Coloring the Void

living nomadically

Archive for the tag “backroad”

Nothing would be finer than to be in Carolina…

Continuing our trek north, we headed into South Carolina. We managed to pass through Atlanta at about 11AM and hit no traffic. I don’t know if we are lucky or have great timing but, in our two passes through Atlanta this year, we passed through without problems. Yeah, some of the drivers are a little nuts, but we are so used to DC driving that Atlanta is a cake walk. So far.

In looking for a campground not too far off the highway but in a pretty area preferably near water, we found South Cove County Park. It is on a little peninsula in Lake Keowee just outside of Seneca, SC. Because it has sites right on the water, it won out over the many other parks in the area.

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The campground from the office

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Our campsite, #33

We did not reserve our campsite ahead of time but on weekends during the spring and summer, it might be advised. If reserving ahead of time, ignore the driveway lengths when making your decision. The sites on the water are pull-throughs but the entrance and exit are shared by the sites in front or behind yours. This can be a tight situation when the campground is busy but it was pretty empty while we were here.

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The site behind us. Our shadow is where the shared entrance/exit is.

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In front of us, from left to right, a hill site, the road, and a site further down the lake.

The campground was very quiet though there was the occasional power boat passing by.

We set up and ate lunch then relaxed and caught up on with things on social media (excellent Verizon signal here). About an hour later, we heard the familiar sound of Harley pipes. The bike came back around and stopped in the site in front of us. “We have neighbors – we need to move the jeep.” We had parked it in the empty campsite in front of us. Turns out, it was Bill and Mary Ann. They had seen Mike’s check in on Facebook and happened to be in the neighborhood. We first met Bill in Hunting Island last year through LEO Only and spent a couple of hours catching up.

They knew we liked off-roading and beautiful views so they suggested we head up to Jumping Off Rock where we would get a little bit of both. They were right – the place is beautiful, the road is fun but not challenging, and there are no crowds.

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One of the views at Jumping Off Rock.

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Most of the road is easily passable by passenger cars. But a high clearance vehicle will be needed in some parts, including at the beginning.

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A small waterfall along the way

We aren’t sure if our timing was impeccable or if we were lucky or if there was some sort of rules change but a gate was open that allowed us to get all the way down to the lake on a peninsula.

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If you have a tent, this would be a great place to camp.

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Rope swings at the end of the road.

Lake Jocassee is beautiful and we decided that it is definitely a future kayak trip. This end of the lake is fairly remote and the scenery outstanding. One could probably spend a week on the water and still not see everything.

On our way back to camp, we stopped by Bill and Mary Ann’s house. It is beautiful, set in  hills overlooking the lake – a dream place to retire to. They made one more suggestion: Paesano’s Italian Restaurant.  When someone from New York and/or New Jersey suggests Italian, I’m inclined to believe their recommendation. That suggestion was as good as the first (I love local knowledge!); the food and service were excellent and I’m still thinking about the tiramisu.

We returned to camp and Mike made friends with the local ducks while I got caught up on blog posts. By the end of our second night here, he had them practically eating out of his hands.

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A word of warning about camping here on the lake shore, and probably any other shore: overnight a storm blew in. We knew it was coming but our neighbor didn’t and lost his awning. The lake here is 26 miles long and the wind can build up to a gale over that distance if coming from the right direction.

Also on our last night here, we went outside to see if we could see the storm rolling in. It was chilly, so we closed our door. After a few minutes of star gazing, we tried to go back inside. And we were locked out. Even using our spare key, which happened to be in the jeep, wouldn’t get us in. Mike gave me a boost to the passenger window where I crawled inside to let him in (luckily, our windows aren’t always locked). After about five minutes of fiddling with the locks and banging the door, it finally released. And has worked perfectly ever since.

Reluctantly, we packed up and headed on. We stopped overnight at a rest area near Burlington, NC after making a pit stop at Walmart to pick up some needed supplies. The rest area has separate parking for RVs and we spent a fairly quiet night. Walmart may begin to rival Amazon for convenience in shopping. They now offer ‘pick up in store’ service with no added shipping charges. I ordered a collapsible ladder in South Carolina and was able to pick it up two days later in North Carolina. How is that for convenient? I didn’t need a shipping address or a few days to hang out in town to wait for it to arrive.

Our next spot was Holly Point Campground, part of the Falls Lake Recreation Area. The area is beautiful and not too far from Wake Forest, which has a lot to do. We didn’t make reservations early enough to get a lakefront site but we did manage to snag a beautiful, open wooded site with electric and water.

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loop 3, site 80

We later found out that loop 3 is known as ‘the retiree’ loop – it is very quiet and, according to the rangers, usually booked by retirees. It would seem to hold true during our stay as we were joined by four class Bs holding four retired couples meeting up for the weekend.

The sites here are huge and very well spread apart. Most are fairly level and extremely long, long enough for a 45′ class A and a toad and a couple of guests’ cars. While we had one of the most open sites in the campground, the majority of them are shaded with very tall trees, lending a very ‘woodland feel’ to the experience. We knew this weekend would have a cold spell so a sunny site would keep us warm.

We stopped here at the suggestion of Greg, another LEO Only friend who happens to be a Ranger here. We hung out and got to know Greg and Kimberly  and had a couple of great days trading camping horror stories, general life stories, and learning what it is like to be a Park Ranger. We are looking forward to our next pass through the area.

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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.

Big Sheep Creek Back Country Byway

Not far from Clark Canyon Reservoir is the Big Sheep Creek Back Country Byway, a gravel and dirt road that winds it way through BLM and private land for 50 miles. Any time I see scenic and back country in the same sentence, I am in. And so we went.

We stopped first in Dell, where the road starts, at Dell Mercantile, a small side of the road store that sells one of everything. And gas. We grabbed a giant cinnamon bun for a sugar rush later and headed west.

The Big Sheep Creek Back Country Byway starts out following Big Sheep Creek back into a canyon.

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Start of the drive

The road here is pretty easy – wide gravel with only a few potholes and an occasional washboard area. The area is teeming with wildflowers, prickly pear cacti, and sagebrush.

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western salsify – they looked like dandelions on steroids

A couple of miles down the road is Deadwood Gulch Campground. The campground is on the creek and, with only six sites, would be a great place to get away from the crowds. In this area of Montana though, there really aren’t many crowds. One note about the campground and Big Sheep Creek Back Country Byway: there are many small bridges to cross and they all have weight limits. The one into the campground is seven tons (too low for the short bus). Others on the road are five tons. There is boondocking all over the place along the byway but it is best done with a small trailer or class B and we saw a few of both.

Deadwood Gulch Campground

Deadwood Gulch Campground

The road continues following the creek into a small canyon.

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Edge of the canyon

Further upstream, the creek is wide and slow – it might be an enjoyable area to kayak, provided the water level is high enough.

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big sheep creek

The road then turns away from the creek and heads into a completely different landscape.

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cliffs along the road

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a natural arch/bridge in the eroding cliffs

The changed once again and we were in rolling hills and grassland.

back country byway

back country byway

We came to a fork in the road, and we took it.

sign

directional sign. Go right to stay on the byway

Actually, we first went left. There was a giant hill with a road running up it beside the left fork. We just had to look.

view

view at the top looking back

road up the hill

road up the hill at the top

We continued along the back country byway.

pothole

pothole along the road

We started to get hungry so we looked for a place to stop. Mike saw a road going up toward the right so he took it. From the bottom, it didn’t look too steep. By the time we got halfway up, we realized our mistake. The road was so steep that, when we stopped, I didn’t want to sit in the jeep for fear it would slide down the hill.

side road

the side road up the mountain we climbed

jeep

the jeep on the road

view

the drive back down in 4 wheel drive low

My camera cannot adequately capture the steepness of the hill – two dimensions just don’t convey it very well, especially using a wide angle lens. But, as usual, the jeep was more capable than we were and five minutes later, after picking our way back down through ruts and rocks, we were safely back on the ‘real’ road. (See that thin scratch of white just right of center? that is the road.) I will admit, the view is spectacular up there. And we ‘could’ have gone higher. But, without climbing it first on foot to see what was coming, I wasn’t ready to continue up. We hadn’t had enough sugar for that.

We continued on the Byway through a huge unpopulated valley. The only traffic we saw was six bicyclists, going the other way.

valley

valley – with a bicyclist on the road

And then the terrain, and the road changed again.  I had read somewhere that, after rain, some of the road may be impassible due to deep mud. It had rained yesterday, and rain was threatening today, but so far, the main road had been easy.

 

dirt road

dirt road of the byway

The gathering clouds gave us pause but, like most times, we didn’t want to go back the way we came. The dirt got softer and softer until the ruts were too deep to fight against. It was obvious that a truck had recently passed, when the ground was REALLY wet, and the truck had a wider wheelbase than we did. We popped the jeep into four wheel drive and went for it. I would have pictures of the road but it was too bumpy to capture anything usable (try snapping while hitting your head on the roof) and if we stopped, we weren’t going to move for a very long time – it was starting to rain which would only make the road worse.

mountain view

chocolate mountains

The clay mud mire only lasted a couple of miles and we were free, though we picked up a few more pounds of mud to add to our collection under the jeep (chunks of it would fall off over the next few days) and the road changed again. We were in a ranching area – mot of it owned by one family. It was huge and went on for miles. We dodged cows now instead of rocks and potholes.

view

Montana ranch house view

At the end of the road, we took a right, and headed a few miles back to Clark Canyon Reservoir. All things considered, it was a beautiful drive. We got to see more of the Montana back country with its huge variety of terrain. We spent a few wonderful hours off the beaten path testing ourselves and testing the jeep.

When we travel these roads, which we do often, we are fully prepared. We go with food, water, a full gas tank, paper maps, a car GPS, a handheld GPS, and a DeLorme Inreach. If we can’t see the road ahead, or we question its condition, we scout ahead on foot (we can get miles of hiking in just by scouting roads). While we have run into problems (high centering the jeep in a creek and being trapped in a pasture with an angry bull are two of the most memorable), we have gotten pretty good at avoiding them or being prepared when we don’t. This particular road is pretty benign and can *usually* be traveled by a two wheel drive passenger car; we try to make the most of it and add side roads for a little fun.

 

 

Garnet, MT and DeLorme Maps

One of the reasons for our stay at Salmon Lake State Park was to go to Garnet, MT, a ghost town restored by the BLM. We headed out on a beautiful and cool day, taking the easy gravel route suggested by the BLM.

mountain view

Beautiful views on the way to Garnet, obscured by smoke haze from drifting Washington and Oregon wildfire smoke.

Garnet is an old mining town in the mountains of Montana, not far from Missoula. It grew quickly, faded quickly, burned down, was revived, and then abandoned again before the BLM took it over and started restoring it. While it doesn’t have as many buildings as other ‘famous’ ghost towns, much of the restoration is very well done and includes furniture and the like from the period.

Garnet, MT

Garnet from the path down the hill from the parking lot

staff office

the staff office

store

A tavern

Store

Inside a store in Garnet

building

Building (hotel) in Garnet

Kitchen

In the Kitchen

hotel room

Hotel Room

Sewing room

Sewing room

wash basin

wash basin

bedroom chair

a sitting area in a bedroom

bedroom

another bedroom

Because many of the rooms are so small, the were shot with a fish-eye lens. I corrected some distortion, but some (such as The Bedroom) couldn’t be helped without completely altering the scale.  Many of these were also shot at 1600 ISO so I could get a larger depth of field (6.3-9). I greatly prefer natural lighting so no flash was used.

We greatly enjoyed wandering around the town site. The staff and volunteers were very friendly and mostly very knowledgeable. The site is very dog friendly and we ran into quite a few leashed and well behaved dogs.

There are two roads that get to Garnet – one from the north and one from the south. Both are gravel roads and look pretty innocuous. But, there are lots (and I mean lots) of roads back in that area and they all look the same. As we were leaving on the south route, we ran into a passenger car with an older man at the wheel. He looked shell shocked. He wondered if there was any other way out of Garnet other than the way he came. We told him the northern road, Garnet Range Road, was a really easy gravel road down to Route 200 and from there he could head into Missoula. It was the longer way back, but easier. What we didn’t know is the driver had made a mistake, the same one that we made: take Cave Gulch into Garnet, not Bear Gulch. However, in both our defenses, the roads aren’t marked, either from the intersection where he didn’t make the turn nor in Garnet, where we didn’t even know the other road existed. I still giggle at memory of the look of relief on his face when he found out he didn’t have to drive that road back. For us, in the Wrangler, it was a simple and fun back country road; for him, in a large four-door passenger car with no clearance and a wife who obviously had had enough for one day, it was probably the stuff nightmares are made of. Bear Gulch Road is a single lane, cliff hugging, unmaintained, dirt road for its last few miles into Garnet. It starts out down at Route 90 pretty tame but, at about mile 8, it changes personality.

Bear Gulch Road

The view from Bear Gulch. Those other roads over there?  Not Bear Gulch, most likely Clam Gulch.

Bear Gulch

Bear Gulch road for most of the way – cliff side and skinny. The drop off on the right is about 200 feet though it is an angled drop.Please forgive the dirty windshield.

Bear Gulch road

Bear Gulch Road – a wide spot in the road to pass. Note the side road going off to the left before we drop into the switchbacks.

We got down to Beartown – it is really nothing more than a wide spot in the road with a house on the corner, now. We pulled out our Delorme Montana Atlas and Gazetteer and looked it over. “Okay, we can go around this really long way or we can cut off most of that by just taking this shortcut…” Rule number one: If I say shortcut, remember that means distance, not time. Rule number two: If Delorme puts a road on a map once, it stays on the map forever.

So we took a right onto Ten Mile Creek Road. Ten Mile Creek Road would run into Union Peak Road which would take us back into Garnet Gulch Road. Simple. And it was, for a while. There were bumps and washouts and ruts but the road kept on.  There were a few houses on the road and someone trying to sell lots in a housing division. It was a very pretty area.

road

10 mile creek road

Sluice

A very large sluice on Ten Mile Creek.

Until the road went away. Or it didn’t. At first, we missed the turn off for the ‘official’ road as we were driving through what appeared to be a field. We followed a power line road right to the edge of a mountain. So we turned around. We found the road again wandering off the edge of the field and right into a ditch that was crossed by some logs. Some very old logs. Luckily, the jeep doesn’t weigh much. We continued on and the road came back, long enough to take us into a cow pasture.

cow

cows on Ten Mile Creek

Ten Mil Creek Road turned into Union Peak Road and we were home free! Union Peak Road is a BLM road so we thought all was good. Until we got to a road block. “DANGER!” “DO NOT GO!” “TURN BACK!” And there was a huge ditch cut into the road for no other purpose than to stop people from going forward. I started getting worried about Montana Militia and such as we contemplated our next move. Driving all the way back wasn’t happening. We were on a public road on public land and there was a drive around for the ditch. We aren’t sure who put in the ditch, or why, but we went around it anyway.

And nothing happened. We drove down the road.

Union Peak Road

Union Peak Road

There was about a mile of road where it was obvious that someone spent days if not weeks clearing storm damage and blow down. Maybe this is what the warning was about?  We will never know. We made it back onto gravel and then back onto asphalt pretty quickly. We got to see some back roads areas of Montana we would have missed otherwise. Montana is a beautiful state and there is a lot to see, much of it away from the highway.

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