Then and Now on the Palomar Divide Trail

I didn’t know it at the time, but when my husband bought a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon nearly seven years ago it was a harbinger of change for our family that would teach us some important life lessons.    

This might sound like I’m being a bit dramatic. But I promise you, I’m not. From the moment Brad pulled into the driveway with our new silver Jeep, even if we weren’t aware of it then, our lives began to change.    

The year was 2015 and Brad was in his 24th year of serving in the Navy, our three teenage boys were still at home, and I was working full-time and focusing on my career as a civilian with the Navy. 

But a lot can change in seven years. A whole lot.

Change Is the Law of Life

Fast forward to today…we own more than one Jeep, our boys are all grown up, and the career paths I thought Brad and I were on have made significant detours. We’ve careened off the traditional paved road to professional success and onto a dirt trail leading into the wilderness of unconventional careers.    

President John F. Kennedy once said, “change is the law of life,” and he wasn’t kidding.     

Never in my wildest imaginings did I think that after Brad retired from the Navy his second career would be creating adventure videos for YouTube. And yet…here we are, thanks to that life-changing purchase of a Jeep.    

The reason for all this nostalgia is because one evening a few weeks ago, as we were hanging out in our family room, I randomly played one of the first TrailRecon videos. It featured Brad and one of our sons, Jordan, taking our brand new stock Jeep on the Palomar Divide Truck Trail. There was no talking on camera about the trail or their experience, no narration, and a very eclectic assortment of music.    

After some laughs about their early attempts at making videos and how much they’ve improved since then, we collectively reflected on all the crazy changes we’ve experienced in our lives and the many things we’ve learned since then.    

And so we thought it might be fun to go back and explore the trail again. Well, “again” for Brad and Jordan since I wasn’t on that first trip. They wanted to see what they thought of the trail now compared to their first experience.   

The following week, bright and early on a Saturday morning, Brad, Jordan, and I set out for the Palomar Divide Trail to take a drive down memory lane in our new Jeep 392 and the original silver Jeep, which has seen a few changes of its own over the years.   

Palomar Divide Trail

The Palomar Divide Trail is located about eight miles north of Warner Springs, California, just off Highway 79. This nearly 13-mile trail travels through the Cleveland National Forest and is mostly a dirt road rated as easy with a few ruts and shelf roads along the way. 

If you’re considering having your own adventure on this trail it’s a good idea to check with the local ranger station before you go because there are times when roads and trails in this area are closed due to weather or fire hazard conditions.   

And, for anyone looking for more of a challenge, there are some offshoots where the terrain gets more technical. Or, if you’re looking to do some additional exploring, there are also a few connecting trails that are just as easy. 

We wanted to make a day of it, so we connected with the High Point Trail and increased our journey to a little more than 25 miles.    

As we enjoyed our day off-roading, our thoughts kept returning to how a seemingly simple decision to buy a Jeep ended up making such a significant impact on our lives and taught us some pretty important life lessons.  

Here are some of the lessons we've learned from heading off the beaten path....

Trailhead for the Palomar Divide Trail
Red and Silver Jeeps on an offshoot of the Palomar Divide Trail

Left: The start of the Palomar Divide Trail. | Right: Our silver Jeep leads the way down an offshoot of the Palomar Divide Trail that has more technical terrain. 

Brad’s Lesson #1: The More You Do Something, The Easier It Gets

Driving down the Palomar Divide Trail, I remember how it felt the first time Jordan and I journeyed down this road. It was only our third time off-roading and it was our first time going out by ourselves. The Jeep was stock and we were a little anxious about it, hoping we’d done everything to prepare since we’d be “off the grid.”   

But everything went perfectly on that first trip going up Palomar Mountain and helped build our confidence—in both our driving skills and the Jeep’s capabilities.    

Nearly seven years later, our Jeep, which has been named “Wallace,” now has a 4.5-inch lift and 39-inch tires, and Jordan and I have hundreds of hours of off-roading experience. We could drive a trail like this in our sleep. Okay, maybe not (and I don’t recommend it…it’s totally not safe!), but these days, a trail like this makes for a leisurely drive and isn’t something we worry about. 

Silver jeep off-roading in the forest
Silver Jeep near a hiking trail

Left: Our silver Jeep JK Wrangler Rubicon shortly after we first bought it in 2015. | Right: Our silver Jeep, now named "Wallace," this year. 

But it’s really okay to be a little nervous the first time you start off-roading, like we were, because it’s a new experience and you want to ensure you do everything safely. And getting out on the trail, taking things slow with the easy trails, will help you understand your vehicle and become a more confident off-roader. 

As with anything in life, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Like making videos.   

When we filmed our first videos and put them on YouTube, we really had no idea what we were doing. We had no experience creating and editing videos, and no aspirations other than keeping a video diary of our adventures for friends and family to watch.    

But a funny thing happened. People started watching the videos. And they started asking questions. So…I responded.    

I responded by answering those questions both in the comment section of the videos on YouTube and by making new videos related to those questions. 

I responded by learning everything I could about making good videos and teaching myself how to film and edit.    

I continued making videos, getting better with every single one and, somehow during the past seven years, our little family YouTube channel has grown into a fairly popular YouTube channel that has morphed into a full-time, second (post-military retirement) career for me…and now for Regena too. 

Brad’s Lesson #2: Don’t Get Discouraged

Before setting off for any trail, including Palomar Divide, we now do a bit of research to discover more about where we’re going and if there is anything unique or interesting to see. While off-roading is fun all by itself, it’s also an opportunity to learn more about the world around us by exploring the history and seeking out the natural wonders of the places we visit.    

For this trip, I found a few points of interest for us to check out, including the Maple Lode Mine, a guzzler (watering hole) for local wildlife, Sourdough Springs (a natural spring alongside the trail), and the Boucher Hill Fire Tower. 

Well, of these four points of interest, three of them didn’t pan out for us that day.   

  • The mine, as we discovered, was on private property and had “no trespassing” signs.   
  • Sourdough Springs was aptly named—instead of clear water bubbling up from the ground we found a rusty metal cistern filled with greenish stagnant water.
  • A closed and locked gate foiled our plans to check out the fire tower.    

Even though these points of interest were either inaccessible or not what we expected, each one of them still provided a worthwhile experience. 

Our hike to the mine took us down a path with views of the mountain-rimmed valley and lake below, and was lined with several chaparral yuccas in bloom. 

Our trek to the springs was equally beautiful as we wandered through a shady grove of trees. 

And even though the trail to the fire tower was closed, we discovered amazing views of rolling hilltops covered in fir, pine, and oak.    

Our win that day was the wildlife guzzler. This concrete structure was surrounded by plants and wildflowers, and it appeared to be in active use, if the large deposit of scat on its edge was any indication. 

And because we did some research ahead of time, we knew these were first built in the 1950s to provide water for birds, like the California quail, and they continue to be important for sustaining many wildlife species in this drought-prone region. So we learned something new and got to check it out. 

Chaparral yuccas line the path down to the Maple Lode Mine
Sourdough springs along the Palomar Divide Trail
Boucher Hill Fire Tower in the Palomar Mountains

Left: Chaparral yuccas line the path down to the Maple Lode Mine, which we didn't get to see because it was on private property. But the views were incredible! | Center: Sourdough Springs, which is aptly named, just off the Palomar Divide Trail. | Right: The Boucher Hill Fire Tower, which we weren't able to drive to because the trail had a locked gate. 

Something we always keep in mind when we’re on the hunt for an historic site or a geological formation is that time and nature can take their toll on man-made structures and the landscape. Today wasn’t the first time we struck out in our quest to find points of interest and I know it won’t be the last. 

But we still had a great day spending time together and just being outside.    

Besides, most of the fun in looking for a point of interest is the exploration so don’t get discouraged if you don’t find whatever it was you were looking for—just enjoy the adventure! 

A wildlife guzzler in the Palomar Mountains

Above: A wildlife guzzler along the Palomar Divide Trail. These man-made structures are important for many wildlife species in Southern California, which is prone to drought. 

Regena’s Lesson #1: Seize the Opportunity for Family Adventures

The first time Brad and Jordan did the Palomar Divide Trail, I stayed home. In fact, back then I rarely went off-roading.    

The main reason I chose not to venture out with my boys is because I wanted them to have time together. Just the guys.    

For a huge chunk of our sons’ lives, Brad deployed a lot. Which means there were too many missed moments as they were growing up. And while I knew they couldn’t get that time back, every time they went out to have adventures in the Jeep, they had new opportunities to make memories.   

Another reason I didn’t hit the trail very often is that I was focused on my career. I had happily put my career plans in hibernation while supporting Brad’s military service but as he approached retirement, I was ready to get serious about my own career goals. 

And given the nature of my chosen profession, a civilian working in public affairs for Navy Medicine, I often worked weekends or travelled, which left little time for adventures.   

But in stepping back from just about every opportunity to head off-road with my family, I realized that it was me who was now missing out on so much. 

I was missing out on opportunities to create memories of all five of us having adventures together. 

I was missing out on time to unplug and clear my head. 

I was missing out on chances to get outside to places like Palomar Mountain and refresh my soul by soaking in nature’s serenity and beauty. 

An oak grove in the Palomar Mountains
Wildflowers in bloom in the Palomar Mountains near the Palomar Divide off-road trail

Above: When you head outside and hit the trail, you can surround yourself with fresh air and beauty. 

Left: An oak grove in the Palomar Mountains. | Right: Wildflowers in bloom alongside the Palomar Divide off-road trail. 

Fortunately, I came to my senses and decided to stop missing out. These days, I hit the trail with Brad and our boys (when they can since they lead their own busy lives now) whenever I can.    

At the end of the day, doing what you love and spending time with the people you love and who love you back is what matters the most. 

 Brad’s Lesson #3: Have a Positive Attitude

Even though the Palomar Divide Trail is easy, there are a few places where it gets a little bit rocky with some pretty good ruts. Fortunately, just like the first time we ventured out on this trail, everything went smoothly.    

But over the years, not every adventure has worked out so well. We’ve had flat tires, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, broken control arm brackets, temperamental weather, and so many other challenges on our journeys. The list goes on.

Repairing a tire on the trail while off-roading
Snow at Merus Adventure park in Texas

Left: Our friend Marco repairing a tire on the trail. | Right: Unexpected snow during a trip to Merus Adventure Park in Texas. 

Another lesson I’ve learned over the years, starting with my time in the Navy but reinforced by my off-roading and overlanding experiences, is that attitude is everything. To say this more clearly, having a positive attitude and the right kind of spirit is extremely important, especially when you’re faced with adversity. It makes things so much better for your personal well-being and for the people around you.    

Instead of allowing myself to feel defeated or negative about challenges, I embrace them as opportunities to learn and grow. 

By figuring out how to overcome an obstacle, I’ll know what to do the next time I encounter a similar challenge. 

And if I don’t figure it out, I know that I have a knowledge gap that I need to fill before my next adventure. 

Either way, there is always something to take away from difficult experiences and you’ll have some great stories and tall tales to share around the campfire.    

There’s a saying from President Franklin Roosevelt—“a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” This applies just as well to off-roaders and overlanders. Adversity can be a growth opportunity if you let it. 

Brad’s Lesson #4: Slow Down and Soak It All In

When I first started off-roading, my focus was on the trail—getting from point A to point B—and I’ll admit that I didn’t spend a lot of time experiencing everything that was around me.    

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the scenery and the beauty while we were out on the trail, but it was really secondary to the trail itself. I’d go out with my sons or my buddies, and we’d be on the trail all day, get to camp as it was getting dark, hang out around the campfire for a little bit, sleep, and then get up and do it all again.    

What I didn’t do was take the time to explore and learn more about where we were—the history, the geology, the local flavor that makes each place unique. 

But now that Regena is getting out with me more, she’s helped me slow down and look beyond the trail, to take the time and notice all the amazing things I would have missed.   

Fossilized oyster shells in the Anza-Borrego desert
An empty log cabin is all that remains of Belleville, an abandoned gold rush town in the mountains of Big Bear, California

Left: Fossilized shells and shell fragments in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The fossilized remains of ancient sea life made their way here millions of years ago when the area was once part of the Sea of Cortez. | Right: An abandoned log cabin is all that remains of Belleville, a town in Holcomb Valley founded in 1859 at the height of the Southern California gold rush. The town was named after Belle Van Dusen, the first child born in the valley and daughter of the local blacksmith. By 1864, Belleville was a ghost town.

These days, I enjoy discovering more about the people who lived and worked in some of the ruins we come across or who traveled the same trails generations ago. 

I enjoy learning about the different plants and animals we come across, particularly those that are unique to the area. 

I enjoy finding out how the mountains and landscape came to look the way they do, shaped by earthquakes and floods over millennia. 

And I love coming across local legends and lore that are part of the character of a region.    

Each discovery, every new bit of knowledge I gain about the places we visit just makes the adventure and my journey that much more meaningful.   

Regena’s Lesson #2: Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Seven years ago, I was firmly entrenched in my comfort zone. I was happy raising my boys, providing them with love, safety, and security. I was content being a responsible adult, building my career and professional reputation. I was content to stay behind while my husband had incredible adventures and new experiences.    

What I didn’t realize was that I was barreling down a much-traveled road on cruise control and it was detrimental to my personal growth and fulfillment, as well as the example I was setting as a parent. I wasn’t really finding ways to challenge myself or grow—I was stagnating. 

But, fortunately, life changes when you’re least expecting it and opportunity knocks.    

Last year, with my children all grown up and the TrailRecon YouTube channel having grown beyond our wildest imaginings, I realized I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—I could join my husband full-time on this crazy off-road adventure.   

All I needed to do was decide if I was willing to get uncomfortable by leaving my job and the career I’d worked so hard to build.   

Regena next to USNS Mercy, one of the U.S. Navy's two hospital ships
Screenshot of Regena moderating a news conference for Navy Medicine

Left: Regena, formerly a civilian public affairs officer for Navy Medicine's regional headquarters in San Diego, Naval Medical Forces Pacific, stands in front of USNS Mercy after providing support for a media event. | Right: Regena (far left) moderating a news conference with Navy Medicine and Defense Health Agency leaders after they announced changes for military treatment facilities, locally and across the nation. 

I’d like to say it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t. I really loved my job, and I was also so used to always making the safe choice, the responsible choice, that it was really hard to push myself to do something new, daring, and unconventional. 

After thinking long and hard, I finally decided to quit my “day job.” And nearly a year later, I have to say I am so glad that I did.    

By pushing myself beyond my limits and out of the confines of my comfort zone, I’ve discovered that I am capable of learning more and doing more than I thought possible. I’ve discovered a whole new world out there filled with beautiful experiences and vibrant people.    

I know that our lives will continue to change over the years as we grow, learn more life lessons, and keep venturing off the beaten path, and I plan to continue seizing all the opportunities for adventure that come my way with both hands.   

Brad’s Lesson #5: Just Get Out There  

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you don’t need a lot of gear and equipment, or a heavily modified off-road vehicle to get outside and have a great time. What you do need is to just get out there.   

This advice might sound strange coming from me because I have built out several of my vehicles and I do have a lot of gear and equipment. But that’s one of the differences between then and now because I didn’t start out like that. 

When I first started hitting the trails, it was in my completely stock Jeep with my minimalist backpacking gear.    

In fact, for those just getting started with their adventures, I’d recommend a “start where you are” approach. Grab your family, get in your rig, and just go have fun. 

Family having a picnic outside of their Jeep while off-roading
Springer Spaniel sitting in a yellow Jeep

Left: An early off-road adventure when Brad's Jeep was completely stock and gear was minimal—an ice chest, camping chairs, and folding table, which still made for a great picnic lunch on the trail. | Right: Our dog Rocket ready to hit the trail in Regena's yellow Jeep. 

Get to know your vehicle while it’s still completely stock. This will help you get a feel for what it’s capable of—the different types of trails you can do in it, which obstacles you can manage—and help guide you when you decide it’s time for some upgrades.    

The better you know your rig, the easier it will be to know what modifications you actually need and which ones you simply want

The modifications you do make should enhance your off-road experience and fit you and your individual situation. This includes the level of difficulty you prefer in a trail, the area and terrain where you like to off-road, and who you’re bringing along for the ride, such as kids or pets.   

As for gear and equipment, I’ve learned so much over the years about what I need to bring on my adventures, what I want to bring, and what I absolutely do not need. 

I always recommend the basics of a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, and recovery gear, but beyond these necessities, you really don’t need much to get started other than shelter, water, a sleeping bag, and a way to store and cook your food.    

I've learned that the best strategy for outfitting your adventures is to start with the basics and decide what’s going to make you more comfortable and your journey more enjoyable as you gain more experience heading off-road. 

As you get to know your personal overlanding style, then you can start adding to your gear and equipment inventory while avoiding spending money on items that are just going to collect dust in your garage.    

The bottom line is, you don’t have to have all the “right” gear or a perfectly modified off-road beast to have a great time off-roading and overlanding with your friends and family. All that matters is that you just get out there! 

Adventures in a Silver Jeep 

Life is always changing, in big and small ways. Those changes can be expected or a total surprise. They can take our lives on short detours or in a whole new direction. During the past seven years, our family has experienced all the changes.    

When we began off-roading in our silver Jeep nearly seven years ago, we had no idea where it would take us—literally and figuratively—or what we would learn along the way. 

We have been to some amazing places. 

We have met some incredible people. 

And we have had the best adventures.    

We are so glad that we said yes to this adventure and leaned into the changes life brought our way—it’s been a wild and beautiful ride and we’re excited to continue this journey and see where else the trail takes us.

Related Video

In the video below Brad and Regena spend the day off-roading on the Palomar Divide Trail while sharing their experiences and some of the life lessons they've learned since buying their first Jeep. 


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Date 5/12/2022


Date 5/12/2022 3:16:06 PM

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