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Our “highlights” tour of Arizona would not be complete without a visit to the main attraction – the Grand Canyon.  Grand Canyon National Park is the 2nd most visited national park with over 6 million visitors per year.  It has two distinct areas to visit – the North Rim & the South Rim.  The South Rim is the most popular, has more amenities and is open all year long, while the North Rim is more remote, sees far less traffic and is only open from mid-May through mid-October.  Which one should you visit?  More info on the differences between the North Rim vs. South Rim can be found here.

Since we were visiting in April, the choice as far as which one to visit was made for us as only the South Rim was open. Reserving a campsite at such a popular park is difficult, so we knew finding one over Spring Break would be next to impossible. Instead, we opted to dry camp on BLM land just 15 minutes outside of the park. We found a spot off of Forest Road 688 that was quiet, woodsy and had a fire pit already setup from the previous campers. One nice thing about dry camping so close to the National Park is that if you need to use a dump/fill station, you can drive to the park campground and use theirs for free.

Our Grand Canyon BLM Site
Our Grand Canyon BLM Site

After getting setup at our campsite, we drove to the South Rim Visitor Center where we caught our first glimpse of the Canyon.  It was Kalie’s first time seeing the Grand Canyon and she was amazed by how grand it really is. We spent the rest of the evening walking along the rim trail until it got too dark to see anything.

Desert View Overlook
Desert View Overlook

The next day, our plan was to do a day hike into the Grand Canyon as far as our legs would take us.  After researching a few trails, we chose to take the South Kaibab Trail down into the canyon. Several signs at the beginning of the trail warned to bring plenty of drinking water and not to go to the bottom of the canyon (Phantom Ranch) and back up in the same day because of the intense heat and elevation gain.  With that warning in mind, we planned to hike three miles into the canyon to Skeleton Point, where we would re-assess our final turnaround point.

The trail was dusty and dry with lots of switchbacks along the way, but it had some spectacular views of the Grand Canyon. The first mile was crowded with people, but the farther down we hiked the number of people lessened until it was just us and the occasional backpacker ascending from Phantom Ranch. Hiking into the canyon seemed fairly easy for all three of us, however we had been warned that hiking up the canyon is 3-4x harder than hiking down.  In other words, make sure to turn around when you still have 75% of your energy (and water) left!

Horses on South Kaibab Trail
Horses on South Kaibab Trail

We made it to Skeleton Point faster than anticipated and agreed we still had energy to hike to the next viewpoint another 1.5 miles away.  As we got closer to Tip-Off Point, we could start to see the blue waters of the Colorado River. The river looked so inviting on the hot, dusty trail, but with it being 2 more miles down to the canyon floor it would have added 4 miles to our already 9 mile roundtrip hike.  We thought better of it and made the decision to turn around at Tip-Off Point.

South Kaibab Trail
South Kaibab Trail

It was a good thing we did, because the hike back up kicked my butt!  Hiking up 3,300 feet of elevation gain in just 4.5 miles is no walk in the park. Kalie and Max were trailblazers that almost never stopped to rest, but with the sun being so intense I preferred to stop for quick water breaks whenever I could find a sliver of shade. In retrospect, we should have started the hike much earlier than 11 am to avoid the mid-day sun.

After a grueling but rewarding hike, we were ready to plan the next day’s adventure. Max found a little known trail called Comanche Point Trail that promised an incredible 9 mile view of the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon.  The hike report said it would be 6 miles to the viewpoint (12 miles roundtrip) and roughly a 1,000ft elevation gain.  I said my preference would be a shorter, slightly less intense hike, but ultimately lost in the popular vote.

We started the day’s adventure by driving our truck as far as we could down an old four wheel drive road. Once the trail became too rutted and rocky we began our hike. There were no signs for the trail, so we just followed the washed out road for several miles. The views along the trail weren’t anything special, but we were excited to see what lay in store for us ahead.

Five miles into the hike the washed out road ended leaving us to bushwack our way through the desert brush. With no trail or signs to go off of, we used Gaia GPS as our best guide for where to hike from there. Without any views of the canyon up to this point, we were starting to feel the monotony of the trail. We needed to get to the viewpoint soon to give us the mental fuel to keep going. Finally, after another mile of hiking off trail through the desert, we started to see the ridge where Comanche Point would be.

It wasn’t until we had hiked 500 vertical feet towards the top of the ridge that we realized it was a false peak.  I felt totally defeated. We’d hiked 6 miles in and we still hadn’t seen anything spectacular…oh and by the way we weren’t even 100% sure where Comanche Point actually was!?! Argh, I knew I had been right to vote for a shorter, less intense hike.  Or at least a visually pleasing hike to make it feel like it was shorter!

We then had the pleasure of going down the 500 vertical feet we just came up in addition to hiking up the next ridge which we still weren’t 100% sure was correct.  While hiking towards this second ridge, the winds were so intense that we had to get on all fours in order to get close to the edge. From this vantage point, we could finally see a segment of the Colorado River!   With winds gusting 45-50 mph, Kalie decided to park it at this spot and not continue on to Comanche Point. I was on the fence for a while until Max convinced me that I’d regret it if I didn’t go.  In retrospect, he probably knew the only way to get me back to the car was to give me the mental boost I needed by seeing the viewpoint.

Hiking to Comanche Point
Hiking to Comanche Point

Max and I continued on slowly for another half mile bracing against the wind and trying to stay as far from the edge as possible.  Taking a few last steps toward the top, we finally saw what we had come for – the most beautiful stretch of the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon we had ever seen! We took a few pictures to capture the view, but with the wind being so fierce it made it a bit difficult to get crisp photos.  After taking in the beauty for roughly 30 minutes, we had to start heading back in order to reach the car before dark.

Comanche Point View

Comanche Point
Comanche Point

There’s really no other way to put it…the hike back was a SLOG.  Not because it was more physically draining than other hikes, but rather because it was mentally draining.  There’s not much to look at other than desert brush and a washed out dirt road on the way back. I was so glad I got to experience the beauty of Comanche Point as it gave me just enough mental fuel to keep going.  This hike, more than any other I have been on, made me realize how important visual stimulation from the views, flora and fauna are to fueling your journey.  When all was said and done, we ended up hiking a total of 14 miles with 2,300 feet of elevation gain and made it back to the car just before dark.

So, would I recommend this hike?  My first instinct would be to say “Hell No.”  Not because the view wasn’t worth it, but rather because of the monotony of hiking 14 miles with only 1 mile of it being visually pleasing.  However, after thinking about it more I’ve come to the conclusion that I would do it again, if and only if, we could get backcountry permits to camp near Comanche Point for a night or two.  This way, you’d only have to hike 7 miles in a day and you could spend both sunrise and sunset at Comanche Point.  Just make sure to check the weather forecast before you hike or camp out there.  We weren’t kidding about the 50 mph winds as somewhere along the hike back Max’s sunglasses blew off his head never to be seen again!

My sister Kalie is a teacher so the only time she could come visit us was on her Spring Break. Unfortunately, it was also Spring Break for lots of other families which meant campsites were booked!  The good news is that Arizona has quite a bit of BLM land, so you just need to research the best spots and hope they aren’t already taken.

For our Sedona campsite, we chose a highly rated albeit very popular BLM spot on Loy Butte Road.  If you want to camp there, you’ll have to drive 5 miles down a bumpy dirt road to get to the site, but as long as you take it slow you shouldn’t have any problems.  The views from the site were beautiful but we didn’t spend much time there as we had a lot to see with only two days in Sedona.

Loy Butte Road Campsite

Hiking was the central theme for Kalie’s visit with us in Arizona, so we started Sedona off with a hike to one of the “must see” places – Cathedral Rock. We parked at Crescent Moon Picnic Site as Max had seen some pretty photos of Cathedral Rock from that vantage point. Crescent Moon is on national forest land; however, it’s managed by a third party so we still had to pay the $10 entrance fee (National Park passes aren’t valid here). As soon as we parked we realized it was going to be difficult for Max to take photos as there were people everywhere, including two separate wedding parties! So, we scrapped that plan and started looking for the trail that would lead us to Cathedral Rock.

Hiking to Cathedral Rock
Hiking to Cathedral Rock

After unsuccessfully searching for the trail for a few minutes, Max used Gaia GPS to locate the trail. If you do a lot of hiking or are out in the backcountry for any length of time, I’d highly recommend downloading the Gaia app on your phone. Not only can you find hiking routes, but you can record the routes you hike as well as track your elevation gain. As a photographer, Max also uses it to mark photo locations by taking pictures within the app to mark the GPS coordinates. This way he can look back at all of his marked spots on the map to remind him what it looked like and what trail he took to get there.

Gaia Route to Cathedral Rock
Gaia Route to Cathedral Rock

Sure enough Gaia showed us that the trail was close, but that it was on the other side of the creek! Since we had already paid the $10 entrance fee to park we chose not to drive elsewhere, but instead to cross it. In order to cross the creek, we had to take our hiking shoes off, and wade through the muddy thigh high water.  Then on the other side was the dance of trying to rinse off each muddy foot and get our socks and shoes back on.

We made it to the top of Cathedral Rock just before sunset and were enjoying the gorgeous views when I got the idea to explore a narrow walkway on one side.  After slowly walking to the very end of the walkway I realized it would make for a great photo, so I yelled at Kalie and Max to come over and check it out.  Kalie ended up taking this awesome photo of Max & I from this spot just as the sun was lighting up the sky.

Sedona Sunset
Sedona Sunset

The next day we did a few other hikes such as Soldier’s Pass, Cibola Pass and Bryn’s Mesa, all with burnt sienna colored rock which is common to Sedona.  A feast for the eyes!

Living on the road presents its own unique set of challenges.  One of them being how to order what you need from Amazon!  Back home we had Amazon packages arrive on our doorstep at least once per week, but on the road it takes a bit more planning.  While we love Walmart for groceries, it doesn’t always have the brands or specific things you may want while on the road. The good news is Amazon now offers locker pickup, so as long as you are near a decent sized city they likely have an Amazon locker you can order to for convenient pickup (Whole Foods for example). Knowing we would be near Phoenix we placed our order two days prior to arrival and picked it up at a locker on our drive to Lost Dutchman State Park.

Lost Dutchman State Park
Lost Dutchman State Park

Located in the Superstition Mountains 30 minutes outside of Phoenix, Lost Dutchman State Park offers incredibly scenic desert camping with gorgeous views of the mountains.  The landscape is covered in several different types of cactus such as prickly pear, giant saguaro and cholla to name a few. If you visit, be careful as the cholla in particular seem to jump out at you! Max found out the hard way when we were hiking as a cholla got stuck to the rubber sole of his hiking boot and after taking a step forward it got stuck to his other leg. They are so prickly that it took us a bit to get it out of his leg, but we finally were able to rip it free with the help of a rock.

Phoenix is where we had our first visitor of the trip – my little sister Kalie!  She had never been to Arizona before, so we wanted to give her a sampling of the “Best of Arizona” in one week’s time.  Our itinerary was to spend two nights at Lost Dutchman State Park, two nights in Sedona and three nights at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Kalie LOVES to hike so we made sure to pack our itinerary with lots of great hiking trails.

Hiking in Lost Dutchman State Park
Hiking in Lost Dutchman State Park

The first hike we did with Kalie was Flatiron via Siphon Draw Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park.  It’s a challenging 6.2 mile hike with an elevation gain of 2,933 feet. Halfway up the mountain it feels more like rock climbing than hiking as you have to scramble on all fours.  Definitely not for the faint of heart, but Kalie was more than up for the challenge as she lead the three of us almost the whole way!  At the top, the views were incredible and we were able to spot our bright red RV at our campsite a few miles away.

View from the Top of Flatiron
View from the Top of Flatiron

After making it safely down the mountain, we washed up, grilled hamburgers and had a few brewskies around a relaxing bonfire.  Then it was time to hit the hay as we wanted to get an early start on driving to Sedona and finding the perfect dry camping spot for the second stop on our itinerary.

White Sands National Monument located in southern New Mexico houses the largest gypsum dune field in the world. What makes this so special is that gypsum is rarely found as sand because it dissolves when in contact with water. However, given the isolated location and unique weather of the area, as the water evaporates the minerals are left behind creating gypsum deposits that eventually form these glistening white sand dunes.

White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument

As we were researching a place to camp using Campendium, we found a FREE dry camping spot only 5 minutes away from White Sands National Monument.  The spot was located on a small lake right next to Holloman Air Force base.  It was common to see the jets fly overhead and about once a day you would hear a sonic boom which my husband absolutely LOVED!  Don’t worry, the jets don’t fly at night so it did not affect our sleeping. If you like things fast, shiny and loud (and free) this is the place for you!

Dry Camping in New Mexico
Dry Camping in New Mexico

The next morning as we drove to White Sands National Monument, I kept looking out the window thinking “Where are all the dunes”?  If you see pictures of White Sands National Monument you see endless sand dunes, but as you drive to it, you don’t see much of anything.  It’s not until you go through the entrance and keep driving down the main road that the dunes slowly start to appear.  The farther in you go, the dunes continue to multiply and grow larger until you come to a dead end with dunes surrounding you in every direction.

The landscape was completely mesmerizing and other-worldly, like being on the moon! Something about the place made it feel like we were living in a state of “make believe” as opposed to real life.  It felt like a giant playground for both kids and adults, with people of all ages sledding, sliding and jumping off the dunes. Close to the road, footprints cover the dunes, but if you hike a little ways out you can get away from the crowds and find fresh dunes without any tracks.  Max and I had a blast running up and sliding down the dunes – especially the ones with no footprints as we competed to claim “first tracks”.

Walking in the Clouds
Walking in the Clouds

It was an incredible place for taking photographs because of the texture of the ripples on the bright white sand.  We planned to stay after sunset for Max to shoot blue hour, but found out the park gate closes 30 minutes after sunset.  With the hike back to the car being a minimum of 30 minutes, the only feasible way to shoot sunset/blue hour is to camp overnight. White Sands does not allow any RV camping, but rather has 10 backcountry (tent) camping sites which are obtained on a first come/first serve basis.

Given the limited number of sites, I’d highly recommend being in line before the Visitor Center opens to ensure you snag one.  I got there 20 minutes before they opened and was the 4th party in line.  You can camp for one night at a time, so if you want to stay more than one night you have to be in line the following morning to reserve the next night.  This gives more people the  chance to enjoy this unique backcountry camping experience.  It also may be a safety feature too, to make sure people have enough water and food as there are no amenities out in the dunes.

Camping in White Sands

Camping in White Sands
Camping in White Sands

We had such a fabulous time camping in the dunes and Max came away with some great photos as well (most are still in his backlog)!  Some places you hear about, you know will be incredible, but this one was and we had no idea how great it would be.  It was definitely an unexpected highlight of the first few months on the road and one I can’t wait to go back to!

After a five and a half hour drive, we finally reached the first big city (El Paso) since leaving Big Bend National Park.  Our destination for the evening was White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, but first we had to get Max’s phone repaired/replaced after having dropped it in the Rio Grande.

We called ahead to the Apple store and got the last appointment of the day for his phone to be repaired. Unfortunately, after taking one look at the phone, they said if it sustains any water damage they do not repair but rather will quote the cost of replacing it.  Since it was Max’s business phone, Apple suggested we take it to a Verizon dealer as they typically offer better replacement deals when linked to business accounts.  At that point, it was about 10 minutes to mall closing time, so we booked it over to the Verizon kiosk to see if they could help us.

The two guys working the kiosk were extremely courteous and got to work right away trying to figure out how to they could offer Max the best replacement deal. They spent the next hour with us, long after store closing, to see us through and send Max home with a brand new phone.

While we were waiting for them to activate the new phone, we asked about places to eat knowing El Paso has excellent Mexican food. They both highly recommended going to Taco Tote saying their families are super picky about Mexican food and they all love this restaurant.  We weren’t sure what to expect as they said it was sort of like Chipotle where you order at the counter and then choose your own place to sit, but they said it was a local favorite.

We showed up to Taco Tote close to 9PM on a Sunday night and the place was packed!  We ordered 7 tacos between the two of us and went crazy at unlimited chips and salsa bar.  So many kinds of fresh salsa and taco toppings – it was like salsa heaven! Both Max and I agreed it was the best tacos we ever had, so delicious and our bill only came to around $25 dollars for the tacos (no drinks).  They have other locations in AZ, TX and NM, so we will definitely keep our eyes peeled to find another one on round 2 as it was sooo good!

Big Bend National Park, located in southwest Texas, is named after the large bend in the Rio Grande which forms the border between Mexico and the US.  This park is unique in that it houses the entire Chisos Mountain Range making it the only national park to have a mountain range fully within its borders.

Being that Big Bend is 5 hours away from the closest major city, we thought it may be less visited and therefore easier to snag a reservation. Turns out we were wrong as all reserveable spots were booked. The park does set aside a few spots as first come first serve, but given that it would be a 7 hour drive from Austin to get there, we weren’t keen on making the drive unless we knew we had a place to stay the first night. After checking the reservation system several times per day for about a week, we lucked out and scored a cancellation for 4 nights!

During our time staying at the Rio Grande Village Campground, the temperature was on a hot streak hitting 100 almost every day.  Thank goodness our campsite had power hook ups so we could cool off during the day with the help of our A/C. At night, because of the desert climate the temp cooled down to a more comfortable level in the 70s. Speaking of nights, we had a few wild visitors that liked to show up after dark. It’s not uncommon for javelinas (wild pigs) and coyotes to roam the Rio Grande Village campground in search of food at dusk.  They don’t attack, but we were told not to get too close!

Big Bend National Park is the 8th largest national park in the lower 48 states, with three distinct areas found within. The first place we explored was the land surrounding the Rio Grande Village.  On this side of the park, the climate is desert-like and unforgiving in the mid-day sun.  We attempted a hike from the campground along the Rio Grande to the famous hot springs, but turned around halfway because it was too hot!  It was probably a good thing, because we wouldn’t have lasted a minute in the hot springs in the middle of the day anyhow.

Rio Grande Village Hike
Rio Grande Village Hike

So the next day we got up before sunrise while the temps were still cool and drove the winding dirt road to the hot springs.  Upon arrival, two people were on their way out so we had the entire place to ourselves! It was a great experience soaking in our very own “natural” hot tub that just happened to be on the riverbank of the Rio Grande.  On the other side of the river, just a hop skip and jump away, was Mexico.  It was strange seeing an international border in its natural state just 20 feet away and seemingly so easy to cross.  After our 30 minutes of solace, we were greeted by two more couples coming for an early morning dip.  We chatted for a bit, swapping stories of life on the road and then got out when the morning sun turned up the heat.

Big Bend Hot Springs
Soaking in the Hot Springs

The next place we explored were the Chisos Mountains, which are located in the center of the park. Due to the elevation gain, the temperatures in this part of the park were much cooler and made for very comfortable day hiking.  Our first hike was the Lost Mine Trail, which was a moderate 4.5 mile trail with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet. We started our hike late in the afternoon, Max shot sunset at the top and we hiked back after dusk.

Lost Mine Hike
Lost Mine

The next morning, on our way to the Santa Elena Canyon, we stopped by the backcountry office to inquire about getting a camping permit for the following evening on the South Rim. Max had done some research and found a photographer who said site SW4 was one of the best in the Chisos Mountains. Upon inquiring, the ranger told us that SW4 was booked for the following evening, but it was open this evening if we wanted to take it. When we asked what he had available for the following evening, he stared us straight in the eyes and said “You do not want to miss this opportunity. It is the best site in the Chisos and is a peak experience.” Given the rangers sense of urgency, we dropped the current day’s plan and scrambled to get ready for the camping in the backcountry.

View from Lost Mine Hike
View from Lost Mine Hike

Part of our scramble had to do with the fact that we had to be out of our reserved RV site by noon the next day.  Knowing we wouldn’t be back from our hike by that time we had to move the RV that day. Luckily, the campground had one remaining site available, but it was in a part of the campground that does not have electric hookups and does not allow generators. We didn’t know how we were going to keep power going when we got back, but we didn’t have time to iron those details out.  We packed up our backpacks, moved the trailer and headed off on our hike to the South Rim.

This was my first real backpacking trip and I was excited to finally use the pack I had gotten for my birthday the previous October.  It took some getting used to the extra weight, but I was so happy with how comfortable my pack fit on my hips, shoulders, and back. For those looking to purchase a backpacking pack, I’d highly recommended going to a place like REI that will measure your back and ensure you have the best size and model for you.  I tried on several brands, models and sizes and found the Gregory Deva 70 pack was the absolute best fit for me.

After completing the 6.5 mile hike with a 2,300 foot elevation gain, we were pooped, but had no time to waste as we arrived just before sunset. We dropped our packs at the campsite, quickly setup our tent and headed out to find comps for Max to shoot. Max headed east on the rim and I headed west to cover as much ground as possible.  The view from the South Rim was incredible!  I found a really cool foreground composition with a barren tree and agave plants that I wanted to show Max, but by that point he was too far away to hear me and his cell phone didn’t work.  So I took a few photos and made a mental note of the location to show Max for a possible comp at sunrise.

South Rim View
South Rim View

The next morning we got up super early to shoot the stars against a pitch black sky.  We then waited around for sunrise with Max using the location I found the night before for his comp.  After the sun rose, I headed back to the tent to catch up on sleep as I am not a morning person, especially 3AM alarms!  With a few more hours of shut eye for both of us, we packed up and headed out on the remaining 6 mile hike down the mountain.

Waiting for us back at our campsite was our RV with a completely dead battery.  We figured there was a chance this might happen, but had hoped there would be another site available in the generator allowed zone that we could move to.  Unfortunately, all sites were completely taken so we had to come up with plan B. We asked the camp host if it would be possible to move the RV to another area of the campground temporarily so that we could use the generator to charge it. They were very nice and said given the circumstances they would allow it.  So we parked the RV on the perimeter of the campground, hooked up the generator and let it run for 3 hours while Max and I showered, worked and did laundry.

It was dark when we finally finished charging the RV, so we packed up the generator and drove the RV back to our campsite to settle in for the night.  After we unhitched, I went inside to do my normal routine of putting the slide out; however when I went to press the power button everything died. Max grabbed a flashlight and checked the breaker/fuse box, but it seemed fine. He looked at the manual to see if there were any other hidden fuses or breakers, but couldn’t find anything mentioning it.  It was after 10 at night, with solution in sight, so we went to bed knowing we’d have to deal with it in the morning.

The next morning we went to the camp host to ask if there was an RV repair shop nearby.  They told us the closest repair shop was 2 ½ to 3 hours away from Big Bend National Park.  We called the repair guy and even though his shop was technically closed due to moving locations, he agreed to take a look at our trailer if we made 3 hour drive there that day.  However, he said he did not take RV insurance so we wouldn’t be able to use our existing RV policy.  At this point, we didn’t know what exactly the problem was, so we started calling other RV repair shops that accepted our insurance plan to see when and where we could get in.  The average wait for all the shops we called that accepted insurance was over a week just for the diagnosis! Given that we were living in the RV, we couldn’t afford to go a week without power, so we decided to leave the park and drive to the shop that could get us in that day, even if they didn’t accept our insurance.

After making the three hour drive to the repair shop, we arrived to find it empty.  We called the shop’s number and the guy said he’d be back shortly as he was just running a few errands in town.  Knowing his shop was supposed to be closed that week, we couldn’t fault him for being away as we were grateful he was willing to help us out, but we were still super anxious to figure out what was wrong!

I made a quick lunch in the RV and he arrived shortly after getting to work diagnosing the problem.  We told him we thought it might be a blown power converter, but didn’t know for sure what had caused it.  We were just hoping it wouldn’t be too expensive since we couldn’t use insurance on this repair.  He worked on our RV for about an hour, then came out and said he figured out what the problem was, but would need to check his stockroom to see if he had the spare part on hand.  Ten minutes later he walked out with a smile on his face and said the problem was due to a blown inline fuse and he had the replacement part on hand!  On top of the good news regarding the spare part, the repair guy said the total charge for repair would be $125, which was only $25 more than what our insurance deductible would had been.  After all was said and done, we were out of his shop in less than 2 hours and back on the road!

Through his diagnosis we realized we had made a mistake the previous day when we moved the trailer to run the generator in that we forgot to unplug the RV from the truck before turning the generator on.  Having two power sources connected to the RV at the same time caused one of the five inline fuses underneath the trailer to blow.

Since the repair was done much faster than we anticipated we chose to drive the 2 ½ hours back to Big Bend National Park to the campsite we had already paid for. The draw for going back to was that we had not yet had a chance to visit the Santa Elena Canyon, which is one of the top things to see there and another one of the “peak experiences” our ranger friend said we had to see.

So the next morning, we woke up before sunrise with the plan of driving the 1.5 hours to the west side of the park to shoot sunrise at the canyon.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn and went 30 minutes out of the way before getting back on course.  This detour caused us to arrive just after the soft morning glow turned to harsh light on the canyon walls.  I know Max was really bummed because he wanted to get some great photos from this location, but I was content just being there and exploring the canyon.

Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon Reflection

We took a short hike along the canyon and afterwards got out our packrafts in order to explore the area by water.  There weren’t many people on the water when we launched our rafts, but every once in a while a canoe or kayak would paddle past us.  I remember at one point a canoe paddling toward me with three people in it. As the canoe got closer the man sitting in the front of the canoe greeted me with “Good Morning!” and I greeted him back.  When I finally saw the man’s face up close, I did a double take, and it was none other than the late Anthony Bourdain!  I immediately turned around to quietly get Max’s attention, but he was too far away and completely oblivious to who the man was paddling past him.

Santa Elena Canyon
Paddling in the Santa Elena Canyon

Later, as we paddled another mile down the canyon, there was a guy on the largest paddleboard I had ever seen holding what looked like 30 tents.  I said “Wow that is quite the cargo load!” and he said it was for a group of them filming a TV show.  At that point, I knew they must be the crew filming for Anthony Bourdain’s TV show “Part’s Unknown”, but I asked anyhow just to be sure.  He confirmed and said they had stayed overnight a few miles down the canyon in a small Mexican town. I was really looking forward to watching this future episode of Parts Unknown to see what was filmed in the Santa Elena Canyon, but don’t know if this episode will ever air.  Like the rest of the world, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Anthony’s death in June, just three months after we crossed paths in the canyon.

At several points while packrafting that day, the water level was so low that we would get stuck on the river bottom and would have to get out to move our rafts to deeper water.  Unfortunately, one of those time Max jumped out of his raft too fast and out flew his brand new iphone into the water.  The good news was he was able to grab his phone since the water was so low, but the bad news is that the water damaged his phone so that the screen constantly flickered.  It was supposed to be water resistant, but I guess that doesn’t mean it can be fully submerged in water! 😉  So we knew the next big city we drove through we’d need to have his phone either repaired or replaced.

Sandbar Break in the Canyon
Sandbar in the Canyon

All in all, we had planned to spend four nights at Big Bend National Park, but we ended up staying seven nights.  This allowed us to do the backcountry camping, as well as visit the Santa Elena Canyon despite having a day spent on RV repairs. We really enjoyed the different climate and scenery in each of its three unique areas and would highly recommend going, especially if you live in Texas!

Austin, the capital of Texas, is one of the fastest growing big cities in America. It’s known for its live music scene, outdoorsy vibe and finger lickin’ good BBQ.  Neither of us had been to Austin before, so we were looking forward to checking it out – especially the BBQ!

Before we arrived in Texas, Max had been having an issue with the shock on his mountain bike which made it unrideable.  We needed to have it professionally repaired, but had a difficult time finding a shop that could turn it around in two to three days. Thankfully, with Austin being a city known for its outdoor culture, they had plenty of bike shops and we were able to find one that could fix the bike in just two days.

While we were at Bicycle Sport Shop waiting to pick up Max’s bike, I walked over to the sale section to see if they had any good deals on mountain bikes. Back home we do a lot of road biking, but Max has always wanted me to try mountain biking as it’s his favorite. We found one for a reasonable price and Max convinced me to buy it so we could mountain bike together on our trip.  An hour later, I walked out of the store with my very first real mountain bike! The bike shop also helped package up my road bike to ship home since I’d be using the mountain bike on our trip from here on out.

As the bike shop was just a few blocks from downtown Austin, we took my bike for its first spin on a trail that loops around the city. It was a really fun way to see the city of Austin and get a better sense of the city’s vibe.  There were people enjoying the outdoors everywhere we looked whether it be on the trail (biking, running, walking), on the river (paddle boarding, kayaking), or in the grass (playing Frisbee, having a picnic, etc).  It totally reminded me of the Uptown vibe back home in Minneapolis with everyone enjoying summertime around Lake Calhoun.

Biking in Austin
Biking in Austin

After our bike ride, we were super hungry and all we could think about was BBQ!  We had heard the Austin BBQ scene is known for crazy long lines (think Franklin BBQ with a 4+ hour wait), so we hoped to find a good BBQ spot with a more reasonable wait.  After doing a little research on top BBQ places nearby, we headed over to Terry Black’s BBQ.  While they did have a line out the door, we saw that it was moving pretty quickly AND they still had the brisket available. We both ordered the brisket sandwich, along with a few sides, brewskies and dessert.  It was easily the best brisket we had ever had! So good that Max went back to buy a Terry Black’s BBQ hat!

The next day, with both of us now having mountain bikes, we decided to hit up a real mountain bike trail at Reveille Peak Ranch. I was pretty nervous with this being my first time on a mountain bike trail, but Max assured me we’d start out easy on the beginner loop. However, we soon realized the beginner trail at this ranch was a lot harder than most beginner loops.  I was so scared going down some of the rocky slopes that I started crying and had tears streaming down my face.  Max kept asking if I wanted to stop, but through my crying I kept saying no I’m just scared, but I’ll be ok.  For whatever reason, crying seems to help me push through my fear so I can think straight again.  After the tears subsided, I was able to enjoy the trail a bit more, gaining more confidence with every pedal.  While I did come away with a few minor scrapes and bruises I was proud of myself for completing my first real mountain bike trail.  Although one trail for the day was good enough for me – I told Max he should do another one, but this time alone. 😉

Relaxing after Mountain Biking
Relaxing after Mountain Biking

We planned our visit to Texas Hill Country (45 minutes northwest of Austin) in mid-March as they are known for their incredible Blue Bonnet blooms at that time of year.  Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found out we were two weeks early for the bloom given the colder than normal weather.  So, instead of shooting wildflowers, we spent our time exploring the quaint hill country towns and taking day trips to downtown Austin.

Another hiccup to our plans had to do with finding a place to stay. Not only was it spring break, it was also the week of the South by Southwest festival so every campground within an hour of Austin was completely booked.  Texas doesn’t have any BLM land either, so that wasn’t an option for us here.  We did finally find a campground called Camp Creek Recreation Area near Marble Falls that operated on a first come first serve basis, however; the reviews were slightly disconcerting as they mentioned campsites being left with trash and homeless people sleeping in their cars.  Without any other good options and having arrived after dark, we reluctantly pulled into the first empty spot we saw, parked the trailer, drew the shades and went to sleep.

The next morning around 7AM we woke up to the sound of music blasting from a car stereo.  We looked out the window and realized we were the only ones in the whole campground except for a guy and girl sitting in their sedan, doors open and music blasting.  We thought it was rude, but even more we thought it was a strange thing to be doing so early on a Wednesday morning.  After a while, the guy got out of his car, opened his trunk and started pulling things out of a duffle bag.  He then proceeded to get dressed putting a black t-shirt over his head to look like a hood, then grabbing a red bandana which he tied over his face and mouth. Lastly, he put on gloves so the only exposed part of his whole body were his eyes.

At this point, we had no idea what was going on.  What else was in his duffle bag?  Did he have a weapon?  Should we stay inside the trailer or get the hell out of there before something happens?  Max seemed less concerned than I did and started hitching up as we had an 8AM trailer maintenance appointment we had to get to.  I on the other hand was not going to take my eyes off this guy until I knew what was going on, so I kept watch through a small slit in the blinds.  All of a sudden, bandana guy started air punching to the music as if getting ready for a fight.  My heart which was already beating fast, started racing.  Then out of nowhere he jumped onto the hood of his car, while the woman got into the driver’s seat.  I sat glued to the window as she drove around the campground with him acting a fool on the hood of his car.  After several laps around the empty campground, they drove back to their original parking spot, he got off the hood, undressed and they left.  What the hell was that about??  Not sure if he was prepping for a fight or if he was making a low budget rap video, but I was really glad they were gone!

"Bandana Guy"
“Bandana Guy”

That morning after dropping off our trailer to get the bearings repacked, we spent the day driving through the quaint hill towns.  We stopped for lunch in Fredericksburg, which was super cute, with a bustling main street area full of shops.  It reminded me of the kind of place you’d go for a romantic Bed & Breakfast getaway weekend in the country.  Oh and I can’t forget the “free beer” cooler that one of the shops had sitting by the register. When I went to the counter to purchase my Texas t-shirt I asked… “Is the beer really free?”  And she said “Of course it is!” Dang, I like their style! 😉

Free Beer in Fredericksburg!
Free Beer in Fredericksburg!

After our day spent driving through Texas Hill Country, we picked up our trailer from the shop and headed back to the campground hoping to pick a more secluded site.  It was midweek so we were the only ones there and were able to choose any campsite we wanted.  We picked a site as far from the parking lot as possible that had a large grassy area.  While we were setting up camp, we noticed a strange smell that seemed to be coming from the fire pit. When I went to inspect it, I noticed strips of silver sheathing strewn all over the ground and lumps of silver colored molten metal in the pit.  The smell coming from these molten globs of metal was terrible and I knew it wasn’t going to go away unless I got rid of them.

So I grabbed our portable metal shovel and got to work pulling each and every silver molten piece out of the fire pit to throw away.  Once I began the fire pit cleanup, I realized I had overlooked all the other pieces of trash strewn around the campsite.  They ranged from the molten metal lumps, to beer bottles, to baby wipes, but the worst were the multiple used condoms…really people?!  Thanks goodness we carry disposable rubber gloves with us…sick!

Once we got our campsite back to a level of clean we could live with, we built a large bonfire and relaxed the rest of the day.  There were quite a few fallen trees in the area so we had plenty of wood to keep the fire going all night.  To finish the day, we cooked one of our favorite meals – fajitas – on the wood fired grill!

Located near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, New Orleans, is a world renowned city known for its unique cuisine, creole culture and vibrant night life, most notably Mardi Gras. Neither Max nor I had been to Louisiana before, so when we first started planning our 14 month road trip, New Orleans was one of the “must see” cities on our list. We were especially looking forward to visiting the Big Easy for its vibrant night life and spicy cuisine.

We arrived in New Orleans at the beginning of March – two weeks after all the craziness of Mardi Gras had passed. Since we weren’t willing to pay the astronomical rate of $150 per night to stay at the only RV park in the French Quarter, we stayed across the Mississippi river at Bayou Segnette State Park instead. This park was much more reasonably priced ($37 per night) and was still relatively close to the city (30 minutes away). Oh and this park had free laundry to boot…if you could snag an open machine! 😉

Bayou Segnette Campsite
Bayou Segnette Campsite

Parking in the French Quarter can be a nightmare due to its narrow roads, high prices and restrictions, so being that we were staying just across the Mississippi river, we opted to take the ferry. Getting there from our campsite was super easy as we parked in the Algiers neighborhood (free) and took the Algiers ferry ($2) across the river right into the heart of the city. We took the ferry over at night and were treated to a beautiful display as the city lights lit up the night sky and sparkling on the water.

New Orleans at Night
New Orleans at Night

Our first stop in the French Quarter was Bourbon Street and it definitely lived up to its reputation! Wowza…we expected Bourbon Street to be crazy, but nothing prepared us for how busy it was and how much trash was on the ground!?! There was literally trash, beads, puke…you name it…all over the street! I think we mistakenly envisioned the party scene to be more like Vegas set in a Gaslamp district, but it seemed more like a college frat party gone wild. We heard from a local that they judge how great the party it is by how much trash is on the ground the next morning. While we had fun seeing what Bourbon Street was all about, Max summed it up best when he said, “This would have been REALLY cool when I was 21, but not so much at 33”. Ok, now I feel old!

New Orleans is famous as being one of America’s top culinary cities. However, being on a $100 per day budget, we opted to order Po Boys from a grab and go spot rather than eating at a fancy restaurant like Galatoire’s where dinner jackets are a must. For dessert, we walked down to Jackson Square and ordered beignets and coffee from the famous Café Du Monde. The beignets were delicious and reminded me of an elephant ear you’d get at a carnival covered in powdered sugar! We would have loved to stay and explore the Jackson Square area more, but it was getting late and the gates to the square had closed.

The following day was rainy so we thought it would be fun to visit the National World War II Museum. Prior to leaving on our trip, I had read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, which peaked my interest for all things World War II. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought going to a museum on a rainy day was a good idea as the place was jam packed! Through a bit of quick thinking we were able to purchase tickets on our cell phones and pick them up at will call which saved us an hour of waiting in line.

The purpose of this WWII museum was to show America’s involvement in the war in every facet. The exhibits were very interactive with rooms staged to look like scenes from Normandy, various battlefields in Europe and the South Pacific. The museum displayed thousands of WWII artifacts such as uniforms, personal belongings, diaries and artillery. There was so much to see that towards closing time Max and I were running from room to room to make sure we didn’t miss anything. One of the highlights was the large hanger with restored airplanes that were used in WWII. They had multiple viewing platforms that allowed you to see the planes from both below and above them.

National WWII Museum
National WWII Museum

On our last day in New Orleans we drove the famous river road to see the plantations. Max wanted to photograph Oak Alley’s famous live oaks so we paid the $25 entrance fee per person allowing us to take the “big house” tour and wander around the property. Unfortunately, the “big house” tour was not self-guided and was quite congested for having purchased tickets in advance. They herded twenty five people room by room through talking about each artifact in the house. This is definitely not our style of sight-seeing, but we had a good eye roll and laugh about it along the way. In hindsight, we would recommend skipping the tour altogether and photograph Oak Alley from the street looking towards the mansion. This way you can avoid the $25 per person entrance fee and you still get to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the live oaks.

Oak Alley's Famous Live Oaks
Oak Alley’s Famous Live Oaks

Gulf Islands National Seashore is a 150-mile stretch of seashore that runs from Cat Island in Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island in Florida.  It is the longest stretch of federally protected seashore in the United States. This famous coastline, also referred to as the Emerald Coast, gets its name from the bright blue-green waters that flow over the powdery white beach sand.

Max shooting at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Max shooting at Gulf Islands National Seashore

Since it’s part of the National Park Service, there is a $20 per vehicle fee to enter Gulf Islands National Seashore. However, if you purchase an $80 annual America the Beautiful park pass like we did, you can get into all National Parks, National Monuments, National Seashores and any other federal recreation sites for free. Annual passes can be purchased online at NPS.gov, at National Parks, and at some other federal recreation areas.  This is definitely the way to go if you plan to see more than two federal recreation sites in a year as most entrance fees are between $20 to $30 per vehicle. The annual pass can have two adult’s names listed on it, so you only need one annual pass per couple and it will cover everyone traveling in your vehicle.

There are two campgrounds in Gulf Islands National Seashore – one located in the Mississippi bayou called Davis Bayou Campground and one on Florida’s emerald coast called Fort Pickens Campground.  Since we wanted the Emerald Coast beach experience we had our sights set on the Fort Pickens Campground on the Florida side.  Because of its popularity this campground books up months ahead of time, so when we first tried to book it, it was completely full. However, we didn’t want to give up so we left the dates open in our trip planner in hopes of getting a cancellation later on. Fast forward a few weeks and after checking the reservations online every few days we were able to snag a cancellation!

Gulf Islands National Seashore - Fort Pickens
Gulf Islands National Seashore – Fort Pickens

One thing we learned is if you really want to stay at a certain campground, be persistent and keep checking back for cancellations. Cancellations most often happen between 1 and 10 days prior to the reserved dates when people realize they can no longer come due to a conflict, health, weather, etc.  Also, if you have an RV that doesn’t require extensive effort to setup and teardown, search for campsite openings with availability for one night. In our case, we wanted to stay for four nights, so we were able to reserve one night at one site and three nights at another site (within the same campground).  If we had only searched for sites with four nights available it would have said there was zero availability for our dates. While not ideal, we don’t mind doing this when it’s our only option to get into a sought after campground.

Gulf Islands National Seashore Sunset
Gulf Islands National Seashore Sunset

Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore did not disappoint! It topped the list as our favorite beach in Florida due to the soft white sand, emerald green water, wind ripples on the beach and lack of commercialization that so many other Florida beach areas have.  We were there at beginning of March, so it was too cold for swimming, but we walked for hours on the beach collecting shells, laying out and watching the wildlife.  We saw jellyfish, stingray, great blue heron and even a pod of dolphins! At night we were graced by several amazing sunsets that lit up the sky in all directions. This is definitely a place we are already planning to going back to!

Gulf Islands National Seashore - Santa Rosa Island Blue Hour
Gulf Islands National Seashore – Santa Rosa Island Blue Hour