I’m not sure that I’d ever been so relieved to be in a moving vehicle in my whole life. It surprised me, actually. Because for all of the twenty-nine years I’ve spent on this planet, I’ve definitely not spent a single minute of them dreaming of what life would be like living out of a motorhome for two weeks, not until recently, that is. But, as you already know, the weeks before beginning our RV trip from Portland to Louisiana in my parents’ 36-foot Winnabego RV, had unexpectedly brought sadness and stress and chaos in disproportionate amounts and the idea of closing the doors to that, for even a moment, in lieu of the peace of the open road sounded like a little slice of pure heaven.
And it turns out it was, mostly.
There were many quiet moments with cell bars on empty where we could just talk uninterrupted from our two captain’s chairs. Times when we came to a full stop on the two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere for no other reason than to take in forests of Joshua Trees, not another breathing thing in sight. And times, as you already know if you follow along with our Instagram stories, when we just sat in quiet observation of the sun disappearing into the horizon, cocktails in hand, dog snoozing at our feet, and dinner simmering on the mini-RV stovetop inside. There were also several Instagram-unworthy moments when the smells coming from the blackwater tank overwhelmed our nostrils and there was, I regret to admit, more than one occasion when I found myself on hands and knees sopping up spilled milk from linoleum floors, the result of forgetting just how much unsecured items can flip around in a refrigerator on bumpy dirt roads. But today I’m going to walk you through the highlights. Here are some of the best places we saw and stayed at on the way from Portland, Oregon to New Orleans, Louisiana. Here’s to hoping you get to tackle all or part of this journey yourself one day when you, too, find yourself in need of a little peace.
Pacifica, California – 650 miles from Portland, Oregon
Maybe when you think about road tripping to the San Francisco Bay Area, you think about staying dead center downtown SF. And for some, that works. But for us, having spent five years living in the Bay Area, we were happy to be a bit further out of the city. With its stunning Pacific Ocean sunsets, hundreds of surfers, and good friends just up the hill, Pacifica felt right. Pacifica also happens to be home to the only beachfront Taco Bell in the world in case that’s your thing. But we skipped home of the cheesy gordita crunch in favor of dinner with Alex and Lindsay, two of our best friends and also two of the best cooks I know. Lindsay spoiled us with an Israeli feast of 36-hour marinated lamb, quinoa salad, and a roasted zucchini tahini dish that I’m still dreaming about and have made variations of at least twice since we left her house (once in the RV).
Some other great places to explore in Pacifica since Lindsay’s kitchen isn’t (yet) open to the public:
- Just a short walk from the beach is Yonder Shop, a ceramics studio run by Linda Fahey housing creative pieces for both your home and your table. Stop in to check out what she’s working on, admire her shop, or pick up a copy of one of my favorite publications, The Coastal Table.
- When we were living in Pacifica for two years in our early twenties, Salada Beach Café was a local hangout and also our go-to stop for brunch. Don’t miss the Huevos Rancheros.
- While Pacifica’s main beach and pier draw a lot of attraction, particularly during crabbing season, I prefer Linda Mar Beach, a lively surf spot and also just a short walk from Devil’s Slide Taproom.
Joshua Tree National Park, California – 510 miles from Pacifica
Driving into Joshua Tree National Park looked like we had found the world’s end. Land as far as the eye can see, not a gas station or restaurant or tree for miles. And then, little by little, we started spotting the furry Flinstonean trees that the park is named for. We stayed at Black Rock Campground one of only two campgrounds with pump out stations and also one of the few that takes reservations. And as luck would have it, we were there during the Draconoid Meteor Shower, which peaks just at sunset, low on the horizon. To sit with a glass of wine, a fire in the fire pit, a meteor shower all around us was nothing short of magic. (There were also a little chilaquiles magic happening in the kitchen that part of the trip, stay tuned for more on that next week!)
If you don’t have a reservation at JT:
- You won’t have to worry too much during the weekdays but you might on weekends or during special events. Park staff told us that most campers and RVers can find a spot on the weekends but they typically have to arrive by 9am or 10am, so plan accordingly.
Zion National Park, Utah – 356 miles from Joshua Tree
Just a day’s drive from Joshua Tree is another famed National Park that had been on our list for years, Zion. The park itself is characterized by its sharp cliffs of red rock, a haven for skilled rock climbers who I happily watch from the ground. We got in a full day’s hike along The Narrows, a section of Zion Canyon where hikers traverse through knee-deep chilly waters (48 degrees F!) and across the bowling ball-like slippery rocks of the Virgin River for up to sixteen miles since there’s no land-based walking path. About an hour and a half into the hike, the crowds tapered off and we found ourselves in near solitude, so if you do this one, start early and just keep going. It only gets better the farther along you get.
Some other tips for Zion:
- The only way around Zion is via their park-designated shuttle system. Get there right when it opens at 9am to get a jump on the crowds and get ahead, especially if you’re doing the Narrows.
- As we were walking towards the Visitor’s Center to buy our park tickets, we noticed a store that claimed to offer all the gear you need to hike the Narrows—special wading pants, waterproof boots, the whole nine yards. We opted for yoga pants and tennis shoes and prepared ourselves mentally for colder bottom halves, which came with a little leftover sand in the shoes but was otherwise a perfectly fine option and the shoes dried out and shook out fine the next day.
- One hike we didn’t have time to do but heard many great words about was Angel’s Landing. It’s on our list for next time, have you ever been?
- Pack your lunch to eat mid-park (pack it out, too!) and instead spend your dollars on a couple of frosty Jamaican Style Lagers at the Zion Brew Pub. We also tried the Redemption IPA but can’t say we’d recommend it to other travelers, it fell a bit flat for our hop-loving taste buds. And don’t be surprised when they require you to order at least some food with your beer – it’s Utah law. The $3 pretzel sticks were a cost-efficient add on option.
Las Vegas, Nevada – 160 miles from Zion National Park
Everyone has their own interpretation of Vegas. I get it. It’s loud, it’s bright, it values fakeness over authenticity and stuff over experiences, and, quite frankly, most of it reminds me of everything I hate about America all rolled up into a single street they called The Strip. But, here’s the thing. Vegas is Vegas for a reason. There are things to find and appreciate in that little weirdo town of glitter and glitz, and also, just outside of it. After hiking and driving long days for much of the trip, this stop turned out to be a welcomed break. We stayed just outside of the strip, much to my satisfaction, at an RV resort that felt like a mini-Beverly Hills with million-dollar houses on wheels. We spent the afternoon sipping $1 Rainiers by the pool and playing a little water volleyball without another soul or sound in sight—a refreshing change from the overcrowded Vegas hotel pools with the $20 daiquiries.
Some additional tips for traveling to Vegas by RV:
- If you go to Vegas in an RV, I can’t recommend the Las Vegas Motorcoach Resort enough. Though a little on the price-y side ($75/night), it was one of the more surprisingly peaceful stops on our journey, believe it or not, and in addition to the glam pool arrangements and the built-out tiki bars in many of the sites, it also came with a gaggle of very-excited-to-meet-someone-under-the-age-of-fifty RVers who were kind enough to show off their sweet setups and share a little bit about their RV lifestyle.
- Another happy coincidence, while we were in Vegas, we were able to meet up for happy hour with one of my favorites, Sherrie of With Food and Love, at Rhumbar. The cocktails themselves were not anything to write home about – each one I sipped had a sickly sweet syrupy mouthfeel, but the outdoor patio portion of the bar was a nice escape from the noise and smells and sounds of your general casino bar and/or lounge.
- For dinner we ate at Harvest by Roy Ellamar in the Bellagio. I wanted to love this place for its cute roving dinner carts and its emphasis on farm freshness in the middle of the desert, but honestly left with mixed feelings. On the one hand the food was well above expectations—fresh, innovative, well balanced—I particularly loved the crispy fried brussels sprouts with maple syrup and the farro porridge; but on the other, the restaurant vibe in music, décor, and overall feeling was underwhelming.
Phoenix, Arizona – 297 miles from Las Vegas
I don’t have a whole lot of recommendations for Phoenix because we were less tourists there than we were guests of family. The paternal side of my family is largely based in Phoenix and since it had been far too many years since we’d gotten together, we decided to stop by for a visit. We stopped outside of my cousin Kim’s home, popped out our three little extra spaces, and headed inside for what turned out to be a true desert feast. Kim had prepared her famous guacamole and had a full spread of taco fixings from the local Mexican market, including a pre-marinated carne asada that made my mouth water. The evening was filled with hugs and laughs and catching up amongst cousins and was truly one of my favorite stops of the trip. The only regret I have is that I was having too much fun to bring out my camera—next time we’ll have to have less fun and take more photos, K, y’all?
I know virtually nothing about Phoenix, but…
- I do know that like many good Latin markets, the one where Kim brought home the flavorful smoky carne asada came from a market that has no name. But she was kind enough to give me some descriptors that will help you find the spot, should you find yourself on the western side of Phoenix in a small city called El Mirage. Look for signs for a Carniceria on Thunderbird Road. But I’m willing to bet any Carniceria you find might house some pretty sweet roasted meats.
Caverns of Sonora, Texas – 810 miles from Phoenix
The leg between Phoenix and middle-Texas was our longest, 810 miles and about a fifteen hours of driving. And as we found ourselves getting closer and closer to our destination in Sonora, we also started to fade. I offered to drive the RV for the first time just an hour before sunset. Shaky and sweaty-palmed, I eased the rig from the pull off and practiced breaking. “It takes a lot longer than you think to respond,” my husband warned. And he was right. But I was only on I-10 for about twenty minutes before the orange painting my side rearview mirrors completely overwhelmed me and I had to pull off to get out with my camera. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, babe! But I can’t take it any longer, this sunset is too beautiful.” I do feel kind of badly that I only lasted twenty minutes behind the wheel. But then again I’ve never in my life regretted pausing life to admire a good sunset…
When we finally arrived at the Caverns of Sonora, we pulled in slowly, heeding the host’s earlier warning that we’d find deer wondering about past dusk. We breathed a big sigh of relief as we settled on a spot, screamed at each other only a little bit when we accidentally hit the side of the RV on one of the concrete electric hookup stands (definitely NOT my fault, definitely did NOT get distracted by deer and tell him he was safe to clear the hookup stand, swear), and then sighed another big sigh of relief when the thing was finally in park and we could kick back for a couple of nights, the only campers on the grounds, which we shared with a sweet family of deer.
A few words of wisdom if you travel to the Caverns of Sonora:
- I am convinced after driving all the way through the clear middle of desolate Western Texas that the Caverns of Sonora is a great if not the absolute best place to stop for a night or two. We stopped out of sheer convenience – it split the difference between Phoenix and New Orleans. But it turned out to be a peaceful place to hang our hats with an absolutely unexpectedly stunning cave formation beneath. (Not to mention some intensely creamy fudge in the gift shop.)
- Don’t skip the 1.5 hour cave tour if you’re there. The cave is illuminated with tactful behind-rock soft ambient lights, which made each unique formation pop. My personal favorite formations, though, were in the Christmas tree room. They showed as a complete anomaly—dozens of snow flanked (stalagmite-esque) firs set in the middle of a Texas cave.
- The campgrounds at the Caverns are available to both tent and RV, no reservations necessary. If you’re traveling by RV, though, do be aware that there are no pumpout stations on the property because of the caverns. There is, however, a station right off the interstate, about one mile east of the caverns. There are also many KOA campgrounds with dump stations along this portion of I-10.
Do you have places you go or things you do when you crave a little peace? Tell us about it! I think we can all agree, life feels just a little chaotic lately for everyone. (Hello, Election in T-minus 10 days! [insert fear/anxiety emoji])
PS: Those of you follow on Instagram know that this trip had a crazy, weird, scary ending to it. I’m going to share more about that part next week, because today we’re focusing on Peace.