Summer 2013: The San Juan Skyway

Oooh, lookee here--a blog post written on the day that the events actually happened! Just as I used to do!

Today we abandoned Durango and went on a big ole day trip, which turned out to be longer than most of our regular travel days. We departed the campground at 9AM, after exercising dog and self, and headed out to drive the entire scenic byway that is the San Juan Skyway. We decided that we had maxed out Durango, since we really didn't want to go to the hot springs when it's hot outside, nor did we want to go rafting when the river level is so low, and a movie was out today because the thunderstorm threat had finally abated. So, what do we do? Hit the road!

We backtracked a bit on highway 160 to Mancos, but left our well-worn road when we saw Mesa Verde on the left. We took a road that cut off Cortez (big mistake--poor condition, and much-needed road construction), but that didn't last long. We hooked back up with the Skyway very quickly and after some just jaw-droppingly gorgeous driving arrived at our main destination, Telluride, which turns out to be a bit too precious for us, but it IS very dog friendly. We had read about Telluride on one of our favorite dog travel sites, GoPetFriendly and they were right--Bago fit right in. Now, I'm not sure he enjoyed riding the dog-friendly gondolas up to (and down from) 10,500 feet, but he was a good sport on the way up and in Mountain Village, especially since he was wearing his vest for the first time.

We decided we needed the walk more than the experience of taking him on the city bus (which is dog friendly too!), so we had a nice time strolling the very chic streets of Telluride and eating some of the best grilled cheese EVER from a street vendor. We split two kinds:  a brie and apriocot preserves and a havarti with bacon, while Bago was quite the ambassador to a whole herd of little children enjoying a day camp.

We resumed our drive over to Ouray, Colorado, a beautiful mining town tucked into some of the most rugged scenery we've seen in the lower 48.

This area is home to four 14,000-foot peaks, the most in the state. Bago and Julie did not care for the high altitude and the scary open metal bridge over a box canyon waterfall

but we did enjoy the fact that Lisa had to drive the white-knuckle 25-mph stretch of no-guard-rail road between Ouray and Silverton!

After almost 10 hours, we completed the beautiful loop and ended up back in our campground, after stopping at the nearby gourmet market and cheating and buying some already-prepared dinner. Once in a while...

Oh, and a bonus: my favorite trailer. Wish our camper looked like this!

Summer 2013: Week 1

We set off a week ago today and finally have some decent wifi connectivity in order to attempt to keep the blog up to date as we tool through the West.

Last Sunday, we set off rather late in the day, as we are wont to do, arriving at our usual first-night-out-on-our-way-out-of-California-via-the-Mojave-Desert place after it closed, but before, thank goodness, the gates locked for the evening. (Note to self: Always request gate code by phone!) Bago totally remembered the place, and enjoyed the dog run and the bunny-filled grassy areas, while we just melted. It was the worst heat and humidity we've experienced in the Central Valley, and this was at 8:11 PM!

Thank goodness for A/C, but also curses on the A/C! It's really tough to sleep through its very loud and frequent cycling, but we had to keep it on. The low overnight was still in the high 80s with no breeze. We would've left early the next morning, but had to wait for the office to open at 9AM to pay. Then we got the heck out of Dodge.

Rocksie climbed Tehachapi Pass like a champ, after her overly expensive oil change/maintenance before we left. (We remembered to have the oil changed after 7 months but only 2K miles. I've finally learned at age 50 to attend to oil based on time AND miles....)

We made it to our new favorite park, Cattail Cove State Park, south of Lake Havasu by late afternoon, where it was "cooler" and much less humid.

Bago got in two swims that night and one in the morning before we headed out. Happy pup, and wading in the water felt good to us, too, although I worried about the water quality of the Colorado this far south....

Day 3 found us detouring off our well-traveled and beloved I-40 after reaching Kingman. We took the very scenic section of Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman so that we could reclaim a geocaching coin that we had once had a few trips ago.  Its name is "Nature" and its sponsor wants it to visit as many national parks as possible. We personally took it to Great Sand Dunes N.P., Big Bend N.P., Hot Springs N.P., and Vicksburg National Military Park before we hid it in a cache near the Petrified Forest N.P. in Arizona. Unfortunately, the folks who found it (Team Tierra Buena. Motto: "Making Geocaching Harder Than It Needs to Be") hid it in some god-forsaken place in Arizona nowhere near a national park AND in what turned out to be a major wildfire. So, it sat there, alone, and off mission for a very long time. Right before this trip, we got an alert that someone had moved it to Dinosaur Caverns, Arizona to a very easy park-and-grab site.

I immediately posted that we were coming for it. Wouldn't you know? It was found and taken the DAY BEFORE we got there. Here's my reaction:

Oh well, c'est la vie. The detour was TOTALLY worth it because of the scenery (and staying north of a heckuva monsoon) and the unplanned lunch in what turned out to be a very famous stop in Seligman, the Sno-Cap. (Here's the TripAdvisor reviews.) The guy behind the counter is quite a prankster--he played some kind of trick on everyone in line. I got "squirted" with "mustard" (yellow yarn that quite realistically comes out of a condiment bottle). And, because I had on my Happy Camper T-shirt, our order was filed under "Happy Camper." Great burger and burrito, but Lisa was particularly happy with the vanilla shake. And the ambiance around the joint was quite fun:

After lunch, we hit I-40 again and sailed into Flagstaff, a town we've passed through many, many times but have never stayed in. Nice place! We stayed one night out at Lake Mary (Pinegrove Campground), which was Bago's kind of place--lots of pine cones and romping room--but had to leave very early in the morning because we found a local pet shelter that would give Bago a bordatella shot. (We were anticipating putting Bago in doggie daycare in Durango and neglected to have this done at our vet's before we left.) So off we went at 7:30AM to find our way to the farthest spot north away from where we were. It's a first-come, first-served kind of place, so we took our place at the end of the line. Bago was a perfect gentleman in the exam room, submitting to the nasal spray "shot" very nicely and leaving on a loose-leash heel. (That was NOT what he looked like for the hour we had to wait.)

That accomplished, we stopped for an early lunch (and also our breakfast) at a Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives recommended restaurant, Brandy's. Turned out Wednesdays were free soup day, so we each had a cup of broccoli/green chile soup plus a sandwich. My sandwich turned out to be the big winner: Turkey melt with green apples and green chiles. Gotta make this at home.

After lunch, the monsoon was threatening, so we got in a rather abbreviated walking tour of historic downtown before the heavens opened up. We took that opportunity to find a new, closer-to-town camping spot at Fort Tuthill, a county park that is probably the funkiest/least planned out campground we've ever stayed at. For $16, you pretty much just got a spot with a fire ring. That is, if you could figure out which were "spots" and which were just patches of mud in the forest.  Thank goodness it wasn't crowded; I'm not sure how we would have navigated otherwise! Absolutely no services besides a dump station (just portapotties and a few water spigots here and there), but very convenient location.

Given our short Wednesday, we decided to steal time from Monument Valley on Thursday and stay in Flagstaff a little longer before heading down out of the cool mountains and back into the heat. We enjoyed a lovely tour of the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park, a beautiful Arts-and-Crafts era 13,000 square foot 1904 mansion donated to the state by some of Flagstaff's founders. Really glad we stayed for the tour for several reasons:
1. Saw architectural details we've never seen before (the light wells were fascinating!)
2. Learned a lot about the history of the area
3. Avoided the worst of the monsoon that swept through the area. It was sunny (sort of) when we started the tour, but not when we ended it.

Despite the rain and lightning, we took Bago to the Flagstaff dog park for a quick run. He didn't mind the storm, but we really shouldn't have put Lisa at risk of lightning strike. Dumb, dumb, dumb! But we were worried that Bago needed to blow off steam before our afternoon drive, so we did it anyway. Pinkie swears to not do that again, though....

After that, we took a locals route across town to avoid the Route 66 traffic/roadwork (it's amazing how 3 days in a town can make a person pretty savvy about getting around) and got to fully appreciate the storm. Turns out there had been localized wind gusts of 50 mph and quarter-sized hail. We saw all the ice piled up on roofs and roadsides and tons of debris and garbage cans all over the road. And then we got to the bottom of the hill we had just traversed and saw why there were flash flood warnings up. Holy toledo! What a mess. We made it safely through all of the aftermath (and thankfully missed the during), but were just amazed by the power of the storms, which we did not do a good job of anticipating. I think our last 6-week trip spoiled us--we had only 2 episodes of rain that whole trip! And this first week we've had monsoonal rains 5 of 8 days so far.

So, we headed north, thinking that we were driving out of the storm's path. We stopped at Sunset Crater National Monument, got talked into buying another national park annual pass, and set off to climb a 300-foot cinder cone volcano (what a steep slope!) to see what the monument was all about. We made it halfway up when two rounds of thunder convinced us to abort climbing the highest peak in the area during a thunderstorm. Yes, we learned, and we knew what was coming. The park rangers had no idea; it was cloudy, but no wind and still in the 70s. (Flagstaff proper, just a few miles south, was 53 degrees after the storm hit.)

We took our mature selves out of the park, skipping the interesting looking loop drive for fear of flash floods, and headed to our destination, Monument Valley. The weather went up 10 degrees in 10 minutes then continued to go up till we finished descending the mountain. A nice, dry, balmy 96 degrees when we pulled into historic Gouldings campground for what turned out to be the site (#12) with the best view in the place.

Thank goodness we had Bago with us, and not Nick, as the park was full of stray dogs and even a cat. Bago loved playing with the puppy we called Happy, and was pretty good even when the kitty decided he liked our RV.

We should've taken a photo of the RVs at this park, but over 75% of them were rentals driven by Europeans of all kinds. Boy, howdy, do you want to keep your wits about you when these folks are driving or parking. Recently, there was an article about how Europeans are flocking to the desert Southwest in the summer to go to the hottest places (including Death Valley in July/August!) and this place supported that claim in spades.

One of the reasons we were going to stay in this area, rather than drive through again, was that Julie wanted to get some shots of Monument Valley at sunset or sunrise. We were too tired to go back out at sunset, and Lisa, prudent woman that she is, convinced Julie to take the guided sunrise tour rather than get the whole house up and on the road at 5:30 AM. Boy, was that a good idea. Here are some of the results:

Dude, we know your wife made you take this tour, but TURN AROUND! The sunrise is behind you!!!

We visited Gouldings homestead house/museum on our way out (these folks were real trading post pioneers back in the day and were responsible for getting Hollywood to use Monument Valley in so many movies, including many John Wayne pictures). Fun little museum with a required donation....

Then we drove some very bumpy backroads through the Four Corners area to Durango, stopping at a lovely dog park in Cortez to exercise Bago and have a salad for lunch. Our entire purpose for going to Durango and staying for 5 nights (a rather unprecedented length of stay for us) was to scope out an RV park that a group of us had agreed would be a great place for a Skinnie Winnie national rally next year. (It was the West’s turn.)

Well, there is no joy in Muddville (or Durango) because the park—while perfect on its web site and in reviews—is not the best place for our group next May. It turns out that the park doesn’t have a very good group rec room (it’s just a tent, and in May it’s quite chilly here), has poor wifi coverage, and many of the sites are pretty close together. And, we learned after we got here, the main organizers of the rally can’t stay above 5,000 feet (Durango is 6,500 and getting here requires clearing bigger passes). Wish we had known all this before, but we are really enjoying the Durango area despite this (and the rains). 

We’ve managed to visit:

  1. James Ranch for some grass-fed beef, raw-milk cheese, eggs from free-range chickens, and organic raspberries and lettuces, as well as some great conversation about farming
  2. Honeyville for some gifties for our housesitters. And if any of our family is reading this, you all will definitely be getting some Honey Caramel sauce for Christmas this year. Wow!
  3. Silverton (in our RV, not on the very expensive and very coal-soot-emitting-but-cute narrow gauge railroad)

    And yes, that’s more hail. Quite a deluge!

  4. Vallecito Lake and the Trail of Carvings  -- a great example of making lemonade. There was a huge wildfire in this area in 2002, and damaged trees were carved in tribute to the many firefighters, EMTs, and others who worked to save the area.
  5. Durango Brewing Company (we’re already planning a repeat visit before we leave)
  6. The off-leash city dog park right on the Animas River. Biggest dog park area we’ve ever seen—Bago loved it (as did we).

  7. The historic downtown and Third Avenue historic district

Tomorrow we're going to be ambitious and tackle the entire San Juan Skyway, and I'll be sure to keep my camera out. It should be a doozy!