There you are driving through Idaho’s hills and green fields with snow capped peaks in the distance and then suddenly you end up in this strange land.
Craters of the Moon National Monument has been on our list since the start of this adventure. Since it wasn’t too far off our route to Utah we decided to spend a few days there.
Boy did we luck out. Without knowing it we hit prime wildflower bloom. The Monkeyflower’s entire life cycle (sprout, bloom, seed, wither and die) takes only 3 weeks and we were here for the bloom! Those tiny, pink flowersadded a beautiful contrast to the dark volcanic rock.
This place is really strange, especially for being in the middle of Idaho. It feels more like Hawaii, and in fact all the signs explaining the different types of rock had pictures of lava from Hawaii. Mostly this place reminded us of the lava flow we visited in New Mexico, Valley of Fires, especially on our first night when we walked from the campground to the Trail of Lava.
The next day we drove to the wilderness trail parking area. There were two trails, one to the tree molds which are impressions of trees laying flat in the lava. The other trail said it went to Lava Trees, described as an upright version. I thought this sounded interesting so off we went. The trail started out through some awesome lava rocks, then came into more of a meadow with small cinders, almost like lava rock gravel. The wildflowers seem to love these areas.
Finally we saw the sign for the lava trees. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was cool. The lava surrounded the tree and as the tree burned the steam cooled the lava enough to harden it into an impression of the tree leaving tree shaped voids.
On our last day we drove the short loop again, this time stopping at several other areas. We skipped the very popular Inferno Cone where lots of visitor’s were hiking up the barren cone and instead stopped at the nearby Spatter Cones area.
After a quick look into the spatter cones we hiked up the steep trail to Big Crater. We had been joking that there were no craters at Craters of the Moon, but after the short steep climb we found the craters! And great views around as well.
It’s a hike that wasn’t really at the top of the ranger recommendations, but was definitely worth it! Our last stop on the loop was Devil’s Orchard, another great area to view wildflowers.
Overall Craters of the Moon was a great stop with much more variety in the lava formations than we had seen at Valley of Fires, plus the wildflowers were gorgeous!
After a road weary fall, we decided to head to the Texas coast. We loved our stay there last year for Thanksgiving and two weeks at the National Seashore sounded like just the break we needed. We also wanted to check out some RV casitas we’ve been researching as an option for a winter base. Plus, there was a week of nice weather in the forecast. This meant we could hit up two more national parks, Guadelupe and Carlsbad, that we haven’t been able to visit because of their high elevation.
We arrived at Guadelupe Mountains National Park on November 3rd. The RV camping is basically spots in the parking lot so nothing special, but it put us right in the middle of the views. Guadelupe is a “desert meets mountains” sort of place so you have yucca and cactus alongside juniper and pine.
This parking lot was also the major trailhead so we saw a lot of backpackers getting their permits and heading out for multi-night treks. As the weather turned chillier and stormier over the weekend we were glad to be snug in our trailer!
Lucky for us we picked a beautiful morning to hike to Devil’s Hall. Being in the desert we’ve missed out on fall colors so it was a treat to see so much beautiful color on the trees along the way.
Before you get to Devil’s Hall You have to navigate the Devil’s Staircase.
I’m about half way up it here. It was even trickier coming back down. 🙂 The hall is a narrow passage between two cliffs of layered stone. It was pretty cool.
The color was just as amazing on our way back.
We also visited a couple of sights in the park. There are ruins of a Butterfield Overland Mail Stagecoach Stop, the highest on the route at 5,534 feet. Butterfield was the first transcontinental mail service. The coaches ran round the clock, covering the 2800 miles in 25 days or less. The stations were important to provide food and fresh horses.
We walked around the Frijole Ranch. The buildings weren’t open the day we were there, but we peered in the windows. The red building was once the schoolhouse. They also had an amazing spring-fed irrigation system that watered an orchard.
Guadelupe and Carlsbad are about 45 miles apart so we could have driven to the caverns, but we opted to move our trailer to a boondocking spot closer to the park.
By now you should know that caves are not really my thing, but I have to say Carlsbad blew me away. I had researched the options and found you could hike through the Natural Opening and down into the cave at your own pace. It didn’t look like there were any tight spaces so I thought I’d be fine and I was.
Turns out I was too enthralled by all the cool cave formations to feel claustrophobic, plus the rooms are huge!
Every turn brought another amazing view.
Often times it felt like we were on the set of Star Trek landing on a distant planet.
After walking the paved trail from the Natural Entrance, you end up 800 feet below the surface in the Big Room, which has a 1.25 mile loop trail.
This room is gigantic, the size of 14 football fields, and filled with formations.
By the end we were on overload and happy to take the elevator back up 38 floors to the surface.
If you only visit one cave in your lifetime, this is the one. What an amazing journey into a strange underground world. Even though I’m not a cave person I loved it. Although I do think I’ve now fulfilled all my cave needs for a lifetime. 🙂
Well that brings our grand total to 15 National Parks!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The next day I made my way up one of the higher hills to see the views.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!