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

Holiday Lights Phoenix: Lights in the Desert Part One

I’ve never really thought of Phoenix as a good place for holiday experiences, but this year I have become very aware of the fact that this city comes alive with lights in the winter. Whether you are here right after the summer heat ebbs in October, or through the Christmas and New Years, there are fantastical events featuring art, sharing culture, and giving us moments to celebrate those who have left us and hopes for the future. If any of that sounds interesting, stay tuned for our guide to Holiday Lights Phoenix. 

The Lights Fest

The Lights Fest is a paper lantern lighting festival out in Florence, AZ (a town southeast of Phoenix). The festival usually takes place in the beginning of November, but be sure to double check their website because the date can move around due to availability of the festival grounds, weather, etc.

For about $25 per person (sign up for their mailing list to get early ticket access), you can take part in the unique experience of lighting your own paper lantern. Watching it float amidst hundreds of other lanterns against the dark night sky more than makes up for the longer trek out to the field.

The lanterns aren’t launched until the sun has set and the fire department give them the okay to let lanterns go, so be prepared to keep yourselves entertained (though they usually have live performances and music playing). It’s a good idea to bring chairs to sit on, and if the event is in the fall, blankets and warm clothing, too.  If you want to make a picnic out of it, you can bring your own food and drinks – just no alcohol. They also typically have food trucks on-site, but the lines are usually pretty long.

It’s a pretty laid-back event, so if you want to enjoy a relaxing afternoon/evening and enjoy a beautiful display of floating lanterns, this is a great little festival to attend.

Moonviewing Festival in the Japanese Friendship Garden

Holiday Lights Phoenix

The beautiful Japanese Friendship garden of Phoenix celebrates the coming of the Fall (and the break of the hellish summer heat) by holding a Moonviewing Festival (Otsukimi in Japanese). By nature, this is a Phoenix holiday lights experience, because the moon is involved, but the friendship garden also decorates the grounds with luminaries, paper lanterns, and soothingly illuminated Japanese art pieces. They also bring in food vendors, and open up their tea garden to visitors.

Holiday Lights Phoenix

You can enjoy delicious Japanese foods while listening to traditional, live music. Then head over to the teahouse to learn about the Japanese tea ceremony and traditional instruments. When you need some solitude, you can wander the grounds of the gardens. Be soothed by the rushing waterfall and lapping pond, while the sounds of the festival ebb and flow in the background. Of course, you have to also marvel at the majesty of the moon. You can attend this event for $25-$30 dollars beforehand or at the door respectively; this price does not include food. (Late October)

Scottsdale Canal Convergence  

Holiday Lights Phoenix

The Scottsdale Canal Convergence is a yearly event that brings together interactive art, educational and hand-on activities, and the beauty of Old Town Scottsdale. The best time to visit, particularly if you want to enjoy the art in its element, is after dark. Although the event opens in the late afternoon. Most of the installations are meant to dazzle your senses by melding light and sound into a totally unique experience that you can often also touch and feel.

Holiday Lights Phoenix

This year, I got to watch metal lotuses floating in the canal fire multi-colored flames into the air. I got to watch children laughing as they spun a massive, shifting rainbow of empty water bottles. I climbed into a glowing hamster wheel and rowed with my husband until the pictures lining the inside spun into an animated blur. There were giant pieces of lace floating over the water, glowing chalk paintings, and a crystal of endless fractal depths. There were also student art pieces to explore and marvel at. Every year has different art, so I can’t guarantee what you will find here. But I suspect this will continue to be a great place to visit as long as it continues. The best part about this Phoenix holiday lights event? It’s completely free! (Early-mid November).

Holiday Lights Phoenix

If you are in Phoenix for the winter and missed any of these events, there is no lack of other great winter attractions to visit. And come back in a couple weeks to learn about more opportunities to see beautiful lights in the city.

Anacapa Island: Gateway to the Channel Islands

Anacapa Island as a Gateway to the National Park

Anacapa Island

From wikimedia commons.

Anacapa Island is the first Channel Island that I ever visited, and it captured my heart and made me fall in love with the entire island chain. I first glimpsed Anacapa from Ventura, CA while I was on a trip with my family. At first, I wasn’t sure that the mountainous shadows on the horizon were real, a figment of my imagination, or some play of light off of the ocean. After a bit of investigation, I discovered that what I was seeing was very real. There were islands out there; the mystery was too much for me. I had to see them. So I booked a day trip with the Island Packers to Anacapa, the smallest of the islands.

As a young girl, I was enchanted by the treacherous looking steel ladder and stairs that led up the island’s cliffs from the bobbing boat. I loved that I could stand in the middle of the island and see the ocean in all directions. I loved hearing the birds arguing with one another as they nested and lived their busy lives. And there was nothing more picturesque than the lighthouse perched on the eastern end of the rocky crag in the sea. Since that day, I have always been called back to the Channel Islands. I have camped on Anacapa Island twice, camped on Santa Cruz twice and done a day trip to the Nature Conservancy side, spent a weekend on Santa Rosa, and volunteered with Channel Island Restoration on San Nicolas in order to give back to the islands I love.

Birding and Sunsets

Anacapa Island

From Wikimedia Commons.

Anacapa Island, much like Santa Cruz, is managed by both the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy. Of the three smaller islands that make it up, only one is readily accessible to visitors. There you can spend the day enjoying views from out of this world, or camp among the birds.

For those who camp, they will be delighted by Anacapa’s Inspiration point, which is situated on the western end of the NPS island. Perched on a little bench, you can watch the sun set over the other two islands, and on a clear day, see Santa Cruz just beyond. Once you’ve been there and seen it yourself, I can tell you, it is something that you will never forget and no picture will ever do it justice. Nonetheless, there are many paintings and photos of this beautiful viewpoint to be found in shops all over Ventura.

Anacapa Island

Inspiration Point during the day from Wikimedia Commons.

Bird lovers will also find Anacapa Island to be a dream-come-true. Not only do rare sea birds nest on the island, but if you come during the right season, you can camp (very carefully) in the midst of breeding sea gulls. I can’t think of a cuter memory than waking up to gull chicks playing under the flap of my tent before returning to the nest for food. That being said, this island really belongs to the birds, and one memorable downside to Anacapa is the quite pungent smell that decades of bird-living has created.

Kayaking and the Underwater World

Anacapa Island

Garibaldi fish from Wikimedia Commons

While Anacapa island itself is quite small, particularly the part of it where you can camp and hike, there is a whole watery world to explore in relation to this beautiful place. If you are a snorkeler (I imagine that diving is difficult due the whole metal ladder situation, but feel free to correct me if I am wrong), you will be delighted by the otherworldly kelp forests that are easily accessible from the eastern island. There are tons of flashy, orange garibaldi and brilliant purple urchins under the waves.

Kayakers can also spend the day out on the water, exploring the sea caves (very carefully!) and checking out the small pebbly coves that you can find along the island here and there. Be sure to keep your eyes open for sea lions and birds out there. We found a couple gulls tangled in fishing wire once and helped the rangers set them free. We were also chased down the beach and back into our boat by a sea lion once. We landed on an empty cove, ate our lunch, and then this guy just decided we were on his turf. He came right up out of the ocean and barked us away from his little beach paradise. It was scary at the time, but pretty funny in retrospect.

Tips and Safety for Anacapa

Anacapa Island

Shared by Connar L’Ecuyer

Climbing up the ladder up the cliffs from the boat landing to the island is actually quite dangerous. In 2013, a very experienced NPS volunteer tragically fell to his death while boarding a boat. So, please be careful while coming and going.

Cliffs are dangerous and no picture is worth your life. Keep your distance.

There are almost no ways out of the water and onto the island outside of the boat landing. So, always be prepared with food, water, and safety equipment while snorkeling and kayaking.

Remember that you are only a visitor to Anacapa Island. Respect the animals that call this place home and keep your distance from them. If you run into some of the situations we did here’s what I would suggest. (1) A baby seagull comes close to your tent door; stay quiet and still and let the little guy leave in his own time. If you scare him, he might get lost and other sea gulls might not be so welcoming to the little beb. (2) A sea lion or seal gets out on the beach and approaches you. As long as you can do so safely, retreat and give them the space that they need.

Anacapa Island

From Wikimedia Commons

Overall, remember that your safety is always your responsibility. Be sure to check in with the rangers when you arrive. They will help you assess any other safety needs you may need to consider.

For transportation to the island see the Island Packers.

For permits and national park info, reference the NPS website.

To read more about all the wonderful adventures that you can have on the Channel Islands, check out our guide.

Santa Cruz Island Camping and Hiking Adventure

King of the Channel Islands National Park

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2016

Santa Cruz is the largest of the Channel Islands, and it is one of the most accessible islands, with both day-trips and overnight trip options. There are miles and miles of trails open to visitors, making this bit of California the perfect destination for hikers looking for some quiet places to explore. The island is also home to some of the world’s most beautiful sea caves, which can be viewed by kayakers, and some lucky people will also get to check out the Painted Cave from an Island Packers boat (they sometimes stop there on the way back from Santa Rosa or San Miguel). In any case, Santa Cruz Island camping is the best way to enjoy the many things that the island has to offer.

Scorpion Anchorage

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

Scorpion Anchorage is going to be your primary landing for Santa Cruz Island camping, kayaking, and hiking. This has the best access to the parts of the island that is open to National Park users, and thus it is the perfect spot for explorers that are looking to freely wander the trails of Santa Cruz.

When you land here, you will come upon a pebbly beach, and campers will need to lug their gear up the trail from the landing, past the beautiful, green roofed ranch homes that the NPS currently uses for its personnel. The campground is past here, tucked away in a calm canyon that is still lined by the massive eucalyptus trees that were brought to the island by ranchers. Unlike Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz is a much less windy place to camp, making this verdant camping place a serene location to relax and pitch your tent.

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

From here, if you rent a kayak or bring your own, you can walk back out to the beach and explore the coast of the island. There are beautiful sea caves on Santa Cruz and some of them are accessible to sea kayakers. You should check with local rangers for details about this, and follow all safety precautions. Remember, your safety is your responsibility.

Santa Cruz Island camping will also allow visitors to spend more time on the trails and explore deeper into the interior of the island. Since Santa Cruz is so large, there are some varied landscapes that you are sure to find if you hike for long enough, but expect rolling hills and rounded mountains covered in grasslands similar to those found on the mainland nearby.

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

Prisoner’s Harbor

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2016

Prisoner’s Harbor is a small landing where you can access part of the Nature Conservancy’s claim to Santa Cruz when accompanied by a guide. This is one of the most special places for Santa Cruz Island hiking, and worth the trip for any fan of the Channel Islands.

There is a small wetland here that is close to the landing, and which is a great place for island fox and bird watching. From here, the trail into TNC’s land curls up a steep hill to the west and then starts a tiring but enchanting hiking in and out of several washes that run out from the island to the sea. Larger trees fill the areas where water funnels to the ocean, and the more dry-adapted giant coreopsis crown many of the hills. So, while you are huffing and puffing, you get a great sample of the island’s flora.

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

The end of the trail leads out to a beautiful beach, where you can relax for a while, and gather your strength back for the trek back to Prisoner’s Harbor.

Tips for Visiting

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

You will need to book a boat ride with Island Packers.

To learn about camping permits, be sure to read through the National Park Service’s info page.

And if you are curious about the other Channel Islands, look through our guide!

Page 1 of 19

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén