Pacific Northwest: Yellowstone and Grand Teton

We last visited Yellowstone in July of 2015, and were frustrated by the shear number of people also there. We thought that coming later in the season would improve our experience, as less people would be there. While the crowds were reduced at the end of September compared to July, there were many more people than we expected.

Also unexpected was the fog, which made it hard to see some of the features, especially later in the day as the air was cooling (at Grand Prismatic Spring the fog was very thick and swirling with the wind). The fog also made it challenging to see wildlife and pedestrians along the side of the road. We definitely slowed down leaving the park due to poor visibility; as our elevation decreased, the fog began to dissipate.

We were did walk the Fountain Paint Pots and Grand Prismatic Spring Nature trails. Both were board walks that went past multiple thermal features. These walks were smooth and easy for Alex to navigate, but people added a challenge. There was not a railing at all points to ensure a little boy stayed the course. It required some herding of Alex to make sure he didn’t run into people or fall off the walkway. There were stairs to Grand Prismatic Spring; Fountain Paint Pots did not have stairs, but there was one steeper grade.

Pay attention to park bulletins if you are camping late in the season. We wanted to camp at the Tower Falls campground, but it had closed three days prior. Additionally, there was road construction just south of the North entrance, requiring a significant re-route through the park. After reviewing the campgrounds that were still open (Mammoth Hot Springs, Madison, Slough Creek, and Lewis Lake) , we re-routed to the West entrance because Lewis Lake still had availability and we did not have to take the detour. We drove along the Gallatin River on US-191S; the fall colors were absolutely beautiful along this route.

We exited Yellowstone via the South entrance and drove through John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway and Grand Teton National Park to Coulter Bay Village. This route allowed us an up close view of the damage caused by the fire earlier in the park from earlier this summer. The fire damage, along with the low level of Jackson Lake, emphasized the drought that western states have been suffering.

When is the best time to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton? We wish we knew. Rangers said that social media (people being warned about the crowded conditions during the summer) has extended the peak season closer and closer to season’s end.

Gallery:

Click on a picture to launch the gallery in a new window

 

June 23, 2016 – Westport Union Landing State Beach

Route: US-101S

CARoute05We did not do this drive in one day. It actually took us two. We stopped and stayed at Mad River Rapids RV Park (clean, nice bathrooms, laundry, just a little too developed for our preferences) in McKinleyville, CA the night of June 21st. Cell reception was critical for the morning of the 22nd because Jess had a phone interview for a job. The saving grace of this stop was Six Rivers Brewery, just 5 minutes away from our campground. We enjoyed their beers.

Just south of Eureka, we debated on taking Mattole road along the lost coast. It is a beautiful drive; we have done it before in a rental car and motorcycle. However, it is twisty with lots of up and downs. We decided not to abuse Abby that badly a few weeks before our move to Colorado. We decided to enjoy the drive along Avenue of the Giants for the scenic portion of our drive.

History: Westport and Union Landing were towns supported by the lumber industry. A complex wharf and chute system was used to load the schooners anchored beyond the dangerous rocks with lumber, tanbark, shingles, wool, oats and railroad ties from the bluffs. The town struggled through boom and bust cycles, and the Great Depression diminished Westport further. The town survives today, unlike other lumber towns along the coast.

Campgrounds:

With our late start on the 22nd, we started to look for camping in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We were shut out the previous night at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park; this park is very popular and after hiking to Patrick’s Point, it was clear why. Make a reservation, it will be worth it. We were cautiously optimistic about finding a spot in Humboldt Redwoods. The Burlington campground, where we (minus Alex) camped in 2010 was full, and the park staff recommended Hidden Springs. This was a fantastic recommendation. We selected site 9, which was level and had a nice area for Alex and the dogs. There was some road noise, but the number of cars traveling on the road decreased significantly after dusk.

We got off to an early start on Thursday and as we drove by Westport Union Landing State Beach we saw campsites set up. We stopped to investigate and discovered that this is a first come, first serve campground. We snagged a spot for two nights. Initially, there looked to be a limited number of spots, but there are three camping areas.

Activities:

View from Patrick's Point towards Wedding Rock.
View from Patrick’s Point towards Wedding Rock.

Various hiking trails are available at Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek. Prairie Creek will have ocean view trails. At the Eel River swimming hole in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Alex took great joy in throwing rocks into the river. It is an activity he enjoys.

Alex waiting for a wave to come in so he can throw a rock into the ocean.
Alex waiting for a wave to come in so he can throw a rock into the ocean.
Penny and Chewie running on the beach.
Penny and Chewie running on the beach.

2016_Coast05Westport Union Landing State Beach has, well, the beach. This can be walked to and at low tide you can find sand crabs, crabs, giant anemones, and mussels. Alex took a little bit to warm up to the beach and preferred to walk on the harder sand exposed during low tide. Once he discovered this surface, he was eager to run up and down the beach. The dogs were excited to frolic in the surf.

Fort Bragg is about 15 miles down the road. Fort Bragg is the home of North Coast Brewing Company and their very tasty beers. There is a tourist train, called the Skunk Train, that takes riders on a forty mile tour through redwoods and mountain meadows. We missed an opportunity to take Alex on a train ride that he would have loved. There is also Glass Beach, where beauty has resulted from a former city dump.

Overall: Fantastic camping spot. Need to be quick to grab a site. The proximity to Fort Bragg provides extra activities. We could have spend our entire trip camped out on the bluffs.

Morning view from our campsite.
Morning view from our campsite.

June 20, 2016 – Crescent City, Mill Creek

CARoute04Route: CA-96W, Indian Creek Road, US-199S

We got off to a relatively early start because the day’s activities included grocery shopping and laundry! We were westward bound on CA-96W until Happy Camp. We stopped at the Frontier Saloon and Cafe for second breakfast; Dave finally staged his uprising against granola and yogurt and insisted we stop. Portions were generous, food was good. Bacon was amazing – thick cut, not overly salted. Stop in if you are in town.

Our route took us through a remote area; the steep mountain slopes are not conducive to building. The road was twisty and when we crossed into Oregon, Abby earned another state badge. We debated on detouring to the Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, but it was 45 minutes out of our way and we needed clean undies. We turned south to Crescent City. We arrived and wanted to stop and Port O’Pints, but they didn’t open until 2. And there was no food as far as we could tell. Pre-made salad from Safeway for the lunch win!

Dave standing by the stump of a redwood.
Dave standing by the stump of a redwood.

History: Redwood logging began in 1851, as the gold rush waned. Technological advances made it easier and faster to harvest the large trees. In 1920, key groves were preserved by the State of California. In 1968, Congress created Redwood National Park, protecting the world’s tallest trees and Redwood Creek’s salmon fishery.

Redwood log next to campsite 40.
Redwood log next to campsite 40.

Coast redwoods have been recorded at 370 feet, almost 70 feet taller than the giant sequoia. There are no known killing diseases and are resistant to insects, believed to be the result of high tannin concentrations, which also provides the red hue to the wood. Fog, created by the hot air of the central valley pulling moisture laden ocean air towards the interior of CA, is key to the survival of the coastal redwood.

Stand of young redwoods.
Stand of young redwoods.

Redwood National and State Parks are a cooperative management effort between the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park are part of the cooperative effort and form a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.

Campground: We stayed at Mill Creek campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. We were lucky to get a walk-up site, number 41. Sites 40 through 42 are spaced the closest and receive the most sunlight. The sites are level and have easy access to Mill Creek. Sites 39 and 55 are prime sites, spacious and well separated from neighboring campsites. Overall, most sites in the camp well spaced. There are some tent only sites that are extremely secluded – you hike to the tent platform through a tunnel in the foliage.

Alex enjoying the rocks in Mill Creek.
Alex enjoying the rocks in Mill Creek.

Activities: Fishing in the park tributaries of the Smith River for cutthroat trout and hatchery steelhead is permitted. Mill Creek is closed to fishing part of the year. A license is required.

Alex enjoying the hike along Trestle Trail on his pack mule.
Alex enjoying the hike along Trestle Trail on his pack mule.

There are a variety of trails for hiking in the park. The Trestle Trail Loop circumvents sites 1 – 74. Off of this trail, one can access the Adler Basin, Saddler Skyline, and Hobbs Wall (via Saddler Skyline) trails. The California Coastal Trail, which is 1200 miles long, runs through the park. Also in the park is the Damnation Trail, which was used by the Tolowa Indians to reach the ocean to gather shellfish and seaweed. This trail drops 1,000 feet over two miles through old-growth redwoods and Sitka spruce. We thought about attempting this hike, but wisely did the math in advance. The average grade on the trail is 10%. We opted for the Trestle Loop Trail instead. This trail was a combination of a relatively flat and wide path (good for Alex to walk a bit) and some narrow, steep hillside hiking (good time to contain Alex in the pack).

Overall: This was a fantastic campground and would be a fantastic place to set up home base for a couple of weeks and explore the coast. There are endless day trip possibilities. Also, the proximity to Crescent City means it is easy to restock food and clean clothes.

Banana slug
Banana slug

June 19, 2016 – State of Jefferson

Route for Lassen Volcanic National Park to Sarah Totten Campground.
Route for Lassen Volcanic National Park to Sarah Totten Campground.

Route: CA-44W, I-5N, CA-96W

We got off to a late start. Our route decision was strategic because it would take us through Redding around lunch time and we had a brewery recommendation. Alas, the recommended brewery did not have food, so we stopped at Woody’s Brewing Company. We posted about our experience here, but the quick summary is good food and good beer. Worth a visit. Stomachs filled, we continued our journey.

History: We have been commenting that the farther we drive north, the less the California feels like, well, California. The area’s residents agree based on the number of ‘State of Jefferson‘ flags we observed. The proposed state spans contiguous, primarily rural, counties of southern Oregon and Northern California. There is a separate independence movement called Cascadia.

In the early 20th century the State of Jefferson felt that it was being left behind as the rest of California thrived. In 1941 local leaders worked to establish the State of Jefferson. However, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the secession plans were abandoned. The movement still continues today as a criticism to the growing role the federal and state government and how decisions made by these governing bodies negatively impact the region. Check out the segment on the State of Jefferson on the show How the States Got Their Shapes.

We also saw numerous ‘No Monument‘ signs. Curious, we Googled the issue. The Siskiyou Crest runs east-west and links the Siskiyou Mountains to the Cascades. The area has high biological diversity, believed to have resulted from the fact it was unglaciated during the last Ice Age and served as a refuge for plants and animals. The creation of the monument, out of land already managed by the U.S. Forest Service, aims to protect and revive the land. The classification as a monument would restrict grazing, logging, and mining inside the boundaries. Those in opposition fear worsening economic stagnation and that private property would be taken away from citizens. Supporters believe that the new designation would bring tourism and outdoor recreation dollars.  The monument is supported by the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and opposed by the American Land Rights Association.

Abby in site 8 at the Sarah Totten Campground.
Abby in site 8 at the Sarah Totten Campground.

Campground: The Sarah Totten Campground in the Klamath National Forest is a small campground along the Klamath River and has two group sites and nine individual sites. The campground has an upstream and downstream loop, with river access at the upstream loop. We camped in site 8 in the upstream loop which is next to the river access. No one was using the river access, but this campsite would be less than ideal if there was a high demand to access the river.

Alex looking for rocks to toss into the river.
Alex looking for rocks to toss into the river.

Activities: If we had a tow vehicle and kayaks, this campground is ideal. Drive the tow vehicle to the put out point, bring the RV and kayaks back to the campground. A recipe for an enjoyable time on the river. There were also multiple trail heads accessible from CA-96W, but we did not go hiking. There is a nice selection of rocks for throwing in the river.

Overall: A very isolated campground. Use does not seem to be heavy. A gorgeous area to camp. Site signage could be improved.

June 17, 2016 – Lassen Volcanic National Park

CARoute02
The route traveled to Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Route: CA-89N

As we drove, Dave commented that the landscape was feeling less like California (grey, rocky mountains) and more like the Pacific Northwest (thick pine forests, lots of logging trucks). A quick consult with the map showed that Lassen National Forest straddles the Sierra and Cascade ranges, which are quintessential California and Pacific Northwest, respectively. The drive was picturesque, with twisty roads following creeks and cutting along the mountain. All the plants were freshly green, having recently shaken off winter’s chill.

Abby parked at the Lassen Peak trail head.
Abby parked at the Lassen Peak trail head.

We were expecting to see much more snow during the drive, since CA-89, the Lassen Volcanic National Park through road, had only recently been cleared of snow and opened. However, we only saw occasional patches of snow. Then we started to climb as we entered the park and the odds were in our favor (and Penny’s) significant snow. It did not take long after entering the park before there was snow, and significant quantities.  The drive was a bit harrowing with the thick fog, but the positive side was we could not see the steep drop offs along the road. If you feel that the government is over protecting you, drive the road through Lassen. There isn’t much government protection standing between you and the drop off.

2016_Lassen04
300 ton rock landed 3 miles from Mount Lassen after the 1915 eruption.

History: Designated a National park on August 9, 1916, in part due to the continuing volcanic activity after the 1915 eruption. President Theodore Roosevelt initially protected the area with the formation of Cinder Cone National Monument and Lassen Peak National Monument in 1905.

Native Americans inhabited the area and believed that Lassen would one day blow itself apart. Lassen Peak was used as a landmark for immigrants on their way to the fertile Sacramento Valley.

Campground: We stayed at the Manzanita Lake campground, in the Northwest corner of the park; this was the only campground open. The other campgrounds were still being cleared of winter related damage. This campground has four loops. Sites can be reserved on loops A and C, loops B and D are first come, first served. Loop D is for tent camping only. There are multiple trail heads in or close to the campground (Manzanita Creek, Crags Lake, Manzanita Lake, Lily Pond Nature Trail, Reflection Lake, Nobles Emigrant). We were in site C44, which was spacious with and felt secluded. Other prime sites in the C loop include C22, C24, C25, and C26. There is no cell service.

2016_Lassen06
Alex sleeping during the hike to Crags Lake.
Heading over the crest to Crags Lake.
Heading over the crest to Crags Lake.
View of Chaos Crags from Crags Lake.
View of Chaos Crags from Crags Lake.

Activities: Kayaks can be rented from the camp store for use on Manzanita Lake. We decided to hike the Chaos Crags trail. The sign at the trail head, which was a solid 0.5 miles away from our campsite, indicated a 2 mile walk with approximately 825 feet of elevation increase. Simple math, done at leisure after the hike, determined that the average grade of the trail was 8%. Math, it rocks. There were sections that were rather flat, and sections that were very steep. The 4 mile round trip took us about 3.5 hours. This time includes the 30 minutes we spent at Crags Lake watching Alex throw rocks into the water and laugh at the ‘bloops’. The hike offered amazing views and took us throw an area that had been affected by fire. The hike was sunnier than expected due to reduced tree cover. And there is cell service! We definitely were sore after this hike.

2016_Lassen09
Snow field along a creek. Penny is clearly happy.

Skiing and snowboarding are also options for activities! In June! Our first night camping, it rained at the campground, but higher elevations received approximately six inches of snow. The through road was closed again to allow for plowing.

Ski and snowboarders at the Lassen trail head.
Ski and snowboarders at the Lassen trail head.

The Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center has great interactive displays. There is a description of the different types of volcanoes (cinder cone, composite, plug flow) and an interactive map that will light up the type examples with in the park with the push of a button (Alex loved this). Another interactive exhibit had a tunnel that was perfect for a toddler to run through; a light lit up as Alex ran through the tunnel. This was also a great source of joy. Two gift shops, an area with children’s toys, a cafe, and theater round out the offerings at the visitor center.

Overall: This is a beautiful park with hiking options that we did not even scratch the surface of in regards to activities and hikes. Note that if you are interested in the Lave Tube caves, which are located in Lassen National Forest, about 45 minutes north on CA-44/CA-89. As our usual, we wish we were spending more time here.

Mount Lassen with a fresh coat of snow.
Mount Lassen with a fresh coat of snow.

Western Trip: Campground Summary

Favorites

  1. Campsite at Sylvan Lake
    Campsite at Sylvan Lake

    Sylvan Lake Campground at Custer State Park, SD: Sites were well spaced, secluded, grounds were well taken care of. Site was level. Our campsite was tucked away among trees. The campground was not on the lake, but was a quick hike to the lake and there was access several trail heads. Scenery was gorgeous.

    Sylvan Lake
    Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park.
  2. Red Canyon Campground at Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, UT:
    Abby in our campsite at Red Canyon.
    Abby in our campsite at Red Canyon.

    This campground has sites that are a stone’s throw away from the rim of the gorge. Visitors center is a short hike away. Some hiking trails along the gorge rim. Gorgeous scenery. Sites are well spaced and level. We wouldn’t camp here again until Alex is older and listens better. Jess would become instantaneously grey making sure Alex didn’t fall into the gorge. Or he will need one of those child leashes.

    View from the Red Canyon Campground in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
    View from the Red Canyon Campground in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
  3. Mueller State Park, CO: This campground had nicely spaced, wooded sites. Some sites had a view of Pike’s Peak, but these go quickly on the reservations page. Great laundry facility and playgroud for Alex. Alex’s wagon came into play as our laundry mobile when walking up the hill to the laundromat. Park is well cared for and the staff is friendly. Group sites also available.

    2015_Mueller
    View of Pike’s Peak, obscured by cloud cover.

Least Favorites

  1. Mormon Island State Recreation Area, NE: Campground is next to a lake, on an island, in the middle of the Platte River. The lake is part of Nebraska’s Chain of Lakes; these lakes are water filled excavation pits from I-80’s construction and converted to recreation areas.. We stayed here because it was easy access to I-80, had full hook-ups (needed to run the A/C due to the heat and humidity), and it was approximately the target distance we wanted to drive in a day upon leaving Colorado. The lake’s aroma left a bit to be desired. Campground served its purpose, but it was cruel switch from the Rockies.
  2. Starved Rock State Park, IL: The park website looks amazing! Don’t be fooled, the campground is definitely not amazing. If the campground is in the park, it is on the border. You do drive past the beautiful area to the campground, which is mosquito infested to the point you can’t be outside. We would have rather stayed in a commercial campground.

Biggest Pleasant Surprise

  1. View from the bluff at Great River Bluffs State Park, MN.
    View from the bluff at Great River Bluffs State Park, MN.

    Great River Bluffs State Park, MN: The geological features of this park are the result of minimal glacial drift from any of the four major glaciers. Sites were well spaced and wooded. Some are not level, so check the reservation site, it should provide information. Nice hiking trails with views of the Mississippi River Valley. And there were little chipmunks for Penny to watch from Abby’s window.

    Penny watching chipmunks at Great River Bluffs State Park, MN.
    Penny watching chipmunks at Great River Bluffs State Park, MN.

Biggest Disappointment

  1. Yellowstone, WY: It was Fourth of July weekend. There were hordes of people and we were lucky to get a spot. Campsites were crowded. People were oblivious to etiquette. The bathrooms were not clean. Dave said he would rather take one of the poop bags for the dogs out to the woods rather than use the bathroom. Jess was too scared to see the horrors of the women’s bathroom. There will be a separate Yellowstone post to discuss why this was our least favorite park of the entire trip. I’m sure Yellowstone is much nicer when it isn’t the peak travel season.

Western Trip Summary

We started our first long RV adventure on June 27, 2015. We had made the decision just three weeks prior to move to California so Jess could enroll in the UC Davis Extension Master Brewers Program; we knew that when we returned we would have to kick things into high gear to prepare the house for sale (we had our floors refinished while we were gone). Looking back, it is hard to believe we got it all done. And it is still rather surreal that a year later we are packing up our California rental to move to Colorado.

Since it has been so long since our trip, the format for posts will be different from our California move. This summary post will be followed by posts focusing on our favorite/least favorite campgrounds, side trips made along the way, and anything else that may require a stand alone post. These stand alone posts will likely be due excessive length as a result of our poor self-editing skills. Some of our notes (including total gallons of diesel and mileage) have been misplaced in a cross-country move.

2015 Summer Trip
2015 Summer Trip

The trip was approximately 5200 miles, including side trips. We used about 345 gallons of diesel, averaging right around 15 miles per gallon.

We started our trip on June 27, 2015 and were back July 16, 2015. Just shy of 3 full weeks and resulting in an average of 273 miles traveled per day.

Family selfie just before leaving the driveway.
Family selfie just before leaving the driveway.

The trip started out on a rainy, mechanical break down note with Abby’s turbo resonator failing, but after our first day hiccup, it was smooth sailing. We had a great time visiting family and friends along our route. And they were always very kind in giving us a place to park, do laundry, and shower in a full size bathroom!

The whirlwind trip took us to four national parks, a national monument, a national recreation area, two national forests, and seven state parks. We definitely erred in wedged too many sights into our trip schedule; we learned from our errors on this trip and corrected them for future trips.

Campgrounds:

  1. Great River Bluffs State Park, MN – overnight rest stop only
  2. Palisades State Park, SD – 2 night stop, rest day

    Palisades State Park in South Dakota
    Palisades State Park in South Dakota
  3. Custer State Park, SD – 2 night stop (Grace Coolidge, Sylvan Lake)
  4. Yellowstone National Park, WY – overnight (Fishing Creek)
  5. Grand Teton National Park, WY – overnight (Lizard Creek)
  6. Bridger-Teton National Forest, WY – overnight (East Table)
  7. Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, UT – overnight
  8. San Juan National Forest, CO – 2 night stop (Junction Creek)
  9. Mueller State Park, CO – overnight

    2015_Mueller
    View of Pike’s Peak (under cloud cover) from Mueller State Park.
  10. Rocky Mountain National Park, CO – 2 night stop (Olive Ridge – technically just outside the park)
  11. Mormon Island State Recreation Area, NE – overnight
  12. Starved Rock State Park, IL – overnight
  13. West Branch State Park, OH – overnight

    2015_WestBranch
    View for our campsite in West Branch State Park, OH. Our last night on the road.