Recommended Stay: 9 to 14 days
Distance from Boise 936 miles/Drive Time: 14.5 hours
Trip Cost Estimate: $1375 to $1675
For the holidays this year we planned a campervan trip to see Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and the San Diego area. We had two weeks of time to accomplish our trip which worked out to be a good length of time for our campervan trip since we did not feel rushed at any of our destinations.
Day 1: Boise to Death Valley
On Day 1 we choose to make the drive from Boise to Death Valley National Park. The route recommended by Google will take you down to Bruneau and south on Hwy 51 and then into Nevada. We did not know what to expect on the drive, but was pleasantly surprised to enjoy some great canyon driving on NV225 and Hwy 51 in between Bruneau and Elko. The roads were snow covered in places, but our campervan did great in the snow and we were glad we were not in anything larger like a RV. The entire route is very sparsely populated so it is important to make sure you have plenty of gas due to the remote nature of the drive. We needed to drive almost 9.5 hours before things started to warm up and then an extra half an hour to our campground. There are three campgrounds in the heart of Death Valley National Park near Furnace Creek, these are the warmest campervan campgrounds in the park during the winter months. Since we pulled in late at night we ended up just pulling in Sunset campground which is basically a large and flat gravel lot and the easiest for just crashing and going to bed.
Day 2: Death Valley National Park
On Day 2 we awoke in Sunset Campground and realized how barren Sunset Campground is during the day. We packed up and head to check out the other two campgrounds in Furnace Creek. The first option is Texas Springs which has a lot of great sites and was very full so we decided to check out the Furnace Creek Campground. We end up liking Furnace Creek Campground the best since it had some trees that shelter you from the afternoon winds and was right next to the visitor center. We parked our campervan in Furnace Creek Campground and made a plan for the day. We decided to head to 20 Mule Team Canyon and check out the short one way dirt road. The road weaves through some amazing formations and you can pretty much climb anywhere. The campervan did well on the dirt road and we did some great exploring. There is no way you could take a RV(recreational vehicle) on this dirt road and not get stuck. My wife had no problems negotiating the narrow turns. At the end of the road we had to make a trip to Palrump to visit the nearest grocery store, we though we would pass one in Beatty, but all they had was a convenience store. So on your drive from Boise if you need any supplies make sure to stop in Elko, NV. After returning from Palrump we drove our campervan to the visitor center and checked out the exhibits and got a status update on the roads in the park. There had been some flash floods in 2015 that did considerable damage to park roads and this means Scotty's Castle will not reopen until 2019. After the visitor center we headed to Borax Works and then drove through Mustard Canyon. Mustard Canyon was worth the short drive and it was a great place to explore on foot and we explored the yellow colored dried out mud. You can find some wide pullouts along the road and hike up on the mustard colored mud and witness the weird formations formed by water. Driving out of Mustard Canyon in the dark we headed for our campground and a well deserved meal.
Twenty Mile Canyon Road:
Day 3: Death Valley National Park
On Day 3 we awoke in Furnace Creek Campground in our campervan and sat down to plan our days adventure. After some deliberation we decided to go check out the ranger program at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The Sand Dunes are very large and there is lots of places to climb and explore or you can look for the the less seen. We wandered off from the crowds and went searching for some footprints of the animals of the desert. We found lot of tracks that orginated from the green islands among the sand dunes. Lots of fun can be had on the Sand Dunes, but we decided to heat to Mosaic Canyon for a long hike. We dug into the campervan cooler for some lunch before heading out on our 4 mile hike. The road to the trail head is again dirt and would be challenging in an RV(recreational vehicle), but luckily we had no problems as we bounced along on the wash board road. At the beginning the trail it was very busy, but then the crowds thin out as you climbed further into the canyon. Just as you leave the crowds behind the canyon gets wide. Keep on going because the best part of the canyon is about 3/4 of a mile ahead. The canyon then gets very narrow and we had a blast working our way up water chutes and around massive boulders. We had lots of fun to exploring this amazing canyon in the desert. It also worked up a good appetite for everyone as we returned to Furnance Creek for some dinner and a little relaxing.
Day 4: Death Valley National Park
On Day 4 we awoke in Furnace Creek Campground in our campervan to another nice and warm day. We were defiantly basking in the warmth as our family back home relayed pictures of the snow and frigid temperatures. After breakfast we got an early start and headed to bad water basin which is 252ft below sea level. There is a hike you can do out onto the salt flats, but with all the people on the trail we decided to try another spot. So we headed to Devils Golf Course which was just a short drive back on the park road and enjoyed a nice quiet spot as we climbed among the amazing salt formations. There were some spectacular sights to be seen and it was amazing to see what salt can do. After poking around we head to Natural Bridges and again the road to the trail head was dirt and would be challenging in an RV(recreational vehicle), but luckily we had no problems as we bounced along on the wash board road. There seemed to be a common theme in this park and the fact that any of the best hikes required some dirt road driving. We then hiked a short way to Natural Bridge. Unlike other arches I have seen that have been formed out of sandstone this one was a type of conglomerate rock that had been formed by flooding. It was quite the amazing sight. After three days of hiking we decided to take a scenic drive to Dante's Point and we were pleasantly surprised by the amazing view we behold on the summit. There is a short hike at the summit, but the views were just as spectacular from the campervan. We then spent the afternoon in our campsite relaxing and planning our adventure for the next day.
Day 5: Death Valley National Park
On our last day in Death Valley National Park we packed up and headed for the west end of the park and our last hike in the park. We drove towards Panamint Springs and came across some interesting Coyote activity on the salt flats. The Coyotes were sitting on the side of the road and waiting for a car to hit an animal and then they would run out and grab the road kill without needing to do any hunting. It is amazing how these animals have figured out how to survive in the desert. After driving through Panamint Springs we took our second left onto an unmarked road and drove on another dirt road to the Darwin Falls trailhead. The Darwin Falls trail is an amazing hike that starts in a very dry landscapes and then you enter into a desert oasis and will walk among trees and lush grasses as you pick your way to a natural spring and an amazing waterfall. After you enter the trees there are some mandatory creek crossings that you might get your feet wet and you'll also need to do some scrambling over some rocks as you work your way to the end of the trail. The trail is unmarked, but is easy to follow and worth the 2.5 mile hike. Everyone loved the waterfall at the end, but we were wiped out as we returned to the van and started our drive further south. We planned to make it to Silverwood Lake campground that evening and got delayed a little as we drove through a rare southern California downpour. We pulled into our campervan campsite and were so happy to not be sleeping on the ground as giant puddles formed all over the place outside.
Death Valley Road Tour:
Day 6: Death Valley to Carlsbad, CA
On Day 6 we awoke at Silverwood Lake to some more showers and had a lazy morning before setting out for Carlsbad, CA and our campervan campsite in Carlsbad Beach State Park. We managed to avoid most of the traffic and cruised into Carlsbad Beach State Park with plenty of time to enjoy the beach. There are a couple of beach access points within the campground and we choose our site based on how easy it would be to get down to the beach. To access the beach you must descend down a steep staircase to the water. Once on the beach you will have a nice sense of isolation as the cliffs give a nice sense of solitude.
Day 7: Legoland Carlsbad, CA
Having never been to southern California we had to check out the local sights and attractions. Our first stop was Legoland. We arrived in the parking lot at 9am and were ready to walk in as soon as the gates opened at 9:30. Getting such an early start meant we had very short waits at all of the rides we rode except for one. While the crowds were just entering the park we were in the back of the park getting in multiple rides and then we swapped places with the crowds as we looped back to front to catch those attractions after a late lunch. We were amazed at our good fortune since we got to do all of the rides in the park. Legoland is a great place for kids under 10 and the Lego structures inside of the park are just amazing a fun for all to enjoy.
Day 8: San Diego Zoo
A must do stop on our trip was the San Diego Zoo we had heard so many good things about the zoo and the animals inside that we decided to take a trip down to check it out. The scale of the San Diego Zoo is immense and you could easily fit 10 Boise Zoos into the San Diego Zoo. The exhibits were immense and there were actual bus stops inside the park to help you get around. If you have never been it is worth it to first take the bus tour near the front entrance so you get a good idea of the layout of the zoo. After the bus tour we decided to take the shuttle bus that makes 4 stops around the park and check out all of the animals. It was immense at the zoo and we stayed until 5 just so we could see the majority of the exhibits, we defiantly missed some stuff, but after 8 hours in the park we were exhausted and almost decided to just crash in the back of the camper van.
Day 9: Downtown San Diego
On Day 5 w decided to leave the campervan in the campground in Carlsbad, CA and head south on the commuter rail. A short 5 minute walk from our campsite we were at a train stop and boarding the train south to San Diego. We were a little confused at first since we could not find a ticket booth, but luckily we found tickets online and were on our way south. Once on the train we learned about the famous Holiday Bowl Parade and were glad we had taken the train instead of driving since downtown was going to be packed. We got off at the last stop at Santa Fe Station and walked over to the waterfront to get a spot for the parade. What an amazing parade it was and we were glad to have happened upon it. After the parade we ventured over to the USS Midway which is one of the top attractions in San Diego. The old aircraft carrier is a floating museum and had an amazing of this to see and experience and there was lots of walking. After a great tour we head back to the train for the 1/2 ride back to Carlsbad, CA. We then happened upon Pelly's Fish Market which had some of the most amazing seafood, everything was fresh and tender. There calamari was unlike anything we had tasted before. This was a tiny little gem tucked into a shopping plaza with limited seating so make sure to get there early.
Day 10: Carlsbad to Joshua Tree National Park
On Day 10 we made the drive from Carlsbad to Joshua Tree National Park. We ended up taking the scenic route and came into Joshua Tree National Park from the southern end at Cottonwood Guard Station. We immediately drove to the Cottonwood Springs campground and snagged one of the last campsites in the park. The Cottonwood Springs Campground has nice big sites and lots of pointy objects to run into! We settled into our campground and started to plan our destinations for the following day.
Day 11: Joshua Tree National Park
On Day 11 we started to explore Joshua Tree National Park in our campervan. We started the day with a bike ride out the Pinkham Canyon Road. This road was defiantly the territory of a short wheel base 4wd so we left the campervan back at the campsite while we explored on a bike. It was nice and peaceful out there and a great way to escape the crowds. After 15 miles on the bike we returned to get our campervan in the campground and set off to explore the park and make it to our campsite at Indian Cove. Our first stop was the Cholla Cactus Garden and we were amazed to see how concentrated the cactus were in this one spot. We climbed out of our campervan and walked the short loop hike to check out some of the amazing cactus. Afterwards we got back in our campervan and headed for our camp spot in Indian Cove. We arrived and got setup and then headed out for 49 Palms Oasis and the hike into the Oasis. The hike is a 1.5 miles to the Oasis and you will be rewarded with an amazing sight as you take in massive pine trees nestled in an otherwise dry landscape. We happened to catch the sunset at the oasis and got some great pictures and were glad to have some headlamps to allow us to get back on the trail in the dark.
Day 12: Joshua Tree National Park
On Day 12 we got out for some more exploring we were a little tired from our previous days exploring so we decided to check out a ranger program at Skull Rock. We had a nice hike with the ranger and enjoyed his program. We learned a great deal about the Joshua Tree and the rocks in the park. It was fascinating to learn that before DNA sequencing the Joshua Tree was thought to belong to Lily family, once the tree had been sequenced they discover that is was a close relative of the Yucca. So in the National Park you will see lots of examples of plants from the Yucca family. The Joshua trees also will only grow at a high enough elevation where they can get a winter freeze so this limits there range. Finally the Joshua Tree does not have an animal that transports it seeds very far so its range is limited. After a great ranger talk we explored the rocks around Skull Rock and then drove further into the park in search of a nice place to eat lunch. Our plan was foiled a little bit as it started to pour so we ended up eating our lunch in the campervan and were glad to have space inside away from the rain. The rain finally let up so we decided to do a short hike to the Ryan Ranch and check out the home site of some brave folks that setup shop in Joshua Tree National Park for over 100 years. We stayed mostly dry on our hike to Ryan Ranch and then had some excitement on the way back as we watched a rescue helicopter attempt to land among the rocks and Joshua Trees, it appeared that someone was rock climbing and fell. We hope the person recovered from there fall and it was great to see the fast response. After that excitement we head back to our campsite in Indian Cove and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon.
On Day 13 we began our drive back to Boise and made a couple of stops in Mojave National Reserve. We wanted to stay a little longer in the reserve, but we had heard forecasts of snow in the Boise area so we decided to keep driving north. We are already thinking that on our next trip south we will plan to camp at the Hole in the Rock Campground in the Mojave National Reserve.
Joshua Tree National Park Road Tour:
Campervans available for rent in Boise, ID and Salt Lake City, UT.