Thursday, June 29. Lost & Found: from Emigrant Springs to Cove Palisades State Park

This was a beautiful, 4 hour drive through northeast Oregon along I-84 where it runs next to the Columbia River, and where Mt. Hood appears in the west, floating above the horizon and looking as iconic as Mt. Fuji. Then we peeled away and headed south along US 97 into central Oregon through Madras, where there is a turnoff leading to Cove Palisades State Park. The sign at this point indicates that it is 9 miles away, but I was looking at Apple maps on my iPad and it showed that we were headed in the wrong direction so we turned around and drove for about half an hour on winding back country roads with spectacular views of the snow-covered Cascades in the distance, finally winding up at a dead end on a gravel road with a chain link fence at the entrance to the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project. At this point, I called the state park and asked how to get there from here. They said we had gone too far north and should retrace our steps, go south the town of Culver, and follow the signs to the park, which we did, with a minimum of dashboard pounding.

We are in the Deschutes campground, five miles from the park entrance. To get there you drive down long steep grade, around several hairpin turns and over a narrow suspension bridge into a canyon with steep rock walls looming over a man made lake, Lake Billy Chinook. This is one of those hidden gems, although not very well hidden judging from the number of people camping here with their monster RVs, watercraft and numerous other big toys, children and dogs. Quite a festive scene! The campsites are very nice, with full hookups.IMG_2918
We took a short hike to a petroglyph on a rock that was relocated here about a mile from its original location because it would have been submerged when the hydro project created the lake.

We are only here for one night, but checkout time is 1pm so we may take another, more challenging hike tomorrow morning, the Tam-a-Lau trail.

Wednesday, June 28: Exploring Pendleton, OR

How refreshing to wake at daybreak to temperatures in the high 30s! We had the furnace on until the trailer warmed up a bit. First on today’s agenda was to find those elusive wagon ruts left by the 50,000+ wagons of the Oregon Trail emigrants. The Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area brochure says “Oregon Trail wagon ruts can be seen at Deadman’s Pass Rest Area seven miles northwest of Emigrant Springs, on I-84…” Clear enough!? So we got to the rest area and there was an information kiosk with the following display, indicating that the wagon ruts can be seen “near this site.”FullSizeRender

But there is no other signage, no trail signs or directions of any sort. Scott finally tracked down some staff who said the ruts are on the OTHER side of the highway, accessible by a one-lane tunnel under the interstate. So off we went to that rest area, to find similar absence of any signage whatsoever. We drove around on progressively narrower gravel roads until we were driving on what COULD have been original Oregon Trail wagon ruts, for all we know. Beautiful country back there, though.

Then we headed 17 miles further west on I-84 into Pendleton, including a 6 mile, 6% downhill grade with panoramic views of the surrounding high desert plateau. We stopped first at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, a very impressive, inspiring, sobering and thought-provoking museum showcasing the history and cultures of the Confederated Tribes Of The Umatilla Indian Reservation, including the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Tribes. The special exhibit now on display documents the building of the Dalles Dam which in 1957 resulted in the destruction and submersion of a traditional Indian gathering place and important salmon fishing site on the Columbia River, Celilo Falls. Same old story… some parallels to Florida’s hydrological and environmental disaster – canalization of the Kissimmee River and draining the Everglades.

Unfortunately we will miss the next special exhibit of American Indian Trade Blankets, which starts on August 4th. From the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute website:IMG_0856This museum is a few miles east of town, on the grounds of the Windhorse Casino, Hotel, Golf Course and RV Park.

Drove into town, took a quick spin through the Umatilla Historical Society Thrift Shop, then to the Hamley Cafe where we shared a Greek veggie wrap for lunch. Then to the Umatilla County Historical Museum. We love these small regional and local museums! Like the local history museum in Montrose, Colorado, this one has outdoor exhibits of old wagons and trucks, a railroad car, and a restored one room log cabin (where a family raised 9 children) and barn.20170628_133633_resized

For the complete Pendleton local experience, we shopped for a few grocery items at the Safeway supermarket, and drove back up that 6% grade to the campground.

We also added a few stops to our itinerary:
July 5-6: Schwarz Park Campground, Cottage Grove, Oregon. An Army Corps of Engineers site on Dorena Lake 6 miles east of I-5 and Cottage Grove. About 20 miles south of Eugene. This is dry camping like at Mesa Verde or Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and with our Senior Interagency Pass, it’s $9 per night!

July 7-8: Harry Gardner Park Campground, Toutle, WA. This is a Cowlitz County facility. According to their website, “Harry Gardner Park is a 65 acre park along the South Toutle River. It was destroyed by the Mt. St. Helens Eruption and has been recently brought back to life with similar amenities to pre-eruption. Camping area offers 11 RV sites($20/night) and 11 tent campsites($15/night). RV sites are equipped with electricity and water connections.” The nice thing about this is that it is near 504, the road to all four Mt. St. Helens Visitor Centers and several trailheads.

Tuesday, June 27: Glenns Ferry, ID to Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area

Another four hour drive through the desert. Imagine the Oregon Trail emigrants doing this in the heat of summer, following a set of sketchy wagon ruts. As bad as that desert crossing much have been, emigrants described the climb into the Blue Mountains as the most difficult part of their journey. So we have nothing to complain about from the comfort of our air conditioned truck, watching through the window as the desert gives way to golden rolling hills, and then greener higher hills as we climbed into the Blue Mountains in Umatilla National Forest and found our campsite at Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area. Some marketing genius at the Oregon State Parks department described it this way: “Perched near the summit of the Blue Mountains, Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area offers visitors an opportunity to camp and explore a popular pioneer stop over along the Oregon Trail. The park is nestled in an old-growth forest.” Old growth forest? They said the magic words… Sign me up! And there are actually many big trees here. But what they fail to mention is that the campground is literally adjacent to the interstate highway I-84 and the traffic noise is loud, non-stop, day and night. Caveat emptor!

We did take a nice 2 mile walk on a nature trail that climbs behind the campground and we escaped the road noise for about 30 seconds. We have the AC on now and that drowns out the highway traffic. It’s supposed to go down to 39F tonight so maybe we’ll have the heat on instead!

Scott and a Big Tree:IMG_2916

Here is our campsite amid the old growth forest… note the tractor-trailer passing by just behind the trees:IMG_0850


Monday, June 26: Be the change you wish to see in the world

Glenns Ferry, ID. After the temperature reached 105 degrees yesterday, it was so chilly overnight that we needed our down sleeping bags. I guess this is typical of the desert, eh? At 9AM this morning while it was still cool-ish, we walked through the campground to the Oregon Trail History and Interpretive Center, which has excellent exhibits on the Native American (Paiute, Shoshone) and Euro-American history in this region with special emphasis of course on the intersection of the different cultures at this place where the Oregon trail crossed the Snake River at Three Island Crossing. Then we walked back to our campsite through the intensifying sunshine, which necessitated a brief respite in the trailer.
First, we took off to the laundromat in Glenns Ferry to wash our sheets and towels. Then we ventured out of town to find the place along the “Main Oregon Trail Back Country Byway” where original wagon wheel ruts are still visible. Following directions given to us this morning by the Interpretive Center staff, we drove north and east of town, over a bridge crossing the Snake River, and up a winding gravel road to the west through irrigated farm fields to a viewpoint on a bluff overlooking the Three Island Crossing. We didn’t see any wagon ruts, but the Interpretive signs were quite interesting. According to an 1843 journal entry by an Oregon Trail emigrant, “…it is nothing less than a wild, rocky, barren wilderness of wrecked and ruined Nature, a vast field of volcanic desolation.” That has certainly been my impression of our drive through southern Idaho, nearly 175 years later!IMG_2906

In this picture you can see the place in the Snake River where the three islands form stepping stones that the wagon trains used to ford the river. IMG_2900

On the way back into town, we saw the following message stenciled on the railroad underpass. So surprising to see Gandhi’s words here! It’s a good reminder that the best in human nature may be found where you least expect it.IMG_2908

When we got back to the campground, a windstorm was brewing and it apparently blew down a tree and knocked down some power lines so we lost electricity until sometime in the middle of the night. Without AC in the 100+ degree heat, we decided to drive back into town for some dinner. A true throwback to the 1970s! The only vegetarian menu items were a grilled American cheese sandwich, a green salad (iceberg lettuce) and a baked potato. But on the way home, there was a beautifully vivid rainbow!


Sunday, June 25: Deer Creek, Utah to Glenns Ferry, Idaho

Exactly 5 weeks ago today we pulled out of our driveway on Piping Plover Road! Since then we have travelled 5011 miles, through 9 States, and stayed at 20 separate sites.
We had a 6 hour drive today from Deer Creek State Park outside of Provo, Utah to Glenns Ferry, Idaho. This is the longest drive we can comfortably do, and we are trying to adhere to our rule of staying at least 2 nights at each stopping place. Here we are Three Island Crossing State Park, where there is also an Oregon Trail History and Interpretive Center. It’s a nice little park with pine trees shading level paved pads. They provide electric and water but no sewer, and there is a dump station at the park exit.
The drive was through miles of hot desolation again as we drove north of Salt Lake City and into southern Idaho, and then turned west on I-84. We have been avoiding interstates but we wanted to make some time and we are eager to get into the northwest and maybe enjoy a respite from this dry heat. As we drove into the park just before 3PM this afternoon, the car’s thermometer recorded 98F degrees outside temp.

As the sun cooled about 8PM, we took a walk through the park and along the Snake River, observing deer, rabbits, and many unfamiliar birds, although we recognized white pelicans and a western grebe. We met a couple from Vashon Island, Washington, whose great grandfather and family had emigrated from Batavia, Michigan to Olympia, Washington in 1852; they made the famously treacherous Snake River crossing at this very spot.


But the big news is that we have a plan for viewing the total solar eclipse on August 21st. We made reservations at a campsite with electric hookups at the Cheyenne Campground in Angostura state recreation area near Hot Springs, South Dakota, 100 miles north of Alliance, Nebraska which is in the path of totality. ALL accommodations in places closer to the path of the eclipse have been fully
booked for a year or more, as I discovered when trying to make reservations today! We will set up camp Sunday night, August 20th, and will drive to Alliance early Monday morning. We have been told that the roads will be jammed with people doing what we plan to do. But… we shall see.
The eclipse duration in Alliance will be about 2:30 minutes at about 11:51 a.m. We ordered special eclipse viewing sunglasses from Amazon to be delivered to our friends in Seattle, whom we will see in a few weeks. The nice thing about this plan is that the campground is also very near Wind Cave National Park and Badlands National Park, both of which we want to visit. And we will be staying  there for 3 nights, which will give Scott a chance to recover from all the driving.

Saturday, June 24: Mt. Timpanogos

Sometimes everything just falls perfectly into place, and this morning was one of those charmed times. We had gone online to book a cave tour at the Timpanogos Cave National Monument, but according to, they were all booked. But we learned from our experience at Carlsbad that a certain number of unsold tickets are reserved for walk-ins, so we called the Timpanogos Visitor Center and they confirmed this. They suggested we show up at 7AM opening time to be sure to secure our spots. So we woke up at 5:30 and were on the road by 6:15 for the 45 minute drive to the Cave. According to the map, the most direct route is via US 92, AKA the Alpine Loop Road, reportedly very narrow, winding, steep and scenic. But when we started driving up this road, there was a big sign saying MARATHON SATURDAY: EXPECT MAJOR DELAYS. So we turned around and took another route that connects with the other (eastern) end of the Alpine Road. When we got to this intersection, there was another big sign saying HALF MARATHON SATURDAY: EXPECT MAJOR DELAYS, but the road appeared to be open so we proceeded. Immediately there were throngs of colorfully attired runners of all ages, shapes and sizes jogging towards us in the oncoming lane, but they were confined to that lane by traffic cones, so we crawled the last 2.5 miles to the Cave threading our way between daredevil cyclists climbing uphill on the nonexistent shoulder to our right and the oncoming runners passing by on the left, along with water volunteers and race officials. Apparently this Provo Canyon Marathon is a Big Deal! Anyway, we finally got to the Cave Visitor Center at about 7:10AM. There were about 17 people on the ticket line ahead of us but apparently they already had their tickets, because there was no problem purchasing our 2 tickets for the second tour of the day at 9AM. Yay!

The drill is as follows: About 90 minutes before your tour, after many warnings and instructions from the park rangers, you start walking up a very steep, paved path from the Visitor Center to the cave entrance. This is a 1.5 mile strenuous uphill hike, with an elevation gain of 1100 feet.20170624_073103_resized

I guess we are in relatively good shape from our previous high altitude excursions up Mt. Guadalupe and Wheeler Peak, so we huffed and puffed our way up in less than an hour, and were contemplating the prospect of sitting around for 35 minutes until our 9AM hike. But it turns out that there were exactly two no-shows for the first tour of the day at 8:30, and without hesitation we volunteered to take their places.

The tours are limited to 16 visitors because the cave is extremely narrow and confined in some places. There are actually three caves on the tour: Hanson Cave, Middle Cave and Timpanogos Cave. This was such a different experience from Carlsbad Caverns. The scale is much more intimate and you are very close to the rocks. We saw some extraordinary formations including some which are very rare: Helictites. This is how Wikipedia describes them: “A helictite is a speleothem found in a limestone cave that changes its axis from the vertical at one or more stages during its growth. Helictites have a curving or angular form that looks as if they were grown in zero gravity.”
They look like masses of white sea anemones growing from the cave ceiling and walls.


There is more color in this cave than in Carlsbad. Yellow from the presence of nickel, pink from manganese, red from iron oxide, and green from aragonite.

Another amazing thing was that we were able to see the actual fault line inside the mountain where the Wasatch Mountains are continuing to rise and the Utah Valley is continuing to subside. A prominent sign on the trail proclaims that this is an earthquake zone. Our guide, Brandon Root, is a young ranger with a degree in geology and he was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
After an hour we stumbled out into the brilliant sunlight and back down the trail, snapping dozens of pictures of the magnificent landscapes. Ranger Brandon joked that there was a zip line to take us back down to the Visitor Center… we thought that was a great idea and would be a wonderful income producer for the Park Service.

Then, since the Marathon was over, we decided to return to camp via the Alpine Loop Road. The views from this route were even more magnificent, if possible. The looming form of Mt. Timpanogos reminded us of the size and shape of Mt. Robson in the Canadian Rockies.

After lunch and a rest at camp, we drove into Orem to do laundry, get gas and groceries. Tomorrow we have a long drive into Idaho.

Friday, June 23: Montrose, Colorado to Deer Creek State Park, Utah

We left the Centennial RV park in Montrose and drove north through the pretty, improbably tree-shaded town of Delta, Colorado, into the relatively big city of Grand Junction. Then we got on the interstate and drove west through dry, desolate hills into Utah, under hot skies hazy with smoke from several uncontrolled burns in the region. We were not tempted to head south into the national parks of Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches — but want to return when the weather is cooler. The lovely lady at the Utah welcome center said fall is her favorite time for visiting these parks.

As we continued west and north, we started gaining elevation. What a welcome sight as the hills turned into mountains green with trees! More amazing, dramatic vistas as we entered the Uinta National Forest and the Wasatch mountains. Every place we go becomes our new favorite. I fell in love with northern New Mexico, and then southern and western Colorado, and now this part of Utah in the mountains around Provo.

After a 5 hour drive, we pulled into Deer Creek State Park and Scott handily backed the trailer into a tricky spot. This park is on a large reservoir popular with boaters. When it got cooler near sunset, we walked around the campground and marveled at the various combinations of trailers and trucks and watercraft.


Then, realizing that this is the last campground for which we had reservations, and realizing further that we are coming up to the July 4th weekend, we decided to figure out our itinerary for the next week or so. It was tricky because there are very few vacancies in the reservable state parks, but we managed to cobble together the following:
6/25-26: Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho
6/27-28: Emigrant Springs State Park in Meacham, Oregon
6/29: Deschutes campground at Cove Palisades State Park near Madras, Oregon
6/30-7/1: LaPine State Park south of Bend, Oregon
7/2-4: Valley of the Rogue State Park east of Grants Pass near Ashland & Medford, OR

Views to the east and west from our campsite:

Thursday, June 22: Gunnison NP to Montrose, CO

Because the South Rim campground was so packed with Astrofest attendees, we had to move. We had reservations at Centennial RV Park 10 miles south of Montrose. But first, because checkout time isn’t until 1pm, we had time in the morning for some more opportunities to bask in the natural beauty and wonder that is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison! We went back along the South Rim Drive to the very end, High Point, which is the trailhead for the Warner trail, a 1.4 mile hike with steep ups and downs on the way to yet another astonishing viewpoint. We stopped at a couple more overlooks, most notably Chasm View, with just enough time to get back to the Pulpit Rock Overlook for an 11 a.m. Ranger talk on the geology of the Canyon. In summary, the most ancient TWO BILLION YEAR OLD layer of gneiss and schist metamorphic pre-Cambrian rock was overlaid with softer rock made of volcanic ash from volcanoes that erupted for TWO MILLION YEARS, and the Gunnison River cut through these layers to form the Canyon.

Then, in the parking lot after the ranger talk, there was an astronomy volunteer, Bernie, who had a solar scope set up and focused on a solar prominence for anyone who wanted to have a look. We were able to see the solar prominence which looked like little fingers of flame extending out from the edge of the solar disk, as well as a sunspot. So we got to talking with Bernie, and – small world — it turns out that he was born in the Bronx, moved to Queens, grew up in Springfield Gardens and Laurelton, attended Andrew Jackson High School (my alma mater) for a year, and then his family moved to Valley Stream and he graduated from Valley Stream South in 1967. Unbelievable! Now he lives in Saratoga Springs, NY which he says is wonderful except for the winters, when he travels a lot.

Then it was time to pack up and leave, so we regretfully drove out of the Park, with vows to return (sound familiar?) and south of Montrose under hot and hazy skies to the RV park. Full hookups and many amenities, but we would still rather stay in the national park campground. We took the opportunity of being near town to do some errands, but first we stopped at the Ute Museum… then the post office… then Ace Hardware… then the gas station… then the Montrose Historical Museum… then Chang Thai restaurant (pretty good!)… then grocery shopping at City Market… then back to the trailer 5 hours after we left. We had intended to do a laundry tonight but ran out of steam! So we’ll just relax in preparation for tomorrow’s 5.5 hour drive northwest to Deer Creek State Park in Utah.

Wednesday, June 21: Mesa Verde to Gunnison

Morning concern: fridge not working on propane or battery. Scott checked all systems, and concluded it was because of the high elevation and/or leveling. Emptied fridge of perishables, bought ice and loaded food and ice in cooler, and left Morefield campground. Drove east to Durango and then north through incredibly steep mountain passes on narrow winding road with no shoulder in many places. As Scott said, “Everybody needs some heart pounding moments now and then.” Incredibly, bicyclists pedaling up these roads alongside trucks, trailers, RVs… We stopped for gas at Silverton, an old mining town hopping with ATVs, tourists thronging the unpaved streets. That’s Silverton in the distance below.


Ouray, beautifully scenic, hot springs, “Switzerland of America.” And north out of the mountains, through Montrose and into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.Scan_Pic0520


Met helpful camp volunteer Mark Robinson retired from Tampa who now has a place in Estes Park and volunteers all summer. Recommended we go to and check it out. He only volunteers in national parks and monuments. Sites in Loop B of the South Rim campground have electricity only, but we had filled our fresh water tank before leaving Mesa Verde so we were fine. When we hooked up to the electricity at South Rim, the fridge and water heater worked fine, possibly confirming our hypothesis that it was a combination of elevation and or leveling at Mesa Verde that caused the problem.

Drove along the South Rim road to the Visitor Center, took a small nature hike down to a lookout and started marveling at the dramatic views of the steep, narrow rock faces of this canyon dropping 2000 feet straight down into the torrents of the Gunnison River.

Watched a 30 minute video at the Visitor Center about the development of the park, then resumed our South Rim drive, stopping at every pullout parking area and walking along the short trails to amazing viewpoints, including one with ferocious winds that kicked up swirls of dust and could have blown us into the canyon. Came back to the trailer for dinner of vegetable stew with tofu. Made our way to the Amphitheater across the road in preparation for the evening ranger program, which was very special because it was the first night of the EIGHTH ANNUAL BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK ASTRONOMY FESTIVAL!!!!!! AKA Astrofest. This explains why we could only book one night at this campground. It’s packed with astronomy buffs. The ranger program was a slide presentation and talk by Chap Percival, a retired Osprey, Florida science teacher who wrote the book, “Go See the Eclipse: and take a kid with you.” He has travelled all over the world chasing total solar eclipses (TSE), and in his presentation provided much useful info about doing so, specifically in preparation for the TSE set to happen on August 21st, with the ~70 mile wide path of totality sweeping across the US from the coast of Oregon southeast to the coast of South Carolina.

During the Q&A session, Scott asked a question (what would the weather likely be for eclipse viewing?) and as a result, he won a signed copy of Percival’s book! So exciting!! This experience made us start thinking about how we could possibly add this event to our itinerary. The most likely possibility would be for us to travel south from the Canadian Rockies, into Glacier National Park, and then further south into a section of Wyoming where the path of totality crosses the state.


After the ranger program, astronomy volunteers had telescopes set up in several locations because the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is designated as an international Dark Sky Park by the IDA (International Dark Sky Association). But by then we were done for the day, and came back to the trailer to look at maps and try to figure out how we might add the TSE to our Big Trip.

Tuesday, June 20: Mesa Verde

Knife Edge trail hike.

20170620_091111_resizedGot started in the cool of the morning. What a gem of a hike! About 2 miles, fairly level, spectacular views of Montezuma Valley, geological formations, wildflowers, birds: Pinyon jay, black headed grosbeak, or maybe it was a spotted towhee…


Lunch at camp… Then drove the Weatherill Mesa road to the southwest end of the park. This is the less-visited area of the park with fewer amenities, but there is a self-guided 1 mile hike into a canyon to the cliff dwellings, kivas and pit houses known as “Step House,” because the ancestral Puebloan people constructed a stone ramp of steps leading down to the village sheltered under an immense sandstone overhang. You really get the sense of how sheltered these settlements must have been under the arching roof of sandstone. A ranger is stationed there to answers questions and provide information, and probably also so visitors don’t climb all over the ancient stones walls!

It is so poignant to visit these sites nowadays when many communities around the world are facing survival threats just like those that faced the Pueblo cliff dwellers in AD 1200-1300 when their climate changed and they had to abandon their settlements.