Route to Dauphin Island!

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To Dauphin Island! | My new trip on Roadtrippers.com!

We are gearing up for another beach trip with the Airstream! The midwest is nice, but there is something that lifts your spirit at seeing the ocean. streamer_a is taking an official week off from work. I know Alfred is ready for some rolling in the sand. Happy Labor Day weekend to everyone!

– Julie, Pomona State Park, Vassar KS

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Location, location, location

Morning fog, Pike National Forest, Colorado

There are broadly speaking three categories of place to park an Airstream.

RV parks;
State Parks;
Wild camping (boon-docking).

Within each of these categories there is a range from good to bad, and these can change seasonally. After 10 months on the road these are our observations.

RV Parks – Always Bad

RV parks are the absolute worst residential existence possible in an Airstream. There are no known exceptions. First, RV parks are surprisingly expensive. We have stayed in parks that top $40 per day. There are many much more expensive. $40 x 30 days a month = $1,200 / month. That’s a mortgage on a reasonable home in the Midwest.

Second, while RV parks almost always have complete amenities (full hookups and laundry), they are designed to maximize occupancy. There seems to be an universally accepted standard layout to accomplish this: a one-way loop design with diagonal pull through spots set 10 feet apart inside the loop. On the outer rim of the loop will be back in spots, set 10 feet apart, and aligned diagonally to make backing in easier. The spots will be concrete or gravel, with utility hookups placed appropriately. Between the spots will be some grass. Or a dirt/gravel combo if you’re in the High Plains.

Once you have completed your laundry you will hate everything about the park, quickly. Once you have walked around with your dog you will hate everything about your Airstream. You will start Googling how to sell it. You will remember fondly your suburban home, which shared much in common with an RV park, but at least had a fenced in back yard, a big screen TV and a bathtub. You’ll do the math on a mortgage vs. full time travel. The mortgage will start to seem like a good idea – and at $40 a day, it probably is. Shortly after you will fall into a depression and lethargy, questioning what your life has come to and whether there is any point to any of it.

So why would you ever stay at an RV park? Location. If you need to be close to a specific place it may be the closest option. Get out as soon as you can. RV parks are only good for quick overnights on the road. There is no seasonal variability.

State Parks

State Parks are an improvement. They often provide the amenities you care about (full hookups and laundry). They are also, without any real exception I can think of, a vast environmental upgrade over RV parks. Some State Parks are even, well, quite pretty. They have trees, often a lake and some terrain. There are usually multiple campgrounds and a greater level of separation between sites than you would find in a RV park. The trees make a difference here too.

They are also almost always much cheaper than a RV park. A rule of thumb seems to be one half the price of the local market rate at a RV park. In Kansas, there are fantastic state parks that cost $12 a day with full hookups. Think about that for a moment when you’re doing your mortgage math. In suburbia water, electricity and sewer utility bills alone cost more than $12 a day. More normal (i.e., not Kansas) seems to be $20-something a day.

There is a downside to State Parks. First the experience is greatly subject to seasonality. We have found that during the high season — summer — they are crowded and on weekends/holidays you may as well stay in a RV park. This is the perfect combination of timing and location for the shirtless people. However, off season — winter — even the most popular state parks, in cold places, can be completely deserted.

One quick cautionary aside: you may find that many state parks offer water and electric but not sewer. If you are staying more than two days I advise avoiding this scenario. What comes in must go out – and if you can’t get rid of it at your site then you are in blue-boy territory. Blue-boys are bad.

As a subset to the State Park category I’ll include some commentary on National Park campgrounds and National Forest campgrounds.

National Park campgrounds should probably be avoided in our limited experience. Sometimes they can’t be due to remoteness and unavailability of alternatives (Black Canyon of the Gunnison example). They are typically too expensive, too small, offer few if any amenities, and are always busy.

National Forest campgrounds are hit and miss. They are, without question, absolutely over-priced. Ludicrously so, given they often offer no amenities at all. You find yourself boon-docking for $18 a day. But they are better than National Park campgrounds precisely because it is a more wild experience. The sites are usually much better spaced and positioned and the locations usually very scenic. I suppose the main objection to NF campgrounds is not the campgrounds, but the cost. Usually within just a couple of miles of a NF campground, you can wild camp in the National Forest itself.

Wild Camping

There are two forms of wild camping. The first is the quick overnight – the classic Wal-Mart parking lot. From there you can adventure into the interesting world of “stealth camping,” which is basically urban boon-docking. Interesting, perhaps, but not our thing.

The second form of wild camping is the height of the art: going off into the “wild” (“wild” in the lower 48 is probably a stretch) and boon-docking without power, water or sewer, in a remote location with no-one else around. This is where your Airstream dream comes alive.

What you are looking for is Federal public land falling into two categories: National Forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Both agencies permit wild camping at no cost. In agency parlance, this is called “dispersed camping.”

The ability to do this is extremely location-dependent. There are entire states where this simply cannot be done (Iowa is an example). Tangent: Iowa has the least amount of public land in the US. Not a great state for any of this or much else come to think of it.

You need to explore, which is part of the fun. We identify a target area of National Forest land on the map and utilize a combination of paper National Forest maps and Motor Vehicle Use Maps to determine where to try. Drive up, find a secluded spot, set up camp. What could go wrong (nearby landowners is the non-trivial answer – it’s a war out there – a subject for another post)?

A high clearance vehicle is a must for this. Do not take an Audi up these roads. We learned this lesson at some cost. And although it has more clearance than a street car, a 28’ Airstream cannot get everywhere you might want to. But with care you can get to places you think you can’t.

These wild camping experiences for us are inspirational. Truly – we don’t want to leave. So why do we? For me it’s the need to have some proximity to a work location and the need to travel overnight. streamer_j alone at night in the forest is probably not a great strategy for remaining married.

Take the training wheels off, buy a generator (or solar, or both), and go wild.

– Anthony, Pike National Forest, Colorado

Forgotten Grasslands

Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

The Pawnee National Grassland is a 193,000 acre combination of federal, state and private land, administered by the USDA Forest Service.

National Grasslands are managed as National Forests. Both are made up of private and public land, not always readily differentiated, so you must know where you are. Knowing where you are is much easier in the Grasslands than the Forest. Dispersed camping regulations and maps are published by the USDA. To select our spot I relied on the USDA motor vehicle use map combined with in-car GPS.

We arrived on Friday evening. Pitch black. Now it’s Sunday evening. We’ve seen four cars pass between then and now.

It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I’ve lived on the plains for a long time. Grass, scrub, cacti, rattlesnakes, I thought I got it.

But we haven’t found solitude like this before. Our time in the various National Forests of Colorado have been peaceful and inspirational. Although we have been all alone we have known the location of our nearest (camping) neighbor – perhaps further up a canyon or down a different forestry road. As you explore you run across one another. People like the forest.

Out here, where I can see the furthest, I couldn’t tell you where the nearest person is. The silence. It seems people don’t like the Grasslands.

One additional difference is National Grasslands are accessible. While National Forests are effectively moated by private subdivisions, creating a physical and legal minefield of accessibility issues, the Grasslands are relatively unencumbered and can be accessed directly from county roads.

Easy. Beautiful. You can see our photographs of the weekend here.

– Anthony, Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Into the Forest

Diptic

Summer and rving is busy. At first I thought it would just be a little annoying around holidays and weekends. But now fully into July, we have found most campgrounds and rv parks are packed. Which then I started feeling homeless, thinking I was going to have to live in the Wal-Mart parking lot all summer.

Towards the end of May we bought our 2000 watt generator. My first real boondock was just one overnight in the San Juan National Forest. We got there, took a walk, I cooked a normal dinner, watched a movie, went to bed. The exact same things I would have done if we had a full hookup site. The next morning, we took showers, had hot water, I even used a blowdryer thanks to my new generator. Everything worked out just fine and I started to really consider that boondocking just might not be so bad after all.

The next time we found ourselves to be “homeless” was the 4th of July weekend. We decided to go into a National Forest and just give it a try for a few days. We found ourselves in a lovely valley surrounded by mountains on both sides. From that spot onward I have fallen in love with boondocking.

DSC05327

I was worried at first about boondocking for a number of reasons. Thinking that I would run out of power, not be able to shower, do dishes, use my computer, or even watch a movie. All of my doubts have been eliminated.

First off power, we don’t have solar panels, but we do have a generator. While boondocking we ran the generator about once a day, for approximately two hours to recharge our batteries. It also runs when I use watt heavy appliances, for example my hairdryer and blender (to make green smoothies!). Things that our inverter wattage can not handle. That power issue is not an issue at all now. Eventually we might add some solar panels and a higher watt inverter. But for now the generator is working and does everything we need.

Water was my biggest worry heading into the forest. The airstream holds 39 gallons of fresh water, how are we going to live for days off of 39 gallons? The average person uses 80-100 gallons of water per day! To my happy surprise we made that water last with flying colors. We did a few things to help make this possible. Highest water usage are two things, showers and washing dishes.

As far as showering goes, you have to do the navy shower. For a person with a lot of hair, this was a bit more challenging. But I wash my long hair and the water still doesn’t run out. I have read from other blogs some people use dry shampoo to save even more water. I have not had to go to that extreme yet.

Dish washing is the 2nd water problem. While boondocking we use paper plates, cups, and plastic silverware. Cutting down the amount to be washed by at least half or maybe more. The only items that then need to be washed are the pots and cooking utensils that can withstand heat. After I dish out the food from the pots, I take a paper towel and just wipe the pot clean. That way when I go to wash it up, it takes an even smaller amount of water to get it clean.

Hand washing and even toilet flushing takes precious water. We brought along a bunch of hand sanitizer and wet wipes to keep hand washing to a minimum. For flushing, spray it down with a water vinegar mix instead of flushing with water.

To add to our water supply we have 7 gallon water totes. Currently we have 3 of them. With our current setup we can go about 4 days on our fresh water tank. Add in our totes of water, we can easily boondock for a week now without much trouble. streamer_a has a water pump that makes filling the water tank from the totes very easy, it is quick too.

DSC053561

The other item that plays a role in boondocking is propane. During the warm months it is not used very heavily, but you still couldn’t pull off a comfortable week in the forest without it. Our propane runs the refrigerator and is used for hot water. I only turn on the hot water when I am about to do something with it. You would not want to leave it on all day like you normally would with the electric heat.

Just having those few modifications has really opened up the world of boondocking. Currently traveling around Colorado and having all the National Forest at our disposal is very inspiring. We plan to stay here for awhile and continue to venture ‘Into the Forest’.

– Julie, Golden, CO

The week of June 30th-ish, 2014

Rio Grande National Forest

See all our week of June 30th-ish photographs here.

A hectic 1,208 miles of towing week. It started when we left Pomona State Park on the 27th. Our goal was simple – to escape humidity and bugs by getting to elevation.

The entire itinerary was unplanned. We stopped when and where we wanted, which worked out more or less.

We were also lucky enough to stop at two National Parks: Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde. We drove past, but did not stop at, the Sand Creek massacre site. If I had known the historical significance (shame on me) I would have certainly stopped.

The dunes at the Great Sand Dunes National Park are the tallest in North America, as high as 750 feet and very stable. Comparing today to a 1874 photograph reveals the dunes have changed very little in over 100 years. The immediate – immediate being over 400,000 years ago – cause of their formation was wind action that piles sand from the the San Luis valley floor up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This process continues today.

The valley itself is the size of Connecticut and is pleasant to drive across. On the one side are the volcanically created San Juan Mountains, on the other the uplifted Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with the Rio Grande flowing through the sand and scrub in between. The valley was once a huge lake — Lake Alamosa. That ancient lake bed is the floor of the valley today. Every time we drive across we see small, localized, dust storms.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

One theory concludes that the lake ultimately breached the valley with the ensuing torrent forming the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico, which we drove through on our way to Taos in May.

All of this information was lifted from the National Park Service.

As we spend more time in Colorado the geography and history of this state become more fascinating. The area we have been exploring most recently has been the south western portion – Durango, Pagosa Springs, Alamosa, following US 160. The geography is stunning but I also enjoy observing the history and culture change with the landscape.

Most of what we have been spending time in was Spanish and subsequently Mexican territory until the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The town of San Luis is the oldest in Colorado, established in 1851 by settlers from New Mexico. At this time the area was still part of the New Mexico Territory.

Interestingly, this shows the area was still being settled by Spanish descendants even after the area moved under US control. That Spanish influence is still real today. You see it in the place names, people, cuisine and architecture to a more limited degree. As we were driving from east to west it began in southwest Kansas, and to me it marks the passage from the Midwest to the Southwest.

We also enjoyed three fantastic nights “wild camping” in the Rio Grande National Forest. Our Airstream experience has been transformed by our confidence to go without hookups. streamer_j has committed to writing more about boon docking and I have another post brewing on this.

– Anthony, Cheyenne Mountain State Park & Pike National Forest, Colorado

Canyon Falls

Colorado

We recently stayed at a very scenic spot in Colorado. It was in the Rio Grande National Forest at a remote campground called Big Meadow Reservoir. Here is a quick video of the waterfall that we hiked to find. It was about a 5 minute walk from our site.

– Julie, Durango, Colorado

A grand weekend

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado

We made our home in Santa Fe (see Flickr photos) for two weeks this month. We enjoyed it, spending our anniversary weekend at a resort in Taos and visiting Bandelier National Monument along with the Atomic City, Los Alamos, home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Another highlight was meeting the @snowmads and @watsonswander at a Santa Fe brewery.

Bandelier National Monument (see Flickr photos) is naturally spectacular with a lot of back country to explore. The Pueblo ruins are fascinating and seem to flow with the landscape – adding, not taking away. Los Alamos was surprising. I expected something else. Perhaps I expected a sense of nostalgia, having read so much of its history.

Santa Fe as a whole is a win. It’s a tourist town to be sure, but the trail system is good, the landscape stunning, and there is plenty to see and do. Our only complaint was dicey weather in May due to the elevation.

This Memorial Day weekend I resolved that we would see the Grand Mesa. The Grand Mesa is an odd thing. It’s the largest flat-top mountain in the world – over 10,000 ft. It’s also a natural wonder in Civilization V.

We also resolved we would boondock the weekend. We are weary of RV parks and frankly most organized campgrounds. So we bought a Yamaha EF2000iS generator in Santa Fe. This 2000W generator is light, quiet (by generator standards), and can power everything except the air conditioning. It can also be paired with another generator to deliver 4000W, which would power the air conditioning.

Yamaha Generator, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

We set off on Friday afternoon and reached the San Juan National Forest, just north of Durango. The National Forest permits free dispersed camping throughout. After exploring a few Forestry Service dirt tracks we found a nice spot about half a mile off the main road. Towing an Airstream down backcountry roads is a little hairy but we managed it unscathed. The Airstream batteries hold up really well and we only used the generator in the morning for Julie’s hairdryer. We noticed it struggled to keep up with that appliance, which was surprising, but we were at high altitude.

San Juan National Forest

On Saturday we continued our journey through the beautiful San Juan National Forest. We encountered a bike race – what an inspiration to see hundreds of riders of all ages peddling up thousands of feet. We stopped at Silverton for lunch in a saloon with an olde timey piano player, which was fun – albeit the world’s biggest tourist trap.

Silverton, CO

Sweitzer Lake State Park let us fill our tank with water, ostensibly because we are Colorado State Park annual permit holders. I got the feeling I was the first person to ask. We filled quickly in the wind and rain.

Finally we made it to the Grand Mesa. Because the Grand Mesa is flat-topped its elevation is deceiving. You think perhaps it’s a few thousand feet. The road to the top is long and steep. And as we climbed the air temperature started falling. Then we saw snow. Deep snow. Then it started snowing. At the visitor’s center we learned that most of our dispersed camping options were completely inaccessible due to snow and unfortunately so were some of the more scenic roadways. We were helpfully pointed to the Jumbo campground on the west side of the mountain. The campground was open but not in service yet. We saw only one other camper and after driving over some snow drifts tucked ourselves away in a corner.

Jumbo Campground, Grand Mesa, Colorado

At this point we noticed a little damage. One of the steel fresh water tank straps was dragging on the road and the stairs were very bent. The first problem I believe occurred when we hit a rock in the road in the mountains, although we can’t be sure. The bent stairs I am fairly certain occurred when we turned off the Forestry road back on to the main highway in the San Juan National Forest. It was a a very steep intersection and we heard the awful noise of something getting high-grounded. Must have been the stairs. I bent the tank strap up off the road and tied it to the axle with zip ties. It’ll do for now. The stairs still work, painfully.

So the Grand Mesa turned out to be a bit of a bust due to weather, but nonetheless we fared well for our second night of boon-docking. We decided to leave early on Sunday and try our luck at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a nearby National Park.

To get there involved an arduous and lengthy journey over a muddy dirt road called Black Canyon Road. We took it slow, averaging 10 – 15mph.

Black Canyon Road

We chose to stay at the organized north rim primitive camp ground. The campground itself is pretty, nestled amongst Juniper trees. But it’s also horrid for Airstreams. The sites are tiny, completely un-level and packed in next to one another. It apparently also doubles as an off-leash dog park which we could do without. It bothers me that this primitive campground costs the same as Pomona State Park in Kansas. Obviously being a long weekend it’s fairly busy and I can see this place being emptier during the week.

North Rim Campground

Now while the campground was poor, the canyon itself was breathtaking (see Flickr photos). Julie and I agree it is more impressive in some ways than the Grand Canyon. It’s like something out of Lord of the Rings. The sheer drops range from 1,750 feet to 2,700 feet. The gorge is so narrow that the effect of that drop is magnified. It’s intimidating.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado

“In 48 miles the Gunnison River loses more elevation than the 1,500 mile Mississippi River does from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The power of fast falling enables the river to erode tough rock.” – National Park Service.

On Monday morning (5/25) we walked the 5 mile Deadhorse Trail enjoying much better weather. Alfred enjoy himself and we saw plenty of bear evidence. Then we hitched up and completed our five-something hour drive to Denver.

Our route involved crossing the McClure Pass, 8,755 feet at 8% grade, and the Vail Pass, 10,662 feet at 7% grade. Neither taxed the Ecoboost particularly. It is of course very thirsty. Unfortunately though it is time to replace the brake rotors.

So we accomplished three night without hookups and two nights completely free. After all this we are up to seven missing interior rivets in the Airstream.

– Anthony, Dakota Ridge RV Resort, Golden, Colorado