2,500 Miles to California

There are road trips, and there are looonnng road trips. Driving from Texas to California is the latter. You come across so many different spectrum of sceneries and snippets of Americana along the way.

This wasn't really a photography trip or a vacation, this was a moving trip. But I tried to sneak in a few shots here and there.  We had a rough outline of our route but many details were left open. But we knew we want to hit as much National Parks along the way as we can.  It was also a way to save on hotel cost by camping out in the park.... and we really kinda just wanted to camp out in the open.

It took us 5 full days, over 40-hours of driving, countless amounts of fuel, junk food, sodas and coffee.  

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Day 1: Austin - Guadalupe National Park (490 Miles, 8-hours)

Located way out west at the edge of the Texas panhandle, Guadalupe Park straddles the border of Texas and New Mexico. While technically still within Texas stateline, the park operates in Mountain Time. 

We camped out at Pine springs Campground, the only drive-up campground in the whole park. It’s a cute little campground, nestled between Guadalupe and Hunter’s Peak. After setting up tent we drive out to 62/180 highway to one of the picnic area just to the side for dinner and a view of the El Capitan Peak at the edge of the range.

In the morning, we woke up just before the sun rises. Walking towards the Tejas Trail, I came across the dry river bed with these beautiful white chalky gravels strewn all over the bed. I hopped around the place for quite a bit trying to find a composition while the sun is still low.  Because I didn't really scout the area beforehand, I ended up scrambling to take a few shots because the light was so nice and I didn't want to waste it.

Day 2: Carlsbad Caverns - White Sands National Monument - Tucson (550 miles, 9-hours)

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located just 30-minutes north of Guadalupe across the stateline. After a winding drive into the visitor center, we descended 750 feet down into the caves (alternatively, you can also hike down on foot via the original cave entrance).

Our jaws practically dropped as soon as we entered the main chambers. This cave was friggin’ huge with magnificent stalactites and stalagmites formations. The further in you venture to the park, the larger the chambers become and there are still more pathways being explored.

We came across a few workers working on cleaning one of the cave ponds with a filter to remove the debris and contaminants from previous visitors. A reminder of how even today, park staff and volunteers still work to clean up our mess from decades ago.

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We jetted out of Carlsbad to make our way to White Sands National Monument. The hope was to get one of the very very few campground spot in the dunes. With the full moon, the view would be spectacular. But alas, the spots were filled up by the time we got there.

We ventured a little bit to the park and climbed some of the smaller dunes just off the main road. The 105+ degree heat was unbearable though, the blinding reflected light from the white sands didn’t help either.

Since we don’t have a place to stay that night, we made an impromptu decision to power through another 5-hours to reach Tucson. That way we can be within a day's drive to Grand Canyon.

Day 3: Tucson - Saguaro National Park - Grand Canyon (385 miles, 7 hours)

Waking up early in Tucson, we headed out to Saguaro National Park East for a quick tour of the saguaro cactus. Whenever you think of cactus, this species is probably what you pictured. But ironically, this cactus only grows in the Arizona region.

Saguaro NP is actually split into two, pinching Tucson from both its West and East sides. We picked the Eastern park because we heard that it is less crowded and that it has a nice 6-mile loop drive that we can cruise through relatively quick.

The saguaros comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Generally, it takes 75-years before they would grow their first “arm,” so many of these cacti are really old.  We stopped a lot along the 6-miles loop to see them up close.

But we couldn’t linger too long, because Grand Canyon was waiting for us.

We got there just before dusk and we had to run down to catch the last Red Line shuttle to Hopi Point before the sun sets. And in the rush, I amateurishly left my camera in the car. Fortunately I had my compact X70 stashed in my backpack, so I made do.

It was great to finally see these canyons. The last time I visited here was almost 20-years ago when I toured the US with my parents, a couple years before I moved here. And I barely remembered it, or have any appreciation of the park back then.

I ended up with just one good shot out of the ordeal.  But it was totally worth it.

Day 4: Grand Canyon - Lone Pine / Alabama Hills (470 miles, 8 hours)

After desperately looking for a campground and luckily finding a vacant spot in Kaibab National Forest, we drove back into the park and explored the eastern Canyon Drive up to the Watchtower. Not staying too long, we turned back around to make a push through the day to get to the Eastern Sierras and hopefully camp out in the Alabama Hills.  At this point, it really does feel like we're blazing through these beautiful landmarks.

Alabama Hills have been on my bucket list for a while now, along with the Eastern Sierras. The Eastern side of the range is not as accessible from San Francisco, since there are basically only two passes to get to that side. One of them being Tioga road in Yosemite and it only opens for a few months of the year, and the other is way down South right by King’s Canyon.

More importantly, I’ve been dying to see Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.  And it's nice to finally be able to visit and explore one area longer, rather than just hopping in and out of the car for pics.

We reached the hills just as the sun sets. I was in awe at the vastness of this space; the towering and scattered boulders with the Sierras in the backdrop. We drove around for a little bit to scope out some spots for sunrise. 

Alabama Hills is actually a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) property, which means as long as you follow the guidance you can pretty much camp anywhere in the park. Which is totally awesome. But unfortunately it was way too windy and cold that evening, so we looked for a motel in the town of Lone Pine just outside the park.

Day 5: Lone Pine - San Jose - San Francisco (460 miles, 8 hours)

We woke up at 4AM, brewed a quick cup of coffee, and drove straight back into the park. Came back to the spot we scouted the night before and setup my tripod, and sat back in the car until the sun rises. I took a few test shots to make sure my composition works.

But even the subtle pre-dawn light looked amazing on the range. I knew I wanted to get a sweeping panoramic shot, so I tested with a few vertical shots with the pre-dawn light.

Not long after, the sun begin to peak in from the mountains behind us, and the Sierras was basked in a brilliant warm orange alpen-glow.

It’s a nice climactic end to our 5-days long road trip from Texas to California.

We made one last push to the Bay Area. By the time we reached home, the car's odometer have rolled over twice with 550 more miles logged after.

In total we drove over 40 hours and over 2,500 miles. And looking back, lot of those miles felt like a blur.  But for now I’m happy to sleep in my own bed again.

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You can also check out my other travel journals here InTransit

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