Tag Archives: American

12 Wild Places Where I Have Spent the Night… in no particular order

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.

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Bob V.O.G. Milky Way corner fix 2

 

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.

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On a rainy day at Devil’s Garden near Escalante, Utah, I was glad not to be camping in a tent.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The RV was nestled snugly behind the row of log cabin tourist shops, a great base of operations.

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Wendi could write her own story about “wild” places she has stayed the night.  She spent 12 summers in a row in this dry cabin near Denali.

 

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.

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The beaches along the Gulf are white sand.  Dolphins cavort just offshore.

Dauphin Island campsite

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Fort Gaines surrendered to the Union Navy during the Civil War.

 

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.

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Hobo dinners are wrapped in foil and cooked directly on the campfire.  No pans, no grill, no problem.

 

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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.

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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.

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Volunteers take turns preparing meals for each other in the old kitchen.  Also the best place to get wifi.

 

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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

4 Cliff Dwellings that Put Me on the Edge

This is the 5th in a series on the Southwest.   Find the others in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this post.

Sometimes I can’t believe how I get into such scary spots…  and then I remember exactly how it happens: I am always looking for the obscure sites where there is nobody else around. I don’t like crowds, but for a photographer, they usually come with the job.

Not so with the obscure Navajo ruins of the southwest.  Three of these four sites are not even on a map; I found them through some meandering research, and some of them I had completely to myself.  Now that’s what I’m talking about.

There is a reason why the hundreds of ancient ruins are not publicized and it has to do with preservation.  Heavy traffic can destroy irreplaceable artifacts in a short time.  Most of these locations are protected by conservation laws, but that doesn’t stop some folks from picking up a curious arrowhead here or a stone tool there…  and soon there is no way for archaeologists to piece together the true history of the place when they eventually get to study the site.  Obscurity is their best protection.

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Looks like the Himalayas, doesn’t it? But it’s not Tibet; it’s here in southern Utah.

Pedestal Rock Ruin

I don’t think there is anything to worry about when it comes to the long-term preservation of this amazing location.  Not only is it difficult to reach by road,  it is perched on a high ledge that can’t be reached without risk to life and limb.  It’s just not worth taking the chance.

Further, though it is in plain sight, it blends in with the background cliff so well that it is all but impossible to spot without knowing where to look.

Can you spot the ruin? It is in plain sight near the middle of the photo.
Can you spot the ruin? It is in plain sight near the middle of the photo.  This was my first view of the site as I approached on foot following a sketchy path that ended at the foot of the cliff.
Honestly, the natives must have had their kids on tethers all the time to keep from losing them over the edge.
Honestly, the natives must have had their kids on tethers all the time to keep from losing them over the edge.

When I finally reached Pedestal Rock after several miles of off-roading  (yes, four-wheel-drive was absolutely necessary) and a hike on foot across the desert,  I still had to scramble 150 feet up a loose talus slope to get within 100 feet – and still 30 feet below the ledge – to photograph the stone ruin.  No way was I climbing any farther!

What a fantastic view those guys had from 200 feet above the valley!
What a fantastic view those guys had from their stone house 200 feet above the valley!

Nobody is going to bother Pedestal Rock ruin for a long time.  It’s a thousand years old now and will continue to last undisturbed until…  well, a major earthquake or something.

I spent the night at the end of the road near the cliffs.
I spent the night at the end of the road near the cliffs.

Seventeen-Room Ruin

This site was another well camouflaged structure.  I drove right up to it on a ranch access road and when I got out of my truck I still couldn’t see it.  It’s perfect blend with the huge alcove in which it sits also made it hard to photograph.

A gigantic alcove shelters the ruin on a semi-circular ledge that follows the contour of the formation.
A gigantic overhang shelters the ruin on a semi-circular ledge that follows the contour of the alcove.

Again, I was in for a challenging climb on a boulder-strewn slope.  Man, these guys knew how to pick their sites to ward off attackers!

This ruin commands a splendid view of the San Juan river valley. Yes, that's my pickup below.
This ruin commands a splendid view of the San Juan River valley. Yes, that’s my pickup below.

Many of these ruins were abandoned 700 years ago, but they date back to hundreds of years before that.  Just think, Columbus hadn’t even arrived yet in North America by the time these installations were vacated.  Historians say they moved southeast to more fertile locations, but I think it was because somebody had to carry water and firewood up that slope everyday and they just got tired of it.

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Set way back in the alcove, this structure will never be eroded by rain and snow.

False Kiva

My hike to False Kiva and back had me focused intently on my own survival.  The site is located in a high alcove overlooking the expansive views of Canyonlands National Park but it requires a sketchy climb across the face of a loose rocky slope on a rather obscure pathway where one wrong move can mean a disastrous tumble and certain death.  The drop to the Green River is over 2000 feet!

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The trail crosses the face of the loose slope with a sheer drop into the canyon below.

Long before I reached the ancient site, I was dizzy with vertigo.  Finally, the enormous alcove offered a secure place to rest…  and grab the photos for which I had just risked by life.  Wow!  What a view!

The setting sun had already dropped below the nearby cliff by the time I reached the old ruin.
The setting sun had already dropped below the nearby cliff by the time I reached the ancient ruin.

I still had to climb back out of here.  My original plan to stay for some night sky shots now seemed rather foolhardy and an invitation to trouble on the dangerous slope after dark.  A quick change of plans had me gulping Gatorade and trail mix and resting for a few minutes before initiating an immediate return to the canyon rim before darkness would set in.

Hovenweap National Monument

This place is actually on the map and gets a light flow of visitors even though it is a long way from anywhere.  It’s location near the Four Corners area makes it accessible on mostly nice paved roads, but it is still not really on the way to anywhere.  There is a rustic campground where I stayed the night.

Though you have to be a bit intentional about getting here, at least you will not be challenged by strenuous climbs.  The only real danger is that, just like every other ancient Anasazi installation, the buildings are perched on the edges of drop-offs.  Make the kids hold your hand.

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Some of these remarkable buildings are three and four stories high and really impressive.  The stonework is nothing short of amazing.

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Every building is contoured to the ledge that it sits on.  And apparently, the rock didn’t need to be level to be a desirable construction site.  It just had to be on a dangerous edge.  Amazing.

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Anyway, it was a relief for me to be able to wander around pretty much on the level and wonder about the way of life that the ancients experienced.  How deep must have been their fear of their adversaries to feel they had to protect themselves by building and  living their lives on the edge every day.

My visit to four ancient sites afforded only a brief glimpse of the historical installations.  There are hundreds of them, and I was amazed that most of them sit unprotected on their original ledges with nary a visit from anybody.  Hopefully, they stay that way, because they are a real treasure to all of us, not only to the native descendants.

I came away from all of my cliff dwelling adventures without a scratch, just some achy leg muscles from all the scrambling up and down steep rock-strewn slopes.  For that I am really thankful.

And I had fun.

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Read Episode #1: Bryce Canyon

Read Episode #2: Capitol Reef

Read episode #3: Monument Valley

Read Episode #4: Valley of the Gods

Thanks for reading!

Valley of the Gods – the Other Monument Valley

This is the 4th in the series on the American Southwest.  There are links to the others at the bottom… or click on the others in the left side bar.

There are no buses or safari trucks hauling tourists to this remote spot.  In fact, if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, you might not make it here yourself.  The road is gravel and sand and if you are coming in from the west, it crosses no less than 20 dry washes.  You descend steeply, cross the stream bed, and then climb just as quickly out the other side.  If it’s raining, forget about it.  Crossing streams here can get you stuck for hours or days – if you aren’t washed away entirely.

What this lack of accessibility adds up to is a lot of solitude…  in the middle of a magnificent valley filled with rugged silent beauty.  It is often described as a slightly less spectacular version of Monument Valley which is within sight, a few miles to the southwest.  To me, it looks as though the two are just part of one larger geological area, with the San Jaun River gorge cutting across the middle.

The road wanders among huge buttes and cliffs and crossed arroyos.
The road wanders among huge buttes and cliffs and crosses many arroyos.

The camping is free here, and that is one thing that attracted me to the spot; I saw it as an affordable overnight alternative to the expensive campgrounds and dude ranches that service Monument Valley.  Of course, boon docking is for those who are self-sufficient.  There are no restrooms or water pumps here; you are entirely on your own.

Camper heads into Valley of the Gods

I had checked off a mental inventory of my provisions before turning off the highway just north of Mexican Hat, having already filled the fuel tank and eating a hearty fast food meal at Kayenta, Arizona earlier in the day.

This spot will certainly be ranked in my top ten of my favorite campsite of all time.
This spot will certainly be ranked in the top ten of my favorite campsites of all time.

The campsite I chose was at the valley’s northernmost point at the foot of a giant butte and across from its twin.  There were cliffs both east and west of me and a view to the southwest that stretched almost to infinity where I could see the hazy buttes of Monument Valley in the distance.

I parked the camper at the foot of a massive monolith.
I parked the camper at the foot of a massive tower.
Looking west and southwest from my campsite.
Looking west from my campsite. There’s the road I came in on.
Looking east from my campsite.
Looking east from my campsite.

There is no restriction on hiking and exploring here, so I scrambled around for a while with the camera, just enjoying the sights.

The expansive view toward the southwest from my campsite.
The expansive view toward the southwest from my campsite.

Of course, boon docking means there are no improvements to the campsites; there are no RV pads or leveled platforms.  I soon realized that my site was sloping a bit and decided to make my own improvements – by backing the truck onto some slabs of rock for the night.  Perfect.

Leveling the site

After the sun went down, I became slowly aware of another spectacular scene:  the Milky Way was brilliant in the dark sky above me.  After all, the nearest town was 20 miles away and the nearest city was more than 100 miles south.  Out came the camera and tripod for a few time exposures of the starry sky.

I made a fake campfire of battery-operated mini-tealights and sat as still as I could for 25 seconds to get this shot.
I made a fake campfire of battery-operated mini-tealights and sat as still as I could for 25 seconds to get this shot.  Campfires are not permitted at this location.

Though there had been a few tourists driving by in rented SUV’s during the day, the place became extremely quiet after dark, almost too quiet.  There was not another soul nearby… or was there?
A light wind was causing a moaning in the highest crags of the stone tower near me. It seemed a little bit spooky, and I started wondering how this desolate place first got its name.  Did the natives name it?  Had they been conjuring spirits out here in the past?  Were there still manifestations that were floating about in the dark?

Were the Ancient Ones standing nearby watching me?
As the darkness deepened, were the Ancient Ones standing nearby watching me?

Climbing into the comfort of my camper loft, my weariness caught up with my consciousness and put me under a blanket of sleep.  There were no nightmares.  Just peace and quiet.

I loved Valley of the Gods and if I ever return, I hope to stay longer.

It’s a lot of fun if you like traipsing about in the desert among the most fascinating of rock formations.  Or if you just like quiet solitude.  Beautiful.

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Read Part 1:  Bryce Canyon is Hoodoo Central

Read Part 2:  Capitol Reef – I Think We’re Alone Now

Read Part 3:  Two (fake) Cowboys Meet in Monument Valley