Sunday, December 26, 2010

San Diego, Southern Arizona - November 7-13, 2010

With colder weather settling in to the north, a trip along the southern part of the country was in store. There are a number of National Parks and National Monuments across southern Arizona and California so I packed up and headed to San Diego.

Day 1 - Sunday

This was basically a driving day. The route was south on I-25 to Hatch where I picked up the cutoff over to I-10 at Deming. From there it was west to Benson, Arizona , where I stayed the night.

As usual, I played my MPG game where I reset the trucks miles-per-gallon calculation at the start and tried to see how high I could get the average to be. On previous trips I had gotten around 10 MPG but this time I ran into bad luck with the winds. A breeze from the southwest was quartering into me from the right on the way south and then quartering from the left once I turned west. It takes very little headwind to cause me to have to downshift frequently to maintain speed. The camper has a large surface area to create drag plus there is a parachute-like effect in the space between the camper overhead and the truck's roof. By the time I got to Benson the mpg read only 8.9.

Day 2 - Monday

The first stop today was the Saguaro National Park which has two parts - one east of Tuscon and one west of the town. I chose the eastern side and tried to time my arrival with 9:00 since that is when most of the park headquarters buildings I have been to open up. I got there about 10 minutes early but they have a driving loop through the park that was already opened so I took that first.

The park is right on the outskirts of Tuscon so that makes the loop road a popular spot for bicyclists and joggers and they were out in force. Several times I had to wait for them to clear the way since the road was really only one lane wide. After the loop, I stopped at the headquarters building to look at their displays and buy a souvenir magnet.

A typical Saguaro cactus.

They don't grow nearly as thick as they used to. The problem was caused by a couple of stretches of freezing weather - once in the 1960's and once in the 1990's. They should come back if there isn't another freeze and they also keep cattle off the land to avoid trampling new sprouts.

I would hate to have to travel through this area on foot.

Autumn sun over Saguaro.

The city of Tuscon is right on the border of the park. As long as the housing density doesn't rise, the impacts should be manageable.

Next was the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument which is located on the border with Mexico southwest of Tuscon. The road over to the area appears to be the first real road north of the border and therefore was crawling with border patrol agents. I went through two checkpoints and saw several mobile detection units with tall, electronic surveillance masts along the road.

This road also passes by the Kitt Peak Observatory which I could see on top of the mounains next to the highway. Once I got to the little town of Why, I turned south which would have led me to the Mexican town of Sonoyta except that I turned off a few miles short of there. The landscape was similar to that around Saguaro but they also have Organ Pipe cactus which only grows in the far south of Arizona and in Mexico.

Kitt Peak Observatory

An example of an Organ Pipe Cactus (at the Monument Visitor's Center.)

From there it was north through Ajo to Gila Bend where I picked up I-8 west. By this time, the wind had really strengthened and was about 30 mph directly from the front. I could feel it sucking the gas tank dry but I eventually got to Yuma where I spent the night.

Wind whipped dust on I-8 to Yuma. (taken through the windshield)

Day 3 - Tuesday

The goal for the day was to get to San Diego and have some time to see a few things before heading to the campground. It was interesting to watch my GPS system which shows the elevation as I'm driving. As I approached El Centro, California, the elevation kept dropping. I was thinking El Centro must be close to sea level but the numbers actually went negative. It turns out that El Centro is the largest American city that is below sea level (-50 feet, actually). After driving throught the broad valley, the road started climbing again - up to over 4000 feet to get over the mountains before dropping back down into San Diego.

My first stop was the Birch Aquarium which is part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This is located in La Jolla which is just north of San Diego, proper. It is a fairly small aquarium but they had a number of unusual critters. They seemed to specialize in seahorses and had a number of varieties which they have successfully bred. Their back patio area had a nice view of the ocean.

Whale statues outside of the Birch Aquarium.

A nice view of the coastline from the back deck of the aquarium.

There were some surfers down below. I seem to remember the water off of this coast to be quite cold.

Next was the Cabrillo National Monument which is located on Point Loma which is across the bay from the city. The monument is dedicated to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who was the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States in 1542. He explored up the coast - perhaps all the way to Oregon but broke his leg along the way and died of gangrene before he could return. He is generally considered the last of the European explorers that opened up North America.

Statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

The monument has a nice view across the bay to San Diego.

One of the residents at the monument.

There was still time left in the day, so I set my GPS to take me to Balboa Park where I planned to visit a couple of museums. Since the GPS didn't know I was driving with a big camper it sent me up Hill Street which would rival anything in San Francisco for steepness. I hoped the camper was well secured as the nose of the truck pointed up to the sky. I managed to power up the hill and eventually find Balboa Park.

It took a while to find a parking spot I could fit into - I finally went over the San Diego Zoo parking area to get one. The first stop was the Model Railroad Museum which is quite large. They model the area around Southern California including Tehachapi Pass which is famous as a railfan site. There are layouts in both HO and O scale as well as a toy train layout. (Toy trains don't try for realism - they use three rail track and things like old Lionel trains).

I then stopped off at the San Diego Natural History Musem which was a couple of buildings over. They had some nice exhibits on dinosaurs and quite a few dioramas. It wasn't as extensive as the Denver Museum of Natural History which is quite large. I saw a 3D IMAX film exploring what the life of Sue (the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found) might have been like. They couldn't resist putting in a few 3D scenes of Sue roaring and looking like she was going to bite your head off. Afterward, I headed to the campgound (in Chula Vista) and set up for the night.

Balboa Park, San Diego.

The Botanical Building at Balboa Park.

Day 4 - Wednesday

The day started off with the San Diego Zoo. I had been here before and it is one of my favorite zoos. The one issue it has is the hilliness of the terrain. My initial plan was to catch the motorized tour bus and get the overall picture of the place and then head to a few of the most interesting exhibits on foot. That didn't work out since I got there at opening time (9:00) but the tour didn't start operating until 10:30. I just headed out and would play it by ear.

By the time 10:30 was getting close, I had already covered three quarters of the zoo and was down at the bottom of the canyon it is built in. I hiked up the oppsite side to see the polar bears and then to catch the sky tram back to the front. From there I caught the bus and toured the place again.

One thing that stands out about this zoo - they have some full grown examples of a lot of the animals. The big male Polar bear was gigantic - easily twice the size of the ones at the Rio Grande zoo. Of course, they have more space and a lot more money coming in to fund the operation. Their big male gorilla was also quite impressive.

The big male polar bear.

One of the females. the other one was sequestered to have cubs.

A statue showing how big a male polar bear can be. (That isn't me standing with the bear. The scales to the right let you see how you compare to a polar bear which weighs up to 1800 lbs.)

After a quick lunch, I decided to head over to Sea World. I hadn't been to a Sea World in a long time and was looking forward to the dolphins, in particular. I discovered that the off season had begun for the park so most shows were put on only once per day. Fortunately, the best ones were in the afternoon which allowed me to attend them. I saw the dolphins - as part of a large, musical show with birds, small whales, and some trapeze artists. I caught Shamu's show which is always fun as he splashes water over anyone in the first 12-15 rows. There was also a show with trained pets - dogs, cats, birds, and a pig - all from the local animal rescue center. I'm not sure what that has to do with the sea, but it was entertaining.

Shamu doing his thing.

For some reason, not many people wanted to sit up front.

They have a nice penguin exhibit with a moving walkway.

My back was pretty tired after all that walking, so, after stopping for dinner, I headed back to the campground and showered, watched a DVD, and hit the sack early.

Day 5 - Thursday

This was the day I started heading back home but I wanted to take a different route and see a few more things on the way. I headed north a bit and stopped first at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. They have changed this around a little bit since I was last here and added more animal exhibits. The main attraction, though, is still the large, open enclosure with a number of different species of African animals. There are a number of types of antelope, some rhinos, zebras, and giraffes. They have the tallest giraffe in North America (19 feet tall).

One interesting fact that was pointed out was that the small antelope they had never moved out of the end of the large enclosure. The reason was, their instinct is to keep their predator's in view at all times so they can be prepared to run. There was a Cheetah exhibit at that end of the valley (a separate enclosure) so the antelope kept them in view all the time. I bet the Cheetahs were frustrated watching all that fast food walking around and not being able to go catch it.

San Diego Wild Animal Park.

This is the open area that is the main attraction of the park. A number of species roam the area together.

This guy reminds me of someone but I'd better not say who.

The tallest giraffe in North America. They say a 6 foot tall human can walk under his belly without bending over.

Got pretty close to this guy. (There is glass between us).

Afterward, I gassed up and decided to reset my gas mileage calculator to see if I could do better than 8.9 on the way home. I headed north a bit more to Temecula and then took a two lane road east over the Santa Rosa mountains. Of course, with my luck, the wind was quite strong in my face, again. When combined with the 5000 foot elevation gain and winding roads, I was only at about 8.0 at the top. The downhill side of the pass got me back to about 8.8.

At the bottom of the pass was the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument visitor's center. The monument protects a large area which contains a number of endangered species including the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. I stopped and got my souvenir magnet. Another five miles or so and I was in Palm Desert. At that point I picked up I-10 east and made it to
Blythe, California where I stopped at a campground on the banks of the Colorado river.

I didn't get a picture of the area so I found this shot of the National Monument area from the BLM web site.

Day 6 - Friday

This day was a bit play-by-ear with the main goal of getting back to the campground in Benson that I stayed at on the way out. I was trying to get to a couple of National Monuments that were west and south of Phoenix. The first one was the Sonoran Desert National Monument which was set aside to protect the diversity of a large chunk of the desert. There aren't any buildings or visitor's centers with this monument so all I could do was drive through the middle of it. I took a small road from Gila Bend, east through the towns of Maricopa and Casa Grande, and then back to I-10. The monument has hiking trails but it looked pretty bleak at this time of the year.

Sonoran Desert National Monument

Next was going to be the Ironwood Forest National Monument which is similar to the Sonoran Desert monument in that there are no buildings or improvements to visit. The information I had suggested that a loop road exists but parts were gravel and might require 4 wheel drive. I decided to skip this one for now.

In place of Ironwood, I headed in to Tuscon and visited the Reid Park Zoo. My Rio Grande Zoo pass got me in for free so that was a good deal. It is a nice, little zoo, and seemed well attended for a weekday. I liked their giraffe and rhinoceros exhibits which included some grassy areas rather than just the bare dirt of our own zoo.

After relaxing for a while (and resting my back), I headed out to Benson.

Day 7 - Saturday

This was a driving day - heading for home. The only semi-interesting thing happened in T or C where I got off the highway to look for a gas station and got caught in what I assume was a Veteran's Day observence at their cemetary. After getting through all the traffic, I found some gasoline and some lunch and then drove home. I nursed the gas mileage along and got it up to 9.1 by the time I rolled in to the drive. I would wait until the following day to unload the camper and get it winterized. Any trips I do this winter will not be with the camper.

This was a nice trip that avoided both the heat of summer and the storms of winter. The last night in Benson saw a low temperature of about 26 which was the only cold weather I encountered. I don't know where the next trip will take me but there are a multitude of options.

Total miles driven - 2043
Gas mileage - 8.9 on the way out, 9.1 on the way back.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pecos, New Mexico area - Sept. 28-30, 2010

This trip was a short one, only 3 days and 2 nights, with the goal of checking off a couple of the National Park Service sites that aren't too far away. Getting the camper loaded on the truck took about 1.5 hours and I learned a few things that should make it go quicker next time. After loading some fresh water and a few food items, I got started about mid morning.

Lunch was in Santa Fe, where I took Cerillos Road into town. I hadn't been this way in a number of years and noticed quite a bit of growth toward the west end on town. Afterwards, I headed east (technically north but it is east on the map) on I-25 to the town of Pecos, New Mexico. Just east of there is the Pecos National Historical Park which showcases the remains of a large indian pueblo.

The site was a good place for a pueblo. It lies in the natural pass between the indians of the Rio Grande valley and the indians of the great plains. This made for very good trading based economy and the pueblo flourished. At its height, it had about 2000 inhabitants and the pueblo itself was 4 stories tall.

In 1540 the Spanish arrived. By about 1600 they had begun the conquest of New Mexico and built a large church next to the pueblo. The pueblo revolt of 1681 threw the Spanish out of New Mexico and the church was destroyed. That didn't last long, however, with the Spanish reclaiming control and building a new, much smaller church on the ruins of the old one. By 1780, disease, Comanche raids, and migration had reduced the population of the pueblo to about 300. By the time the Sante Fe trail was established through the area in 1821, it was almost a ghost town.

Since the pueblo was built of adobe, it has mostly crumbled into large piles of grass covered dirt. A few of the kivas have been excavated and the remains of the church have been uncovered and preserved. A few of the wagon wheel ruts of the Sante Fe trail can be seen skirting the edges of the ruins.

A view of the small church built by the Spaniards. I am standing on the large mound that is all that is left of the pueblo, itself.

Another view of the small church. The foundational stones in the foreground are part of the original church, which was one of the largest missions built in the Southwest.

A forest fire was burning up in the mountains west of Pecos.

After taking the walking tour around the site and viewing the museum, I headed off to the east on I-25 and exited at the town of Villanueva. Following the road for about 15 miles led to the Villanueva State Park where I camped for the night. The park is located on the banks of the Pecos river with yellow and red sandstone cliffs protecting the area.

My campground at Villanueva State Park.

The following day I drove farther up I-25, past the town of Las Vegas, NM, to visit the Fort Union National Monument. This fort was established in 1851 to guard the Sante Fe trail. There were three differnt forts built over its 40 year history, each larger than the last. The third incarnation was the largest fort in the southwest.

It served as a training base for civil war troops and as a base for troops during the indian wars afterward. Kit Carson led some of these actions. The coming of the railroad in 1879 led to the decline in the importance of the fort and it was abandoned in 1891.

Since a good part of the fort was built of bricks, the remains of the foundations and walls are still there. A walking tour leads you around the area which is fairly large. There are quite a few Santa Fe trail ruts to be seen here, as well.

Fort Union National Monument

A recreated camp used by one of the commanders.

Ruts from the Santa Fe trail. If they weren't labeled you wouldn't know that's what they were.

Officer's quarters.

The flagpole in the center of the parade ground.

Remains of the church.

The prison. It is better preserved since it was made entirely of stone so that prisoners couldn't dig out.

Next stop was back in Las Vegas for lunch and then back through the town of Pecos and up into the mountains. The road narrowed quite a bit but was generally in good shape. I was hoping to see some fall foliage on the trees but it was a couple of weeks too early - at least for the elevations I was at. I made it up past the turnoff to Holy Ghost and then found a nice National Forest campground to stay at - also on the banks of a small river. Only one other camper showed up for the evening.

The next morning was chilly and the heater in my camper quit working. The inside temperature was 55 which wasn't bad for sleeping but once I was up was too cold to sit around. I decided to head for home and got in about noon which left plenty of time to get the camper unloaded.

Campground in the National Forest.

The view out the back door of the camper. I couldn't find the name of the little river on my maps.

Miles driven: 393
MPG: 10.1

It was a nice trip, seeing a couple of historical places that I had never been to before. Next up is a longer trip through Southern Arizona and over to San Diego.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tour of Colorado - August 9-17, 2010

The timing worked out well to combine the annual trip to a friend's cabin in Colorado with the pick up of the new camper. The plan was to get the camper a couple of days early and then to drive around a bit and spend some time getting the feel of it. If anything was drastically wrong I could then swing back by the dealer to get it fixed.

August 9

The inital stage was easy - drive to a spot near Henderson, Colorado where the camper dealer is located. I choose to drive up via Taos, Fort Garland, and Walsenburg for a change of pace from the normal route up I-25. I had plenty of time which was a good thing since this is not a quick route. The winding road from Espanola to Taos combined with the heavy traffic in Taos, itself, made for a slow trip at times. I stopped in Colorado Springs and had dinner with my brother and his wife and then found a motel near the dealership.

August 10

Camper installation day. The install went pretty quickly. The truck needed to have the camper tie-down system installed as well as an electrical harness. The dealer provided a thorough walkthru of the camper's systems and I was ready to go by about 2:00 PM.

The first drive seemed quite odd - I could tell I was hauling a lot of weight that made the truck seem top heavy. I drove aropund a bit and then headed out of Denver toward the east. The goal was a KOA campground in Strasburg which was 20 miles or so east. I got my spot allocated and made the first newbie mistake. I headed in nose first to the spot thinking that would give me good shade in the afternoon. I got out and discovered the power outlet was on the opposite side and was out of reach. I had to pull out and back into the spot to make the cord reach. (will need an extension cord, I think).

I got the thing plugged in and started up the air conditioner which worked fine. I then decided to try to get the water system working and discovered my second newbie mistake. I didn't have a water hose to connect to the outlet. There also wasn't any water in the tank to start with. Fortunately, the campground facilities were close so I put off the water issue temporarily.

Everything else seemed OK. I unloaded some of the furnishings that I had brought with me - mainly the bedding and a few cooking utensils. I watched a movie on the TV/DVD and hit the sack.

The new camper:

August 11

This was Wednesday and I had until 3:00 on Thursday to travel around before meeting my friends at the cabin. I started the tour of Colorado by heading east on I-70 which surprised me by heading uphill for quite a bit. I stayed on the interstate until Limon and then headed south/southeast to Kit Carson, and then hit US-50 near Lamar. The elevation dropped off gradually and the land got a bit drier. East on US-50 between Las Animas and La Junta was Bent's Old Fort which was my destination.

This is a US National Historic Site - it is a recreation of the original trading post from the 1840's. One of the two Bent brothers (Charles) became the first territorial govenor of New Mexico. The fort was the only place along the Santa Fe Trail that wagons could be repaired and supplies could be had.

The folks who work there dress in period costumes and act in character. I missed the beginning of one of their tours but caught up part way through. The tour leader was showing how the wood working shop was set up and asked for a show of hands of those who experienced a shrinkage of their wagon wheels on the way west with the dry climate and had their steel rims come off. That was one newbie mistake I didn't make.

After seeing the fort, I headed farther west. A stop in La Junta for lunch and a visit to Walmart satisfied my hunger and my need for a water hose for the camper. I stayed west on US-50 through Pueblo, Canon City, Salida, over Monarch Pass to Gunnison. The pass went pretty well - I didn't seem underpowered or anything. I took the sharp corners carefully, and had no problems. Camp that night was at another KOA, this time with water.

Bent's Old Fort - it sits above the Arkansas river.

The woodworking shop inside the fort.

The tour guide operating a foot controlled vise while he shapes a table leg.

Looking down inside the fort from the second level. There were a few bedrooms up above while the lower level was mostly workshops and trading areas.

August 12

I had originally thought I could make it to the Black Canyon of the Gunnsion National Park and have time to get to the cabin but the slow speed of mountain driving was not going to allow that to work out. I did drive west a bit to see the Blue Mesa Lake, which is Colorado's largest body of water. I then headed back east over Monarch pass to Poncha Springs, then north to Buena Vista for gas. The road to the cabin goes over Wilkerson Pass which has a nice visitor center that describes the area known as South Park. There is a good map of the mountain peaks you can see out to the west (of which there are 20 shown - mostly 13-14 thousand feet high).

The cabin crew met at the gates of Landis Ranch and we drove on in. While deciding how to get my camping rig in the drive, we decided to have the other guys back out so I could get in a fairly flat spot. One of the guys backed his car right off the edge on the embankment and nearly took out the cabin's water system (not to mention nearly messing up his car). We were able to get the other car (a truck) in front and use my tow strap to pull him back up. Afterward, I backed my rig up and used my homemade leveling blocks to get close to level.

A view of Blue Mesa Lake - there had been an early morning thundershower but it was clearing out by this time.

At Monarch Pass - shortly after this picture it started raining with tiny pellets of ice mixed in.

The view from Wilkerson Pass showing the region known as South Park.

August 13,14

These two days were spent at the cabin doing the normal cabin things. Some went fishing - I tried it on the first day but my back didn't cooperate at all. I only lasted about 15 minutes and had to give up. The other guys wanted to try something new - tubing on the Platte river (which was only a few miles away). I did the driving for them. The second day my back felt better so I had another go at fishing. I waded into the river since there is so much brush that you can't easily fish from the bank. I only fell once and got wet up to the chest. This time I lasted maybe 45 minutes but had to call it quits again with no fish to show for it.

I got the camper fairly level up next to the cabin.

The fly fishing stream in front of the cabin.

Two intrepid fishermen - I couldn't get them to catch a fish on cue for a good picture.

Only four of us on this trip - a different crew was at the cabin a few days before this.

August 15

The last day at the cabin saw us doing the clean up and we got out the door by 9:00 AM. The rest of the guys head back to Albuquerque but I headed west to Hartsel, then north to Fairplay, Brekenridge, and then I-70. Brekenridge was quite crowded with their summer tourists. My goal was Rocky Mountain National Park and I had figured I would go back through Denver and up the east side of the mountains to Estes Park but that was going to take a long time. I-70 through Eisenhower tunnel was at a crawl with all the traffic so when I saw a sign that said the Park was thataway, I took it. That turned out to be at the town of Empire and the road led to the South entrance of the park. From there, I drove over the Trail Ridge Road to Estes Park where I got my souvenir fridge magnet and tee shirt. I then headed back over the pass to a campground I had seen coming up.

The pass itself was fairly slow due to a lot of traffic (this was a free weekend for the National Parks so there was probably even more traffic than normal). The parking areas along the way were jam packed so I couldn't get many pictures. There were a few white-knuckle spots along the road where a small mistake could send you a couple thousand feet down before you stopped bouncing.

The campground had restrooms but no electric or water hookups. I fired up the stove for the first time and heated up a can of chili. It worked great. Cleanup was interesting since I was trying to conserve water but it went OK. The campground had cut down all of its pine trees due to Pine Beetles which have killed off large numbers of trees all around the area.

Rocky Mountain National Park - southern entrance.

Still some snow at the top.

A nice view from above the tree line. The Trail Ridge Road tops out at about 12,200 feet.

A quick snapshot out of the truck window. I didn't see much in the way of wildlife - just a few small herds of elk.

The campground - notice all the dead trees on the hillside - casualties of the Pine Beetle.

August 16

An early start saw me on the road through Steamboat Springs, Craig, and then Dinoasur National Monument which is nearly on the Utah state line. I was disapointed not to see the quarry visitor center where they have an entire rock wall complete with over 1500 fossils preserved. The building apparently had a big crack in the foundation which caused part of the building to shift 4 inches. They had to close it down and are building a replacement. Since that was closed down, the only other thing to do was take a scenic drive up into the hills above the main visitor center.

The drive wasn't hard but the weather started turning south. A big storm was brewing and moving my way. I stopped at the first two scenic overlooks and got a couple of pictures but the wind was getting so bad I couldn't open the truck door against it, so I headed back down. I did see a nice badger along the roadside, the first one I've seen in the wild. It scrambled into the bushes before I could stop and get my camera out.

From there I headed south to Grand Junction. I got in some of the rain from the big storm but missed the heaviest part of it. The road went over Douglas Pass which isn't overly high but had bad roadways and very tight curves. The speed limit the whole way was 25 MPH with a lot of corners posted as 10 MPH. It was also open range and I had to dodge cows in the road a few times.

The camp that night was at a KOA. This spot had a sewer dump with it so I figured I would try that operation. However, when I thought about it I had no hose to use to clean things up other than my new drinking water hose. I figured it would not be good to use that near the sewer stuff so I didn't dump the tanks.

A view on the scenic drive in Dinosaur National Monument.

August 17

The original plan was to stop by the Black Canyon of the Gunnison but I couldn't find the road that was supposed to lead into the north end of the park. I was feeling a bit under the weather so I decided to drive on home and leave the park for another trip. The area south of Montrose was quite nice - I wouldn't mind living there - nice green grassland with mountains all around, not far from Montrose and Grand Junction. The road leading out of Ouray was another white-knuckle ride. After Silverton, I had to stop several times at flagmen due to repaving that part of the road. Once past Durango, the road was almost all 4 lane the rest of the way to Albuquerque. I got in about 4:30 which gave me time to get the camper unloaded into its parking spot.

A view along the road south of Silverton while waiting for a flagman to clear the way for us.

Total trip: 2250 miles
MPG - before getting the camper: 14.8
MPG after the camper: 10.2 (about as expected)