I have been active on YouTube for several years, posting an occasional rare video of my adventures, but until now I really haven’t developed that aspect of my travel expression. Last spring I started ramping up my documentation of my outdoor experiences on video and I am having a lot of fun with it. For one thing, video conveys a much richer dimension of my reality. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth ten thousand. You can hear my voice, see my mannerisms and get to know me a lot more than you could with a still photograph. It’s not always pretty, as I make a lot of mistakes and you get to see a much less polished “me”. It is more like a reality show, because you have to take the bad with the good. I can’t edit out my crooked teeth or my slow speech.
Anyway, the result is a richer expression of my travel experiences. I am able to share more about my adventures and throw in a bit of sage advice, some camping hacks that I have picked up along the way. And I am sharing my campfire cooking, something that is hard to do without video.
For a guy who has spent much of his life on one adventure after another, this could be a really long list. To narrow it down, I will post only my favorites…. and tell why they have special appeal to me. Since I am a quiet laid-back guy, most of these are away from the crowds and the noise of the popular parks and resorts.
Valley of the Gods, Utah.
The desert landscape is remarkable enough; it is an extension of the iconic Monument Valley Tribal Park a few miles away. But when the sun sets you discover you are in Dark Sky country. The Milky Way is dazzling above and hanging over the nearby cliffs.
My free campsite was just below a huge butte and there wasn’t a level spot to park, so I drove onto some rocks to level the camper for the night. Complete solitude. And almost unnerving silence.
Hole-In-The-Rock Road, Escalante, Utah
After spending a rainy afternoon at Devil’s Garden, I drove a couple of miles farther down the washboard road and found a flat spot on the open prairie across from Dinosaur Tracks road. This is boon docking – no facilities. No problem, I am self-contained with the truck camper. And all alone for the night.
Pacific Coast Highway, Seacliff, California
It is hard to find places where one can camp on the beach. Especially on the west coast. This park is two miles long and about 20 feet wide. Everybody gets a 40-foot-long space to park for the night and our rig fit exactly from bumper to bumper. You can walk the beach for miles. No hookups. Again, no problem.
Coal River Lodge, Coal River, Yukon Territory
I think this was one of the most remote campsites we ever stayed at on our epic trek along the Alaska Highway. At Milepost 533, Coal River is one of the original Roadhouses built to accommodate the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942-1943 and is beyond the reach of the electric grid. They were generating their own power while we were there. We had the campground to ourselves with hookups to water and electricity.
Denali Canyon “Glitter Gulch”, Parks Highway, Alaska
After driving up from southern California, we were fortunate to find a campsite at the Rainbow Village RV Park right behind the coffee shop where our daughter was working every summer. We stayed half the summer, biking the canyon and hiking the ridges and peaks surrounding the village. A highlight was backcountry hiking with two of my daughters inside Denali National Park.
Dauphin Island, Alabama
One winter we set out to camp only on islands where we could walk the beaches all winter long. Dauphin Island was our choice for the month of January and we were camped in the woods a short walk from the gulf beach and historic Fort Gaines.
South Manitou Island, Leland, Michigan
This is one of my favorite backpacking spots that’s not far from my home in Michigan. The island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and is run by the NPS. It is entirely covered with hardwood forests or perched sand dunes. The extensive network of hiking trails can thoroughly exhaust even the most hearty of souls. As a lifelong adventure sport director, I have been there several times with groups of kids.
The Cove, Samana, Dominican Republic
What I liked about our winter vacation rental on the beach was not the infinity pool or the air-conditioned condo, but the close interaction with the natives. Many resorts are isolated and walled away from the locals meaning you miss a lot of the indigenous flavor. Our beach was shared with the fishermen and their kids. We were able to walk to the local tienda for a cold Coke and provisions for cooking our own meals. Local shuttles would take us to the nearest village for a few cents.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse, Ludington, Michigan
The lighthouse is staffed by teams of volunteers who spend two weeks living in the original light keepers’ quarters and running the gift shop, museum and tower which is open for a fews hours every day. The rest of the time we are free to hike the dunes or splash in the refreshing waters of Lake Michigan.
Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin, Michigan
We used to live about an hour’s drive from this park so we got to know it pretty well. One of our favorite things was when we were lucky enough to get one of the campsites that are right on the shore with our rear bumper almost hanging over the beach. The water is shallow and stays warm in the fall so we would often wait till after Labor Day when the kids were back in school and there was plenty of elbow room in the park.
Sierra Madre Mountains Trek, Central Mexico
I usually avoid the resorts when I want an authentic experience and hiking in the mountains of Mexico is one I have been able to do several times. Usually I have been directing a group of youths on a cross-cultural experience. The organic nature of this kind of adventure means that we eat the local foods and use the local outhouses. – if there are outhouses. Fun!
Redwoods National Park, California
Okay, I have spent the night in at least 15 of the most amazing national parks. That could be a list all of its own. But the Redwoods were so remarkable I had to mention them. We pulled into a deserted county park in the redwood forest late at night and weaved our way between the giant trees that showed in the headlights. We found a spot to set up the tents and went to sleep. Climbing out of the tents in the morning, we were rendered speechless at the fantasy land that surrounded us. Nothing tops this. Huge!
Well, this listing is just a sampling of the wild places where I have stayed. It makes me sad to leave out a whole bunch of wonderful places. Maybe I should write a Part Two including Glacier National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the over-water bungalow in the Maldive Islands… and so on.
I would be interested in hearing about a wild place you have stayed in the comments below. Do tell!
Note: Header photo at the top is Butler Wash, Bluff, Utah, banked by cliffs on both sides and sheltering many ancient cliff dwellings nestled on the ledges and alcoves.
Stuff comes with stress attached. The more stuff, the more stress. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the American Dream. Our garages and basements are full of stress, the overflow of our lives of excess.
But the antidote is fairly simple: Downsize. Reduce stress by reducing stuff.
When I was young and newly married and just starting my career, I didn’t even think about whether I might like my life to be any different than my friends. I just automatically started in on the dream, buying a large property and starting on a house that was way too big for two newlyweds. I struggled to keep up with it for most of my adult life while raising a family and starting several businesses.
Fortunately, Kaye and I were able to reverse the process later and achieve the freedom to travel and relax.
A few years ago, Denmark was named the happiest country in the world. Somebody asked why, and the researcher pointed to “low expectations” as the main reason. So when the American said, “maybe I should move to Denmark,” the Dane replied, “You probably wouldn’t like it.”
And there it is. Low expectations.
But that’s not how most Americans think. We are programmed by life and the ad agencies to believe that more happiness comes with more stuff. “Go Big or Go Home!”
I think a life of balance is the best. I don’t tell people to downsize to a point of feeling starved for comfort or convenience. The ideal is to get rid of the unnecessary – and the stress that goes with it – and be left with the basic essentials for a measured life that is fun and relatively hassle-free. In all things, moderation.
It may not be the American Way, but it could deliver greater contentment.
Just ask the Danes.
Anyway, you are never going to hit the road with all that stuff holding you back.
The American Dream isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. A house with a two-car garage and a nice yard in the suburbs is not what everybody wants. In middle class America sometimes it is assumed that we will raise our kids to go to the right school to get the right degree to land the right job, find the right spouse, and raise the right family – who will do it all over again.
That’s fine if it is what you want, but very often middle-agers wake up one morning and discover they are tired of working the job, tired of paying the mortgage, and tired of weeding and feeding and mowing those relentless lawns.
They suddenly realize that maybe they are living somebody else’s dream.
I think the best case scenario is when young people don’t assume that life has to be lived in a certain way – before they rack up all that college debt, mortgage debt and credit card debt that seems to go with the status quo.
If you like what you are doing, it is more like play than like work. You can work 9 to 5 and love it and go home at the end of the day refreshed.
But if you have become weary of the rat race, maybe it is time to look for a change.
I loved my first 20 years of school teaching. But after that, it started to get old. I had a different roster of students every year, but the same age-appropriate behaviors. My school board offered an early buy-out for experienced (top of the pay scale) teachers, and I went for it.
It was actually too early for me to retire, and I had always wanted to work more with my hands; I took the chance to start a log home construction company that employed a mobile crew of carpenters who built new log homes all over the state of Michigan. I had a wonderful crew of workers, and I loved getting up every morning and going to work.
I had my second wind and was living my second dream for the next 8 years.
Then the housing market in Michigan collapsed and there wasn’t any more work. I had to lay off the crew.
Okay then, my next dream had been to operate a business in barn recycling and again I went for it. I rented a huge forklift and dismantled unwanted barns, hiring a couple of helpers to de-nail and sort the materials. I sold a lot of the boards, and constructed furniture from the vintage material to sell on the side. I even constructed several rustic log cabins that I sold online and shipped across the country.
I was having fun again.
Then we got the epic idea to sell our property and hit the road full-time in a 29-foot RV. Oh, the places we went! Surf this blog and you will see an amazing variety of places we experienced over several years.
But after a while, we found the downside of that too. We missed the kids and the grandkids when we were down south for those long winters.
And now we are pursuing the next wild dream. We have bought a historical house, a fixer-upper in the city and started ripping down old wallpaper and plaster.
I think we all wise up as we get older. Well, most of us do. We develop a philosophy of life as we go. And I guess this post is about ideology as much as it’s about a timeline of my life.
As much as it is possible, I think we should seek to do the things we enjoy. Somebody said to use your resources to buy experiences, not just stuff.
If the old job has become monotonous, maybe we should change directions. It is not always easy, and it doesn’t always happen right away. When I wanted to get out of teaching, I started to work toward getting my builder’s license three years before the next retirement buy-out was offered by my school district allowing me to retire and start collecting a pension.
If change is not possible, I would look for ways to adapt my lifestyle to make it more enjoyable. It’s calling living for the weekend, and millions live life this way, but it is better than hating every day of your existence.
A final word: Sometimes the things we enjoy are not obvious. We have to try things out in order to discover our passion. It can take years, it can take decades to find the fun. Shoot, it can take a lifetime of happily skipping from one thing to the next.
This too: Sometimes the passion will change. Some things just run their course. When a door closes, be a good finisher… and move on.
And then you can be off to try out the next new thing.
Life can be an amazing journey even when you are stationary for long periods of time. Some folks are happy to put down roots in one place and never be curious about the distant horizon. Adventure seems frightening and inconvenient. As Bilbo Baggins says in Lord of the Rings, “We have no use for adventures – nasty disturbing uncomfortable things; make you late for dinner.”
And that’s fine. If you don’t have a desire to see the world, don’t let me or anyone else prod you into far-flung unpleasantries.
But then there are people like me.
Though I lived for 43 years in one secluded rural retreat, my routine was punctuated by adventure. Whether heading up north to camp in the woods, down south to crawl around in the caves, out west to hike in the mountains, or over the ocean to an island hideaway, I couldn’t sit still for long.
So the last few years Kaye and I have been pioneering with an RV, living on the road, always peering around the next bend to get a glimpse of what we haven’t seen before. And it has been fun.
But right now, my travel quotient is satisfied. I am ready for a break. We have visited 49 of 50 states and are not making plans to visit Hawaii. At least not for now and maybe never.
But I think I am ready for a different kind of adventure.
While taking a breather from travel and staying in a small apartment for the past several months, we have plugged into the local scene and gone after other stuff that we like to do. We didn’t get enough of hosting foreign exchange students in our home when our kids were in high school years ago, so we have had a lingering desire to work with international students again.
We started volunteering at the local campus of the University of Michigan and helping internationals to improve their conversational English and learn more of American culture.
And we really came alive.
When we discovered that a historical house was on the market only a 10-minute walk from the campus, we jumped (carefully) at the chance to buy it, and today we signed the papers.
We are going to stay put for awhile and pursue our own brand of urban homesteading. Pioneering without wheels, as it were.
Our “new” house is 117 years old and already set up for urban homesteading in the inner city. There are rain barrels at the four corner downspouts, raspberries along the fence, an herb garden where the front lawn used to be. The climbing roses have been growing on the front fence since the 1920’s. There is a storeroom in the cellar for stockpiling canned goods and drinking water. Cool.
For a long time I have wanted to experiment with solar power; this house has a southern exposure that will accommodate my future solar panels. We might start composting too, just like my grandmother did back in the day, feeding those tomatoes that will grow in containers along the back wall.
It seems that urban homesteading is essentially a return to the way our ancestors lived a hundred years ago but updated with a lot of modern technology.
Owning property again – on a much smaller scale than before – does not mean we won’t travel anymore. We still have the fifth wheel so when the travel bug bites we can answer the call of the wild.
Stay tuned for reports on our latest pioneering adventure, a trip back in time, as it were, in the historical district of Flint, Michigan, in the center of the university neighborhood. Just around the corner is the Durant-Dort Office building where General Motors Corp (GMC) was founded in 1908!
It looks as though what’s next for us going forward, is a trip backward in time!
There are many ways to approach the journey of life and we have explored a bunch of them. This is about the different beaches where we have lived for a time.
One of Kaye’s favorite activities in the whole world is beach walking. I love sitting and soaking up the sun and synthesizing vitamin D. So beaches work for both of us.
It seems that the ultimate destination in the Caribbean is the beach and we have had the experience of enjoying many of them, mostly in the Dominican Republic, one of our favorite island winter respites.
Playa Rincón, Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic.
Because of it’s remoteness, this beach is still largely undeveloped. It is possible to be alone and unbothered. We first visited this beach in 1990, camping in a tent in the coconut grove. Our last visit there -via a rented quad runner – was in the winter of 2016 and it was still unspoiled and beautiful.
La Playita, Las Galeras, Dominican Republic.
The Little Beach offers snorkeling on the reef just offshore, and there is a beach restaurant and masseuse on hand. It was a 15-minute walk from our last vacation rental in the little fishing village.
Las Galeras Municipal Beach, Las Galeras, Dominican Republic
A short walk from our vacation rental, the “town beach” offered beach bars and “tipico” restaurants and shuttle boats to other beaches nearby.
The Cove, Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic
This beach is smack in front of the resort by the same name and is shared with the local fishermen who store their boats on shore every night. The local kids love to get attention from the tourists and will put on a show whenever there is a camera around. We stayed here for the winter of 2013.
West Coast Beaches
Santa Barbara Beach, California.
This large beach is nicely maintained by the city of Santa Barbara. There is a bike path, volleyball courts, an art show every Sunday, and a wharf with restaurants on stilts. We visited several times when we were doing the work-camping thing at nearby Fillmore, California, in the winter and spring of 2014.
While in California for the winter, we also explored Mugu Point Beach and had lunch at the famous beach diner, Neptune’s Net pictured in movies and TV shows.
We also enjoyed camping at the beach at the linear park at Seacliff where the beach was walkable for miles. Boon docking at its best (no hookups).
The Gulf Coast and East Coast
Dauphin Island Beach, Dauphin Island, Alabama
In the winter of 2015 we set out to spend the entire winter on island beaches. Dauphin Island was our home for January where the beaches are white sand. They are walkable for many miles.
St. Augustine Beach, St. Augustine, Florida
We spent the month of February in this historical town where driving on the beach is permitted. Bonus!
Emerald Isle Beach, Emerald Isle, North Carolina
In March, our RV site was a short dune walk from this beautiful white sand beach.
The Great Lakes
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, Michigan
Being Michiganders most of our lives, this is probably one of our most frequent beach destinations. Of course, Lake Michigan is too cold for swimming except in the late summer and early fall.
Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin, Michigan.
The closest beach to our house for over 40 years, this beach and several others along the east shore of Michigan were our favorite sun-and-sand destinations in the summertime.
So this is a sampling of the many beaches where we have spent some time.
This is the first in the Life’s A Trip series featuring different ways we are approaching this journey of life.
Life’s a journey – whether you are on the road to adventure or parked in one spot for a while. There are many different stops along the way.
This is about the places we have discovered while venturing around the U.S. in a four-wheel-drive pickup truck for the last couple of years.
We had lived in the same place for over 40 years when we looked around one day and saw that our kids were grown up and moved away and exploring distant horizons. We looked at each other and decided we could do that too. Selling the 30-acre homestead, we downsized our stuff, upgraded the RV and took off. We spread a map on the kitchen table, closed our eyes and jabbed a finger at… Alaska. (It wasn’t quite that random; we had a daughter living and working in Alaska every summer and had been wanting to go there for a long time.)
Summer was months away, so I got a work-camp assignment at an old campground in Fillmore California for the winter and spring.
Michigan to California
We had family nearby at Santa Barbara and accompanied them to the beaches and eateries in the area.
California to Alaska
Summer came and leaving our work-camp assignment, we headed north up the Pacific Coast Highway toward the Canadian border.
We drove 1900 miles before reaching the beginning of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
After 15 days of driving we arrived at Denali Park where our daughter was working and living for the summer. We stayed through the middle of the summer.
Our trek back to Michigan in the late summer took 11 days returning over the same mountain passes and open prairie.
Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico.
After spending the late summer and fall in Michigan, we set our sights on the south, again hoping to escape the harsh northern winter. Leaving at the end of December, we arrived in Memphis on New Years Eve for dinner and a party at B.B. King’s Blues Club.
The local Mardi Gras parade marched right by our campground. We also visited New Orleans on a day trip.
Alabama to Florida
I was delighted to arrive in St. Augustine, Florida and discover that driving on the beach is a thing there, four-wheel-drive required.
At low tide the beach is 100 yards wide and allows plenty of room for drivers, bikers, and walkers.
Up the East Coast
In the spring, we wandered up the east coast through Georgia and South Carolina, staying for a month at Emerald Isle, North Carolina, then stopping for a few days in Virginia from where we made day trips to Washington D.C. visiting the major sites by means of the double-decker bus.
Arriving back in Michigan, we spent the summer at a campground with a bike trail and a small lake.
At the end of the year, we parked the rig for a while and flew to the tropics for the winter. That’s another story.
In the spring we decided to take a break from the gypsy life for a while. We moved into a small apartment in a small town in Michigan.
West again to Utah – the Pickup Camper
We were enjoying staying put for a while, but for some time I had been planning a return to the southwest for a photo shoot in the canyons of Utah. Rather than haul the RV, I switched to a pickup camper that was just big enough for one person.
These are isolated locations where lone wolf campers can be alone and most of these sites are free. All of these are legal camping sites.
First, a reminder that boondocking is rustic camping without hookups. Some of these sites don’t even have a toilet, so you have to be comfortable with alternatives. Fortunately for me, I was hauling a pickup camper which was entirely self-contained and I could store my compost in a holding tank until reaching a dump site.
Pleasant Creek National Forest Campground
The first of the rustic campsites on my recent photography trip to the American Southwest was at a deserted forest campground along highway 12 in the mountains between Capitol Reef National Park and Escalante, Utah. At about 7000 feet elevation, this spot was a cool island of pine and poplar woods surrounded by lower deserts of bare rock.
The campground had pit toilets and delicious well water. All alone for the night, my campsite cost $6 which is half the usual rate because of my senior pass which also gets me into all national parks for free.
There were two other national forest campgrounds within a half mile and there were a couple of campers there for the night. This was in September.
Hole-In-The-Rock Road, Escalante, Utah
After exploring the intriguing rock formations at Devil’s Garden off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, I found an isolated pull-off a couple of miles south and west across from the access track to the dinosaur tracks site (I didn’t cross the dry wash into dinosaur tracks because the steep sideways slope threatened to roll my camper over).
This spot was essentially nothing more than a level field where I could pull off the road. The sound of the light rain on the roof of the camper during the night lulled me to sleep.
Paria Contact Station
East of Kanab, Utah, there is a ranger station with some helpful volunteers on staff. After driving through heavy rain coming down from Escalante all day, I was leery of crossing the gully at Buckskin Wash even with four wheel drive. I figured a flashflood was coming that could prevent me from returning to the highway for several days. Their solution for me was a gravel pit on the top of the mountain behind the station. I had a free campsite with no neighbors.
The next morning I looked down on a raging Paria River rushing at 30 miles an hour. I decided to change my itinerary and stay out of the slot canyons where the water level rose from ankle deep to 30 feet deep overnight. Deadly!
Valley of the Gods
This was my favorite campsite for pure desert grandeur. I chose a spot at the foot of a huge stone butte where I could see for twenty miles toward the distant towers of Monument Valley. The camping is free for a limit of 14 days at each spot.
One word of caution here. If you approach Valley of the Gods from the south off highway 163 you can reach the campsites with a medium-sized motor home or trailer. If you come in from the west on 261 as I did, you will cross no less than 20 dry washes with steep grades that will test the fortitude of your four wheel drive rig. Don’t take your 40-foot coach in here from either direction.
Five miles west of Bluff, Utah, on highway 163, open the cattle gate and drive through, then close it behind you. You are on Butler Wash Road at the south end of a broad valley flanked by rocky cliffs on both sides. Among those cliffs there are many hidden Navajo cliff dwellings. Camping is free at any of the side tracks on this 25-mile long four wheel drive road. Yes, again, you must not take a long wheel-base vehicle in here; you’ll get hung up in a step ravine trying to climb out the other side.
You are sure to be alone with only the night wind to keep you company. (Read about my adventure at Pedestal Rock Ruin here.)
A few miles northwest of the town of Moab, Utah, on highway 191 there is a privately owned parking lot with nicely leveled gravel lots and porta-johns. There are no other perks except its strategic location near the entrances of Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. I found it almost impossible to get a campsite at the national parks so this little spot was a real blessing to me and I stayed several consecutive nights paying the measly $5 per night. What a great staging area for rafting the Colorado River, dirt biking the slick rock at Behind the Rocks, or four wheeling the epic off-road challenges around the area. Moab has provisions of all kinds. You can even rent a Jeep or ORV there.
These are a few of the great boondocking campsites of southern Utah. I passed up many others. Much of the desert southwest is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) where free – or almost free – camping is permitted with only a few restrictions.
Read about my adventure near 7-Mile Parking on the White Rim Road:
Canyonlands National Park is a vast area of bare rock cliffs, mesas, and canyons. It is trisected by the Colorado and the Green Rivers which divide it into the three districts, the Needles, the Maze, and Island in the Sky. Most tourists only visit the highest area, Island in the Sky, which is a huge flat-topped mesa surrounded on three sides by the canyons. The Needles is reached via a single rugged road, and The Maze is entirely deserted but for a few adventurers coming down the river on rubber rafts or an occasional fly-over by a sightseeing airplane.
The defining theme of Canyonlands is the grand vistas available from theedges. The road on Island in the Sky provides easy access to the edge of the cliff that offers such expansive views that they are almost incomprehensible. The hiking trails are likewise perched on edges.
I was glad to be without small children when I was at Canyonlands because there are unguarded drop-offs everywhere.
In my experience, there seems to be a psychological connection between risk and adventure: The greater the perceived risk, the greater the sense of adventure. Because of this phenomenon, I would call Canyonlands a high-adventure location. There is an abundant risk factor because of the abundance of edges. The drives and the hikes all require frequent encounters with the edge.
After exploring Island in the Sky, adventurers who can afford the time and want to multiply their sense of adventure will likely drop down off the edge via the Shafer Trail and explore the White Rim Plateau 1200 feet below.
The White Rim Road is another level of high risk and delivers correspondingly high adventure. It follows the edge of the Colorado River canyon for 100 miles of rough one-lane rocky off-roading fun. (See my scary YouTube video of a 3-mile stretch of the road at the bottom.)
My drive on a section of the White Rim Road was a bucket list experience never to be forgotten. Those with a fear of heights will be ill-advised to attempt either the Shafer Trail or the White Rim Road.
Visitors with Jeeps and high-clearance SUV’s will have the easiest time at Canyonlands National Park. Despite the huge expanses of geography, the parking lots on Island in the Sky are small, and below the rim the turns are too tight for the big rigs. If you want to get off the high mesa and explore the more challenging areas below, it’s best to leave the RV in the town of Moab and rent a Jeep.
Otherwise, there will be chaos in the chasm.
Beyond the Jeep trails, there are multiple adventures for river rafters, hikers and mountain bikers.
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.