“Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” With the camera and oxygen mask in my lap, that’s what I heard as I sat in the co-pilot seat of a twin-engine Piper Navajo ready to depart from Talkeetna airport for a flightseeing trip to view Denali from high above.
But the story really begins a few days earlier.
Midway between Anchorage and Denali National Park, off the main highway and on its own spur, sits the historical village of Talkeetna. It is full of log buildings, a railroad depot, a general store, various food trucks, cafes, and restaurants. It looks like a mining and gold prospector town right out of the 1800s, with a modern artsy twist. And the best part–the best part of all–is the buzz of all the flightseeing airplanes and helicopters overhead.
Unfortunately the popular (and what I thought was the only) campground was full by the time I rolled through town, so I turned back towards the main highway in search of a place to sleep–at 11 o’clock at night. Knowing I really should snap some photos of what little I had seen of Talkeetna and thinking I may never get back, something made me turn around in the middle of the road after I had completely left town. On my way back to town, I saw people parked–cameras and binoculars in hand–next to a “Scenic View” sign. With nothing but a big sun beginning to set behind the clouds, some gentle rain falling, and trees for miles and miles, I didn’t see anything that remotely resembled a scenic view, but I parked anyway. An older couple pointed out at the horizon, and asked me, “Do you see it?”. They sensed my confusion and said, “Denali. It’s right in front of us, 60 miles away, once the clouds disappear.” Excited to see the famed mountain in person for the first time, I asked the old man how long he had waited here to see it. He responded, “40 years, son, 40 years.”
It’s true. Denali is so big that it creates its own weather. Even if the surrounding area has clear skies, there is generally a cloud layer obscuring the actual mountain. In fact, the guide books say that only 25-30% of visitors actually get to see Denali appear. So, yes, I was pretty excited when–about 30 minutes later–the sun went behind the Alaska Range, the clouds parted, and there stood the 20,320-foot Denali flanked by the 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker and the 14,573-foot Mt. Hunter. The other peaks–many over 10,000 feet–look like tiny hills compared to Denali and the other two “big” peaks.
After talking with some of the others who had stopped to get a glimpse of Denali, I still had to find a place to sleep. At this point, it was well past midnight, so I took a chance and drove into town one more time, hoping to find a spot on the street to park and sleep. By chance, I found a not-so-published campground back in the woods, put my money in the honor box, and stumbled into bed. Little did I know I would spend the next two days in Talkeetna.
The next day, I ended up finding a spot at the main campground that was full the night before. And my campsite happened to back up directly against the Alaska Railroad Depot for the Hurricane Turn train. It is one of the last true flag stop trains in America. Instead of scheduled station stops, passengers between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch simply flag down the train as it approaches. And passengers already on the train let the conductor know they want to detrain because their cabin, or lean-to, or fishing hole, or campsite is near. There are no other ways to reach these incredibly remote places. There are no roads, and the Alaskan Bush is too thick for airplanes in this part.
Since I was literally staying only a few yards from the depot, I bought a ticket impromptu, and stepped back in time for a six-hour roundtrip journey by rail. It was an experience! Honestly, the scenery itself started to look the same after a while, but the people I saw and stories I heard were priceless. Of course the train was full of tourists just like me, but it was also full of locals on their way to their property. In some cases, they were heading back to their childhood home. Some brought supplies: like two-by-fours and tools, beer and water, rifles and fishing rods. Some got off right away, did some fishing, and then got back on when we returned a few hours later on the inbound leg. There were two passenger cars with comfy seats and big windows, but there was a third car–a cargo car with doors wide open and a safety net strung across the bottom. In Alaska fashion, we would stick our heads out the open door as the train raced along the tracks–at speeds up to 60 mph! We even passed Alaska’s smallest town, population two. And at one point, the train stopped at a rail crossing so we could all get out to see a grizzly bear that had just been shot a few hours earlier. It was a crazy, crazy ride!
The conductor kept track of everything and everyone, yet still found time to share stories and answer questions:
“So why have I been saying Denali and what happened to Mt. McKinley?”, he asked. “Well, they are the same thing. Denali, an Athabaskan word meaning ‘The High One,’ is the official Alaskan name for the mountain. But nationally, Mt. McKinley is named in honor of President McKinley, a man who never even visited Alaska.” As he politely explained, “If you call it Mt. McKinley, we know you’re a tourist. If you call it Denali, we know you are a true Alaskan.”
So, from now on, I’m calling it Denali. Oh, and by the way, most of the locals pronounce it with a hard “a” sound: as in, rhymes with “alley”, and not “Molly.”
And that brings be back to ”Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” As everyone was packing up to depart by the ubiquitous 11AM campground checkout time, my next door neighbors mentioned they were on their way to take a flightseeing trip to see Denali from above. One thing led to another, and I found myself in the co-pilot seat of a Piper Navajo, about to depart on a 90-minute adventure of a lifetime.
Since Denali is just over 20,000 feet in elevation, we would have to climb to just under 21,000 feet to see it from above. And since oxygen starts disappearing at around 12,500 feet, we would need supplemental oxygen and masks. I am pretty certain that it was my first flight in a twin-engine general aviation airplane, and it was certainly my first flight in a non-pressurized cabin in Class A airspace. The other passengers just heard white noise, but I could hear all communication with air traffic control in my headset. It was reassuring to hear “visibility greater than 10 miles, ceiling greater than 10,000 feet” when the pilot got the weather report from ATIS and verified with the Flight Service Station he had listened to the most recent report tagged “H”–as in “Hotel.”
Within 15 minutes after takeoff, the Alaska Range appeared below the horizon. And because it was such a great weather day, other airplanes and helicopters started to appear, too. There were close to a dozen aircraft in our airspace, and I got to help the pilot spot them as their positions squawked over the radio. We flew over some glaciers that had carved a river of snow, dirt, and ice out of the landscape. We flew over what looked like little tiny peaks of a massive meringue pie. And in just a few more minutes, with a cotton candy-like covering of clouds, we were staring at the South Summit of Denali, almost four miles above the surface of the Earth. We were five miles out, but it looked like we were just a few feet away. After circling the summits a few times, we started our descent to get a better look at some of the other buttresses and glaciers, like the Ruth and the Kahiltna. We flew through jagged black and white canyons, over bright blue water surrounded by white ice, over brown sandy glacial deposits, and along lush green vegetation. I took some 200 photos of that flight; it was like something out of a children’s storybook.
Almost 90 minutes later, we landed, the pilot closed his flight plan, and I shook my head at what I had just seen. And then I waited for my ears to pop.Read More
Looking for a laid-back atmosphere in a frost-free climate with 1,700 islands of coral reef no more than 20 feet above sea level? Oh, and you want to drive there from the continental U.S.? Then head to the archipelago just a few hours south of Miami commonly known as the Florida Keys.
There is only one major road running the length of the Keys, and it is U.S. Route 1. The popular areas from northeast to southwest are Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and Key West. About 80,000 people call the Keys home, with a third from Key West alone. All landmarks are referenced by mile markers; Mile Marker 0 is at Key West and Key Largo is around Mile Marker 106.
There wasn’t always a highway running right through the middle of the Keys. In the early 1900s, Henry Flagler of Standard Oil fame extended his Florida East Coast Railway all the way to Key West. Spend any time in Florida, and you soon realize the influence of Flagler. Considered the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Overseas Railway was heavily damaged by a hurricane in 1935. The railway was abandoned, but the existing infrastructure was used to build today’s Overseas Highway. Some of the old railway can still be seen today, especially near the famous Seven Mile Bridge that connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys.
Bridges are everywhere in the Keys, and it can make for some slow going traffic. It can take three to four hours to drive from Key Largo to Key West. Some portions are wide enough to feel like a regular part of the mainland, but some portions are narrow enough to have views of the Straits of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Florida Bay in the Gulf of Mexico on the other side. In fact, at my campsite at Long Key State Park, my back window looked out to the Atlantic and my front window looked out to the Gulf.
For all but two nights of my monthlong stay, I found availability at state parks. I started at Curry Hammock State Park, a newly developed campground just outside of Marathon. Some of the campsites are right on the ocean, and all are within a 30-second walk to the ocean. The best part of Curry Hammock is a sandbar in the bright blue waters just off the shoreline. I paddled my kayak over there several times to see rays, seastars, crabs, fish, sand dollars, birds, and all kinds of ocean life. The quiet nights, awesome scenery, and friendly vibe at Curry Hammock makes it an easy choice for a return visit.
From there, I moved over to Long Key State Park. Every single campsite is right on the ocean, but the kayaking didn’t seem to be as exciting from my campsite. And, for some reason, it just didn’t seem quite as friendly as Curry Hammock. I enjoyed Long Key mostly because of its close proximity to Islamorada. The tarpon feeding at Robbies and the complex at Islamorada Fish Company are not to be missed. I have never seen such massive fish just hanging around for a quick meal. Robbies was also a great place to launch the kayak and paddle over to Lignumvitae State Park. If you’re looking for a good place to stay near Islamorada, then I recommend Long Key State Park, but if you want to be closer to Key West, I say keep driving down the road to Bahia Honda.
Of the three state parks I visited with the Airstream, I think my favorite was Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key. If I had been able to grab one of the secluded waterfront sites, it would have been my favorite, hands down. I just had a regular campsite with no view to speak of, but it didn’t diminish the overall appeal of the place. Bahia Honda (pronounced BAY-ah HON-da by the locals) is sprawling. Some of the campsites are on the Atlantic and some are on the Gulf side. There is a day use area which is packed full of visitors each day. Food, drinks, and supplies are available at the concession store. Boats for snorkel trips to Looe Key depart from the marina if the weather is calm. (The snorkeling out at Looe Key is pretty impressive, too!) There is also a smaller marina just for the campers. The beach is a sandy beach (actually unusual for the Keys) with great sunset views. And the rangers accepted all my mail deliveries! I now see why it is next to impossible to find a campsite at Bahia Honda State Park. They are completely booked 11 months in advance, and almost no one cancels it seems. (I relied upon one last-minute cancellation to get my spot.) The campground itself is about ten minutes into town, and about 40 minutes down to Key West.
Any visit to the Keys wouldn’t be complete without a few days in Key West. I had absolutely no desire to pay the ridiculous, outrageous, and idiotic $135 nightly rates for some of the campgrounds right in and around Key West, so I left the Airstream behind and made day trips instead. Parts of it (especially Mallory Square) are a little “touristy”, and parts of it (Old Town) have old, narrow streets lined with beautifully restored homes. The center of town, Duval Street, is packed with bars, restaurants, and shopping of all kinds. I was shocked at just how urban Key West felt. I had pictured a sleepy little village on the beach, but it is really a thriving metropolis on the beach. To me, it is a small (but less refined) version of Charleston, South Carolina. It even has an international airport. And I took advantage of that airport for the absolute highlight of my entire stay in the Keys.
At the far end of the airport is a charter company with several daily flights to Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the least accessible national parks in the U.S. The flight isn’t just any ol’ flight. It is in a 1956 de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter seaplane that takes off from a paved runway in Key West, and lands right on the waters surrounding Dry Tortugas. Normally a three-hour ferry ride, the seaplane cuts the 70-mile trip down to 35 minutes. Other than a few minutes up at 2,500 feet because of a wildlife refuge, the flight is just 500 feet above the water. It is close enough to see sharks, porpoises, birds, and hundreds of sea turtles. Our flight happened to be on the day of a full moon and it was just the start of sea turtle nesting season. The crystal clear water also makes it easy to see various shipwrecks along the way. Flying above the calm waters definitely gives a unique perspective to what lies below. And, of course, it was pretty impressive to land right next to some sailboats–basically in the middle of the ocean–and then taxi up to the beach.
Before it was classified as a national park, Dry Tortugas (and its Fort Jefferson) was a military outpost built in the mid-1800s to defend the United States from attack. Today, it makes a great place to snorkel. I did the obligatory guided tour, but I really just wanted to get in the water and explore. There is a tent campground that would be an absolute blast to try someday. There is no internet, no cell phone service, no nearby coffee shop. As far as I know, there isn’t even a place to grab a snack. It is truly out in the middle of nowhere, with water in every direction as far as the eye can see. It was such an awesome experience! Next on my list: take seaplane lessons.
As you may have noticed, I really enjoyed my time in the Keys. I didn’t even mention Sparky’s Landing in Key Colony Beach, or Blue Hole on Big Pine Key, or No Name Pub near No Name Key, or Knight’s Key Campground, or Key deer, or key lime pie. To be perfectly honest, at a quick glance it can look a little rundown and dingy in places, but that is just the feel of the Keys–laid-back and casual. Once you realize it isn’t anything like nearby Miami, you start to get it. The locals have it–that desire to never leave and the longing to return someday: The Keys Disease.Read More
After 61 days, 24 campgrounds, 10 provinces, four Walmart parking lots, and one brief scolding at the U.S. border, I made it back to the United States by way of the great state of Maine. With no plan whatsoever, I ended up spending the night at a grocery store parking lot in Machias, where the overnight low dipped down to 28° (uh, that would be Fahrenheit).
After thawing myself out in the morning, I made my way to the scenic town of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Imagine a small college town, on the water, and next to a national park. Throw in some friendly people, an airport offering glider flights, some great restaurants, and placement on my Top Ten List is all but assured. It wasn’t just Bar Harbor; I loved Blue Hill, Bucksport, Wiscasset, Camden, Freeport–to name a few.
I spent most of my time Down East. It is an area along the rocky coast of Maine filled with idyllic, rural communities and a simple way of life. Why is it called Down East? “When ships sailed from Boston to ports in Maine (which were to the east of Boston), the wind was at their backs, so they were sailing downwind, hence the term ‘Down East.’”
I spent a few nights with my friend’s parents in Blue Hill in a house with no wheels. While there, I brought the Airstream to a middle school in nearby Brooklin. It was an opportunity to share my story, teach some geography, and remind the kids to behave responsibly on the internet. I truly enjoyed my time at the school, and hope to do more of it around the country. Anyone know any teachers who want a part in a traveling show and tell?Read More
I’ll admit it. Until recently, I only had a vague junior high recollection of Newfoundland, and I couldn’t even really pronounce it correctly. For the record, the locals place an emphasis on the “new” and “land” parts of the name, and pronounce “found” like “fun”. But more on that later!
I wanted to spend a few weeks in Newfoundland, but the weather and marine gods wouldn’t have it. The main ferry from Cape Breton Island to Port aux Basques broke down, so I spent about a week hanging out in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Once ferry service was restored, there was simply no room for the Airstream. With barely enough room on board for the Touareg and me, I quickly booked my ticket before availability vanished. I felt like I was travelling in the mid-1960s, but Wi-Fi (albeit slow) was available, and the reclining seats were actually pretty comfortable. I ate two meals in the cafeteria, worked on my blog, listened to some tunes, talked with some of the passengers, and before I knew it, I had arrived in Newfoundland. I found affordable accommodations at the MacLellan Inn & Thackeray Suites in Doyles. It wasn’t anything special, but it was in a good location, it was better than a bland hotel room, and the hosts were warm and friendly.
I had only a few days to visit, so I spent all of my time on the western side of Newfoundland. I just didn’t have time to make the desolate, moose-laden 12-hour drive to the capital city of St. John’s. But I did make it up to Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a little too late in the year to do any of the planned outdoor activities, like the boat tour of the fresh water fjord called Western Brook Pond. I saw the fjord from a distance, drove the Viking Trail, did some sightseeing, took some photos, found a great little golf course, had some pretty incredible fried chicken for dinner, and made the 4-hour drive back to my temporary home in Doyles.
The next day I ventured out for lunch and stumbled upon the Wreckhouse Haven Cafe, almost the only eating establishment open within 20 miles. Debbie, the chef/owner/conversationalist/dishwasher/server, was the real deal. I sat down, had some soup and sandwiches, and talked with the locals all afternoon. I loved it so much I went back the next evening for a traditional Newfoundland supper. Success! I found the perfect spot to learn about the local culture, share my stories, and eat same local meat and potatoes!
While at the Wreckhouse, and when I filled up with gas, and when I had that fried chicken, and when I went golfing, and pretty much anytime I interacted with some of the true locals, I was able to experience that famous Newfoundland accent firsthand. Wow! For the ones with the thick accent, it was like a Scottish/Irish/Somethingish brogue with peanut butter. That is the best way I can describe it–incredibly hard to understand, and definitely unique to that area.
But let me tell you; absolutely, unequivocally, without a doubt, the people of Newfoundland are the most sincere, welcoming, friendly, and memorable people I have met on my journey. It was just a little too remote for me to call home, but I would go back to visit anytime–if they’ll have me.
The photos suck. They really do. These are the best of the bunch. It’s an excuse to visit next year when the weather is better.Read More
Raise your hand if you remembered–or even knew–Prince Edward Island is an actual province of Canada. Is your hand raised? Mine isn’t either. Prince Edward Island, or PEI, is about the land size of Delaware with no more than 150,000 full-time residents (tourists don’t count). And almost one-third of the people live in the capital of Charlottetown or the town of Summerside. The result: a pastoral landscape with a relaxed way of life that is hard to beat!
Since it is an island surrounded by salt water, much of the economy revolves around seafood: mostly lobster, mussels, oysters, and tuna. I sampled some of the local lobster and mussels. This time of year, yards were littered with giant fishing boats up on blocks. With its rolling hills of red soil, and clean air and water, the island is also home to many forms of agriculture: grain, dairy, potatoes. Potatoes? Yes, they are everywhere! A third of Canada’s potato production is on PEI. Blue waters, red soil, green vegetation, sandy beaches–the island is practically a giant golf course. In fact, there are 34 golf courses on the island–many of them world-class. How have I not been here before?! I got in a couple of rounds of golf on the island (one round with a great Airstreamer couple I met at Prince Edward Island National Park).
The National Park is right along the Green Gables Shore on the north central part of PEI. It is in Cavendish, near Green Gables, the inspiration for L.M. Montgomery’s, Anne of Green Gables. Montgomery is a semi-goddess on the island. She was born there, spent much time on her cousins’ farm that had green-colored gables, and is buried on the island. (I pumped 75 litres of gas into the Touareg about 50 yards from her gravestone.) I did a complete tour of the three coastal drives from tip-to-tip, and I think the Green Gables Shore was my favorite area of the island (ignoring the incredibly cheesy and touristy part of Cavendish). No spot on the entire island is more than 30 minutes to the ocean…unless you happen to get stuck behind a traffic jam of combines or tractors that regularly use the highways!
Yet again, I found a jewel of a province in the great country of Canada. I plan to return in warmer weather to play golf, play golf, and play golf. It was hard to leave, but as the Prince Edward Island Visitor’s Guide says, “You’ll never completely leave.”Read More
OK, so I know what I said about Yosemite, and I know what I said about Yellowstone, and I know what I said about Glacier. Forget it all! None of them can really compare to the unparalleled size and beauty of the Canadian Rockies, specifically Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.
I spent most of my time in the towns of Banff and Lake Louise. Banff is a trendy town about an hour west of Calgary, Alberta. Why is it called Banff? It comes from Banffshire, Scotland, the birthplace of one of the major financiers of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Lake Louise (named after the daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta) is about another hour up the Trans-Canada Highway. Downtown Banff is full of energy, while Lake Louise is more tranquil and serene. Both have absolutely stunning scenery in every direction. Both are on my “Top Ten” list. From Lake Louise, I took the Icefields Parkway up to Jasper National Park and the Columbia Icefield. It is considered one of the most scenic drives in the entire world. I agree!
In the few days I had to visit, I didn’t make it to the National Parks of Yoho, Kootenay, and Waterton Lakes. I will just have to see those when I return to the Canadian Rockies. Sometime. With someone special.Read More
I grew up in Montana, but spent the latter half of my life in the Chicago area. Apparently I had forgotten the vast rawness of the western part of the US. Seriously, other than the highway itself, it felt like man had never stepped foot into many of the scenic byways of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.
As I drove through the eastern side of Yellowstone in Wyoming, the steam from geysers melted the snow-covered timbers burned from a previous wildfire, boulders tumbled down the sheer granite cliffs, bison and elk grazed steps away. I spent several nights on public land, boondocking miles away from modern civilization. I went up and over so many rugged mountain passes, I felt like a sherpa. It was a climate-controlled, leather-bound, front-row seat to an unforgettable experience!
I just wish the weather would have cooperated. The last month has been some of the most nasty, most dreary, most unpleasant weather of the last year. Many of my photographs just didn’t capture the natural beauty of the West.
It has been a crazy busy last few weeks. I left the Airstream at Elwha Dam RV Park (just outside Port Angeles, Washington) and flew back to Chicago. I was relieved to return a week later with everything just as I had left it: in the middle of the woods — unhooked — just running off the solar panel. During my stay in Port Angeles, I was able to see a little bit of Olympic National Park. It is very scenic, but just doesn’t compare to Glacier or Yosemite.
Inching my way closer to Seattle, my next stop was Port Ludlow, Washington. A sleepy little town west of Seattle, it has a golf course (which I had to play), a marina, an excellent pizza place (Cucina Pizza), a surprisingly well-stocked convenience store, and, well, not much else. It is pretty quiet there; a perfect place to spend the work week! Yearning for some culture, I drove over to Bainbridge Island, caught the ferry, and met some friends in downtown Seattle. Overall, I loved my short stay in the Emerald City. Growing up in northwest Montana, I have been there several times, but it was nice to be back and look at it from a “possible place to live” point of view. I am happy to say, it is definitely on the list!
I left the Seattle area to head down Highway 101 and get closer to the coast. I was looking forward to a spot near the ocean, a spot to relax, a spot to do some laundry.
Have you ever had one of those vacations where the location just didn’t match the brochure? After I fought the Seattle-Tacoma traffic with periods of rain thrown in to mix it up, I finally arrived in the Bay Center, Washington area. Expecting to find a “quaint fishing town,” instead I found a few run-down buildings, one restaurant (technically, since it did look like it served food), a tiny store, and a campground. There was nothing else around for dozens of miles. As I drove into the campground, the first thing I noticed was a family — actually, almost an entire village — camped out under some tarps. They had “Whiskey Tango” written all over them; my immediate thought, “I feel sorry for the person next to them!” (You can see where this is headed.) I checked in, got my assigned spot right next to the aforementioned family, and proceeded to back into my spot as they took photos of me. I don’t know who was loudest: the unruly children, the cackling mother, or the whining dog. To make matters worse, I swear I was in the “Bermuda Triangle” of campgrounds. I had no cell service, no internet, no television, and — most importantly — no good food. I spent the entire night patiently waiting for sunrise, and left early the next morning.
Next stop: Oregon!
There is nothing quite like going home, especially when it is as beautiful as the Flathead Valley in northwest Montana. I grew up just outside the town of Bigfork, a “picturesque and charming place”–Chamber of Commerce words, not mine–on the shores of Flathead Lake, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi. With well over 10,000 miles logged in the last three months, it was time for some much needed rest and relaxation, time off the highways, and time away from the “ExxonMobils/BPs/Shells/Flying Js” of the world. I have filled up with gas exactly once since I got here over two weeks ago!
For a few weeks, I was able to play tourist in my own hometown. I made it out on the kayak several times; lounged at the lake; hit the golf course; strolled down Main Street at the Bigfork Festival of the Arts; ate fresh crab, elk, bison, cherries, huckleberries; and visited Glacier National Park. And, yes, I still had to work. I just got to do it from my parents’ front yard with views of the Rocky Mountains.
So, Glacier National Park. I am glad I visited while the images of Yosemite were fresh in my mind. Both have incredible views around every corner. Yosemite has famous landmarks like El Capitan and Half Dome that are easily spotted from the main road. Glacier Park has glaciers (well, until 2030 when scientists predict all the glaciers will have melted), lakes, and rivers that are often only accessible by hiking trails. Almost twice the size of Yosemite, I definitely had forgotten just how enormous Glacier Park feels. Both are absolutely amazing areas of the U.S. that every person should visit at least once. Instead of spending time at Disney, head on over to Glacier Park in Montana for your next vacation. You can stay at the “Bolstad B&B”. Tell my parents I sent you!
I am heading back to the Pacific Northwest with plans to visit Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Any suggestions, anyone? Then, in mid-August, I will leave my home behind in Oregon, hop on a plane, and stay in Chicago all week. Get ready, gang, I am coming back to town!
So, remember when I said Lake Tahoe had the most impressive scenery and extreme driving requirements to match? Scratch that, because Yosemite National Park now takes home top honors. I think I spent the entire weekend with my eyes wide open, grasping for a description of the sights. The one word that came to mind was “grandeur”.
The first part of Yosemite actually started out a little rough. I left Tahoe with a full tank of gas, a gung-ho attitude, and a campground reservation just on the other side of the park. By the end of the day, all three were in short supply. After a relatively easy drive through the Sierra Nevada mountain range, as I got close to the entrance of the park, one particular mountain peak caught my eye. I kept thinking, “I really hope I don’t have to go up that. I really hope I don’t have to go up that.” But it kept getting closer, and closer, and closer, until I found myself going right on up it. With the engine revved almost to the max I didn’t even stop for a photo, fearful I wouldn’t be able to climb from a complete stop. I maintained a pretty steady 45mph on the straightaways, and finally reached the friendly ranger at the Tioga Pass Entrance to Yosemite with an elevation of 9,945 feet! It is apparently the highest mountain pass in the entire state of California. I drove the length of the park and then began my descent back down towards my campground. With the endless curves, cliffs, and cars, by the time I got down to the other side, I was absolutely 100% spent. All I could think of was a nice spot to relax and spend the night.
So, back to the campground. I have stayed in a wide variety of sites; some incredible, and some, not so much. Even though I was exhausted, even though it was a holiday weekend, even though I had no internet access to find another campground, I quickly decided to ask for a refund and hit the road. Why, oh why, do you ask? My reserved spot, the one and only spot left in the entire campground, was about the size of a VW Beetle. There were two big dogs chained up next to it, and a large group of people overflowed from their spot into my reserved spot. It was basically the sweatshop version of a campground. To be fair, the manager was completely apologetic and gave me directions to some other possible options.
I drove to the tiny town of Mariposa, California and stumbled upon the Mariposa Fairgrounds that just happened to offer a 24-hour self-registration area with full hookups. Call it complete luck, call it divine intervention, call it whatever you like, but I decided to call it home for two nights. It ended up being absolutely perfect! The next morning I left the Airstream behind, and went back to Yosemite with just the Touareg. As I traveled the exact same route, I couldn’t believe I had done it with 23 extra feet and 6,000 extra pounds just the day before. Completely safe? Yes. Completely insane? That, too.
I explored Yosemite all day, took some great photos and video, and came back to find the 4th of July Fireworks for the whole county set up a feet away from my site. It may not have been the biggest, brightest, or longest fireworks display of all time, but it was definitely the most convenient! It was a perfect ending to a perfect day.