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Trip Report: 3 weeks in the Southwest, May-June 2015

Trip Report: 3 weeks in the Southwest, May-June 2015

Old Jul 7th, 2015, 05:01 PM
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Trip Report: 3 weeks in the Southwest, May-June 2015

This year we decided to take an extended camping trip to the Southwest, seeing some new places and revisiting others where we had not been in 20 years. I will use our camping and motel stops as punctuations in the trip.

Our first stop for three days was Sequoia National Park which is a day’s drive from San Francisco. Not all the campgrounds were open, so the Lodgepole campground was fairly full. We had left the day after Memorial Day weekend, and figured, correctly as it turned out, that we would have no problem getting a campsite. There are paid showers at the Lodgepole Village.

The attraction of Sequoia National Park, aside from its giant trees is that it is a very walkable area with relatively little elevation changes in the main area and yet with the opportunity to be away from the crowds. Even the Giant Forest was uncrowded once we were a couple hundred yards down the trail away from the General Sherman Tree. We took the shuttle to the Giant Forest and then walked from one shuttle area to the other, taking the shuttle back to the campground. The next day we drove to the Museum area (including Moro Rock and the Crescent Meadow area) because of time efficiency. But there are shuttle buses for all these areas, which probably should be used in the height of season because of parking problems (limited parking near Moro Rock). None of the walks/mild hikes are difficult. On one trail we met some people who had hiked from the Lodgepole campground to Crescent Meadow (mainly downhill) and the trails we were on would allow walking with just sandals—our case, me for comfort, my wife because of foot problems. Sequoia is a nice area for those who just want to take walks in peaceful surroundings.

There are wild animals. We saw deer, bears (6 in one day), a marmot and a rattlesnake. The latter surprised me because I did not expect it at that altitude (there are no warnings of rattlesnakes in the literature or posted, unlike in desert areas). All food and other odorous items must be stored in bear proof lockers at the camp site.

The pictures of Sequoia have been incorporated in my Sierra Nevada album:

Our next destination from Sequoia was Flagstaff. But that was too long for a day’s drive, and even our next overnight stop, the Mojave National Preserve, was a long drive away—about 6 hours. Temperatures in Barstow were close to 100℉ and my wife was dreading a desert campground stop. Our directions to the campground were not the best. Our understanding was that it was close to Cima and we figured that we could ask for directions there. The few houses that constitute the town are now abandoned, it is a ghost town. The signage was not very good in that it left us wondering if we were on the right track (dirt roads from Cima onward) but we eventually found the Mid Hills campground. Bring your own water (we have a 7 gallon water jug). Half the sites are nice, the other half in open ground areas due to a 2005 fire that swept the area. At 5,600 ft. altitude, it has pleasant temperatures.

On our way out we passed by the Preserve’s information center. It was closed, and the nearby campground did not look as attractive as Mid Hills because it was treeless. A word on distances: whether coming from the south or the north (we came from the north), it is about 50 miles to the campgrounds from I15 or I40.


The pictures of this area are incorporated in my southern California album:

We drove off to Flagstaff and stopped in Needles for gas. Big mistake. The price was almost twice as much as it was 9 miles down the road at the next truck stop in Arizona.

A word about our camping: We do tent camping and are willing to stop for just one night even though we know that it will take us a couple of hours between the time we get up and the time we drive off—cold cereal and coffee constitute breakfast. By now I have it down to a science to load our RAV4 with all the equipment, making sure that things needed during our day time travels, such as picnic items, are readily accessible. We have a gas stove and a gas lantern and use the small propane canisters for the fuel. These are relatively expensive in California ($8 to $9.50) and are about at half that price in Utah and Colorado, no matter where; the National Park concession prices follow general state prices for these items.

Our next stop was Flagstaff by request. My wife had a good memory of the Museum of Northern Arizona and wanted to see it again. Since our last visit there we have visited other museums of Native American culture, and discovered that while this museum has an important place in the scientific research of Southwest Indian culture, its collection is less impressive in what is exhibited than, for example, some museums in Santa Fe. Not a disappointment, just a reality check, and recommended for anyone who happens to be in the Flagstaff area.

We also visited Riordan Mansion State Historic Park, which touts its period furniture, but in my mind it’s the architecture that is intriguing. Two brothers and families had identical mansions built connected by one very large family room (the formal guest receptions were in the individual mansions). One of the mansions and the family room have original furniture and an impressive kitchen, but no photography is allowed, and the other mansion is arranged as a small museum of the family with photographs of their business activity (mainly lumber) and the family itself. Its kitchen is less interesting but photos are allowed; lacking the original furniture, it is less appealing

We stayed at the Rodeway Inn Flagstaff, 2140 Historic Rte 66, Flagstaff, AZ 86004. It’s basic but the price was right ($140 for two nights, I believe), with coin operated laundry facilities. We did not even try their coffee. Biff’s Bagels, across the RR tracks from the old downtown, has very good bagels and coffee, and La Bellavia Restaurant across the street has even better coffee.
We also had two dinners in Flagstaff. While the beer at the Beaver Street Brewery is very good, with a good variety, the food was just OK. Not bad, but not particularly interesting. It does have an open grill, so hamburgers and steak, neither of which we chose, might be the way to go. For better food of that ilk I would choose Satchmo’s, 2320 N 4th St, Flagstaff, AZ 86004 where we had very good ribs and the portions are plentiful.

There is a Sunday farmer’s market in Flagstaff with a lot of organic products. We picked up some wonderful tomatoes (expensive at $4 per lb. but very flavorful), a grass-fed beef steak from a local ranch and a packet of delicious medjool dates from the Tucson area. It’s luxury shopping.

We discovered in Flagstaff that public libraries will allow guests to use their computers for free. We had called from San Francisco for reservations to see Antelope Canyon and were told that they were full for the entire month. In Flagstaff we sent to the library on a Saturday and were able to secure reservations for the 11 a.m. tour the following Tuesday. That also defined our itinerary time. We had no reason to stay in Flagstaff, so we drove off on Monday to Lee’s Ferry to camp there overnight. Lee’s Ferry is the starting point for trips down the Grand Canyon. The river has a beach there and there is also a historic ranch with its orchard, nestled in a side canyon. The campground is quite bare and rocky, we found the one campsite where a tent could be erected on softer ground, perhaps just out of what should have been the campsite boundary. It was so windy that we had to cook on the stove; the steak suffered from it. There is running water in the utility room between the men’s and the women’s washrooms. On the whole it is not a campground for an extended stay, and if there had been no wind, it probably would have been unbearably hot.

The next day we went to Page, had lunch in a public park, went to the library to check our e-mails, and because of a misunderstanding arrived at the meeting point for the tour 5 minutes before departure, when we should have been there 1.5 hours ahead of departure. But my wife feels that we could have gotten in even without reservations. The Lonely Planet Southwest USA is correct when it says that the tours of Antelope Canyon “can feel a bit like a cattle call, but the uniqueness of the experience makes a visit worthwhile.” We were told that we would have to wait and see if there would be room in the next scheduled tour, and as we were told, another staff person called out to fill another 14 persons on the back of a pick-up truck. That person never checked reservations. It was the last truck of a dozen or more to go for that hour, which means that the canyon is not a contemplative experience with 200 or so people going through it, with the guides throwing up sand in the wider areas to replicate the sun/dust columns during wind storms above and throwing sand on the ledges to replicate the natural sand waterfalls that occur under certain weather conditions. The guides know where to take certain pictures, to the point that they will take your camera and take the picture for you. This is a money maker for them ($40 per person, tips are encouraged) and they try to accommodate anyone who wants to see it. While bouncing on the truck (no seat belts) I changed to my hiking boots. That was completely unnecessary. The canyon is essentially flat with a sandy bottom, the only climbing is to get on and off the trucks; sandals are fine.

These are the pictures of Antelope Canyon: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca...7783/show?rb=1

We left Antelope Canyon and drove to Navajo National Monument (http://www.nps.gov/nava/index.htm ) where we spent the night (no fee site). We arrived early enough to walk to the Sandal Trail to the cliff dwelling overlook. We stayed at the Sunset View campground which has running water (the other campground does not). Our neighbor was a German bicyclist who had already spent two months on the road starting in Atlanta, Georgia and was planning on another 4 months to reach Seattle and Vancouver via the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. We shared some wine and coffee with him, items that he was less likely to have in trying to keep his luggage weight down. He was very taken by our Tonka Toaster—our dessert almost every night camping was two pieces of bread with a fruit filling toasted over the fire—to the point that he wrote the name down for an eventual purchase. In this 4 Corners area we came across several bicyclists, always alone, riding in the middle of nowhere.

This trip’s pictures have been incorporated into my Arizona album:

We drove to Moab and Arches National Park. Inquired about campsite and discovered that the campground is fully booked from June until September. It was suggested that we try the BLM campground along the Colorado River—there are several with a 10 to 12 mile length of road, but they were all full. We continued up into the mountains, but decided that these were too far from Arches and would have turned out to be very cold at night given the weather conditions. Closing the loop by coming back down south of Moab, we found a BLM campground that would be acceptable in terms of distance, but it was getting late and rather than setting up camp and cooking, we decided to stay in a motel that night. We stayed at the Adventure Inn (listed in Lonely Planet) for $90 and ate at Singha Thai which was OK. For breakfast we followed LP’s recommendation and frequented the EklectiCafé; I generally do not eat breakfast but did one morning—it cost around $9, was delicious and was large enough to cover lunch. Other days I just ordered a double espresso.

We found Lonely Planet to be very good in giving recommendations for things like cafés in small towns. Had we read some description more thoroughly we would not have missed the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding.

The next day we set up camp at the Ken’s Lake BLM campground for three nights. There is a stream running through, but that would require boiling water. We had our 7 gallon container that we refilled at the Arches NP Visitor’s Center.

We visited Arches for two days, seeing the main sights. I took a hike to Navajo Arch and climbed up to see the other side at Double Arch. Otherwise we stayed on the easier paths. Even the walk to Landscape Arch can be done in ordinary shoes and sandals, although the last 100 yards are on sand which could be uncomfortable with any open foot wear. Going to Navajo Arch requires some clambering over rocks and should not be attempted without some type of sports foot wear. On the third day we went to Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park and stopped at the major overviews to admire the scenery. We shared a picnic table with a French couple. They asked us if all the parks were that clean, discovered from our picnic lunch that decent bread can be had in the Southwest, felt that the campground amenities were limited (no showers at some campgrounds), and that there were too few. But I suspect that for the latter point, they were not familiar with the National Forest, BLM, state park, etc., campgrounds that exist all over the place. We happen to have a 1992 edition of a Western US campground guide which is on the whole still valid for public campgrounds. Unfortunately this was its final edition, and with the existence of the web, anything similar will probably never be printed again.

For the next two nights we camped in the Needles section of Canyonlands NP, finding what was the nicest camp site of our whole trip. The trails on this side of the park are different from the ones on the north side. The short ones are mainly on the mesa, offering views of a summer cowboy camp, pot hole areas (we did not see any living creatures in them—maybe some bubbles indicating their existence), and a pre-Columbian stone storage structure. Big Spring Canyon Overlook does offer more dramatic views, but nothing compared to the north side. To see more dramatic views, one needs to take the Slick Rock trail—I and a couple had difficulty finding the return trail once we reached its farthest point; and presumably the Confluence Overlook which was too long for me to take for the short time we were there.

From Canyonlands we drove to Monticello (another nice café thanks to LP) and then east toward Colorado to double back to get to Hovenweep National Monument. We should have gone to Blanding to look at the museum. Hovenweep was an overnight stay. We arrived early enough to do the trail around the canyon with all the ruins. That has not changed. But the camping area and the Visitor’s Center are quite different from when we were last there in 1987. The campsites now have tent platforms that we encountered in various developed parks, and the Visitor’s Center appears to be brand new. The campground is on the edge of the mesa with little protection. This time the coyotes were not howling in the evening as they had in 1987. The tent platforms and protective overhangs for the tables are an improvement. It used to be that getting the pegs into the often hard rocky ground was iffy, bending or breaking the pegs while driving to drive them in (essential in windy areas). Now the platforms are filled with compacted soil that allows driving the pegs and yet holds them better than sand would—but a mallet or hammer is still necessary.

From Hovenweep we drove to Mesa Verde, made reservations in the big visitor’s center at the very entrance of the park for three tours ($4 per person per tour) of cliff houses, and then drove to the campground. We had made camping reservations in Moab, fearing that this one might present the same problem as at Arches, but this was not the case. The campground was never fully occupied while we were there. When making the reservation, there was no option to indicate that we had a senior pass qualifying us for a half-price discount, and we had to pay for the first night when making the reservation. But the staff at the campground store worked out the problem and adjusted the subsequent payments to even out the cost as it should have been. Near the campground there is a store, a laundry facility frequented also by those who need to charge their phones, laptops, and in our case camera battery and electric toothbrush. There are also free showers.

For those who wish to maximize their one day in Mesa Verde, this is what I suggest: a morning tour of the Cliff Palace, a late afternoon tour of the Balcony House or the Long House. I recommend the latter because the mesa is different and the longer walk on top gives the rangers the opportunity to present materials beyond the cliff dwelling itself; but one should be careful on driving times to get to the meeting point. Between the two tours, one can picnic and have the time to visit the Spruce Tree House near the Museum and its complex of restaurant and stores; there is also a large picnic site in that area, or the trail head to the Long House cliff dwellings also has picnic tables. All the tours will require at a minimum going up and down stairs, and some will require climbing ladders. The most strenuous is the Balcony House tour that has a 30 ft. ladder climb and also a crawl through a short but narrow (18 in.) tunnel. Sports foot wear is not necessary; I did change shoes, but it turns out I could have worn my Tevas with no problem. For cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde is the place to see, and should have priority over Navajo National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument.

From Mesa Verde we drove to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, stopping in Mancos for coffee (two good coffee houses, one in LP) and bread from the coffee shop/bakery, in Durango to get an oil change and a possibly unnecessary brake fluid change, and at the James Ranch (listed in LP) where we picked up a hanger steak of grass-fed beef. The sales person warned us that grass-fed beef cannot be overcooked, or else it gets tough, but we told her that as long as it doesn’t move we consider the meat edible. We also stopped in Silverton where we had lunch and picked up a couple of bottles of locally made (from Louisiana sugar) rum—a change from the local beers. By crossing the range to Ouray we left behind us the rainy conditions we had since Moab. It was a blessing in that it kept the temperatures down and it did not inhibit our touring much—we turned back on one hike during our visit to Isle in the Sky because of rolling thunder that was approaching, but otherwise only one evening meal was interrupted by rain and finished sitting in the car. It did rain at night, and it took us longer than usual to break camp in Mesa Verde because we had to wipe down the tent and tent pad. My impression is that Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP—as distinct from the national recreational area upstream and the wilderness area at the bottom of the canyon—is worth a couple of hours driving along the rim and stopping at the lookout points, which is what we did between setting up camp and having dinner. In that regard it is not much different from Grand Canyon NP for those who do not venture down the trails; but the views are quite different. Compared to the Grand Canyon, Black Canyon etc., is a slot canyon in dark colors.

The pictures for this part of the trip have been incorporated into my Colorado album:

The next day we left and drove through Utah—Green River was the one town without decent coffee but a nice park for lunch—to stop overnight in Delta. There are three motels in Delta, one with an attached diner and “fancy” steak restaurant upstairs, but otherwise they look of similar quality which was mediocre. We chose the Ranch motel ($45) with its dining facilities. As we were checking in the hostess happened to mention that the rodeo was in town, so that evening we were treated to the last of three nights of rodeo in Delta. Delta also happens to be the town closest to the Topaz Relocation Camp. Delta has a brand new museum related to the camp but open only on weekdays and we arrived Saturday, leaving Sunday. We drove out to the site of the camp itself, which has a memorial and a couple signs. Some cabin platforms are still visible, but that’s about it.

The pictures of this trip have been incorporated into my Utah album:

Our next stop was the National Forest Big Creek campground 12 miles south of Austin, Nevada at the mouth of a canyon with a creek running through it, which was the only water available.

Here are the Nevada pictures:

From there we drove to Lake Tahoe to stay at the lodge of the ski club to which I belong; and then home to SF.
Michael is online now  
Old Jul 7th, 2015, 07:14 PM
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Wow - a lot of information here Michael. Sounds like you had an adventure!
patandhank is offline  
Old Jul 7th, 2015, 07:21 PM
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Sounds like a good trip. I've been to most of the places you mention. I have not been to Antelope Canyon or Black Canyon of the Gunnison though.
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Old Jul 12th, 2015, 02:40 AM
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Thank you for the great trip report, Michael. Sounds like you both had a wonderful adventure. Looking forward to our fall trip to the Southwest!
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Old Jul 12th, 2015, 07:42 PM
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Thanks for this great trip report! We visited several of the same places in May and it was fun to hear about your experiences. Thanks for sharing!
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Old Jul 13th, 2015, 05:38 AM
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Great trip report... the pictures are wonderful and your detail is appreciated!
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Old Jul 16th, 2015, 05:06 AM
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Wonderful report! We are heading to Southwest Colorado in a few weeks. A couple of questions about Mesa Verde. One, is there any climbing DOWN ladders. My mother is worried about going down them......not coming up, but down. Also, did you notice younger kids on the tours? I have two boys, 5 and 7, and there are no age restrictions listed for the tours. I am not worried about behavior, so much as it is listed as strenuous. We are hikers, etc, so I am not too worried, but I would like to hear first hand your opinion. Thank you!
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Old Jul 16th, 2015, 08:23 AM
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I recall going down one ladder, but can't recall which tour. I think that the Cliff Palace is the safest in that regard. But going down was not more than a few rungs, as opposed to going up as much as 30 ft.

We had a very young child, about 6, who was refusing to climb the ladder at the Balcony house, but between the ranger and the parent, she made it to the top.

None of them are particularly strenuous for anyone who is generally fit, but the Long House has a good walk on the mesa; that's why I insisted that any foot wear beyond flip-flops would be OK.
Michael is online now  
Old Aug 4th, 2015, 09:44 AM
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Thank you, good info. I admire the fact you camped....in a tent! My sleeping on the ground days are behind me. Lol
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Old Aug 4th, 2015, 10:56 AM
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We do use air mattresses.
Michael is online now  
Old Aug 4th, 2015, 11:33 AM
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What a wonderful adventure. Camping really does add another dimension to a trip. Great photos!
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