California Nevada Oregon

April 2021

  1. Seattle
  2. Portland
  3. Napa Valley
  4. Yosemite National Park
  5. Carrizo Plain National Monument
  6. Valley of Fire State Park
  7. Death Valley
  8. Mono Lake
  9. Lake Tahoe
  10. New Bullards Bar Reservoir
  11. Alvord Desert
  12. Painted Hills

Day 1: Seattle to southern Oregon

We’re on the road with the Cabana again.

When our last trip to Utah ended and we had to return our rented camper van, we weren’t ready. We had had a taste of van life, and we were hooked. The fact that we could live (and be so happy) in such a small space and with so little felt liberating. The fact that we could so easily reach places of such extraordinary beauty by bringing our house along felt like the ultimate travel experience. While on the road, we met other campers who told us stories of trading a traditional city life for a nomadic one, and we couldn’t help but realize how right that felt to us. Maybe we’ll live in a camper van one day?

Anyway, we’re on the road again and that feeling of freedom has returned. We drove south today, making a quick stop in Portland for a delicious lunch at Handsome Pizza, then a brief diversion to a place we’ve always wanted to see: The Airplane Home! It’s exactly what it sounds like — an airplane that ingenious Bruce Campbell has turned into his home. It was no easy feat to move the old Boeing 727 into its current site and to remodel its interior to make it livable, but the result is remarkable: a futuristic home nestled among the towering evergreens of a serene forest! And from an environmental perspective, isn’t it better to reuse than to recycle?

Airplane Home, near Portland.

Day 2: Southern Oregon to Napa Valley

The drive from Oregon to California’s Bay Area was remarkable for its landscape. We passed rivers, hills, and the imposing and snow-covered Mount Shasta. Bright yellow forsythias, intensely purple jacaranda trees and playful orange poppies punctuated the landscape along the way. We followed the I-5 highway most of the way, but occasionally took detours through more scenic backroads for the full experience. And toward the end of the day, we arrive in Napa Valley, California.

Most people come to Napa for the wine, but we came for the drone photography and the food. This region’s gentle rolling hills are etched with parallel rows of grape vines, resulting in an unusual juxtaposition of natural and structured shapes. Flying our drone above the vineyards allowed us to see the emerging spring crop from a different perspective. So beautiful. As for the food, there are so many tempting restaurant options. Today we shared a wonderful vegetable-topped flatbread and a creative salad at the Boon Fly Cafe in Carneros, and we can’t wait to explore more.

Life is good.

Napa Valley.

The grape vines were just starting to show new growth.

Day 3: Napa Valley

We got up early today, hoping to catch sunrise over the vineyards, but the weather turned out to be foggy. The beauty of the vineyards was not diminished by the fog though, which in some ways added a mysterious undertone to this place.

The rest of our day was a proper gastronomical feast. For us, no other food experience beats eating fruits and vegetables just picked from the garden. Therefore, our eyes lit up when we came across renowned chef Thomas Keller’s vegetable garden in Yountville. This garden supplies his restaurants across the street, The French Laundry and Bouchon Bistro, and is so meticulously arranged that we had to capture it from above with the drone (after obtaining permission). Lunch was a no-brainer: we crossed the street and ordered some of those same vegetables at the Bouchon Bistro. Both the concept and the flavors were exceptional — “local food” takes on a whole new meaning in Napa!

Dinner was also a very pleasant experience. Longtime friends David and Sylvia met us in Sonoma to enjoy some well-executed Portuguese dishes at LaSalette. This was the first time in a year that any of us had dined out with friends, and it felt almost like an ordinary pre-COVID evening out. We’re looking forward to more social activities and shared meals as vaccination rates increase.

The French Laundry’s vegetable garden.

Day 4: Napa Valley to Yosemite

We were curious to know if Model Bakery’s famous English muffins are overhyped, so we started the day by checking them out. We’re happy to report that they lived up to their reputation. So good.

We then set out in the direction of Yosemite National Park and hiked Hites Cove Trail, a narrow path clinging to the steep slopes of the valley carved by the South Fork Merced River. Along the trail, we saw wildflowers of all shapes and colors, which at this time of the year seem to attract equally varied butterflies. We took our time exploring this trail, noticing the small things: metallic green bugs, leaves that look like the inside of a kiwi, and pink wildflowers that spiral around other plants to reach the sky. The butterflies were our favorites though: every time we crossed another small creek, a congregation of butterflies would take flight at once and circle around us in a flurry! We laughed out loud because it reminded us of the aunt in the TV show “The Great”!

In the late afternoon we drove through Yosemite Valley on the way to an RV camp, giving us a preview of the park. We’re excited to see more of it tomorrow!

Hiking Hites Cove Trail.

Day 5: Yosemite

We celebrated Eric’s birthday today by exploring Yosemite National Park! We walked several of the trails in the main valley, where stunning views await around every turn. There are so many outrageously tall spectacles of nature: the imposing cliffs, the towering evergreen trees, and the enormous waterfalls. It must have been even more incredible to the first humans who set eyes on this landscape; we were at least prepared for the majesty of the park by the photos of Ansel Adams and others!

We ate our picnic lunch at Tunnel View, where we were treated to a sweeping view of the whole valley including El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Cathedral Rocks, Half Dome, and a giant forest covering the valley floor. The view was so beautiful that we returned to the same spot for our picnic dinner and lingered until dark. What a great day!

Yosemite Valley, as seen from Tunnel View.

Yosemite Falls.

Day 6: Carrizo Plain

We enjoy visiting national parks, but nothing comes close to the happiness we feel when exploring lesser-known off-the-beaten path places. That’s why we were so looking forward to visiting Carrizo Plain National Monument. It’s a little-visited gem of a park with softly undulating hills, plains of straw-colored grass, and a bright white mineral lake in the middle. And most importantly, no crowds or traffic, just open space. Soda Lake is magical — with its branching arms extending in all directions, its shape reminded us of the flying spaghetti monster! 😀 There are some higher vantage points where the lake can be enjoyed from above, but we enjoyed the perspective given to us by the drone the most.

We spent the afternoon driving the van on dirt roads without seeing another soul. We parked for the evening a long way down one of these remote roads, and felt truly at peace as we watched the sunset from a rippling field of grass overlooking the lake. As darkness set in, crickets serenaded us and millions of stars gradually came into view.

Soda Lake in Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Day 7: Carrizo Plain to Valley of Fire

Today we awoke before dawn so that we could fly the drone and capture photos of Carrizo National Monument at sunrise. The meandering tendrils of water and mineral deposits shimmered in the morning light, and the sculpted foothills surrounding the valley were beautifully illuminated. We explored the park for half the morning, then drove up into the Temblor Range to the east, winding our way through the steep hills and ravines. By midday we had emerged into California’s central valley, full of orange groves and vast farms. We continued driving all afternoon, rolling into Las Vegas with our music blasting as the sun was setting. We’ve been to Vegas many times before, so this time we only stopped long enough for yummy Neapolitan-style pizza at Settebello, and then moved on. We headed for a dispersed camping site on BLM land outside of Valley of Fire State Park, where we were glad to set up camp after a long day of driving.

Driving through the Temblor Range.

Day 8: Valley of Fire

Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada is open from sunrise to sunset, and we definitely got our money’s worth: we entered the park just as the sun was rising and didn’t leave until the light was fading from the sky! The park is small, but it’s chock full of interesting sights. We saw 4000-year-old petroglyphs, slot canyons, mountain goats, caves, and rock formations of shapes and colors beyond our imagination! We enjoyed several short hikes and found photogenic scenes all around. The Fire Wave rock formation is probably the most popular sight in the park, and for good reason — its alternating red and white stripes create beautiful curving contour lines. Most people reach the Fire Wave by hiking from a busy parking lot along a well-traveled trail through wide open terrain. We were glad we found a way from the less-well-known but far more beautiful Pastel Canyon trail, which took us through a pink-hued slot canyon to an easily traversed rocky slope. We enjoyed the view as the sun went down, then headed back to the van to find a campsite.

Elephant Rock in Valley of Fire State Park.

Fire Wave.

Day 9: Valley of Fire to Death Valley

After our brief but fascinating stay at Valley of Fire State Park, we headed back to civilization (if that’s the right word) in Las Vegas. We lingered just long enough to stock up on groceries and eat a “parking lot picnic” brunch, then we hit the road again. Traveling westward, we re-entered California and headed for tonight’s campsite in the tiny town of Shoshone near the south end of Death Valley. We took care of some van chores and relaxed in the breezy campsite during the afternoon, since we didn’t want to visit Death Valley at the hottest time of day. The valley is hella hot — the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 134°F (56.7°C), measured in 1913 in Death Valley!

Late in the afternoon, we drove into the park by way of Route 178. This is a less-traveled but quite scenic back road, which rises over 3300 feet (1000 m) above sea level before descending to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. The floor of the valley here is covered by a huge salt flat. After driving for a while next to this glaring white expanse, the road finally ascended the ridge and led us to Artists Drive. We cruised around this scenic loop road until we arrived at Artists Palette, where each of the triangular hills and mountain peaks nearby is colored a different hue by volcanic deposits of various compounds. This made a perfect stop for some sunset photos, and then we headed back to the RV park for the night.

Artists Palette in Death Valley.

Day 10: Death Valley to Mono Lake

We got up early today to ensure that we were at Zabriskie Point just before sunrise. It was incredible to witness the landscape reveal itself, as the sun gently illuminated the bizarre geological formations in front of us. Layers of red, orange and yellow rock formed pointed peaks, sprawling badlands, and snaking valleys, in perfect balance. Once the sun was up, we drove along Twenty Mule Team Canyon, where a narrow gravel road threads its way between pointy hills in a variety of pastel colors. We finished our morning by visiting the sand dunes at the northern end of the park, and then hit the road again.

In the afternoon, we drove west and then north to Mono Lake. Along the way, the landscape changed dramatically. The Joshua trees and dust devils we’ve gotten used to for the last several days gave way to snowy mountain peaks, evergreens, and lakes. We arrived at Mono Lake in time to enjoy sunset from the South Tufa viewing area. Tufa are irregular limestone towers produced beneath the surface of the lake, and these particular formations are visible because the water level has decreased. Their funky shapes make for interesting photos at sunset.

  • Mono Lake
  • Night: Dispersed camping near Mono Lake

View from Zabriskie Point, Death Valley.

Another view from Zabriskie Point.

Twenty Mule Team Canyon.

Tufa formations at Mono Lake.

Day 11: Mono Lake to Lake Tahoe

Today is Bea’s birthday, and there’s no better way to spend it than taking a road trip together in a camper van!

We left the Mono Lake area early in the morning, and decided to pay a visit to Bodie, a ghost town from the gold rush days that has been frozen in time. The town looks like a Western movie set, except it’s real (think “Westworld,” but showing signs of aging). Gold was discovered in large amounts in 1875 when a nearby mine collapsed, quickly attracting prospectors, miners, and practitioners of the oldest profession on Earth. It also attracted outlaws, and became known as the most trigger-happy town in the west. Then in 1881, once there was little left to be mined, the town’s population declined steeply. What is left of this uninhabited town is a living museum: wood and brick houses that contain all the artifacts of the time still intact, and that tell a story of living on the frontier during an exciting time in American history.

After Bodie, we continued to the southern part of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. We spent the afternoon exploring the rocky shore of the lake, and then had a tasty, healthy, and casual takeout dinner at Sprouts Cafe Tahoe. Later we checked into our super nice campsite, where we enjoyed the tranquil evergreen forest that surrounds the lake.

Bodie ghost town.

Day 12: Lake Tahoe to Reno

We visited Bullards Bar Reservoir today, an off-the-beaten-path lake that is so stunning that it deserved the detour from our itinerary. This lake gets busy in the summer season, mainly due to recreational boating and fishing. But in April, during the COVID pandemic, on a weekday, we had the area to ourselves. And unlike in most of the parks we’ve visited over the past week, drones are allowed. We were particularly excited to fly our drone at Bullards Bar because of the water’s intense turquoise color, the fractal-shaped shores, and the never-ending forest surrounding the lake.

We enjoyed a short hike along the lake shore and a picnic lunch at Dark Day Campground, which seems like a great place to return to for a longer stay in the future. But today we needed to restock our supplies for the rest of the trip, so we drove into Reno for groceries and dinner.

New Bullards Bar Reservoir.

Day 13: Reno to Alvord Desert

Alvord Desert in Oregon is our kind of place and has been on our bucket list for a long time. This enormous dried up lake (or playa) is a land of extremes though, and the conditions aren’t always right for a visit. In the summer it’s scorching hot; in the winter it’s freezing cold; in the spring the sudden rains make its surface impossibly muddy; and in the fall you may or may not get lucky with the conditions. We’ve been watching the weather for the last several days, and even though spring is not the ideal time to visit, we decided we’d give it a try. And aren’t we glad we did! There hasn’t been any rain for a while, and there isn’t any predicted during our stay, so the surface of the playa is dry and we can drive and camp on it. In addition, the weather is as perfect as it gets around here… although even the most perfect weather is a bit extreme: we were wearing T-shirts around 6 pm, put on all our layers around 7 pm, and it will get below freezing during the night.

When dry, the surface of Alvord Desert cracks in the most interesting shapes, somewhat similar to the hexagons seen on the surface of salt flats. We had fun driving the Cabana on this endless plain of cracked earth, eating a nice dinner with a special view, and taking photos at sunset. We’re super excited to spend the night in such a remote and unique place.

Alvord Desert.

Day 14: Alvord Desert to Painted Hills

We usually cover the windows of the Cabana with blackout shades to sleep, but last night in the Alvord Desert we didn’t need the privacy and we wanted to enjoy the view, so we didn’t bother. The moon illuminated just enough of the landscape to make it feel like we were on another planet. It was a thrill to wake up in such a magical place, so far from anyone else.

The drive between the Alvord Desert and our next stop, the town of Mitchell, was spectacular. The road was narrow and winding, yet smoothly paved, and we were treated to views of rolling hills and open plains covered in desert vegetation. Towns were few and far between — for one stretch, we didn’t encounter any towns or intersections for over 100 miles (160 km). Good thing we planned ahead when it came to filling the gas tank! Arriving in Mitchell, we had a great lunch at Tiger Town Brewing. They serve well-executed American pub food and have a very pleasant outdoor patio seating area with fun music.

After lunch, we drove the short distance to Painted Hills — a small park hidden in south-central Oregon that is infrequently visited but well worth a look. The hills here are striped with layers of rich rust colored minerals alternating with tan rocks, evidence of climate change over millennia. These intensely colored hills are nestled among the pale green of the surrounding desert vegetation, making a beautiful and colorful scene.

Painted Hills.

Day 15: Painted Hills to Seattle

Today was the last day of our road trip, and so we headed for home. But not without one final stop in Portland to experience some more of the food scene there. This time, we sampled dishes from two places that are next door to each other: crepes from Frog & Snail, and fried egg sandwiches from Fried Egg I’m In Love. Both places were excellent. Fried Egg I’m In Love gets extra points for making us chuckle over the witty music-inspired names for the items on the menu, like “Free-range against the machine,” “Smells like protein spirit,” and “Sriracha mix-a-lot.” 😀

In total, we spent two weeks on the road, covering more than 3500 miles (5600 km). After that much time living in a camper van, arriving home felt a bit surreal. Our house felt big. Really big. Maybe even unnecessarily big?

Thanks for following along on our journey. We’re looking forward to the next adventure!