Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Road Trips (page 1 of 3)

Southwest Road Trip 2018: A Recap

**This is a re-post, but after finally wrapping up all the posts I’d planned to write, I wanted to run a recap**

After canceling a planned trip to Europe, I decided to still make the best of the vacation time I had allotted for myself. I was already planning on being away, so work was covered (I *did* work one week, still). The question was…what to do with the second one?

Planning a trip in record time

I’ve had many-a-whim of planning a trip. Depending on the given fare sale, wide open award space, or other deal-of-the-day, it’s been hard to restrain myself at times. Especially when it would be super inexpensive and a great use of points. The biggest hindrance is nearly always available time. For this last-minute trip, though, time wasn’t the issue. And I had a particular card up my sleeve I’ve been waiting to play.

For quite a while now, the idea of doing a one-way road trip from Arizona has been brewing in my mind. Late Spring is the perfect time to do this, as the weather is still nice, and you can score some amazing rental car deals. The companies all try to relocate their cars out of Arizona, since who wants to visit Phoenix in July??

Booking cheap flights to Tucson and a cheap rental car

With less than a week until departure, I locked our flights in for a total of $91 and 22,500 Avianca LifeMiles. Never heard of either? Read about using Avianca LifeMiles for United flights and how I scored an awesome last-minute redemption. United award space is generally good very close-in, and we took advantage of this. There was plenty of space to Tucson and Phoenix and other southwest destinations showing at united.com.

Our car rental was locked in for $101 for 8 days. This is pretty much unbeatable. I even made $3.50 cash back by booking through the Ebates cash-back portal (referral link, if you join and spend $25, I get a bonus). I’ve seen good rates on these deals, and this about matches the lowest I’ve ever found. It makes sense, though, as you are actually doing the rental car company a favor by moving their car. Otherwise they’d either pay to truck it to a better summer market, or it’d be a stranded asset for several months.

We had eight days to make it from Arizona back home. I quickly penciled in a few major destinations, and other ideas quickly filled out our itinerary. Among other places, we would see Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and Death Valley.

Overview of our travels

I’m trying to get a bit better about organizing trip reports. I know some are a quick rundown of a few sights and maybe a hotel review. For our longer trips, though, having an outline is the better way to go. It keeps me on track as I take a few weeks several months to find the time to post. Here the rundown of our 2018 Southwest U.S. road trip:

Gutsy, I know, given my typical post rate of 1-2 per week. But having goals helps. I’ll add links to each as I post.

Overall, the trip was great. The kids had a blast. My only miscalculation was planning more driving near the end of the trip rather than pacing things a little more evenly. This meant they were very ready to get home during the last couple days. But at least I now know they can survive seven hours in the car in one day. 🙂

A New Favorite California Scenic Drive

*I’m still trying desperately to finish up the posts I planned from our Southwest Road Trip 2018. Almost there. Only two more!*

With our road trip winding down to the last couple days, the kids and I left Death Valley behind [SEE: 3 Highlights (and 2 Disappointments) Visiting Death Valley], heading west and climbing gradually out of this surreal place and back to a landscape we were far more used to seeing. The first part of the drive was solidly desert, but eventually we caught our first view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as we neared Lone Pine.

Mountains will never cease to call my name. There is no landscape I find more enchanting. It should not surprise you that Switzerland, Norway, Patagonia, Nepal, and New Zealand are all among the places I wish to visit most.

What stunned me was the majesty of the peaks here in my home state. I’ve been to different parts of the Sierras multiple times, whether camping many years ago out east of Fresno, or hiking in Yosemite National Park with my family on a few occasions, or driving up to Reno for a conference. From the west, the change is gradual. The foothills mask how tall the Sierras are.

On the eastern side, the peaks are much more sharply defined. And I love it.

Highway 395 – A new favorite scenic drive

We made our way to Bishop for the night, staying at another Holiday Inn Express. Although it wasn’t as nice as the last one (SEE: Holiday Inn Express Pahrump Review), it is a fine hotel if you’re passing through the area. The next morning our drive started again. It was an utterly beautiful day.

Highway 395 parallels the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, running from Victorville in the south on up through Reno, continuing into the far northeastern reaches of California and then on up into Oregon. The section we drove our second to last day was from Bishop up to Tahoe. The first part of the drive provided us with the lovely vista you see below. I’d happily drive all day if the scenery always looked like this.

At one point where the mountains were especially lovely, I decided to meander down a side road for a bit. If there is somewhere in California to move where you can get away from it all, this is certainly it. Hours from any airport or city, this section of the state is pure beauty.

Our drive continued up past Mammoth and June Lakes. How I wished we could stop a couple more times, but this was yet another day during which we were on a tight schedule. If we dawdled now, we wouldn’t get to see much of Tahoe.

Morning at Mono Lake

After about an hour we arrived at Lee Vining and Mono Lake. It was awesome to finally be able to set eyes on a location I’d only ever seen on a map for so long. Our first stop was the visitor center of the State Natural Reserve. We didn’t stay inside long, instead choosing to walk the trails behind the visitor center. This  lake is truly picturesque.

As a shallow, saline lake with no outlet, Mono Lake has an interesting ecosystem. Thanks to the tiny brine shrimp that live in its waters, the lake is a major stop for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that pass through. Like the video we watched of Death Valley, the one shown at the visitor center was equally as fascinating. It is even available on YouTube, if you’re interested. Once that was concluded, we headed out behind the visitor center and took a short walk on the trails.

There is a park down the road, close to the highway, from which you can embark on a short stroll to see some of the Mono Lake tufa. Created by mineral rich underwater springs that react with the lake water, the rocks are essentially limestone that precipitated and fused together into these towers over a period of time. As the lake level has risen and fallen through the years, some tufa are now stranded above the water line. These interesting formations are not unique to Mono Lake, but the examples here are excellent.

There are a few great areas to see the Mono Lake tufa, including the South Tufa Area, which is off the main highway a bit. We settled for a walk amid the towers at Mono Lake Park.

Finishing the drive through the Sierras

Our next pit stop was in Bridgeport where I got a cup of java at the 1881 Coffee Cafe. It’s a cute little place. From there we pressed onward along Highway 395, until departing to head sharply upward into Alpine County and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We got our final view of Nevada. At least until we reached South Lake Tahoe.

Highway 395 from Lone Pine nearly all the way to Topaz Lake is now one of my favorite drives in this lovely state in which we live. It tops the list alongside the local 100-mile loop through the Lost Coast.


3 Highlights (and 2 Disappointments) Visiting Death Valley

Death Valley National Park had long been on my list to visit among the many California National Parks I have yet to see. And on our Southwest road-trip in 2018, I finally made it happen. We were traversing the desert from Tucson up to Tahoe, and a stop at Death Valley was a must. The previous days had included Las Vegas and Red Rocks National Conservation Area (SEE: The Easiest Hike at Red Rocks).

The final days of the trip were a bit rushed, entailing a lot of driving each day, which meant that we didn’t get to linger. I’m not sure I’ll plan a trip again that gives us so little time, as there is so much to see. Whether it is the cacti of Saguaro National Park, the magnificent red rock formations of Sedona, or the majesty of the Grand Canyon that we almost didn’t see, everywhere we went felt like it deserved another day (well, except Vegas). Death Valley was no exception.

We headed toward the valley from the east, after staying at a nice hotel in the oddest place (SEE: Holiday Inn Express Pahrump Review: This may be the best HIE ever?). I planned our night in Pahrump so that the park would be little more than an hour of driving the next day. The drive is pretty lonely,

Eventually, we made it to the park entrance, which consists of some pit toilets and a payment kiosk. There are no National Park Service staff to greet you.  Even though it isn’t staffed, you do need to pay the entrance fee, which is $30 (increased from $25 when we visited). The fee is good for up to 7 consecutive days in the park. If you plan on visiting twice, just purchase an annual pass, which is only $55. Better yet, just buy a National Parks annual pass for $80.

I had high hopes for our one day visit to this otherworldly place. The plan was to head to Dante’s View, then along to Zabriskie Point, and eventually down into Badwater, the lowest point on the continent.

Unfortunately, things started off with a bit of disappointment. But our brief visit was still great overall. Here are the highlights, followed by what we missed:

Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America

No trip to Death Valley is complete without a stop in Badwater. At 282 feet below sea level, this basin is the lowest point not only in the country, but in the entire continent. Technically, it is the lowest point in all the Americas.

But a visit here is worth more than just being able to add something to your personal record books. A walk out on the salt flats will help give you a perspective of the vastness of Death Valley.

The Panamint range towering above you in the distance to the west is certainly impressive. It is mind boggling that Telescope Peak, the highest mountain in this arid range, is 11,049 feet tall. This is a crazy elevation differential over a distance of barely 10 miles!

We had to obviously take a photo at the sign. I’ve never stood this fare below sea level, and it was fun to describe to the kids how we would be way beneath the ocean’s surface, could the ocean reach this inland valley. They thought that was pretty cool.

What the kids were definitely not into was walking out on the salt flats of Badwater Basin. They aren’t hikers (SEE: 3 Tips for Hiking with Kids in the Desert). Hiking and walking were natural parts of my upbringing, so much so that it is basically my default activity when traveling if I have no other plans. Just get out and wander. I’m learning to make adjustments with the kids along.

This will forever be one of my favorite photos. The faces say it all. I mean, it was 100 degrees out that April morning. But the air was bone dry, and you could hardly feel it. I’m a wimp when it comes to heat, and I did fine. Humidity is what does this guy in.

Furnace Creek Visitor Center

We stopped in Furnace Creek after visiting Badwater Basin and the Artist’s Palette. It is a great place to stop if you’re in need of break, a bathroom, and some cool air. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees outside, it makes for a nice pit stop.

The two main things I found most interesting about the visitor center were the Death Valley model and the story about “Death Valley Scotty”. The model is in the middle of the visitor center and provides you with a great perspective of the vastness of the the park. The vertical scale is obviously exaggerated. It was cool to show the kids where we’d arrived from and which way we were heading out after our visit.

The half hour film on the ecology and history of Death Valley is excellent. Make sure you budget time for it. More than anything else, I was intrigued by the man known as “Death Valley Scotty”. Starting his career as a stunt rider in “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show, Walter Scott began a series of “ventures” where he managed to swindle his wealthy patrons out of every penny they invested into his schemes. Remarkably, Albert Johnson, one of his patrons, became a lifelong friend of Scott’s, forgiving him for his fraudulent stunts.

This friendship provided Scott with a level of stability he never would have enjoyed in his later years, and it managed to weather the con man’s tendency for boasting and self-aggrandizement. The mansion known as “Scotty’s Castle” didn’t actually ever belong to Walter Scott. It was instead the Johnson’s vacation home. Unfortunately, the castle was damaged in a flood and it is no longer possible to visit.

What amazed me most about the whole story of “Death Valley Scotty” was how the man who gets all the notoriety and association with this place is not at all the hero of the story. Johnson’s steadfast friendship with Scott and support of him is what is truly remarkable. Like I said, the video at Furnace Creek Visitor Center is well worth watching.

One note on Furnace Creek: make sure you fill up the car. Gas prices are obscene! It was bad enough when we visited, but they are well above $5.00 per gallon for regular at time of writing.

First glimpse of the valley from Zabriskie Point

While I’d hoped to have another view as our first glimpse of Death Valley, our initial stop, even before heading to Badwater, was at Zabriskie Point. You don’t get a sweeping view of Death Valley, but you can at least steal a peek over the badland formations. It is one of the most photographed points in the park.

The terrain here is otherworldly. Shaped by rain erosion, is the sort of look and texture you’d expect from a wasteland of a planet from a sci-fi film. The complete barrenness of the soil stands in stark contrast to so much of the rest of California and the other deserts I’ve visited, which have a robust ecosystem.

Had the time been available (and the temperature cooler), I would have loved to hike the Golden Canyon trail from the opposite side of the Badland formations.

Biggest bummer: Dante’s View was closed

Now for the depressing parts. When I was researching what to see in Death Valley, the viewpoint known as “Dante’s View” topped my list. This viewpoint is accessible from the east side of the park. You head south from the main road essentially from the entrance kiosk and then drive for several miles up to the point.

But Dante’s View was closed. You could drive a ways down the road to a parking lot, but the road was gated beyond that point. Had we been able to access the scenic spot, we would have enjoyed sweeping views of Death Valley stretching out before us. Dante’s View is positioned right above Badwater, and is one of the best vista points in the park.

The viewpoint is open again. We unfortunately just came during a period of maintenance where the Park Service was doing work at the Dante’s View parking lot. You can enjoy this spot once again.

How little time we had

The second bummer is how abbreviated our visit had to be. Yes, this is completely my fault. Death Valley is vast; this was not lost on me. It takes a good amount of time to just drive through the park and from point to point within it. For example, to get from Badwater to Scotty’s Castle (unfortunately closed, like I mentioned), you will need to drive almost an hour and a half. Plan accordingly.

I knew we would have at most about 5-6 hours to see and enjoy Death Valley. This is enough if you want to simply stop by a couple of highlights and then keep moving, like we did. To really experience the valley, you probably need a couple full days.


While our visit to Death Valley was brief, I really enjoyed it. The kids were less enthusiastic, but we did make memories, even if it was of them pretending to die as we walked across the salt flats. They still talk about it, and that is what matters to me most. Hopefully they’ll look back fondly on our visit one day, realizing I really wasn’t trying to kill them. Go see and experience this amazing national park!

The Easiest Hike in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

**Trying to play catch-up on these final posts from last year before launching into more recent adventures!**

After saying au revior to Las Vegas, honestly hoping it is the last time I ever visit that enigmatic city, the kids and I drove the half hour to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

The kids complained nearly the entire time we were in the park. I wish I could say otherwise. It was “too hot” at about 82 degrees. And totally dry. I barely felt it, and I’m a wimp when it comes to the heat. Yes, these are the same kids that come from Costa Rica where the temperature routinely got this high.

Oh, the pain of the blazing desert sun! Next time we’ll visit in July so that they know what *real* heat is. They may hate me for these photos later, but I find them too funny. Their faces at Death Valley were also priceless (SEE: 3 Tips for Hiking with Kids in the Desert).

I have been giving more thought to what I post about my kids, either on various blogs or on social media, something that is definitely important to think about in this day and age. Check out this post from The Deal Mommy about respecting kids opinions about their online presence and persona (since you, as their parent, are creating and/or influencing it). Ours are not yet online, but they will be eventually.

Main points of interest at Red Rock Canyon NCA

Our first stop was at Calico Hills, a popular spot for photos and hiking. Or I should say “hiking”. It was little more than a short walk down the hill and then back up, but the kids acted like it would be the death of them.

Luckily, I knew better. Our short walk turned out to be enjoyable enough, as we saw some cool desert flora and a lizard. The red rocks themselves are stunning as well. Which is why everyone visits this spot.

Our next stop was at the vista point for the view. It is at nearly the highest point along the road and provides a view of Calico rocks, the surrounding hills, and the Las Vegas basin way off in the distance.

The Easiest Hike in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

The final point of interest was Lost Creek Canyon Trail. We had a brief break, though, for lunch, which consisted of sandwiches, hastily made in the car. Then we all set out across the dry creek beds to see what was in store for this short hike. The trail starts out clearly marked, bordered by rocks.

Easiest Hike in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

I knew that the trail isn’t long. But it didn’t matter how long we would be hiking. The kids wanted none of it. I might as well have offered them the Bataan Death March. The promise of a waterfall was the only tool I had to spur them on. How I hoped it wouldn’t be lame.

The first “fall” (what I thought was a fall) we came to was pretty lame. But I could hear more water falling up the creek, so I was hopeful. The path became less distinct but still fairly easy to follow.

The whining began again, and rather than deal with it, I just kept walking and let the kids catch up. Hope returned after we passed another group who said the real waterfall wasn’t too far ahead.

We’d barely been walking 15 minutes, which does make this an extremely short hike and probably the easiest hike in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Everything is worth it at the end

Finally, we were greeted by a ribbon of water falling forty feet into a lovely pool below. The kids complaining turned to laughter as they ran to the edge. The pool and surrounding rocks were even in the shade, so we could enjoy the vista without the desert sun beating down on us.

Easiest Hike in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

The kids and I made our way around edge, clambering over the rocks to get closer to the waterfall. Soon they were throwing rocks into the water, hiding from each other, and doing all the sorts of kid things they are supposed to in a fun outdoor place like this.

I just sat down and enjoyed being there. It had been an easy hike, but one that is well worth the minimal time it takes to get to this lovely spot. When I finally informed the kids it was time to keep moving, they protested. How quickly their perspective changes! We settled on staying another half hour, which meant we would get into Pahrump later than I wanted, but everything would still work out fine.

The last twenty minutes consisted of my daughter chasing her brother with a bottle of water trying to get him wet. Always the instigator, he had tried to push her into the pool below the waterfall and it was payback time.


The hike out was just as pleasant. I highly recommend Lost Creek Canyon / Children’s Discovery Trail as one of the best and easiest hikes in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area for families. It’s an easy 1.2 to 1.5-mile round-trip, depending on how you do your out and back, as you can make a sort of loop that still includes the waterfall. We’ll be back again if we pass through the area. It sure beats visiting Vegas!

Visiting the Grand Canyon in May – What’s with the Snow?

Back last spring (I know…just getting around to writing some of these posts!) the older two kids and I had an adventure across the desert southwest of the United States. Some of our stops included Saguaro National Park and a nice resort hotel in Phoenix, as well as an afternoon of hiking in Sedona. It wasn’t the sort of road trip where you get to linger. We had to press onward each day.

The day finally came where we would be visiting the Grand Canyon. But it didn’t go at all how I imagined.

Snow? In Arizona?? In May?!?

It was quite blustery during our afternoon of hiking in Sedona [SEE: Easiest Sedona hike (with a view)]. The rain started just as we were on the final stretch back the car and it continued as we wound our way northward and upward to Flagstaff. Funny thing about Flagstaff: it’s at an elevation of almost 7,000 feet. And while it had been a perfect 70 degrees in Sedona, it was now snowing. Snowing! Nothing was sticking, but it was still snow. In Arizona. In May.

When we woke up the next morning, it was still cold and lightly snowing, but there still wasn’t really any accumulated on the ground.

However, as we continued toward the Grand Canyon, we *did* start to drive through real snow. Eventually, the kids couldn’t take it any more and we had to pull over. This was their first time really experiencing the snow. It was not at all part of the plan.

The Grand letdown

I became a bit concerned about our visit to the Grand Canyon. What if it was cloudy and snowy and we couldn’t get a view of the canyon? Does this happen from time to time? I imagine it does. Here we were, in the middle of a trip that would stretch over 1,000 miles of driving, and we may miss our one chance to see the Grand Canyon!

My fears were realized when we parked at the Canyon Rim lot. It was difficult enough to see anything that far from us, as it was quickly obscured by the fog/clouds.  We stopped by the visitor center first, and I hoped that conditions might improve and we’d get a view of the canyon.

But no such luck. Once we were done in the visitor center and wandered over to the lookout point, all we could see was cloud.

I was bummed. This is not how I expected our first visit to the Grand Canyon to go. Who knew that May would be such a poor time to visit?

The kids wasted no time in making lemonade from the lemon of a day we were given. They were enjoying a delightful romp in the snow.

A brief breakthrough

We slowly walked west toward the geology museum at Yavapai Point. The location is normally another picturesque viewpoint from the South Rim, but…there was nothing but cloud to see. However, after spending about 15 minutes in the museum where we got to see a cool model of the canyon, the clouds all of a sudden broke for just a few moments and we had a glimpse of the canyon below! Everyone inside rushed to the window.

It wasn’t a full panoramic view, but it was our first real taste of the Grand Canyon. The viewing window in the museum is great, as it provides a great vantage point while simultaneously letting you stay warm.

We spent a little while longer at the museum and were able to see a bit of the canyon on a couple more instances. Eventually I decided that things probably weren’t going to get much better and we might as well keep moving along on our trip. The breaks were very brief.

Chasing the sky

However, when we arrived back at the car, I could tell that the clouds around us were breaking up a bit. We hadn’t had a good view of the canyon except for those brief moments at Yavapai. But the sky looked slightly better toward the east, and the ranger had told us that there was supposed to be a slight lull before things worsened later in the afternoon. My gut told me that we would be able to have a better chance at a view at one of the viewpoints to the east.

So I started chasing that small patch of blue sky moving slowly eastward. We were eventually able to park at a crowded viewpoint. The gambit paid off. We were treated to this:

Things got even better when we made our way to the next vantage point, which is aptly named Grandview Point. The view was pretty grand, and we finally were able to wonder at this natural marvel.

We took a brief walk down the trail from Grandview, enjoying a couple different vsantage points of the canyon. If not for the clouds looming to the west, you might think there was nothing wrong with our day at the Grand Canyon.

I’m *so* glad we didn’t give up completely. Even though we were only able to enjoy this view for about 20 minutes, I was glad to have seen the Grand Canyon. We’ll be back again, I’m sure. At least the first time wasn’t a complete failure.


It was then time to move on. We had a dinner date in Kingman with friends, and with a few hours of driving to go, I hoped to make it there in time. The poor weather dissipated as we got further from the Grand Canyon, and eventually we were back to the sunny skies and pleasant temperatures that were much more familiar to an Arizona spring.

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