Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 5: Back to the Boonies

We last left off in Phoenix, having dropped off our rental car and heading away after our 2-week stay in primarily urban settings.

Nov 26-27 (Monday, Tuesday): We drove north from Phoenix, past Flagstaff and on toward Winslow, AZ. The drive was very interesting as the highway climbed into the mountains, leaving the cactus plants behind in favor of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. It was tough going for the RV – we would pass a truck lumbering along at a snail’s pace on the uphill sections only to have it barrel past at lightning speed on the next downhill – and we got about the worst mileage of any stretch yet at just under 14 mpg. (On relatively level stretches traveling at 70 mph or less we’ve regularly topped 16 mpg, and occasionally have exceeded 17.) As we left Flagstaff behind, the terrain once again reverted to the type of desert we’ve been seeing for the most part, sparsely populated with scrub brush and cactus. Our day’s destination was the Meteor Crater RV Park, where we booked a spot for two nights ($36 per night with Good Sam discount for full hookup, wi-fi, and shower facilities – probably the best showers we’ve had yet).

On Tuesday we drove about 75 miles to the Petrified Forest National Park, once again being admitted for free with my Senior Pass. Here we found yet another stunning display of Mother Nature’s artwork. We drove through the large park on the main road, stopping for several overlooks and two nice hikes. The first hike was a short, easy walk along the Giant Logs trail, near the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center. Beautiful, stone trees, 2-3 feet in diameter, their former fibrous materials transformed into agates millions of years ago, litter the desert floor. Most have broken into nearly uniform lengths of about 4 feet, giving the impression of having been sawn into stone logs by some giant, prehistoric mason. There are also several longer, unbroken segments, however, including one measuring 35 feet. Our second hike followed the Blue Mesa Trail, a 2-mile round trip down into and around a gorgeous canyon, featuring stunning vistas of blue-tinted sandstone badlands surrounding a floor which sports a number of petrified logs. We also stopped to see Newspaper Rock, which consists of two large boulders featuring hundreds of petroglyphs, and the remnants of an ancestral Puebloan village from about 1380, called Puerco Pueblo. Our brief visit to this amazing National Park was truly fascinating.

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On the way back to the RV Park, we stopped for dinner in Winslow. Naturally, I had to spend a moment “standing on a corner,” but apparently I was NOT “such a fine sight to see,” as there was no “girl … in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me”. (Are there any Eagles fans reading this?) Pat and I commiserated over this sad reality with excellent hamburgers at the RelicRoad Brew Pub, where my spirits were once again lifted by a Nitro Polygamy Stout, a specialty of the pub. As a side note, I have never seen as many semitrailer trucks as we encountered while driving on I40 to and from the National Park. The trucks made up at least 90% of the traffic, and the rest stop near Winslow was crammed with 50 or more parked trucks. This busy road used to be the famous Route 66 from Florida to California, and this history was prominently featured in Winslow.

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It got a bit chilly overnight at the RV Park – not that 22 degrees should frighten any true Minnesotan, but we have to be somewhat careful about freezing the water in the RV’s tanks. We also saw that snow was forecast for the area in the coming days, so we decided to hightail it out of there and head west in the morning.

Nov 28-29-(Wednesday, Thursday): Wednesday morning dawned to reveal clear, beautiful, bright blue skies. Before heading for warmer climes, we drove 6 miles to the famous Arizona Meteor Crater. This giant depression was formed about 50,000 years ago by a house-sized meteor that crashed into the desert. An impressive museum has been erected at the site, with extensive displays explaining the crater’s history. After viewing the various exhibits and watching a 20-minute movie, we went outside to see the giant hole and were duly impressed.

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As we drove west again after our crater visit, the wind began to howl, nearly blowing the RV off the highway a few times. Feeling somewhat rattled from the drive, we stopped for a two-hour visit at the Walnut Canyon National Monument just outside Flagstaff. This beautiful, steep-walled canyon was home to hundreds of cliff dwelling Pueblo people some 800 years ago. We took an excellent trail from the Visitor Center down into the canyon, where we enjoyed the spectacular scenery and explored remnants of the ancient village homes. (As with so much of the infrastructure in the National Parks and Monuments, the trail and Visitor Center were very well built by CCC workers in the 1930s.)

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After vising Walnut Canyon, we headed west again to our revised destination, Bullhead City, AZ. On the way from Flagstaff (6900 ft elevation) we drove through many mountain passes, descending and climbing and descending again, eventually dropping to 540 ft in Bullhead City. This relatively sleepy city lies along the banks of the Colorado River, directly across from Laughlin, NV, home to 8 or 10 hotel casinos and an 1880s style riverboat casino. We checked into the Silver View RV Resort, situated on a hill overlooking the river, and the bright lights of Laughlin were very pretty at night. The RV resort ran us $22 per night complete with full hookups (50% Passport America discount), showers, and a nice on-site deli. It was easy to bike around to the restrooms and the deli, where I enjoyed a Nathan’s hot dog on Thursday before it started raining. We loafed around all day on Thursday, pleased to be getting only rain rather than the snow that fell back in the Winslow area.

Nov 30-Dec 3 (Friday – Monday): On Friday, we took off for the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, about 65 miles NNW from Bullhead City. While sitting around in the rain on Thursday, we had booked three nights at the Lake Mead RV Village ($35 a night with Good Sam discount for full RV hookups, showers, laundry, on-site store, wi-fi, and 40 channels of cable TV). It was a nice enough place, but upon arrival we discovered an NPS campground right next door, with beautiful sites but no power, water, or other amenities, where we could boondock for only $10 a night with my Senior Pass. So, after doing laundry at the RV Village on Saturday, we cancelled out of the third night and moved next door.

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We made very good use of our bikes, as there was a bike trail running along the main entrance road and the campgrounds were located between that road and another paved road. We rode a couple of miles on the bike trail Saturday, all uphill, seemingly both ways, and we had to ride into a near gale force wind, again seemingly both ways. I know that couldn’t really be true, but my aching legs sure felt like it. On Sunday we took the other road and went to the marina/harbor to catch a Lake Mead boat cruise. This involved a very loooong, thrilling downhill coast after riding about a mile parallel to the lakeshore. That part was great fun; unfortunately, we paid for it ten times over coming back up the hill – my legs resembled spaghetti noodles for an hour after we got back. But the cruise was well worth the pain, with stunning views of the lake, the surrounding mountains, and a unique view of the Hoover Dam.

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Dec 4-6 (Tuesday-Thursday): After loafing around at Lake Mead for another day on Monday, we pulled up stakes and headed west again, winding our way up and down through lovely mountain passes, making for a very pleasant 150-mile drive to Death Valley National Park. We stayed for two nights at the Furnace Creek campground ($11 per night with Senior Pass for a flat, paved boondocking site) and another night at the Stovepipe Wells campground ($7 per night with Senior Pass for a flat, gravel site). Death Valley was the biggest surprise of the trip so far. I’d envisioned a flat, sand covered wasteland – after all, the place barely gets 4 inches of rain per year. (Interestingly enough in this arid land, it rained for much of the day on Thursday.) We weren’t prepared for the beauty and the contrasts we actually found there. On the way in, we descended from a 3000 ft mountain pass to the valley itself, at sea level ad below, over a 10-mile stretch. There sat the huge, 130-mile long valley nestled between majestic peaks rising on all sides. During our visit we saw many beautiful and surprising things: the intricately formed badlands at Zabriskie Point; the salty, mineral-rich desert at Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America at 280 feet below sea level), where hexagonal crystalline patters of salt adorn the floor; the stark contrast offered by the nearby, snow-capped, 11,049-foot Telescope Peak; the beautiful pastel-colored hills along Artist Drive; ruins of the borax mining operations made famous by the 20-mule teams in the 1880s; the sculpted sand dunes at Mesquite Flat – as I said, much more than we imagined. Artist Drive was limited to vehicles no longer than 25 feet due to the sharp, hairpin turns and dramatic dips – that stunning drive alone was probably enough of a reason to justify our purchase of a 24-foot RV.

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Perhaps most surprising of all, however, was the Oasis at Death Valley, a newly-renovated resort with a nice restaurant, store, plenty of lodging for visitors, and even – A GOLF COURSE! Despite the paltry annual rainfall, the water collects in springs which provide plenty of water to irrigate the grass and the palm trees in the resort area, so it truly lives up to its name. The golf course was only half a mile from our campsite at Furnace Creek, so I walked over with my clubs on Wednesday afternoon and played my lowest round ever – 190 feet below sea level. My score was definitely not my lowest ever as I topped and shanked my irons like the complete duffer I’ve apparently become. (This may be my last round until I get my coveted new irons.) But the course was very pretty, challenging, and it was an all-around fun experience.

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Dec 7 (Friday): Having arrived through the eastern entrance, we left Death Valley on Friday using the western route. The roads we followed were clearly less travelled than the ones we came in on, resembling a strip of tar thrown down fifty years ago and simply forgotten (I’m guessing they don’t need too much maintenance). I felt a little uneasy as we drove for mile after mile through a vast nothingness, the surrounding desert containing nothing but a few dinky, scrubby bushes. For a long time we didn’t even see any power poles, though some of those finally appeared as we neared the mountains on the wets side of the park. We drove for two and a half hours to Mojave, where we stayed the night at the Sierra Trails RV Park ($20 cash only with Passport America discount for full hookups, a nice shower and laundry facility, and achingly slow Wi-Fi).

We’ve now visited five National Parks, two National Monuments, and one National Recreation Area during our adventure so far. Each and every one has been awesome, albeit in different and unique ways. We haven’t had to pay a nickel to get in to any of them, thanks to my Senior Pass, and have received many great discounts as well. Awesome Adventure, indeed!!!

Now we’re ready to swing back east and south for a while. Stop back for an update in a couple of weeks. In my next post, I hope to be ready with a map showing the entire journey, which I will update with each successive post.

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