Walker’s first run (pt 1) – San Francisco to Joshua Tree

Even though we’ve theoretically been diving into the overlanding world for a while now, things started happening very quickly once we found the vehicle that we really wanted to bring into our family. We got the car and the tent on the Saturday morning before Christmas, and a day later on Sunday we were on the road. So we planned a rough itinerary, booked campsites where we could, and left early morning on Walker’s maiden voyage.

Ready to hit the road. Roxy is a bit confused though.

Our rough itinerary had us stopping at Los Padres National Forest, Joshua Tree National Park, Salton Sea, Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, and Death Valley National Park. On this blog post, I will share our first two days of our trip, places we stopped at, and things we’ve learned along the way

Tip: We currently depend on our phones to guide us places, so before we left, we downloaded the offline maps from San Francisco, all the down to LA and as far as Page, Arizona. These came in handy multiple times throughout the trip.

The route for part 1 of our trip

From San Francisco to Paradise Campground

We left around 7 am on the Sunday before Christmas, and we had to make our first decision right away: go for a longer drive and take the scenic Highway 1 or take 101 and have more time to spend at places we might wanted to stop. After a quick deliberation, we decided to take the faster route through 101 south.

After driving for a few hours, I spotted the perfect spot for a lunch break from my co-pilot seat: Firestone Walker Brewery, in Paso Robles. We’ve heard great things about the food there, and Frank happens to be a huge fan of their barrel aged beers, so we pretty much had to stop.

Beer menu at Firestone Walker Brewery with our 3oz pours.

I took over driving, and we headed over to Oceano Dunes, by Pismo beach, where they have a SVRA- or state vehicular recreation area. Even though Walker is not an OHV (off highway vehicle), we thought it would be fun to take him on a first off road adventure through the dunes.

The entrance fee to the park was $5 for, and we were able to drive on the beach and on the dunes, amongst hundreds of four-wheelers and OHV’s. It was such a cool experience, and we’ll be definitely coming back for a weekend camping trip!

Paradise campground in Los Padres National Forest was our first home for the week. The place was very calm and quiet, and we were one of two campsites occupied in the whole campground.

Roxy inspecting the campsite while I get our tent up!

It was also the first time we got to set up our tent other than when we installed it, and it went smoothly. After a long day of driving and exploring, we were ready to enjoy the some well deserved drinks by the fire.

We planned on hitting the road very early in the morning, and putting the tent away was as easy as setting it up. The sun wasn’t even up yet when we started the drive to Joshua Tree, so we got to avoid most of the traffic around the L.A. area, which got us to the park before noon!

We had to stop and watch this beautiful sunrise over Santa Barbara.

Joshua Tree

On the original itinerary, we were going to stop at Salton Sea and Slab City before setting camp at Joshua Tree. However, since we only had 1 day and 1 night at Joshua Tree, we decided to skip that stop and head straight to the park.

Before checking out our campsite, we stopped at Stater Bros grocery store to stock up on some bread and beer. We got to see a bit of the city that borders the park along the Twenty Nine Palms Drive. Joshua Tree – the city – is located at the north entrance of the park. Just by driving by you get a very nice vibe, it is filled with nice little cafes and restaurants, or casinos if that’s what floats your boat!

Tent is set up, and were ready for dinner.

We had a campsite booked at the Black Rock Campground, with a great view and both open and functioning bathrooms. During the government shutdown, most national parks are operating under limited services and staff. Even though the park entrance was closed and no entrance fees were being collected, the campground we stayed at was still running normally when we got there.

Our first stop was at Rattlesnake Canyon. The canyon is located off of the main north entrance of the park, right past Indian Cove Campground. From Rattlesnake Canyon you can hike to Wonderland of Rocks, which is one of the many popular climbing sites at Joshua Tree. From there, we headed into the primary entrance of the park on the north side.

I have to say I was pretty surprised with how many people were visiting, but that didn’t take away from the beauty of the park. We drove through Park Blvd. and stopped at Skull Rock, Hall of Horrors, and Ryan Mountain (one of the highest points in the park). The rocks we saw throughout the park are called “gneiss“, and these iconic formations came to be after hundreds of millions of years of geological transformations in that area.

We did most of our exploring by car – since everything we planned to see in one afternoon was right off the main road- , but did go on short little trails by the main road and obviously got to climb some rocks for the pictures! After most of our day driving and exploring, we drove back to set up camp and get our dinner ready. For a second, I actually forgot that it was Christmas Eve, but our camp neighbors reminded us with their decorated tents and picnic tables.

The night at Joshua Tree was not only very windy (15-20 mph winds throughout the night) but it also rained, heavily, at 4am. It is safe to say we have mastered taking out tent down, given how quickly we were able to do it without much light and under pouring rain. And since we were already up, we started our drive to our next destination — The Grand Canyon — before the sun was up.

Before the next stop

The first couple of days of our trip were very important to get us on the right track. We got to know the truck, how it rides, mileage/gallon, and overall getting used to driving a much bigger car. Also became masters at setting up and taking down our new rooftop tent very quickly!

Over the next week we will share more about our trip through the National Parks, including our adventures through the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Death Valley.

This post is part of a series in which we visited Oceano Dunes SVRA, Los Padres National Forest, Joshua Tree National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Red Rock Canyon National Preserve, and Death Valley National Park.

– Pt 1: San Francisco to Joshua Tree (this post!)
– Pt 2: Joshua Tree to Grand Canyon
– Pt 3: Grand Canyon to Zion
– Pt 4: Zion to Death Valley and back home (coming soon)

Disclosure: Overlanding Taco invests hours of testing and writing to help you plan your trips, find gear, and other things to help you live a better life outdoors. We sometimes link out to products on Amazon and other sites. We get paid a commission if you make a purchase, but that does not influence our recommendations.


Campsite head chef and safety ambassador. Born in Brasil, I've been exploring the U.S. since 2012. From Philadelphia to San Francisco, always ready to jump right into the next adventure.

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