Joshua Tree and Lake Havasu

I had mixed feelings when I pulled out of Lake Jennings Campground last month. I’d been camped there for more than two months (short of my side trips to Anza Borrego and Carlsbad) and the place had really grown on me! I was especially happy in my final campsite at the top of a hill, with an enviable view and a decent WiFi connection! But… the time had finally come, and I was excited about the new experiences ahead of me.

I’ve made a concerted effort to experience as many of our National Parks as possible along the way. During my travels I have grown eternally grateful for the thoughtfulness of our forefathers in setting these precious lands aside for future generations to enjoy in their most natural state. Can you imagine casinos along the rim of the Grand Canyon, a shopping mall at the base of Half Dome in Yosemite, or subdivisions working their way up the Teton Mountains? I can, which makes me all the more grateful. The landscape of this country is amazingly diverse, and that diversity is represented beautifully in our National Park System. (National Park Week is coming soon! Free admission April 19-27. Find a park near you and enjoy!!)

[I’ve added a “National Parks” tab above to make it easier for my readers to find posts that include my visits to our National Parks.]

Joshua Tree National Park, which I had never visited before, was my next destination. Along my route I was delighted to find time with a very special couple, Ted and Betty Campbell. These two were directors/orchestrators/founders of a Christian choir I joined as a young teenager… the Lower Columbia Singers. We sang our way across the country on buses each summer. We’re talking old refurbished school buses mind you, like The Partridge Family! 🙂

Being a part of this group, and especially these tours, was such an amazing experience to all who were a part of it. Upon reflection, I suppose those days may have played a part in what I’m doing now. The tours took a group of about a hundred of us through cities and small towns where we sang in churches, parks and once the Worlds Fair!  After our concerts, members of the congregations we sang for hosted groups of us in their homes for the night, feeding us and delivering us back to our buses in the morning.

Ted and Betty were undoubtably a very positive influence on me during a very crucial and formative period in my life, and for that I am very grateful. The name has changed, but the choir continues… around the world now… New America Singers. Thank you Ted and Betty, not only for taking the time to drive out to see me, but for the difference you made in my life.

with Ted and Betty Campbell of New America Singers

with Ted and Betty Campbell of New America Singers

With an upcoming convention in Las Vegas on my calendar, and much ground to cover in between, I had only a couple of days to explore Joshua Tree National Park.

Unfortunately I could not get a campsite in the park and had to settle for one some distance from the nearest entrance. I arrived after dark at Joshua Tree Lake Campground, something I try to avoid… mostly for my safety, but its also much easier to settle into a campsite by the light of day. The quality time I had with Ted and Betty was definitely worth breaking one of my own “Rules of the Road”. I had some business to attend to the following morning before going out to play. Unfortunately I had no cell service or WiFi from the campground, which meant an unexpected trip into town. It was late afternoon by the time I finally ventured into the park via the west entrance (which happens to be one of two entrances along the north border of the park.)

It’s not hard to tell how this park got it’s name! The landscape was littered with jutting boulders, scrubs and lots of Joshua Trees! The park is actually divided into two habitats; the western half is Mojave Desert with elevations above 3,000 feet and the eastern half is Colorado Desert with elevations below 3,000 feet. I would discover the following morning just how different these two habitats were.


Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree

One of the grandest vistas in the park is the San Bernardino Mountains from Keys View, at 5185′ elevation. I was there along with several other people early in the evening. Before sunset I made my way through the park to Jumbo Rocks, where I scaled to the top of one of the large rocks with a young couple I met there. We enjoyed light conversation and a colorful sunset together, and I was thankful for their help in getting my gear (and myself) safely back down to the desert floor!

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Evening at Keys View

Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Sunset at Joshua Tree

The following morning I was on the road early so that I could be well into the park before sunrise. This time I entered through the north entrance and headed back toward Jumbo Rocks where I had missed seeing Skull Rock in the daylight.

Joshua Tree National Park

Sunrise in Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree


Skull Rock in Joshua Tree National Park


Boulders jutting from the ground in Joshua Tree National Park

Eventually I made my way south on Pinto Basin Road on the eastern side of the park. Here, instead of Joshua Trees, the vegetation included Ocotillo and Cholla Cactus. I thoroughly enjoyed this early morning drive, and encountered only three other cars the entire length of this roadway to the south end of the park!

Joshua Tree National Park

Pinto Basin Road through Wilson Canyon

Joshua Tree National Park

Pinto Mountains

Joshua Tree National Park

Cholla Cactus Garden

Joshua Tree National Park

Lone Ocotillo in Joshua Tree

No doubt the best way to experience Joshua Tree is to camp within the park. With my time and proximity constraints I did not get to experience any of the trails. When I return I will plan further ahead for a campsite, and allow myself more time.

Another nearby place I’d never visited was Palm Springs. My uncle Dennis had spoken so fondly of the community, and particularly the architecture that I could not pass up the opportunity to see it for myself. From the south end of the park I made my way west on I-10. As soon as I arrived I was faced with roadblocks and gridlock traffic. Something was going on, and it was going on right where I was told I’d find the best of Palm Springs historic architecture.

I did manage to find a parking space several blocks away from where I wanted to be, and walked just far enough to buy a cup of coffee and photograph Marilyn Monroe. The mass of humanity, gathering for what I discovered to be an old car show, made it difficult for me to stay. Jazzy and Sadie were in the car where they could not be left for long as the morning was getting warmer, and walking two dogs with gear in hand through throngs of people is not my idea of fun. In addition, the barriers and bodies would have been in the way of the images I wanted to shoot. So… when I plan my trip back to Joshua Tree, I’ll look at the Palm Springs event calendar too!


26 foot tall Marilyn Monroe statue in Palm Springs

When I took the dogs out walking upon our return to the campground I came upon this interesting mosaic, made of mirror pieces, perched in the desert nearby. As I moved around it the image continually changed. I only had my cell phone with me, but enjoyed creating my own piece of art from someone else’s art.

Image captured of mirror mosaic

“Art Begets Art”

While we walked I had a decision to make… pay for another day or hit the highway by check-out time at noon! Lake Havasu, another place I’d never been, was next up on my route. The thought of getting my kayak on the water, something I couldn’t do at Jennings, was tugging at me… hard enough to get me back on the road!

"On the Road to Havasu"

“On the Road to Havasu”

Roughly three hours after I left Joshua Tree I crossed a bridge on the Colorado River and headed north. Soon after I came upon the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge, which happened to have a pull-out area plenty big enough for me to stop. It looked like a nice place to kayak, and I made a mental note of it as a possible place to come back and check it out.

Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge

Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge

About 40 miles farther up the highway I found myself in Havasu City and made my way to Crazy Horse Campground on the lake. Many of the campsite are literally right along the beach, and I happened to get one of them. The first thing I did when I got settled was find a place to catch the sunset.


Lighthouse at Sunset on Lake Havasu

Havasu City AZ

City lights reflecting on Lake Havasu

I was pleasantly surprised when I got a note from a high school classmate, Dindy Johnson-Styve, who’d seen my “On The Road To Havasu” image posted on Facebook earlier in the day. Unbeknownst to me, she’d been living in Havasu City for several years and offered to show me around. The following day she picked me up at my campsite and gave me the nickel tour!

One stop was at the most legendary landmark in Havasu City, the London Bridge. This bridge was purchased from the city of London by Robert P. McCulloch, founder of Havasu City. The 1830s bridge was dismantled in 1967, it’s pieces numbered and transported to America. The re-building of the bridge and cutting of the canal beneath it (creating the island I was actually camped on) were completed in 1971.

Lake Havasu

London Bridge

Everywhere I go I ask those in-the-know for advice on what I should not miss while there, whether it be hiking trails, kayak adventures, and most especially… photographically. Often times it’s park rangers and camp hosts I’m asking, but other travelers and friendly locals as well. A few fellow campers mentioned kayaking on the Colorado River, which feeds into Lake Havasu, and it seemed that the 23 mile long Topok Gorge was the most scenic segment.

The gorge itself is the insert on the right side of the map, it feeds into the top of the lake on the main map, my final destination would be The Island on that lake.

Topoc Gorge and Lake Havasu map

Topoc Gorge and Lake Havasu map

I had never kayaked 23 miles and had no idea how long it would take me. Since I was going solo it was all the more important to educate myself before undertaking such an adventure. While we were out, Dindy and I visited Southwest Kayaks, a Hobie dealer located right on the canal by the London Bridge. Although no one there had done the entire distance I intended to cover, which included not only the gorge, but crossing the lake to the campground as well, they helped me guesstimate. With stops for images and quick breaks along the way I figured I could make it in 6 hours. My impression was that they thought I was being optimistic. I thanked them and promised to come back and let them know how I fared. (That way they’d know what to tell the next crazy woman who walked in the door. 🙂 )

In preparation I communicated my plans to some of the friendly snowbirds camped around me so they’d be watching for me, and gathered a few phone numbers JUST IN CASE I couldn’t make it all the way back and needed someone to rescue me from a pull-out point up river. One fellow dog lover, Ken, was kind enough to volunteer to check on the girls and take them for a few walks while I was away.

Although I thought I could make it in about six hours, I planned my start time assuming it would take me eight to ten, giving me at least a few extra hours before nightfall.

Then I made my list; photo gear, dry bags, cell phone (and those phone numbers) in a sealable bag, hat, sunscreen, towel, flip flops, multi layers of clothing, flashlight, map, lots of water, and more food rations than I would eat.

One of the biggest issues for me when taking a one-way solo kayak adventure is retrieving my car. Luckily Dindy readily volunteered to help me out with that. The two options were to have her drive me back up to my car at the end of the day, or have her meet me at my campsite (the final destination for my solo voyage), ride with me to the put-in point up river, and then drive my car back to the campground for me. She opted to drive me in the morning, and bless her heart… she was there bright and early as promised. I will say that I was grateful as can be that she chose the morning option because me having to make that drive at the end of an exhausting day!

After my morning coffee, and a banana smothered in almond butter we were off  to the Topoc Gorge Marina at the I-40 bridge where I started my voyage.

with my friend Dindy before the voyage

with my friend Dindy at my campsite before my ‘yak adventure

Kayaking Topok Gorge, Colorado River, AZ

From my solo voyage down Topok Gorge

You might think the river would simply pull me downstream, and it may have… very slowly. I peddled the entire distance, often turning and peddling back upstream for a shot I missed, and consistently into a stronger wind as I traveled south. I wasn’t until I was crossing the lake though, that things got tough. There, the combination of wind and boat wakes made it a challenge peddling through the waves. My back and my legs ached tremendously after several hours on the water, and at times I took up the paddle to give my legs a break without being swept back upriver. I was thrilled when I finally had the campground in sight, and pushed myself harder… but the progress was agonizingly slow. Eventually I could see my own motorhome along the shore, and 10 minutes later I pulled up on the beach. A few of the friends I’d met were there to witness my arrival and painful unfolding from my seat in the kayak. The last time I remember my legs being so tired was after a 19-mile hike to nearly 11,000 foot elevation in the Tetons.

The most humorous moment of the day happened shortly after I beached. As I was stepping out of my motorhome with my tail-waggin’ girls I saw Ken and a few other come out to the beach with telescope and tripod… to watch for me coming across the lake. My six hour hopeful guess-timation would have put me ashore around 2:45, which is what Ken was watching for. The surprise on his face when he saw me walking across the beach as he was setting up his telescope was priceless, and I was ever so pleased with myself for arriving a half hour before my optimistic ETA!

The following evening I took the girls for a hike Dindy had told me about… out “Sara’s Crack” to the lake. We enjoyed the hike out before sunset, and a rather brisk hike back before darkness fell.

Lake Havasu, AZ

Hiking Sara’s Crack


Cholla Cactus

Cholla Cactus

Sara's Crack hike, Havasu City, AZ

Hot girls on the trail


Lake Havasu from Sara’s Crack hiking trail

My evening were spent visiting with my fellow campers, most of them snowbirds who were camped there for the season and new each other from their annual winters stays. A good many of them were from Canada, and I hope to see at least a few when I journey into British Columbia and Alberta this summer.

I could not resist the consistently dramatic evening sky of course. Gorgeous sunsets… rainbows… I’ll take them all! And after the sunset came the nightly campfire on the beach…

Sunset at Lake Havasu

Sunset at Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu City, AZ

Double Rainbow over Lake Havasu

Lake Havasu City, AZ

After the rain at Lake Havasu

Dance of the Fire

Dance of the Fire

Lake Havasu was not a location that had been on my bucket list, it just stood out as a good stop-over point when I was planning my route. I get asked a lot how I choose my destinations. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. It’s not always about the destinations, but also the simple pleasures of the journey in between.

Sunset over Lake Havasu

Sunset over Lake Havasu

Next up… Elissa joins me again! This time at Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks!!

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