Which Parks? Shower Etiquette? Camping Ideas?
February 18, 2010 9:06 AM   Subscribe

We are overwhelmed with choices for a 9-11 day driving trip from Los Angeles. Which national parks/areas are must-see, and which are skip-its? And other Car-Camping conundrums...

My wife and I are planning a car-camping ish trip from Los Angeles. We're planning 9-11 days total, stopping at campsites with running water, and hopefully, showers.

2 Major questions

1 - What is the proper etiquette for a car-camping campground and using a portable shower stall/shower? We went to place that had broken showers over the weekend and we were considering buying one of those popup shower stalls. That said, can we just set that up in our campsite? Is that weird? (It feels weird)

2 - We can't pare down our park list. We're focusing on locations we can drive through or past instead of heavy hiking. National parks viewable from the car or "quickly" are ideal. We'd camp overnight at a park, spend a little bit tooling around, and then go to the next place. (Yeah I know how it sounds, but it's what we like to do).

We've got a lot of parks in the list, but I don't know which ones are worth seeing and which ones are crazy busy and meh. We spent some time at Sequoia and Big Sur and found that the crowds really killed it for us. We preferred the national forest area around Sequioa and Pinnacles to the more crowded places.

We're thinking about either swinging east towards Yellowstone, or west along the Oregon coast. That basically gives us an operating list of -

Grand Canyon, Zion/Bryce/Whatever else is there, Great Basin, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier, Mount Ranier, Cascades (might be too far north), Crater Lake, Redwoods, Lassen, and Yosemite.

I think that's the major ones on the route we're looking at.

Any preferences or suggestions?
posted by Lord_Pall to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, LA (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I guess it would help if I said when we were going. Right now we're looking at the first week or so of May, so we can avoid the Spring Break and summer crowds.
posted by Lord_Pall at 9:19 AM on February 18, 2010

Zions is a good one to just drive through. Don't get me wrong, there is lots to do and you can really make a meal out of it if you want but you can just drive through and see some amazing stuff. I've never been to Arches or Bryce, but they are all pretty close to each other, only a few hours in between.

Grand Canyon is out of the way and IMO it's not really worth it unless you *really* want to see it.

Yellowstone is AMAZING, but there is a lot to do and see. You might want to plan a few days there. Maybe one night in the Southern end and then the next night farther North or vice versa.

If you want some recommendations for Northern Utah camping, let me know. There aren't any National Parks up here, but there is plenty of National Forest land to camp in.

A lot of these places will just be starting to thaw out the first week of May. It will probably be pretty cold at night and pretty cool during the day. Keep that in mind when you are planning your trip, freak snowstorms and all that.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:31 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've done the roadtrip from LA to Reno about a dozen times, and just recently did LA > Reno > Mt Rushmore and back, and it took about ten days and it was AWESOME.

Leave LA going on the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway, stopping at a few National Parks/State Parks on the way, including Manzanar National Park which is extremely interesting, and most people have never heard of it (it is a site of internment camps for Asian Americans during WW2) and it is at the foot of Mt. Whitney, which is beautiful.

A few hours later stop at Mono Lake, which is BEAUTIFUL, and then we went to the South Tufa, and get to the South Tufa, head east on highway 120 about five miles then follow the gravel road to the site. There is a guided $3 tour, which is okay, but you can also hike around on your own for a few hours, the crags in the lake look like glaciers, so it is strange on hot, humid days to be looking over a lake that appears to be filled with glaciers.

Then we headed north again on highway 395 and we passed the Tioga Pass Road (highway 120 west) to Yosemite, where we went and oh my goodness it completely changed my life - it is SO BEAUTIFUL. We screwed around for the day just hiking and generally being awesome, then we camped in a small tent and we were able to use the showers at the head of the camp, which were pretty clean and nothing to worry about.

The next day, further on down we passed the cutoff to Bodie. Bodie, located north of Mono Lake in a very remote area is a ghost-town these days. It’s a fascinating place that lends itself to LOTS of awesome pictures, even if you aren't into the whole picture-takin' thing. We then headed to Reno, which was okay, but we spent a lot of time in Virginia City, Nevada, but before heading east, we went west on Lake Tahoe Blvd to Emerald Bay Road, CA-89 to Inspiration Point. Shortly after taking CA-89 we came upon the Tallac Museum & Historic Site, which is a good way to spend a few hours. When you're in Reno/Sparks, you have to go to Pyramid Lake, which is breathtakingly beautiful, as well as being the last landmark before you start on the dirt road to Burning Man.

After visiting with family in Sparks/Reno, we left on I-80 took us on a northeasterly route toward Elko. Originally we had planned to drive out to Winnemucca, but strayed off path and found Lovelock, which is a very small town with a quaint park at its center that is adorned with an impressive, greco-roman style civic building but has a completely awesome motto, "LOCK UP YOUR LOVE" so of course my boyfriend and I posed in front of the signs acting like we were in shackles, totally in great taste, I'm sure. Elko is pretty dull, not much to talk about.

We then went east on I-80 for an afternoon to poke around in Salt Lake City for a few hours and then head to our final destination in Rawlins, Wyoming. The scenery and topography on I-80 became more interesting after leaving Elko, but the real treat came when we came down the mountains, crossed into Utah and followed the highway onto the Bonneville Salt Flats and onto Echo Canyon, which is beautiful and IIRC, there were camping facilities there and I saw a lot of people just sort of tooling around.

Then onto WY, north on US-287, then north on WY-220 toward Casper is pretty interesting - lots of backroads and old interstates, so people aren't really going to judge you if you've gone a day or two without a shower. I was really pushing to see Devil's Gate due to an obsession with the Oregon Trail when I was like, eight years old. It is super interesting and really puts you into perspective the struggle early pioneers had to go through JUST TO GO SOMEWHERE. Insane. We also went to Independence Rock, which was forgettable, but it was only four miles away from Devil's Gate.

Following that, we headed to Custer and after looking at Custer State Park (lame) we headed up 244 to Mt. Rushmore and spent a day and night there.

On the way back we took I-25 to I-34 through Colorado, which was beautiful, and we then spent a day and night in the Rockies, going to different parts of the park, which was stunningly beautiful, and I suggest going to Bear Lake and Nymph Lake as well. After leaving CO, we stopped at the Continental Divide, which is like geography porn - the line running north and south where the water either drains toward the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean and a sign and a painted line on the pavement mark the divide. As you face the sign, to your left there is a pond which drains into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River and to your right beyond the hill there is a pond which drains into the Gulf of California via the Colorado River. As we headed out, we say Grand Country in CO, which is really the most beautiful area I have ever seen, I cannot even explain it.

We continued and went to Colorado National Monument, The Colorado River Scenic Byway, and Arches National Park, where you can camp for the night before heading back to LA.
posted by banannafish at 9:48 AM on February 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Both Yellowstone and Yosemite are crazy busy but worth seeing IMO.... I don't know what the snow is like in Yellowstone -- in Yosemite in early May, you will not be able to get over Tioga Pass road -- you will be confined to Yosemite Valley & Glacier Point. That said, there are a lot less crowds there than in the summer.
Yellowstone is a whole other world -- you do need to walk around a bit to see all the geysers and pools, but it is not strenuous and much of it is wheelchair accessible if that is a concern for you.
Death Valley is an interesting place and one that is "driveable" -- especially if you have 4WD to get in some of the back country.
I think banannafish was referring to "Rocky Mountain National Park" when they referred to "the Rockies" -- that is a good place too but there will be a lot of snow in May.

You may want to try to hit the desert spots in early May and then schedule an early-mid September trip to hit the mountain regions w/o kids....
posted by elmay at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you are leaving in may 2010 you may find that many camping spots are already booked up. I would book ASAP, as the best parks seem to fill up very fast.
posted by outsider at 11:58 AM on February 18, 2010

YEah, just wanted to say that Tioga Pass will not be open in early May. You can drive up to it, but not over into the valley.
posted by notsnot at 5:02 AM on February 19, 2010

From your list, I've been to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Lassen, Redwoods, Cascades, Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion's. My favorite is Zion's because of the overpowering majesty of it all. If you go in May though, you have to tour it through their shuttle system, as private cars are not allowed. They have campgrounds and showers there too and a hotel. Bryce is not too far away but you can't really drive through Bryce either--you can drive around it and view it from above.
posted by luvmywife at 11:31 AM on February 19, 2010

Best answer: Dan,
Me again, with more input from my last post.
To clarify about Zion's--they do let you drive into the campground areas or to their lodge. But to get to the hikes, you have to take the shuttles. If you want to know which hikes are best you can email me and I can recommend based on your time frame and fitness levels. I've done them all multiple times. . . . they have long ones, short ones, hard ones, easy ones and every single one is good.
Southern Utah also has Arches National Park, which wasn't on your list. I haven't been there.
Zion's is quite compact compared to Yosemite and Yellowstone. These two are both beautiful and very expansive--lots of driving and beauty and vistas. Zion's is in a canyon with tall overpowering red sandstone cliffs. You can't get the best feel for Zion's without doing some of the hikes. So you're really comparing apples and oranges when you compare Zion's with Yellowstone and Yosemite.
From your list, those are the best 3 national parks, IMO. I would skip Lassen. Redwoods was very spectacular too, though. Someday you should see them all!
I second what someone else said though, you need to make reservations today! We went to North campground of the Grand Canyon last year. Made reservations in February for early June and there weren't many spots left and of course, they were considered the worst spots too.
Southern Cal may be warm in May but Zions is about a mile above sea level and can still be quite cold in early mornings in May. I can't speak for any of the others during May though.
Good luck and enjoy your trip, wherever you go. We always enjoy camping as people seem to be friendlier when they camp.
posted by luvmywife at 7:17 AM on February 20, 2010

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