Heaven

Cheyenne to Flaming Gorge NRA, Wyoming – September, 2015 Jim appeared mildly alarmed when I looked at him one afternoon and stated “I want to be more adventurous in our sleeping arrangements.”  Relief registered on his face as I went on to explain I thought we should be more daring in choosing boondocks. We were about to make our way across Wyoming and I had my eye on a couple of free camping arrangements. The weather was perfect for boondocking and Jim was agreeable.

Our first destination was Cheyenne. We expected to get there around lunch and needed a place to leave the trailer while we explored the town, then we planned to move on first thing the next morning. I saw Sierra Trading Post listed under overnight camping on my Allstays app. It looked great and a heck of a lot better than a Walmart. When we arrived we discovered it had a huge empty lot for RVs. The employees were also incredibly friendly and the store was pretty great too. They sell sporting goods and apparently do a huge amount of business online. The further you went into the store the bigger the discounts got.

I wanted to check out Cheyenne’s free botanical gardens. What we found was a lovely park that included walking trails, a lake, and the gardens. A big part of the gardens were closed for construction but what was left was very nice. My favorite part was the children’s garden. It was beautiful and extremely well planned and appealed to the child in each of us.

We returned to our home in the parking lot. We were joined by a motor home and a semi later that evening. It did turn out to be one of the louder places we have slept. Semi-trucks carrying goods to and from Sierra’s warehouse drove right by our rig all night long. But this minor inconvenience was worth the savings.

Our next stop was Flaming Gorge Reservoir. We aimed for a dispersed camping area on the west side of the lake called Buckboard South. I had reviewed the satellite image and thought it looked pretty safe. We actually did have some close calls on the road in and could have found a better route to our campsite if we had scouted it better, but it all worked out. We had a great spot right by the water with this view.

Which got even better at sunset.

We didn’t see another sole the whole first day. The next day we went for a walk and discovered a neighbor just a half mile from us. While kayaking we discovered there were about a dozen campers on the peninsula. The best campsights were at the very end but they also had the nearest neighbors. I liked our private site back in the cove.

We finally got our replacement solar panels installed. While working on the roof we discovered we had an audience, this pronghorn.

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We also saw about a million rabbits. They looked like a cottontail but were as big as jackrabbits.

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But the best part about this boondock in the middle of nowhere was the night sky. I woke up at 2 am one morning and stepped outside. It was amazing! I had been dying to play with the settings on my new camera so I dragged it and a tripod outside for about an hour. Jim was sound asleep and every time a fish jumped behind me I just about had a heart attack. I have a lot to learn about night photography. I believe a bit of beginner’s luck was involved when I captured a shooting star directly over my rig.

Not 20 minutes after I got back to my warm bed I heard a lot of scuffling noises outside. The next morning we discovered coyote tracks around camp and their hairs on our grill. Glad I didn’t run into them while I was out there!

Goblin Valley

Goblin Valley State Park, Utah – May 2015 A fellow camper told me about a boondocking area outside Goblin Valley State Park. I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and most of the people there were packing up. There are tons of trails here where people can ride ATVs and dirt bikes. Most of the campers that I’ve seen come and go this week had one of these large toys. It has been a great location, totally free, and mostly quiet. Right outside my front door are white sandstone monoliths which I’ve climbed several times during my visit. Here is a view of my campsite from the road to the state park. You may have to zoom in where the arrow points to see the campers. There are many other possible campsites in the area down dozens of dirt roads but I was happy with this big gravel parking lot just off the paved road.

The obvious draw here is Goblin Valley State Park. It was a very short drive from the visitor center to the end of the road and a scenic overlook. And I thought “is this what I paid $10 to see?” But a walk down in to the valley full of strange looking hoodoos changed my perspective. It really is a fascinating place. It is also impossible to give it justice in photographs but here’s my best effort.

It is easy to let your imagination run wild in this place and see the forms of fanciful castles, goblins, dragons, and other whimsical creatures in the strange landscape around you.

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I enjoyed a great hike nearby, my favorite so far this year. Wild Horse Canyon is next door to the state park and impossible to miss if you are visiting Goblin Valley. There is no fee to visit. It is a very popular hike of a slot canyon because it is accessible to all skill levels. It doesn’t require any special climbing abilities to traverse. It’s about a half mile down a wash where you have to climb a bit to get around an obstacle, and then you are at the beginning of the canyon which is about 3 miles long. Sometimes it gets a little tight in the canyon. This is a pic of one such place. That skinny sandy path scattered with rocks is what you have to walk on and sometimes you have to lean hard left or right to squeeze through.

Even on a Tuesday afternoon with rain threatening this place was crowded. I saw at least 30 other hikers and often had to wait for a group to pass before making my way down a narrow section. This would have normally diminished my enjoyment of the hike. But this particular hike was well worth battling the hordes. This hike is often hiked with nearby Little Bell Canyon for an 8 mile roundtrip.

I first planned to stay at this camp for a week. But there was zero cell service for a 20 mile radius of my camp and I had a couple business transactions in the works that I really needed to be reachable for so I decided to leave after 3 days. The night before I planned to leave a group of a dozen campers pulled in about 5pm. They circled their wagons at one end of the parking lot. Not a single camper had solar panels. I fell asleep to the drone of their generators thankful I was packing it in in the morning.

Lake Powell

Glen Canyon NRA, Utah – May 2015 Lake Powell had been on my must see list since reading a blog a few years ago about a kayaker paddling its slot canyons. Fortunately it was also the warmest destination in Utah so that is where I set my sights. I found a campground near its southern end that looked promising called Lone Rock. It was a beach with no designated campsites so you could set up anywhere you could find an open spot. Everything I read said it was free but when I arrived I found you are supposed to pay $10 per night but there wasn’t anyone around most of the time to collect it or enforce it.

The view from my front door was lovely and I enjoyed it so much I stayed for 10 days.

The weather was mid 70s and sunny most days. This was plenty warm enough to get wet and the lake water was clear and inviting. I kayaked out around Lone Rock my first day and explored the shoreline beyond. I discovered a cove that just kept going with many twists and turns creating many private lagoons, a couple with nice beaches. I made plans to return later in the week with all the provisions for a private beach party.

I set out the next Wednesday morning loaded up with lunch, a few adult beverages, a beach chair, and music. There were a few other people in the area and my location of choice was occupied when I got there. But I found another even better spot a little farther inside the cove. Here is a shot of it from the rocks above.

Within an hour the other parties (two kayakers, a jet skier, and a paddleboarder) had explored to their heart’s content and departed. I didn’t see another soul the rest of the day. I enjoyed the rare solitude until my beverages were gone and I had a pink hue.

One afternoon I drove 30 miles west to a place I had seen on my way in called Toadstools. It is on the very edge of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It’s an easy hike of a couple miles to an area that has many toadstool shaped hoodoos. This is a picture of the main formation of them but there are many others scattered behind them and on the ledge above.

I noticed not much further west of Toadstools and still inside the national monument the map said “Paria ghost town”. It was 6 miles from the highway on a very well maintained gravel road. It turned out it was actually the site of an old town and later the site of a Hollywood movie set where several movies were filmed. Both the real town and the set built nearby could not withstand the constant flooding of the Paria River that flowed past, and too often through, the area. I was disappointed not to find any remains at all of either; not a single board, piece of rusted metal, or pile of rock.

But the scenery more than made up for my disappointment. The view of these mountains was stunning. You could clearly see every layer of rock, each with its own vivid color. My favorite layer was a beautiful purple color. I wish I could have taken a picture that did them justice. But this is the best I was able to do.

I didn’t realize until later that these distinctive layers of rock are the grand staircase they are referring to in the name of the national monument. I was grateful to have accidentally included it in my itinerary.

Lake Mead

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada – April 2015

I was meeting some friends in Vegas the last week in April and since I had cut my time at the Grand Canyon short I had 10 days to kill. I camped in Henderson on the outskirts of Vegas for two nights at a reasonably priced but horribly cramped parking lot they called Duck Creek RV Park. But it did the trick and I left with my batteries charged up, my tanks emptied, and fresh water on board. I was ready for more dry camping.

Lake Mead is just 17 miles outside of Henderson and offers many camping options. The one that interested me was a place called Government Wash. Once you paid your entrance fee for the national recreation area (which is covered by the annual park pass I purchased at the beginning of my trip) you can camp for free for up to 14 nights. There are several places around the lake that allow dispersed camping but Government Wash offered the most options and best roads. There is a large parking lot at the entrance that you can camp in if you don’t want to brave the washboard dirt roads but I chose to go a half mile farther, taking the road at a snail’s pace, and finding a great big gravel area that I could turn my rig around in and that had a decent view of the lake. The area was huge with roads going off in several directions. During my stay there were between one and two dozen camps in the area but it was so big you didn’t feel crowded. Here is a pic from my front door:

You can only see one other camper in the picture but just over that hill there were a half dozen tent, van, and small RV campers.

This lake, like Roosevelt Lake I visited a few weeks ago, is at about 50% capacity. Government wash has a boat dock, now closed, that goes in to a wash that is currently nowhere near the water’s edge. The water was a half mile past my campsite. I could drive the truck down to it once I unhooked the trailer or it made a nice walk in the mornings and evenings. I spent only one afternoon hanging out by the water and enjoying the sun. The lake water had a light film of algae on it and wasn’t particularly appealing but I cooled off in it anyway. I fully intended to spend another day kayaking on the lake but never managed it.

I drove about 45 miles to see the Colorado River where it flows below the Hoover dam at a place called Willow Beach Marina. The water was clear and inviting here and rather lake like.

I put in and kayaked up a few miles without too much trouble. The current seemed negligible. But when I turned the kayak back to the marina it took a surprisingly short amount of time to drift back.

I drove 45 miles in the other direction another day and visited Valley of Fire State Park. I had visited before when I had been in the area but had forgotten how strange and wonderful a place it is. The sandstone rocks go on for miles and are every shade between white and red.

I could easily spend a week here some day walking the many trails and scrambling over the huge sandstone boulders. If you are ever in Vegas this is an easy half day excursion that is worth a look.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona – April 2015

The forecast was looking rather cool at the south rim of the Grand Canyon so I delayed my arrival so that it coincided with a couple days of good weather. In April good was 60s and sunny. I hated to go back to these cooler temps after enjoying the 80s and 90s for several weeks but I wasn’t about to miss the Grand Canyon. I did however decide to visit for a few days instead of the week I had originally planned.

This was my first destination that promised a true wild camping experience, a location where anyone could just pull off the road into the forest and camp with absolutely no fees for days. I am hoping to do a lot of this type of camping but so far had not found any sites suitable in the places I wanted to stay. I admit I am a little particular. A site has to have good access with no low hanging branches on a decent road. There is no point in saving $20 a night on camping only to fork over hundreds of dollars to repair my RV or pay for a tow. A quarter mile up Forest Road 302, which turns right off Hwy 64 in the town of Tusayan, offered many suitable sites. I was surprised to have my pick of spots when I got here. And I only saw a few other campers during my stay. Here is the google satellite of my campsite represented by the blue dot:

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As you can see it is barely outside of town and it is only 2 ½ miles from the park’s entrance gate. It was in the flight path of the canyon helicopter tours. They often flew very low overhead during the days. But the nights were quiet except for the coyotes.

The canyon was stunning! You can walk along the rim for miles, much of it paved. And that is exactly what I did for three wonderful days.

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The park has a great shuttle system. You can ride to a viewpoint, then get out and walk to the next viewpoint, then hop back on the next bus and ride a while longer. It gives you a lot of options in how far you want walk on any particular day.

The last day I drove out to the east entrance of the park for a better view of the Colorado River:


The park had a lot of elk. Eating along the walking paths:

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And stopping traffic near the entrance:

I could have been very happy here for several more days but when I woke up to 15 degree temps and frozen pipes on the 4th day I hooked up my rig and boogied down off that mountain.

Water in the Desert

Case Grande to Roosevelt Lake, Arizona – April 2015

After roughing it in a city parking lot for 5 days I decided to take a vacation from my retirement or at least from hiking and sightseeing. I headed about an hour north of Tucson to Case Grande. I found an RV park called High Chaparral just outside of town with a heated pool and hot tub. The park didn’t look like much at first, just a gravel parking lot with a variety of palms scattered throughout. But it came through where it mattered. The pool was fabulous, the people were friendly, the park was well maintained and quiet, the sites were full hookups, and the cost was $27 per night.

I planned to stay 2 nights here and charge up my batteries, fill up on water, and dump my tanks before my next boondocking destination. I had such a good time I stayed a third night. I started each day swimming in the pool and hitting the hot tub. By 2 each afternoon I was back to play in the pool and catch some rays. I got caught up on trailer maintenance, grocery shopping, and blog writing. I enjoyed all the creature comforts of full hookups; air conditioning, long showers, and a microwave oven.

I was enjoying the sun and water so I looked for a place I could continue to enjoy them without paying so much. I found Roosevelt Lake a couple hours north east of Phoenix. It had hundreds of first come first served sites with no utilities for $6 per night in well laid out and maintained campgrounds. There was very little access to the water from the campgrounds. This was partially due to the lake level being at only 50% capacity. But there was still plenty of water to enjoy once you got to it.

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I noticed one area that allowed camping anywhere you could find to park along the lakeshore. It was a madhouse during the weekend but come Monday morning it looked more reasonable so I decided to move there so I could walk out my front door to fish and launch my kayak any time I wanted. It cost the same $6 per night whether you were in a campground or on the beach. Here’s a sunrise from my front door:

I stayed 7 full days and didn’t stray far from camp.  I did check out the local ruins:

And the dam and the bridge where pretty cool looking:

The only thing I did not like about the area was that these tiny bugs came out each evening that could get through the screens on the camper. Thankfully they didn’t bite but they were a nuisance. I had a great visit here but when my water tank ran dry I was happy to move on.

Tucson

Tucson, AZ – March 2015

Next stop Tucson! I found a casino with free RV parking up to 7 days. I didn’t know how long I’d want to stay in a parking lot but I thought I’d give it a chance. It turned out to be better than my previous casino parking experiences primarily because there were very few semis using the lot. They tend to make a lot of noise and come and go in the middle of the night. The Desert Diamond Casino was between an airport and a train track so it wasn’t incredibly quiet but all in all it was a positive experience and I ended up staying 5 wonderfully free nights.

My primary destination in Tucson was the Saguaro National Park. Several people I had met since I started my travels had said it was not to be missed. It is divided in to two parks, one to the east of Tucson and one to the west. I visited the western side, called the Rincon Mountain District. I fully intended to make it to the eastern part later in the week but it never happened.

It was getting pretty hot in the afternoons so I set out early one morning for my visit getting to the park at 8. The sight of so many huge saguaros was very impressive.

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But the best part of my visit was that it was clearly spring in the desert and so many cacti were blooming.

I took a trail that started at the sight of some petroglyphs. There were quite a few rocks with interesting designs on them but you get the idea.

I estimated the trail to be about 3 miles based on the tiny numbers I could almost read on the trail map. It also appeared to be pretty level except for the initial climb to the petroglyphs. That was exactly what I was looking for and would get me back to the trailhead before it got too hot. It was a great hike and I would not have missed it. The many sizes and shapes of cacti were amazing and the desert blooms were gorgeous. However, it did end up being over 4 miles and the last mile was in a sandy dry wash that was difficult to walk in.   I was very hot and tired by the time I got back and my feet not the least bit happy with me.

I switched gears from nature to asphalt the next day and headed to the downtown historic district of Tucson. I parked near the Fox Theatre. There wasn’t much to see of it but a neat old marquee. Then I walked to the oldest hotel in town that is still standing, The Congress. I was surprised to find that it was still operating as a hotel. Much of the lobby appeared to be original. I also walked a long way down 4th Street. This was lined with funky restaurants, vintage clothing stores, and cool bars. It is supposed to be a very happening place on the weekends but it was interesting to visit even on a weekday morning. It was also nice to get in a few miles walking on city streets without getting sand and rocks in my shoes.

One thing I was determined to do now that it was hitting 90 every day was go swimming.   I had hoped the casino might let me use their pool as some I had visited in the past had. But that was not the case. I looked for other options. All the rivers in the area were dried up. I discovered that Tucson has several public pools that they operate year round so I headed to one after lunch one weekday afternoon. That was the best $2 ever spent. There were more lifeguards than patrons while I was there. Of course, I did miss the chaise lounge chairs and waitresses bringing me drinks but the swimming was great! And my feet appreciated the break from hiking.

Southern New Mexico

Roswell to Las Cruces, NM – March 2015

After two days at Carlsbad Caverns I was ready to move on. I decided to head a little further north to Roswell, New Mexico as it was only 100 miles away and I thought it’d be fun. I had also heard of an interesting state park a few miles outside of town. Bottomless Lakes State Park has small round ponds that are actually sink holes. They appear bottomless because of their blue green color but the deepest is 90 feet. This lake had a very large and then a smaller sink hole side by side.

They are often dived by scuba divers which would have been fun but it wasn’t quite warm enough for that. The park had a nice campsite with generously sized sites and a price right in my budget.

I moved camp and headed in to Roswell that first afternoon. It was a nice town and larger than I thought but I’m glad I hadn’t driven any further out of my way. There are a couple of blocks of quirky little shops downtown near the UFO museum dedicated to “the incident”. It took me all of an hour to check it out. The most exciting part of the visit for me was discovering that Roswell had the same chain of shoe store I usually shop at and they had my favorite hiking boot in stock. I had done so much hiking I had worn holes in both my hiking boots and tennis shoes but hadn’t been in a town big enough to find replacements.

The second day I spent a pleasant day in camp, hiking the pools, riding my scooter, and catching up on some maintenance on my trailer. It was Friday and I realized I had to get some business done on Monday and needed a decent size town to do it in. I decided Las Cruces, NM would fit the bill and made a plan to get there by Sunday afternoon. It was a whole 184 miles away but I had two days to get there so I planned to cover half of it Saturday putting me in Alamogordo for the night.

Turns out this area has quite a few wineries so this was the perfect opportunity for me to try out my new $40 Harvest Hosts club membership. They have a ton of participating wineries and farms that will let RVers park free for the night. Of course, you are expected to patronize their business. I chose Tularoso Vineyards for its convenience to the highway. I got there early in the afternoon. They had a large field of red dirt and told me to park anywhere I wanted. I set up, visited their store, and picked out a $12 bottle of cherry wine that would go great with a campfire one night in my future. I went in to town to visit the New Mexico Museum of Space History which was interesting and a good value at only $6.   When I got back the winery was closed for the night and I had the place to myself until they opened at noon the next day. This was the view out my door.

The place was quiet, a short way down a gravel road to seemingly nowhere. About midnight some rowdy kids drove by howling in to the night and I thought “here we go” but they didn’t come back and those were the only sounds I heard all night. I had a very good first experience with this membership and am especially looking forward to patronizing some of the farms this summer.

I headed to Las Cruces the next morning and it took me a whole hour to get there. I decided to splurge on a private campground in town as my next option was a state park 20 miles away. After setting up I went to explore all the historic areas of the town which didn’t take long. The next morning I took care of my business in short order and then decided on a nearby hike.

Dripping Springs trail was just about the most perfect hike I could imagine. It is 3 miles round trip, it’s uphill on the way in and downhill on the way back, and at the destination you are treated to beautiful scenery and the historical ruins of an old resort.

I was the first person on the trail at 9 am on a Monday morning. The park ranger said the day before they had 400 visitors. I’m very glad I was there early as I had the place to myself and that added to my enjoyment of it. I didn’t see another soul until I started back to the visitor center and before I got back I had passed about 2 dozen people. I would definitely recommend this hike to anyone that visits the Las Cruces area.

Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island, Texas – February 2015

Ultimately my reason for heading to Texas was to check out Padre Island. I love the beach and wanted to try boondocking (living without water or electric hookups) for an extended period, so after my visit to San Marcos and San Antonio that is where I headed.

The Padre Island National Seashore has several options for camping that are cheap or free. I planned to stay at the very cheap Malaquite Campground ($8 per night, no hookups) my first night and check out the FREE beach camping, then move if I was so inspired. However, the campground was full when I arrived. Instead I parked at the Malaquite visitor center and walked a couple miles down the beach to scope out the situation.

It was Saturday so the beach was crowded. There were lots of cars and trucks driving up and down the beach and plenty of campers set up next to the dunes. These campers ranged from people just spending the night in their cars to monstrous motorhomes. Here’s a view of the beach with the campers parked next to the dunes that I took on a less busy day and with the tide out. When the tide comes in it gets within 20 feet of these campers.

The sand was very hard from everyone driving up and down it and I found a spot about a mile from where the road ends that wouldn’t crowd the neighbors. I walked back and got the camper, drove to the new location, and was set up within the hour. This was the view out my living room window.

That Saturday was the busiest day of my stay with headlights driving by well into the night. The next day, a Sunday, was less crazy with fewer day visitors. I drove my scooter down the beach about 5 miles that morning and there were big trailers and motor homes as far as I drove. At the 5 mile mark is a warning to not proceed without 4 wheel drive. I don’t doubt there were more campers past that mark but I was satisfied with what I had seen. I debated moving my fifth wheel farther down the beach to where the campers were further apart but decided to stay put.

If I visited again I would go another couple miles before stopping. I met a young man that was staying on the beach in his SUV while he looked for work in the area. He had driven as far as 24 miles down the beach and said that you could go up to 60 miles. I might take my scooter a ways past the 5 mile marker next time I visit.

On the way back from my Sunday morning scooter ride I saw a motor home that had pulled a little too far off of the hard packed sand and gotten stuck. I went and got my 4 wheel drive pickup and helped pull them out but it wasn’t easy to get traction and took almost an hour. Getting stuck can certainly suck all the fun out of free camping. I’ve heard that a professional tow can run a thousand dollars or more!

I spent most of the week boondocking on the beach. I was pleased with how well my solar panels performed even though it was cloudy most days. I was also happy with my use of water. I only had one half of a 100 gallon water tank when I arrived. When I left 6 days later my tank read empty but I never actually ran out of water. About Tuesday it got cool and rainy and there were as few as three campers on the beach that night. I was a little worried about the weather making it hard to get out but I asked around and was told “if it gets really bad the rangers will come tell you to move”. The winds were crazy loud but the rain just packed the sand in harder.

I loved my stay and will definitely be back. The sunrises were spectacular!

And the birds were very entertaining!

The beach can look a little trashy at times. Because of the prevailing currents most of the trash is a result of anything dropped in to the Gulf of Mexico. I took a grocery bag with me on my two mile hike one morning and brought it back full. When I hiked the same section a couple days later there was hardly any trash to pick up.

Although the beach camping is free, there is a fee to enter the park. I understand it is $10 per vehicle for a 7 day pass or $20 per vehicle for an annual pass. Since I plan to visit a lot of national parks this year I bought the America the Beautiful annual pass to all the national parks for $80. Despite the excesses of my first week on the road I was able balance my budget of $20 per night for campsites by the end of my second week by boondocking for free for 6 nights even including the $80 I paid for my park pass.