Imagine having no major vacation for 3 years. Work, entrepreneurial life, and little errands took over my life for quite a bit and I needed a way to refresh and get away for a week.
Most people look for extravagant vacations, names of destinations that are cool to mention in a bar, or just a typical list of places that are well-known vacation spots.
I wanted to be in the desert, in the sand dunes more specifically. When we were planning the route at a local brewery, I could tell my travel companion was not super pumped to spend 7 days covered in sand and mostly with no reception.
But, as you'll see, this trip delivered 110% and was an awesome getaway.
The plan was: 2 days in the mountains, 3 days in the desert, 1 day at a resort by the pool. Here is the map of the trip. We started and ended in LA, but you can pick a different starting point of your own.
Yosemite. Taft Point.
I've been here many times before, but mostly in the valley below. I haven't seen Glacier Point, the famous road twist where VW vans and skaters take their epic photos. I haven't been to Taft Point either, so that was the main first stop on the trip.
If you look at the map of Yosemite NP, Taft Point doesn't get much attention. It's a 2-mile hike to a remote cliff where the sunsets are to die for. But it seems hidden and unfamiliar to the typical tourist.
I thought we were going there for the final view - sunset and cliffs all around, but that hike in itself was mighty gorgeous.
I don't throw these phrases lightly. It was the most beautiful 25 minutes of walking in the woods I've ever done in my life. I generally don't like walking or running.
We made it right before the sunset and the view definitely paid off. For the end of September, the weather was a bit chilly but very comfortable. No mosquitos, no animals, just beauty all around.
Yosemite. Sentinel Dome.
The next morning we aimed to go to Glacier Point. But due to traffic (you need to find parking around sunrise, otherwise there is a super long wait time supervised by park rangers), we had to find another spot to stop.
We parked in the same spot as the day before and this time turned right to the Sentinel Dome. Taft Point was the trail on the left. Pretty neat to have these two so close by.
Hiking up is not as fun, for me at least. Sentinel Dome is this massive rock formation that has the views better than at Glacier Point. And also, maybe 95% smaller of a crowd. You get to the bottom of the dome and it's a mere 5-minute steep hike up to get to the top.
When you get up, wow what a view you get!!! It's one of those places that's super peaceful and feels like time can actually stop.
We spend around 40 minutes just looking into the distance.
We hiked down to Glacier Point afterward and yet again the trail didn't disappoint and we were the only ones on it.
Driving through Tioga Pass was amazing and definitely worth coming back for, it's at the other entrance into Yosemite, the one I haven't been to before. The lake is gorgeous. We kept driving well into the night, stopped at Mammoth Lakes Brewing Co (try IPA 395 here) and stayed overnight in Bishop.
Death Valley. Mesquite Dunes.
The next day was all about Mesquite Dunes. Probably the most famous dunes in California, they are very much a tourist stop.
I've seen photos of them online and they looked amazing. When we got there in person, most people stopped at the tree ruins 10 feet from the parking lot and didn't even go to explore the dunes.
That day was hot, so we roamed around a bit and went to check in at the hotel about a miles away. The hotel had a pool and a saloon, so we had all we needed.
Around 5 PM, we went back for a hike in our first dunes, and for the sunset. I was pumped!
I have this fear of snakes, and that's exactly who you can run into in the dunes. Thankfully all our dune adventures ended up with no snakes involved.
But I read up on this topic after and all you need even if a snake bites you (only if it senses danger) if an antidote shot from a medical crew. You can also carry those single shots of vaccine with you. Either way, 99% of the time you'll be fine if you accept medical treatment. Alright, now off to the happy subjects again.
We hiked the dunes and made our way to the tallest one right before the sunset. The views were gorgeous but I didn't expect how much of an exercise dune hiking would be. I got a good workout out of it.
There were less than 10 people in the dunes as far as we could see. We watched the sunset and from harsh shadows of light and darkness, everything suddenly turned into pastel purple and beige.
Sunset watching in the dunes is a great way to end the day.
And then you get a special surprise treat...
Since Death Valley is so remote, the night sky here is one of the clearest in all of the USA. So after dinner, you look up and see thousands of stars. It's pretty amazing.
We took our camping chairs out and set up a tripod to get some good shots of the sky. With no prep and tutorials on how to shoot the night sky, I got this shot.
Death Valley. Badwater Basin.
The next day we made our way to all the top spots in Death Valley. You probably don't need more than a few days here. Badwater Basin was pretty interesting.
Most people start their walk into the salt flats, but quickly turn around. It was an extremely windy day, but I think in general most people turn around too quick when they have to do some work, physical or mental.
We went all the way into the salt formations where nobody walks on them and the view was nice. Definitely not as epic as Bonneville Salt Flats, but still interesting to see.
Death Valley. Zabriskie Point.
Sunset plan was to hang around at Zabriskie Point. We drove to Dante View a bit earlier to see the whole Death Valley from the top. Nice views! Very windy!
Zabriskie is probably what most people think of when someone mentions Death Valley. Even though we continued to battle the wind, the view of the natural formations in these amazing layers we're worth hanging out there for a few hours.
10 minutes before the sunset, a group of highly professional outdoor photographers showed up with the biggest tripods and cameras you can imagine. I thought maybe one day I'll want to be like them, but not today.
Amargosa Opera House, CA
When was the last time you visited a place and right away got a very strange and weird vibe from it? For me, that was Amargosa Opera House.
Located in the middle of nowhere, at the crossroads of California and Nevada state roads, there stands a white long building. It's not in a good shape and everything around reminds more of a ghost town than a busy travel stop.
At first, you probably don't make much of it, and neither did we. I remembered seeing this place in the photos but didn't know the full history.
We paid $5 for an opera house tour and got to see the full extent of how someone can be dedicated and persistent with her dreams. Here is the story.
In the 60s she was a ballerina in New York City. Never a principal dancer, she knew her career was coming to an end and was looking for something to do after.
A fortune teller told her she'll leave NYC for good and will find her new home West in a town which name will start with a letter A.
She visited Amargosa during a tour I think and decided that this is where she'll spend the rest of her life, dancing, painting, and performing almost daily in front of an audience.
Las Vegas was not close enough to draw daily crowds and the only nearby audience she had was the population of 300 in the nearby town. And here is where the story takes the turn.
She began painting the theater and because nobody was in the audience to see her dance, she painted the audience right on the walls.
There were days and maybe even weeks at a time where she had regular performances with nobody sitting in the audience, just the 120 or so imagined characters staring at the stage with their dreamy looks.
She died last year, well-known in the area, and ultimately got her short-lived fame. I don't think she ever did this for fame, but more so for legacy that the locals are very protective of.
It's amazing to see so much effort and neverending positive attitude from one person captured in these buildings through her art and spirit.
National Geographic wrote about the opera house maybe 20 years ago, but that was the biggest and one of a few media mentions in her life.
We left the place a bit stunned. It's an unusual location for an opera house, to say the least. The vibe from the cracking white buildings burning in the sun and wild horses roaming nearby adds to the whole picture.
We meet people all the time who complain about life and how hard everything is: to find a husband, so start a business, to get free time, to keep your job..
Here was a person who in the worst conditions possible created a life for herself in the middle of nowhere.
I can't say what could have been in her head to live like this. But if you need a shift in perspective on things, this is the place to visit.
China Date Ranch, CA
With this new trend called glamping, I was curious to try what that would be like. I am very much a creature of the city these days, so we booked only one night to have our glamping experience sleeping in a teepee in the middle of the date ranch.
Turning off the highway and going through a town with a few hundred residents, I cannot say I was too excited. We parked at a trailer park, or so it seemed and went into the rental office to meet Cynthia, the owner of this teepee experience.
With hand drawn instructions we set out to spend the next 15 minutes driving to our hidden place. And what a gem it was.
Completely hidden from any nearby roads, you find yourself in the middle of this valley surrounded by palm trees (officially they are date trees). We had about 5 minutes until the shop at the ranch was closing and grabbed a few packs of fresh dates and a few regular packs.
The sun was setting and we roamed around the ranch, completely disconnected from all other humans of this world. We saw a few coyotes in the distance and that was it. It was a very peaceful evening and felt more like being on a safari tour.
At night, we got ready to use whatever blankets and warm clothing we had to survive the night. The winter heaters were not set yet, we booked our trip right in the middle of the seasons changing, so the teepee was still in the “summer mode.”
At night, the winds were hitting our teepee and these roaring sounds were both calming and a bit nerve-wracking. I woke up in the morning with every single sharp object all around our bed and apparently all night where were packs of coyotes howling and roaming around our teepee.
I didn’t hear them much, but my fiance was pretty frustrated by the lack of sleep and this Game of Thrones “Protect the North” vibe.
The next morning, we set out on a hike that started from the date ranch and for the next three hours we hiked some of the most remote areas I was ever expecting to find in the middle of California. We found buildings from the 1910s and also old railroad ruins.
The sun was high up and it was the perfect weather to hike comfortably all day long. But it was time to go, we had two more sand dunes ahead and I was beyond excited to see them.
Dumont Dunes, CA
Driving down on an empty highway, we started to see giant piles of sand in the far distance. I can say it was not a very appealing sight at first, but as we turned on the gravel road to get to the entrance to the dunes, I knew this is about to get epic.
Dumont Dunes are a popular spot for ATV adventures. We got there is offseason, so on a midweek day, the dunes we literally 98% human free.
Very different from Mesquite Dunes, which are all about 10-minute of tourist glory, Dumont Dunes are getting some quality time being damaged by the wheels of the off-road vehicles.
Beauty-wise, I give my vote to Dumont Dunes, even though they are not popular among tourist hotspots of California.
The wind picked up after some time and we got some brutal moments of small sand particles getting into everything we had on us. It was definitely fun and I didn’t mind being covered in sand.
The dunes also remained so amazingly peaceful and monumental through the whole time that I marked this spot as a great option for any time I need to be alone and do any kind of personal reflection or planning.
Kelso Dunes, CA
Dumont and Kelso dunes are separated by about two hours of driving through the desert. You have to cross the highway that heads to Vegas (or LA) and go back to the warning signs of desert turtles.
After driving past the railroad station that is famous for taking prisoners to their place of exile, we made a turn to the road with no clear indication of where it will take us.
It was a few hours before the sunset and we had to get going with our hike up the dunes.
Once again, I got nervous about snakes but had to conquer my fears as we embarked on this journey up the dunes. There is a long way to walk before you have to really start going up, so we walked and walked, alone in the California desert, knowing that there were maybe 4 people somewhere ahead of us and maybe 2 behind.
As the last big adventure of the trip, I can say it was also one of the hardest because of how much elevation we had to gain. Mesquite Dunes were mostly pretty flat. At Dumont Dunes we only really climbed one hill, but here it was this one-hour climb exercise which didn’t come easily to me.
We got closer to the biggest slope of the dune and decided to head up right to the top of the dune. Normally, I’m in pretty good physical shape, but this climb was very rough on me. When we got up, I could almost feel all my challenges of 2017 get into a single bowl of emotions and I felt conquering it as I got to the top.
Going down the dune was the most fun part of this trip. We got our boots covered in the dunes, and kept rapidly going down. Palm Spring and the pool were ahead and these last moments in the giant sand playground were almost over.
Kelso Dunes are very much a place for hikers. Mesquite Dunes are for tourists and Dumont are for off-road vehicle fans. This dune was all about walking up, facing internal challenges, and working through them as you go up.
Palm Springs, CA
The next day was spent at the pool, with people from conferences about how to find your future husband and parties from the wedding celebration a day ago at the hotel conference room.
We really felt this major disconnect between the adventures of the past few days and this bunch of cocktail drinking out of shape people.
I’m generalizing and exaggerating here, but we definitely felt out of place at this major Palm Springs resort hotel.
Heading home after a week on the road, we felt refreshed and quite inspired by finding such wild and unexpected adventures just 3-5 hours away from our home.
For everyone who made it this far down the post, here are my 9 favorite 35mm film scans from this trip. All shot on HP5 on Leica M6.
If you want to read about our other trips, head to:
- 9 Awesome Route 66 Attractions You Should Include In Your Trip
- The Great Western Roadtrip across Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado