Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Sue and Mo at Harris Beach
Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Friday, March 28, 2014

3-28-2014 Boondock Sites and Camping in Mojave National Preserve

major mapThis post is specifically about what we found when wandering around the preserve this past few days.  If you aren’t interested in boondocking, just skip it.  I have included more detail than usual for some of the folks that I know who are definitely interested in boondocking. 

Link to live google map

First, I have embedded a live Google Map I created with labels for sites and intersections.  Hopefully if you click on the map, you will be redirected to Google and will have the ability to zoom in, mouse hover over the points to read the labels. Eventually I will figure out how to actually “embed” the map so that it shows rather than just the link, but this will have to do for now.

The rest of the maps are clipped images for each area.

When we first stopped off at the visitor center at the Depot in Kelso, the attendant was a bit vague about RV camping in the area.  The words in the brochure say “Roadside camping is permitted in areas that have been traditionally used for this purpose:  Sites with existing rock or metal fire rings should be considered suitable for roadside camping.”

overview mapHe pointed vaguely to a couple of areas on the preserve map, including the area near the cross, and the area at the dunes, but didn’t tell us about the other two sites, or have any indication of road conditions getting into any of the sites.  The only developed campground that is suitable for larger RV’s (even our size at 26 feet) is the Hole in the Wall Campground where we spent one night.

I do have to correct the last post.  It is Hole in the Wall, not Hole in the Rock, and I will edit the previous post accordingly, but anyone reading has probably already read the post and will not see the correction.

site 1 2 3The first site where we camped was actually a small developed campsite, with a picnic table provided by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and a fire ring, at the base of the white cross WW I memorial.  We attempted to enter via the eastern side of the road and found it rutted and too rocky for the rig, had to unhook and back out, and continue to the west side of the small loop to enter the site.The Mojave_063

Some folks with pickups had traveled from this spot to the other sites I have mentioned, but we wouldn’t take our rig back there from this direction.

Walking around checking roads the next day, we found the easternmost entrance to the camping area, and walked the road back to the pavement.  Here we found two great sites.dirt entry road to dry camp sites

Site number 2 on the list was the very best, with a dirt road access that we could easily handle in our rig. It was my favorite.left turn from dirt entry road to first campsite at the base of these rocks

Site number 3 is just west of site 2 on the same side road, however there is a bit of a rough patch that might be trouble for clearance for motorhomes.  We probably wouldn’t try it in the rig, but some might. I would highly suggest that before taking your motorhomes to these sites, that you check them out with your toad.second campsite on rougher road left of dirt entry road

We were exploring on foot, and there may be other sites on the road toward the mine north to discover if you have the time and a toad to do so. 

dunes and granite mountainThe Dunes road, as I mentioned, was incredibly rough, but after we turned around we discovered if we kept our speed to less than 5 mph, literally, we could have traveled the 3 miles to the campsite.  A previous commenter mentioned this site, so I included it in the map if you are willing to drive the road.

The Mojave_139The Granite Mountain sites are incredibly gorgeous, just incredible.  With any kind of small rig with high clearance you could probably get back in there and it would be worth it.

At the Hole in the Wall campground, there is a dump station and potable water with a hose to fill your water tanks.  We didn’t see anything requiring campground registration in order to use the dump or take on water.  It may have been there.  At half price for the senior pass, it would have been worth the $6. fee to dump and get water if we wanted to stay out longer in the area.

site 4 5The Wildhorse Canyon road that travels west and then north from just south of the Hole in the Wall visitor center is also good dirt road.  It isn’t nearly as rough as the Dunes road to sites 4 and 5 on the map. 

The Mojave_188These sites are big and flat and are close to the Ring Trail and some fascinating volcanic rock cliffs.  They could accommodate 2 or 3 rigs if you were friends.  There was only one fire pit at site 4, but plenty of space.The Mojave_186

The Mojave_187The road from this area north toward Mid Hills campground is also dirt, and rough and narrow.  We were in 4 wheel drive, but probably didn’t need it.  I wouldn’t take a motorhome that way.  A truck and camper could manage it OK.  Mid Hills wasn’t nearly as charming as the other areas of the park.  Once a juniper woodland, there was a devastating fire in recent years that has left the place feeling desolate and rather depressing.

The Mojave_212We did see the entrance to the Black Canyon Group Camp, near the main Hole in the Wall campground, and I would imagine this is where the rally that Carol spoke of will be held.  There is no camping anywhere around the Kelso Visitor Center or on any of the major paved roads in the preserve.

The Mojave National Preserve is a treasure land of wild desert space.  We visited in late March, which I would imagine would be the high season before summer heat.  There were some flowers blooming, the winds were extremely high, but that was case all over the southwest on the days that we were there.

If you want a true desert boondocking experience, and like to be alone in the wild open space, this a a perfect place to be.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

03-27-2014 Mojave Wild

Current Location: Mojave National Preserve 41 F

morning at Hole in the Wall campgroundIt isn’t yet 6AM and I am watching the waning crescent moon rise through long black clouds to the east.  There is just enough light to see the outline of Mesa Mountain, east of the Hole in the Rock where we are camped.  Venus is brilliant nearby, and I wish I had the will to dig out the telephoto, dig out the tripod, hook it all up and see if I could actually create an image that would remind me of this moment. Instead I’ll write of it, and know that it would take a better photographer than I am to catch the feeling. 

We will be home on April 1st.  This may be our last night in the wild darkness of the desert, and a wild rocking night it was!  After spending such magical time near Virgin, and wanting more, we initially planned to travel north through Cedar City and then take another back road to the Great Basin National Park.

The Mojave_072One of the blessings of boondocking in our sweet spot, was the perfect Verizon signal for our JetPack and the ability to check on the weather.  For the first time in the entire three months of winter travel, we had to shift our plans completely to accommodate the weather gods and our common sense.  Predictions for the next few days included high wind warnings, snow and temperatures in the 20’s at the lowest elevations near Great Basin near Baker, and unknown snow and wind over the entire western side of Nevada.  No way home.

We studied maps and weather and more maps and checking our calendar, came up with a simple plan.  Head south on I-15 toward Barstow on the gorgeous sunny non windy day we had left, and then hunker down at Edwards AFB Family Camp and wait the three days of harsh weather with hookups and a place to do laundry.  Then, once the snow warnings lifted over the Tehachapi 58 route, we could get over the pass to the I-5 route north and home.  Sigh.  I-5 again?  Not even 395?

Mojave mound cactus echinocereus triglochidiatusWith predictions for snow at home in Rocky Point around the time of our arrival, we may decide to go to Grants Pass instead.  We will see.  Weather predictions are often a lot worse than the actuality.  Then again, sometimes they are spot on.  Predictions for our westward direction included wind, and last night was possibly the windiest we have ever experienced on the road.  I was glad we were in the west, where tornadoes are extremely rare, but there were a few times last night when I thought surely we were going to be blown over.

We pulled in the slides not long after camping, but during an especially dramatic gust, I even picked up the levelers. It somehow seemed a bit safer to me to have the MoHo settled solidly on all six tires, even if a bit less than level.

The Mojave_057Driving west from Las Vegas on I-15 was fast and smooth.  Vegas from the high vantage point of the freeway looks different, even bigger somehow that the view along the strip.  Traffic was heavy but moving steadily on a Tuesday afternoon.  Just past the state line, we were suddenly shocked by the brightest artificial light I think I have ever seen.  Huge towers were beaming intense white light and below them something that looked like a strange lake was reflecting the sunlight. 

Sometimes it is fun to have the iPad along with a great signal.  Searching "bright lights near the Nevada California border” I came up with this.  We were passing the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, which just came online on February 13.  Mirrors concentrate light and then somehow the light heats water for power generation.  Sounds like science fiction, and it certainly looked like it.  Funny, with all the hoopla about Solara, neither of us had ever heard a word of this successful solar power generating project.

I-15 Mojave Rest AreaNear the state line in California is a rest area, and it was time for an Abby walk.  What a great surprise.  Many states in the south have beautiful state of the art visitor centers, and we love to visit them.  Here, however, a simple rest area was gorgeous, and rich with information about this part of California, including the nearby Mojave National Preserve, spanning 1.6 million acres between I-15 and I-40 and east to the Nevada border.

I-15 Mojave Rest AreaThe rest area was artfully designed, with outdoor displays that told the story of the area in a way that could be enjoyed without entering a building or requiring staff to disperse brochures.  It was beautifully kept, and even the bathrooms were tiled with images and stories. 

Even before reaching the rest area, though, Mo and I had decided to stop in Baker to fill the tanks so we could boondock another night.  The excitement of camping at the AFB wasn’t all that alluring, and we thought, what the heck, let’s slip into the preserve, boondock for another night and then we can continue west to Edwards.

The Mojave National PreserveMo had visited the preserve in the past, not only in this decade with the baby MoHo, but in the 60’s when she was teaching at China Lake, California.  Our first stop was at Kelso, where the visitor center is located in the beautifully restored Kelso Depot.  Anyone reading this blog for any length of time, knows how much we love desert, but often the Mojave experience is filled with development and dotted with desert garbage. 

Not here.  I am so incredibly grateful for this space.  Unlike Joshua Tree, which we also love, it is farther from most of the big cities of Southern California and so far, is blessedly empty.  Incredibly empty, and at first it seems like what my daughter calls a lot of “white hot nothing”.  With just a little time and a bit more effort, the fascinating diversity of the Mojave becomes clear in a space that feels more remote than either Joshua Tree or Death Valley, if not quite as dramatic.

The Mojave National PreserveThe roads through the preserve, even the paved roads, can be a bit rough and bumpy, and are two lane narrow routes without shoulders.  There are only two developed campgrounds, but after visiting with the staff at the beautifully restored Kelso Depot Visitor Center, we learned that “roadside” camping is allowed in places where there has been a fire ring and previous use. 

Depot at Kelso at The Mojave National PreserveThe Visitor Center is wonderful, with beautiful photographic displays on the walls of the restored Craftsman style rooms.  There is a gift shop, interpretive exhibits, three excellent movies to view in the small theater, and art exhibits.  I especially enjoyed the recordings of the “booming sands” of the Kelso Dunes

Traveling back toward the northern part of the preserve toward Cima, we turned northwest again to find the World War I memorial.  There is a white cross on the hill, which after some lengthy controversy, remains. Mo camped here in back on her solo desert trip back in 2009.

The Mojave_059Just behind the cross is a small campsite, with a fire ring and a table provided by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and before dark we were settled in for our first gorgeous, if wildly windy night.  The winds didn’t come up until midnight or so, but with the associated cold front, by morning we felt a huge difference in the desert air.

There are several boondock sites that we found in that vicinity, and in other parts of the preserve as well, and I decided to do a separate post about boondocking in the preserve.  That post will come later.

The Mojave_110The morning was dramatic with wildly speeding clouds flying by and the winds never let up as the day progressed.  We headed south back toward Cima and Kelso, with plans to see the magnificent Kelso Dunes, some of the highest in the country.  The Kelso Depot Visitor Center is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, but there is an open restroom with a jug friendly spigot.  Our water was low, and we filled our extra jugs, just in case we decided to boondock another night at the dunes.  Still couldn’t quite get our heads around giving up the wild desert for the luxuries of camping at the base. After several nights being out, we weren’t really as well prepared for more boondocking as we could have been, but we had turned off the water pump, to be sure we didn’t run the tank dry.The Mojave_099

Seven miles south of Kelso is the ‘2 wheel drive unpaved’ road leading west to the Dunes and another possible campsite.  Within the first few hundred yards, however, we were badmouthing the folks that think roads should be surfaced with gravel.  The washboards were so very bad that Mo decided it was too much for the rig and we found a place to unhook and turn around.  With the winds at 40 plus mph, the dunes looked less and less inviting.  One of the reasons I most wanted to see them was to hear the booming singing sound that the sand makes at times.  I figured that with the high winds I wouldn’t hear it anyway.

The Mojave_151With a bit of disappointment, we once again decided on going to Edwards, with hookups and WiFi, to wait out the winds and the weather.  Continuing south just a short distance, we found another dirt road leading back into the Granite Hills, and couldn’t resist unhooking once again and taking the Tracker for a little spin around the hidden campsites tucked away in the boulders.  Mo camped here in the 60’s with some of her students from China Lake and had fond memories of climbing around on the boulders. These sites could make us want to get the tent out again if we had it with us!

The Mojave_137Back to the rig, and looking at the map, we saw the road to the Hole in the Rock developed campground was about 50 miles to the east and north.  Even after the fill up in Baker, fuel was getting low.  If we wanted to see that part of the preserve, we needed gas.  We could travel some miles out of our way to find a new wild world, or we could travel west and do the common sense thing and camp at Edwards. 

Once again, the desert won, and we finally found a gas station just off I-40, 7 miles west of the Essex Road leading north in the preserve toward the Hole in the Wall area, where there would be a dump station, and potable water to fill our tank.  We paid 4.99 per gallon for 87 octane gas, and laughed about how our free boondocking had turned expensive.  It is funny how you can figure anything out, and messing with the numbers, we decided our average cost for the two nights in the desert was about $20 per night, factoring in the half price $6. fee we paid for our second night at Hole in the Rock.The Mojave_161

The gas station, by the way, is located right on the famous unnamed Route that we visited previously in the unnamed T city in New Mexico.  I decided to NOT take photos or even mention the place because I would rather not create another firestorm with all the folks who probably love it.  It was rather interesting, with lots of memorabilia, a cute little nook for hamburgers, and a lot of interesting people around.  I felt much of the famous route culture at the spot, so if you are a lover of that route, search it out.

dust storms near Mid Hills campgroundThe winds had never let up, and by the time we were on I-40, the sandstorms were everywhere, reducing visibility dramatically.  We could barely see the mountains, even as we approached the campground.  We dumped, filled the water tank, and settled into a nice site in the upper area of the camp.  It was a luxury to turn on the water pump, for sure!  We weren’t technically boondocking on this night, but it felt as big and dark and empty as if we were.  Only a few campers have braved the winds and sand storms to camp here.

Mid Hills Road in the dust stormAfter making such an effort to get here, we thought in spite of the dingy skies, we should try to see a bit of the area.  The Hole in the Wall visitor center at this location is only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but they did have some trail brochures outside that gave a general idea of the local routes. 

Another two wheel drive unpaved road took us north toward the one other developed campground in the preserve, Mid Hills Campground.  This is definitely not a place for RV’s, mostly because of the rough road access, and with a recent fire leaving behind the skeletons of old junipers, it wasn’t very inviting.  I can imagine it once was a lovely place to tent camp, cooler than the surrounding desert.

The Mojave_190Home to the rig before dark, I made a good taco soup for supper and turned the generator on long enough to make corn muffins to go with it.  Tasty. 

Now, as I write, the winds are almost completely still and the dust has settled from the skies.  To the west, everything is crystal clear.  To the east I can see a low brown cloud of dust obscuring the distant hills.  Once again, we will head for Edwards AFB, with only one night instead of three. With WiFi again available, I will post the blog, read others, write about boondock sites in Mojave Preserve, and check weather sites and snow predictions as we decide which route to take home Friday morning.

 morgning at Hole in the Wall Campground

Monday, March 24, 2014

3-24-2014 Zion roads and Coral dunes

Zion_195As I said in an earlier post, we thought perhaps we could slip into Zion proper on a Monday morning without the crowds for which this park is famous.  Silly us.  In spite of the crowds, however, the road through the tunnel to the east side of the park is something I didn’t want to miss.  It is spectacular.

it will be pretty once we get thereWe were camped much too close to the iconic National Park to miss seeing its wonders, crowds or not.  Hiking was not on the agenda for the day, or at least nothing much beyond a short walk or two.  With only one day, we decided to play “drive through tourist”. You know, you see them at most every National Park or Monument.  The ones in the car driving slowly along, gawking at the sights that they can see from their windows, never emerging from the vehicle to actually experience the magic in more depth.

see zion on the giant screen?? beat the trafficYou know us well enough by now to know that we don’t do that all the time.  Just sometimes.  Still, in spite of our plans, we couldn’t manage to stay in the car entirely.  I did jump out now and then for a photo, and yes, we did manage a short hike/walk before the day was finished.

Hiking is what you ‘do’ in Zion Canyon.  This part was as I remembered, it is all about UP.  Everything is up, up, up, and trying to take photos is a test of framing skill.  I would shoot those magnificently colored eroded cliffs, carved by the innocent looking Virgin River, and then think, “Geez, everything just looks the same”.  Up, and Red and White, and more UP, with a tiny bit of fresh new green in the canyon bottom from the spring explosion of box elder, Fremont cottonwoods, and willow.

road down from the tunnel in ZionIt was early in the day when we drove east on Highway 9, through Virgin, through the sweet little town of Rockville, and into the gentrified, once Mormon pioneer community of Springdale, gateway to the park.  Springdale was glitzy, with some rather ostentatious homes that looked incredibly out of place, a lovely paved bike trail, and all the associated restaurants, B and B’s, hotels, motels, shops and “fun stuff” associated with many National Parks.

outside displays make for a lot less crowding at the visitor centerVisitation to Zion is incredible, 7th on the list of the ten most visited national parks in the US, with 2,807,387 visits in 2013.  That is an average of nearly 8,000 visits per day, and I would imagine that some of the worst winter days don’t see a lot of people, although winter is Zion isn’t daunting.  Looking up these statistics, I was happy we weren’t visiting the Great Smoky Mountains NP, first on the list with 9,354,695 visits in 2013.  Something tells me that as a nation, we love our national parks, so why are we not funding them properly?

The soil survey program in the National Parks has been headed by a good friend of mine for several years.  He just retired, and just before his retirement, all funding for soil survey was ended except for projects already funded and in progress.  It isn’t just scientific programs like soil survey that are ending, it is all sorts of other support needed for these parks to function well that are being cut. 

lovely visitor center with outdoor displaysOn this morning, I saw a great example of how the Park Service is dealing with reduced funding in incredibly creative ways.  The stunning Visitor Center had most of its displays outside the main lobby.  The signs were beautifully done, easily understood and arranged in a way that visitors could learn about the park without even entering the small bookstore.  Fewer people to interpret, but interpretive displays that made personal interaction a lesser requirement.  Good for the parks. 

We spent some time reviewing the hikes we might take in the future, looking at the plants, animals, geology, and layout of the park, reading a bit about the history of the area before we got back in the car to drive through the famous tunnel.

on our way to the tunnelCurrently the tunnel is open to RV’s, with an extra $15.00 fee required in addition to the regular $25.00 fee for simply driving through the park.  This is one place where the senior pass saved us a bunch of cash, even without the rig along.  Here is a link to questions about driving an RV on the Zion to Mt Carmel highway through the tunnel.

The story of the road and the building of the tunnel is fascinating, an engineering feat that was once considered impossible.  Once the tunnel was completed in 1930, roads between the national parks on the Colorado Plateau were connected in a way to make travel between them much easier, and park visitation grew exponentially during the heyday of family car vacations from the 30’s forward.

waitingWe enjoyed the drive, patiently waiting for traffic here and there, and laughing about how this was the “experience’ of traveling in a national park any more.  Many parks now have shuttles available to manage the worst of the traffic, and in Zion, after March 31, cars are not allowed in Zion Canyon.  From April 1 through October in 2014, access to the canyon will be by shuttle only.  A large number of the most famous hikes in Zion are from trailheads in the canyon, so hiking will require some planning ahead.

The Zion-Mt Carmel Highway connects Springdale with Kanab, Utah.  West of Kanab, a side road leads to the Coral Pink Dunes State Park.  The scenery between Zion and the Dunes is a bit less spectacular than some, with high juniper covered plateaus punctuated by distant mesas and mountains.  I had been to the dunes in the past, only long enough to step on the sand and try to avoid the wild ATV’s screaming around having a great time.  When I visited, the state park was filled with campers and 4 wheelers, and the noise was deafening.

Zion_073Lots of fun for some folks, but not such a great place to wander sand dunes on foot.  On this beautiful March morning, however, we practically had the dunes to ourselves, and the state park campground was nearly empty.  What a treat!!  The sand is soft soft grains of eroded Navajo sandstone, the same soft pink coral color found in the Navajo slickrock near Lake Powell. The sand was softer and silkier than any I have ever felt, except maybe that little bit that we walked through in Antelope Canyon. Zion_067

Making our way back west, and re entering Zion NP, we were momentarily stopped by the typical wildlife jam found in most places where big critters hang out along the road.  Joining the jam, we turned around and watched the baby goats dance along the slickrock. 

goats on the slickrock at ZionOne young woman was parked right in the middle of the road, and kept waving us to go around.  Nope.  Not on your life.  It was a blind curve and we weren’t about to pass her!  As cars piled up behind us, I finally got out and said, “Sorry, we aren’t going to pass on a blind curve, could you maybe move forward and pull over a bit?”  She replied, “No, I am just waiting for my family” and didn’t move.  Finally, after some time, she figured out that she was going to have to do something and drove the 400 feet or so ahead where a turnout gave her some space and all the rest of us managed to get around her.  Ahh the joys of traveling a national park in a car!

mama and babies on the slickrock in ZionOnce back through the tunnel, we came to the turn toward the canyon and decided, what the heck, we won’t be back here soon.  Knowing that it would be bumper to bumper, we didn’t even think about hiking. 

At each trailhead, the lots were jammed and the cars were lined up on both sides of the road for some distance.  People were everywhere!  We could see the trails with lines and lines of people walking along, much like that line of ants that you see on Half Dome in Yosemite if you look closely. 

trailhead areas all jammed in Zion CanyonAt the end of the canyon is the famous view of The Great White Throne, iconic image of Zion, restrooms, and the trailhead for the Riverside Trail Walk, a short 2.2 mile round trip hike if you don’t attempt to cross the Virgin River into the Narrows.  Again, the parking lot was jammed, people were everywhere, and we had no plans to hike.  The Canyon knew better, however, and a parking slot opened up within a few feet of the trailhead.

Ok then.  Maybe we can brave the crowds for a simple walk, get out of the car at least once?  Ya think? 

Zion_175I can’t believe in the ability of the canyon to absorb all that humanity and still feel as wonderful as it did.  Within minutes of walking north into the canyon on the wide paved trail, the humanity thinned out and the beauty of the canyon and river was ours.  Sure, there were people, but it was totally worth it to experience the canyon in that late afternoon light.

Zion_201We took our time, enjoying the views, the light and shadow, watching the rock climbers a bit, listening to the birds and the water dripping on the canyon walls in the hanging gardens.  Two miles on a level trail doesn’t qualify as a “hike”, but at least we did get out of the car.

I plan to go back and read Mark’s accounts of the many hikes he and Bobbie have done in Zion and the time of year that they did them.  We enjoyed camping at Virgin so much, and I have a feeling that we will return to this area again, hopefully during late fall, and maybe actually manage at least some of the gorgeous hikes in Zion National Park.  For sure we can do the hikes that are accessible from the Kolob Canyon area that we explored yesterday. Zion_216Zion_214