Coloring the Void

living nomadically

Archive for the tag “offroad”

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…

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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.

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.

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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.

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Garnet from the path down the hill from the parking lot

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the staff office

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A tavern

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Inside a store in Garnet

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Building (hotel) in Garnet

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In the Kitchen

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Hotel Room

Sewing room

Sewing room

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wash basin

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a sitting area in a bedroom

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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10 mile creek road

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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.

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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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