Offroading Canyonlands National Park, UT

We decided to skip Dinosaur National Monument this time around and head straight to Canyonlands.   Dino is operating under some restrictions due to the visitor center being closed, and the fact that it is off-season.   We’ll visit that park on another trip.   So our route took us down from Blue Mesa reservoir along Rt 50/285 to Montrose, and then northwest to Grand Junction CO, where we picked up I-70 to Utah.

As I’ve mentioned before, the drive along Rt 50 across Colorado is a fantastic and worthy roadtrip.   I-70 from Denver to Grand Junction is pretty good (for an Interstate highway) as well, but given the choice   I’d pick Rt 50 except in winter.   I can’t say the same for I-70 west of Grand Junction, because as soon as you cross into Utah it becomes a pretty featureless and dull road.   The compensation is that you’re out of the mountains and on the straightaways, and so you can go fast.

I upped the rig to 65 MPH just so I wouldn’t get blown away by cars and trucks going the legal limit of 75 MPH.     The increase in speed dings our fuel economy but we still got an overall 13.5 MPG for the segment, which isn’t bad for towing.   We could have gone the speed limit with no problem, but as a general rule I don’t tow that fast.   The trailer’s tires are rated for only 65 MPH and the fuel cost would have been high.   As another GL320/Airstream owner once told me, “The GL will tow at any speed you care to pay for.”

The entrance we used to Canyonlands National Park is just north of Moab UT.   The park is divided into four districts, each separately accessible: Islands In The Sky (where we are), Needles, The Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon.   The districts have completely different routes leading in, and this makes it virtually impossible to visit all of the districts in less than a week.  The distance from one entrance to another can be several hours.  We chose Islands In The Sky for its accessibility and features — it should be a good orientation to the park overall.  We’ll have to visit the other districts in future trips.

You have to come prepared to visit this place.  Visually, it is like a mashup of Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon.   The views are stunning. But there is no lodging, no water, no fuel, and no services (restaurant, repair, or otherwise).   The only campground in this district is called Willow Flat and it has just 12 sites.   It fills every day this time of year.   It has no dump station or water either.  For just about anything, you have to drive 25-30 miles to Moab along a circuitous (paved) road, which means a minimum 45 minute trip one-way.


We arrived at 3 p.m., far too late to get a campsite in either Willow Flat or the nearby Dead Horse State Park (just outside the park boundary).   We ended up at a Bureau of Land Management campground called Horsethief, about 5 miles from the park.   No water, no dump, no hookups, but nice scenery and well-spaced dirt sites in the boonies ($12 per night).   Amazingly, my cell phone and Internet work just fine both here and at the Canyonlands visitor center, so I’m able to keep up on work and post the blog. That means we’ll stay at least two nights and perhaps three.

Our usual program when arriving at a national park is to drop the trailer and immediately hit the visitor center for orientation.   The rangers are always happy to meet someone who is going to stay a few days (rather than the usual, “We’ve got two hours — where are the good views?”) and they will provide insider tips on where to go.
With only a couple of hours of daylight left (after Emma finished browsing the visitor center for clues for her Junior Ranger program), we decided to drive down into the canyon on a four-wheel drive road called Shafer Trail.  Now, you might be thinking, “Hey, that’s a Mercedes — it doesn’t go off-road,” and I’ll admit I was thinking the same thing.  But Mercedes says that this SUV has parentage from their famed off-road beast the G-wagon.  The GL comes standard with all-wheel drive and an air suspension that can be lifted two inches at the touch of a button. (In the photo at left, you can see the suspension in the “raised” mode.)

I wouldn’t take it on major 4WD roads that require very high clearance because our hitch reinforcement would probably scrape, but the Shafer Trail looked like a good bet — and if it wasn’t, I was prepared to turn around or back up, and go home.

Well.   I was pretty busy trying to observe the incredible, occasionally terrifying, view while driving the car around steep hairpin turns over loose rocks … so I did not get any photos of us coming down the road.  However, you can get a good idea of what it is like to drive the Shafer Trail from videos taken by other visitors. The photo at above (click to enlarge) shows part of the descent we did.  The car did just fine, had no clearance problems, and handled as well or better than the Nissan Armada we used to do these sorts of things with.  So I’m amazed that Mercedes managed to engineer a car that can go 150 MPH all day on the Autobahn in comfort, tow a heavy Airstream with good fuel economy, and still be a capable rough-road vehicle too.

The trip down Shafer Trail takes a while.  We put the car in “Downhill Speed Regulation” mode, set the limit to 6 MPH, and it crept down the hairpins while I tried to avoid sharp rocks and major potholes. In about 40 minutes we were down to the Gooseneck hiking trail, parked the car, and hiked 0.3 miles to a stupendous overlook of the mighty Colorado River grinding its way through the sandstone canyon.

Yes, it was worth the trip.   I would have liked to have gone farther, but the setting sun dictated that we head back up.   I could not imagine driving the Shafer Trail in the dark.

At Gooseneck, the road we were on was part of the White Rim Trail, which is a backcountry 4WD adventure of over 100 miles.   It takes at least two days to traverse completely.  I am sure there are parts of that road I wouldn’t have taken our car on, but the rangers indicated that if we had time we could have gone at least to Musselman Arch.

Today we are going hiking. I have the Winter 2009 magazine 95% wrapped up, and my major task in the next few days is to review layouts and resolve last-minute problems before we go to press. This is work that can be done at any hour of the day, which means we can play in the sunshine and I can work in the early morning and at night. It makes for a long and peculiar day, but it works for me.  I see the kid is waking up now, and that means it is time for me to wrap up the morning’s work and start preparing for a day in Canyonlands.

Curecanti National Recreation Area, CO

It was time to break camp at Cheyenne Mountain state park.   I took a short walk to drop off the trash in the bear-proof dumpster, and the camp host gave me a cheery wave and a big “HEY! How’s it going?” as I walked by.   I thought he was being a little enthusiastic for a casual greeting, but when I returned to the campsite I found the ranger standing there and she said:

“Are you the guy who posted that nice blog about us?”

Turned out she’d been tipped off by Google Alerts.   Everybody’s using it now, and that means within a few hours of my posting anything, random people are coming to blog to check it out because it mentioned something they’ve asked Google to monitor for them.

I’ve got to be more careful.   Sometimes I don’t like a campground or a town.   If I post my thoughts before we depart, the rise of technology means that people in the local area will find out before we’ve safely escaped the area. You might think I’m paranoid, but it has happened before.   I once was threatened with a lawsuit for “defamination” by a campground owner in Creede CO for expressing my opinions.   He carried on a campaign against me for weeks, with phone calls, faxes, and emails.   I still get angry comments on the Tour of America blog for having dared to write sarcastic remarks about Solvang CA.   I’m not afraid of the counter-criticism, but I’d prefer not to have to deal with grumpy locals at my campsite.

Fortunately, I can say nice things about our overnight stop.   We drove the beautifully scenic Route 50 from Canon City, through the Royal Gorge, and up to Salida, Gunnison, and eventually to Curecanti National Recreation Area.   I recommend this road trip to anyone who likes western scenery.   We are parked in one of eleven campgrounds strung along the edge of Blue Mesa Reservoir (the largest body of water in Colorado).   The Blue Mesa’s name is apt, as the water is stunningly blue at times, almost rivaling the color of Crater Lake.   All around this long reservoir are pinnacles and scrub-covered hills, and the road follows it for many miles from just west of the town of Gunnison to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

We have stopped at the Lake Fork marina and campground, 27 miles west of Gunnison.   There are only two other campers here, since it’s so late in the season. The visitor center is closed, there’s no campground host, and the campground is dry and self-service this time of year, but that’s all fine.   Frankly, having nobody at the desk just means we can check in a lot quicker. I bought a $6 overnight ticket from the self-service machine and we picked a spot.   Every spot here has a view of the water.

On the way here, we paused at Monarch Pass.  The last time we stopped there was in 2006, and the grade leading up to Monarch Pass hasn’t shallowed one bit since.  It’s a long pull to the top, several miles of 6% grade leading up to over 11,312 feet of elevation.  I took this photo for those who still don’t believe that you can tow an Airstream comfortably in the mountains with a V-6 turbodiesel.  The car was perfectly content to haul us up the hill, and the engine stayed at normal operating temperature.

As I write this, the sun is rising over the reservoir.   It was cold last night, and right now the official temperature in Gunnison is 18 degrees.  If I’d thought it was going to be so cold I would have run the catalytic heater instead of the furnace, to save electricity. The Tri-Metric battery monitor says we managed to use 40% of our battery capacity in one night, and most of that was due to the furnace cycling on every few minutes, sucking up 7.5 amps as it ran.  I got up at 5:45 and switched over to the catalytic heater but the damage to our power supply was already done.  Fortunately, the skies are projected to be very clear again today, so we’ll probably get back to 90% charge by afternoon.

The plan for today is to continue heading west on Rt 50/285 through Montrose and up to Grand Junction.   That’s about as far as we’ve gotten with it.  We need to decide today if we are going to Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado (a big detour), or Canyonlands National Park in Utah, or both.  Since it is getting cold at the upper elevations, weather will be a big factor in the decision.  We can see the end of our travels in this part of the country approaching quickly, but we’re milking it for all we can.

Buffalo roundup!

 This blog is meandering off its intended course as an occasional brain dump, and becoming a travelogue like the old Tour of America blog, but I suppose I’m OK with that if you are.   And wow, what travels we have had in the past few days!

dsc_2498.jpgWe left off with you at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. We caught the last two ranger programs of the season on chilly evenings and luckily also got some superb weather.   On Sunday things turned chilly and gray, but not before I snapped the photo to the left in the early morning.   Emma picked up her Junior Ranger badge and off we went.

Our next stop was back over the line to South Dakota, and into the heart of the Black Hills.   Custer State Park is the enormous centerpiece of the Black Hills, so large that it boasts hundreds of campsites, several lodges, lakes, several scenic highways, and even a playhouse.   It is a truly remarkable place and well worth a visit despite moderately high camping fees.

We dropped the Airstream in Stockade Lake North campground and immediately headed north along the winding Route 16-A to Mt Rushmore.   Two years ago Eleanor and I towed the Airstream up this route, which includes many hairpin turns and three one-lane tunnels.   Driving just the car I kept thinking, “Did I really tow on this road?”   It is possible, even with a 30-foot trailer, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Poor Emma got a little carsick along the way but recovered quickly once we pulled over.   (I was NOT going to let her hurl in the back of a new Mercedes Benz.   The Airstream’s carpet was never the same after that 24-hour virus she got in Albuquerque last year.)

dsc_2507.jpgdsc_2540.jpgShe was well enough by the time we reached Mt Rushmore to take a ranger-led hike and complete the Junior Ranger program, which meant she had achieved a personal best: two badges in a single day. And then we tested her resolve by taking Rt 87, the Needles Highway (view from the road pictured at left), back to the campground.   This road is even crazier than Rt 16-A, with one tunnel only 8 feet 4 inches wide.   Don’t take the trailer on this one!   It’s a spectacular drive, especially at sunset, even if it does look like a pile of spaghetti on the GPS display.

We were lucky enough to have arrived for the annual Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park.   This morning, along with thousands of other people, we arose early and drove across the park (35 minutes) to a viewing area.   Once we arrived at 8:44 a.m., the road was closed and we waited in a grassy plain for about an hour.   dsc_2580.jpgEventually we spotted the buffalo coming over a hill, pushed by a team on horseback and four-wheel drive trucks.   The rush of buffalo lasted for just a few minutes.   Once they were corralled safely, the road was re-opened and we were allowed to leave.   Later in the day a process of examining, vaccinating, and culling of the herd would begin, but we couldn’t stay for it.

The peculiar thing about camping in Custer State Park is the dearth of dump stations.   Apparently there’s only one in the whole huge park, and it can be a 20-30 minute drive from some campsites such as ours. Devils Tower also lacks a dump station, so it had been three nights in the trailer and we were beginning to wonder when we’d have a chance to deal with the necessities.

Well, set such worries aside, because — look!   There’s Jewel Cave National Monument right along the road west!   Time was short but not so short that Emma couldn’t … well, you know … collect yet another Junior Ranger badge.   Three in two days, another personal best.

And then we stopped in the small town of Newcastle WY to pick up our mail at General Delivery.   By this time it was past 2 p.m. and we had nearly full holding tanks, very little water, and 150 miles left to drive.   We did it again: we packed too much into one day and now it was time to pay the price.

Things would have worked out better if there hadn’t been so darned much road construction along Hwy 18.   We had two long delays, one of over 20 minutes.   Then there was that tire I’ve been watching — it finally went completely bald along the outer edge and that made me nervous, so we stopped in the tiny burg of Lusk WY and changed it.   At a rest stop we discovered that Eleanor had forgotten a cup of milk in the microwave, and after 100 miles of towing we finally hit a bump big enough to knock it over, so there was a big cleanup session too.   (Why didn’t it tip over sooner in all that rough road construction? Airstreams ride smoooooooth.)

There was one more stop after that, when we found a dump station at a I-25 rest area.   It’s days like this that teamwork helps.   With each new task (tire, milk, dump, water fill) everyone sprang into action and did what was needed.   We got it all done somehow.   Our last one was like a pitstop: dump tanks, fill fresh water, check lug nuts, grease the Hensley hitch, and we did it all in about 10 minutes including washing hands afterward. We may have to get team shirts someday.

dsc_2609.jpgSo we made it to Glendo State Park in eastern Wyoming as the sun was setting.   That’s cutting it a little fine, but good enough.   This park surrounds a man-made lake and features zillions of random unnumbered dirt sites all around the perimeter, much like its neighbor a little further south, Guernsey State Park.   Camping-wise, it’s the wild west because the campgrounds are really just zigags of dirt trails running amongst the trees.   Some sites can be identified by picnic tables and fire rings, and many others seem to be just spots battered out by the herd.   Fortunately, there’s no competition for the sites. It’s late in the season, weekday, and the lake is mostly dry (whether by intentional action or drought, I don’t know).   We will likely be completely alone with the wind tonight, and tomorrow we’ll be off early to get to our major stop, Denver.

Badlands, Wall, Spearfish, Devils Tower

We had planned to take our time covering the 200 miles from the campground at Badlands to our next stop, Devils Tower National Monument.   First there was a leisurely putter through about 20 miles of the Badlands Loop Road with several stops at the scenic pullouts.   Then we paused in Wall, SD for the obligatory visit to Wall Drug, where we browsed the bric-a-brac and took in some milkshakes and ice cream.   (Try the pumpkin flavor, it’s great.)

Next stop was for lunch and groceries in Spearfish SD, and because we didn’t rush it was about two hours later that we were finally back on I-90.   By this point it was past five o’clock, and I realized we’d pushed our leisurely day a little too much.   Our arrival at Devils Tower was projected as 6:45, just about sunset this time of year.

dsc_2482.jpgThere are several reasons I don’t like to arrive that late in the day.   First, it was Friday night of a weekend with absolutely fantastic weather in the forecast, and we thought there was a risk that the national park campground would be full.   (Turns out that’s not a concern at Devils Tower — the campground offers no hookups and no dump station, which encourages people to stay at the nearby KOA. More on that in a moment.)

Second, trying to get into a campground before dark encourages speeding, which is never a good idea with a big trailer behind you.   This risk is complicated by the fact that a dusk the deer are out.   We spotted many mule deer in the last 20 minutes of our tow, and had to slow down to about 20 MPH at one point to avoid a group that was crossing the road.

Third, if something goes wrong, you’re solving the problem in the dark.   I mean problems like a flat tire, a full campground, taking a wrong turn, or backing into a tricky campsite.

And finally, it’s not fun to arrive at a campsite exhausted and grumpy after a long drive.   Fortunately we arrived in a good mood.   The drive across western South Dakota and into Wyoming was relaxing, with beautiful Black Hills scenery, late-afternoon sun lighting up the red outcrops, and the Airstream chasing us along the gently twisting roads.   The campground here was unexpectedly nice, and we pulled in with 20 minutes to spare before the evening ranger talk in the amphitheater.

dsc_2472.jpgIt’s hard to believe this is the last weekend for ranger talks in this park.   Conditions are just perfect: sunshine, cool nights, warm dry days. The old aspen trees that give the campground partial shade are just starting to turn yellow. The campground features big pull-through sites that are well-spaced in two loops, neatly kept and a bargain at $12 per night.   We can see the Tower from our site, and even hike right from the campground up to the trails that circumscribe it.   Best of all, it is peacefully quiet most of the time.   We had budgeted two nights but I could easily be persuaded to spend three, even at the price of skipping Wind Cave on Monday.

We are in “full boondock” mode, meaning that the refrigerator is running on propane rather than electricity, we get our heat from the catalytic heater rather than the inefficient and power-hungry furnace, the stove and oven take over jobs that would have been done by the microwave, and we rely on solar energy to replenish our batteries.   We haven’t plugged into power since we left Mitchell SD on Wednesday morning, and may not see a power outlet for several more days.

Power is no problem as long as the sun shines (and it looks likely to for a while), but we do need regular replenishment of liquified propane gas. In this mode of camping, propane becomes a mandatory supply like fresh water.   Without propane we would lose our refrigeration, heat, hot water, and cooking capability all at once. I normally check the propane before each tow as a matter of routine, but this time of year I’ll check it daily because we can use up a tank (7 gallons) every week if the nights are freezing.

Our first freezing night may be as soon as Sunday.   We are at 4,400 feet, and from here on in we are going to be at higher altitudes until we get to southern Arizona.   It’s hard to be bothered by freezing nights when the days are so spectacular.   Fall in the west can be even better than summer.   Scenic places are less crowded, daytimes are not scorching hot, summer thunderstorms are generally ending, and the hiking can be fantastic.   I wish it could last longer.