Another great year of full time RVing! The near continuous mechanical problems of 2015 have been left behind but for minor (in comparison) glitches during the last two years. While Serenity lacks the “cool” factor of The Big Kahuna, we are definitely happy to have the confidence that the thing will start when we turn the key and move when we put it in gear, and hope that 2018 will remain similarly smooth sailing. While wintering in The Florida Keys earlier this year, we pondered our options for the rest of 2017, and ultimately decided that it would be another Western US tour. Below is an overly detailed review, filled with numbers and stats, and concluding with our favorites and not so favorites.
The Distance: 10,639 miles. Over 600 more than last year, but still no where near as far as our frenetic nearly 15K first year on the road. In general, we did more lengthy stays in favored locations with hard sprints in between, and changed up the plan near the end of the year with a mileage bumping run up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before turning back to Florida for the late fall and winter.
The Places: We visited 19 states, including the three (MT, ND, SD) that we had not seen in our previous two years of RV living. We lived in the RV for 339 days and stayed with family or in hotels for the remaining 26. Those numbers do not include Rosemarie’s separate trips to Virginia each month during the fall and early winter. Our overall pattern is quite is quite similar to that of 2016. Breaking this year down by places and days:
- We visited 74 places this year, though only 66 when you discount repeat visits such as family’s houses and a few parks in Central Florida. Those 66 different sites break down as 14 private parks, 1 national site, 7 state parks, 8 municipal/city/county parks, 18 military campgrounds, the houses of 2 different family members, 4 store parking lots, 10 casinos, and 2 hotels.
- Breaking things down by days: we stayed in private RV parks for 64 days, military campgrounds for 153, national areas for 4, state parks for 38, county/city/ municipal parks for 59, casinos for 17, store parking lots for 4, with family for 23, and in hotels for 3.
- The main difference between this year and last was a doubling of military campground days, halving of municipal park nights, and the addition of casinos.
- Our longer stays with hard sprints in between resulted in a continuation of the pace reduction we saw from the last two years; we averaged 4.9 days per stop this year compared to 4.0 in 2016 and 2.7 in 2015.
- Another way of looking at the 339 days in the RV: we had full hook ups for 152, electricity and water for 100, power only for 19, and dry camped for 68.
- We also crossed the border (on foot) to Mexico for our extensive dental work.
The Money: At the beginning of the year we established a budget that included an accelerated pay off of our RV loan, a sort of aspirational austerity program. Based on that budget we ended up 2.8% over. In a budget constructed without that accelerated pay off plan, we would have ended up 12.9% under, so all things considered we are pretty happy with the way things turned out. Our daily (vice monthly) budget continues to be key to keeping things on track, and the increase in farmer and artisan market participation made a huge difference in the numbers as well.
The Markets: We sold Rosemarie’s jewelry at 52 events this year! That averages to one a week, but in reality we have a feast or famine pattern to these things, with six months of the year seeing between five and ten markets, and the rest of the months seeing zero, one, or two. More than 28 of our events were compressed into the last three months of the year after our return to Florida. We sold at markets in five states, and observed a range of management from totally uncontrolled, free, grass roots type events in Michigan, to carefully controlled, city run, “have your paper work in order and we need three different fees paid before you can start” in Lake Mary, FL. We saw tiny markets with seven or so vendors and large affairs with hundreds. We did 49 traditional farmers/artisan markets, 1 flea market, 1 town wide bazaar, and 1 community wide yard sale.
The Casinos: This was the new thing we started doing this year. It turns out that most casinos across the country allow free overnight RV parking, while some even offer low cost, even free, RV connection sites. In addition, almost every casino has some sort of loyalty “players club” with modest awards just for signing up and more for spending lots of money at the machines, tables, and associated shops and restaurants. The business model is clearly designed to make you feel like the money you’re pouring into those machines is actually earning you free things.
If you restrict yourself to just using the “free play” money they provide and never your own money, the pay out odds at the machines pretty much guarantee you will walk away with some actual cash. And so that’s what we did. We stayed for free or at a discounted rate at 10 different casinos for 17 nights, and visited a couple of others during day trips. We took advantage of the sign up bonuses along with additional various free play credit for birthday months, for opting in to email or text receipts, and in two particularly beneficial stays, just for being an RVer staying in their lot.
Oh, and we did get robbed. In a particularly sketchy casino with zero lot control and incompetent security, my foolish decision to set the Honda generator outside unchained (while I was present, inside) resulted in a snatch and grab minutes before we planned on shutting it down and bringing it inside for the evening. Sigh. This was terribly depressing, but had the result of redoubling our intent to soak as much free stuff out of the casino industry as possible to counter the loss. In the end, we believe we have done so, with our direct cash winnings exceeding the used market value of the generator, and that doesn’t include the free gas, food, drinks, and general entertainment value we received at several places.
Serenity and Loki. While last year saw us travelling in Serenity without the constant mechanical problems we had faced in 2015 with The Big Kahuna, we still had ownership of old bus and the stress associated with getting his transmission rebuild complete, returning him to Florida, and getting him sold. All that was finally accomplished at the very end of 2016, so this year we truly had the freedom to explore in reliable comfort. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have problems. Serenity gave us sporadic electrical issues throughout much of the year, culminating with the recall repair of our chassis isolation switch in Oregon.
We also had the fridge go completely kaput as we passed through Wisconsin, the replacement of which, though mostly covered by our extended after market warranty, still took five weeks, and was further exasperated by a propane valve failure. As of now Serenity is mostly good to go, though vague 12 volt electrical issues still cause problems, such as our automatic stairs failing to come down these days.
Loki added to the trouble a little bit, with a punched out headlight resulting from my improper hanging of our bike rack, and a replacement starter installed just as we were getting serenity back from fridge and propane valve installation.
The Discounts and Clubs: We cut our club memberships down from five to three in 2016, and continued with those three this year.
- National Park Pass ($80): Renewed this in May, which paid for itself with the free entry into the North Cascades, Glacier, Teddy Roosevelt, Badlands, and Wind Cave national parks, and we are bound and determined to get to The Dry Tortugas this late winter or early spring as well. When it expires in 2018 we will have to see how our park visit schedule is looking, but will likely renew it to support our plans in Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota.
- Passport-America ($39 for 16 months): We stayed at private RV parks on the 50% Passport-America discount for 20 nights; a significan reduction from 2016’s 55, but still enough to pay for the PA membership many times over.
- Moose Lodge ($60, $35): I renewed my membership this year and Rosemarie did not. We honestly didn’t get much use out of it, going to far fewer lodges than we had anticipated. This is partially because we spent so much time in the west where Elk Lodges seem much more predminant. This year we are returning to Maine, and anticipate hitting the Moose lodge near Bar Harbor quite a bit, so we will likely renew.
- Other: We received a 10% military discount at private parks for another 14 nights. I honestly don’t recall any of the private RV parks that account for the remaining 30 nights offering a discount program like Good Sam or AAA. We have found that if a park offers those, they almost always honor the same discount for active and retired military personnel.
Favorite Private RV Parks: The 14 different private parks at which we stayed dropped down to less than a fifth of of our total RVing nights, compared to 2016’s 25 private parks making up a third of the total in that year.
- Periwinkle Park and Campground on Sanibel Island, FL. This is our favorite private park three years in a row. Yeah, its expensive, but if you want to RV on Sanibel it is your only option, and the social atmosphere is excellent. Our favorite private park two years running.
- Cleone Campground, Fort Bragg, CA. This was a surprisingly good deal (for the area) and an attractive, very peaceful park we stumbled into near Glass Beach. They honor the PA 50 discount rate, so we view this as a great alternative to the overpriced dry camping at MacKerricher State Park.
- Glacier Campground, West Glacier, MT. This beautiful park near Glacier National Park reminded us of traditional state parks: big spaces, lots of greenery, tree canopy, a bit of isolation, but with limited amenities. Exactly our sort of place.
- Honorable Mention: Wanee Lake Golf & RV Resort in GA, perhaps the best bang for the buck we have ever found.
Favorite National/Federal parks: We only RV’d in one national campground this year, so I am changing the criteria to simply favorite national sites we visited in 2017, with our without RV.
- Custer State Park. Yes, we are cheating, but we hit Custer in the same weeks we hit Teddy Roosevelt, Wind Cave, Badlands, and Mount Rushmore, and it was the best of them all. Thousands of buffalo, lots of other wildlife, and incredible sights to behold. Highly recommended if you are in the area, even if that means skipping some of the actual national places.
- Glacier National Park. Yes, had there been less forest fire smoke blanketing the region it would have been better, but even with that it was pretty awesome, and we liked the region in general.
- Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. This makes the cut by virtue of being a simply beautiful campground, even if it is only dry camping at $6 a day. Yes, it might have been nice to stay in the campgrounds actually inside nearby Teddy Roosevelt, but we liked this option a lot.
- Honorable mentions: Teddy Roosevelt, Badlands, and Wind Cave National Parks, the first for having great day hikes and awesome vistas, the second for striking landscape particularly at sunset, and the last for being a pretty fantastic set of caves with the added bonus of great top side hikes and sites. (It is our second favorite cave/cavern based national park, behind Carlsbad but ahead of Mammoth.)
- The other national sites we visited were The Alamo (interesting, but we strongly prefer the nature type parks over the historic museum type places,) North Cascades National Park (I think we would have loved it if not for the heavy forest fire smoke,) and Mount Rushmore (bit of a let down to be honest.)
Favorite State Parks: State parks are our thing: they are almost inevitably set in very natural surroundings with big sites, lots of privacy creating green space, and nice activities like swimming, biking, or hiking. So it’s weird that we only went to seven of them this year. Some are repeats from previous days, particularly those in Florida, and some were new gems. There was not a bad one in the bunch, so here are the top three and all of the others are honorable mentions.
- MacKerricher State Park, Fort Bragg, CA: This is a controversial choice. It ain’t cheap at $45 a night for dry camping, but the location and beauty are hard to beat. You are on the ocean, with crashing waves hitting the beach, black sand, abalone shells, and just a general state of extraordinary beauty and peacefulness. it is Rosemarie’s top choice, but for me, value is part of the equation, and I would drop it one position if not two.
- Wekiwa Springs State Park, Apopka, FL: One of our top parks when we are in the Central Florida region, rivaled only by Trimble County Park. Ever since the remodel when power and water (and in most cases sewage) were installed at all sites, this has become one of our faves. Nostalgia plays a part since I grew up making frequent trips to the big spring fed swimming hole at the head of the Wekiwa River.
- Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale, TX: This had been on our 2015 list of must see places in Texas until we encountered (surprise!) mechanical issues with the old bus. It’s fantastic. A huge major spring with a crystal clear swimming area situated basically in the desert. Highly recommended.
- Honorable mentions: Fort Robinson SP in Nebraska, Ledges SP in Iowa, Squaw Lake State Forest in Michigan, and Blue Springs SP in Florida. Not a bad one in the bunch.
Favorite municipal/city/county parks: State parks, as mentioned above, are “our thing,” but county parks (and here I include city or other municipal ones) are where we have found hidden gems. These places often have the charm and location of a state park for a cheaper price and easier availability, i.e., they are often less crowded or popular. This year we stayed in eight. The tops:
- Woodland Park, Grand Marais, MI: We made a major late change to our plans this year with a sprint back to the U.P., and part of the reason was to return to this fantastic county park on the shore of Lake Superior. For the second year in a row this place takes top honors.
- Gilbert Ray, Tucson, AZ: One of our favorites from 2015, and we were happy to return this year, even if for just a short stay since we spent the majority of our Tucson time at the nearby Air Force Base. The beauty and location near both a nice city and the Saguaro National Park make this a must stay place if you are in the area.
- Trimble Park FL: Though bumped to #3 this year, Trimble Park near Mount Dora remains one of our favorites. The small size (15 spaces,) heavily wooded and large sites, beautiful lake side setting, and proximity to the wonderful town of Mount Dora cement this place as one of our preferred campgrounds any time we are in the Central Florida region.
- Honorable Mention: Farr Equestrian Center in Baton Rouge and Munising Tourist Park on Michigan’s U.P.
Favorite Military RV Parks: It is going to be even harder this year than last to rank our military RV parks since we increased our number from 11 in 2016 to 18 different military campgrounds this year. We have two clear standouts and a slew of honorable mentions:
- Cliffside RV Park, Whidbey Island Naval Station: This fantastic park, located on the wonderful Whidbey Island, bumps Key West out of the top spot this year. The location, views, and extraordinary landscaping make this park one of our all time favorites.
- Key West Naval Air Station: Now that the park campground has reopened following extensive island wide hurricane damage, we are about to begin our fourth winter there, so no wonder it makes our list of top military campgrounds. Bottom line: location, location, location, and price. Should it be on your list? Only if you can tolerate a good amount of dry camping while waiting for your full hook up spot to open up.
- Honorable Mentions: Oak Grove & Anchor Cove in Pensacola, Agave Gulch at Davis Monthon AFB in Arizona, Fiddler Cove in Coronado, Point Mugu in Ventura California, Travis AFB California, Great Lakes Naval Station, Arnold AFB in Tennessee.
Least Favorite places: This was harder to do this year than last. I think we are getting better at weeding out via advance research places we wont enjoy. But we still have a couple:
- Muckleshoot Casino, Auburn, WA. Our opinion: this place is a crime ridden, poorly managed ghetto.
- I-4 specifically and Orlando traffic generally. Nearly 40 years ago it was a common Central Florida radio DJ joke to make fun of the never ending construction projects on the I-4 corridor through Orlando. Today, that joke is still just as relevant with I-4 still under expanding construction. I am astounded and frustrated every time I have to deal with Orlando traffic. I get that it is necessary road work since the population in the area is growing fast, but it reminds me why I don’t want to live there.
- Orange City RV Park. The park is OK, it is just exactly what we don’t like: Huge, crowded, tight, awkward connections and with not much to look at. And a big sugar ant problem.
Minor issues like those aside, we had a fantastic 2017, and hope that you did as well. We wish you the best for the coming new year, and look forward to seeing our family, our friends, and new friends as well.
2017 monthly reports: