Coloring the Void

living nomadically

Archive for the category “National Park”

“Ticking away the moments…

…that make up a dull day. Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way…”

That pretty much describes the last three weeks, which is why there have been no blog posts. Well, that and we didn’t have internet or cell phone service for most of the time.

When we left Virginia we headed north to Greenbelt, Md. We had a wake to attend for a beloved family member and many friends and family to catch up with. We spent the week at Greenbelt Park, a federal campground just ten miles outside of Washington, DC. We love the park, at least during the spring and fall, despite the negatives heaped on it by other users. While there, we didn’t get one tick, we had great solar, and the weather couldn’t have been more beautiful – 70s and sunny every day.

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Site 145, with great solar and satellite reception (at least in April)

Greenbelt park is a dry camping park but, being only $16 per night so close to DC (and about 1/4 the price of other local campgrounds), it is an amazing campground and a great outdoor experience. There are hiking trails, great roads to bike on, a walk to the metro, and nice camp hosts. There is water and a dump station available, though the dump station is kind of a pain to use. We stayed in three sites while we were there due to other people having the best spots reserved. The best site for us was 145; it got five hours of sunlight for our thirsty panels and we were able to access a satellite that carried the Orioles games. Site 138 is also good for solar and satellite.

If you are booking a site for Greenbelt online, be careful. The locations of campsites on the recreation.gov website is inaccurate. Also, all campsites are listed as drive-in whether they are back-in or pull-through. Many of the pull-throughs here are actually ‘pull-overs’ as they are wide spots in the camp loop road. Most are barely 8′ wide and if one has a slide on the driver’s side, chances are you will spend the entire time there being worried about someone hitting it.

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This is an image of two campsites across from us, I think 143 and 144 (neither on the web site/non-reservable).

From Greenbelt, we headed over to Front Royal to visit with more family. We spent an extended weekend at Shenandoah River State Park, in a lovely, large spot with a view.

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The view behind our campsite, #14

Shenandoah River State Park is a great alternative to the Federal parks up on the mountain. While we didn’t have cell signal, we did have electric and water hook ups and plenty of open sky for the satellite dish. The perks come at a cost though; the state park is $45/night once one adds in all the fees. The state park is just outside the federal park and about eight miles to Front Royal, a wonderful town that seems to have doubled in size over the last ten years.

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Cousins David and Dylan joined us for a couple of days of camping. The sites are roomy enough for everything and a tent.

Our plan, when leaving Front Royal, was to drive down into Shenandoah National Park and camp at Big Meadows for a few days. I love hiking on the Appalachian Trail and some of my favorite parts are in the park. Two things turned us away: we couldn’t go down Skyline Drive to Big Meadows because we couldn’t fit in the tunnel (12’6″ max) and there was a wild fire close to the central entrance and the road was alternately open and closed depending on how the wind was blowing. So we headed north on Route 81 and landed in Charles Town at the Hollywood Casino. They have a large parking lot for oversized vehicles and parts of the lot are pretty level. The only negative is the train tracks immediately behind the lot; I could feel the whole bus shaking when the train went by. We stayed there one night as the forecasts called for rain. It was a quiet night and we left $40 richer than when we arrived, thanks to a very willing penny slot machine.

While hanging out at the casino, we realized we were really close to some family land in Bedford, PA. We headed in that direction, trying to beat the impending storm. We made it to Shawnee State Park just as the skies opened up. We got parked and hook up to electric and waited out the rain. The rain was a great test of our patch job on the passenger slide out, as it hadn’t really rained since we left Wakefield, VA. Turns out, the patch is a success and we have no more leak!

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Our campsite in the nearly completely empty Shawnee State Park

The rain let up enough for us to go find the family land. Cousin Wayne has turned it into a great retreat, complete with bonfire pit, covered pavilion, and enough firewood to get an entire regiment through a PA winter. We also visited Fisher’s country store to stock up on various bulk items like flour and organic baking supplies. I had recently bought a bread maker and I was dying to try the possibilities. So far, so good – I managed to make an incredibly flavorful very crusty bread which is impossible to find outside of Italian delis. We also stopped by the Coffee Pot, just because, well, coffee.

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Nothing inside now, but it used to be a restaurant.

The next day we headed over to see the Flight 93 Memorial. The building and grounds are absolutely beautiful, a fitting memorial. A warning though – the visitor center and displays are overwhelmingly sad – go prepared.

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The walk along the crash site (left) to the wall of names. The visitor center is the building in the left center.

The rolling countryside of Pennsylvania is rather pretty (pastoral, really) even in the rain. Driving in the highlands though, one will run into fog quite frequently. I love fog – it lends everything an ethereal quality, even in the dark.

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After the Memorial we decided to go see the Johnstown Flood Memorial. We never actually made it there as we got completely distracted by Johnstown on our way. The town itself was unexpected. Often, unless we research or hear by word of mouth beforehand, towns are just dots on the map. On some maps, one can tell the size of the town by the size of the dot. We didn’t have that kind of map. We expected Johnstown to be a tiny little town like Bedford or smaller, particularly since it had been wiped out by floods three times. Well, Johnstown was huge, in relative terms. Though the population now is closer to 20,000, at one time 80,000 people lived here. The town was the heart of Bethlehem Steel. We only had about an hour in the town and spent most of it driving around and looking at the buildings. It was raining so I couldn’t shoot, but Johnstown is definitely on our list of places to return. I am completely fascinated by Rust Belt Cities and their architecture. In Johnstown, I saw bits of Baltimore and Cleveland, a little of Cumberland and Ellicott City. The town is trying to revitalize itself and has attracted new industry to the area. While there are many decaying homes and buildings, even in the rain the city felt hopeful.

Two last things on our stay in Bedford: food and birds. We ate at Jean Bonnet Tavern, a landmark built in the  1760s on the Lincoln Highway. It has served as a tavern, inn, trading post, and family house for over 250 years. The food is good (try the french onion soup) but the draw is definitely the building itself.  The birds… for two days, we watched a robin flit around our bus every time we went outside. By the third day, we realized something was up. He was carrying stuff in his beak and would get agitated when we were around. Not as agitated as the Robin in Front Royal who spent two days, non-stop, pecking at our roof, but agitated none-the-less. So went went looking and didn’t find anything until finally, later that evening, Mike found it:

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A robin’s nest on our front leaf spring.

It was a shame to have to clear it out but we were leaving in the morning and didn’t want them to lay eggs. We hope they found another home.

From Bedford, we headed a little south to Lazy A Campground in Hedgesville, WV, just outside of Martinsburg. This is a lovely little campground nestled in the hills of West Virginia, far enough from everything to be idyllic but close enough that a quick drive gets you into town.

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We were only there for two days but we fell in love with the campground, even if we didn’t much care for Martinsburg. If you find yourself in Hedgesville, definitely stop by Orr’s Farm Market. They have the best apple caramel loaf I have ever had. They also have pick your own strawberries and apples in season, though April isn’t much of a season for anything that grows around there.

Next we headed to Little Bennett County Park, in Clarksville, MD. Mike had a dental appointment and surgery in Frederick, and we had been hanging around waiting for it for a couple of weeks. Sometimes, that’s just how things go. The surgery went well and we were glad to leave Little Bennett Park. If it hadn’t been the closest campground to the dental office, we would never have stayed there. The campground offered electric only hook ups for $47/night and the sites were small, heavily treed, and unlevel. Maybe if it hadn’t rained all three days we were there, it wouldn’t have been so claustrophobic. It definitely won’t be on our return-to list, but it was very convenient for what we needed.

Mike finished up his recovery time by driving to Elk Neck State Park. We’ve stayed there a few times before, and were returning to visit friends. We grabbed a site on the river with a lovely view for the weekend. We were in the Elk loop; dry camping with some sites having a view of the River/Bay.

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Site 139. Not the greatest for solar or satellite but the view was nice.

Friday we relaxed after the drive, Saturday we ran around town, and Saturday night we hung out with  Andrew, his wife and his beautiful daughter. He is an Air Marshal and had some great stories to tell about his travels around the world.

Sunday morning we were relaxing and taking it easy until CRACK! Something echoed through the camp loop. I waited a few minutes, then went outside.

“We should move.” “Why?” (Mike pointing) “See that tree? That was the sound.” “Oh. Crap.” “I’ll go change.” “I’ll pack the chairs.”

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On the right side of the tree, one can see the very long crack running up the side. The tree was fairly straight when we arrived two days before.

The tree didn’t look so bad if you stood near the rear of the bus. Until the wind started blowing. Then its weaving could make you dizzy as it circled around in the sky. And unfortunately, the lean was right over the center of the bus. So, we packed up everything in less than ten minutes and moved. We found site 125, in the same loop, with great solar potential. There was only one other camper so we had our choice. After parking, we managed to get satellite, too.

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So, in the 24 days we spent in the DC area, we had ten campsites in six campgrounds and a casino. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have time to hike and stuff because we were too busy moving all the time. But, we’ve seen some new places, enjoyed some old ones, and spent quite a few good times with friends and family. We will pretty much continue this pattern, bouncing up the east coast, until we settle in Massachusetts at the beginning of June.

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A quick stop in the Everglades

We needed to spend a couple of days around Marco Island Florida to visit family, so we headed southwest to Midway Campground, the only place close we could find space. RV Parks in the area are notoriously claustrophobic so they weren’t an option. Collier-Seminole State Park campground, our spot of choice, has been closed for a year and still isn’t taking reservations. Oscar Scherer State Park campground was full. To guarantee a space, we were left with Midway or Monument Lake. While Monument Lake is marginally closer to where we wanted to be, it does not have electric hook ups which, since we planned on being away from the RV all day, were important to us. Having a dog and having to worry about how hot the RV gets inside leads us to often err on the side of caution and book an electric site.

Midway Campground is a pretty nice park, in spite of its distance to anywhere. The sites, while not private in any sense, are paved and very level. They will hold any size RV (though they are all back in), and have 30 amp electric hook ups. The campground has a dump station and potable water also. The only negative is the marginal cell service, even using our booster. While there, we did check out Monument Lake Campground which has excellent cell service but no electric hook ups.  Next time in the area, we will probably choose Monument if it isn’t hot as we like the site arrangement better and prefer to have cell signal over electric.

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While there, we spent much more time exploring away from the campground than we did in it. We visited family in Marco Island and had a wonderful ride on a boat exploring the water side of town. We did some back road driving around Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther National Refuge. While we didn’t see any panthers, we did see hundreds of alligators.

Another reason for our stop in the area was a return to check out Goodland, Florida, a tiny town on the water. We also wanted to check out Everglades City and Chokoloskee. Chokoloskee is about as far off the beaten path you can get in Florida. If you make it down there, stop by the Smallwood General Store.  Though we didn’t have the time, we could have spent weeks exploring 10,000 islands and the Everglades by kayak. Everglades City is a little bigger with a little more traffic, but good river/glade access. We stopped in the Camilla Street Grill for lunch. It opens at noon but people start taking their seats at about 11:45. By 12:15, the place is packed, with people waiting in line for seats. It has a beautiful location right on the water and a funky vibe that keeps your attention while you wait (a while) for food. The food itself is hit or miss and the prices are pretty high for the location. But it was enjoyable as we were lucky to have a seat on the dock and a beautiful spring day. Our experience at the restaurant, though, told us we didn’t want to live in Everglades City some day, or Chokoloskee either: every five minutes, an airboat went by. In the hour and a half we were there, there wasn’t a three minute time span where we didn’t hear the drone of at least one engine but typically it was three or four. Some times, it was so loud one couldn’t hear conversation across the table, even when shouting. And it was such a beautiful place otherwise…

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Goodland, Florida has all the benefits of Everglades City without the remoteness and noise. It is a ten minute drive to Marcos Island where one can buy anything under the sun but it doesn’t have Marcos Island traffic, noise, or frantic-ness. We liked Goodland  the first time we visited but we definitely fell in ‘deep like’ with it for our second visit. It doesn’t hurt that one of our favorite restaurant finds is here: Little Bar Restaurant. They prepare local fresh fish (among other things) and will prepare it practically any way you like it (my preference is blackened). They have live music at night and a busy bar scene with plenty of microbrew choices. It has a wonderfully laid back vibe and, if you are lucky enough to get a seat outside, great views over the water. The town of Goodland itself is small, walkable, and mostly uncrowded. It is unpretentious and gives off a vibe much like one would find in the Keys. We will return here again, someday…

Because of the rain and the lack of cell signal, we decided to pack up a day early and head North towards our next stop. We saw that the town of Immokalee, about a third of the distance of our planned jump,  had a casino and the casino had a parking lot that allowed overnight RV parking. So we went to check it out. We got lucky! Not only does the Seminole Casino Hotel allow RV parking, it provides about a dozen 30 amp electrical hook ups to those that stop. There was a spot open so we pulled in and hooked up. Registration requires signing up for their rewards card, so we did and each got $10 in free play. They were practically paying us to stay there. We ate a meal, played some slots and slept well. Including the meal, the stop cost us around $50; not bad for four hours of entertainment, an electric site, constant security, and dinner. While the town of Immokalee isn’t very notable, if one is passing through the area, the Casino is a great place to overnight.

 

2015 – we had a blast!

(Yes, I know am way behind my blog posts. But my computer ate three before I published them and I just didn’t have the brain power to completely rewrite them. And then, we were kinda rushing around doing 100 things and nothing. But, they will be updated over the coming month, once I finally get the pictures edited. Again.) Anyway.

We started the blog in May and for quite a few months, updated it religiously. But, we did have plenty of adventures before May and we found some pretty amazing places that we want to return to in 2017.  In 2015, we didn’t make reservations anywhere, just moved and stopped when we felt like it, where we could find space. The results varied, from hell in Florida to bliss in Alaska and all the stages of both in between. So, here is part of our year in review, with highlights and pictures.

January found us in 18 different spots, from Maryland to Texas. Yes, we drove and moved that much. We were on a mission: to get to Alaska and, looking at January, we were hell bent on getting there as quickly as possible. By the end of January we realized we needed to slow down and wait for the weather to catch up with us – it was still REALLY COLD in most of the country. We did manage to find some great spots for a couple of days (our longest stay was three days) and took some great pictures.

In Florida, we got to see manatees up close in Blue Springs State Park, eat great oysters at Eddy Teach’s Raw Bar (now closed), watch amazing sunsets at St. George Island State Park and visit with quite a few  friends.

In Texas, we met up with more friends, ate amazing BBQ at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, breezed through San Antonio, and set up camp in Big Bend.

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Manatees at Blue Spring State Park

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Sunset at St. George’s Island State Park

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Mission in San Antonio Texas

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The Rio Grande near Big Bend, Tx

In February, we fell in love with the town of Terlingua then quickly made our way through New Mexico to stay awhile in Arizona. We browsed Arizona for a while, though we didn’t sit in one place for long. We had Marv Braun, of Precision RV fix the absolute clusterfu%k the dealer made when re-installing our solar system (he also added a panel and swapped our batteries for AGMs). We made a quick visit to Tombstone and Bisbee, got lost in the Dragoon Mountains, and wandered the back roads of Prescott. Our longest stay at a campground in February? Three days, if you don’t count the stop in Casa Grande to visit with Marv (six days). We were still in a hurry.

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Great Sand Dunes National Monument

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Lost in Arizona

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The backroad from Prescott to Jerome. Probably one of the funnest drives in the area.

In March, we ran the border at Organ Pipe National Monument, went to the Escapees Escapade, hung out with my brother in Gilbert, then raced to Desert Hot Springs, CA. We ended the month with a week in Coarsegold at the Escapees Co-Op just outside of Yosemite.

We fell in love with Organ Pipe and in Desert Hot Springs, we had the best sushi ever (and really good noodles) at Domo Sushi. We visited Joshua Tree National Park and found it completely packed with Spring Breakers so we beat a hasty retreat out a back road that had us testing the abilities of the Jeep (it passed). After browsing for a day in Yosemite, we cancelled our week of reservations at one of the Valley campgrounds – it was just entirely too crowded and most of the campgrounds hadn’t even opened yet!

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The US border in Organ Pipe.

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Creek in the Superstition Mountains

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Joshua tree near Palm Springs, CA

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Yosemite Valley in March

April had us pushing northward faster than we expected because of the crowds. We had no reservations and they were hard to come by. Many of the state parks had sites available but they were too short for our rig. So we made our way North to Oregon and then Washington.

We found a peaceful site in Klamath where we wandered around huge trees for a couple of days. We landed a last minute oceanview campsite in Harris State Park in Oregon and stayed put for a week – until the rain drove us out. We stopped at Newport (loved it) and Seaside (loved it more), then raced up to Chimicum, WA in need of some rig repairs. We then bummed around Washington and continued to do that the first two weeks of May as we waited for our departure to Alaska.

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In the Redwoods, the jeep is very tiny.

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Newport Marina Sunset

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The Oregon Coastline

In May, we did last minute prepping and purchasing, including getting Belle’s shots before we took off for the Great White North. The border crossing was easy but the price shock wasn’t. Gas and many food items doubled in price. But, the scenery was amazing, the places to boondock beautiful and we were finally on our way to Alaska!

We were wowed by Fraser Canyon, enjoyed  Terrace and Stewart, got an oil change in Whitehorse, and finally settled for a breather in Haines. We got to see bears, moose, foxes, and glaciers and we were barely in Alaska.

June found us in Wrangell St. Elias Park finding McCarthy, then Valdez  watching eagles play, and left us on the Kenai Peninsula dodging forest fires.

While McCarthy didn’t live up to expectations, Valdez kept our attention and we managed to stay a week. It ended up being our favorite Alaska town (though Haines was a close second). Seward was beautiful, Homer was busy, and the Kenai River was crowded. June was more than sensory overload but if I had to relive one month of my life over and over, it would be this one.

In July we made back up to the heart of Alaska, visiting Anchorage and Fairbanks, then pushing north to the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately, while there, Belle had another stroke. We were tired and she was sick, so we began our push back south. It wasn’t really a direct path, as it took us through Chicken, Dawson City, Skagway, Toad River and down into Montana by the end of the month. There are many places we missed – we drove through the Canadian Rockies but didn’t have a chance to stop for long – but it gives us an excuse to go back.

The month of August was spent bouncing around Montana, with a brief ‘vacation’ down in Cody Wyoming. We found some beautiful places to stop and spend some time. We also found the best brisket in the country and the best biscuits and gravy in the country (sorry – it is a friend who is an amazing cook!). We found ghost towns, an endless number of backroads, and quiet, out of the way, places to hide.

The weather was finally turning so we headed south in September, spending a couple of weeks in Utah before ending up in Usery Park.  We finally followed the White Rim trail, nearly got car-jacked by wild horses and got to watch an amazing lunar eclipse before meeting up with family at the end of the month.

October was almost completely dominated with visiting family, though we did get a brief break at Balloon Fiesta. Another bucket list item done! Seriously, if you ever get the change to go to Balloon Fiesta, do it. And I highly recommend it in an RV.

The first half of November we chilled with family around Phoenix and then raced back to Virginia for Thanksgiving.  We managed to stop for some amazing meals and moments with both friends and family on our trip east (Did I mention the most amazing burgers that are worth a 200 mile detour in Roswell? Yeah, we are still reminiscing about those.)  and then settled in Wakefield, VA on the family farm.

December we holed up just outside DC at Cherry Hill RV park, where we caught up with dentists and doctors, more friends and family, and celebrated the holidays.

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We finished up the month in South Carolina, and started the new year there, too.

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If I had to do it all again, I would. And I probably would only change one or two things. Yes, we sped through many, many states when I would have preferred to linger. And yes, we acted like vacationers with a time limit rather than permanent travelers. But, now that we have done the trip once, we can do it again in 2017, but a little bit slower. There is still so much of the country to see…

The White Rim Road in 10 hours or less

We didn’t set out that morning to run the entire 100 or so miles White Rim Road in a day. In fact, it wasn’t until 10AM that we had any idea of what we might do. But, I had been browsing the internet and saw that there were permits available for the trail and we had nothing better to do…

The White Rim Trail is a beautiful road that runs through Canyonlands National Park in the Island in the Sky area. Because it is unimproved and remote, recommendations are to have both high clearance and four wheel drive. Since we have both and, since we were staying at Dead Horse Point State Park right down the road, we figured we would drop down the rim and take a closer look.

There are two routes to get to White Rim Road, the Shafer Trail, which we had done two days before, and Mineral Bottom at the other end. Our goal, at 10AM, was to go down Mineral Bottom, check things out for a couple of hours, then come back up. So, by 11AM we were in the Jeep heading over to Mineral Bottom along BLM 129 just outside of our campground.

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The view at the top of Mineral Bottom switchbacks

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On the switchbacks. The straight ways weren’t so bad if you don’t mind edges. The turns were another story.

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Another view of the road from further down. The two dark diagonals are the road we drove on.

We made it down to the bottom with clean and dry seats in spite of the fact that we passed two other cars going up. In our case, it was much worse for the passenger than the driver, as the driver at least has a steering wheel to brace themself with (Here is a video of someone else going down the road). Honestly, for me, who is really afraid of edges, going up Shafer Trail is way worse than coming down Mineral Bottom. Coming down, you can see the road ahead of you for a bit and you don’t have to worry about rolling backwards over the edge.

Once we got down there, we could make a left or a right. Mike decided on left, which took us onto White Rim Road. We figured we would head a couple of miles down the road, see a little, wander, then turn around and head back.

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The road follows the river for a while and we passed people camping and quite a few bike riders. We pass through some pretty deep sand that we had to race through and I felt sorry for the bicyclists coming up to it – it was going to be a rough slog and there was no path around it.

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The scenery just kept getting more beautiful and the road more bumpy.

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And then we finally hit it – our first tight squeeze.

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Making our way around the cliff.

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A picture from inside the jeep for perspective. Yes, we were extremely close to the edge – the rocks jutting out of the cliff face forces you that way.

After making our way around the cliff, the world opened up a little onto a plateau.

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And then continued back around towards the mesa.

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Where we were met with this:

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We weren’t sure what to make of it. We were pretty sure there was a road up there because the road supposedly went all the way around. We just couldn’t see it. Until we spotted the bright yellow jeep. It is impossible to find in the picture above, so here is a crop of near the center:

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That is how incredibly large the wall before us was.  While we waited for the jeep to get where we were (a good five minutes at least), we had a talk.

M – “We can go forward, or turn around here.”

C – “You mean go back along that cliff?”

M – “Either forward along that cliff or back along the other.”

C – “Or just live here on granola bars and handouts.”

M – “…”

C – “Okay, I prefer the dangers I don’t know to the ones I do. How much gas do we have?”

M – “A little over 1/2 a tank.”

C – “What time is it?”

M – “12:30. Best case, we make it back to camp when the low fuel light comes on at around 9PM. Worst case, we fly off the cliff. In between case, we end up stuck somewhere on the road eating granola bars and hand outs.”

C – “…”

M – “…”

C – “Forward it is.”

And that is how we ended up trying to drive 100 miles at about 10 miles an hour through Islands of the Sky on the White Rim Road.

When the yellow jeep made it down to us, we got ready to go up. They waved to us and drove over. They were being followed by three street motorcycles (they didn’t know them) and one of the drivers was petrified. He kept getting off and walking his bike, afraid he would fly off the cliff. I honestly didn’t blame him.

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When the motorcycles finally made it down and on their way, we headed up the side of the mountain. We stopped for a minute when we saw this:

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This is where we were headed. How amazing is that?

We started up the cliff face and  I didn’t take a picture for ten minutes. I’m guessing I was too busy holding on to pay attention to taking pictures.  I did get a shot 11 minutes later of the road we had been on, and another one of the road we were on.

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From the top of the mesa we could see where we were headed next.

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We just had to get down there. I was kind of looking forward to it. It wasn’t possible that going down was worse than going up. Mostly.

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We hit the first major ‘down,’ a 45 degree hill that banked to the left into what felt like a slolom course for luge sleds. And just as suddenly we were out, down by the water and in a new landscape.

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The world was full of cracks. Large gaping cracks in what looked like an otherwise normal desert landscape. It was both beautiful and scary at the same time. Not an ‘I’m afraid of edges scary,’ more of an ‘I am so completely awestruck by this amazing scene it might swallow me whole scary.’

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Then the cracks become canyons and then their bottoms fall away into deeper canyons and the white rim dribbles over the side sucking you into the view. In one moment you suddenly realize you no longer know where the bottom is anymore because a minute ago you were at the bottom, the cliffs to your back, but now you are at the top of cliffs before you and there are more cliffs below them and it just becomes one insane Ecsher painting you may never be able to escape and so you sigh. And you sigh deep because you want to catch your breath – the view took it away and you realize – this is islands in the sky what can the maze possibly be like? And suddenly, for just a moment, I understand how Billy Pilgrim felt.

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Or maybe we had just been here for too long without a break.

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If you look closely at the top of the left hand ‘pour out’ you will see two windows of a cliff dwelling buried deep in the recess (near the center of the image).

We noticed the shadows getting longer and checked the time. 2:30, and we weren’t halfway through. We decided we needed to stop a little less and move a little more. The road and the terrain changed once again as we move away from the river.

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It was about here that we hit a blind hill. I failed to take a picture of it, but the road went up at a really steep angle and disappeared. Because we needed to accelerate hard to get up the hill and we didn’t know what was on the other side, we stopped. I jumped out to see where the road went and literally ran into a park ranger. He was coming up the other side at the same time and must have seen my head pop up over the ridge. He was on a motorcycle and cut his engine and steered away. It could have been really messy, probably more for him than us, had we continued up without checking.

We chatted for a few minutes. His job is patrolling the White Rim Road which he does by off road motorcycle. He really loved his job and I really couldn’t blame him. Back and forth a couple of times a day, checking for wayward hikers, broken down cars, injured campers and whatever else may happen along. He told us we should have no problem making it out as he had already run the road. The Hogback was dry and fairly safe (it had rained off and on the day before) and only a little scary. We both moved on in opposite directions.

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And then we came to the Murphy Hogback. The hogback is a ridge that must be ascended and descended to run the White Rim Road. It brings together all the impediments to easy off-road driving: steepness, loose sand and gravel, slick clay and cliffs. On our ascent, we only had to worry about three.

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People at the top cheering on those that ascend the hogback.

To ascend the hogback, you need forward momentum and traction. But, if you have too much speed, you run the risk of being bounced right off the trail and off the side. So we popped the jeep into four wheel low and went for it. The very last hill, just below the top, is incredibly steep. We could feel gravity pulling us back as the jeep tried to move forward. Its a delicate balancing act: torque vs. weight vs. speed vs. traction. In the end, momentum won and we crested the top.

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There was a crowd at the top, some of them campers some of them day trippers wanting to run the hogback on bicycles. It was a party atmosphere as everyone celebrated every crest of the hill. We took a short break then headed over to the descent.

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We made it down to the bottom with way less drama than we had reaching the top. Gravity assisted on the steep hill.

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It was now 3:30 PM and we still had about 50 more miles to go. We sped up, knowing there would be a lot of things we missed.

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We passed through some beautiful landscapes that demanded further exploring – some other day. We hit an area of slick rock, some of it steep, but the ground was dry and the jeep had no problems climbing it.

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We kept moving, through sublime landscapes, trying to beat the sun to the top.

 

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We would our way around canyons and cliffs as the sun sunk further. Photography became difficult as the shadows overtook the view.

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We made it to the Shafer trail at dusk with just enough light to see our way up. While I couldn’t get good photos of it this day, we had run the Shafer Trail two days before and include a picture from that here:

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We crawled out of the canyon around 7PM. Our low fuel light came on just as we made the main road in the park. We made it!

It is possible to do the White Rim Road in Canyonlands in a day, though it is a very long day and we missed a lot. But we would not hesitate to do it again and plan on it in April of next year. This time, though we start with the Shafer Trail earlier in the morning and follow the sun around to the other side.

A high clearance vehicle is definitely a requirement. There are some ledges and rocks to scramble over. Because the road was dry, we may have been able to get by without four wheel drive, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There are a few spots of deep sand easier to navigate in four high and some of the steep hills are easier done in four low. Our jeep has a manual transmission which made controlling speed on the steep down hills simple. I’m guessing an automatic could run in first gear and accomplish the same thing. But, compared to many of the jeep trails around Moab, the White Rim Road is easy for a stock jeep with a capable driver.

Heading North

We woke up, unhooked, and headed for Talkeetna.  It is a beautiful drive along the parks highway. There are many moments where one gets a glimpse of Denali and it is easy to see why it is called “the Great One.” We pulled up to Talkeetna Camper Park.  Luckily, they had space for us, though they could only give us one night – someone else had left a day early. The park is in a wooded area between the highway and the train tracks. It is very tight everywhere in the campground and we were lucky to squeeze into our site with enough room to open both slides. We had to open one into tree branches but they weren’t large ones.

Since we only had one guaranteed day, we immediately took off. We first headed south, back the way we came, to Kahlitna Birchworks, makers of Birch Syrup. I have never had Birch Syrup and, since I love to try local foods and flavors (and supporting small businesses), I had to go. In the store front, there are an array of products, including birch syrup, with samples of each. We tried at least a dozen different jams and spreads, settling on wild blueberry and salmonberry.  Both are very good. We also picked up a bottle of birch syrup and learned about how it is made (there is also a factory tour).  The clerk was very knowledgeable about all the products and explained to us that it takes 110 gallons of birch sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup (for maple, it is 35 to 1). This explains why it is so expensive! We also picked up a 100% natural (and better smelling) bug repellent. We haven’t tried it yet, so I can’t comment on if it works. To be honest, I’m glad I bought and tried birch syrup (with pancakes even) but I still prefer real maple syrup. The birch has an alcohol like aftertaste that I don’t care for.

We headed north a couple of miles to Flying Squirrel Bakery where we got much needed coffee (good) and some bread and pastries.  The cinnamon raisin bread was good – I could eat it without even using butter. As it was late in the day, they didn’t have many other choices. We also got a piece of coffee cake which was very good.  The only thing lacking was attentive customer service – we ordered our coffee and waited ten minutes before the counter clerk realized she didn’t make it. It took her a while, I guess, to figure out why we were looking at her expectantly.

We drove further north into the town of Talkeetna. We were completely unaware that cruise lines have tour buses there (to catch trains) and there happened to be five of them in the large parking lot with at least five more down by the train station. Each tour bus holds more than 60 people. The town was so overrun with tourists, we could barely drive down the street. Think Disney on a holiday weekend. Daytona during Bike Week. New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Seriously, I am not exaggerating. The town is about four blocks long and it took more than 10 minutes to drive it. Tourists were wandering and walking where ever whim took them. It was maddening, crowded, and overwhelming. We raced back to the RV and stayed the rest of the evening.

When we got up in the morning, our goal was Byers Lake. We unhooked and headed north. It was a clear day and we had wonderful views of Denali and the Alaska Range.

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leaving Talkeetna, a view of Denali

tal2tal25We stopped at Byer’s Lake to check out the campground. We were in the mood to kayak and were looking for a place to do it. the campground was very nice – large fairly level sites, but the site were hidden in the trees and we just weren’t feeling it.  The views weren’t spectacular enough to pull out the boat (we were dreaming of Glacier National Park type views). We were looking for a wide open space to enjoy views of something – anything – after the squishyness of Talkeetna and the tight quarters of Wasilla. So we continued north to Denali View North. The ‘camping’ spaces were wide open with a wonderful view.

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Denali View Campground Panorama

We could even see Denali. But the ‘camping’ spaces were rest stop spaces and the ground was slanted enough to cause problems. So we continued on.

We lucked into a beautiful re-alignment of the Parks Road at about MM220. The two lane wide area meant we could put out our slide on one side, pull out our chairs, and watch the river slide by.  There were four other rigs parked on the road, and a semi, but there was plenty of space for everyone, and even room for a few more.

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Our overnight spot at about MM220, next to the Nenana River

We had a quiet evening and watched for Dall sheep on the nearby mountains – we spotted at least four. It drizzled a little but otherwise it was our best campsite since Homer.

In the morning, we got up and headed to Denali. All the campgrounds in the park were booked, so we thought we would try a private one just outside. The closer we got, the more traffic we saw. We were sure the area would be empty or relatively empty as we watched more than 100 RVs pass us heading south on the Parks Highway over the two days. There was no room to park or turn around. And then we hit the construction zone. Between the road repaving and the bridge replacement, we moved twenty miles in about an hour and a half. The jeep was a disaster and needed to be washed just to open the doors. We stopped in Healy and thought about our options.

Unfortunately, it was 10AM, an hour too early to have a beer at 49th State Brewing Company. Yes, at this point, I would have no problem having a beer at 10AM. We decided that there was no way we were going to drive through the construction zone again, with or without the Short Bus. We decided to head further north, and stop short of Fairbanks.

It was a great plan (okay, we suck at planning) until we got to Anderson, Alaska. We thought we would go to Anderson and stay at their municipal campground on the river. But we started smelling smoke. The sky had been darkening during our quick run from Healy and now it was smoky, too. By the time we got to Nenana (we skipped Anderson due to smoke), one could only see about 150 feet ahead on the road. Cars ahead of us would vanish into the thick soup.

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Smoke outside of Nenana over the river.

We discussed our options. Our best bet was to continue into Fairbanks and, if the smoke was still thick, finding a campground with electric so we could run our A/C to keep the smoke out. We don’t mind smoke at all and often have campfires but this was a campfire on steroids – a few thousand acres of campfire.

We got lucky – River’s Edge Resort had a site available for two days with hookups. It would be expensive but, after the two days of aggravation, worth it. The sites aren’t wide but they do have grass, full 50 Amp hook ups, laundry, and a car wash.

Finding McCarthy

(“Woah. Nice trench.”)

They say, the more you expect, the bigger your disappointment. And so it was with McCarthy.

We left Valdez in a drizzle. The skies were going to clear eventually, but we figured they were cleared enough. And we were ready to move on. This time, going through Thompson Pass was beautiful. The landscape is otherworldly and I thought, maybe we should stay here a night just to explore. But, we were looking forward to McCarthy and a new adventure.

The Edgerton Highway was well paved for most of it; there was one area where a slide must have occurred and drunken road builders smeared new tar on the road as if it were cream cheese on a bagel.

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Edgarton Highway

Since we didn’t know anything about the area, we pulled into Wrangell View RV Park right outside of Chitina. I kicked myself for not over-nighting back in Thompson Pass. Wrangell View RV Park is a convenient place to stay, nothing more. The sites are lumpy, disorganized, and very close together. The water pressure is weak, the power under voltage, and we didn’t even bother with the sewer connection. There was no phone signal, no wifi, no cable, nothing that would merit the $30 we spent. More hindsight – we should have kept driving. Since the place was awful, we decided to go ahead and tour McCarthy immediately – we didn’t want to have to spend two nights here.

We drove through Chitina, a pleasant little town, through the cut in the hill, and across the bridge. I highly recommend anyone making the trip this far to keep going to here – there is boondocking and dry camping on the river with lovely views and space.

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The gap in the hill

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River boondocking in Chitina

Except for the first mile or so, where the side of a cliff is falling down, the road to McCarthy has been vastly improved. There are 14 paved miles – all the way to the Kuskulana Bridge.

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Kuskulana Bridge. about 300 feet over a gorge, built in 1910, one lane wood.

Then the road is dirt and gravel but not unpleasantly so – we averaged 40 MPH with stops along the way in our jeep. It takes a while due to distance, not drivability. Along the way we spot beaver dams in ponds, squirrels, a dog, and a grizzly bear. He was napping, but got out of the road when we got too close.

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The road to McCarthy

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A Beaver Hut

At the end of the road to McCarthy, we park our car, pay the $5, and walk across the bridge. There is no one there but one wild eyed woman holding a wad of tinfoil closely. She nodded hello and rushed on.

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The bridge to McCarthy

We walked the mile or so into town, hoping for a shuttle bus to come along to take us up to Kennicott. It was five miles away and,since we didn’t have much time, we didn’t think we could make the walk up in time to allow us to see the mine before it all closed. In town, which was mostly deserted, we didn’t see much of anything. Everything was closed except the general store where we got a hot cup of coffee and some candy – we had forgotten to eat lunch. We wandered around for about half an hour- still saw no shuttle bus – then gave up. We walked the mile or so back to the car, crossed the bridge, and left. We didn’t see a shuttle bus the entire time, nor did we see many people – one local (running the store) and five people coming in to work for the summer.

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McCarthy Church

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Store in McCarthy – not open

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Downtown McCarthy

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McCarthy water source – “Please do not bathe”

Maybe it was because we hadn’t eaten. Maybe it was because it was raining. Maybe it was because my expectations were so high. I think it was more that my expectations were misguided. In McCarthy, I was expecting a town similar to Terlingua, Texas, a town that grew organically from the ashes of what used to be. McCarthy is more akin to Tombstone, Arizona. It is recreating itself to be a tourist ‘mecca’ rather than a self sustaining outpost on the edge of the wilderness. It has a falseness about it; every aspect seems to be screaming for tourism – not a place for living.

If I had been smarter about it, I would have planned, like Sarah of See Where the Road Leads. She is taking a plane tour directly to Kennicott. But, I had hopes for McCarthy. No – expectations. So I again learned a lesson: stop expecting so much and I won’t be disappointed.

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