As I mentioned in the previous blog, we left Dinosaur CO with no firm plan of where we were going to spend the next night. This is not unusual for us, as we tend not to make reservations as we travel. In this part of the country there are lots of boondocky BLM campgrounds that will serve for a night’s stay without much fear of the campgrounds filling up.
That is, under normal circumstances. Unfortunately this is Labor Day weekend, a fact that I had overlooked when initially sketching out our rough travel plan a few weeks ago. Labor Day, like Memorial Day, is one of the weekends of the year that always causes us problems, because everyone who owns an RV comes out and fills every national, state, county, and BLM campground for three days.
Added to that was the factor of climate. We are usually heading back from New England around this time of year, and so air conditioning is less of a requirement than it is in the desert southwest. At Dinosaur we were encountering temperatures in the mid-90s by day, with lots of sun, and as we worked our way down the border of Utah and Colorado it wasn’t going to get any cooler. In this part of the country, altitude means a lot more than latitude, and we were definitely going down by both measures, so the primitive BLM sites would mean a warm evening.
Our drive down through western Colorado was filled with bucolic rolling scenery. I had put all faith in Garminita, which is always a bad idea. She chosen Rt 139 in Colorado, using her usual doctrine of “quickest” possible route, which in this case took us over an unsigned pass called Douglas. Scenic and direct, yes. My only tip that things were about to get interesting was a gate at the beginning of the climb, which the road crews use to close the road in winter, and a drop in speed limit from 45 to 25. There were no signs indicating that a steep grade was ahead.
Well, the Mercedes has not yet met the grade it can’t climb with 7,500 pounds of Airstream attached. It doesn’t climb quickly, but it always gets there. In this case, we estimated Douglas to be about a 10% grade on the way up (heading south) and a 10-12% grade going down, with a peak elevation of 8,200 feet. It easily was the steepest road we’ve ever descended, and equal to the dreaded Teton Pass (10%) between Jackson Hole WY and Idaho. The only steeper one I’ve seen is the road into Tonto Natural Bridge State Park (AZ) at 14% and we didn’t take the Airstream down that.
We climbed and descended successfully, using second gear much of the time for engine braking on the way down, and managed to complete Douglas Pass without overheating, needing to turn off the air conditioner, or smoking the brakes. Still, it would have been nice to have had a sign beforehand warning of the steep grade.
After this, while on Interstate 70 from Colorado to Utah, we began discussing our options for an overnight stop. From a distance perspective, our ideal stop would be somewhere south of Moab. That would allow us to pull in around 6 p.m.
We had our eyes on Canyonlands National Park’s “Needles District,” which we’ve never visited before. But being the holiday weekend, it was iffy whether we’d get in there. The National Park campground, Squaw Flat, is not very large and is entirely first-come, first-camped. Worse, the entry road from Rt 191, which is the main highway heading south from Moab, is 34 miles long, so just taking a peek to see if spaces were available would take nearly an hour.
My second choice was Navajo National Monument in Arizona, but that would require us to drive over 300 miles and arrive around 8 p.m. Hovenweep National Monument would be a slight detour from our route (about 20 miles) but like Navajo, the campground rarely fills because of its remote location, so we weren’t in danger of a shut-out.
We shelved the decision for a while and opted to take a scenic route from I-70 in Utah down to Moab, namely Rt 128. We had no idea what a great decision this was until we got about 15 miles into it. At that point, the road begins to follow the Green River through astonishing red sandstone canyons. It is—and I say this as a guy who has driven a lot of scenic roads in the past few years—among the top ten most scenic drives we’ve ever done. Absolutely spectacular.
Somewhere in this drive we stopped by the river to take a break. I was opening the screen door to step out of the Airstream when a gust of wind caught the unlatched main door and slammed it against three of my fingers. Ouch. After icing the fingers for a few minutes I resolved to ensure that the door is always latched when open. The throbbing fingers at least had the effect of keeping me wide awake for the rest of the drive.
Along this road are numerous BLM campgrounds, all of which seemed about 3/4 full but I wasn’t ready to stop driving quite yet and the outside temperature was hovering in the low 90s. We pressed on through Moab (setting a new record for highest fuel price paid in our travels: $4.29 per gallon for diesel), down past a half dozen commercial campgrounds, Wilson Arch and the famous Hole In The Wall tourist trap, and then we faced the decision point, where Rt 211 heads west toward the Needles District of Canyonlands.
What to do? If we took the turn we’d be facing a one way trip of 34 miles and no guarantee of a campsite. From prior research we knew that there were three campgrounds down the road: Squaw Flat (no hookups but the most appealing site to us for its in-park location), a commercial operation just outside the park entrance (unappealing sites but at least some hookups), and a BLM site called Hamburger Rock about five miles from the park entrance (no hookups).
A park ranger was sitting in his truck at the turnoff to Rt 211, so Eleanor checked with him and he said there were “probably” two open sites at Squaw Flat. Good enough for us. Nearly an hour later, we arrived at the entrance to Canyonlands and found a few empty sites and a handful of white-box Class C rentals being driven by Europeans on vacation. They were looping around the campground like it was a game of musical chairs, trying to choose a campsite.
Being fussy about which campsite you get is not a good idea when there are four campers looking at three campsites on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. You don’t hesitate in a moment like this. Amazingly, our luck held. We snagged a really fantastic site before the musical chairs game ended, and a few minutes after that the campground was full.
This is a beautiful spot. $15 per night, no water, no electric, no dump station, but it’s the scenery, not the services, that you’re paying for. Imagine a place right out of a Wiley Coyote/Roadrunner cartoon, with unlikely red sandstone formations, vibrant blue skies, twisted trees, and deep canyons. The ranger talk we attended last night was held beneath a natural rock overhang. Our campsite is bordered by trees and great boulders that Emma can climb.
We’re reasonably sheltered from both morning and evening light, so hopefully it won’t get terribly hot in the Airstream but we’ll still get midday light for the solar panels. Not that we’ll be using a lot of power. There is no usable cell signal out here, and no wifi at the visitor center. No need to charge the laptops, phones, or iPad. We are in a very remote and quiet place, perfect for Labor Day weekend in my opinion.