks of Topanga, Lancaster, Arizona or Nevada. (Why there are so many places named the same, who knows.)
These surreal desert cliffs rise up like psychedelic drip castles in the El Paso Mountain Wilderness along the Garlock Fault, which is the second-longest fault line in California. It’s featured in many films, notably 1993’s “Jurassic Park,” where the archeologists in the film are excavating the badlands of “Montana.” At least 88 kinds of animal and plant fossils were discovered here, some of the oldest in the West, including extinct elephants, rhinos, giraffe-like camels, three-toed horses, bone-crushing dogs, saber-toothed cats and alligator lizards.
The campground was practically empty on a weekday. We were able to keep 200 feet from anyone else in our cozy spot tucked into the shade, where the loudest sound came from a gang of crows yelling at each other on a ledge — they reminded me of my Argentinean family at a dinner party. This place is beautiful and close to the freeway, making it a perfect pit stop to break up the drive. Note: no cell service.
Lone Pine Campground
In the morning, we woke up early to the brightest blue sky and continued on to try our luck at a cluster of campgrounds around Lone Pine, the gateway town to Mount Whitney which, at 14,505 feet, is the highest peak in the continental United States. This cute Owens Valley town is named after the lonely pine tree that was found at the mouth of Lone Pine Canyon — long since destroyed in a flood — and features a museum dedicated to the many Hollywood Westerns filmed in the area.
Only 7 miles from town and wonderfully situated between the boulderous (yup, just invented a word) beauty of the Alabama Hills and the majesty of the Eastern Sierra Mountains, Lone Pine Campground sits tucked in a ravine bursting with sagebrush at an elevation of 6,000 feet. A powerful babbling creek cuts through the campground that’s perfect for cold plunging.
While unequipped and too lazy to embark on the arduous full-day hike that takes the brave up to Mount Whitney’s peak, we indulged in some scrambling around the Alabama Hills — first named by local miners after the CSS Alabama, a Civil War-era warship — where you can also find a smattering of free dispersed campsites.
Dozens of natural arches star as the main attractions, accessed via short hikes from Whitney Portal Road, Movie Flat Road and Horseshoe Meadows Road. Some favorites include Mobius Arch, Lathe Arch, the Eye of Alabama and Whitney Portal Arch.
The area consists of two kinds of rocks. One is an orange, metamorphosed volcanic rock that is 150–200 million years old. The other is the 82- to 85-million-year-old biotite monzogranite, which has weathered into large boulders that look like someone dumped a sack of giant potatoes from the sky and left them scattered on the ground, some standing on an impossible, gravity-defying edge.
Back at the campground, we spent hours sitting along the creek bank, just watching the water flow as it spun eddies over and around rocks, dunking in the pleasant numbness of the water then warming up in the sun. We ate snacks. We drank beer.
And that’s it. We spent two nights there doing as close to nothing as possible. This campground was full, but everyone kept their masks handy and waved hello from a safe distance, each acknowledging that we were there in a shared pursuit of tranquility and avoidance of cooties.
Fire on the Mountain
The drive back to Los Angeles should have taken three and a half hours. Less than 40 miles from home, traffic came to a sudden halt as black smoke rose from beyond a hillside, and we found ourselves one of thousands of cars trapped by the Soledad Fire, near the Agua Dulce exit. It took a solid four hours to go about 2 miles to the exit. Then, it was another two hours winding through the darkness on a tiny road in Agua Dulce until finally getting back on the 5. I saw lots of people pick their nose, one guy play guitar and a woman walk her dog in the middle of the freeway, where it made caca, and she didn’t pick it up. But I won’t share the photo I snapped of the poop in my state of traffic-induced delirium. If you’re reading this, lady, I think your dog needs more fiber in its diet.
Friendly advice: If you go camping, be extra safe. Pack sanitizer, masks, toilet paper — and a shovel if you’re camping in the “wild” — and be respectful of others. If you get within 6 feet of someone, PUT ON YOUR MASK. If we can’t do it right, everything will close, and you’ll be stuck at home again.