Snowbirding 2017: A Trip to the Racetrack

And its fallout.

After a night spent at the Mesquite Springs Campground near the north end of Death Valley, I got an early start on my trip to what’s known as The Racetrack. It’s basically a dry lake bed in a valley on the west side of the park where large rocks “mysteriously” move by themselves across the flats. I put mysteriously in quotes because it’s pretty obvious that the rocks are moved by strong winds when the silty playa is slick from a heavy rainfall. But heck, it gets people out there, right?

The visitor center had warned me that the road was only appropriate for vehicles with good tires. Apparently more than a few tourists have been getting flat tires on some of the more rugged roads, which really aren’t intended for their Priuses or even their city-slicker Jeeps with junky car tires. I assured the ranger that I had all terrain tires on my truck and that they were only a year old. Still, she got me worried about my tires all day and I knew I’d never get AAA out to change a flat, even if I did have a cell signal to call them. I wondered if I could get the spare down from where it was hung under the truck if I needed to.

I left at just after 6 AM, eager to get to the Racetrack in the best light, but not interested in making the estimated 2-1/2 hou drive in the dark. It was still dark in the campground as I pulled out of my spot, leaving the Turtleback behind, but dawn was more than a hint to the east. The bright waning gibbous moon made it possible to pull out with only my parking lights on so I wouldn’t disturb other campers.

Ubehebe Crater
Here’s a tourist photo I shot of Ubehebe Crater the day before.

It was chilly so I turned on the heat for my seat and Penny’s and cranked the heat up a bit. I headed out to the main road, then turned left and followed the pavement all the way to Ubehebe Crater, which I’d visited the day before. Then I made the right turn off pavement, onto the gravel road I’d be following for 24 miles.

Whiplash — For a Reason

The road was completely washboarded and I bounced along it, trying but never quite succeeding to pick a speed that smoothed the ride. I tried 10, 15, and even 20 miles per hour. No joy. I drove with one hand, holding my coffee, in a travel mug up with the other so it wouldn’t spill out of the drinking hole in the cap. That bumpy. Penny alternately stood and sat on the console between the two seats, somehow not falling off.

The road climbed as the sky lightened. It was pretty straight and very narrow — maybe 1-1/2 cars wide? There were few turnouts. I’d considered, the previous day, making camp somewhere along the road instead of back in the campground, but I was glad I had decided not to — there was nowhere to pull off to camp. The grader, which likely worked the road at least once a decade, had left tall dirt curbs on either side of the roadway. There were very few places even wide enough for two cars to pass, let alone for someone to camp.

That didn’t stop someone in an SUV. They were parked nearly half in the road and had likely camped out there overnight. No one stirred in the vehicle as I slowed to inch my way around it.

As the road climbed, the vegetation changed and the outside temperature got colder and colder. Cacti and greasewood bushes gave way to Joshua trees. My outside air temperature gauge got as low as 33°F. I saw frost.

Time passed. It got lighter and lighter. Soon first light touched the tops of the mountains around me. I continued bumping up the road, never quite getting comfortable. Not another soul was in sight.

Sign at Teakettle Junction
The sign at Teakettle Junction.

After nearly two hours, I’d gone 18 miles and arrived at Teakettle Junction, which is actually a named place on my map. But that’s about all it is. It’s a crossroads with a turn off for someplace called Hidden Valley. A sign decorated with a variety of hanging tea kettles stands at a triangle in the road and points the way. A couple with a big dog in an SUV were camped there, which surprised me because I thought camping wasn’t allowed at the Junction. But, at the same time, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else to camp.

When I got out to take the photo of the sign, I smelled something I don’t usually smell around my truck. Some kind of hot oil or maybe transmission fluid. I took a quick walk around and looked underneath to see if anything was dripping. Nothing looked wrong and the truck sounded fine. So I got back in and continued on my way.

I saw Racetrack Valley minutes later. The main feature, besides the very large dry lake bed, was an island of rocks near the north end. This is what was referred to as The Grandstand. Oddly, I’d never seen any photos of it and it was a heck of a lot more interesting to me than a few moving rocks. It was obviously volcanic in nature — the whole north end of the park shows a lot of evidence of volcanic activity — and wasn’t very large. It reminded me a little of Wizard Island at Crater Lake.

The Grandstand
The Grandstand looks like an island in the middle of the dry lake bed.

Melted Shock
When I break something, I break it for keeps.

We reached a very small parking area with an interpretive sign just abeam the Grandstand. I parked the truck. Again that smell. What was leaking? I walked around the truck, now looking into the wheel wells. That’s when I saw that one of my front shocks was stripped bare of its protective cover and the other was leaking like a sieve.

Great. Well, I guess that would explain why I felt like I had whiplash.

There was nothing I could do about it, so I got a few things together and walked out onto the dry lake bed with my camera. But before I tell you more about my visit, I need to take a break and get something off my chest.

A Word about National Parks and Vandalism

National Parks are among America’s greatest treasures. They set aside special land to showcase some of the most amazing things that can be found in our country: geology, topography, history, wildlife, etc. They are managed by Federal employees who work hard to protect not only the parks and the wonders inside them, but the people who visit those parks. Anyone who tells you otherwise is, quite simply, an uninformed/misinformed idiot.

Every park has rules. Unfortunately, they’re necessary. For some reason, people think it’s okay to litter, or let their dogs shit on trails, or carve their initials into the rock beside petroglyphs 1000 years old. Most of the rules in a park protect the park, although a few also protect the people who visit.

One rule in Death Valley is that off-road travel is prohibited. This is pretty simple stuff: if it isn’t a road, you shouldn’t drive on it. If you’re not sure whether something is a road, it probably isn’t so you shouldn’t drive on it. If something was a road once and isn’t a road anymore, the Park Service has very considerately placed signs letting you know that it is not a road and you shouldn’t drive on it.

This rule protects the fragile desert, its plants, and even its rocks from the affects of a 2000-pound (or more) vehicle’s four tires as they make contact on the ground.

The Racetrack is one of the places where the staff at Death Valley National Park has placed signs making it pretty clear that you shouldn’t be driving anywhere off the road. A dry lake bed is not a road. It doesn’t even look like a road. If you think it’s a road, you probably should not be driving anywhere, let alone in a remote area of a National Park.

I had been warned by a friend who truly loves Death Valley that the Racetrack had been vandalized by some — pardon my language — fucking inconsiderate moron driving a vehicle on it, likely when it was either wet or damp from a rain. Tire tracks now criss-cross the dry lake bed, in some places deeply embedded into the surface. It rains very seldom in Death Valley, but it had rained earlier in the week. Still, the tire tracks remained in the otherwise pristine surface. It could take decades for them to disappear.

That means that the Racetrack’s otherwise pristine desert playa environment has been destroyed, possibly for generations of visitors.

Vandalism at the Racetrack
I took photos to document the tire tracks. I want everyone to see how this area was ruined by a vandal who thought it was fun to drive around where signs clearly told him not to.

Thank you, selfish asshole fuck-head.

A sign where I parked also asked visitors not to walk on the surface of the playa when it was wet. Well, some asshole had done that, too. Fortunately, he was either a lazy son of a bitch who didn’t walk very far or his brain belatedly connected with his feet and he realized he was leaving somewhat permanent footprints. The surface was dry when I visited, but the footprints remained.

Is it that difficult to obey the rules? Will it truly ruin your visit to not vandalize the terrain while you’re there? Are you so important that you don’t have to worry about whether your fun will ruin a National Park’s natural wonder for the thousands of other people who might not want to see it ruined?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, go fuck yourself and stay the hell out of our national parks.

You want to drive around on dry lake beds? Go to Nevada. There are a shit-ton of them there that no one cares about.

Glad I got that off my chest.

My Visit to the Racetrack

Textured Mud
I love closeup views of surfaces textured by nature. This was near the edge of the dry lake bed.

I walked onto the lakebed carefully, making sure I wasn’t leaving any footprints. (I didn’t.) The surface was bone dry with a flat textured or cracked surface that was actually quite interesting — if you’re interested in textured or cracked mud, which I apparently am.

There were a few rocks on the north end where I was walking; the interpretive sign had mentioned that the moving rocks were mostly at the south end but, after 24 miles, I didn’t feel like driving another 3 miles (each way) in my mobile bouncy house to see them. I don’t think the rocks I saw were moving rocks, but who knows?

A Not Moving Rock
I don’t know if this was one of the moving rocks. It certainly wasn’t moving when I saw it.

Beach
Where the Grandstand’s “island” met the playa reminds me of a beach.

I walked three quarters of the way around the Grandstand, then climbed up one side of it and crossed the rocks in an area where crossing was easy. I liked the way the gravel rock of the Grandstand’s “island” formed a sort of “beach” where it met the dry lake bed around it.

Rocks on Grandstand
A close-up of the rocks on the Grandstand.

I used my binoculars to look down the lake bed where something shiny was just beyond the surface. Three vehicles, one of which had a very small camper on it. They probably didn’t have broken shocks and were looking at the moving stones.

I headed back to the truck. In need of a bathroom break, I was very disappointed by the lack of cover in the surrounding desert. Still, with the closest people at least two miles away, I crossed the road and walked a bit away from it before taking care of business. I suspect I wasn’t the only one who’d used that particular area for that particular purpose. But why hadn’t the others taken their paper with them? Inconsiderate.

I climbed back into the truck with Penny, started it up, and turned around. We began our long bouncy ride back to camp.

The Aftermath

Two of the vehicles that had been at the south end passed me before I left. I got in behind them. There was some position juggling and I became the middle one. I was glad; if my truck decided it wasn’t going to go any farther, at least I could hitch a ride out with the guy behind me.

We passed about a dozen inbound vehicles on our way out. About half were rental Jeeps. In most cases, I pulled up off the side of the road with my left wheels, leaving enough space for people coming from the other direction to get through. Just once someone moved over for me.

One of the cars was a compact. Maybe a Toyota? It was near the beginning of the road. As they passed, I asked them if they were sure they wanted to make the drive. “Does it get any worse?” the older man at the wheel asked me. “A little,” I said. “It certainly doesn’t get any better.” They kept going.

I was almost surprised I made it without a wheel falling off or something. It took nearly three hours. I don’t think the shocks got any worse.

I was pretty glad to hit pavement. But not when I hit 65 miles per hour. That’s when a front end wobble kicked in. Shit. Had I broken something else?

Up at the Grapevine Ranger Station — which didn’t have any rangers in it — my cell phone worked. I parked and did some research. Within 20 minutes, I’d made an appointment to get the shocks replaced in Pahrump, NV, a two hour drive back towards Las Vegas. It was the biggest town around. The repair shop said the parts would be in at 8 AM and I said I’d be there waiting for them.

Back at the campground, I found a man who had some experience with heavy equipment and had him look at it. My question: could I put my camper back on and take it as far as Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek? At first, he said no. But later he came to my campsite and said that if I took it slow I might be able to make it to Furnace Creek. That was only an hour from Pahrump and it would save me a lot of driving the next day. So I loaded it up and made the move. I was fortunate to get one of the last three campsites at Furnace Creek.

I treated myself to a fine meal at the Furnace Creek Inn. I really need to stay there one day.

In the morning, sore as hell from the previous day’s ride, I bounced the 51 miles to Pahrump, using cruise control set at 64 mph. I had a nice breakfast at Mom’s Diner while the folks at Pete’s Auto Clinic replaced all four shocks. The 65 mile per hour wobble was gone when I headed back to pick up my camper and exit out the other side of the park.

Hours later, my truck left Death Valley westbound under its own power for the first time. My camper was on top. My 7-month vacation was officially over.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Colorado River Boat Ride

I’d only intended to spend one night at Willow Beach Campground, in preparation for about a week off the grid in the Turtleback as I make my way to Sacramento for my late winter/early spring work. Recharge batteries, dump wastewater tanks, fill fresh water tank, take a good, long shower. Normal prep stuff.

But when I saw the boat rentals and the smooth surface of the Colorado River at the upper end of Lake Mojave in Black Canyon, I thought it might be good to stick around for another day. And when I realized that the Arizona Hot Springs, which I blog about in another post, might be accessible from the river, I added a day to my campsite reservation. 

(That’s the beauty of traveling without a ball and chain; you can change your plans at any time and not have to listen to anyone whining about it.)

I rented the smallest boat they had for half a day and headed out at around 11 AM with Penny, my camera, a towel, and a packed lunch. I may have been the first power boat up that section of the river that morning — the water was completely smooth and glassy. The canyon started out wide, with lots of water fowl that scattered on my approach. But it soon got narrower and narrower, with canyon walls towering over the water. I had flown over this part of the river several times over the past 15 or so years and it’s beautiful from the air. But it might be even prettier from the water with the canyon walls reflecting on its surface.

Here are a few of the photos I took that morning. I’d hoped to do some exploring on the way back, but I spent too much time at the Hot Springs and had to get the boat back by three. Next year, I hope to bring my own boat on my snowbirding adventures.





Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Arizona Hot Springs

I need to start off by saying that these hot springs were, by far, the absolute best hot springs I have ever visited in my life.

Tucked away in a slot canyon less than a half a mile from the Colorado River, Arizona — or, more properly, Ringbolt — Hot Springs consist of three “tubs” created by using sandbags as dams between the canyon walls. Hot water emerges from cracks in the walls to fill the first tub with very hot water — so hot I couldn’t sit in it. The water cascades over the sandbag dam to the next tub, which is cooler. The same happens to fill the third tub with even cooler water. (According to one regular, water temperatures are 102 to 115 degrees F.) Each tub had a gravelly sand floor and various depths, the deepest part being perfect for submerging up to your neck while sitting on the ground. The water was clean and algae free. There was no slime or nasty sulphuric smell. Although there may have been as many as a dozen people there at a time, it was never what I would call crowded.

This Hot Spring is accessible by a long, 2 mile hike down a trail from route 93 or by a much shorter hike up from the Colorado River. This physical limitation in access is likely what keeps it so pristine; there was absolutely no litter.  I choose the river route and rented a boat to make the 10 mile river trip up from Willow Beach. The boat trip was beautiful with many interesting spots along the way — I’ll save that for another set of postcards.

Here are a few pictures that I took along the hike to the hot spring and at the spring itself. The hike started on a dry beach and soon entered a narrow slot canyon with ever-growing trickles of warm water. There was a bit of scrambling up rocky cascades, some of which were slippery. The trickiest part of the whole trip was getting Penny up the 20 foot ladder to where the tubs were.

Along the trail to the hot spring.


There were a few places where we had to scramble up Cascades of warm water.


This 20-foot ladder was securely fastened to the canyon walls.


The third, coolest tub was the first one we reached.


The shallow end of the third tub had very warm water from the second tub.

Penny watches from the dam at the end of the third tub. She did swim twice in that tub, although she didn’t like it.


The first and hottest of the tubs was the last one I reached. I didn’t soak in it at all.


Our lunch spot just downstream from the tubs.


We spent more than two hours at the springs. I soaked mostly in the deep ends of the second and third tubs. The first tub was simply too hot for me and just about everyone else. The people who were there were mostly young and outdoorsy — I might have been the oldest one there! I very much enjoyed the company of three medical students from Syracuse who were making the most of their trip to Vegas for a convention. I also had a great conversation with a local who told me about another hot spring I might pass near in my travels later this week.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: A Crazy Day

This one is actually worthy of a full blog post, but I’m too lazy to go out in the rain to fetch my laptop right now, so I’ll use the WordPress app on my iPad and let the photos do some of the talking.

Camped out at the Anzio-Borrego Desert State Park’s Palm Mountain Spring primitive Campground last night. Great, quiet site among cholla cacti and ocotillo. Expecting rain that never came.

After a beautiful sunrise


I made a plan to visit a scenic overlook farther down the road and then head back to Borrego Springs with a few hikes along the way.

I had breakfast, packed up, put on my new hiking pants and hiking shoes, and put Penny, my camera bag, and my rain jacket into the truck. Put the key in the ignition, waited for the seat to move and the chimes to stop, turned the key to get the glow plug thingie working, and then turned the key to start the engine.

Click.

No hearty vroom of a starting Diesel engine.

I did some troubleshooting for a while. No success. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the batteries, both of which are less than a year old.

I had no Internet connection. This was actually my first campsite all month that had absolutely no Internet.

Barely a cell signal at all. 

I texted my friend Jim and asked him to look up the phone number for the Ford dealer in El Centro, CA, which was the closest big city to where I was. I was actually able to talk to him by placing my phone in a specific spot on my windowsill and not touching it. I had to use the speaker. He sent the phone number and I called. I chatted with a service guy. He confirmed what I suspected: it sounded like an electrical issue. He told me to have it towed in.

I managed to call AAA. I also managed to describe my exact location for a tow truck to come get me. I explained that I had a camper on the back and if the tow truck was a flatbed, the rig would likely be too tall to fit under overpasses and traffic lights. I knew that in a pinch, I could take the camper off the truck and leave it behind.

And then I waited.

A volunteer ranger came by and I flagged him down to tell him that I might need to leave the camper overnight. He had a beard like Santa Claus. He asked me if I knew what Ford  stood for. We said in unison “found on road dead.”

I saw the tow truck pass by on the paved road. I figured he’d realize he gone too far and would turn around so I decided to walk down to the road with Penny. We were about halfway there when he saw me waving and pulled in.

Fortunately, he didn’t come with a flatbed. He hooked up my truck, lifted it, and then disconnected the driveshaft — it’s a four-wheel-drive and apparently that’s necessary. He moved it far enough forward for me to retrieve the plastic Lego like blocks that I used to level it overnight. Then we both took pictures, 


climbed aboard, and headed out.

Along the way, we discussed how fortunate it was that I’d backed into the spot.

He took us to the Ford dealer, which was about 50 miles away. I was prepared for this tow — I had AAA membership that entitled me to up to 100 miles of towing per incident for free. And because I also paid for the RV coverage, I wouldn’t have to pay anything extra for having the camper on board. The driver told me that the tow would probably have cost around $900 – $1,000. So once again, my AAA membership has paid for itself. All it cost me today was the $20 tip I gave the tow truck driver.

The service center was short handed, but they promised to look at it today. They made me sign off on a $120 diagnostic fee. I signed. Did I have a choice?

Meanwhile, I knew I had the extended warranty I’d bought with the truck. I didn’t have the information about it that I needed, however. So I looked up the phone number for the dealer in Oregon where I bought the truck, called them, and left a message for the finance guy. He called back a little while later with the information. I passed it on to the service guy who was helping me. By that time, they had the verdict: I needed a new starter. It would cost $770.

The service guy called the warranty people. The starter was covered. They could pay the same day. The part was in stock. The service guy told me they’d be done by 4:30.

I waited with Penny.


They were done before 3 PM. I signed some papers. The total cost was $750.18 but I didn’t have to pay any of it. 

So yes, today I got a brand-new starter for my Ford pickup truck for a total out-of-pocket cost of $20.

Of course, I had lost most of the day. My plans were pretty much shot to hell and I had to come up with a new plan. I decided to spend the night at a primitive campsite on the east shore of the Salton Sea, a large inland body of salt water that’s about 275 feet below sea level. (I can’t make this stuff up.) I programmed the location into Google maps and headed north.

When I reach the campground an hour later, it was raining and the campground was closed.

Undaunted and knowing that there were more campgrounds farther up the shore, I kept going. I found one less than 5 miles away that was open. By this time, it was raining pretty hard. I backed into a spot along the shore so that I could see the lake through my back and dining area windows and parked.

The sun, which was now quite low in the western sky, poked through the clouds. A magnificent double rainbow appeared to the east. I took a picture, of course. It was so big that I had to use the panorama feature on my iPhone.


Outside my back door, the wooden picnic table gleamed in the sun. Waves were breaking on the shore of the lake as seagulls flew by. I took a picture, of course.


And that’s with Penny and I are right now. I had dinner, the sun has set, and now I’ve managed to write a very lengthy blog post about my very unusual day. Rain is pattering on the roof of the Turtleback but Penny and I are warm inside. 

Let’s just hope tomorrow’s adventure is a little more predictable.

Snowbirding 2017: About the Campsites

And how I find them.

Adventure Truck
Adventure Truck and the Turtleback off road near Cibola Lake on the Colorado River.

I’ve been on the road since the day before Thanksgiving — an early start to my annual snowbird migration to points south. Other than a little over a month spent at a friend’s guest house in Wickenburg, AZ and three days spent in another friend’s guest house in Phoenix, I’m been camping out in my truck camper, the Turtleback. It’s a fully-contained RV with a queen size bed, refrigerator, stove, convection microwave, sink, and bathroom. It can carry 14 gallons of propane, 40 gallons of fresh water, and a total of 60 gallons of wastewater (in two tanks, black and gray). There’s a propane furnace for cold nights and an AC air conditioner for hot days. The two batteries have plenty of juice for overnight stays, are charged by a solar panel during the day, and can be supplemented by an onboard propane generator with the flick of a switch. With its dinette and refrigerator on a slide out, it has plenty of room for one (or two who like each other a whole lot). Best of all, it can go just about anywhere my truck can go and since my truck is a 1-ton 4WD diesel with high clearance, it can go pretty much anywhere it wants to go.

This ain’t no KOA parking lot rig.

Now that I’m back on the road again after my Wickenburg stay, I’ve been sharing photos of my campsites with friends on Twitter and Facebook. The other day one of them asked how I find my campsites. I thought that might make a good blog post.

What I look for

First let me start by explaining what I look for in a campsite.

I want something quiet, private, and safe. I don’t like to listen to generators and I don’t like to close my blinds.

I like a view, but don’t need one. I love camping near moving water or a body of water that’s smooth and reflects the sky.

I must have relatively level ground, although I do have leveling blocks to make minor adjustments if a site has a slope to it. (The camper does not need to be perfectly level.)

I also want something free or cheap or at least worth what I’m paying for it. So far, of the 23 days I’ve spent camping, I’ve only paid for 5 nights. Prices for those campsites — one state park campground, two BLM campgrounds, and two nights at a Las Vegas campground (yes, they have them) — ranged from $5 to $23 per night.

Colorado River
I spent about 10 nights at this free BLM campsite along the Colorado River south of Ehrenberg with some friends. We were on a peninsula and surrounded by water, so I got some fishing and paddling in while I was there.

Because I’m self-contained, I don’t need any hookups or even access to water or a dump station. (This, by the way, is often called “dry camping.”) Picnic tables are nice to have, but I don’t need a fire pit because I don’t usually have a campfire when I’m traveling alone and I have a portable BBQ grill if I want to grill something up. Although these things are nice for long-term stays, they usually come with neighbors so I lose any possibility of quiet or privacy. Those are actually more important to me than the convenience of being hooked up to utilities.

Las Vegas Camping
I spent two nights at a Las Vegas campground so I could take in two shows. At $23/night, it was the most expensive overnight stay, but it had clean, hot, private showers.

I’m not opposed to staying in a regular campground with a full hookup once in a while. It’s a good opportunity to dump my tanks, take a long hot shower, top off the charge on my batteries (if needed), and refill my fresh water tank. But as I recently learned after 10 days of dry camping south of Ehrenberg, my black water tank can hold at least 10 days of waste and I don’t use much fresh water. (It probably would have been a perfect stay if it weren’t for battery issues that were resolved when I left by simply replacing two bad batteries.) But the parking lot atmosphere of most RV parks is a real turn off to me and it irks the hell out of me to pay $30, $40, or even $50 to spend a night there.

Where I look

First, I’ve learned over time where the kind of campsites I want can be found.

When Free isn’t Free
Keep in mind that some areas — including the Icicle Creek area I discuss here — require an access pass for parking. I buy my passes annually and keep them in my truck for hiking and camping, which I do three seasons out of the year. It’s worth it to me and I like supporting the park system.

Public land, including National Forest (NF) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and sometimes even State Forest (SF) land almost always has some free “distributed” camping. Distributed camping is camping allowed off forest or desert roads in established campsites that are not necessarily in campgrounds. For example, a drive up Icicle Creek in the Leavenworth, WA, area will take you into National Forest with several established campgrounds. Those campgrounds have level parking space, picnic tables, fire rings, and access to toilets and sometimes even water and you’ll pay a fee to use them. But off the main road are side roads with campsites scattered here and there. Those campsites are usually free.

Did you know that you can camp in the NF just outside Grand Canyon National Park for free? And if you know where to look, you can even find back roads into the park that can help you avoid entrance lines? It’s like camping near your own private entrance to the park.

Near John Day
My Thanksgiving dinner campsite on a tributary creek to the John Day River in Oregon.

Even the campgrounds in NF, BLM, and SF areas can be quite a bargain. On Thanksgiving night, for example, I had an entire campground on a creek in Oregon to myself. My back door looked out over the creek, it was dead quiet and completely private, and I had a picnic table and fire ring if I wanted to use them. There was even a very clean pit toilet a 250 feet from my site. All for $5. I can’t complain, can I?

State and county park campgrounds can also be nice, although they can be spendy and are usually crowded on weekends. Washington state campgrounds can be outrageously priced so I generally avoid them unless they have features I can’t get elsewhere.

How I find them

This is where experience is a good teacher. The more I look for and find sites, the better I become at doing it. And getting a feel for an area is also extremely helpful.

I use a few online tools to get started. I start with Google Maps to get a general feel for the area I want to spend the night. What’s there? Towns? Parks? Points of interest? NFs appear on Google Maps; when I get the name of a NF, I can Google it and get details, including detailed maps that show parking areas and forest roads.

I can also go to the BLM website and search its maps for nearby BLM land. Then I can get details about possible camping areas or campgrounds.

At Walker Lake
I needed a place to stay near Hawthorne, NV, where I planned to meet up with a friend of a friend. No problem: free camping on the lake on BLM land. Too bad the weather was so stormy!

Once I know for sure that camping is allowed in an area, I can use Google’s satellite view to get a look at potential sites. Keep in mind that map view isn’t always accurate — for example, Google maps shows a through road along the levee where we camped in early January; in reality, there’s an inlet cut through the road that clearly shows in satellite view. Satellite view will also show clearings in forested areas, side roads, and even fire pits that indicate an established campsite.

Map View Satellite View
In map view, it looks like the road crosses right over inlet (left) but satellite view tells the real story (right). We camped in the clearing just to the east of where the north side road ends.

Oregon Camping
I had a streamside campsite in central Oregon. There were about two dozen deer roaming the campground when I arrived late in the afternoon. Only five of the 30 or so sites were occupied.

Another somewhat obvious trick is to simply ask around. For example, when I was near Burns in Oregon looking for a place to stay on my way south, I saw some BLM land that showed a campground. It was pretty remote and it was late in the day; I worried that it might not be suitable for me and then I’d be stuck driving at night, which I hate to do. I Googled BLM and found a BLM field office. (The same one that was in the news a lot last year.) I was close enough to drop by and chat with a ranger. He assured me that the campground was open and would accommodate my rig. I made the hour-long drive south and found what might have been the nicest campground so far. I picked a site along the creek and paid only $8/night.

Cibola
A bonus to this campsite along the Colorado River just outside of the Cibola Wildlife Refuge was the incredibly dark night sky. I got to practice my astrophotography skills not long after sunset.

I also ask friends. The campsites I stayed in last year and this year south of Ehrenberg on the Colorado River were sites my friends knew well, having camped there for many years. My friend Janet showed me other sites. I found still more just wandering around on my own, like a campsite father down the river near a wildlife refuge.

Near the Hot Spring
Greetings from somewhere south of Holtville, CA!

I found the site I was in the last night before my side trip to San Diego (where I am now) by a combination of methods. A friend told me about the hot springs along I-8, although he was pretty sketchy about the name and location. Google maps found the place and directed me to it. A review on Google told me it was BLM with camping available and the reviews were pretty good. The campground host at the long-term (i.e., fee) camping area directed me to free 14-day limit camping about 2 miles south of the hot spring. I drove in, found a level spot, and parked for the night. Only two cars drove past during the 16 or so hours I was there so it was plenty quiet. I got a great night’s sleep — with the bonus of a good hot tub soak in the morning before I hit the road.

I’ll leave San Diego later today and head back east toward Arizona. I’ll spend a night or two in Borrego Springs, following up leads for free campsites with good hiking on BLM and NF land. Then the plan is a side trip to the Salton Sea where I should be able to find a site in the state park there. Then back to Quartzsite for a few days; there’s plenty of free camping out in the desert. After that, who knows? I’m making it up as I go along and only tentatively plan things out a week or so in advance.

I love the flexibility I have on this trip with my smaller rig. I also really love the freedom to make things up as I go along, without having to get approval from (or listen to complaints from) a travel companion. So far, most of my sites have been better than I expected and, as you can imagine, I’m very pleased about that.

I do admit that things can get a bit stressful late in the day when I still don’t know where I’m going to park for the night. But there’s aways plan B: a truck stop or Walmart parking lot. (Fortunately, I haven’t had to resort to either one so far on this trip.) Or a KOA.

Do you have any campsite tips you’d like to share with readers? Please do use the comments link or form to let us know. I’d certainly love to get some new ideas. You can never know too much.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: The Hot Springs

Just a quick bunch of photos. These hot springs are right off I-8 near Holtville. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (the original BLM), they are clean and spacious. Two tubs: a large, deep one that’s about 105-110 degrees and a small, shallower one that’s a bit cooler. Then there’s a small, palm-lined pond that the water drains into; it’s much cooler and quite beautiful. Mostly snowbirds, so I’m the youngster here. Very few people using the springs at 10 AM. 

Snowbirding 2017: Life at the Colorado River Backwaters

Back at the backwaters.

For the second year in a row, I’m camped with some friends in some BLM land south of Ehrenberg, AZ, right along the Colorado River. This year’s site is on the north side of an inlet into some channels that parallel the river on the otherwise dry side of a levee. We’re on a peninsula across the inlet from where we camped for a while last winter. My friends preferred this spot because it gets sunlight earlier in the morning; the other spot is in the shadow of some 200-foot high cliffs to the southeast for too much of the morning. Sunlight is everything in the winter, especially when you’re getting most of your power from solar panels.

The Backwaters
A look down at this year’s campsite from the top of the cliffs to the southeast. Our site, which is just about dead center in this shot, consists of my truck camper, Janet’s little pull trailer, Janet’s workshop tent, and our two vehicles. (My truck was with me at the top of the cliffs when I shot this photo.) The “backwaters” is the forked channel on the right side of this image.

The site is somewhat remote: seven miles from pavement. Other than the folks camped out across the inlet and the occasional camper driving in to see if this site is occupied, we’ve got a lot of privacy and solitude. Across the river is an RV park that’s remarkably quiet, although they do have a bunch more lights than I wish they had. The sky is not nearly as dark as I’d like it to be; this is not the place I’ll be doing any astrophotography.

We’ve had guests. My friend Rebecca joined us for two nights at the beginning of my stay and Janet’s husband Steve just joined us today for the rest of our stay. We’ve also had a few visitors: another snowbird named Mike who’s staying with his wife in the first campsite we had last year has come by for brief visits and Janet’s artist friends Karen and Steve who camped with us in our second campsite across the inlet last year came by today to help troubleshoot an electrical issue I was having with my camper. (Turns out I have a bad battery and will get it replaced on Sunday.)

Life is very laid back around here. There is no schedule.

I wake up, usually before dawn, and if I’m lucky — which I usually am — I’ll get a 2-bar LTE signal on my iPad so I can catch up on the latest political craziness on Twitter and check in with friends on Facebook. I very rarely check email.

I’ll roll out of bed around dawn and might be more motivated to do so if we’re having one of our spectacular sunrises. That’s when I’ll go down to the beach in my pajama shirt, sweat pants, and slippers with my phone to try to capture a shot that beats the last best one I took. Janet sometimes gets down there before me and sometimes doesn’t.

Sunrise
I don’t think a sunrise photo will get much better than this. And yeah; I shot this with my iPhone 7.

Then back to my camper to make coffee with the immersion coffee maker someone talked me into buying. (They’re right; it does make the best coffee without electricity.) I’ve got a technique where I boil water in a glass kettle on the stove with my empty coffee cup as a sort of lid. That speeds up the boil while thoroughly heating my cup so my coffee stays hot extra long.

I’ll keep busy by writing up the previous day’s journal entry or a blog post or reading something interesting in the New York Times or Washington Post. Janet usually has her coffee out by the fire pit and if there are still embers from the previous night’s campfire, will get another fire going. Usually there isn’t.

Fishing
We went fishing this morning. It was supposed to rain, but it turned out to be a beautiful day.

What follows varies from day to day. Janet usually either goes fishing or paints — she’s an artist — and sometimes does both. I usually putter around the RV, neatening it up from the previous day, then try to get some serious writing done — I’m working on a memoir about my first ten years as a helicopter pilot and I’m really procrastinating a bit more than I should be. Sometimes I go fishing with Janet. (Today I actually caught a small bass; although it was large enough to keep, we tossed it back. The fish were literally jumping out of the water.)

Truck on the Hill
Janet shot this photo from our campsite of me and my truck atop the cliff.

The other day I drove to the top of the cliff southeast of our campsite. I wanted some photos for this blog post (see the photo at the top) and I also wanted to see if my truck could make it. (It could.) Last year, I chickened out near the top and walked the rest of the way; this year, I took it all the way to the top. The drive is no easy task in a truck the size of mine; there’s a very steep, narrow gravel “road” to climb followed by a winding pathway that sometimes goes through some very deep sand. It’s all about four-wheel-drive, good tires, momentum, and knowing when it’s safe to stop.

Blue Heron
I must have shot 20 images of this blue heron from the driver’s side window of my truck with a 300 mm lens. This one is the best, although I think it might benefit from a touchup in Photoshop.

I’ve done some photography. This is a desert riparian area so there are some water birds. Mostly duck-like birds — I really don’t know exactly what they are — and at least one blue heron and one white heron. The other day I got a bunch of really nice pictures of the heron, no small task because he seems to spook very easily. When he does, he makes one hell of a racket as he takes off into the air, usually landing within a quarter mile for a new hunting spot.

We also go boating. Janet brought a river raft rowboat that can seat both of us comfortably for fishing. I also brought my kayak and have gone paddling with Penny. We do all this in the backwater channel. Sadly, the water level is very low this year — “they” are supposedly working on either canals or docks or possibly both so they’re limiting what comes through the Parker Dam far up river. Last night, for some reason, the water level was very high. But this morning it was low again.

Once in a while we’ll go into town. There are actually three towns:

  • Ehrenberg, AZ is Exit 1 on I-10. There’s a truck stop on the south side of the road and a “resort store” on the north side. The resort store is where we buy fishing licenses, refill water bottles, throw away our garbage, and dump RV tanks on the way in or out of our campsites. They also sell Mexican ice cream pops, which are a cheap and amazing treat. And worms for fishing. We go there two or three times a week, usually on our way in or out from somewhere else. It’s about 8 miles from our camp. The post office is also there; that’s where we get our mail forwarded via General Delivery.
  • Blythe, CA is a few miles west of the Colorado River off I-10. That’s where we do grocery shopping, usually at Smart and Final, although there is an Albertson’s. There’s also an excellent Ace hardware store, an O’Reilly’s auto supply, a K-Mart, and a Walgreens. Other than that, Blythe is a sad little town and I can’t see any other reason to visit it. (Sorry, Blythe, but I do tend to tell it like it is.) I do know its airport, on the west side of town, very well since that’s where I nearly always stop for fuel for my helicopter when flying along the I-10 corridor between California and Arizona. Smart and Final is about 12 miles from our camp.
  • Quartzsite, AZ is Exit 17 on I-10. That’s a hopping place in January, full of rock shows and art shows and RV shows and all kinds of booths to buy all kinds of useful and junky stuff. It’s what brings Janet to this area of Arizona; she displays and sells her artwork at the Tyson Wells show that runs concurrently with the big RV show at the second half of January. (There’s another show going on there now, so Janet has to wait; she waits out on BLM land where camping is free and life is mellow.) I like Quartzsite because it’s weird and I can always find something neat to buy for my truck or my RV or my home. Last week I bought some fossils. This week I bought a little DC water pump I can use to transfer water from my 6-1/2 gallon water jugs to my camper’s water tanks. Next week, I’ll buy new batteries for my camper and possibly an additional solar panel. (Yes, Quartzsite does see a lot of my money; I bought a cool neon sign there last year and my old 5th wheel trailer back in 2010.)

Between Quartzsite and Ehrenberg is the Chevron station with cheap diesel and gas; that’s where Janet and I fuel up if we need to. (We don’t usually because we really don’t go far.)

In the late afternoon, we regroup for dinner. We share cooking duties. Our main goal these days is to empty our refrigerators and freezers. I brought a ton of frozen food from home and we’ve been eating some of that. We had nice little filet mignons the other day. Janet makes various dishes — she made an excellent chicken with quinoa dish the other night and we had pan-fried panko-crusted bass (that she caught, of course) one night last week. I always seem to have ingredients for a salad. I think we’re having pad thai chicken for dinner tonight; Janet has the noodles and chicken and I have the pad thai sauce and other ingredients.

Sunset
At sunset, if there’s a show I’ll go out and take photos from the levee. I shot this on my second night here. That’s the Colorado River with California on the other side.

Campfire
We have a campfire every night.

By the time dinner is ready, the sun has gone down. Janet usually has a fire going before it gets dark. We sit in front of the fire and eat, drink wine, and chat. Very relaxing. After dinner, we’ll spend a while longer in front of the fire with our dogs in our laps. Sometimes the sky is full of stars. The nearly full moon rising the other evening was a real show-stopper.

Moonrise
Moonrise from our campsite.

We’ll each turn in to our campers between 8 and 9 PM. Sometimes I’ll write up my journal entry for the day. Other times I’ll just relax in bed with Twitter or a book or a crossword puzzle. Then it’s lights out. If it’s a clear night, I can see the stars through the big sunroof over my bed.

It’s a very simple, very quiet, very mellow existence here. This year, I’ll be at the backwaters for a total of nearly two weeks. It’s quite a change after my month-long stay in a friend’s guest house in Wickenburg.

From here, I go to San Diego with friends. I might spend a night at Glammis Dunes near Yuma, hoping to get some good photo opportunities if the sand isn’t too disturbed by tire tracks after a holiday weekend. On the way back, I’ll visit various hiking spots near Borrego Springs and possibly Joshua Tree National Park. Then I’ll be back at Quartzsite for the RV show. I’ll camp out in the desert near town and make daily trips in to visit the shows and check out the RVs. I’m in the market for a tiny toy hauler; who knows what I might come home with?

And who knows where I’ll go from there? I have another month to kill before my seven-month vacation is officially over — and even then I have the ability to do some travel before I need to be back home with my helicopter in May.

But the Colorado River Backwaters is one of my favorite destinations for off-the-grid camping. I look forward to coming back every year I travel south for the winter.