Tent Camping in Canyon Country

We had so much fun on our previous tent camping experience, I was able to convince my lovely wife to allow me to buy a tent.  Our former Korean-made, Walmart special given to us by the in-laws was replaced with a Big Agnes Big House four-person tent.  It’s spacious and tall enough we can stand up inside.

Of course, we had to test the tent out in the wild.  For that I booked four nights at Colorado National Monument in western Colorado near Grand Junction.  We loaded up the truck and set out with our local weather gal promising 70-degree highs and lows in the 40s.

One of the things we discovered on our August tent camping trip was how much harder the ground has gotten over the years.  To mitigate that, we decided we needed fatter pads under our sleeping bags. 

Years ago, at some travel writer gathering, I was given a Big Agnes Q-Core insulated air mattress.  I never used it.  In fact, I never took it out of the stuff sack it came in.  After all, we have a real mattress with a 2½-inch memory foam topper in the trailer.

It was in the Covid-cleanup, donate-to-charity box when I looked it up online and discovered it was a $100+ pad.  We pulled it out and decided to give it a try on this trip, with Dianne being the designated guinea pig.  She loved it so much, we decided to order another, now 50% more expensive.

Our reserved site at Colorado National Monument was ideal for tent camping.  We had a flat spot for the tent with piñon and juniper trees sheltering the site.  We erected our new camp tent, set up our folding camp kitchen, pulled out the camp chairs and in less than three hours, we were kicking back, downing a couple of camp beers.

That night we discovered one of the major drawbacks to tent camping in a formal campground.  Motorhomes all have generators, and for some reason, they need to run them constantly.  The site next to us, a good 20 or 30 yards away, was occupied by a succession of motorhomes, each with progressively louder generators.  It was like we were once again camping next to the interstate.

Four nights in camp gave us time for three full days for hiking.  Our first day’s hike was up Monument Canyon from the bottom to the base of Independence Monument.  We spotted several groups of bighorn sheep on the way up.  A longtime resident of the area we met along the trail said they were common in this canyon.  She was a park volunteer (not on duty), and as we chatted (at the proper social distancing distance), she told us about several other off-the-beaten-path hikes we should try.  We didn’t take notes, and of course at our ages, we don’t remember a single one of them.  But they sure sounded good.

The nice thing about the Monument Canyon to Independence Monument trip is that we could make it a loop trip by hiking back on the Wedding Canyon Trail.  At the bottom, on Nebraska-flat ground not far from the truck, Dianne somehow tripped over a flat rock fully buried in the dirt.  She lurched forward only to be saved from mashing into the ground by her loving husband who flung his body between her and the great beyond.

In the process of staggering forward, she managed to badly tweak her hamstring.  She was only able to mitigate the subsequent pain, she insisted, by downing a three-scoop ice cream sundae at Enstrom’s in nearby Fruita.

With Dianne unable to hike on her injured hammie, we spent our second day playing tourists.  We drove Rim Rock Drive stopping at every viewpoint along the way.  Dianne did manage to hobble down few short overlook trails, but it was clear she wasn’t going to cover any major ground the next day.

Unable to hike, Dianne became my third-day Uber driver.  She dropped me at the upper end of the Monument Trail along Rim Rock Drive.  I hiked down past the Coke Ovens formation and along the cliffs back to Independence Monument.  With towering redrock on one side and a canyon on the other, I burned up a slew of digits shooting photos along the way. 

Not wanting to duplicate my wife’s tripping on a flat rock, I chose to forego the Wedding Canyon option and trudge down the trail we had taken up the first day.  Along the way, I cautiously passed a carnivorous rock and spooked a gaggle of bighorn rams. 

Dianne was waiting by the truck at the bottom.  In the backseat sat our 12-volt cooler, chilled to 39 degrees.  Liberating a cold brew from its clutches, I unfolded one of our chairs and kicked back.  It was the perfect ending to a fun hike.

Our next tent trip is already inked on the calendar.  Because of the ongoing Covidemic, we decided not to get ski passes this year.  As a partial consolation, we booked campsites for two weeks in February at a pair of hiker-friendly, county parks in the Phoenix area.  Instead of towing the trailer over mountain roads in the winter, we will take the tent. 

Not only will we have flush restrooms and showers available at the campground, but we’ll be in tent-only campgrounds where generators are totally banned.

Back home again

When we left home, we set a goal of both hiking and biking a minimum of 100 miles.  We achieved both, covering 101 miles on foot (not counting walks around the campground) and 124 miles atop two wheels.  In addition to the fun of pedaling and perambulating, I had work to do.

Just before leaving on our trip, I received an assignment to do a series of short features for Colorado Life magazine covering scenic, out-of-the-way campgrounds in Colorado.  The rustic, no-hookup campground at Mancos State Park fit the requirements perfectly.  We’re hoping the editor will run this in the May-June issue.

Another campground that fit the bill Jumbo Lake Campground on Grand Mesa where we camped last year.  Although we were stuck down at Robb State Park Island Acres, we spent many days up on the mesa exploring and photographing the area for the magazine.  Jumbo should be perfect for the July-August issue.

For the September-October issue, I wanted a campground surrounded by fall color, and there’s no better place to catch the green and gold of a Colorado autumn than along the San Juan Skyway.  The 236-mile highway loop runs from Ridgway to Silverton and on to Durango.  From there, it goes to Cortez and back to Ridgway, passing the bygone mining towns of Rico and Telluride.  Instead of a single site, we plan to feature a half-dozen small campgrounds along the way where leaf-peeping campers can bunk in Midas-touched splendor.

At our campsite at Ridgway State Park, we met up with some old climbing friends and fellow authors, Charlie and Diane Winger, who live in nearby Montrose.  On our last Thursday in camp, they led us on a hike out of Ouray. 

On the way back, we went to see the new Ouray Via Ferrata.  Here, participants clip into steel cables for safety as they traverse Ouray’s box canyon gorge using ladders and steel-rod steps anchored to the sheer rock faces. 

Charlie and Diane graciously agreed to be photo models for us on Friday.  We shot from the cliffs while they traversed the route below.  We’ve now added the Via Ferrata to our “must do” list for next year.

Instead of going directly home from Ridgway, we made a one-night final camping stop at Cherry Creek State Park, which lies about five miles from home.  It’s tough to back the trailer into the driveway during periods heavy traffic volume.  It’s much easier on Sunday mornings when traffic is minimal.

An added bonus of camping at Cherry Creek was that we could get a full-hookup, pull-through site for the night.  With electricity, water and sewer connections, we could enjoy all the comforts of home before we actually got home.

Third stop – Ridgway

For the third stop on our triple-header camping trip, we headed to Ridgway State Park for a two-week stay.  Our campsite is two spots down from where we camped last year and three down from our 2018 site.  I guess we’re fond of this loop.

Located just off the San Juan Skyway, about a dozen miles north of Ouray, the park attracts a lot of visitors from the Lone Star State (and elsewhere) who arrive in their gargantuan motor homes and fifth-wheel trailers.  So long was our current neighbor’s trailer, he couldn’t pull it through the curving pull-through site and had to back in.  It makes us happy we bought small.

Ridgway State Park surrounds Ridgway Reservoir, a good-sized pond behind a dam on the Uncompahgre River.  When we were here last July, the reservoir was full.  Kids frolicked at the swim beach and folks fished from a shoreline gazebo.  Not now.  There’s no water at the now closed swim beach and the shoreline gazebo now towers high on the slope, far from the water.  A ranger lady says it’s like this every year.

When we arrived here a week ago, the air was clear and the scenery spectacular.  Our first hike was to Lower Blue Lake at the base of Mt. Sneffels.  Dianne and I looked down on Lower Blue Lake and its upper sibling from the top of 14,157-foot summit of Mt. Sneffels a few years ago.  This time, we gazed up at the far away summit from the pond below.  Sensing movement atop the mountain, I pulled out the binoculars and saw at least two climbers looking down.  I waved.

A few camo-clad hunters parked in the Blue Lakes Trailhead parking lot reminded us that it’s bow and muzzle loader hunting for elk and bear.  Bow hunters need to get close to their targets before firing, we were assured, so they would know we weren’t prey.  Still, we decided to take no chances.  We drove 20 miles into Montrose and bought flame-orange caps and vests to wear on our next hike into the woods. 

After two days of clear skies, the California smoke discovered our new location and blew in to obscure the landscape.  Distant views looked like they were wrapped in waxed paper and the sun set as a ball that was more glowing orange than our don’t-shoot-me caps and vests.  The smoke has been constantly fogging the views since then.

Our next hike took us up the Dexter Creek Trail, a long, continuous ascent up a valley northeast of Ouray.  The scenic views were hazy, but we did encounter some early fall color and passed by a pair of old mines holding the rusting remains of abandoned machinery.  We wore our vivid orange vests, but only saw one hunter on his way out.  He didn’t shoot.

Today, we drove into Ridgway on a goose chase.  Galloping Goose #4 has been moved from Telluride, where it wastes away on a downtown street, to the Ridgway Railroad Museum where it will spend the winter under cover.  Before heading back, we stopped at the market for a few emergency supplies, such as more microwave popcorn packets. 

While Dianne was shopping, I photographed a street-side Trump rally.  There was nary a face covering to be seen. 

This is why we camp…

The skies cleared and on our last night at Mancos, the moon hadn’t yet come up and we were treated to a black velvet sky diamond-dusted with shimmering stars.  From our campsite, we could see the Milky Way streaking between the towering Ponderosa pines.  It’s nice staying in a campground with fewer sites and with no electric hookups feeding bulbs, emblazoning the sky with artificial light.

The view looking toward the dam from the north end of the reservoir was equally appealing.

Boonie camping by the numbers

We’re on the last day of our 14-day retreat at Mancos State Park.  Our longest stay at a campground with no hookups, it has proven to be an excellent experiment in water, sewer and electrical usage.

As for water, we’ve used a bit over 100 gallons, all of which was hand carted in five-gallon jerry cans from a spigot located about 25 yards away.  We fully filled the trailer’s 50-gallon freshwater on our arrival and topped it up twice more.

As for the “used” water, I’ve made four roundtrips pulling our sewer tote to the dump station – two carrying black water and two with gray.  We’ll dump all our tanks directly into the dump station drain when we leave the campground tomorrow morning. 

Last time we were at Mancos (a 13-day stay) we had the pair of anemic, lead-acid batteries that came with the trailer.  Each was rated for 75 AH (amp hours).  The general rule with batteries like these is to never let them go below 50% of capacity.  With lights, water pump, furnace fan, computers and camera charging, we found that we were using over 40 AH daily. 

That meant we had to fully recharge the batteries daily.  We spent every second day stuck in camp moving solar panels around to keep the batteries happy.  We even pulled out our generator (I hate generators) and ran that for a few hours one day trying to recharge the batteries.

Immediately after that trip, I installed a 200-AH lithium iron phosphate RV battery, a converter/charger specifically designed for lithium batteries and reset our solar controller for lithium charging.  What a difference.  A few hours of direct sunlight and our new battery was charged to 100% capacity.

Of course, that requires the sun to be out, which it was for the first 10 days of our stay.  Then the rains came and for three solid days, we didn’t see the sun.  Instead of kicking in 225+ watts of power into the solar controller, our combined trio of panels sucked in less than 10 watts from the leaden sky. 

On the middle of the third day, our battery monitor indicated we had used over 140 AH of battery power.   Our former batteries would have been virtually dead.  The new lithium battery was still kicking out a comfortable 13 volts of power.  We didn’t need to worry about dipping below the 50% threshold because that restriction doesn’t apply to lithium RV batteries.

Tomorrow morning, we move to Ridgway State Park where we will have an electrical hookup.  With a nearby water spigot, we should be able to refill our freshwater tank with a hose.  There’s no sewer, so we’ll still have to tote our “used” water down a long hill to the dump station.  But with thirty-amps of 120-volt power feeding in, we won’t have to worry about battery charging and solar panel placement.

Smokey’s back

It’s Monday, Labor Day, and our old friend, the smoke, has returned with a vengeance.  It’s been nearly crystal clear around here until today.  I’m wondering if we’re going to have enough solar power penetrating this cloud of smoke to charge the battery.

Apparently, smoke from the California fires combined with smoke from the Grand Junction area has arrived here in southwestern Colorado.  AccuWeater says it’s sunny outside, but we can’t even see Ol’ Sol through the thick, foggy cloud of smoke.  Cold temperatures combined with rain and/or snow is predicted for tomorrow and Wednesday, which hopefully will clear the air.

We really love Mancos State Park.  Even over the three-day weekend, it’s been relatively quiet and peaceful.  We’re now watching everybody departing.  By midweek, the campground should be virtually empty.  We’ll love it even more then.

Since leaving home, we’ve pedaled over 100 miles and hiked over 60.  Yesterday we did a 12¼-mile hike out of the park with 1,600+ feet of vertical.  Thirty years ago, we would have done that with 40- and 50-pound packs on our backs and declared it to be an easy day.  Returning to camp yesterday, just climbing the steps into the trailer to fetch the beers took an effort.  This getting old sucks.

Fall color is just beginning to hit the mountains.  Scrub oak leaves are turning a rusty orange and the golden finger of Midas has begun to touch the aspen.  We’re hoping for spectacular color when we hit Ridgway next week.  We’re also hoping the smoke will be gone so we can see (and photograph) that color.

Thanks to Covid, we’re setting a record on this trip.  We’ve now been camping for 23 consecutive nights and have not once dined in a Mexican restaurant.  We haven’t gone that long without a burrito and margarita since we spent three months camping across Canada. 

Yes, we all have to make sacrifices during this pandemic, but this is truly roughing it.

On to Mancos

We left Island Acres and arrived at Mancos State Park on Saturday afternoon.  The route from Grand Junction to Mancos took us over two mountain passes (Dallas Divide and Lizard Head), most of which was done with a fierce headwind.  We arrived at Mancos in calmer conditions, set up camp and kicked back beneath the ponderosa pines and enjoyed the sounds of silence.

Sunday was flake-out day with just a 3.6-mile hike around Jackson Gulch Reservoir, the park’s central feature.  The water provides a great backdrop for savoring the sunset.

Yesterday, we hiked a beautiful trail in the national forest that is on neither the Trails Illustrated nor San Juan National Forest maps.  We had no idea where it was taking us, which was exciting.  We ended up in a familiar canyon and followed a trail we took last June back to camp.  

Today, Tuesday, is flush and fill day – the day that we drain the gray- and blackwater holding tanks and top up the freshwater tank.  The “used water” I tote to the dump station in Bob, our 25-gallon Barker tote tank.  It’s a two-trip operation – one for the black followed by another for the gray.  While I can tote the tote from the hitch of the truck, I’ve just been hand-pulling it here because the dump station is only a couple hundred yards away.  Hand-pulling gallons of sewage to the sewer builds character.

Dianne carts the freshwater in five-gallon jerry cans from the drinking water spigot about 25 yards away.  By carrying a pair of jerry cans with us, she can be refilling one while I’m using a portable water pump to load the water from the other.  It took five jerry trips today to replace the liquid we’d used since our arrival on Saturday.

We’ve got a nice long hike planned for tomorrow followed by maybe a bike ride past some nearby summer homes on Thursday.  Friday will be flush and fill day.  Once again I’ll be dragging Bob up the road to the dump station.  I can’t wait.

Phase one comes to a close

We just completed our last active day at Island Acres with a 40-mile bike ride on the Riverfront Trail.  From Las Colonias park in Grand Junction, we pedaled 14 miles out to the Robb State Park in Fruita.  From there we continued nearly to the Kokopelli Trailhead in Loma.  At the 20-mile point, we turned back.

Heading downriver, the first half of the trip was predominantly downhill, and we had a nice tailwind.  Going back was uphill, pedaling into a stiff breeze.  At Dianne’s insistence, we ensured success by stocking up on calories at Enstrom’s with triple-scoop ice cream sundaes before facing the final 14 miles of trail.

This was our fourth day of bicycling over our 14-night stay at Island Acres.  We also enjoyed five days of hiking up on Grand Mesa.  In all, we covered nearly 94 miles on bikes and over 32 miles on hiking trails.  Monday was a shopping and laundry day, and tomorrow will be the same as we prepare for departure.  We also had two photo days up on the Mesa (not retired yet) and a stay-in-the-trailer day when the smoke from the Pine Gulch fire blanketed the valley and beyond.

Saturday, we begin the second leg of our Covid-escaping, getaway trifecta.  After enjoying full-hookup “camping” here at Island Acres, we will be staying at Mancos State Park near Mesa Verde where water fill-ups will have to be carted in jerry cans, the battery will be recharged with solar panels and the gray- and black-water tank contents will be hauled to the dump station using Bob, our 25-gallon, Barker four-wheel sewer tote. 

At Mancos, we’ll be boondock camping in the whispering pines.  No din of the interstate.  No freight trains rumbling by.  I’m really looking forward to spending the next two weeks ensconced in rustic quiet.