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!

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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.

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.