Coloring the Void

living nomadically

The beautiful town of Flagler Beach

Flagler Beach will now be my gauge of what a perfect beach town should be. It is small, laid back, mostly uncrowded, and beautiful. There are great restaurants, parks galore, and plenty of places to just stop, sit, and relax. Gamble Rogers State Park is the perfect place from which to enjoy all the town has to offer.

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There are two sides to Gamble Rogers: the beach side and the river side. Both sides offer electric and water hook-ups, access to showers and washing machines, and enough space to keep one comfortable. Neither campground provides much shade, which may be a problem during the hot summer months. The beach side is right on the beach, with a few sites overlooking the beach. The river side sites are a little more spread out and the facilities are much newer. I wouldn’t hesitate to return to either campground again and again.

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Because I booked the campground in December, I took what I could get as far as sites go. But I got lucky! We ended up with four days in site 23, with a view over the bushes to the beach, and four days in site 8, which backed to A1A. The noise on A1A wasn’t so bad, especially at night. Even on a beautiful weekend, with a surf competition going on in town, A1A wasn’t a super highway. I was surprised by how quiet it was. Of course, it was January and not many people head to the beach, so it could be worse during the summer.

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The full moon from our bus.

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Sunrise from our campsite.

We did check out the river campground during our stay and were quite impressed with how clean and well organized it was. It wasn’t far from the boat ramp, so it would be a great campground if one has a canoe or kayak. While the campsites aren’t very private, they are well laid out, level, and spacious.

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Boat ramp at Gamble Rogers

There are some good restaurants in Flagler Beach, though we limited ourselves just a little. A short walk from the campground, along the beach, is High Tides. There is indoor/outdoor seating, a great happy hour, an amazing view, and some pretty good grub.  I think the hush puppies are great while Mike would advise to avoid the chicken – it was very overcooked. The tuna steaks were extremely well cooked, and done perfectly to order. They have a decent beer line up and, while I’m not sure it was allowed, we walked our happy hour cups back to the campground to finish out the sunset. Another popular place a little further in town is Oceanside Beach Bar & Grill. While the food isn’t inventive, it is well priced and tasty. The sandwiches and salads are fresh, the service is good, and one can see the beach across the road. The best place we found to eat was Break-Awayz. Had we known it was there and that good, we probably would have spent more time there. You could tell that who ever was cooking really cared about how the food tasted; he/she worked hard to blend  unexpected flavors. While it looked like a biker-beach bar from the outside (and from the inside for that matter), the food was anything but standard bar food.  There was also an excellent selection of on-tap micro-brews, local and not. This would definitely be my local hangout if I lived in Flagler Beach.

There isn’t much hiking to be done at Gamble Rogers but there are other parks not too far away. We took a morning walk at Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park to check out the kayaking and the sugar mill ruins. While we never made it back with our kayak this trip, we did mark the spot for a future trip; the creek was serene and looked to be a great place to while away an afternoon.

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Sugar Mill Ruins

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Fall comes to Florida. Kind of.

We spent an afternoon at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, a lovely place with both lagoon access and ocean access. We spent some time wandering in the gardens where many people hold weddings (there was one while we were there) or just come to relax and take in the views. In spring it is probably a magical place with everything abloom.

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a path along the lagoon to the gardens

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the garden gazebo

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some winter color in the garden

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coquina rocks along the beach

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The lagoon side of the park where one can watch the boats pass up and down the ICW

Most of our time at Gamble Rogers was spent wandering up and down the beach or hanging out and watching the birds. We hated to leave but our reservations were up and we had to go.

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A beach and a rally

It took me a long time to get around to writing this blog post because I didn’t want to write this post. I don’t want to dislike something so much, particularly a beautiful state park, that it makes it hard to write something about it. But that is what happened with Anastasia State Park. I thought time and distance would temper my opinion but no, I still don’t like Anastasia and I probably won’t stay there again if I can help it.

The park itself is in a beautiful location: on the beach about three miles from the beautiful city of St. Augustine. The beach is wide, clean, and empty (in January). The town of St. Augustine has a ton of things to do and is absolutely beautiful. The state park is huge with lots of photo opportunities and quite a lot of things to do.

So what is so bad about it?  The campground. The campground is everything I hate the most about campgrounds in one squishy, claustrophobic package. The campground has 124 sites, 80 RV sites and 44 tent sites. The sites are spread out on six loops that wander through the woods. The park lists five sites that will hold a 40′ RV and 16 additional sites that will hold an RV 35-39′ long. 27 sites are for RVs 29′ or less. The campground provides water and electric and an abundance of shade. Our site, #80, is rated for a 36′ RV though we could have fit two of our short buses in the space. So why the hate? I need to say here that the Campsitephotos.com photo of the site is much closer to reality than the ReserveAmerica campsite photos of the site. And even that picture must be a couple of years old as the tree and shrub cover seems to have grown exponentially (like my claustrophobia here). The site was easy to get in to – it is parallel to the top of a loop so it is an easy back in, which is what we did. At first, we didn’t back in too far as the connections are closer to the front than the back. We got out to check our slide clearance and could have stepped right into the tent of our neighbors who were setting up on our right. So we got back in and backed up a ways (we needed to use extension cords and long hoses to reach water and electric) and set up. We sat down for lunch and realized our windows had a perfect view of our neighbor to the left – into their trailer and their camping area – and since we were a little higher than them, we could look down at everything they did.

We were there for three days. Two days it rained or wanted to rain so it was dark in our little tunnel, and cold and damp. One evening, the water shut off. We had water in our fresh tank so it wasn’t much of a bother. For one day, the electric went out. It had been marginal anyway, averaging about 109V, and we had our solar panels. Okay we didn’t have our solar panels (nothing penetrated the deep shade we were mired in) but we did have healthy batteries with a charge. It probably would have been less bad had it been sunny or warm. Or if we had had a different campsite. Or if it had been closer to the beach (it was about 1.5 miles to the beach).

We did manage to spend a dry afternoon wandering around St. Augustine and the fort. I love the city, its architecture, its age.

Gratefully, we left Anastasia State Park and headed to Lazy Days Campground in Seffner, Florida. Back in December we found out about a Fleetwood Rally in Florida and since we would be there, we signed up. As far as private campgrounds go, Lazy Days is pretty good. They have excellent hook ups, enough space between campsites to be comfortable, and a large clean laundry room – all things we find important in a private park. They also have a pool, tennis courts (or is that pickle ball?), a huge clubhouse, and wide easily navigable roads.

The Fleetwood Rally wasn’t quite what we expected but we did have a lot of fun. Our previous rally experience is limited to Escapees, which packs each day with seminars and talks. This rally was much more laid back, with few seminars, and a lot of time to mix and mingle with attendees. In fact, it seems more a reason for old friends to gather somewhere warm; the fact that next year’s rally (same time, same place) is already over half booked with this year’s attendees bears that out. Over five days there were three dinners, three open (beer and wine) bars, and about a dozen talks, seminars, and crafting opportunities. There was also a flea market, a vendor show, and a Fleetwood RV mini-show. The best part was the opportunity to have Fleetwood techs repair up to two functional or safety problems with your RV.

When we first signed up for the rally, we had the opportunity to sign up to have the techs look at two problems we were having with our RV. We really don’t have many so it took us a while to think of one – the hesitation in our landing gear (leveling jacks). The first one was easy – the bracket holding our microwave snapped on an Alaska road and we still didn’t have it fixed. It was still on the wall but we had a piece of wood holding up one side in case of a really bad bump. The jacks took ten minutes to diagnose and ten minutes to fix; they replaced our touch pad (we pay for parts, they provide labor). Unfortunately, they did not fix the microwave problem, though they did provide me a part number to replace it.

We met many great RVers at the rally. Most were snowbirds or locals but all had something to share and we learned quite a bit from their experiences. One important lesson is that we have been extremely lucky with our Fleetwood Bounder. Considering this is the only Class A we have ever owned, we have not had half the problems others seem to report (with both Fleetwoods and other products). We also learned that Fleetwood is opening or planning to open more factory service centers which seems to be a good thing according to other owners. From our limited experience and their knowledge, RV dealers are awful to deal with when trying to get repairs.

We spent some time browsing the hundreds of Class As on the lot at the Lazy Days dealership located right next door to the campground. We spent some time in the new 2016 Bounder and came away glad we got the 2014. The two big changes that we wouldn’t want to live with: the driver’s side understorage doesn’t come out with the slide and the windows barely open. To increase the amount of pass-thru storage, Fleetwood separated the storage from the slide. For us, the inconvenience of having to crawl under the slide to get to anything outweighs the added storage space. And the windows (everyone loves the flush mount windows) now only open just a little bit at the bottom, barely wide enough to get a breeze let alone any real air circulation. But it looks nice… One other thing we noted, the cargo capacity on the particular 33C we looked at lost about 800 lbs of cargo capacity. For us, it kills any thoughts of trading in ours. Right now, that 800 lbs. is made up of solar panels and wiring, batteries, and fresh water. Losing that would mean a lot less dry camping and boondocking, two things we just aren’t ready to give up. Of the dozens of other Class As we viewed, none of them had the complete package that suited us quite as well as our current short bus: layout, cargo capacity, sturdiness. While we really want to get rid of the carpet and newer models have much less, there was too much of a trade off to get that. So we decided that next year, we will replace our carpet ourselves.

All in all, the Fleetwood Rally was a great experience and, by our calculations, free! Or maybe my math is lousy. The cost of the rally was $299 for five nights of camping. But, take out three dinners ($20 X3 =$60) and 12 beers ($3 X12 =$36), you are down to $203. Lazy Days gave us coupons for four free breakfasts, and five free lunches at their RV store. And the food was pretty good. We ate two lunches there – burritos and stuffed shells – and ‘saved’ another $20.  We got our leveling gear touch pad for $146 with tax; online, the cheapest I could find it was $256+tax – a $110 savings. Plus, we saved probably a $100 or more in labor at an RV dealer, who would charge us at least an hour of time. So, with the meals and the beer and the part and the labor, the campground charges were essentially free! Which is a great thing when you are on a budget.

 

 

Finally Florida – Fort Clinch

It was finally time to move further south. The weather was just going to get colder and we had reservations for the next stop already. 180 miles, 5 degrees, and a new state for the year!

We have stopped in Fort Clinch State Park twice before, once as a stop over on our way to the Keys and once for a few days to get business done. Both times were in the Amelia River Campground, which we love. This time, we lucked into beachside when someone else canceled. The two campgrounds are exact opposites in personality. Amelia River feels small and intimate whereas the beachside site are wide open and airy. Sometimes Amelia River  makes me feel claustrophobic but sometimes beachside feels cold and impersonal. You really can’t lose with either side though; both have a nice easy walk to water, bathrooms, and washing machines.

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For a first timer with a tall bus or fifth wheel, the road into the park can seem daunting. None of the trees here grow straight nor in any particular direction. But, the rangers here are pretty good about marking low hanging branches and, if you stay close to the center when you can and take it slow, you should have no problem getting to the campgrounds. We made it with a foot to spare with a 12’10” clearance.

The highlight of the park is the fort and its museum; one can spend a couple of hours just wandering around. What amazed me was the brickwork. If one considers they were all made and laid by hand, a couple of hundred years ago, and then considers the scale, it is a massive undertaking, indeed.

Sunset is a great time to be out on the park pier. While it can be a little windy out there, the views are stunning. It is probably one of the longest piers I have ever walked, jutting way out into the Amelia River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean.

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There are two walks in Fort Clinch; one is a short meandering 1/2 mile through woodland and swamp, the other a 6 mile multi-use trail around the park. Be careful of the quick moving bike riders on the second. The path is narrow and cyclists often like to ride fast. There is also an overlook from which one can see the lighthouse.

We really like the town of Fernandina Beach. It is small and not too busy, at least in January. While it does have some spread – most of the island is completely built up – the historic downtown is cute and restrained, more closely resembling Beaufort, SC than Myrtle Beach.  There are a lot of really good restaurants, specialty shops, and places to just stop and watch the crowd go by.  We tried Arte Pizza which has really good pizza and salads and great cannolis. We also stopped by Timoti‘s for lunch and had great blackened grouper and a salad. But, if you can only eat one thing while in Fernandina Beach, I highly suggest you make it the Hush Puppies at Timoti‘s. These are the best I remember ever having had, though Mike says we had some as good at The Dixie Pig in Rock Hill, SC.

Fort Clinch State Park is an excellent introduction to Florida. One gets a taste of Old Florida, the beach, New Florida, history, and good food, all in a small fairly uncrowded area. There is quite a bit to see and do and in the five days we were here, we didn’t get bored.

Hitting the Beach in South Carolina

We decided to leave Washington, DC on December 26. The cold was moving in and we were a little tired of the close quarters provided by Cherry Hill RV Park. The price was getting to us too, as three weeks there cost us as much as two months anywhere else.

We stopped in Wakefield, VA, down in the southeast corner, to visit a little more with family and to offload more stuff we didn’t think we would need (goodbye winter coats!). We also picked up about 25 lbs of venison, enough to keep our tiny freezer full for a few months.

At the last minute, we managed to find a site in Huntington Beach State Park for two days and Myrtle Beach State Park for three. This would tide us over until our reservations at Hunting Island State Park, probably one of our favorite parks in the Country.

This was our second stay in Huntington Beach State Park, our second favorite of the four South Carolina Beach Campgrounds. We arrived in the dark but, because the sites there are fairly open and well spaced, we had no problem backing in. While the campground isn’t directly on the beach (a short walk takes you there), there is quite a lot to do there: watching birds in the marsh, hiking the hammocks to the jetty, or visiting Atalaya, the fascinating ruins located in the park. There is enough to do there that one could easily spend a week and never have to get into their car. We did make a break for it one night though – we hit up the happy hour at Wahoo’s for half price beer and sushi on their great outdoor deck overlooking the marsh. While the sushi was only okay, the sunset made the trip worth it.

Myrtle Beach State Park is only 15 miles north of Huntington Beach, which is a problem when checkout is 11AM at one park and check in is 1PM at the other. So we stopped by Larry’s Auto Clinic for a much needed oil change. The owner is a really nice guy and they work clean and fast.

This was our first visit to Myrtle Beach State Park. We booked the last available site in which our rig could fit. While we were grateful for the space, we probably wouldn’t go out of our way to book in the park again. The campsites are tight with trees in awkward places and require work to get into. It ends up as our least favorite of South Carolina’s beach campgrounds (we visited Edisto last year and rank it third). There really isn’t much privacy and a lot of noise but the wifi is campground-wide and screaming fast, even with the park mostly booked. While there, we did manage to meet up with friends at Gordon Biersch for good beer and excellent blackened mahi mahi and burgers. We also hit up Toffino’s Italian Deli for excellent cannoli. Don’t let the exterior fool you – inside is pure New York deli with the accents to match.

We then packed up and headed down to Hunting Island State Park right outside of Beaufort, SC. We fell in love with the area on our last two trips through so the park is becoming a yearly spot for us to stop and relax. Because we booked quite a few months in advance, we got one of the best sites in the park.

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Yes, there are about half a dozen sites right on the beach. In fact, it is so close to the beach that, if there is an extremely high tide, you might get a little wet. The highest we saw the tide was +7.5′ which was just between the furthest tree on the left and the little tiny palm in the above picture – about 30′ from our front bumper. We had to back down the one way road a bit to get into our site facing forward but it was definitely worth it – we had a beautiful view in our panoramic windows and we didn’t have to risk being stuck in the soft sand like the person in the site before us (he got pulled out with a tractor).

If I could make one suggestion to anyone, it would be to visit this park! And do it soon – the beach is eroding into the ocean. A site we stayed in last year wouldn’t fit us this year – a dune had to be built in the space we used to back in. The dune holds back the sea during really high tides. Down the beach, one can find the remains of part of the forest that once stood between the beach and the marsh. But, those trees are a veritable playground for wanderers, and a nice place to set up a hammock for a relaxing day on the beach. When the park was first built, many years ago, beach houses were lined up down the coast; the last one finally succumbed to the sea. They are using groins to hold on to as much beach as they can but each storm takes away a little more of the island. For images of each site, check Campsite Photos. Keep in mind though, the images are a couple of years old. The beachfront sites might be configured a little differently than the images show.

There is plenty of hiking and beach combing to be done here. Walk to the left of the campground and you end up in tidal flats at low tide, where the river meets the sea. Walk to the right and you end up in the jungle. A short path through the woods takes you to the lighthouse. Other areas of the island hold a tidal marsh, a pier, and an area to kayak, though we didn’t take advantage this trip – it got too cold.

For food, we checked out two spots: The Red Rooster and Emily’s Restaurant. The Red Rooster is a locals place, with wonderfully fresh salads and sandwiches. It was packed at lunchtime, on a Monday even. This is the type of place we would eat once per week and never grow tired of. Emily’s Restaurant was empty when we got there and stayed empty while we were there; not sure if that was due to the time (5-6PM) or the town. The food was good – excellent taste and presentation – it just didn’t wow us. We went there to sample the shrimp and grits. The sauce was more cajun than low country and could have used a bit more time cooking down – it was closer to soup than sauce. The tapas, a simple bacon wrapped scallop, was undercooked also.  But, again, the food was good, just not up to expectations.

All in all, we had an extremely relaxing week on the beach, unwinding from the weeks of go-go-go we had done. We are ready to start a new year.

 

 

 

 

2016 – Here we come!

In 2015, we bounced around like crazy – more than 30,000 miles crazy – as we raced from the east coast south, then west, then north to Alaska, then back south, then east. Honestly, it’s tiring just thinking about it. By August, we were pretty burned out (as you can tell from the blog, though I will be adding the missing spaces soon). We started thinking about 2016 and how we didn’t want to do it. 2015 we handled with a wing and a prayer. It worked out really well, but we needed a break from the stress of last-minute-itis and being in a hurry. We didn’t make one advanced reservation or plan in 2015 which meant we took what we could get when we could get it. It worked pretty well in Alaska, but not so well in Montana.

So, for 2016, we have a plan. Both of us have “New England in the Fall” bucket list items and, since we completely missed fall in 2015, we decided this is what we would do. The great thing about it is the east coast is so much smaller than the west coast! We will probably do less than 1/2 the driving we did in 2015. And we will get to see the leaves change, one of the best reasons to travel the east coast.

Since the east coast is so much smaller, we will also get to spend a lot more time in each place. Not including Phoenix and DC (where we stopped for three weeks each visiting family), our average stay at any one place in 2015 was four days. Considering one of those days is a move day and one is a down day (grocery, laundry, breathing), we didn’t get much time for savoring where we were. In 2016, most of our stays will be a week or more. That gives us three extra days to chill, to hike, to kayak, to off-road… The possibilities are endless!

I hate to admit it, but I am a campsite snob. I love booking sites in the perfect location with the best view – who doesn’t want to spend a week at the beach on the beach? And while we managed to do that in Alaska (the sites were first come first serve), doing that on the east coast is nearly impossible without advanced planning. So, back in August, when we knew we were going to Florida in January, I started booking sites. We were out of luck in the Keys but we did manage to snag great campsites at other beach campgrounds further up the coast. Thank you to all the people who cancelled their vacations! I’m sorry for your loss, just ignore my great big smile!

In October, 2015, when we learned that the Escapees were planning the 56th Escapade in Vermont during the summer, going seemed like a no-brainer; we would already be in the area. So, we booked our spot and started looking for what to do and where to go before and after. Our schedule just sort of flowed from that, our bucket list, and our list of people to see along the way. I started booking more sites, either hoping for cancellations from sad ex-vacationers or, in the case of later in the summer, booking sites when they become open. It takes some work and some persistence but it often pays off. For South Carolina and Florida, I have had to check the reservations every day since October looking for cancellations. This netted beach campgrounds in Fort Clinch, Gamble Rogers, Fort DeSoto, and Hunting Island. And, though we still don’t have a reservation for Memorial Weekend (I hate trying to get that week), we do have great campgrounds in Massachusetts in June.

January will see us heading south to Florida, with stops in Myrtle Beach and Hunting Island along the way. After some time in Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine, we drop down to Seffner for week for the 2016 Fleetwood Regional Rally. We didn’t even know this Rally existed but we are looking forward to attending. While there, as they offer the opportunity to have two repairs done by Fleetwood factory techs, we are finally getting the microwave support bracket fixed. It snapped in a construction zone in Alaska and we have had a stick holding up one side ever since. We  kind of mostly forgot about it, except when traveling on REALLY bumpy roads when the stick falls out. We could probably fix it ourselves but the thought of pulling out the microwave and getting it back in place correctly is a little daunting for me. That sucker is pretty heavy and I was really surprised at the tiny metal tabs holding it up. After the Rally, we head back to the east coast of Florida for some beachfront camping at Gamble Rogers.

February we plan to kayak in Ocala, visit in Orlando (maybe even finally go to Disneyland), hit the Miami Boat Show (we are still thinking/looking for a boat), then head southwest to meet up with family in the Marco Island area. Unfortunately, Collier Seminole State Park still isn’t open for camping. It is a great location for the west side of the everglades and the towns down in that corner of Florida. We will make due but I keep checking the reservations site daily anyway.

March is Spring Training Baseball! We can’t be in Florida without hitting a few games. We lucked into a site at Fort DeSoto and another at Myakka River but the pickings are rather slim. Next to the Keys, this is the most difficult area to get reservations in during the winter. Must be all the sunshine. Two years ago we tried private parks in the area but they are so tight and squishy it seemed more parking lot surfing that camping. So we will head back north, to the Gainesville area, then Georgia and Alabama at lake front COE parks.

April will see us moving quite a bit as we cover Georgia, including a return to Savannah, a city we fell in love with a few years ago. I am a huge fan of low country cooking and shrimp and grits is one of Mike’s favorite meals. Then we turn north for a brief stop in Charleston (more shrimp and grits!) before heading to a lakeside spot in North Carolina.

We need to be in Maryland in May for a dental appointment so we will make a run up there, then hang out for a few weeks in Virginia and Maryland, visiting family and friends. We will end the month in New York, visiting my long lost son and chilling on the Hudson River.

The entire month of June will be in Massachusetts, mostly near Cape Cod, which neither of us have ever traveled to, with day trips into Boston for baseball games and historic wandering (I hear there is beer there).

July will see us in Vermont and New Hampshire, with a quick trip (okay, a week) in Cooperstown, New York. Yeah, we like baseball and it is on our bucket list…. At the end of month is the Escapade, where we hope to meet up with other full timers and Xscapers. We had a lot of fun at the last get together and are looking forward to meeting up again.

In August we will head further north, into Maine and Nova Scotia. I have always wanted to see the tides at the Bay of Fundy and will now get my chance! Yes, a bucket list item, but my bucket list is really, really long. Luckily, we have the time and the ability right now to do so much of it. While there are days we wake up not knowing where the hell we are or how we got there (without alcohol being involved, even) most days we are just grateful we get to do this now, while we can.

September and October we head west, but only a little bit. Friends told us we have to visit the 10,000 Islands area of New York so we will. We always take the advice of locals and those who have been there – most of the time they are the best source for can’t miss once in a lifetime places. Not including restaurants, we have never been let down. We will hit the finger lakes, the Adirondacks, and Niagara Falls, soaking in the water views and the fall colors for which the area is famous.

November takes us to Ohio, across West Virginia, and back to Maryland, where we will spend Thanksgiving, while December is completely dependent on the weather. Cold winds will carry us south but how far south depends on how cold it gets. I hate cold. I am told if you put on more clothes you aren’t as cold but I know I can only wear one pair of shoes at a time. So, 30 degrees is my limit, which is great for the bus, too.

Right now, we have campsites booked into August. My experience with east coast campgrounds on weekends during the summer tells me this is a necessity. We prefer to stay at state and federal parks and, with the east coast so crowded, we feel we have to. If we change our plans, we can easily change our reservations; it is difficult to book a campsite at the last minute already reserved by someone else. We may lose some money if we do, but having the right campsite in a great location outweighs some lost money. Also, our bus is large. Not as large as most, but big enough that it limits the number of campsites available to us. One park I recently checked had five sites available for >40′ rigs but 120 sites for <35′ rigs. Quite a few parks we like have a 35′ max and at 34′ we have to kind of squish in there. Knowing we have reservations in advance for a site that will fit us gives us a much more relaxed experience. Having struggled last year finding spots in California state parks, we decided to try how it worked with advanced plans. Maybe we will hate it after a few months, but we can always change our plans. That is the great thing about this lifestyle – you can do it any way you want.

 

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

Yosemite

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.

jeep

In the Redwoods, the jeep is very tiny.

marina docks

Newport Marina Sunset

ocean

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.

squirrel

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.

Somewhere in Montana?

I was all set to write up the couple of days we had in Livingston, Montana. To check where and when we were, I looked back at my budget in August. Yikes! I had completely forgotten the four days we spent between Virginia City and Livingston. No, I mean completely. Looking back at my budget, where I note the campgrounds we stay at, I saw Missouri Headwaters State Park. Ah, I remember that! But I thought it was much earlier in the trip. And two days in Bozeman. Where in Bozeman? After checking Facebook posts and photograph files and being unsuccesful, Mike suggested checking the DeLorme page. It was there – Sunrise Campground. Huh. It seems that Bozeman was completely unmemorable. Well, I do remember the pretty decent hamburger we had at that one place – but no clue which place it was. And now, thinking on it, I remember the campground was next to some train tracks. And there was some grass between tightly packed RVs. But, the rest of it is gone.  I’d like to think it was due to the lack of oxygen from two days at Missouri Headwaters State Park. At least, that is the story I’m telling.

Missouri Headwaters State Park is only about 70 miles from Virginia City. It is a wonderful drive between the two, particularly since you pass through Ennis, which I loved when we were there years ago. The campground isn’t the greatest, with most sites just being wide spots in the campground road, but we wanted to see where the Missouri River began, where Lewis and Clark camped, and I was starving again for water views. But, as we drove up the road toward the park, we saw smoke. We didn’t think much of it as we had spent the summer ducking smoke in Alaska. We got a site and settled in. There were no electric hook ups and no water for $23/night (without the MT state parks camping pass). The outside temp was in the 90s so we opened all our windows and turned on our fans. That lasted a good two hours before both the heat and the smoke overwhelmed us.

(It turns out that a fire started about an hour before we got there. Later named the Eustis Fire, it grew to 9500 acres while we were in Missouri Headwaters and was only four miles away on the other side of the river. We happened to be camped southeast of the fire; winds were coming from the northwest.)

For those who don’t know, even the best insulated RV is still a tin can in bright overhead sunlight. Whatever the temp is outside add 10-20 degrees due to the baking factor (have you seen what happens to food after sitting under a heat lamp for hours?). On hot days, it is always cooler to sit outside under the awning with the hope of a breeze blowing by. Only we couldn’t sit outside without doing some lung damage. Belle even refused to; she just stood at the door looking pitiful and then ran back to the couch.

We tried going for a drive to check out the town of Three Forks but there really wasn’t much to check out. The tour was over less than fifteen minutes later; we returned to the short bus and threw in the towel – we turned on the generator and the a/c. I have a problem with mechanical white noise. It drives me to distraction. I don’t know why, it’s just the way it is. But I was really thankful for that generator, noise or not. It was 98 degrees in the bus when we turned it on.

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Early morning sunrise in Three Forks, MT. This was the view from our campsite. Though it couldn’t have been too early with the sun that high…

We suffered through one more day (at least according to my notes we did) and then gave up. After two nights, we headed east with hopes the smoke didn’t extend that far.

We made our way to Sunrise Campground, just outside Bozeman, MT. For $30/night, we got full hookups, a little patch of grass, and quite a bit less smoke. Honestly, I don’t remember this campground at all, or much about our stay there. I know we ate hamburgers at a restaurant, we went grocery shopping, and we bought Mike some jeans at a store. I think we were both still in a daze. Looking online at the campground pictures, it seems a perfectly nice place. It has good reviews and the owners are well thought of. It just must have been the heat and the smoke….

Scenes from Virginia City

We finally pulled out of Clark Canyon Reservoir. It wasn’t that we wanted it leave – it was beautiful, fairly quiet, and free! But, our waste tanks were full and we had places to go…

We made it all the way to Virginia City, a whooping 87 miles down the road. I wanted to see one last “ghost town” before we meandered on. We had been there years ago for about an hour but I wanted to spend more time exploring. We decided to stop at Virginia City RV Park, a full service park with Passport America rates. It was halfway up a giant hill just past the town and had a great view over the valley. Unfortunately, when we got there, we were told all their “Passport” spots were taken! There were only two other RVs in the park at the time. I would have just kept going. Ennis has some sites on the lake or on the Madison River (Montana Fishing Access Sites) and a couple of RV Parks but Mike wanted to stay (we needed a good flush and some water). So we did, but I grumbled about false advertising and such. Some of the sites were tight, some were unlevel, but most had a decent view in one direction or another. There was some highway noise when trucks would try to make it up the hill but for the most part, it was a clean, well taken care of, campground. A little over priced but what can you do…

Virginia City itself is a National Historic Landmark. It came into being in 1863 when gold was discovered in a nearby creek. As with all gold rush towns, it grew very quickly. So quickly in fact, that it became the territorial capitol when Bannack dried up. After a while, the gold dried up here also, and much of the town was abandoned. The Boveys began buying the town and restoring it beginning in the 1940s. In the 1950s, the town began attracting tourists. And there are lots of things for tourists to do here: gold panning, a train ride, summer theatre, more restaurants than one could eat at in a month… The state of Montana now owns most of the buildings and operates it as an open air museum.

grocery store?

                                                              grocery store?

 

church/bar?

                                                                   church/bar?

 

cobbler

                                                                           cobbler

 

photography studio

                                                           photography studio

 

soda shop

                                                                   soda shop

 

wall painting

                                                                        wall painting

 

soon to be stuff shop?

                                                          soon to be stuff shop?

 

inside a penny arcade - palm reader

                                         inside a penny arcade – palm reader

 

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                                           Interesting history – 185 rounds???

 

dry good shop

                                                        inside the dry good shop

 

barber shop

                                 barber shop dentist’s office complete with ‘models’

 

underwear store. We were surprised at how well kept these were.

                          underwear store. We were surprised at how well kept these were.

 

dress shop

                                                                       a dress shop

 

store front

                                                               dry goods store front

 

store

                                                                     a luxuries store

 

print shop

                                                               the print shop

 

porch

                           a front porch. The house is straight, the floor is crooked…

 

stable office

                                                                 a stable office

 

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                                                       Virginia City office

We spent a few hours just walking around, long enough to enjoy the place but short enough to get away from the crowds when they started arriving. And the town does get crowded. We got there at nine and left around noon; around 11AM, the streets started filling up and walking down the sidewalk became an obstacle course of people.

We did find time to stop and eat and the Star Bakery and Restaurant. The buildings and the ‘decor’ are wonderful – original period pieces with a great rustic feeling. But, I think there were two completely different people preparing the food. Anything that was pre-prepped, the salsa, the sauces, the salad dressing, was excellent. The cooking itself? Not so much. My fish tacos were so over cooked that, had it not been for the salsa, would have been inedible. The pork sliders had excellent sauce but the pork itself was so cooked as to be unrecognizable as pork. Mike had a salad and said that wilted lettuce was hidden under fresh lettuce. Otherwise, the salad was good. We may have just met the place on a bad day for the line cook. We will never know. We also stopped in the Bakery side and got a loaf of banana bread and some orange croissant/danish (I’m not sure which it was). The orange C/D was heavenly.  I mean, melt in your mouth fall off your chair good. I even went all the way back the next day to get more, as I had eaten all we had (they didn’t make them the next day). It had to be one of the best pastries I have ever had.  The banana bread was good – very heavy, moist, and nutty. Not very banana-y, but good none the less.

We had a good time wandering around Virginia City, learned quite a bit, ate some food, slept well, and got back on the road.

 

Bannack State Park

Bannack State Park isn’t too far from Clark Canyon Reservoir. It had some of my favorite stuff, old abandoned buildings, so we decided to take a look.

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A back road to Bannack State Park

We took a back road to get there and managed to knock quite a bit of mud off our jeep that we had picked up the day before.  It was a very pleasant drive but the highway we returned on was much faster. We did manage to catch site of some antelope grazing in the area.

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Antelope in Montana

Bannack State Park preserves the original capitol of Montana Territory. Gold was discovered in a local creek and the rush was on. The town got pretty big but the gold eventually ran out, and so did the town. Some stayed and continued trying to mine up into the 1950s when the rest of the town was abandoned. The state of Montana took it over and turned it onto a state park.

As far as ghost towns go, Bannack has an amazing array of buildings. There are over 60 in various states of repair. Some cannot be entered due to conditions, some are being used as storage sheds, some have been cleaned up and restored and can be walked through.  The one thing I noticed is that most of the spaces were empty; there was no evidence of daily life here in the buildings one could enter. All the furniture was hidden in locked houses.

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Bannack – the back side.

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detail where repairs are not completed.

Church

Church in Bannack

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rooms in a house. They liked the extensive use of wall paper.

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note the checked floor. It seems to be linoleum, which would place this firmly in the 20th century.

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The barbers chair in the saloon.

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hotel. Used until the 1950s or so.

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saloon bar

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a room behind glass. the ‘fog’ is from the glass.

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A kitchen. Used until the 1950s.

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Building. The setting was beautiful and I would have considered living here…

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house, shot through a window.

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another interior, shot through the window.

storage

storage?

doorways

doorways

street

the streets of Bannack

The school.

The school

Bannack State Park was a great day stop for a few hours of walking and peeping. We had a beautiful, warm day in which to wander around. The park also has a campground and a couple of the larger sites back up to Grasshopper Creek, where the gold was found creating the town. It would be a nice overnight stop.

A tip for photographing through windows: Often, one cannot get a good shot of what is inside due to reflections on the glass. If one puts their camera lens up against the glass, one can get a pretty decent shot of what is inside. Granted, one cannot aim their camera for a particular location inside, but there can be some pretty interesting stuff to see. Because the lens is so close to the glass, the camera will not focus on it but will focus on what is further away (this is the same principal of shooting through a fence – make sure you are closer to the fence than the object you want to photograph). Let your camera do the work. Because the lens is braced on glass, slower shutter speeds are less of a problem.

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