Our revised plan for the rest of 2017

We have stuck to our route plan this year rather well.  Sure, we lingered longer than expected in Texas and Arizona, and our Mexico dental work side trip slowed things a touch such that we reached California later than expected.  But we moved up the west coast fairly fast, and despite spending a month in Washington, we made up time with a relatively fast sprint across the top of the country to the Dakotas.  We took stock a few weeks ago and examined three options for our post Dakotas route and time line back to Florida:

  1. Stick to the Original Plan: From South Dakota turn southwest towards Utah and Colorado to see several of the national parks we missed during 2015.  After that, sprint east to Iowa to see daughter Andrea, then turn towards Florida for an early November arrival.
  2. Head to Iowa for family time, then hunker down somewhere cheap before making a very leisurely return trip to Florida, arriving in late October.
  3. Head to Iowa, but from there turn north and sprint to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for three weeks or so before turning south for a late October arrival in Florida.

Option 1 is likely the most expensive of the three.  It involves more mileage and thus higher gas expenditures, takes us to not particularly cheap areas, and we are not approved for any markets along that route.  The advantage is we get to see all, or at least some, of the five national parks we missed in 2015, and Utah and Colorado are beautiful!

Option 2 is certainly the cheapest.  It involves the least mileage and allows us to pick affordable places to stay with possible weekly rate discounts, though again, we are not approved for any markets in the region.

Option 3, as far as costs go, is in the middle, involving perhaps $300 in additional gas expenditures compared to Option 2, along with taking us to a place with somewhat higher campground and living expenses than Option 2 (though probably pretty competitive if not less expensive than Option 1.)  This route also takes us to a place where we have, essentially, pre-approval to participate in up to two markets a week during our stay.  Oh yeah, we also love the UP!

Anyone who as taken a peek at our Where Are We Now page already knows what we selected: Option 3, Iowa, then Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  We plan on being there until about September 24, my birthday, before heading south by an as yet to be determined route.  For those friends and acquaintances in the region, we will be splitting time between Grand Marais and Marquette, and we would love to meet up if you are available.


Back to The Badlands: Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks.

It hasn’t been the most efficient way of exploring the Rapid City area of South Dakota, what with having to insert a run south to Nebraska in order to see the eclipse, but one does what one has to do if you want to see all the National Parks.  Having spent time in Custer State Park and a quick drive by of Mount Rushmore during our first two days in SD, our priorities for this second trip would be Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks.

This is actually kind of rare for Pad Kee Meow.  ON travel days she usually demands to sit in Rosemarie’s lap for the majority of the trip.  That she remained in her bed for a good portion of our drive up to Wind Cave, despite windy and bumpy roads, was a nice change of pace.

Fortunately for us, Wind Cave was generally along our route back north so, we pulled the full rig into the national park lot, and after getting a bit of guidance from the ranger who objected to our initial spot selection, we found large RV sites a quarter mile down the road beyond the visitor center.

Wind Cave was experiencing a massive boom in visitors largely due to people like us:  Nebraska eclipse watchers taking advantage of the parks proximity.  As a result they had extended their peak cave tour schedule by a few weeks, and we were thus able to secure the medium distance “Natural Entrance” tour starting a bit over an hour after our arrival.  We spent the intervening time enjoying the traditional park movie and exploring the gift shop before joining our ranger guide and 38 strangers for the 75 minute exploration.

Wind Cave is our third cave-oriented national park, and while it can’t compete in awesome beauty with Carlsbad, we found it significantly more enjoyable and interesting than Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.  Wind Cave has an interesting and contentious legal history, unique “boxwork” calcite and “frostwork” aragonite formations, and incredible complexity: the 140 miles of explored passages are a three dimensional maze work taking place mostly within one square mile of surface area.

Rare and fragile calcite boxwork in the cave.

One final comment about Wind Cave: the surface is worth seeing as well.  The 10 square mile park has 30 miles of hiking trails, free ranging buffalo, and a rather beautiful open prairie environment.  One could make the case that if you only had time to see one park between Theodore Roosevelt, Custer, and Wind Cave, the latter might be your best choice.  They have similar features and wildlife above ground, but only Wind Cave has, you know, the cave.

After our great afternoon exploring Wind Cave, we turned west towards Badlands National Park.  We found a reasonably priced private park a couple of miles from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the eastern end of the property.  Badlands Interior Campground is nothing to write home about in terms of amenities and beauty, but at less than $28 a night with the military discount we had (30 amp) full hook ups, friendly staff, and an ideal location for our three day stay.

The basics of Badlands are easily explored by car along the park’s “loop road” which is, in reality, not a loop unless you count leaving the park at one end and taking the interstate back to the other rather than simply turning around and retracing your route.  A one way trip along SD 240, the state toad that runs the length of the park east to west, is 40 miles, and takes about an hour to do with no stops.

We made the right decision to explore the park at different times of the day, experiencing the raw rock formations and wildlife during peak sun in the afternoon, and also later during sunset.  Early morning is pretty much a non-starter for us, so the sunset dusk period turned out to be the best of our drives.

The place is a marked contrast from TR, Custer, and Wind Cave: the geology is much harsher and desolate in appearance, though beautiful in its own right.  As I alluded to in an earlier paragraph: given limited time, seeing all of those three parks might be a bit duplicative, experience wise, whereas Badlands National Park is so vastly different as to deserve its own visit.

Aside from a distantly-spotted possible Golden Eagle or two, the primary wildlife we encountered were Bighorn Sheep, often grazing right beside the road only a bit wary of the handful of tourists slowing down to take their picture.  Given more time we would have enjoyed day hiking on the many trails accessible right from the loop road, but I came down with a minor bit of something on day two that limited our willingness to give that a go.

The Dakotas have been great for us.  If we get back to the region again, I am confident we will spend more time in Badlands and, because of the wonderful national grasslands campground, Theodore Roosevelt NP as well.  Since we have now visited 31 national parks, I think a future post will involve us classifying them into three groups: parks we will eagerly visit again, those we might if it is convenient, and those we will probably pass on in favor of new experiences.

One of our pleasures: local craft beer in every state.  This was a satisfying South Dakota entry.

For now though, its time to move on.  Next post: our revised plan for the remainder of 2017.

Rose looked so content with our desert drive I had to catch her picture, so I rigged the steering wheel with bungee cords and the accelerator with a block of wood, then climbed out onto the hood to catch this perfect shot.  Really 😉

To The Eclipse!

For months, while not knowing exactly where we would be, we knew along what path we would be on August 21st: within the great eclipse totality, the band of total darkness running across the U.S.   As our schedule slowly solidified, I started looking at specifics: could we find an affordable (many places jacked their prices for the event) RV park in the closest path of the totality to our current location, or would it be a day trip in Loki to watch on the side of the road some place?

As usual, persistent daily checks of a couple of NW Nebraska state parks revealed a cancellation, and we locked in the perfect two day window at Fort Robinson State Park.  And so having only spent two days in the South Dakota with lots more on our list to see, we broke camp and sprinted the 133 miles south on the day before the great solar eclipse.

We found Fort Robinson State Park to be a great place for the viewing.  We had a large, level, partially tree covered, partial hook up (electric only) site for $24 a night, but due to a Nebraska State Park “Gotcha” rule requiring the purchase of separate day or seasonal passes in addition to your camping fee, we were obliged to pay an additional $8 a day for our vehicle, bumping the true daily cost up to $32.  This is pretty similar to the Texas State Park gotcha ruleTexas State Park gotcha rule, but not nearly as egregious as the Michigan State Park systems “double gotcha” fees (requiring a day or seasonal pass for both the motorhome and the tow vehicle.)

Yeah, so that ends up not being a great daily rate, but we were happy to have anything at all given how crowded many parks were that day.  Besides, Fort Robinson is a pretty fascinating place in its own right, with some extraordinary, though tragic history.  This is were Crazy Horse was killed under very sketchy circumstances while residing at the Red Cloud Agency.  It is also where the Cheyenne outbreak and massacre occurred, where just over a hundred Cheyenne made a desperate deep winter escape attempt after being locked inside a barracks building, deprived of food, water, and wood for fires.

Our first night at the campground we were introduced to the miraculous “Walking Taco” by a group of young women raising money for some school event.  The gist of it is this: you take a medium sized bag of nachos, 3.3 oz size if I recall correctly, and into that you dump all of the remaining taco fixings; meat, lettuce, cheese, onions, guac, sour cream, what ever.  You sort of mix the whole thing up, lightly crushing the chips, and then eat straight out of the bag with a fork.  Brilliant!

Enough of that, on to the Eclipse.  We set ourselves up in our personal clearing, chairs and solar glasses (obtained from the base library back at Ellsworth Air Force Base), and enjoyed the whole process along with our neighbors.  For starters, it’s not just the full eclipse that is fascinating.  Take for instance the odd shadow forms resulting from the glimmer of the crescent shaped sun scattered through light tree branches:

While we had a pair of solar glasses to share, we found it near impossible to get a good picture with our phones, either through the solar lens or without.  This is about the best we could do at peak totality.

Hard to describe how awesome a minute of darkness can be when it comes from such an interesting alignment of our star and moon, but it was indeed very cool.  We were also happy that we didn’t have to break camp and leave right after it was over like many of our neighbors did.  Instead, we could linger in the aftermath, watching as the odd crescent shadows reversed themselves as the eclipse concluded.

All in all we are very glad we chose to spend the time and gas getting down to the totality. We had other things on our itinerary with an aggressive time line, so we packed up the day after the event and sprinted back up to the South Dakota Badlands.   Next post: two more National Parks!

South Dakota, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore

Rejuvenated from our four day stay near Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we turned due south, headed for our only remaining state in the lower 48 in which we had not yet RV’d: South Dakota.  We were looking for a campground that would allow easy day trips to the nearby major parks: Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore National Monument, Custer State Park, and depending on our time, Badlands National Park.

We chose Ellsworth Air Force Base’s Family Camp just outside Rapid City.  After looking at the private options, the FamCamp was the better deal: with so many major attractions nearby prices were a bit inflated from what you might expect in South Dakota.  For $28 we got full 50 amp hook ups, and used the last of our five free night stays we had gotten for purchasing the $40 Air Force Frequent Camper package.

In total we have derived $117 in value for those free night stays, and we are getting close to earning another five free nights (for every ten different AFB Family Camps at which you stay, you get another five free nights, and we are up to seven different FamCamps.)  If you have access to the military campgrounds and do a good amount of RVing, we can’t recommend this program enough, though we attach two caveats:  The initial package is a great value but many AFB Recreation Offices don’t seem to have it available to sell.  It took us four bases before we found ours.  And though the initial package is well worth the money, you may experience problems getting the second (and subsequent) set of five free nights once you have completed each tier of ten different AF campgrounds.  Word on the street is that the program is poorly run, with members having a extensive delays and little cooperation from the program managers.  I’ll let you know what we experience when we get to that point.

We only secured two nights at Ellsworth since we had plans to sprint south into Nebraska for a couple of nights to be within the Eclipse Totality.  We used our second day to visit Custer State Park, which my Dad and Stepmom insisted should be top priority for the region.  It did not disappoint.  Custer makes a nice contrast to TR National Park in terms of appearance and method of exploration: rugged vistas mixed with grasslands and a long loop road to view the wildlife.  The key difference is the shear density of that wildlife, especially the buffalo, of which we had not seen a single specimen in TR.  Just ask for the herd’s location at Custer’s entrance gate or visitor center, and they will give you the general area you should explore.

That information was dead accurate, as we started spotting single “loner” bison as we neared the herd area, and then had to stop behind a dozen other cars for about 20 minutes as the more than thousand strong herd blocked the road during a slow movement across it.  Encouraged along by the big bulls, the long procession of beasts wandered across the roadway, in between and feet from the vehicles and their ogling occupants.

We also saw plenty of prairie dogs, some pronghorns, and ostensibly wild burros (though they were beyond tame in their interaction with the tourists.)  As I mentioned earlier, Custer Makes an interesting “compare and contrast” with Teddy Roosevelt NP.  They both have great and interesting views, but if you want a guarantee of seeing buffalo, pick Custer.  But if you want something that feels more natural, or stated differently, less “open zoo/controlled safari” like, then TR is probably a better bet, and it is generally less crowded.

Another great thing about Custer, however, is the Needles Highway drive, a winding road through increasingly dramatic rock formations that exits the park on the northwest corner.  It culminates in a series of narrow tunnels that are just wide enough for a single car.  Literally, you can touch the walls out either side window as you pass through.  As you near the higher elevations, you catch site of the incredible formations from which the drive derives its name.

Departing Custer via this route placed us just a few miles from Mount Rushmore, and though we had not planned to include that during our day trip, being so close we couldn’t forego it.  I’ll admit to being underwhelmed.  Yes, it is an amazing engineering and sculptural feat, and its impressive, just not quite as magnificent as I imagined.  Perhaps I was put off by the National Park Service playing a game of “gotcha” with the fees: We purchased the $80 annual pass with the understanding it would give us entry into all NPS properties, and yet Mount Rushmore wanted $10 for parking.  Seems a bit chintzy, particularly since we could just pull over in one of the several wide turnouts from the highway and take pictures.

The timing of the eclipse combined with follow on obligations resulted in a rather inefficient itinerary for our exploration of the major South Dakota parks, but our pleas to reschedule the solar-lunar alignment were ignored so we did what we had to do.  This meant two days in SD for Custer and Rushmore, a sprint south to Nebraska, and then a sprint back to SD for the remaining spots.  All of that in coming posts!

Continuing East into The Dakotas: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

From our last stop in Glacier National Park, we explored two options for our eastward push to North Dakota: a northern route across the top of Montana on US 2, and a more southerly option using MT 200.  We selected the southern route largely because it would take us to another military Family Camp at Malmstrom AFB.  We stopped there for two nights, using one of our last free night certificates as part of the Air Force Frequent Camper Program, and paid $25 for the second night of full hook ups in this decent, though nothing special campground.

Our site at Malmstrom AFB Family Camp, located in an annex just off base.

The camp host was very helpful, the small base’s amenities appreciated, but two days would be our maximum stopover here as we had a long hard run to make through the rest of Montana.  Our route presented very few good options for a midway stop between Malmstrom and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, so despite the more than 400 miles, nearly twice what I usually prefer for a one day run, we pushed through into North Dakota.

Montana’s somewhat monotonous brown rolling hills gradually gave way to the broken craggy geological structures and grasslands of the Dakota badlands.  While we had loved western Montana and the mountain region, the central part of the state is pretty tedious to drive though, much like large swaths of Texas.

Our intended destination was a private place called Buffalo Gap Inn and Campground just few miles west of the national park entrance, but as we pulled into the dirt and gravel entry road we spotted signs for another option, Buffalo Gap Campground, a national grasslands site.  The nearly identical name had made research a bit confusing, but we were glad for the find: for $6 a night they offered beautiful wooded dry camping spots.  Since we were topped off on water and the weather was relatively cool, at least in the evening, we opted for this low cost affair rather than the $25/night hook up sites at the utilitarian private campground just up the road.

Our fantastic site in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

We did not regret it at all.  We had great weather, a 75% empty campground, with clean, modern, and well kept shower and toilet facilities and easy access to the touristy town of Medora and the T.R. National Park entrance located there.  After looking into other options in the region, including private resorts, Medora’s city park and the campgrounds within the national park itself, Buffalo Gap is the best value if the weather and your dry camping set up can handle a few days without power or water.

The park itself was great, with a 35 mile loop road that takes you through the entire southern unit and accesses numerous view points and trail heads.  We did the loop twice, both clockwise (the natural direction the roads tend to point you in) and counterclockwise (our recommendation if you only have one day.)  We did four of the short day hike trails, and though we did not spot a single buffalo, we did see our share of wildlife including prairie dogs galore, wild horses, golden eagles, and one prong horn.

TRNP seemed less about the wildlife than the extraordinary and easily accessed viewpoints displaying the surprisingly varied terrain route by millions of years of erosion working its effect on ancient sea and river beds.

We also enjoyed the town of Medora, finding the locals very friendly and helpful.  We spent hours at the small library and resource center attached to the public school, using their internet since we had no connectivity at all in our grasslands camping spot.  The connection speed was insufficient to allow any Netflix downloads, but we did get a good amount of research done for our next couple of destinations.

The resource center provided a brief moment of excitement when the librarian pointed out a bat hanging from one window ledge in broad daylight.  As we gingerly approached to take pictures, it gave a couple of warning squeaks before launching into the air and seemingly making a diving run on Rosemarie, who bravely shoved me in front of her.  It pulled up well short and took off towards a better hanging spot, but you can’t help but wonder if it was ill, possibly even rabid given its daytime behavior.

As for the towns entertainment and restaurant options: we took a pass on the two most well known tourist activities (the nightly outdoor Medora Musical and the Pitchfork Steak Fondue involving steaks speared on actual pitchforks and cooked in hot oil.)  We did enjoy a surprisingly good pizza at Badlands Pizza and Saloon.  Not only was the food great, but the staff, with a heavy concentration of Eastern European immigrants, were fantastic and interesting.

Four days was an easy drycamping experience for us, but we didn’t want to push it and we still had a lot of things on our rapidly developing August schedule to see, so we pulled chocks and headed south, refreshed and ready for more of the Dakota Badlands.

Into Montana! Glacier National Park

Once we left the North Cascades National Park area in search of clearer skies, we pushed west through Washington with a couple of short stops.  Now we were continuing through Idaho into Montana, the first of three states we had missed in 2015 (along with the Dakotas.)  We broke up the drive with an overnight stop at Silver Dollar, a bar, inn, restaurant, gift shop, and “casino.”  That last in quotes because Montana is chock full of little places that have a handful of bingo machines disguised as slot machines that call themselves casinos.  The great thing about this touristy little place is they offer free RV parking with 30 amp electricity.

This sort-of-a-campground is well back from the road, behind the casino, with some rough dirt and gravel paths and sites that mandate a very slow approach.  We have stayed in far worse spots that had no services, so for free electricity at about the point I wanted to stop, it was an excellent deal.

The next morning we had to fill Serenity’s big gas tank again (second time already this month, we expect as many as six 70 gallon refills in August) at the cheapest on route place Gas Buddy could find, and continued northeast to West Glacier, a small town just outside the west entrance to the national park.  After finding no Passport-America option in the vicinity, we relied on All Stays and RV Park Reviews for guidance, and ended up selecting Glacier Campground for our four day stay.  What a gem.

There are those who prefer what you might call a “traditional RV resort” as their ideal site: manicured landscaping, large pull through sites with full hook ups and services along with a host of amenities.  Our preference is more along the state park model: well separated sites, each surrounded by natural, barely tamed greenery.  We can usually get that cheaper than the traditional resort, even if we have to give up a few services and amenities.

Glacier Campground was exactly the sort of place we seek out.  A well managed place with every site in the forest and plenty of separation between them all.  Sure the sites were back in, on dirt and gravel, and we only had 30 Amp electricity and water, but that was perfectly sufficient, and the rate cheaper than the more resortish parks in the vicinity.  With the 10% military discount, and after taxes we were out just under $34 a night.  For something so close to a popular national park, that is a solid rate.

The day after our late afternoon arrival we headed into Glacier National Park (our 28th national park) which entailed having to purchase our annual park pass since our last one expired in May just after we visited the Channel Islands National Park.  At $80 it gets us and anyone in our car into any national park, monument, forest, grassland, historic park, recreation area, etc for free.  It doesn’t cover campground costs, just entry fees, but since the national park system, unlike most state park systems, does not waive or include the entry fee into campground costs, this annual pass makes sense for us.

The annual pass is not for everyone; many visitors would be better off just paying for the one week pass at the individual park they visit (and not every place charges; the North Cascades was free!)  But since we know we will be hitting a good number of parks in the coming year, this pass will pay for itself.  Heck, Glacier’s one week vehicle entry fee is $30, so we are already nearly half way towards cost justification.

Anyway, the park…  It’s awesome.  Spectacular views, though still a bit smoke shrouded by the ongoing forest fires, incredible scenery, a striking abundance of wild flowers, beautiful streams, creeks, waterfalls and lakes. And no small amount of wildlife either.  During one of our short hikes to Hidden Lake we saw a herd of bighorn sheep and got up close and personal with a family of mountain goats.

We spent our first full day in the park casually driving through the lower reaches and then a nice day hike up to Avalanche Lake, were we had lunch on the shore.  Highly recommend this moderate hike to anyone visiting the park if you want a quick taste of what it has to offer.

The next day we made the drive along “The Road to the Sun,” a winding and in places steep and narrow road with cliffside railings.  Due to these conditions, the max vehicle length permitted on the road is 21 feet.  We went to the halfway point, Logan’s Pass, to make the aforementioned hike to Hidden Lake.

This was described as an “easy” hike in the brochure since the path is improved with boardwalks and stairs, but given the height and unevenness of the steps and grade, and the number of people we saw struggling, this should probably be rated as moderate so as not to lure in the unprepared.  It was a great little hike for us, not least of all because of the mountain goats.

We headed back down the mountain road, stopping at a couple of the overlook points along the way, including one that had a significant patch of snow that remained at this altitude despite the warm temperatures due to the significant shadow effect from the tall surrounding cliffs.  Along with the a couple of children, I took the opportunity to scramble to the top and sled down on a ragged piece of plastic bag.

Once back down the mountain we backtracked a bit southeast to visit some local sites of interest in the nearby towns, starting with a whiskey (and other assorted options) at the local Glacier Distilling Company.  We each selected a flight from their score or more options, and enjoyed the warm glow provided by fine spirits.

After that it was on to Columbia Falls and one of the most active local farmers and artisans markets we have ever witnessed.  Trying not to be jealous about not being able to vend, we were astounded at the crowds wandering through the tight area, along with energetic live music and food trucks providing an assortment of options.  The customer to buyer ratio was fantastic, and though the pizza we purchased was disappointing, the fresh artisanal cheese stuffed bread and huckleberry macaroon were to die for.

For our last day in the vicinity we sought out advice from the Campground owner on where we could find a nearby clear running river or steam with easy access and parking at which we might spend a leisurely afternoon with our feet in the water and butts in lounge chairs.  She pointed us towards Belton Bridge, which straddles the middle fork of the Flathead River, and used to lead to the west entrance to the national park.

It was perfect, and came fairly close to recapturing our great days on the Salmon River in Idaho, only with the added benefit of getting to watch local kids jumping and diving from the 28′ bridge into the river, and occasional flotillas guide-led rafters heading down through the mild rapids.  Combine all that with a nice picnic lunch made up of the bread from yesterday’s market paired with white wine, and you have an ideal afternoon by our standards.

We have since left Glacier and pushed hard eastward into North Dakota where we are drycamping for a few days in the vicinity of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  We will update that in the next post, and then project our heavily revised future route for the remainder of 2017.

Heading East across Washington

After 37 days on Whidbey the wanderlust overcame our love of the island, and since we finally ran out of extensions at the fantastic RV Park on the Naval Air Station, we decided to continue on our original roughly outlined plan.  So on August 1st we pulled chocks and headed generally east.  We left via the north end of the island chain, which means that rather than an expensive ferry ride we crossed Deception Pass and then took the bridge to the mainland.  We made a quick stop at the Swinomish Casino to do our usual players club sign up for free slot machine credit, and walked out with an additional $11 bucks to our name and working a sugar rush from the free soda.  Woot!

We also stocked up on booze, mistakenly thinking that the tribal casino would not charge the ludicrous Washington liquor taxes.  In addition to 20.5% sales tax, the state also charges $3.77 per liter excise tax.  So a $20 fifth would actually cost you $26.93. Ridiculous.

From there it was a short 90 minute drive to our first stop: a small private RV site just outside North Cascades National Park.  Our campground, Alpine RV Park, was a fairly utilitarian affair less than a dozen miles from the park entrance, but since they took the PA rate, it was a great deal: $15 a night for full hook ups including generally usable WiFi.  The shower house was pretty deteriorated and the lot was nothing to write home about, but the price and location were perfect for us budget travelers.

This would be only our second national park of the year; we had managed to get to the Channel Islands, but circumstances (crowds, availability, weather, and our own financial limitations) had caused us to skip the popular California, Oregon and Washington options.  Unfortunately, our timing was pretty awful for this park since the entire region was blanketed in smoke from several out of control wildfires in British Columbia.

This meant that the normally amazing views were heavily obscured and hiking would involve sucking in a lot of particulate.  We made the best of it with our traditional stop at the visitor center for the park movie, a day drive through part of the park, a short hike beside a set of waterfalls behind the old hydroelectric power plant, and a (very) quick swim in the Skagit River just south of Lake Diablo.

We spent our last day in the area doing a bit of geocaching (dropped off two trackables we had lugged all the way from the Florida Keys), visiting a fish hatchery, and wine tasting at Glacier Peak Winery.   While they had some traditional dry wines there, we were surprised by how much we enjoyed the dessert options since that is usually not our thing at all, and we walked out with the excellent and unique black currant wine.

In better conditions, North Cascades would be in our our top third of National Parks, particularly since it is not nearly as crowded as the better known places.  We cut our stay to three days and moved on, pushing through the rest of Washington.  After a 20 mile detour to dodge another wildfire, we arrived at Lakeview Terrace, a Passport-America park near the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.  It was a nice little place, not exactly a resort or destination location, but the small RV section had medium sized spaces, full hook up connections, and a bit of greenery in each site.

We were particularly surprised by the wildlife wandering through what is basically a residential neighborhood.  Three does spent a good amount of time on a nearby site chomping down on what looked to be a crab apple tree, and a flock of wild turkey passed through as well.  At $17.50 a night on the PA rate, this park was an excellent value.

The little known alternative album cover for Abbey Road.

From there it was on to our last Washington stop: one night at Clear Lake Recreation Area, an Air Force Family Campground near Fairchild AFB.  They operate two facilities in the area, one on base and this one a dozen miles south.  Like many Air Force camps, the former is a first come, first serve facility, and a call to the Recreation Office revealed that it was full.  So we turned off the interstate for the Clear Lake option.

It was a great choice; we didn’t have to deal with finding a commercial truck gate on base, and Clear Lake, as the names suggests, is situated on a nice big lake.  The sites were pretty basic and few of them had any trees, but at $20 for full hook up it was a good stopping point before we moved on through Idaho into Montana.  Additionally, due to our participation in the Air Force Frequent Camper program, every Family Camp at which we stay effectively gets us half of a free night certificate for future stops. 

We are headed towards Glacier National Park next, which segues into a public service announcement:  If you are 62 and over, the senior lifetime National Park Pass will increase from from $10 to $80 on August 28th, so get you pass now while it’s dirt cheap.

31 Months Fulltiming: July 2017 Report

OK, we are still fighting to recover from the Photobucket fiasco, so I know some of you still can’t see any of our posted pictures.  We have not forgotten you, we are working it, but we are at our wits end as to how to solve the problem of some readers having no trouble seeing our pictures while others, depending on how they arrive at our site or what platform they are using, are not able to see anything but broken links.  Stick with us, we’ll get it fixed.

The Distance: We said we wanted to get someplace and settle down for a while, reducing our gas expenditures and maybe taking advantage of long stay rates, and in July we did just that.  We traveled a grand total of 47 miles from Langley in South Whidbey up to the Naval Air Station RV campground in Oak Harbor and then down to the Staysail city park.  This brings out 2017 mileage up to 4,862, a huge slowdown from the last few months.  August will see a major uptick as we begin working our way east across the top of the country.

The Places:  We spent another six days at the Island County Fairgrounds before moving up to the Naval Air Station’s Cliffside RV Park for 23 days.  We closed out the month with two days at Staysail City RV Park just a handful of miles from the navy base.  It was all military (23 days) or municipal parks (8 days) this month.  We enjoyed full hook ups for 25 days (with free WiFi!) and a power and water site (now WiFi) for 6.  Other than the obviously subsidized military rate, we didn’t get any discounts from our clubs or memberships this month.

The Budget:  A combination of tight control during the first half of the month, no gas fill ups for Serenity, and four successful Second Street Markets along with one fantastic Kiwanis Beachcomber Bazaar allowed us to finish 10.5% under budget.  We did so even with higher than average RV campground costs ($28.71 a night) and a loosening of the purse strings in the latter half of the month.  It’s gonna be hard, if not impossible, to completely get on track for the year after more than $2000 in dental expenses in May, but we have at least made progress towards reducing the impact.

The Drama and the Improvements:  Not much to report this month.  I wish I could truly get into the habit of “one small improvement every day,” but at least we had no major incidents or failures this month.  We washed Serenity, we reorganized several major underbelly storage compartments, and redid our jewelry racks (including building a new one) but that’s all small ball.  Next month I hope to report a final solution to our embedded photo crisis.  The bottom line is I either need someone to help me sort out the glitches associated with third party hosting on Google Drive as it is seen from different platforms, or I need to do a lot of grunt work (again!) uploading and reestablishing two years worth of embedded pictures on an entirely new image hosting service. Ugh!

Here are our monthly reports for the year so far:

And here are our 2016 and 2015 annual summaries, each of which have embedded links to the individual monthly reports from those years.

Lavender, Shipwreck, Thrift Stores, Jewelry, Wine, Cheese, and even a few restaurants in our last weeks on Whidbey Island.

In closing out last post I alluded to loosening up the purse strings in the latter half of our stay on Whidbey Island.  We had kept things pretty tight during late June and early July, and this combined with some success at various markets allowed us to splurge a touch during the second half of last month.  We started things off with a day outing up to Anacortes for the annual Shipwreck Festival.

Three rows of vendors running for half a dozen blocks at the Shipwreck Fest

This is a giant yard and craft sale that the city of Anacortes puts on each year.  Upon learning of the event and calling the city Chamber of Commerce, we had been disappointed to learn that we were to late to participate as sellers.  In light of our rousing success at the seemingly similar Beachcomber Bazaar we thought this would be a great event for us, but c’est la vie.  It was a fun outing that we did with Nancy and her granddaughter Kyla.  We enjoyed being tourists for the day rather than vendors, and managed to find a few affordable items and a couple of great craft beers.  We were also happy to learn that it was not exactly our sort of selling event, closer to a flea market than farmer or craft one, so perhaps we had not missed out on a prime selling event after all.

We enjoy thrift stores of all kinds, and Whidbey did not disappoint.  We hit the base option, four in Oak Harbor, another in Freeland, and one or two while in Anacortes for Shipwreck Fest.  We found some affordable jewelry to disassemble and re-purpose into Rosemarie’s items, a few nice shirts and pants, and this astounding set of pillow cushions:

Almost everything is wrong with these knock off Game of Thrones pillow cases.  Aside from misspelling Game of Thrones, they leave words out of two of the house mottos and even manage to butcher “Baratheon” into “Prtuion.”  This makes them even more awesome.

Another day outing had us down in Greenbank to acquire a couple of LuLaRoe leggings (Rosemarie’s go to to active/leisure/formal wear) from a discounted private seller, and on our way back we stopped at Greenbank Farm, a historic location now hosting a set of shops, galleries, park, and restaurant where we acquired some local aged sharp cheddar cheese.  As we worked our way back to Oak Harbor we swung into the very quaint downtown area of Coupeville, purchased an excellent rosé and a loaf of fresh bread at a great price, and made a meal of it along with our recently purchased cheese.  The end to a great day!

We enjoyed two affordable restaurants during our stay in Oak Harbor: Jumbo Burrito and Noe Jose Cafe.  I liked the Yelp/Trip Advisor reviews for the former: a family owned little restaurant offering a stripped down menu of California and Mexican style burritos and the like, with ludicrously large serving sizes.  We split the jumbo burrito and still had leftovers for another meal.  The taste?  Delicious and flavorful.  Even though we keep our restaurant outing few and far between, we hit this place twice in one week.

Noe Jose (pronounced, apparently, “No Way Jose”) came recommended by some locals as well as semi-locals Bruce and Nancy.  They offer very warm service and fresh made breakfast and diner-like options in large portion sizes.  We all enjoyed a group outing there, and would happily return should we get back to Whidbey in the future.

I’m never happier than when I’m in a cheese shop.

Finally, Nancy took us to the annual Lavender Festival in Sequim, WA.  This involves a couple of hours in the car along with a ferry ride across to the Olympic Peninsula region. We had visions of tents and parades through blooming lavender fields, or perhaps on the closed streets in a quaint historic downtown area, with vendor after vendor selling lavender oriented items.  Instead it was a very crowded row of 150 vendors selling mainly non-lavender art, crafts, and food in a school parking lot.

Don’t get me wrong; we are quite content to visit such events, it was just that our expectations were so much higher, and given the time and cost of getting there and back, it was a disappointment.  We made the best of it, and even purchased a beautiful Abalone shell necklace for Rosemarie that will hopefully inspire her own ongoing work with abalone, and visited a working Lavender farm on the outskirts of town on our return trip.  I learned from a vendor (and have since confirmed) that the minimum booth fee for sellers was $395 for the three day event, which would pretty much be a non-starter for us, just too much of a risk despite the claimed 30,000 person attendance.

As for our own markets, we attended two more Fridays afternoon events at the Second Street Market in Langley, and man were they great.  After our successful attendance at that first Friday, things had dropped off for the second and third weeks.  Our fourth and fifth Fridays, however, were excellent with each one vastly exceeding expectations.  It was probably time for us to move on; we were sensing a bit of coldness from a couple of other jewelry vendors there.  Usually everyone understands that we are all trying to make a buck, but sometimes the local, longer term vendors can get a little pissy about drop ins like ourselves, particularly if we are under their prices.  Oh well, at least our vending neighbor Andrea, selling incredibly delicious and imaginative chocolate, enjoyed our company, as we did hers.

Rosemarie and Andrea (Rose sporting her $2 find from the Shipwreck Festival)

I mentioned in our previous post that we had managed to stretch a few days at Cliffside RV into a full week based on cancellations.  We continued to stretch it, asking every day or so, and for two weeks it worked!  Seven days turned into ten, then 14, 18, 21, and 23 days.  But we could stretch no further.  Too close to peak season at a too popular park, and with excellent weather we finally hit a day with no cancellations.

In stretching our stay at Cliffside RV from 5 to 23 days, we did have to move sites once.  This was our second spot.

The day after our final Second Street Market, we had to pull out and head over to the city park, Staysail RV where Bruce and Nancy had been ever since leaving the Naval Air Station.  It is full hook up for $25 next to a very nice park, but you do have to deal with close neighbors, some loosely enforced rules, and a thriving homeless population that calls the park a part time home.  Not really our preferred place, we made the best of it for two days, enjoyed hoisting a few more glasses of Nancy’s homemade Irish Cream, but finally had to bid goodbye to Whidbey Island on the first day of August.

Goodbye Cliffside Beach!

Extending our stay on Whidbey as we transition up to the Naval Air Station’s Cliffside RV Resort.

In our first week on Whidbey Island we stayed at the affordable but basic campground at the Island County Fairgrounds, and while there got ourselves inserted into a couple of farmer and craft markets.  The plan was to move up to the highly regarded campground at the Naval Air Station in Oak Harbor, but there was not a single day of availability until several days after the July 4th holiday period.

One of the smaller equestrian events we watched from our site at Island County Fairgrounds.

So we stayed at the fairgrounds another six days, or rather, I stayed for another six days.  Rosemarie made her third trip back to Florida in as many months, this time to walk in our friends Roseann and Anthony’s wedding.  We secured an airport hotel on points the night before her morning flight out of SEA-TAC (and thanks for the snacks and meal, Seattle USO.)  We love our RV life-style, but an occasional nice hotel feels like heaven.  Rosemarie spent four days in Coral Springs at her dad’s for the wedding event.  Congratulations to Roseann and Anthony on their big day!

Bride, father, and bridesmaids

The day after Rosemarie returned, we made the transition to the navy campground an hour up the road.  As it is an extremely popular place, particularly during the peak summer season, originally we had only been able to lock in a handful of days there.  Our periodic calls to the well managed office to check for cancellations, however, paid off nicely; by the time we arrived we had extended our reservation out to a full week, which included a free seventh night.  We even managed to find a three day opening to sponsor our friends Bruce and Nancy onto the campground, giving them a few days break from the nearby city park.

View of Washington mountains from the plane.

The Navy’s Cliffside RV Resort is, without doubt, the most beautiful military campground at which we have ever stayed, and is probably in the running for most beautiful site in general; military, private, or public.  It has has everything: a fantastic location right on the Puget Sound with nearly every site enjoying a great view; new and extremely well maintained facilities, access to the standard base amenities, a highly professional and helpful staff, and perhaps most astounding of all, some of the best landscaping we have ever seen at any park.

The path to the beach at Cliffside RV Resort and Campground

Apparently one of the camp hosts and a former employee, Ken, had a vision to redo the entire grounds and was given the funds to make it happen.  The result is an explosion of color in every direction from the extensive and varied flower beds.  Other accents include driftwood art scattered throughout the grounds, a collection of personalized signs from several hundred previous and current campers, bike and running trails, and even a community strawberry patch that produced very sweet fruit.

We did a terrible job of recording how beautiful the landscaping was there.  This only gives you a small idea, there were flowers everywhere, between and behind every site.

We also continued participating in markets, particularly the Second Street Market in Langley that would turn into our regular Friday afternoon event for the duration of our stay.  It had been very good to us our first week, and the second and third Fridays were decent as well, and allowed us to get to know a couple of the other sellers better.

Another Friday at Second Street Market in downtown Langley.

Rosemarie’s research had also turned up a major, once a year selling occasion: The Kiwanis Club Beachcomber Bazaar.  Sort of a mixed craft market/giant public yard sale, for $35 anyone could set up in an assigned 10’x10′ area on the main walking path within Windjammer City Park.  The only down side was that Rosemarie returned from the wedding having been given some sort of horrific flu-like virus from one of the junior bridesmaids (thanks a lot Antonella!)  Even as she arrived back in Washington she was starting to feel the effects, and after a day of slow deterioration she went into full bed rest with a noticeable fever for 48 hours, followed by a lingering weakness and cough for another four days.  It was bad enough that she actually stayed in the bed while we moved the RV the one hour drive from Langley up to Oak Harbor.

In addition to helping me with the Kiwanis Bazaar, Bruce and Nancy gave us two dungeness crabs that they had received from a friend.  I scraped every bit of meat I could from them….

…which I turned into delicious crab rolls.

With an all day event that turned out to occasionally be quite busy, having to manage things alone would have been tough.  Fortunately Bruce and Nancy lent a hand, helping man our tent through much of the day.  It ended up being one of our top events ever, and put us on track budget-wise for the month.

Our waterfront site at Cliffside.

So that’s two more weeks on Whidbey Island, which means we have stayed here longer than any place since leaving Key West, and I still have more days to write about.  That should give you a pretty good idea how much we like this place.  In fact, it has entered the top three locations that we would consider as a more permanent late spring to early fall residence (along with Coastal Maine and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)

Next post: we loosen the purse strings a bit and hit thrift shops, a few restaurants, and a couple of big festivals as tourists, not vendors.  But we still did some vending.