All I wanted to do after graduation was travel. I had so many ideas, entire trips mapped out in my mind, distracted by the world maps that covered the walls of the history department where I had my last college class. Southeast Asia maybe? Or back to Australia! No Africa, no South America! For the World Cup! Backpack around Brazil! Couch surf through the Mediterranean! Endless possibilities, so much to see, how can anyone stay in one place, this world is so big and we are so small, and there is adventure to be had.
And then I realized something. I had lived in the United States nearly my whole life. This massively grand country I call home, and yet… I’ve seen so little of it. Why was I so desperate to cross oceans when there was so much to discover here in my own backyard?
Countless coffee dates discussing travel fantasies with my equally-enthused friend Zoe highlighted my final semester. Finally, we decided to book the West Coast Wonder trip with a company called Green Tortoise. A two-week hiking and camping adventure around the national parks and down the coast of California.
This is our story.
Day 1 // Joshua Tree National Park
After an early morning pick-up at a hostel just off Hollywood Blvd in LA, we drove across California and into the desert. Our destination for the day was Joshua Tree National Park, which is known as a transition zone between the Mohave Desert and the Colorado Desert.
Fun fact: The Joshua Tree is fascinating because it doesn’t have a normal bark, the kind with rings that tells you the age of the tree. So there is no way of knowing how old a Joshua Tree is (not yet, at least). The further north into the Mohave you get, the fewer Joshua Trees you’ll find.
Fun fact dos: The name comes from the Mormon settlers who thought that the tree’s branches resembled the biblical Joshua with his arms outstretched to God.
Side note: there is not much to see in the desert so those informative visitor centers at the park reaaaaaally stuck with me.
ANYWAY. It was quite a hot day, in the 90s, but a surprising breeze made the weather nearly perfect. We did a bit of hiking in the park, some quick trails before making our way to our campsite. After spending the day driving around together, our group was starting to loosen up and get to know each other. Most of us were around the same age, but Zoe and I were actually the only Americans! Two from the UK, two from Holland, and at least six from Germany — I honestly forgot I was still in the US.
We helped out with dinner for about an hour and then wandered off to do some exploring. We climbed up a few rocks and watched the sunset behind the mountains. Back at camp, an amazing stir fry dinner awaited us under a fading pink sky and the first twinkle of the stars. Neither Zoe or I had brought a tent but we rented sleeping bags from Green Tortoise and set them up on top of a tarp with cushions from the bus. After dinner, we all sat around the campfire for the usual games, singing, scary stories, and deep talks.
And yes I did make everyone play Pterodactyl and it was fantastic.
By the time we put out the fire and snuggled up in our sleeping bags, the night sky was alive with the universe. Three shooting stars later and I was asleep.
Day 2 // Colorado River and Las Vegas
We woke up around 6, the desert sun already hot and the cool wind gone. After a delicious breakfast, we loaded our things back on the bus and set off. But not before hiking one more quick trail, the Skull Rock Trail, on our way out of the park. Today was mostly driving but we did get a treat! After miles of endless desert, we pulled over and washed off the camping dirt and bonfire in the banks of the Colorado River.
And. It. Was. Hot. 103 degrees to be exact. And climbing. Florida had not prepared me for this.
After applying an exorbitant amount of sunscreen, we eagerly ran down the bank and into the water.
And. It. Was. Cold. I don’t know how cold exactly but it felt like near freezing. Florida what good are you anyway?!
But we stuck it out and bravely immersed ourselves in the water (which kinda helped) and spent the afternoon playing around with a frisbee, splashing each other when we started to air-dry (average time .6 seconds), or just laying out on the sand.
Around 2pm we headed back on the bus, cruising along for the next few hours on the famous Route 66! We rolled into Vegas around 5pm and checked into our hostel where we finally finally finally took a long-awaited and desperately-needed shower. After a less than stellar dinner at the Thai-Chinese place across from the hostel, we were ready for a night out in Sin City!
Our little group was getting pretty comfortable by now (such bonding!) We walked all the way to the strip, stopping at the Stratosphere for the few that wanted to go up the tower (Zoe and I opted for the happy hour at the hotel lounge) and then a quick drink at Treasure Island to meet up with a few others. After realizing it was close to midnight, we raced down the strip to the Bellagio to catch the final fountain show, flying past the Mirage and the Venetian and Caesar’s Palace. Unfortunately we were too late but we were able to celebrate the 19th birthday of one of our new German friends underneath the beautifully lit Eiffel Tower.
At that point it was nearing 1am and while the guys went off to gamble, Zoe and I were crashing pretty hard. It was hard to believe everything that had happened already on this trip, that just that morning we had awoken in a desert at the crack of dawn and spent the day under a hot sun. So since I had already visited Vegas before and Zoe is planning on returning for her birthday later this year, we cabbed it back and collapsed in our bunks.
Day 3 // Zion National Park, Utah
Woke up at 7am to get our things ready for the bus’s 8am arrival. Listening to everyone’s stories over breakfast was hilarious, especially the German guys who had somehow ended up in a limo after gambling and went who knows where and stumbled back at 6am. Talk about doing Vegas right…
As soon as everyone checked out and loaded their things on the bus, we were off again. Thankfully our next destination was a good two and a half hour drive and nearly everyone (hungover and exhausted was the general look) fell asleep for most of the way. We pulled into Zion National Park around 1pm. This stop was different because most people in our group were doing a different trip and had to switch buses. Which was really depressing cause we were just starting to bond with all our new friends.
But we definitely made the most of our beautiful last day with them. There are a number of things to do in the park but our group decided to do the most strenuous hike, Angel’s Landing. About 4 hours round trip and insanely steep and really treacherous (the last 2 miles or so doesn’t have a path and it’s just a very very very narrow rocky trail around the canyon edge with nothing but a chain rail at some places to keep you from going over).
It was the coolest thing I have ever done.
The hike felt brutal but with the victorious look of hindsight, it wasn’t so bad. And my God was it beautiful. The views as we got closer to the top were breathtaking, like straight up absurdly stunning.
We all went at different paces and reunited at the top and took a ton of proud sweaty pictures. I can’t wait to upload them all when I get back home!
The walk back down was great. It was past 6pm and the whole trail was in shade which was such a relief. We made it back to the campsite of the other bus, which was staying overnight, for a carb-loaded much-needed pasta dinner.
Then it was time to say goodbye. It was crazy how attached we became to our new friends in so short a time but however it happened it made moving on to the next part of our trip bittersweet. From our original group, only two girls were coming back on our bus. After many hugs and Facebook requests, we headed back to the parking lot. We got as cleaned up as we could in the bathroom, changed into our pjs, and off we went.
I’m writing this now from my phone, as our bus cruises along the highway en route to San Francisco. It’s a drive night tonight and the bus has been converted into a proper sleeping vehicle. It’s been a whirlwind adventure so far and I’m just about to knock out. Can’t wait to see what the next two weeks have in store!