Sunday, April 26, 2015

Hidden Gems--Great Campsites Across the Mojave and into the Sierra Nevada

I have been really fortunate to find some gorgeous primitive campsites on my travels across southern California.  When I last wrote, I was leaving a private RV park in Needles where I'd caught up on laundry, and I was ready to go to some more remote places.  Well, I sure found them!

On Monday I went to Hole-in-the-Wall Campground in the Mojave National Preserve.  If you're ever driving on this portion of I-40, I highly recommend this gorgeous site.  It's about an hour west of Needles and then 20 miles north on a paved but not maintained road that was no problem for me in my Toyota Dolphin.  

Early morning in the Mojave National Preserve

You know how when you've taken a long side road, you hope it's going to be worth the trip?  Well, yes, this was worth it.  This sprawling primitive campground with wide loops and large spaces is surrounded by stunning mountains in a variety of colors and shapes.  And, even though I was out in the middle of nowhere, I had a good Verizon signal and could stay in touch and look up information about the next leg of the journey.

Afternoon sun on cholla flowers

Hole-in-the-Wall was $6 per night with my Access pass.  It has no hookups or showers, but there is fresh drinking water and vault toilets.  I spent two nights there, then headed across the rest of the Mojave on I-40 because I heard that the weather there would be cooler than usual, making the drive more pleasant.  

 A flock of sheep just off the freeway exit at Ludlow, CA, where I stopped for gas

I drove longer on Wednesday than I ordinarily try to drive.  I'd thought I would stop in Barstow and maybe blacktop boondock at Flying J or Peggy Sue's Cafe.  But I got such an early start that morning that I was in Barstow well before noon and I wasn't ready to stop yet.  So I drove on to the next destination I'd considered, Red Rock Canyon State Park, on Highway 14, north of the town of Mojave.  

 These cliffs at Ricardo Campground in Red Rock Canyon State Park have appeared in lots of movies, including Westerns and the original Star Wars

At this park, just like at Hole-in-the-Wall campground, I was surrounded by fascinating mountains.  I was camped in front of some cliffs that have fluted folds in them, and their colors change all day long with the light.  Plein air painters and hikers would be in heaven here.  My primitive campsite at Red Rock, however, cost me $25, so I shoved off the next morning.  It was also the first of several nights of having little, if any, phone service. 

Then I aimed for Lake Isabella in the Sequoia National Forest.  The giant sequoias and the Sierra Nevada are some of the main draws for me on this trip, besides my ultimate goal of visiting with my son when I get to Seattle.  I've never been in this part of California before, and I'm fascinated by the many miles of public lands to be explored and enjoyed.

 Low water levels at Lake Isabella in the Sequoia National Forest

My experience in the Sequoia National Forest was kind of mixed.  I very much liked the Forest Service boondocking site where I stayed one night along the Kern River, north of Lake Isabella.  But I was pretty disappointed with the neglected condition of the Forest Service developed campgrounds all around the lake.  I don't know if this is because it's too early in the year for them to have the campgrounds in shape, or whether nobody comes to these campgrounds anymore because the water level in the lake is so low, or what.  Anyway, I'd never seen such shabby and depressing Forest Service campgrounds before.

 View from my RV door at my free boondocking site on the Kern river

The boondocking site I had on the Kern River was no-fee.  If you're ever in this area, there are many of these free campsites along the Kern, many with fire rings and a dumpster.

After leaving the river campsite, I kept heading north into more of the Sequoia National Forest.  I sure do wish I had done more research before I got on this road.  I found myself at very high elevations, driving mountain roads with lots of switchbacks, in misty and foggy weather with very limited visibility, in my little 4-cylinder mini-motorhome.  

I'd intended to head to California Hot Springs, a privately-owned spa and RV park in the Forest, but that road was too dangerously unseeable.  So instead I stuck to the main road which I knew would eventually take me down off the mountains into the town of Springville.  

 A fuzzy iPhone pic of me in front of one of the Giant Sequoias

Along the way, I stopped at the Trail of the 100 Giants, which is a wonderful nature trail with a brochure that explains different types of trees and characteristics of how they grow from seedling to towering giant.  I also saw some incredible views, and I was especially awed by looking back from mountain tops to see where I had come from.  It was one of the most challenging mountain driving experiences I've ever had, even after the weather cleared up a bit and there was no more fog to contend with.  

Many miles later, I was relieved to pull into a gas station in Springville and reach into the passenger seat to take my wallet out of my backpack and...where was my backpack?  I looked everywhere, but I knew exactly where it was.  Back at 100 Giants, hanging on a hook in a vault toilet stall.  That was the last place I'd seen it.  Probably 50 or more miles back up that scary mountain road.  

And what a dilemma I had now, because I needed more gas in order to drive back up there, but I had no money or credit cards because they were in the backpack.  Plus, what if I got all the way up there and someone had already stolen the backpack or taken it to the rangers office?  And there was no way I wanted to get stranded up there overnight!  It was cold enough on the Trail of the 100 Giants for me to wear a fleece vest and gloves around mid-day. 

Fortunately I knew there was a ranger station in Springville, and I headed there.  The women in the office were great.  They called a fire crew that was up somewhere in that area and had them check the 100 Giants bathroom on their way back to the ranger station at the end of their work day.  So I spent the afternoon outside the ranger station, sitting in my RV, eating a sandwich, reading a book, trying not to be nervous.  And it all worked out perfectly.  The fire crew brought me the backpack with everything intact.  Money, ID, credit cards, etc., all there.  What a relief!

At the end of that too-exciting Friday, I was glad to pull into a quiet Corps of Engineers campground a few miles down the road from Springville at Lake Success.  It was a nice campground, nothing as wildly natural as the previous several nights, but a good place to calm down and think about things.

I found after getting rather anxious driving mountain roads that perhaps I have overestimated my interest in the Sierra Nevada.  Or maybe I'd like to look at it more from the foothills, rather than venturing up onto every available terrifying mountain road.  

 Last night's view, at Lake Kaweah

So last night, I found myself another Corps of Engineers campground to stay at on Lake Kaweah, about an hour up the road from the last COE stop.  And tonight I am another hour-and-a-half north at a third COE campground, Island Park on Pine Flat Reservoir, which is pretty much straight east of Fresno. 

I may go back up into the mountains to visit some more National Forest lands and to go to Yosemite National Park, but I've already bypassed the remainder of what I anticipated seeing of Sequoia National Forest and Sequoia National Park.  I am realizing my limits.  I appreciate more now what it was like for Steve when he realized his limits and decided not to make this trip with me. 

 Tonight's campsite at Pine Flat Reservoir

I'm staying at my current campsite for two nights, hooked up to electricity and water for the first time in a very long time.  I'm feeling very grateful for electricity and running water, and I've finally been able to fill up my freshwater tank, so I have water for dishwashing and flushing when I'm primitive camping.  Amazing how these simple things that we normally take for granted (power, water, being able to flush a toilet or take a shower, etc.) become so important and gratifying when you're on the road.  

My house batteries are low in power, and that's why I'm going to just sit here hooked up to electricity for a couple of days.  If they're recharged in a day or two, great, I can go on.  If not, I will have to stop and get the batteries checked and possibly replaced somewhere along the road.  This stop also gives me time to consider what's next.  Probably Yosemite.  I can't see being this close and not going, even if I find the drive a little harrowing. 



  1. So happy you got your backpack back!

  2. Very pleased to hear the positive outcome of "Operation Backpack"! ;->

    Virtual hugs,


  3. It sounds like you are following a route similar to the one I took when I visited that area, the roads of Sequoia are very high around 14,000 ft, I dont think you will encounter anything any more challenging than that...we were not in a 4 cylinder but had no problems going on from there to Yosemite.. Awesome you got your backpack without having to go back and find it gone!.

  4. So glad you got your backpack back. There is no better feeling as when my fresh water tank is full and holding tanks are empty. Did mine this afternoon. Thanks for the update. :)

  5. You've visited a lot of beautiful places. I agree that you have to see Yosemite if you're so close. A photo of Half Dome would be fantastic.

    It was so nice of the fire crew to deliver your backpack to you! I only bring a couple of cards with me, just in case. And my health card and driver license. I've left my little card holder in a store, and was lucky to get it back with everything in it. :)