Dan and I had a plan to visit 3 of California’s most beautiful national parks in 3 days. The plan was an ambitious one as March in the Sierra Nevada can mean unpredictable weather and an unknown amount of snow. Two of the parks, Sequoia National Forest and Inyo National Park were within this mountain range. As always though, we were determined.
I was on a business trip in Las Vegas for the week. Dan flew in on Wednesday and rented a GMC Yukon, which would not only serve as our transportation but our shelter for the next three days as well.
We had basic gear for the trip since we weren’t primitive camping this time. We made a nest in the back of the Yukon that was comprised of our inflatable pillows, sleeping mats and sleeping bags. The temperature the first night was going to get down to 30 degrees, so we were sure to pack our 0 degree bags.
It was a six hour car drive from Las Vegas to Camp Nelson which was home to our campground – Belknap. The drive through the mountains at night was eerie as their huge looming shapes were outlined by the night sky. When we arrived at our campsite we saw glimpses in the headlights of red majesty that awaited us in the morning – giants.
Sequoia National Park
- Campsite: Belknap Campground
- Time at Park: 11 Hours
- Total Hikes: 2
The Nelson Trail | 7.7 Miles | Climbing 1780 ft
Nelson wasn’t a tough trail it had beautiful views of groves and rushing springs. We were the only ones at the campsite and on the trail. So visiting in March definitely has it’s benefits. We only hiked directly to the grove which is actually about 2.2 miles.
The Bear Creek Trail | 5.5 Miles | Climbing 2220 Ft
The 5.5 mile Redwood Grove Trail starts between two cabins just upstream of a big log bridge near the Belknap campsite. The trail is a little overgrown and hard to see although someone recently put a sign up to better mark the trail. The initial start of the trail is covered in a few fallen trees but then clears off. The trail is very steep and requires a ton of endurance – frequent breaks may be required based on your skill level.
Once the trail leveled off we were shrouded in forest and our trail turned to snow. We were surrounded by a small grove of sequoias. This grove has sense of seclusion and mystery which makes it stand out and feel remote from other groves.
We descended Bear Creek and headed back to the truck (not before I tried to get a quick drone shot of the beautiful log bridge and dropped it in the river – bye Dronie boo boo!). Our next destination, Inyo National Forest was just under five hours away.
Inyo National Forest
- Campsite: Red Roof Inn (I’ll explain below).
- Time at Park: 7 Hours
- Total Hikes: 1
When we finally arrived it was after dark and we were anxious to park at our campsite and get some rest. However, there was one problem. A bulldozer was blocking the entrance to the park with a sign saying road closed. There would be no camping; instead we had to make a reservation at the nearest town, Bishop. Luckily the Red Roof Inn had a bed available.
The next morning we headed back into the mountains and anticipated hiking from the entrance to the trail which would add an additional 2 miles to our 6 mile hike. When we arrived we were met with 15 police and firefighters who were volunteering for a mountain search and rescue drill. They said the locals had closed the road, due to ice.
Big Pine Lakes Trail | 13.5 Miles | Climbing 3356 ft
The trail was partially covered with snow at the lowest elevation. Due the difficulty of this trail and length an early start in winter conditions is absolutely necessary. Being the end of March the trail can really be a hit or miss when it comes to snow depth. This trail features mountain views, and five lakes. We only planned on hiking the first six miles of the trail to the first lake.
After the first couple of miles trekking steep inclines the trail became completely covered in snow. We were dependent on previous hiker’s footprints for navigation. We had no cell phone service and there were no topography maps available, the map we did have made it difficult to scale the actual distance. The snow also disguised many of the trail markers.
We had a clear sunny day around 40 degrees fahrenheit. The top layer of the four feet deep snow began to soften and this meant sinking down 2-3 feet with every step. Snow shoes would have been nice. The sun was also contributing to another issue we had not anticipated – our faces were melting off from sunburn/snowburn.
The snow was slowing us down considerably. After five hours we finally arrived at one of the map markers – Lon Chaney Cabin. With the additional mileage we had to hike from the entrance to the park this put us at about 5 miles. With the trail only being hiked 2.5 miles. It was 3pm, we were not going to be able to hike the additional 2.5 miles to the first lake.
At this point we had to turn around to make it back before sundown. If we would have kept going the search and rescue drill would have turned into a real life rescue. We had no regrets though, the hike was challenging and offered panoramic views of snow covered pines and towering mountains. The glistening snow was beautiful, although it fried our faces off (#1 lesson learned wear sunscreen, especially in snow). The descent was much easier and even kind of fun as we tried to slide down some of the mountain side, it was actually more like tumbling/falling. We departed Inyo and headed two hours south to our next destination.
Death Valley National Park
- Campsite: Darwin Falls
- Time at Park: All Day
- Total Hikes: 2
We visited forests and snow covered mountains, now it was time for a warm up, where better than the hottest place on earth? We headed into the desert and camped in the parking lot of Darwin Falls in Death Valley. We spent the evening star gazing.
Darwin Falls Trail | 1.9 Miles | Climbing 226 ft
This is a nice and easy, flat trail. The trail offers excellent canyon views. The way the sunlight danced around the canyon walls illuminating their peaks, waking them up to an explosion of color was breathtaking.
The trail ends at the skinny falls which today is still used for local drinking water. The falls creates a small oasis blending the canyon’s orange and reds with bursts of greenery. Gorgeous.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes | Free Roam
The Mesquite Flats are a surprising landscape change offering Sahara like dunes. The dunes require a source of sand, prevailing winds to move the sand, and a place for the sand to collect to exist.
If you are planning to wonder amongst the dunes prepare to bring plenty of sunscreen and water – it’s hot. You may spot a sidewinder rattlesnake slithering sideways through the sands, so watch your step.
Death Valley offers plenty of dynamic landscapes to explore – however, a lot hiking wasn’t necessary to experience them. We also toured and walked around the salt flats of Badwater Basin, the lowest place in North America. We then were able to drive up to the Artist’s Palette; pastel mountains of pink, green, and blue. The colors are produced by the oxidation of the metals and elements found in the ground.
The rainbow mountains were our last stop giving us plenty of time to return to Vegas to recuperate in an Airbnb and catch our flights home in the morning. While this seems like a lot of driving and limited
timing, we did not feel rushed or like we missed out on any experiences. The trip felt well balanced and fulfilling.
- 3 Days
- 3 National Parks
- 5 Hikes
- 800 Miles Driven
- 8 Dehydrated Meals
- 2 Sunburns
- 62 Combined Miles Walked
- 121,870 Combined Steps