California Dreaming: Cycling from Las Vegas to San Diego
Las Vegas. What a place. After returning our van we spent three days exploring the city, which was difficult if not impossible to do on a tight budget. We did manage to hunt out free activities to do though, which included watching flamingoes in the garden of a fancy hotel, taking a blackjack lesson (after which we decided to play a game, promptly lost $8.25 and announced the end of our gambling careers), and visiting the ‘arts district’ (which turned out to be a strip of abandoned buildings and dodgy drive through wedding receptions). We also went to a spectacular Cirque du Soleil performance and ate a gargantuan buffet, which was delicious, but by our last day we were ready to leave.
Cycling out of Las Vegas was horrendous. I managed to leave a scattered trail of garlic bulbs, bananas and sunscreen on the road behind me as we bumped over pot holes and dodged traffic, (the garlic and bananas were saved but sadly the sunscreen exploded under an impatient car tyre). Eventually we reached the outskirts of the city and found a quiet(er) road to ride on. The scenery for the next couple of hours included industrial buildings, housing developments and bill boards advertising casinos - great. But finally we rounded a corner to see hot sandy desert. And strangely, seven large colourful sculptures that look like smarties stacked up on each other. The sculptures are known as the Seven Magic Mountains, and were built by a Swiss artist, Ugo Rondinone. They were installed in the desert outside Las Vegas in 2016, with the intention of leaving them there for public viewing for two years. They are immensely popular, and we could see why. They were a stark contrast to the desert, with each statue reaching about nine metres high. A nice surprise after the busyness of the city behind us.
That night we camped outside Primm - a tiny casino town on the border of Nevada and California. Primm consisted of two large casino hotels, Whiskey Pete’s (castle themed) and Buffalo Bill’s (complete with a rollercoaster that circumnavigated the building). Although I’m sure it would have been entertaining to stay in one of them, we opted to set up our tent in the desert about 1km away. The lights that shone from the casinos were so bright that we didn’t need to use out head torches that night.
The next morning we got up early and trotted to the McDonald’s to fill up our water bottles, (‘oh a hash brown? If I must!’). We needed at least 20L for the next few days so we grabbed every water container we had. It took about 15 minutes to fill up. The diners looked at us curiously but went back to happily munching their breakfast burgers. Maybe they had seen cyclists here before?
We hopped on our bikes and rode 20km south, to the Mojave National Preserve entrance. The wilderness area is about 695,000 acres, and includes rolling sand dunes and the largest Joshua tree forest in the world. Jamie had managed to find some dirt roads to explore, so we left the bitumen in search of a more rugged cycling experience. The dirt roads were quiet, a welcome relief to the busy highway traffic we had been cycling on that morning. We spent most of the day cycling steadily up hill, taking breaks to photograph Joshua trees and funny little coyote melons. Coyote melons usually grow in desert washes and look like tiny watermelons. You can eat the seeds (if you’re starving), but the flesh of the fruit is terribly bitter. We decided to stick to our dried fruit & Cliff Bars instead. That night we found a beautiful wild camp, hidden down an old mining road and surrounded by Joshua trees. Bliss!
The next day boasted clear blue skies and a chilly breeze. We rolled back to the road, ready for another day of exploring. Within half an hour, we found ourselves in the famous Joshua tree forest. It was glorious! The spiky trees towered along the road as we wound our way through it. Joshua trees come from the Yucca family - they have similar pointy leaves. It is very difficult to tell how old a Joshua tree is though, as they don’t have tree rings. Sometimes Joshua trees sprout creamy white flowers, but it depends on the years rainfall. We didn’t see any flowers, but they are in any case spectacular trees! The rest of the day included navigating sandy patches on the road and taking snack breaks in desert washes (to escape the wind).
We eventually found our campsite for the night, situated next to a rocky canyon and with views of the sun setting over the desert. As we were setting up our tent, a friendly park ranger stopped by and gave us some free firewood. Moments later a father and son trotted over and insisted we have a beer with them. A perfect end to exploring the Mojave National Preserve!
In the morning we went on a quick hike through the canyon before we packed up our belongings and cycled down the long winding hill to Route 66. This section of the famous old highway was closed but that didn’t stop us. We scooted around the ‘Road Closed’ signs, and immediately felt the relief of having the road to ourselves again. We grinned at each other and happily rode a lane each. We occasionally had to abandon the road and detour around collapsed bridges, but it was easy enough to bumble through the sandy washes. About two hours later we noticed another cyclist riding towards us and waved them over. Mike was a weathered 50 year old and had been on the road for 14 years, chasing the warmer weather throughout the lower 48. “Are you guys hooked on cycling yet?” We assured him that we were and had a look at his set up. He had dusty old panniers on front and back. On back of his bike he had strapped an electric fly swat to his bags - interesting. He also had a little wooden shelf (complete with a glass ashtray) attached to his handlebars. We bid Mike farewell and continued peddling to Amboy.
We initially thought that Amboy might have a little restaurant and maybe a few hotels, (pizza perhaps??). Alas it was just a petrol station, surrounded by abandoned buildings and desert littered with glass. We were told not to drink water from the taps because of the arsenic, so we spent a small fortune on a tiny bottle of water and sat out the front to watch the sunset. We were just starting to wonder where we would set up camp for the night when, by some miracle, another cyclist appeared! Nathan was from Switzerland, and had just ridden 150kms that day - “it was nothing”. (We ourselves had ridden 90kms, which is a BIG day for us). We asked the petrol station owner if he knew of anywhere we could set up our tents. “Oh, you guys can sleep in the abandoned building over the road - the one behind the old church with the old piano.” We trotted over the road to check it out. Although the building had no windows and a few treats left by some pigeons, there was no need for us to set up our tent. Heaven! We made a quick dinner of lentils and hopped straight into our sleeping bags. We had a surprisingly good sleep that night, especially considering the freight trains that passed every half hour. The next day we packed up quickly, ready to cycle the last stretch to Twenty-nine Palms, the town just outside Joshua Tree National Park.
Twenty-nine Palms was a little oasis, in more ways than one. The town was surrounded by lush vegetation and palm trees (I counted, there were more that 29). We chose the cheapest hotel, which turned out to be one of the most delightful places we had stayed! The owner, an elderly Indian man, bustled out when we rode up and asked us where we were from Australia, “Ah! Cricket!”
He beamed at us and asked us where we had cycled from.
“We started in Alaska in July and are just going to keep cycling until our money runs out,” Jamie said. He grabbed our hands and said seriously, “When you are finished your journey, you will have aged 30 years in wisdom!” We smiled and he led the way to our little casita for the night.
Our bright orange quarters had everything we needed; a hot shower (the first since Las Vegas) and the most comfortable bed you could imagine. We ordered pizza, and gobbled it up in seconds when it arrived.
In the morning we left our hotel for Joshua Tree National Park. We were very excited as it was the day that we would meet up with our Swiss friends, Adam and Julie again. The ride to Jumbo Rocks campground was only 20km, but included a very. steep. climb. the whole way. Luckily Jamie had pocket snacks for me or I would never have made it. We arrived in the early afternoon, and marvelled at the rock formations surrounding the campground. We went for a quick scramble before setting up camp. Adam and Julie soon arrived, sporting trendy shower caps and big grins. We made a big fire, and roasted sweet potatoes and sausages over the flames. We pondered the big travel questions again; “Where should we cycle next?”, “What makes us the most happy?”, “Should we go to La Ventana, Mexico to kite surf?” and “Is there any jelly left?”
Luckily there was some jelly.
The next morning Jamie and I decided to head south through the park towards Cottonwood Campground after hearing about a cactus garden and a forrest of Ocotillo - giant seaweed-like plants. We were sad to say goodbye to Adam and Julie, but crossed our fingers that we would meet again in Mexico.
The cactus garden was about an hours ride away, and boasted an abundance of large furry yellow cacti. We wandered around and resisted the urge to touch them, (they looked so soft!).
Not far along we found the seaweed plants, also known as Ocotillo Trees. In the desert Ocotillo Trees often look brown and dead, but just after it rains they quickly sprout tiny green leaves and red flowers. Luckily there had been rainfall a week before we arrived, so we saw the trees with vivid green leaves.
The ride from Cottonwood Campground to Indio the next day included a lot of sand and hike-a-bike. Luckily, during a particularly difficult uphill section, a trail angel and his dog stopped and threw my bike in the back of his truck. Jamie decided to persevere so we met at the top. The downhill section wasn’t much better however. My tires kept sliding from under me and it was impossible to cycle many sections of the road without having to get off and push my bike. At the end of the day, exhausted, we decided to stay in a motel in Indio. Indio is situated right next to Coachella, the town that hosts the famous Californian music festival each year. We were excited to explore the town, thinking it might have some cool bars and cafes, but as we peddled in people honked their horns at us angrily and no-one smiled. Surprised, we rode past the strip of shops and went straight to our motel. After we checked in we discovered one very hot fridge and one very blocked toilet, (that an unhelpful hotel manager insisted we fix ourselves). We decided we had enough of Indio and vowed to get up early and cycle as far into the desert as we could.
We left Indio at 8am (early for us!), pointing our bikes in the direction of the Anza Borrego State Park. We cycled past date palms and capsicum farms, before hitting the highway that would take us to the state park. When we arrived we saw that the state park was a favourite of dirt bikers and off road vehicle drivers. We sat down in the sand to eat our lunch (which included scavenged capsicums!) and watched them zip by in clouds of dust. Just as we were preparing to leave, a car pulled over and an enthusiastic German guy lept out. “Do you guys need any water?” Phillip, a fellow cycle tourist was traveling with his American girlfriend Michelle. The had both recently completed a cycle trip in Canada and were returning from a hiking trip in Joshua Tree National Park. “Hey, do you guys have anywhere to spend Thanksgiving?” We shook our heads, neither of us had ever been to Thanksgiving. “Well if you guys are near San Diego on Thursday, you should definitely come!” We waved as they left and then looked at each other.
“Do you think we could get there by Thursday?” I asked. We had originally decided to cycle dirt roads most of the way to San Diego.
“Well, if we don’t ride the dirt roads and cycle pavement the whole way, I think we could do it. Should we do it?”
I nodded. We quickly cycled the last few kilometres to our campsite, excited to have made some new friends and imagining the delights we would eat at Thanksgiving.
It’s safe to say we were quite sick of pasta and lentils.
The next few days included cycling past huge animal sculptures in the desert, sampling apple pie and riding as fast as we could to San Diego. Reaching San Diego felt like an achievement. We had finished the North America section of our trip. We arrived just in time for Thanksgiving and a wonderful feast of food with our new friends.
The next morning we woke up early to have another look at kite surfing in La Ventana and airline tickets to Mexico.
Jamie looked at me. “Should we do it?”
“Let’s do it!”