Entering Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

We left Moab, heading north to intersect I-70 before turning east and crossing into Colorado. Shortly thereafter we turned south off the interstate for an hour’s drive to the South Rim entry road for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  Never heard of it, you say?  You and most people not from Colorado.  Until we started route planning we hadn’t either, but it is another jewel that truly deserves national park status and your consideration for a visit if you are anywhere near the area.

Black Canyon is like a half sized Grand Canyon, but with completely different geological development and thus a very different look to it.  Whereas much of the Grand Canyon’s depth is the result of the Colorado River eroding through sandstone and limestone, the Black Canyon developed through a much more turbulent river cutting through much harder rock.  The result is a very steep, very deep canyon with some of the gorge receiving only 33 minutes of sunlight a day.  The park area is covered with a much greater amount of trees and foliage than the Grand Canyon, adding to the distinct appearance.Black Canyon

What Black Canyon of the Gunnison does not have is crowds.  Little known and less attended, we took a two mile hike on one of the most popular trails and encountered one other pair the entire time. Wildlife was plentiful, we spotted rabbits, two snakes, several mule deer, and of course, plenty of squirrels and chipmunks.  Back in the campground, as evening approached, the mule deer were everywhere, with two does and three fawns a near constant presence in our loop.

The campground area contains three loops, only one of which has electrical hook ups, and none have water hookups, though a bottle fill station is available.  We were unable to secure reservations at the place, but could tell from the online system that several first come, first serve sites were available, and our worst case would entail drycamping during our two day stay.  We were fortunate enough to grab one of the last electrical spots our first day, though we would have to vacate it the next.  An early morning stroll before moving to the drycamping loop revealed a no show at one of the other electrical spots, so we snagged that for night two.

The sites were relatively level and spacious with plenty of foliage, though the trees are all short so while shade for siting is available, very few sites will provide shade for an RV except during the morning and evening.  All sites had a fire pit and a picnic table, and we took advantage of both during our evenings.Black Canyon outcrop

Like most of the other national parks that lack a shuttle system, a tow vehicle would have allowed a much greater amount of exploration, and might have convinced us to stay longer, but we have no regrets about coming.

Fantastically positioned visitor Center

Fantastically positioned visitor Center

Black Canyon Rose Black Canyon again

Moab! Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dead Horse Point State Park

Having mostly resolved our coolant and overheating problem while aborting our Capitol Reef National Park visit, we continued east across Utah before turning south to Moab.  Aside from being a 4×4 Mecca, Moab is conveniently positioned just outside Arches National Park and only a short drive to Canyonlands NP.  And while neither of these has a shuttle system like that in Zion or Grand Canyon, Enterprise had very affordable cars available right in town, and they’ll even come pick you up if you are reasonably close.  We took advantage of a $39/day rental car for five of the six days we stayed.  Yes, significantly departing from our three day average, we actually stayed in one town for nearly a week for other than mechanical repair reasons, though we did shift campgrounds half way through.Turret Arch

We spent our first full day visiting Arches NP, starting with the visitor center for the traditional short educational movie about the place, before moving on to a driving tour the full length of the park along all paved routes.  We stopped at most of the scenic and historical points, made a few short hikes to see the more impressive of the wind and water etched sandstone arches that are the namesake and hallmark of Arches National Park.  Our favorites were The Windows, Sand Dune, and Skyline Arches.  The first for their impressive size and fun hike to see, the second for the unique path way to it, and the third for the isolation despite how accessible it is: only one other family was there during out hike, unlike the large crowds at The Windows.

The Windows

The Windows

We spent a day visiting Canyonlands NP, with a stop at Dead Horse State Park along the way based upon my Dad’s recommendation.  What a fantastic jewel that park is.  Situated on a steep sided mesa with 2000 foot cliffs and a narrow neck only 90 feet wide connecting the official point to the main plateau.   Cowboys used to use the geological oddity as a natural corral, herding wild horses onto the point and fencing off the neck, allowing them to pick out the best horses from the trapped herd.  The views are stunning, rivaling anything at Canyonlands and even the Grand Canyon.  There is a small 21 site campground at Dead Horse that I will consider using if we return to the region since the views from the sites are so amazing, and at $28 a night, including electrical but no water hook ups, the price is reasonable.

As for Canyonlands, we drove the full length of the park, stopping at many of the overlooks and short scenic trails.  Top of the list was Mesa Arch, which we felt rivaled our favorites from Arches NP.  A short one mile trail leads to the front of the arch, with the back side view presenting a steep cliffside drop.

We completed our stay in Moab with a ranger led evening hike through Arches’ Fiery Furnace primitive trail.  The three hour hike took us down into slot canyons and scrambling through the sun lit reddest rocks in the area, with occasional stop so that our guide could explain the geology, biology, and history of the area.  In one of those small world encounters, our guide, Sam, went to the same high school I attended in 9th and 10th grades, though decades later.   Though we could not come up with any teachers from my era still present during hers, it turned out she did have the same wrestling coach, Coach Carpenter.  And yes, you gender conformist sexists, all the pronouns are correct in that sentence, heh.

As for the campgrounds: in the summer low season members of Passport-America have four options for 50% discounted stays.  We initially went with the A.C.T. Campground, a brand new endeavor owned and designed by an environmental engineer, that will eventually provide low energy Air Conditioned Tents (thus the name), but for now provides full hook up RV sites with some unusual amenities, including a community kitchen, dining area, and library.  At $19.50 a night this is a hard to beat deal, the most affordable in town, even with three other Passport-America options.   The only negatives were 1) the free wifi was, as expected, RV park typical with a weak signal and limited availability during peak hours, and 2) while they had clearly spared few expenses in the construction of the campground, they did go cheap on the tree planting, with one tiny little thing between each site that will take a decade of growth before providing any shade.

Three days in this first RV park, A.C.T. Campground

Three days in this first RV park, A.C.T. Campground

Since we had a rental car we explored the other Passport-America options, and for our last three nights we elected to shift down to Spanish Trails RV.  Though slightly further from downtown and $2.50 more per night, Spanish Trails had the advantage of mature growth trees shading nearly every site, unless you specifically wanted a completely clear spot for your satellite TV.  The trees, greater distance from the main road, and landscaping were worth the extra couple of bucks for us, though the wifi was, again, RV park typical.  To there credit, the front desk staff genuinely sought to make it better, asking detailed question about the specific problems we encountered.   We also thoroughly enjoyed our robust steak meal at Susie’s Branding Iron Restaurant just across the street.  We split an entrée, and without asking they brought it out already apportioned onto two plates, with obvious extra side dishes to make our meal that much better.

Three days in our second place, Spanish Trails RV Park

Three days in our second place, Spanish Trails RV Park

We encountered one oddity during our transfer: as we were departing ACT The Big Kahuna repeatedly stalled as i decelerated.  He just refused to come down into the lowest gear for a few minutes.  The problem went away after a few minutes and we continued on our way, but considering our mention of it foreshadowing of a future post and our current mechanical problem.  More on that later.Arches Panoramic

A coolant leak, an overheating learning curve, and skipping Bryce and Capitol Reef National Parks.

Last post I mentioned our plan to visit all five of Utah’s National Parks, and that circumstances had led to our seeing only three.  Bryce fell by the wayside due to lack of easily available rental cars near Zion.  The nearest available, aside from very expensive off roaders, were miles away with no affordable transportation options to get there.

As for Capital Reef, we were on our way, within 50 miles of it, when The Big Kahuna overheated during a relatively high altitude and lengthy uphill climb, and appeared to blow a coolant hose. Gallons of antifreeze all over the side of the road, me not able to figure out where the leak occurred, and once again we were so remote as to not have cell service.  Fortunately some DOT guys came by within minutes, drove me down the road to get service and recommended a mobile mechanic, who in turn passed me on to K & K Auto and Diesel Repair.  Mechanic Andy arrived in about 40 minutes, topped me off with coolant, but could find no leak.  A test run down the road lead to more coolant spillage within minutes, after which Andy was able to find an unused coolant hose connection coming off the main tank that appeared to have blown the deadheaded plug.  He fashioned a new plug, but advised me to return to his shop in Salina to investigate the overheating further.

Broken down on the side of the road without cell service again, but making the best of it. Grill on the right side, generator on the left, and mechanic in the back.

Broken down on the side of the road without cell service again, but making the best of it. Grill on the right side, generator on the left, and mechanic in the back.

Turns out K & K also owns a co-located RV Campground, Salina Creek.  It is pretty steeply priced at $25 a night considering that it is very basic; power water and sewage with no amenities in a low demand location, but they cut us major slack on the price since we were having work done there.

Basic but servicible: Salina Creek RV Park

Basic but servicible: Salina Creek RV Park

The bottom line is that our water temp gauge is not functioning, giving us no heads up when overheating, and my reliance on the oil temp gauge is insufficient to prevent problems.  Lacking immediate access to the specific Steward Warner gauge and sending unit, and since we did not want to wait for the couple of days it would take to get them, we went with the temporary solution of installing a mechanical gauge directly into the temp port on the coolant side of the engine.

Perhaps of even greater importance, I changed my uphill driving method, basically cutting my speed in half during long uphill runs.  The Big Kahuna’s overly tall gearing means that any significant uphill grade will drop us down into low gear, and I had been driving him at max low gear speed, about 28 MPH.  In the summer heat and at altitude this meant significant risk of overheating.  Now I run about 15 MPH on long six and seven percent grades, and I stop every couple of miles to check the temp gauge mounted in the engine compartment.  This has worked quite well for us; last week we crossed the 11,000 foot Eisenhower and Vail passes in Colorado with no problems.

For those keeping track, this is or third roadside breakdown; one leading to a lengthy tow and two requiring a mobile mechanic.  Fortunately this one was far cheaper to deal with than the other two.

Zion National Park

Our plan: spend nine days seeing all five national parks in Utah starting in the southwest corner with Zion and Bryce, then a day in Capital Reef, and ending in Moab to see Arches and Canyonlands.  I will spare you the anticipation and say we had to reel in our plans after running into engine coolant challenges, but we managed to hit three of the five in twelve days.

As you approach southern Utah, the geography rapidly shifts to the classic red rock sandstone derived from the high iron content, and our excitement and energy grew with each mile.Zion Canyon Campground

Zion is set up perfect for those of us without a tow vehicle, with not only a park shuttle hitting many scenic areas, learning centers, and trail heads, but also a free town shuttle that stops near most of the hotels and RV parks.  We were fortunate enough to get late reservations at Zion Canyon RV Campground and RV Resort, the private, full hook up campground less than half a mile from the Zion National Park visitor center.  The sites were gravel and dirt with some trees interspersed, not particularly spacious but not the total sardine cans we have seen in some places, and we had a fantastic view of The Watchman looming directly over the camp.

Zion Canyon River had available showers and a pool packed with families and kids, to be expected since the place was nearly full during our stay.  The facilities were clean, and the staff extremely helpful in getting us situated, providing directions and recommendations, and dealing with some mail forwarding problems we experienced during and after our stay.  We weren’t there for a resort experience, however, and the main draw of this RV park is the location, right next to the town shuttle stop leading into the park, or only .4 miles to the visitor center if you prefer to walk it. Since we planned plenty of day hiking in the national park itself, we elected for the former option.

During our four day stay we hit the visitor center, human history museum, the lodge, every scenic lookout, and a good number of the shorter trails.  We got to hike a small part of the famous Narrows during our first full day, with good timing since that evening the area experienced heavy rain with flash flood warnings, a potential catastrophe if you are caught in any of the slot canyons.

We split up or one afternoon to hike different options, Rosie seeing no fun in staggering up the Angels Landing trail, whereas I was basically shamed into doing it via a pointedly worded text from my dad who had hiked it during his visit.  The strenuous trail ends with half a mile of cliffside scrambling while looking down thousand foot drop offs in several locations.  Not for those with fear of heights, but the rewarding views at the end was worth it.  We met up at beer pub right next to the visitor center for some local craft beer.  There is a weird Utah or perhaps local law requiring the purchase of food with alcohol, so the place had really cheap but delicious bread sticks with spicy beer cheese dip as an appetizer, allowing affordable compliance with the odd rule.

Post hike craft beer

Post hike craft beer

We also enjoyed walking throughout the touristy but cute little town running down the main drag, easily accessible from the handful of bus stop on the free shuttle.  Though we kept our expenses down by avoiding restaurant eating, we spent a fair share of our time in the boutique shops, and I bit the bullet and bought some higher end hiking boots since my discount sketchers just weren’t cutting it.Zion's Virgin River

Zion is fantastic for any visitor, but for us it was beyond wonderful.  We would love to return in a future year, hopefully with fewer crowds in the park and perhaps during cooler weather, but unlike our other “we want to come back but with a tow vehicle next time,” Zion requires no such caveat.

The road to Zion: Preventive Maintenance in Idaho, and a brief stop in Utah’s Wasatch RV Estate

As of this morning we are four weeks behind on this blog.  Since we are in a high end private park offering excellent wifi (at least at their pavilion, though not near our actual bus) we are taking advantage with daily posts trying to catch up.  So… after departing Grand Teton National Park, we headed generally towards Zion National Park, but with a stop in Blackfoot, Idaho to get some preventative maintenance and adjustments done on our engine and drive train.  Bill at Ace One Trucking had demonstrated competence and knowledge of vintage buses while rescuing us from the roadside catastrophe in Yellowstone.  It is hard enough finding a reliable mechanic for any vehicle, but when it is a 52 year old diesel bus, the challenge is even greater, so when you find one you use him.

Back in Idaho on the way to Ace One Truck Repair

Back in Idaho on the way to Ace One Truck Repair

Our plan was to stay one night in the Blackfoot Fairgrounds before showing up at Ace One Truck Repair, per prior agreement, Monday morning. We ran into a glitch trying to find the fairground’s RV sites, initially pulling into and attempting to hook up to connections intended for mobile fair kiosks and food trucks.  I spent nearly half an hour trying to manage the connections around the metal barriers surrounding the electrical and water hook ups before a local stranger offered that we were in the wrong spot.  He provided directions and we drove around the back of the grounds to find the entirely separate RV area; grassy level sites with electrical, water, and a dump station for less than $20 a night.

Blackfoot fairgrounds, but not the RV area.

Blackfoot fairgrounds, but not the RV area.

We made it to Bill’s shop late Monday morning.  Unfortunately, like the other mobile mechanics we have dealt with, he prioritizes the customers broken down on the side of the road over the ones safely ensconced in his shop.  This meant waiting until Wednesday to get any work done while he dealt with roadside emergencies.  He compensated for the delay by putting us up in the nearby Super 8 motel for a couple of nights on his steeply discounted company account.  Since we are struggling with TV withdrawal out here on the road, this tactic assuaged our irritation more than you might expect, and we used the hotel wifi to catch up on a number of HBO and other streaming shows.  We also discovered a ludicrously affordable Mexican fast food place that puts Taco Bell to shame.  Los Roberto’s has our full endorsement. Los Roberto's

By Wednesday he was able to check out the linkages in our drive train, unfreeze the brake slack adjustment on one wheel, and adjust our badly out of wack brakes.  The difference in braking is like night and day, giving us much more confidence for both city and down hill driving.  We also took advantage of the stop to get an overdue lube, oil, filter change on the oil, gas, and transmission systems.  Departing late that afternoon we headed towards Zion National Park, but the departure hour necessitated a halfway stop.Entering Utah

Passport-America came through for us again, despite having done no prior research.  As we grew tired of driving, we pulled over in Wasatch, north of Salt Lake City, consulted the PA website for nearby parks offering their 50% discount, and cross referenced those campgrounds to the RV reviews sites (Campendium and RV Park Reviews).  We ended up in Wasatch View Estates, a nice, clean, safe, well maintained RV and mobile home park with a helpful staff and full hook ups for $15 a night.  Since this was one of the best values we have received this year, we took advantage and stayed an extra night to get our bus and ourselves in order after having spent three nights away from each.

The Road To Zion

The Road To Zion

The next morning we headed towards Zion National Park, which will be the photo stuffed subject of our next post.  There, now we are only thee weeks behind.

Welcome Million Mile Secrets readers!

If you are coming here from the Daraius and Emily’s excellent loyalty point website, Million Mile Secrets: Welcome!  I am a long time reader of MMS, and it has been one of my primary places of education for all things involving miles and points programs.  We were quite honored to be featured in their Friday interview series.  As you probably read in the interview, we maintain Shell on Wheels primarily as a record of our RV travel, with an occasional foray into discussion of loyalty programs. If you are looking for a basic introduction to our site, I recommend the following posts:

The Decision: explaining our plan to move into an RV full time.

The Money: our attempt to anticipate and plan the budget based on living off much less in retirement.

Where We Are: a map and list of all the places we have visited during our full time RV adventure.

Some points and miles posts here, here, and here.

Feel free to follow us on this blog, or explore our facebook and instagram pages.

Grand Teton National Park, Colter Bay and Gros Ventre campgrounds

After our roadside fiasco involving three days of expensive mobile mechanic repairs while attempting to depart Yellowstone National Park, we were eager to get back on the road towards Grand Teton, hoping for a better RV experience than Fishing Bridge campground had provided.  After a bit of research we had resolved to drive all the way through Grand Teton to the southernmost campground, Gros Ventre, owing to the online reviews which suggested it would be both available and more to our liking than some of the others.  Due to the lateness of our departure from our parking lot repair site at Flagg Ranch, however, we elected to stop well short of Gros Ventre, spend at least one night at Colter Bay campground, and extend the stay if it was to our liking.  It was fine, but not great enough to keep us from continuing on to Gros Ventre the next morning and staying there for two nights.

Colter Bay campground is in the northern section of Grand Teton National Park and conveniently located right off the main park road.  They also have a small store for basic supplies and a restaurant at the front of the campground, which we failed to take advantage of since I assumed there was something similar down the road at Gros Ventre.  There was not, oops.  They only had dry-camping spots available, though spaces in both the “generators permitted” and “no generators” sections were open.  We elected the former, even with limited permitted operating hours, since we preferred to keep our fridge cold and get our house batteries fully charged.  The campground was heavily wooded, but our site, like many, was one of those pull through spots that is just a long wide pullout directly beside the loop road.  The organization of the campground made it seem more crowded than it probably was because families and kids on bikes were constantly driving right by our side windows.  It was fine for a one night stop, and for those with tow vehicles it might be a great place to use as a base camp to explore both Grand Teton and Yellowstone, but it was not our preferred place.

We moved on to Gros Ventre at the southern end of the park, enjoying the scenic pull offs along the way.  Gros Ventre is French, so avoid giving yourself away to the locals too easily by pronouncing it the way it looks, “Grose Ventry,” and instead use the tortured French pronunciation, something along the lines of Grow Vaunt.  The campground is a dozen or so miles off the main highway, has no camp store of any kind, and had only dry-camping available, again with choice of generator or no generator sections.  The sites were much more spacious and spread out, mainly large back in spots, and the Gros Ventre river was just a hundred yards or so behind our site.  The somewhat more isolated and spread out nature of this campground seemed to lend itself to better wildlife spotting; we had a pair of bull moose wander through the campground on our first evening.

One of two bull moose that wandered through the Gros Ventre campground during out stay

One of two bull moose that wandered through the Gros Ventre campground during out stay

Though we only had dry camping spots, our overall RVing experience in Grand Teton was far better than that in Yellowstone.  Sometimes you need full hook ups, or at least electricity, but we are learning that the contracted, reservable, and full hook up campgrounds in the national parks tend to be overpriced and not particularly attractive.  From here on, where feasible we will aim for the park operated dry camping sites when in the NPs.  Between the two Teton campgrounds, Colter Bay and Gros Ventre, we preferred the later due to the larger and quieter sites, though the camp store at Colter would have been a great asset had we chosen to remain there.Gros Ventre river

All in all we had a better time in Grand Teton than Yellowstone, particularly the campgrounds, but I can easily see us returning to the area and giving Yellowstone another go, this time in a tow vehicle or rental car.