Summer 2020 COVID Escape Trip Summary

While not the 5 month Alaska adventure we had hoped for this summer, we had a great trip. And it was way better than staying home and being frustrated about everything being closed or cancelled.

We ended up driving 5200 miles, across parts of California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Oregon. We stayed in the following places over a total of 72 nights:

  • National Forest free dispersed camping: 51
  • AirBNB: 8 (6 in ID, 2 in WA)
  • RV parks: 7
  • BLM dispersed camping / wide spot in road: 3
  • City Parks with free camping: 1
  • Public parking lots that allow overnight: 1
  • Truck Stops: 1

Our goal was to mostly avoid any town of more than 10,000 people, and stay in an RV park or AirBNB about every 10 days to do laundry and get a proper shower (rather than quick showers in back of the van or bathing in lakes / creeks). We mostly cooked all our own meals, but did eat at restaurants with outdoor seating about 10 times over the 10 week trip.

My favorite spot of the trip was the Sawtooth Wilderness near Stanley, ID. Some summer I’d love to go back there for a month. But everywhere we went was great.

If you are feeling cooped up from staying home due to COVID-19, I highly recommend buying or renting a camper van or small RV and hitting the road for a few weeks. There are tons of great free places to camp, and gas is cheap at the moment. If you are lucky you can buy a camper and sell it next year for about the same price you paid for it.

One of the most interesting aspects of traveling around this part of the country at the time was observing the huge differences in the response to COVID. Wyoming and South Dakota had few people wearing masks, and few signs asking people to wear them. Montana had signs on the door to every business declaring a mandate by the governor to wear a mask, but outside of Bozeman, many people ignored this. Idaho varied a lot from county to county, and several places were still holding outdoor events like rodeos and county fairs. Restaurants were open with reduced seating in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Idaho. Washington was very strict, with no indoor dining anywhere. South Dakota was the most open, to the point of holding the Sturgis motorcycle rally, which around 440,000 people attended, and is being called a ‘super spreader’ event that is already linked to at least 1 COVID death as of Sept 1.

What next? We plan to avoid air travel until there is a vaccine that seems trustworthy and readily available. Will this happen in time for next summer? Who knows? We still want to go to Alaska, but maybe not until 2022?

In the meantime I’m going to go back to work at LBL for 10 hrs/week for 6 months. I figure working will help avoid the frustration of not being able to do the things I planned during retirement.

Here is a google map link to the full route.

Favorite photos from the entire trip will eventually be here.

full route

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Back to Grass Valley: Yakima Valley and Crane Prairie Reservoir (August 2020)

We decided we were ready to leave Idaho and start working our way back home. The plan was to spend one night in Prosser, WA on the way to Oregon. But it was forecast to be 106 that day, which is way to hot for #vanlife, so we booked an air conditioned AirBNB for two nights. I’m glad we did, as we got a chance to explore Yakima Valley a bit.

This part of Washington seemed to be 1/3 apples, 1/3 grapes, and 1/3 hops. Huge farms everywhere. We were pretty unimpressed by the wines at the two wineries we went to in Prosser, but liked the beers at Snipes Mountain Brewery.

We got to check out “Gravity Hill”, which was fun. It really works (well, the illusion does). We also stopped at the Stonehenge WWI memorial on the Columbia river, which was surprisingly interesting.

One of our favorite spots from our trip to Oregon in 2024 was Crane Prairie Reservoir, about 1 hour from Bend. It was basically our route home, so we decided to spend a week there next. We stayed in the same camping area we did then, and even had the same bald eagle in camp as we did then (we think). We also met up with some friends from Eugene on Lava Lake.

Next stop: home!

Hop farm
Stonehenge Memorial in Washington State
our camp site on Crane Prairie reservoir, with view of the ‘south sister’ mountain in the background

Full set of photos are here.

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Idaho Panhandle National Forest, August 2020

After 7 weeks of #vanlife, we felt it was time to rent a cabin and spread out for a few days. It was also time to give the van a good cleaning, so I found a great cabin on AirBNB near the Canadian border north of Bonner’s Ferry, ID. We spent 6 nights there. No nearby neighbors, no cell coverage, no internet. The cabin was straight out of mountain cabin decor magazine: taxidermy wildlife everywhere, and moose/bear/elk motif on everything, including sheets, towels, placemats, shower curtains, shower curtain hooks, drawer handles, door handles, gas grill, etc. Super cute. We loved it. We had an Elk in the yard one morning, and tons of turkeys and geese. Still no bear sightings on this trip yet. I find it interesting that I see WAY more bear scat on our road at home than anywhere I’ve been on this trip, yet I alway hike with pepper spray here, but not at home. I guess it might have something to do with the possibility of Grizzly Bears here….

Next on to Priest Lake, ID, stopping in Sandpoint for lunch on the way. Sandpoint is a very cute touristy town with some great galleries and restaurants, but as we were still avoiding towns, we only stayed a couple hours.

We really liked Priest Lake when we did our Idaho trip in 2012, so we decided to come back, and stay on the east side of the lake. (We stayed on the west side last time). We found a great spot along a creek 2 miles from the lake. Like many lakes, there is no dispersed camping along the lake: only very full campgrounds and private homes. But it was a quick bike ride or drive to a state park on the lake.

Full set of photos are here.

Playing our new favorite game, “Ticket to Ride” at the rented cabin
Always watching us
Even the utility room had stuffed dead animals
A very quiet day at the US/Canada Border

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Kootenai National Forest Area, August 2020

After leaving the Bitterroot Mountains, we first drove to see the Garden of 1000 Buddha’s, and then drove up to check out the historic town of Wallace ID, which is worth a couple hours if you are in the area. Don’t miss the mummified mermaid at the North Idaho Trading Company. Then we continued on to the town of Thompson Falls, which is nice enough to let folks overnight in their parking lot.

Then on to the ‘town’ of Yaak, MT, with a stop at Kootenai Falls along the way. The falls are quite impressive, and definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.

Since our original plan was to be in Alaska exploring small quirky towns all summer, we decided to check out Yaak, MT, a town of about 30 people and 2 bars. We stayed at very friendly ‘Hipcamp’ site, a 2 minute walk to both bars, and with a great swimming hole on the Yaak River. We had some really interesting conversations at the bar (outside patio, of course). The barmaid said it was their busiest summer ever (which was not really all that busy when we were there). Unfortunately we just missed their summer music festival.

This part of the world is definitely Trump country, but we just avoided talking politics, and found everyone very friendly. I would definitely come back.

Full set of photos are here.

Garden of 1000 Buddha’s
Kootenai Falls
Dirty Shame Saloon, Yaak, MT

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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.

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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