Fun fact: most rental companies will refuse to rent you a van if you’re driving to Death Valley in summer. The hottest place on earth, Death Valley has in recent years topped 50°C, including a scorching world record of 54.4°C just last year. Wisely, our Toronto Guardian road trip was booked for the coolness of the winter months, where the days average 20°C and the nights bottom out at 4°C. Though we learned too late about the icy cold nights (brr!), we still had an incredible time on a road trip that took us from sunny Nevada to even sunnier California, all with our beautifully kitted-out campervan courtesy Travellers Autobarn.
Read on, for more on the Toronto Guardian guide to not-breaking-down-in-overwhelming-heat-when-you-rent-a-retrofitted-van-and-drive-across-the-Mojave-Desert.
Taking Robert Frost’s advice to heart, our trip began down the road less travelled, visiting the lesser-known Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada), located in the Mojave Desert. Valley of Fire is a striking place, all bright red rock and rolling vistas that could easily be mistaken for an alien landscape. Total Recall was filmed here, as was Star Trek: Generations and other alien-adjacent movies like Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas.
Arriving in low tourist season, our multiple hikes through Valley of Fire were remarkable both for the stunning views and the total absence of other hikers. Highlights included the “White Domes” trail, an easy-to-intermediate hike that has you shimmying between towering red rocks which look like they could have been transplanted from Mars. Gathering around our fire pit each evening to watch the stars come out, we couldn’t be more thrilled about the start of our trip. It probably helped that, in lieu of hot dogs and canned peaches, we’d hit up a Trader Joe’s early on for some proper meal supplies. Between the van fridge, hot plate, and the fire pits available at each site, we always ate well.
Next up was the famed Death Valley National Park, the official hottest place on Earth. Death Valley is incredible, a place where, in the space of less than a day, you can descend 86 metres below sea level (the lowest point in North America) then up into the mountains at an altitude of 1.2 kilometres. The drive out of the park is not for the faint of heart, with jaw-dropping switchbacks that had our hands firmly glued to the steering wheel. (Never fear, our trusty Autobarn van came through unscathed!)
Death Valley highlights include the saltwater flats at Badwater Basin, which look like a snow-and-ice-field but taste like table salt, and Zabriskie Point, perhaps best known for the Pink Floyd-soundtracked film of that name. Speaking of – Death Valley’s greatest accomplishment must surely be its place in Star Wars history, serving as the filming location for Tatooine (parts of which were also filmed in Tunisia), including the path to Jabba’s palace.
Joshua Tree National Park was our next major destination. But, after several days on the road/camping, it was time for an indulgence, with dinner at Kitchen in the Desert, on the outskirts of Joshua Tree. KitD, which opened in 2015 under the direction of chef Everton Gordon, is a veritable oasis of culinary delights. The menu features Latin-inspired cuisine such as Trinidadian doubles and Spanish-style tortillas, made with organic ingredients and with plentiful vegetarian and vegan options.
Even though it was a relatively chilly winter evening, we opted for the gorgeous outdoor dining area with patio heaters adjoining each table, and ponchos for when it got breezy. Though we’re proud of our van dining efforts, KitD was definitely the highlight meal of our trip.
Finally, Joshua Tree beckoned. The U2-inspiring national park is home to the unusual but beautiful Joshua tree, a member of the agave family that looks like a giant cactus with spindly branches and deceptively spiky needles. Joshua Tree is different from other parks in that it sits on the outskirts of a well-developed town, with cell service available throughout most of the park. After a week in the wilderness with no connection to the outside world, it was honestly a nice way to ease our way back into civilization!
Highlights of Joshua Tree included our sunset drive through the endless fields of trees, and our stroll through the cholla cactus garden, home of the even more unusual cholla cactus (pictured above). Nicknamed the “jumping cactus”, the cholla plant is covered in spiky barbs that quickly detach from the cactus and stab directly into whatever brushes against it, clothing and skin alike. (We saw one poor tourist try and fail to remove a barb for a good ten minutes!)
On our way out of Joshua Tree and en route to Los Angeles, we could not help but marvel at the extraordinary, occasionally unexpected journey we had just undertaken. Sure, there were nights when we missed hot showers or laundry facilities or cell service, but it was all worth it for the incredible sights, wonderful food (never let it be said that camping is all franks ‘n beans!), and those beautiful starry night skies. We can’t wait to get out on the road again!
Read more and book your campsites at Valley of Fire State Park here.
For more on Death Valley, click here.
For more on Joshua Tree, click here.
And finally, for more on Travellers Autobarn and their delightfully retro-styled campervans, drive on up here.