Roaming in Southern California

the Ludlow Route 66 Cafe in Southern California

First We Had to Get There!

We departed the lovely town of Laughlin, Nevada quite early headed to Los Angeles. Once we left civilization, we found a dreary and foggy morning for most of the way on Interstate 40. In case we’ve never mentioned it, the road between Laughlin and Los Angeles is one long exercise in monotony.

On this trip, I tried to find interesting things to photograph and made Jim stop the car several times. The only problem – the weather didn’t cooperate, and all my photos were terrible, but at least I tried.

About halfway between Needles and Barstow, there’s an exit in Ludlow. We’ve stopped there a few times and found a couple of gas stations. This time I noticed a small sign saying ‘Old Route 66 turn here’. We did! That says more about how bored we were than any desire to travel down the ’66. 

Oh, my God, that road hasn’t seen any maintenance in this century. It was so bumpy and worn that we had to drive about 35 miles an hour. You remember that old classic song about getting your kicks on route 66 – the kicks back then were one thing. Now, the kicks go right up your spine. 

a bumpy road - old Route 66

What a Ride!

After about ten minutes we both wanted to go back to the Interstate but couldn’t unless we backtracked. The road didn’t reconnect for miles and miles. We decided this ‘highway,’ at least along this part, had come to define faded glory. It’s difficult to imagine what it was like in its hey day.

I don’t remember how many miles we drove, but we finally got back to the interstate. What a thrill, driving at highway speed again. After a couple of hours, we reached our destination. Jim’s daughter’s place in Los Angeles, our home for the next three days.

Route 66 inscribed on the road

Back in Los Angeles 

We had a great view of sunsets from high on the third-floor balcony. That also let us keep an eye on our car, parked on the street, full of our stuff. We tried going in the parking garage, once. There was no way to get in there without dropping our muffler. Camry’s ride low even without tons of stuff in the trunk and back seat. Fill those up, and it’s low rider time, without the cool part.

a city skyline against a purple and yellow sunset

Neither of us remembers much else about our stay other than trying to figure out where to go for the next three nights before our house sit in Palm Desert. We did run a few errands and visited a couple of nearby beaches, that’s about it other than enjoying the comfortable digs and great views.

sunset between wooded beams

Our favorite walk was at Palisades Park which is located on a cliff just above the ocean in Santa Monica. Okay, that makes it sound easy. First, you have to drive up and down the highway for 30 minutes hoping to find a spot to park. It’s a very popular place. We finally did and took a pleasant walk along the cliff.

We had timed our visit to coincide with the sunset as did hundreds of other tourists. For our readers who don’t live close to an ocean, here’s a bit of wave action – just click the arrow below.


Before we knew it, our three days were up, and it was time to go. I had found a few campgrounds quite a bit southeast of Los Angeles, and we decided to drive the 101 along the coast and then head inland to get around most of the Southern California traffic.

sun setting behind a palm tree

Laguna Beach or Bust

Driving through Los Angeles is never a fun adventure. It takes hours to get anywhere and then you’re still nowhere. By the time we got to Laguna Beach we desperately needed a break. Wow, that’s another popular destination with a ton of traffic and nowhere to park. 

laguna beach, california

At last, space opened up, we paid the fee and walked down a short narrow street and then down the steps to the beach. We found ourselves in a lovely cove with quite a few others on a sunny day in January. Ah, southern California has a lot going for it.

waves in laguna beach

This town has narrow streets all along the coastline with public pathways down to the beach. So even though there are houses everywhere, there is beach access for the public.

walkway up from the beach

At least on the path we took, they also have a bunch of street art or murals.

a mural at the beach

We hung out awhile and then said goodbye to Laguna and continued our southward journey. We looked longingly as we drove past all the hip and delicious looking restaurants and cafes in the area. Each one seemed to be just our style. Alas, it was not to be. It was one of those times when living on a slim budget – bites.

gorgeous orange flowers at the beach

Where to Camp

In case you’re wondering, there aren’t many campgrounds in Los Angeles. Okay, there are a ton in the San Bernardino Mountains to the north, but it was winter, and those would be cold. There are many about two hours west of Los Angeles, and some two hours south. In other words, if you want to camp close to the city, forget it!

road into the mountains

We drove all the way to San Juan Capistrano and then headed northeast through farmland, hills, and smallish towns. Driving through the area you see on the map below, was enjoyable as it was part of Southern California neither of us had ever visited. We always drive north to south, never west to east. 

I had found several camping possibilities up in the mountains just west of Palm Springs. Since we needed to get close to that area anyway, we headed to Blue Jay Campground. First, though, we had to traverse a few mountains, very typical looking mountains in the area surrounding Los Angeles.

We were surprised by the heavy traffic heading east out of the San Juan Cap area. “Where are they all going? There aren’t that many homes around here.” We later found out that it’s a commuter run from the Lake Elsinore area on the other side of the mountains. 

Commuters have a certain recognizable look, and these drivers all did. We also saw that the next morning with an endless line of cars headed the other way. That’s a pretty intense drive through canyons. Ah, commutes – we remember those!

road through mountains in southern california

We hoped our campground would be near the top of that mountain maybe even with great views in every direction. Turning off the highway, we started our ascent up the gravel roads. Our hopes worked out this time. We ended up high up on the top of a tall one.

road in mountains of southern california

Blue Jay Campground

We arrived in the late afternoon, found a site, and began setting up. There were quite a few others in the campground as well. After so many nights indoors it was great to smell campfires burning: that’s something only campers understand, and we considered ourselves campers by now.

The views were great, in the daylight and at night too. Windy and cold though, which wasn’t a surprise – it’s winter, even if it was a huge contrast to Laguna Beach.

a campsite surrounded by small trees and hedges

Next morning we packed it all up and set off down the mountain. It’s funny, this area is called the Cleveland National Forest, but there are hardly any trees more than head-high.

rolling hills

There are advantages to waking up early. For one, no traffic and we got to stop in the middle of the road and get a photo of the colorful hue cast on the hill by the rising sun.

red glow of sunrise on a hillside

On our way up we had seen this view but didn’t get photos till the morning. That’s Lake Elsinore down there, the city and the lake.

looking down on Lake Elsinore

Even Further East

The next leg of our adventure took us further east through that broad valley and up into the mountains near Idyllwild. We stopped here for our breakfast as we had a great view to the west and where we’d come from so far. See those mountains in the distance? That’s where we camped.

mountains near Idyllwild

We had both heard of Idyllwild, of course. It would be hard not to. But neither of us had visited. It was an off-season moment, neither the summer music programs, nor the winter sports. Rather calm and idle really. (Sorry, couldn’t help that one.)

welcome to Idyllwild sign

We’ve all heard how you can get from the ocean to the snow in a couple of hours in California. Well, we just did that (the long way) with an overnight stop halfway.

snow plow in Idyllwild

It was winter after all, and we hadn’t seen snow since our time in Portland. However, here it wasn’t cold and dreary, it was sunny in fact, and warm.

snow on the hills in Idyllwild

We drove around town a bit and decided to take a short hike. We found a parking area just around this corner and walked far up into the hills. The trail went to some water fall miles away. We didn’t as we had miles to go.

manzanita branches

Meandering up a hill was great fun, and we enjoyed the small hints of winter snow and the high mountains all around.

snow and branches

Sometimes all we find out about a place during our brief visits is whether or not it’s somewhere we’d return or welcome a house sit in. This area was a winner. I had forgotten, but for those who aren’t familiar with the area, Idyllwild sits at almost 5,500 feet and is just west of the Coachella Valley. It is also a popular mountain resort.

mountain top with snow

Living Free 

As we drove south from Idyllwild, we saw a sign for the Living Free Animal Sanctuary. It was in the mountains, on a small highway, out in the middle of nowhere. What could that be? It turned out to be a no-kill animal sanctuary. It wouldn’t be possible for us to visit any other kind. 

What a splendid reception we had there. The director personally took us on a tour, calling out every dog by name as we drove past the pens. He told us fascinating stories about each critter – he knew them all. Each dog had a private internal and external area.

hills and mountains

This organization depends heavily on volunteers, dozens come for the training and then schedule walks, playtimes, and other visits to care for the animals. This is not a place where citizens can drop off their unwanted pets – each animal comes from kill shelters, and is carefully matched with potential adoptive families or lives out its life at the sanctuary.

living free animal sanctuary sign

Now For the Cats

Our next stop was the cat shelter. That’s quite a place. A huge building devoted entirely to the feline world. If you like petting cats, a lot, then this is the place to go. Candidates come and line up (not really, do cats ever line up?) for every bit of affection you can bring. Not that they’re starved for it. Not at all. It’s just that they’re cats and, you know, there’s no end to the petting and grooming once you get started.

Both the buildings we toured were ingeniously designed to provide warmth, room to roam, easy supervision and feeding. Well done. Somehow, we managed to leave without adopting any animals, not that any would have fit in our car. We both thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with the cats and learning that such a place existed.

rocky terrain near Palm Springs

Where’s My Bed?

It was time to head out towards a campground that sounded perfect for us. After a picnic near Hemet Lake, we found the campground sign and turned left. We drove about 50 feet and then it began. The dirt road was horrendous: the ruts, hard and frozen in the mud, were deeper than our Camry could take.

After our recent experience in Mendocino National Forest, I couldn’t deal with the road. It seems I was truly traumatized by that experience and am now gun-shy of rutted unpaved roads. Of course, we could have parked along the road and packed in all our stuff for a quarter mile. Nah!

rocky terrain in the mountains above Palm Springs

Now, what are we going to do? I searched my camping app and found that the only place that made ANY sense at all was Joshua Tree National Park. We could hang out there for two nights and do more exploring.

view of the Coachella Valley

Not That it was Close

We still had hours to drive and didn’t know if we’d find any open campsites. But hey, we’re off having an adventure, right!

We decided we’d try approaching the park from the north as there are quite a few campgrounds and we might fare better in our search for the perfect spot. Were we going to get lucky? We figured it was about time for that. See you next time in Joshua Tree National Park!

What’s Next – back in Joshua Tree

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