On the Road Again!

New Digs!
New Digs!

After laying low for 4½ months I’ve finally hit the road again! In the meantime, I dug into my wallet a bit and upgraded B to a new 4-season 5th wheel trailer. Lotsa research led me to the Grand Design Reflection 337RLS. It has a very similar floorplan as B but adds a slide-out in the bedroom for more floor & closet space and a larger bath (especially the shower!). Plus, the basement is heated so freezing temps aren’t an issue—except for the massive amounts of propane I seem to have been burning the past few weeks in Grapevine.

Today was an easy 3-hour scoot down I35 to Mother Neff State Park, with the namesake of one of my favorite ladies: Isabel! Landed a beautiful campsite—one of the nicest. From here I’m going to Austin to visit the state capitol (have heard the building is kinda cool) then through the Texas Hill Country, out west to Big Bend National Park, then to the Phoenix area for some favorite pastime spring training, and then as far west as Las Vegas to visit my cousin Pam & Bill. Brad & Jonathan are joining me in Arizona; Julie is catching up in Vegas. Then I’ll be back in G’Vine for Easter and a couple weeks of pre-hot north Texas, before heading back to the Rocky Mountains in mid-May.

Feels good to be hitting the trail again. Glad to have you tag along!

Lone Star State

Getting Away

My first day towing the new rig was designed to be a short drive. As I was headed toward Austin to visit the state capitol (turns out, I didn’t) I mapped out a state park that was sorta en-route. Mother Neff, west of Temple, is an understated but nice park and I landed a superb campsite—one of the nicest in a state park. After a short hike in the morning to kick a tree stump and try to break my toe, I headed down the road to McKinney Falls State Park.

This campsite was less inviting and my apprehension about unhooking the fiver from the truck was discernible. But all went well and the rig stayed where I parked her. The auto-leveling system even handled the grade. Very pleased.

I headed into town to grab lunch at Lazarus Brewing where the carnitas tacos were good and my flight of tasters was fair—and then hit REI for a new pair of boots because hiking in athletic shoes is apparently stupid. Got some good boots.

New flash: Austin traffic sucks! I decided that if I was gonna visit the state capitol it’d be another time. For this trip, I’d hang at the park, check out the hiking trails and lay low before heading west. After Friday’s hike I scouted out St Elmo Brewing, whose Merle is an excellent oaked Czech Pilsner. Highly recommend!

After some tax return work (yuck) in the morning I headed out on another couple-hour drive to Fredericksburg and a free overnight at Messina Hof Winery.

Saturday brought a 385 mile, 7-hour drive from Fredericksburg to the Stillwell Store campground, 8 miles outside Big Bend National Park. Lots of good border patrol activity going on as I neared Del Rio; cleared a couple checkpoints. And now I’ve got enough miles with the new rig to get a feel for its fuel economy versus my previous, 5,000 pound lighter and less-tall trailer. The numbers did not go the direction I had optimistically hoped, lol.

Big Bend

Unable to join church online because there was no internet in the campground, I spent all day Sunday checking out the national park. I’ve wanted to come here for 30 years but it’s so dang far from anywhere! But it is worth it! Despite being spring break and the park being fairly crowded (no in-park campsites available), the place is so big you feel like it’s yours alone. And given that it’s spring, the desert was in full bloom! I know a blue bonnet when I see one but that’s about the extent of my flora knowledge. Suffice to say, the desert floor was painted in reds, yellows, whites and blues. Simply spectacular. A few of the images in the slideshow fail to capture the incredible blue bonnet field I came across. And the smells were amazing. God does an incredible job!

Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park

The 30-mile Ross Maxwell  Scenic Drive is aptly named. This road winds throughout the park and offers great views and side trips. It eventually ends at Santa Elena Canyon where the Rio Grande spills out into the valley floor. I chose to not backtrack but take Old Maverick road toward Terlingua. The speed limit on this dirt road is posted 25 MPH but the severe washboard surface kept me to about 15. Nevertheless it’s another pretty road and led me straight to Terlingua.

Quickly viewed the iconic Terlinqua cemetery and stopped in for some (appropriately) very good chili at the El Dorado hotel.

Texas Mountains!

Monday’s drive was through the Davis Mountains of West Texas and Guadalupe National Park. Who knew Texas had real mountains? Reminded me of the San Gabriels in Southern California. Made for a really enjoyable drive (except for 30 miles of I-10 blahs). Wrapped up the day with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns. More on that in the New Mexico post…

 

New Mexico

The Caverns

Shortly after driving east from Texas into New Mexico (still not sure how that works) I arrived at Carlsbad Caverns National Monument. I hauled the 5th wheel up the 7-mile curvy access road, hoping there’d be RV parking (’cause ya never really know). There was.

The caverns are phenomenal : deep, huge, interesting, beautiful in their boldness. You get to walk throughout them and at a constant temperature of 56 degrees with 90% humidity I didn’t know whether to be cold or sweat. So I did both. And I got me another check in the box for a long-awaited National Park visit.

White Skies, White Sands, White Knuckles

Tuesday morning I’d planned an early departure, as I’d seen that strong winds were in the forecast for later in the day. But thunderstorms moving through delayed me an hour or so. I headed northeast through Carlsbad & Artesia and then west into the southern end of the Rocky Mountains. I guess the scenery on the east side of the crest was pretty but the clouds were so dense I could only see about 200 feet in front of me. Occasionally I’d even glance at my nav screen to see which way the mountain road was turning… Once I reached the summit and headed down the west side the skies turned party cloudy. It was a nice drive but I cudda lived without the dense clouds.

With the clear skies came some wind. Windy but manageable with sand blowing across the road and tumbleweeds attacking from the south. Even though by now the skies were ugly for dirt in them, I visited White Sands National Monument. I was thinking the scenic road wouldn’t be worth driving with all the dust but the ranger lady convinced me it still would be worth seeing. And it was! Very cool that I was there on a day the dunes were rearranging themselves. And another check in the National Parks box.

Leaving White Sands, the drive just sucked! 40+ MPH winds with gusts to 50ish. My rig handled things well but I was both hands on the wheel and turned off my audio book so I could concentrate better. When I pulled into Las Cruces, NM for fuel I had to really lay into the drivers’ door to open it against the wind. An hour or so later I had originally planned to overnight at St. Clair Winery in Deming but the wind was dying down and I could see clear skies to the west. So I continued another hour through the rain to Lordsburg, NM where I checked into an aged KOA for the night. While the drive covered some nice ground, I cudda also lived without the high winds.

NM in the Rearview

In the morning I rechecked the weather forecast. More strong winds were predicted beginning at 9am. So I hit the road at 7:50 heading northwest, away from the second wave of this miserable wind storm. In an hour I was crossing into Arizona with New Mexico behind me, for now.

Arizona

Getting There

As I crossed into Arizona from New Mexico on US70 I was treated to beautiful displays of pale green grasses dotted with yellow and purple flowers. God’s sky also was on full display: broken clouds, patches of blue, and many rainbows. The clouds hugged nearby mountain peaks but occasionally allowed last night’s snowfall to show through. It was a gorgeous drive! As I continued toward Apache Junction the weather vacillated between sunshine, rain showers and a patch of snow-mixed rain. US70 became US60 as I continued west. Together, these solid roads made for a wonderful drive, and I was glad I’d left early enough to miss the brunt of the wind and enjoy the last fringes of the winter storm as it blew eastward. I’m tagging this route a wonderful road! And I lifted a prayer of thanks for safe travels and for the opportunity to enjoy the Creator’s fine work.

Spring Training

The Apache Junction KOA got us by. Pretty disappointing site but not the end of the world. Brad & Jonathan joined me Wednesday night (well, at midnight!). We enjoyed good times at the Rangers/Cubs game Thursday—including the biggest bestest Chicago Dog ever. Sunday we drove miles & miles to Surprise Stadium for the Dbacks/Rangers game. ‘Twas a more interesting game but the long drive made the visit to Sloan Park a little nicer. We took a couple-hour drive into Tonto National Forest Monday before I ran the boys back to the airport across town. Nice drive; the picture credits go to Brad.

Flagstaff

Tuesday brought a nice 3-4 hour drive up I-17 and AZ 89A thru Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon. The road sign disallowed trucks over 50′ on the road north of Sedona but since I was not a “truck” per se, and measure just 53′ from bumper to bumper I fudged it and went ahead. Beautiful drive but. yep, tight turns. NTL, made it to Flagstaff and settled in for a few days at the attractive KOA on the north side of town. Some winter weather is forecast in a couple days and I’ll hang here until Saturday to catch the first couple rounds of March Madness. More later… …

It’s now “later”… A few snow showers Wednesday night & Thursday during the day. Made for pretty views outside Majerle’s sports grill where I  watched a few Madness games. I also found my newest favorite brewery—Mother Road. They’ve got an excellent lineup of IPAs, including Tower Station and Lost Highway,  plus a bourbon barrel stout which I’m going back for Friday.

Sunset Crater Volcano & Wupatki National Monuments

Gotta admit, I didn’t know these National Parks were here until I saw the road sign. They are just up the road from Flagstaff and turns out, they’re really cool. Sunset Crater Volcano is raw beauty. Stark. Powerful. Rugged. Fragile. It draws you in.

I took a couple short hikes, enjoying the lava rock trails and surrounding snow-capped mountains. As I was finishing up I encountered Eric, a parks volunteer. Nice old guy (I suppose I need to be careful how I say that!) who shared some info about the park and its geology. And he gave me a good restaurant tip for when I’m in Boulder, Utah in a week or so.

Continuing on toward Wupatki, the drive was incredible, overlooking Arizona’s Painted Desert. Not sure what I expected but the puebloan ruins were really interesting. Nice to see such old (circa 1100 A.D.) structures preserved. The day had warmed from the low 30s to the upper 40s and by the time I’d finished visiting the two parks I was ready to taste another of Flagstaff’s fine breweries.

After refilling a propane bottle (I’m blowing through them pretty quick in this long-enduring winter) I headed into historic downtown and Dark Sky Brewing where I had a flight of five tasters. The Magnum PI’s Pilsner was very good; I had my first Grisette; an interesting Kook Juice IPA featuring pineapple & coconut (good but a taster is enough); and wrapped up with their west coast Strength in Numbers and Send Me an Angel, both very good IPAs. Another favorite brewery discovered! Side note: their music comes from a vinyl LP player (Brett, that’s for you!).

Dinner was a great change of pace, visiting with my friend Maryann, who I hadn’t seen in (yikes!) about 25 years. We had a really good time chatting and catching up. Good friends, good times!

The Grand Canyon

After attending 121 “camp church” online, I headed into Williams for my ride on the Grand Canyon Railway to The Grand Canyon. I kinda feared the event would be a little skitchy but it wasn’t bad. The old west characters were actually entertaining and Annette, our purser, was great, sharing insights and some humor. The two-hour ride to Grand Canyon went by quickly.

I’d been to the Canyon before and it still impresses and amazes! Beautiful, stark, grand beauty. I walked the rim trail 3½ miles from Mojave Point to the El Tovar hotel where, given I only had about 30 minutes before needing to board the train again, I had a Tower Station IPA in the iconic lodge. The train was cool but it sure limits time at the park (about 3 hours).

I didn’t get down into the Canyon—my stupid knee would only gripe at me for the downhill. So seeing the creation from the rim had to do. (I just wish people knew how to get outta the way and walk to the right! It just ain’t that hard. All-in-all ’twas a good day topped off by an excellent Carne Chile de Molcajete at Fiesta Mexican Grill in Williams. Worth returning for that dish!

And with that, Arizona is done. Headed down the hill to Kingman then up remote US-93 to the Las Vegas area for a week. Gonna hang with Julie & Pam!

Pahrump & Death Valley

In early March Julie, Brad & I were having dinner and got to talking about this upcoming trip. We realized I was only gonna be a few hours from Las Vegas when I was in Flagstaff. So since our cousin Pam & Billy live outside Vegas Julie decided to fly in and join me for a week hanging out with Pam & Billy.

I overnighted at a KOA in Vegas (this old man was in bed by 8:30, lol!) and then picked Julie up at the RV lot at McCarran Airport, after buying a new taillight assembly to replace the one I killed in Williams (a $150 ugh). We drove up to Pahrump, set up camp at the nice Lakeside Casino & RV Park, and then Pam came over for cocktails and Billy joined us for dinner after he got home from work.

We really did just about as little as possible all week. I installed remote door locks, a tire monitor booster and fixed a few minor things. But the overall theme was “chill.” Enjoyed some of Pam’s great pulled pork and a fire in their backyard; bummed around town a bit (you can’t do much more than “a bit” in Pahrump!); and had brunch with $1 Bloody Mary’s at the golf course.

Sunday night Shelley and her work friend Tissa stopped by for a glass of vino on their way to check out Death Valley Monday, before attending a conference in Sin City. Julie & I joined them at Badwater Monday morning to quickly take in some of Death Valley’s attractions. The Valley was really pretty this time of year—even featuring some water in low places! And it was not freaking hot! It was a good day, certainly worth the drive. More noteworthy: huge thanks to Pam for doing my laundry while we were away for the day! Truly a sweet, much appreciated favor!

It was so great hanging with Pam and Billy; we hated to pack up and head out after the week. But Julie needed to get back to her retirement life in Frisco. For me, Utah was calling!…

Utah

Settle in with a cup of coffee, a glass of vino or a cerveza ’cause I got lots to tell about traveling through southern Utah!

Zion National Park & Dixie National Forest

Once you finally leave the traffic jerks of Las Vegas heading north, the canyonlands of a slice of Arizona then Utah reveal themselves. its a pretty drive through Red Rock Canyon, Saint George and into Cedar City, where I base camped for three nights to checkout Zion, Cedar Breaks and some of the Dixie National Forest.

Zion rocks. It just does. A beautiful slot canyon with stunning cliffs, fun roads (including a partially washed-out highway and a tunnel too narrow & low for my fiver) and plenty of picture and hiking opps entice. The Zion Canyon Brewing Company at the National Park visitor center is a nice complement, too! I had visited Zion a couple times before so I moved on, up Highways 9 and 89 through Long Valley Junction and across the Dixie National Forest toward Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Unfortunately, Cedar Breaks was still in the throes of winter and the roads into the Park had not been cleared yet so I missed that geo-feature. Rats. The Monument also was not reachable from the north side near sleepy Brian Head, where it seems they could be skiing for another month. The surrounding mountains are spectacular. Three nights in Cedar City were just about right for what was accessible. I was ready to move on to Bryce Canyon!

Bryce Canyon

Having traveled state highway 14 through Dixie National Forest the day before, I decided to not repeat that route with the trailer in-tow. The road has some significant grades and curves and isn’t recommended for large rigs, so I headed north on I-15 to state 20 where I headed east toward Bryce Valley. Nice drive, including through two arch tunnels that left just 6 inches to spare between my rooftop air units and the harder rock. Whew! A quick two hours later I was setup at snow-covered Ruby’s RV Park, just outside the National Park entrance.

Once again, I was a few weeks early in the season as the trails below the canyon rim were still closed due to snow & ice. But I’d hiked them years before on a day that was perhaps the best day hike of my life. I still remember how cool that hike through Fantasyland and Queens Garden was that October day, with snow flurries capping the hoodoos. I was actually okay with not hiking below the rim this trip as I wouldn’t want to dilute my memories of that special hike.

So I enjoyed the Bryce Canyon amphitheater from the rim viewpoints. Such stunning vistas! This truly is a special place on the planet. Hiking (well, more like walking) between Sunset and Sunrise points, I ducked into the iconic Bryce Canyon Lodge for a bison burger and Squatters Full Suspension Pale Ale. Ryan, the kid who waited on me was an awesome server. Very friendly, interested in my travels, excited to be working at the Lodge. Nice to meet solid young people when there’s so much negativity surrounding the millennial generation.

After lunch I headed downhill to Mossy Cave trail, a short hike up a canyon that terminates in a waterfall and cave full of icicles. Although short, the trail grabs the oxygen outta your lungs as it traverses the steep canyon. Felt good.

Back at camp, I wrestled with getting online streaming to work so I could watch the Final Four. When CBS All Access failed me (“we’re not able to steam live TV in your area”) I was able to get coverage through the ESPN app, which uses the CBS video feed. Go figure. I fired CBS. Was fun to watch Texas Tech make it to the championship game and, as I now write, I’ll be watching the game tonight on digital TV over-the-air in Torrey, UT. No more sport cussin’ trying to get streaming to work!

Grand Staircase Escalante

Utah State Highway 12, also known as Scenic Byway 12 and Highway 12 — A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway is an All American Road. Rightly so. What an incredible, wonderful road! The byway winds through slick rock canyons and cliffs, across a narrow ridge line, and through beautifully colored canyons and hills. If you’ve followed along the past year you know I’ve seen some pretty sights and navigated some awesome roads. This is yet another special route I’ve been blessed to enjoy! If not for fear of driving off the ridge into the canyons on both sides of the road, I would’ve had a really hard time keeping my eyes and mind on the driving task. Nevertheless, I was able to pull off a few times to get pictures of this stunning drive.

A National Park volunteer I’d chatted with at Sunset Volcano near Flagstaff had recommended the Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder Town. This very cool joint serves up fantastic food with super-friendly service. I had the patty melt with Guyere cheese and housemade potato salad complemented with a Porcupine Pilsner from Moab Brewery. Thanks, Eric, for the restaurant tip! If you’re ever in Boulder Town don’t miss this eatery. They’re only open March to November.

The drive across another mountain ridge to Torrey, near Capitol Reef National Park, passed through snow-covered mountains then dropped into a picturesque valley where I unhitched at the small yet very friendly Sand Creek RV Park for a couple nights to take in my next National Park. Torrey is designated as an International Dark Sky Community, one of only 18 communities in the world to enjoy the distinction. And it is so cool! Standing outside at night the stars seem to reach down to earth. It’s amazing. So grateful for a clear night to enjoy the beauty of the universe!

Capitol Reef

I have no words.

Ok… I have some words to describe Capitol Reef National Park. But I’m going to start by borrowing a few from Maltbie D. Babcock in 1915: “This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought, Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.”

That beautiful phrase ran through my mind all day as I marveled at the raw beauty of the landscape. I’m not ashamed to say the splendor of creation brought a tear to my eye.

The park features “Scenic Drive” that more than lives up to its name. You could also call it Splendid, Stunning, Superior, Stupendous, or several other synonyms. I drove it’s ten miles, slowly, to its end in Capitol Gorge where a mile-long trail leads through a narrow canyon with a steep, knee wrecking climb to a few tanks—natural collectors of water in this desert. Great hike on a beautiful day in the mid 70s.

As I was hiking and driving through the park, I was thinking about how visitors centers at National Parks all give such comprehensive coverage to the eons of time and science of geology, but never much is attributed to the undeniable beauty wrought by the Creator. And I’ve read books about old earth vs young earth theories, about 24 hour creation days vs. creation era/days in God’s timing—and I could likely debate myself into either corner and never be fully convinced. In the end, that’s a good thing. Who wants a God they fully understand and completely comprehend? He has given us enough to know Who He Is, and His Son gave himself for me. That’s it. That’s enough.

So it was a great day, hiking and hanging out with my God!

Arches National Park

The 2-3 hour drive from Torrey to Moab was uneventful, across high desert and a short section of I-70. I motored through the town of Moab and settled into a good KOA on the south end of town. Dinner was at Moab Brewery with a good chicken sandwich and a Moab Pale Ale and a FMU IPA. Good food, too!The next day I headed into the Park…

Raw. That’s what the landscape is and that’s what the day was. I got a mid-morning start and after visiting the visitor center (and snagging a pretty cool T-shirt) I headed into the park. There are tons of viewpoints, interesting rock formations, colors & feels. Arches is a very cool place.

It was especially cool this day, as blowing snow followed me much of the morning and early afternoon. It was pretty in its own way but did hamper some of the long-range views and definitely got under my thin hoodie’s collar a few times. I wasn’t expecting snowy weather—and I shudda brought a hat!

Several short hikes, a bunch of pictures and frozen ears & hands later, I headed back down the park road, wrapping up my visit to Arches and headed across the valley to Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park

The drive up onto the ridge of the Canyonlands Island in the Sky district took me back into the blowing snow. It’s a pretty drive although, again, the weather really limited visibility. There are lots of hiking opps here but given that the day was running late and I was still shivering away, I opted for stopping at the main viewpoint pullouts.

Was kinda a joke, as the views mainly were of blowing snow. Oh well, I got a few decent pics of Upheaval Dome and an appreciation for the immenseness of the Canyonlands. I was hoping that tomorrow’s visit to the Needles district of this immense National Park would provide better views after the storm blew through.


The next day did not disappoint! As the bottomlands of the Needles district is primarily 4WD roads and crowds were minimal and roads were muddy from the recent rain & snow and I was traveling solo, I opted for viewing the canyons from above, from the Needles Overlook. Discretion, dontcha know…

The overwhelming vistas were on full display! As grand as the Grand Canyon is, I feel like Canyonlands is its big brother, an opinion shared by another camper back at the KOA. The pictures fail to communicate just how awesome this country is. Visiting the five (I tried to get to Cedar Breaks, after all) was a lifetime experience. Such phenomenal beauty, power, serene places. I truly appreciate the opportunity to have visited here but it’s time to move on, slowly headed back home for a few weeks starting with Easter.

 

Four Corners Area

With the splendor of southern Utah in my mirrors I headed south to the Four Corners region. Snow flurries met me near Monticello but didn’t slow progress to the geo-marker that defines the intersection of four States. The monument is kinda kitschy but I wanted to get that check in the box. I would not advise driving more than 30 minutes out of your way to see this. The Navajo taco I had there filled my gut. I was glad it stayed there…

My plan was to overnight at the nearby Teec Nos Pos Trading Post but given it looked like I’d be the only RV in their parking lot, across from an interesting looking bar in the middle of nowhere, I opted to drive into Cortez where there was a legit campground—and people.

In the morning I headed over to Mesa Verde National Park, unhitched the fiver in the visitor center parking lot and headed up onto the Mesa to see the Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings. Gettin’ culture be ‘portant dontcha think?!

After driving, some hiking & picture taking I recoupled my home to the truck and headed a short eight miles to the Mansco Brewing Company, where I’d spend the night as a Harvest Hosts member.

HH is a member network of breweries, wineries, farms, museums and golf courses where RVers can stay free overnight (with an annual $70 fee). It’s a great gig, as you get to meet cool people and not spend much on campsites. To my delight, Mancos Brewing crafts excellent beers and serves up excellent food. Score! (Plus, my rig parked right in front was good advertising for Grand Design RVs!) I liked every beer I had at Mancos: the Dizzy Blonde pale ale, Desert Drifter rye ale, Mancos sh’Ale dark ale, Extra Dizzy IPA, and their Cherry Stout.

And with that, the Four Corners was history. After camp church I headed downhill to Albuquerque and then to Ruidoso for a couple days to visit friends before turning east and into the flats of North Texas. Leave a light on… I’m slowly headed home—for a little while!

Southwest Spring Summary

An alliteration of S’s for my spring in the southwest: stunning, superior, scenic, sensational, spectacular, striking, splendid.

From the boldness of Big Bend to the uplifted canyons of Utah to the fun of spring training and a week visiting Pam & Billy, this was an awesome six weeks! Checkout my posts for this phenomenal Southwest trip.

Trip stats:

  • Racked up a total of 5752 miles
  • The trailer hung with me for 3956 miles (69%); lots of non-towing driving in Big Bend, Death Valley, Bryce, Canyonlands)
  • Drove a total of 151 hours
  • Traveled through 7 states
  • Stayed in 21 different campsites over 44 days
  • Averaged 12 MPG in fuel consumption (that’s as good as I got last summer towing a traditional trailer that was 5 thousand pounds lighter; I’m very pleased!)
  • Used 90-100 pounds of propane for cooking, cooling, and lots of heating

I’m now back at the Vineyards Campground on Lake Grapevine until mid-May when I take off for the Rockies for the entire summer!

I appreciate God giving me this awesome opportunity and for looking over me while I traveled this region of our great land. And thanks for your prayers for safety. Love y’all. God’s best,

Mark