Northshore – Revisiting our Past

Northshore – Revisiting our Past

Our shopping excursions and explorations to Duluth, Minnesota served as the impetus for us to take a vacation from our vacation. Although our campsite this summer on private property along a pristine lake in northern Wisconsin is beyond nice, Lake Superiors Northshore was calling. Al and I had not returned to this part of the country since the early 1990s and the pull to return was strong.

After a little research, I made a reservation at the Burlington Bay Campground in the town of Two Harbors, Minnesota. The easy thirty-minute drive northeast of Duluth made this the perfect location for our Northshore explorations. Since our reservation was made on rather short notice, I was only able to book three nights. We’ll take it! Oh, how we would’ve loved staying longer. Next time!

Burlington Bay Campground, Two Harbors, MN.

Once settled into our campsite, it was time to explore. Two Harbors, Minnesota is nestled along the beautiful north shore of Lake Superior. It’s a small quaint lakeside town rich in history and conveniently located to a bunch of scenic sites. It’s also home to a couple of historic sites that are found right in town.

Historic sites in Two Harbors

First lit in 1892, the historic Two Harbors Light Station is the oldest operating lighthouse in Minnesota. She consists of a two-story, square, redbrick dwelling, and a twelve-foot-square light tower attached between the gables. She no longer has her original lens (unfortunately), but still boasts an interesting twenty-four-inch aerobeacon. These days the lighthouse is in private hands, but she’s beautifully maintained & definitely worth a visit.

And you can even spend the night at the lighthouse. The Keepers Quarters is now a B&B.

(To enlarge photos in a gallery, simply click on any image)

For train enthusiasts, the Depot Museum is just down the road from the lighthouse and is housed in a historic brick building built in 1907. Today the building serves as a museum but was formerly headquarters for the Duluth and Iron Range Railroad which played a prominent role in the development of the iron ore industry throughout the region.

Towering strange man-made structures

Although my goal was to visit the lighthouse, once I had the truck parked, my attention was drawn across Agate Bay to some strange looking structures. The structures are docks that are made out of steel. They’re 1,300 feet long and seven stories tall.

Ore Docks with tug boat in Two Harbors Minnesota

The immense size of the docks allows ships to pull alongside some 112 chutes where the iron ore is then deposited into the hulls of the boats. These days, about 12 million tons of taconite are shipped out yearly headed south to the lower Great Lakes where it is then unloaded, heated up in blast furnaces, and eventually converted into steel.

The first dock was built in 1883 and by 1938 there were six fully operating docks. The docks were a major source of iron ore during World War II. By the mid-1950’s the docks were shipping out about 50 million tons annually, but this all came to an end in the 1960’s when iron ore was mined out. Area miners then began mining taconite as their primary source of metal. The development of taconite lead to the reopening of three docks in Two Harbors, and two of them are still in operation today.

An Ore ship pulling into docks in Two Harbors Minnesota Agate Bay
An empty ship pulling into the docks near sunset.

Visitors can view the docks anywhere along the shores of Agate Bay and get an up-close look at some of the massive ships that enter/exit the harbor. And I thought our combination of truck and RV was long. How’d ya like to park this big guy? These ships are seriously huge!

If you’d like to see these ships in action, shipping schedules can be found online at harbor lookout.

Yesterday and today

The real reason for our visit to Two Harbors, Minnesota was to allow Al and me the opportunity to travel a route that we used to drive every summer during our first few years of dating and marriage. Al and I worked in the airline industry at the time and could’ve flown anywhere in the world for free or for mere pennies, but for our yearly vacations, we wanted nothing to do with flying, hotels, or dining out. After all, that’s what our careers were all about.

Al carrying our canoe in 1990 near Gunflint Lake, MN. We had to portage around rapids.
Me, today, happy to be back visiting Lake Superior’s Northshore.

So, as an escape from our work lifestyle, we packed up our camping gear, strapped a canoe down on the roof of our vehicle, and drove north … more than 650 miles north of Chicago. The first couple of years, we ventured into western Ontario, Canada, but then we discovered the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota’s Arrowhead. And from then on, the Gunflint Trail in northeastern Minnesota became our summer vacation spot. Most times we camped while other times we splurged and rented a cabin.

So, our first full day camped in Two Harbors, we quickly set off retracing our driving route from years past. We found it amazing and rather exciting that very little had changed over the past umpteen years. There was a part of us that felt like we were just here yesterday and another part that felt like it was a lifetime ago … just another chapter in a life well-lived.

If we didn’t do anything else on our little excursion but visit two key stops, I’d be happy. My must-sees were the Split Rock Lighthouse and the town of Grand Marais.

As you drive along Highway 61, glancing to the south is Lake Superior; the largest of the five Great Lakes and the largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s also one of the chilliest lakes. A rocky cliff shoreline serves as a reminder that these waters can be dangerous, which is why there are so many lighthouses on Lake Superior.

The Split Rock Lighthouse is situated on Lake Superior’s Northshore and is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the nation. I’ve always been intrigued by this lighthouse and images of it remind me of my mother. She loved lighthouse and Split Rock was one of her favorites. I was extremely excited when I discovered Lake Havasu built a beautiful replica. Now granted, it’s a fraction of the size of the real lighthouse, but wonderful nonetheless.

Split Rock Lighthouse as seen from a scenic pull-out along Hwy 61

The Split Rock Lighthouse and State Park features a visitor center with a museum store, a lakeshore picnic area, a tent-only campground, a trail center, and hiking trails. Photographing this lighthouse has been a long-time dream of mine, but unfortunately, weather and timing conditions weren’t the best for anything better than a few snapshots. I was fine with that. The views were stunning!

A view of the shoreline from the lighthouse

Waterfalls and more waterfalls

While Lake Superior lies on the south side of the highway, dense forest and hills lie on the north side. Considering the north shore can receive well over 90 inches of snow during an average winter, all that snowmelt has to go somewhere creating some spectacular waterfalls. The waterfalls alone make visiting Minnesota’s north shore worthwhile.

Falls at Cross River – In the spring the center rock is covered in rushing water. This is a light flow.

The forecast for our day excursion consisted of cloudy skies with a 40% chance of rain which should’ve been perfect for photographing waterfalls … or so I hoped. Well, they couldn’t have been more wrong! The day turned into a beautiful day with totally clear blue skies and warmer than expected … not the conditions I was looking for to photograph waterfalls (much to Al’s delight). So, we changed our focus for the day and only stopped at the Falls at Cross River (around mile marker 78). These falls can be seen from the highway, thus requiring very little walking.

The day turned rather warm, humid, and buggy which did not put us in the mood for any hiking. Therefore, Gooseberry Falls State Park and Tettegouche State Park will remain on my must-see list for a future visit. Gosh, that list seems to be getting longer, not shorter! How does that happen?😏

If you love waterfalls and hiking, then the drive from Duluth, Minnesota to Thunder Bay, Ontario Canada is definitely an adventure to consider. The towns of Portage and Thunder Bay have some rather impressive waterfalls that should not be missed. This is already on my list for our potential itinerary for next summer. An unexpected kitchen remodel kind of curtailed our travels this summer (a forthcoming post is in the works).

It appears, most of the state park campgrounds along Hwy 61, do not offer hookups and are not big RV friendly. This is a tenters paradise and also perfect for cyclists biking the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. But for RV hookups along Lake Superior, we’ll just need to venture a little further down the road …

Grand Marais, Minnesota

The artsy little town of Grand Marais (pronounced – Grand Ma-ray) boasts a population of fewer than 1,500 people. It serves as the gateway to the Gunflint Trail leading visitors into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. When Al and I would vacation on Gunflint Lake, we would have to return to Grand Marais once or twice during our vacation to shop and replenish provisions.

Since our resort was an hours drive north of Grand Marais, we always made a day of it by strolling shops and going out to lunch. On this day, we happened to bring a picnic lunch and enjoyed eating it on a bench overlooking the harbor. After lunch, I took the interesting stroll out to the lighthouse and then we hit a few shops.

The town is small and after walking around for maybe an hour, we’d seen just about everything and it was time to retrace our steps back to Two Harbors but not before checking out the local RV Park. The town of Grand Marais manages an RV park that is big rig friendly with hookups and sits along the shores of Lake Superior. It’s nothing special and the sites are rather close together, but you can’t beat the location or views.

The RV Park can be seen along the shore. Not a bad location.

Burlington Bay Campground

We found this campground in Two Harbors to be the perfect place for us to use as a base for our Northshore explorations. We could even walk into town from the campground if we wanted to. There’s easy access to the kayaking beach and wooded trail along the lakeshore. It’s also an easy bike ride to the lighthouse, Ore Docks, and town restaurants.

There are four sections in the campground. We chose a site in the David Dill Addition which is the newest section and the only area in the campground that isn’t wooded – it’s in a meadow without trees. Yeah, we don’t like trees, or rather our RV isn’t a fan of tree branches. We loved our unobstructed view of Lake Superior and would definitely stay here again, but there was a downside regarding our sewer connection.

The sites are tiered in the David Dill Addition offering nice lake views from all the sites and even two sewer connections allowing RVers to optimize those views. There’s one connection at the rear of the site for those needing to back in like trailers and 5th wheels and another connection closer to the front of the site for motorhomes that choose to pull straight in to enjoy the view out of the front windshield.

Those of us in the first row (sites 1B-12B) had trouble connecting to the rear sewer due to the height of the pipe. Al and I were in site 2 and fortunately, the folks in site 3 were also in a 5th wheel backed in allowing us to hook up to the intended motorhome sewer for site 3. Trust me, I was originally not a happy camper when the rear sewer pipe was sticking out of the ground so far that it was impossible for gravity to work with the sewer hose. The gal in the office said it was out of their control (appears they get a lot of complaints). The county health department determined the height. What’s interesting is the other tiers had properly cut sewer pipes. 🤔

Even with the sewer issue and unlevel sites, we would return and definitely relished not having to worry about roof damage from trees … been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt! But if you like trees, consider staying in one of the other loops.

Worth mentioning; we enjoyed picking up some sweets at Louise’s Place. Located in downtown Two Harbors not far from the Depot Museum and Paul Van Hoven Park. Louise’s is much like a local coffee shop offering breakfast and lunch along with homemade breads and sweets. We had to control ourselves from revisiting the next day.

If you love nature and beautiful landscapes, then you’ll enjoy visiting Lake Superior’s Northshore. With eight State Parks, a variety of National and State Forests, community parks, wayside rests, public beaches, and four-season trails, you’re bound to find something to make any visit worthwhile. We loved returning to an area that will always hold a special place in our hearts!

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Things to See and Do in South Dakota

Things to See and Do in South Dakota

I’m sure most of us have childhood memories of family vacations, and some of those vacations were more fun than others. One of my most memorable and fun childhood vacations was in South Dakota. The picturesque lakes, rolling landscape, granite boulders, and interesting wildlife, left an indelible impression on a young fourteen-year-old me from the flatland of Illinois.

Thirty-some years later, I experienced one of the best mother/daughter road trips to South Dakota. My daughter and I shared more laughs and mishaps during that five-day excursion, so much so, that we still talk about that trip today. And then several years later, I shared an amazing visit to the Black Hills with my husband and in mid-June of ’19, we returned again.

So, perhaps it’s obvious why the Black Hills in South Dakota is one of my favorite places I’ve visited. It’s all about sharing memorable experiences and explorations with loved ones, and what fond memories I have from all my visits. So, let’s return, but where to start?

How many days should I spend in South Dakota?

Whether you plan on stopping in South Dakota’s Black Hills on your way to your destination like we recently did, or it’s the main destination, be sure and plan enough time. We’ve never spent more than five days in the area on any given visit, and we were never ready to move on, but it all depends on your interests.

Buffalo crossing the street at a crosswalk
Pretty cool that these buffalo (Bison) are using the crosswalk 😆

My favorite things to see and do in southwest South Dakota

1. At the top of my list is a scenic drive. I promise you won’t be disappointed. You’ll love taking in the landscape by driving a couple of very scenic roads, but be WARNED, these roads are not RV friendly … unless you’d like to turn your lovely RV roof into a convertible – which has happened, unfortunately.

The Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills of South Dakota is one of the most beautiful roads in the United States. Mix in America’s most patriotic monument (Mount Rushmore) and you have a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. Depending on the number of stops you make along the way, plan on spending 2-3 hours to drive this byway.

This 70-mile drive includes spiraling bridges, hairpin curves, granite tunnels, and awe-inspiring views. It’s roughly a figure-eight route, taking drivers through Custer State Park and passing by Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Several tunnels carved through the granite mountain not only provide a transportation passage but artistically frame the four faces on Mount Rushmore in the distance. These tunnels are one lane only and definitely have height and width restrictions. So, no RVs!

(To enlarge a photo in a gallery, simply click on any image)

Needles Eye Tunnel is just 8’ 4” wide and is one of three tunnels found on Needles Highway and is certainly the most famous, longest, and tallest. Its name comes from the remarkable granite spire located near the tunnel entrance. Cruising on Needles Highway isn’t about getting to the next destination, it’s about taking in the scenery. Spectacular sites to see along the way include Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, the Cathedral Spires, and Sylvan Lake. And if you’re lucky, you might even come across some cute mountain goats lingering alongside the road.

During our family road trip with the brand new motorhome back in the 1970s, my dad drove the motorhome through Needles Eye Tunnel much to my mom’s dismay. I credit my dad for talking to a ranger and measuring the motorhome a couple of times to verify that he’d fit. However, once he saw a tour bus go through it, there was no stopping him, but keeping the motorhome in the center of the tunnel was key. As kids, we thought dad was so cool! 

Sylvan Lake

2. Spend the day exploring a State Park and National Park. Custer State Park is home to a diverse range of wildlife including antelope, deer, bighorn sheep, coyote, prairie dogs, and burros (burros who like to beg for food), but the park is probably best known for the nation’s largest free-roaming buffalo herds.

When driving the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road through Custer State Park, don’t be surprised that your travels may be detained by a “Buffalo Jam”. These large animals weighing in as much as 2,000 pounds walk wherever, whenever, and at their own pace, but can run as fast as 40 mph. So, if they feel like standing in the middle of the road, they do.

​What is the difference between buffalo and bison? Scientifically, the term “buffalo” is incorrect for the North American species; its proper Latin name is Bison. However, common usage has made the term “buffalo” an acceptable synonym for the American bison, and around here, they are called “buffalo”.

The park is also home to a wide variety of historic sites including French Creek, made famous when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and President Calvin Coolidge’s Summer White House, the historic State Game Lodge.

Wind Cave National Park… if you’re looking to avoid crowds, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with this small national park. I’m not one for caves so I can’t share any info on the cave itself, but I can tell you, if you’re interested in seeing wildlife without the crowds in Custer State Park, then driving around Wind Cave National Park is for you. That’s exactly what I did and I definitely found beauty and wildlife.

I did attempt to hike to Lookout Point but stopped in my tracks when I encountered a lone buffalo alongside the trail. There I was hiking by myself wearing a bright pink hoodie. Mr. Buff stopped eating and just stared at me. My 135 pounds was no match for his 1,800+ pounds. So, I did the smartest thing by lowering my face to avoid eye contact and slowly retreated all the while glancing back over my shoulders to make sure he wasn’t following me.

Halfway back to the truck, the herd of Buffalo that was near the highway when I first started hiking had meandered up the hill towards the trail … toward me 😯. I quickened my pace and took great pleasure in photographing these beasts from the comfort of my vehicle. And that was the end to my attempts at hiking in the Black Hills last month. I’m getting too old for these wildlife encounters lol.

3. Take in the past. The Black Hills is rich in American history and filled with tales of cowboys, pioneers, Indians, and more. Be sure and stop in at the various visitor centers and learn about the area’s history.

There’s gold in them thar hills! With the 7th US Cavalry unit confirming the discovery of gold, the 1875 gold rush occurred and thousands of European-Americans invaded the Black Hills and founded the towns of Deadwood, Lead, and Custer. By 1875, the Sioux had had enough and they fought for control of their land (which was rightly theirs by the Laramie Treaty).  Lead by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the Sioux made a valiant fight and gained victory at Little Big Horn. In the end, the US Army prevailed and the Sioux lost their land and were moved on to smaller reservations.  In 1980, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the land was illegally taken and the US government was forced to pay for the land.

A visit to Mount Rushmore is a must

4. Of course, no visit to the southwest part of South Dakota would be complete without visiting Mount Rushmore. After all, it’s the American thing to do, as is visiting Crazy Horse Memorial … another worthwhile stop.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is free to enter but you have to pay for parking ($10.00 in 2018). Upon entering the memorial, check out the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and watch the film about carving Mount Rushmore. After that, head out to the Presidential Trail to get a close-up view of the sculpture. The trail is a 0.6-mile loop with a few stairs. (Be sure and check the Mount Rushmore official website under “alerts” for any closures ahead of your visit so you won’t be disappointed.)

My daughter and I really enjoyed visiting the Carver’s Studio and learned a great deal about Gutzon Borglum and how they managed to carve the mountain. You might also consider a Ranger program or stay for the illumination on Friday evenings and learn a little more about the history of the monument.

And best of all, eat some Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream. Without Thomas Jefferson, we may not have this delicious treat. Give your Mount Rushmore vacation a taste of the first recorded ice cream recipe in American history.

As long as you’re in South Dakota, you really should visit the world’s largest mountain carving; Crazy Horse Memorial. This is another monumental sculpture that is huge. If budget or time is a problem, Crazy Horse can easily be seen from Highway 385.

Crazy Horse Memorial. The white sculpture is a small version of what the finished sculpture should look like – in progress in the background.

I recommend starting your visit at the Orientation Center. The short film, “Dynamite and Dreams,” will help you gain an introduction to the memorial and its history. Then walk through the Indian Museum of North American and Native American Cultural Center to learn about the American Indian heritage before heading out to the observation deck for views of the massive monument. For an additional fee, you can take a bus to the bottom of the monument for better views. Don’t forget to stop at the information desk to get a return ticket for the “Legends in Light” laser light show they perform in the evening from the end of May to the end of September.

And twice a year, you can actually hike to the top of Crazy Horse: Volksmarch hike. This is high on my ‘must-do’ list.

Somewhere back in one of my storage units in Colorado, I have photographs of Crazy Horse that my dad took during our family vacation to the Black Hills in the early ’70s. It would be fun to compare the progress via our photographs.

Granite rock reflections at Sylvan Lake in South Dakota
Sylvan Lake

5. Outdoor recreation: Lakes, Hiking, fishing. I absolutely love the picturesque lakes around here. There are many lakes and streams perfect for fishing, boating, or picnicking lakeside, and they are all pristine in my opinion. During that 1970s family vacation, I thought Sylvan Lake was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen. My brother and I hiked and explored all around this stunning little lake. We were intrigued by the granite rock and boulders and the clean, clear, cool water.

We even rented one of those paddle boats. While my brother and I exercised our legs, my dad sat on the back of the paddle boat with a fishing line in the water.  No surprise, dad brought his fishing gear on this summer vacation just like any other trip. Nothing like trolling via sustainable energy. Dad was great in giving my brother and me directions on where he wanted us to paddle and gave no thought to our weakening leg muscles, but after catching a couple of teenie tiny fish, dad had enough … our legs were saved thank goodness. Ah, the memories!

A family fishing on Stockade Lake.

I couldn’t wait to share Sylvan Lake with my daughter and I tried to recreate the hike with her that my brother and I took all those years ago.

After the hike, we stopped in at the Sylvan Lake Lodge to check out what the park considers their crown jewel. You can picnic on the grounds or have lunch at the restaurant.

Another beautiful lake and one of my favorites is Stockade Lake. It’s the largest of five lakes in Custer State Park. You’ll find a couple of campgrounds nestled in the pines near the lake, as well as a day-use picnic area.

Hiking in the Black Hills

There is no storage of trails to hike in the Black Hills, but one of the most popular trails is to the highest peak in South Dakota; the Black Elk Peak which was formerly known as Harney Peak. Even though this trail is popular, my daughter and I did not find it easy considering it’s mostly uphill. There are gradual inclines and some flat surfaces at the beginning that leads to steep inclines and stairs. The trail is considered moderately difficult.

Once you reach the 7,242-foot peak topped by a stone fire tower, you are rewarded with breathtaking views of the Black Hills National Forest. Be sure and take a break to have lunch at the top and enjoy the scenery. The fire lookout, dam, and pumphouse were built in 1939 and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Most people catch the trail near Sylvan Lake, but my daughter and I started at the trailhead for Little Devil’s Tower and then connected. The views of Cathedral Spires is quite stunning and not to be missed.

At the top of Black Elk Peak – We made it!

Top 5 things to see and do in South Dakota

    1. Take a scenic drive and don’t forget your camera
    2. Visit Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park
    3. Explore the local history
    4. Visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial
    5. Enjoy outdoor recreation: hiking, fishing, boating, 4×4 exploring

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Other sights worth noting

During my recent visit, I drove to the Mount Coolidge Lookout Tower. To get there, I turned off of Hwy 87 and continued up a 1.7-mile gravel road to the summit where I took in the views of the Black Hills. This site is 6,023 feet above the forest and is not for folks with a fear of heights. The gravel road is narrow in places with steep dropoffs and no guardrails, but the views are amazing. On a clear day, you can see Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and the Needles.

Towns of Spearfish and Deadwood

Spearfish is a cute little town from what we could gather, but we didn’t stop. We were here to drive Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway and take in the stunning landscape. With soaring limestone bluffs, a glistening creek, wildflowers, and three flowing waterfalls, it did not disappoint. The 20-mile byway is north of Custer State Park along Highway 14A and is an incredible road. Several scenes from the movie, “Dances With Wolves” were filmed in the canyon.

Next on our list was a visit to the historic town of Deadwood. Al and I are huge fans of the HBO series titled Deadwood and really looked forward to our visit.

The town is a throwback to the Wild West where gambling and bars are alive and well. Gamble in one of the many casinos and follow the footsteps of legendary characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.  Although we enjoyed the day, we probably wouldn’t return. It’s a kitschy tourist town (in my humble opinion).

But a place I always look forward to visiting is …

The Badlands

Badlands National Park is most definitely a worthwhile visit. Be sure and spend at least one day exploring the 244,000 acres of this other-worldly landscape. Driving the 31-mile scenic Badlands Loop Road is an absolute must and do take advantage of every pull-off and overlook. Can you say photo-op?

Even better, take a few short hikes. If you have time get off the beaten path on Sage Creek Rim Road to look for buffalo and bighorn sheep. Make sure to check with a ranger on road conditions before taking the drive.

Just northwest of the Badlands National Park on I-90 is Wall Drug. It’s one of those roadside attractions that’s synonymous with American road trips.

At Wall Drug, there are walls upon walls filled with photos from years gone by.

A roadside attraction called Wall Drug. The story behind this place … Wall Drug started simply enough when Ted Hustead purchased the South Dakota town of Wall’s drugstore in 1931. But it was Ted’s wife Dorothy who hit upon the idea that changed not just the drugstore, but the entire 231-person town of Wall. The idea: ice water. In an attempt to attract people, Dorothy Hustead put up a sign advertising free ice water to parched tourists on their way to nearby attractions. It was a big hit. From then on Wall Drug grew under its own strange power, adding a bizarre assortment of fiberglass animals, including the iconic Wall Drug jackalope, giant dinosaurs, and an array of taxidermy jackalopes. And then there are the hundreds of photos and newspaper clippings adorning the walls from years ago. My husband could’ve spent hours just looking and reading all the old photos and memorabilia hanging on the walls.

If you are a honeymooner, veteran, priest, hunter, or truck driver, you can also get free coffee and donuts. They still give out ice water too. Some 20,000 cups a day. This is also a fun place for kids. Every 30 minutes the dinosaur inside comes to life and gives you a little show. Seriously, regardless of age, make sure you spend a couple of hours in this little eclectic town at least once.

Conclusion

Southwestern South Dakota has something to offer just about anyone, from young to old and everyone in-between. It’s one of those places that one visit may be enough, or if you are like us, once is not enough and we find ourselves wanting to return after every visit. It’s a fun place to take children with many more kid-friendly attractions than mentioned here.

There are some great restaurants, breweries, live entertainment, and plenty of outdoor activities. Lodging is available in all forms from basic campgrounds, to RV Resorts, to motels and hotels, as well as vacation rentals. Yep, the Black Hills is definitely a great vacation destination or place to spend just a few days while passing through.

Have you ever visited this part of South Dakota? If so, what was your favorite thing to see or do?

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6 Benefits of Driving Yourself while Traveling

Driving can be one of the most exciting and easiest ways to get around when traveling. Whether I’m traveling with our RV in tow or my daughter and I are off on one of our infamous road trips in her car, driving gives me that sense of freedom I relish.

Even on trips overseas, I enjoy renting a car or even a bike. Although my favorite would be renting an RV or camper van … renting a camper van in New Zealand remains on my bucket list. That freedom to simply hit the open road and explore as much ground as possible is absolutely the best. Traveling on our own terms, our own schedule, and off the beaten path can be an amazing adventure.

RV traveling down the road with scenic Moab, Utah in the background

Personal time

First, traveling anywhere is all about us. Adventure awaits! After all, we’ve set aside time to travel and do things with family, friends, our partner, or even just our self and organizing flights with potential tight schedules can be stressful and can get in the way of all our fun.

Gal taking a photo of a zebraWhen driving ourselves, we get to make our own schedule and if we don’t want to keep to it, we don’t have to. During the process of us driving, if we discover a pristine beach or find that perfect mountain meadow and we want to stay a little longer, we can.

Let’s not forget about photographic opportunities and the freedom to stop, snap, and stay. It’s all solely based on ourselves and how we want to spend our day.

Ah, doesn’t that sound wonderful? Yep, I’m looking forward to our summer excursion!

Ultimate freedom

The number of new things we can discover when driving ourselves is pretty amazing. We’re more likely to go off the beaten path with the freedom we have traveling with our own transportation.

I’ve never been one to enjoy taking public transportation unless I have no other option, and the thought of making plans around an airline schedule no longer appeals to me. And this coming from a former Flight Attendant. These days, air travel is the last resort for me, but necessary at times, especially if I ever want to rent that camper van in New Zealand. Yeah, it would be a necessity to take that long flight from America to New Zealand to check that adventure off my bucket list.

But once I’m in my own transportation, I try to set aside time to explore something new each day to make the most of that sense of freedom.

Road tripping, gal hangs hand and arm out window causing a sense of freedom

Cost efficient

Let’s face it, road trips are usually more cost effective. Flying can be expensive, and taxis can cost a lot of money if we rely on them regularly while on vacation. Sure, sometimes we’re left with no option. Yeah, I don’t think there’s an easy way for me to get my RV to Hawaii (or New Zealand). So, flying it is, and then I’ll rent a car.

By renting my own transportation, I can explore on my terms, stop at a grocery store for healthy eating options, and save some money from having to go out to eat all the time, especially when traveling with a family of four.

One of my families most memorable trips was to Hawaii several years ago. My family still likes to tease me about our day excursion to the top of Haleakala, dormant volcano on the island of Maui. There was a thick layer of low-lying clouds along with a slight drizzle of rain, and I was convinced that if we drove to the top, we’d be above the clouds. Wrong! Once at the top, the thick layer of fog made it nearly impossible to see anything. After a few laughs, we headed back down the mountain. Near the base of the volcano, we noticed a newly opened zipline venue and quickly turned in.

I had packed a picnic lunch that day. The money we saved by not eating out or not booking a guided tour to Haleakala National Park, allowed us to go ziplining for the first time. It was so much fun and made for great family memories.

Transporting luggage

One of the biggest benefits of driving is packing. This is probably my favorite benefit to road tripping. I have the extra room to take a few more frivolous items … you know, like that cute pair of shoes that I may not even wear.

Luggage in an airport can be a nightmare not to mention the fear of it getting lost. Therefore, I’ve always been a ‘carry-on’ only kind of traveler. Even when I’ve traveled to Europe for a week, it was just with my carry-on. So, those cute shoes were always left behind, sigh.

RV traveling down a deserted road in Utah

Comfort

There’s no better feeling than being comfortable when traveling, and with your own mode of transportation, it’s so much easier. I think we’ve all been on a flight or bus with screaming kids. That’s the worst!

With our own vehicle, we don’t have to worry about sitting next to strangers and we can come and go as we please. Yep, that’s the ultimate comfort while traveling.

Chance to be spontaneous

I love the spontaneity and freedom of driving. Spontaneity is an amazing luxury that I don’t take for granted.  A random day trip, a detour along the way, or even just the decision to go somewhere different for happy hour is all at my fingertips when I have my own vehicle.

Final thoughts

Whenever and wherever I travel, I always keep safety in mind. It’s also important to understand the rules and laws of the states or countries we visit.

Did you know there’s a law in France for having an unused breathalyzer in your vehicle? I guess it’s still a controversial law, but even so, I found that tidbit of information interesting.

Here in the U.S., we need to think about laws regarding cell phone usage while driving. Every community, county, and state has its own laws about talking or texting while driving.

As my daughter and I do more research and brainstorming on potential travel locations for our next mother/daughter adventure, we’re finding a lot of useful information. 1Cover’s The Secret Traveler offers tips on how to stay safe while on the road along with other helpful information and travel ideas. Hmm, our travel list seems to be getting longer instead of shorter!

Research and knowledge are the best ways to plan for any travel journey. Happy road tripping!

Benefits of a road trip, #roadtrip, #bestvacations, #drivingwhiletraveling
road tripping, benefits of driving, #lovetravel, #drivingonvacation

Summer Trip Planning

I don’t know about you, but our winter whizzed by. Even though the weather here in Phoenix was cooler and wetter than usual, we still had a very fun and active season. This was the longest stretch of time that we remained camped in one place since Al and I moved into the RV full-time back in June of 2013. Wow, just saying that … I can’t believe we’re close to completing six years of full-time RV living. So much for doing this for just a year or two!

wildflowers in Arizona, summertime, spring flowers

Although we have slowed down our travels, we are in no way close to giving up the RV lifestyle. And as much as our seven-month stay in Phoenix was awesome, that hitch itch is starting to set in and summer trip planning is in full swing.

Our plans for the summer

So, where are we going this summer? We’ll be working our way from Arizona toward northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We have a few stops in mind, but our main destination will be visiting family in Wisconsin. We had such a great, albeit short, visit with family when they came out to Arizona for our son’s wedding, that we all realized a lengthier family reunion needs to be arranged.

For our excursion, there won’t be any advanced RV reservations made on our part. Instead, we’ll travel in our preferred winging it fashion. I already know that staying in picturesque state parks probably won’t be in the plans unless we get lucky snagging a last-minute cancellation. There really is a method to my madness and reasoning behind not making reservations – we don’t want a schedule. The whole reason we travel via our RV is the freedom it affords us, and making commitments takes some of the fluidity out of the equation.

Monument Valley, road trip, summer trip planning

Since we expect most RV parks and campgrounds to be full during the summer months (I did try making some reservations to no avail. State Parks are already all booked up), we’re counting on staying with family, friends, casinos, and wherever else we can find a place to park. I assure you, that first year out on the road, there was no way I could’ve traveled like this. I had such a fear of being homeless … fear of not finding a place to camp that I had a well-planned calendar complete with reservations for the first six months and beyond.

First stop Colorado

distance between two cities, our summer road trip, trip planningOur first two days on the road will include more driving than Al and I have done in over a year. We do have a reason or two for our plan to drive from Phoenix, Arizona to Pueblo, Colorado in two days (752 miles/1210 km)

First off, we know this route like the back of our hands. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve traveled this very route ever since our son moved to Phoenix, Arizona back in 2009, and we still lived in Pueblo West, Colorado. We used to make the drive in one long day, but that was without pulling the RV. With the RV in tow, we’ll definitely break it up into a two-day drive.

We won’t have time to dilly or dally along the way since our main focus will be dealing with our storage units (plural, unfortunately) in Pueblo, Colorado. The goal is to purge our stuff down to one unit. And who knows how much time we’ll need to deal with this daunting task. 😕

Fingers crossed that we get the work out-of-the-way quickly and we can get on with the summer fun!

Slowing down

With the storage unit task behind us, we’ll slow our travels down to a more enjoyable pace and work our way up to South Dakota where we hope to mooch-dock on private property with fellow RVers, Jim and Barb. Treats are in their future. 🥧🍹🍪

Jim and I have followed each other’s blogs for several years and have also communicated via email and Facebook. For now, they remain cyber friends with plans to finally meet in person. I love these internet connections, and we’ve developed some amazing friendships via this lifestyle and social media platform.

pronghorn aka antelope

Our length of stay with Jim and Barb will kind of be up to them, but I promise, it won’t be more than a week. What’s that saying … Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days! However, Jim and Barb are avid angler’s and probably aren’t bothered by the smell of fish and therefore, hopefully, we won’t be kicked off their property at that three-day mark. 🐟

Moving on

summer road trip, trip planning, distance between citiesAfter our Black Hills, South Dakota visit, we’ll meander our way toward Hayward, Wisconsin with the intent of arriving before the long 4th of July weekend. Yeah, we don’t want to get stuck out on the road somewhere without reservations over this busy travel time of year.

See, I still do stress about traveling without reservations especially when heading east. Somehow my free-spirited western mind reverts back to that Chicago gal who plans every detail down to the last minute. Oh, and let’s not get into my German heritage where we vill be on time! Boy, I’ve changed. Let me count the ways, I love thee, RV life 😏

So, the plan is to be comfortably parked on Al’s sister’s property in Wisconsin where we’ll be on and off from early July until sometime in mid to late September.

Again, not wanting to overstay our welcome, Al and I plan to do a little out and back from sister’s property to explore in this part of the Midwest all summer long. It has been many, many years since we were last in this area, and we’re looking forward to revisiting some favorite spots along with exploring new ones.

Preparing the RV for travel

Considering the past twelve months we’ve driven very little, Al and I are in serious road travel preparation mode and that includes making sure the RV and truck are in tip-top shape for our anticipated 5,000-mile (guesstimate) road trip.

RV warranty, Will your RV break down, do RV's breakdown, RV repairs

The truck has already had some major work completed and the RV is being spruced up including a new set of shoes. She’s been outfitted with four new tires and two new spare tires. Unfortunately, Al and I are experienced when it comes to blown tires. Seems to be our thing! Experience has taught us to travel with two spares. 😆 I’m sure glad we can laugh about it!

Our long list of to-dos is slowly dwindling and with the southwest weather starting to heat up with temperatures already nearing the 100-degree Fahrenheit range (37c), we’ll be more than ready to roll come the end of May. If it weren’t for a few lingering appointments, i.e. dental, etc., we’d be on the road today.

Recommendations, suggestions from you?

Okay, now that you know what our tentative plans are for the summer, I’d love your help. I’d appreciate any recommendations for places to camp especially any Indian Casinos in Wisconsin and upper Michigan or other options to camp that might have openings … boondocking, mooch-docking, parking lots, we’re not picky. We just don’t like heavily wooded sites, or shall I say, our RV roof doesn’t like trees. Speaking from experience, RV roof boo-boos are no fun. They can be costly and time-consuming. So, we’ll pass on the trees and leave them for everyone else to enjoy 🌳🌲🍃

Also, I’m in that time gate where I don’t mind making reservations since I have a better handle on our schedule (August, September, and late July – we’ll need parking just for a few days here and there because we plan on returning to stay with family in Hayward, WI).

How about things to see and do in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? I do know, we’ll want to revisit Mackinac Island and may want to overnight at a B&B on the island. Last time Al and I did that was in the early 1980s. 😳 Am I really that old? I revisited Mackinac Island with my daughter in 2011 and we regretted not overnighting on the island.

Mackinac Island, summer road trip, visit Michigan, island vacation
Me biking on Mackinac Island in 2011

Pictured Rocks and Tahquamenon Falls are a couple of places I’d like to visit, but not sure where we’ll find an available campsite.

I’m all ears! Please leave your suggestions in the comments below or feel free to email me anytime at livelaughrv@hotmail.com.  Thanks in advance AND if anyone is interested in meeting up, let’s see if our schedules can match up.

Happy travels everyone! Anyone have an epic trip planned this summer?

South Dakota badlands, summer road trip, RVing in South Dakota
Camped in the Badlands, South Dakota 2015

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Oatman and Route 66

A few weeks ago, a friend of a friend asked me inquisitively, “Would you be interested in a free three-day, two night stay at the Golden Nugget in Laughlin?” Without much thought, I quickly responded with a “Sure”. Next thing I knew, I was given an envelope holding the special certificate. The only downside was Al and I didn’t have much time to schedule our get away considering the certificate was due to expire rather soon.

Thus two days later on Jaunary 31st, Al and I packed a small bag and hopped in my little red truck bound for Laughlin, Nevada. Since we were starting our journey in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, we guesstimated the drive would take a little over an hour allowing us plenty of time to dilly and dally and take a detour off the beaten path. And dilly dally we did!

Route 66 Arizona
part of our drive – traveling historic Route 66 in Arizona

One of my favorite things about blogging is engaging with you, my readers. I love your suggestions, recommendations as well as reading your own personal blogs enlightening me on sites to see and things to do. Thanks to a few of you, Oatman, Arizona made my list of places I wanted to visit, and it just so happen to be “kind of” on our way to Laughlin.

Oatman Arizona wild burros
A couple of locals welcome us to Oatman, Arizona.

Off the beaten path

Route 66The town of Oatman started life over 100 years ago as a mining tent camp, and quickly became a flourishing gold-mining center.

In 1915, two miners struck a claim worth 10 million dollars in gold, and within a year, the town’s population grew to more than 3,500.

But both the population and mining booms were short-lived. In 1921, a fire burned down most of the small shacks, and three years later the main mining company, United Eastern Mines, shut down operations for good.

Oatman survived by catering to travelers on old U.S. Route 66. But in the 1960s, when the road was rerouted to what is now Interstate 40, Oatman almost died.

Oatman, Arizona
Souvenir shops line main street.

Since then, Oatman has undergone a tourism renaissance thanks to the increasing interest in Route 66 and the explosive growth of the nearby gaming town of Laughlin, Nevada, which promotes visits to the historic town.

wild burros Oatman, ArizonaOatman is a fun little place to visit. It’s an authentic old western town with wild burros roaming about and gunfights staged in the street. Although the burros are said to be tame and can be hand fed, they can also get aggressive if you have food in hand. We watched one women get surrounded by the burros and nipped when she wasn’t giving them food fast enough.

And when I say food … for $1, purchased from any number of vendors, you’re given a paper bag filled with hay nuggets to hand feed the burros.

The towns people ask that you please not bring apples, carrots, etc. to feed the wild burros. It all has to do with burro poop  💩   After all, someone has to keep the streets clean of dodo for all the tourists. With that said, I do recommend you watch where you step! 🤭

baby burro Oatman Arizona
The baby burros are so dang cute. I couldn’t resist a little scratch behind the ears.

Do note, the little babies, aside from being irresistibly cute, have stickers on their head saying, “do not feed me anything“. They aren’t ready for solid food just yet and are still nursing. Thus, it’s not in their best interest to feed them any hay nuggets or anything else for that matter.

baby burro
Baby burros have stickers on their head requesting they not be fed anything.

Oatman’s “wild” burros are the descendants of burros brought here by the miners in the late 1800’s. When the miners no longer needed them, they were turned loose. Each morning these burros come into town looking for food. They wander the streets and greet the tourists and will eat all day if you feed them. Shortly before sunset they wander back to the hills for the night.

Oatman, Arizona
The town has some interesting signs.

Oatman, Arizona

The Oatman Hotel, built in 1902, is the oldest two-story adobe structure in Mojave County and has housed many miners, movie stars, politicians and other scoundrels. The town was used as the location for several movies such as How The West Was WonFoxfire and Edge of Eternity.

Oatman Hotel

Clark Gable and Carol Lombard honeymooned at the Oatman Hotel on March 18, 1939. Their honeymoon suite is still one of the major attractions at the Oatman Hotel. Gable returned there often to play poker with the local miners and enjoy the solitude of the desert.

Oatman hotel Arizona

Al and I ate lunch in “the Saloon” which is located in the hotel. Although the food was average, the atmosphere was entertaining and anything but average.

Oatman Saloon
Al getting ready to order lunch at “the Saloon”. Thousands of one dollar bills adorn the walls.

What’s in a name?

After a few other names were passed over, “Oatman” was chosen for the name of the town in honor of Olive Oatman, a young Illinois girl who had been taken captive by Indians during her pioneer family’s journey westward in 1851 and forced into slavery. She was later traded to Mohave Indians, who adopted her as a daughter and had her face tattooed in the custom of the tribe. She was released in 1856 at Fort Yuma, Arizona.

Oatman, Arizona

If you enjoy history and quirky out-of-the-way places, you’ll enjoy a visit to Oatman, Arizona.  Al and I spent about an hour strolling around town and another hour enjoying lunch at The Saloon.  It was a fun couple of hours and I’m glad we made the stop, but I don’t think I’d recommend venturing too far out of the way for a visit. Although the drive here was interesting and definitely worthwhile. Another place checked off my list!

Oatman, Arizona
Even Al couldn’t resist the cute little burro!

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Pain at the Grand Canyon

It was approaching seven in the morning and the tops of the canyon walls in Zion National Park were starting to light up with sunshine. The winds were gusting causing the tent walls to whip about. The camp stove was sitting on the picnic table, and after several unsuccessful tries at lighting it, Ashton recommends we break camp and stop for coffee and breakfast along the way. That sounded like a fantastic idea…. better than bringing the camp stove into the tent in hopes of blocking that wind.

north rim of the Grand Canyon
Another day, another scenic view!

We quickly broke camp and did a fantastic job battling the excessive winds. We were getting good at this tenting thing and working instinctively well together. We managed to control the thin nylon tent and keep it from taking flight like a kite. We then loaded up Charlotte (Honda CRV) in a neat and organized manner. We still didn’t have a firm plan in mind for the day, but we were living on RV time and rolling with the winds.

Echo Canyon Zion National ParkBefore driving off, we took one more look around the campsite making sure we hadn’t left anything behind. We glanced over at the neighboring campsites…. no movement. Appears our camp comrades were still sound asleep. Fortunately, we had bid farewell to our neighbors the night before over a campfire.

With a nostalgic wave to our new friends and the gorgeous Zion Canyon, we reluctantly drove down the road. The day before, the Mt. Carmel Highway on the east end of Zion National Park had closed due to a landslide which required us to come up with an alternate route.

Recalculating and turning our road trip into a big loop turned out perfectly. We experienced things that we totally would’ve missed out on had we stayed with the original route.

First and foremost on the agenda was breakfast. We ended up driving through the quaint town of Springdale, located just on the outskirts of Zion National Park. For some unknown reason, nothing caught our attention. About thirty minutes later with our tummies growling and cravings for coffee increasing, we pulled into the River Rock Roasting Company. And what a find this was!

River Rock Roasters
Great coffee, great food, great view – River Rock Roasters, La Verkin, Utah

Ashton and I enjoyed the coffee and breakfast bagels so much so, that she and I agreed we’d go out of our way to visit this place again. Was it the view or the fact we were hangry or was it our need for caffeine (coffee addiction satiated) or is this place that good? Didn’t matter to us. We were a couple of happy campers and ready to face the day after our plates and coffee cups were empty.

About an hour or so down the road, we saw a sign noting the mileage to the Grand Canyon. In our typical mother/daughter fashion, we glanced at each other and said, “Hey, we’re this close, might as well stop”.

north rim of the Grand Canyon
Me on the left, Ashton on the right – at the north rim of the Grand Canyon

Turns out the north rim of the Grand Canyon had just opened to tourists a few days earlier. Good timing for us. I’ve driven this stretch of 89A in northern Arizona a couple of times in years past, and Road 67 to the Grand Canyon was always closed. Therefore, a visit to the north rim would be a first for both of us.

Access to the north rim is limited to the summer months, or rather from about mid May until the first serious snow fall which can occur in September or October. The south rim stays open year-round.

We found plenty of parking at the visitor center. As I stepped out of the car, I felt pain … pain all over and immediately used some colorful language. Not one of my finer moments considering I wasn’t setting a good example for my daughter. The car door was still north rimopen which allowed her to hear every inappropriate comment I uttered.

From inside the vehicle, I heard my daughter exclaim, “Mother. What is your problem?” Just then, she exited Charlotte and in our typical mother/daughter fashion, she joined me in voicing colorful expletives…. “Holy sh*t! WTF! OMG!” Thank goodness the parking lot was relatively empty and there wasn’t anyone else within ear shot of us. With each step we took, another expletive escaped our mouths along with a few laughs. Gosh, we hurt!

That eleven mile, strenuous, 2,148 foot elevation gain hike the day before in Zion National Park had finally caught up with us. Ah, the cockiness we expressed just hours earlier had come back to haunt us. We were feeling just fine when we woke up that morning. Guess our muscles just needed a little extra time to process the abuse from the day before.

We slowly and gingerly worked through our pain and walked to the visitor center and picked up a park map. At this point, any sane person would’ve called it a day and returned to their car. Nope! Not us. Let’s do some more hiking!north rim

We were at the north rim of the Grand Canyon which required a little sightseeing and photo taking and the fact that we had trouble walking due to pain was merely an inconvenience. Did I mention how much we hurt?

north rim of the Grand Canyon
“I can take pictures of the Grand Canyon from here”, exclaimed Ashton

When an Adirondack chair presented itself, Ashton didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation.

After strolling out to a popular scenic overlook (Angel Point – I think) and a little more photo taking, we enjoyed lunch at the Grand Canyon Lodge cafe. This is when we came to the realization that the thought of setting up the tent later in the day would be a grueling endeavor. Something we didn’t look forward to. We even had doubts that we could physically handle it.

Recalculating! Exuberantly, I said to Ashton, “Dad is in Phoenix spending the weekend with your brother, which means the RV in Prescott is empty. How about we drive all the way to Prescott and sleep in a bed tonight? Let’s forget about the tent.” I barely finished talking when Ashton, rather loudly, exclaimed, “Sold!” Yeah, a few heads in the restaurant turned, but we didn’t care. Neither one of us thought we were capable of the movement necessary to pitch a tent, let alone sleep on the ground. Once we made it to the ground on our air mattresses, we doubted we could get back up. Did I already mention how much we hurt? 🤣

Lee's Ferry Historic Site
Ashton finds another spot to take a break – historic site at Lee’s Ferry

With our new plan mapped out and a renewed spring in our step, we headed off to our next location – Lee’s Ferry. Even though our original plan to camp here was nixed, I still wanted to stop for a quick visit. It had been nearly twenty years since I last drove by this area and I wanted a refresher.

Colorado River boat tour
Boats return from a tour up river thru Horseshoe Bend and near the base of Glen Canyon Damn

When the boats pulled in after their scenic tour up river, I had an aha moment. So this is where the boats come from as they motor up the Colorado River through Horseshoe Bend and to the bottom of the Glen Canyon Damn for sightseeing.

I remember peering over the cliff edge at the scenic Horseshoe Bend and wondering where the boats down below came from. How does one go about boating this stretch of the Colorado River? Lee’s Ferry is the answer.

Grand Canyon rafting
These are supply boats getting ready to head downstream through some serious whitewater rapids.

Lee’s Ferry is also the starting point for an incredible whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. Ashton and I watched these supply boats getting ready to head down stream. I explained to Ashton …. rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is a memorable once in life-time kind of adventure. When one signs up for such a trip, all they need to bring are their personal items. Thus, crews are needed to haul all Lee's Ferry historic sitethe supplies, camping gear, and food as well as do all the set up and prepare the meals. These were the boats we were observing – the supply boats and crew.

I’ll admit, I was relieved when I didn’t hear the comment, “Let’s do that for our next adventure“. I’m sure our current state of fatigue accompanied by sore muscles came into play.

It was getting late in the day and as tempting as it was to grab a campsite and call it a day, the thought of pitching a tent had us moving on down the road.

Three and a half hours later, we pulled into the RV park in Prescott Valley and a real bed in my home. It had been a long day of travel, twelve hours to be exact, but we weren’t complaining. We had just completed the best mother/daughter trip to date; a trip filled with amazing scenery and even more amazing memories.

I’m not sure how we’ll ever top this adventure, but we can sure try!prickly pear

A Popular Trail in Zion

When Ashton and I chose Zion National Park as the destination for our road trip, I had only two requests …  stop at the Zion Lodge and hike the trail that was accessed across from the lodge. Other than that, I left it all up to daughter. Sure, I’d offer my input, but ultimately, we’d do and see whatever she would like.Zion National Park

Back in the early to mid nineties, we lived in Las Vegas, Nevada for a few years, and it’s an easy two and a half hour drive from Las Vegas to Zion National Park. While living in Las Vegas, Al and I visited Zion once with the kids in tow and later I revisited with a girlfriend. Both times, I overnighted at the Zion Lodge in one of the rustic cabins. The buildings themselves are unassuming, but the huge green lawn accompanied by a bunch of benches left an indelible impression upon me. A visitor can sit, and admire the soaring canyon walls …

Zion wildlifeAs I sat on one of those benches looking up, I remember feeling awed by the beauty around me. This former flatlander from Illinois was overwhelmed with the unique and stunning landscape.

Today, I was equally awed, if not more so. I’m not sure if it’s my age or the fact that I’m able to travel leisurely on regular basis, but there was a relaxed calmness about me that allowed me to savor the scenery along with each experience and hike I accomplished.Zion National Park

As any parent knows, traveling with small children is a huge distraction which I’m sure had an impact on my first visit to Zion. This go around was different. Instead of me, the mom, constantly concerned about the where abouts and antics of a six-year old and four-year old, my adult daughter was the one in charge and it was her responsibility to keep me (dear old mom) from getting into trouble. No easy task 😆  This new-found lack of responsibility on my part was oh so fun!

Zion National ParkAfter our Riverside Walk, we took the shuttle bus back down the canyon to the Zion Lodge and bought a couple of lattes at the cafe.

We found a bench near the large grass lawn and sat in silence while sipping our coffee. The last time my daughter and I sat here, she was four years old. Wow, how those twenty-three years seemed to have whizzed by!

Not only was I awed by the majestic landscape surrounding me, I was equally awed by the young lady sitting next to me. What a beautiful, caring and successful person my daughter has become. A mom can’t ask for much more!

With our energy boosted from the caffeinated coffees and a stop at the Zion Lodge checked off my list, it was time for a little more nostalgia. I wasn’t sure which trail hubby and I took with the kids all those years ago, but I was pretty sure the trail head was near the Zion Lodge, which meant it had to be the Emerald Pools Trail. What I do remember as the highlight of that day for our family of four was walking behind a waterfall. Thus, Ashton and I were off in search of that waterfall.

Emerald Pools Trail Zion National Park
Walking behind a waterfall – Emerald Pools Trail

Yep, I found the right trail and memories flooded back. It was every bit as entertaining during this visit as it was all those years ago, even though the amount of water falling was light in comparison.

The Emerald Pools Trail is a collection of short trails that meander past a small, lushly vegetated stream that rolls down from the cliffs and forms several interesting pools. Since the trail head is located across the street from the Zion Lodge making it easily accessible, the Emerald Pools trail is one of the most popular trails in Zion National Park. With that in mind, we weren’t surprised we encountered plenty of other hikers on the trail, but even though we had to share the trail, it was still worth the hike.

Emerald Pools
The beginning of the Emerald Pools trail hike

Emerald Pools

We did the entire hike from the lower pools to the upper pools, which is about 3 miles round trip. The last stretch to the upper pools was the most difficult, partly due to the number of other hikers on the trail and partly because of the elevation gain.

Zion National Park
Interesting scenery along the trail
Emerald Pools
Traffic jam at the upper pools. When they say this trail is popular, they aren’t kidding!

Emerald Pools Trail Zion National Park

This was a lovely hike that we enjoyed, but personally, I liked the super easy Riverside Walk Trail a little more. Not because it was easy (well, maybe) but because it offered open views of the soaring canyon walls, the rushing Virgin River, and of course, those lush hanging gardens. The Emerald Pools trail is more about the waterfalls and pools of water. The trail to the lower pool is rated easy, but as the trail climbs to the middle pool and eventually upper pool, it gets a little more difficult which is why this stretch is considered moderate.

From the Zion Lodge to the Upper Pool there’s a 350 foot elevation gain. It’s about 3 miles round trip. Plan around 2 hours – depending on photo stops.

Next up, we’re in search of more stunning scenery, and we’ll tackle the hike of all hikes … our epic hike ….

Zion National Park
Virgin River – Zion National Park

Upstairs, both ways

As the sun was slowly rising, Al steps out of the RV to start the generator for the drip coffee maker.  The two other RV’s that were camped across from us in the Cabela’s parking lot have already moved on.  And we thought we were early risers.

Cabela'sWith coffee mugs filled and a couple of scones pulled from the freezer, we hop in the truck and start rolling east on Interstate 80.  Five minutes later, we cross into Iowa from Nebraska.

It’s a Sunday morning with slightly overcast skies and almost no  traffic.  A perfect travel day.  By early afternoon, we cross the Mississippi River and enter the state of Illinois.

RVing in Illinois
Looks like Illinois to me! Filling up with gas.

Al and I both grew up in Illinois and when we moved away in the early nineties, we never looked back.  If it weren’t for family, we probably would not return.  During our long drive yesterday, we both decided to embrace this trip to Illinois with an open mind …. as newbies to the state, you might say.  Let’s play tourist!  Having said that, we still chuckle each time we see a little blue sign saying “tourist info”.  Although Illinois does have some unique and interesting sights, I still wouldn’t put it on a tourist destination list.

Illinois River
Crossing the Illinois River

Last night while we were camped in the Cabela’s parking lot in Omaha, Nebraska, Al and I each got out our laptops and started doing a little Googling.  Family wasn’t expecting our arrival for a few days which allowed us a chance to slow down and explore a little.

Hmm!  We came across these words;  Voted # 1 attraction in the State of Illinois …. a world apart from anything else in Illinois ….. towering trees, amazing waterfalls.  Al says, “I went there once on an elementary school field trip”.  We quickly decide to veer 50 miles out of our way to visit Starved Rock State Park.

We arrived late on a Sunday afternoon and drove around the campground a couple of times looking for a suitable campsite.  It’s obvious the area experienced a good dowsing of rain the day before.  With the exception of the handicap sites which are concrete, all the other sites are grassy.  The grassy ground appeared soft and many sites featured tire ruts.  We had concerns of sinking in the soft ground and possibly getting stuck.

camping in Illinois
Typical campsite at Starved Rock State Park

After serious consideration, we pulled into one of the six available concrete handicap sites and paid for one night.  When the host/ranger came around checking sites, Al was quick to tell him we can be moved within 15 minutes if the site was needed.  We were assured since we weren’t staying on a busy Friday or Saturday night, that it wasn’t a problem considering there were plenty of other handicap sites available.

Illinois State Parks
Starved Rock State Park

We ended up booking another night so we could spend a day hiking and exploring the area.  First up;  we hit the trails in search of waterfalls.

LaSalle Canyon Waterfall
LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park

We visited Starved Rock State Park at the end of July and even though the area had experienced plenty of rain, so much rain that the road to the visit center was blocked off, it was still mid summer meaning the waterfalls would be few and far between…. snow melt had long been melted.

hiking in Illinois
Hiking at Starved Rock State Park amongst lush vegetation. We haven’t been around this much dense greenery in years.

The most popular trail and waterfall is French Canyon.  There was no waterfall and only a trickling stream.  We ventured on taking in the lush, green vegetation.

poison ivyThere’s definitely a beauty to this landscape.  It was a rather warm and humid morning and while other hikers were sporting shorts and tank tops, Al and I stayed in our western hiking attire of being covered up.  We actually managed to avoid using bug spray and didn’t think the mosquitos were terribly bad.  We were also concerned about poison ivy and were vigilant about staying in the center of the trail, that is when we weren’t going up or down stairs.hiking in Illinois

What’s so unique about the trail system at Starved Rock is the series of planked trail and stairs.  You’ll find stairs AND more stairs.  So many stairs, we climbed up stairs both ways.

state parks in Illinois
Note the little plaque on the right post saying “RETURN”. That means the trail leads toward the Visitor Center

Al and I counted 227 steps on one stairway alone.  During our two-hour hike, we have no idea how many stairs we climbed or descended overall.hiking in IllinoisEven with all the stairs, we found the hiking to be very easy.  It was also extremely easy to navigate.  I love maps and rarely hit the trails without one, but here a map is not necessary.  They’ve dumbie proofed the trail system by using little color coded plagues.hikingYellow “AWAY” means you are hiking away from the Visitor Center.Illinois State ParksWhite “RETURN” means you are returning to the Visitor Center.  Pretty easy peezie.  Now if only we could dumbie proof some of the visitors to this lovely Illinois State Park.  We hiked on an early Monday morning after a very busy and crowded weekend.  Al and I were disappointed and disgusted with the amount of trash left behind on the trails.  We’re talking piles of plastic water bottles and empty snack and condiment packaging.  Gross!

We’ve never seen anything like it and I can only assume these are the same ignorant people who approach wild animals for photo ops.  Who do they think is going pick up THEIR trash?  Fortunately, there are volunteers willing to step up and tackle the task.  On July 30th just 3 days after our hike, the Walkers Club and Lodge Staff picked up over 5 huge bags of garbage.

Starved Rock State Park
Volunteers gather trash. On the day we hiked, we had the trail and waterfall to ourselves…. with the exception of that pile of plastic water bottles that greeted us.

The above photo is from the Starved Rock State Park Facebook page.  I did my best not to show any trash in my photos, wanting to share only the beauty of this park.

Illinois State Parks
LaSalle Falls – Starved Rock State Park. If you look real close, you’ll find trash.

Rant over!  No wait.  Did you know the Illinois State Parks are FREE to use?  Yep, that’s right, no day use fee….  nada, no dinero.   So the Bozo’s that left their trash behind, got to hike here totally free of charge.  And by the way, the trails may have been littered with trash, but the campground was spotless and well maintained.

waterfalls in Illinois
a ten second timer was not long enough for me to scurry behind the falls to join Al, without falling on my a*s!

How did the park get its name?  You can click here by learning more about the local Indians and the history surrounding Starved Rock State Park.  We enjoyed our 2 night, 3 day stay very much and would return in a heartbeat to tackle more stairs.Illinois State Parks

Dual Hydration Waist Pack Moss By Everest
Manfrotto MKCOMPACTLT-BK Compact Tripod (Black)

 

Back in the cocoon

When we pulled out of Grand Junction, Colorado, it was another overcast day. I must say, the fickle, inclement weather was getting a little old. Let’s face it, excessive rain can easily put a cramp in any hiking and exploring plans. I am, however, grateful we were not caught in any floods or tornado’s and my heart goes out to those who haven’t been as lucky.

Basalt ColoradoSo looking on the bright side, we moved on to our next destination  making the most of whatever breaks we could get in this crazy weather.

Two hours east of Grand Junction was our first stop.  We stayed on private land about 15 miles south of the town of Glenwood Springs.  This was our third time staying here and it was the perfect venue to hide over the Memorial Day Weekend.  As much as I wanted to revisit the Maroon Bells, the weather had other plans.  Thus, Al and I stuck close to home with the occasional stroll up to the grocery store and back.  It was fun spending a few days living in a residential area.

dry camping
Not a bad view. Perfect place to spend the holiday weekend.

Once the holiday weekend was over, we hit the road for our next stop; Dillon, Colorado.  I’m never fond of driving Vail Pass and more times than not the weather is ugly.  This time was no different.  Around noon on May 26th we experienced a little rain, then a little sleet with a snow flake here and there for a touch of added drama.  Oh, and let’s not forget all the semi-truck traffic and occasional potholes as we summit at 10,662 feet in elevation (3,250m).  This stretch of Interstate 70 is a major east west route through the country and I’m always a bit of a white knuckle driver passenger along this stretch of interstate.Dillon Reservoir

With Vail Pass behind us, we safely navigated to our reserved campsite in the Heaton Bay Campground at the shores of Lake Dillon.  Talk about glorious views in all directions.  We spent some time here last year as well and love the area.camping near Breckenridge

One of the things I didn’t give much thought to when setting up our May schedule was  weather in the high country.  Last year we visited Dillon in June and it wasn’t quite as cold.  When we pulled out of Phoenix, Arizona, on May 7th our travels took us on a continuous slow uphill climb in elevation.  And that meant a temperature change….  a drastic temperature change.  Let’s see, where have we been during the month of May…..

  • Phoenix, Arizona              elevation 1,124 feet  (331m)   day temps 90+
  • Moab, Utah                      elevation 4,025 feet (1,227m)          60’s
  • Grand Junction, CO         elevation 4,593 feet (1,397m)          60’s
  • Glenwood Springs, CO    elevation 5,761 feet (1,756m)          60’s
  • Dillon/Breckenridge CO   elevation 9,115 plus feet (2,777m)   50’s

In early May, we were basking in temperatures in the 90’s (32c) with clear, blue sunny skies in Phoenix.  Even the night-time temps were in the upper 60’s.  I had the bed made with crisp cool cotton sheets topped with our medium to light weight comforter.  Every night we slept with the windows open….. aaahhhh!

And then we moved up to Moab where we were greeted with cool overcast skies and cold nights which required us to add our couch throw on top of the comforter for just a little extra added warmth for sleeping.

Onto Grand Junction where a steady stream of storms rolled through bringing with it rain and cold.  We occasionally woke up during the night due to the cold and would need to flip the furnace on.  Brrr….. and to think, we’d be venturing into even colder territory.  I know, what was I thinking?

Camping near Breckenridge Colorado
That’s us – middle right. Heaton Bay Campground on the Dillon Reservoir … only 20 minutes south of Breckenridge.

With the temperatures getting colder, it was time for me to bring back the “cocoon”.  By that I mean, I brought out the flannel sheets and the second comforter.  If you’ve never tried flannel sheets, I highly recommend giving them a try next winter.  The bed cocoon was ready for some great sleeping.  Keep in mind, when we’re dry camping we really don’t want the furnace running and zapping our batteries. Thus, we set the RV furnace down to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night.  We keep it on to assure our belly/pipes keep warm just in case temps unexpectedly drop below freezing.

Breckenridge camping
Frost on the picnic table.

Probably a good thing that we kept the furnace running as we did experience cold enough overnight temperatures that we woke up to a thick layer of frost covering the truck and picnic tables on more than one occasion.

camping near Breckenridge
Toward the end of May, water is let out of the reservoir to allow for snow melt. Each morning we were there, the lake was rapidly receding. All part of water management.

During our stay in Dillon (the last week in May), high’s were in the 55° to 62° range with night-time temps dropping into the thirties.  Even though it was rather cold getting out of bed in the morning, while in bed we were snug as a bug and comfy in our cotton flannel cocoon and slept great.

Lake Dillon
the hiking and biking opportunities around the towns of Dillon, Breckenridge, Keystone and Frisco are endless. Gorgeous country that we find ourselves returning to each year.

Did you know, the average snowfall for the month of May in Dillon is 7.3 inches? (18.5cm)  And to think, Phoenix gets on average 7 inches of rainfall a year.  As beautiful as it is around Dillon and Breckenridge, I’m ready for those crisp cool sheets again.   I think we’ll save future visits to Dillon, Colorado, for the months of July and August.  So lower elevation here we come.  I can’t wait to see all the signs of summer!bumble beeFor those of you interested in camping info…. There are four campgrounds situated around Lake Dillon aka Dillon Reservoir and they are all part of the White River National Forest. Lowry Campground and Loop C in the Heaton Bay Campground offer electric. The rest is dry hiking near Breckenridgecamping only. Prospectors and Lowry Campgrounds are located near Keystone, while Peak One and Heaton Bay are located in Frisco.

Also note, the campgrounds are run by an independent concessionaire and camping fees are actually $21 a night instead of the $19 listed on the Forest Service website – half off with the senior pass. $2 more a night for holiday weekends (info as of May 30, 2015).   I’ll hold my tongue about these private entities and their free rein.

We chose to forgo an electric site because Loop C is near a highway and the Interstate and therefore a fair amount of traffic noise is heard. It’s also the busiest, meaning without a reservation, it’s tough to score an open site in Loop C.  Lowry campground is located high above the lake and is not as picturesque as the other campgrounds and therefore folks find it the least desirable.

Larger RV’s might find it challenging navigating around here (at all four campgrounds), not to say there aren’t sites large enough, it just takes some looking around and a little creative maneuvering.  We barely had enough room to park our truck on site E78.  Our 5th wheel is 31 feet long.

Heaton Bay has paved campsites while the others are gravel.  There are vault toilets and the occasional water spigot scattered throughout the campgrounds.  No showers and no dump station but the scenery is spectacular.  Shopping is close by, location is great, and the outdoor activities are endless.

Heaton Bay Campground
Heaton Bay Campground – Site E78

Pinzon Lightweight Cotton Flannel Sheet Set – Queen, Floral Grey
Coleman Water Carrier (5-Gallon, Blue)


I’d love for you to visit my food blog over at   Dally in the Galley

Should’ve Stayed in Bed

flowering cactusThe sun was shining. There was a light breeze blowing off the lake. The desert plants seemed to have come alive after the drenching of rain the day before. Yep, it sure was a beautiful morning. Seemed like a great day to hit the road for our journey north.

Our stay in Phoenix was already longer than intended and we were definitely ready to move on. Normally I feel a sense of excitement on moving day. Not that day. Al and I both felt a sense of hesitation. Was it because we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Lake Pleasant or was it saying good-bye to our son? Neither one of us could pinpoint our lack of enthusiasm for those RV wheels rolling once again. But roll they did.

desert floraWe left Lake Pleasant in Phoenix, Arizona, shortly after 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, April 3rd. The first 145 mile, two-hour trek from Phoenix to Flagstaff required a 5,800 foot climb in elevation. Our F-250 pulls our 31 foot 5th wheel over mountain passes with ease. Al and I are accustomed to mountain driving and don’t shy away from steep grades (slope). As long as we stay on major highways or interstates, we’re comfortable and good to go.

In less than an hour, we’d climbed from 1,100 feet to 3,000 feet in elevation. Al’s bike fell part way off the bike rack dragging the hand grip and hand brake on the road pavement. Ok, the kind of damage that can easily be dealt with. With the bike secured, we continued our drive.trailer tires

It wasn’t but thirty minutes later and a trailer tire blew. Oh joy, what fun!!! Al pulls over and he and I assess the damage. I’m ready to call AAA or Good Sam Roadside Assistance, after all we do pay for these services, but Al stops me and informs me he’s going to change the tire himself. Really? After an hour and quite a few expletives later, we were on the road again. What a stud!

While he messes with the tire, I grab my packaging tape and begin to work my magic on the busted up wheel well fender.  We’re looking classy now!

Allow me to back track for a moment…… We had retrieved my little red truck from storing it for a couple of months in our son’s garage and thus that day we were traveling with two vehicles. Al and I were driving separately. As both trucks were parked along the very business Interstate 17, Al had sat in the passenger side seat of my truck while we discussed the plan. We needed air in the now mounted spare tire and the tire behind the one that blew before driving too far or we’d run into more problems and potentially blow another tire.

Since we’ve driven this stretch of I-17 more times than we can count, we’re very familiar with most of the exits and rest areas. Just ten minutes up the road is a Chevron gas station at the Camp Verde exit that we’ve used in the past. Al pulls up to the air pump. We plunk in 4 quarters for air.  It doesn’t even begin to inflate the tire. Those pay compressors rarely do. At this point, I can sense the slow simmer of frustration working up within Al. I recommend we grab a bite to eat.

desert lizardThere’s a Wendy’s attached to the Chevron gas station. We grab a meal, drinks, find a table, and proceed to eat in silence. Half way through our meal, a group of State Troopers entered the Wendy’s. Al lights up, excuses himself, and heads over to talk to one of the officers. Al returns to our table in better spirits and responds, “I know where to get air. There’s a tire store just up the road”.

The guys at Tire Pro Automotive in Camp Verde, Arizona, were awesome. The tech checked and filled all the tires on the 5th wheel, the F-250, and my Toyota Tacoma including our spares. The tech was also a wealth of information. We’ll be getting all new tires on the 5th wheel in a few weeks once we’re back in Colorado.

Whew…..finally on the road again. Al has me drive in the lead. I’m usually pretty good with directions and once I’ve driven a route I tend to remember it. To head up into Utah we need to take Highway 89 in Flagstaff. Well, there’s the 89 that goes through town and the bypass around town via I-40. The signs are clearly marked.

It’s now one o’clock in the afternoon. What should have been a two hour drive had taken us five hours. I had a brain fart fog and veered left onto business 89 and Al veered right to go around town. I called him on the two way radio and let him know I’ll figure it out and meet him on the other side. Once again that fog sets in and I get myself turned around and go to call Al on his cell phone to let him know not to worry. His phone rings under the passenger seat in my truck  #!?@!   Remember when he got in my vehicle to talk while dealing with the blown tire? Well his cell phone fell out of his pocket, down between the seats, and landed under the passenger seat. The two way radios are only good for 2 miles, and we were separated well beyond those 2 miles, thus he and I had lost communication with each other.free ranging cows

Could anything else go wrong? At this point, I’m saying to myself, “We should have stayed in bed”.

Al and I reconnected north of Flagstaff. Al was waiting for me at a pull-out and once I got closer the radios began to work again. We continued our trek to the town of Kayenta, Arizona, where we stopped for a quick dinner of sandwiches and a discussion on our destination.  We had originally planned on staying in Monument Valley and taking in the sights, but at this point we didn’t care about any red rock monoliths, spires, or buttes. They’ve been there a million years, they’ll still be there next year.  I just wanted to park my rear for a few days to decompress and I knew just the spot to do exactly that.

We first discovered Goosenecks State Park in southern Utah two years ago and decided that would be the perfect place to unwind. We pulled into Goosenecks after a very long eleven hour day. We left the rig and truck connected, put out the slides, grabbed a couple of margaritas, our chairs, and sat in silence as we watched the sunset over the expansive mesa.Goosenecks State Park

Oh, did I mention the two very close calls we experienced that day? First let me say, I hate the drive between Phoenix and Flagstaff via Interstate 17, but it’s the quickest and easiest route northbound; not a lot of other options. Since it’s the only north south interstate in northern Arizona it’s frequented by a lot of truck traffic, RV traffic, and traffic in general. Not all vehicles can handle the grades and thus travel 30 miles per hour (65 mph speed limit) as they slowly climb or descend the change in elevation…..I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.  This creates bottle necks.  And then there’s the impatient driver with an engine that has no problem with the grades who likes to weave in and out of traffic testing their vehicles performance……zoom, zoom.  Slow trucks, fast cars, add in a mix of RV’s, lots of changing of the lanes, and you’ve got yourself one interesting drive.

That said, while uncomfortably parked along the interstate changing that tire, one of those impatient drivers cut off a semi truck. As the situation unfolded before me, I thought, “This is it. We’re going to be plowed into and killed instantly”. Thankfully, the disaster was narrowly averted due to a skilled truck driver.Gooseneck State Park

Later that day on highway 160 between Tuba City and Keyanta, Arizona, I managed to avoid a head on collision. I saw the oncoming pick-up truck in my lane a little too close for comfort and hit my brakes slowing way down. If I had not slowed that drastically……..? Due to a guardrail, I was unable to move to the side of the road, thus slowing was my only option.  I had no where to go.  Needless to say, Al was following me far enough behind that my braking had little impact on him, but the close call he witnessed had his heart skip a beat.

And now for the topper…….the blown tire damaged our water line.  We get to enjoy two weeks of dry camping with a leaking water line.  All part of the adventure……living the dream.  Dream? Nightmare?  All the same, eh!  Such is life.

Yep, cocktails, sunset, and hitting the hay asap….. Tomorrows another day!Valley of the GodsFYI….  we’re currently in Moab, Utah, and heading up into Canyonlands National Park for a week.  I will be without internet connection while in Canyonlands.  Catch y’all when I get back to Colorado and I’m reconnected 🙂  The adventure continues……