Despite two full months in Asheville, time spent with the full knowledge that we were going west this year, we had somehow not managed to develop a plan much beyond “California, then clockwise.” Don’t get me wrong: we were committed to a western circuit and had a bunch of places out there on our wish lists, but I think, perhaps, we were not yet committed to the painful process of deciding what not to see, i.e., those fantastic spots that just would not make the cut due to time, distance, and opportunity costs. This, plus uncertainties about COVID reopening and family obligations, gave us some cause to delay developing the details (or anything even approaching a detail, apparently.)
Thus late May found us executing Phase 1 (Just Go West) of The 2021 Grand Western Tour not knowing the specifics of said phase nor what Phases 2, 3 and so on entailed at all! But more than six years of doing this whole full time RVing thing had given us faith in our ability to adapt and find wonderful places on the fly. After all, Phase 1 was going pretty well so far.
But a few days actually on the road and eating up miles at a fast pace forced us to the actual business of longer term planning, at a minimum the general route of Phase 2 (Texas to California.) As has been the case for much of our RV travels, we were letting national parks, both new ones and old favorites, define at least the outline of our route. But with so many we wanted to see, our available time (roughly two and a half weeks) would simply not allow us to visit even half of the locations on our list. And so, between Arkansas and Oklahoma, I mapped out three very different general routes to use as a starting point for Rosemarie and I to discuss, modify, and select.
I started with a northern option, a path that would involve turning north from I-40 as soon as Amarillo, TX to reach Southern Colorado’s Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde national parks. From there it would be west into Utah for Bryce Canyon, Capital Reef, maybe Zion again. Then we could continue on to Las Vegas and perhaps Death Valley before heading to Central California. 0f course, we would not expect to visit all of these places; they were just options along the way. The same holds true for the other two routes as well.
Next I looked at a southern route which would entail staying on I-40 into New Mexico before angling southwest towards Las Cruces and White Sands National Park, one of our newest, having been upgraded from a national monument in 2019. From there we would likely continue west into Southern Arizona and Saguaro National Park near Tucson. Finally we would turn northwest, possibly stopping at Joshua Tree, a place we had not really gotten to appreciate during a difficult initial tour.
Having experimented with so many possibilities making the first routes, the third, central option, came quick and easy. For this path we would stay on I-40 all the way to Arizona and the Petrified Forest National Park, one of our favorites from 2015’s grand tour. Continuing west could take short detours to Sedona or the Grand Canyon before continue to California and all those national parks in the central part of the state (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Pinnacles, Yosemite.)
We discussed the pros and cons of all three options: north had the most national parks but was by far the longest route; south had three national parks plus Tucson and Phoenix but they were not at the top of our desired list, while the center route was the shortest and allowed us to revisit some favorite locations though it did not allow a new (to us) national park until deep into California. Though to some it may seem the least exciting, we chose the central option. The opportunity to visit the Petrified Forest and Sedona again, along with significantly more time for the California parks, were major factors, but some specific plans for the late summer and fall also had an impact.
Walking the cat before geocaching, which will involve finding a route to the top of those sandstone cliffs.
We finalized the plan while at the Tinker Air Force Base Family Camp in Oklahoma City, and our selected route meant that, rather than make a sharp turn in either direction, we would continue along I-40 deep into Arizona. Per last post we had already made a nearly 400 mile run to Tucumcari, about 30 miles across the Texas-New Mexico border. With another 414 miles and perhaps seven hours of driving left before our intended campground in Arizona, we elected to stop for another one night stay along the way.
With a mileage-based goal of “somewhere close to the Arizona border,” I had tentatively picked a free, Bureau of Land Management site a few miles off of the interstate along some unimproved gravel and dirt roads. It was right off the interstate, and had a few (though critically, not universal) positive reviews. When we pulled off at the designated exit and tried to work our way to the coordinates, the roads and turn around options got worse and more confusing. We decided to do a painful multi-point turn (made possible only because, contra our early RV days, I now know how to back up a towed vehicle without jack knifing it, a skill roughly learned fishing with friends in Key West) and regroup back near the main road. We checked a couple of RV apps and web sites (All Stays, Campendium) and continued down the road a few miles to Red Rock Park, a Gallup city owned place with mixed and even contradicting online reviews.
Sometimes you just have to pull into an empty parking lot and regroup.
For us, it was near perfect. Admittedly, the both the lay out and walk up check in process were a bit confusing. Site lines were unmarked, services available unclear, and even the roads were awkward (“Is that part of the road loop or a big pull through site?”) We never saw the camp host even though “wait for them to come around” was supposedly one of the payment methods. Regarding all of that: the negative reviewers of this place were right, even about the large (but friendly!) dog that apparently lived semi-feral at the park.
But in our eyes the environment vastly outweighed those minor inconveniences. Under the shadow of red sandstone cliffs, sand dunes, and beautiful rock formations, the campground is right at the head or along the route of several hiking trails. The electric and water equipped sites were spacious and most were under at least one tree. I did a short but arduous hike with some scrambling up the dunes and sandstone bluffs to find an old geocache that had been placed by a hot air balloon crew during a rally years back. We had a beautiful evening under the New Mexico sky, surrounded by natural beauty. This would have been a great place for an extra day or two, an we will consider doing so should we be passing through the area again.
Geocaching. The view from near the top of the bluff overlooking the campground.
Next up: revisiting Petrified Forest National Park.