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Bitterroot Mountains, July 2020

Next stop was the Bitterroot Range on the Idaho/Montana border, famous for Lolo Pass, which tormented Lewis and Clark. Tons of great hiking, and tons of huckleberries everywhere!!!

On the advice of a ranger at the Darby Ranger Station, we found an amazing campsite right on the creek along Lost Horse Rd. This road has a number of nice campsites along a 15 mile stretch of gravel road, but I think we got one of the best sites. We liked this spot so much we decided to stay for 9 nights. There were several trailheads within a 15 mile drive, so most days I rode my eBike to a trail, hiked 6-8 miles, and road back. Did I mention how much I love traveling with an eBike? My brother drove up from Idaho Falls to join us for a couple nights.

Part of most days included picking huckleberries. Christine made homemade huckleberry jalapeño jam. Yum!

Next heading north to Yaak, MT, in the middle of nowhere.

Full set of photos are here.

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Devils Tower, Big Horn National Forest, Red Lodge, MT, Beartooth Pass, July 2020

On week 5 of the trip we started working our way back west.

Our first stop was Devils Tower National Monument, made famous by the movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. We downloaded and watched the movie in our campsite, where we could see Devils Tower in one direction, and the NEOWISE comet in the other direction. Devils Tower is really cool! Definitely check it out if you are in the area. The movie was not as good as I remembered it. We did have some fun sculpting mash potatoes tho.

We next went over the pass in Bighorn National Forest to check out the Native American Medicine Wheel, and spent one night at a wide spot in the road with an incredible view. (See photo below).

From there we worked our way to Custer Gallatin National Forest near Red Lodge, MT. We found a nice camping spot along Rock Creek, very near the trailhead for Basin Creek Lake. On the last morning there we woke up to find a moose in our campsite!

The highlight of this part of the trip was a drive up over Beartooth pass, and a hike out past Island Lake. Wow! Amazing scenery. This road is very popular with motorcyclists, and there were probably more motorcycles than cars.

I also recommend the Red Lodge Ales brew pub in Red Lodge. 😉

Then on to Bozeman for a dinner with my Aunt and Uncle. Bozeman seems to be booming, with lots of construction everywhere. Then on to Darby, MT.

Full set of photos are here.

Devils Tower, WY
Campsite along road (zoom in to see van)
Island Lake at Beartooth Pass

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Black Hills, South Dakota, July 2020

The Black Hills area, home to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, Deadwood, Sturgis, and more, was by far the most touristy stop on this trip. Its a really pretty area with lots to see in a relatively small area, so I can see why it is popular. Normally it would be packed with tour buses, so this was probably a good year to go. The hiking and biking is excellent, and I’m told the rock climbing is exceptional.

There are a huge number of RV parks in the Black Hills region, and most looked to be full. We saw license plates from everywhere, including all the COVID hot spots (Florida, Texas, Arizona, etc.) In general everywhere we went employees were wearing masks, and customers were not. But most everything is outdoors, none of the indoor places we went were crowded, and in general the small towns felt quite empty.

There are several cute, historical towns in the badlands, each of which is competing for tourists. The town of Deadwood is like Tombstone, AZ meets Reno, NV. Lots of historical buildings turned into casinos. They also do reenactments of gunfights, as this is the town where “Wild Bill” Hickok was killed. We only spent about 2 hours in Deadwood.

We also went to Sturgis, SD, home of the annual Sturgis Motorcycle rally. The town is pretty unremarkable, and really loud, with the sound of Harley and Indian bikes everywhere. There is a really great motorcycle museum, if you are into that sort of thing. I had no idea Sears sold that many types of small motorcycles. We went to the local brew pub, which was mostly empty (great beer, terrible pizza). We also got some take out Chinese food, which had to be the worst Chinese food I’ve had in 30+ years.

This August will be the 80th anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which typically attracts about 500,000 people. They currently plan to hold the event, despite the COVID risk. WTF?!?! This years event includes concerts by Night Ranger, Great White, and 38 Special. Aren’t all of those guys in the ‘high risk group’ for COVID? (The original concert lineup included ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson, and REO Speedwagon, all of whom were all smart enough to cancel). Check out this photo from a few years ago. I suspect this event will end up in the news in a few weeks as a super spreader, and the people of Sturgis will regret letting this go forward. Again, WTF? I’ll be interested to see this year’s attendance numbers.

Trump is VERY popular in this part of the world. Trump hats, shirts, bumper stickers, etc were for sale everywhere, and we saw a lot of Trump flags on houses and trucks. It seemed best to avoid talking politics with anyone.

Overall western South Dakota reminds me of what it was like living in Iowa in the early 1980s. Crappy food. Crappy beer. Friendly people. Being here feels like I’ve travelled back in time 40 years, which I guess in some ways was better then, but overall, not so much. I spent some time in Sioux Falls in the 1990s, and it felt way more modern in terms of food and beverages than this area seems today. But maybe I’m going to the wrong places.

One interesting observation is with small grocery / convenience stores. Seems like in most of the US these days, the shelf space of a small grocery store is about 30-40% beer, wine, and booze. That is certainly true in all the small groceries stores I’ve been to in California. Here its about 1% of the shelf space, and only a small variety of mass produced beer. The local liquor store did have a good variety tho.

For camping in this area, we did 2 nights at a very nice, new, RV park in Custer, then Christine found an AirBNB in Sturgis for 5 nights for some alone time. I found a nice dispersed camp site outside of Lead near Spearfish Canyon. While we were in Custer a Tornado hit Spearfish Canyon, taking out 1000’s of trees. Glad we missed that.

Arrived before 8am to beat the crowds
Cathedral Spires

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Badlands National Park, July 2020

Maybe we got lucky, but the best part of about the Badlands was the thunder storms. There is an amazing free dispersed camping area just outside the national park, up on a plateau where you can see in 40 miles in every direction. We had some amazing lightening and hail storms, and at night you could see a lightning strike in the distance about every 60 seconds all night long. Check out the pictures.

My favorite activity in the Badlands was doing a 28 mile bike ride past about 1000 bison, 10,000 prairie dogs, and about 1,000,000 grasshoppers, along with some amazing scenery. I got stuck behind about 100 bison on the road, but luckily a big truck with a very loud horn came along and scared them all off.

And what trip to the Badlands is complete without a brief stop at Wall Drug in Wall SD. It’s just as touristy and tacky as you imagined.

The nearby Minuteman Missile Museum was cool, but unfortunately most of it was closed due to COVID-19.

Full set of photos are here.

Storm coming in.

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Western Wyoming, July 2020

After waiting out a storm in an RV Park in Idaho Falls for a couple days, we went on to Grey’s River Valley in the Bridger-Teton National Forest outside Alpine, WY. We wanted a quiet area to avoid the 4th of July holiday crowds. We found a really nice spot right on the river. The only negative was at times RVs on the nearby road kicked up a lot of dust. We were surrounded by wild flowers everywhere. And cows that wandered through camp periodically.

The hiking options in this valley were rather limited, but I did find a couple great great hikes. One of the trailheads was 2.5 miles from our campsite (Stewart Peak Trail), and the other 5 miles (Middle Ridge Trail), which with my eBike felt quite close. For this sort of camping, I can’t recommend the advantages of having a eBike to get around enough. It’s really nice not having to take the van everywhere.

On the first hike the only people I saw was an old cowboy and his granddaughter on horseback. They were very friendly. The 15(?) year old granddaughter was wearing a t-shirt that said “Rock, Scissors, Gun, I win”, similar to this one. I might have to get one of those. On the second hike I only saw 1 other hiker.

Next we did a quick 2 hour stop in Grand Tetons National Park. All of the park is over 7000ft elevation, which Christine’s asthmatic lungs were not happy with, so that was the longest we could stay. There is now a bike path from the park all the way to Jackson, WY. I’d love to come back and ride that some day.

Then on to Badlands National Park, with an overnight in a free campground in Glenrock, WY. I have to say, the drive across the eastern half of Wyoming is pretty darn dull.

Photos from Grey’s River area are here.

Photos from the Grand Tetons are here.

View from our camp site
Middle Ridge Trail

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Southern Idaho, June 2020

This is the first blog of our summer 2020 COVID avoidance trip. We were supposed to be in Alaska this summer, but when they cancelled all ferry service between Alaska and the lower 48 (and closed the Canada border), that clearly was not going to happen. Maybe 2021?

After overnighting in a quiet canyon outside of Elko, we spent a night at Crater’s of the Moon National Monument. Worth checking out of you are in the area, but overall I liked Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California better. On the way we stopped at Shoshani Falls, which is definitely worth a detour if you are in the area.

Next on to the South Fork of the Boise River, past Featherville, ID. This is a very popular area for camping and fishing. There are roughly 5 official campgrounds along this road, and literally 100’s of dispersed camping spots, most of which were already full when we arrived on a Friday morning. We did manage to find a really nice spot right next to a swimming hole, and a short bike ride to a Baumgarter Hot Springs, and next to a great trail head. I could only stand to be in the very cold river for about 30 seconds, but we saw many hardy Idahoans in the water for up to 30 minutes. But the hot springs were a perfect 102 deg F. Our camp spot even came with a very friendly skunk who came by to visit 2-3 times / day.

This river is also very popular for trout fishing. From our camp spot we saw many people fishing, and only saw 2 catch anything, both too small to keep. I could never be a fisherman. I just don’t have the patience.

I think Idaho has some of the best camping infrastructure in the US. Really nice campgrounds are $10-15, compared to $25-35 in California, and official free dispersed camping areas are everywhere, often with nearby pit toilets. The National Forest Service even offers free trash, black water, grey water, and fresh water services. In general there is way less litter in the dispersed camping areas than you’ll find elsewhere. Trails are also well maintained and well labeled, at least in the areas we were at. Both the National Forest Service and the BLM just seem better at supporting recreational use than other parts of the country. I wonder why that is?

Next on to Stanley, ID for some of the best hiking anywhere! We met up with some Bay Area friends, who happened to be in the area, and also my brother who lives in Idaho Falls. There are 100’s of great dispersed camping sites south of Stanley along the Salmon River and all the creeks feeding into it. We found a fantastic spot along Alturas Lake Creek near Pettit Lake to use as a base for hiking. We did the 12mile hike to Alice lake, and the 10 mile hike to Sawtooth Lake, both 2000ft of elevation change. Wow!!! Both fantastic hikes with incredible scenery. HIGHLY recommended.

Next on to an RV park in Idaho Falls to wait out a big cold front for a couple days before moving on to Wyoming for the next leg.

Photos of week 1 are here.

Photos of the Sawtooth Mountain area (week 2) are here.

Alice Lake
View from gravel road near our camp site.

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Saline Valley, CA

After the Hopi Reservation, we went on to Saline Valley (part of Death Valley National Park) with an overnight in the parking lot of the Alien Cathouse Brothel / Area 51 Alien Cafe and Truck-stop, which was a surprisingly quiet place to spend the night.

I’ve heard about Saline Valley for years, but this was my first time there. Wow, what a wacky and awesome place! Image a free, clothing optional hot springs resort in the middle of a national park, complete with herd of wild burrows that eat everything in site, including someone’s guitar case while we were there. There are two sets of developed hot springs within a 1/2 mile of each other, each with two really nice soaking areas (around 102 degrees) big enough for 8-10 people comfortably, and some of the cleanest pit toilets I’ve ever seen. Both areas have a bunch of palm trees for shade, and one area had a big lush green lawn. There were probably around 50 people there between both sites the nights we were there, including several families with kids. We were told the Thanksgiving potluck attracts around 500 folks. The entire valley was surround by beautiful snow capped mountains, and we were lucky enough to get a big thunderstorm one of the days we were there.

Sounds like heaven, right? The problem is that its long brutal drive down a rocky road driving 5-10 mph. The gravel road part of the drive took us 6 hours on the south road on the way in, and 3.5 hrs on the north road on the way out. I’m not likely to do this drive again any time soon, and definitely not in a Sprinter. It would probably be much better in a Forerunner or similar vehicle. But 4WD is not required, a I saw few regular passenger cars there. But it’s a good thing its hard to get to, as otherwise the place would be too popular, and the NPS would likely close it down or restrict access.

My photos are here, and more information and history of the springs is here.

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Phoenix Area and Sedona

Christine spent a few nights in a great AirBNB in Tempe while I flew north to see Mott the Hopple! Before I flew out we got to see the incredible “Electric Desert” exhibit at the Phoenix Botanical Garden. This video summarizes it well, and the photo link below has some of our videos. I’m looking forward to see what Klip Collective, the company that does these sorts of shows, does next. The Heard Museum in Phoenix is also recommended if you want to learn more about the area’s Native Americans and their art. We also checked out Don Parks collection statues and stuff and got to meet Don.

When I got back to Phoenix I did an amazing AirBNB experience in a biplane, a Stearman, used for training in WWII. Wow!

Then on to Sedona area for a week. We found an incredible free camping area along Forest Rd 525 in the Coconino National Forest, about 25 minutes from town. There were at least 100 RVs, vans and a few tents scattered along this road camping.

Sedona is incredibly beautiful with all the red rocks everywhere. There must be more hiking trails per square mile around Sedona than anywhere on earth. Highlights for us included Baldwin Trail, the Plataki Heritage Site, and the West Fork Trail. We also went to the historic copper town of Jerome (we did a great history tour of the town), and treated ourselves to fantastic massages at Page Spring Cellars winery.

Then on to the Hopi Reservation for a full day tour with “Hopi Tours“. This was very interesting and informative, and highly recommended if you want to learn more about the slowly dying Hopi culture. Most parts of the reservation require you to be with a registered tour guide, and Micah our guide was fantastic. Photos not allowed in the villages, but we could take some of the petroglyphs site. Many homes on the Hopi reservation do not have water, sewer, or electricity.

We were there the day of the bi-annual women’s “basket dance”, where some of the village women wear traditional ceremonial clothes, dance, sing, and throw out a variety of items. Traditionally they would throw handmade items like woven baskets and pottery to the crowd, but now it looks like they just did a huge Walmart shopping trip and bought as much cheap crap as possible. There were lots of plastic laundry baskets, plastic kitchen items, junk food, toilet paper, children’s toys, and more. Around 8 women busily danced around tossing baskets mostly crap to the 500 or so onlookers. Our guide said there was still a good amount of traditional handicrafts in the mix, but we didn’t see any. It was fascinating to observe, and I think we were the only tourists there. They do their ‘dance’ every couple hours from dawn till dusk, tho we only watched about 30 minutes of the late afternoon dance. It reminded me a lot of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, where everyone is trying to grab the throws from the floats, most of which are even more useless crap, with 1% good stuff mixed in.

Photos:

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Slab City and Anza-Borrego State Park

Our next stop was 2 nights in Slab City, CA, near the Salton Sea. On the way we stopped off at the “official center of the world“, a particularly wacky roadside attraction.

There is a lot to love about Slab City, and a lot to hate. This article sums it up pretty well. The folk art in “East Jesus”, an art community on the edge of Slab City, is very impressive and worth stopping by if you are anywhere nearby. Every Saturday night the local outdoor nightclub called “The Range” hosts an open mic night, which was about 50% locals and 50% tourists the night I was there. Some were quite good, and some quite awful. I got to sit in a play drums for 4-5 songs with a group of locals. While we were there someone set their neighbors RV on fire, which was clearly full of live ammo.

Then on to Anza-Borrego State Park to meet up with our very good friend Elizabeth. Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California, and you can pretty much camp anywhere in the park, so long as you are near one of the 500 miles of gravel roads. The amount of plant, animal, bird, and insect life in the park in March is staggering. I got the van stuck in some deep sand, but Mike the tow truck diver had no problem getting us out.

Photos:

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Southern Arizona, March 2019

After Casas Grandes, MX, we drove to Bisbee, AZ, a 7 hr drive over terrible roads, tons of construction, and a mountain pass in a blizzard. Bisbee is a picturesque former copper mine town, and the Queen mine tour is highly recommended. After Bisbee we drove to Tombstone, which is basically a Hollywood Western theme park, and quite fun for a 1/2 day. The re-enactment of the shootout at the OK Corral is silly, but fun. We though the most interesting museum in town was the the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper museum.

Chiricahua National Monument was stunning! One of the best hikes I’ve ever done! See photo link below.

We then drove to Tucson to spend a few days at a friends house, do hiking around lots of cool Suguaro’s, and biked a good part of the Tucson loop bike path. The Titan Missile Museum was fascinating (Christine got to turn the launch key!), and the Degrazia art gallery was worth checking out.

After Tucson we planned to head to New Mexico, but decided that it was still too cold there, so headed west to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument instead. I went to an interesting talk by a Border Patrol agent on what its like to protect the border in this part of Arizona. He said about 1/3 of the arrests were drug runners, and 2/3 illegal immigrants, but that these days many of the illegal immigrants are ‘give ups’ (people who walk across in large groups and immediately surrender, and ask to apply for asylum. Clearly the US needs to figure out a better long term strategy for dealing with the 10s of 1000s of asylum seekers.

Photos:

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