We departed Moab mid morning with plans to visit Mesa Verde NP, about two hours away, before ending up near Durango, CO. Our initial plan was to camp in Mesa Verde, but we needed to get into Durango to pick up some prescriptions and did not want to backtrack the 40 odd miles into the park after doing so.
The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde are located some 20+ miles inside the park on a road that climbs up and winds back and forth along canyons and ridge lines before running down Chapin Mesa to the area where most of the cliff dwellings are located. Like most (all) of the National Parks we’ve visited, there is a lodge here, this one located at 8,000 feet in the far view area. It looked like a very cool spot to stay.
Our objective was the Mesa Top loop. We had a guided audio tour that led us to the 10 or 11 spots on this loop that showed the archaeological artefacts of the different dwellings used by the Pueblo people between about CE 600s to 1200s, evolving from pit houses dug into the top of the mesa to masonry structures, finally moving from the mesa top down into the cliff dwellings around the 1200s. There is apparently some mystery around why the people left the cliff dwellings by around 1300. The audio tour indicated that it was probably just a migration further south to other pueblo communities. Looking at the site, it is pretty obvious to me that one might desire a location that did not entail either a several hundred foot scramble up from the valley or a 100 ft or so rock face climb down from the top of the mesa to get to your front door.
One thing we noticed driving in and out along the park road was extensive evidence of wildfires. In fact, there were signs along the road indicating the names and dates of major wildfires. The highest point in the park has a fire lookout station. Some pictures from there and from the road are shown in the gallery below. We learned that 70 percent of the park has burned in wildfires since being established in 1906, with 5 large fires in the last 14 years, accounting for 50 percent of the park land.
We weren’t able to add to our National Park t-shirt collection at Mesa Verde – by the time we reached the visitor center and gift shop it was closed, and we didn’t like the options at the campground store. Miranda did get her park stickers and postcards, so all was not lost.
After a brief stop in Durango for provisioning and fuel, we headed out to the campground outside of town for the night. Gas is cheap in Colorado at about $2.09, compared to $2.29-$2.49 in Utah. Unfortunately, our RV’s gas mileage has suffered in the slog over and through the mountains in the last couple of days, hovering in the range of 8-9 MPG.
Next we are continuing South to Sante Fe on the way to our final National Park, Carlsbad caverns. Finally, as may be obvious from the photos, weather has been beautiful, with sunny, blue skies and warm, but not terribly hot temperatures. And no smoke!
We arranged a private guided mountain biking tour with Rim Tours. Our guide, Russ, was at the RV park office right at 8 AM and we headed about 15 minutes North of town to an area called Moab Brands.
Russ climbed up on top of the van and lowered the bikes down to us, and I was immediately impressed.
The bikes were 2020 Santa Cruz Bronsons, a full suspension model that had a handlebar mounted thumb switch to lower the seat post for gnarly descents. It weighed a good bit less than my road bike! They come in both aluminum and Carbon Fiber. I think ours were carbon fiber, but I’m not sure. If you look closely at the drive train, you will see a single, tiny front chain ring and a 12 speed rear cassette, with a 50 tooth big cog. That is an insanely low gear! Apparently all mountain bikes these days have that single front chainring setup. A quick look online shows a retail price starting at $3499.
We started out on some pretty mellow singletrack – the RustySpur trail on the map above. We then moved onto the Bar M trail which featured some technical, rocky climbing.
We stopped for a break on slickrock overlooking a canyon, and then were off on a lot of technical double track, with some pretty decent sized drops and uphills. I have to say that the bike was fantastic, just making this stuff seem easy. It was by far the best mountain bike I’ve ever ridden (ok, and the most expensive). I certainly would not have been able to do this stuff on my old hardtail! When I came up to some downhill challenging stuff, I would just thumb the seat adjuster and sit down for a second to lower the seat, then take the terrain standing, back over the rear wheel. When through, just flick the switch and the seat pops back up. Awesome! Miranda, having only been mountain biking a few times, quickly got the hang of it after one little washout on some loose dirt at the beginning of the ride. Soon she was hammering along and handling the variety of terrain with confidence.
We wound up on the Circle O trail, which is all slickrock. A painted line marks the trail across the rock, encouraging cyclists to stay on the trail and minimize the damage to the fragile ecosystem. In contrast to the name, the slickrock was pretty grippy, though anything but smooth. After that we had a final climb up to the top of the ridge along North 40, and then bombed back down to the parking lot.
Miranda and I agreed that we’d become mountain bikers if we could ride something like the Santa Cruz Bronson. We had a great time and really appreciated Russ’ knowledge of the area and coaching on the technical aspects of riding the variety of terrain that we encountered. If you want to ride in Moab, I’d highly recommend Russ and Rim Tours.
Arches National Park
We got back from our mountain biking adventure before noon and decided to head back out to Arches National Park, which is just North of Moab. The ride up into the park snakes up the side of one of the Mesas and then rounds the corner to a valley full of wind carved mesas, spires and other geological objects that I can’t describe. All very impressive and easily viewed from the park road. We stopped at Balance Rock, which we saw from a distance on the bike ride and had some lunch in the RV.
The photos above are of balanced rock and then others from the Windows section of the park, including double arch and and unnamed formation that looks to me like a bust of a person. After a bit of walking around in the heat of the afternoon, the effects of the morning expedition were getting the better of us, so we ventured on to get a view of Delicate Arch before the mandatory visitor center stop and return to town.
Sunset UTV tour at Hell’s Revenge
First, what is a UTV? UTV stands for “Utility Terrain Vehicle” and is different from an “All Terrain Vehicle”, which is also referred to as a quad, and accommodates a single rider. The UTV has side by side seating for two, four, or even six people, and is more jeep-like. These are four wheel drive vehicles powered by motorcycle engines with a high and low gear. So, pretty serious off-road vehicles.
Second, what is Hell’s Revenge? I probably should have asked that question myself…
Hell’s Revenge consists of a six and one half mile roller coaster ride across the slickrock fins east of the town of Moab. It is extremely difficult, and recommended only for very experienced drivers with advanced equipment.
OK. So, we heard that Moab was a pretty cool place to do offroading, so we had called around to see if we could do a Sunset Tour. All the tour companies were pretty busy, and the tours were either booked up or we couldn’t get through to anyone. Sitting in traffic on the way back from Arches (they are widening the main road into Moab) I was able to get hold of Jessica at Ultimate UTV tours and she was able to get us into a tour starting in just one hour. So, after a quick t-shirt hunting expedition in town, we worked our way back to their place.
Three other couples joined us, with Jessica leading, and we headed out to the trailhead on the outskirts of Moab. We were right behind Jessica, and immediately from the beginning climb up (and I mean up) a narrow slickrock spine, I began to understand the trail name. Have I mentioned that I have a fear of heights?
Well, I need not have worried as these vehicles crawled over terrain that should have been impossible to pass, over boulders, up impossibly steep bits of slickrock and back down what looked at times like vertical drops. A few times Jessica stopped to point out the yellow lines on the rock. “Keep it inside the yellow lines here. They mean that the trail turns and if you go outside of the lines you might roll over”. OK. Miranda was vigilant with pointing out the yellow lines, and began a litany of shouting “You’ve got this dad! Confidence!”. I don’t know if this was for my benefit or hers.
Our guide, Jessica, really wanted Miranda to take a turn behind the wheel, but Miranda steadfastly refused. As we were finishing up the ride her comment was “This was really cool, but I am never doing it again!”.
We finished the day with Pizza at Antica Forma, which Russ recommended as the best Pizza in Moab. We’d have to agree, and Miranda went so far as to claim that it was the best Pizza she had since returning from Europe. She also explained, by the way, that French Pizza sucks.
A relatively short run tomorrow will take us to Mesa Verde National Park, and then on to Durango.
We left Zion this morning and took the Zion – Mt Carmel highway, entering the park and buying a permit to pass through the tunnel. The ride up to the tunnel was spectacular, climbing along the canyon walls. We were fortunate to get there as a one way stream of traffic was heading our way through the tunnel, so I drove right down the center lane for the 1.1 miles. There were “windows” carved out of the side of the tunnel, but I didn’t take in the view for fear of careening into the roof of the tunnel. Coming out of the tunnel, the landscape was even more spectacular as the road wound through the sandstone formations. We loved Zion.
Heading North on Hwy 89 we realized that we could also visit Bryce Canyon NP along the way. We decided to take the small detour and head up towards Bryce. From the west, we passed through Red Canyon, named for the deep red orange sandstone formations… also spectacular. Upon entering Bryce, the Park Ranger recommended riding the shuttle as RVs were not allowed to park at any of the most scenic points in the Canyon. We did not want the exposure of riding on the shuttle so decided to take a chance and see what we could see from the RV. Down past the main viewpoints there were some that we could park at including Natural Bridge about 12 miles from the entrance.
We headed back to check the main viewpoints and were disappointed to see that none of them were at all visible from the road, and indeed, no way to park an RV anywhere nearby. We did get to one more spot, Fairyland Canyon, that was outside the entrance to the park.
We headed North out of Bryce Canyon to connect up with I-70 towards Moab. Google maps “fastest” routing took us on secondary roads through scenic Dixie and Fishlake National Forest country with a lot of ups and downs and lots of curves.
It would have been an excellent ride in a sports car, but not so much fun in the RV. We even wound up going over an 8900 ft mountain pass before reaching I-70.
The vista upon reaching 70 and heading East was stunning, full of wind-carved sandstone buttes and canyons, which I think is part of the San Rafael Desert. We saw viewpoint areas such as Salt Wash and Devil’s Canyon along the way and looking back at satellite images it seems to be of the same type of geological feature as the nearby Capital Reef, Arches and Canyonland National Parks.
Tomorrow we have a private guided mountain bike tour from Moab to the areas around Arches National Park.
We left the campground this morning heading to the Southeast Corner of Utah, for Zion National Park. Our route took us on Highway 189 on the east side of Park City. We saw the ski lifts on the Jordanelle side of Deer Valley and passed by the Jordanelle reservoir. This section through the mountains and high desert was very pretty. We eventually linked up with the heavy traffic on I-15 South through the not-so-pretty valley floor. It got scenic again when we turned off the interstate and headed towards the town of Springdale, right at the foot of the Canyon. On arrival, the temperature was 92 degrees, with a forecast 97 degrees for our ride up the canyon tomorrow. Big contrast from the 30-something degrees we woke to at Rockport State Park. We wandered a little way down the main drag, finding the bike shop we will rent from and stopping in a gallery and the Zion Prospector Rock shop. Yes, you can buy rocks. By the pound.
We got to the bike shop right around opening time and picked up our pedal-assist electric bikes. We figured with the forecasted temps and our plan to do some hiking around it made some sense to have help on the 9 mile road up the canyon from town. I was on a Trek Verve+ with standard mountain bike width tires. Having a peek at the Trek site, it is equipped with a 250W motor and weighs 54 lbs. Miranda was set up with a RadPower (a Seattle company) RadRover super fat tire (26×4″) bike. It weighed a stout 71 lbs, but had a 750W motor, and was clearly faster than the Trek. By the way, the Trek costs twice as much as the RadPower – $2,999 retail vs $1499. If I were in the market for an e-bike (and apparently Miranda now is), I’d be looking at RadPower over Trek, though maybe for a smaller/lighter model. Anyway, the bikes certainly made easy work of the canyon road, though you still do have to pedal. We entered at the pedestrian entrance and then rode up the Pa’rus trail, which keeps bikers and hikers separated from traffic for the Zion-Mt Carmel tunnel.
The trail went along the river, with bridges crossing over several times. The trail ended and we took the canyon road, which at this point was restricted to the Zion shuttles and vehicles going to the Zion Park Lodge.
What a way to experience the park! We rode along the nearly empty road constantly amazed by the majestic canyon walls. We could stop along the side of the road and take in the scene and take pictures whenever we felt like it. We almost felt sorry for the folks that were riding up on the shuttle… we were having a much better experience.
At the top of the canyon is an area called the Temple of Sinawava. The road ends and there is a one mile or so trail called the Riverside walk through the canyon as it narrows. At the end of the Riverside walk, the adventurous types go further into the canyon, but this time in/through the river on a “trail” called the Narrows.
We did not do this, but hundreds of people did… all wearing the same red waterproof boots and carrying wooden walking sticks rented from the many outfitting shops in town. We instead sat on some rocks along the river and Miranda waded in a little way… in spite of the Cyanobacteria warnings that were posted all around.
We walked back to our bikes and began the easy downhill journey. It was fun to go bombing down the twisting canyon road, and soon we were back to the visitor center. We had a late lunch at the Brewpub just outside the park entrance, and then went back in for another ride, this time only partway up the road. The afternoon sun was high in the sky and it was hot… even if it was, as they say, a dry heat. We got a little bit worried about the charge left in our bike batteries and decided to call it a day. After dropping the bikes off we came back to the campground where Miranda had a little quality time at the pool, and I went off for a long shower.
Tomorrow we are going to take the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway towards Moab. We will need to get an oversize permit for the tunnel, which is a mile long, and completed in 1930. When an oversized vehicle approaches, the rangers stop traffic in both directions to allow the big vehicles through driving down the center of the tunnel. Should be an interesting experience!
Side note on the Zen of driving slowly
As I mentioned in a previous post, the RV is limited to a safe cruising speed of around 65 MPH. And even at that speed, with the cruise control on, the slightest rise in the road causes the poor RV to have paroxysmal downshifts with the engine screaming in vain to maintain the set speed. I can hear some readers (you know who you are) saying “65 is plenty fast”. Folks, the speed limit out here in the wild west is 80 unless there is construction, and then it drops down to 70, for safety’s sake! Normally, this would suit me just fine – some readers may know that my right foot is a bit heavy, and to gain some relief, I tend to rest it on the accelerator pedal. Well I do that in our trusty RV, and nothing much happens besides a screaming engine and whining differential, along with some mildly disturbing shake, rattle and roll. I am not used to lumbering along in the right lane, and I can say with certainty that I have already spent more time driving below the speed limit than in my prior 45 years of (legal) driving. I am hoping that I will eventually get into a zen state about this, kinda like I did with the Nordhavn, watching the world pass by at 8.6 knots. But even so, 8.6 is pretty much hauling ass by Nordhavn standards. Miss Miranda is a slow boat, but it is one of the fastest of the slow. Our RV is slow, and is one of the slowest of the slow. Good thing we are not in a hurry. Of course, the upside in this is getting to spend even more time with Miranda, which is a gift I will always cherish. See ya in the right lane.
We’ve now spent a week getting to know the features and quirks of our CruiseAmerica Standard RV – the good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak. Miranda has christened this the “Bayliner of RVs”, to use a boating analogy. Now, before any Bayliner owners get their noses all out of joint, we have owned not one, but two, Bayliners, and enjoyed them both. So… we know of what we speak.
Bayliners are known to have good interior layout and good use of space. Our RV does, too. Sleeping accommodations are above the cab for Miranda and aft of the galley for me. Both can be curtained off. There is a dinette table that could accommodate 4 in a squeeze. It folds out to another berth. The galley has a deep sink, cooktop, microwave and a good sized refrigerator freezer. It is a little challenged for counter space, but has good storage space for food and utensils. There are storage cabinets up high all around, more than we need. The head is tight but functional.
Bayliners were also known for having issues with fit and finish, using some lower quality materials. Our RV suffers from the same issue. All of the lamination and edge moldings is pretty chinzy, and many have separated. Little things like locks and latches are of low quality and are bothersome. The systems work pretty well – propane for cooking, water heating, cabin heating and refrigeration, shore power for 120V AC, and a dinky DC “coach” battery. There is a basic monitoring system, but it is a bit cheesy. When we told the guy at check out that the holding tank monitor showed full, he said “yeah, that always happens”. We learned the hard way that the coach battery takes some abuse. Ours gave up in Yellowstone NP, making it so that the cabin heat would not fire up during the 30-some degree mornings. However, this is more likely a reflection on quality of service rather than equipment.
Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I suspect that our RV is heading for a refit and sale, so we might not be seeing a typical example, but ours has not worn particularly well. I had a peek at CruiseAmerica’s used RV sales pages and see that refurbished models of similar mileage go for mid-$30s… that seems like a pretty good value, assuming that everything gets fixed in the refurb process.
Miranda came up with the Bayliner moniker as we were driving down a secondary, two-lane highway that had a bit of a crown on the road surface. The RV wallowed and rolled much like our Bayliner in choppy seas. On the other hand, we flogged it over a 4900 ft mountain pass on dirt forest roads and survived. So maybe it can handle tougher conditions than we can. I’ll also note that it can’t really be driven safely faster than 65 MPH. By the time it gets to 70, it starts a little shimmy that is, shall we say, unsettling. Now you might think that 65 is plenty fast. Maybe. Unless the speed limit is 80 and you are in the right lane getting waked by everything that moves, including ALL the other RVs of various types.
So if our CruiseAmerica is the Bayliner of RVs, what is the “Nordhavn” of RVs? Forget the Super and Mega Land yachts we saw – 50 footers towing land dinghys like jeeps, SUVs and pickups. What about the roadworthy, well-built, well-finished models in the same size range? It seemed clear that the spiffy ones were built on a Mercedes Sprinter chassis and diesel powerplant.
It’s clear that many companies make these – we saw them with brand names such as Jayco, Leisure, Prism and even Winnebago (a name I remember from road trips as a kid). They all seemed to be quite similar in exterior design with much more aerodynamic shapes, and in general, just looked like they were higher quality. I wonder if there is a single coach builder and all of these companies are just resellers? I didn’t get to tour the inside of any of these, but several we saw in the same size (25 ft) had side pop-outs to create more interior space. Of course, I’m sure that the price of one of these compared to our CruiseAmerica approaches the Nordhavn-Bayliner price ratio. Checking the Winnebago website shows the model above sells new for around $175k.
Miranda and I also had discussions about the “ideal” type of RV. There are several different classes of RV (which I know almost nothing about). Ours is apparently a Class C, which I think means a box built on a truck chassis. It seems to us that this is the least useful type – for example, at 25 ft long and 12 ft high, these cannot travel on the smaller roads in the national parks, including the famed Going to the Sun road in Glacier NP. A very common alternative we saw was the trailer towed by a pickup, where you can at least park the trailer and explore with the pickup. We saw these in lengths that must have been up to 40 ft, some with 3 pop-out sections. There were lots of very cool-looking variations on the Mercedes Sprinter vans, which seem to be small enough to fit on the various park roads. They do look a bit too compact for comfortable living, at least for an old guy like me. Of course, there are the Mega and Super land yachts towing the land dinghies. These all seem to be in the 40 ft range, and while I am sure they are comfortable, they seem like a handful to deal with. I concluded that the ideal setup would be to have a crewed Super land yacht that towed a 4×4 while we drove from place to place in a really nice sports car, maybe like the C8 Corvette we saw in Yellowstone.
CruiseAmerica Assistance Services
We called the CruiseAmerica Assistance Services from Old Faithful village to get the dead battery replaced. They took our information to pass onto someone who would “work the case”. About an hour later I called back, as we were waiting to explore the area. They said that they haven’t gotten to us yet. I mentioned that we were in an area with very limited phone service and couldn’t wait hours for a call back, and I asked them what their service level agreement was for returning roadside service calls. After a few moments of silence, the response was “we don’t have one, we just answers the calls in order”. I finally got a call back from someone who told me to go to any NAPA store and buy a battery, and they would reimburse me when I returned the RV. I explained that I wasn’t in a place to be able to search for NAPA stores and asked them to recommend one nearby, suggesting West Yellowstone, and specifically questioned whether the NAPA stores would actually be able to replace the battery. They sent me the info, but when I called the store, sure enough, they indicated that they don’t install batteries. Exasperated, I started searching within the park to see if there were places that might do RV repairs. It turns out that Miranda found one 100 yds away from us in Old Faithful Village. The gas station was able to replace the battery, and they were, as it turns out, a NAPA dealer. There was nothing in the documentation showing where the coach battery was located. We eventually found it and the nice guy at the service station replaced it, while also cleaning up the battery box and lubing the sliding mechanism, obviously for the first time. The battery that came out was a high quality Lifeline AGM deep cycle battery, but at a Group 31 size, clearly too small for the job. I’m sure it doesn’t help that it gets run completely down to 10V every day that it’s used. Of course, as is typical with customer service folks these days, everyone I talked to was nice… they just didn’t solve my problem.
Anyway, renter beware with regard to CruiseAmerica “assistance”.
Our itinerary called for just one day in Grand Teton NP, just South of Yellowstone. We didn’t have reservations, so wanted to get down to Colter Bay campground on Jackson Lake before it filled up. We crossed the Continental Divide 3 times heading to the South Entrance of the Park. Part of the drive was pretty smoky due to a fire in the Park south of the main road. We didn’t see any signs of the fire and the smoke seemed to abate as we got further south. Along the way into the park we saw a solo cyclist on a road bike who obviously went over the same passes – we had seen him the previous day at Old Faithful. When we spoke to him briefly at the laundromat later that day he said that he started in San Francisco, went South to Orange County, across to Denver, then to Steamboat (over 11,000 ft Rabbit Ears Pass) and through Rocky Mountain NP. He said his highest elevation reached was 12,000 ft! I was going to comment on his crossing of the Continental Divide in the park, but realized that this was a warm up ride for him given his previous altitude training. I am totally impressed by this guy riding this distance solo, particularly with the incredible amount of climbing he has done. When he gets back to sea level, he’ll be pedaling with “no chain” (as the pros would say).
We got into the Colter Bay campsite and explored the little village, where we found wifi, washing machines, showers, gift shop, food and ice cream. The rest of the day, therefore was devoted to laundry, etc. I took a 5 dollar shower for the pleasure of having a showerhead that was above my head and room to move around, not to mention unlimited hot water. We had some lunch at the lodge, perused the visitor center and gift shop, got some produce and ice cream at the general store and walked down to have a look at the lake. This was a very active bear area, with bear boxes at all of the sites, and the store staff reporting a mother and 3 cubs hanging around the campground. We were also warned about the bears by campsite staff, who said our RV was a good bear box…. just keep the windows closed. We had a low key evening and Miranda asked me to let her know if any bears dropped by in the middle of the night. I did hear and feel them give us a shake, but I could not see anything from my vantage point… it was just too dark.
It started to rain this morning just before we started out for Rockport State Park outside of Park City Utah. Unfortunately, the clouds obscured the view of the top of the Tetons, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless.
Miranda was busy looking for land for her planned Dude Ranch (wouldn’t that really be a “Chick” Ranch). The route out of Jackson took us along the Snake River through beautiful Canyons and a blaze of fall color. Really spectacular scenery.
A high point of the trip for me was passing beneath the worlds largest Elkhorn arch in Afton, Wyoming.
It was cloudy the whole way with periods of rain, but by the time we arrived at Rockport State Park (which was built around a reservior), the sun came out and we finally saw blue, smoke-free skies!
The air quality reading is in the 20s for the nearest monitoring stations some 25 miles away, a big relief from what the far West has experienced. Our campground had electrical and water hookups, and a covered pavilion with a long picnic table on a concrete pad. We are also back in the land of cell service. The view towards the reservoir is not beautiful, but the one to the other direction is not bad.
License plate update
Yellowstone was pretty productive for us – we even got Hawaii!
I am wondering what’s up with those folks in the Northeast. Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut (OK, and Delaware)? Are they stay at home types? Or are they enjoying the parks in New England? We need them to get off their couches and get out on the road!
Next stop for us is Zion NP in the far Southwest corner of Utah. Zion Canyon road is closed to vehicle traffic, and the only way up the Canyon is via shuttle bus… or by bicycle. We’ve opted to rent some electric bikes to spend the day exploring the Canyon.
We departed the Butte KOA and after a quick stop at Walmart for some inexpensive grilling supplies, headed down to Yellowstone via MT 287, following the Madison River and passing by Earthquake Lake, apparently formed (hence the name) by a giant earthquake in 1959. The river was beautiful and obviously very popular for trout fishing judging by the number of resorts and boats.
We arrived at the West Entrance early in the afternoon and were soon on our way to the Madison campground. We got settled in and went for a walk along the river and saw a lone bison grazing across the way. Beautiful. The next morning we got an early start, heading for the Canyon area, some 35 miles across the park. We got there early enough to grab an RV parking spot at the South Rim near Artists Point, and cooked some breakfast. The view of the lower fall was indeed spectacular, and one could easily understand why it was called Artists Point. We did a nice little hike along the South Rim past the lower falls to the upper falls, enjoying the gorgeous vistas and staying a little back from the steep and deep drop-offs.
Along the way we passed a trail that was closed due to deterioration which consisted of a steel set of stairs that went all the way down to the bottom of the Canyon. The trail’s namesake ran a guiding business at the turn of the 20th Century taking tourists down the Canyon via ropes and ladders!
Next we drove along the North Rim, but by that time all of the parking lots were full… and we decided that we had the better views on the South Rim. So we went off to Canyon Village to have lunch, get gas and fulfill Miranda’s hunt for Bear Spray. We got lunch at the Canyon Lodge cafeteria and ate at the tables outside. The sun was out and there was relatively little smoke in the sky. The food was surprisingly good – I had a bison sloppy joe and Miranda had a veggie version. We also bought our obligatory t-shirts, stickers and post cards at the gift shop, and were able to find bear spray at the gas station. All of the park papers and signage indicate that visitors should carry bear spray. I noted to Miranda that there were so many people around armed with the spray, we’d only need to shout “bear!” and be inundated with a fog of spray issuing from all directions.
After lunch we drove back to the Norris geyser basin. There were huge crowds of vehicles parked all along the access roads and the overflow lots, but we decided to chance driving up to the main parking lot. They had RV parking and luckily, another CruiseAmerica RV was pulling out just as we arrived. The big feature here was the Steamboat Geyser, one the erupts infrequently for long periods of time.
We watched the show for a little while then wandered around the back basin on boardwalks above the geothermally active land. There were many pools and mud pots, and interestingly, viewing areas built for geysers that were no longer active. Towards the end of the walk, we came across a geyser that had been obstructed by rocks thrown in by tourists when the park road ran nearby. Seeing examples like this and learning a bit about the history of the National Parks revived a bit of discussion between us about the nature of people. I, in my aging cynicism, find difficulty in the notion that people are “inherently” good. I see too many examples of the opposite. Miranda has a more nuanced view that people are all born with the capacity for good and are influenced by their experiences. I wonder what experience influenced the person that stole a couple of measly pieces of firewood from our obviously occupied campsite?
The afternoon consisted of a nice little nap and then a dinner over the fire. We were back to the old reliable “hobo dinners” that we made in my youth, mixing potatoes, onions, ground turkey (in a nod to Miranda), cheese and broccoli (also Miranda) in aluminum foil cooked directly over the coals. Of course, we had s’mores for dessert, and turned in early.
The next day was a visit to Old Faithful and the upper geyser basin. We had another early start to make sure that we were able to park. Along the way, we saw a small crowd of cars on the side of the road and by now knew that this meant there was wildlife around. Sure enough, a herd of Bison was right there alongside the park road, including many juveniles. The humans clearly missed the instructions to keep at least 25 yards away, but perhaps they were to be forgiven, since the Bison were gathered right on the shoulder of the road. We got to Old Faithful a little after 8 AM. On the way in there was quite a bit of smoke due to a fire burning South of the park road. There was plenty of parking – the lots really didn’t fill up until lunch time. We found that we actually had cell service so spent a little time getting a data fix. I also wanted to call the CruiseAmerica assistance line, as our “coach” battery was clearly dying. It would not hold a charge and was not even strong enough to allow us to run the propane heater in the frigid Yellowstone mornings. Fortunately, after a bunch of calls and some good scouting by Miranda, we were able to have the battery replaced at the gas station right there in the village.
We walked around to the back side of Old Faithful to view the eruption, and then walked pretty much all of the Geyser basin. This one was, contrary to the Park literature, much more active than the Norris basin. We watched Castle and Riverside Geyser erupt and took in many of the bubbling springs. It was a surreal landscape of steam and hot water flowing into the Firehole river. I certainly don’t have any words to do it justice. Except, maybe, crowded.
We eventually found our way back to the Old Faithful Lodge for another take out lunch from the Cafeteria. They had a mask mandate and were controlling entrance, but it was still crowded in there. Unlike the Canyon Lodge, there was little to no outdoor seating, so we wound up taking our lunch back to the RV. Again, the food was surprisingly good and actually quite inexpensive. After lunch we were both ready for a nap, so headed back to the Madison campground. We dumped the holding tank and filled up with water on the way back in and then had a good long nap. Another campfire dinner, this time hot dogs, salad and leftover beans from lunch. We cleaned and cleared the site to prepare for departure in the morning and passed on the s’mores so we could watch an episode of a show on Miranda’s iPad.
We had a leisurely mid-morning departure from the St Regis Campground, emptying the black and gray water tanks (much easier than on a boat) and topping off the propane. The drive towards Glacier took us along the beautiful Flathead river, across huge expanses of prairie land and then along the West side of Flathead lake before arriving at Emery Bay campground , down 5 miles of washboard forest road to the Hungry Horse reservoir.
The site was just fine, and we noticed that there was a big brown box between our site and the next one. The sign on it said it was a bear box for food storage – more on this later.
The smoke has made it into Montana, and we were in it all day. I went down to the campground’s boat launch to look at the reservoir and it looked like a foggy day on the water. I only saw one boat, and that one was getting hauled out at the ramp.
We had a nice dinner of hot dogs and corn cooked over the fire pit, and finished it off with s’mores (again). We cleaned up, closed everything up, and crawled into bed for the night. I thought about moving our snack box (a sealed plastic bin containing snacks in sealed containers) to the the bear box, but decided not to, instead locking it in the outside storage compartment of the camper. In the middle of the night, I awoke to the feeling of the camper getting pushed from side to side, heard some scraping sounds and realized that a bear was trying to get to our box of snacks. Oops. I guess that’s why the sites had bear boxes. After a few minutes, it stopped, so I thought “that wasn’t such a big deal”, and went back to sleep. Sleep did not last long, as the bear returned several times over the course of the night. I worried that it would rip the cover off the storage compartment, but it eventually gave up. When I got up in the morning, the cover was still in place, and unlike me, none the worse for the wear.
We drove up to Glacier National Park early this morning, but it was completely socked in with smoke. We stopped at the Lake McDonald lodge and make a pancake breakfast in the parking lot.
After breakfast we walked down to the lake, but it was clear that it was not safe to hike (AQI > 180), and there was so much smoke that there was no sightseeing to be done. We called an audible and decided to head South a day early, hoping to get out of the worst of the smoke and take a chunk out of the long drive to Yellowstone NP. We were able to find a spot at a KOA in Butte Montana, which is in a less bucolic setting, but has no bear boxes. The smoke is still visible down here, but the air quality readings are in the moderate range (AQI mid 70s), much lower than up North.
Tomorrow we head on toward Yellowstone, an easy 180 mile drive from here. Our fuel economy over the last two fill ups has gone down a bit to 8.5-9.5 mpg. Climbing mountain passes on state highways and forest roads accounts for the decline, and it is good to know that we have about 450-500 miles of range between fill ups. We’ve spotted a few more license plates in campgrounds and the Glacier parking lots, and need to update our map. We won’t have any connectivity in Yellowstone (or Grand Teton??), so it will likely be a few days before the next update.
We got underway from Anacortes this morning, battling smoke and later, Spokane traffic, while crossing Washington to our first stop on Lake Cour d’Alene in Idaho.
We covered 397 miles in about nine hours, including a last minute supply stop at Camping World, refueling a couple of times, a lunch stop at a rest area along the way, and a bit of Spokane rush hour traffic. I was surprised at our gas mileage, which was better than I expected at 10.8 mpg. I kept the average speed around 60 mph, creeping up to 65 on the downhills and flats and trying to hold 55 uphill. The RV handled much like a boat in small swells, wallowing back and forth quite a bit. It was loud but not unbearable, with most of the noise sounding like it was coming from the rear differential. Our RV has 116,000 miles on it, and I am wondering if they allowed us to take this particular one on a one way trip because it is time to go to the RV retirement home (or some unwitting buyer).
Gwen insisted that we play the license plate game, and given that we had thousands of cars blowing by us, it was a fun way to pass the time. We were astounded to see plates from 27 states before even getting out of Washington. There were at least two or three unique plates that we couldn’t identify because the cars passed too quickly!
We were originally planning to take Highway 20 from Anacortes through North Cascades National Park, but unfortunately, that route ran right into the area consumed by the two largest fires in the state, the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires. We instead went South and took I-90 across. The smoke was pretty steady, cleared a bit climbing over Snoqualmie Pass, but then socked in pretty heavily in the middle of the sate past Moses Lake.
By the time we got through Spokane, things had cleared up considerably. We had some really nice views of Lake Cour d’Alene as we were heading into the campground for the first night.
We’re now settled in for the night at Camp Cour d’Alene. We have electrical and water hookups, and are running the air conditioning to minimize smoke exposure overnight. Our goal tomorrow is to ride a rail trail called the Route of the Hiawatha along the Idaho/Montana border. We’ll see if conditions permit.
This summer, I heard about a Rail Trail called the “Route of the Hiawatha“, located in the Bitteroot mountains along the Idaho-Monatana Border. It is reported to be a “Hall of Fame” rail trail, featuring 10 tunnels and 7 trestles running along it’s 15 mile length on the former Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway. We considered doing a road trip to ride the trail, and when the idea of the cross country RV trip came up, I knew this was a stop we’d have to make.
The trail is operated by Lookout Pass ski area, which rents bikes and runs a shuttle from the bottom of the trail back up to the top. The typical way to ride the trail is starting at the East Portal, riding through the 1.6 mile Taft tunnel and then taking the shuttle back from the lower, Pearson trailhead. We don’t want to be on a crowded shuttle with no mask requirements, so we arranged to have bikes delivered to Pearson.
We read on the website that there was a good (20 mile) forest road that led from the town of Wallace to the Pearson trailhead. It started out great, with new blacktop pavement. And then the pavement ended, but there was a wide, well-graded dirt road. Which got narrower. And bumpier. And steeper, with lots of switchbacks. And we were on the outside of the road noticing the long dropoffs. The road goes up and over Moon Pass (I later learned that the top elevation was 4931 feet) and then descends down along the river to the trailhead. There were definitely some sketchy sections, more suited to the many off road vehicles around here than to our RV. Very exciting. The smoke, by the way, got pretty thick as we climbed out of Wallace, but the thinned out quite a bit on the other side.
We arrived around 10 AM, when the bikes were supposed to be delivered, but no one was around. Soon we saw the first riders from the top finishing their ride. Eventually the bikes arrived, but without the powerful headlights that were supposed to be necessary for the 10 tunnels. The guy working at the bottom managed to come up with a dinky one for Miranda, but nothing for my bike. Fortunately we had some headlights with us. The bikes were in pretty rough condition and the shifting was badly out of adjustment. If you plan to rent bikes for the ride, we’d recommend upgrading from the basic bike.
The ride was fantastic, along a well maintained gravel/dirt trail with lots of informational signs (which we mostly rode right by) and plenty of rest stops (same). It was a steady false flat grade of about 100 ft per mile, following the valley along one side of loop creek and then around to the other side. The trestles were absolutely spectacular, standing several hundred feet over the valley floor. In many places you could see the trestles on the other side of the valley.
The tunnels were a fun and cool relief from the warm, sunny day. The ones that we passed through ranged from 200 to 1500+ feet in length – we did not go all the way to the 1.6 mile Taft tunnel at the top.
There were literally hundreds of people out on the trails riding every kind of bike you could imagine. A fair number of them were a bit clueless. Miranda suggested a mandatory lesson on trail safety and etiquette before allowing anyone to ride.
It was only as we were riding along the trail that I realized that this was the area of the Great Fire of 1910, which eventually burned 3 million acres across Idaho and Western Montana. I read an interesting book about this fire and the beginnings of the US Forest Service called The Big Burn. As it turned out, the fire burned along the North Fork of the St Joe River, and we saw many, many burnt, dead trees that must have been remnants from that fire. As we returned to the town of Wallace after the ride, the fire smoke was eerily thick (a good bit of Wallace was destroyed in the 1910 fire).
We were going to stay at an RV park in Wallace, but they were first-come first serve only and full, so we headed East on I-90. After passing a couple of sketchy RV parks including one behind a roadside “Casino” we arrived at the very nice Campground St Regis in Montana, where we cooked hobo dinners on the coals of a fire and roasted marshmallows for S’mores. All in all, a great adventure day! Next we are on towards Glacier National Park.