After camping in Chama, New Mexico, we followed Route 17 along the Colorado/New Mexico border to access the Carson NF for our trip south. Unfortunately, the heavy snow in the Colorado mountains had reached into northern New Mexico. After testing the road we decided that prudent risk taking required that we delay our start. As a result we traveled to Taos and spent several days exploring there (see posts Taos, The High Road to Taos and Taos is Art) while waiting for the roads to dry out and harden.
The above photo is from the KML file we overlaid on Google Earth to assist with navigation as we traveled through the forest and mountainous terrain.
Overlanding is currently defined as “self-reliant overland travel by vehicle where the journey is more important than the destination.” Overlanding has gained popularity in the United States over the last several years and particularly since the pandemic interrupted standard modes of travel.
Our trips over the last three plus years have been a mix of overland adventures and standard touring. Overlanding is not for everyone due to the risks and the need for specialized gear (high clearance, 4wd, skid plates, winch, extended range, etc.) Overlanding also requires patience – it is often very slow going on rough, narrow, rutted roads and trails.
Case in point – the photo above is Forest Road 45B – after driving a number of miles down this rough and narrow route the trail became impassable. We we forced to back up the hill until we could turn the vehicle while causing the least damage possible.
EL RITO (pop. 808)
After two days on the trail we came out of the forest at El Rito on a crisp Sunday morning. We were hoping to have breakfast burritos at El Farito Restaurant but alas the restaurant was closed. We cannot vouch for the reported census – we met one person and one dog during our brief stop. We were surprised to learn that the Mars Polar Lander was designed and built here in town by a local scientist/artist!!!
Abiqui and south
We stopped in the town of Abiqui for diesel fuel and refreshments. Abiqui is the town where Georgia O’Keefe lived for many years on her ranch north of town. Many of her paintings include the surrounding mountains.
After refueling we headed back up into the forest to continue our overlanding trip south for another day – leaving the route near Los Alamos and then traveling to Santa Fe for much needed high quality coffee and tea.
The snow of the prior week caused us to shorten our time overlanding through the Carson National Forest, but it was a good trade off as the weather and conditions were much improved by the time we started on our overlanding adventure.
Moab was a sleepy trading post and farming community for most of its history. Its settlement dates back to about 1829 when people traveling north on what is now known as the Old Spanish Trail would attempt to cross the Colorado River in Moab and the local inhabitants would sell their goods to the travelers.
A little over 100 years later uranium was discovered in Moab. Uranium was in great demand for use in nuclear weapons post World War 2, so the federal government stepped in and passed laws mandating that all uranium mined in the United States could only be sold to the federal government. The economy of Moab shifted to mining overnight and Moab became known as the uranium capital of the world.
Unfortunately, as must, all booms result in some sort of bust. By 1960 the federal government declared it had all the uranium it needed. Since no one else could purchase uranium the mines in Moab began to close; the last of the mines closed in 1980. The population which had reached 6,000 declined to 1,000.
Today, the Moab area draws tourists who come to mountain bike, hike, rock climb, drive off road trails and boat on the Colorado. Additionally, Moab hosts two unique national parks – Arches and Canyonlands
While the town is prospering, there still remains the issue of remediating the uranium sites. When a visitor enters town for the first time driving south on route 191, it is hard to miss the large mound of contaminated pilings near the road.This pile consists of the remaining contaminated tailings. Over 16 million tons of tailings were produced from the uranium mills in Utah. The tailings are being removed and taken by train to a permanent disposal location in Colorado. More than 10 million tons have been removed so far under the auspices of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) program paid for by the citizens of the United States.
Final note: many of the miners that worked in the Uranium mills were Navajo. There was little regard for their safety. The Navajo workers suffered significantly from lung cancer and other diseases. While the U.S. Public Health Service was aware of the effects as early as 1951, it was not until 1990 that the health impact was acknowledged. To make matters worse, the Navajo were not eligible for financial compensation until 2017.
Moab is certainly a mountain biking mecca – the good news is that for those of us in need of less demanding terrain, the town has developed a number of bike paths and bike lanes. One of the bike paths runs east along the Colorado River providing magnificent views of the river and red rock cliffs.
Camping with a view…
Moab and the surrounding area offers scores of camping choices. Everything from in town RV resorts to remote primitive camping. We look forward to “boondocking” in Moab. We generally camp in a different location each night to enjoy different settings as well as the fantastic night sky and solitude.
One of the reasons we chose a high clearance 4wd equipped Sprinter was our desire to go places that we would never be able to see and experience without that capability. The Moab area provides a plethora of opportunities to put the Beast to the test. Above and below we have included a sample of several of our 4wd adventures.
Our favorite new Moab mural.
Our trip from Salt Lake City to Moab usually involves a lunch and coffee stop in Helper, Utah. Helper has been undergoing a revitalization over the last several years and has become home to a number of artists. On this stop we discovered some wonderful paintings by Thomas Elmo Williams. Williams was a coal miner for 14 years before a mining accident put an end to that line of work for him. Williams started his new career sketching fellow miners and still focuses much of his art on the labor of working folks. He has a gallery in Helper.
We love Utah and recommend that if you love outdoor recreational activities then a visit to Utah should be on your travel list, with a definite stop in Moab.
After a brief visit to Billings (see previous post) we set out due north to traverse the Great Plains of central Montana before turning west in the Northland parallel to the Canadian border.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR)
Our first stop on the journey north was the CMR. Once again we found ourselves crossing the mighty Missouri River which so dominates the history of this part of the country with its integral connection to the Lewis & Clark expedition.
We crossed the river within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge consists of 1.1 million acres which border the river from the Fort Peck Dam on the east to the Missouri River Breaks National Monument on the west – a distance along the river of about 125 miles.
This protected area is primitive and essentially looks as it did when Lewis and Clark journeyed up the river. There is a rough auto road that drops down to the river level and follows the river before looping back to the highway.
We drove the road and were able to see some of the Missouri Breaks (rock formations) as well as a number of the remnants of abandoned praire homesteads. It is hard to fathom how hardy people must have been to homestead in this rugged terrain – most failed.
The refuge is named after Charles M. Russell – an artist known for his western landscape paintings, many of which depict the refuge, and as an early conservationist.
american prairie reserve (APR)
The APR is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the prairie land of central Montana. It is estimated by the APR that a land area of three million acres (5000 square miles) is necessary to preserve the Great Plains in perpetuity. The APR is buying prairie land from private owners and leasing land from the federal and state government which is contiguous to existing public lands (including CMR) to create the reserve.
The APR has also established a sizeable bison herd which freely roams within the reserve. When we were completing our research on Montana we learned that we could camp within the reserve among the bison (at our own risk obviously).
We were definitely up for the camping on the prairie. Adding to the adventure was the need to navigate across 60 miles of prairie devoid of signage and without the aid of satnav. Since we are writing this post you are correct in concluding that our navigator was more than up to the task.
We enjoyed our journey through the prairie and our overnight camping with the bison despite the triple digit temperatures, 30 mile per hour winds and accompanying dust. The opportunity to see these magnificent animals roaming the prairie freely, as they did until the late 1800s, felt as if we had the privilege of traveling back in time.
Of course, we probably all have read about the near extinction of the bison at the hands of Euro-Americans to supply the east with fur and hides. The slaughter of the bison also served to deprive the Native Americans of their way of life.
The Native Americans of the plains not only killed bison for the meat – they used every bit of the bison to make shelters, clothing, weapons and tools. The Native Americans worshipped the bison as it provided so much of what they needed to live.
“When the buffalo went away, we became a changed people… The buffalo was everything to us. When it went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. —Plenty-Coups (Crow) 1880
When we decided to visit the APR we did not know that the Montana ranching community is adamantly opposed to it. We had the opportunity to speak with a rancher when we stopped for fuel and provisions on the trip to the APR.
The cattle ranchers are concerned they will not be allowed to continue to use the land that the APR buys and leases from the government for grazing. They are also concerned that the APR wants to let the bison roam freely throughout the reserve and not be managed as stock; which could lead to transmission of Brucellosis to cattle, causing spontaneous abortion in pregnant cattle. Bison in Yellowstone National Park have been infected with Brucellosis in the past. How real the concern is we do not know.
In the end though, much of the opposition is to what the ranchers view as a land grab by the federal government. Ranchers have a deep animosity towards the federal government and as you may recall, this has manifested itself in violence on a number of occasions.
The Montana economy is primarily agricultural and extractive – cattle, sheep, barley, wheat, copper mining and fossil fuel. Theerefore, any partnership by the government (in this case with the APR) to de facto acquire more land (which ends up off-limits for agricultural or extractive purposes) is going to be controversial.
Hopefully, the ranchers and APR can work things out, although presently there are several lawsuits in progress.
The montana hi-Line and Sweet grass hills
We departed the APR traveling north through another 50 miles of dusty prairie until we reached the town of Malta and our first paved road in several days. At Malta we turned west to travel on Route 2 to reach Chester and then head north into the Sweet Grass Hills. The area from Route 2 north to Canada and from the North Dakota border on the east to the Idaho border on the west is known as the Montana Hi-Line.
The Hi-Line is emblamatic of Montana – rolling grasslands, cattle ranches and mile after mile of wheat, barley and cannola fields under seemingly un-ending blue sky. This area known as the Hi-Line was sparsely populated until the late 1800s.
Around this time James Hill, a railroad executive, began the construction of the Great Northern Railroad (GNR), envisioning a railroad extending from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. He envisioned this railroad as a trade route ultimately extending to Asia. The construction of the railroad through northern Montana brought multitudes of ranchers and farmers into the area. The railroad brought supplies to the towns that popped up along the railway and moved their crops and stock to market. Today the railroad and Route 2 run side by side through most of this area.
The photos above are from our stop in Chester – our departure point from Route 2. We had fika at Well in Chester and met several local farmers and ranchers. The coffee shop owner is also the local pastor, a firearms dealers and a substitue teacher – apparently not unusual in this part of the world based on our conversations. The town is tiny at 311 acres and a population of 1099 and it was obvious that there is a real sense of community here.
After our stop in Chester we were on our way north. We were surprised when we turned onto Route 409 North that is was paved but as so often happens here, the pavement ended abruptly in just a couple of miles and we were back to traveling on dirt roads once again.
The Sweet Grass Hills are dominated by three buttes – West, Gold and East. The buttes stand at about 7000 feet and they can be seen from a significant distance because of the gently rolling grasslands around them.
We spent the remainder of the day touring the Sweet Grass Hills following Route 409 and Route 552. While that sounds straightforward – we assure you it is not – the 409 and 552 are meandering and unmarked routes crossing other dirt roads and forking off in multiple directions (with many of the trails not shown on our maps).
Nonetheless, this backcountry tour was amazing. This is remote country inhabited by cattle and a handful of ranchers. The wind apparently never stops on the prairie adding to the sense of isolation and remoteness – we felt it in just the day traveling through the area.
Whitlash, population 15, was the only named place on our tour of the hills. We did not see anyone at this bend in the road called Whitlash. We stopped for a “pop” at what we thought was a store based on a sign for cold pop. Upon entering we found a coin operated washer and dryer and a soda machine but no people. When was the last time you purchased a 12 ounce cans of pop for 50 cents?
About three miles east of the terminus of Route 552, the road became paved once again and we cruised into Sunburst in search of a well deserved chocolate milkshake.
We had the opportunity to chat with several life long residents of the area while enjoying our shake. We learned that this tiny town which is just eight miles from the Canadian border was once home to the largest refinery in Montana and one of the largest in the states when it was in operation.
Sunburst sits in the aptly named Kevin – Sunburst Dome, a significant deposit of oil and gas. The refinery was purchased by the Texas Company (Texaco) in 1929. During World War II the refinery was a major supplier of aviation fuel for the U.S. military.
Texaco closed the refinery in 1962, concluding a 30-year run of prosperity for the town. Subsequently, the refinery was leveled, the site remediated and the town returned to its agricultural roots. The only vestige of the refinery today is the road sign declaring that Sunburst is home to the Sunburst High School Refiners athletic teams.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump
We wrote above about the literally life sustaining importance of the bison to the Native Americans of the plains. Traveling south from Sunburst we visited a buffalo jump used by Native Americans to to kill the bison that so sustained their way of life.
A “buffalo runner” disguised in bison hide would lead the short-sighted herd towards a precipice, sometimes running for days to bring the herd to the jump. Other members of the tribe would follow behind, agitating the herd. The agitators would usually be disguised as wolves.
Once the bison went over the edge the rest of the tribe went to work. Any bison not killed by the plunge were quickly dispatched. The entire bison was disassembled – blood and meat for immediate consumption. The remainder of the bison was set aside for making tools, clothing, teepees and weapons. Meat not eaten during the ensuing feast would be dried for consumption after the last of the fresh meat was eaten.
The photos above show the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump – thought to be the largest of the 6000 known buffalo jump sites in North America.
Thoughts on the Prairie
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the prairie and grasslands of central and northern Montana. It is unquestionably beautiful country, but it is also without a doubt a harsh environment. We experienced many days of temperatures well over 100F. There is little to no shade, the wind never stops blowing and it is dusty, dusty, dusty.
Visit, but go prepared for extremes in weather, keep your fuel tank full and carry as much water as you can if you are going to venture deep into the backcountry.
From Mesa Verde National Park we traveled south into New Mexico spending our first night in Farmington (fika @ Studio Bake Shoppe). From Farmington we journeyed due south on NM371 through the Navajo Nation to access the Bisti Badlands. As wilderness areas by defintion allow no motorized traffic the only access from the parking area is by foot. There are no trails or markers of any sort. So bring your compass and utilize your gps. Line of sight navigation is impossible as once you enter into the outcroppings you are in a maze of strange sandstone, shale, coal, mudstone and silt formations. There are a plethora of hoodoos and just strange looking features that evolve based on the ongoing wind and water erosion that takes place with these soft materials.
The closest lodging is in Farmington which is apx. 40 miles north. There is no developed camping within the vicinty of the access area. However, exploring here is an easy day trip from Farmington. We boondocked in the wilderness area.
Our next segment will be at the Chaco NHP to visit more ancesteral sites assuming the road is passable in the aftermath of the major storm the occurred overnight.
After leaving the McCall area we traveled west to follow the Snake River north to Hells Canyon. The Hells Canyon Wilderness has been on our must see list for quite some time. Three dams were constructed on the river by Idaho Power Company (IPC) in the early 1960s, which generate significant power to Idaho. The dams and power plants are so remote that IPC provides company housing nearby each of the facilities.
The good news is that below the last dam (Hells Canyon Dam) the canyon and river remain a protected wilderness – there is no road – no electricity – no water. In order to access the canyon in the wilderness area you have three options – walk, go down river (raft, kayak or jet boat) – access at HC Dam – or fly in utilizing the grass airstrip on the banks of the river by the former Kirkwood Ranch.
Today, Hells canyon is completely uninhabited. A number of families attempted to make a living ranching and mining within the canyon but only a couple of ranches managed to survive for any length of time. The last ranch was abandoned in the early 1960s. There is ample evidence from pictographs that native americans were in the canyon long ago.
Hells Canyon at is deepest point is the deepest gorge in North America (7900 feet). We wanted to experience the canyon from river level, from above, and go as far downriver as possible. Fortunately, we were able to catch a jetboat tour that took us downriver 27 miles to the site of the former Kirkwood Ranch (sheep) before returning to the dam access point. Our river journey provided us with the ability to see the very remote and pristine canyon – we could not possibly have hiked anywhere near that far downstream. The added benefit was the fun of running the numerous rapids on the river between the dam and our turnaround point. We did hike along the river for several miles which gave us the on the ground vantage point. Finally, we drove the Hat Point Road to gain a spectacular view of the canyon and river from an elevation of 6900 feet above sea level.
The Hells Canyon Wilderness is a beautiful, awe-inspiring area, but come prepared as there is very minimal infrastucture anywhere near the area and almost no connectivity.
P.S. Summer temperatures average daily high 100+F!
Hiking To Stud Creek Trail, Snake River, Hells Canyon
Imnaha, Oregon Pop. 159 – Starting Point for Hat Point Road Drive
Wild and Scenic Snake River Viewed From Hat Point (Elev. 6982)
When we last posted we thought we were heading to Eastern Oregon but…….98-100F temperatures in the Alvord Desert caused us to reconsider. Ultimately, we opted to head north to McCall, Idaho where the daily high temperatures were in the 80F range.
McCall is a summer resort town sitting on the eastern shore of beautiful Payette Lake and nestled at the southern base of the mountainous Payette NF.
The drive north from Boise on the Payette River Scenic Byway is splendid as the road winds north hugging the rapid filled Payette River.
We camped at Ponderosa State Park for the first couple of nights before heading up into the Payette NF ahead of the Labor Day weekend crowd. The night sky from our mountain top campsite in the Payette was absolutely stunning. We were transfixed by the enormity and brillance of the Milky Way, the consellations and the numerous satellites and rockets criss crossing the sky.
Additionally, our stay here was most pleasant since we were able to bike into town from our camping location at Ponderosa SP and drink cappuccino and tea and then cycle back to our campsite.
The highlight of our stay in the McCall area was our kayaking trip on the North Fork of the Payette River. We were treated to great beauty, solitude and the magic of observing deer and birds of prey along the banks of the river.
We honestly never thought we would spend three full weeks in Idaho but it is beautiful and the weather was perfect. Nonetheless, time to move on…..current plan is to head to Hells Canyon on the border of Idaho and Oregon and then explore the northeastern corner of Oregon.
Be seeing you!
Biking Peninsula Trail, Payette Lake
Kayaking, North Fork of Payette River, McCall, Idaho
Camping with a View, Outlook Creek Rd, Diamond Ridge, Payette NF
After departing City of Rocks we traveled north to Twin Falls for fika at Twin Beans (see fikawithfiona on Instagram). From Shoshone we followed the Sawtooth Scenic Byway into the Sawtooth NF.
The Sawtooth is an absolute gem! We were absolutely enchanted with everything about this 2.1 million acre forest and wilderness area. The mountain peaks range from 4000 to over 12,000 feet elevation with a plethora of peaks above 10,000 feet. The Sawtooth reminds us very much of two of our favorite national parks – Glacier NP and Grand Teton NP – but without the crowds!
The Sawtooth is a hikers paradise with a seemingly endless number and variety of hiking trails. Many of the trails lead to secluded waterfalls and alpine lakes while providing spectacular views of the glaciated peaks.
The Sawtooth also provides ample camping opportunities through the forest. We were able to camp along the Wood River near Murdock Creek and on the Cape Horn Creek in complete solitude. Added bonus: outrageous night sky. Our necks became stiff from staring up into a star and planet laden sky. We saw shooting stars, the Milky Way and numerous satellites and rocket bodies pass overhead while listening to the rush of the nearby water.
While in Ketchum we met two former Nutmeggers – one from Southington and the other from Cheshire. Our best hiking and camping spots were recommended by them.
We also met a delightful young couple from Ashland, Oregon. Ashland is on our itinerary because it is the home of Noble Coffee Roasting Company. We think their Ethiopian Buku beans are the best we have had and have been looking forward to visiting after years of purchasing on-line. The couple provided us with a number of recommendations for both Ashland and Bend, Oregon.
Experiencing all the beauty that our country has to offer and meeting so many genuine and friendly people continues to bolster our optimism for the future.
P.S. If you are a fly fisher you must come here to fish in the Wood River.
Boulder Mountains, Sawtooth NF,
Murdock Creek Trail, Sawtooth NF
McDonald Peak (Elev. 10068) foreground, El Capitan (Elev. 8500) background
Mickey’s Spire (Elev. 10,679) and Thompson Peak (Elev. 10,682)
After arriving in Carson City and finding it very much to our liking (good espresso, tea, yoga, restaurants and friendly folk) we extended our stay to five days. We took day trips for hiking and sightseeing after our morning yoga and fika: very delightful!
Our extended stay in Carson City did necessitate a speedy trip across Nevada to return the Beast for storage and make our flight from Salt Lake City to Hartford. We covered 650 miles over our last two days on the road. Most of the drive was on Route 50 which runs all the way from Carson City to the Utah border.
The scenery along Route 50 is spectacular. Driving west to east you traverse numerous mountain ranges and valleys between the ranges. These are big mountains – 9000 to almost 11,000 foot peaks and valleys ranging from five to 20 miles across. The peaks are snow capped and the valleys vary between salt flats, sand dunes and prairie.
This is mining country with a handful of extremely large cattle and sheep ranches. The mining towns of Eureka and Ely are pretty run down despite the fact that there are still very large mining operations in the towns of Eureka and Ely. There are two major pits, one producing gold and the other copper. Even traditional pit mines are highly mechanized today and do not require significant labor to operate the mines. Both of these mines are owned and operated by foreign based companies which is very common today in this industry.
Make sure you are well prepared if you choose to cross Nevada on Route 50, known as the loneliest road in America for good reason. There are only two gas stations between Fallon and Eureka, a distance of 180 miles (and they are not 24 hour stations!) Bring your own food and water as well.
We are planning our next trip as we make this final post of On The Road with Maria + Stephen. We will be departing for the Pacific Northwest in August. Thanks for following along.
P.S. If you find yourself for any reason (we won’t hazard a guess) with the need to be in Bakersfield, California do yourself a huge favor and stay at the Padre Hotel. Classic western hotel with a great bar, cool lobby and friendly staff. Added bonus, and a big one at that is that Rig City Coffee Roasters is 252 feet from the lobby entrance to the hotel.
Final Preparation for Our Return to CT
Route 50 – America’s Loneliest Road
Garnet Hill – Ely, NV
Eureka – Mining + Basque Shepards + Good Grub
Sheparding in Northern Nevada
Reno – Baseball
Virginia City – Coffee, Saloons + Prayer
St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Virginia City, NV 1876
We spent three delightful days boondocking and hiking in the Carrizo Plain NM. CPNM is managed by the BLM and covers apx. 250,000 acres in San Luis Obispo County. The plain is an internal drainage basin which doesn’t sound all that appealing but it carries significant water into the 50 mile long plain which at this time of the year translates into a verdant landscape covered with colorful wildflowers. The plain runs north – south and is bounded by the Caliente Mountains on the west and the Temblor Mountains on the east. The Temblor Mountains derive its name from the spanish word terremoto which means earthquake. Uncoincidentally, the San Andres Fault runs parallel to the base of this range down the length of the plain.
The water all drains into Soda Lake. Since this is an internal drainage with no outlet the water evaporates during the spring and summer as temperatures reach into the 100F range. What is left after the water evaporates is a salt-covered dry lake bed as you can see in the photo below.
We also spent some time walking on the Wallace Trail where you can see evidence – in the form of offset creeks and channels – of how the earth has shifted along the San Andreas Fault – which is pretty cool – as long as the earth does not shift while you are there!
We had the good fortune to find a camping spot on the Caliente Ridge at 3700 feet which gave us a spectacular view of the plain and Soda Lake.
We should be at Death Valley NP later this week after a stop at Red Rock Canyon.
After extending our stay in both San Diego and San Clemente, we are back on the road. Our first stop was at JTNP where the wildflower “super bloom” is at its peak.
JTNP is one of a limited number of National Parks that allows access to back country high clearance 4WD trails. Many of these trails exist due to the significant number of mines (300) that at various times operated in the area which is now JTNP. We took advantage of the opportunity by spending an afternoon traveling through Pinkham Canyon and were treated to spectacular scenery and solitude.
There are a number of great hiking trails within the park. Because this is the busy season at the park we chose several hikes that we thought would be less crowded including Mastodon Peak and 49 Palms Oasis.
An interesting aspect of the park is that portions of both the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert are within its boundaries. While the park is named after the Joshua Tree there are no Joshua Trees in the Colorado Desert area of the park; they are only found in the Mojave Desert area of the park.
JTNP is extremely beautiful at this time of the year and the temperatures are reasonable for hiking. But as this is a true desert environment we would recommend you that you visit between late fall and early spring before high temperatures go into the triple digits!