Fort Jefferson occupies two-thirds of Garden Island, one of the archipelago called the Dry Tortugas which lie 68 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. You can’t drive or hike here; your only access is by sea or air.
The old fort is a massive structure of 16 million bricks, and was never fired upon or engaged in battle of any kind except for an outbreak of yellow fever. Famous as the prison that held the famous Dr. Mudd who was implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — the doctor having set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth — the fort is now operated as a very isolated national park museum.
Its arches and vaults are today echoing the whispers of awed visitors and the marching feet of re-enactors and museum staff.
The campground next to the old fort is very small, so reservations are essential. There are no provisions other than restrooms, so campers must carry with them everything that they will need for their stay.
After exploring the fort, my favorite activity while at the Dry Tortugas was the snorkeling on the reefs that surround the island, populated by colorful sun fish, angel fish, reef sharks, nurse sharks, spotted rays, barracuda and a fair-size enclave of lobsters.
How to get there: From the southern tip of Florida, drive 175 miles west on the Florida Keys highway – Florida State Road A1A – to Key West. At the harbor board either the fast catamaran shuttle boats — which make the trip out in about 2 hours one way – or book the seaplane flight. Tickets and campsites should all be reserved in advance along with hotels or campground sites in Key West or nearby.
The Dry Tortugas are a national park and are managed by the National Park Service.
So… you are thinking seriously about going after the Road Trip of a Lifetime… and maybe you are having anxiety issues thinking about all that could happen.
I’ve said this before: Yukon Do It!
When Kaye and I made our epic journey towing our 28-foot fifth wheel, we had our copy of Mileposts and our paper maps in the truck cab and referred to them constantly… and everything went just fine. We didn’t have any problems, going or coming.
But it would have been so much easier if we had had the piece I am writing for you right now — a daily guide that would connect the dots from Point A to Point B each day. Well here it is.
Before You Start.
First of all, make sure your vehicles are in good condition. Have a mechanic replace any worn belts or hoses and change the oil in your tow vehicle. Tires should be in like-new condition all the way around with a good spare on hand.
Take a supply of cash along with your credit cards which may or may not work at some road houses. There are ATM’s in a few spots along the way delivering Canadian currency, of course.
Get used to navigating without your cellphone. You are not likely to have service except in a few towns. Weak wifi can be found at a few RV parks so each night you can plot your map apps for the next day (GPS may work when wifi doesn’t).
Getting to Mile Zero
The official Alaska Highway begins at Dawson Creek in northern British Columbia. When we did it we had to drive 1,900 miles from Ventura, California and it took us 8 days. Just to get to the START of the Alcan. We stayed at Northern Lights RV Park on the hill west of the town of Dawson Creek.
Day 1: Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson. 282 miles.
Stock up on provisions before leaving Dawson Creek; you won’t find another good market for several days.
Fill the tank, then drive your first 101 miles to the Esso at Wonowon, BC. Fill up again.
Drive 181 miles over easy hills and through forests on wide open highway to Fort Nelson. We chose the Triple G RV park for our overnight. The power grid ends at Fort Nelson.
Day 2: Fort Nelson to Coal River (or Watson Lake) 225 (or 319) miles
Fill up the tank and head uphill from Fort Nelson. You will be topping a high pass a couple of hours in; remember to engine brake – downshift to second gear – on the downgrades to save your brakes. This section takes awhile if you are towing a heavy rig; your speed will be down to 35 MPH on winding mountain roads.
At 118 miles stop at Toad River for fuel… and lunch if you want.
Drive another 107 miles to Coal River Lodge, Muncho Lake BC, a lonely outpost in the wilderness. Basic services are available including diesel fuel and at the restaurant inside, their signature buffalo burger at a ridiculous price (everything north of Dawson Creek will be expensive). There is a bare bones campground with 20-amp electricity and a laundromat – all run from a generator onsite.
We found friendly owners and had a great time at Coal River, but not everybody will like the spartan accommodations that haven’t been upgraded since the place was built in the 1940’s. If it is not to your liking, fuel up and head for the Downtown RV Park at Watson Lake another 101 miles.
Day 3: Coal River to White Horse, Yukon Territory. 359 miles
Fuel up. This is a more ambitious jaunt, with two stops. First drive 101 miles to Watson Lake (if you didn’t go there last night). Tour the Sign Forest in the middle of town and fuel up at the Tags station at the west end of town where there is a deli with deep fried delights and a little store. You will be criss-crossing the BC/YT border a couple of times today.
Drive on through the forests and hills to Teslin where you can fuel up again at the Yukon Motel & Restaurant (ATM) or Mesutlin Trading Post. Then on to White Horse and the Pioneer RV Park where you might get wifi.
If you have any mechanical issues, you might find help in White Horse.
Day 4: White Horse to White River. 249 miles
Fuel up and head west to Haines Junction. We experienced some awful roads and construction in this section, but maybe it is all fixed by now.
Fuel up again and continue to White River and the Yukon Lodgings Campground which is easy to miss on the left after a bend in the road in the middle of nowhere. There is no town (keep an eye on your mileage and watch for it). If you come out of the woods and cross a river and come to Beaver Creek, you just passed it; maybe just stay at Beaver Creek where there is a motel and an almost RV park. Basically a parking lot.
Day 5: White River YT to Delta Junction AK. 249 miles
Fuel up at Beaver Creek, then head across the U.S. border and at 142 miles stop at Tok. Fuel up at Chevron or Shell or Tesoro.
Head west to Delta Junction another 107 miles and maybe camp at the Alaska RV Ranch.
Congratulation! You have just completed the official Alaska Highway, approximately 1,365 miles!
However, you are still in the middle of nowhere. So…
Day 6: Delta Junction to Denali National Park. 244 miles (through Fairbanks AK)
If you go southwest through Anchorage, add another 100 or so miles.
At Fairbanks or Anchorage, stock up on provisions at the Fred Meyer store, because everything at Glitter Gulch (the tourist village a mile from the entrance of Denali National Park) will cost at least TWICE the price and many items will not be available at all!
Congrats again, and check this off your bucket list! You have covered the Alaska Highway – and beyond, a distance of 1,580 miles (by way of Fairbanks).
We stayed at Rainbow Village RV Park behind the row of log cabin shops on the east side of the highway in Glitter Gulch (affectionately called “the Canyon” by the locals). It is not actually an incorporated municipality so your map app won’t find it. Try searching for Healy, a small town north of the Canyon a few miles, or try Denali National Park; you’ll only be off by a mile.
We stayed about six weeks, hiking and biking around the area and venturing into Denali National Park for hiking and sightseeing. Then we took 11 days to make the return trip down to Lincoln Nebraska, then home to Michigan a few days later. We covered about 7,500 miles over all.
Now you only have to make it back down!
So are you going to do it?
I would love to know what you are thinking. Let me know in the comments below.
Disclaimer: Though I have done my best to update and verify this information since our own trip, things can change from season to season along the Alaska Highway. (We found that even the Mileposts resource was inaccurate at a couple of points.) You are responsible for your safety and accommodations on this road trip of a lifetime!
I have been active on YouTube for several years, posting an occasional rare video of my adventures, but until now I really haven’t developed that aspect of my travel expression. Last spring I started ramping up my documentation of my outdoor experiences on video and I am having a lot of fun with it. For one thing, video conveys a much richer dimension of my reality. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth ten thousand. You can hear my voice, see my mannerisms and get to know me a lot more than you could with a still photograph. It’s not always pretty, as I make a lot of mistakes and you get to see a much less polished “me”. It is more like a reality show, because you have to take the bad with the good. I can’t edit out my crooked teeth or my slow speech.
Anyway, the result is a richer expression of my travel experiences. I am able to share more about my adventures and throw in a bit of sage advice, some camping hacks that I have picked up along the way. And I am sharing my campfire cooking, something that is hard to do without video.
For a guy who has spent much of his life on one adventure after another, this could be a really long list. To narrow it down, I will post only my favorites…. and tell why they have special appeal to me. Since I am a quiet laid-back guy, most of these are away from the crowds and the noise of the popular parks and resorts.
Valley of the Gods, Utah.
The desert landscape is remarkable enough; it is an extension of the iconic Monument Valley Tribal Park a few miles away. But when the sun sets you discover you are in Dark Sky country. The Milky Way is dazzling above and hanging over the nearby cliffs.
My free campsite was just below a huge butte and there wasn’t a level spot to park, so I drove onto some rocks to level the camper for the night. Complete solitude. And almost unnerving silence.
Hole-In-The-Rock Road, Escalante, Utah
After spending a rainy afternoon at Devil’s Garden, I drove a couple of miles farther down the washboard road and found a flat spot on the open prairie across from Dinosaur Tracks road. This is boon docking – no facilities. No problem, I am self-contained with the truck camper. And all alone for the night.
Pacific Coast Highway, Seacliff, California
It is hard to find places where one can camp on the beach. Especially on the west coast. This park is two miles long and about 20 feet wide. Everybody gets a 40-foot-long space to park for the night and our rig fit exactly from bumper to bumper. You can walk the beach for miles. No hookups. Again, no problem.
Coal River Lodge, Coal River, Yukon Territory
I think this was one of the most remote campsites we ever stayed at on our epic trek along the Alaska Highway. At Milepost 533, Coal River is one of the original Roadhouses built to accommodate the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942-1943 and is beyond the reach of the electric grid. They were generating their own power while we were there. We had the campground to ourselves with hookups to water and electricity.
Denali Canyon “Glitter Gulch”, Parks Highway, Alaska
After driving up from southern California, we were fortunate to find a campsite at the Rainbow Village RV Park right behind the coffee shop where our daughter was working every summer. We stayed half the summer, biking the canyon and hiking the ridges and peaks surrounding the village. A highlight was backcountry hiking with two of my daughters inside Denali National Park.
Dauphin Island, Alabama
One winter we set out to camp only on islands where we could walk the beaches all winter long. Dauphin Island was our choice for the month of January and we were camped in the woods a short walk from the gulf beach and historic Fort Gaines.
South Manitou Island, Leland, Michigan
This is one of my favorite backpacking spots that’s not far from my home in Michigan. The island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and is run by the NPS. It is entirely covered with hardwood forests or perched sand dunes. The extensive network of hiking trails can thoroughly exhaust even the most hearty of souls. As a lifelong adventure sport director, I have been there several times with groups of kids.
The Cove, Samana, Dominican Republic
What I liked about our winter vacation rental on the beach was not the infinity pool or the air-conditioned condo, but the close interaction with the natives. Many resorts are isolated and walled away from the locals meaning you miss a lot of the indigenous flavor. Our beach was shared with the fishermen and their kids. We were able to walk to the local tienda for a cold Coke and provisions for cooking our own meals. Local shuttles would take us to the nearest village for a few cents.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse, Ludington, Michigan
The lighthouse is staffed by teams of volunteers who spend two weeks living in the original light keepers’ quarters and running the gift shop, museum and tower which is open for a fews hours every day. The rest of the time we are free to hike the dunes or splash in the refreshing waters of Lake Michigan.
Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin, Michigan
We used to live about an hour’s drive from this park so we got to know it pretty well. One of our favorite things was when we were lucky enough to get one of the campsites that are right on the shore with our rear bumper almost hanging over the beach. The water is shallow and stays warm in the fall so we would often wait till after Labor Day when the kids were back in school and there was plenty of elbow room in the park.
Sierra Madre Mountains Trek, Central Mexico
I usually avoid the resorts when I want an authentic experience and hiking in the mountains of Mexico is one I have been able to do several times. Usually I have been directing a group of youths on a cross-cultural experience. The organic nature of this kind of adventure means that we eat the local foods and use the local outhouses. – if there are outhouses. Fun!
Redwoods National Park, California
Okay, I have spent the night in at least 15 of the most amazing national parks. That could be a list all of its own. But the Redwoods were so remarkable I had to mention them. We pulled into a deserted county park in the redwood forest late at night and weaved our way between the giant trees that showed in the headlights. We found a spot to set up the tents and went to sleep. Climbing out of the tents in the morning, we were rendered speechless at the fantasy land that surrounded us. Nothing tops this. Huge!
Well, this listing is just a sampling of the wild places where I have stayed. It makes me sad to leave out a whole bunch of wonderful places. Maybe I should write a Part Two including Glacier National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the over-water bungalow in the Maldive Islands… and so on.
I would be interested in hearing about a wild place you have stayed in the comments below. Do tell!
Note: Header photo at the top is Butler Wash, Bluff, Utah, banked by cliffs on both sides and sheltering many ancient cliff dwellings nestled on the ledges and alcoves.
I have been skinny-dipping at night immersed in the glowing bioluminescence of an island lagoon in the Indian Ocean (Sorry, no photo). Green “sparks” darted in all directions when I splashed my arms in the warm tropical water.
I have crawled around in the “wild” (non-commercial) caves of Southern Indiana and played fluorescent frisbee in the Monument Room, a cavern the length of a football field and over a mile from the entrance of Buckners Cave.
I have been frightened by the steep descent on the edge of the cliffs after topping Summit Pass heading across the Yukon Territory on the Alaska Highway, my 3-1/2-ton RV pushing me toward the sharp turn and the cold lake below the drop-off at the bottom of the grade, second gear engine braking all the way. Whew!
I guess I am one of those restless people who can’t sit still for too long before needing a change of scenery. For most of my life I satisfied by wanderlust with summer camping trips and weekend getaways. Later, Kaye and I took to the road full-time.
My kids loved all that “variety” and became world travelers. And now my grandkids are getting a chance to experience the great wonders that our amazing world has to offer.
I hope you are following your dreams – and the open road, if that’s part of it for you.
Stuff comes with stress attached. The more stuff, the more stress. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the American Dream. Our garages and basements are full of stress, the overflow of our lives of excess.
But the antidote is fairly simple: Downsize. Reduce stress by reducing stuff.
When I was young and newly married and just starting my career, I didn’t even think about whether I might like my life to be any different than my friends. I just automatically started in on the dream, buying a large property and starting on a house that was way too big for two newlyweds. I struggled to keep up with it for most of my adult life while raising a family and starting several businesses.
Fortunately, Kaye and I were able to reverse the process later and achieve the freedom to travel and relax.
A few years ago, Denmark was named the happiest country in the world. Somebody asked why, and the researcher pointed to “low expectations” as the main reason. So when the American said, “maybe I should move to Denmark,” the Dane replied, “You probably wouldn’t like it.”
And there it is. Low expectations.
But that’s not how most Americans think. We are programmed by life and the ad agencies to believe that more happiness comes with more stuff. “Go Big or Go Home!”
I think a life of balance is the best. I don’t tell people to downsize to a point of feeling starved for comfort or convenience. The ideal is to get rid of the unnecessary – and the stress that goes with it – and be left with the basic essentials for a measured life that is fun and relatively hassle-free. In all things, moderation.
It may not be the American Way, but it could deliver greater contentment.
Just ask the Danes.
Anyway, you are never going to hit the road with all that stuff holding you back.
When I was 16 years old and expected to choose a direction for my life, I was a bit nervous about making a bad choice and ruining my life. By high school graduation day everyone is supposed to have made up their minds and be heading off to college, the military, or “entering the workforce” – which meant going and getting a job right away.
Young people are expected to make most of their epic life-directing decisions between 16 and 21 years old: Picking a career, choosing a life-mate, finding the right home, etc. It’s down-right frightening. No wonder many choose to put off those decisions as long as possible.
I chose to get a four-year education degree and headed off for college. Four years later, right on schedule, I married my college sweetheart and we both applied for teaching positions in her home town and were both hired on the spot.
I went into teaching not even knowing if I liked kids. Fortunately, my long-term worries – about going the wrong direction and ruining my life – were resolved: I loved my new career (Kaye says I am just a big kid anyway, so working with students was a lot like playing with my friends) and stuck with it for 27 years until I could take an early buy-out and switch careers.
That was when I started a log home construction company, hired a crew of carpenters, and started building log homes all around the state of Michigan. I was now self-employed and working with my hands as opposed to sitting in a classroom every weekday.
And the change was wonderful. I found that I loved the flexible schedule and working outdoors much of the time. I was the boss.
My approach to the journey of life has relaxed over time. Looking back, I realize that if during my first teaching assignment I had discovered that I hated working with children, my life would not have been ruined. I would have changed directions and tried something else.
And as a youth mentor for most of my adult life, I have often shared this sage advice: How will you really know who you are and what you like to do unless you try stuff out? If something doesn’t work for you, you simply chalk it up to experience, make a shift and head somewhere else.
Really, the biggest hindrance to this philosophy is when you become embedded in a job and a routine that you grow to hate and you are so much in debt that you can’t afford to make a change.
Okay, maybe your life is miserable for now, but you are not really stuck there. It may seem like it takes forever, but you can dig yourself out and move on.
When Kaye and I got the travel bug, we owned too much property and owed too much money to even consider a change. Debt is like a ball-and-chain that anchors you to one spot. But with careful and determined effort we were able to shed our burdens and free ourselves. We sold some acreage, put renters in the house and hit the road. Two years later we sold the place and went full time in the RV. Our former fetters shrank and vanished in the rearview mirror.
Then we applied the same principles to our gypsy life: How to decide where to go? Try stuff out. Don’t like the big cities? Take the backroads. Don’t like driving? Take the plane. Don’t like air travel? Take the train. Don’t like the over-populated RV parks? Try the state and national forest campgrounds. And so on and so on.
And finally, don’t like being away from the grandkids for so long? Head back home and park in their backyard!
And what’s the end product? In the middle of a lifetime of trying things out, you end up knowing what you like and mostly doing what you want. And that’s the best way to live.
One nice thing about the late summer and early fall is that summer vacation has ended and the kids are back in school so the parks are virtually empty and it’s easier to find a campsite. Traffic is thinning out at the popular attractions and the pace is relaxed.
The second blessing is that the lakes are still warm enough for a refreshing dip. The water of the Great Lakes cools down more slowly than the air temperature in the fall, so though the days are cool and comfortable and nights are getting chilly, the water is still enjoyable.
Here are some quiet spots where you will likely find the crowds thinning out after Labor Day.
There is a world-class Shipwreck Museum that’s part of the complex at Whitefish Point Lighthouse north of Paradise. The state forest campgrounds are still open into October, and there are abundant vacation rentals and cabins in the area.
Crisp Point Lighthouse
It’s best not to attempt the road to Crisp Point with a low-slung sedan. You’ll be bottoming out several times on the one-lane 19-mile logging road that is rough and sandy and takes an hour to drive one way.
Your reward for the tedious drive is a remote lighthouse on a mostly deserted stony beach. The site is tended by volunteers who stay in their campers next to the beach.
Au Sable Point Lighthouse
The trailhead to the isolated lighthouse is at the Hurricane River Campground that is part of the large Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The 1.5-mile hiking trail hugs the shore just above the rock ledges and stony beach. The road through the national lakeshore is nicely paved but winding, so your average speed will be about 35 mph getting there. Don’t rush.
AuTrain Bay, AuTrain
This tranquil shoreline is super easy to reach as highway 28 runs right along the lake here just a few miles west of the little village of Christmas. Pull off at one of the beautiful roadside parks where there are restrooms and running water.
The sandy beach is walkable for nearly a mile and the water is shallow enough for wading and swimming. Rocky outcroppings bookend the beach at both ends.
Scott Falls is visible from the highway, but pull into the roadside park at the east end of the bay for an easy walk across the road to this personable little falls where you can walk right up to it… or behind it. On a warm day it may seem to invite a shower, but you are in for a bit of a shock, as the water is not as warm as the lake.
This is a great time of year to explore the wilderness of northern Michigan, but the window of opportunity is short. By October 1st the lake will likely cool beyond the tolerable range and a tranquil dip in Lake Superior will be out of the question. Snow isn’t unheard of in this part of the world during the month of October, and the warm pasties will warm body and soul at the local restaurants in Munising.
Not everybody likes to be alone. Extroverts and socialites have a hard time understanding why anyone would go out of their way to be by themselves. But introverts and loners get it. Sometimes it requires solitude to refuel the emotional tank, and there is nothing lonely about it.
I have lived in urban locations where the only place I could be alone was sitting on the toilet. But that’s doesn’t satisfy if you are anxious in small spaces.
These are some locations where I have been able to find solitude outside of the bathroom. Some of these take a lot of effort to get to, while others just take some strategic planning and/or timing.
The Alaska Highway
Okay, this is a big challenge. You will have to block out a couple of weeks to make this drive… and that’s just one way. Double that if you are driving it both out and back.
The aloneness that I sensed in the middle of the Yukon was so intense that it made me nervous. Hundreds of miles to the nearest mechanic. But if you want to be alone, you will have your way out here. Sometimes, when I would pull back onto the highway after a fuel stop or overnight camp, I would look both directions for traffic and not see another vehicle. Not one, as far as the eye could see.
I think your solitude quota will be satisfied easily while you travel the Alaska Highway.
For more on the Alaska Highway, read my related post here.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
This is a popular northwest lower Michigan destination for families with kids. Try hiking, beach combing, dunes climbing, and a 27-mile-long bike path that runs through deep forests and dunes.
You will be with crowds at the popular Dune Climb and the Scenic Drive which lands you at the top of the dunes 400 feet overlooking Lake Michigan. What a view!
But there is a solitary spot at the top of Sleeping Bear Point, although at sunset there will be a few folks who will trek out to see the million dollar sunset over Lake Michigan. From Glen Haven, take the blacktop road west to the end and then drive down the gravel lane to the trailhead parking lot where there are restrooms. You might want flip flops for about a hundred yards until you reach the foot of the dunes, then go barefoot.
The national lakeshore also includes two large islands, South Manitou Island (seen in the distance in the photo above) and North Manitou Island that have many miles of deserted beaches and unspoiled forests. Take the boat from Leland, Michigan; advance reservations are necessary.
The Channel Islands, California
Call ahead or go online for reservations on the passenger ferry from Ventura Harbor, Ventura. You may be accompanied by dolphins on the cruise over. Cool.
Once you disembark there will be a short orientation talk from the ranger, then you are free to wander about the island without distraction from crowds of hikers. The trails on the high cliffs are impressive and the drop-offs intimidating, so mind the edge.
Valley of the Gods, Utah
During the day, an occasional SUV will pass by as you settle in at your free campsite in the desert just about 30 miles from the famous Monument Valley Tribal Park where there are bus loads of visitors swarming the overlooks. At Valley of the Gods, you will be alone most of the time and at night the quiet and solitude can be almost unnerving.
Once the sun sets over the cliffs nearby, the wind will completely stop – along with that awful moaning sound in the top of the butte that towers over the campsite – and you’ll be in the dark. If you ever wanted to film the Milky Way above, this will be the spot without any interfering light from the nearest city over a hundred miles away.
Bryce Canyon National Park
This one calls for some strategy. Bryce is second only to Zion National Park for the number of visitors in the desert southwest. That means you’ll have to find the more remote hiking trails to find solitude.
Or go at night. This was my strategy when I was looking for those trails with the tunnels cut through the rock; I was looking for a certain photo setting, sort of an Indiana Jones theme.
The Queen’s Garden Trail was busy with hikers as I headed down off the rim into the canyon in the late afternoon, but as dusk fell they disappeared. I was totally alone for my evening photo shoot… and for the entire climb back to the rim after dark.
The White Rim Road, Utah
Again, Canyonlands National Park is heavily visited, though not quite as much as Arches National Park nearby. But there are hiking trails off the rim that are only sparsely traveled.
And if you drive below the rim, you will find even more isolation. The park service puts a quota on the number of visitors on the White Rim Trail, so you will have to plan ahead. You can make campsite reservations as much as 4 months in advance on their website.
Be advised, this drive is not for the faint of heart. The drop-offs are hundreds of feet. A Jeep or SUV with four-wheel-drive will work the best and they can be rented by the day from the outfitters in Moab nearby.
If you really want to be alone, take the Potash Road from Moab and, once you leave the pavement onto the gravel, you will be able to get to the White Rim without meeting another vehicle. Stop anywhere along the way for a solitary view of the Colorado River a thousand feet below or the massive cliffs and dry creek beds through which you will be driving. (See my 11-minute scary video of the White Rim Road here.)
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Again, this is a hikers’ mecca and the trails that skirt the cliffs 200 feet above Lake Superior will be busy with adventurers.
But, if you drive east from the town of Munising along the shoreline, you will find the less traveled county road H-58 that wanders through the forests above the lake connecting scenic overlooks with rustic campgrounds. Hike to Au Sable Point Lighthouse and see a scant few other wanderers, and linger at Sable Falls on your way to a campsite at the little village of Grand Marais or one of several national forest campgrounds that are carved out of the deep woods.
So, there are lots of locations where one can be alone, but sometimes they are difficult to find. These are just a few of the sites I have found… and now you know about them too.
The American Dream isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. A house with a two-car garage and a nice yard in the suburbs is not what everybody wants. In middle class America sometimes it is assumed that we will raise our kids to go to the right school to get the right degree to land the right job, find the right spouse, and raise the right family – who will do it all over again.
That’s fine if it is what you want, but very often middle-agers wake up one morning and discover they are tired of working the job, tired of paying the mortgage, and tired of weeding and feeding and mowing those relentless lawns.
They suddenly realize that maybe they are living somebody else’s dream.
I think the best case scenario is when young people don’t assume that life has to be lived in a certain way – before they rack up all that college debt, mortgage debt and credit card debt that seems to go with the status quo.
If you like what you are doing, it is more like play than like work. You can work 9 to 5 and love it and go home at the end of the day refreshed.
But if you have become weary of the rat race, maybe it is time to look for a change.
I loved my first 20 years of school teaching. But after that, it started to get old. I had a different roster of students every year, but the same age-appropriate behaviors. My school board offered an early buy-out for experienced (top of the pay scale) teachers, and I went for it.
It was actually too early for me to retire, and I had always wanted to work more with my hands; I took the chance to start a log home construction company that employed a mobile crew of carpenters who built new log homes all over the state of Michigan. I had a wonderful crew of workers, and I loved getting up every morning and going to work.
I had my second wind and was living my second dream for the next 8 years.
Then the housing market in Michigan collapsed and there wasn’t any more work. I had to lay off the crew.
Okay then, my next dream had been to operate a business in barn recycling and again I went for it. I rented a huge forklift and dismantled unwanted barns, hiring a couple of helpers to de-nail and sort the materials. I sold a lot of the boards, and constructed furniture from the vintage material to sell on the side. I even constructed several rustic log cabins that I sold online and shipped across the country.
I was having fun again.
Then we got the epic idea to sell our property and hit the road full-time in a 29-foot RV. Oh, the places we went! Surf this blog and you will see an amazing variety of places we experienced over several years.
But after a while, we found the downside of that too. We missed the kids and the grandkids when we were down south for those long winters.
And now we are pursuing the next wild dream. We have bought a historical house, a fixer-upper in the city and started ripping down old wallpaper and plaster.
I think we all wise up as we get older. Well, most of us do. We develop a philosophy of life as we go. And I guess this post is about ideology as much as it’s about a timeline of my life.
As much as it is possible, I think we should seek to do the things we enjoy. Somebody said to use your resources to buy experiences, not just stuff.
If the old job has become monotonous, maybe we should change directions. It is not always easy, and it doesn’t always happen right away. When I wanted to get out of teaching, I started to work toward getting my builder’s license three years before the next retirement buy-out was offered by my school district allowing me to retire and start collecting a pension.
If change is not possible, I would look for ways to adapt my lifestyle to make it more enjoyable. It’s calling living for the weekend, and millions live life this way, but it is better than hating every day of your existence.
A final word: Sometimes the things we enjoy are not obvious. We have to try things out in order to discover our passion. It can take years, it can take decades to find the fun. Shoot, it can take a lifetime of happily skipping from one thing to the next.
This too: Sometimes the passion will change. Some things just run their course. When a door closes, be a good finisher… and move on.
And then you can be off to try out the next new thing.
Life can be an amazing journey even when you are stationary for long periods of time. Some folks are happy to put down roots in one place and never be curious about the distant horizon. Adventure seems frightening and inconvenient. As Bilbo Baggins says in Lord of the Rings, “We have no use for adventures – nasty disturbing uncomfortable things; make you late for dinner.”
And that’s fine. If you don’t have a desire to see the world, don’t let me or anyone else prod you into far-flung unpleasantries.
But then there are people like me.
Though I lived for 43 years in one secluded rural retreat, my routine was punctuated by adventure. Whether heading up north to camp in the woods, down south to crawl around in the caves, out west to hike in the mountains, or over the ocean to an island hideaway, I couldn’t sit still for long.
So the last few years Kaye and I have been pioneering with an RV, living on the road, always peering around the next bend to get a glimpse of what we haven’t seen before. And it has been fun.
But right now, my travel quotient is satisfied. I am ready for a break. We have visited 49 of 50 states and are not making plans to visit Hawaii. At least not for now and maybe never.
But I think I am ready for a different kind of adventure.
While taking a breather from travel and staying in a small apartment for the past several months, we have plugged into the local scene and gone after other stuff that we like to do. We didn’t get enough of hosting foreign exchange students in our home when our kids were in high school years ago, so we have had a lingering desire to work with international students again.
We started volunteering at the local campus of the University of Michigan and helping internationals to improve their conversational English and learn more of American culture.
And we really came alive.
When we discovered that a historical house was on the market only a 10-minute walk from the campus, we jumped (carefully) at the chance to buy it, and today we signed the papers.
We are going to stay put for awhile and pursue our own brand of urban homesteading. Pioneering without wheels, as it were.
Our “new” house is 117 years old and already set up for urban homesteading in the inner city. There are rain barrels at the four corner downspouts, raspberries along the fence, an herb garden where the front lawn used to be. The climbing roses have been growing on the front fence since the 1920’s. There is a storeroom in the cellar for stockpiling canned goods and drinking water. Cool.
For a long time I have wanted to experiment with solar power; this house has a southern exposure that will accommodate my future solar panels. We might start composting too, just like my grandmother did back in the day, feeding those tomatoes that will grow in containers along the back wall.
It seems that urban homesteading is essentially a return to the way our ancestors lived a hundred years ago but updated with a lot of modern technology.
Owning property again – on a much smaller scale than before – does not mean we won’t travel anymore. We still have the fifth wheel so when the travel bug bites we can answer the call of the wild.
Stay tuned for reports on our latest pioneering adventure, a trip back in time, as it were, in the historical district of Flint, Michigan, in the center of the university neighborhood. Just around the corner is the Durant-Dort Office building where General Motors Corp (GMC) was founded in 1908!
It looks as though what’s next for us going forward, is a trip backward in time!
There are many ways to approach the journey of life and we have explored a bunch of them. This is about the different beaches where we have lived for a time.
One of Kaye’s favorite activities in the whole world is beach walking. I love sitting and soaking up the sun and synthesizing vitamin D. So beaches work for both of us.
It seems that the ultimate destination in the Caribbean is the beach and we have had the experience of enjoying many of them, mostly in the Dominican Republic, one of our favorite island winter respites.
Playa Rincón, Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic.
Because of it’s remoteness, this beach is still largely undeveloped. It is possible to be alone and unbothered. We first visited this beach in 1990, camping in a tent in the coconut grove. Our last visit there -via a rented quad runner – was in the winter of 2016 and it was still unspoiled and beautiful.
La Playita, Las Galeras, Dominican Republic.
The Little Beach offers snorkeling on the reef just offshore, and there is a beach restaurant and masseuse on hand. It was a 15-minute walk from our last vacation rental in the little fishing village.
Las Galeras Municipal Beach, Las Galeras, Dominican Republic
A short walk from our vacation rental, the “town beach” offered beach bars and “tipico” restaurants and shuttle boats to other beaches nearby.
The Cove, Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic
This beach is smack in front of the resort by the same name and is shared with the local fishermen who store their boats on shore every night. The local kids love to get attention from the tourists and will put on a show whenever there is a camera around. We stayed here for the winter of 2013.
West Coast Beaches
Santa Barbara Beach, California.
This large beach is nicely maintained by the city of Santa Barbara. There is a bike path, volleyball courts, an art show every Sunday, and a wharf with restaurants on stilts. We visited several times when we were doing the work-camping thing at nearby Fillmore, California, in the winter and spring of 2014.
While in California for the winter, we also explored Mugu Point Beach and had lunch at the famous beach diner, Neptune’s Net pictured in movies and TV shows.
We also enjoyed camping at the beach at the linear park at Seacliff where the beach was walkable for miles. Boon docking at its best (no hookups).
The Gulf Coast and East Coast
Dauphin Island Beach, Dauphin Island, Alabama
In the winter of 2015 we set out to spend the entire winter on island beaches. Dauphin Island was our home for January where the beaches are white sand. They are walkable for many miles.
St. Augustine Beach, St. Augustine, Florida
We spent the month of February in this historical town where driving on the beach is permitted. Bonus!
Emerald Isle Beach, Emerald Isle, North Carolina
In March, our RV site was a short dune walk from this beautiful white sand beach.
The Great Lakes
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, Michigan
Being Michiganders most of our lives, this is probably one of our most frequent beach destinations. Of course, Lake Michigan is too cold for swimming except in the late summer and early fall.
Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin, Michigan.
The closest beach to our house for over 40 years, this beach and several others along the east shore of Michigan were our favorite sun-and-sand destinations in the summertime.
So this is a sampling of the many beaches where we have spent some time.
This is the first in the Life’s A Trip series featuring different ways we are approaching this journey of life.
Life’s a journey – whether you are on the road to adventure or parked in one spot for a while. There are many different stops along the way.
This is about the places we have discovered while venturing around the U.S. in a four-wheel-drive pickup truck for the last couple of years.
We had lived in the same place for over 40 years when we looked around one day and saw that our kids were grown up and moved away and exploring distant horizons. We looked at each other and decided we could do that too. Selling the 30-acre homestead, we downsized our stuff, upgraded the RV and took off. We spread a map on the kitchen table, closed our eyes and jabbed a finger at… Alaska. (It wasn’t quite that random; we had a daughter living and working in Alaska every summer and had been wanting to go there for a long time.)
Summer was months away, so I got a work-camp assignment at an old campground in Fillmore California for the winter and spring.
Michigan to California
We had family nearby at Santa Barbara and accompanied them to the beaches and eateries in the area.
California to Alaska
Summer came and leaving our work-camp assignment, we headed north up the Pacific Coast Highway toward the Canadian border.
We drove 1900 miles before reaching the beginning of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
After 15 days of driving we arrived at Denali Park where our daughter was working and living for the summer. We stayed through the middle of the summer.
Our trek back to Michigan in the late summer took 11 days returning over the same mountain passes and open prairie.
Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico.
After spending the late summer and fall in Michigan, we set our sights on the south, again hoping to escape the harsh northern winter. Leaving at the end of December, we arrived in Memphis on New Years Eve for dinner and a party at B.B. King’s Blues Club.
The local Mardi Gras parade marched right by our campground. We also visited New Orleans on a day trip.
Alabama to Florida
I was delighted to arrive in St. Augustine, Florida and discover that driving on the beach is a thing there, four-wheel-drive required.
At low tide the beach is 100 yards wide and allows plenty of room for drivers, bikers, and walkers.
Up the East Coast
In the spring, we wandered up the east coast through Georgia and South Carolina, staying for a month at Emerald Isle, North Carolina, then stopping for a few days in Virginia from where we made day trips to Washington D.C. visiting the major sites by means of the double-decker bus.
Arriving back in Michigan, we spent the summer at a campground with a bike trail and a small lake.
At the end of the year, we parked the rig for a while and flew to the tropics for the winter. That’s another story.
In the spring we decided to take a break from the gypsy life for a while. We moved into a small apartment in a small town in Michigan.
West again to Utah – the Pickup Camper
We were enjoying staying put for a while, but for some time I had been planning a return to the southwest for a photo shoot in the canyons of Utah. Rather than haul the RV, I switched to a pickup camper that was just big enough for one person.
These are isolated locations where lone wolf campers can be alone and most of these sites are free. All of these are legal camping sites.
First, a reminder that boondocking is rustic camping without hookups. Some of these sites don’t even have a toilet, so you have to be comfortable with alternatives. Fortunately for me, I was hauling a pickup camper which was entirely self-contained and I could store my compost in a holding tank until reaching a dump site.
Pleasant Creek National Forest Campground
The first of the rustic campsites on my recent photography trip to the American Southwest was at a deserted forest campground along highway 12 in the mountains between Capitol Reef National Park and Escalante, Utah. At about 7000 feet elevation, this spot was a cool island of pine and poplar woods surrounded by lower deserts of bare rock.
The campground had pit toilets and delicious well water. All alone for the night, my campsite cost $6 which is half the usual rate because of my senior pass which also gets me into all national parks for free.
There were two other national forest campgrounds within a half mile and there were a couple of campers there for the night. This was in September.
Hole-In-The-Rock Road, Escalante, Utah
After exploring the intriguing rock formations at Devil’s Garden off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, I found an isolated pull-off a couple of miles south and west across from the access track to the dinosaur tracks site (I didn’t cross the dry wash into dinosaur tracks because the steep sideways slope threatened to roll my camper over).
This spot was essentially nothing more than a level field where I could pull off the road. The sound of the light rain on the roof of the camper during the night lulled me to sleep.
Paria Contact Station
East of Kanab, Utah, there is a ranger station with some helpful volunteers on staff. After driving through heavy rain coming down from Escalante all day, I was leery of crossing the gully at Buckskin Wash even with four wheel drive. I figured a flashflood was coming that could prevent me from returning to the highway for several days. Their solution for me was a gravel pit on the top of the mountain behind the station. I had a free campsite with no neighbors.
The next morning I looked down on a raging Paria River rushing at 30 miles an hour. I decided to change my itinerary and stay out of the slot canyons where the water level rose from ankle deep to 30 feet deep overnight. Deadly!
Valley of the Gods
This was my favorite campsite for pure desert grandeur. I chose a spot at the foot of a huge stone butte where I could see for twenty miles toward the distant towers of Monument Valley. The camping is free for a limit of 14 days at each spot.
One word of caution here. If you approach Valley of the Gods from the south off highway 163 you can reach the campsites with a medium-sized motor home or trailer. If you come in from the west on 261 as I did, you will cross no less than 20 dry washes with steep grades that will test the fortitude of your four wheel drive rig. Don’t take your 40-foot coach in here from either direction.
Five miles west of Bluff, Utah, on highway 163, open the cattle gate and drive through, then close it behind you. You are on Butler Wash Road at the south end of a broad valley flanked by rocky cliffs on both sides. Among those cliffs there are many hidden Navajo cliff dwellings. Camping is free at any of the side tracks on this 25-mile long four wheel drive road. Yes, again, you must not take a long wheel-base vehicle in here; you’ll get hung up in a step ravine trying to climb out the other side.
You are sure to be alone with only the night wind to keep you company. (Read about my adventure at Pedestal Rock Ruin here.)
A few miles northwest of the town of Moab, Utah, on highway 191 there is a privately owned parking lot with nicely leveled gravel lots and porta-johns. There are no other perks except its strategic location near the entrances of Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. I found it almost impossible to get a campsite at the national parks so this little spot was a real blessing to me and I stayed several consecutive nights paying the measly $5 per night. What a great staging area for rafting the Colorado River, dirt biking the slick rock at Behind the Rocks, or four wheeling the epic off-road challenges around the area. Moab has provisions of all kinds. You can even rent a Jeep or ORV there.
These are a few of the great boondocking campsites of southern Utah. I passed up many others. Much of the desert southwest is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) where free – or almost free – camping is permitted with only a few restrictions.
Read about my adventure near 7-Mile Parking on the White Rim Road:
Canyonlands National Park is a vast area of bare rock cliffs, mesas, and canyons. It is trisected by the Colorado and the Green Rivers which divide it into the three districts, the Needles, the Maze, and Island in the Sky. Most tourists only visit the highest area, Island in the Sky, which is a huge flat-topped mesa surrounded on three sides by the canyons. The Needles is reached via a single rugged road, and The Maze is entirely deserted but for a few adventurers coming down the river on rubber rafts or an occasional fly-over by a sightseeing airplane.
The defining theme of Canyonlands is the grand vistas available from theedges. The road on Island in the Sky provides easy access to the edge of the cliff that offers such expansive views that they are almost incomprehensible. The hiking trails are likewise perched on edges.
I was glad to be without small children when I was at Canyonlands because there are unguarded drop-offs everywhere.
In my experience, there seems to be a psychological connection between risk and adventure: The greater the perceived risk, the greater the sense of adventure. Because of this phenomenon, I would call Canyonlands a high-adventure location. There is an abundant risk factor because of the abundance of edges. The drives and the hikes all require frequent encounters with the edge.
After exploring Island in the Sky, adventurers who can afford the time and want to multiply their sense of adventure will likely drop down off the edge via the Shafer Trail and explore the White Rim Plateau 1200 feet below.
The White Rim Road is another level of high risk and delivers correspondingly high adventure. It follows the edge of the Colorado River canyon for 100 miles of rough one-lane rocky off-roading fun. (See my scary YouTube video of a 3-mile stretch of the road at the bottom.)
My drive on a section of the White Rim Road was a bucket list experience never to be forgotten. Those with a fear of heights will be ill-advised to attempt either the Shafer Trail or the White Rim Road.
Visitors with Jeeps and high-clearance SUV’s will have the easiest time at Canyonlands National Park. Despite the huge expanses of geography, the parking lots on Island in the Sky are small, and below the rim the turns are too tight for the big rigs. If you want to get off the high mesa and explore the more challenging areas below, it’s best to leave the RV in the town of Moab and rent a Jeep.
Otherwise, there will be chaos in the chasm.
Beyond the Jeep trails, there are multiple adventures for river rafters, hikers and mountain bikers.