Final Stretch – September 27-29

We started out early (7:10) on Wednesday, September 27, headed for East Harbor State Park in Lakeside Marblehead, Ohio. That is about 40 miles east of Toledo, on an inlet off of Lake Erie. To get there, we had to cross the Mackinac Bridge to get from the Upper Peninsula to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan ($24 toll for a motorhome towing a car). Then we traversed the entire LP to get to Ohio. We tried our previously-successful strategy of identifying a two-lane road that went in our desired direction, hoping for a more interesting drive than the interstate. In this case we wanted to avoid staying on I-75 through Detroit, so we cut over from I-75 in Saginaw to Route 52. It looked reasonably rural on our map, but there’s an order of magnitude difference between “rural” in Michigan and “rural” in South Dakota, and we soon regretted that decision. There was lots of traffic, and stop lights at least once every couple of miles. It was slow going, so when we got to I-96, we headed back east to Route 23 (a big four-lane comparable to an interstate), and took that due south across the Ohio State line to I-90. I would estimate that our second-guessing of the GPS cost us about an hour. From I-90 we took the exit to Route 163 to Route 2, arriving at East Harbor at about 4:20, with the odometer reading 10843 (473 miles).

East Falls is a very nice state park, with spacious campsites with full hookups (water, 50-amp electric, and sewer), which is unusual for a state park. The weather was just right to enjoy the great outdoors. In fact, it was so nice out that we ate dinner on the picnic table (which we did about five times on the whole trip).

Campsite at East Harbor State Park, Lakeside Marblehead, Ohio

We would have stayed a second night there if we were able to get reservations for Thursday, but the Ohio State Parks put on some kind of special event during Halloween Week (which is the end of September in Ohio, rather than October, for some reason), so they were booked up for Thursday.

In our last few nights at Log Cabin RV Park, city-girl Therese became a rabid campfire fan, and she insisted that I go buy a bundle of the absurdly overpriced firewood and start a campfire.

Campfire at East Harbor State Park

I think she has a tendency towards pyromania.

Thursday morning, we set out at about 8:20 headed for Pine Grove, Pennsylvania. We could have gotten all the way home, but we wanted to enjoy a last night of “camping”. This time, we heeded the advice of our GPS and followed I-90 until it forks into the Ohio Turnpike (I-80). That is a toll road, and we got to try out the EZ-Pass we had for the motorhome for the first time. It’s a good thing it worked, because (unlike Pennsylvania) the Ohio Turnpike puts gates that close after each car and won’t open unless it is able to read your EZ-Pass.

You can follow the Ohio Turnpike right into the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the state border. I don’t remember if I have ever driven that western stretch of the PA turnpike. It’s more hilly than I expected, and it winds around (what I guess are) the Allegheny Mountains, even going through three different tunnels. Throw in some road construction and narrow lanes, and it requires some pretty attentive driving in a 40-foot motor home. We arrived at Twin Groves RV Park at about 4:10, with 11,267 on the odometer, covering 424 miles. Twin Groves was a nice enough park. They had an on-site restaurant, which we tried, causing Therese to vow to avoid all RV campground restaurants in the future.

Campsite at Twin Grove RV Park, Pine Grove, PA

The next morning, we spent quite a while preparing the motor home for storage – draining and rinsing the holding tanks, emptying the fresh water tank, sorting out which stuff to leave in the rig and which to take out, etc. By the time we got going, it was 10:45. We took a circuitous and crowded route the rest of the way home. I’m not sure if there was a better way, but we ended up getting back to the Pennsylvania Turnpike via Route 222.

When we arrived at home, we narrowly averted what would have been our first motor home driving disaster. On my first attempt to turn into our driveway from narrow Grove Road, I didn’t swing wide enough and/or turn sharply enough to get the back wheels onto the driveway. We have a two-foot deep ditch on either side of our driveway, so the rear wheels would have gone right in, damaging either the rig or the stone walls of the ditch, or both. Luckily (or skillfully, according to who is telling the story) I had Therese outside to watch for just such a problem, and she stopped me in time. Of course, it is impossible to back up with the Jeep in tow, so we blocked Grove Road for about 10 minutes while we unhitched and retried (however, it’s not a busy road, and not a single car came during those 10 minutes). The second attempt was better planned and executed, and succeeded. We parked the unit behind our garage for a much-needed cleaning. Our final mileage was 11341.

Dutch Star behind garage
Nice and clean

All in all, we had a great trip and we look forward to more motor home adventures in the future. I think our scheduling for May and September worked out pretty well, although we did catch both some pretty cold (24 degrees) and pretty hot (113 degrees) temperatures. I think it worked out pretty well to split the trip in half, also. A two-month contiguous trip would have been a long time to be away from home, but a one-month coast-to-coast-to-coast trip wouldn’t leave enough time to see things at the leisurely pace that we enjoyed. There is a lot to see out there!

Miles in Dutch Star: 9551
Miles in Jeep Grand Cherokee: ~5500
Average Dutch Star mpg: 6.94

September 25 and 26 – More Michigan Upper Peninsula

With the weather still near perfect, and several interesting prospects in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we opted to continue our stay (first for one day, and then for a second day).

On Monday, we decided to go to the town of Sault Ste. Marie (the Sault is pronounced “Soo”). It’s about a 75-minute drive from Log Cabin RV Park to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. There is also a Sault Ste Marie just over the International Bridge (over the Saint Mary River) in Canada, but we didn’t get that far.

Our first stop was the Soo Locks that allow shipping between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. When I first heard of Soo Locks Visitor Center, which is presented by the US Army Corps of Engineers (big Bentley Systems user), I thought it was probably just some historic display about locks that had since been rendered obsolete by rail and truck shipping.

Park entrance for Soo Locks
Soo Locks administrative building. MacArthur Lock in foreground.

Nothing could be further from the truth than that. As it turns out, shipping on the Great Lakes is not only alive and well, but absolutely essential to our national economy. Over 11,000 vessels pass through the Soo Locks each year, carrying 90 million tons of cargo. The cargo is primarily bulk solids like iron ore, coal, stone, and various types of grain. The largest ships that ply the Great Lakes routes, known as “Lakers”, are sized to fit through the larger of the two main locks, the Poe Lock. It’s 1200 feet long, and the longest ships are 1013 feet (for reference, the Titanic was 883 feet long). They have 2 ½ feet of clearance on either side while going through the 110-foot wide lock.

We learned all that after watching the locks in action. We walked from the parking area to the Locks Park, and saw a ship moving slowly into the Lock. In our ignorance, we figured that was a rarity, so we decided we better go watch while we had the chance. Another tourist right next to us on the three-story observation deck told us that it was the longest boat on the Great Lakes. It was the Paul R. Tregurtha, and it turns out that it shares that “longest” title with many 1013-foot ships on the lakes.

Paul R Tregurtha in the background in Poe Lock, waiting to be lowered, smaller ship in MacArthur Lock, in process of being raised.

Not knowing that, we figured we were in for a rare treat, so we watched it pull into the Poe Lock (very slowly), and in the meantime another big, but not-quite-so-huge boat pulled into the 800-foot MacArthur lock, so both were operating simultaneously!

Another view

As it turns out, that isn’t remarkable at all – both locks are going pretty much continuously for the 42-week “season” from March 25 through January 15th of the following year. For the other 10 weeks there’s too much ice, and icebreakers are used in March to get the locks open again.

Lake Superior’s surface is 21 feet higher than Lake Huron’s so the job of the lock is to lower the boats going towards Lake Huron and raise the boats going to Lake Superior. No pumps are involved, the lock is filled from the Lake Superior side when raising a ship and empties into Lake Huron when lowering one. The Poe Lock thus moves 22 million gallons of water from Lake Superior to Lake Huron with each cycle (one westbound ship and one eastbound ship can traverse during a cycle). It is quite interesting to watch the process. I didn’t time it exactly, but from the times of my pictures, it looks like it takes about 25 minutes to raise or lower a ship – more or less a foot per minute.

Paul R. Tregurtha lowered to Lake Huron level
Smaller ship raised to Lake Superior level.

After watching the locks in action, we went into the Visitors Center, which has a lot of very interesting information about the locks – how they are scheduled, how they work, when they were built, etc.

Picture of picture of locks from above.

There was a video with good content, but it needs to be upgraded to the 21st century – it was approximately ancient VHS quality. The Poe Lock is particularly important because if it was disabled by an accident or attack, it would severely impact the economy, particularly the steel industry and users of steel, since most of the iron ore used by our steel mills goes through that lock. Estimates are that as many as 11 million jobs would be affected, with a consequential dent in the nation’s GNP. There is an approved plan to build a second equal-sized lock, replacing the current, undersized Davis Lock, but it has yet to receive funding. Overall our stop at the Soo Locks was very educational, and we spent about three hours there, much more time than we had planned.

We ate a late lunch at the Locks View Restaurant, right across the street, and then walked the ¾ mile or so to the Museum Ship Valley Camp, which is a maritime museum housed on Great Lakes freighter “Valley Camp” built in 1917 and retired to become a museum in 1968.

Selfie at Museum Ship

We didn’t get there until about 3:30, and it closed at 5:00, so we only had time for a cursory look at the many exhibits. Part of the cargo hold had been converted into the museum area, and part of it was left more or less unmodified (although obviously greatly cleaned up).

Part of cargo hold of Valley Camp converted to museum exhibits
Fresnel lens used in lighthouse
Portion of cargo hold left unused.

The fore and aft quarters and work areas for the crew could be seen through the doors. It looked to me like the hardest jobs were with the “Engineering” department, which kept the two huge steam engines fed with coal, oiled, and maintained. The temperature in the work area was 120-130 degrees, so they worked 4-hour shifts.

Coal-fired steam engine of Valley Camp. Those are the crachshafts down there – 42″ stroke!
Power Steering for Valley Camp

The front of the boat housed the officers – Captain, First, Second and Third Mates, etc. The captains quarters were by far the nicest, but it would never be mistaken for a luxury cruise.

Valley Camp Officers Mess

They had an interesting exhibit on the Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the Great Lakes largest freighters, that sunk on November 10, 1975, with 29 hands lost. There was an interesting timeline of the storm that damaged and eventually sunk the ship,

Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit.

and a lifeboat that was found after the sinking (empty).

Edmund Fitzgerald lifeboat

We had only about 10 minutes before closing time to look through it. I’d say you could spend four or five hours in the Museum Ship easily, particularly if you are interested in maritime and Great Lakes History.

When they tossed us out of the museum, we spent another 20 minutes or so watching the continual stream of ships on the Saint Mary River.

Another “Laker” headed for the Poe Lock.

The electric power generation station, which takes advantage of the 21 foot elevation difference between the two lakes, is right next door to the Museum Ship.

Electric Power generation station, next to Museum Ship Valley Camp

We then walked back to our car for the drive back to the campsite. The weather was absolutely ideal – mid 70’s and clear blue skies, so we did what I described to city-girl Therese as “real camping”. We gathered some kindling, and fired up a campfire using the generous supply of wood that some previous occupant of the site had left there. Unfortunately (and unusual for a campfire) the smoke was directed away from our lawn chairs, and I wasn’t able to ask Therese to around the park to see if anyone could lend us one of those proverbial left-handed smoke-shifters. That would have been entertaining.

“Real” camping, almost.

We were enjoying the campground so much, and the weather was forecast to stay warm for one more day (mid-70’s, before falling precipitously to the mid-50’s on Wednesday) that we decided to extend our stay yet another day, through Tuesday, September 26. After another leisurely morning start, we went to Tahqaumenon (rhymes with phenomenon) State Park. It is a large (50,000 acre) and very nicely appointed state park. The big draws there are the Upper and Lower Falls, so we went to those first. The Upper Falls are among the largest in the US (again, who knew there were such things on the Michigan Upper Peninsula), at 200 feet wide by 50 feet high. The USGS monitors the flow rate and pronounced it to be 3706 gallons per second on the date of our visit. The record, set back in April of 1960, was over 52,000 gallons per second. That must have been some flow! There are two walkways – one leading to a view at the bottom of the falls, and one leading to the brink of the falls. We took both and enjoyed both viewpoints.

Tahquamenom Upper Falls selfie.
Therese at Tahquamenom Upper Falls
Tahquamenom Upper Falls from downstream viewpoint
Tahquamenom Upper Falls from brink
Tahquamenom Upper Falls from brink viewpoint

The water was a kind of weak-tea brownish color. An informative display revealed that the color was due to tannic acid, which comes from cedar and other evergreen trees in the Tahquemenon watershed. There is also some foam at the bottom of the falls, which is also naturally-occurring from the soft water.

After visiting the Upper Falls, we drove to the less-crowded Lower Falls and found a very nice picnic spot about 20 yards from the river.

Picnic spot near Tahquamenom Lower Falls

The river divides above the Lower Falls, so there are multiple, lower, cascading falls. They are thus less spectacular than the Upper Falls, but also scenic.

Walkway to Lower Falls
One of the Tahquamenom Lower Falls
Another of the Tahquamenom Lower Falls

Rain was threatening, so we decided not to take the longer hike around the Clark Lake Loop that we had planned. Instead, we headed back to Log Cabin RV Park, with hopes that the rain would pass without getting our firewood too wet to enjoy some more “real camping”.

(Added later) As it turned out, the rain didn’t amount to much more than light drizzle, far too little to stop dedicated outdoor campers such as ourselves from having another campfire. Umbrellas came in handy.

Campfire, final night in Michigan UP

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wasn’t even on our radar when we started at the beginning of September, but we had a great four days here. We got a great combination of low crowds, since late September is past the end of the traditional season, and what was probably the warmest late September they’ve had in a long time.

September 22 – September 24 – Rochester, Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

On Friday morning, September 22, we were up before dawn. Hart Ranch RV Resort was the only park we’ve seen that had a fuel station, so we took advantage of it to fill the Dutch Star on the way out. It was a slow car-style pump (the good truck stop pumps put out about a gallon every 4 seconds, while the car-style pumps are about a gallon every 10 seconds) but even with that slight delay, we were on the road by 6:45 Mountain time. Our destination was Rochester, Minnesota, for an overnight stop on the way to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The UP wasn’t in our original plans, at least partly because we thought that it would be freezing cold by the end of September. But while we were in Rapid City, we checked out the weather forecast and found that the highs were forecast in the mid- to high 80’s, and the lows in the 60’s. In fact, the entire northern plains was experiencing a heat wave. Sign us up for that!

The route was entirely on I-90 the length of South Dakota. and on into Minnesota. There isn’t any way that you could call the terrain particularly interesting, but as we made our way east, it got progressively greener. South Dakota was mostly dry-looking ranches, with herds of cattle having to forage pretty hard to find enough to eat. There were long stretches that were extremely sparsely populated – you have to like solitude and be pretty independent to live out there. It’s also pretty flat and kind of boring. But at least it looks more prosperous than the desert southwest we went through in May.

In Chamberlain, South Dakota (which is close to the eastern border), there’s a rest stop overlooking the Missouri River that has a huge statue of an Indian woman, that was erected in September of 2016. We stopped for lunch and to take a few pictures of this impressive sculpture.

Dignity Statue at rest stop outside Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

As we got into Minnesota, it was obvious that the climate provides more rainfall (supplemented by irrigation) and land usage changed over to mostly farming. There were huge fields of wheat, corn, soybeans, sunflowers, and others that I didn’t recognize. The farms were large and the population still pretty sparse, but there were more bona fide towns.

We arrived at the Autumn Woods RV Park at about 5:45 Central time, which made it about a 10-hour drive (including stops). The odometer read 9865, so we covered about 578 miles in that time. Not only was it a long drive, but there was a 30 mph gust crosswind from the south the entire drive, so constant steering corrections were needed. With that strong of a wind, the Dutch Star also developed an occasional rattling noise that we hadn’t heard before, coinciding with particularly strong gusts. It sounded like something was moving around in the cabinets, so Therese went back to try and figure it out, but couldn’t find anything loose. She finally tracked it down to the kitchen roof fan – a strong gust would cause it to unseal and the noise we were hearing was the wind noise from that.

As we departed, the temperature was about 50 degrees, but as the day went on, it got into the 90’s. By the time we arrived in Rochester, it had cooled to a very pleasant mid-80’s. Autumn Woods was about average – nice enough park for an overnight stay, but you wouldn’t want to spend a long time there. Despite the warmth, there weren’t many other campers this late in the season.

Autumn Woods Park, Rochester, Minnesota

Anticipating another long drive, we were up even earlier on Saturday, and on the road by 6:30 Central time. This time we were only on I-90 for about 150 miles, then we ignored the advice of the GPS (and the Google Maps app on Therese’s Samsung phone) and made up our own route by looking at our handy-dandy Rand McNally Truckers Atlas. The GPS suggested a route through Appleton and Green Bay, Wisconsin, but we decided to take I-90 east to I-94 west for a few miles, and then follow Route 64 for the next several hundred miles to Marinette, Wisconsin, thereby avoiding the more populated areas. Route 64 was one of those really nice two-lanes – uncrowded, speed limit 65, very few towns and almost no stoplights, and we made good time on it. When we got to Marinette, which is on the Green Bay (which is part of Lake Michigan) at the Wisconsin – Michigan border, we headed north on Route 35, which is also called Lake Shore Drive. That’s appropriate, because it is another delightful two-lane that goes along the shore of Green Bay / Lake Michigan for about 70 miles. There we caught up with Route 2 (another nice one) to Route 77, and then along H42 to our destination in Curtis, Michigan – Log Cabin RV Park. We arrived about 5:30 Eastern time (we lost two hours in two days), with 10370 on the odometer, for a total of 505 miles.

Log Cabin RV Park is situated on Manistique Lake in the middle of the Upper Peninsula. It’s not a real fancy park, but the site we are in is considerably more spacious than most and is in a nice wooded section.

Log Cabin RV Park, Curtis, Michigan

Since the temperature was near perfect by the time we set up and ate dinner (high 70’s), we set up our camp chairs and decided to break out the propane Coleman lantern that our son Steven had given us for Christmas. We got that going and almost felt like real campers.

First use of Coleman lamp (Christmas present from Steven)

Sunday we got up late, with no plans of what we were going to do. Therese consulted her National Park book, and decided that we should head to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, about 60 miles from Curtis. All the roads that we have been on in the Upper Peninsula have been nice wide two-lane roads, mostly straight as an arrow, and in excellent condition, and the roads to Pictured Rocks were no different. We made good time and stopped in at the small visitors center in Munising. There was hardly anyone there, so we got a chance to consult with the very knowledgeable park ranger. She gave us some great suggestions of what to do with the about six hours we had to spend in the park.

Our first stop was Munising Falls. A short walk from the parking area brought us to the foot of the falls. It was pretty crowded, with lots of people getting out in what will probably be the last warm weekend in the Upper Peninsula before it reverts to historical norms (this time of the year, that’s highs in the high 50’s and lows about 40). The falls are carved from sandstone, which is the predominant geology in the Great Lakes region.

Munising Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Selfie at Munising Falls

Our next stop was at Sand Point, where there is a beach on Lake Superior. The park ranger told us that the pink color on the beach was from crushed up garnets. There were a few hardy Michiganers in the water, which felt like about 60 degrees to me. Therese waded in, but didn’t last long.

Pink sand (from crushed garnet) at Sand Point Beach
Therese in Lake Superior at Sand Point Beach
Extremely rare Variegated Tufted Lake Grouse at Sand Point Beach

We took a walk along the lakefront while we were there, and came across a now-closed Coast Guard station from which they launched water rescues years ago. The 36 foot boat was on rails that led down to the lake. The sign said that the station was open from 1933 through 1964, it didn’t say what they do now if they have to mount a rescue. From the beach, you look across to Grand Island, which is accessible only by passenger ferry and has primitive camping and hiking. It is said to be a great place to visit, but we did not have time to get there.

Coast Guard facility at Sand Point Beach
Coast Guard rescue boat at Sand Point Beach Coast Guard facility (no longer used)

The park is 42 miles long and about 5 miles deep along Lake Superior. To visit it, you travel along Route H58, with several side excursions. Our next such side road was H11 to the Miners Castle area. This was quite a surprise to us – there are 200 foot cliffs at the edge of Lake Superior – who knew? There were three different overlooks accessible from the parking area. One of them gave a high up view of the bottom of the cliffs and shoreline, and one descended about halfway to give a view of the top of the cliffs. Both were spectacular, much more interesting than we had been expecting to see.

People at bottom of Miners Castle
View of cliffs from Miners Castle Overlook #3
View of Miners Castle Overlook #3, from Overlook #1.

We ate lunch at a picnic area with a view of the lake.

Selfie at picnic area at Miners Castle

and then headed to the Miners Falls parking area, taking a mile and half round walk to the falls. The walk was through a beautiful deciduous forest – mostly ash and maple trees, and a welcome difference from the almost exclusively coniferous forests that are encountered in the more arid west.

Wooded trail to Miners Trail

Another welcome difference was that the area was much less crowded than Munising Falls or the Sand Point beach area (the trend of less crowds continued as we continued northeastward through the park).

Miners Falls
Barry and Therese at Miners Falls

Here is a video of the Falls: 2017-09-24 14.47.56

By this time, it was too late in the day to take the 3 mile walk to the Au Sable lighthouse (or Light Station as they are currently called), so we’ll have to try that some other time. The signs informed us that, surprisingly, Michigan has the second longest shoreline in the US, trailing only Alaska. More shoreline than California and Florida, which we both found surprising. It has the most lighthouses (143), beating even Alaska. Lighthouse aficionados love the Upper Peninsula, apparently.

Following the shoreline, we next came to Log Slide. The whole Upper Peninsula was ruthlessly logged in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, so most of the woods look comparatively young. Along the trail to the log slide, they had a shed containing one of the ways of they used to move the logs overland, this huge-wheeled contraption.

Log moving contraption on the way to Log Slide

Apparently one way of moving the logs longer distances was to slide them down the sand of the large (300 to 600 foot) dunes into Lake Superior to float them to the mills. The sign cautioned that climbing back after sliding down the 500 foot log slide can take up to an hour. It had surprisingly little cautionary language about the foolhardiness of sliding down, but when I got anywhere close to the edge, I could tell that it was indeed crazy. There were many footprints from people who had climbed up, though, so I guess some nutcases actually do it. You can’t tell from the picture how steep it is, but trust me, no sensible person would get any closer to the edge than I did.

View from Log Slide
Log Slide – top portion before steep part, which is right past this hiker.

Our final stop was a few miles down the road at Sable Falls, another scenic and easily accessible water fall. This one was between Lake Superior and the small Grand Sable Lake, which are separated by about a half mile. I was amazed that there was enough ground to collect the quantity of water that was coming over the falls. I don’t think the water level of Lake Superior could be that much higher than that of Grand Sable Lake, so I can’t think of any other explanation.

Sable Falls

All in all, we had a great day at Pictured Rocks National Seashore. The Lake Superior shoreline is much more interesting and picturesque than I thought it would be. If you get near that area of the country, don’t miss it.

September 17 – September 21 Billings, Montana on to Rapid City, South Dakota

On Sunday, September 17, we left West Yellowstone a little after 11:00 and arrived in Billings, Montana a little after 3:00, with the odometer reading 8897, about 240 miles. The route took us north on route 191, a scenic two-lane road that took us through Yellowstone Park for about 20 miles, and then on to Interstate 90. As we travelled on I-90, the scenery changed from mountainous to grasslands, with a whole lot of empty space out there. Our campground in Billings was the Billings Holiday KOA, which is quite close to I-90. It was a pleasant and well-run KOA, with some stuff that looked like it would have been entertaining for families with kids.

Billings Holiday KOA Campsite

We were only staying overnight on the way to Rapid City, South Dakota, but we still hoped to find something interesting to do since we got in relatively early. But because it was Sunday, most of the things Therese found on her phone (using the TripAdvisor app) were closed for the day, or at least closed early, so we just hung around the site and “camped”.

We finished watching the 2011 HBO series “Luck” with Dustin Hoffman and some other pretty famous actors. We enjoyed the series, but I can’t recommend it all that highly because it was clearly meant to continue beyond one season, so you don’t get satisfactory resolution of some of the subplots. The series revolved around the Santa Anita racetrack, which is in California, about five miles from  where Therese grew up. We later discovered that it was cancelled because three horses died during the filming – two during Season 1, and one early in the filming of Season 2, at which point the producers pulled the plug.

We had hoped to go outside and see the big night sky in Montana, but the campground was lit up like a Christmas tree and after looking for a while, we decided it wasn’t worth staying out in the cold (about 40 degrees) with no hope of seeing the night sky free of interference.

On Monday (September 18), we got off to a leisurely 10:00 start, and  arrived at Hart Ranch RV Resort in Rapid City, South Dakota just after 5:00 with the odometer reading 9287, about 390 miles. Hart Ranch is a large membership RV park. I am not exactly sure how they work it, but you apparently get very low rates if you are member, but they also take non-members in the off-season, such as now. It has lots of amenities like a pool, tennis and pickleball courts, and a restaurant.

Hart Ranch RV Resort

Not particularly bright and early, we got up on Monday and headed to our first stop in the Black Hills area, Mount Rushmore. Both Therese and I had been there before, approximately 40 years ago. The visitor facilities have been vastly upgraded since then, to accommodate the >2,000,000 visitors they get each year.

Mount Rushmore
Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln

We enjoyed the Presidents Walk, which gives a variety of viewing angles for the monuments and explains the choices of subjects Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Mount Rushmore from Presidents Trail

We also thoroughly enjoyed the visitors center’s exhibits about the sculptor in charge, Gutzon Borglum, who was quite a character.

Gustav Borglum, Sculptor of Mount Rushmore

In the “sculptors studio” there was a ranger talk about the 1:12 scale model of the mountain, and details about the method of carving.

1/12 scale model of Mount Rushmore in Sculptor’s Studio. Original plan was to carve to the waistline, but they ran out of funding.

90% of the 450,000 tons of granite that was removed was done so with dynamite (the original plan was to do it all without any explosives, but that quickly went by the wayside when they determined that quite a bit of rock had to be removed to get to the stable rock they wanted – 30 feet for Washington’s face and up to 75 feet for Roosevelt.

Mount Rushmore from Sculptor’s Studio

The history of the project included quite a bit of controversy, including the subject (it was originally envisioned as western, rather than national heroes), and whether it should be built at all. There was an anti-sculptor contingent that thought that the Black Hills granite was just fine as nature created it, with no need for man-made “improvements”. But the contingent that wanted to give tourists a reason to come to South Dakota won out, and now the whole Rapid City area (which has an abundance of nature-provided attractions) has a bit of a tourist-trap feeling to it, with dinosaur museums, reptile farms, bear country, gold mines, helicopter tours, jeep rides, etc.

At about 1:00, we ate lunch and then headed to the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, which is at Ellsworth Air Force Base, right off I-90.

South Dakota Air and Space Museum, B1-B Bomber

They have about 20 planes parked outside, including some huge bombers – a B-52 and a B-1B, as well as some fighters and trainers. I wish they had some information about each airplane – they didn’t even have their types indicated anywhere. Maybe there was a map with locations and information, but if so we didn’t find it, so what is below is my best guess.

WWII era bomber – I think it’s a B-29
B-52 Stratofortress, nicknamed BUFF for Big Ugly Fat Fellow. Sometimes Fellow was replaced by a different F word.
C-47 Military version of DC-3
T-38 Trainer
Large Air Force Airplane. Let me know if you know what it is.

While we were looking at the airplanes, Therese noticed a B-1B coming in for a landing, and I was able to get a few pictures of it. It would have been cool to see one of those monsters taking off.

B1-B landing at Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Landing B1-B

Inside there were lots of informative exhibits about the Ellsworth Air Force base and its history and mission (a lot of which had to do with America’s nuclear deterrent, which as you will see is a big theme in this area). The picture below is of a nuclear missile carried by bombers that was part of that nuclear arsenal.

Bomber carried nuclear missile.

There was a simulator for the B1-B, for the Offensive Weapons Officer and Defensive Weapons Officer positions. The electronics were probably state of the art in the mid-1980’s when the B1-B’s were built, but they look pretty primitive by modern standards.

B-1B simulator, Offensive Officer and Defensive Officer positions.

There were a lot of other historical exhibits there, too – some of focusing on the post World War II period, including the Berlin wall and the Berlin airlift, and a lot of information about the Korean war. This was another museum that you could easily spend a whole day in and not see it all. But about 4:30, we used up our quota of information for the day and headed home. Our intention had been to go back to Mount Rushmore for the nightly lighting ceremony, but it was rainy, cold, and windy, so we decided that we couldn’t risk it, and would try again another night.

On Tuesday, we got going (not particularly early, again) and headed for the Badlands, which was about 90 minutes east of the Rapid City on I-90. The Badlands is one of the sights that I remember from my previous trips across the country. It is a landscape of highly eroded Pierre Shale that rises abruptly from the surrounding prairie. We stopped at the Ben Riefel Visitor Center at the east end of the park to learn more about the geology and (as usual) we watched the film that covered the geology (the whole area was once a huge inland sea), fossils, and wildlife that is found in the park. The exhibits were also interesting, including some info about how they are successfully reintroducing some endangered species into the park.

A short distance from the visitor’s center is a parking area where we took the Notch Trail, that leads about a mile up into some of the weird rock formations that make up the park.

Badlands from Notch Trail

The trail had a few steeper sections, including one where they put up a timber and cable ladder to get up a 30-foot rise. That was pretty interesting.

Cable and Timber ladder on Notch Trail
Therese supporting rock formation along Notch Trail.
View from end of Notch Trail

From there, we drove along the Badlands Loop Road, which has many overlook areas to see both the park and the wildlife. We saw some bison, bighorn sheep, and a huge colony of prairie dogs.

Bighorn sheep at Badlands
Prairie Dog colony at Badlands
Prairie Dog at Badlands

The rock formations are strange, inhospitable, and delicate looking (and indeed, the museum said that there had been erosion of about a foot in the last 70 years, as compared to the granite at Mount Rushmore which erodes at about one inch per 10,000 years).

Badlands protruding from South Dakota grasslands
Outlaws at Badlands
Wild hair in a wild land.
Yellow Mounds at Badlands
Badlands from Ancient Hunters overlook

The weather was picture perfect – about 70 degrees with a breeze and an unbelievably blue sky.

Badlands and intensely blue sky.

At the end of the approximately 30 mile road, which isn’t a loop at all, we were at the northern Pinnacles gate, which we took to get back up to I-90 to again head east to the same exit as we took for the Badlands. This time we went north from the exit about ¼ mile to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, arriving at 2:45.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Museum

This consists of a museum and two decommissioned nuclear missile silos. Unfortunately, the closer of the two silos was closed to install a new fire suppression system, and the other 15 mile distant silo closed at 3:00, so we couldn’t make it in time. But the museum was actually fascinating. The roughly 60 mile square area northeast of Rapid City area was one of the sites where the U.S.’s land-based ICBM nuclear deterrent was based.

South Dakota’s Nuclear Defense area

As you can imagine, this was controversial (although I don’t think the locals had much choice in the matter). It definitely brought economic activity and vastly improved infrastructure to the area, but at the cost of being a prime target for Soviet missiles. The exhibits at the museum told a year-by-year story of the cold war – the significant events and a graphical representation of the number of missiles that the US and Soviets each aimed at the other, as well as the historic proliferation of nuclear-capable countries. There was also a display listing the “close calls”, both from provocations like the Berlin blockade and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and false warnings due to failures of the detection systems of both the US and Soviets. The life of the “missileers” as the Air Force personnel manning the silos and control centers are known was also covered by some of the exhibits. The Minuteman II missiles that occupied 450 silos in South Dakota were all decommissioned in the ‘90s in accordance with the START treaties that were signed after the cold war thawed out, but there are still some Minuteman III missiles in the area. These have smaller warheads and only one per missile, unlike the larger, MIRVed Minuteman II warheads. After a fascinating 90 minutes at the museum, we headed back to the campground.

After dinner at the campground restaurant (not highly recommended), we left for the lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore.

By the time the lighting ceremony started (about 8:00), the temperature had dropped to about 50 degrees and there was a bit of a breeze, so we were glad we had dressed warmly. One of the visitor facility improvements is a very large amphitheater that seats 2500. It’s probably full in the summer, but I’d say there were about 800 there on this Wednesday in September. After a short presentation by one of the park rangers (the centerpiece of was Lincoln’s Gettysburg address), they showed a short movie that explained the rationale for each of the presidents on Mount Rushmore. Then they lit up the statues (one of the exhibits we had earlier read said the lighting was all new sometime in the early 2000’s, I think). They then called all the active and retired military in attendance up to the stage for a round of applause and thanks. It’s definitely worth going to if you get a chance. I tried a bunch of different camera to get a decent photo of the lighted sculptures, this one is the best I got.

Mount Rushmore at night.

We had decided on Tuesday to extend our stay for another day so we could visit Custer State Park, which we did on Thursday, September 21. Wow, South Dakota knows how to put together a State Park.

Custer State Park

The visitor center looks like it is brand new, with a bunch of exhibits, mostly about the wildlife (Bison, elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and burros). They have a movie theater that knocked all the National Park movie theaters into a cocked hat – a huge screen and exceptionally comfortable seats. Unfortunately, they were having technical difficulties with the equipment and had to cancel the 10:30 show. We didn’t want to wait around another half-hour, so we headed out into the 70,000 acre park. From the visitor center we took the 20-mile Wildlife Loop Road. On the road, we saw all of the promised species except elk.

Buffalo at Custer

The park has a herd of about 1450 bison. An exhibit in the visitors center said that the entire North American population was only about 1000 in the late 1800’s, down from tens of millions before Europeans came to America. It is hard to believe that anyone could be so stupid as to squander a resource like that, but there you have it.

Herd of Buffalo (Tatanka in the Lokata language) at Custer State Park

The Wildlife Loop Road ends at Route 87, which, after you follow it for about 10 miles, turns into the Needles Highway, a winding, narrow, spectacularly scenic road through the needle-like granite formations that give it its name. The route was laid out by foot and horseback by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, and then engineered by Scovel Johnson. It was built (requiring 150,000 pounds of dynamite), and finished in 1922.

The weather was perfect again, and the scenery was spectacular. We stopped for lunch at the Heddy Draw picnic area, which also had a very nice short hike up the ridge of a hill.

Heddy Draw Picnic area

We stopped to just look out over the Needles on the William “Bill” Trapp memorial bench halfway up. Bill was born in 1948 and died in 1996, so he only lived 48 years, but I hope he got a chance to enjoy the view from somewhere near where his memorial bench is located, absolutely awesome.

Bill Trapp Memorial bench

Therese is, for reasons unknown, unable to pass by a site where anyone has built a cairn, no matter how half-baked, without adding an additional stone. Here she is, at it again.

Therese Cairn-building, trail at Heddy Draw.

There are two narrow, low tunnels on the route, the Iron Creek Tunnel and the longer Needles Eye Tunnel, which are about 8 ½ foot wide. Very interesting to drive through. In between are more spectacular views of the Needles.

Iron Creek Tunnel – the wider of the two.
More Needles
Needle formations along Needles Highway
Eye of the Needle Tunnel

At the north end of the park is the Sylvan Lake area. We stopped there and did the one-mile loop trail around the lake, which turned out to be more interesting than we had expected.

Sylvan Lake trail
Therese on the exceptionally difficult and primitive Sylvan Lake trail
Sylvan Lake Trail
Sylvan Lake

All through South Dakota, there have been millions of butterflies. Maybe they are on some kind of migration or something, but they are literally everywhere. Unfortunately, several thousand were wiped out by the big flat front of the Dutch Star, which excels at killing them. They seem to mostly miss the Jeep windshield, because it has a slope to it. I finally got a picture of one so perhaps someone out there can identify the specie of butterfly.

Butterfly, one of millions.

You could easily spend a week or more in Custer State Park. They have all kinds of things to do. A week after we were there is the annual Buffalo Roundup, where they bring in cowboys and cowgirls to herd the Buffalo from horseback, and then have an auction to sell off some of the herd so that the size of the herd matches the predicted forage for the following year. It is apparently quite an event, drawing a large show and including an art show in the mix.

Tomorrow, we are moving on. We’ll let you know where in the next post!


September 14-16 – Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park

On Monday morning, our intention was to get up at 6:00 and be on the way by 7:00, since we were headed for a stop at Eagle Creek RV Service in Idaho Falls to get our chassis battery problem fixed and the first oil and filter change for the Dutch Star. However, a time zone mistake that we didn’t catch until midway through breakfast meant that we didn’t actually get going until about 7:40. The ~70 mile drive to Idaho Falls was entirely on Idaho 20, another smooth two-lane highway, so it took only about 1:15 to get there.

I backed the Dutch Star into their repair bay (with about 3 inches of clearance on either side), and they set to work on it. We expected the service to take four hours or so, so our first order of business was to find a car wash to wash the quarter inch of dirt off the Jeep.

Freshly washed Jeep. Front stayed clean for about 30 minutes, rest stayed clean for five hours.

Having accomplished that, we took a leisurely 50-mile drive on Idaho 26 along the Snake River to Swan Valley. There we found Rainey Creek Country Store, a store that the guy at Eagle Creek said was famous for their locally made ice cream (a sign inside claimed that they dished out about 12,000 serviings on Eclipse day) . The drive was along scenic, and the ice cream was good (though nothing particularly special, in our opinion), but the drive through wheat fields managed to get about 1000 bugs smashed on the newly-washed Jeep’s windshield, bumper, and hood.

By the time we got back and had lunch, it was about 12:30, so we called Eagle Creek to see what was up with the Dutch Star. They had finished the maintenance work, but they had decided they had to take the batteries out to charge them up so they could load test them, and while they were charging, their guy went out to lunch. So we killed a little more time, and showed up there at 1:00, hoping that having us haunting their comfortable waiting room would motivate them to get done quicker. Shortly thereafter, they did determine that both batteries were bad, so they located some in town. Unfortunately, the first two they had delivered were the wrong ones, and by the time they got the right ones, installed them, and made sure they were charging, it was 3:00.

We fueled up the Dutch Star at the next door Pacific Pride, hitched up the Jeep, and were on our way to West Yellowstone, Montana by about 3:30. That was only 108 miles, partly on Interstate 90 and partly back on Route 20, so we made good time and arrived at Grizzly RV Park in West Yellowstone at about 5:30, with the odometer reading 8656, for a net of 178 miles that day. Unfortunately, about 10 miles of it was in rain, and there is no more efficient way to get a car dirty than to tow it behind a motorhome. But the Jeep was still in the range of dirty that can be removed by Optimum No Rinse, so it got washed for the second time in a day.

Campsite at Grizzly RV Park

It was cloudy and drizzly and in the low 40’s when we arrived at West Yellowstone  (elevation, about 6700’), and the weather got worse from there. Overnight, it rained quite a bit, and we decided that we would wait until we could stop at a store (of which there are quite a few in West Yellowstone) to buy an umbrella before venturing into Yellowstone Park. That meant that we got to the park entrance (which is within a few miles of West Yellowstone) at about 9:30. The weather was pretty dismal – 34 degrees and raining, not hard, but steadily. The cloud cover was also low, blocking the view of the surrounding mountains (as we have experienced before on this trip).

Yellowstone is an enormous National Park, much larger than any of the others we have visited. The two loop roads (one on the north and one on the south) add up to 142 miles! Our objective for the first day was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which was my favorite sight on two-previous cross-country trips – one 39 years ago and one 47 years ago. It was a substantial drive to get there, maybe 70 miles or so. We stopped a few times on the way, once at a geothermal pool, and a few times at scenic overlooks, at which the scenery we mostly saw was mist, rain, and fog.

Geothermal pool at Yellowstone
Geothermal pool, with various color minerals and algae.

We saw our first large wildlife along the road, a lone buffalo that looked like he was taking a break from entertaining park visitors.

Buffalo in Yellowstone

One thing that you see today that I don’t remember from the long-ago trips is burned out areas of the forest. In several of the parks we have visited this year, the drive or walk is through areas that have burned fairly recently (anywhere from one to 30 years ago). I believe that is because 40 years ago they aggressively fought any forest fire, particularly those on National Park lands. Since then they have determined that letting fires burn (or even starting controlled burns) is better forest management practice. While it’s interesting to see how the forest regenerates itself, the older sections are more scenic. In Yellowstone, the predominant tree is the Lodgepole Pine. Its pine cones, which hold the seeds, are actually sealed shut until they are opened by fire. The new seedlings in the recovering burned areas grow very densely. I guess some must die out as the forest matures.

The temperature continued to drop to 30 degrees as we climbed to an elevation of 8000 feet, give or take five hundred, and the precipitation changed to snow. Despite this discouraging weather, the park was quite crowded by the time we got the parking lot for the brink of Lower Falls overlook. We took the steep .6 mile, 600’ vertical drop trail to the top of the Lower Falls.

Therese on the trail to the brink of the Lower Falls. Rain paused, clouds lifting.

For those of you who make a trip out west, if you see nothing else, do not miss this view! My memories from those two long-ago trips did not let me down, and it remains the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, North Rim Trail
Brink of Lower Falls

Fortunately, the clouds had pretty much lifted by then (11:00 or so) and the snow had slowed down to intermittent, so we were able to see the canyon quite well. We took lots of pictures, but for whatever reason, the camera doesn’t correctly capture the colors of the canyon walls, which are a beautiful yellow color. I have inserted below an unmodified picture, and the same picture where I tried to correct the colors with a photo editor. Neither picture comes close to capturing the beauty of it in person.

From Brink of Lower Falls, colors as captured by camera.
From Brink of Lower Falls, colors modified

After climbing back from the Lower Falls trail, we made the brief walk to the higher overlook that the less adventurous visitors can access from the parking area (which also provides spectacular views).

Then we walked about ¾ of a mile on the North Rim trail to Lookout Point, where you get a view of the Lower Falls from downriver. It was still snowing, but for walking, that is preferable to rain, since at least some bounces off rather than soak through your clothes. At Lookout Point we took the Red Rock trail, another steep 600’ descent that provides a great look at the Lower Falls from below. Despite the big crowd in the parking lot, there were very few hikers on this trail (no doubt discouraged by the snow and cold), but there was a family of six down there that took our picture on our camera after we took their picture on theirs.

Red Rock Trail
Fearless hikers at end of Red Rock Trail
Lower Falls from end of Red Rock Trail

After climbing back up, we took the short walk to the easily-accessible-from-the-parking-area overlook, from which you can see not only the falls, but where we hiked down to on the Red Rock Trail.

Lower Falls from Lookout Point, and the end of the Red Rock Trail below.

After the walk back to the Jeep, we ate lunch in the car, since the snow was still coming down, now with increasing intensity. After lunch, we stopped at the final Grand Canyon overlook, Grand View, which is indeed an appropriate name.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from Grand View overlook
Canyon from Grand View overlook

We then drove up to the Tower Falls, which luckily (since we were a little tired of walking through cold and snow) is easily visible after a 150-yard stroll.

Tower Falls, Yellowstone

By this time, it was about 4:00, so we drove back to the campground, which took about 90 minutes. It was amazing how many visitors there were, despite the fact that it was a cold, snowy, weekday in September. I can only imagine how crowded it must be during the summer months.

Before going to sleep Friday night, we made plans to wake up early on Saturday morning and make  the 80-mile drive to the South gate of Yellowstone Park and on into Grand Teton National Park, which is just south of Yellowstone. So we got up just after 5 am, and made the unwelcome discovery that when the water temperature starts out very cold (just above freezing), the “on demand” water heater in the Dutch Star will not get it hot enough for a comfortable shower – think lukewarm at best. In all our previous uses, the water temperature started out in the high 50-degree to low 80-degree range, meaning that a maximum temperature rise of 45 degrees was required. Apparently a temperature rise of 65 degrees is not in the cards. So after quick showers, we were ready to go by 6:15, still in pitch dark.

The first hint of possible trouble with our plan was that we had to brush off an inch and a half of snow that had accumulated on the Jeep overnight. But the temperature was 30 degrees, and the roads were not slippery, so off we went. The Yellowstone west gate was unmanned at that early hour, and there was very little traffic on the road through the park. However, as the sun came up, it became apparent that the cloud cover was very low (a few hundred feet, maximum) and the snow picked up again. By the time we got to Grand Teton, the snow was serious enough to be sticking on the roadway. We stopped at the Colter Bay information center to consider our options.

Colter Bay Visitor Center – snowing

We thought about turning back and seeing more of Yellowstone, but we decided to stick it out. Grand Teton is much smaller than Yellowstone, perhaps 35 miles, and there is one major north-south road. From the north, it goes along the shore of Jackson Lake for about half its length, and then closer to the Tetons (which are on the west side of the park) beyond the southern end of the lake. As we headed south, the snow petered out, and we stopped at some of the turnouts to verify that we could see absolutely nothing. By the time we got to the visitor center at Jenny Lake, at the south end of the park, we hadn’t seen Teton one. But, with my Meteorology 101 expertise, I was confident that the clouds would lift as the surface temperature increased, we just had to wait them out.

So we spent an hour or so at the visitor center.  As we have at practically every National Park, we watched a 20 minute film about the park, which was nicely done. The Tetons are a geologically young formation, formed on the boundary of two tectonic plates. The mountains are on the western plate that is being pushed up as the eastern plate is pushed down. That causes the characteristic that is most unusual about the Tetons – they rise very abruptly from a level plane, with no foothills. That makes for spectacular scenery (when you can see it), since you can get quite close to the steep rise of the mountains. It also explains why the Tetons are composed of very old, hard granite, even though they are young mountains.

In the exhibit section of the visitor center, there was a wall dedicated to mountaineering. Grand Teton National Park is a very popular mountaineering destination and training ground, because the Tetons are not only challenging to climb, but easily accessible and the granite composition means that the rock is very strong and stable. There are several mountaineering schools based at the park.

When we came out of the visitors center, we could see glimpses of the base of the Tetons, which was definitely progress. We headed back north on the park road, and even though it was only 10:45 of so, we stopped at one of the first parking areas and ate lunch while watching the clouds slowly lift.

Clouds starting to lift about 11:00 am
Six minutes later.

While waiting out the clouds, another group spotted a herd of 20 or 30 pronghorns (not actually antelopes, according to the park brochure) headed south. They were a little too far away to get a good picture, but we took a few anyway.

Herd of pronghorns (center left of picture)

Just as I predicted, as the day got warmer (up to about 36 at this point), the clouds started to lift and thin out, and our decision to wait rather than pull the plug worked out great. We did indeed see the Tetons as we headed back north, and it was well worth the trip there. Snow and occasionally sleet were still falling, but at least they were falling from clouds that were high enough to avoid blocking the view.

Clouds lifting on the Grand Tetons
Grand Tetons, about 12:00.

As we passed the dam at the north end of Jackson Lake, we stopped to take another batch of pictures (we had stopped in the same place on the way south in the morning). The improvement in the weather can be seen in the pictures below:

View from Jackson Lake in the morning – there are Tetons out there somewhere.
Same view in the afternoon
Jackson Lake in the morning.
Afternoon at Lake Jackson
Selfie at Jackson Lake

By the time we left Grand Teton to wind our way back through Yellowstone, it was about 1:00. We took the eastern side of the south loop, avoiding the larger crowds that we thought would be on the western side, where Old Faithful and most of the other geothermal features are located. That route goes along the picturesque Yellowstone Lake for a while, and then along the equally picturesque Yellowstone River.

Yellowstone Lake

The elevation is slightly higher than Grand Teton NP, and the temperature accordingly decreased to 34 or so, with a bit of a breeze and rain and snow occasionally thrown in. That was enough to convince us that even the usual pansy “hikes” we took were inadvisable, so we contented ourselves with the sights that can be seen from the numerous turnouts and parking areas.

There was still plenty of traffic, but it flowed pretty well except for places where wildlife was spotted, which would slow to nearly a crawl.

Buffalo, drive by shooting (with camera!)

At one point (luckily near a turnout place on the road) there was a huge elk with a rack of antlers that must have spanned 5 feet. He mostly kept his back to the crowd. One fearless (read stupid) photographer walked to within about 10 yards of the elk, despite warnings everywhere to give them a wide berth. I was hoping to capture a video of said photographer being gored by the elk so I could post it on YouTube, but the elk seemed completely unphased by that idiot and the other 100 human photographers taking pictures from a safer distance.

Large elk, mooning the crowd.

Yellowstone also has a lot of Buffalo, which are the most commonly observed large animals. There were herds of 20 of so along the Yellowstone River, and also some along the Madison river which runs along the road to the west entrance.

Buffalo Herd along Yellowstone River

We got back to the campsite about 4:30, and spent some time figuring out what to do the next day. We had tentatively made plans to stay another day in the area, visiting Old Faithful and the other geothermal features on the southwest part of the southern loop road, which we had not been near. However, we decided that having seen similar stuff at Lassen, we would pass on it and move on towards South Dakota.

We ate dinner at Madison Crossing Lounge, a nice enough restaurant in West Yellowstone, walked around the town a little bit (the temperature was back down in the low thirties), and then headed back to the warmth of the Dutch Star.

September 12-13, Craters of the Moon National Monument

With a long drive ahead of us, we got up early, “broke camp” (to the extent that quaint expression applies to getting a motor home ready to depart), fired up the Dutch Star (once again with the help of Battery Boost) and left the campground at about 7:30 am. For the return trip, we took the local advice and went north on Route 89, rather than retracing our arrival route by heading south. Then we took Route 464 east (a nice two-lane road) to get to the town of Browning, Montana, rejoining 89 south there. That added about 8 miles to the trip, but was probably the same or less time than retracing the route we came in on.

Our Garmin RV GPS mapped out a route that was about 80 miles longer than Therese’ phone Google Maps. It was determined to get us to Interstate 15 by the shortest possible path, even though that was headed in the wrong direction. The night before we had verified on our trusty Rand McNally Motor Carriers Road Atlas that the roads G-Maps was suggesting were all highlighted yellow, indicating safe truck routes, so we ignored the Garmin and took the more direct route – Route 89 to Route 287 to Interstate 15, then off at Idaho Route 22 to Route 33, to Route 26 to Arco. Even the Google Maps route was a pretty substantial drive, and we pulled into the Craters of the Moon Arco KOA at about 5:00, reading 8478 on the odometer – 511 miles.

During the drive, we tuned into CNN for more news about Hurricane Irma, most of which was bad, but not as bad as had been forecast. The turn inland weakened the storm, and thus the storm surges, which cause the most damage, were less than expected. We also heard from Joe, who looks after our house in Naples when we’re not there. He had been able to get to our house, with difficulty due to the downed trees and debris on the roads, and the lack of traffic lights with the electricity still out in most of Naples. The news was surprisingly good, all things considered. Our house survived quite well, although lots of landscaping was wrecked. Most of the damage in the neighborhood was apparently similar – palm trees stripped of their fronds, signs and trees blown over, some roof tiles blown off, and debris scattered everywhere, but the buildings survived without major damage. Needless to say, we were relieved and thankful for the news, tempered by the knowledge that many Naples residents were not so fortunate. First-hand accounts from people who stayed in town were that the sound and fury of Irma was terrifying.

In the afternoon, Therese used her cell phone to look for Spartan (the manufacturer of the Dutch Start chassis) service centers, with the idea that if we found one, we would try to get the first scheduled service done as well as getting the battery problem squared away. As luck would have it, Eagle Rock RV Service is located in Idaho Falls, which is right on our short route to our next stop, Yellowstone National Park. So we made an appointment for Thursday morning at 8:30. We will drop the Dutch Star off, try to find a place to get the Jeep washed, and see whatever else there is to see in beautiful Idaho Falls while they get the Dutch Star up to peak operational condition.

The Craters of the Moon KOA is vastly superior to the Glacier KOA – nice shade trees, nice green grass (which they have to water to keep that way), and generally friendly and up-to-date. They set a new standard for WiFi speed, too, perhaps because the park is comparatively empty during this September week and there isn’t much competition for bandwidth.

Campsite at Craters of the Moon KOA

Craters of the Moon National Monument is not one of the top tourist destinations, and it was a Wednesday with school already in session, so we didn’t anticipate big crowds there. Thus, we felt free to get a late start – finishing up a previous blog installment, etc. – and got going around 9:45. The drive to the park was about half an hour, and our first stop was the visitor center right at the entrance of the park. There we saw a few videos – one about the volcanology (I think that is actually the word they used) of the park. It is one of the most recently active volcanoes along the Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah arc of volcanic sites, having violently erupted as recently as 2000 years ago. The terrain is about as inhospitable as you can imagine – a combination of palhoehoe and a’a lava fields, and cinder cones. Palhoehoe (a Hawaiian name pronounced pal-hoee-hoee) lava fields have a comparatively smooth surface that forms late in the eruption cycle when most of the gases have escaped from the magma (molten rock). The surface cools as the underlying lava (which is what magma is called when it is above ground) continues to flow, so you get a sort of ropy appearance.

Palhoehoe lava in foreground, a’a lava in background.
Surface of palhoehoe lava
More palhoehoe lava on way to Tree Mold Lava

A’a (also a Hawaiian name, pronounced ah-ah) lava fields form from cooler, more viscous lava, which cools and solidifies before it has a chance to flow very far, and piles up as it gets pushed by the lava behind it. The a’a surface certainly looks other-worldly, but I’m a skeptic on the “Craters of the Moon” moniker – I don’t think the moon looks like that. The park was named in the early 20th century, though, so they didn’t have the advantage of having seen pictures from the moon.

A’a Lava Formation in Devil’s Orchard
A’a lava field

The cinder cones are formed from lava with high gas content, which gets blown higher into the air and solidifies before coming back to earth. It’s mostly in small pebbly grains, but there’s an occasional larger chuck that partially solidifies in the air and falls to earth as a volcanic “bomb”, which take various shapes.

Smaller Cinder Cone from Inferno Cinder Cone

The road through the park was in the process of getting repaved – they had most of the surface already ground, and were allowing only one-way traffic, with the attendant delay. As we passed the grinding machine, which grinds up the top inch or two of the road onto an integral conveyer belt that loads a dump truck following it, the poor filthy Jeep was further insulted by the wind blowing a sprinkling of the finer pieces of ground up road onto its hood, windshield, and roof. Between getting dragged around behind the rig and stuff like this, that vehicle is taking a beating on this trip.

As you travel the 7-mile loop road through the park, there are a number of opportunities to see the lava fields close up. We first took a short walk on the Devil’s Orchard Nature Trail, through some piles of a’a lava.

Deadwood in Devil’s Orchard

Then we took the steep quarter-mile trail to the top of the Inferno Cinder Cone.

Trail up the Cinder Cone (that’s not the top in this picture)
On Inferno Cinder Cone Trail

That was the highlight of the day, giving 360-degree views of the surrounding lava fields as well as the sagebrush steppe and mountains of central Idaho. It was well worth the walk up, but most visitors passed it by – we were the only ones on the hike up, although by the time we got back down there were a few headed up. The weather was absolutely perfect – sunny, about 75 degrees with enough wind to keep you cool but not enough to volcanic dust around.

Therese on top of the Inferno Cinder Cone
View from Inferno Cinder Cone
Smaller Cinder Cone from Inferno Cinder Cone
Tree on top of Inferno Cinder Cone – leaning due to prevailing winds?
Mountains from top of Inferno Cinder Cone
Selfie from the top of Inferno Cinder Cone
Another View from top of Inferno Cinder Cone

After the Inferno Cinder Cone, we took the Lava Cascades spur road, where we spotted a perfect picnic area – shaded and sheltered from the wind.

Picnic area at Craters of the Moon

From the parking area at the end of the Lava Cascades road, we took the 2-mile (round trip) Tree Molds Trail.

Trail to Tree Mold lava formation

Along the Tree Mold trail, we saw what most looked like a crater.

Closest thing to a crater at Craters of the Moon National Monument

Tree Molds are formed when hot lava encounters a growing tree. On contact the lava molds itself to the tree as it solidifies (burning the tree to smithereens in the process). I wouldn’t have recognized the tree mold without the helpful sign and explanation, but judge for yourself from the picture.

Tree Mold Lava Formation

Our last stop was the Snow Cone area, where we saw Spatter Cones – which form very late in the volcanic eruption cycle.

Spatter Cone at Craters of the Moon
Barry inside Spatter Cone

We headed back to the campground a little after 2:00. I tried to catch up with some e-mails, while Therese headed to the local grocery store.

September 9-11 – Coeur d’Alene and Glacier National Park

On Saturday, September 9, we left Taidnapam RV Park at about 9:00, headed for Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. When we went to fire up the previously hyper-reliable Dutch Star, we discovered that the batteries were too dead to start it. Motor homes have lots of batteries – the Dutch Star has two 12-volt “chassis” batteries, wired in parallel, that start the engine, put down the leveling jacks, run the instruments and power all the other “driving related” gizmos. It also has eight 12-volt “house” batteries, which power all the lighting, and a 120-volt inverter that can run some of the 120-volt electrical appliances, like the refrigerator (the inverter won’t run the air conditioners, for that you need either shore power or the generator). The engine wouldn’t start because the chassis batteries were dead. Fortunately, the Newmar guys thought of that scenario (and also fortunately, Barry paid attention when the guy at the dealer was showing us how to operate the unit) and provided a switch labelled “Battery Boost”. It’s a spring-loaded switch that closes a solenoid that connects the house batteries to the chassis batteries as long as it is pushed. That got the engine started, but the rig acted a little weird for a minute or so – a “check transmission” message was displayed in the driver information center, and the “comfort steering” wasn’t working. Both fixed themselves after a few minutes, I guess after the alternator kicked in and got the voltage up to whatever minimum is needed. Given the backup of the Battery Boost switch, I decided that getting the batteries replaced could be deferred for a few days until it was more convenient for us.

When we got rolling, we followed Washington 12 east to Interstate 82 north, and then to Interstate 90 East. It was a scenic drive, particularly the first part, but we were not paying as much attention to the scenery as we should have because we were often listening to XM radio’s news channels trying to get the latest Hurricane Irma news and forecast.

We arrived at Blackwell RV Park in Coeur d’Alene at about 3:00, with the odometer reading 7617 (a 329 mile drive). Blackwell is a very popular park – Therese had called ahead the day before and we got their last open site. When we arrived, Therese went in to register, and they assigned us site 115. When we got there, however, the site was already occupied, so she went back to the office to ask about it. After a bit of back and forth, they discovered that the current occupant of 115 was supposed to be at 117, so we just took that spot. It was a nice park., right on a lake, and well laid out. The weather was nice, and we sat out for a little while in our lawn chairs.

Blackwell RV Park at Coeur d’Alene
Blackwell RV Park

Coeur d’Alene is only about 20 miles from Spokane, where Therese’ brother’s daughter, Isabella, is a junior at Gonzaga. Therese called her, and she was able to meet us for dinner. We went to a very nice Mexican restaurant very close to the Gonzaga campus. Isabella is a Mechanical Engineering major, and stays very busy – interning at a local company, working in the Mechanical Engineering machine shop, working on a car built for an interscholastic engineering competition, and taking 6 difficult courses on top of all that. She is one of very few female Mechanical Engineering students at Gonzaga, and is enjoying all that work and the challenge of it.

The campground’s Wifi was pathetic, but we got a little Verizon cellular data (AT&T once again useless) and we hunted down what updated information we could on Hurricane Irma. There was lots of information, most of it indicating the worst possible scenario for Naples, unfolding the next day between about 10 am and 7 pm eastern time. For the first time on the trip, we bothered to connect the cable TV supplied by the campground to see if we could find some news coverage of the hurricane. That had mediocre results, so we tried the “over the air” tuner to see if that worked any better. That didn’t work any better, but it wouldn’t have given us any better news anyway, so we went to sleep pretty apprehensive.

Our plan was to just spend the night in Coeur d’Alene and head to Glacier National Park the next day. The “wrong campsite” couple had just come from there, however, and told us that there was yet another fire there, on the western edge of the park, so the west entrance was closed. We tried to change plans and just stay at Coeur d’Alene, but when Therese checked, the campground was booked up the next night also. So instead we decided to go to Glacier as planned, except to go to the east entrance, which made for a longer drive.

After trying to find out more about the hurricane the next morning, we got off to a late start, close to 9:45, once again having to use Battery Boost to get the engine started. Upon departure, Therese took the Jeep to a Walmart about 6 miles north on Route 95 to buy Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) while I took the Dutch Star to a Pacific Pride fueling station just around the corner from the Walmart. By the way, if you are planning on travelling in a diesel motor home in the west, do yourself a favor and get a Pacific Pride credit card. Pacific Prides are unmanned contract fueling stations – they are pretty numerous out west, all of them are set up for big diesel trucks, and they are usually located near the major routes and not very crowded. This was the third we used on this trip.

By the time Therese caught up with the Dutch Star, and we got the Jeep hitched up, and we got the DEF into the Dutch Star’s tank, it was about 10:45, so that was a pretty late start with at least a seven hour drive ahead of us. As we drove, we tuned into CNN, which had live, nonstop, commercial-free coverage of Hurricane Wilma. Most of the coverage was from Naples, through which the eyewall of the hurricane was passing as it moved north from its mainland landfall at Marco Island (having already wiped out lots of the Florida Keys in the previous 12 hours). Since we could only listen to the broadcast, we didn’t have the benefit of the inevitable video feed showing brave (read foolish) reporters standing in the middle of 100 mph winds getting soaked to the skin, but we were able to determine that while very high winds were recorded (up to 142 mph at Naples airport, 10 miles due south of our house), the buildings in Naples, the new ones of which are built to pretty stringent hurricane-resistant codes, seemed to be holding up pretty well. Trees and other vegetation were getting blown over and wrecked, but there weren’t reports of widespread roof failures or other destruction of neighborhoods that we had been worried about. Also, the actual storm surge turned out to be much lower than the 10 foot predicted – more like 5 foot, because the winds on the back side of the hurricane had been weakened by its pass over Cuba. That was definitely good news for Southwest Florida.

Our route took us up Route 95, and from there to Route 2, which we followed for almost 300 miles. It was two lanes most of the way, but one of the nice things about the west is that there are so few towns, and the two lane roads are in such good shape, that you travel just as fast as you would on an interstate highway, but with better scenery and less traffic.

From Route 2, we took a left turn on Route 89 to get us to Saint Mary’s on the eastern side of Glacier National Park (aka Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park). Route 89 was an exception to the “two-lane roads are in good shape and travel just as fast as an interstate” statement in the preceding paragraph. It was in fact in terrible shape for much of the way, and 5 miles of it were a gravel temporary road while they repave the real road. That raised clouds of dust, getting the already-filthy Jeep even dirtier, and revealing squeaks, rattles, and groans that we didn’t know the Dutch Star had. When the gravel section ended, we breathed a sign of relief only to find that the next 20 miles to Saint Mary’s consisted of a narrow, steep road with lots of white-knuckle sharp turns. In short, Route 89 was by far the worst road we have yet travelled.

We finally pulled into the campground at about 7:00 (Montana time, which is in Mountain time, so we lost an hour) with 7967 on the odometer, a 350 mile drive. The Saint Mary’s KOA campground was expensive (~$70 per night) but distinctly mediocre – gravel sites, no real trees, grass completely brown (which I guess isn’t their fault), and generally tired feeling.

Saint Mary Glacier RV Park

Just to say something nice, the wifi wasn’t terrible, and we did meet a nice couple from California camping in a fifth wheeler. It turned out that they had also taken 89 up to the Saint Mary’s but had gotten some local knowledge on how to avoid it on the way out, which they shared with us.

When we went to bed, it was a pleasant evening with comfortable temperatures, but about 2:00 am the  wind kicked up to the point that the noises the Dutch Star made in response were pretty loud. The slide toppers (a sort of awning that keeps rain from pooling on top of the slideouts) flap around a bit, and the wind in the air conditioners and other rooftop paraphernalia whistles and moans.

The next day, Monday September 11, the wind continued to blow vigorously. It was coming from the west at (by my estimate) a steady 20 knots with some 30 knot gusts. As we set out for the St. Mary entrance to Glacier National Park (only a five minute drive from the campground), we could smell the now-familiar scent of the forest fire on the west side of the park (the windy conditions were making the fire worse), and could also see the resulting smoky haze. By this time, we were beginning to spot a low-visibility trend (or perhaps conspiracy?) for the September leg of our open road adventure.

Saint Mary Entrance to Glacier National Park

We stopped at the Saint Mary visitor center, but it was pretty small, and the few displays there were focused on some Indian tribes that had historically lived in or near the park. At least one of the tribes apparently disputes some treaty or another and claims ownership of the park. Ever insensitive, Barry didn’t want to hear it, and since we would have had to wait a full 15 minutes for the video to start, we asked the helpful ranger at the desk to suggest a hike at the lower end of moderate (appropriate for amateurs such as ourselves) which she did.

We followed the “Going-to-the-Sun” Road, which goes along Saint Mary Lake through the park, to the Sun Point Nature Trail. That trail follows the shoreline of Saint Mary Lake, and after about 2 ½ miles, gets to the Saint Mary Falls at the end of the lake. The trail was uncrowded, and the lake was scenic, but as you can see from the pictures, the view of the rugged terrain carved by the glaciers was partially blocked by the smoke, although nowhere near to the extent we encountered at Crater Lake.

Saint Mary Lake from Sun Point Nature Trail
Another Lake View
Unnamed Waterfall on the Sun Point Nature Trail
Hazy view of Saint Mary Lake from higher viewpoint
Glacier Carved Mountain across Saint Mary Lake
Therese, with Shipwreck Island in the background

The hike would have been more pleasant if not for the fact that the woods that it went through had been burned in a 2015 wildfire. As we have learned at all the parks, fire has a restorative effect on the forests, so it’s all part of nature, but we would have preferred the unburned green trees phase, thank you.

Charred Forest on Sun Point Nature Trail

The falls were pretty cool, and we were again surprised at the flow quantity. Since the entire area was really starved of rain, it all comes from snow melt, but there really wasn’t a lot of snow (at least not visible) on that side of the lake this late in the season. I bet it is really amazing in the spring.

Saint Mary Falls
Selfie at the Falls

After that five-mile hike (which approximates the limit of human, or at least our endurance), we continued up the road to the Logan Pass Visitor Center. That is only about a third of the way through the park, but all of the western part was closed due to the fire, so that’s as far as we could go. By now the park was getting crowded, and the large parking lot was nearly full. I’m not sure why, because the visitor center was pretty small. It did have some interesting information about the “Going-to-the-sun” road that we had followed to get there. It was built in the ‘20s and early ‘30s (with a 2 year interruption during the depression), after being chosen from two different possible routes. The one chosen has only one switchback, and follows the edge of the mountain in a way that was judged to leave less of a footprint on the mountain than the other, more conventional route. The cost was $55,000 per mile, and it was built (as a pretty narrow gravel road at first) in just six years, including a 408-foot tunnel.

View from Going-to-the-Sun Road
Waterfall through Glacier carved Terrain
Dropoff from Going-to-the-Sun Road overlook
Glacier at Glacier National Park

As the afternoon went on, it got more and more smoky, so we headed out. On our way back to the campground from the park, we encountered a not-uncommon sight in the west – livestock in the road. In some places there are fences, often in poor condition, that look like they are supposed to keep the cows in, but in other places, they just let them roam around.

Livestock in the road

All in all, we enjoyed our day at Glacier, although we would have appreciated a smoke-free day. But, we bought a postcard (picture below) to show us how it would have looked on that proverbial clear day.

Picture of postcard, without the smoke.

Once back to the campsite, information about conditions in Naples began to trickle in from a guy who had toughed it out in a neighborhood near ours. He reported electricity and water out, lots of trees down and some tiles blown off roofs, but no flooding and no major damage. Many cellphone towers were down, but at least some were still operating, since he managed to get that e-mail out. We started to be cautiously optimistic, but we had not heard anything specific about our house.

Mount Rainier – September 7 and 8

As I mentioned in the previous post, we left Prospect, Oregon at about 10:00, headed for Glenoma, Washington, which is near Mount Rainier National Park. We decided to take an easterly route, on some of Oregon’s scenic roads, rather than taking the shortest route back to Interstate 5. We took Oregon 62 to 230, to 97, to 26, which we followed to I-205 which merges into I-5 just north of Portland. That worked out well for us, and the roads (particularly at the beginning of the drive) were really a treat. They were mostly two-lane, but very well maintained and easily navigable in the big rig. Mostly, we went through wide open spaces, so there were very few traffic lights, and the speed limits were mostly 55 or 65. We hit some pretty heavy traffic when we got close to Portland, which cleared up magically after crossing the Columbia River into Washington, for no discernible reason – no big merging traffic, no reduction in lanes, no construction, no traffic incident. Just one minute going 10 mph and the next up to 65. There must be some traffic movement theory that explains it, but I can’t think of any rational explanation.

In Washington, we followed I-5 to Washington 12, which goes right to Glenoma. There we stayed at Taidnapam Park, which is a good-sized park that includes a campground. It is owned and operated by Tacoma Power (I’m not sure why they’re in the campground business, but apparently they own three others, too). The drive was exactly 400 miles (7288 on the odometer), and since we got there at about 6:00, the office was closed. Therese had called them from the road, and they told her to just pick a site and stop by the next day after 9:00 am to finish the registration process. It was the first place we’ve stayed that let you pick a site rather than assigning it, and we picked a nice back-in site, 271.

Taidnapam RV Park Campsite

The neighboring campers were even more friendly than usual, and the “camp hosts” (campers from the local area that keep an eye on things in exchange for free camping) came by and wanted to see the inside of the Dutch Star. Therese talked to them for quite a while, while Barry talked to a retired trucker who happened by on a bicycle keeping up with his two grandsons. He had lots of big-rig driving advice. We asked the locals whether we should pick Mount Rainier or Mount Saint Helens to visit, since we would only be able to get to one of them, and they unanimously suggested Mount Rainier.

Accordingly, at 9:30 on Friday morning, we drove to Nisqually entrance on the southwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park. The trip took approximately an hour, with a one-way-at-a-time construction delay thrown in. Unfortunately, there were low clouds as we proceeded to the first point of interest, the Longmire museum. That is where some of the historic buildings are located, including a small museum. Outside the museum is a eight-foot diameter, 700 year-old Douglass Fir slab, with rings identifying the years of various historic events.

700 year old Douglas Fir slab at Longmire Museum

The museum mostly covered the type of wildlife that is found in the park. It was staffed by a helpful NPS lady who suggested we stop at the Paradise visitor center to learn more about the park, and that we take a hike at the Grove of the Patriarchs, and old-growth forest area within the park.

Also at the Longmire center was an old gas station (no longer in use). The gas pumps were interesting, particularly to collectors of such things, like my eccentric brother Ray.

Old gas station at the National Park Inn

At the Paradise Visitor Center, we saw a well-made 20-minute video about the park and its eponymous mountain. Glaciers form when more snow falls each year than melts, and the snowpack gets so heavy that the form of the frozen snow changes and solidifies as it is increasingly crushed by newer snow. Mount Rainier is home to the most glaciers in the lower 48, and in fact, the cumulative weight of the glaciers on Mount Rainier is more than all the other glaciers in the continental US combined.

None of which you could prove by us, however, as we didn’t see glacier one, nor the top three quarters of the 14,500 foot Mount Rainier all day. The low clouds (right down to ground level as fog in some areas) prevented those spectacular views. However, there was still quite a bit to see and we enjoyed the day thoroughly. We took a three-mile hike on the Skyline trail, starting at the Paradise Visitor Center.

Foggy walk on the Paradise Visitor Center Skyline Trail

The fog was pretty dense, so we couldn’t see any of the panoramic scenery, so we contented ourselves with studying and photographing the local flora and fauna along the trail.

Red Berries along Skyline Trail
Blue Flowers along Skyline Trail
Flowers along Skyline Trail
Mop Head Flower along Skyline Trail
White and yellow flowers, with bee
Marmot (look at center of picture)

The Skyline Trail passes the Sluiskin Falls, over which a healthy flow of water was falling.

Sluiskin Falls

There were a few times when the fog lifted enough to tease us with some scenery, but it was still a disappointing showing, continuing the trend from Crater Lake. At least it was healthy moisture rather than smoke.

Glacier path, across a canyon, through the mist,

The roads through the park are lined by evergreen forests, and are very pleasant. We found a perfect spot for a picnic lunch at Box Canyon.

Picnic at Box Canyon, Mount Rainier

We stopped at a number of scenic lookouts along the road. It would have been spectacular if it wasn’t for those pesky clouds.

Reflection Lake, reflecting fog.
Mist lifting a little, but not enough
Tunnel (glad we were in Jeep instead of Dutch Star)

The Grove of the Patriarchs nature trail was beautiful. It goes about two miles, and as the ranger had told us, goes through an old growth forest of Western Cedars, Douglas Firs, and Western Hemlock.

Matriarch at Grove of the Patriarchs

About halfway, there is a cool suspension bridge over Olallie Creek.

Suspension Bridge, Grove of the Patriarchs Trail

Most of the waterways we saw in the park were quite greyish, which is caused by “glacier flour”, a fine powder that comes from the glacier movement (which can be up to a foot per month in the summer) grinding rocks together. However, Olallie Creek comes from snow melt in a glacier-free area of the mountain, and was crystal clear. Near the creek were a few Alders, the only deciduous trees that thrive in the prevailing climate.

Olallie Creek at Grove of the Patriarchs

On the far side of the creek, there is a raised boardwalk trail that winds through the largest of the Patriarchs – the oldest of the trees.

Old Western Cedar
Fallen Douglas Fir

After the hike, we continued on the Steven Canyons Road all the way to the east side of the park, where it intersects Washington Route 123 inside the park. There, having learned from the video that Mount Rainier (along with other Cascade Mountains) is so large as to block the prevailing winds from the west, causing updrafts which condense the moisture in the warmer air to form clouds and give Seattle its characteristic wet weather, we followed 123 north, hoping that we might get a glimpse of the mountain from the comparatively dry east side.

All that weather theory did not pan out, and we had no better luck on that side. Fortunately, we bought another postcard of what we would have seen, and here is a picture of that:

Mount Rainier (picture of postcard)

Or, of course, you can enter a google search for “Mount Rainier pictures” and pick from any of the thousands of results that you get, all of which are superior to the pictures we got.

We were stopped on our northward path by the closure of Route 123 at Cayuse Pass, due to yet another forest fire on the northeast side of the park. At least we didn’t get smoke from it, due to the prevailing westerly winds. We knew that before we went to the park, so we turned around and headed south on 123, passing Silver Falls and the Ohanapecosh Park entrance, and took that route back to the campground.

There was serious road construction on 123 also, with another one-way section and half hour wait. We got back to the campground about 6:00, and tried to get some news about Hurricane Irma’s projected path. There is no Wifi at Taidnapam park, and AT&T cellular coverage was nonexistent. Luckily my iPad is Verizon, from which we were able to eke out at least one bar, sometimes two, of LTE data. (BTW, if you plan on travelling out west, don’t count on AT&T, it seems like they don’t even bother to try out here). The news on Hurricane Irma was looking worse and worse for Naples. The newest track projections were for the storm to continue moving west longer than the earlier models suggested, making it more likely to hit Florida’s southwest coast. And the hurricane was so large that the counter-clockwise winds would still cause a storm surge on Florida’s southeast coast.

Crater Lake – September 6

We set off at about 10:00 on Wednesday, September 6 for Crater Lake RV Park,  Prospect, Oregon. As the name implies, that is close to Crater Lake National Park, our next sightseeing destination. It was a comparatively short trip – we arrived at about 1:30, with the odometer reading 6882 (182 miles). Crater Lake RV Park was nice. Not many sites were occupied, since many prospective visitors had cancelled due to the fire in the area.

Crater Lake RV Park

Most of the trip was on Interstate 5, which is pretty scenic in that stretch, with some pretty steep uphill and downhill sections in northern California and Oregon. Of its own accord, the Dutch Star would slow down to about 50 mph on most of those uphill sections, which I believe to be about what a typical medium-loaded semi truck would do. The tricky part is navigating lanes with those big trucks – the heavily loaded ones can slow down to 40 or even a bit slower, while the lightly loaded ones want to roar up the hills as fast as possible. Typically, the road widens from 2 lanes to 3 for the steep parts, and trucks take over the right two lanes – the faster ones passing the slower ones. No truck (or RV) wants to give up any speed, because it is hard to recover that momentum once you’ve lost it, so it can be tricky to decide when to change to the middle lane. If you pull into the center lane in front of a faster-moving truck, they will not be happy, but if you stay in the right lane to slow down for a slow mover, you will have a hard time accelerating to pass them when the center lane is clear.

The Dutch Star has cruise control, which it really needs because the gas pedal is more difficult to push than a typical car’s and also has a longer travel. However, it isn’t the greatest cruise control, and in particular it allows about a five mph faster speed going downhill than the “set point”. That doesn’t sound like much, but since most downhill sections are in mountainous areas, they usually have curves. Five mph too fast in those curves in a rig the size of the Dutch Star makes a pretty big difference. I have found that those yellow signs with advisory speeds (which everyone driving a car ignores) specify about the right speed in the RV.

The approach I have gravitated to for going down a long steep section (the steepest ones are about 6% grade) is to turn off the cruise control, and control speed using the engine braking system, which has low, medium, and high settings. Low is usually not enough, and switching back and forth between medium and high usually gives good results. The actual friction brakes are a last resort – they will definitely overheat if engine braking isn’t used for the bulk of speed control.

But getting back to the cruise control, what I would really like is a hand operated knob or lever to set the precise speed I want, and then have the rig hold that speed (unless it can’t on an uphill section). As it is, there are two buttons, labelled “Set” and “Res” on the steering wheel. To initially set a speed, you hit the “Set” button, and a green “Cruise” indicator comes on in the dash to show that cruise control is active. To slow down about 1 mph from the set speed, hit the Set button again; to speed up about 1 mph, hit the Res button. It takes a lot of button pressing to fine tune your speed, and the downhill overrun mentioned above makes it more difficult. Alternatively, adaptive cruise control would also be an improvement, but given a choice, I’d take the knob or lever mentioned above.

The closer we got to Crater Lake, the smokier it got, until visibility was down to about a mile by the time we arrived at the campground. The actual fire was about 25 miles north of us, on the north side of Crater Lake National Park, and consequentially, that section of the park was closed. Since the south part was still open, we decided to head up there and see what we could see. It was a scenic 40 minute drive to the park visitor center (it would have been more scenic if it wasn’t so smoky), where they had an informative 20 minute video about the park and the lake. The lake is in the caldera of the volcano, and the water comes  entirely from the rain and snowfall (which averages 44 feet per year). There is no river or creek draining the lake. It is up to 400 feet deep, and is claimed to be the clearest and cleanest body of water on earth.

From the visitor center, we took the road through the park, which has a number of scenic vistas, some looking outward at the surrounding mountains and some overlooking the lake. We promptly discovered that the answer to “what we could see” was not much. At the first lake overlook, called “phantom ship”, we could make out the rock that does look like a ship, and the thick haze made it look more phantom than it otherwise would, but we could see hardly any of the lake.

Phantom Ship, even more ghostlike than usual.

The next scenic overlook was Sentinel Rock. We could see the rock, but the lake was mostly a no-show.

Sentinel Rock, through the smoke

By all accounts, the scenery is absolutely stunning, but we cannot attest to that, as all we saw was grey smoke. Oh well, we bought a postcard that shows how great it would have been.

Crater Lake (picture of postcard)

Conditions are harsh at the rim of the crater, which is at about 8000 foot elevation. In addition to the 44 feet of snow, it is very windy, with the prevailing winds from the west. Only hardy evergreens survive that, including the “flag” white-bark pine that you see in the picture below.

“Flag” Whitebark Pine, distorted by constant wind at rim.

We continued on to more vistas, but after about an hour of mostly looking at the haze, we gave up and turned around.

Scenic View of Dirty Jeep

On returning to the campground, we decided to move on the next morning rather than spend the day as we had originally planned. There was a light rain overnight – just enough to make the already filthy Jeep look even dirtier and rinse the ash and dust from the top of the Dutch Star down its sides to make it pretty dirty too. That did clear the smoke from the air somewhat, and we briefly debated staying on, but in the end decided to go. we will never know whether that was a good call or not – our route to the next stop took us by the west side of the park, and it was definitely clearer than the previous afternoon, but definitely not completely clear, either.

The news and predictions regarding Hurricane Irma and its potential impact on Florida continue to get worse.

Lake Shasta, Lassen Volcanic National Park, September 4 and 5

Having seen Sequoia and King’s Canyon on Saturday, we did pretty much nothing on Sunday. It was hot again (105 or so), and we spent time indoors (where again the Dutch Star stayed quite comfortable with only 30 Amps of air conditioning) figuring out where we wanted to go for the remainder of the trip. We would have departed early, except it was still the Labor Day weekend and thus impossible to find a place to stay.

On Monday morning, we got a pretty early start, about 8:15, headed for Redding California, which is near Lake Shasta. We took California 198 west to Route 99, and followed that for a few hundred miles, with the last 150 miles or so on Interstate 5. Most of the way, we were in the agricultural heart of California – San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. Temperatures were between 100 and 110 , but the irrigated crops and trees were green and healthy-looking despite the heat. In contrast, everything that wasn’t irrigated was brown and dry, a constant reminder of California’s dry climate. On Route 198, about 30 miles west of Sequoia, we passed Lake Kaweah. It is a pretty large lake, or rather it would be if there was more water in it. As it was, it was about 40 feet below full, and that is despite the fact that California actually had a pretty wet winter of 2016-17, after six or eight years of drought. It struck me that we don’t have a shortage of water in this country, we have a distribution problem. Houston gets 50 inches of rain in under a week, and California as a whole averages less than 20 inches per year (and of course less in drought years). At any rate, we all should hope that California gets more rain – it makes a huge contribution to feeding the rest of the country.

The terrain in the central valley is pancake flat, and California has a speed limit of 55 for trucks and any vehicles towing, which we stayed pretty close to. Those factors led to our best gas mileage of the trip, a bit over 8 mpg. We pulled into the campground, Mountain Gate RV Park at about 5:00, with the odometer reading 6700, for a distance of 412 miles.

Wild Turkeys at Mountain Gate RV Park

With a few hours of daylight left, we unhitched the Jeep and drove about 20 miles further north on I-5 to see what Lake Shasta was like. It is a very large lake, California’s largest reservoir, with a surface area of 30,000 acres. It too was down about 40 feet from full pond, but that is a much smaller percentage of its average 150-foot depth, so it doesn’t look anywhere near as forlorn as Lake Kaweah. We got off at Holiday Harbor, which is a hiking/boating area with a marina. There were about 80 houseboats on floating docks there, some of them for rent, and there were also smaller sport boats and jet skis for rent. We looked into it in case we decided to return on Tuesday to do some boating on the lake.

Floating Dock at Holidah Harbor
Boat Ramp at Holiday Harbor

It is unfortunate that those are the only two pictures we took at Lake Shasta, as it is quite pretty despite being far from full (as you can see in the second picture). We thought we’d be back the next day, but in fact, Therese consulted her book about the National Parks and determined that we should instead visit Lassen Volcanic National Park, which was about 60 miles southeast of the campground. Trying to beat the heat (forecast for the high 90’s), and any possible crowds, we got rolling about 8:00, arriving at the North entrance about 9:00. Our first stop was the visitor center, where we watched a good 20-minute video about the park’s geology, history, and scenery. The most recent volcanic activity was a series of large eruptions in May of 1915, one of which was the first volcanic eruption in the US to be captured on film. The photographer, Benjamin Franklin Loomis, was also instrumental in getting Lassen designated as a National Park. Lassen is one of the few places on earth where all four types of volcanos are found (shield, cinder cone, plug dome, and composite, for you geology enthusiasts out there). It’s a rugged landscape, with altitudes ranging from 4000 feet up to Lassen Peak, which is 10,457 feet. A road winds through the western part of the park, you have to be a serious hiker to visit the eastern side of the park.

From the visitor center, you can take a 2 mile hike around Manzanita Lake, a very picturesque mountain lake with clear cold water. That was when we discovered that we had forgotten our fancy new camera, so all the pictures from Lassen are taken with Therese’ Samsung phone. At least it doesn’t conspire with the OpenPress software to make all the pictures come out upside down. The lake was completely full, with healthy inflow and outflow from snow on the surrounding volcanic mountains that is still melting from last winter.

Manzanita Lake
Therese at Manzanita Lake

Back on the winding park road, we stopped at Hot Rock, which is a 300 ton rock that was carried five miles by the avalanche that accompanied the 1915 volcanic eruption.  It’s at the edge of what is called the “Devastated Area” where the forest (all evergreens at that altitude) was buried and/or bulldozed by the avalanche. 100 years later, it is on its way to reforesting, and the 100-year time lapse photographs of that process are on display at the visitor center.

Lassen Volcano Hot Rock

The whole park was gorgeous, particularly since large parts of it were nice and green. They got a huge snowfall last winter, so the streams were still running and the lakes were full. Maybe the higher than normal temperatures were accelerating the melting of the remaining snow and causing a high flow in the streams. While it was a comfortable temperature range of 70-80 degrees at park altitudes, it’s usually colder than that when not in the middle of a heat wave.

We stopped at every scenic overlook, since the park was not crowded, and every one of them was spectacular. We had a leisurely picnic lunch at Summit Lake North picnic area, with a great view of the mountain lake and ideal temperature at an altitude of 7000 feet.

Picnic area at Summit Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park

At the Kings Creek overlook, we were intending on a short walk down to a meadow that we could see from the parking area, but when we got about half a mile down, we ran into some other hikers who suggested we continue on to Kings Creek Falls. They said it was only another mile or so, but their distance estimating ability turned out to be pretty pathetic, and the total distance we covered was closer to 4 miles, with a pretty challenging switchback section. Since we hadn’t intended any more than a short walk, we didn’t bring any water with us, and although it was not particularly hot, parts of the trail were out in the sun and we experienced a certain amount of TTGS (Thirsty Therese Grouchitis Syndrome) and maybe even a little TBGS. Part of the walk was right next to Kings Creek, which looked like the cleanest water on earth, but Therese refused to countenance any drinking of it. While on the trail, we ran into about six National Forest Service rangers who were looking (in the wrong place, as it turned out) for a hiker who was reported to have cut his head. Just as we were finishing the hike, we heard that they had found him on a different nearby trail.

Meadow on way to Kings Creek. Taken by congenial French guy who didn’t know a word of English.
Kings Creek on way to Falls
Kings Creek Falls

We continued on to the Bumpass Trailhead, where you can walk a few miles down to some calderas and hot springs, but at that point we were hiked out for the day. The final stop was at the Sulphur Works, where there are boiling mud pits and steaming holes in the ground and a distinct rotten egg smell.

Sulfor Works thermal activity zone
Steaming vent at Sulfur Works

By this time it was after 4:00, so it was good that we were near the South entrance of the park. We left that way and headed west on Route 36. Unfortunately there was a stretch of about four miles that was under construction, and we waited about half an hour to get through.

Our next stop was supposed to be Redcrest, California, from which we were planning on seeing Redwood National Park. However, the only feasible route to get there was California 299, and that was all but completely closed by a forest fire adjacent to it. The website and AM 1610 radio message said they were letting traffic through at 9:00 am and 1:30 pm, but there were also construction delays. We decided that was too much hassle, since we have both seen the Redwoods before (they are spectacular, and we’re sorry to miss them). So we called our first audible of the second half and headed up to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon two days early. Therese called them to change our reservations, and they told her that there was no problem changing the reservation, particularly since they had a lot of cancellations due to a forest fire in the vicinity of the park. Barry, ever the optimist, assumed that they would put it out, or the wind would shift, or something, and voted in favor of going there anyway. Therese, although reluctant, spotted a possible “I told you so” opportunity and acquiesced.

We’ll let you know how that went in our next installment.

In the meantime, we are keeping an eye on Hurricane Irma, which is headed for Florida, where we have a house and multiple siblings, cousins, and friends likewise have houses. Hopefully that doesn’t turn into the catastrophe that seems to be shaping up as of this writing.

(We have had pathetic internet and cellular data coverage, which is why this post is so delayed. A few more are coming soon!)