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.