On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions.
From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
Frosty will be taking us on a trip to see several national parks. This is the introductory post, which will be followed by 8 more detailed posts, on-and-off over the next few months. It should be quite a trip! ~WaterGirl
I’ve been a road tripper all my life. When I retired on January 31st we made plans for our sixth annual snowbird road trip to Florida, but this time instead of heading back north, we’d be heading west to see six National Parks we hadn’t been in before: Big Bend, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, North Rim of Grand Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante (NM), Arches, and Canyonlands. Along the way we added White Sands and Saguaro to the list.
Throughout the trip, we were pretty well isolated in the car and our trailer while traveling, camping, and sightseeing. We bought hand sanitizer in Louisiana, the last time we ever saw it in a store. We lucked into face masks in a hardware store in Lake Havasu. We typically had about an hour a day interacting with other people (grocery stores, other campers, hikers and sightseers) and except for the stores it was outside and more than six feet distant. We followed stay-at-home orders, but our home had wheels under it.
We’ve been trailer campers for over 25 years, moving from a Coleman popup to our current 27-footer.
The day before I retired, WHO declared a global emergency for COVID-19. When we left in mid- February, it was still a distant Asian problem.
We stayed in three state parks in Florida, among the best in the country. The first was Fort Clinch State Park. While we were there, South Korea and Italy had the first COVID-19 deaths.
At Silver Spring State Park, I went on a canoe trip on the Silver Springs where we saw lots of wildlife like our friend here. The day after that the first US death was recorded in Evergreen Washington
We left Florida on March 1st. The next day, the US recorded 100 cases. Our next stops were two state parks in Louisiana. We arrived on the day that the first case was discovered in New Rochelle, NY. Our day trip to NOLA was two days later, where we made the biggest mistake of the trip: a tour of NOLA neighborhoods in a bus full of strangers, a week after Mardi Gras. By then we knew we should keep our distance as best we could.
Next stop was Austin, after an overnight in Beaumont, where the RV park owner insisted on shaking my hand. I washed it immediately. By then, 10 states had recorded their first cases. This was when the public started to take notice:
• Colleges closed their campuses
• School districts started to close
• NBA and MLB suspended operations
• March Madness was cancelled.
We could still go shopping and to restaurants in Austin, although the grocery stores were jammed and panic buying had commenced. On the next few days as we headed west across Texas to Big Bend, NYC schools closed and Ohio started to shut down. We spent four days at Big Bend, traveling to different areas of the park, including Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, and Santa Elena Canyon. The far side of the river in the picture is Mexico.
While we were at Big Bend, our planned vacation started to get upended, particularly because we had planned to spend most of April in California.
• 3/18 most National Parks closed all visitor centers and facilities
• 3/19 state parks in New Mexico and California closed
• 3/19 California issued a stay-at-home order
We changed reservations to private RV parks instead of state parks, and departed Big Bend for a KOA in Alamagordo. The day we arrived, White Sands closed entirely and New Mexico went into lockdown. Our next stop was Catalina State Park outside of Tucson. We spent some time there touring the Sky Island Scenic Drive and Saguaro National Park.
We left Catalina State Park for Lost Dutchman outside of Phoenix. We still had hopes of seeing Joshua Tree by bicycle, after they closed the roads to vehicles. However, about that time in late March / early April the Utah parks, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley closed completely, and our whole National Park tour was over.
We had a choice between heading east or waiting out the virus somewhere nearby to see if California or Utah might defeat the virus and begin to open up. Arizona didn’t close their state parks, so we talked over the options, ran it by our grown sons, who didn’t think we should head home, then canceled our other reservations and booked campsites in more parks across the state through the end of April. Our next stop was Picacho Peak, between Phoenix and Tucson.
In mid-April, Trump began pushing for states to relax their shutdowns. On April 20, when we were in Homolovi State Park, Tamara posted her experiences about coming down with the virus. It was an eye-opener. Even if we had a mild case, we could have two to three weeks of fatigue while recovering in a trailer, which sounded like hell. This was when we decided to give up waiting to see what opened up, although we kept our planned stops at two more state parks.
We had waited out the month of April in Arizona, so we pointed the wheels east, through El Malpais National Monument to Albuquerque. We stayed there three days, spent an afternoon at Petroglyph National Monument, then went north to Santa Fe. On our day trip to town we found all the streets empty. The striking thing to me was how many businesses were closed. Santa Fe is a huge arts community and all the museums, galleries, jewelry shops, Native American crafts, and boutiques have been shut since March 23. It brought the economic impact home.
After that we headed north through Taos, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and then I-70 eastbound. It will be strange to be back in our house and see the same view out the window every day. I hope we’ll be able to redo the trip we planned next spring, but I am doubtful.
Nice photos! I love road trips and have often thought of getting a conversion van or a similarly small, easy to maneuver RV and going exploring. The thing is, my husband dislikes road trips, so it’s difficult to justify the expense to take trips with my sister, daughter, etc. Maybe someday, if I ever get to retire! Hope y’all are able to re-do your trip the way you planned.
PS: I believe the park identified as “Silver River” is actually “Silver Springs.” That’s not too far from where I live!
PICACHO PEAK is the site of the only civil war battle in Arizona. I’ve done a good bit of hiking in the Superstitions, the Weavers Needle is really cool and sometimes your fly over it on your way into Sky Harbor.
Nice shots, and interesting story on when plans go *boom*. Thanks.
Frosty, I’m not sure about seeing J Tree by bicycle, it’s a really big park.
@?BillinGlendaleCA: And there’s quite an altitude change – parts are in the low desert and parts are in the high. I hope in a couple of years you’ll be able to come back in your trailer. Love the springtime desert photos!
So the Cherokee has no problem towing the Sonic through the mountains?
Higher towing capacity – your SUV or Joe Biden?
@Mary G: There’s a pretty good climb from 29 Palms or Joshua Tree(the town) into the park and those communities are in the high desert.
What a fun trip and I glad that you were able to take it. I’m so happy that you will be sharing more pictures.
That sounds like a great trip, even with it getting cut short and the rescheduling you had to do.
I would be tempted to print this whole illustrated narrative in a photo book to leave to your progeny – what an amazing slice of time and places.
@JeanneT: Books will be written and classes will be taught about this point in time. What a great addition that would be for future generations.
A friend remembers his father speaking about the Spanish Flu.
Thank you for the pictures and your story.
Wonderful pictures, and accompanying story — the Way We Live Now.
I’ve been fantasizing for the first time about getting some kind of camper so I could travel accompanied by my bedroom — it will be a long time before I feel safe staying in a hotel.
Dorothy A. Winsor
@JeanneT: I second this idea. It’s like a double view of the world.
@raven: I have the same question.
My wife and I can see retirement in our distant future and are trying to figure out what we are going to do.
We keep going back and forth between a camper and just staying at airbnb/vrbo.
Those pictures of Lost Dutchman and Picacho Peak are making me incredibly homesick.
The photo in southern PA is my surrounds now!
Thanks for the beautiful pictures and commentary. We are looking for a small tow behind or tiny RV for this reason. It’s interesting to see places that are often overlooked because they aren’t a national park.
@Betty Cracker: You’re right – Silver Springs. We have friends in Ocala so we’ve been there several times.
I’m working on routes and campsite reservations to see the other parks in 2021. Given the COVID news for the last few weeks I don’t have a lot of confidence that anything will be open.
@?BillinGlendaleCA: About all we could have done by bikes at J Tree was the first 5 miles from the entrances out and back. Not much and maybe not worth it because I would want to come back. They solved the conundrum by closing it completely.
@raven: A few problems. This was the 6-cyl with 6,000 lb towing capacity with a 4,400 lb dry weight trailer. We didn’t hit any serious mountains but dropped down to 40 mph going uphill more than once. We traded up to a V8 a few weeks ago since the Rockies are part of our future plans. Hoping Canada lets us back someday – Banff and Jasper are on my bucket list.
Great pictures. And quite the saga.
@mrmoshpotato: We really enjoyed it. It was an interesting change to explore one place for a month and Arizona let us do that by keeping the parks open (CA, NV, UT, and NM shut all theirs down). We met other campers doing the same thing.
I’ve been wondering about RV or camper van travel, thanks for the tour.
We had plans for the Grand Canyon in early May which got scrubbed. Since then, I’ve gotten come-ons from Xanterra (the GC operating company, also operates other national parks) and this week they had a 30% off sale, but like you, I”m thinking May next year we’ll still be waiting for the vaccine. In the meantime, I feel like I’m going through a mid-life crisis that is likely just covid-related. Daydreams about these virtual trips through On The road really help!
@JeanneT: For this trip I set up a travel blog in FYWP (thanks for the help WG!) and posted a couple hundred pictures. I‘m planning to take those to do just that. I’ve done an album from a family trip to London, Normandy, and Paris a few years back as a Christmas present last year when one of the boys mused that he wished he could remember everything we’d seen. PowerPoint works pretty well for embedding photos and text. Much easier than Word.
@arrieve: You’re right about preferring your own “house” to a hotel. Others must be thinking the same because apparently RV sales are booming. I expect state park reservations are going to get harder and harder to make. It’s already well nigh impossible to get one in the Florida Keys in February.
@Betty Cracker: Fixed!
@Suzanne: I can see why you’d be homesick. Both of us were quite taken by the desert in Spring. High summer in Arizona would be a bit different. Sort of like winter in Western PA vs. the weather right now, which is pretty near perfect IMHO.
@frosty: The desert is scrumptious in the spring. It’s definitely hard if you have allergies, but it’s just spectacular.
HOWEV, I do remember one night driving on the I-10 from Tucson to Phoenix, and my tire blew out in Picacho, and I had to deal with it in almost pitch-darkness and there were so many fucking bugs biting me that I had blood running down my legs. I got to that Dairy Queen next to the mountain and the entire soffit of the building was crawling with bugs as I stood under it. Just terrible.
Frosty, thank you for this trip report! Beautiful scenery… and chronicling the country shutting down around you has that “we were the last ones to make it out!” flavor.
I’d been thinking about becoming an RVer after retirement, and started watching a lot of full time RVer channels on YouTube. Being single and profoundly unhandy when it comes to repairs, I’ve ruled out FT RVing, but am still thinking about getting one for week-long excursions.
In this Brave New World, it’s going to be difficult deciding which is less risky: staying at a motel/hotel which promises to disinfect rooms between visitors, or at an RV park where the hookups and dump stations will almost certainly NOT be disinfected between users.
@frosty: My in-laws want one come visit us and they are considering doing it in an RV so they don’t have to get a hotel. I stayed in hotels when I drove here and it was fine.
@frosty: We’ve got a Grand Cherokee 4×4 with the 5.7 V8 we pull a 22 Airstream with it. No problem in the mountains at all. The electronic “Tow Mode” is incredible on the Jeep. We park the trailer to do some off-roading in the Jeep. If you get to Colorado, take a look at going to Ouray and camp on National Forest land in Yankee Basin, great mining roads, views, and on the weekdays almost no people.
This really isn’t a problem. Electricity: you’re using your own cable. The only thing you touch at the campsite is flipping the breaker. Same as opening a door. I bring a bandanna to touch things like that, otherwise sanitize as soon as you’re done. Water: Same thing, you use your own hose and only touch the faucet to turn it on. Dump station: Virtually everyone uses disposable gloves, for sanitary reasons.
@Suzanne: I don’t know if you saw my other comments, or if you’ll see this one, but we’ve taken our trailer when we’ve visited our son in PGH. Not a lot of options in the area. We’ve liked Raccoon Creek State Park to the west and Mountain Top Campground (private) to the northeast.
RV suggestions from my perspective:
Everyone who has a big motorhome tows a car. If you want to do sightseeing or grocery runs you’ll need a smaller vehicle to get out and about.
Small conversion vans or camper vans are a good option. The drawback is that you’ll have to disconnect the hookups (if you’re not dry camping) whenever you leave the campsite. Water and electric are easy to do, sewer not so much. That being said, you don’t need a sewer hookup unless you’re staying more than a few days or whenever the black and grey water tanks fill up.
We’ve gone with the tow-behinds like ours because if you have to tow something, why deal with two engines (motorhome and car). And we started out with a popup so we learned small and gradually got used to towing something bigger.
there are lots of awesome AZ state parks with a wide range of topography, I’m glad you had a chance to see Catalina State park before the Bighorn fire hit, unsure how much is left after that. The state parks here in Arziona are an example of a state agency that has done it right, with diversity from Picacho Peak to Karchner Caverns to the Natural Bridge outside of Payson. A wide array of sites that encompass geology, nature, and history.
If you’re looking for a biking adventure in AZ, I would recommend something quite unique in the Pedal The Petrified event that takes place in the early fall (may not happen this year, ‘natch) where you get the opportunity to ride your bike thru the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest National Park and its not a competitive ride (unless you make it so) and its a limited rider event but its done to help the community college system that supports Northern Arizona (which is pretty destitute economically). Spousal Unit has been participating in it for the last 7 years and its always with a sense of awe revisiting the landscape.
@piratedan: A post on AZ state parks is in the queue. It was really hard cutting back to 8 photos. Petrified Forest is on our route for next year, but it won’t be in the fall.
Great pictures. The National Parks get all the attention, but there are some fantastic state parks all over the country. My favorite local state park is Big Basin, in the coastal redwoods zone near Santa Cruz. There’s also a hidden gem called Pacheco State Park, on the road from Gilroy to the Central Valley. Rolling hills in oak woodland, great for hiking.