Wyoming 2020

We left Colorado heading up Hwy 287 into Laramie. We turned west out of Laramie heading up to the Medicine Bow National Forest and the Snowy Mountain Range. As we started the slow climb into the mountains our truck engine temperature spiked. This was the second time in seven years our cooling hose back by the diesel water heater blew a hole and drained the engine coolant. The design does let you shut that extended coolant line out of the system with a set of valves so we refilled the coolant with water and headed back into Laramie and the Ford dealer to flush and refill our truck with coolant since we were expecting cooler temperatures in the future.

Luckily, the Ford dealer was able to fit us into their service schedule, and we were back on the road in a few hours. We arrived at the first-come, first-serve Sugarloaf CG a few hours after we intended but luckily found an open spot.

The Sugarloaf CG is located at 10,800 feet, and the Snowy Mountain Range peaks out at just under 13,000 feet. We like the area due to the gorgeous views and the many hiking trails. The campground does not open until 15 July due to snow from the previous winter and closes again by late September / early October when snow begins again.

The mountains, rocks, alpine vegetation, and lakes make for beautiful hikes.

Pam and I hiked a couple new trails this year. First, we hiked the 6-mile loop to Lost Lake passing many lakes on the way.

We had never been up there during a holiday weekend. Typically, we are there with about 20 or less people that we see the entire weekend over the 40 square miles, either in the campground or on the trails. However, the place was packed for the holiday weekend with cars parked for miles on both side of the road leading from the trailhead to the highway. Usually we carry bear spray when we hike there due to the local bear population and the fact that we are out there by ourselves. This weekend, there were a few hundred people, so we did not even worry about bears.

We did see a huge bull moose on our second hike up over the mountain saddle and towards Mirror Lake. A guy had a tripod set up and when I asked what he was shooting we saw the moose laying in a small pond. He got up when the sun got too much for him and made his way up the mountain into the shade of some trees.

Up on the saddle you could see many of the lakes that dot the area. Pam found another Pika to talk to along this trail.

As you drop down from the saddle towards Mirror Lake there are a series of ponds that keep the hike breathtaking.

The fires in northern Colorado shut down one of its largest camping areas along Hwy 14. With nowhere to go within Colorado, most of the folks headed to the Snowy Range, where a significant majority of the car plates were from Colorado.

Ben, Emily, and Tippet came up from Fort Collins on Sunday for a visit. We did an easy hike with Tippet due to her age, but they loved the place and I am sure they will be back. Ben mentioned that the weather forecast had changed, and snow was expected for much of Wyoming and Colorado starting the following evening. There is no cell service there (another nice thing about that area), so Pam and I hiked to a nearby overlook the next morning to get enough of a signal to see what was projected for Laramie and the Snowy Range.

Most of the folks had left the campground by Monday afternoon and when I talked with the Ranger driving through she said that about a foot of snow was expected that night. We had plans to visit with friends the following week in central Wyoming, so we packed up and left the Snowy Range.

Most of the western states were smokey due to the yearly forest fires. Wyoming was not too bad, but you could see the smoke prior to the storm rolling in. We could also see the temperature rapidly dropping as the storm front moved overhead.

We camped at Sinks Canyon CG in the hills above Lander, WY. When we got there is was starting to get cold, but we cooked dinner outside. The rain started when we went to bed. During the night, the rain turned to snow and dropped about 6 inches, drifting to well over a foot deep due to the wind.

About this time, I realized I did not have an ice scraper either (another thing you do not think about packing when it is 110 degrees outside). My O’Reillys Rewards card seemed appropriate to use until we made it to one of their stores to pick up a scraper.

We were toasty in our rig since it has a nice heater, but we decided to leave this winter wonderland and head to our friends place up towards Dubois, WY. The snow was covering slush on the roads and the campground was unplowed and hilly, but the Roamer made it out easily.

As we drove down the canyon we had to pull over to allow a couple of cowboys and their dogs to push a few wayward cows that did not want any part of the snowy weather back up the canyon to their grazing areas. The weather prediction was that this snow would melt within a day and return to more normal fall weather, so it was too early to leave the grazing area for winter.

We stopped in Lander to do laundry and restock with food and gas. The town was a wreck from the storm. The heavy, wet snow had caused hundreds of tree branches and even some trees to snap and fall. The houses and roads in town were littered with downed trees, with crews everywhere busy at work cleaning up the area.

As we left Lander, the landscape was nothing but white, except for the road. Unfortunately, the local birds were resting by the warmer road and would take flight as you approached, sometime too late to clear the rig. We had not hit a bird with our rig in seven years but ended up hitting three along this stretch of highway. Bert had one stuck in his truck grill when we arrived at their place, so it was not only us thinning out the local bird population.

Bert and Leigh have a beautiful place on the Wind River. It was even more picturesque when the sun broke out and the snow was still on the Wind River Mountain peaks.

They were having a small class reunion, so I helped Bert set up the place. We even cut up an old culvert and welded it together for a great reunion evening fire pit. Taco, their Blue Healer, was always ready to go when things needed to be done.

Near Dubois, Dan Starks has built the $100M, 14,000 square foot Museum of Military Vehicles. His private collection of military vehicles and weapons that is just impressive. They were just laying the building’s foundation last year when we drove by, but it opened this year. The finished section focuses on WWII where most of the vehicles have been refurbished to operating capability. Part of the recent deliveries were the manuals for all the vehicles so that they can be maintained.

The collection is so complete that you can see the evolution of the various designs from the late 1930s when WWII broke out, until 1945 when both the European and Pacific fighting ended. Each vehicle has its description and its production rate versus time to illustrate a staggering display of the manufacturing capability during the 1940s in the US.

As well as the amphibious and armed vehicles, the Red Ball Express logistic vehicles are on display and the incredible amount of material they moved through Europe during the later stages of the war.

An impress vault is also in the museum as a door to the display of guns.

The collection spans from the Revolutionary war to current times. The gun that fired the “shot heard around the world” to start the Revolutionary War at Bunker Hill is part of the collection. They know this because it was part of a family heirloom bought by Dan from the family of the person who did not wait until he saw the whites of their eyes. He was reprimanded for firing (that’s how they know it’s the gun), although he was a very good shot and hit his target.

Half of the museum is just open warehouse storage for the Korean and Vietnam era vehicles. This area is to be completed to the same display quality as the WWII section in the future.

Back at Bert and Leigh’s, Bert and I visited the NAPA Auto store in Riverton to pick up some super-duty coolant hose that I spliced into our rig. Hopefully, this will end the coolant line failure at the same point every few years. James, Bert, and I removed and painted his tractor hood that was flaking off the New Holland blue paint. It was definitely a three-person job to get the hood off and on again.

It was another nice visit with Bert and Leigh. They even had one of their prairie dogs at the exit to their place to say goodbye.

From there we headed north to Thermopolis, WY to enjoy the hot springs. The Wyoming State Bathhouse was still open for business. The changes due to COVID were limits on the number of people inside at any time (a number larger than we have ever seen there at any one time), no towels for rent (had to use our own), and a limit on how long you could be within the facility (soak limit of 20 minutes, total time in the facility 30 minutes). We had a nice soak and headed for a camping spot for the evening.

Like Colorado, the Wyoming campgrounds have gone to an online reservation system. However, our favorite campground, Lower Wind River CG, has no cell reception so you cannot make a reservation once you arrive. Because we had to drive back down the Wind River Canyon to Thermopolis to get cell reception, we just found an RV park in town to stay, the Eagle RV Park. It was the typical RV park where folks are packed in way too close, but she gave us a great deal on the price that made it lower than the campground back up the canyon where we intended to stay. Plus, it had its own laundry machines.

We headed north out of Thermopolis the next morning with clean clothes and into Wyoming’s cattle country. We climbed up Hwy 14 into the Bighorn Mountain Range. As you can see from the picture, it was a very steep climb, and the air quality was rather poor in the valley below due to the forest fire smoke from other western states.

At the top of the climb we stopped to visit the Medicine Wheel National Historic Site, a sacred Native-American site. You must hike the 1.5 miles from the parking lot to the site on top of the 9,600-foot plateau. Usually it is a gorgeous view out over the valley below, but visibility was greatly limited due to the smoke.

The last time we visited the site there was a prayer ceremony ongoing, so no pictures were allowed. This time is was unoccupied so we could take a picture of the site. This site dates back roughly 1,000 years, but other medicine wheels in the northwest and southern Canada date back 5,500 years. Archeological digs in the area date this region’s use by Native-Americans back 7,000 years, where some of the radial spokes of the medicine wheel align with stars.

The national forest campground we had stayed at previously near the medicine wheel was closed this late in the year. We drove to the eastern side of the range and found a spot open for two nights at Sibley Lake CG.

The campground had two loops: one for big campers with all the hook-ups and the other for tents or RVs that required no hook-ups. We were on the side with no hook-ups and had a nice spot. Sometime after we pulled in a 45-foot Class A RV parked in the spot next to us. Apparently, they wanted to stay there and the only spot open to reservations was next to us. They booked that with the hope that when they arrived a full hook-up site would be open. They were a nice couple from Minnesota that have been RVing for many years. I thought a rig like that would need hook-ups, but I was wrong. The second day they ran their generator, but it was quieter than other generators running near us.

On the other side of us was a couple setting up a tent for the very first time (right out of the box and plastic wrap). As I watched, eventually the Boy Scout in me kicked in and I had to give them some pointers to save then future agony in poor weather. They were heading to Yellowstone so hopefully they looked like experienced campers once they arrived there.

We hiked around the lake, but a more interesting hike was along the Nordic track surrounding the campground. There were several loops that are groomed in the winter that provide cross-country skiing through the forest near the campsite.

All three loops meet up at a common point in the forest at a warming hut, complete with two wood burning stoves and wood. I guess a complete enclosure is not required.

The trail we hiked was the Prune Creek Loop, which followed the crystal-clear Prune Creek from the warming hut to the campground. We saw what I originally thought was a black martin along the hike, but it looked more like a mink after some research. Pretty cool sighting. It was sleek and beautiful as it moved in and around the forest.

We dropped out of the Bighorn Mountains and into the smokey valley air as we said goodbye to Wyoming and headed into Montana.

Colorado 2020

When we first began our summer treks seven years ago, we stumbled upon Ruby Mountain CG on the Arkansas River Headwaters near Salida, CO. The first couple of years when we stopped there the campground was a remote, deserted campground with first-come, first-served camping and great trout fishing in the river. However, the land next to the sleepy little campground was designated Brown’s Canyon National Monument a few years ago. Seemingly overnight, the off-road trails were improved causing a continuous stream of jeeps and ATVs through the campground. The campground itself had an extreme face-lift with big, beautiful rocks lining each campsite and local businesses started running rafting trips down the river, eliminating the fishing. Last year all Colorado state-run campgrounds went to an online reservation system only, including our once favorite hidden place. Being only a couple hours from Denver, the campground has now been found and was booked full as we checked on our way out of New Mexico. We realized that we needed a new spot, the Ruby Mountain CG we enjoyed was now gone.

Heading up through central Colorado on Hwy 285, we found a campground near Fairplay, CO. Horseshoe Campground was located several miles into the national forest along a nice dirt road.

The campground sites were reservable, and most were taken for the upcoming Labor Day Weekend, but many were open when we arrived Sunday afternoon.

The campground was in a lush valley along Fourmile Creek. The entire valley leading up to the campground was a multi-tiered waterway of beaver ponds and dens. It was great to see. We did not see any beavers at work in the daylight, but it was obvious they were slowly working their eco-magic downstream into the valley below.

The campground itself was nice and lush, with small pools of water and moss between the campsites.

I spoke with the camp host and asked where the trailhead next to our campsite led. He said folks come from all over to hike up to the Bristlecone and Limber Pine trees.

We hiked up to the see the trees along a nice path through the forest.

The Bristlecone and Limber pines live at the higher elevation along the tree line. These trees’ lives are measured in centuries instead of decades as with most trees. Similar Bristlecone trees we have seen in other places were over 1000 years old, one topping out at 5,000 years old.

They are rugged trees given the conditions they live in, rocky soil and buried in snow most of the year.

We heard the “meep” of Pikas in the rocks around us, but it took a few minutes to spot one. Pikas are short-eared, tailless cousins of rabbits that live at the higher elevations. One is in the center of the photo below, if you can spot the rock-colored rodents.

It looks like we have found a new favorite campground near Denver.

We had scheduled a service appointment at the Earthroamer plant, so we made our way into Denver and camped at St. Vrains State Park, just down the road from Earthroamer. The park is a wildlife reserve with several ponds and many birds. However, it is next to I-25 so there is a constant hum of traffic that is always difficult to ignore after extremely quite nights in the forest.

It was a two-day service, so we dropped off the Roamer, moved some of our stuff into a loaner car and headed to the laundromat. While doing laundry we found a local breakfast place, Gabe’s Café, that made great corned beef hash and breakfast burritos while our clothes spun away the dirt. We then stopped into Duluth Trading Post to grab some gloves and a hat I had forgotten for the trip seeing that it was over 110 degrees when we packed and left. Who thinks about freezing weather in 110 degrees?

We then headed north to Fort Collins, CO for the night. We met up with our nephew Ben and his fiancé, Emily, and their 60-lb Newfoundland / Great Pyrenees mix puppy, Tippet, at a local brewery for a nice outdoor dinner. We spent the night at the Armstrong Hotel in downtown Fort Collins. It is a historic hotel that had nice rooms, but thin walls, as we had drunk, singing hotel neighbors that night. It makes you appreciate your own rig at times like this.

We walked around downtown the next day and picked up a few things and mailed some others while we were in civilization.

We also visited the Fort Collins Museum of Art, where they had pieces from artists all over the west. The hanging piece was a “blanket” stitched together from 35mm film negatives. It was an interesting piece. However, there is always that one piece that makes you think the artist just threw something together in an afternoon to meet the delivery deadline and declared it “art”.

Fort Collins has a nice cooking store called the Cupboard that we visited on our walk. I picked up some huckleberry chocolates with fishing flies painted on them. They were made in Missoula, and now I am hooked. Lol.

We headed back down to the Denver area, picked up the Roamer and went back to St. Vrains to camp since it was late in the day. We had the yearly tune-up for the camper and bought a new wheel rim. One of our split rims had been leaking slowly for a couple of years, and while we do have an onboard air compressor to refill the tire, it was becoming a daily requirement and tiresome.

We took off for Wyoming the next morning as the Labor Day weekend approached.

New Mexico 2020

2020 has been an interesting year so far. Taylor and Lucia made us grandparents in February to a beautiful granddaughter, Beatrice. Tom, our eldest son, was home from his job overseas and we enjoyed 6 weeks with him before he headed out again on his next assignment.

Once he left, Pam and I decided to take another road trip. The valley hit a new record this year of 50 days over 110 degrees, so we were ready for some cool air in higher elevations. We headed up to our place on the Rim as a first stop for a couple days to let the poor Roamer shed some of the heat it had been soaking up all summer.

The weather up at 7,600 feet was nice and cool. The forest was healthy, the sky clear of forest fire smoke and the pond was still holding a lot of water even with the below average rainfall this monsoon season.

We found a recent carcass that had been picked clean by the local coyotes and birds on our walks around the pond.

We planned to visit Bandelier National Monument on our way north this year, but New Mexico has been one of the more restricted states relative to COVID. When I called the Ranger station at Bandelier to see what restrictions were in place, I was reminded that the National Parks and Monuments are federal lands and not state lands. With this information, we then took off on our summer trek #7 to skip across New Mexico via National Monuments.

We headed for El Morro National Monument, which is just east of the Zuni reservation in New Mexico. The road through the reservation was closed so we had to back-track into Arizona and north around the reservation. The bright side was that we got to see a new section of New Mexico, arriving at El Morro after our 100-mile diversion. Typically, arriving as late as we did, there would be no camp spots remaining at the first-come-first-serve campground. However, it was nearly empty due to the lack of tourists given the New Mexico COVID restrictions, so we got a spot and had a nice first night on the road.

The visitor center was closed, but the trails at the park were open. This would be the case at many of the parks we would end up visiting. The rock of El Morro looked unchanged.

As we made our way to Bandelier, we took the back way up the Jemez River valley. We had not been this way since a trip with Lou and Nancy a few years ago. We stopped at the Soda Dam, a 300-foot dam made of calcium carbonate (soda) and travertine.

The Jemez River valley was a pretty drive.

The road continues by Valles Caldera National Preserve. This beautiful valley is the site of Walt Longmire’s house in the Wyoming TV series Longmire. I am sure places in Wyoming look similar, but this is one spectacular valley.

We arrived at Bandelier National Monument and while only two of the three camping loops were open, we were only one of about 10 folks there so finding a spot or social distancing was not an issue.

The next morning, we hiked from the campground down the Frey trail into the Frijoles Canyon valley.

The walls of the canyon are volcanic, where the air pockets of the cooling lava could be seen in the erosion of the rock wall.

This area was settled by the Ancestral Pueblo people between 1150 and 1550 AD. The multi-century drought that hit the entire southwest during this time forced the Frijoles Canyon peoples to the nearby Rio Grande after 1550 AD. The outline of the main community living quarters and kivas can be seen in the picture below. When it was in use, the many rooms around the central area were accessed from a ladder through the roof instead of a door.

Also, along the canyon walls you can see the remains of the homes that extended up two or three stories high. The holes where the structural tree timbers were mounted into the wall are still visible.

A few of the homes were rooms carved out of the volcanic rock in the side of the walls.

The inside of the room has the handprints on the lower wall left by the past residences. The upper part is black from soot of their fires inside the home.

The visitor center was closed, but the café was open for lunch. In fact, just before we arrived at the café the head Ranger told the crew that they could now serve food inside. Pam and I split a New Mexico great green chili cheeseburger while we dined in the café alone before heading back up the canyon to our camp site.

We ran across this guy on the campground roads soaking up the afternoon heat. We shooed him off the road before he ended up a little flatter from the occasional traffic.

The next day we had an enjoyable rest day at the campsite. I taped off and spray painted our utility box on our rig. Luckily, the paint dried before the afternoon rains showed up. It rained off and on for most of the evening, driving away the few tent campers that showed up for the weekend ill-prepared for the weather.

It was a nice stay at Bandelier, but we headed north out of New Mexico and into Colorado to keep our upcoming appointment for our Roamer.

Cottonwood Canyon Road

After completing our tasks in Escalante, we packed up our caravan and headed to Kodachrome Basin State Park. It was too late in the day to do the planned hikes in the park, so we asked the Ranger for a good place to disperse camp outside of the park. She directed us to the Rock Spring Bench Campsite off Cottonwood Canyon Road at marker 410. We set up camp in a field with an incredible view of the surrounding geology.

The mouse appeared in the morning and Clark saw it jump outside before it could be captured, never to return. I guess it liked the drier, warmer climate.

Kodachrome Basin got its name from a 1948 National Geographic magazine shoot that called the area Kodachrome Flat after the brand of Kodak film known for its vibrant colors. Utah purchased the land from the US Government and made it a state park in 1962.

The next day we went back to the park and did two hikes. The first was the 3-mile Panorama Trail which lives up to its name. Everywhere you look you are surrounded by natural beauty on this trail.

There are a lot of spires of various colors throughout the park. Some of these formed from water springs that filled with material that became a harder rock than the water spring walls that eventually eroded away. Other spires were volcanic shafts that pushed a different rock material up through a rock formation that has also eroded away.

This is the view from Panoramic Point looking towards the basin. It is hard to believe that less than 100 years ago this area was the beautiful, “undiscovered” region within the US for the National Geographic photo shoot.

After lunch we did the shorter Angel’s Palace Trail. This trail jumps up onto a local plateau that gives a great view of the park below. This is also looking towards the Basin.

This is a view from one of the many narrow elevated pathways along the hike looking to the west, away from the Basin. Besides the incredible beauty, the building along the road was a park laundromat. We will have to remember that the next time through here.

We camped at the same spot that night. The Rangers in the visitor center let us rent their corn hole bags and boards. It was a competitive happy-hour where all three couples won in the round-robin tournament.

The next morning, we packed up, returned the corn hole game, and headed south down Cottonwood Canyon Road. We stopped at Grosvenor Arch for a few pics of this unique rock formation. The 150-foot tall arches were named after Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, the first fulltime editor of the National Geographic Magazine and later the president of the National Geographic Society.

Not all the interesting things are from looking up, or even rocks. Pam found this great looking lizard making his way around the base of the arch. Nice polka dots.

As we continued south you could now see the Magnum Fire smoke cloud that was blowing to the northeast. We dropped into “the squeeze” where the trailheads for the cottonwood canyon narrows are located. The area gets its name from the near vertical tilt of the many rock formations in the area. This must be a geological stress release point where a lot of ground shifting and rotating has taken place over the years.

The narrows hike is a 3-mile hike through a slot canyon wash in the area.

Given the COVID concern, many of our hikes luckily had very few other folks on the trail with us. As we hiked the narrows “downstream”, a young woman was hiking up and stopped to chat with Clark and Jill. It turned out that she was a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) intern and was just getting to know her job area better. The next generation may not be as bad as we think.

The area is also called “candyland” due to the many colors of the rock formations.

We hiked back to the vehicles on the road because the scenery along the road is just as spectacular as within the slot canyon. Also, the road traffic is light – lol.

We left there and continued south to Lower Hackberry Canyon trailhead. The trip so far had been low maintenance for all three vehicles. I had to replace a bolt in our stairs when we were in Blanding, add DEF to the Roamer reservoir when the warning flashed on my dash, and the macerator in our sink drain was flowing slower than usual, which Pam fixed. Clark and Jill had their mouse hunt, and Mike and Nancy had to replace a hold-down bolt and reseat their microwave when it popped out due to the rough roads we were traveling on. However, a bolt through the scissoring support arms of Clark and Jill’s pop-top bent, preventing easy operation of the assembly and the fear if it broke when up, the top would be stuck in the up position. Mike and I headed up Lower Hackberry trail while Pam and Nancy relaxed at the vehicles. Clark and Jill continued south along Cottonwood Canyon Road to find a connectivity signal and figure out how to remedy their bent bolt issue.

The Lower Hackberry hike was pretty, but tough as we made out way up the wash. It was like a beach hike through soft sand. After about a couple of miles, Mike and I turned around and headed back to the vehicles.

We knew we wanted to camp somewhere south of Lower Hackberry so we started heading that way towards Clark and Jill. As we made our way along the road, we ran into Clark and Jill returning to the trailhead. They had found connectivity, purchased a replacement bolt in Page, AZ and scouted a spot just a few miles south while attempting to resolve the pop-top issue. The fix would require internal bracing of the pop-top in the up position while a come-along unloaded the hefty spring mechanism that aids with the lifting of the 350-lb pop-top assembly. Therefore, their top would remain down the rest of the trip and the fix completed upon return to the valley.

The campsite was a dispersed camp spot just off the Cottonwood Canyon Road with a colorful rock wall as a backdrop.

Looking to the south you could see the smoke from the Magnum Fire around Jacob Lake, about 50 miles away. Luckily, we were north-northeast of the fire and the smoke was tracking northeast, just missing us.

We had some hummingbird visitors, so Pam put out our hummingbird feeder on the table as we enjoyed happy-hour, a nice dinner and a campfire. I must have sold Mike on the versatility and safety of our Volcano grill during this trip. He sent a picture after we got home of his new Volcano grill for their future trips. I was amazed how clean it looked. I guess ours has seen about 1000 nights of camping by now and the second carrying bag for the grill is held together with bungee cords. The grills are nearly indestructible and in addition to regular cooking, work extremely well for having a safely contained, off the ground campfire in the wilderness.

The next day we headed to Stateline campground only to find a Ranger there saying Rock House Road south of Wire Pass trailhead was now closed. We camped on the hill above the trailhead parking lot as we had done before with Lou and Nancy a few years ago. The only downside was that the trail to the maze petroglyphs is south of the closure so we could not visit it this time.

Thinking that maybe with the COVID scare less people would be at the daily lottery for The Wave at the Kanab BLM office, I called the office and found out that the previous days all had over 100 people there for the lottery of 10 spots, similar to a normal year. Therefore, we decided to just hike Wire Pass and Buckskin slot canyons.

Jill, Mike and Nancy took off early to hike the canyon. Clark and I hiked into the slot along the Wire Pass trail a little later in the day. Pam was not feeling 100% so she stayed at the rigs and read a good murder mystery in the shade.

There was no ladder at the drop in the Wire Pass slot, but Clark and I were tall enough to reach the rock steps below before we had to let go of the top rock at the drop. It was nice and cool in the slot canyon.

We hiked to the confluence where Wire Pass and Buckskin meet and turned north towards the Buckskin trailhead.

We spotted this lizard that was similar in color to the gold and orange shades of the sandstone walls. Obviously, his camouflage was not good enough seeing that something nearly got him for a meal before he shed the end of his tail and got away.

It was my first time hiking so far up Buckskin and the canyon was wider and just as beautiful as Wire Pass. Near the end of the canyon I spotted a rock formation that reminded me of an elephant head and trunk coming down the canyon.

As we hiked out of the Buckskin slot canyon and approached the trailhead, we ran across a cow that looked a little parched.

Clark and I then turned around and hiked back down Buckskin to the confluence with Wire Pass and then continued south further down Buckskin. This section was rockier on the canyon floor and made for a slower hike. Some sections were sandy, and we caught the light making its way down through the slot at the point we turned around.

We got back to the confluence for a third time during this hike and then headed out Wire Pass. The entrance to the slot canyon looks very narrow as you approach it from the confluence.

The Magnum Fire was now only 25 miles away from our campsite at Wire Pass. We were a little further to the north, so the smoke traveling northeast was missing us still. The area of the fire around Jacob Lake is around 7,900 feet in elevation. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is covered with Ponderosa Pine and Aspen that turn gold, orange and even red in the fall due to the colder air at that elevation.

The original itinerary was to show Clark, Jill, Mike and Nancy one of our secret camp spots just outside the National Park. It is located on the east side of Hwy 67, overlooking the Vermillion Cliffs and the Colorado River entrance to the Grand Canyon. The area should be untouched by the fire because the 80,000-acre fire was contained to the west side of Hwy 67, which runs from Jacob Lake to the North Rim. This campsite disclosure will have to wait for another trip.

So instead of heading to the North Rim we had to turn east to Page due to the fire related road closures and then south to Flagstaff. We stopped just outside Flagstaff for gas and to restock on food. Clark and Jill headed for the dispersed camp sites near Walnut Springs National Monument to find a spot.

Clark found a nice spot tucked in some trees and we had a nice happy-hour in the shade.

The next morning we hiked the rim trail of Walnut Springs National Monument because the visitor center and the access to the cliffside trail was closed.

We then headed into Flagstaff for lunch. We had to wait for the trains to pass so we could cross the tracks and get into town. It was a case where we really were on the wrong side of the tracks.

The last time we were in Flagstaff we found a good butcher shop that also serves meals and beers from the local breweries. Proper Meats + Provisions is right on Historic Hwy 66 and worth a stop if you are hungry and thirsty.

Our travel group split up after lunch to head on home. Clark, Jill, Mike and Nancy headed south back to the valley. Pam and I headed southeast to the Rim Country and our place there. Another fire, the Bush Fire, was between us and the valley once we made it to Payson. It is contained now after consuming 193,000 acres, but had caused the closure of the road from Payson to the valley for over a week. It was a little smokey coming into Payson.

Our place is 30 miles and 2500 feet higher in elevation from Payson. We were not sure how smokey it was going to be there. As with most forest fires, the smoke lays down at night, but gains altitude in the late afternoon before sunset.

While it was nice when we arrived at our place, it slowly became smokier in the afternoon. By sunset, it was pretty smokey at our place, even with the fire about 100 miles away.

The next day we decided to drive back down to the valley. Because of the Hwy 87 road closure we had to drive through the Salt River Canyon between Show Low and Globe. It took a couple more hours than normal to reach home, but the drive was nice, and we even saw another Earthroamer on the road traveling in the opposite direction as we were climbing out of the canyon.

It was a great trip with the three vehicles. COVID did not impact our adventure because we visited remote places where social distancing is easy to do. So the question is – where to next?

The Burr Trail

We headed out of the backcountry and the gnat-infested camping spot to Blanding, UT. We filled our rigs with gas and water and headed to the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum. We’ve traveled through Blanding several times over the past few years but had never visited the museum.

The museum was incredible, especially when you consider that Blanding only has a population of 3,700 folks. Many of the artifacts that have been found in the region reside in the museum. There was an entire room of the pottery collected, representing the four major periods in native history they were created. The pottery also varied in color and patterns by the different people that inhabited the region.

The macaw feather sash ceremonial piece was carbon dated to 1150 AD, but still had the bright colors of the scarlet macaw feathers. Trade was extensive between the folks from this region with folks all the way down into Mexico, the home of the macaw, and folks along the Pacific coast who brought shells other items to trade.

We then went to explore the “house on fire” ruins in the Bears Ears National Monument. The variation in color in the layers of sandstone give the appearance of flames above the ruins.

That night we headed back to Muley Point and another gorgeous happy-hour sunset.

The next day we visited Natural Bridges National Monument. Again, the visitor center and campground were closed, but the trails were open. We hiked down to the Sipapu Bridge overlook.

Sipapu Bridge is named for a Hopi term for the opening of the worlds. It is 200 feet tall, 31 feet wide, with a span of 268 feet.

We then hiked down to the Kachina Bridge overlook. On the way we saw this tree that has somehow figured out how to grow out of a rock and survive.

Kachina Bridge was named after the pictographs and petroglyphs of dancing kachina figures found on the base of the bridge. In 1992, 4,000 tons of sandstone fell from the inside of the bridge, making the opening slightly larger. It is just slightly smaller that Sipapu Bridge at 210 feet tall, 44 feet wide and 204 feet in span.

After our hikes, we headed west towards Hite, UT. Hwy 95 runs through Fry Canyon and some very colorful country.

We stopped at an overlook after passing Hite and crossing the Colorado River. This is effectively the entrance to Lake Powell and was at one time submerged when the water level was closer to the full water level value. Lake Powell is currently 90 feet below the full water level and has been that way for decades. Even at this lower level it currently contains over 4.4 trillion gallons, or 13.6 million acre-ft of water.

This is a view from the lookout of the Colorado River as it flows towards the Lake Powell entrance.

We turned south after Hite on the 276 Hwy towards Bullfrog, UT. Given the boat traffic on the road towards the marina at Bullfrog, I now realize that boat accidents occur because boat owners cannot drive on the road or in the water. Many must have a death wish as they try to get to the marina at maximum speed.

Before reaching Bullfrog, we turned west onto the Burr Trail, a 68-mile backcountry road that connects Bullfrog, UT with Boulder, UT. The drive is spectacular and is paved except for the section that runs through Capital Reef National Park.

At roughly 28 miles after the turn onto the Burr Trail you begin to see the “waterpocket fold”. This geological feature is made up of 100-foot layers of sedimentary rock that were bent into a 100-mile long colorful spine of rocks that formed 60 to 70 million years ago when the Rocky Mountains were uplifted and formed.

This is the approach to the Burr Trail switchback, a true dirt switchback that climbs up the face of the waterpocket fold.

This shot is looking down the face of the waterpocket fold through the slot where the road enters the switchbacks.

Once on top of the switchbacks we began to look for a good camp spot for the night. We found a pull-off just before Long Canyon with an incredible backdrop provided by the local mountains. As the sun was setting, we noticed what looked like a forest fire smoke cloud dispersed across the sky, which are common in the summertime in the west. We did not have a connectivity signal to locate the fire, but I expected it to be from somewhere in the southwest of Utah near Bryce Canyon or the Sierras of California based on the wind direction. We did not know that the smoke meant that our last part of our itinerary was about to change.

When we do have connectivity on our travels I like to look ahead and see if there are interesting places to explore. A few days before, I found a posting for the Singing Canyon, a short slot canyon within Long Canyon that looked like a good stop.

The singing canyon gets its name from the acoustics within the short canyon. It was a nice morning stop and short hike into the beautiful slot canyon.

Before reaching Boulder and the end of the Burr Trail, we stopped for another hike on an interesting sandstone hill. The hill is covered with shattered rocks that appear to have a lot of iron content. It looks like thousands of volcanic iron balls were launched in the air during an eruption many years ago, cooled in the air and then shattered on impact with the sandstone.

We finally made it to Boulder and got some gas at one of our favorite stops in Boulder. When we were there last a couple of years ago, we signed a petition so that they could get support for a liquor license. The closest beer or liquor was an hour away. The little market now has beer and liquor – yeah!

Boulder, a small but very pleasant town, also has a museum we had not visited before. The Anasazi State Park Museum was a surprisingly nice museum with some excavated ruins of an ancient community in the back that you could see.

The museum also had a taco truck in the parking lot. We ordered lunch there while we listened to a band that was playing on their lawn. It was the first “dining out” Pam and I had done since the beginning of the COVID panic in early March. The tacos and the band were good. Hopefully, things will return to normal soon.

We left Boulder and headed into the Dixie National Forest along the Hell’s Backbone Road. Before Hwy 12 was carved through the sandstone rock formations and paved between Escalante and Boulder, Hell’s Backbone Road was the only way to get to Boulder. Hell’s Backbone bridge was originally built by the CCC back in 1933.

The bridge’s location is the “backbone” where two gorges, the Death Hollows gorge on one side and the San Creek gorge on the other, fall off for 1000 feet or more. To build the original bridge the CCC felled two huge ponderosa trees to span the gap. A bulldozer driver, “Sixty” McInelly, moved the construction equipment across the fallen tree span with just a rope tied around his waist in case the dozer went over. OSHA was obviously created after the CCC – lol.

The original bridge held until the 1960s when folks became worried about the groans and creaks it made during each crossing. It was replaced with a steel and concrete bridge and then update to today’s bridge in 2005. The 360-view from the bridge is spectacular and photos just do not adequately capture the place.

We were able to get the last spot in Blue Spruce Campground along the Hell’s Backbone road, squeezing all three rigs into the single spot. The elevation of the campground is roughly 7,800 feet, and therefore, back into the cool forest.

There was a nice stream that ran next the campground.

Being out first campground for this trip, it was also our first campsite picnic table. Jill pulled out their tablecloth for the site’s picnic table. The pink and turquoise flamingoes were perfect.

During the night Clark and Jill picked up another passenger, a mouse that had obviously spent the night chewing through their paper products. It could not be found within the rig, even after the removal of many items, and so we left the site with a possible stow-away.

We stopped in at Posey Lake for lunch along the route to Escalante.

There were a few Ruddy Ducks on the lake, which are a colorful bird with a light blue beak.

Two fishermen headed out with a canoe and a cooler outrigger that one of the guy’s brothers had fabricated. The PVC structure looked like it worked well. We saw them pull in a few rainbow trout while the coolers provided easy access to food and beer while they were out on the water.

We made it to Escalante, UT and did some laundry at a local campground. We had connectivity again in town and found out that the forest fire smoke was from the Mangum Fire located near the north rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. That was to be our last campsite area for this trip so a change in plans would be required.

Four Corners

With the COVID-19 virus dominating everyone’s thoughts and actions, it was a good time to hit the road and explore the natural beauty in some remote places. I put together an itinerary for a southern Utah road trip for Pam, myself, Clark and Jill to get out of town for a couple of weeks. It turned out that other friends, Mike and Nancy, had just purchased a Ford Sportsmobile and were enroute back to the valley when they saw the itinerary and decided to join this adventure. It would now be a Roamer, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and a Ford Sportsmobile trek.

Due to the heat this summer in the valley, Pam and I headed up north with the Roamer into the cooler mountain forest and waited up there until Clark and Jill could leave the valley. Mike and Nancy would join us enroute in southern Utah after they got home and stocked up their new rig.

Before any trip I like to practice taking some pictures with our camera to learn more about photography and how the camera works in different conditions. While most of my pics are of stationary objects, I would like to get better at capturing action shots. I am not there yet.

I caught this rabbit trying to hide behind some ferns in our yard.

Steller’s Jays are all around our yard, especially when we put the peanut feeder out. I think they eat as many as the Abert’s squirrels and the two are always stealing from each other’s stash – lol.

We have had a couple of bald eagles at the pond near our place this summer. We typically get osprey that come over from Willow Springs Lake to fish in the pond, but the eagles are a new guest.

I caught a couple of Canada geese resting at the pond during a migration stop. It looked like they were possibly staying, but with the eagles keeping an eye on them from above they moved on the next day.

A great heron was fishing in the pond. Fish and Game are stocking the pond this year so there were a lot of small fingerlings to eat in the shallows since the larger stocked fish now command the center of the pond.

A northern flicker was drinking from the water dish on our deck. I guess they cannot suck so they get some water in their beak and then tilt their heads back to let it run down their throats.

Chipmunks are making a comeback to our area. Alfie, our neighbor’s male cat, pretty much decimated the chipmunk and snake population for over a decade. He even attacked a coyote that was in his hunting territory. Now he is getting older, slowing down, and staying close to his house. The local wildlife appreciates his aging. He still comes over for a scratch when we are in the yard.

An Arizona Gray Squirrel was interested in posing for the camera on a fallen tree.

When Clark and Jill arrived, and we took off north for the four corners – that place where the state boundaries of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah all join together at a singular point. We passed through Petrified Forest National Monument to get to the four corners area. The road through the park was open, along with the trails, but the visitor center and campgrounds were still closed due to COVID.

It was nice to see that every bridge in the park was being rebuilt during this period of partial closure. The impact of the COVID shutdown is not all bad. It is a great time for road work and construction with the reduced daily traffic.

As you can see from the pictures, the place is no longer a forest. The large trees that once stood there were buried under layers of mud, volcanic ash, and other minerals. The lack of oxygen prevented decay and over millions of years the wood’s cellular structure crystallized, transforming into petrified wood. Chunks of the old trees are still visible everywhere and the colors within the crystallized wood are beautiful.

The four corners region is on the Navajo Nation lands. While the majority of the Navajo Nation is in Arizona, it does extend into Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. The Nation is 27,400 square miles, roughly a 160-mile by 160-mile square. If it were a separate US state it would rank 41 in size, being just larger than West Virginia in size, with a population of roughly 200,000 people. While the area is sparsely populated and remote, the Navajo family-oriented society has suffered significantly due to COVID relative to the surrounding areas in the West. Because of this, much of the Navajo Nation is still closed, which includes businesses and even the National Parks and Monuments within the Navajo Nation.

We caught an afternoon dust storm as we made our way through the beautiful landscape of the Navajo Nation on our way to southern Utah.

We climbed the Mokie Dugway switchbacks and finally made it to our first campsite of the trip, Muley Point. A rain cloud hung low to the ground in the south over the four corners region as we looked out over the beautiful landscape. Luckily, it did not rain so the dirt roads we were driving on were dry.

From Muley Point you can look past the lip of the plateau and see Monument Valley on the horizon about 10 miles to the south. Having grown up in Western Pennsylvania, surrounded by trees, I now prefer the majestic horizon-to-horizon vistas that most of the West provides.

Soon after we arrived, Mike and Nancy arrived to complete our travel group. We had the plateau to ourselves again, which was why I chose this spot for our campsite given the COVID social distancing requirement. I think the closest neighbor to our three rigs was about a quarter of a mile away on the next plateau.

As an added precaution, we had happy-hour every night during the trip to ensure that the alcohol killed any growing COVID cultures in our throat – lol.

Sunsets up on the plateau are spectacular.

The next day we dropped back down the Mokie Dugway switchbacks and explored Gooseneck State Park. The San Juan River cut this gorgeous formation through the rock on its way westward to the confluence with the Colorado River at Lake Powell. We saw some rafters on the river 1000 feet below from our lookout vantage point, making their way through this section of the river.

This entire region of the country is breath-taking if you like colorful, unique rock formations. To the east of Gooseneck State Park is a mountain side with a few million years of erosion history beautifully displayed.

From up on top of the Muley Point plateau you can see Monument valley on the horizon to the south, Gooseneck State Park just a little way to the south, and a dirt road that runs along the southern base of the plateau that we have always wanted to explore, Johns Canyon Road.

Both the Roamer and the Sportsmobile are high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles so we let Clark and Jill lead with their two-wheel drive Sprinter. We figured if they led and got stuck, we could pull them back to a good section of road with our winches, rather than let them follow and attempt to pull them through a bad spot or force them to scrape their undercarriage to keep up. The idea worked well. Both Mike and I were impressed with the rough road sections Clark was able to get the Sprinter through without scraping the bottom. However, as a future note, the rougher four-wheel drive sections are typically not areas with a lot of room for recovery options. But then again, you only need one good option that works.

Most of the road looks like the picture below, so most of it is an easy drive. However, the sections of easy road turn to clay in the rain and become impassable even for four-wheel drive vehicles.

We ended up stopping near a cattle guard gate that blocked the road. Due to the slope and erosion of the road after the gate, the Sprinter would have modified a few components under the vehicle attempting get through.

Instead of doing vehicular damage, we parked on a nice bluff overlooking the San Juan River gorge and had lunch. The picture below is from the cattle guard gate looking back the way we came.

Here is our Roamer advertisement shot for the trip that Pam took at our lunch spot along the road – lol. It was a beautiful spot.

The original itinerary had us using Muley Point as our social distancing nightly base for a few days as we explored the local area. However, we are always looking for a new and better place to camp so we decided to check out the Valley of the Gods for a good afternoon hike and a campsite.
The colors within the Valley of the Gods are spectacular.

The road winds through the rock monoliths.

We found a good spot for a hike. According to Clark the trailhead sign told of beautiful petroglyphs, so we all headed up the trail.

The trail ran up the rock-bed wash, but no petroglyphs were found.

There were many spots along the road where you could pull off and camp. We found a great spot to spend the night and enjoy the stars.

The next morning, we continued along the road to the other side of the picturesque valley.

One of the rock monoliths was called “sitting hen” for an obvious reason.

After leaving the Valley of the Gods we headed east towards the Colorado border and Hovenweep National Monument. Again, the park and trails were open, but the visitor center and the campground were closed. We hiked the 2-mile loop around the ruins that were built between 1200 and 1300 AD.

It is estimated that roughly 2500 people lived here during that time, and that most of the ruins are the food storage granaries.

After lunch at Hovenweep NM, we decided to explore the dirt roads in the area for a good campsite. We drove up Montezuma Canyon and Montezuma Creek roads until we came to Three Kiva Pueblo.

It was a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) site with a preserved kiva out in the middle of nowhere. As with all kivas, you climbed down the ladder into the kiva, symbolic of re-entering the earth where the ancient Pueblo people originally emerged during creation.

The inside of the kiva was well-maintained and is probably still used by some locals for native ceremonies.

We camped near the kiva that night, which turned out to be a huge mistake. The area was covered in sage, which always smells great, and cottonwood trees running along a submerged stream nearby. It was an active cattle grazing area, which meant there were a lot of biting gnat-like bugs that made for an evening of advanced deet-related skin protection. Clark and Pam were the gnat’s food of choice based on their quantity of bites, but we all suffered enough irritating bites when we took inventory in the morning that should remind us to never, ever camp there again.

McNeal

Every year we make a late winter trip down to McNeal in southeastern Arizona to see the Sandhill Cranes. These 4-foot tall birds with a 7-foot wingspan, along with many other birds, use the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area as their winter migration stop.

The winter weather has been typical this year with day-long rains and snow in the higher elevations across Arizona. A little weather was predicted for the trip, but we decided to hit the road anyway.

We drove east through Globe to Safford before dropping south through Wilcox. The spring orange and red desert poppies were in bloom across the San Carlos Indian Reservation hillsides. Blue lupins lined the roads as we made our way towards Safford. We did stop for lunch in the small farming community of Thatcher at Kainoa’s Hawaiian Grill. The food there is always good, so we always stop there. Pretty simple.

We got to Whitewater Draw on a beautiful evening and squeezed into a camp spot near the old hay barn.

Pam and I found a Great Horned Owl couple in the hay barn. One of the owls was nearly hidden in the huge nest in the rafters, while the other kept watch from his rafter perch.

The Sandhill Cranes has just returned for the evening from feeding in the farm fields to the north when we arrived. There were still thousands around the ponds.

A group of Snow Geese were also calling the area home as they will soon begin their migration north. You can tell the Snow Goose from the Ross Goose by the black lips of the Snow Goose. Who knew a goose had lips?

The Arizona Wildlife Game and Fish Department purchased the area some time ago and fill the ponds with water from a local well. The ponds were lower than usual, but the waterfowl appeared to like this reduced level because it made bottom feeding a little easier. Three female, Northern Shovelers were enjoying shallow water.

These two Long-Billed Dowitchers were also enjoying the reduced water level and larger feeding areas that it produced. While they spend the winter along the Arizona-Mexico border, soon they will fly to their summer home at the northern shores of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

Once night approached, the owls took to the skies for hunting. The great horned owl perched on a pole until it spotted something in the grass and became a high-speed, silent glider about to eat. There was also a bat house in the hay barn. As night fell you could see the hundreds of bats take flight to feed on the local insect population.

The sunset turned beautiful colors of orange and gold as we sat outside and enjoyed the evening.

A little rain was predicted for the next morning, and we heard it start in the middle of the night. It was still raining in the morning and the ground was fully saturated. Also, the dirt in this region turns to a slick clay that makes walking and driving a little more interesting.

The folks camped next to use were up and gone at daylight. We didn’t need to be anywhere until noon, so we had a nice relaxing morning in the rain. I even walked out to see the birds again and realized that the ground was just not muddy, but a little slick getting around.

We packed up and left the site and had to travel two miles by dirt road to get back to pavement. I put the rig into 4-wheel high and even then, noticed that the back of the rig was not always directly behind us. We turned north out of the Whitewater Draw area and could see a couple of RVs and fifth-wheels stopped in the road about a half a mile to the south. It soon became obvious that they were not stopped as much as stuck on the road as we fish-tailed north on the road in 4-wheel.

We turned onto the road we came in on and about ¾ of a mile on that road was the couple that was camped in front of us the night before. They had made it 1 & ¾ miles in the clay muck but came up ¼ mile short of the pavement. I stopped a little distance away to leave some recovery options open. The road was luckily flat in the middle, but I didn’t want to get too close to the side and slide into the ditch.

I walked over to discuss options since the Roamer has a front and rear winch. I figured I could winch him back towards us to get him aligned with the road and the get in front of him and winch him to the pavement. The Ontario couple we glad to see us, but they had already contacted AAA and a tow truck was on its way.

Our tire treads were big enough and the vehicle heavy enough that we pushed down the 2 inches or so to the clay surface of the road. You can see their tread mark in front of our back tire, where they were not even pushing any mud away and eventually got stuck. Even our rig was tough to keep aligned with the road as the picture shows.

Unfortunately, they had been sitting there for hours (since daybreak). No regular tow truck from AAA would agree to get them out because they probably couldn’t. AAA called in a bigger tow truck from Douglas, about 50 miles away, to do the job for $425. They arrived a few minutes after we did. The tow truck had nice big rear dual wheels so it left a nice path for us to follow.

The tow truck came with a helper in a 4-wheel drive truck who was driving to all the folks stuck on these backroads and getting them into the cue. The tow team must have made some good money that afternoon. The local sheriff stopped by and said as soon as we cleared the area the roads were being shut down.

Luckily, we did make it out because we were heading to a wine tasting even just south of Wilcox, AZ at the Bodega Pierce winery. Not only is this area known for the sandhill cranes, but it is quickly becoming one of the better wine regions in the state. Twice a year they hold a tasting event to release new wines, in Cottonwood, AZ, near Sedona, and Wilcox, AZ.

We dried off, I shed a layer of mud off my boots and we sat down for a nice afternoon of wine tasting. After a few hours we left with a new selection of wines to compliment future dinners at our house.

We then made our way to Chiricahua National Monument to camp for a couple days. While the rain had finally stopped, the clouds were still very low as we climbed up to roughly 5,000 feet into the Chiricahuas.

We camped at the Bonita Springs campground within the NM. The campground was very nice. The camp sites were big and there was a small stream running though the campground.

We caught some good birds in the campground too. This Acorn Woodpecker was busy digging for bugs and making holes to put acorns into in a tree next to our site. There were also large Mexican Jays flying around the campground but they moved from branch to branch so quickly I never got a good picture of one.

When we have hiked the Chiricahuas in the past, we have driven to the top and hiked down into the canyons and then back up to the vehicle. This time we decided to hike from the campsite up and then back down on the way home. We found out later that the rains had caused some rockslides so the road to the top was blocked most of the day. I did see a backhoe with a big front bucket drive up the road towards the top as we were getting ready to hike. I guess my hunch was right.

We hiked up along the stream into the canyons. The rhyolite rock pinnacles that surround you along the hike are eroded volcanic ash from a volcano eruption that occurred just south of this area millions of years ago.

Here is Pam on one of the few sections of rock steps as we approached the Heart of Rocks loop.

The Balancing Rock is an interesting site.

We made our way back down to the campground after about a 7-mile hike. Because our spot was nicely shaded, our solar panels didn’t get a chance to recharge our camper battery during the beautifully sunny day. I had to let the rig idle for awhile to generate enough juice to take a hot shower, make dinner and have a cup of good coffee in the morning.

We headed home the next morning to finish up a very short, but nice trip.

Madera Canyon

We started our 2020 Roamer adventures with a short trip with Clark to Southern Arizona. Jill was out of town, so we kidnapped Clark, saving him from a boring weekend home alone. Our trip began with a visit to the Titan Missile Museum just south of Tucson. It’s a sobering Cold War experience in its technical construction and its devastating power. Its motto was “Peace through Deterrence”. By assuring mutual annihilation both the US and USSR existed in a stalemate for several decades following WWII.

There were 54 of these Titan II installations across the US, becoming operational in 1963 and keeping the peace by sites like these being on alert 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until their deactivation in 1987. This museum is the only installation left to remind us of the state of the world during the Cold War and what could have happened.

After descending 3 floors you enter the control and living quarters area of the facility by passing through two enormous blast doors that were designed to never be opened at the same time.

The control room was a flashback to 1960’s technology, but effective in its simplicity. A simulated launch was performed by the two-person crew it took to verify and launch a strike. After completing the verification of a legitimate launch command, the missile was airborne within 1 minute. All the systems have been de-classified except the three possible destinations that each missile site could strike. Even the operators who manned the sites never knew the destinations.

The hallway between the control center and the missile launch silo was suspended on springs to withstand the substantial ground movement near a nuclear strike. The blast doors and separation also provided the safety buffer for the crew in case of a missile fuel explosion during launch.

The Titan II missile bay was over 300 feet in height with acoustic and water suppression during launch that made its exit unnoticed by the crews in the control segment. The 103-foot missile carried a 9-megaton warhead to its intended destination up to 6,000 miles away. Our guide explained that if you filled a train boxcar with 9 megatons of TNT the resulting filled boxcars would extend from Tucson to the Canadian border. That’s a lot of TNT. The airburst mode would create a scorched earth patch of devastation 300 miles in diameter. The ground penetrating mode would vaporize the earth to create a crater nearly ½ mile in diameter. That doesn’t even include the additional devastating effects of the resulting EMP, radioactive fallout or seismic activity associated with a blast that large. The facility was designed to withstand everything but a direct hit.

When the missile was developed and tested in the Pacific (without the warhead) the US did not hide the tests from the Soviets. The incredible accuracy of the system was witnessed by the Soviets so that they would understand the ramifications of its use.

In the gift shop I bought a card game called “Nuclear War – The Comic Cataclysmic Card Game of Global Destruction”. It was the fiftieth anniversary edition of the game and when we played it later at our campsite it was probably realistic in that nobody was left at the end of the game.

We had never camped on the west side of the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona so after the Missile Museum we headed that way to find a spot. We ended up at Bog Springs Campground up in Madera Canyon, a very popular birding destination.

There were several sites open when we arrived early in the afternoon, but the one we chose was big enough for both our vehicles, so we squeezed into one site.

The campground filled up rapidly after we arrived. Usually the Rangers frown on two rigs in one spot, but the Ranger that stopped in to check up on us didn’t mind. It allowed for another person to grab a spot, so he was OK with us sharing a site in the filled campground. He asked if we had seen the wild turkeys yet, and shortly after he said that, they arrived.

The turkeys were all in the 15 to 25-pound range and would leave and re-appear looking for any food in our site. The Ranger also gave us info on several more dispersed camping sites around the area to try on future trips.

One of the campsites had several bird feeders up to draw in a few of the special birds in this area. We had several Mexican Jays visit our site, but I couldn’t get a picture of one. They are a beautiful blue jay. Maybe next time I’ll get a shot.

There were many trails in the foothills around the camp, so we did a nice 5-mile loop that gained 1,900 feet up the side of the mountain. The weather was perfect for hiking. The loop through the Mt Wrightson Wilderness Area passed by three springs along the mountain side in the shade of some nice trees.

The view looking out over the Green Valley area of Arizona was spectacular.

Mt Wrightson peaks out at 9,453 ft, and although we were only 20 miles from the border, it still had some snow in the shaded crevasses from the recent weather that passed through the region. The late afternoon sun made the rocky peak glow a nice color as seen from our campsite.

Clark had to head home after the long weekend, but Pam and I decided to make one more stop and visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the way home. In addition to the beautiful desert flora and fauna on display at the museum, they have a raptor free-flight program where area raptors fly through the crowds for an incredible close-up view of these beautiful birds.

The first birds out were two Chihuahuan ravens. These smaller and more agile versions of the raven were impressive to watch.

Next out was a female Great Horned owl. The huge bird was raised in captivity and she called out during the entire time looking for a response from the crowd who she takes for her family.

The third bird in the program was the Ferruginous hawk. It gets its name from its rust colored feathers that cover its wings and tail. Trainers on both sides of the crowd provide these birds with little morsels of meat as they swoop just above your head from one side to the other.

The last bird was the striking Crested Caracara. The juvenile bird’s neck was still light brown but will slowly turn to white at it matures.

The raptors glide within inches of your head on their way to their next treat and head back to their home when they are full. It’s a great program to witness.

The bobcat and I had a stare-off contest.

However, like most cats the need to take a nap won out.

The had some big-horned sheep there too. At first, the big ram was so still I thought it was a statue. Then it moved and I saw its mate beside him on the rock.

Southern Arizona is the hummingbird area for the world. Nearly all of the 19 species of hummingbirds in the US can be found in southern Arizona.

A broad-billed hummingbird was out enjoying the sunshine.

A rufous hummingbird was keeping a watchful eye on the nearest feeder.

A female costa’s hummingbird stopped from feeding for a nice camera pose.

I also caught a monarch butterfly in the gardens.

It was a nice first trip for 2020 and we found a new camping spot that we will definitely return to in the future.

2019 Almost Home

We stopped in Hanksville, UT after leaving the San Rafael Swell area for some aluminum foil. We cook a lot of our vegetables in an aluminum pouch on the grill and had run out. The key to perfect pouch grilled vegetables is avocado oil, which has a very high burn temperature. With a little avocado oil and even butter, the vegetables always come out roasted to perfection over the coals, never burnt or welded to the aluminum pouch. It may take longer to cook them over the coals, but it’s worth the wait.

Our next stop was Natural Bridges National Monument to do a hike and see the sights. I was wondering how a park within a park was going to work because Natural Bridges was inside Bears Ears National Monument when it was first defined. The redefined Bears Ears park boundaries no longer encompass Natural Bridges so it no longer makes we wonder how it will work – lol.

There is a pretty drive around the Natural Bridges park with many places to stop and hike or just look at the many natural bridges there. We typically pick one for a hike to stretch our legs. This time we picked Owachomo Bridge.

We continued south to Muley Point, another of our favorite camping spots. Muley Point sits at the end of Cedar Mesa in the Grand Gulch Wilderness Study Area at an altitude of 6,400 feet. From the mesa, the ground drops 1,200 feet to the top of the San Juan River canyon, and then another 1,000 feet into the canyon to the river itself. You can just see Monument Valley on the Utah – Arizona border on the horizon 10 miles to the south. It’s a pretty awesome spot.

Pam and I were once again the only folks there when we arrived. We grabbed a nice spot on the rocks and enjoyed happy hour while taking in the breathtaking view.

A family stopped by to look over the edge and one of the guys said that the last time he was here there were a lot of our campers parked on the mesa. It was in 2013 and we were one of the campers. It was just a month after we bought the Roamer and it was the last day of the yearly owner’s rally. This blog’s header picture of our rig was taken on Muley Point at that rally.

We sat there for a while and watched a beautiful sunset and the Milky Way appear.

Other campers showed up at sunset, so we didn’t have the entire mesa to ourselves, but almost. One couple snapped photos of the area in the golden hour of sunset light. Another guy came into our campsite to discuss his proposed website that would let folks know where good places to disperse camp are located around the country. I’m not sure he had a good understanding of his business model, or his proposed users. Dispersed campers tend to be very frugal. If they aren’t going to pay for a campground site, then chances are they aren’t going to pay a website to tell them where they can camp for free. He seemed to be having a good time traveling around the West in his jeep recording camping locations so best of luck on the website.

The moon was a couple days past full, so it lagged the sunrise by a couple of hours. The next morning, we watched the moon set to the west in the glow of the morning sunlight on the horizon.

We dropped down the Moki Dugway, a narrow dirt road with many switchbacks that drops you the 1,200 feet on the face of the mesa to the valley floor below. Pam caught a picture of some wild burros as we climbed out of Mexican Hat, UT towards the Arizona border.

Because we didn’t plan on travelling far that day, we stopped into Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park for lunch. I had the green chili and pork soup, and Pam had an assortment of Navajo tacos. Both were delicious and the view was spectacular.

I had to laugh that we could not drive the Roamer into the park on the dirt roads because it was classified as an RV. You could drive a two-wheel drive Prius, but they were worried about the RV getting stuck in the sand – lol. It was very crowded at the visitor center and a lot of traffic along the dirt road kicking up dust, so I didn’t try to negotiate a better decision. Besides back in 2013 we not only drove back into the rock formations but camped in some beautiful box canyons with the permission of the Navajos. We continued south into Arizona after lunch to Navajo National Monument and camped there the night.

We wanted to do the backpacking overnight hike to Keet Seel (Broken Pottery) ruins, but it’s closed from Labor Day to Memorial Day. It will have to be a next year trip. We did sign up for the morning Betatakin (Ledge House) ruins hike that drops over 800 feet from the visitor center at the top of the canyon to the canyon floor. It’s a totally different ecosystem in the canyon, where pinion pine and scrub juniper trees on top are replaced with huge aspen, oak and Douglas fir at the bottom of the canyon. The aspen and oak where showing their fall colors.

Archeologist have been able to date the Betatakin village construction from their tree ring database to between 1267 AD and 1286 AD using the structural support trees in the village. The farming based Ancient Puebloans that lived here left the village due to drought and moved south. Their descendants became the Hopis.

We drove to Flagstaff, AZ after the hike and had a great lunch at Proper Meats + Provisions, a butcher shop along Route 66. From there we headed on home to finish our Summer Trek #6. The 36-day trip covered roughly 4,000 miles. The eight-year old Roamer has over 96,000 miles on it now, but still looks and runs great.

We had 19 stops along the way which included camping at four national monuments and seven state parks. Five of our camp spots on this trip were new places that we’ll probably hit again, like the San Rafael Swell area. We visited a total of ten national parks and monuments during the trip, easily paying for the yearly parks pass that we renewed again.

It’s cooling down in the valley so it’s time to complete some wintertime projects before our next road trip adventure. Stay tuned.

2019 San Rafael Swell

Pam’s brother, Allan, and his son Rowan were going to join us at Bear Lake, but the weather was a bit cold for tent camping. Therefore, we decided to head south and meet up instead in the center of Utah at the San Rafael Swell. It’s a favorite place for Allan, but Pam and I had never been there before.

Navajo sandstone cliffs line the road as you drop into the swell.

There is a lot of rock art on the cliffs. One place had amazing petroglyphs, images chiseled into the rock, and pictographs, images painted onto the rocks.

The pictographs were very intricate and full of images that archaeologists are still trying to decipher.

There is a campground at the swell, but there are also hundreds of places to disperse camp. Allan brought his dirt bikes so Rowan escorted us from the road to the campsite on his bike when we arrived. It was a nice spot at the base of a cliff and next to the San Rafael River.

Surprisingly there were beaver signs all around our campsite and in the river. They had downed several trees near the campsite.

And they had built a small dam on an offshoot along the river. Again, we never saw the rodents, but they must be around. It’s a good thing because the area could use more water and stop the river from eroding its banks down to the bedrock, both things beavers do for a river.

When we weren’t sitting around talking or “getting our redneck on” by plinking cans with a .22 from what we later paced off to be roughly 140 feet, we explored the area.

This area had a lot of geodes on the ground as the dry wash dumped into the San Rafael River just below here.

Allan and Rowan had to head on back for work and school, but Pam and I stayed an extra night just to enjoy the beauty and the non-freezing temperatures. The next day we continued south on the road through more spectacular country. We ducked under the I-70, and continued on dirt roads at a more enjoyable pace.

The road goes by Goblin Valley State Park, which we had never been to before, so we stopped. Turns out that many movies were filmed there due its unique, alien-looking rock structures, including one of our favorites, “Galaxy Quest”.

We hiked around the cool looking rocks that are roughly 10 to 20 feet in height.

These three are called the Three Sisters.

We entered the swell at Cleveland, UT and emerged near Hanksville, UT. What a great place. It’s now on our list of places to revisit.