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.