Barstow KOA (4… maybe)

Perfectly fine KOA with wifi and a wind block

Listen. When you’re on the road for a while and you’ve been out of cell service or wifi for a lot of that time, it can take a toll. Sometimes all you want is a safe place, out of the wind, with cell service, decent wifi, and maybe hookups so you can live it up. So here we are.

Highway 127 to Baker is very pleasant

We have reached the point in our trip when we have to start making tracks back home. It was not a terribly long drive from Death Valley to the Barstow area and we had a plan. We were going to stay again at Calico Ghost Town, but instead of getting a site in the upper part of the campground, behind the cell blocking hills, we were going to ask for one down low that would surely hit the cell towers. We didn’t have reservations, but I mean, come on. We did call just to verify there was plenty of availability, and there was, so no worries. Here’s what we did not know: New Year’s Eve is a huge event for OHV people. The hills around Calico are chock full of off roading trails. Add those two pieces of information together and you’ve got yourself a jam packed campground in the big rig pull through section down low. Everyone down there was whooping it up with their giant flags, blinky light up OHVs, and 2-3 bars of LTE. Damn them.

We stayed long enough at Calico to spot those cute little Chukars.

We tried to make an up-the-hill site work and went as far as doing a complete unhitch and set up to try it out. Here’s the other thing: it was super windy. So part of set up included using the Caravan Mover to spin Dory into the wind. It was a lot. And once we were done, despite the fact we’d gotten 1-2 bars from the car, there was no service in Dory. We sat there for like a minute and I pulled the plug.

Before relocating 3 miles down the road, we did drive down and verify that: a) there was cell service, and b) there was less wind down there. With both requirements met, we went back up hill, unspun and re-hitched Dory, and moved.

Best New Year’s Eve dinner ever

For having dissed the Barstow KOA in the past, I must formally apologize. They have a lovely campground, with strategically planted, wind breaking trees. And enough LTE to upload pictures for the blog. And they are even closer to Penny’s Diner than Calico. We were happy campers who repented our snooty ways. Super thank you to Jessica, who was working at Penny’s all by herself on New Year’s Eve and made us the absolute best breakfast for dinner. Happy New Year!

Total miles: 173.1 from Furnace Creek, 15.0 mpg, 3 hours 56 min. Site 2. We had dumped on arrival at Calico, before realizing that was not going to work out. Dump at KOA not good so did not dump the next morning. Great LTE for both and wifi easy to hit from the sites. Right by the highway, whatever. Close to gas and Penny’s so it’s a win.

Death Valley – Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek Campground

We were pleased to wake up to minimal wind in the morning. Our route out of the Las Vegas valley took us up Highway 95 through lonely, sandy countryside, dotted with Mesquite shrubs and billboards suggesting we were near Area 51 (we weren’t). We cut south across highway 373 to Death Valley Junction and then made the descent into the valley on Highway 190. This route is a very calm and beautiful way to enter the park, with stunning views and no terrifying drop-offs (like the western section of 190 between “Father Crowley Overlook” and Panamint Springs).

Highway 190 coming from the East is a nice way to go.

Before we got set up in our site, we saw signs saying the campground dump was closed. There is another one, used for the Sunset and Texas Springs campgrounds, but the line was long and the rinse water ran slow. We were there for a while before coming back to unhitch. The Furnace Creek campground has nice amenities and even some sites with hookups. Ours did not, but we were fine. The first item on the list of things to scope out was whether there was still wifi at the Visitor Center. That is a nope. And though both our phones showed 4 bars of 3g, it barely counted. Nothing internetty would load, and though you could text, it took 8-10 minutes to send. So it was going to be another 3 days with little to no service. Oh well, that’s camping for you.

Trick shot with Dory/Not Dory

Right as we entered the campground, I spotted the unmistakable shape of an R-series Alto. Of course, we had to go say hello and make sure we knew the owners. In fact, it was a couple we’d camped with at another Altogather, and know well from the Altoistes group. They were going to be heading over to Valley of Fire next and were aware that overnight temperatures would get below freezing. We traded thoughts on pipes and temperature thresholds and generally agreed that Altos can take a lot. They had an impressive antenna set up for ham radio signal. Richard and I actually both have ham radio licenses, but we haven’t used our radios in years. I started to wonder if that might be a great solution for communication in these no service situations. I wonder where those radios might be….

Gorgeous 20 Mule Team Road

Having a couple hours of daylight left, and knowing that rain was coming, we decided to hit the 20 Mule Team Road. That is another E ticket ride and I can’t decide whether I prefer that one or the Artist’s Drive. Both take you through some of the most colorful canyons in the park, through twisty turny paths that make you feel like you are on a Disneyland ride. All that is missing is the music and animatronic singing animals. 20 Mule Team Road is unpaved, but the conditions are good enough for pretty much any car to manage. Maybe not a Ferrari. Don’t take your Ferrari. It is not a washboard, jiggle your teeth experience, like some of the other trailhead roads. There are tight corners and it’s not like I would recommend bringing a trailer along, but as long as there has not been recent rain, it’s a very easy and fun road to drive. We had a few minutes of sun, which we watched disappear behind clouds at Zabriskie Point. Then it was back to Dory for dinner and a movie.

Natural Bridge (with Richard for scale)

For our first full day in the park, we headed south, toward Badwater Basin. Richard rode all the way from the campground around Artist’s Drive, and I caught up with him at the end, after he’d gotten about an hour head start. I’ve done this drive a couple of times, and it never gets old. The colors of the rocks look very different, depending on the light, so it’s worth repeating. From there, we drove on a couple miles until we saw the dirt road leading to the Natural Bridge trail. This road was super bumpy. But the trail was nice, and only about a third of a mile to see the huge rock bridge. Then we continued down to the lowest point in the park. At 282 feet below sea level, the Badwater salt flats attract lots of visitors. The parking lot was overflowing, and I was curious about Badwater Road continuing south, so we just drove on down the road for a while.

Dramatic desert skies

Eventually we came to the turnoff to get to Sidewinder Canyon Trail. This is a slot canyon we’d heard about, but knew very little of in terms of how difficult a hike it would be. Richard talked to a couple of hikers and read the informational kiosk, and I tapped out. It sounded like a lot of scrambling and a big, technical hike to see the impressive bits. Also, the rains were ever threatening, and a slot canyon is not where you want to be during rains in the desert. Richard passed too, and instead we drove back on up. Maybe some day we’ll think about it again, but I’d need a lot more information.

Mosaic Canyon polished rocks

For our last day, we went the other direction, up to Stovepipe Wells. There we got much cheaper gas than was available in Furnace Creek (over $6/gal). Richard was really excited about that. We also hit the Mosaic Canyon Trail. This is also a slot canyon, but with a far more accessible trail. It is a steady and fairly steep walk up, but those are my kinds of trails, because I’m always fairly certain I’ll be able to get back down. We call them “reverse Grand Canyon” trails. The unique feature of this canyon is how there are millions of water polished rocks embedded into the walls. It looks like some kind of high end, decorative concrete. Then right next to that, there are multicolored rock walls that sort of resemble finely layered pastry. The striations run in large bands, with finer micro layers within each. After you’ve walked about a mile and half up, you come to the “boulder fall,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It is passable by “adventurous hikers” and continues just a little bit before becoming even more tricky. Richard climbed over the first hurdle to check it out, and called it a day when he saw the second. Then we turned around and had an easy walk back to the car. We walked out a bit on the sandy Mesquite Dunes and called it a day.

Mesquite Dunes under heavy clouds

During our stay, we could see thick cloud cover on the surrounding mountains, but we didn’t really get much rain on the valley floor. We heard it on Dory’s roof the first night, but it was never a deluge. What glimpses we could get of the mountains through the clouds, suggested there was a lot of new snow up there. That is all good news for California. Winter in the desert is a lot more fun than the hundred degree heat we experienced in early spring. When we come back to visit, it’s a pretty good bet it will be in December. Death Valley is a huge park and it would take a long time to see it all. So far, we’re enjoying our little dips.

Total miles: 145.8 from Red Rock, 17.4 mpg, 3 hours 27 min. Site 57, no hookups. Dump closed. “3g” but it didn’t do much unless it was after 9pm or before 7am when not many people were trying to use it. Water spigots. Dump at Sunset campground was not so great, but usable. Potable water, but it runs slow.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Another weather adventure…

Weather reports showed wind advisories and winter weather alerts for the next two days. I was hoping the travel day would cut under the wind, but could definitely feel the buffeting as soon as I hit Highway 15. I am frequently thankful for the Avoid Highways feature in Google Maps, and used that as soon as we could. On our way out of Valley of Fire, we saw hoards of people lining up to come in. We were feeling pretty smug about how nicely our plans fell into place. The purpose of Red Rock was to be in a place outside the big city, with lots of cell service, and proximity to stores where we could replenish food supplies and catch up on all things civilized. It was also touted as being pretty, so again, we were doing the “We are the Smart Party” dance. In retrospect, The Hitchin’ Post might have been the better choice.

Bit of a bumpy arrival with people in our site…

We took Highway 215 in from the western outskirts of Vegas, with a stopover at Walmart. The winds were ever present, with warnings of a bigger storm coming in. The Red Rocks Campground does take reservations, which we had, which was lucky, because they were full to capacity, with many signs saying so. When we got to our site, there was a car parked in it. Richard went and alerted the camp hosts, who shook their heads in exasperation, saying, “I know exactly who it is.” They immediately jumped in their official looking pickup, with big orange lights flashing on top, and came straight over. Apparently, there was a family of three who, all week long, had kept setting up in vacant, but marked as reserved, campsites. They had a small tent set up in a walk-in tent site, but it’s a long haul from the parking area to the tent area, so they just really wanted one of those sites closer by, with a covered shelter. The camp hosts had had enough with them and kicked them out of the campground at that point. We felt bad watching them have to pack up all their things and lug them over to their car. We wondered what their backstory was, but we could tell they had pushed through multiple warnings and were not going to be given another chance. Their car was a Mercedes, so I tried not to worry about them too much.

Hills around campground say, “No service for you.”

To my deep and abiding dismay, there is no cell service whatsoever in the Red Rocks campground. Like on the road before the turnoff, there was decent LTE, but as soon as you drop down just a bit, the road goes behind a hill, which blocks everything. To get a signal, you can walk up a short path to a high point behind the loop, or drive a quarter of a mile to a pullout near the entrance. But from the site, nada. This was frustrating, because it was my plan to sit inside and do service things while the rain was happening. I was looking forward to that a lot. I thought for sure we’d get service, being right outside Vegas and all. And I’m sure that is true of every other freaking place, except this campground. Campendium even says there is 4g, but they lie. Or maybe there are specific sites out on the RV loop that can hit a tower, but not site 20, that’s for sure.

The 13 mile Scenic Drive is really impressive.

We got going early the next morning so Richard could ride the Scenic Drive before the weather arrived. It was already very windy though. In order for me to not perseverate, we put Dory’s roof down before we left, with a plan to turn her into the wind when we got back. That would make her as aerodynamic as possible, and protect the crescent windows from any loose flying objects while we were away. Arriving at the kiosk entry to the Scenic Drive, there was a man checking for time designated reservations, which we had, which was lucky, because they limit cars to keep crowds down. I am not 100% sure of this, but I think the man in the kiosk was the dad of the family who got kicked out for being in our site. He was masked, so I could be wrong, but he said something to me, which I didn’t hear (hearing impairment strikes again). I thought he was asking me if I was “law enforcement.” He then gestured to what I think was the campground reservation tag on our mirror. I was just confused, and said, “No?” He sort of smiled then, like he’d made a joke, and that’s when I wondered if it was the same guy. Still confused, I drove on through. I still don’t really know what he said, or whether it was a joke, or whether it was him. Oh well.

Biker trying not to get blown over…

Richard started riding the thirteen mile road and I sagged. Oh my god it was windy. And cold. I didn’t even want to get out of the car at the viewpoints. But whatevs, crazy husband, you have fun. I’ll turn on butt warming and crank Sirius XM. There was one other biker out there and I could tell people in cars were feeling sorry for them both, or were simply shaking their heads. I followed close by. Eventually, with about two miles to go, when the wind was practically blowing Richard over, he bailed. No shame in accepting the reality of weather.

Our brave Dory facing the storm

Back to the campground we drove, and spun Dory into the direction of the wind. We checked weather reports before coming back and there were wind advisories, specifically for the Red Rocks Canyon area. Reports predicted 30-40 mph winds with gusts up to 60. Here we go. After we’d oriented and set back up, we blasted the heater and strapped in. We then noticed four young men trying to set up in a tent site. It was painful to watch. All four of them looked as clueless as you can get. They had cotton hoodies, no rain or cold weather gear, and took turns at not being able to set up their lightweight, fragile little tent. We were hard pressed not to go over and help them. The help I was more than prepared to offer, and surely would have eventually, was to hand enough cash that they could go get a hotel room. Until it reached the point of rescue, we watched the drama unfold. Three of them seemed really excited about camping. Perhaps the tent had been a Christmas present? One of them looked cold and sad, and kept gesturing over to the ominous clouds. They tried many times to set up that tent, with their sleeping bags and gear spread out on the ground, as it started to rain. Finally, they sort of kind of had the poles in the right position and the tallest one looked pretty happy to see it standing upright. Just then, a huge gust of wind collapsed the entire thing in upon itself. I think the young one was maybe crying at that point. Thankfully, they all seemed ready to accept the inevitable and began tearing down the few pieces of equipment they’d managed to get out of the storage cases. We were so relieved watching them pack up their cars and drive out. Probably, the whole campground was.

Campground clearing out…

Meanwhile, next to the kids, there was a full grown man with a somewhat sturdier looking tent, who was there when we arrived. We saw him come out a few times and I thought he might be bailing. Instead, he was adjusting his rain fly and I guess anchoring things down. Then he disappeared and he either had gone inside his tent, or had left. Richard and I were hunkering inside, running the generator outside to top up the batteries, and trying hard to not pay attention to the sounds of the gusts. Dory was rocking, but way less so than I know she would have if she weren’t nosed in the right direction. Then there was a really huge gust. I can only guess how fast it was, but it felt like a wave hit us. I heard a thump outside that panicked me. It turned out it was the cover to the electrical outlet, flipping up, and it was fine, but I was thinking something had blown off. We both looked outside to assess any damage and we noticed the older guy’s tent was simply demolished. Parts of poles stuck up on the sides, but the whole upper structure was destroyed. We looked for signs of him coming out from under the canvas pile, and saw nothing, so we figured he must have left when things got real.

This is an ex tent.

One by one, the remaining tent campers bailed. We watched some of the other RVs reposition themselves or put their tow cars in front of their rigs to take some of the wind. All the while, the campground hosts made periodic rounds to check on how people were holding up. We told them about the kids, and the guy with the destroyed tent, and they said they were worried about the kids too and were coming to offer a more sheltered site. By morning, there were only two tents that survived the onslaught and stuck it out. We think the people in them were rock climbers because they were decked out with all kinds of technical gear. We later looked up the brand of their tents and found out they each cost $900. That was money well spent, and that night was a good endorsement for the quality.

If you gotta be in a tent, these are the way to go.

The wind storm was over by 3am and Dory had not a single sign of any damage. Altos are extremely well built little buggers. Wind is not my favorite thing, and I was prepared to lower Dory’s roof at any moment if it seemed like things were getting worse. Luckily, besides that one blast, it was less extreme than the “bomb cyclone” we survived in Half Moon Bay. One thing that helps: loud music. Second thing that helps: lots of wine. Anyway, we made it and were fine to head out to our next stop along the way. I hope that family is fine, wherever they are, and I hope those kids get to try camping again, maybe not during a wind advisory.

Total miles: 78.4 from Valley of Fire, 14.6 mpg (wind), 4 hours 58 min (because stopped at Walmart along highway 215). Site 20 no hookups and no damn cell service. No dump. Water spigots. Awesome camp hosts. 

Valley of Fire – Arch Rock

Worth moving just for the photo op

Best Christmas Ever. On a last minute crazy impulse, we decided to hitch up and see if we could get a spot for one night in Valley of Fire for Christmas night. Richard has an app that shows how busy things are in parks and it looked like we just might have a shot. Worst case, we could simply come back because we’d already paid for that night at Echo Bay. And plan C or D could be to join the boondockers on Snowbird Mesa. So we had options and tried to maintain low expectations.

Photogenic campground

We waved farewell and Merry Christmas to Francois, grateful for the special time together, hitched up, dumped, and headed up to the park a little before 11. Again, our fears were unwarranted and we found the Arch Rock Campground to be all but vacant. We had our choice of sites and picked a beauty, right up against the red rocks. I got in my fill of taking pictures of Dory, and then we spent the rest of the day on the trails. 

Understandably popular location for filming

First we tried the White Domes trail. This is at the end of the road that runs through the most spectacular part of the park. When we passed through here a few years back, it was during the summer and it was just a one nighter for us, so we hadn’t even seen that road. We had no idea how impressive a place it is. I’m surprised it isn’t a national park actually. The colors are crazy, like if this was part of a movie set (which is has been, many times), you’d say it was unrealistic and probably roll your eyes, thinking, “Yeah right.” The White Domes trail is pretty easy, though the first part is a steep descent down a rocky, sandy notch. You come to a place that is marked with an information kiosk listing the movies it has been used for. There is a partial structure remaining and if I knew the movie “The Professionals” it might look familiar. I am quite familiar with “Beastmaster,” and I must say, nothing was bringing back any memories about any of the scenery. There was this one arial shot where Dar (from Ar) was swinging his big sword around on top of some random rock, in what could have been this area, for reasons of … training? The location in that shot didn’t seem to really jive with the rules of movie continuity for the rest of the movie, but “Beastmaster” is a super high quality film, so I assume there was a logical explanation. Anyway, that scene could have been Valley of Fire. Where they shot the scenes with the blind witches or the Jun hoards or the weasel creatures stealing the naked Tanya Roberts’ clothing while taking a bath, I do not know. See? Now you need to see “Beastmaster.”

“Fire Wave” Trail

There were lots of people on the trails and in the parking areas, and when we got to Parking Area #3 for the Seven Wonders Trail, there was a car that was very very stuck on a big rock. They were probably trying to create a parking space where there wasn’t one, but we both took a moment to be thankful for AWD and high clearance. This trail was just as jaw dropping as the other, with signs marking a rock formation called the “Fire Wave.” All of the rock formations could have had names and I refrained from taking pictures every ten feet. This hike took longer than we anticipated because there was apparently a rock fall on the part of the loop trail that returns toward the parking area. This was not marked at all, and was alarming to not only Richard, but to another couple using a GPS map app. The park had placed trail marker posts up ahead and eventually had a sign pointing the new route, but when you are really locked into your GPS app, and it tells you to go up the pile of fallen boulders because that’s where the dotted line is, that’s where you go. We did not, but the other couple did. They were ok, and we met up at the end, but that was more exciting than we expected, so we called it a day.

Merry Christmas to all!

We had a delicious dinner of Chicken Cordon Blue, thanks to Barber Frozen Foods and the Omnia oven. We paired that with sautéed asparagus with olive oil and balsamic and it was absolutely fabulous. Life is good. All is right with the world. Merry Christmas to all. This one will be tough to top.

We definitely spotted this in “The Professionals”

As an update: we did later watch “The Professionals.” Meh. I guess I’m not a western fan. But that sure was Valley of Fire! You can even see where they built the set for Raza’s village in what is now the parking area for the White Domes Trail.

Total miles: 22.8 from Echo Bay, 15.1 mpg, 59 min. Site 16 Arch Rock Campground. No cell service at all. You have to go up to the White Domes road or out to Fire Canyon Lookout to get good service. No hookups in this campground, but there are hookups in the Atlatl campground right next to it. It’s all gravel roads in the campground loops and the turns are tight in Arch Rock. It’s not for big rigs, but an Alto fits into most sites. Good dump (also quite photogenic) and potable water.

Lake Mead – Echo Bay

Best Christmas Present Ever!

The Vegas/Lake Mead area was the ultimate destination target for this winter trip. We’d never been to the area, but knew there were many opportunities for camping and we wanted to scope it out. We watched weather reports closely and had backup plans with hookups at The Hitchin’ Post RV Park, in downtown Vegas, in case overnight temperatures dipped too low. But conditions aligned, along with the stars, so that we got to meet up with a very dear friend in Echo Bay.

Now that’s service – traveling a couple thousand miles for a delivery photo

It’s funny for me to talk about Safari Condo with anyone not familiar with the company. Yeah sure, they manufactured our Dory, but they are so much more. We have become friends with our sales reps, as well as the founders of the company. They were 100% there for us when we lost Dory1. Not only did they put the build of Dory2 at the front of a 2 year line, but Francois our sales rep for Dory2, co-conspired to have the exact same “Just keep swimming” decal placed on our new trailer as the one that was lost in the crash. Understand, this meant our BFF Linda ordered it in the US, shipped it to Quebec to get mounted in precisely the right spot, where it then made the journey back to Durango, CO. Those are some outstandingly good people, and seriously great friends. Plus, Francois was the one who arranged the photo shoot with stuffed Dory during the build process. So when we caught wind that Francois was out in the US southwest, we would have gone well out of our way to find him and give him a great big hug.

Kit Fox says, “Got anything for me?”

We kept touch while he was whirl-winding his way all over the place and found that the Las Vegas area would work for a meet up. This was not all that easy, since he is kind of crazy and dives like 8-10 hours in a day in his fancy Safari Condo van. He had been traveling with some guys from Quebec, one of whom is a well established travel blogger. They picked up another nomad from Quebec along their way, from a random meeting in a park. Meeting up with people on the road is the coolest part of traveling. The guys had peeled off to head back to Quebec, but Karine, a remote fitness coach, showed up in her van along with Francois. We had a wonderful dinner at the picnic table all together that night, sharing stories of travel and life. As we chatted and drank, a little Kit Fox kept coming right up to us, looking for a handout perhaps, or berries on the ground under our table. 

Bighorn Sheep says, “Chill your jets. This is my road.”

We spent the next day in Valley of Fire State Park, while our Quebecois friends went into Las Vegas to get gifts and shopping. Richard rode all the way into the park from the campground and I did a quick spin through the state park campgrounds up there. Those are also first come, first serve and we weren’t sure how busy it got at Christmas. There were some sites open, but ultimately we decided to stay where we were because there is no cell service in the park. It would have been way too hard to transfer over and communicate with our friends, so we moved on to get gas and a few groceries in the town of Overton. On the way, we spotted lots of boondock areas, like Snowbird Mesa and Poverty Flats. Those could also have been backup plans, if necessary.

If anyone had been in the information booths, we totally would have asked.

On Christmas Eve day, Karine had to move along. We got to spend the whole day with Francois. We had never seen Hoover Dam, so we all drove out together. My Grandpa George always told stories of there being bodies buried in the concrete during the construction of the dam, and I’d always assumed that was his own crazy tale. It turns out this is the number one question asked by tourists: How many bodies are buried in the Hoover Dam. The answer of course is zero, but the fact that it continues to be rumor is kind of amazing. After taking some photos and some selfies, we left the crowds and found the Owl Canyon Trail over at the western edge of the reservoir. This is a 2 mile, out and back trail. through a slot canyon that is apparently home to many owls. We saw evidence of nests and some concentrations of bird poop, but no birds. They could easily have been hiding in any of the wind carved holes in the rock walls, but we didn’t see them.

Owl Canyon

Christmas Eve was simply the best. Francois came over and we hung out in Dory. We drank and talked, while I made Ham and Swiss crescent rolls in the Omnia, with a few asparagus spears stuffed inside to make them “elevated.” We laughed a lot and shared stories. It was one of the best Christmases I can remember. All that was missing was Linda with dogs, but we raised a few glasses to her. For our evening movie entertainment, we watched “Return of the Jedi.” Because Christmas. Our son texted from Oregon to share his “Die Hard” joy (and get the Vudu password), dissing our nerdy ways. I simply replied, “Yub yub motherf…” He responded, “Now I have a lightsaber. Ho ho ho.” Good times.

Safe travels Francois!

On Christmas morning, Francois needed to hit the road again, and we were pleased to learn he was able to hook up with Mike and Ele, the owners of Four Corners RV in Durango, for Christmas night. What an adventure he is having! Meanwhile, we took advantage of the good weather and decided at the last minute to try a crazy plan and bring Dory to Valley of Fire to see if we could get a site. Spoiler: we did, and that will be the next post.

Couldn’t ask for better weather

I was surprised by how beautiful the area is around Lake Mead. I simply had no idea. All the variations in rock colors that you see in the other national parks, like Zion and Grand Canyon, are also here in Lake Mead. It makes sense if you think of this as the lowest level of the whole Laramide Erogeny event, which is responsible for the geology along the Grand Staircase. You can totally tell that the rock layers were o