More of Ohio

After all the activity at Alumapalooza we needed a little time to recharge. Chuck found the perfect spot on the shores of Lake Erie at Maumee Bay Campground.

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Bunnies sniffing our fire pit.

This large park was peaceful and green, just what we needed. The sites had a semi-manicured garden sort of feel and there are lots of birds to watch. There was even a small laundry room on site so we were able to catch up.

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Can’t escape laundry!

We enjoyed a ride on one of the many bike trails out to views of the lake, but mostly we just relaxed and killed the tiny black ants that had found a path inside (our first invasion since we hit the road). Luckily there were just a few.

Before the weekend got underway we headed out to Stow, Ohio where a small city campground had first-come first-serve sites. There are no campgrounds at Cuyahoga Valley National Park and this was the closest option, plus at just $11 for electric hook-ups the price couldn’t be beat. It was a bit like camping in a city park, you know the kind with baseball fields and basketball courts, but served the purpose.

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There was no site post, but a neighbor assured us it was a site.

It was hard to tell exactly where the sites were because there were no defined parking pads, just a big grassy field dotted with trees and power posts randomly placed down the middle. Luckily one of the regulars helped us figure out the boundaries of the huge sites. It felt weird to drive right on the grass and park, but later when the park supervisor came through to collect our fee he said we were good. Even with the weird “camping next to a baseball field behind a neighborhood” vibe, it was convenient to Cuyahoga.

We made two trips into the park and we kept wondering how this got to be a national park. Most of it looked like many of the city parks in Seattle, with trees and greenery and a bike path next to the river. We could have been on the bike path back in Bothell—it looked exactly the same. I’m guessing that folks who aren’t from Seattle probably have a better appreciation for this park, but we did find a few cool things.

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Many folks take a train ride through the park, but we didn’t figure you would see anything different than the scenery we saw driving through so skipped it. We wished they had an option to ride a canal boat through the locks, that would have been cool! But I think much of the passageway is no longer deep enough for boat travel although if you had your own kayak you could float sections of it.

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This section of the canal is pretty shallow now.

We started our visit at the Boston Store Visitor Center. This restored 1836 building focuses on the craft of building canal boats which became a big industry in the area.

The boats were 14 feet wide and up to 80 feet long. They had to be able to float in just four feet of water. Some boats were for carrying goods and others for carrying passengers but all were pulled by teams of mules who walked along the towpath on the sides of the canal. Boats often carried an extra set of mules. Sometimes whole families lived on the boats and parents would tie young children with rope to the center of the boat so they couldn’t fall overboard.

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After that we walked the boardwalk to Brandywine Falls but skipped the loop trail as there really was nothing to see.

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Brandywine Falls

Then we headed over to the Ledges Trail and walked 1.5 miles of the trail and while the rock ledge formations were kinda cool, the trail made us think of Seattle.

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I think we had a tree just like that in our backyard, except it wasn’t on a rock ledge.
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Gotta love the pants tucked into socks look. A sign warned it was an especially bad year for ticks.
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Looks a lot like the northwest!
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A ranger told us we’d have a view of the whole southern section of the park. Just looks like treetops to me 🙂

On our last day we drove the scenic gorge Parkway and walked out to Bridal Veil Falls. After all the flat farmland in the midwest I’m not sure why we weren’t more excited to be in the trees, but after all our years in the Northwest I think we just yearn for a different kind of scenery.

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Bridal Veil Falls

After that we headed to the another visitor’s center.

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This one told the history of the canal system. I think this was the most interesting part of the park. Both Jefferson and Washington were proponents of building a national canal system back in the late 1700s and by 1840 there were over 3000 miles of canals in the US linking New York to New Orleans. The Ohio & Erie Canal (not to be confused with the Erie Canal in NY) opened in 1827 between Cleveland on Lake Erie and Akron. When finally finished in 1932 it was 308 miles long, with 146 locks and a rise of 1206 feet and connected to the Ohio River.

The canal became a major transportation artery for goods heading out of and into Ohio. On the outbound trip boats mostly carried farm products and raw goods like timber and coal and on the inbound trip they carried manufactured goods like nails and cloth. Before this everything had to be carted by horse and wagon, so most folks grew or made what they needed. The canal system led to a national economy. The canal system was short lived though. By the 1860s railroads were prominent and became the favored mode of transport. One interesting fact, President James Garfield was a canal boat worker as a teenager, driving the mules that pulled barges along the canal.

Since we were there on Saturday we got to see one of the original, hand-operated locks in action.

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Step 1: close the gates on the higher side (imagine a boat in there).
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Step 2: Open the wickets (little doors underwater) to let water through.
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Step 3: Once the water level goes down open the gates to let the boat through then close them.
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Step 4: Open the wickets on the other gate to fill the lock with water back up to the level of the canal.

I don’t think Cuyahoga will make the list of our favorite parks. It seems like a great  regional park. Supporting that is the fact that by far most of its visitors are locals who come to bike or jog along the river towpath, hike in the woods, or mountain bike (they had an impressive mtb trail system in the Gorge Parkway area). Still I was excited to put sticker number 11 on the map. Only 48 more parks to go!

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Ohio or Bust!

It has been a cold spring in the Northwest and we were hoping to escape to better weather as we made our way east to Ohio for the big rally at the Airstream factory. Unfortunately that didn’t happen but luckily we managed to mostly stay out of the snow. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leaving Missoula we were barely 25 miles out of town before we got stuck in a 2 hour back-up, totally stopped, because of an accident that blocked eastbound I-90. We heard about the accident on the news just before we left, but knew were were heading westbound. They neglected to mention that the highway patrol was alternating traffic in the westbound lanes to let the eastbound cars get around as there are no other roads to get through this stretch. What a mess!

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You know it’s bad when people start getting out of their cars and chatting to pass the time!
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There’s a big line behind us too.

This was one of those times I was glad I could run back to grab food and use the restroom in the trailer!

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What did we do to pass the time? Watch Star Trek on the iPhone! 🙂

Luckily we hadn’t planned too long of a driving day and stopped for the night at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, a bit east of Butte. This was one of our stops last summer and back then it was sunny and warm. This time we awoke to big snowflakes coming down and skedaddled out of there before it started to stick.

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That rain turned to snow the next morning.

We hoped we could out drive the front, but it seemed like we just kept traveling with it.

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Yep, that’s snow on the hill…
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And snow flying past the window…
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And snow building up on the front of the Airstream.

Some days we’d drive all day and finally make it out of the storm only to have it catch up to us in the evening. The whole drive across the country is a blur of rainy highway and chilly nights. Bottom line: we will not be coming north this early in the future!

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A quick, chilly stop at Little Bighorn Battlefield, site of Custer’s Last Stand.
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That’s mile marker 553 on I-90 in Montana. Will we ever make it out of this state?
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Finally, made it to Wyoming.

We had planned to stop at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, but with the bad weather there was no point so we just stayed at a KOA near the freeway and kept driving. We did see lots of pronghorn antelope (like 100) through Wyoming and Western South Dakota which was kinda cool. We spent the next night in Chamberlain, SD at an overpriced Army COE campground (sorry no picture of that one). Finally after 4 days straight on the road we decided we needed a day to recuperate and stayed 2 nights in Sioux Falls, SD at a nice little campground in the middle of a neighborhood.

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Our spot at Big Sioux Recreation Area.

Even thought it was rainy and cool, we managed to see the falls. On a sunny day Falls Park looked like it would be a nice place to hang out and enjoy the trails, cafe and picnic areas. They even have music and a farmer’s market there in the summer.

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We also went to the biggest outdoor store I have ever seen, Scheels. This place was like it’s own mall with a ferris wheel inside, a mini bowling game called roller ball, video shooting gallery (it was a little disconcerting to see a 7 year old girl holding a rifle and nonchalantly shooting deer on the screen, poor Bambi!) and it’s own restaurant. They had casual clothes and shoes plus clothes and gear for every outdoor sport imaginable and even home decorating stuff. It was like REI, Cabella’s and Sports Authority all rolled into one and then some.

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We didn’t take a spin but it was amazing to see!

But alas, the weather was still windy and wet and we had miles to cover so after our shopping day we hit the road again.

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Minnesota, another state to drive across!

Are we there yet?! I guess I never realized exactly how far east it is to Ohio. We needed something interesting to see so headed for Effigy Mounds National Monument on the Iowa/Wisconsin border.

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Native Americans in this area created huge mounds of dirt in the shape of bears and birds and other animals nearly 1000 years ago. There wasn’t a lot of definitive information at the visitor’s center but it seems it was a spiritual act used for burial. Today all you see are grassy mounds. Maybe from above it would be cooler. But we did enjoy a short hike during a brief sun filled morning and great views of the Mississippi River.

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We stayed at nearby Pikes Peak State Park, not to be confused with Pikes Peak in Colorado. It was discovered and named by the same man. The campground was a little dark and compact for us, but luckily it was pretty empty mid-week.

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It did have some great views of the Wisconsin river meeting the Mississippi.

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After 2 nights it was time to keep moving. Somehow I missed the sign for Iowa, but we made our way across all the “I” states.

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We were headed for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Knowing that we loved Padre Island National Seashore, when I saw Indiana Dunes on the map I thought it would be a great place to stay our last few days before making the final trek to Ohio. Not so much.

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The National Lakeshore is a disconnected park, with bits and pieces surrounded by neighborhoods (some nice and some not so nice), a prison, and a couple of towns that seem down on their luck. Not far to the south is a steel mill. This area is a suburb of Chicago, as evidenced by the packed parking lot at the train station. It’s an hour and a half ride into the city and some campers make the trip.

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Tucked in the trees, this is not our kind of camping but we did find a spot with some “sun” for the solar panels.
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The Rolling Stonebaker, even with the rain and thunder they were baking away.

Just across the street from the campground entrance was a wood fired pizza oven in an old Studebaker. For less than $20 we got two thin crust pizzas and a bottle of butterscotch root beer. Their speciality, The Purple Pig, with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and a tangy purple cabbage slaw on top was delicious!

As for the lakeshore, you have to drive to the disconnected beaches from the campground. So after doing laundry and errands and enduring the rain, I decided we had to see at least one of the beaches.

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Found this cool metal bench at the visitor’s center.

After a quick visit to the small visitor’s center (not much exciting there except for the outdoor art), we visited Beverly Shores. It looked just like the ocean. I was surprised by how soft the beach sand was, but just to remind us we weren’t in Mexico the cold wind kept whipping at our faces and we could see industrial bulidings along the shore both to the east and the west.

The best part was a collection of houses from the 1933-34 World’s Fair. A developer moved them here to entice people to buy his houses in the area. Each house is unique. You can look at them from the street, but they are occupied so you can’t go inside except for once a year when they have an open house. There is some sort of partnership where people live in them as they work on restoration.

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The pink Florida house was pretty cool, as was the cabin, but our favorite was the one made from metal panels kinda like an Airstream! 🙂  It was modern looking on the outside but the inside was supposed to have a traditional layout and furnishings.

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We loved the shiny metal siding.

I’m sure there are some more scenic parts to the National Lakeshore that we missed, at least I hope that’s the case since we weren’t impressed. We were not sad when it came time to move on.

Next up Jackson Center, Ohio, home of Airstream and the reason we’ve been making this crazy, long trek across the country in the chilly spring weather.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

It’s been a while since I last posted. We’ve been covering lots of ground visiting family, which I’ll get to in another post, and there hasn’t been much time to write. But I realized I never posted this blog about our great time at Lake Mead in April. Reading it over, I’m wishing I was back there right now…

Las Vegas Bay Campground
Nights: 2

After boondocking at Trona Pinnacles we needed a place to dump our tanks and get fresh water. We also needed a city so we could run errands (Easter basket traditions must live on!). Las Vegas Bay Campground on Lake Mead didn’t get great reviews, but it was close to Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas with lots of shopping.

As we were driving toward Henderson we were following the tail end of a huge storm that dropped hail and rain on Vegas. Luckily we only caught a little of the rain and by the time we made it to the campground it had cleared up. We had our pick of spots since much of the place was empty.

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Sadly this campground had an abandoned, sketchy feel to it. We couldn’t quite put our finger on why, but it partly had to do with a couple of run down trailers that looked like they had been parked there a while. This campground had the longest stay limit we have ever seen, 30 days, and they looked like they had been there longer than that. Plus this wasn’t a campground active with people walking their dogs or anything. We did see the host a couple of times out pruning the landscaping and there was a great view from our site, but it just didn’t feel like a place we wanted to hang out much. That’s ok. We were here to get things done.

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Reading the park brochure I discovered we were only 10 miles from Hoover Dam so we decided to go there first thing in the morning. Of course for us that means about 10 am. 🙂  I had been once as a kid, but didn’t remember much about it and I have to say it wasn’t what I was expecting. Other dams we have seen are massive and can be viewed from a distance. Hoover Dam, while very tall, is wedged in a narrow canyon. It was crazy-filled with people like Disneyland. For some reason I thought there would be a big parking lot and a visitor’s center that overlooked the dam, but parking was $10 or in a couple of small lots on the hillside.

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As close as we got to the visitor’s center.

They do however let you drive across the dam. So after going through the security check-point and letting them look at all the gear stowed under our bed cover, we followed the line of cars winding their way down into the canyon, across the dam while avoiding the pedestrians crossing, and up the other side to a viewpoint high above.

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That white “bathtub ring” is the high mark the lake reached in the 1980s.

I snapped photos out the window and we parked on the hill, but didn’t want to trek all the way down to the visitor’s center with Chuck’s bum knee and all the throngs of people to contend with.

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View from the free parking lot way above the dam.

So we were satisfied to see what we did and headed back across. Instead we stopped at the small Lake Mead Visitor’s center which was pretty informative.

Then we headed into Henderson to get some lunch. We wanted to go to REI so found a BBQ place nearby that wasn’t great. Traffic and lots of freeways in Henderson made us want to get out of there. It just didn’t seem like a great area. We shopped for Easter goodies for our daughters’ baskets, did a grocery run, stopped at the post office and headed back to the trailer.

Stewart’s Point
Nights: 7
Campfires: 1

The next morning we were hitched up and ready to leave the area. As we headed north through the park we got a big surprise. This area is stunningly beautiful. Colorful cliffs rise out of the desert and wildflowers dot the side of the road. If you’re ever in Las Vegas I recommend taking the drive along the western side of Lake Mead and exploring the natural beauty of the area.

Our destination was Stewart’s Point, a very large boondocking area at the northwestern edge of Lake Mead. It was strange driving in because you suddenly enter a section of houses before coming to the boondocking area, but it turned out to be perfect. We parked the trailer and took the bikes around to explore since there were huge ruts in many of the roads. We settled on a large open gravel area on a high point overlooking the shoreline and the distant mountains on the other side. Turned out to be a great spot with views all around.

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There is plenty of room here to explore and all sorts of cool pebbles to discover underfoot, even some kind of small white shells. Just like at Trona, we had very strong winds one day making it hard to go outside (I guess that’s just something you find in the desert), but other days we rode bikes around and sat outside enjoying the views.

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Taken with NightCap Pro. Stars mode, 10.06 second exposure.
The full moon over the lake was awesome!

Another Airstream pulled into a spot nearby and soon we met Rhonda and Bruce, full-time RVers for 8.5 years. They invited us over for a delicious dinner in their vintage trailer. Bruce made chili and homemade gluten free cornbread, yum! We swapped stories for quite a while and hope to cross paths again so we can return their hospitality.

We took a very worthwhile trip to Valley of the Fire State Park. It is only about 12 miles away, but a whole different world of amazing red rock scenery.

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We drove out the White Domes Scenic Byway. It was a beautiful drive and we were surprised when the stunning red rocks gave way to pastel ridges of white and peach and gold.

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The hike down into the canyon was definitely worth it. This is another place that has provided a backdrop for movies. The way the wind and water have eroded the sandstone it so cool.

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In another part of the park we found these cool rock cabins build by the CCC in an area with petroglyphs.

Another day we walked the short 1/2 mile loop around Redstone, a smaller area of red sandstone in Lake Mead. It’s a nice picnic stop if you take the drive to explore the lake.

We celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary while we were here. I never would have thought that this is where we would end up all these years later. Chuck kept saying let’s spend the whole day together for our anniversary. Ha Ha. We do that every day.

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But to make it special we opened a bottle of wine, broke out some appetizers and enjoyed the view. And after dinner we lit a campfire. We’ve only had 3 or 4 campfires since hitting the road. We don’t really like to end up smelling like smoke, but once in a while a spot really calls out for a campfire and this was one of them. It was a fitting end to our special day.

Taken with NightCap Pro. Long Exposure mode, 6.69 second exposure.

The rest of California

Since leaving Death Valley we’ve been hopping around like bunnies. The big reason is not that Easter is on the way, but that we needed to be outside Sacramento for some service and we were trying to dodge the cold, wet weather. So here are three stops that cover the rest of our time in central CA and our retreat back to the warmth of the desert.

Rancho Seco Recreational Area
Nights: 2

Needing a place to spend the weekend near our service location, we found Rancho Seco, a park run by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, just a few miles away. Even though the camping rates were kinda steep ($30/night), we had water and electric so we could run our space heater during the cool nights. This area has seen so much rain this winter that many of the fields and some of the campsites were giant puddles, but we lucked into the best spot in the park. We had pastoral views of cows munching grass in the rolling hills out to the front and the lake to the back and a huge amount of space. The site was even level enough that we didn’t need to unhitch the trailer. This park seems popular for fishing (they stock the lake), renting non-motorized boats, and picnicking. The brochure said it’s a great place to learn to windsurf. For us it was a nice place to relax for the weekend.

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With the cooler weather I had to trade my flip flops for boots.
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Yep, this campground sits at the base of a retired nuclear power plant.

On Monday we were up early to pack up and deliver the trailer for service. Vinnie’s Northbay Airstream Repair recently moved to Wilton, CA and we were the sixth rig at his new site. Moving from Santa Rosa (where I grew up), I can only imagine how peaceful it must feel at this site compared to that busy city! Here, surrounded by farmland, our Airstream got new 16” wheels and tires. The tires that come with Airstreams are notorious for blow-outs and we weren’t keen on experiencing that so we’ve been planning this upgrade for a while. Vinnie turned out to be a wealth of information (we now leave our propane refrigerator on while in transit, have a bone tool for future projects and are ordering a replacement bracket so we’re prepared when our bike rack breaks). We wished we could just spend a day chatting with him and soaking up all his knowledge. He’s a great guy and went above and beyond when things didn’t go as planned with some skylight work even though it wasn’t his fault at all. Needless to say, I highly recommend his services. While he worked, we had a few hours to spend in nearby Elk Grove getting groceries and having lunch at a wonderful farm to table restaurant, Bravo’s Soup and Sandwich (Chuck loved the BBQ park sandwich). This is a nice area and I can see why Vinnie chose to move here.

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Shiny new wheels and tires!

Harris Ranch
Night: 1

Back on the road in the afternoon, we made our way down I-5 through the nut orchards and grape vineyards of southern CA and found better road conditions than we had on highway 99. Knowing we’d be setting out late in the day we planned to overnight at a place with rave reviews, Harris Ranch. Well known for their beef, they run a restaurant, hotel, gift store and gas station in the middle of nowhere. As we approached the exit, the smell of manure nearly knocked us out. This should have been our first clue, but there were very few areas to spend the night and it was getting close to dark. Pulling into the RV parking area we found it nearly full already at 5:30. Asking inside we were told there was more space to park in back of the hotel so that is where we went and settled in for the night. After eating the leftovers from lunch we settled on the couch to enjoy cheesecake from the on-site bakery and watch TV. About 9pm there was a knock on the door. It was security telling us we couldn’t park there and had to move out to the RV area. I quickly stowed the few things we had out (luckily since we were overnighting we hadn’t unhitched) and moved to the last spot available in the other parking lot with Chuck doing a fantastic job of parallel parking the trailer.

In the back it had been dark and quiet, but out here the parking lot lights shone in our windows and the buzz of freeway traffic assaulted our ears. Needless to say we did not get a good night’s sleep at all and were awake and on the road early the next morning. Heading back across the same pass we had driven just six days before on Highway 58, we got to see the rolling green hills disappear into Joshua trees and then barren desert landscape. Hmmm, maybe I miss that green.

Trona Pinnacles
Nights: 6
Wind Speed: 35+ mph

After 4 miles down a washboarded, rutted dirt road we made it. I’m not sure we would have come to Trona Pinnacles if we knew how bad the road was. It definitely put our new tires to the test and we we’re glad for the extra inch of clearance they provided. We parked in the large open lot near the vault toilet and trail to take stock. Even though I had visions of our refrigerator popping open and spewing its contents on the floor, everything had survived.

We knew there were more scenic camping spots but decided to take the bikes off to explore further before taking the trailer. I was glad we did. We found the access road even rougher that what we had just driven and bumping our way back to the open lot we knew this was the best spot for the trailer and settled in to make camp.

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Our spot looks like it’s right against the pinnacles, but there’s actually a huge sandy parking lot behind us.
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Always a bonus to have a good view from the loo!

After moving around so much (10 stops in the month of March!), it was nice to be in one spot for more than a few nights. On our first evening we climbed through the nearby pinnacles and then settled in for the best nights sleep I’ve had in a while. Even the folks here to take nighttime photos at 1am didn’t disturb me.

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We took a long bike ride around the bumpy roads to view the pinnacles. These weird outcroppings were formed at the bottom of the lake that covered this area thousands of years ago. The result of calcium and carbon interacting, they have a strange holey look, like porous bone.

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Since they appear other-worldly they have been featured in numerous movies, including Planet of the Apes and Star Trek V. In fact, one afternoon we watched a small film crew capturing a group of men in colorful bike shorts whooping and hopping around like cave men. There was also a strange green creature with long arms made from odds and ends  (kinda R2D2 like) and a girl in bright flowing attire. They stayed past dark filming their scenes using spotlights on the pinnacles.

This area is know for being windy and we got a good taste. One day the wind whipped up dust clouds obscuring the views and even a car parked nearby. We got an emergency alert not to travel because of the dust storm.

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The beginnings of the dust storm. Later it totally obscured the mountains.

Even with the wind well over the reported 35mph we were cozy inside the trailer. Thank goodness for it’s aerodynamic shape. Chuck googled it and found that people have been in 80mph winds and had no problem. Still, my eyes got big every time a huge gust rocked us around and dried brush went flying by. Needless to say we had an indoors day. Chuck had loaded a bunch of Star Trek episodes while we were in Elk Grove (thank you fast Starbucks wi-fi!) so we had an Enterprise marathon and thanks to great Verizon service could keep in touch and surf the web.

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We took several bike rides on the dirt roads hitting sandy patches where you quickly slowed and could barely pedal (now I understand those brake failure exit ramps filled with sand). Sometimes it was nearly impossible and I had to walk pushing my bike through. On one ride something went flying across the road in front of me so fast I could hardly tell what it was. It moved as fast as a hummingbird and looked like it was flying just above the ground, but I could tell it had a longer body shape. Soon I saw a few more, not quite so fast, and discovered they were some kind of desert lizard. I have never seen a lizard move so fast!

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Usually the photos we take of the places we visit do not convey the awesome views, but looking back at these photos we decided this is one of those rare places that looks better in the photos than it does up close. Even though the pinnacles weren’t quite as impressive as we thought they’d be, we were glad to be back to the warm weather and enjoyed our stay.

Sawtooth Canyon & Yosemite

Sawtooth Canyon BLM
Nights: 3
Hikes: 1

After our truncated stay in Death Valley we needed to find somewhere to hang out before heading toward Sacramento to get new tires on the Airstream. Between us and that other valley lay the Sierra Nevada mountains and everywhere we looked still had a chance of snow, so we opted to head south before heading north. With several BLMs to choose from near Barstow CA, we picked Sawtooth Canyon because someone compared it to the rocks of Joshua Tree. Plus it was only one mile down a dirt road and the other BLM was four.

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We drove in to find a beautiful campground surrounded by the dark, jagged rocky hills that give this campground it’s name. We saw several spots where climbers were honing their skills, and even though this is BLM, there were designated sites with tables and fire pits, many already occupied. We nestled the Airstream against the rocks.

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There was even a dinosaur playground!

With Chuck nursing a sore knee (an old injury aggravated by twisting his ankle), I climbed to the top of the rocky hill behind our trailer on my own.

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The next day I made my way up one of the higher hills to see the views.

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View back toward the campground. Our trailer is by the white patch in the middle.
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Not sure why someone piled these rocks like this.

I was disappointed to find that on the other side was a valley much like the one we had come through, but excited by all the wildflowers and budding cacti I found hiding among the rocks.

Our last night a Subaru and small trailer splashed with graphics pulled up next to us. They were Subaru/Leave No Trace traveling trainers (lnt.org) and spend nearly 250 days a year on the road camping. They were in town to lead training at the local BLM office and for local students. We got to chat a little and swap favorite camping spots. Cool that these campers are spreading the word about treading lightly on our beautiful lands.

Park of the Sierra Escapees Co-op
Nights: 3
Highlight: Yosemite, our tenth national park!

Along highway 99 in southern CA there are not many good spots to camp. We didn’t want to venture too far toward the mountains because the weather was predicted to get cold. We finally settled on another Escapees park in the foothills, figuring we could crank up the heat if necessary. As a bonus it was just an hour outside Yosemite.

Leaving Sawtooth we headed west and near the town of Mojave we saw lots of commercial airplanes. Surely there couldn’t be a busy airport here in the middle of nowhere. Googling it later, we found out it was an airplane graveyard where they store old planes for parts because of the dry desert air. We also started to see wind turbines. As we climbed through the pass there were hundreds of them in various designs, big and small. Then we hit the other side of the pass we started to see rolling green hills scattered with oak trees and lichen covered boulders. Definitely a change of scenery from where we’d been. These were the rolling hills I remember from my youth in California.

Going over the pass on highway 58 was not bad (yay, no snow!), but heading up highway 99 we found the going tough. The road is crumbling, the onramps are short so we were nearly squashed between semis, and the towns are sketchy. By the time we arrived we were worn out.

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Love that redbud tree in bloom behind us!

This park was very different from the other Escapees parks we’ve visited. The sites are spread among hills with mature trees giving it a bit more of a campground feel. We could see signs of spring everywhere with daffodils, iris, and wildflowers in bloom. Our spot was at the top of a hill with views of the green valley to one side and the distant casino to the other. We pulled in just as it started to rain, then hail, then the sun came out. Yep, it’s spring.

The next day was slated to be sunny so even though we would have liked a day to rest we decided to take advantage of the sunshine and visit Yosemite on Thursday and do laundry on rainy Friday.

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Driving on highway 41 we curved back and forth climbing up and down hills. I tried not to look at the drop off as we saw signs for 4000, then 5000 then 6000 feet. Funny, less than a week ago we had been sweltering in Death Valley and now we were staring at snow on the side of the road. I was glad we hadn’t left too early or there would have been ice on the road. Chuck was glad we weren’t towing the trailer. In spite of all this, it was a great way to approach Yosemite. We came through the famous tunnel to a spectacular view of the valley that took our breath away.

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It looked almost unreal, the sun bringing everything into sharp focus: El Capitan, Half Dome and several waterfalls gushing with spring rain. It was amazing!

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El Capitan

We took a short walk to the viewpoint for Bridal Veil falls. You could feel the spray coming off like rain even from a distance and we decided not to get any wetter.

Even on this weekday in early spring the park was busy and we were glad we did not wait until summertime to visit. Parking lots were already full so I can’t imagine trying to find parking then. Visiting Yosemite Village we walked through the visitor center, the Ansel Adams gallery, the old post office, and the museum. Everywhere you turned there were spectacular views of the cliffs and waterfalls.

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Upper Yosemite Falls
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Love all that mist!
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Half Dome
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Yosemite Falls

Taking a different route out of the park we found highway 140 covered by a slide. It looked like it had been there a while as they had installed some pretty serious one lane bridges to detour around it. With the length restrictions for the detour our trailer would have been too long so I guess we lucked out that I hadn’t been able to find a campground in the park.

I’d love to make a return trip to Yosemite when we can take a hike and view more of the wonderful sights, perhaps during fall when the leaves on the trees would color the hills although a spring visit will be hard to beat with the gushing waterfalls and magenta red bud trees popping against the green hills.

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I got to put our 10th sticker on the map!

Surviving Death Valley

Pahrump NV
Pair-a-Dice SKP Co-op
Nights: 2
Laundry Loads: 6

After our week in Joshua Tree we intended to hit a grocery store before heading to Mojave. Unfortunately we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere and the only place we found on the way was a Dollar Tree. Luckily we had enough to get by, but after Mojave we desperately needed supplies and a laundromat before heading into Death Valley. Reading campground reviews (thank you campendium.com) someone mentioned Pahrump NV was the closest grocery store to the park. It was along our route and even better we found it had an Escapees park. After our great experience at the Escapees park in Yuma we decided 2 nights there would be perfect for re-stocking.

Pair-a-Dice is another Escapees co-op park, meaning it’s sites are individually owned. Even though this park is quite a bit bigger than Yuma none of it’s nearly 200 spots were open so we ended up dry camping. This suited us just fine, especially since it was free the first night and only $7 the next (plus we paid $7 to dump). The dry camp was at the entrance to the property so it was a little busy with folks coming and going, but we had a nice view of the hills.

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You never escape laundry!

Arriving in the early afternoon we decided to get laundry out of the way. I’ve come to love doing laundry at SKP parks (well as much as one can enjoy doing laundry). For one it’s cheap ($1 to wash and 50 cents to dry), but also it’s more relaxed than a laundromat. At Yuma we always went back to our trailer to wait out the cycles, but here we opted to hang out in the huge clubhouse. I explored their craft room. Chuck found homemade peanut butter cookies for a quarter and used the wi-fi. The folks here were friendly, but we got a less vibrant vibe at this park than we did in Yuma.

The next day we hit town to pick up some things at Home Depot (yep they have things even a home on wheels needs), grab lunch (Mom’s Diner was disappointing), hit the Albertson’s (not very great produce, so opt for Smith’s if you’re in the area) and fuel up the truck. Now we were ready for the desolation of Death Valley, or so we thought.

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An April Fools ad for Death Valley from the early 1900s.

Death Valley
Texas Spring Campground
Nights: 3 (we planned to stay 4 but it was too hot!)
High Temperature: 98 at the visitor’s center in Furnace Valley, 105 on the car readout

Hot. Beautiful. Dry. Beautiful. Dusty. Beautiful. Windy. Beautiful. Hot. Hot. Hot!

Even during the mild season, the heat rules the day here. By the end of March hiking is no longer recommended. With it being mid-March and 10-15 degrees above normal, we got a good taste of the hottest place on Earth—it once hit 134 degrees here. It’s not just the heat that gets you, but the extremely dry air that sucks all moisture away, leaving you dehydrated.

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I couldn’t drink enough water to keep up, my feet puffing up like marshmallows. During summer they say you lose 2 gallons of water just sitting in the shade. It felt like we had returned to Badlands NP in August. Only here there was no grass or trees, only a few bushes in some of the washes.

Death Valley is a land of huge barren mountains and rocky hills surrounding a salt crusted valley. The astounding part is the variety in the rocky terrain. There are golden mounds of badlands hills, craggy dark lava peaks, angled layers erupted to the sky in palettes of orange, white and gold and white sculpted valleys splashed with red, yellow, green or chocolate. Sometimes all these are right next to each other or layered together. Most of the hills exhibit layers pointed at a 45 degree angle toward the sky showing the huge uplift that has taken place over the years. As those mountains tip one side up the other side goes down creating a valley that sits below sea level.

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With only 2 inches of rain a year, the salt and everything else around here bakes into a crust. I think I know how it feels. It was so hot all of our energy was sucked away. A sign in the visitor’s center said walking after 10am was not recommended so we only ventured out in the morning. The rest of the day was spent listlessly sweltering in the heat, guzzling iced drinks, and perhaps an ice cream bar from the nearby Furnace Creek Store.

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Thank goodness we brought some shade!
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Our campground view

With our campground little more than a rocky parking lot it wasn’t much of a respite from the harsh weather. We even broke down and turned on the glorious AC one afternoon for an hour thanks to our awesome solar/lithium setup. At least once the sun went down it started to cool a little.

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Golden Canyon cliffs

Even with the energy sucking heat, we managed to see quite a bit of the park. We took what our National Park Guidebook correctly billed as the best 1 mile trail in the park, Golden Canyon, opting to add the spur to Red Cathedral. As we headed into the canyon, even in the morning, it was warming up fast so I tried to stick to the shade provided by the canyon walls. Following the dry wash, the cliffs were an amazing mix of colors and shapes. After taking one wrong turn, we found the spur to Red Cathedral and squeezing between rocks climbed up to a little room at the base of the red spire hills.

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A faint, loose path led up the ridge and I scrambled up to see the view. As we ate lunch Chuck commented that I’m more adventurous now and I wouldn’t have scrambled up there when we set out. I think perhaps he’s right.

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One evening we took the drive to Dante’s Peak which gives a nearly 360 degree view of the park and a respite from the heat. I felt almost chilly looking from 5400 feet down to the sea level valley below. The rocky mountains in the distance seemed almost unreal. It was definitely worth the steep drive.

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From Dante’s Peak it looks like water below but it’s the salt flats.
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At last, a cool breeze!

Also worth it is Artist’s Drive, which was reopened after extensive roadway repairs following flooding the day we were here. Curving in and out of the sometimes narrow hills, the surprising rocks formations full of color are amazing.

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One of the many stunning views along Artist’s Drive.

At Badwater, the lowest point in the park you can walk on the salt crystals. At first it was so packed that it seems like finely polished cement, albeit bumpy. Then it got a bit soft and grainy where there was more moisture just underground. In fact in places visitor’s had dug shallow holes which were filled with muddy water. Further out, where not as many people ventured, there were sharp crystals crunching underfoot, the sun blinding as it reflected off all the white, and hot wind whipping at our hats.

Later visiting the 20 mule team Borax mine, I wondered how the workers survived harvesting the salt in these conditions and then processing it to remove the borax. Luckily they shut down in summer because borax doesn’t crystallize at temps over 120 so they couldn’t refine it.

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Sadly, Scotty’s Castle is closed after major flood damage so we’ll have to save that for a return visit once we’ve forgotten how unbearable the heat was. We also missed the small museum at Furnace Creek and a visit to the Stovepipe Wells area. But on our third day the winds picked up and as we sat sweltering in the heat watching tents being flattened and trash and dust flying across the campground, we decided it was time for us to leave this desolate place!

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A beautiful reward for enduring a hot day.

Joshua Tree Rocks!

Joshua Tree South BLM
Nights: 7
Hikes: 1

While the Joshua trees are cool, it the rocks that make this park special. In some places they look like they’ve pushed straight up through the ground to rise above the surrounding desert.  In other places it appears some giant has been stacking them like blocks, but in actuality it’s erosion that’s done the work over thousands of years.

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We opted to stay at the Joshua Tree South BLM*. With the other areas of the park at higher elevations, we knew they would be cooler at night in early March. Plus this spot is convenient since it’s immediately outside the southern entrance and not far off the freeway. After first heading 8 miles into the park to dump tanks and fill our fresh water at the Cottonwood Spring campground, we were set to enjoy another free boondocking spot.

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We spent our first full day driving through Joshua Tree to get oriented. This is another huge park like Big Bend and Glacier, with vastly different areas. In the south you have the Colorado Desert, like we found in Anza-Borrego, but as you go north you climb into the Mojave Desert where you find the Joshua trees and giant boulders that are favored by climbers. As we drove from the south looking out at the red mountains similar to those of Anza and seeing the same ocotillo, cholla and creosote bushes I was thinking maybe I’ve had enough of the desert.

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Cholla forest – some taller than me!

Then as we moved into the Mojave section of the park near White Tank huge boulders were suddenly rising out of the ground and joshua trees began to appear. Wait, this is a whole different desert!

We stopped for lunch among the boulders at Live Oak picnic area and it was tempting to climb them, but as Chuck’s ankle was still healing we opted to stay on the ground.

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The park was busy on this Friday and the campgrounds were full. We drove through Jumbo Rocks, right in the heart of the park, to see if we wanted to move up there after the weekend but found the spots crammed together amongst the boulders. Even though there were some sites for larger trailers and motorhomes, they were basically parking spots along the side of the road, making for a very narrow path through the campground. We decided this tight, chaotic campground was not a place we wanted to risk bringing the Airstream. Rocks (and passing vehicles) leave big dents!

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Stopping at Hall of Horrors, we saw someone attempting to walk a tightrope strung high between two rocky hills. It was obviously pretty tricky as he kept falling off and having to pull himself back up. Thank goodness he had a safety harness! Sorry, I didn’t get a photo.

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Joshua Tree bloom

Deciding to make a loop out of the drive we exited the park in the quirky town of Joshua Tree, where we stopped at the small visitor center. Then we headed east along highway 62 to Twentynine Palms, stopping for a snack, before heading back back into the park. We were both getting tired so skipped the visitor center there. Kinda strange that this park has two visitor centers that are not actually in the park, but it looked like most folks stayed in this northern region to visit the park. The drive ended up being a very long loop, but we felt like we got a good view of the park.

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Saturday turned into chore day. We headed into Indio to do laundry and grocery shop. Our first stop though was the #4 restaurant in the US on Yelp, TKB Bakery & Deli. Funny that here in the middle of nowhere is a sandwich shop with so many reviews. I was excited they had gluten free bread so I could enjoy a turkey club and picked up a couple of gluten free muffins and cookies to enjoy later. With the very personable owner keeping things lively I could see why this place is so popular.

After seeing the park on our drive, I knew I wanted to spend time among the giant boulders. So we headed for the Split Rock Trail, a 2.5 mile loop that shouldn’t be too hard on Chuck’s healing ankle. It was a great hike among the rocks, each turn giving a different scene of amazing boulders.  We even saw a pair of climbers on one of the rock faces.

Afterwards we drove up to Keys View touted as a great vista, only to be disappointed that it was mostly a view back into the valley where Indio and Palm Springs are located and not a view into the park. Our last stop was the short trail to Arch Rock, a hidden gem in the White Tank Campground.

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Since it was a long drive to the heart of the park from where we camped and Chuck’s ankle still needed rest, we decided not to do any more hiking, which is fine because it leaves us something to look forward to if we ever return. I think next time I’ll try to get a reservation at one of the northern campgrounds that has trails and rock views right in the campground.

We visited the General Patton museum just a few miles up the freeway at Chiriaco Summit and found out this whole area (a  350 x 250 mile stretch of CA, NV and AZ) was used as a military training ground in the early 1940s. Patton figured it was perfect to prepare troops for the desert conditions in North Africa. Over 1,000,000 service men and women trained here. I couldn’t believe they limited them to one canteen of water per day. How they did not all die of heat stroke is a mystery.

It was the 30th anniversary of the U2 album that made Joshua Tree famous so of course we had to listen to it while we were here. Turns out the famous cover photo was not taken in the park but near Mojave Desert Preserve. That’s ok. It turns out I’m not sick of this desert so that’s our next destination.

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Maybe we’ll see even more wildflowers there. They were just starting to pop out here.

As we pulled out Thursday morning, I spotted a desert tortoise on the side of the road. A rare sighting and a fine ending to our time here!

*BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management. They manage public land for various uses including grazing, camping, and off-roading. While areas can vary a lot you’ll usually find no amenities like tables, water or restrooms so it’s great that we travel with our own. 🙂 If you are set up to be off-grid and can navigate some dirt roads they are often great places to camp.