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Mackinac Island

After a lovely stay in Munising Michigan we made a short two hour drive east across the UP to St. Ignace Michigan. Our purpose for stopping here was to visit the historical Mackinac Island which was a must see stop for me on the trip. Mackinac Island is the fudge capitol of the nation and the only forms of transportation are bicycle and horse drawn carriage.  A person would have to be crazy not to have this place on their bucket list!

For our visit to Mackinac I choose the Carp River Campground in the Hiawatha National Forest. The campground was a short fifteen minute drive into the quaint town of St. Ignace to catch the ferry over to Mackinac.  While the town was bustling with tourists enjoying their summer vacations, the campground was a serene oasis nestled on the shores of the tea colored Carp River.  Our site was large and private, surrounded by tall trees and had stairs leading down to the river.  We spent our first evening sitting on the banks with a cold beer watching the river flow swiftly by and wondering if the tree next to us was going to fall in the river. It actually did the next day making a huge booming sound across the forest.

We got up early the next morning eager to ride the ferry to Mackinac Island. There are several ferry lines that will take visitors across and they are all pretty comparable.  We chose to ride the Star Line Hydro Jet Ferry.  The cost was $24 a person for round trip and an additional $10 to take our bikes with us.  Riding bikes around the island is one of the main attractions and we opted to bring our bikes instead of rent them over there.  The rental prices were surprisingly reasonable but our butts like our own seats so we toted them across.  The ferry crew was super helpful and friendly and made it a breeze to check in our bikes and enjoy the crossing.

As the ferry approached the island it looked like something out of a movie. Big beautiful houses sat regally along the shore line with colorful kites and banners waving in the wind. We grabbed our bikes and headed up the ramp onto Main Street and our senses were immediately assaulted by the sights, sounds, and smells of Mackinac Island.  The smell was the first thing to get my attention.  I would call it barnyard fudge.  There was a strong rather unpleasant smell of horse feces and urine coming from the many horse drawn carriages. That smell was overlapped with the warm delicious sent of fudge making.  To say the least it was quite confusing to the senses.  It made me hungry yet repulsed at the same time.  In addition to the smells, Mackinac is a visually stimulating with colorful bicycles parked at every inch of curb, big beautiful horses, lovely carriages, and brides and grooms in their finery.  It’s a very popular place for weddings and we saw our fair share of bridal parties that day.

We jumped on our bikes and set off delighted to explore. We biked through town passing gift shops, restaurants, and of course the 15 fudge shops that make Mackinac the fudge capitol. We came across a huge expanse of grass right on the shore of Lake Huron were people were lounging on blankets or giant white wooden chairs.  It was the ideal place to stop and eat our packed lunch.  Everyone around was so happy to be there and the whole scene felt like something out of a movie.  We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while people played Frisbee and flew kites.

After lunch we decided to bike the perimeter of the island. There is a bike path that follows all the way around the island.  It is 8 miles of flat easy biking along the azure blue waters of Lake Huron.  I didn’t know water of this color existed besides in the ocean.  In fact, I felt like we were on the coast of some Caribbean Island as we cruised around on our bikes and watched big boats making waves in the distance.  As we made our way around the island we stopped here and there to hike up to different lookout points and really appreciate the views.  There is something about riding a bike without the hustle and bustle of car traffic in a beautiful place that makes everyone feel free and happy.  I’ve never seen so many people with huge smiles on their faces at once as I did biking around Mackinac.

After we biked the whole outside of the island we stopped back on Main Street and parked our bikes. We wandered around the shops and sampled some heavenly fudge.  Probably the best I’ve ever tasted!  Then we hopped back on our bikes and explored the streets of town, admiring the historical old homes.  We came across the stately Victorian Grand Hotel and were awestruck by its enormous porch that won it the title of largest porch in the world.  The hotel really was grand! We watched as guests dressed up for dinner came down to wait for horse drawn carriages to pick them up for their evening out and we marveled at the beautiful flowers growing around perfectly manicured grounds.

We made a final pass on our bikes right through the center of the island to see the historical cemeteries and the small airstrip where several small private planes parked. We also passed by Fort Mackinac in time to hear a boom from a cannon.  We were disappointed we had missed the last tour of the day of the fort but it was time to catch our ferry anyway.

As the ferry headed away from the island I was sad to leave it behind. While I was glad I got to see it I felt like my day there wasn’t quite enough.  I want to go back and spend a weekend, explore the fort, and take a carriage ride.  For now it will do though. It was time to head back to The Cramper and get ready for our next stop on our summer adventure.  Until next time Mackinac Island!

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North to the Upper Peninsula

Follow the Sheppard’s as they travel full-time in their RV through America.

I spent a good portion of time during our winter in Colorado planning the next leg of our journey, the East Coast! Our east coast trip was going to be a lot different than our west coast trip in many ways.  First, we were camping experts now.  Our rookie jitters were completely gone and we were super excited be on the move again.  Second, packing was easy.  We knew exactly what we needed and didn’t need and our rig was less than half the weight it was when we headed west.  Turns out you don’t need a cocktail dress or office supplies on a camping road trip. The third and probably biggest difference, is that the whole trip was mapped out.  Our campgrounds were booked and I had a nifty little spreadsheet that listed out where we would be resting our heads every night, what there was to do there, what amenities were available at the campground, excursions I thought we would enjoy, and how many miles it was to the next campground.  I loved the freedom of moving around at our own pace during our western leg of the trip, but we also spent a lot of our time deciding where to go next and what to do once we got there.  It was also harder to budget for the western leg not knowing how much we would actually spend on camping.  With the camping for the eastern leg already paid for I could budget for some really cool excursions and we could even dine out and sample the local flavors from time to time.  So after spending the 4th of July holiday in Illinois with our family and friends we packed up The Cramper, said goodbye, and headed north on July 9th.

We really wanted to check out the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, commonly referred to as the UP. July seemed like a good time to be north so we headed up to Bear Lake in north eastern Wisconsin for our first night stay on the way to the UP.  It was an uneventful 7 hour drive to Bear Lake and we arrived shortly before sunset, which turned out to be a bit of a bummer because we didn’t really get to take advantage of the beautiful, pristine lake.  The campground was heavily wooded with tall lush trees, and the sites were large and private.  Ours had a set of stairs that went right down to the lake.  Bug spray was absolutely necessary for the monster mosquitos. We sprayed it on and headed down to watch the sunset from our little cove.  The lake was so calm the water looked like glass and showed the reflection of the trees and the sky.  We tucked ourselves in for the night to the sound of rain on The Crampers rooftop, looking forward to arriving in the UP the next day.

From Bear Lake we drove to Bay Furnace Campground in Munising, Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior. I chose this campground for its proximity to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The campground itself was excellent, with big private sites and a short walk to a small beach right on the lake.  We spent our first day in the UP exploring the trails of Pictured Rocks and hiking to some of the many waterfalls in the area.  We hiked along a trail through a damp forest full of huge, green trees to Miners Fall.  A beautiful tea colored cascading waterfall.  The tea color comes from a wetland root found nearby.  We stopped at various points along the lakeshore to admire the colorful 200 foot sandstone cliffs on the shore of Lake Superior.  The combination of the clear, blue water of the lake against the many shaded colors of the sandstone cliff was pretty as a picture and made it easy to see how the area got its name.  We also hiked a path along the tea colored Munising Creek to Munising Creek Falls.  All this tea colored water was making me crave a sweet tea.  Instead we headed back to camp for dinner and a few cold ones to plan our adventure for the next day.

It started raining again overnight and the temperature was quite a bit cooler and damper then we had expected but it didn’t stop us from enjoying our second day in the UP. We really wanted to do a glass bottom boat tour and explore the shipwrecks that were laying on the rocky bottom of Lake Superior.  We booked a two hour tour through Glass Bottom Shipwreck tours for the afternoon, put on some warm clothes and our raincoats and headed out for the day.  The Shipwreck tour was awesome! The rainy weather kept a lot of people at bay and we had the whole top of the boat to ourselves as we rode the waves out to the shipwrecks.  We passed by Grand Island, caves, and colorful sandstone cliffs.  The boat paused so we could take pictures of a weathered old lighthouse, and then we reached the first shipwreck.  We went below deck and everyone gathered around the glass bottom viewing area to watch as we passed over the wreckage and listened to the tour guide.  Lake Superior is so clear it’s just like looking into an aquarium and we were easily able to view the wreckage.  The tour guides were funny and informative and we really enjoyed the whole experience. At the end of the boat ride the tour guide recommended trying a pasty for dinner.  Pasty shops are found everywhere in the UP and we decided we should really try out the local food.  A pasty is a puff pastry filled with different combinations of meat, potatoes, and veggies.  You can also get fruit filled.  For our first pasty experience we went to Muldoon’s Pasties and we were not disappointed.  We ordered a chicken pasty, a beef pasty, and a veggie pasty with a side of gravy to go and took them back to The Cramper.  It was the best comfort food and so filling and perfect for a cool rainy evening.  My only regret was that we didn’t an apple pasty for dessert.  All in all our first stop in the UP was a great success and our eastern leg of our trip was off to a perfect start.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP

20170605_130746After our Indiana Jones experience at Mesa Verde we had one more stop to make on our Utah/Colorado Loop Tour, Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was a scenic four hour drive up route 145 through the San Juan National Forest.  We passed beautiful snowy peaked mountains, forests of tall trees, and rolling meadows.  We came across the mountain town of Telluride and decided to stop and take a peek. We heard it was pretty fabulous and wanted to get a look at the ski resort.  The town didn’t disappoint.  Driving down Main Street I felt like we had entered a storybook town.  The houses all looked like freshly painted Victorian cottages the color of Easter eggs, and were maintained to a tee.  Yards were mowed and manicured, with no sign of junk or clutter. Bicycles of all vintages and colors were parked by the porches.  Bikes seemed not only the preferred method of getting around town in the summer, but also moving works of art proudly rode about by their owners.  The more unique the paint job the better.  Main Street was quaint and filled with shops, restaurants, and food carts.  Giant rectangular flower boxes filled with colorful blooms sat right in the middle of Main Street dividing the two lanes of traffic.  Every few blocks there was puppy parking for patrons to tie up their furry friends while they shopped or dined.  As we drove down Main Street to the end of town we were delighted by the sight of Bridal Veil Falls cascading down the box canyon. It was a fantastical display of the power of water, dropping down 365 feet. After gazing at the waterfall we headed back into the main part of town, parked and walked over to the base of the ski resort which dumps right into town.  We grabbed some ice cream from a food cart vendor and sat down on a bench to enjoy people watching and take in the scenic surroundings.  On our way back to the truck we stopped in a real estate office to see what it would cost to live in the magical town.  We laughed as we realized we would need a pot of gold to be home owners in the storybook town of Telluride. We jumped in the truck to head towards our more realistic camp for the night.

For our visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison we opted to camp at Crawford State Park. For $18 a night we camped right on a lake and were treated to stunning mountain views, hot showers, and clean bathrooms.  We were located a short drive to the North Rim of the Black Canyon where we planned on hiking the next morning.  Being that it was a weekday there were only 3 other campers in the park making for a quiet, secluded camping experience.  We had a peaceful night watching loons fishing for their dinner on the lake and a rainbow poking over the mountain top.

The next morning we got up and broke camp and headed to the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The weather was perfect for hiking! We filled up our Camel Back packs, grabbed our bear spray and sunscreen and set off.  We planned on driving home later that day so we hiked the North Vista Trail to Exclamation Point, which ended up being 3 miles round trip.  For a longer hike we could have continued up to Green Mountain for a 7 mile round trip hike.  The hike to Exclamation Point contained numerous wildflowers and wound through juniper tree forest, oak and sage brush.  We came across several plants that looked like they had white spray paint on them, but it was just the way the plants were made.  It reminded me of when I was a kid and my grandmother went through a phase where she spray painted everything white.  She would take candle sconces out into the yard and lay them on the grass to spray them down with white paint and the grass looked exactly like these plants we saw when she was done.

As we wound our way through the juniper forest the trail took us to different overlooks on the rim. The sight of Black Canyon is breathtaking.  The dark craggy rocks of the canyon look like they should be home to Count Dracula.  I expected to see his castle nestled in the side of the canyon at any moment.  The walls of the canyon were steep and unforgiving. A fall here would be death for sure.  The Gunnison River flowed through the bottom of the canyon at a rapid pace.  It was crazy to stand on the rocky edge of the canyon and know that it was carved over time by the river moving far below.  We made our way to Exclamation Point and it was easy to see how the area got its name.  The view stretched for miles, both down into the canyon and across to the other rim.  It’s not a spot for the faint hearted.  Being perched so high above a canyon so scarred and rough looking is a dizzying sensation.  Ryan was brave and sat on a rock right next to the edge to get snapshots of the river raging at the bottom.  Unlike many National Parks we visited Black Canyon had few visitors that day.  We had Exclamation Point all to ourselves for a bit and we sat and enjoyed the views and solitude for a while before making our way back to the truck.

This was our last stop on our Colorado/Utah Loop Tour and we had about a five hour drive back to Fraser. Our drive back was the icing on top of an already sweet trip.  We passed through Grand Mesa National Forest and were delighted by the surprise waterfalls along the way.  We had to stop several times to check out raging creeks and waterfalls bursting with the runoff from the melting snow of mountain peaks.  We arrived home, happy, sun-burned, and satisfied that we’d managed to cross off five more National Parks from our list.   It was time to start preparing to say goodbye to Colorado for the summer and get ready to take the Cramper out East for more adventures.

Mesa Verde

We were sad to leave Utah but ready to beat the heat and head back towards the cooler temperatures of the mountains. Continuing our Colorado/Utah Loop Tour we left Moab and drove to southwest Colorado to check out Mesa Verde National Park.  During the short 2 hour drive the scenery of red rocks began to get greener and the mountains in the distance got bigger.  Since the drive was short we planned on checking out the park and then settling into a free boondocking spot I found on Campendium.  At the last minute I decided to see if they had any camping available in the park for the night.  Sometimes it’s really difficult to find camping in the National Parks if you don’t have a reservation.

I pulled up the website and we were in luck! There was camping available but it was going to cost $32 to tent camp for one night. Wowza that’s expensive! We rarely paid that much in our camper and if we did the site usually had water and electric too. Then I read about their really nice bathrooms and shower house and decided after a week of not really having a decent shower $32 sounded pretty reasonable.  We paid our $32 and listened to a lecture on making sure we followed camping procedures for bear country. The lady obviously didn’t know she was talking to the biggest follower of bear country rules ever.  I follow every guideline and am never without bear spray in bear country.  I have an insane obsession with reading about bear attacks and an absolute terror of being eaten by one.  I blame my good buddy Kaci for introducing the book When Humans become Prey into my life.  I also believe strongly that we as humans are responsible for allowing wild animals to stay wild.  The best way to do that is by ensuring animals don’t get comfortable around humans and human food.  The park rangers always say a fed bear is a dead bear.  I will do my part to keep the bears away so they can have long happy lives.

A cool thing about Mesa Verde National Park is their visitor center is located before you enter the park. Visitors can actually go inside and look around at the art and exhibits before paying to enter.  If you are in the area with a little time to kill but not enough to see the park, stop in and take a look around.  They have wonderful exhibits there! I’ve talked before about how the National Parks don’t just protect land and wildlife but they preserve history as well. Mesa Verde is all about the history.  The park preserves over 5,000 archeological sites, 600 of which are cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo People that lived in the area from 600 AD to 1300 AD.  The visitor center is full of artifacts and beautiful pottery that has been recovered from the sites.  Visitors can purchase tickets to tour some of the cliff dwellings with a ranger.  The tours only cost $5 per person and are totally worth it!  The cliff dwellings are literally located on the sides of cliffs and require climbing huge ladders and crawling through some small spaces.  It’s not for people afraid of heights and I’m definitely not a fan, but there was no way I was passing up the opportunity to be Indiana Jones for the day! Visitors can tour Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House.  We purchased tickets for the last tour of the day of Balcony House.

We set up our camp and then started driving towards Balcony House, it’s about an hour drive from the campground inside the park. We stopped at several viewpoints along the way and were able to look across the canyon and see dwellings on the cliffs opposite us.  These structures are insane!  They are located in openings in the cliffs hundreds of feet down from the edge above.   A whole community of people lived in these cliff side structures and had to scale the walls to reach the land above.  It’s amazing to look at and think of how they had to go about getting food and supplies down into areas to live.  It’s also crazy to me how many people would live in these tight knit areas.  What if you were born into one of these families but were afraid of heights? I would never have survived climbing in and out of these places on a daily basis.  There are also many above ground archeological sites that we were able to hike to and around that were very interesting.  The cliff dwellings were really the star of the show for me though.

The last tour group of the day was small and our Ranger was able to really talk at length and show us some cool parts of the Balcony house you may not see on larger tours. My main advice if you visit is don’t look down and really don’t look behind you while on the ladders!  The pictures are the best way to describe this place so I hope you enjoy them!

After our day of being Indiana Jones we headed back to camp for a simple dinner of chips and sandwiches and then headed to the shower house. It was amazing!!! My favorite kind where you have your own room you can lock yourself in and plenty of space to put your stuff and dry off after.  The best part was the diagram showing that it was for showering only, not pooping. I absolutely love all the crazy signs we come across in our travels!

Mesa Verde is a special place and their facilities are top notch. Besides camping they also have a lodge, restaurant, and a huge gift shop that offers a café and groceries for sell.  They even have laundry services available.  We didn’t need them this time, but when we are on the road full time it is really nice to do laundry where you camp. The views here are awesome too.  If you’re planning on being in the Southwest Colorado area or even Moab, put it on your list and go be like Indiana Jones for a day, you won’t be disappointed!

Arches and Canyonlands

During the western leg of our road trip in the fall of 2016 we spent our time in Utah exploring the Wasatch Mountains and Zion National Park. We really wanted to make sure we made it back to see Arches and Canyonlands National Park in Moab, and our spring Colorado/Utah Loop Tour seemed like the perfect time.  From Dinosaur National Monument it was only about a 3 and 1/2 hour drive down to Moab.

Our first order of business was to find a campsite and get set up. I turned to the trusty Campendium website to see what our options were.  I came across Horsethief campground on route 313, about a 20 minute drive from Moab and basically right in between Arches and Canyonlands.  The campground had mountain bike trails weaving through and around it.  It really reminded me of the Flintstones and I expected Fred or Barney to come flying around a corner in their foot powered cars.  For $15 a night the location was perfect.  We selected a site with a big bush in an attempt to get a bit of a break from the sun and heat. A slight downfall was the only bathroom option was a pit/vault toilet and there were no showers.  I desperately needed one after Dinosaur not having one either and several warm days of hiking. I sorely missed the Cramper at that moment.  I bravely walked over to the pit toilet and opened the door already terrified of what smell might greet me, and was surprised to find a pine tree.  You know the little green car air-freshener kind.  And it was spotless inside.  Whoever was in charge of keeping up the bathroom at the campground should get a gold star! One predicament down. Next, how and where to shower? We brought our solar shower along and it was definitely hot enough to use it but there really wasn’t anywhere private enough.  I had looked online and discovered we could use the showers at the aquatic center in Moab for $5.  We needed to grab some groceries and wanted to check out the town anyway so into Moab we went.  I had a shower and while it was good I opted to let Ryan rig up the solar shower at camp the next time.  It’s amazing what can be done with a tall truck, the rain cover for your tent, and truck doors that open backwards.  Privacy issue solved.

Moab is a really cool town.  Lots of funky shops and restaurants sprinkled with the typical McDonald’s and grocery store chains.  The scenery is gorgeous red rocks and everyone is really tan.  We spent our first full day exploring Arches National Park.  Arches is called Arches because it is home to over 2,000 natural stone arches.  Some of these arches are insanely huge and some are really tiny, but they all count.  As far as National Parks go, Arches is on the smaller side and can easily be seen in a day, especially if you want to do small hikes.  There are lots of great long hikes too if your prepared with lots of water for the high desert climate.  We drove to the end of the scenic drive and then worked our way back stopping to hike the Broken Arch Trail, the Double Arch Trail, the Garden of Eden, and other famous Arches.  Mother Nature really did some fabulous work here! All day I felt like I was in some massive sculpture garden.  It amazed me all the different ways the wind and time have carved not only the arches but the pillars and giant balancing rocks too.

After a full day at Arches we went back to our camp and did a couple loops on our bikes around the trails there. Once the sun started to set the temperature really started to cool down and was perfect for an evening bike ride.  As I was sitting around the camp I was treated to the sight of a huge jack rabbit bounding out of a bush.  It was so big I thought it was a baby deer at first and then saw the back legs were definitely rabbit legs.  That night we awoke in our tent to the sound of rustling outside.  I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I had verified nothing was trying to eat me, so I popped out of the tent with a flashlight looking for the intruder.  It ended up being just the wind but I’m so grateful it woke us at 3:30am because the night sky was the most amazing one I have ever seen in my life!  There was no light pollution and the stars were so bright and plentiful they covered every inch of the sky. I could see the Milky Way with such depth and clarity like never before, it was truly mesmerizing.  I told Ryan to come out and we just stared up at the night sky.

The next morning we set out for Island in the Sky Visitor Center. Canyonlands is divided into four areas: Island in the Sky, the Needles, The Rivers, and the Maze. The canyons and rivers make it really difficult to visit all four areas in a single trip so we picked the area closest to our campsite to explore.  The Island in the Sky area is a primitive high desert climate and has some daunting trails and overlooks on the edges of the canyons.  We hiked along the Great Rim Overlook trail.  The canyon views go on forever.  Even though it was a shorter trail, there was no shade and the heat from the sun was pretty intense. We found ourselves rationing our water and stopping frequently for breaks on the way back.  My sunscreen was a distant memory for my skin by the time we reached the parking lot again and I earned a nice sunburn on my shoulders.  It’s always a good reminder to be really prepared when you set out on any trail no matter how short it is or how good of shape you are in. The elements can easily wear you down.  The most amazing thing to me, besides the beauty of the canyons, was the vegetation that grows there.  Small trees and shrubs and vibrant cactus flowers dot the landscape.  Mother Nature always finds a way to cut through the rock and beautify the landscape.  If we make it back to Canyonlands again I really want to do a back country 4-wheel drive trip on White Rim Road.  It is this crazy road that goes down into the wilderness of the canyon.  It would be awesome with a group of people to really get away from civilization and into the desolation of the canyon.  It’s popular for mountain bikers too, but the thought of climbing out of the canyon by bike makes me think I don’t need that particular adventure on my bucket list.

So glad we decided to visit Utah again, it’s such a beautiful and diverse state. There are still some areas I would like to explore there and I really want to get back to Zion sometime.  One day was not enough there.  If you head to Moab make the time to see both Arches and Canyonlands.  Pack your sunscreen and plenty of water and enjoy the adventure and beauty of the high desert!

Dinosaur National Monument

Right after Memorial Day this year we decided to embark on a tent camping adventure around Colorado and Utah. We had just received our new National Park Pass in the mail and were eager to put it to use.  Our mission was to visit five National Parks in ten days: Dinosaur National Monument, Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  It would create a perfect loop from our starting point in Fraser and allow us to really explore parts of Colorado and Utah we had never seen.  We loaded our cooler, camping equipment, and our bikes into the truck and set off towards our first destination, Green River Campground on the Utah side of Dinosaur National Monument.

The campground was only four and half hours away so we decided to stop and see a waterfall in Steamboat Springs on our way and have a picnic lunch. We are so glad we did!  Practically located in town is Fish Creek Falls, a 280 foot waterfall that cascades over Fish Creek Canyon.  We parked and then walked an easy 3/4 of a mile to the falls.  It was in full splendor from the spring runoff and the sound was so loud we had to practically shout at each other to talk.  The trails are set up so visitors can get an up-close and personal view of the falls and also a distant view from above.  We enjoyed both before heading back to the truck for a quick tailgate lunch of ham sandwiches and veggies before hitting the road to our campsite.

We had plenty of time to get to camp and get set up before dark, or so we thought. As we started making our way toward the Utah/Colorado Boarder, heavy flumes of smoke began rising in the air.  When we arrived at the boarder we found it closed off by state troopers due to a forest fire that had erupted near the highway unexpectedly.  The troopers thought it might be controlled enough in a few hours to pass through, or we could take a long route around to reach our destination that would also take a few hours.  Dinosaur is located partially in Colorado and partially in Utah and we had only planned on seeing the Utah side.  We thought this seemed like a good opportunity to visit the Colorado side for a few hours and hoped the road would be open later so we could make it to camp for the night.  The Colorado side of the park had some really cool rock formations, and lots of fields with deer grazing.  We enjoyed a nice drive and then headed to the boarder to find it open.  As we drove to camp we could see lots of brush smoldering off the highway and many firefighters working to ensure the blaze was fully contained.

When we entered the Utah side of Dinosaur I felt like we had just entered Jurassic Park! The rock formations were incredible geological structures jutting out of the earth and the Green River flowed through areas with low formed trees and greenery.  It felt like a dinosaur might show up at any moment!  We made our way to camp and got our tent pitched just as darkness was falling.  Our campground was right on the river with towering rocks as a backdrop.  We crawled into our tent and crashed for the night excited to see big fossils the next day.

The next morning we drove to the visitor center and took a shuttle bus to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. The Quarry Exhibit Hall was built around a large cliff that has over 1500 exposed fossils embedded in it from many different dinosaurs. We spent the morning marveling at fossils of the Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and many others. We also found out that there were several complete skeletons that had been excavated in the area and moved to big museums so more people could see them.  We were excited to learn that one was in Denver and another at the Smithsonian Museum of Science and History in Washington D.C., both places we planned on visiting soon.  It would be really cool to see the fossils in person and also know what the land looked like where they came from.

After a morning of fossils we decided to continue our history tour and hike to some places we could see ancient Petroglyphs and Pictographs carved and painted into the rocks by the Fremont People about 1,000 years ago. It is kind of awe inspiring and mindboggling to stand in front of a rock and look at artwork on stone and know other people in ancient times had stood in the same spot and created it.  It’s interesting to think about what their lives were like and how they compare to ours now.  It is one thing to read about Petroglyphs in history books, but to see them in person is truly spectacular.  That’s why it is so important to support our National Parks, they protect not just lands and wildlife, but they preserve history.

We concluded our day by watching sunset from a perch high above the Green River with a cold beer. Dinosaur was a wonderful first stop on our loop tour.  Happy and tired we climbed into our tent and fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing by, thinking about dinosaurs and ancient people, anticipating our next adventure into Arches and Canyonlands.

Rocky Mountain High

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Hey everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. It’s been a really long time since I posted about our travels! After touring the east coast this summer with the Cramper we have settled back down in Fraser, Colorado for our second winter. Why do we keep returning to Grand County Colorado you ask? The simple answer is the beauty, the fun, and the laid back mountain vibe. The area averages 245 sunny days a year which is good for the soul and for playing outdoors. We have big, snowy peaked mountains, lush forests, babbling brooks, clear rivers, and deep lakes full of colorful trout.  In the winter we get oodles of snow that coat the trees and freeze over the lakes, turning the outdoors into a majestic winter wonderland of sparkling ice and fluffy white snow. In the spring Mud Season descends as the snow melts and the ice thaws causing the rivers to rage and rise.  Summer brings colorful mountain wildflowers and long sunny days.  Fall is full of fiery aspen trees set against mountain backdrops.  I could go on and on about how beautiful it is here but I’ll let our photos do the talking.

Instead, I will talk about how FUN it is here! No matter what season it is, there is tons to do in Grand County Colorado.  Out our front door we have access to the Fraser River Trail which starts at one end of town and runs alongside the Fraser River over to the little tourist town of Winter Park, then it winds through Idlewild Campground, and over to Winter Park Ski Resort.  The trail meanders past lakes with swimming beavers, geese, ducks, and through a forest of delicious smelling Lodge Pole Pine Trees.  If you are lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) you may run into a moose or a deer.  It’s a great place to walk, run, or ride bikes during the warmer months and is used for crossed country skiing, fat biking, and snowy walks in the winter months.  A short drive or good bike ride away is the Fraser Experimental Forest.  It is the perfect spot to mountain bike with trails for riders of any skill level. It’s also a beautiful place for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and just meandering through the woods.  We’ve done some really great challenging hikes in the area, like to the top of Byers Peak, the mountain we can see from the front window of our cute little condo.

About 40 minutes away at the Town of Grand Lake is the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. If you like to view wildlife, hike, or just enjoy a scenic view Rocky Mountain NP is a must see. You will truly feel like you are on top of the world here! We spent an hour there this fall just listening to the elk bugle during the rut.  Grand Lake, the Arapahoe National Forest, and Granby Lake are also nearby with superb fishing, hiking, and camping.  I don’t plan on trying ice fishing myself anytime soon, but there are always people out on the lakes in the winter. There’s also snowmobiling and sleigh rides in the winter, hot air balloon rides, and heart pumping white water rafting nearby in the summer.

I haven’t even touched on Winter Park Ski Resort! With 24 lifts, 168 trails, and over 3000 acres of space it’s an amazing winter playground.  The resort is divided into seven different territories, each one giving the rider a different unique experience. We spent most of our ski time last winter on Mary Jane Mountain trying out the moguls, and escaping the crowds in the laid back area of Vasquez Ridge.  The views are amazing going up the lifts and equally amazing coming down the slopes. In the summer it is a mecca for Mountain bikers.  Riders and their bikes take the lifts to the top and then bomb down the mountain for an adrenaline rush. For those that don’t like to ski or bike there is a tubing hill in the winter, an alpine slide in the summer, lots of shops, restaurants, and a spa or two.  No matter what season it is the town makes it really easy to get around and take advantage of happy hour with free buses running all day. Between the town trails, our bikes, and the bus our truck is getting a well deserved break from carting us and the Cramper all over the country.

If you are thinking about your next vacation, come give Grand County and the Fraser Valley a try, it’s a great place to get outside and feed your soul. Come visit and we’ll show you how to play like a local!

Western Wrap Up

We’ve been out of the Cramper and in our little condo in Fraser, Colorado for several months now, so I better wrap up our Western Road Trip!  Instead of my usual long-winded blog posts on our adventures, I’m going to do this the way we did this final part of the trip-quickly.  We moved so fast through the rest of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas that most mornings I wasn’t totally sure what state we were in, and I definitely didn’t know what time zone we were in! So here we go!

Arizona- We camped for free at the Crystal Forest Gift Shop outside the entrance to the Petrified Forest National Park.  We hiked through fields of Petrified Wood, saw some really cool hieroglyphics from ancient civilizations, and continued on to the Painted Desert National Park.  The parks are pretty much connected so you can’t see one without the other.  We hiked through huge dunes of multiple colors and enjoyed the serenity of this not very visited park.

New Mexico- An exploration of the stars above and the caverns below.  We camped for five dollars at beautiful Datil Well Campground just outside of Pie Town.  Yes we did see several places there to get pie but we were on a mission to see the Very Large Array Astronomical Radio Observatory.  Made up of 27 gigantic radio antennas spread out over 22 miles the VLA captures radio waves from space that are then transformed into images.  Very cool! Next stop was camping at Bottomless Lakes State Park just outside Roswell, because you can’t go to Mexico without stopping in Roswell to learn about the aliens!  Skeptical? Check out the museum, it just might make you a believer!  From Roswell we cruised south to camp for free in a field of cows about 15 minutes from Carlsbad Cavern National Park.  Probably one of the coolest places we went!  We hiked into the mouth of the cave and 2 miles down into the cavern to see some of nature’s best art work.  Lighted by soft white lights and smelling like a damp basement, the caverns are a must see if your in the area.  If we would have been there a few weeks before we could have seen thousands of bats fly out of the caverns at sunset. Unfortunately they had already migrated for the year. Maybe next time!

Texas- We were crunched for time so we made one stop in Texas and spent two nights at Lake Arrowhead State Park.  It was really nice campground and had lots of prairie dogs running around barking and looking cute.  The best part was it smelled like fresh-cut grass, and the Midwest, and home! We saw our first rattlesnake while we were cruising around on bikes, probably why they kept the grass so short.  We enjoyed good hot showers and gorgeous sunsets over the lake.

Oklahoma- We drove through on an expensive road called an interstate (we generally avoided these on our trip) and paid their tolls on the way from Texas to Arkansas.  It looked lovely though.

Arkansas- We spent two nights in Arkansas at Lake Dardanelle State Park.  It was a popular spot with the locals and I could see why.  It was right on the water with a nice park next to it and really close to restaurants.  We arrived at dark after a long drive day.  We spent our day getting a new tube for a bike tire and enjoying some local BBQ.  While we ate pulled pork, peach cobbler, and twice baked potato salad (amazing!) people were dropping off turkeys to have them smoked for Thanksgiving.  After lunch we fixed the bike and took a ride around the park.   A short but sweet stay.

Carbondale, IL- Last stop before home to see our friends and family! As graduates of Southern Illinois University we were super stoked to stop at a place so familiar.  We camped in Giant City State Park, went hiking, and cheered on our Salukis at a basketball game.  And of course we went to Quattro’s’ for their famous deep pan pizza!  No trip to Carbondale is complete without it.  I could go on forever about the fun stuff to do and what I love about Southern Illinois, but I said this would be a short post, and you will probably hear more on this place from us in the future.

Home- After 4 months and 12,000 miles we pulled back into Pekin, Illinois for the holidays.  No matter where our travels take us, Pekin will always be home to us.  Home is where your Mom’s are.

Beautiful Sedona

Oh Sedona! Wonderful, beautiful, mysterious Sedona!  I am so excited to finally write this post.  We visited Sedona the first week of November and it ranks up there in my top 5 favorite places we’ve traveled.  It’s not easy getting into my top 5 just because of how many spectacular places we’ve been on our travels but Sedona has it all.  Beautiful scenery, a great town, hiking, mountain biking, wonderful people, fantastic weather, and delicious food make for an all round great place to visit.

We spent four nights boondocking just outside of Sedona on Angel Valley Road.  We found our site on Campendium.com (as usual).  Angel Valley was a little different from many of our other boondocking spots, mostly because it was just a road that people camped on the side of, often very closely together.  Generally boondockers like to spread out and get privacy, but for a free camping spot just outside Sedona, it was worth it to be friendly with the neighbors.  The view from our campsite was amazing and I was delighted to be awoken by the sound of Hot Air Balloons outside in the morning.  One of the magical pieces of camping is you never really know what is going to be outside your door when you wake up!

Sedona is home to lots of funky shops and art galleries.  We spent a lovely afternoon strolling through used book shops, gift shops, and tea shops.  With the local art scene being huge there is tons of homemade candles, glass art, soaps, and sculptures to take in.  Sedona is also known for it’s magnetic vortexes making it a mecca for people seeking healing energies and a popular place for yoga and other practices that are good for the body and soul. While we were mountain biking we kept passing through areas with a lot of people hanging out on the rocks doing yoga, we later discovered it was a major vortex area. While we didn’t feel anything particular ourselves, I have to say the overall feel of the area is good energy.

For the outdoor enthusiast there is oodles of things to do!  We spent a memorable day mountain biking the Bell Rock Pathway trail system in the Coconino National Forest.  Some trail systems have a small users fee and this was one of those but we were happy to find out our America the Beautiful National Park Pass worked here as well.  We geared up and hit the trails.  I can’t say enough about the beautiful scenery here.  The towering red rocks against the bright blue sky, and the many colored cacti made for a gorgeous scenic ride.  Of course just when I started to feel comfortable mountain biking, let’s add huge cacti to the trails.  And I mean HUGE!  Big, pointy, bush like monsters of cacti that I would hate to wreck into.  The trails we rode were marked beginner but I think Sedona has a different idea of what beginning mountain biking looks like.  Tons of rock scrambles, and other technical riding obstacles abounded on the trails.  I spent more time off my bike then on it.  It was still an awesome ride and I would do it again.

Red Rocks State Park was a really short drive from our campsite and we spent a day hiking the many trails there.  A different experience from Bell Rock, there were meadows, trees, and a creek nestled among the red rocks.  At one point we came across a huge oak tree and I almost teared up at the site of the massive tree and big leafy branches.  We had been in the desert so long I had forgotten how much I missed trees! Red Rocks offers amazing views of Cathedral Rock,  Three Sisters, and many other rock formations.  After hiking we were starving and decided to try out some local cuisine.  We grabbed supreme tamales at Tamazila Café and wow were they good!  Probably one of the best things I have ate on the entire trip.  Tamazila has a very small menu, tamales and chili rellenos only, but it’s a classic example of when you make one thing really well, you don’t have to make anything else.  Our tamales were fresh made and piled high with black beans, spinach, guacamole, sour cream and a homemade green salsa.  So good it’s making me hungry writing about it.

If your thinking about your next vacation spot, especially a winter getaway, throw Sedona into the conversation. You won’t be disappointed!

One Night Stands

 

 

 

On our travels sometimes we needed a place to stop for just one night to break up a long drive in between destinations.  Some of these stops have ended up being in really fantastic scenic locations and we had a hard time saying goodbye in the morning.  Here’s a few of our favorite one night stands:

  1. Mojave National Preserve- We camped for a night at free spot called Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert.  A beautiful spot behind a big rock with a giant white cross Veterans Memorial. Near our campsite there were huge lava tubes we climbed on and took our big binoculars to scan the area for wildlife.  I only saw some desert rabbits but the sunset was amazing and it was very peaceful.     On our way into Mojave we passed a huge solar project out in the desert, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.  Really neat to see how scientists and engineers try to harvest the desert sunlight into usable energy. It was an excellent stopover on our way to Death Valley from the Grand Canyon. 

     

  2. Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern CA- Our climb out of Death Valley took a lot longer than we expected and as the sun was setting we were still almost five hours from our previously picked out destination for the evening.  We saw the sign for Red Rock Canyon and made the decision to stop for the evening since it had been a really long day.  We pulled in and found a brand new campground surrounded with scenery reminiscent of the Flintstones.  There were hardly any other campers there so we picked an easy pull through site and got out the camera to get some shots of the interesting rock formations and the gorgeous sunset.  After a really rough day on the road it felt like an oasis in the desert just for us right when we needed it most.  A piece of road trip magic bestowed on us from the travel gods.

     

  3. Saddle Mountain, Tonopah AZ- We needed a one night stopover in between Joshua Tree National Park and Sedona, AZ.  If we are stopping for just a night I still try to find something interesting to do in the area if we have time.  I started looking at Campendium.com for a boondocking spot and came across Saddle Mountain.  It had five star reviews and was right on our path to Sedona.  What really caught my eye in the reviews was that the El Dorado Hot Springs were just a few minutes from the campground.  A hot soak sounded awesome and they had private soaking spots for $15 per person for an hour.  I called and made a reservation for a private soak for two at sunset and we headed to Saddle Mountain. The site was great! It was free, and we were the only campers there. Also, there were tons of huge Saguaro Cacti everywhere!  We walked around the area taking pictures of the huge cacti and then went to the El Dorado for an awesome soak.  The El Dorado Hot Springs had a rustic 70’s vibe with chickens, cats, and peacocks running around.  The soaking tubs were separated by old fences and the tubs had amazing hot spring water flowing into them.  They also had an outdoor shower for people to use when they were done soaking, which we took full advantage of since we had been using the camper shower a lot recently.  It was a very rustic outdoor shower with just a string and occupied sign to keep people from walking in on you and only the open air above.  The stars were out and they had lots of twinkle lights in the trees and the whole experience just made my soul happy. 

     

    The true magic of the road really came to life in the unexpected places we happened across on the way.  They always showed us we were on the right path and let us know we needed to keep going, there is always more to see, explore and experience.