A Guide to Exploring Havasupai Falls

Why Havasupai

Fifteen years ago, long before Instagram, Havasuapi was a far-away destination in the corner of Arizona. Plenty of people went, but the experience was far more secluded and peaceful than what you can expect now. Now, the average explorer and hiker might find themselves feeling more like an set piece on someone’s photo shoot than a traveler through a serene oasis. So, if you aren’t looking for Insta fame, or just aren’t a fan of the travel social media culture, is exploring Havasupai still worth your time?

Well, maybe.

exploring havasupai

Havasu Falls (c) ABR 2018

I’ve gone to Havasupai several times over the past 20 years, and I’ve personally seen the change from an remote camping destination, to a guided tour hotspot, and to the current social media craze. I can honestly say that I miss the days before this little spot in Arizona exploded, and I can seriously do without people monopolizing the falls for 30 minutes to an hour because they want the perfect photo of themselves. That being said, I’ve never once regretted visiting, and I still find the crowds manageable if you go during the shoulder seasons.

Making Up Your Mind

So, how can you decide if this place is still worth visiting after all the hype and over exposure? Here is what Havasupai can offer you:

exploring havasupai

(c) ABR 2018

(1) The brilliant blue waterfalls are even cooler in person than in the pictures.

(2) The hiking in the canyon is amazingly beautiful from the trailhead to the confluence.

(3) Camping in Havasupai supports a community of Native Americans who have been trying to make a living via a nature-based form of tourism that has ecotourism potential.

(4) While the crowds might make some backpacker experts feel disappointed, it is a good place for people to start backpacking because there are plenty of people and little chance of getting lost. (You need to be prepared, however!)

But here are the drawbacks:

exploring havasupai

(c) ABR 2018

(1) This is a busy and increasingly popular place, which makes it hard to get permits and people who prefer solitude will not find this spot enjoyable.

(2) You will see first-hand the social media craze and the impacts of overtourism. If you’ve been previously, you will need to prepare yourself for this.

(3) You may be exposed to unprepared hikers on the trek into the canyon or trying to climb down to Mooney Falls. This can increase your risk or potentially impact your trip. 

Planning for Your Trip

exploring havasupai

(c) ABR 2018

So, you’ve decided that exploring Havasupai is worth your while. Great! There are several key steps to planning for your adventure.

(1) Make sure that you are physically prepared for 20+ miles of hiking. If you don’t have a lot of experience, get out on the trail and get your body into shape! Continue this practice throughout your planning process.

(2) Get your permit. (See below). If you want to pay to have horses carry your gear down, you will need to set this up right after. The Havasupai have been trying to lessen the work that their animals are doing on the trail for welfare reasons.

(3) Get your gear together.

Here is the key packing list that I would suggest using as a basis.

exploring havasupai

(c) ABR 2018

(0) Permit paperwork. ID, wallet, etc.

(1) Hiking boots which fit well and are broken in. Opt for high tops as these protect your ankles and feet with the extra weight of your pack on. Hike at least 40+ miles in your boots before you take them backpacking. Make sure that your toes don’t hit the front. They should fit well enough to stop your feet from sliding inside the shoe.

(2) Backpacking pack that is fitted to your body type.

(3) Sufficient water (!!!!) and salty snacks that will be accessible for your hike in. Remember, Arizona is a desert and dehydration is a major danger.

(4) First aid kit for the number of days you will be on the trail. REI has great options for this. Be sure to add extra blister care, bug spray, and sunscreen. If you have any essential meds, of course, don’t forget those!

(5) Shelter- tent, hammock, etc. Whatever you are most comfortable with. I suggest a lightweight tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag.

(6) Bring a head lamp for the night time.

(7) Pack food for your time camping and everything you will need to cook. A small, light stove, fuel, cooking utensils, bowls, cups, and general utensils will all be necessary. Fires are not allowed. If you have it, bring a rat sack. If you can’t get one, you can ask for a bucket from the rangers at the camp entrance in order to protect your food. Hanging it will not be enough. The squirrels will get it. There is also a restaurant in Supai.

(8) Bring extra clothing and anything you’d like to have on hand for swimming (swimsuit, hiking sandals like Keens and Tevas). Depending on the season, you might also need a jacket for the cooler nights/early mornings. 

Getting Your Havasupai Permit

exploring havasupai

(c) ABR 2018

**THE HAVASUPAI PERMITS BECOME AVAILABLE AT 8AM AZ TIME FEB 1ST EACH YEAR**

You must have a permit to explore Havasupai. All permits must be reserved and purchased online. The tribe asks that you DO NOT call them unless you have a customer service matter.

The first step to buying permits is registering an account on the Havasupai Reservation website. Do this before Feb 1st.

As of 2019, everyone is required to stay for 3 nights and four days. There are NO day hikes allowed in the canyon, and people will be checking.

Weekday nights are $100 per person, and weekend nights are $125 per person.

One name is required for the permits, and whoever’s name is on the permit will need to be present at Supai for check-in.

There are NO REFUNDS on permits.

Getting to the Trailhead

exploring havasupai

No matter where you are coming from, you will need to take the 66 to Indian Road 18. This is a little southeast of Peach Springs and north of Seligman after the Grand Canyon Caverns hotel (well-worth the stop if you like caves- not great formations, but just interesting). You will take Indian Road 18 all the way to its end. You won’t really be able to miss the trailhead. There will be tons of cars and the dry end of the canyon will be immediately apparent.

There are bathrooms at the trailhead.

The Hike to Havasupai

The hike down to Supai and the falls has four main sections in my mind. Overall, from the trailhead down to the campground is around 10 miles. It’s 8 miles to Supai and then 2 more miles to the campground. At all points, be aware of and listening for the horse trains that move up and down the trail. Best to keep out of their way as they can move quickly and there are people checking permits that ride through as well.

Down Into the Canyon
exploring havasupai

Hiking down into the canyon (c) ABR 2018

The first section is the steepest, and is the most difficult on the way out. You will descend down steep and dusty switchbacks all the way down to the canyon floor. At the top, there are some wonderful views of landscapes that you aren’t otherwise going to see. So it is a great spot to stop to take pictures before you get started. The switchbacks themselves aren’t particularly steep, but they will be a huff for most people on the way out. This can be extremely difficult for non-backpackers in the heat of the day when you are trying to leave. So plan accordingly. Also, when I say that this part of the trail is dusty, I mean it. There are parts where you will be sinking up to your ankles in the dust and it can be tiring to walk in.

exploring havasupai

(c) ABR 2018

The second section is the longest stretch of the trail and will take you through the dry parts of the canyon. This is relatively flat, with some lost in altitude on the way in and some climbing out when you leave. Overall not particularly difficult except in its length. I personally think that this part of the trail is very lovely. There is a kind of desert desolation here. You will pass through short stretches without so much as a bush between the smooth, stone walls of the canyon. In other places, you will pass through patches of desert bushes and walk by impressively large trees rooted deep into the water running below ground.

Towards Supai
exploring havasupai

(c) ABR 2018

This part of the trail ends when the canyon opens up again, and you start to hear the blessed sounds of flowing water. The absolutely vibrant, green riparian forest will also come into view, beckoning you onwards. When you reach this point, you are very close to Supai. You will turn left (following a sign) into the woods. Here, in the shadow of the trees, the trail will follow along the brilliant, blue waters of the stream. Slowly, you will start to make out houses here and there, tucked away from the hustle of the trail.

exploring havasupai

Not the tourism office (c) ABR 2018

In Supai, you will need to stop at the tourism office to check in and get your wrist bands. This building will be easily apparent. There will be signs and it is in the most densely built up area of the town. Near here there are also restaurants, snack shops, and a gift shop!

exploring havasupai

On your way down, you can climb down to look at these falls (c) ABR 2018

After Supai, you will be on your final stretch. You will follow the trail out of town, and continue to follow the stream for two miles downhill. Before reaching camp, you will start to see some beautiful waterfalls. Havasu Falls will be before the campgrounds to the right of a sharp decent into the canyon on another very dusty part of the trail.

When you arrive in camp, you are allow to choose any open camping spot. 

Alternative Transportation and Accommodation Options

If you want to explore Havasupai, but have some issues hiking and/or camping, there are options for you.

If you are unable to hike to camp, there is the option of taking the helicopter in and out of the canyon. The flight is $85 each way (limit 20-40 lb backpack). You may end up needing to wait quite a while to catch a flight. So, if you decide to go this route, I would advise you to arrive very very early.

If you are not up for camping, you may also consider the Havasupai Lodge. Reservations open on June 1, 2019, and rooms go for $200 a night. They are described as accommodating up to four people, however, I have never personally stayed in one, so be sure to check out the website and see for yourself.

Campground Life

exploring havasupai

The spring in camp (c) ABR 2018

Camping sites are first come first served. There are bathrooms spread throughout, and a fresh water spring that you can safely drink from.

The squirrels at the campground WILL get your food if you don’t bring a rat sack or store everything in a ranger-provided bucket. Absolutely DO NOT store food in your tent or backpack (unattended). The last thing you need is a squirrel chewing through your gear.

Camp is also relatively close quarters, so be sure to be quiet and respectful of all your neighbors. Afterall, the quieter you are, the better you can hear the nearby stream flowing. 

Exploring the Falls

While there are several falls to be enjoyed, Havasu is the one that you will see most often. This is most easily accessible from camp, and is a great place to hang out at, picnic, and swim. Exploring Havasupai doesn’t stop at camp, however.

Mooney Falls
exploring havasupai

Mooney Falls (c) ABR 2018

If you are a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and not afraid of heights, Mooney Falls is a short hike past the campground and then down a cliff. While I am not afraid of heights (more than the average human being anyway), I find this climb to be a bit scary. You will first walk down through some narrow tunnels in the stone. Then you will start lowering yourself down from very slippery, slick chains, which lead to a ladder and more chains. The steeper the trail, the closer you are to the waterfall and everything is covered in at least a fine layer of water. Go slow and insure that you don’t have anything in your hands on the way.

exploring havasupai

Hiking down to Mooney (c) ABR 2018

Beaver Falls
exploring havasupai

Beaver Falls (c) ABR 2018

Beaver Falls is down the trail past Mooney about four miles (one direction). Even though you will be tired of hiking at this point (most likely), I would highly suggest continuing on as a day trip from camp. The trail itself crosses the stream several times. It passes through some amazingly beautiful stretches of forest and strange assemblages of desert plants. It is a beautiful trek. Beaver Falls, while not as high as Mooney or Havasupai, is really lovely and the perfect place for a swim. It is often slightly quieter than Mooney, although if you go in the high season, you won’t be able to escape the crowds. I’ve even heard rumors that people have been stuck waiting for an hour to get up or down those chains near Mooney.

If you want to learn more about what to explore in Arizona, be sure to check out Nightborn Travel’s guide to Arizona!

Hiking Near Payson, AZ: The Fossil Springs Trail

Why You Might Love This Trail

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

Fossil Springs Trail is one of the emerging stars among the trails of Arizona. It isn’t all that uncommon to run into pictures of the waterfall and the unflatteringly named “toilet bowl” on Instagram. It will be immediately clear why people from all over the world enjoy this hike. Fossil Springs is truly an oasis in the desert, with its mossy falls and lush riparian trees. The trail into the Fossil Springs canyon will also take you through some of the higher country scrub forests of Arizona. These are absolutely beautiful in conjunction with the wide-open spaces of the drier parts of the state.

Of course, if you love hiking, this is a very good trail to explore. You get to experience the high elevation and riparian forests of the state. If you enjoy swimming, there are also some wonderful spots along the creek for a dip, and there is an endless array of photo spots.

Trail Stats

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

Length: ~8-9 miles (~4.5 miles in either direction, give or take)

Permits: Required from April 1-October 1

Access: Accessible with 2WD when dry; parking is down a dirt road with bumps and potholes, but I made it in my Acura RSX which has very little clearance.

Difficulty: Moderate – Difficult; This is a long trail with elevation gain on the way out. I didn’t find it to be particularly steep (1,500ft over the course of 4 miles), but I hike regularly.

Getting a Permit

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

If you want to hike the Fossil Springs Trail during more mild weather, you will most likely need a permit (April 1 – October 1). But if you have 4WD and are prepared for snow hiking, you can also go hike the trail without a permit from October 2 – March 31.

In any case, if you plan ahead, it really isn’t difficult to get a permit. Just go to the Recreation.gov website and see if there are any available for your dates; you can buy permits a month ahead of time. If you want to go more than once in a year, you are allowed to hold one permit per month. Permits only cost $6 per vehicle.

Directions

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

There are multiple trailheads/parking lots, but I would suggest reserving your permit for the Fossil Springs Trailhead near Strawberry, AZ. For those of you looking for hiking near Payson, AZ or coming up from Phoenix, you will need to drive north through Payson on the 87. You will pass through the small village of Pine. Then in Strawberry you will travel west on Fossil Creek Road/FR 708. Five miles down this road, and you will turn right to get to the parking lot.

Before you are able to park, you will need to have your permit checked. So, be sure that you follow all instructions on Recreation.gov and have your paperwork ready to go!

Depending on where you are coming from, you might need some slightly different directions, or you might be heading to a different trailhead. Whatever the case, the Recreation.gov website will have more information for you.

Our Experience of the Trail

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

In my mind, there are two sections of this trail. The first part takes you down from the parking lot and into the canyon. The incline wasn’t horrendously steep and the trail itself is pretty wide until you get close to the creek towards the bottom. Much of this first section is shaded by the trees and shrubs that characterize the open forests of most hiking near Payson, AZ. You will also get to enjoy the beautiful red soil that you can find throughout this area beneath the Mogollon Rim. This is a lovely place with great views of the landscape and canyon. It is also the harder part of the trail, and that sort of makes it something to be pushed through.

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

You will come to the second section of the trail when you reach the bottom of the canyon. Here the trees transition from the higher elevation forests to the riparian ecosystems that make Arizona water-side places so special and vibrant. The trail gets pretty flat at this point. So, I like to amble along this section, stopping to take pictures, eat snacks, and swim. While most people head straight for the dam and the “toilet bowl” I would highly suggest that you take your time and enjoy it all. There are plenty of spots to take in the spring, snap pictures of the beautiful forest, and rest up before you have to start your journey back up the canyon.

Safety Concerns

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

While I did not find this trail to be particularly dangerous or strenuous, many many people underestimate what it takes to hike something like Fossil Springs Trail. In 2017, first responders were actually overwhelmed by the number of people needing to be rescued from this area. Accidents happen, and even the best hikers can get hurt and need rescuing, but you have to do everything in your power to stay safe and not be a part of this problem. Here are some tips for staying safe, but remember that your safety on the trail is up to you. Be careful and prepared at all times.

Safety Check-list

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

(1) Know your abilities. If you are planning on going on this hike, practice beforehand. Know that you can hike 9 miles round trip with the elevation gain. If you aren’t ready, wait and do it after you have had time to prepare your body.

(2) Always bring food, water, and first aid supplies with you. Plan on bringing enough provisions for an entire day, and if you are unsure, there are outdoor first aid kits specifically sized and designed for the length of trip and number of people that you can get at REI.

(3) Start early in the day, even if you aren’t a morning person. This will give you more time if you need to take it slow on the way out. You don’t want to still be on the trail at night, but bring a small light just in case.

(4) WEAR GOOD SHOES. You should wear hiking shoes for the Fossil Springs Trail, and you need to have broken them in before you go. Do several hikes in a new pair of shoes before taking them out somewhere as remote as this.

More Safety Tips

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

(5) Unless you are a very practiced hiker, do not do this hike alone, and insure that all of your hiking partners are prepared.

(6) Pay close attention to the weather. Arizona is a place of extremes and this can be dangerous. When it is hot and dry, you need to make sure that you stay hydrated and have healthy levels of sodium (bring salty snacks). And when it storms, it STORMS. Fossil Springs is in a canyon and thus there is a risk of flash flooding. Before you leave, make sure that you pay attention to the conditions and plan accordingly. You may need to cancel your trip if the weather is looking really bad, but better to cancel than end up getting hurt or worse.

(7) If you are going swimming, remember that you are out in the wild in moving water. Make sure that you are a strong swimmer, are going with other people, and pay attention to your level of exhaustion.

Lessons from the Trail

Before It Was Cool

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

Yeah, I went to Fossil Springs Trail before it was cool. Hahaha, but it wasn’t like that. I was a kid at the time (5 or 6 maybe? It’s one of those fuzzy memories that I have, probably from right when I started remembering things), and my dad and I hiked down to the creek to camp. I can’t remember exactly where this was in the canyon, but I believe it was on the opposite side of the canyon than the trail I’ve described above.

It was a lovely day, but unfortunately, this was before the internet, and we ended up getting stuck in a storm. Consider this a lesson in things not to do… and a reality check about how dangerous weather in these canyons can be.

I loved the creek as a child, because I’ve always been enchanted by flowing water, having grown up in the desert. I remember playing among the trees and along the water, and at the time, there were no other people camping or hiking in the area. We had this beautiful place all to ourselves and the day stayed bright and clear until sunset, when the clouds started to creep in.

Rising Waters

fossil springs trail

(c) ABR 2017

We managed to finish eating dinner before things started getting dark and stormy. The rain didn’t start out particularly hard, so we hunkered down in our tent and hoped for the best. Luckily, my dad decided that we needed to abandon our campsite as soon as it was clear that the creek was rising. By this point, it was pitch dark, and I remember clutching to a little stuffed animal that I had brought with me, protecting it from the rain as best I could.

My dad packed up everything he could, and then led me straight up the canyon, towards the road. Now that water was pouring down, we had to claw our way up through the mud, to avoid the rising water. We managed to make up onto the road, and we were out of danger from the rising water at that point, but we were turned around in the dark storm and we weren’t sure what direction our vehicle was. I don’t remember well enough to say what the temperature was at this time, but being soaked and lost in the dark is never a pleasant experience.

Again, luckily for us, my dad’s sense of direction was spot on, and after a bit of walking down the road we made it to our vehicle. Now, we get to look back at this memory and laugh, but imagine if things had gone differently. If we had fallen asleep in the rain, we might have been caught in the flood. If we hadn’t turned the right way, we would have had to spend the night in the storm, and potentially face hypothermia. Back then, we couldn’t go look up the weather in Payson-area online, and we didn’t have a cell phone; but now we don’t have those excuses.

Just Be Smart

That’s a lot of information on safety! Is this trail really that dangerous?!

If you are interested in hiking Fossil Spring Trail, just make sure that you are prepared. This is a great, beautiful hike. It is also one that has been plagued by people getting themselves into situations that they couldn’t get themselves out of.

fossil springs trail

fossil springs trail

A Budget-Friendly, Last Minute Disneyland Guide

Why Disneyland Doesn’t Need To Be Complicated

I’ve been traveling to Disneyland regularly since I was little. It’s one of my favorite places, and despite the growing crowds, I still love going. It’s odd, in light of my long track record of just going there, that there are so many detailed and lengthy guides for this huge California attraction. Looking at all this information, one would think that a trip to Disneyland requires months of planning and a budget just to buy all the gadgets that you will need before you even leave. So, can you do last minute Disneyland if you don’t live in the area?

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

Heck yes! Obviously, if you have kids, that makes things a little more complicated, but a trip to Disneyland can be simple and fun. Whether you’ve never been before or are an old pro trying to simplify, here are my Disneyland secret tips for a great time sans too much planning.

Tickets and Fast Passes

The main barrier to entry is of course, the ticket price. Seems like every year Disney increases the cost of a day at the park, so before you commit to going, always make sure that you update yourself on the current price for tickets. If you are on a budget, that will likely determine how long you can go for and that will influence every part of your last minute Disneyland plan. The most recent pricing scheme will make tickets more expensive during peak season, so factor the potential extra cost in. You can get up-to-date prices here: https://disneyland.disney.go.com/tickets/.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

While purchasing tickets you might also want to consider whether or not you’d like to pick up the MaxPass. This is an extra $15 and allows you to pick up FastPasses via an app. In theory, you can maximize your time this way and pick up passes faster than people without, although you are still limited to one active FastPass at the time. I am on the fence about this service being worth the money, although primarily because I experienced a service outage that lasted an entire day- making the MaxPass worthless. Luckily, if you just don’t think it’s worth it, or don’t have the extra cash, FastPasses in Disneyland still work if you bring your ticket to the kiosk at the entrance of the rides.

Hotels

There are loads of hotels around Disneyland, and as you might expect, some are more expensive than others. For those budget travelers among you, more distance between the hotel and the park means bigger savings, but you’ll need to find something that makes up for the cost of parking (if you aren’t willing to hoof it). If you park at Disneyland, you will be paying upwards of $30 a day.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

I’ve had some great luck with Hotwire for finding good deals in the area, but I will say, when it comes to finding a hotel that’s affordable but nice, you generally need time. This is one part of a last minute Disneyland trip that will be difficult for people on a tight budget.

Transportation

You have a few options for transportation and the most budget-friendly method will depend on where you are staying, but all can work for a last minute Disneyland trip. My favorite thing to do is stay close enough that I can walk to the park, and plenty of the hotels in the area have free shuttles.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

If neither of those work for you, Lyft and Uber can be a great way to get to the park without having to worry about parking. However, method will only be cost effective if you can get there and back for less than $30- that’s the cost of parking at Disneyland.

Food

One of the most budget-friendly Disneyland secret tips is that you can bring your own food and water into the park. While I love to eat all of the increasingly delicious foods in Disneyland, meals and snacks add up really fast, especially when you have kids with you. If you are all about trying all the good foods, you can also save a little bit of cash by bringing a refillable water bottle in with you and filling up at fill stations and water fountains.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

I have most recently become a Disneyland food fanatic, so I more than understand if you’d like to spend on some extra cash on food. I’d highly suggest checking out the Wonderful World of Food on Youtube. They put out seasonal guides to all of the great treats and meals that you can try in Disneyland and California Adventure.

Suggested Itinerary

My favorite Disneyland secret tips are to try to spend a couple days mid-week in the park. These tend to at least give you a little bit of a break from the crowd, particularly in the morning. Quieter times in the park are the best times to jump in as many lines as you can before they get too long. Usually, I visit the park for 2-3 days, coming up from outside of LA.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

Of the two parks, Disneyland tends to be the more busy of the two (especially with the Star Wars section of the park opening in 2019), so I’d suggest going there first especially if that is the only weekday that you can swing on your last minute Disneyland trip. I can always spend more than a day in Disneyland, so if you feel likewise, you might consider returning for a second half-day or coming back for a third day. For you roller coaster riders, get fast-passes for Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones first.

last minute disneyland

(c) ABR 2018

On the second day of your trip, take a little breather from the crowds and go to California Adventure. Overall, if you haven’t been before, this park doesn’t have quite the history or atmosphere of Disneyland, but it is becoming increasingly well-themed. If you like big rides, the fast passes to go for first are the Radiator Springs Racers, the Incredicoaster, and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

For more California Travel Ideas…

…be sure to check out our Guide to California.

If you are looking to do a more thorough exploration of Southern California with Disneyland included on the itinerary, we also have the perfect travel plan for you.

last minute disneyland

last minute disneyland

Food Finds: El Chullo, a Peruvian Delight

Greetings, hungry explorers! It’s another segment of Food Finds, hot out of the oven. If you haven’t joined us at the table before, this is our guide to great food (usually local to Arizona). Today, we’ve got the scoop on El Chullo, Peruvian Restaurant and Bar.

El Chullo

If you read our last Food Finds about cozy Cambodian restaurant Reathrey Sekong, El Chullo is even cozier. This little Peruvian place is tucked into the corner of 7th St. and Virginia Ave. in mid-town Phoenix. The tables and bar seat MAYBE 30-ish people max., so if you’re bringing in a larger party (or really any dining party, especially on a weekend), call in and make a reservation.

For such a tiny tavern, they have a pretty wide variety of appetizers and entrees on their menu, so if you have questions (and had never tried Peruvian food before like us newbies), just ask your server. I’d also ask about their beverages that have a Peruvian twist, like Inca Kola. Honestly, this golden soda was a little intense on the flavor scale for me – but if you’re a fan of lemon verbena (it’s main ingredient), this is the cola (or Kola) for you.

I’d describe these dishes as comfort food, both hearty and warm. They also definitely don’t skimp on the portions. But, if you do still have room after these generous plates, don’t forget about dessert!

We tried the alfajor – a cute little cookie with a creamy dulce de leche center. It’s one of the desserts they are known for!

So if you find yourself in Phoenix, give El Chullo a try. We also heard that they might be opening up a second location not too far away on 7th Ave. sometime soon, so it’ll be even easier to sample some of this Peruvian goodness.

That’s it for this week’s Food Finds, but don’t be stranger – we have more on the horizon!

Eat Well,
Katie

Trip Log: Moloka’i and Lana’i

ABOUT OUR TRIP LOGS 

Nightborn Travel’s Trip Log series is meant to give our readers a more personal view of our travels. The little things that we learn and go through as explorers doesn’t often come through in a guide, so these short diary entries can give a different perspective about what getting to a place and being there was like. The style of these entries is more loose and personal, and we generally won’t be adding links and extra research to these posts. Trip Logs are about the experience and the adventure involved in visiting new places. Hopefully it will give you a taste for what visiting a location was really like, and then you can reference our guides for detailed information about how to create your own adventure.

Three Days in Solo Moloka’i

I’ve wanted to visit Molokai since I first saw it on the horizon while visiting Maui on family trips as a child. (This is a common occurrence for me, as I am a lover of islands large and small.) It was even more appealing to me due to its role in serving as a backdrop to the original Jurassic Park movie; I was expecting a jungle paradise when I finally had the opportunity to explore this lesser-known Hawaiian island, but it wasn’t what I was expecting at all (and that’s ok).

First off, I was expecting that I would be able to take a ferry from Maui to Molokai, since the two are right next-door, but it turns out that the ferry ceased service a while ago, so the only option was a flight. I scheduled mine to leave a few hours after I arrived on Maui, so I had some time to be confused when I arrived. Mokulele Airlines wasn’t listed on any of the Arrival/Departures screens in the main part of the Kahului Airport, so I wandered out past baggage claim, hoping that I might be able to ask someone for directions. Luckily for shy little me, I caught sight of a sign pointing to the Commuter Terminal. So I walked down past the rental car pick up area and up to the small, open-air building of the itty-bitty terminal that’s home to Mokulele and the other airlines that transfer among the islands.

Getting There

I still had about three hours until my flight left, so the lovely people at Mokulele put me on a flight leaving right away. I basically walked right up and left within 20 minutes on one of those little planes that has to weigh you and your luggage before deciding where you’ll sit. Not knowing any better, I sat on the right side, missing all of the good views of the island when we flew past all of the mountains and canyons. This is one of my major regrets for this trip, as this turned out to be my only chance to take good pictures of the wild side of the island.

I thought that all of Molokai was like that, but I quickly discovered that most of the navigable parts of the island are flat and pretty dry. Even so, when I landed I sprung for a rental Jeep, because my Airbnb host had explained to me that most of the roads to the main hiking spots on Molokai are inaccessible to regular cars. I am SO glad that I listened to her, because it would have been very disappointing to miss out on the Nature Conservancy Preserves that became the basis of my trip. Particularly because I was hoping to spend a day hiking down to Kalaupapa National Historical Park but it turns out that this was impossible at the time I went because a landslide had taken out the trail.

After picking up my Jeep (I named her Gwen after the Spiderman character), I trundled down a highway that would become very familiar to me, and I paid careful heed to a large sign along the side of the road, hand-painted to say: SLOW DOWN This is Molokai. My Airbnb in Kepui Beach Resort was the perfect Hawaiian getaway, with a beach near by and a small studio with beautiful sliding doors that you could leave open to enjoy the perfect air.

Driving Around and Struggling Through the Sand

First thing I did when I had rested up for the night was drive over to the Nature Conservancy headquarters to ask about hiking in their parks. The friendly people manning the office gave me some maps, told me that 9am was way too late to head up into the mountains. They also checked to make sure I hadn’t already hiked on the Big Island, because there are some plant diseases/fungi from Hawaii that could threaten the forests of Molokai. Luckily, I had never been to the Big Island before, and my boots were clean anyway, so there was little worry about being a bio-contaminant.

Not knowing what else to do, I decided to try to drive down to the eastern end of the island, where I knew that the bigger mountains were. The paved road goes all the way out to a town called Halawa and it looked like a nice drive. It mostly was, and there were some great views of the beach and Lanai on the way, but I turned around when I got to a single lane, two-way road that weaved its way along the cliffs. I just didn’t have the energy for any high stakes driving.

I turned around, returned to the biggest city of Kaunakakai (where the only gas station is), and stopped in to Molokai Burger for lunch. Surprisingly, the only drive-thru on Molokai had one of the best burgers I have ever had. The meat was super juicy and the bun was impossibly soft. I’m missing it as I write about it.

At this point, I decided that I would run to the grocery store and then hike in the TNC’s Mo’omomi Nature Preserve. The Friendly Market Place turned out to be more of an adventure that I ever would have guessed. It was very small, and very busy and it turned out to be a big mistake that I grabbed a cart on the way in. It was almost impossible to move down the aisles with a cart because there were so many people and the register lines were also snaking up through some of them, making it even harder to move around and shop. It took patience to make it work, but I did my best to take cues from everyone else about how to maneuver and where to leave my cart such that it didn’t get in anyone else’s way.

After all that, I dropped off my food and then followed the TNC’s directions to the dirt road that would take me to Mo’omomi. I wasn’t expecting this to be a scary experience, but Molokai had “things” to teach me about dirt roads. In particular, this red, soft road tended to wear more on one side than the other, creating a situation in which you often found yourself and your vehicle tipping precariously to the side. After getting really worried that I would tip over, I learned to position myself so that my wheels were as level as possible. (I also kept trying to tell myself that this is what Jeeps are meant to do…)

In any case, I made it to the pavilion where they told me to park, and I struck out for the reserve, which was about a mile or so away. It turned into quite the slog, since this part of the island gets pretty hot, and I was hiking with boots through the deep, squishy sand of the beach, which made for a slow, strenuous trek. By the time I made it to the TNC gate, I was hot and tired, so even though the trail got much easier to walk, I had lost some of my drive to keep going. So, when I lost the trail in a thicket of trees and spiny bushes, I called it a day.

Facing My Fears On Kamakou

Talking with the TNC personnel and driving the very uneven (to me) road to Mo’omomi made me worried about attempting to get up to the Kamakou Forest Preserve, but I steeled myself, because that was honestly the place I wanted to visit most on Molokai. Luckily for me, despite my misgivings and all of the online reviews saying that the road was horrible, it actually wasn’t that bad, and besides being narrow, I had no problem with it. I had to reverse a few times to let people pass and vice versa, but it was in good condition and the weather was sunny as well.

I did decide to park at the outlook and hike the two miles up the road from there to the Pepe’opae Bog Trail, my goal. That turned out to be a great idea, because the road above the outlook was way more technical than I would have known how to handle. In fact, it was so slippery that I had trouble walking on it at times.

I did enjoy the Pepe’opae Trail, but it turned out that “bog” was a great name for it, as I had to walk on boards of wood, and at one point I fell off and my leg sunk up to the knee into the mud. It didn’t make me particularly happy to be covered in muck. I also ended up getting soaking wet because all of the plants had dew all over them. I honestly think that my anxiety about the whole experience just summed itself into a general annoyance with the trail, but it certainly wasn’t an easy or particularly safe trek.

I did get a great view of the interior of the island, however, which honestly made it worth all of the struggle. It was probably one of the most beautiful things that I have seen and having had to fight to see it made it sweeter. Type Two fun is real!

After that though, I was ready to get down and get some distance from the worry that had crowded the trip. I felt so good when I got down from the mountain, in fact, that I felt a rush of energy and ended up driving over to Pala’au State Park where I had a little picnic, saw the phallic rock (which was way more phallic than I was expecting for some reason), and got a glimpse of Kalaupapa Peninsula. It was a sobering moment, honestly, looking down from the insanely tall and steep cliffs at the small town where people with leprosy were once abandoned and sequestered from the rest of the world. I still wish I had had the opportunity to visit and learn more about their experiences. But at least these days no one is forced to live there and we have treatments for the disease; now it’s a place to contemplate and learn from, which it turns out you can even do from quite far away.

Four Wheeling and Wandering the Forest on Lana’i

A day after I returned to Maui from Moloka’i, I was planning on hopping on a ferry to Lanai. I was extremely tired after all the flying and hiking, and I seriously considered not going, but reminding myself that I have only ever regretted just not going somewhere I had been planning to visit (not for safety reasons), I forced myself to get up and make it to the boat. Thank goodness I did, because I had a lovely day on the smaller island.

The ride over was very smooth and there were whales swimming near-by. We didn’t stop to look at them, but I appreciated that- it was nice to enjoy them while minding our own business. Once I got off at the ferry terminal I picked up my Jeep (which I rented from an extremely helpful and friendly Lanai resident and named Peter B. Parker), and drove straight to the Munro Trailhead.

Trailhead turned out to be a bit of a generous name, as it’s more of a four-wheel road, and that’s less than ideal in places where the roads are used as commonly as this one. I had to be constantly on the lookout for cars. Tourists and locals alike drove relatively fast through the forest, and the last thing I wanted was to get hit. While this wasn’t preferable, the Munro Trail is long enough for a hiker to get a good sample of the terrain of Lanai and it has access to the island’s highpoint, so I pressed on anyway with the hope that I might make it up into the mountains.

I ended up turning around at about 4 miles in when my body started telling me that it was just tired of the uphill trek, and I lacked real motivation to keep going, since I really had no way to tell when I had gotten to the island highpoint. It’s good that I did, because even though I was on the last ferry out that night, there was more to see than it turned out that I had time for.

After I trekked back to my Jeep, I spent some time in Lanai City enjoying the food, chai tea, and scenery. I really fell in love with the architecture and character of this village; everyone just seemed quiet and friendly. I felt very welcomed and at-home there, which is saying a lot for me since I tend to prefer more wild places and keeping to my solo travel style.

I may have been a little too relaxed in my time spent there, however, because by the time I left, I only had a few more hours on the island. I still wanted to visit Shipwreck Beach and the Garden of the Gods, but the sandy conditions of the road to Shipwreck caused me to waste some more time fretting over what to do, and eventually I tested out my sand-driving skills on a longer road out to an old church tucked away in the coastal scrub. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was (I was very preoccupied with the idea of getting stuck), but by the time I came back and considered Shipwreck, I felt like it would be a better use of my time to see the Garden of the Gods.

Unfortunately, I ended up getting lost and didn’t go to either. Which was disappointing, but I was too worried about being to the ferry on time, so I spent my last hour on Hulopo’e Beach, which was just as beautiful as I was told it would be. There were some otherworldy red-rock cliffs and formations that I absolutely loved, and there was a nice little hike to be done up the coast as well. I could also spy the infamous Four Seasons ($1,000 a night) from here, and it was odd to think about the kinds of people that might be staying there. I couldn’t say, in that moment, that I envied them. Lanai has so much to offer anyone who makes it there, rich or otherwise.

Backyard Discoveries: Indiana Medical History Museum

Well, hello! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I haven’t forgotten about Backyard Discoveries, dear readers, even if this particular discovery is a little belated (by say, oh, maybe three months or so).

I visited Indiana in October, and one of the places I found on a list of must-sees was the Indiana Medical History Museum. I enjoy the weird and the historical, so this seemed like a perfect place to stop on a soon-to-be-rainy afternoon.

Indiana Medical History Museum

Things to Know Before You Go:

  • The museum is only about three miles west of downtown Indianapolis – stop by on your way to or from downtown!

  • If you visit, it’s through guided tour only. Which you’ll want anyway, because how else would you learn about the building and its history? Our docent was an absolute delight and firecracker. They were super knowledgeable about the museum, and also about the medical field – being a former nurse and current nursing professor.
    • No need to reserve a tour (unless you’re a larger group or perhaps need special accommodations),  as you can just show up. Tours are given every hour, on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays.
    • Admission is per person, but only $10 for adults and less for seniors and students. Might I also remind you that the museum is a non-profit and these fees help with funding (and so do donations, so feel free to give more if you feel so inclined).
  • Lastly and importantly, in case it wasn’t clear, this is a MEDICAL history museum. There are specimens. There is talk of cadavers. There is an autopsy table (pictured below). This building also was once part of the larger campus of a psychiatric hospital. If the thought of any of these things makes you or anyone in your party uncomfortable, do yourself and them a kindness and perhaps check out another Indianapolis attraction like the canal walk downtown instead!

The guided tour delves into the museum’s history, from the building’s inauguration in 1896 to its use as a place to study mental illness as a part of the former Central State Hospital.

You’ll get to see and learn about each room in this former pathological department, from a lecture amphitheater, to labs and even a photography room.

Not to be missed is the relics of their studies – slides, specimens and more. If you’re looking to see a slice of brain in a box or perhaps a full skeleton, this is the place for you.

That’s a wrap for this installment of Backyard Discoveries. And hopefully, it’s given you another idea of how to cure your little travel bug. See you next time!

Just what the doctor ordered,
Katie

Tips for A Unique LA Itinerary

LA itinerary

I grew up in Phoenix, AZ so I have been to Los Angeles more times than I can count. The last time that I visited, however, I forced my friends to come with me to some of the tourist spots that the city is famous for. My husband tried to warn me away from some of them, particularly the Walk of Fame, but let’s just say… sometimes I just need to see how bad something is before I can believe the stories. Luckily for me, it’s easy to go back to LA to discover the good about the city. Not everyone has that opportunity, so I’ve written up this detailed guide to some of the major attractions that you should and should not visit on your LA itinerary.

Famous Locations to Make Time For

Griffith Observatory

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

I’m going to be honest here and admit that I had no idea that the Griffith Observatory existed until I saw La La Land. So, the last time that I visited Los Angeles I wanted to give it a try and I ended up loving it. Whether you are a nature lover, fan of beautiful architecture, or just looking to snap a good picture of the Hollywood sign, this place belongs on your “what to do in LA” list.

The Observatory itself has a beautiful astronomy museum inside the building that is free to visit. There are talks and educational events throughout the day for all visitors as well. When I was there, I caught two talks, one about the iconic Foucault Pendulum in the entry rotunda and another about the mysterious Gottlieb Transit Corridor outside. In either case, it was a lot of fun to learn how these tools work and what we can learn from them. Adults and kids will enjoy the museum and it’s well worth an hour or more of your time.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

Of course, you should also take some time to explore the outside grounds, because you will not only get a great view of the entire city from the Observatory vantage point, but the Hollywood sign is perched nearby. It’s a great place to indulge your inner tourist and snap a few pictures with the sign in the background.

Finally, if you are looking for a half-day experience, you might consider parking at the base of the mountain and then hiking up to the observatory. This will take you through a hilly, wooded area and give you a chance to escape the crowds for a bit.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

The Observatory itself is free, however parking is not. If you’d prefer to save some money or aren’t comfortable parallel parking, there is a bus that you can take up. The DASH Observatory bus will get you up the mountain from the Vermont/Sunset Metro Red Line.

Disneyland

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Personally, as a Disney fan, I don’t think any LA itinerary would be complete without a trip to Disneyland. Even on the most crowded day, I just enjoy being in the park and taking in all the beautiful environments that have been created there. There’s really nowhere else in the world that you can wander from the Old West to a busy African marketplace in a matter a minutes.

Of course, Disneyland is a great place for families as well, although it is the most expensive attraction here by far. Some of my best memories as a kid were made in Disneyland, and of course, this is the best place to get great pictures with all of your favorite Disney, Marvel and Star Wars characters.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

Besides the great rides, I enjoy trying all of the great foods in the park (something they have really upped their game on in the past couple years). If you want to keep updated on all the food news in Disneyland, I would suggest checking out the Wonderful World of Food Youtube Channel.

All that being said, Disney recently increased their prices and last I read we are up to $150 a day during peak season and $104 otherwise. Parking is $25 per day on theme park grounds, so if you can, try to stay in one of the hotels that are within walking distance or have a shuttle. There are a few that aren’t overly expensive, surprisingly.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

Lesser Known Locations that you MUST Visit

Little Tokyo

LA Itinerary

(c) ABR 2011

We have an entire post on Little Tokyo, so I always consider this in my “what to do in LA” lists. It isn’t a large area, but we never fail to spend a few hours there. In particular, if you have been to Japan, Little Tokyo will be a nice reminder of that beautiful country across the sea.

For a lovely afternoon in Little Tokyo, I would suggest going around lunch and planning to get dinner there as well. There is a lot of good food in this area, and they serve things that you really can’t get easily in other places. After lunch, take some time to visit the Japanese-American National Museum. This is a great place to learn about the history and vibrant lives of Japanese-Americans, from the shameful parts of our history to the beautifully unique art and culture that has resulted from the mixing of American and Japanese heritage. It is $12 dollars to get in for adults.

LA Interinary

(c) ABR 2011

After spending some time in the museum, taking in all the history and art, take time for a tasty snack or dessert and then enjoy the shopping in Little Tokyo. There is a ton of stuff that you would find in Japan, but also shops with unique items that mix Japanese and American culture with the unique character of the shop owners. It is a really great place to find a unique souvenir. Top the night off with some delicious Japanese food, or a downtown LA restaurant if you want to mix it up.

Parking in downtown LA is not free, so budget for parking; there is a big parking structure right next to Little Tokyo if you prefer to avoid street parking.

Santa Monica National Recreation Area

southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2018

This is a massive national park unit, and there are definitely trails in the park that you will probably see in top ten lists here and there. But I would highly suggest getting out of the city a little bit to really explore this majestic slice of urban nature in your LA itinerary.

Solstice Canyon is a must-do. The trail there is not difficult or long, but the canyon is beautiful and ends at the ruins of a mansion. The nature and architecture tell a story unique to Los Angeles, so it is a great place to find a mix of my two favorite things, culture and nature. There is also a lovely picnic spot at the trailhead that’s the perfect place to eat lunch with the family.

For those of you looking for a harder hike, head up into the mountains to summit the tallest peak in the range, Sandstone Peak. It’s only a little over 3,000 feet, so it’s not extremely challenging but there are unparalleled views from the top. The ocean will be on one side and the city on the other, sandwiched in the middle will be you and the wilds of the mountains.

Best of all, this park is free, so you can wander at your leisure.

What to Avoid in your LA Itinerary

Walk of Fame

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

The Walk of Fame is my least favorite thing that I have ever done in LA, and I insisted on going the last time because I see it on so many “what to do in LA” lists! I just wanted to do the tourist thing and experience this place, but I ended up just absolutely hating it. Parking was extremely expensive compared to everywhere else in the city, and as soon as we walked out onto the street it was impossible not to notice how dirty the street was. The stores were little better for the most part.

Like any tourist trap, basically everything that you want to do here, besides just walking around will cost you something. And I just got a very predatory feel while I was there. I doubt that this is an area that many local people go to, so coming to the Walk of Fame just slaps a TOURIST sign on you. I’ve never liked that feeling and a few pictures of the Chinese Theater and the stars just don’t make the experience worth it.

LA itinerary

(c) ABR 2018

The worst part of the whole thing was the people wandering around in costumes. Unless you want to pay to take a picture with one of them, stay far, far away. They like to fluster people with handshakes and then pull you in for a picture. One of them even grabbed a friend of mine in a very inappropriate way. It was very uncomfortable. As far as I know, none of these people are actually sanctioned to be there as those characters either. As an example, you might get manhandled by a Mickey or Chewbacca, and it’s not something that Disney would ever allow.

I’m sure there are people out there who have had a good experience on the Walk of Fame, but in my opinion, it just really isn’t worth your time. Save your money and go elsewhere. You can get great Hollywood pictures from Griffith Observatory, and there are plenty of unique spots in LA that you can go without the tourist scams and people trying to pull you into pictures with them for a buck.

Downtown LA in general

LA itinerary

From Wikimedia Commons

Besides Little Tokyo, I find downtown LA to be one of the worst downtowns that I have ever been to (and I’m from Phoenix). There is some really good food here, which is still worth the trip, but I would never spend the day walking around in the city like I would elsewhere. The streets are just dirty, and there isn’t a lot to see when you are walking around.

That being said, I feel a lot more ambivalent about this than the Walk of Fame. I think people that really love the city could keep this on their LA itinerary and have a good time. There are certainly some cool museums in the city and instagrammable spots, so it wouldn’t be impossible to enjoy an afternoon there. However, it certainly won’t be the best downtown experience that you have, and if you have limited time, this is definitely something that you can skip.

If you like this post, you might also enjoy:

LA intinerary

(c) ABR 2018

The Ultimate Southern California Road Trip for Hikers and National Park Enthusiasts

Escape the City in 5 LA National Parks

Nightborn Travel’s Guide to the California Channel Islands

LA Itinerary

LA Itinerary

The Ultimate Southern California Road Trip for Hikers and National Park Enthusiasts

Southern California is an absolutely wonderful place for hikers and national park enthusiasts. There are deserts, beaches, mountains, and cities with attractions that I think any nature lover will enjoy. If you are like me, and love getting as much out of your vacation time as possible, this intense itinerary for a Southern California road trip is for you.

BEFORE YOU LEAVE

(1) Set up your trip to the Channel Islands with Island Packers in advance, and buy necessary permits from the National Park Service.

(2) If camping, be sure to have all of your permits squared away.

(3) Reserve your hotels/hostels/etc. and your rental car. If possible, rent an off-road vehicle.

(4) Bring all necessary safety equipment and hiking gear. Make sure a friend and/or family member has a detailed itinerary including the trails that you are planning on hiking.

DAY ZERO: STARTING IN LOS ANGELES

Los Angeles is a great starting place for this Southern California road trip, because it is the definitive capital of life in Southern California. There are tons of flights into the city and some of them are a great deal. That being said, there are some things about Los Angeles that make it a little difficult as well. LAX is a massive airport and can have issues with delays and construction, and the city itself is a warren of highways and crowded streets. I would suggest doing your best to time any drives through the city around traffic hour because it can literally take 2-3 hours to get across the city without lots of traffic jams.

DAY ONE: MT. BALDY

southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2016

Mt. Baldy is the tallest mountain in the San Gabriel Mountains that hem in the city from the east, and the trail to the summit is no joke. With about 3,900 feet of elevation gain and 11.3 miles from start to finish, the trek up this mountain is a challenge for all but the most seasoned of hikers. If hiking is something you enjoy, however, and you don’t mind the challenge, I highly recommend this hike. It took me about half a day to complete it, and to this day is probably one of the more difficult summits that I have completed.

The trail itself is really beautiful, and has some unique sections. The Devil’s Backbone was one of my favorites, where you follow the ridge of the mountain with major drop-offs on either side of you. There are also stretches of forest with tiny waterfalls, and of course the view from the top of the mountain may be one of the most amazing for this Southern California road trip.

southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2016

If hiking isn’t your thing, not to worry, there is a ski lift that you can take up to the lodge part of the way up the mountain during the weekends. You can also enjoy the trails lower down on the mountain for nice day excursions.

If you’d like to go for the summit, however, park just past the Mather Flats Campground and hike towards San Antonio Falls. Just past the falls, you will find yourself at a fork in the trail. The trail to the right will take a more gradual (but long) route up the mountain to the ski hunt, and the other trail is a steeper, more direct route to the top. I would personally suggest taking the steeper route up, which I think will allow you to appreciate Devil’s Backbone and Baldy Bowl more, and you won’t destroy your legs with a steep downhill.

DETAILS
southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2016

For more detailed information on this hike, see Hikespeak’s post, which I used to plan my own trip. Note that you will need to purchase a pass for the national forest, and these can be picked up at the nearby gas stations on the road into the mountains.

STAY: Los Angeles Area, potentially near the Santa Monica Mountains if you’d like to avoid driving more the next day.

DAY TWO: THE SANTA MONICA NATIONAL RECREATION AREA

southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2018

The Santa Monica Mountains are partially managed by the National Park service, and they offer some really varied hiking as well as ocean views. I would suggest warming up in the morning in the foothills so that you can experience some of the rolling grasslands that are so characteristic of coastal southern California, then moving onto a visitor center to grab a park stamp and speak with the rangers. From there, I did the Solstice Canyon trail, which is pretty gradual and relaxing, and has the perfect picnic area for lunch.

For hikers, my next stop would be Sandstone peak, the high point in the Santa Monica Mountains, where you can get some amazing views of not only the city and the ocean, but the backbones of the mountain range itself.

In case you don’t want to do more hiking that day, you can also head out from Solstice Canyon and spend the day exploring Malibu and enjoying the beach.

DETAILS
southern california road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Hiking in Santa Monica is free in National Park lands.

For more information on the Santa Monica Mountains see our guide to the best hikes in the park.

Note that the Woolsey Fire damaged this area in 2018, so I would suggest checking with the park website and/or rangers to get the latest information on what’s open at the time that you visit.

STAY: Ventura, CA

DAY THREE: THE CHANNEL ISLANDS

southern California road trip

Santa Rosa (c) ABR 2018

There are an endless number of trips that you could plan for the Channel Islands, and I would suggest looking through our guide to help you decide. If you only have a day to spare on your Southern California road trip, I would suggest taking a day trip to Anacapa or Santa Cruz. But if you have more time, consider camping on Santa Cruz or Santa Rosa where you can explore the unique landscape of the islands more thoroughly on the trails and sea (if you like kayaking/snorkeling). If water-based activities are more your thing, Anacapa can also be a great place to camp, because there is a ton of kayaking and out-of-this-world kelp beds there.

DETAILS
southern California road trip

Santa Rosa (c) ABR 2018

Whatever you decide to do, make sure that you have reservations with Island Packers before you leave for your trip, because without that, you won’t have access to the islands. If you are camping, you will also need a reservation with the park service. Prices will vary with the location that you choose and the length of the trip you decide to devote to these beautiful islands.

STAY: Ventura, CA

DAY FOUR-FIVE: SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

It’s about a 4-hour drive from Ventura to Sequoia, so get an early start. Once you reach the foothills, consider enjoying a picnic near Lake Kaweah or grabbing food in one of the small cafés in the Three Rivers Area. Then work your way up into the mountains through Sequoia. Of course, the stars of this park are the redwoods, which you will start to see in the higher reaches of the mountains. On the way up, stop by Hospital Rock, the Crystal Cave (summer only), and the Giant Forest Museum. But of course, make sure that you leave plenty of time for the redwood forest. The General Sherman Tree is a must-see and there are lots of lovely trails among the giants to explore.

On day two, continue exploring the forest landscape in Kings Canyon (if you go during the summer). Enjoy the beautiful views of the canyon, and enjoy some mild hiking (unless you still have tons of energy). Note that the road through this park is closed during the winter.

DETAILS
southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

The $35.00 vehicle pass covers both parks and lasts for 1-7 days.

There are lots of road closures in both parks during the winter as well as strict rules about chains and four-wheel drive when there is snow. You can rent chains in the Three Rivers area on your way up if you need to, just keep your eyes open while passing through the small towns.

STAY: If you can, I would highly suggest trying to get a room in one of the lodges in the parks. If that isn’t possible, stay in one of the small towns in the mountains.

DAY FIVE-SIX: DEATH VALLEY

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

It is about 5.5 hours from Sequoia National Park and Death Valley National Park, so I would plan a quiet day driving to some of the main spots in the park. Mesquite Flat Dunes, the Badwater Salt Flats, Artist’s Palette, and consider Dante’s View for sunset are some of the main things that you could consider checking out to get your lay of the park.

On day two in Death Valley I would pull my hiking boots back on. We have a detailed list of my favorite hikes in the park, but there are so many trails in Death Valley. There really is something for everyone. In order to see the most while you are there, I would suggest a mix of short trails and more moderate length trails and a nice mix of the different aspects of this unique desert landscape. If you want to do a major summit hike, Death Valley also has options like Wildrose Peak (8 miles) and Telescope Peak (14 miles).

DETAILS
southern California road trip

Road trip rental car in Death Valley (c) ABR 2018

The park entrance fee is $30 per vehicle for 7 days.

STAY: There aren’t a lot of places to stay near the park, so if you can afford it, I would try to stay in Furnace Creek.

DAY SEVEN: MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Mojave National Preserve is one of the lesser known spots on this epic Southern California road trip, but this desert is full of unique landscapes and hikes. It is a great place for hikers and nature lovers to escape the crowds and see a place that mixes some of the best aspects of Death Valley and Joshua Tree.

We have a detailed description of hikes in this National Park unit here, but I would highly suggest the Teutonia Peak and Hole-In-The-Wall trails. These aren’t too hard but offer some amazing views of the park, as well as some very fun trail experiences. There is also a historic landmark in the park, the Kelso Depot, and access to Mitchell Caverns State Park ($10 entrance fee and $10 for a cave tour- get reservations ahead of time here).

DETAILS
southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

The Mojave National Preserve has no entrance fee.

It is about 2 hours from Death Valley National Park to Baker, CA just outside of Mojave; it is then 1.5 hours from Kelso to Twentynine Palms.

STAY: Twentynine Palms area

DAY EIGHT: JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Joshua Tree National Park has become extremely well known in the past couple years for its climbing, fascinating rock structures, and its chill vibe. For hikers, and road trippers, this national park has a huge variety of stops and trails. Hidden Valley is my personal favorite spot in the park and is suitable for people of all hiking abilities. Ryan Mountain offers a more difficult trek, although it is relatively short, and for those looking for a big summit challenge, consider the Pinto Summit (details here). Other spots to see in the park include Keys Views and Cottonwood Spring, although if you have time I would give all of the big points in the park a stop. For more details.

DETAILS

$30 vehicle entrance fee

STAY: Palm Springs

DAY NINE: PALM SPRINGS

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

By this point, I would be pretty tuckered out, so the next few days will give you time to rest and ready yourself for the journey home at the end of your Southern California road trip.

First stop for this rejuvenation is Palm Springs. This small city is known for its mid-century modernist architecture, adorable downtown stretch, and characteristic palm springs. If you are interested in seeing some of the architecture, look here for details. If you still have the energy to hike, this guide will give you the details about hikes to some of the desert oases that this city is named for.

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

I would highly recommend the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for any kind of traveler. It is about $26 dollars to ride, and the views from the tram and top of the mountain are absolutely beautiful. There are also hikes and nice walks at the top so you could make this into a whole day if you wanted, or a half day trip.

STAY: Palm Springs or Los Angeles

DAY TEN: LOS ANGELES

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

After all your hiking and exploring, it is time for the last day of the Southern California road trip before you head home.

If you are a Disney fan, treat yourself to a day in Disneyland/California Adventure.

If you want to get a taste of Los Angeles before you leave, I would suggest visiting the Griffith Observatory, which is free, and Little Tokyo in the downtown area. The Observatory has some more hiking, if you are a real champ, but there is plenty to see there even without a trek. There is a small museum in the observatory which is free (although you will need to pay for parking), and this is a great place to take pictures of the Hollywood sign and the city.

southern California road trip

(c) ABR 2018

Little Tokyo is also free to visit, but you will need to pay for parking. There is TONS of Japanese food in this area as well as great shopping. I usually spend 3-5 hours here shopping, eating and visiting the Japanese American National Museum ($12).

STAY: Los Angeles

NEXT DAY: HEAD HOME

southern California road trip

southern California road trip

Escape the City in 5 LA National Parks

Sometimes urban life gets the best of us, and our spirits need some time in nature to recoup and heal. Los Angeles is one of the world’s biggest cities, and it can make a person feel like they’re trapped in an endless urban landscape full of unending traffic jams. It does for me, anyway.

But LA also is a great city for nature lovers, because it is surrounded by some spectacular national parks that make for a wonderful weekend getaway or an epic tour of Southern California’s varied landscapes. For either one, this is your comprehensive guide to the LA National Parks. For a brief run down of the parks, see below:

LA National Parks

The Santa Monica Mountains (c) ABR 2018

(1) Joshua Tree National Park: Unique rock formations, plenty of trails, climbing opportunities

(2) Santa Monica: Coastal mountains, urban landscapes, plenty of trails

(3) Sequoia National Park: Giant redwoods, varied landscapes, small mountain towns, plenty of trails

(4) Death Valley National Park: Extreme desert ecosystem, plenty of trails

(5) Mojave: Varied desert landscapes, plenty of trails

Remember to always hike prepared. Bring proper clothing, sturdy shoes, and water/snacks. Bring maps, and when appropriate, let rangers know where you are going. You are always responsible for your own safety while exploring.

Joshua Tree National Park

LA National Parks

Official Website

Distance from LA: 3 hours (132 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 3.5 hours (222 miles)

Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter

Cost: $30 per vehicle

LA National Parks

Joshua Trees (c) ABR 2018

Joshua Tree is probably the most popular of the LA National Parks, particularly in recent years. The park is named for the unique plants that dot that landscape, the illustrious Joshua trees, but I’d say that the rock formations of the park are the big draw for me. It is a famous climbing location, but there is plenty to do here for people with all kinds of interests. For those of you who aren’t big on hiking, there is a beautiful road that you can drive down and see all of the sights. This goes from Yucca Valley in the north to the I-10 in the south, so keep in mind that this is not a loop road in the park, but it can be made into one if you enter from one direction and then head out from the other.

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

I will list three of my favorite hikes in the park below, but some other spots that you really should check out on your drive are Keys View, White Tank, and the Cholla Cactus Garden. Keys will bring you up high enough in the mountains to see Palm Springs, and it is a great view of the surrounding mountains, as well. Arch Rock is amid some lovely rock formations where you can stop for a leisurely lunch and stroll. For those of you that have never seen a Cholla, the cactus garden is for you, but please, please stay on the trails here. Stepping on the roots of cholla over and over can hurt them, and they are also dangerous for you (so spiny!). Keep a respectful distance.

FAVORITE HIKES

Cottonwood Spring Trails

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

These trails will give you a pretty easy stroll through the ecosystem that Palm Springs is named for; wild springs with massive, wild palms growing around them. There are also some mining remnants that have left a lasting impact on both the landscape and history of the area. There is some incline on these trails, but not much, and there is a large spring near the trailhead. So, this is a great place to stop whether you are a hiking enthusiast or not.

Ryan Mountain

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

If you are looking to gain some elevation without committing to a big hike for a summit in the valley, Ryan Mountain is a great trail. It is only 3 miles (out and back) but you will pack on about 1,050 feet, so it is a great workout. The mountain is also located in the center of the valley so the views from the trek up and  at the top are absolutely amazing- you can just about see the whole park from up there.

Hidden Valley

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

The Hidden Valley loop is a MUST-DO trail for any one that can make the walk. It is a short 1-mile loop, and it will take you through a narrow passage of massive rock formations into another world. Hidden Valley will make you forget that there is a larger valley surrounding you and the city will be the furthest thing from your mind while you are there. This place was once used by ranchers as a nature pen for cattle, but now it is a peaceful place for visitors of all kinds. That being said, Hidden Valley is easily accessible from the road, so this is one of the most crowded trails.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Official Website

Distance from LA: 1.5 hours (39.1 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 6.5 hours (418 miles)

Best Seasons: All

Cost: Free

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

WOOLSEY FIRE: Currently, some big patches of the SMNRA are closed due to the Woolsey Fire. Please consult with the National Park website for up-to-date information on what is open.

The Santa Monica Mountains are a wall of stone and wilderness between LA and the coast to the west. So, they are a great place to escape the stress of the city, and view the ocean from above. I also love exploring them in order to understand more about what this place looked like before people came and changed everything. This is really a great place for hikers, despite the closeness of the park to the city. For long distance hikers, the Backbone trail is 67 miles through the mountains.

FAVORITE HIKES

Solstice Canyon Trail

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

This trails follows a canyon up into the mountains toward the historic Roberts Ranch. When I was here, not only was there water running in the canyon, but there were parrots playing in the boughs and whizzing through the air. This is a great hike for anyone that can deal with some incline and wants to explore the interior of the Santa Monica Mountains. This is just a 2.1-mile round trip (out and back), but there are plenty of other trails in the area to explore if you need to stretch your legs more.

Sandstone Peak Area

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Sandstone Peak is the high point of the Santa Monica Mountains, and there are miles and miles of great trails in this area. This hike is a bit more difficult, so as much as I love the views up there, I would not suggest this area for people that aren’t comfortable with heights, steep inclines, and rough terrain. We did a loop in this area and ended up hiking for about 6 miles. You could go for longer, or summit and then turn around for a shorter hike. This is honestly the best place to get a sweeping view of the mountains in all directions.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Official Website

Distance from LA: 4 hours (210 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 9 hours (574 miles)

Best Seasons: Late spring, summer, early fall (Chains required with snow)

Cost: $35 per car

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Unfortunately for me, I did not have the opportunity to explore Kings Canyon when I visited the LA National Parks, due to snow, but Sequoia is a wonderful place to visit. As its name implies, there is a beautiful forest of giant redwoods here, but there is so much more, as well. At the entrance of the park, there are sweeping landscapes of grasslands and rolling hills that are in stark contrast to the forests that the road will begin to climb up through after you pass through the small town at the base of the park. (Be sure to stop here for food, or consider staying in one of the small lodges). After that, the road follows the canyon until it begins weaving its way up into the mountains that are crowned by the redwood forest. Be aware that several roads in this area are closed during the winter, so you may want to avoid it during this time. If you do visit when there is snow, you need have either four-wheel drive or chains.

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Be sure to check out hospital rock with its beautiful petroglyphs, and of course, the  stunning redwoods. The General Sherman tree area is a particularly great place to experience the majesty of redwoods on foot. Be on the lookout for signs asking you to keep your distance from some of the trees to protect their roots. Remember that these ancient trees are more important than your photo (you can always edit a photo to make it look more dramatic without hurting any trees).

Death Valley National Park

Official Website

Distance from LA: 4 hours (215 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 6.5 hours (402 miles)

Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter

Cost: $30 per vehicle for 7 days

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Death Valley is many things, including the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the United States, but don’t let its name and these things scare you off. Death Valley is an absolutely breathtaking LA National Park with desert landscapes that are as unreal as they are harsh. I grew up and live in a desert, but I have never seen somewhere as stark at Death Valley. In fact, this might be one of my favorite national parks with the power to pull me back just like the Grand Canyon, and the Channel Islands.

LA National Parks

Artists Drive (c) ABR 2018

There is just something about the painted, dead mountains and cracked, salty bottom of the valley that speaks to both the majesty and danger of nature. When you drive through, be sure to stop at the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells Village, take Artists Drive through the Artists Palette, stop at the salt flats of Badwater Basin, and make time to spend sunset at Dante’s View. If you are a hardcore hiker/enjoy four-wheeling, I would also suggest trying to come with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, as there are many dirt roads in the park. It should go without saying, but be extra careful about having enough water in this park while exploring, and watch your car’s gas levels and monitor any issues with overheating. This place is no joke.

FAVORITE HIKES

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

You can easily view the Mesquite Sand Dunes from your car or from the parking lot, but I really enjoyed trekking out into the sand towards the largest dune in sight. Of course, there was a fair amount of sand to be poured out from my shoes on a regular basis, but I think that there is no better way to experience the dunes than by immersing yourself in them. There isn’t really a trail here, so you can wander where you’d like and for as long as you’d like.

Ubehebe Crater

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

Again, you can just view the crater from the parking lot, but I think you will get a lot more out of the 1.5-mile trail that loops around the crater. Not only will you get to view this beautiful place from all angles, but you will get some wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, too. This is one of the northernmost places that you can easily access with all vehicle types in the park. You might also be ambitious enough to hike down into the crater, but be forewarned, it is quite steep.

Golden Canyon

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

The entire time that I was in Death Valley, I was enchanted by the canyons that snaked away into the skeletal mountains of the valley – these places that seemed utterly without life. Golden Canyon Trail, which links to a variety of trails, was a great way to get a taste of the heart of the most characteristic mountains of the valley. The canyon itself could be home on any dead and rocky planet like Mars, and the vibrant colors of the rock make it seem even more otherworldly. There are also breathtaking sandstone formations on the trail such as the Red Cathedral and the Manly Beacon. When we did this hike, we made a loop of Golden Canyon and the Gower Gulch, which was around 3 miles in length.

Mojave National Preserve

Official Website

Distance from LA: 4 hours (177 miles)

Distance from Phoenix: 4.5 hours (252 miles)

Best Seasons: Early spring, late fall, winter

Cost: Free

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

The Mojave National Preserve is one of the more secluded parks on this list. Although it is not quite as far from the city as some of the other LA National Parks, it is far less visited. That being said, it has an amazing variety of landscapes and offers some of the same draws as the other places on this list, including Joshua Trees and a huge stretch of sand dunes. The Mojave National Preserve is also home to some completely unique places, and the historic Kelso train depot, making it well worth visiting in its own right.

FAVORITE HIKES

Teutonia Peak Trail

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

This short, 3-mile out and back trail will introduce you to the unique desert of Mojave. This is especially striking if you have seen Joshua Tree NP recently, as there are Joshua Trees here but they are markedly different than those of the other park. As you approach Teutonia Peak, you will have the opportunity to walk through a forest of these unique plants, and you will also be rewarded with a sweeping view of the Cima dome on your way up the mountain. Unfortunately, the end of the trail was unclear to us when we visited, so I can’t say much for the summit itself. Even so, I think this was a great place to get a taste of why this national preserve is so special, while also getting a sense for what connects it to the other places in this list.

Hole in the Wall and the Rings Trail 

LA National Parks

(c) ABR 2018

I loved this trail because of the beautiful rock formation that you get to explore while taking it, and also because of its unique character. At the beginning or end of the trail (depending on which way you start) you will be required to climb down steep stone passageways by clinging onto large metal rings that form ladders in the rock. As you can imagine, this wouldn’t be a great activity for people with a fear of heights, or at any time when the metal might get hot in the sun. However, if you’d like to avoid the rings but still see the rock formations, you can hike in from the other direction and just stop as soon as the rings appear.

Why You Need an Arizona Christmas Vacation in Phoenix: Lights in the Desert Part Two

If you live somewhere cold, and you’re feeling like you need some fresh air and sunshine, Phoenix, Arizona might be the destination for you. The capital of Arizona is no longer a characterless surburbia. There are museums the likes of which you will find no where else. It has a unique climate perfect for getting some winter vitamin D. There are tons of desert trails to explore. And Phoenix has a growing foodie scene. However, that is not what I want to talk to you about today, because Phoenix is also the annual home to some beautiful Christmas light events that make it the perfect spot for an Arizona Christmas vacation. For families, this is a great time to visit, and experience the wonder of the holiday season without the freezing temperatures and threat of blizzards.

Zoolights

Zoolights has basically become a yearly holiday tradition with family and friends. Who doesn’t love strolling around the Phoenix Zoo when it’s decked out in thousands of holiday plant and animal-shaped lights while sipping a cup of hot chocolate?

Zoolights lights up the night typically from the third week of November through the second week of January. If you can swing it, we recommend going on a weekday instead of weekend because the zoo can get PACKED (plus, parking can get kinda hairy on busier days). Plus, if you go on their value nights, admission is about five bucks less! Check their website for the value night dates and full admission info.

If you’re hoping to see animals during your Zoolights experience, it’s going to be pretty limited.  The animal enclosures are dark and most of them have turned in for the night. However, you CAN visit their Stingray Bay for a chance to pet some stingrays – basically my favorite thing (which was included in admission this year, although we didn’t go 🙁 ). Alternatively, maybe you can make a zoo day out of the trip and see the animals during the day and the lights in the evening.

The Phoenix Zoo is located in the heart of Papago Park, and also conveniently located next to our other holiday lights attraction, the Phoenix Desert Botanical Gardens.

Electric Desert and the Luminaries at the Desert Botanical Gardens

The Phoenix Desert Botanical Gardens is a must-see for any first time visitors. It is set in the beautiful Papago Park, and features desert plants from Arizona and around the world. Many have adapted so well to the desert that they have taken on exotic and beautiful forms. Even people with little interest in plants will enjoy seeing these unique little lifeforms. Strolling through the Botanical Gardens is enjoyable either way, particularly in the cool weather of the winter.

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Cacti in the night (c) ABR 2018

During the holiday season, the Phoenix Botanical Gardens plays host to a variety of events that cater to both local and visitor interests. During October, they celebrate the Day of the Dead with ofrenda installations designed by local artists (October 26, 2018 – November 7, 2018). And every Christmas they do a beautiful luminary display (Dec. 1 – 23 & 26 – 31, 2018). However, the Desert Botanical Gardens has also supported a variety of unique lights-in-the-night art events. A few years ago, they had a park-wide Chihuly installation that they lit up at night. This year they are hosting Electric Desert. This event melds music and light to create immersive experiences that accentuate and highlight the organic shapes of the garden plants.

Desert Botanical Gardens Logistics

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Electric Desert (c) ABR 2018

While Electric Desert is only here until May 2019 (October 12, 2018 – May 12, 2019), if you plan your Arizona Christmas Vacation for 2019, the Desert Botanical Gardens is worth a visit. I find that the Desert Botanical Gardens is great for adults spending the night out. It is has some class and tranquility that really sets it apart.

You can visit the Desert Botanical Gardens during the day (8a-4p) for $24.95, and the Electric Desert/Luminaries costs $34.95 – $39.95 for the night. I believe that you can also purchase a joint ticket, but I didn’t see this on the website. If you go for a joint ticket plan on spending at least 3 hours in the park. You might also want to enjoy the surprisingly amazing food at Gertrude’s, the park restaurant.

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Electric Desert (c) ABR 2018

CURRENT Hours For Las Noches de las Luminarias and Electric Desert
8 a.m. – 4 p.m.  (Daytime admission)
The Garden is open for Las Noches de las Luminarias and Electric Desert ticket holders from 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. nightly.

Christmas Lights: Christmas at the Princess

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Christmas at the Princess (c) Stephanie Snedeker 2018.

We would be remiss if we discussed any Arizona Christmas vacation (or staycation) without mentioning that Phoenix has many opportunities to enjoy traditional Christmas lights in the less than frigged air. My old family tradition was to drive through the neighborhoods with cultures of spectacular lights. For the sake of responsible travel, let’s leave those places for local families. Not to worry though! There are events throughout the city to enjoy so you will not be for want of Christmas lights.

Arizona Christmas vacation

Christmas at the Princess (c) Stephanie Snedeker 2018

One such event is Christmas at the Princess, where you can enjoy a mix of light draped trees and whimsical light animals, boats, Christmas characters and more. The Princess also does a variety of Christmas-themed activities that you can pay extra to enjoy, such as a skating rink, train rides, Build-a-Bear workshops and more. Probably not our cheapest option with all the add-ons. But you can keep your eyes open for Groupons to this event. (If you love these pictures of Christmas at the Princess, be sure to check out the rest of Stephanie’s photography on Instagram!)

If you have rented a car, another great option is to skip town and drive two hours north of Phoenix to Prescott. Some call this small town the Christmas capital of Arizona, and I think that the name is fitting. The downtown square of Prescott is decked with lights and Christmas decorations every year. There are a variety of great restaurants to enjoy along with the night of celebration and small-town charm. This event is free, but it has been getting more press. So I would suggest arriving earlier in the day so you can find a place to park. It is likely that you will need to pay to park as well, unless you decide to go the extra mile and reserve a hotel there for the night.

Arizona Christmas Vacation

Arizona Christmas Vacation

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