Stagecoach Getaway

After three weeks into our new house, it was time to take a break and go on a four-night camping excursion.  Our destination was Stagecoach State Park, which lies a few miles south of Steamboat Springs.  We would be joining a pair of fellow Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) members on an unofficial social outing sponsored by the CMC’s Western Slope Group.

Our original plan was to take the trailer, so we booked an electrical-hookup site.  After spending almost eight months in the trailer since September 1st, we thought it might be more fun to camp in the tent and try out our new inflatable mattress.  A look at the predicted temperatures (lows in the 20s) changed that plan.  So, we loaded our trusty domicile on wheels and headed up.

Like most Colorado State Parks, Stagecoach surrounds a reservoir, this one the result of a dam plugging the Yampa River.  The reservoir is large enough to allow motorboats and waterskiing, none of which was happening in the cool, pre-Memorial Day time we were up there.  We saw only anglers, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders out on the water.

Even though this was not an official CMC trip, I anticipated it would involve three days of peak bagging.  Fortunately, the other couple were not gung-ho peak baggers, which left us pretty much free to do what we wanted. We started by checking out some of the more affordable properties in the area.  

The first day, Dianne and I drove up through Steamboat Springs, gagging on all the new development that is (to borrow a phrase from Utah writer Jim Stiles) morphing the Steamboat at the speed of greed. 

After trying to spot the ski area from behind all the new condos, we headed north through the ranching town of Clark and on to check out Pearl and Steamboat Lake State Parks for future trips.  Pearl was closed, but we did get a glimpse of Steamboat Lake and surveyed several attractive campsites there.

The next day, Dianne and I along with fellow CMC member Becky Gray hiked the five-mile Elk Run Trail along the southeastern side of the reservoir.  We saw nary an elk running or otherwise.  Becky’s husband, Chuck, provided Uber service for us, driving us back to the dam where we parked our truck.

On our final full day, we wandered around the park capturing photos of the reservoir and the tailwaters below the dam.  It’s quite possible that this trip will hit the pages of a springtime edition of Colorado Life Magazine.

Driving back to Fruita on Interstate 70, it hit us that this was the first time we were actually heading home by driving west on this portion of the highway.  Traffic was relatively light.  I can only imagine what it would been like heading into Denver at the start of this three-day holiday weekend.

Getting ready

Hallelujah! We’ll soon be Arizona bound.

You would think that after spending 165 of the past 177 nights bunking in our trailer, all we would have to do to leave is simply hook up and go.  It’s proving to be not so simple.

For example, we’ve got to remove all of our “winterizing” modifications.  The skirting has to be taken off and pitched into the trash.  The cover over the air conditioner needs to be removed.  The heated water hose needs to be packed away in our storage unit. 

The freshwater tank needs to be sanitized with bleach. The water heater anode needs to be replaced and water in the water lines needs to be blown out so the pipes don’t freeze up in transit.

Since we’re going to Arizona where it’s warm, we’ll need to ditch our cold weather clothing and pack up shorts, t-shirts and Tevas.  We’ll need to stock up on beer, wine, food and toiletries to last until we get to the Phoenix area.  Both propane tanks need to be topped up. Did I mention we’ll need to stock up on beer and wine?

We’ll be doing all that with great big smiles this weekend.  After months stuck at an RV park, we’re finally going to go “camping” again.

First Stop – Monument Valley

Years ago, my favorite motel chain was Motel 6.  Besides Magic Finger beds, they had cheap rooms where a night’s stay came cheaply.  Since then, my favorite motels still have numbers as part of their name.  My preferred motels now are Four Seasons and Super 8 – Four Seasons when traveling on OPM (Other People’s Money) and Super 8 when paying with my own dimes. 

Since we don’t have a Four Seasons in Fruita (and we’re not traveling on OPM), we opted to spend the night before our Great Arizona Escape Trip at the local Super 8.  The idea was to have the truck gassed and the trailer ready to go with hoses detached, slide out in, beer in the fridge and plumbing blown out before our departure. 

We got up early, enjoyed a fantastic Super 8 waffle, picked up coffee at Starbucks and hit the road by the crack of 9:00.  By then, rush hour traffic had cleared, and we didn’t even have to wait for anyone in either of the two round-abouts separating us from the Interstate.

Nineteen miles later, we entered Utah, hightailed it to the Cisco cutoff and followed the former Grand River toward Moab.  Clearing the town made famous in Jim Stiles book “Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed” we headed south through Monticello and Blanding and on to Bluff. 

There we made our obligatory stop at Twin Rocks Trading Post and Café for Navajo Tacos, which consists of chili, cheese,salad and salsa on top of a huge patty of Navajo fry bread. That was washed down with some good Utah brews, which now real beers and not that 3.2% near-beer they used to serve in the Beehive State.

We got to Monument Valley early in the afternoon. In spite of enthusiastic directions screamed by someone who I believe is Wrong Way Corrigan’s distant relative, I took the correct turn to Goulding’s campground. 

After spending the winter in cold, cold Fruita, it was nice to walk around in a sweatshirt and watch as the sun bathed the nearby cliffs in warm afternoon light. 

Since we had a large lunch and would be going on a thought-provoking tour the next day, we dined on a bag of Smart Food that evening.

All Day, Two-Valley Tour

When we booked our campsite, we were given the opportunity to book a Monument Valley tour at a slightly discounted price.  To maximize the amount we’d save, we booked the most expensive tour available – an eight-hour, all-day drive through both Monument Valley and neighboring Mystery Valley. 

At 9:00 a.m. in the morning, we met our driver at the campground office.

“How many do you have on this tour?” I asked.

“Two,” our Navajo guide, Art Nelson, replied.  “Just you two.”

Our private tour began with an inside visit of an unoccupied Navajo hogan, this one built to educate us tourists.  We learned how they were built with stripped juniper logs and found out there’s a difference between female hogans and male hogans.  Dianne was happy to learn there are no transgender hogans.

From there, we drove around the backcountry on trails that would hardly qualify to be called roads anywhere else in the country.  Our van, Art assured us, was all-wheel drive. 

We spent the morning in Mystery Valley, which lies south of Monument Valley.  We visited natural arches, gazed at Anasazi ruins and admired pictograph and petroglyph panels of rock art.  Our driver was gracious about stopping frequently and giving us time to waste digits photographing landscapes in the cloudless, midday lighting.

After a box lunch devoured in the wild and a stop at the Navajo-owned View Hotel gift shop (Dianne spent less than $50 there buying things for our new house), we started down the famous 17-mile loop road. 

Partway along, we turned off on a, tour-groups-only, two-track trail into the Monument Valley backcountry.  There we observed more arches, more ruins and more rock art along with sites where scenes from John Wayne movies were filmed.

Returning to the 17-mile loop, we made a few final stops before returning to the campground.  We said goodbye to our tour guide with a couple of $20 bills and headed up to the trailer for well-deserved brews.  After showers and a change of clothes (“You’re not going to wear those Levi’s are you?” my wife informed me.  “They’re GROSS!”) we headed up to the Goulding’s resort restaurant for dinner. 

Of course, we ordered Navajo tacos.

Petrified Forest/Painted Desert

Last time we visited Petrified Forest National Park, one of the rangers asked if we wanted to hike trailless routes in the backcountry.  We answered to the affirmative and she let us borrow a Xerox-copied booklet of off-the-beaten-path hikes.  We chose the First Forest hike and had a delightful time getting away from the hoards.  We planned on doing more of these back-of-beyond hikes on this visit.

Checking in at the Visitor Center, we discovered that since Covid, they no longer hand out the booklets.  Instead, pages covering individual hikes were available from the information desk rangers.  I wanted to do a hike in the Painted Desert portion of the park, so we got packets covering the seven-mile Wilderness Loop hike and the four-mile Onyx Bridge hike.

The original plan was to do the Wilderness Loop hike, but with the wind kicking up, we opted to do the shorter Onyx Bridge hike.  We drove out to the trailhead at the old Painted Desert Inn and set off down the trail at the crack of 10:30 a.m. in the morning.

The route drops 300 feet off the rim, passes by some old bridge abutments built in the 1920s, then cuts across the desert flats toward a distant butte.  There’s no trail, only the occasional footprints to follow.  We had the place virtually to ourselves.  The only other hikers we saw on our way in were an elderly man in a yellow shirt way out ahead of us and a pair of backpackers who passed us on their way back up to the trailhead.  The descriptions in the handouts were vague enough to keep us on our toes, and although we went a bit farther than the indicated distance, we had no trouble finding our objective. 

Onyx Bridge is a twenty-foot long petrified tree trunk lying across a dry wash bed.  A large assortment of petrified logs lay nearby.  We found a semi-sheltered spot out of the wind to eat our lunch.  From here, it was a two-mile slog back straight into an ever-increasing wind.  It was miserable.

Back at our RV site in Holbrook, we had a decision to make.  The wind howled with gusts of 45 miles per hour.  The slideout topper (a short awning over the top of the slideout) on a neighbor’s trailer had ripped apart.  Our slideout topper was whipping back and forth, threatening to become airborne.  Figuring a night in a motel was cheaper than replacing the slideout awning, we considered pulling the slideout in and spending the night at the nearest Super 8.

Fortunately, with evening approaching the wind began to die down and we nixed the motel idea.  With similar winds predicted for the following day, we decided to try finding an alternative place to camp.  With a little effort, we landed a spot at the Zane Grey RV Village down in Camp Verde, a small, central Arizona town in the Verde Valley not far from Sedona.  We would catch some rain, the RV park attendant said, but winds weren’t bad down there.  Setting the alarm for an early departure, we hoped to get out of town before the winds kicked up again.

Dropping Down

Holbrook sits in a high, flat, treeless plain at 5,082 feet above sea level.  Camp Verde, our escape destination, sits in a semi-forested valley 3,147 feet above sea level.  Between the two lies the Arizona high country where desert dwellers like my grandmother head to escape the summer heat.  Here, we experienced wet roads and fresh snow.  I wondered what passing motorists thought when they saw two adults with Colorado license plates standing beside the highway shooting pictures of snow.

Leaving our RV park site in Holbrook at 8:00 a.m. was both good and bad.  On the positive side, we did manage to escape the gusting winds scheduled to hit later in the day.  On the negative side, we arrived in Camp Verde two hours before we could check into our campsite at the Zane Grey RV Village.  The attendant was adamant that because of low-hanging tree branches, nobody was allowed to park their rigs without a staff member directing them, and that doesn’t happen until after 1:00.

With time to kill, we went into town intending to do one of two things.  We would either have a two-hour lunch somewhere or we would go tour Fort Verde State Historical Park.  The park won out. 

The historical park preserves the remains of Fort Verde, a military post built back in Arizona’s territorial days.  Several of the original buildings still survive, and the park features a small museum with artifacts and displays covering the days when soldiers fought Indians.  On this cool, wet, early season day, we had the place virtually to ourselves.

Departing the park, the lunch option hit.  Using Google, Dianne found the only Mexican restaurant in town, where we sat down and enjoyed chips, salsa, margaritas and burritos.  Then it was off to the RV park where with the help of the parking attendant, we cleared by mere inches the leaning trunk of the Arizona sycamore tree guarding our site. 

I’m not a lover of RV parks, but this is one of the better ones I’ve stayed in. Split-rail fences separate the sites and we’ve got vegetation around us offering a small degree of privacy.  Our site is relatively level, and with a tree flush against our dinette window, we can’t see our port-side neighbor.  Best of all, the wind isn’t blowing.

West Clear Creek

On our one full day here in the Verde Valley, we went on a hike.  Our goal was a six-mile hike into a place called Blodgett Basin.  Somehow, we missed the trailhead and ended up parked at the trailhead for West Clear Creek.  I remember this as being a popular hiking destination from back when I lived in Arizona, so it was a good alternative.

The first part of the hike was across the flats at a wide spot in the lower canyon.  A mile from the cars, we passed a stone cabin near the site of the Bull Run Ranch.  The cabin had two front doors.   In the old days when the Mormons sported more than one wife, their homes would have multiple front doors – one for each wife.  Smaller than our trailer, this cabin would have been a bit cozy for a ménage à trois, but at least each wife would have had her own front door.

We followed the trail up the canyon.  The creek was high with snowmelt runoff.  When we got to the trail’s first creek crossing, we turned around.  Our planned six-mile hike ended up being a three-mile stroll.

Returning to Camp Verde, we stopped and bought a few groceries.  On our way to camp, we stopped at the Rio Claro winery for a tasting.  It only cost us a bit over $50 for a five-pour tasting and a bottle of Cabernet Franc.

Back in camp, we enjoyed a lunch of wine (cheap boxed wine, not the good stuff we just bought), cheese and crackers followed by hot showers in the trailer.  Tomorrow, we actually go camping for the first time since our trip to Santa Fe.  This place is nice, but parking in an RV resort with LED lights wrapping the trees just isn’t “camping.”

On to the Desert

After a lazy morning, we hitched up the trailer and headed down the interstate toward Phoenix.  Winding our way through endless city traffic, we escaped into McDowell Mountain Regional Park. 

We arrived at 12:40 p.m. in the afternoon.  Check-in time for campsites is 1:00 p.m. and the gate keeper was adamant that absolutely no one could check into their sites before that exact time.  We killed our 20 minutes of wait time at the park’s visitor center where we got a map and suggestions for hikes.

After six nights of bunking in RV parks, it was great to once again be camping with our nearest neighbor dozens of yards away.  From our site, we’ve got a great view of Four Peaks, a mountain with a quartet of conical summits across the valley, and Weaver’s Needle, a volcanic monolith in the Superstition Mountains long associated with the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine.

After setting up the trailer and devouring a hot dog downed with beer, we set off on our first hike.  This was a three-mile nature walk on the park’s North Trail.  We had a brochure explaining what we were seeing at 26 stops along the route.  I grew up in the desert and have returned on many trips, so none of this was new to me, but the descriptions in the handout served as a pleasant reminder of the desert’s beauty.

Everyone, I suppose, has their favorite topography.  There are three types of landforms that illuminate my soul – rugged mountains, slickrock canyons and the Sonoran Desert. 

We’ve got rugged mountains and slickrock canyons near our new home on the Western Slope of Colorado.  It felt great now to be camping and hiking in the third of my beloved landforms out here in the Arizona desert.

McDowell Mountain Regional Park

We reserved three nights of camping at McDowell Mountain, and we were determined to make the most of it.  Our first afternoon, we hiked the North Nature Trail where we saw a hawk perched atop a saguaro.    

On our second day, we hiked a combination of trails that took us on an 11-mile loop through the northwestern part of the park.  The trails remained relatively wide and flat as they meandered through the desert.  The scenery was pretty much uniform along the way with the McDowell Mountains ahead, Four Peaks to the east and Weavers Needle to the southeast.   

Our top wildlife sighting along the way was a great horned owl perched on a tree branch.  That evening, we had a coyote saunter down the ravine behind our campsite.  He and his buddies serenaded us that evening with distant yips.

On our third day at McDowell, we hiked what they billed as the “Scenic Trail.”  It offered the same scenery as before, but just from a slightly loftier vantage point.

The trails at McDowell Mountain are also open to bicyclists.  We must have met at least five mountain bikers (mostly old people) for every one fellow hiker (mostly old people) we came across.  Except for a pair of teenage lads (not old people), all were friendly and courteous.  An appreciated practice out here is for the lead bicyclist to tell us how many more are following them. 

While the bikes weren’t really a problem, they were a bit of an annoyance.  In a few weeks, we’re going to appreciate that in the Superstition Wilderness Area behind Lost Dutchman, bikes are banned.

Picacho Peak

Visit Arizona refers to Picacho Peak as being “the most famous summit in the Sonoran Desert.”  This impressive hunk of basaltic and andesite volcanic rock rises nearly 2,000 sheer vertical feet from the desert floor between Phoenix and Tucson.  A state park sits at its base where we camped for two nights.  On our layover day, we climbed to the top of this seemingly unclimbable peak.

There are two trails leading up the peak.  The common route, the Hunter Trail, involves a 1.6-mile grunt up a steep trail that begins near the visitor center.  The other route up is the three-mile Sunset Trail, which leaves from a picnic area not far from the campground.  We decided to make a loop of it.  We would walk 1½ miles from our campsite to the Hunter Trail, scale the peak and return to camp on the Sunset Trail. 

The first part of the Hunter Trail was like climbing a rocky stairwell to the top floor of a 100-story skyscraper.  That only got us to the saddle, with the summit another 414 vertical feet above.  Unfortunately, towering cliffs prevent an easy stroll to the top.  From here, the going gets interesting.

Instead of going up, the route descends a steep, cliff-hugging rock bench.  Steel cables attached to the stone provide handholds.  Hopefully, they weren’t installed by Larry the Cable Guy. 

We lost about a fifth of our hard-earned altitude as we dropped down and wrapped around the cliffs on the backside of the peak.  Cables are ever present as we scaled near vertical slabs of rock in places.  In one spot, we crossed the void on a 2×10 board anchored to the wall.  We finally completed our last cliff-hanging catwalk and scrambled to the summit, which we shared with over a half-dozen fellow hikers.

Back in my prime, I like to think I could have done this class-4 climb without the cables.  But that was 25 years and 25 pounds ago.  Now, on the cusp of geezerhood, there’s no need to be macho.  I was happy to have the cables.

After downing a bag of gommp (good old M&Ms and peanuts) and some aged beef jerky, we started down the peak using a whole new set of muscles.  A half mile from the summit, we reached the Sunset Trail junction and followed it down with more vertical, cabled sections to descend.  We finally hit the relatively flat valley floor and began the final two-mile, scenic slog back to camp.

Back at the trailer, we indulged in the three joys of hiking.  We stripped off our boots.  We downed cold brews and we took long hot sailor showers (well, not really long, but definitely hot and wet).  Never has not hiking ever felt so good.