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The Classic American Road Trip: Days 1 through 5 June 4, 2012

Posted by Tom Wells in Tom's Posts.
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My family and I struck out on the Classic American road trip starting on Saturday, May 25th.  It is something we’ve done several times before going out into the American west with a rough route in mind, but with no specific agenda.  Most of my time has been spent driving and seeing the sights with the family.  But I have also taken the time to write down a mini journal of what we’ve seen along the way.  Here are the first five days I jotted down.

Saturday May 26th.
Drove as far as Cave Creek, Nevada.

We started out on a typical route up Highway 50 over Echo Summit  to Tahoe.  What we did not expect to see up at the summit was snow, lots of snow.  It even snowed a little on us as we crested the summit and drove down into Tahoe.  Typically, the Sierras compress the weather as it goes over their peaks, so we then expected that to be the last of the snow.  We were wrong.  As we followed 50 around the lake, we climbed up the Eastern Nevada range headed for Carson City.  On that drive it was not only snowing more, it was sticking to the highway.  One zippy little car that had passed us not long before spun out.  We slowed down and passed and then came upon the scene where some cars encountered the side of an RV.

Our truck has 4WD and with the off-road tires, we were in control, but I worried about all of the compact cars around us with nothing more than street tires and unprepared drivers between their control and the side of our camper.  But we made it off the mountain and into Carson City without further incident, and the snow cleared so we thought we had seen the last of that.

Wrong.

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Highway 50 in Nevada is known as the loneliest highway in the USA.  It felt like it on Saturday.  Adding to the surprising lack of traffic was snow again on the summits and in the valleys with a definite winter wonderland feel.  Only one week from June, we were changing from shorts into pants and from sandals to shoes.  Our next stop was in the little town of Austin where we wanted to refuel.  There was snow here too, and to our surprise, the power was out when we arrived.  There were people who had stopped at the remote place for the gas they needed at 9:AM. It was 1:30 when we arrived and thankfully the power was restored within 15 minutes so our delay was minimal.  We headed out and drove the remaining distance to Cave Creek, Nevada where we camped for the night.

There was no snow there when we stopped, but as you might guess, it didn’t take long before fluffy white flakes began to drift from the sky.  Chad and Natalie got to run around a bit in the falling snow before Chad’s boy-ness kicked in and he started getting muddy.  We retreated to our nice warm camper and eventually fell asleep.

Sunday May 27, 2012
Drove as far as Ashley National Forest, Utah

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Started out with a light dusting of snow on the ground at Cave Creek Nevada.  We headed out to Great Basin National Park where we visited the Lehman Cave.  This is a two mile long cave with some of the best examples of all cave formations including stalagmites, stalactites, draperies, cave bacon, cave popcorn and some rarely found formations such as cave shields and cave turnips.  The kids loved it of course, but what’s not to love?  We ate lunch there and then struck out of Nevada and headed into Utah.

We saw more snow, but not nearly as much.  Utah doesn’t have the long lonely highways like Nevada and Utah speed limits are much slower.  We aimed for the back roads and avoided the interstates like they were the plaque.  We found a little place down a bumpy dirt road just off the highway in the Ashley National Forest where we made camp by a little stream.  There is a little fire pit and someone calling himself Kohl camped here in 82 and 84 (or so he felt compelled to document on a the birch trees growing here.  We stayed there for the night before aiming for the Dinosaur National Monument on the Northern Utah/Colorado border.  I do not feel compelled to document our stay on the trees like Kohl felt compelled to.

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Monday May 28, 2012
Drove as far as Kremling, Colorado

Started out from our remote campsite and drove to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.  Dinosaur NM is a place where the ground holding a large variety of dinosaur bones has been turned upright.  Int the late 1950’s, a large visitor’s center was built over the quarry.  We were able to walk right up to the rock face and look at the exposed fossils in the rock where they were found.  Some are even exposed so that you can touch a real dinosaur fossil in it’s natural setting.

While the dinosaur quarry is the main draw to the National Monument, the park has the Green River running through it.  After visiting the quarry, we drove out along the river back into a canyon where a settler had a homestead built in an idealistic setting.  This wasn’t so unique except that this settler was a woman who moved out to farm the land long before women even had a right to vote.  She lived there nearly 50 years and her cabin and homestead are now a part of the Monument.

After Dinosaur, we drove on into Colorado.  Up to this point, the roads had been clear of traffic for the most part and the towns few and far apart.  Northern Colorado is not the same however.  It was like being back in California again and not in a good way.  The towns are many, the people are many, and the scenery is spoiled by the population.  Steamboat Springs Colorado was the first place we had come to since California with the Share The Road signs for bicycles.  Trouble is these signs seem to be posted where the bicycles are the ones who don’t want to share the road by riding in herds that slow all traffic to a crawl.

It was a relief to make it up into the Routt National Forest.  This was the first of what would be 3 crossings of the Continental Divide in two days.  We had high hopes of finding a nice National Forest campground and spending the night.  We tried all of the 3 campgrounds off of Highway 40 to no avail.  All were closed.  So we pushed on hoping for a campground open nearby.

An hour later, we finally came up on the Wohlford Mountain Reservoir which had camping, but the layout, pit toilets and the characters there were so bad, we elected to gamble on something else down the road.  That something else was the Red Mountain RV resort in lovely downtown Kremling Colorado. Thankfully the place was quiet with full hook-ups and showers for only $10 more than the crappy reservoir campgrounds would have cost.

Tuesday May 29, 2012
Drove as far as Gering, Nebraska

Started out from Kremling and headed into the Rocky Mountain National Park.  The crossing of the Continental Divide here was much more impressive since the highway was purposely built up above the tree-line to a height of thirteen thousand feet.  The wind was fierce, the air was cold and yes, we saw snow again, but in its rightful place.

Here the kids did their first Junior Ranger program of the trip.  If you aren’t familiar with this, each National Park has a Junior Ranger program where they hand out a booklet and have the children fill out some of the activities.

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They then take the booklet to the ranger of the park and he or she asks them about what they did and saw and grill them about filling out the booklets.  We did this a few years ago in a few parks in the southwest, but I don’t remember the rangers being such sticklers then. We were only in this place for the day, but the Ranger was not going to let us escape without the kids attending some Ranger program.  Luckily, that included viewing a movie.  We were on vacation to see the land, not sit in stuffy movie theaters, but to get the silly requirement over, we went and saw the same kind of movies we watch on the Discovery Chanel. With that requirement out of the way, they were pronounced Rocky Mountain National Park Junior Rangers.  And once more, it was to the highways.

And once more it was like being back in California. It was relatively slow going up and out of Colorado into Nebraska.  By the time we were in Nebraska, the scenery was more open and the traffic was less, but the speed limits didn’t improve like I had hoped.  We got slowed down from 65 to 60 miles per hour.

We found a little RV park in Gering Nebraska just south of the Scott’s Bluff National Monument.  The camp host first tried shoe-horning us in between two other RV’s.  It was silly because there were plenty of other open sites, so when I asked to be moved to a nice one a little away from the rest, he resisted because he was saving that “pull through” site for trailers.  I pointed out the fact that there were plenty of open sites, no one else arriving on a Wednesday night and that it was after 8 pm local time.  He relented, we moved camping spots and finished another day on the road.

Wednesday May 30, 2012
Drove as far as , Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Started out from Gering on our way to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska.  It was a place we had never heard of before, but spotted on the map when we were looking for places to go.   Our first stop of the day was breakfast.  We picked the Log Cabin from a list of restaraunts provided by the campground.  I think Chad and Natalie were possibly the first children who ever went into this place.  It was the first place I can remember that didn’t even have kids list of dishes.  The food was good enough and we needed the hearty meal later.

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The next stop was Scott’s Bluff National Monument where we saw displays of the Oregon Trail.  The road we started out on was the old Oregon Trail road in fact.  The kids saw wagons and we walked though the exhibits and then headed north across the prairie.   It is just humbling to think of the effort the early settlers endured to cross this land without roads.  The rolling terrain rolls with the grasslands that are now also farmed, though not so entirely that you don’t get the feel of what it was like here two hundred years ago.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument has been set aside in the heart of the Nebraska west.  Though the monument is named for the fossil beds found here, the real story of this park is its setting in the Lacota Nation.  We walked a three mile trail on the search of the very unimpressive fossil beds, but the walk was more about experiencing the prairie, wind and all.  We joked about the trail being up-hill both ways.  Physically going out and figuratively coming back against the wind that ceaselessly blew.  All were agreed by the end of our hike, that we were all doubly grateful we were not part of the original Oregon Trail.

From Agate, we headed north again into South Dakota.  The highway here slowed us down to 55.  I normally can’t drive 55, but the way up into the Black Hills was scenic and we went with the flow.  We traveled up into the Wind Cave National Park.  Being no stranger to the Junior Ranger badge program, we made sure we stopped in on the visitor center that evening to pick up the booklets so the kids could complete them that night  before our cave tour the next morning.  This let them fill out the activities sitting at the camp table rather than working on benches and display surfaces at the visitor’s center.

We camped in the National Parks campground in Wind Cave NP and had our first marshmallow roast.  Great fun.

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