After the High Sierra music festival, I drove through Tahoe and decided to visit Yosemite on my way back to the City. I had a recommendation to climb Mt. Rose, but didn’t expect to go all the way as it seemed crazy long and far. Ultimately, I took the wrong turn and ended up there anyway! But what a view! The last 1/4 mile was brutal, and I felt like I was on the final approach of Everest! (Ok, not really, but it was hard.) I was rewarded later that day with the perfect campsite just outside the park gates. I put my blanket down on the edge of the lake, made myself a G&T, fluttered my toes in the water, and read a book whilst soaking up the mountain sun. (My sunburn later reminded me that in my glee I should have been more prudent) The mozzies came out with fury at dusk, and I had no camp wood, so I climbed in the back of my MIni and watched the light fade away as I drifted off to sleep. At dawn, I was wide awake and jumped out of the car to capture the sun rise over the lake, eager to start my journey through one of my favorite National Parks on the planet. One that I had been absent from for too long.
We drove through Christmas tree pass years ago when my parents first bought their home in Bullhead City, AZ. I remember marveling at the high rocky mountains and cactus laden plains as we drove for hours through a small dirt corridor which led to the highway on the other side. Until recently, a photograph of that drive hung on the wall of their kitchen—a huge, solitary rock sitting silently in the middle of the arid desert fields, watching over the tufts of tumbleweed that hadn't yet released their grip on the earth, with a sturdy mountain peering down in the background. Since basing myself in Las Vegas, my drive home leads me past the turnoff for this memory every week. Finally, one morning in February, I woke up and decided it was time to see Christmas again. I packed a camera, a tripod, and some snacks, and set out to roam the dusty roads for the afternoon. In my mind's eye, I would find that rock once again, stand atop its cragginess and take a triumphant selfie, commemorating this mini circle of life moment. I started out by pulling into the first turnout which was the route to some notable petroglyphs that lived there (I had been captivated the month prior by the petroglyphs inside the Valley of Fire state park). I climbed out of my trusty Mini (aka Oso for 'bear', named for the bear pillow that hibernates in the back seat and keeps me company on my drives) and started walking. Almost immediately, but not obtrusively, the petroglyphs jumped out at me from all sides. I was the only person there—it felt like a private showing in a petroglyph gallery. After wandering through the mazes of picture art, I picked some rocks to climb up, over and through and continued back into the canyon. The glorious thing about exploring is that it doesn't take much to make you feel like Robinson Carusoe. Within minutes of wandering off the beaten path, I looked around me and noticed the earth in meditation—everything was silent, save a swift brush of air brushing gently past my face. The rocks in the distance looked as if some crabs began to build a fortress and then suddenly disappeared. A lone Cholla cactus sat on a ledge, glistening sunlight from every delicate thorn as it basked in the evening sun. I shimmied up a boulder and sat at the top, gazing out at the nothingness around me that was filled with so much life. Twenty minutes drive and a fifteen-minute hike brought me to a peace that reset my chatty monkey mind and let me feel the heartbeat of the desert. Did I mention it was Valentine's Day? I drove a bit farther down a smaller dirt road until it literally (and I use this in the real meaning of the word!) told me it was the end of the road. There in the wilderness, I set up my camp chair and covered my legs with a blanket, popped an IPA and watched the sun as it began setting below the hills. What a beautiful valentine's... just me and my sweet desert dessert. I never made it back to the rock from the picture, but I did get my selfie—pink wig and all.
Fuck! Ffffuck!! Holy F*ck! The words just kept falling out of my mouth as I turned each corner of this stunning park and gasped in awe at the beauty that was strewn out before me. I chose this as a destination because of the glowing reviews online and beautiful photographs, but I didn't truly expect to have my mind fucking blown into a thousand pieces. To be fair, this was my first camping trip in, well, ages, so my mind was ripe for the blowing. Showing you these photographs now just makes me cringe a bit because there is nothing that can compare with driving in over the bland North Vegas highway, past the 'Gas N' Sip', down the dusty road and then turning the corner to a winding road down into a valley that is bursting with red daggers out of the white, black, and brown landscape. You feel like you're in that scene from Superman where he throws the crystal in the snow and all of the huge sparkly crystals rise out of the barren landscape far into the sky revealing his hidden Utopia homeland. Yup, it's just like that- but red rocks instead of Superman crystals.
It's only an hour's drive from Vegas, and you have your choice of two campgrounds (which, are basically in the same place but divided by some of those huge red rock formations). Arch Rock campground can accommodate larger trailers and has flush toilets and showers for $30/night, and Atlatl campground (pronounced At-lah-tl), is smaller and in my opinion a bit more quaint which has pit toilets and no showers for $20. Remember the $10 park entrance fee gets redistributed into your camping fee. I'm daring to state that this campsite, particularly #19 in Atlatl, is the most stunning campsite I've ever stayed in. The sites are nestled up against the rock walls, most of them along a tiny one-way curvy road that circles the camp, so they are very private.
The park highlights are very well marked so it's easy to get around and find the various vistas, hikes, and petroglyphs. Most of the listed attractions can be seen within a 30-minute walk, but like one ranger said to me, "You can just keep going if you want- You're able to walk anywhere here. Just make sure you have a good sense of direction to get you back!"
So, my advice is to pick a spot, bring a bottle of water, and put one foot in front of the other. Each step is a wonderland.