Climate change has given California incredibly wet winters in two out of the last three years, resulting in outrageous superblooms in our grasslands and deserts. For spring break this year, I hopped in my new trailer and drove a giant circle around the Sierra Nevada, stopping for flowers, the Alabama Hills, and hot springs. There were plenty of mis-adventures mostly related to me not knowing what I was doing with the trailer, especilaly in the first 24 hours, but all in all it was an amazing trip.
Oakland to Camp Robertson Rest Stop
I’ve had a bug in my brain about getting a teardrop trailer for a good five years now and late last summer I finally committed and ordered a Vistabule. I also had to get a new car because while the Vistabule only weighs 1,200 lbs dry, my 2011 Honda Fit was not capable of towing it. I tried to time the delivery of my trailer and my new car (a Volvo XC-40), but the car lagged about a week behind the trailer and didn’t make it in time for spring break, so I rented a truck from Enterprise Trucks the only rental agency that lets you tow. The smallest truck you can rent is a 3/4 ton pickup, and I was shocked when I went to pick up the truck around 11am on Monday—a brand new humungous F-250 4×4 with an extended cab and a 6.7 liter turbo diesel was waiting. This thing was a beast, and way more than I’d need to tow the little Vistabule.
I drove off the lot and straight to AutoZone to pick up a hitch and ball. Getting to where I store the trailer, I realized that I’d need a hitch with a much longer drop since the F-250 was so freakin tall, so back to AutoZone it was. I backed up the truck and went to hook the trailer up only to realize that the damage the delivery guy had done to the trailer’s tongue jack wasn’t just cosmetic–the entire thing was busted and turning the crank did nothing but make a clicking sound of gears not locking in to each other. I was so pissed. Now I had this ridiculous truck, two trips to AutoZone, and still couldn’t hook up the trailer. After fuming for a bit, I realized I could probably use the truck jack to lift up the trailer. Under the back seat, I easily found all the jack parts except for the jack itself (grr). I googled and googled, searched under this seat, that seat, under the truck, around the bed, and finally *finally* found the jack behind the passenger side rear seat. Why the jack crank parts (idk what these are called, u know, the tubes that give you leverage) is underneath the driver side rear while the jack itself is behind the back of the seat on the opposite side of the truck, only Ford Motor Company can tell you. I jacked up the trailer and got the ball aligned without too much trouble and got hitched! Now just for the safety chains. Oh, great, the clips on these safety chains are TOO FREAKIN SMALL to fit over the beefy F-250 chain spots, so back to AutoZone it is. Surely these tow-rated O-rings will fit over and then I can put the chains through them. NOPE. Back to AutoZone for the final solution: a tow-rated safety chain that I looped around the truck’s safety chain attachment spots, and then hooked the trailer’s safety chains to that chain. My god, I’m finally ready to tow.
By this point it was 1pm, now all I had to do was pull the trailer out of the garage at my storage spot, then back down a super long hilly curved 1920s driveway exactly the width of the truck that has old-growth trees on both sides. This will be fine. I mean I’ve never backed up a trailer before but I’m so good at parallel parking and I watched so many YouTube videos about backing up a trailer. I got this. Fer sure. Well, it took me AN HOUR to do it but finally I did. I later learned that the wheelbase ratio to trailer length makes a huge impact on how easy it is to reverse a trailer, and with the ginormous F-250’s 160″ wheelbase vs my tiny 14′ trailer, I was not set up for an easy go of it. I made it out and rejoiced. It only (lol) took three hours from getting the truck to getting the trailer out. Oh also did I mention that I was doing this by myself, without a spotter? Yeah.
I headed back to my house to wait for a final package I needed (with equipment to lock the trailer). This gave me time to finalize my packing and get everything into the trailer, food, clothes, etc. I was ready to hit the road by 4pm but the package wasn’t here yet and now it was rush hour, so heading south from Oakland would be slow going. By the time the package finally arrived and rush hour had passed, it was dusk and also raining! Extra fun for me. I hit the road around 7:15pm, planning to just get out of town and drive as far as I could get. I made it to the Camp Roberts Rest Stop around 10:30pm and pulled my outrageously mismatched rig between two 18-wheelers, crawled in the trailer and drew the shades. The night was chilly, so I got a chance to test out the trailer’s propane heater. It kept me warm and toasty until around 3am when it mysteriously stopped working. Well, I had my 20 degree sleeping bag so I pulled that out and was fine. I’ll deal with the issue in the morning.
Camp Robertson Rest Stop to Carrizo Plain
I woke up around 7am to a different arrangement of trucks and busses at the rest stop. Time for coffee! Let’s fire up the stove. Um. What. The stove isn’t working. Not getting propane, it seems. Hrmm.. the heater wasn’t working either, maybe these things are related? Time to call Vistabule. Luckily it was mid-morning on a weekday in Minnesota, and the friendly trailer folks walked me through some checks to see what was up. Disconnect the propane tank and bang the connector against something to reset the valve safety, then reconnect it. Now open the gas suuuuuuuuper sloooooooooooowly to make sure it enters the system evenly. Now try the burners. Nope. Try it again. Nope. Well shit. Maybe go see if you can get to a propane guy because maybe it’s the regulator. Ok. I was only 20 min from Paso Robles, on my way to the Carrizo Plain, and there’s an RV/propane place there so I’ll stop by.
Time to check that everything’s attached well and hit the road! What’s this, the giant nut holding the ball on is LOOSE??? Ok, hand-tighten it now time to go ask all the truckers if they have any tools, like say a giant wrench I can use to tighten this. Two trucks no luck, but the giant coach bus next to me noticed me walking around and asked if I needed help. They’d been parked next to me, admiring the trailer, and noticed I seemed like I needed help. Love to give off a good impression :) Anyway, they were super sweet and did have a big wrench and helped me get tightened up and ready to go. Thank you bus people!
I drove the 20 minutes to the RV/propane place and went inside and told the guy working there my situation. He came out to take a look and the first thing he said was
“Well, you know this here isn’t tightened enough, right?”
“Yeah it needs to be super tight.”
“Oh, I’m afraid of overtightening things and I thought I had it tight enough!”
“Let’s see if that does it.”
IT DID IT. IT W O R K E D. I told the sweet guy “I’m so happy I could hug you.” And indeed we did. He chuckled a bit and complimented me on my new trailer. I was mildly embarrassed but also relieved that it was just something stupid I did, not something wrong with the trailer itself. Turns out there’s a lot to learn about all these systems! 😂
I set off from Paso Robles across some side roads that would hook up with Highway 58. When I was in this area last time, I recall there being some good blooms along these side roads. I found a decent spot to pull over and make some coffee. I love that it’s so easy to do this with the trailer. Just find a spot to pull over, pop the hatch, and you’ve got a full kitchen with a stove, sink, and fridge! It rules. Plus then I could sit on the couch and enjoy the view while drinking my coffee. I was feeling great about things.
After that lovely little break, I headed down into the Carrizo Plain proper. I went slow and stopped here and there, trying to decide what to do. With the wheelbase on my rented F-250 plus the trailer at my skill level, turning around was next to impossible, so I hoped not to make too many mistakes in where I wanted to go. At one point I decided to head across the plain on Simmler Road, over to Elkhorn Road that runs along the base of the Temblor Range, where I’d seen spectacular God-spilled-the-paint blooms in 2017. I drove fifteen feet down the road, just far enough to be on the road proper, and saw a sign saying the road was impassible and closed, telling me to use Seven Mile to cross the plain. Well fuck. Now I have to back up. After a couple unsuccessful attempts, I just stopped for a second and took a breath. I saw that a bit ahead there was a spot where it looked like I could maybe turn around in a U-turn. If that didn’t work, I’d be stuck backing up farther, through rutted bumpy dirt, but I went for it and lo and behold I had enough space. Traumatized by this, I decided to head to Selby Ranch Cow Camp and drop the trailer, then set out exploring with just the truck.
After a near head-on collision on Selby Road with a 4-runner going like 40 mph around a blind curve, I made it to Selby Ranch Cow Camp. I circled the tiny campground and picked one of two remaining unclaimed spots. It required backing the trailer in, which I did LIKE A FREAKIN BOSS ON THE FIRST TRY, even with quite a few judgmental manly men looking on but of course not offering to spot for me. Thanks, guys. I unhitched the trailer (which by the way requires using the awkward truck jack since yeah the trailer tongue jack has not fixed itself miraculously) and made some lunch. For some reason I didn’t take any pictures of the setup at camp here. In addition to being good at trailer, I am also good at blog, as you can see.
By the time I was done with lunch it was nearly 3pm. The forecast for the next day had showers, so I knew that today was my main chance to get over to the Temblor Range. The roads in there can be a disaster when wet, even with a 4×4 like I had, I didn’t want to risk getting stuck. So I drove up Soda Lake Road to Seven Mile Road, as instructed by the signs, and cut across the plain. As the Temblor Range grew closer, I could see magnificent yellow blooms coating the north faces of most every fold in the hills. I reached Elkhorn Road and headed south. While it wasn’t quite God-spilled-the-paint status, it was close. I was about a week early, I estimate, for the full tricolor bloom.
I drove along Elkhorn Road for a while, looking for the side road I’d taken last time I was there. I asked a couple passing Subarus where they’d gone and one directed me to go down to Hurricane Road. I headed up the road for about half a mile before getting terrified of not having a place to turn around if it got bad, so I turned around in the next little spot I saw. It only took the F-250 five points to make the turn, not too bad.
I headed back north on Elkhorn and spotted a decent little road heading east. I drove the truck up a bit and pulled over since it looked like the road got really steep, so I’d just hike up the rest of the way. This ended up being absolutely spectacular. I hiked up about a thousand feet, marveling at the better-and-better bloom fields and spectacular views down across the Carrizo Plain.
About a thousand feet up from the truck, I saw a 4-runner pulled over and a couple just finishing up a picnic. We chatted for a bit, mostly me being like wow what the hell you drove up this? And the dude being like yeah it was pretty burly man but there was nowhere to turn around so we just had to keep going up. The road was *very* steep in parts and wow I was glad I didn’t drive it. Exercise is good anyway, y’all.
There were spectacular blooms everywhere and I kept climbing until the road ended. There was a bit of a use trail that appeared to follow a fence up to the very top of the ridge, but the sun was going down and I was still far from camp, so I decided to turn around and head down.
Heading back north on Elkhorn Road, I soon came to the intersection with Simmler, the road that was closed because it is impassible, according to the signage. And what do I spot driving down the road? A Tesla Model X. I waited at the intersection and then motioned to the driver to roll down his window. I asked about the road condition and he said it was actually fine–a bit rough in spots but clearly doable. Since I was in the F-250 and this road would cut off about 20 minutes of driving for me, I decided to make a go of it. And it was mostly fine. There were two spots where there was some mud that people (including, surely, Mr Tesla) had avoided by driving off the road around a sign that said “stay on the road,” but that was the extent of the issues, nothing the F-250 couldn’t handle. I met one other car on the way across the plain. I’ll give you a second to guess what car that might have been.
A Prius. Of course the two idiots going against the signs were driving a Tesla and a Prius. Of-freakin-course. (╯ರ ~ ರ）╯︵ ō͡≡o
Carrizo Plain to Alabama Hills
I woke up to a gray sky and fog. I got dressed, made some coffee, and put the trailer in couch mode. I decided to get out of the Carrizo Plain area to hopefully escape the rain. I backed up the truck to the hitch ball on the first try, not even noticing that a nice guy from the campsite next to me was giving me hand signals on the passenger side. I chatted with him a bit and he said “I know you don’t want to hear this, but..” and I was like “NO PLEASE ACTUALLY I WANT ALL THE ADVICE” and he said I should get a pair of leather gloves to wear when hitching. Good call, man! Indeed, I banged the fuck out of my hand latching the hitch down.
I drove up Soda Lake Road to Seven Mile Road and then across the plain, stopping literally everywhere to take silly glamour shots of my mismatched rig.
Soda Lake had water in it, a rare event, and the reflection of the bloom-covered hills on the lake was incredible, if difficult to capture.
I made my way across the plain slowly, taking a zillion photos. I hope u like flowers.
Finally I reached the pavement of Highway 58 and set off towards Antelope Valley.
In the town of Taft, I encountered an impossibly California scene: a superbloom graced in the foreground by oil rigs.
After about an hour and a half of driving, I cut off of Highway 138 on the road to Elizabeth Lake. Two years ago there had been a very intense bloom along this road, but I was too late to see it this year. Still, heading down into Antelope Valley from here was spectacular. The orange of the poppies just completely obliterating any green of sage on the hills, and the wind farm in the background, wow.
I pulled over along the side of the road amidst a conglomeration of other tourists and set off on a short trail to get away from the idiots laying amidst the blooms, crushing them. It was incredibly windy and the blooms were intense.
As I drove closer to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve along Lancaster Road, nearly every pull out was full of cars and the hills were dotted with people soaking in the off the charts beauty. I pulled over once, but got annoyed by all the people so decided to head on. I drove past the reserve proper and then down a dirt road on the back side where there were just a couple of cars parked. I took a lunch break here, peacefully enjoying the blooms on this far side of the reserve. There were signs telling people that it was illegal to enter the reserve from here, but people were doing it anyway. I tried not to let it bother me.
I left the reserve around 3:30pm, heading towards Red Rock Canyon State Park, up off of Highway 14 about 1.5 hours away. I hoped to camp there, but when I arrived I found I didn’t really care for the campground setup, especially at the steep price of $25 a night, and after being given the finger by a dude with a goatee in jorts on my loop around, I decided to high-tail it for the Alabama Hills.
I reached the Alabama hills at dusk, around 7pm. I’d never been here before and didn’t know where all the little dirt roads lead, or if I’d be able to turn around at the end of whichever one I took. It seemed that every spot was taken as I drove in. I saw dozens and dozens of RVs and trailers, and a car-camping setups too. At one spot I though I’d be able to set up, I drove up a pretty steep road and tried to loop the trailer around and almost got stuck. My heart was beating a mile a minute as I cursed and cautiously backed up and forwards and managed to get back down and out. Aaaaaaa what am I going to do, it’s going to be dark soon!
I headed farther down the road and arrived at a pretty large campsite with five or six overland rigs and tables and such. I pulled in and asked politely if I could join, and they said “Oh you can have this spot, we’re leaving! We’re just filming a commercial.” The only issue was that I wouldn’t be able to turn around with my huge truck down in the spot. I told the very intimidating professional off-road guys that I was a total trailer n00b and have not had a good time backing up so far. They offered to spot me, to teach me, they were so nice! One guy guided me “now turn passenger, hard driver, slowly slowly, a bump here” and at the end of it was like “wow man that looks super hard with that tiny trailer and huge truck. I can’t believe how it handles! No wonder you’ve been having trouble.” VINDICATION!!!!!!!
I at leftovers and crawled into bed, exhausted from stress.
I slept like a baby despite the wind and woke up at sunrise to an incredible scene.
I hopped from rock to rock, careful not to crush the delicate desert blooms that were all over the wash below my campsite.
Back at the trailer, I made coffee and read for a couple hours. The only thing I had to do this day was wait for Dayna to drive up. We planned to meet in Lone Pine so I could show her where I’d camped.
I also wanted to move the campsite once the hills had emptied out, to see if I could get one closer to the main part of the Alabama Hills. I wanted that view of Whitney, those bulbous potato rocks. After a few more Vistabule glamour shots, I packed up and set off, driving up and down dirt roads after hiking them first, trying to find an Optimal Site. I was more confident and actually legitimately better at reversing the trailer, even amidst rocks and dips and things, so this part was kinda fun!
I decided on a campsite and was working on leveling the trailer when a guy on a dirtbike came up from nowhere. I probably looked a little scared and more than a bit surprised when he pulled his bike over next to my trailer. “You can camp here” he said. Um, thanks? “Didn’t I see you over there on the other side?” I told him yea, but I wanted to be closer to the main area to see Whitney etc etc. He said ok well at this spot here you’ll definitely have neighbors. I mean depends what you’re after. This is a really popular spot and can hold a lot of people. Ok fine. I’ll move on one more time. I left back down the road to a pull-through spot I’d seen. It was right next to the road, but had a spectacular view and a really nice fire ring. And there wouldn’t be a whole lot of traffic on the road anyway. I set up the trailer, unhitched, and headed down to Lone Pine to meet Dayna.
I got some groceries and wine and worked for a few hours at a coffee shop while I waited for her. Dayna and I are old friends from the late 90s LA rave scene (why yes, indeed I have lead a Very Interesting Life) but I hadn’t seen her in something like fifteen years. We got on great and it was super fun to catch up with her on this trip. So much life has happened!! Anyway, she followed me back up to our spot and we started making some lunch when brrrrt brrrrt bbrrrt here comes that same dirtbike guy. We chatted with him (Mark from Utah, I doubt you’ll ever see this) about campsite selection, the wind, this exposed ridge (oh well), and then the conversation turned to what we do with our lives etc. After hearing that I’m a mathematician, he said:
“Ok I’ve got a question for you. I found a mine over there and I dropped a rock down in. I counted and it took 5 seconds. How deep is that mine?”
I literally do this in my Calculus I class. Now I can for SURE tell them you might be asked this in real life! I am terrible at mental calculation, so Dayna got out a pad of paper and a pen and I explained to him the setup and then gave him the shortcut: just square the time and multiply by 16 to get the answer in terms of feet. So his mine was about 400 feet deep. Dayna managed to capture me explaining it to him.
After lunch we walked from our campsite over to the Arch Rock trail to check out the famous Mobius Arch, which perfectly frames Mt Whitney when viewed from the proper angle. We were so engrossed in talking and catching up that we totally missed the arch the first time and had to backtrack!
There were amazing views in every direction. The Alabama Hills sure do provide an interesting juxtoposition of weathered slabby rock and sharp, snowy 14,000ft peaks. We could even see the trailer and our camp spot from some areas of the trail.
It was crazy windy back at camp. Wind would come through at maybe 40mph for a couple minutes, then die down to dead quiet for a few minutes. Back and forth, back and forth. So, we did what any reasonable people would do and sat on the couch in the trailer and drank wine. Once the sun set, the wind died down enough for us to make a lovely fire and eat some snacks we’d brought. Oh, and drink more wine.
Alabama Hills to Benton Hot Springs
Again, I got up at sunrise to check out the alpenglow. I just couldn’t resist this spectacular scene. It was chilly, so after about ten minutes of watching the firey glow creep down the mountains and fade to gold, we got back in the cozy trailer and chatted. When the sun hit our campsite, I got out and made us coffee.
We puttered about getting ready, getting hitched, and so on. Dayna followed as we drove down to Lone Pine and then up to Bishop, where we stopped at the Safeway to get firewood, more wine, and a few other essentials. I called Benton Hot Springs, where we had a campsite reserved for the weekend, and asked if we could check in early. They said we could get there around 2pm and that would be ok. It was around noon and we were only 45 minutes away, so we decided to just get coffee, eat snacks, get gas, use cell service, and so on to pass the time. Still, we arrived at Benton at 1:30 and were warmly teased about it by the check-in guy. We pulled in to the campsite and enjoyed an afternoon of wine-in-a-can, reading, and our own hot springs tub, waiting on Betty, Tim, and Miranda to show up. Somehow I have zero photos from this afternoon, but it was grand.
The rest of the crew showed up around 4pm and set up camp. I drunkenly made steaks and salad for everyone, and we had a fire and more hot springs. And more wine. Too much wine, in fact. I got frustrated trying to regulate my body temperature between the hot springs and the 28 degree air, plus my outrageous faux-fur-lined trapper hat that I drunkenly dunked in the tub, so I gave up and crawled into the trailer early.
Benton Hot Springs
The next morning I woke up to Betty frying bacon and prepping blueberry pancakes. Angels among us. I made some coffee and rehydrated. After breakfast, we all relaxed. Soaked. Read. Migrated from this prone state of relaxation to this other floating one. It was perfect.
Around 11:30 we got a bit restless, so we piled into the truck, which comfortably fit us all with ample room to spare, and headed for some rocks nearby that I’d passed on prior trips.
We climbed around on them, getting views down into the valley and discovering little flowers and age-old root beer cans.
We were hungry, so we headed to the official town of Benton, about fifteen minutes from the hot springs, to eat lunch at the gas station diner store place. And these fools got caught ‘grammin.
We hit up the other of the two gas station store spots for some beer. The shop had a cute but dirty and flea-ridden little feline, who surely was there on mouse-control duty.
Back at camp, Dayna indulged me in outrageous truck slut photos, we read books and ate weed blueberries, hopped in and out of the hot tub, and snacked. This day lasted forever, and was so perfect for it.
In the golden hour we climbed the little trail up to the Benton Cemetery.
Then it was back to camp and time to prepare more food. Dayna made us some brats and we enjoyed them with a salad Betty brought, and beers and a fire and all the things that make car camping grand.
Including this outrageous supply of prerolls Betty and Tim brought along.
It was a perfect, perfect day of friendship and relaxation, which I so very much needed on this mildly stressful vacation (due to all the trailer learning I was doing). We sat in the tub, silently, listening to the rustle of the last stragglers of leaves still clinging to the trees after winter, and marveling at the incredible sky. The absolute best.
Benton Hot Springs to Oakland
Betty had a work call in the early evening and Dayna had an 8 hour drive, so three of our five set out early, without even indulging in a morning soak. Miranda and I, however, took our time in leaving. I made us some breakfast and we spent an hour reading in the tub before packing up and setting off. We had a minor miscommunication when I was hooking up the trailer that resulted in the truck hitting the trailer and knocking it off the truck jack. Luckily I’d had the
paranoia foresight to lower the broken tongue jack whenever the trailer was parked, just as a safety check. It wouldn’t jack up the trailer but it wouldn’t collapse either. After some putzing around, I managed to get us hitched and we set off.
We took Benton Crossing road over to the 395 and the views were spectacular. There is so much snow in the Sierra this year, and driving up 395 and then across Highway 88, we got to see all that up close.
My dad met up with me to help me get the trailer back into its storage. This was a bit of an adventure with the stupidly huge F-250, but we managed without physical damage or mental trauma. I can’t wait to get out in the trailer again, next time with a much more reasonable tow vehicle! Stay tuned for endless weekend trips.