Traveling the US southern tier, California to Florida with frugal budget and teardrop trailer! (Part 1 of 4 installments)


This new addition to the Palm Springs Art Museum is another reason to visit Palm Springs!

An abandoned trailer home in Salton Sea Beach, ruined when the lake overflowed and flooded all the resort towns in 1976/77.
These huge settling ponds remove sediment from Colorado River at Imperial Dam, before the cleaner water is sent to the Imperial Valley.
Army tank used in Gulf War graces the Yuma Proving Grounds.
Old car and ancient buildings grace the ghost town of Castle Dome, an old mine as well, oustide Yuma, AZ.
Our Ford Focus 5-speed tow vehicle, and our Scotty teardrop trailer, half-way down the San Joaquin Valley, bound for Palm Springs, eventually Florida and the “old South”.

[Installment One, CA to Arizona]

When you have been retired for two years, it doesn’t take much for my spouse and I to plan another vacation trip. When we discovered, some months ago, that my younger brother was renting a place in Naples, Florida for the month of February – we quickly decided that meant a road-trip to Florida and back!

Two summers ago, we traveled from California to Gettysburg, PA, purchased a teardrop travel trailer in W. Virginia, towed it all the way to Long Island, NY, and back to California. Hence, our rig, a four-year old teardrop trailer towed by our little Ford, offers comfortable sleeping accommodations, draws admirers in campgrounds and allows 26 miles per gallon on the highway.

This trip would mean considerable new territory. We’ve never spent any time in New Mexico, not much in Texas, only a very brief visit for a convention in New Orleans and had never been to Alabama or Arkansas. We hadn’t been in Florida except for the two weeks prior to entering the Army in 1970. We figured things probably have changed since then!

So, the idea hatched – could we spend a month on the road, with teardrop trailer, and keep total costs in the $2,000 range – including gas, motels, meals, campground fees and a few “luxury splurges” for fancy dinners, a couple of pricier tours and the like? I decided we could, with stops at friends in Yuma, my brother in Florida and friends in S. Carolina.  We also use our federal Senior pass for 1/2 off campsites and free admission to national parks, saving a tidy sum.

Planning on what to see and where to stay, we asked friends, and used the Facebook pages of the Tin Can Tourists and the National Serro Scotty Owners, posting “here is where we plan to go, what would you recommend?”  We received about 50 detailed recommendations on both campgrounds and visitor attractions along the US southern tier. We then planned our route with those in mind, and strategic locations like our friends and my brother, where we could catch-up and get a night or more of free lodging!

Hence, after several months of planning, greasing trailer bearings, stopping our paper, arranging for yard mowing and the like, off we went.

California to Arizona was the first leg of our journey, with stops in Palm Springs, the Salton Sea, and Yuma, AZ. Our Yuma friends the Connollys acted as tour guides and hosts for a two night stay (another benefit)!

Heading south down Interstate 5, we past vast stands of almond and citrus trees, blooms of white and pink. We see many orchards uprooted, evidence of four years of drought. Then up over the Grapevine, into the LA area, then across to the east side of the Sierra, becoming ever more arid. In Palm Springs, we find a huge arts/auto show and big crowds enjoying an 85° day.

We had heard good things about the Palm Springs Art Museum, and wanted to visit the newly opened Architecture and Design Center – Edward Harris Pavilion, in a 1961 Santa Fe Federal Savings building in downtown Palm Springs. It’s a marvelous reuse of a building style so prevalent in many western downtowns, and we were delighted in a quick visit.

Turning south in the direction of Yuma, we encounter the vast Salton Sea. It’s the result of an environmental disaster 110 years ago, when a flooding Colorado River 100 miles away ripped down several old irrigation canals and flooded a Death Valley-like depression, 280 feet below sea level, filling it with an unnatural lake 35 miles long by 25 miles wide.

In 1976 and 1977, two El Nino winters swamped the lake; with no outlet, the lake level rose more than 10 feet and flooded towns and upscale resorts on both west and east lakesides, ruining the resorts and forcing thousands of home-owners and trailer-dwellers to abandon their habitats.

Turning south down CA Hwy. 86, we pass innumerable dry washes crossing the desert: Iberia, Campbell, Minor, Trifolium, Willow Ditch, cutting through the bone dry Imperial Valley. We turn just blocks off the highway to tour what remains of dusty Salton Sea Beach, with block after block of formerly flooded, now abandoned, homes, trailers and businesses. 

As we head further south into the Imperial Valley, irrigated acreage increases, including vast date palm orchards. “Date shakes in Westmoreland, Medjool dates”, signs announce. We now turn east on I-8, headed to desert-dry Yuma.

Our Yuma pals know my interest in the Salton Sea, large-scale irrigation and California’s growing drought, so they toured us to the Imperial Dam and Desilting Works, spanning the Colorado River 18 miles northeast of Yuma, AZ. The purpose of the dam is to raise the water surface 25 feet and provide water to the All-American and Gila Canals. The desilting works remove most the sediment carried by the Colorado River to prevent clogging of the canals (a problem that led, 110 years ago, to the Salton Sea disaster).

The Colorado water then heads into California’s vast Imperial Valley, where many of our winter vegetables are grown. What then remains of the mighty river flows meekly into neighboring Mexico, having given 95%of its water to US applications.

Nearby is the Yuma Proving Grounds where the US Army tests its war machines in harsh desert environment.  Displays of the US’s mighty arsenal include a Sherman tank, made April, 1944 and a World War II veteran; an armored personnel carrier used extensively in Vietnam; an M60 main battle tank used during the Cold War and Desert Storm; and an M103 combat tank, at 120,000 pounds, the “monster of the midway”!

Yuma offers other interesting diversions, including the old Castle Dome ghost town and mines, 20 miles northeast of town, the Yuma Territorial Prison on the Colorado River, and a quaint, walkable town across the nearby Mexican border, Algadones (take your passports!).

How to get there: From Stockton, take I-5 south, then I-210 east to I-10 past Palm Springs, south on CA Hwy. 86, then east on I-8 to Yuma and Arizona.

What’s nearby:  To the north of the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park.

What to take: Good walking shoes, binoculars and your camera!

For more info: Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 N. Museum Drive, Palm Springs; 760.322.4800,; Yuma Chamber of Commerce, 180 W. 1st Street, Yuma; 928.782.2567; 

Next week, we continue across Arizona, Texas and to New Orleans.  For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: travel; to contact me, 

Happy travels in the west!

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