Sunday, January 6, 2013

Winter Wandering in the West (Part 1)

We decided to take a road trip over the Christmas/New Year holiday. The plan was to drive to San Francisco to celebrate our son's finishing his MBA. Then drive up the coast road to Corvallis, Oregon to spend Christmas with my brother and his family. Our kids would join us there. After Christmas, we would drive up to Seattle to see where our daughter is hanging out these days and then head home via the northern route through Montana and North Dakota.

We conceived the trip as primarily a road trip with destinations and a set time frame to reach them rather than a sight-seeing trip where taking time to see things along the way is the goal, and deadlines less important. We planned to camp our way along in spite of the winter season. It would be a good test of our camping rig and our camping mettle. We knew this is clearly not the best way to travel across the country. The combination of the season, with short days and early darkness, the long distances to cover and the vast number of sights to see meant we passed by a lot of interesting places in the dark or because we needed to keep moving to make our deadlines. Our next long trip will be much less structured (and not in the winter). In spite of the limitations of our approach, we managed to see a lot of scenery and have some fun testing ourselves and our equipment.

Not knowing much about the territory we would be passing through, I sought advice from friends, family and the online camping forum Wander the West. We received lots of good tips and suggestions. There was so much to see that, as my brother said, "if we stopped to see it all we would never get there." After 5000 miles, 14 states and 24 days on the road, we can agree with that! While we saw a lot of very interesting places, we hardly scratched the surface of what is out there to explore.

Our first stop was the loess canyon area in central Nebraska where a cousin has a ranch, not far from North Platte. More generally associated with western Iowa, loess topography is noted for steep canyons and hills formed by wind-blown silt left as the glaciers retreated. In Nebraska, with the absence of fire, cedar trees are coming to dominate the hills and valleys with the attendant loss of grazing land. Some people are beginning to use prescribed burning to restore the native grass lands.

(Click on the photos for a larger view)

The loess hills- wind deposited silt left after the glaciers retreated.

We stayed the night, had good food and conversation. The next day we got a tour of their place where they have horses, ponies for the grandkids and a few donkeys for good measure (Rocky was very interested in the donkeys and they in him- I'm sad I didn't get a picture of them sniffing noses). They lease the land for cattle and practice rotational grazing. They have lots of birds that visit their feeders and a large flock of wild turkeys that wander through each day. It is a beautiful spot and it was fun to see that part of the country.  Then were on our way, thankful for having had a warm bed and generous hospitality.

Morning sun striking the hilltop.

The horses enjoyed treats from Kathy's hand.
Having driven I-80 through Nevada several times in the recent past, we were looking for an alternative across Nevada to California. Although US 50 is known as "the loneliest road in America," many people encouraged us to take it, weather permitting. After checking the weather forecasts and seeing no storms brewing, we decided to take the road less traveled, through Nevada on US 50.

We left I-80 near the Colorado border, heading for Denver on I-76. Our first stop was at Golden Gate Canyon State Park in the Rockies outside of Denver. We camped at about 10,000 feet in a bit of snow with temps in the high teens.

We were the only people in the very nice campground, which had heated bathrooms and running water. Since this was our first camp of the trip, it took a while to get organized and get the camper set up. We had installed reflectix insulation over the windows and under the cab-over portion of the camper before we left. We also used a layer under the arctic-pac which installs on the inside of the vinyl pop-up portion of the camper for added insulation. As the trip went on, we got quite efficient at setting up camp. We had no trouble keeping the camper comfortable, setting the digital thermostat at 50 degrees. In the whole trip, we used about 1.5 gallons of propane. The battery was able to run the lights and furnace during the night and would get recharged as we drove.

Rocky had a good strategy for keeping warm.

After a supper of homemade soup and cleanup, it was dark. This would become a theme of the trip. Camping in the winter means the daylight is gone early- around 4:30-5 PM. Good thing we had several good books to read. Afew card games were played as well before bedtime rolled around.

I took Rocky on a walk around the campground in the dark, trying to see our way by the stars without artificial lights. I noticed the effect of the high elevation- shortness of breath without much exertion. Both Kathy and I woke during the night with headaches, but they were gone by morning.

The soup was good but we needed to organize our kitchen.

The next day turned into a long, beautiful drive through the Rockies and across Utah to Great Basin National Park, just across the border in Nevada. The mountain scenery was pretty spectacular but didn't lend itself to photography from the truck.

We had originally planned to stop at Arches National Park, but decided to save that for another trip in favor of having more time in Nevada. The last couple of hours driving were in the dark, with some challenging twisting roads and fog. I'm sure we missed some great scenery in the dark. We finally arrived and managed to find our way to the campground in the deep darkness. Again, we were the only ones there and had our pick of campsites. We found a nice one alongside Lehman Creek at an elevation of about 7300 feet. We could hear the creek flowing in the camper- very pleasant. It was late so we went right to sleep.

Lehman Creek.

We woke to a fresh snowfall- and it was still snowing. The landscape was beautiful in the fresh snow.

I made breakfast as it snowed around me- kind of fun. We ate in the camper and after cleanup, decided to go to the visitor center to get ourselves oriented to the park and see what there was to see.

Morning breakfast setup. We ate in the camper.

It turned out we were the only people in the entire park, other than the staff. It was snowing hard and they had closed the interior roads. Being from Minnesota, we were not uncomfortable with the snow, but other than touring Lehman Cave, there was not a lot to do. I had wanted to see the ancient bristlecone pines, but that would have meant a 10 mile slog on foot  through the snow uphill- not really an option.

 We talked with the staff and learning our itinerary, they encouraged us to be on our way. Chances were good we might have problems crossing several of the passes ahead of us. So off we went, a bit apprehensive about what awaited us ahead and a bit disappointed not to see more of the park. We will have to return in the future to see the bristlecone pines and other sights.

Our morning tracks were the first on the road as we left the campground.

We had purchased snow chains before we left Minnesota. I had practiced installing them at home but we had no experience using them. As it turned out, the weather soon cleared and we had no trouble negotiating the passes.

One pass had a chain or snow-tire advisory, but since we had snow-rated tires, we decided against putting on the chains. It was fine. We never took the chains out of the truck for the whole trip.

The scenery on the drive was a beautiful combination of long desert views and mountains. After each mountain pass we would re-emerge onto the flat plain. We enjoyed the drive and are glad we took this route.

We ended the day up at the USFS Bob Scott Campground- elevation 7200 feet. We had decided to stop early to have a more relaxed setup and dinner with daylight. The forecast was for more snow the following day, so we planned an early bedtime and early departure to try to beat the snow again.

Cooking dinner at Bob Scott Campground

Sunset was pretty but promised snow overnight.

We woke early to darkness and light snow. We decided to stick with our plan and hit the road without breakfast. Once again, the weather was not a factor. We made good time through the passes. We stopped for breakfast at the Grate Thyme Cafe in Fernley, Nevada- slow but good food. Our time on the loneliest road had come to an end. We joined I-80 again in Reno. The pass over the Sierras went without incident and we arrived in San Francisco around 4 PM.

To be continued...

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