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.
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:
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.