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.
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.
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.
I met a Star Wars stormtrooper while hiking in Arches National Park. He was posing for his young son who was shooting photos under a rock formation that looks strangely like Darth Vader. They had driven over from Colorado to get that photo (above).
That says a lot about the bizarre magnetism that Arches exerts on artists and adventurers – not just from the next state, but from all around the world. There were buses full of tourists and hikers who were anxious to experience the otherworldly landscape that is reminiscent of the desert planet Tatooine in the Star Wars movies (those scenes were actually filmed in Tunisia).
My encounter with the movie character did not actually surprise me in the least as I rounded a bend in the trail on the back side of the North and South Windows. I had actually searched for an affordable costume on Amazon when I was planning my expedition; I could easily visualize a Star Wars character in this setting with no real stretch of the imagination. The most authentic costumes were quite expensive and I ultimately built my own cowboy and Indian costumes instead, which also fit the desert theme.
A rock shaped like Darth Vader is only the beginning when one continues to explore the geological wonderland that is Arches. The park sits on the huge seismic Moab Fault, but it must not have been active for a very long time or hundreds of these fragile formations would have collapsed by now.
I can only imagine how drastically the landscape will change if ever this region is jarred by a major earthquake. The park holds more than 2000 arches and as many balanced rocks and in fact, a few of them collapse without provocation every year.
One of the most frail spans, Landscape Arch is longer than a football field but only 11 feet thick at its thinnest point. Hikers are not permitted beneath the arch since a 70-foot-long slab fell from it a few years ago. I noticed an awed hush among the hikers near the span, as though the slightest noise would produce a vibration that would end the structure.
Of course, the signature formation in Arches is the aptly named Delicate Arch, so famous a landmark that it appears on the Utah license plates. It is as ironic as it is iconic, as the hike is all uphill and steep, making this famous place almost out of reach to the general population.
I found the view quite worth the hike. This was one of two sunset hikes for me inside the park. South Window, where I met the stormtrooper, was the other where I returned for nighttime photography.
While hiking back to the trailhead with a stormtrooper and his son, I was also scouting the landscape for some night sky photography and I was pretty sure I had found the best spot at South Window. I checked the compass on my iPhone to discover that its orientation situated it crosswise to the Milky Way, which would be perfect for my picture, but of course, I wouldn’t know for sure until the sun went down. Grabbing some supper in the camper, I then hiked back to the spot around behind the formation before sunset and waited for dark.
I had talked to other photographers at the trailhead and they were headed for Turret Arch and Double Arch, but when I reached my spot on the backside of South Window, I was all alone.
And I was not disappointed.
As the light faded, the Milky Way slowly came into view – exactly where I had predicted. I set up the tripod, got the camera automatically doing its thing and then climbed up into the huge rocks to “paint” the arch with some warm light from an old dive light I had saved from my scuba diving years. It had a soft diffused beam that would work better than a focused flashlight.
There is something truly awesome about being alone in the desert at night adding my own touch of artistry to the cosmic canvas.
For me Arches National Park lived up to its reputation as a land of intrigue and unforgettable experiences. High hikes to fantastic panoramas, encounters with other enthusiastic hikers along the trails, and a dark night under the stars — after an encounter with a Star Wars impersonator — all added up to an epic life experience.
This is the 6th in a series on my Southwestern Photo Safari.
I didn’t really know what I was in for when I planned my route across southern Utah. I actually thought I had prepared pretty well, but the maps don’t even come close to conveying the extremes of these roads that cut through deep canyons and alternately wind across high ridges with drop-offs on both sides. I watched lots of YouTube videos of other travelers’ adventures and still wasn’t able to grasp the scope of what lay ahead of me.
It’s probably a good thing, or I might have lost my nerve. As it turned out, it seemed that my itinerary alternated between scary drives one day and scary hikes the next.
This is about three of the most adventurous drives I encountered on my photo safari to southern Utah.
The Hogback on Highway 12
I ended up driving this road twice since my side trip to Capitol Reef National Park was an out-and-back overnight trip from Escalante rather than a loop route.
Highway 12 east of the town of Escalante is a study in extremes. Much of the route east and then north to Torrey is across bare stone landscape called slick rock. It’s not actually slippery, since it is sandstone; its surface is more like sand paper.
The route drops down into the canyon to cross the Escalante river and then climbs as quickly up the other side to traverse the Hogback where the drop-off is 600 feet on both sides of the road!
There are a couple of turn-outs where I was able to stop for some photos and video, but most of the high section is narrow and winding with no shoulders or guardrails. It’s not for the faint of heart.
(My video gives a much better idea of what the Hogback is really like; I have posted the link to it at the bottom of the post.)
The Shafer Trail
This is one of the most extreme roads in America, and should not be attempted by anybody with acrophobia – a true fear of heights. Mostly Jeeps and SUV’s travel the gravel road because the hairpin turns are tight and will not accommodate long vehicles. Would-be adventurers with trailers and motorhomes should absolutely stay away. Just park your RV in Moab, rent a Jeep from one of several outfitters, then head out here for the drive of your life!
The Shafer Trail connects the Island In the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park with the White Rim plateau as it drops more than 1000 feet in about 2 miles of steep switchbacks and hairpin turns.
Of course, there is no room for guardrails on these steep cliffs and shoulders are non-existent. One wrong move and it’s a tremendous tumble to the pearly gates!
(Go to my 26-second video of this road at the bottom of the page.)
The White Rim Road
This tortuous trail follows a 100-mile-long route through the Canyonlands National Park on what could be considered the middle level of the park, as it were. The lower level would be the Colorado and Green Rivers, and the top level would be the high mesa called Island in the Sky. Most tourists only get to visit the upper level, but they are able to peer down 2200 feet into the canyons on three sides of Island in the Sky.
The White Rim Road requires high clearance and four wheel drive. Unless you are peddling it; mountain bikers take 4 to 5 days to travel the route, camping in campgrounds at night. Jeepsters usually take 2 days or more to cover the 100-mile loop because they are in low gear much of the time, only barely staying ahead of the bikers.
My day-trip on the White Rim was an out-and-back from Moab, Utah, via Potash Road as an alternative to the Shafer Trail. I only ventured about 25 miles out as far as Musselman Arch, and then back, and it took all day because of the grueling conditions. Stones, gravel, bare rock, steep grades up and down, dry and wet creek beds; at one point I drove up a dry wash for some distance, secure in the knowledge that no rain was in the forecast and no flash flood would be forthcoming.
The views from the edge of the Rim are absolutely incredible! The road travels on the cusp of the drop-off for several miles in some places. Of course, the road is only one lane, which means when you meet another vehicle, somebody has to back up to the last turn-out so they can pass each other. That encounter happened to me three times on a particularly dangerous stretch on the ledge!
Most adventurers take the 100-mile loop and only have to drive it once, but since my trip was an out-and-back, I got to see it twice. That meant twice the white-knuckle fun on the White Rim Road.
On one of the most scary mountain sections, I stuck a video camera to my windsheild with a suction cup mount and captured 11-1/2 minutes of stomach-churning adventure. I have posted the clip on YouTube so the whole world can view it.
I finally made it back to Moab by nightfall and drove straight to the car wash to reward my truck for its faithful performance on the awful trail, then I headed across the street to the Moab Brewery to reward myself for my awesome off-road driving on America’s second most radical road.
If you ever plan to drive this challenging road, I suggest you view this video so you will know what you are in for. Full screen mode will give you the greatest gasp-per-mile factor (bottom of the list below).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
Some of these remarkable buildings are three and four stories high and really impressive. The stonework is nothing short of amazing.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
There is no restriction on hiking and exploring here, so I scrambled around for a while with the camera, just enjoying the sights.
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.
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.
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?
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.
This is the third in a series of posts from my photo safari to the American Southwest. Look for links to the others at the bottom.
Since I am the most frequent subject in my own photos, I often dress to fit the setting. For the southwest trip I bought a plaid shirt – red of course – and a cowboy hat and stepped into the picture at just about every site.
At Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park there is already a resident cowboy who poses on his horse for the tourists, making a few dollars in tips from each one. Being photo savvy, he wears a red shirt too. I don’t know this Navajo’s name but we spoke briefly at John Ford Point, the little mesa made famous by the namesake film director who first filmed John Wayne at the site for the movie Stagecoach in 1939. It has since been featured in a variety of flicks including The Searchers (1956), Easy Rider (1969) and others.
My tour of the dusty 17-mile valley loop took me past other popular scenes like the Totem Poles, West Mitten, East Mitten, and Merrick Butte.
Though there are lots of safari trucks and outfitters who offer tours through the famous valley, I like that it is still open to general visitors to drive and explore. However, hiking is not allowed in most areas and there are warnings about leaving the road, so it is closely controlled. You can get ticketed for wandering off… if anybody can find you.
My final signature site was Mile 13 on the north side of the valley where highway 163 makes a straight shot north out of the park. It’s the spot where Forrest Gump finally stopped running in the movie of the same name. The day I was there, the highway was being repaved.
Monument Valley is a long way from the nearest expressway and farther from a city, but if you go, you can get fuel and provisions at the Shell station in Mexican Hat coming in from the north or at Kayenta (AZ) to the south where there are several gas stations and even some fast-food joints.
Also, if you are boondocking, the camping is free at Valley of the Gods just 25 miles northeast (my next post will cover this remote location). No facilities.
You’re sure to have a monumental experience! And have fun.
Also, click the green Follow button in the left side bar if you want to get a notice of my next post. You won’t want to miss my final post in the series, Four Mountain Roads that Scared the Snot Out of Me!
This is the first in a series of posts from my photo safari to the American Southwest. Look for links to the others at the bottom.
I doubt if there is another place in the world with as many hoodoos as Bryce Canyon National Park. Red rocks, pink rocks, yellow rocks, white and orange rocks, a panorama of this landscape is a mind-boggling blast of color. It’s almost too much to comprehend from the canyon overview.
Fortunately, you can get right into this scene and touch and feel these fantastic natural features, because there is a network of hiking trails that takes you right into the heart of it.
I chose the Queen’s Garden trail first because I knew there were tunnels and I wanted to photograph them at dusk. Great fun.
Of course, every trail ends with a strenuous climb back to the canyon rim. Whoa. And at 8,000 feet elevation, the unseasoned hiker will be gasping for air before making it back to the top.
Rather than doing an out-and-back, I connected to the Navajo trail which is the most traveled pathway in the park. But after dark, I was the only one out there. Hah! those busloads of tourists were nowhere to be seen.
Photography was my first priority on my wandering tour of the southwest, but hiking was essential to get to the scenes I wanted to shoot. Queen’s Garden trail was a great way for me to get into the guts of Bryce Canyon and capture the essence of this gorgeous geological site.
Photographers often say it is all about the light. One of my favorite phenomena about the light at Bryce is that it bounces and reflects all over the place, making the rocks look as though they are glowing from within, creating a rather neon effect.
So this is the thing about Hoodoo Central. Make sure you get below the rim and into the heart of place. Feet on trail, firsthand experience, here we come.
And take lots of pictures. It is a one-of-a-kind place in all the world.
I once wrote about the different modes of travel that we have employed at various times in our lives, from tent camping throughout the family years, to the 29-foot fifth wheel that we have lived in for the last few years, touring the country from one end to the other.
We “parked it” a few months ago, moving into a small apartment so we could have a home base again for a while not far from our grandkids. We need some family time.
And now we have purchased a used pickup camper so that I could try some solo adventures — sort of a mobile bachelor pad, if you will. My first safari is to the American Southwest canyon lands and arches of southern Utah on an extended desert photo shoot. Kaye needs a break from the wandering life for a little while, so I am doing this one alone.
The pickup camper, sometimes called a slide-in, is the smallest version of the self-contained RV. It has a tiny kitchen, bathroom, living room/dinette, and bedroom. It is a tiny house on wheels.
One of the advantages of the pickup camper is that because of its size, it can go anywhere that a pickup truck can go. Not only is driving easier, fuel stops and restaurant visits are streamlined because the rig only takes one normal size parking space. There are a lot of places that the larger fifth wheel simply can’t go because of its size. Tight turns and low canopies are the dread of every big rig owner and driver.
Boondocking is easier with the pickup camper as well, because you can head out on the back roads and two-tracks where the larger rig would be dragging its tail. You can reach remote destinations.
Bad weather is not such a spoiler with a hard top camper either. I have had many uncomfortable experiences while tent camping when the rain set in and I had to break camp with a wet tent and sand that stuck to everything. More than once I forgot to air out the tent after arriving home and found it moldy the next time I wanted to use it.
Another big plus for the pickup camper is that it is not one more set of wheels to be maintained. It does not add another engine and tranny to the fleet.
Of course, there is a trade-off with everything, and with the pickup camper it is the limited space inside. It is not so well suited for the family as it is the solo traveler or couple.
Pickup campers were invented in the 1940’s and I am sure the most famous one was Rocinante, the camper that John Steinbeck had custom built for the cross-county trip that he wrote about in his novel, Travels with Charley.
Watch for reports on my Southwestern Safari starting soon. I’ll let you know how pickup camping is working for me.
Milepost: 5-11-16 — Just moved into a small apartment
For many years it seemed like this day would never come — the day that we would be free to wander around the country in an RV and a pickup truck and choose our next destination with a random finger stab at the map lying in our laps. But the day did come, not by accident but by sheer determination and hard work. There were hard choices.
Six years ago we were living on a retired 30-acre Christmas tree farm with too much mowing to do… and a mortgage we could no longer afford. Our kids had all grown up and left our spacious rural estate and our large house, and our nearest grandchild now lived 80 miles away.
We had become weary of the upkeep on so much property and wanted to see the world — and our grandkids. But we couldn’t afford it. I had been running a full crew with my log home construction company when the housing bust arrived in Michigan — two years before the recession. It was 2006 and nobody else wanted a log home. Even the log home dealers were closing one by one — the people who had been referring their buyers to us to build their homes. I had to lay off the crew.
Our financial plan for retirement crashed and burned.
We had arrived at retirement age still owing a mortgage. Reality was brutal: We could afford to own and maintain this property OR we could afford to travel. But not both. We had to choose one or the other.
It looked as though our businesses had run their courses and we wouldn’t be needing so much space and so many resources — tools, machinery, etc. and the kids weren’t coming home to visit but once or twice a year. We were ready to downsize.
And so we did.
We spent the next few years cleaning out sheds and closets and selling stuff or giving it away. We put the property up for sale. But we were in the middle of the recession and nothing happened. Finally, a neighbor showed up at our door asking if we would sell him 10 acres. We did, and then used the money to buy a used RV. We put the rest of our stuff in storage, put renters in the big house, and we hit the road.
And the next year, while we were wandering around Alaska with our rig, the rest of our property sold. Our once impossible dream was becoming our new reality.
Over the last couple of years, we have explored three corners of our country, from Florida to California to Alaska and a thousand points in between, and have moved offshore for a couple of winters living in the tropics in vacation rentals.
New England (the fourth corner of our country) will have to wait for us, because we have decided to take a vacation from traveling (that sounds odd, maybe?) and move into a small apartment for a while.
And we can finally afford to do BOTH. We can have a Michigan home base again AND continue to travel. Our new apartment is only 13 miles from our kids and grandkids, and the rent is less than half of what our old mortgage was!
Somebody else mows the lawns, shovels the walks, and repairs the leaks… while I head down the rail trail with my bike or visit the local farm market or ice cream shop (One of the bike paths here ends at the local Dairy Queen).
If I have one regret, it is that we didn’t start downsizing sooner. Fortunately, Kaye and I are still physically fit and able to pursue our travel goals, and we really do appreciate and take advantage of our good fortune. Lots of folks run out of good health before they ever get to realize their dreams.
Anyway, I was doing a bit of reminiscing today and thinking about how far we have come in the face of a lot of challenges, and decided to write about it here. I am so happy that our present circumstance is so far different than where we were just a few years ago.
If you, my reader, find yourself in a similar almost impossible scenario, take heart; there is much that can happen to improve your outlook and bring your dreams within reach.
I suspect that your journey will begin with some difficult decisions and will be followed by a lot of hard work. That’s okay, isn’t it?
The struggle makes the reward all the more satisfying.
On the other hand, if you are in upsizing mode right now, it might be smart for you to stop and think about what you really want in 10 years or 20 years from now. Maybe you should quit bringing more stuff into your garage and basement and attic. It might turn into a ball and chain later and keep you planted at a time when you want to be free.
Milepost 2-26-16 -at a vacation rental in the Dominican Republic
“Introvert, Know Thyself”. This is my most recent note-to-self. I am experiencing a bit of emotional discomfort in my current setting, and I’m realizing that I over-estimated my ability to find solitude in a highly social culture. For an introvert like me, solitude is essential to a balanced life and healthy emotional equilibrium.
Everybody is different, and it would be easy to assume that the majority of travelers and adventurers are extroverts, loving the excitement and the challenges of far-away places and exotic cultures. I don’t know if that is the case, and I am not about to launch a study to find out.
What I do know is what an introvert like me needs when it comes to adventure – and life in general:
I can enjoy crowds and parties and parades and other highly social settings, but only for a short time, and those experiences need to be followed by a season of hibernation, of being alone so that I can refuel my emotional tank.
On the other hand, if I am inactive for very long, I will get restless and need to get outside and satisfy my adventure quotient.
The best balance of these two factors – of solitude and adventure – is to find adventures in sparsely populated locations. Or to follow my crowded adventures with solo adventures in solitary places.
I don’t like cold weather for very long. I can handle Michigan through Christmas every year with just the right allocation of snow and brisk clear air, but after that, the winter is far too long. This is a third factor that complicates my search for the right balance. There aren’t that many southern destinations that offer solitude. RV parks are notorious for noise and overcrowding. For the solitary soul, they are tolerable when and if there are quiet areas nearby.
Where I ran into trouble this winter was that I chose a tropical setting in the middle of a highly social open-air culture for too long a period of time. 10 weeks of noise, bustling streets, merengue music blasting until after midnight every night… well, I just can’t seem to get away from it long enough to refill my emotional tank. Of course, even the beaches are crowded with bodies this time of year.
I find myself avoiding the interaction with the locals that I love so much – for short periods. I just want to stay home and be alone.
Fortunately, Kaye and I are very much alike in most of these ways, only she likes the northern winters and doesn’t need as much adventure as I do.
We solve this by scheduling what we call Bob-alone times. I can head off on a solo adventure, thus satisfying my appetite for adventure, while both of us get to refresh by being alone for a while.
Most of my solo adventures are short, lasting only a few hours. A bike ride down the nearest rail trail works just fine, and I don’t have to talk to anyone along the way, simply nodding to other cyclists that I meet on the trail. I do this several times a week during the fair weather seasons.
Longer alone times usually involve a tent, a sleeping bag and a cooler full of goodies… and my camera, of course. Last summer, I celebrated my birthday by heading up north to the woods with my bike to pedal for miles on end at a beautiful paved bike trail through the woods and dunes of the national lakeshore in northern Michigan. I camped at a state forest campground by a quiet stream where there was hardly anyone else around. Ah, solitary bliss.
I always feel that when I am alone with myself… I am in good company. If you are an introvert, you likely know what I am saying.
Anyway, I am sharing this side of myself for the benefit of other would-be adventures who may not entirely understand what happens to them when they feel stressed while living in a foreign culture for an extended period of time. Maybe you are an introvert. Maybe you need to study yourself a bit more and find ways to hibernate from time to time for the sake of your own well-being… and the well-being of those who are traveling with you.
I really do write notes-to-myself that I refer to before scheduling the next outing. It is good to know yourself. The thing is, you can’t always know how you will feel or react in a given situation until you try it out.