As we planned our movement south following our stay at Fort Bragg, we once again looked at our campground options in the greater San Francisco Bay area, particularly those locations close to Concord where Rosemarie’s sister Dolores and her family reside. We usually stay about 45 minutes away at Travis Air Force Base’s “FamCamp” in Fairfield. It’s fine: affordable, particularly given the pricey region, but otherwise forgettable and often with limited availability.
We have explored other places, but the private resorts in the area are either quite expensive, too far away, or as we discovered after an exploratory reconnaissance run: “not suitable” (which is elitist code for “seemed pretty sketchy.”) Meanwhile, the county and state campgrounds are sporadically size-limited (tents only or 20′ max RV,) often fully booked (it turns out that fairgrounds often have fairs,) and surprisingly expensive ($40-$50 plus taxes and a reservation fee for a basic grass or gravel site at a county fairground.)
Though vaguely aware of it from campground sites like All Stays, during our multiple past visits we have somehow overlooked a nearby military option, Petaluma Coast Guard Training Center. Admittedly, it is further from Concord, 60 miles in fact, but appears to be far less popular (and thus available) and costs the same $25 a night as Travis. For that you get electric and water connections with a dump station hidden in a different part of the base.
The base feels far more “out in the middle of nowhere” than Travis, though it is quite convenient to Petaluma and wine country. Likewise, the campground is somewhat isolated in the back corner of a facility that is already rather low in population, further enhancing the sense of privacy and solitude. Deer freely roam the base; we counted 24 deer during one 1.5-mile drive from the front gate to our site.
While the distance from Concord is not ideal, when we visit this area Rosemarie will usually spend a few nights with Dolores, Josh and niece Tamiry, which means we only make the 120-mile trip a couple of times.
While there Rosemare joined Tamiry and various cousins on the fall pilgrimage to the pumpkin patch to select various gourds for the upcoming Halloween festivities. Rosemarie works hard to build and maintain a loving relationship with her niece, whether crafting, biking, or cooking they are like peas in a pod. Or is it peas and carrots? One of those.
Unfortunately, this visit also involved more repairs for Loki. A full rear brake job, and all the struts (probably the original 24-year-old shocks) needed replacement, and one of the front CV axle’s as well. Not gonna lie: this is getting quite tiresome, but maintenance and repairs are part of owning any vehicle out of warranty, I just wish we could have a bit of respite from them.
Next up: we continue south along the coast, with visits to four more military campgrounds in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Ventura, and Seal Beach.
The Distance: A big travel month for us as we drove 1,890 miles from Spokane east to the Yellowstone area and then back nearly to the Pacific coast, visiting several fantastic places along the way. Total mileage for the year is 7,727.
Incidentally, here is a fun (or tedious, depending on your nerd quotient) google maps limitation I stumbled upon while trying to make my usual monthly route picture. Google is quite good at keeping up with seasonal road closures and will automatically route you around them and will not allow you to “force” a route through them by any means I could discover. But what if you are planning a future trip, or recreating an old route, outside of those closure windows? Google has an option to set the date of your travel (via a “Leave now/Depart at/Arrive by” drop down menu) but only for a two-point solution, i.e., a starting point and a destination.
As soon as you add another point drop down menu for the trip date option goes away. I could not find a clean way around this limitation for this month’s route map other than simply breaking it into two, and even that solution took a lot more work for the first half as I forced the route through Yellowstone National Park while artificially including the stopping point along the way. You see what I go through for this blog? And the little nuggets of wisdom I pass on?
The Places: We started the month with our lengthy stay in Spokane, splitting time between the Fairchild Air Force Base Family Camp and the nearby military owned Clear Lake recreation area. From there we headed east to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks, two places that we had visited all too briefly in 2015. We stayed at Colter Bay and Gros Ventre campgrounds like we had during our previous call, but also discovered a free national forest area campground in the process.
During this month we spent 8 days at military campgrounds, 13 at public parks (10 national and 3 county) and 9 at private facilities. We had full hookups for 14 days, partial (electric and water) for 4, and dry camped for 12.
The Money: 73% over budget. Yeah, a tough month, but that’s what happens when you have an $1,100 car repair (Loki’s fan belt assembly and a few other things) over $1,100 in gas from our nearly two thousand RV miles this month, and a nearly $250 tire for the motorhome, all with no markets at all to offset things.
The Drama & Improvements: As we mentioned in our San Juan Islands post, our Geo Tracker had a bit of a melt down when the harmonic balancer pulley dropped into the of the road while driving, and that repair along was a tough bill to swallow given how much we have already put into the vehicle. We also ended up finally replacing the tire that we had plugged back in June. Tires for our big rig seem to be a particular “thing” for us; our replacement rate seems a bit higher than normal, but then again we are on the road full time and putting in some serious miles. For those keeping track, we replaced three in 2021 (front two and left outside rear.)
The town is home of the famous Glass Beach, an unofficial name for the a series of nearby bays that collect the remnants from an historic oceanside dump with consistent particular tides and currents which return enormous amounts of old glass to shores. Fort Bragg is one of the premier sea glass sites. Despite noticeable declines year over year the glass collecting is still astounding.
We have previously stayed at both Mackerricher State Park and the privately owned Cleone Campground nearly next door. Though a stunning location it has become nearly impossible to secure a reservation at the state park, so we comfortably settled for Cleone, getting power, water, and an onsite convenience store at the same price we would have paid at Mackerricher. It may not have been oceanside, but our spacious site was surrounded by huge blackberry bushes, providing privacy from everyone except the horses in the pasture we backed up against.
Though a bit touristy, we enjoy the town of Fort Bragg. They have several tasty restaurants, a nice farmers market, interesting history, cool shops, a brewery, and a good assortment of quirky street art. “Artisanal” style pizza and local craft beer is always appreciated, but no visit to Fort Bragg is complete without a meal at Jenny’s Giant Burger. Though perhaps a bit gluttonous, we ate there twice in four days.
The local economy, though diversified towards as much seaside tourist activity as possible, is still significantly enhanced by the prevalence of the sea glass. In response to decades of collecting resulting in declining amounts of this tourist magnet, local government has attempted various restrictions, including a brief period where they issued citations with fines for those caught taking the glass. The premise of their legal argument was quickly shot down by the courts since California state law does not recognize old garbage as a protected resource.
In more recent years the restrictions are implied, social, and in some cases, physical. There are lots of thigh high cable runs implying you should not cross, plenty of signs warning of the danger of climging down the low cliffs, and perhaps most effective of all, they have simply not rebuilt the one set of stairs leading from the main parking lot down to a large and formerly popular bay.
While it may not be as easy or productive as it once was, if you want sea glass in Fort Bragg you need but do a slight bit of research to pick the still excellent locations and be willing to walk down rock and dirt switchbacks to the shore, preferably at low tide. Most adults and children could handle the places we went with no problems.
We also took a day trip south along the coastal highway, partly to look for the hidden beach that Ron took me too for abalone diving in 2017, but also just to explore the area. We didn’t find Ron’s secret beach, but we enjoyed exploring a couple of wonderful oceanside parks along the way. We also found one of America’s most infamous gas stations, regularly misused by media outlets when they want to talk about how high gas prices are, which is a bit like sighting the vig at Vinny’s loan shark business when talking about nationwide bank lending rates. We did not, fortunately, need to buy from there during our exploration.
Next up: Concord, Petaluma, and a little-known military campground.
Our early departure and follow-on sprint from Idaho left us a bit ahead of schedule, leaving us a full month to work our way down the length of California before our next significant obligation. Sure, The Golden State is rather large, especially north to south, but we figured on less than 1,000 miles, or four solid legs per our driving preference. This would allow us plenty of time to linger in places that appealed, or shorten driving legs to a modest two or three hours, perhaps both.
Thus, despite being well rested from our three lazy riverside days at The Laughing Alpaca we headed southwest into California and to the coastline proper, stopping after a mere two hour run near Trinadad. Sometimes when we have a “non-destination” layover in the works we will research two or three stopping points across a range of travel distances; a short, medium, and long drive campground option. In this case we took the short choice, Big Lagoon County Park.
This is one of Humboldt County’s gems. The fairyland campground rests under huge, mist-shrouded, moss-covered trees one mile off of US-101 and directly on the protected lagoon shore. The check in was a bit confusing; like many county campgrounds they do not man an entry gate. Drive deep enough into the park, almost at the end of the paved campground road, and you find a self-pay kiosk with envelopes and a drop slot, and the congenial camp host lives near there as well.
All sites are first come first serve, dry camping, and $25 a night, $22 with a veteran discount. This probably sounds steep for an unserviced site to some of you, but along the California coast this is actually pretty cheap: Mackerricher State Park near Glass Beach is $44 and they are completely full during much of the year. We loved the feel of the place immediately, and secured two nights rather than our planned one.
Once paid, maneuvering within the campground loop is a bit tight in places; I would not want to attempt it with a rig much larger than ours, and the sites are laid out in a seemingly half hazard manner, as if gaps between major trees and other natural openings among the extensive vegetation appears to have been the primary consideration. We selected a fantastic spot with an extraordinary set of trees branching over our outside living area.
The bay is ideal for casual beachside strolls or easy boating. Many of the campgrounds have a semi-private path to the beach; ours was not more than 50′ from RV to sand. The Pacific, particularly in Northern California and up, is quite cold, so we limited ourselves to the shore and occasional longing glances at the boats and other watercraft.
Though we would love to get back into the nearby Redwood National and State Park campgrounds, Big Lagoon will be a top choice the next time we are in the area. Next up: Glass Beach!
We came down out of the Sawtooth Mountains just ahead of worsening weather, experiencing just enough light rain along the way to make us pull over and make sure that the ID-21 was a fully safe route for us. It was fine: not nearly as challenging as some of the mountain roads we have experienced, and doing so in our relatively modern motorhome is far more comfortable than in our old 1963 bus, which would have us creeping uphill at 15mph and pulling over during downhill runs to keep the air brakes pressurized.
About four hours down the road and just over the Oregon border we stopped for the night at the Malheur County Fairgrounds in Ontario. The “Desert Sage Event Center” there honored the Passport America rate, giving us power, water, and a separate dump station for $15. The place was unmanned upon our Sunday arrival and not particularly well signed: we had to drive around the property a bit to even find the designated RV Sites, and then took a separate walk about to locate the self-pay station. The quiet grassy area behind one of the main buildings, which we shared with two other RVs, the owners of which we never saw, was perfectly sufficient for our needs.
The next day we continued west, this time at least with a predetermined stopping point: Chickahominy National Recreation Area. Along the way I misjudged the availability of gas, and had to turn around on US-20, a narrow road with miles of no or soft shoulder sections, and backtrack a little ways to a get just enough fuel to make sure we would make it to the next civilized area. Oops.
Chickahominy is a grassy, rolling hills region with the bare remnants of a lake which once supported boating, fishing, and other water activities. Those days are either seasonal or long gone, with the boat ramps and fishing piers leading to naught but mud and a small pond. But for a one-night RV stop it was quite nice. There are a lot of pull-through campsites spread out over several loops, with only a few of them occupied during our visit. It’s all dry camping, and other than the $8 a night fee it feels a lot like a higher end BLM campground. We took a short hike before sunset, discovering a handful of geocaches along the way, and generally enjoyed our day there.
We pushed southwest, leaving the dry lands of interior Oregon and entering the Fremont National Forest. We circled around the Klamath Lakes chain, passing just south of Crater Lake National Park, to stop at Rocky Point Resort, a lovely mixed-use facility (RV sites and cabins) on the shore of Upper Klamath Lake. Their office was closed, but after walking around the property, talking to an employee, and making a couple of phone calls we were cleared to select a full hook up, pull-through site at the Passport America rate of $26 all in.
After two one-night stopovers in a row we were ready for a break from the daily RV drive, and since this lakefront property was so tranquil, we elected to stay a second night. Unfortunately, their Passport America rate is limited to a single night, which meant we would have to pay the full $52 to extend our stay. As Rosemarie has taught me, “those who do not ask, do not get” and so I negotiated, successfully convincing the manager/owner to give us a partial, 25% off PA rate. $37 is certainly more than we like to pay for a non-destination spot, but we really liked this place.
Giddy with the success of having saved eleven bucks, we treated ourselves to a meal at the on premises. restaurant. Many RV campgrounds that call themselves “resorts” are stretching the definition of that word quite a lot, and even in the better ones the onsite restaurants tend to serve pretty basic comfort food. Boy, let me tell you: this place was punching above their weight. The chef was professionally trained and was doing this job as a sort of semi-retirement gig. What I am trying to say is the food was damn good, and the ambiance was “cozy hunt lodge overlooking the lake at sunset” fantastic.
Well rested and fed we made the fourth leg of our journey to the coast. Our logistical challenge was the coming weekend, an approaching heat wave, and the proximity to the frequently expensive California coast. Our online research and a conversation with a prospective campground owner convinced us to stop short of both the coast and the California border for a stay at The Laughing Alpaca Campground and RV Park.
The park was nominally full, but the young owners went out of their way to prepare a site that had some not quite complete drainage and plumbing work going on, and after a bit of discussion, honored a partial Passport America rate despite us being a week short of their official window for this discount (see above for Rosemarie’s advice when faced with such a situation.)
The park is beautifully maintained with quirky and charming touches throughout, our site backed up right on a crystal-clear stream suitable for swimming and sun worship, and there are alpacas on premises that you are free to feed with some wort of crab apple near the corral pens. What more could you want? We ended up staying three peaceful days.
So that was our four-leg run to the coast with stops at one national rec area and three Passport America properties, even if two of them provided only partial discounts. For those unfamiliar, Passport America partners with a few thousand campgrounds in North America to provide “50%” discounts on nightly fees. Individual parks are permitted to put in place as many limitations and caveats on that discount as they like: most have blackout dates correlating to their high season and holiday weekends and a maximum number of nights for which they will apply the discount. Many add on a “resort” fee of a $5 or so a day, or an extra fee for 50-amp power, or cash only for PA discounts, or no reservations for the PA rate, etc. If that sounds complicated, note that the PA website has an easily navigable website with maps and a page for each partner property, and on that page is a clear list of restrictions.
Despite all those restrictions, we use Passport America extensively every year, and derive a benefit that far exceeds the annual $40 membership fee. Will it work for you? That depends on your RV travel pattern, campground type preferences, flexibility, and willingness to do a bit of due diligence before travelling. For instance, if you are a snowbird type RVer who travels from your home to one location during the winter, you might not benefit much from Passport America except during your run south. If you have access to and strongly prefer military campgrounds, it might not work for you. Ditto for state and national parks. We prefer a variety of park types; military, public, and private, and tend to move around quite a lot. We recognize that after all the fees are paid, we probably only end up with about a 30% true discount compared to comparable non-PA properties in any given area, but it still pays for itself and then some every year. We have dropped our Good Sam and AAA memberships since PA works so much better for us. If you are interested in signing up, consider giving us a referral using our code: R-0261872 for which we will receive a few extra months added to our membership.
We had just completed two interesting and pleasant days at Craters of the Moon National Monument, chosen largely because it was the rough halfway point between Grand Tetons National Park and this day’s travel destination, the Salmon River in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Our stay on the moon left us a short, perhaps three-hour drive to the section of the river just northeast of Stanley. a quite small (but larger than we remembered from our visit here in 2015) town with a heavy tourist industry focus. River guides, hunting guides, fishing guides, offroad vehicle guides. Lots of guides, in other words.
I don’t mean that condescendingly, because it is unusual for a town so centered on tourism to give off such an… authentic vibe, I guess. Like the town had this incredibly high concentration of local knowledge of the land. All the rest of the touristy stuff they didn’t go hard in an as much.
We came here before, in 2015 during our first full time RV year, and loved it, spending three days on the shore of the river surrounded by deer and eagles. Back then we only had the old bus, no tow vehicle with which to explore, so we really looked forward to returning. This time we did a lot more research, particularly on the campground options, which was fortunate since our first choice, where we stayed before, was closed for some reason. I could not determine if it was erosion or just manpower efficiency, i.e., closing some of these national forest areas to reduce the burden on rangers and staff as the season came to a close.
We continued northeast into the mountains to check out several of our backup options, all drycamping national forest sites, and ended up picking a spot at Mormon Bend, another modest riverside campground. Upon arrival we accidentally pulled into a double site, though it seemed no bigger than several others. The camp host let us get away with it for one night, but we had to move to a single site the next day or pay double the $18 nightly fee.
All the sites are very close to river with sort or private paths made by previous residents down to the water, resulting in nearly private little rock beaches for each rig. In mid-September there is still plenty of green on the vegetation, making each beach area, and even much of the RV site itself, nearly secluded.
One of the things we missed in 2015 was the many hot springs along the river. This year, equipped with Loki and plenty of online research (bolstered by additional info from locals) we set off to find and enjoy some of them. The first one we found, locally known “The Boat Box” looked a bit sketchy, like a redneck jacuzzi made from some sort of industrial container, supplied with hot spring water from an old two-inch pipe jutting out of the steep bank.
We moved on looking for others from our research, and soon found Sunbeam Hot Springs, the site of an old and now defunct bathhouse constructed by the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. During peak season in good weather it can, apparently, be quite popular, possibly since it is one of the few public hot springs in the area equipped with a changing and bathroom. Only three others where there during our visit. The river’s edge boasts a series of loosely arranged, human made, rock lined “pools” collecting hot spring water flowing out from various points along bank. Bathers can adjust the pool temperature by shifting rocks to allow in less or more cold river water. Though our day of arrival had been glorious, and warm with blue skies day all around, by late afternoon of the second day colder weather was inbound, which made the warm pools quite delicious.
That weather change became more significant through the night, depositing fresh snow on the Sawtooth Mountain ranger nearby, with more on the way. That’s more than enough of a signal for us warm weather fans, so we cut our time there short and started our long run back to the Pacific Coast: it was time to get lower, both in altitude and latitude.
Invigorated from our wonderful time in the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks we turned back west, bound for California, eventually. Then general plan for the year was to spend most of the summer in the Pacific Northwest, the late summer and early fall exploring the upper Midwest, and then work our way back to the Pacific Coast and south, all the way into Mexico, before winter.
Our next long-planned for destination would be the Salmon River in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Seeing as how that was more than a six-hour drive ending in the mountains, we looked for a convenient way to break the trip into two legs, and soon found Craters of the Moon National Monument just over the halfway point on our route. As long-time readers know, we often let the locations of national parks guide our itinerary, but have not focused much on the hundreds of other properties managed by the National Park Service, such as national monuments, forests, or historic sites, so the proximity and convenience of Craters of the Moon really worked out for us this trip.
The park is located just outside of Arco, Idaho, the home of America’s first fully nuclear-powered city electrical grid, as well as our country’s deadliest nuclear accident, when maintenance activity resulted in a meltdown and explosion killing three people in 1961. The investigation provided two theories as to how it happened, 1) an accident due to a sticking control rod or 2) something more nefarious involving a highly distracted, emotionally troubled maintenance member pulling out the control rod too far. So, uh, don’t work on nuclear reactors when in a bad state, ok kids?
We arrived without reservations to find the park unexpectedly full. One uniformed employee directed us to the visitor center back parking lot, where we set up camp for the evening. A different employee seemed to think this was not at all kosher, but she did not make a fuss about it since we had already been given permission. They do not seem to have a consistently enforced policy on using the parking lot as an overflow, a fact driven home by the other RVs that pulled in for the night behind us.
This first day we did little more than set up camp, explore the exterior of the visitor center and associated gardens, where we learned, among other things, that the visitor center has intentionally eliminated most of their non-native grass once they confirmed it was causing mule deer to risk dangerous encounters with automobiles trying to get to it. Yes, this is an odd little fact that I could not figure out how to seamlessly incorporate into this post, so we will have to live with that awkward segue. We also planned out the next day’s activities, which would start with moving into the first available official RV spot. This we accomplished by late morning the next day, having consulted with the camp volunteer running the check in booth after observing several rigs pull out.
The campground is all “first come first serve” dry camping, has a 35′ length limit, and includes an extended loop for smaller rigs that should not be even entered by anything over 30′; one of the sharp turns is quite the tight maneuver for, say, a 35′ class A motorhome (so I hear.) We secured a beautiful and spacious site that would be a nice pull in for a smaller rig but required a bit of maneuvering for Serenity. Sure, we shifted from our free visitor parking lot to this $15 a night unserviced site, but at least we were fully legal, and the views and ambience really were lovey in a stark, millennia’s-old, lava field kind of way.
Once set up we spent the rest of the day exploring the park via the seven-mile loop road and adjacent off shoots and paths. This really is one of those places that you can see most of in one solid day of exploring. The loop road has seven major pull off areas that give you an excellent idea of the geology, history, and environmental conditions. While the bulk of the property is a rough lava field, or “Holocene basaltic lava field” for you pedants, there are fascinating variations, including a number of cinder cones, splatter cones, and eruptive fissures that make for fun and educational short hikes.
After a significantly longer stay in Spokane than anticipated we headed east, bound for Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. We visited both in 2015 during our first fulltime RV year as we circled the country, but major mechanical issues with our bus and the lack of a tow vehicle (yes, we spent most of our first year with just the bus) significantly hindered our enjoyment of the parks, especially Yellowstone. In 2017, our last western RV tour, we skipped Wyoming in favor of other, more northern explorations (Glacier and North Cascades National Parks) before continuing on to the Dakotas.
Though that initial visit half a decade back had been stressful and limited, what we did see we enjoyed, especially in Grand Tetons. We vowed to return, knowing both of these national parks had so much more to offer than our all too brief and troubled visit had allowed. So in the fall of 2021, with our vehicles in working order, we plunged ahead. From Spokane it is 500 miles to Yellowstone, a solid two days of travel for us in the RV, where 250 miles is usually the most we prefer to drive in a day. Given the leisure of a few extra days we might have broken the trip into three easy legs, but since we had fallen behind our admittedly arbitrary travel schedule, we pushed a bit harder than normal.
We made a one night stop over at a very nice little park in Montana. Though no military or Passport America options where available in our targeted stopover area, we found Bernie and Sharon’s Riverfront RV Park (and yes, that is the official name) an easy couple of miles off I-90 in lightly wooded rolling grass hills near a river. We had a large grassy space with full hook ups for $32 after a 10% veteran discount. The neighbors were nice, the park management very casual, and the general ambience quite nice for our short stay.
The next day we pushed on to the parks, entering Yellowstone from the west and driving nearly 60 miles through the park enroute to our campground. Yellowstone is positioned just north of Grand Tetons, so we planned to enjoy it first, but the availability and price of RV parks is much better in the latter. Given their proximity, camping at the north end of Grand Tetons puts you almost as close to the Yellowstone attractions as being in the park itself.
Colter Bay Campground, a spot we had stayed in 2015, fits that description, and we secured three days in one of their dry camping loops. This park is not to be confused with Colter Bay Village, the much more expensive, less available, resort style concessionaire managed property nearby. That is not to say the campground is cheap; we paid $42 a night for a basic site with no services, but given the popularity of the area, we were thankful to have it.
Each day we made the 30-mile drive from Colter Bay to Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road, passing into the park via the southern entrance. Even this drive, miles from any of the well-known sites, is spectacular, with much of it directly parallel to the Snake River and associated gorges. It has a good number of sightseer pull outs, and unlike the frequently crowded ones on the main park roads, you are much more likely to have them to yourself.
The aforementioned Yellowstone Grand Loop Road is a 142-mile route that will take you to most of the well-known attractions. While one can certainly drive the whole thing in five or six hours, there are far too many things to see in one day. We selected two sections for our time there; the southwest and southeast quadrants, each of which took us a full day of exploration. The southwest section will take you to the Old Faithful and the other well-known geyser basins, while the southeast section runs along Yellowstone Lake and River with some fantastic waterfalls.
For our first full day we predictably selected the southwest quadrant. We stopped along the Snake River in a couple of places, but mostly headed straight for Old Faithful, which is conveniently one of the first spots you encounter driving clockwise along the loop road from the southern entrance. The size of the tourism infrastructure dedicated to just this geyser basin area is not to be underestimated. With over 4 million visitors to the park each year, the majority of whom will stop for this particular attraction, the park management has constructed an entire village, along with huge parking areas (think multiple Walmarts) to accommodate everyone.
Don’t plan on just pulling over after checking the schedule of eruptions; you need to plan an hour or two just for this sight. Other than the parking, walking, and crowds, Old Faithful’s schedule varies by about half an hour, with the interval largely dependent on the strength of the previous eruption. We were rather fortunate, arriving with plenty of time to find parking, stretch our legs, make our way to the viewing area, and select a decent spot to watch along with several hundred other tourists. The payoff is worth it.
After exploring the touristy village around Old Faithful, we continued along the loop road to the other spectacular geysers, hot springs, and mudpot areas. There are a staggering number of them. While many have viewing areas, some are barely acknowledged with but a small marker. The road in this section runs along streams and rivers with hot springs running off into cold water or boiling up directly into them.
In addition to Old Faithful, the southwest quadrant of the Grand Loop Road includes other popular sites, including Black Sand and Biscuit Basins, Fountain Geyser and Paintpot, and the astounding Grand Prismatic Spring. I’m sure it’s possible to tire of seeing them, but we did not. The variety is amazing, even the same hot spring seen from different viewpoints can provide great variation.
Along one area you might find a vast shallow lake with intense rust and earthy tones from iron oxide deposits. Cross round to the other side, and you might be rewarded with the otherworldly appearance of glass lake, steam rising across its breadth, with the entire visit reflected in its surface.
Yet in the same basin, along the same path, you can also find crystal clear deep pools with striking blue hues. The three major geyser basins (Upper, Midway, and Lower) in this southwest quadrant are filled with such sights, too many for me to describe, but well worth your time should you ever get to visit Yellowstone. There is so much to see in this park, but if you only have a day or two, make this area a priority.
For our second full day we again made the drive to the southern entrance and loop road, but this time turned right, or counterclockwise, to explore the southeast area long Yellowstone’s largest lake and associated river. Along this section you can find many more examples of hydrothermal activity, but with different appearances than most of those found in the main geyser basins, many along the edge of the lake, others creating enormous, sulfur rich mudpots.
It’s not that we had our fill of hot springs, but what we were really looking for in this section was waterfalls and wildlife. It did not disappoint. We took the side road to Artist Point with views of the large Yellowstone Lower Falls. This point allows you to drive a few hundred yards of the main viewing area, with the option of several hikes of varying length and difficulty to see other viewpoints or the upper falls.
As for wildlife, we passed a few small groups of Yellowstone’s ubiquitous bison, though none close enough for good photography with our cell phone cameras. We had far better luck with elk, coming across a bull and his mate grazing beside the road during our return trip. He was pretty calm, allowing for a few nice pictures, until another car got too close to his lady, riling him up enough to trot aggressively towards them with a few warning snorts too boot. What a fantastic way to end our day.
Our three nights at Colter Bay complete and with no openings available to extend we made a one night reservation at Gros Venture Campground at the southern end of Grand Teton National Park. I had considered trying for one of the first come boondocking sites along the road between the parks, but given how few spots were listed, we elected not to take a blind chance on them. Unfortunately, upon arriving at and trying to check in at Gros Venture, we realized I had confused my dates, and we were not due to arrive until the next day.
The helpful staff recommended a boondocking area just outside the park on national forest land. It was an adventure in and of itself just trying to find the place, requiring a couple of stops to consult online sources, but we found the Shadow Mountain area several miles down some dirt roads, just as promised. We talked to a couple of other campers, sort of unofficial hosts, and settled into a fantatic, and free, site with excellent views and friendly neighbors.
We took the opportunity to do some off-road driving, putting Loki in four wheel mode and headed up Shadow Mountain’s occasionally challenging trails, discovering geocaches, great vistas, and beautiful flora along the way. We did get lost, but only after we came back down the mountain a few miles from where we anticipated. It was all good, and if we come back to Grand Teton, we will seriously consider boondocking here again.
The next day we made the 30-minute drive back to Gros Venture for our last night in the area. Once checked into our site (like at Colter Bay, dry camping for $42 a night) we headed into Jackson Hole for a beer, a meal, and other general touristy behavior. We dined at Roadhouse Brewing Company, and it was quite good: excellent food, beer, and ambiance all around.
So that is our big Wyoming Post: 6 days, 550 miles, 2 national parks, 4 campsites, and a couple of happy RVers. Next up: Idaho.
The Distance: 482 miles by land and sea, counting the ferry to and from San Juan Island. The bulk of this distance is from our hard run from Anacortes inland to Spokane. Our total for the year is up to 5837.
The Places: We started with a week at our new Whidbey Island back up campground, Rhododendron Park. Though with limited facilities, this county property is in a desirable location and has a fairy-land quality due to the massive old growth trees and other foliage. Given the price and general availability, it is similar Lake Monroe in Central Florida. We bounced back over to Cliffside RV on the naval station and then again to Rhododendron for two final days on Whidbey Island.
In August we spent 19 days in military parks and 12 in county facilities. We had full connections for 19, electrical and water for 4, and dry camped for 8.
The Money: A tough month that saw us well over budget, 38% in fact. Our $430 ferry fee to get our rig to San Juan Island and our annual RV insurance pushed us over despite a couple of modest Saturday markets.
The Drama & Improvements: Our ongoing problems with Loki included the loss of a fanbelt pulley while touring San Juan Island, which necessitated a longer than anticipated stay in Spokane, as well as another unexpected repair bill.
On our last highly delinquent yet riveting episode, our heroes had barely caught the ferry from San Juan Island to Anacortes due to the unfortunately ongoing drama with our tow vehicle, Loki, an awesome yet currently fickle 1997 Geo Tracker. It will not surprise long time readers to know that we had little plan other than “get to the mainland and head inland,” assuming as we do that time and distance would provide clarity.
Having started our day before dawn meant that even after a multi-hour ferry experience, we began the mainland drive earlier than is our custom, and us such put in a bit more mileage than is usual as well. More than six hours down the road we arrived at Fairchild Air Force Base outside Spokane, Washington. The Family Campground there is a perfectly serviceable, if not particularly exciting, full service and affordable campground. While it is not located in what one might call a high demand nature and tourism area, it would give us a safe and affordable place to settle in while we coordinated repairs to the Geo Tracker.
After some online research and a few calls, I settled on the downtown location for Performance Automotive. We towed Loki there, it’s only a few miles outside of the base, and by Monday they had a parts list available, most of them located, but had not located the main part, the harmonic balancer pulley. If you are going to own an old vehicle, it really comes in handy knowing a few of the specialty shops to go to when you are on a hunt like this, and Richard at Xtreme Zukes Offroad back in Florida came through for us. He had the part on hand and FedEx’d it to the shop here in Washington.
The entire process took about ten days, during which we made the best of it in Spokane. Having spent most of 2015, our first year full time RVing, without a tow vehicle, we had experience living with just bicycles and our motorhome as transportation. Mostly this involves a bit of advance planning for supplies and entertainment. We combined our trip off base to drop off Loki with a stop at the commissary and even a casino for a drink and some low stakes slot machine action.
It was quite hot, and thus our $25 a night full hook up site was greatly appreciated, but we knew that three days of living exclusively on the base would be more than enough, so we made follow on reservations at the military-owned Clear Lake Resort just outside of town. This is a modest lake front facility offering RV sites, camping, cabins, and water-oriented equipment rentals at the usual discounted/subsidized prices for military members, retirees, and other veterans. We were ablet to snag four days there, Sunday through Wednesday, during their last week of operation.
Catching them in their last week of operation also meant even further discounts on their already affordable boat rentals, so we rented a johnboat equipped with a small outboard motor for an afternoon on the lake. We had a great day of boating, a lunch on the water, and gathered a few challenging geocaches along the shore as well. We returned to the Fairchild Base Family Camp to await the completion of Loki’s repairs and lingered a couple more days taking care of basic business and necessities before continuing east through Idaho and into Wyoming. Next up: We return to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.