KY to OH to KS to OK

September 6 – 21, 2017

Even though it’s only been a few weeks since we left Ohio, it seems like a blur. We’ve made so many stops that it’s hard to keep them straight in my mind. So I’ll try my best to lay it out.

Originally we had planned to head to Shenandoah National Park and then onto the Outer Banks of North Carolina and down the coast into Florida for the winter. With Hurricane Irma churning out at sea we decided to head toward Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky instead. We figured we could re-evaluate after we had a better idea of what Irma would do and either head back toward Virginia or make a new plan. So off to Kentucky we drove.

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First stop Big Bone Lick State Park. We didn’t see much of the park because we only spent one night, but we did find that not one spot was level. There was mini-golf and a pool (closed for the season) so I’m sure this place is popular with families. Since the campground is up a very steep hill we didn’t even make the trek down to check out the lake.

Continuing on Chuck found the driving tough. The roads were in bad shape and crowded with semi trucks. I think Louisville must be a big shipping hub because the airport was filled with UPS cargo planes.

When we made it to Mammoth Cave we found a mostly empty campground. The ranger recommended a pull through spot with some sun for our solar and we got set up and rode our bikes down to the visitor’s center. There we found interesting exhibits about the formation and history of the caves and picked up information about cave tours that are friendly to those of us who are clautrophobic. 😉

On Friday we rode the gravel trail through the woods to a pond where I had my first ever sighting of actual frogs jumping on lily pads. Sorry no photo. On Saturday they have an open cave tour where you can go at your own pace which sounded perfect to me. It started at the cave’s historic entrance.

 

A nice big opening leading down a wide hallway into a massive room. This is just my style. While it was warm outside it was around 50 degrees in the cave. In fact you could feel a good breeze at the opening and in the morning there is often fog emerging from the cave. This large entrance goes about 1/4 mile into the cave with smaller passageways branching off.

 

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The hallway coming in
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In the middle are remains of old salt peter mining operations. On the right are memorials to fallen soldiers from WWI. 
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Proof I made it in the cave.
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The end of the big room.

While the caves were cool, above ground this was another woodsy, dark park. So we were glad to think about making our way somewhere with open, sunny skies. With Hurricane Irma still looming ominously off Florida’s coast we decided to ditch any hopes we had of staying east this fall and winter. Instead we set a course to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.

Stopping overnight in Tennessee, we found a site at Pin Oak Campground that was level enough to stay hitched up. That night the rains, remnants of Hurricane Harvey, moved in. I heard a drip in the night, but told myself it was outside and went back to sleep. In the morning we awoke to a huge puddle of water on our table and floor. The new skylight was leaking in a big way. Chuck removed the interior frame and water came pouring out. Water was running behind our aluminum walls and dripping out at the seams.

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Drips coming down from each screw and the wood framing is soaked.

It was a no-brainer to turn ourselves around and head back the way we had come, covering the 500 miles back to the factory in one very long driving day. Luckily the rain let off after a bit so we got some relief, but about 1/2 hour outside Jackson Center it started raining again. So after finding a spot we got to work tying a tarp over the skylight and turned on the dehumidifier to try to dry things out.

They couldn’t squeeze us in the next day, but did get us taken care of the following day. So more time spent hanging out at the factory. Not so bad as I do love it there. It’s sort of comforting and calming to be surrounded by lots of other Airstream trailers. We did more laundry, chatted with other folks who were there getting service, and found a few more things we needed in the Airstream store. 🙂

The most exciting part was meeting Brian and Leigh, fellow Airstream full-timers who started Campendium, a website with reviews and information about campgrounds. We discovered Campendium before we left Seattle, and it has been our go to source for finding places to camp, including those great boondocking spots. Chuck posts reviews of every place we stay on the site and was even a beta tester of their new app so it was so fun to meet them in person. So there was some good that came out of this return trip to Ohio!

We also decided to head straight for the southwest and skip Hot Springs. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to drive down crowded, bumpy I-75, I-71, and I-65 again. Instead we headed for New Mexico with a short stop in Wichita, KS for a visit with Chuck’s brother.

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Stop 1 – Lincoln Trail State Park, IL for one buggy, humid night. Thankfully we had hook-ups!

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Notice how high the front of the trailer is!

Stop 2 – Cottonwoods RV Park, Columbia, MO for one cramped night where we had to unhitch to get level.

Stop 3 – USI RV Park, Wichita, KS for 3 nights and a nice visit with family.

Stop 4 – Corral Drive-In RV Park, Guymon, OK. Finally some wide open views, but also very windy. This place is the best idea ever! Over a year ago Chuck and I said that someday we should buy an old drive-in movie theater and convert it to an RV park where you could watch movies. Well, someone did just that in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma. Too bad they only show movies in the summer. It would have been so cool to watch one from our site!

Next stop, New Mexico!

Quiet Acadia

Schoodic Woods Campground
Nights: 7
Bikes: 1
Paddles: 1
Timeframe: 1st week of August

So I’ve gotten even further behind on posting—we visited Schoodic nearly a month and a half ago! Here’s a quick recap.

After the busy Bar Harbor area of Acadia National Park we reveled in the peace and quiet on the Schoodic Peninsula. This part of the park is about an hour drive away (or a hop on the passenger ferry plus the bus) so not a lot of folks bother to explore Schoodic. That was okay with us because it made for a nice, relaxing week.

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After our awesome campsite at Bar Harbor we were ready to be a little let down, but we found another great spot waiting for us. The campground at Schoodic Woods has only been open about 2 years and it is beautiful! There are lots of trees but also lots of open sky which is what we like.

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Our awesome pull through site could have fit two giant motorhomes!

Spaces are big and come with electric hookups, rare for a national park campground.

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Bathroom Building

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The bathrooms are the nicest I’ve ever seen.

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The architecture of the visitor’s center is stunning. This campground is a great find.

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Selfie along the loop drive.

This side of the park is set on a peninsula. The 6 mile, one-way “loop” road travels along the entire shore, but doesn’t connect back to itself. We drove it our first day, but it was even better when we took our bikes later in the week.

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Since the road has two lanes, both going in the same direction, cars have their own lane to pass you. We could peddle along soaking in all the water views and not worry about holding up traffic.

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Awesome water views!
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A lighthouse on one of the islands. That’s Cadillac Mountain in the distance, which we drove up when we were on the other side of the park.
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Pink Granite “beach” at Schoodic Point, the tip of the peninsula. 
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Be sure to stop at the Schoodic Education and Research Center to tour the small visitor’s center in this building. It has really interesting brick and stone work and was used by the military for top secret communications.

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When you get to the end of the road you exit the park and have to return on regular roads with no shoulders so we were glad the ranger recommended a bike path that cuts back to the campground. Unfortunately the bike paths on this side of the park are not as nice as those over on Mount Desert Island. These are made of loose gravel, which made the uphill going even harder, but we made it back.

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By the time we took the spur out to the point and the trail back to the campground we ended up riding 10 miles.

Off course all that exercise meant we deserved a treat. I got out the solar oven and tried a new recipe for Peanut Butter Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Bars (recipe below).

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The delicious smell of cookies baking attracted this fellow who I had to keep chasing off.

Most of the kayaking around here is for those used to ocean waves, and the ranger recommended that we go to a pond outside the park. Thanks to Google, Chuck found a a protected area right off the Frazer Point picnic area recommended by a local kayaker. Mosquito Harbor turned out to be perfect and not at all plagued by its namesake.

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We did a better job inflating the kayak this time which made the ride even better. It was fun tooling around exploring the little nooks and crannies.

Just so you don’t think it’s fun and games all the time we did have to do laundry (found the biggest laundromat ever!) and defrost the refrigerator, which meant time for a tiny snowman. 🙂

On our last day we couldn’t pass up one more drive along the loop. This time we stopped at a beach we spotted on our bike ride.

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We laughed about the sign but once we got down there we understood. The beach was covered with round stones, golf ball to basketball size, and it was so tempting to take one, but we resisted.

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It was mesmerizing to listen to the stones gently tumbling as a wave came in and then the water trickling back out as the wave receded. It would make for a very relaxing nature sound CD!

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If Acadia wasn’t so far out here I think we would come back to this little corner of the Schoodic Woods! Who knows, maybe someday we will. For now we’re checking off national park number 12 and heading back to Ohio for some warranty work.

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Oh, and if you’re ever in this neck of the woods there’s a great little farmer’s market in Winter Harbor. 🙂

Oatmeal Nut Butter Chocolate Chip Bars
Yield: 12 cookies with kind of a chewy muffin texture.

Ingredients
1/3 cup gluten-free thick rolled oats (33g)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup almond butter (64g)
1/4 cup peanut butter (64g)
1/3 cup brown sugar (70g)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup chocolate chips (57g)

Instructions

  1. Line GoSun oven tray with parchment paper.
  2. In medium bowl beat peanut butter, almond butter, brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla until smooth, about 2 minutes.
  3. Sprinkle baking soda, salt and oats into bowl. Mix until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips. The dough will be very sticky!
  4. Scoop dough into prepared tray, smoothing out and leaving 1/2“ at ends (they puff up a lot and you don’t want them to hit the top of the tube).
  5. Bake in solar oven for 25 to 40 minutes (depending on your level of sun) or until top deflates a bit and toothpick comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Enjoy!

If you want a regular oven version of this recipe I adapted it from: http://meaningfuleats.com/flourless-oatmeal-almond-butter-chocolate-chip-cookies-gluten-free-dairy-free/

Busy Acadia

Bar Harbor Campground
Nights: 7
Hikes: 0
Bikes: 2
Paddles: 1

Our first week in Acadia was spent in the busy Mount Desert Island area of the park surrounding Bar Harbor. Last winter when we made plans to come this way, we studied the camping options. Campgrounds in the park were full and private options were cramped and expensive. We settled on a no reservations, cash only, private campground with reasonable rates and hoped for the best. Online reviews of Bar Harbor Campground promised that you could get a site here even on a busy weekend. Since we didn’t really have a back-up plan in this busy area we were a bit nervous. We showed up on Monday just before check-out time and were rewarded with an awesome spot.

Talking to some other campers later, they said they’ve been coming here for 8 years and have never been able to snag a spot with a view. We watched during our time here and you could always find a spot, especially if you didn’t need hook-ups, but the view sites didn’t come open often. Lucky us!

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The campground was busy and other areas were noisy, but our little corner was peaceful and we debated staying longer. There were blueberries for the picking right out our door and the views couldn’t be beat.

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Blueberry picking with a view!

The town of Bar Harbor and the park itself were another story. On our first day we headed to Acadia’s main visitor’s center and found cars circling the parking lot. We managed to snag a spot and headed into the unimpressive visitor’s center. Expecting some sort of display about the park, we found only a movie, store, and information desk.

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So we figured we do the loop drive. We found cars and people crowding the famous Thunder Hole area, but at least there were a few parking spots.

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Crowds waiting to catch the explosion of water at Thunder Hole.
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Watching the waves crash against the rocks was mesmerizing.
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Acadia’s famous pink granite shore

We tried to stop at Jordan Pond, an area famous for it’s lovely views of the pond and popovers at the restaurant, but found absolutely no open parking spaces. We continued on to the top of Cadillac Mountain and were met with a line of stopped cars just waiting to get in the parking lot and again not a spot in sight. So we ended up just driving back down.

Another day we tried to go into Bar Harbor to walk around and visit the grocery store. Even though it was a weekday with no cruise ship in port (yes there are actually cruise ships here), the town was crazy! We’re talking Disneyland crowds crazy. Throw in parked cars making the narrow roads even more so and people crossing everywhere and it was just too much for us. Again we ended up driving right back out. The key to Acadia seems is to be ride the shuttle bus (we saw lots of folks waiting for buses) or go places after 3pm. So we settled into a pattern of lazy mornings at camp with excursions into the park later in the day and our experience greatly improved.

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Our new bike rack makes it much easier to haul our bikes to the trails.

With Chuck’s knee still on the mend after the Camden hike, we turned to other ways to experience this national park. Luckily Acadia is famous for it’s carriage trails, financed by and built under the direction of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The trails are covered in well packed decomposed granite that provides a nice surface for bike riding.

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Carriage road signage is a bit confusing. Looking at the map is a must!

Rockefeller had a vision for drawing people out into nature by installing a system of trails suitable for horse drawn carriage rides. Thus the trails are no steeper than what a horse pulling a carriage can handle. This makes one think that these are fairly flat trails. Do not be fooled. We found lots of hills that had our heart rates climbing with the slow steady inclines, but they were doable. The exception was the path connecting the visitor center to the trails. That spur was steep and I ended up walking my bike.

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We rode to several of the bridges built to complement the landscape. Each one was styled for it’s location (one even frames a waterfall) with stones chiseled and fit by hand.

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The three we saw were built in 1924, 1925, and 1926 and the stonework was impressive. Apparently the masons got so good at expertly fitting and facing the stones that Rockefeller told them they need to make them more rustic to blend with the landscape.

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The stone bridges were pretty cool, but other than that the trails were mostly riding through woods.

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One of the few spots you could see a view. 

One day we rode the Witch Hole Pond loop (about 5 miles) and another day a loop near Upper Haddock Pond (about 4 miles).  It was a nice way to get some exercise but not the spectacular views I expected.

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The coping stones lining the trail are lovingly referred to as “Rockefeller’s teeth.”

Although we never went back to Bar Harbor we did make it back to Cadillac Mountain. I got to drive the narrow, windy road this time and Chuck got to enjoy the views.

At 4:30 we found plenty of parking at the top and great views all around.

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It reminded us of the views in the San Juan Islands of Washington.

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We even got to watch a cruise ship make a giant u-turn and head out of Bar Harbor.

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Our neighbors in the campground told us about a nearby beach and one day we took our new kayak out for it’s maiden voyage. We’ve been thinking about getting kayaks since we started this adventure. At first we didn’t want anything tied on top of our truck. We thought we might look a bit like hillbillies plus we were at the top of our weight limit. When we upgraded our truck weight was no longer an issue, but we still wrestled with hauling kayaks while having easy access to gear in the truck bed. Chuck finally solved all our issues by finding a really good inflatable.

We’d had a cheap inflatable when the girls were younger that seemed to only go in circles, but this boat surprised us. Even though we didn’t have it quite inflated all the way (our newbie error) and the outer cover was a little crooked it glided effortlessly through the water. We got a whole different perspective out on the water. I think we’re going to like it.

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Everyone who goes to Maine talks about lobster. We’re not big fans, and since it’s expensive we figured why waste our money. We did however enjoy fish and chips and a salmon sandwich at Beal’s Lobster Pier while on a drive to the quiet side of Mount Desert Island.

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Lobster buoy decor

 

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We had views of the working harbor from the outdoor deck.

We also enjoyed ice cream sundaes at Udder Heaven which was right next to our campground. Thank goodness we didn’t go until the last day or we might have become regulars.

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We were sad to leave this relaxing campground. With water views and blueberries right out our door and ice cream a short walk away it was a good spot.

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Goodbye peaceful water view

But with reservations at Schoodic Woods, a more remote area of Acadia, it was time to say goodbye.

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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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.