The hikes at Organ Pipe Cactus Monument are not for the faint of heart. We parked our RV just outside the park at Coyote Howls RV Resort and drove in for a nice easy hike that ended up being a long scramble up some rough and rocky terrain on a hot day. But the views, oh the views are amazing! On the way out of the park there’s a quaint little town called Ajo that’s got some great prickly pear lemonade and sandwiches. It’s the perfect little town for a quick jaunt on your way out of the isolated Organ Pipe Monument.
We try out our first Harvest Host free RV camping spot and get stuck in the sand! Our stay at From The Farm in Yuma, AZ, was delicious, gorgeous, and hot. The cabbage leaf tacos, fresh from the field, we’re delicious and the ice cream cones were a refreshingly cool treat.
We camped just outside of one of the working fields in a dusty patch and ended up getting our tires stuck in the sand. After a quiet and beautiful evening we dug out of the sand and headed off deeper into the heart of Arizona.
RV camping at the Salton Sea is a unique experience, everything from the razor sharp barnacle sand, the briny and stinky sea, the eclectic fellow campers, to the amazing diversity of birds and the incredible sunsets.
We had to drop over 5,000 feet in elevation from Joshua Tree to get into the Coachella Valley to camp at the Salton Sea, Mecca Campground, elevation -236 feet. The heat got turned up in the valley so we were hoping to swim in the Salton Sea, but once we got here realized how bad of an idea that would be; it’s briny, stinky, and the beach is made of razor sharp barnacle shells! But, despite the flies, toe slicing sand, and heat the Sea has some amazing bird watching and incredible sunsets.
We also stopped at Shields Date garden in the town of Indio just outside of Palm Springs and found a wonderful biblical garden, great food, and thick date milkshakes.
RV camping in Joshua Tree National Park is an amazing experience! Amazing rock formations, incredible sunsets, rainbow clouds, and wind swept cliff tops. We stayed in the Cottonwood campground and just fit with our 29 foot travel trailer. We hiked Skull Rock, Keyes Views, Mastodon Peak, and the Cholla Cactus Garden. It’s all dry camping/boon-docking but so worth it.
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I am surrounded by Juniper trees, and the irony is not lost on me. Part of the purpose of this trip is to be moving forward in a new life. And here I am, in the high desert of New Mexico, at about the same elevation of my childhood home, encompassed by the same genera of trees that I laid eyes on daily for 19 years. Despite the irony, something that reminds me of home is comforting.
The Juniper is truly a desert tree: drought resistant, hardy, shrubby. Its leaves are not like the leaves of many other trees; they are described as scales, short, thin and lacy in appearance. The small thin scaly leaves of the Juniper tree do not lose moisture like the leaves of broadleaf trees do. They keep their leaves year round. The Juniper can survive in extreme climates and I have noticed more of them at higher elevations. On this trip, I have seen stubby, gnarled white ghosts of the trees with their bark stripped away, bleached like bones by the sun and wind, in the Organ Pipe National Monument in south west Arizona along the Mexico border. They coexist in the Sonoran desert with the densley-spined cholla (pronounced “choy-a”) that is also known as the jumping cactus, prickly pear cactus, Saguaro (sa-huaro) cactus that appear like tall men with their arms held up high, the elegant Ocatillo with its bunches of small red-orange blossoms that provide pops of color against the desert sky when the cactus are not yet in bloom, with the Yucca of many uses; and also at a mile high in the Gila wildnerness with fewer prickly pear, some yellow fruiting cholla, an occasional Yucca, some small scrubby Gambel Oak trees, and tall Pinon and Pondersosa Pine.
There are three distinct Juniper species here: the Alligator Juniper, the Rocky Mountain, and the One Seed Juniper. The bark of the Alligator Juniper is very distinctive, as it truly resembles the skin of an Alligator with its squarish chunks. Other Juniper species have a reddish bark that grows in long strips. I have seen at least two other types of Juniper, as the one in the Sonoran desert looks very different from the 3 species here. There was also another species at the KOA in Silver City, which was full, dark and beautiful with massive berries at least 1⁄2” wide. The majority of Juniper trees you will see are quite plain in appearance. They generally don’t grow very tall and have a tear drop shape with densely packed thin limbs pointing upward at an angle. There were two varieties of Juniper trees in Moon Valley where I grew up- the plain ones, and interspersed were fewer of what we called “Red Juniper”. I don’t believe that is their proper name. These were taller than the others, with heavier limbs that branched out horizontally at further distances. Their profile was almost like that of a large oak. My sister and I enjoyed climbing these larger trees. They had “character”: they were trees that made you stop and look when so much of the landscape was repetetive. To this day, I love trees that are large, with dramatic twisted trunks and limbs outstretched as they embrace the horizon. They remind me of wizened old men and women weathered by storms, but wise, safe and strong, full of stories of many generations.
The large old Junipers of my childhood home watched over and nourished the natives that my family later found evidence of- chipped obsidion and even some complete arrowheads. Not long ago, I did some research on the natives that lived in Moon Valley and even found some photos of the natives and their dwellings out on the Madeline Plains. Not only did they use the leaves and berries of the Juniper, but they also used the branches to construct upper sides and roofs of their pit homes. As we have traveled through the various desert regions, I have found myself continually curious about and amazed by the ways that the native Indians subsisted. The natives in all of the high desert regions of California, Arizona, and New Mexico ate the berries (also known as cones), and boiled the berries and leaves for medicinal tea.
Enjoyed not only by the Indians, the Juniper cones are also eaten by different species of birds. I remember awakening one day when I was a teenager to the chattering of a large migrating flock of cedar waxwings. I was delighted to observe the formal looking birds that I had never before seen, with their dramatic black masks. They feasted on the pungent, frosty, gray-blue-green cones of the trees just outside our front door for a day or two before continuing on their instinctual path. The cedar waxwings left behind hard purple streaks laced with the tiny Juniper seeds to decorate my mother’s vehicle parked beneath the tree in front of the house.
I stepped outside and stretched my legs to prepare to walk and sprint around the campsite. On my walks around the campsites, I am always on the lookout for plants, birds and animals that I haven’t seen before. As I started into the curve on the far side of the site, near the trailhead that went down the hill to the lake, soft, short whistles came from my right. I paused at site 14 and peered up into the trees to locate the source of the chirps. They seemed to be coming from the tall pine near the picnic table. Nothing in the pine. I stepped quietly to the left, the juniper tree behind the pine now fully in view. Small, handsome, buff colored birds with yellow bellies, black masks, and a short crest flitted among the branches. Cedar waxwings! Here in a juniper tree high in the Gila National Forest were the beautiful little birds I had written about the night before!
My morning walk was forgotten as I jogged back to the campsite to ask my children if they wanted to see the waxwings. Three of them came back with me and we watched the birds feeding among the branches. Seven or so waxwings fluttered around, deftly plucking the green-blue juniper cones, discarding those that were too hard and shriveled for their taste and pausing occasionally to train a cautious eye on us. They patiently endured our observations as we visited the tree a few times. However, when I returned with my camera, hoping to preserve my special memory, they promptly flew to another tree. Apparently my camera was more imposing than four people gathered below the tree. I sadly reminded myself that I really need to get a telephoto lens for my camera!
Too much driving and we end up at Mara’s Oasis. We’re on our way to Joshua Tree National Park and two full days of driving is too much for us. Though the road from Northern California to Southern California is full of beautiful scenery!
As we took off to officially head out of our hometown area we discovered water leaking out the the underside of our RV! The repair shops we’re all booked out for weeks, so we parked on some families property and started taking things apart.
After fixing the leak we head out of town and stop at IKEA of course for a few essentials. Then onward we go, only to have our reservations outside Pt. Reyes National Seashore cancelled due to flooding.
Well, if you can’t beat them you might as well join them so we decide to embrace the rain and go waterfall chasing in it!
Taking on a traveling lifestyle isn’t all sunset walks on the beach and brilliant night skies. It’s takes a lot of exhausting hard work, letting go of things, and saying goodbye to some amazing people.
In this episode we’re officially nomads, and get real about how hard some of the sacrifices are when moving into an RV and traveling full time.