Summertime, And The Living Is… Easy?

This time last year, when I was in Louisiana at Black Bayou Lake and looking ahead to the summer of 2019, my plan was to work and earn some money. In fact, my plan was to again work as a camphost for the same company I worked for last summer, but in a different location.

Then I saw something online about an upcoming WIN circuit that would travel across the country stopping to ride various bike trails, and that caught my imagination. I rather instantly decided that that was how I would spend the summer, and dropped my plan to work. This whole spontaneous plan making thing is new for me; it’s never been part of my personality, and I think is a facet of this mobile RV life that has most surprised me.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

But even that simple plan didn’t work out quite as expected. I had to be back in East Texas in early February to see my doctor and my ophthalmologist, and then I was going to head west to Quartzsite to finish the electrical upgrades I had started the year before by having a larger inverter installed and the inside wiring modified. And while I was there I also made a quick detour south so I could cross the border into Los Algodones and see my dentist.

The plan after this was to start heading east and meet up with the WIN group in April at the start of the circuit down in the southeast. But instead I had to be back in Livingston at the beginning of April to deal with some more medical stuff, and then, happily, Aoife had a chance to fly in for a week and we decided to explore New Mexico, so when I left Livingston I headed for Albuquerque where Aoife was flying into. Long story short, I didn’t catch up to the WINS until May 1 in Jefferson City, Missouri.

But wait, there’s more! When Aoife and I arrived at Bandelier NM and I put the slides out, the full wall slide made some unpleasant noises. I think I put the slide out one or two more times after this, and the noise got worse and worse, so by the time I had arrived in Jefferson City I was leaving the full wall slide in. Living with it in got old really fast, and after a week or so with the WINS in Jefferson City, I left the group and headed up to the Winnebago Factory Service Center in Iowa to get the slide dealt with and to have them check out an issue I’d been having with the hydraulic leveling jacks.

It takes months to get a service appointment with Winnebago, so instead I showed up without an appointment and was a “walk in” service customer. This means they worked on my rig as time allowed, so it took several weeks to get things taken care of. By the time I caught up with the WINS again, in South Dakota, it was the end of May. I stayed with the WIN circuit as we explored the Black Hills of South Dakota and then on to Grand Teton National Park, in the middle of June.

In Grand Teton the cycling circuit met up with another circuit spending the summer touring the northwest. The combined circuit was big, far too many people for me to comfortably deal with, so it was time for me to head out on my own again. Since it was only the middle of June I decided I would spend the rest of the summer touring some of the National Parks in the region, so I spent the next 3 weeks in Yellowstone, the movesd up to Glacier National Park for 12 days, then crossed into Canada to visit Banff for a week before coming back to the states and visiting Craters Of The Moon. From here I visited some state parks in Idaho, then headed west to visit North Cascades National Park.

Tuolumne Meadows from the summit of Lembert Dome, Yosemite National Park

This brought me to Labor Day, and not having made reservations 6 months in advance, there was no way I was going to get into any park anywhere so I sat out the weekend in a casino parking lot just outside of Olympic National Park. After the holiday crush I moved to another boondocking spot while I checked out Olympic NP, then made my way toward Crater Lake and another free spot for a week.

In mid-September Aoife had another vacation week. Whenever she comes for a visit the conversation always turns on where she should fly into. This time I said “fly into San Francisco and we’ll go visit Yosemite!” Now the Bay Area is an expensive place, and RV park prices hover around $100 per night. Not being a fan of RV parks or of paying that much money, I managed to find a county park in San Mateo, Coyote Point Recreation Area, that had 4 RV sites along the edge of a parking lot on San Francisco Bay, and only a 15 minute drive from the airport!

We made a day trip from here down to Monterey, and explored a couple of beaches along the coast on the drive home, then the next day we headed east and up to a Thousand Trails park just outside the west gate of Yosemite. Yosemite is amazing and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves until it was time to get Aoife back to San Jose to catch her flight home.

This left me with just over a week before I had to be in Death Valley for the start of my time here as a volunteer camphost, so I headed to Lone Pine to hang out and explore that area.

So that was a long recounting of “I went here and then I went there.” What’s my point? What is to be concluded from all this?

One one hand, I’m glad I did what I did this summer. These northern parks aren’t places I would go with my RV in the winter, so the only reasonable time to visit is in the summer. And I had a wonderful time and have memories of some amazing hikes.

So am I going to do something similar next summer? Nope. I’m going to find a seasonal job and settle in to one place and earn some money and avoid the summer crush of RV travelers. There are far too many RVs on the road in the summer. Everything is crowded and it’s hard to find places to stay. I experienced some epic traffic jams in Yellowstone, on the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier, and I shudder at the memory of trying to get to Lake Louise in Banff (I went back the next day, before dawn). I enjoyed some amazing hikes in the parks, but in order to do so I was getting up at 3 or 4 AM to get to the trail-head at daybreak to beat the crowds.

It’s okay to go on vacation in the summer, where you’ve planned everything out months ahead of time and made reservations, but that’s — maybe surprisingly to those who know me — not the way I travel. The bottom line is that winging it in the summer is rather a hassle.

What A Bargain! A Year Of Parks

For the last several years I’ve pretty much always had what is often referred to as a National Parks Pass or an Annual Pass. The government being the government, of course, they have a rather unwieldy name for it: America The Beautiful The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.

But whatever you call it, it’s a bargain! For $80, it covers the entrance fee to any federal recreation lands. National Parks and Monuments. National Forest and National Grasslands fee areas. COE. BLM. And I’m sure there are some I’m not thinking of at the moment.

I bought my current pass in October of 2018. After spending the first half of October in Connecticut I was heading south down the east coast and decided to spend a few days in Shenandoah National Park. The pass I had at the time had expired over the summer, so when I entered the park I purchased a new one.

This afternoon I went back through my calendar and tried to note all of the parks I’ve visited since that purchase, along with a couple I expect to visit in the next few weeks. Here’s the list, in chronological order:

  • Shenandoah National Park
  • Mammoth Cave National Park
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • Petroglyph National Monument
  • Valley of Fires National Recreation Area
  • White Sands National Monument
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Bandelier National Monument
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial
  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Glacier National Park
  • Craters Of The Moon National Monument
  • North Cascades National Park
  • Olympic National Park
  • Crater Lake National Park
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Manzanar National Historic Site
  • Death Valley National Park

Not bad for $80!

RVing the National Parks

As I write this I am sitting in the AdventureMobile parked in Apgar Campground in Glacier National Park. Over the last month or so I’ve spent 8 days in Grand Teton National Park, 3 weeks exploring Yellowstone, and now Glacier.

I know there are people who plan their trips a year in advance and make reservations for every stop. I don’t do that. My plans change frequently. At one point I was planning to work this summer and had a job lined up, then changed my mind and decided to spend the summer traveling with the WINs. Then that plan got delayed when I was stuck in Livingston dealing with some medical stuff. Once I finally caught up with the WINs in Missouri, I was with them for less than a week when I left to head up to Forest City, Iowa to get some things fixed at the Winnebago Factory Service Center.

Gros Vetre Campground, Grand Teton National Park

I finally got back with the WINs in South Dakota and stayed with them until Grand Teton. It wasn’t until Grand Teton that I realized Yellowstone is just up the road and decided to go there.

So, how do you get a site in one of the most iconic and heavily visited National Parks, in the summer, without a reservation?

The first thing to know is that most National Park campgrounds do not take reservations, they are first come, first served. For example, there are 13 campgrounds in Glacier National Park. Two of those campgrounds are 100% reservable, and in one other, half of the sites can be reserved. And those reservable sites are solidly booked right through the summer season. You could go online and get a night here or there, but that’s about it.

It is also important to know that NPS campgrounds are not RV parks! The typical National Park campground was designed for tenters. Sites are small, and typically there are no hookups. There may or may not be a dump station. Some do not allow RVs at all. Others only allow RVs up to a certain length; say 25 feet. Still others allow RVs but have only a limited number of sites which can accommodate larger rigs. So you have to do your research. Check the NPS website for information about the campgrounds in the park you want to visit. I also check campgroundreviews.com, as people often list specific sites and the size of their rig.

Mammoth Campground, Yellowstone National Park

The campground I am in now, Apgar Campground, has 194 sites but only 25 that can accommodate RVs “up to 40 feet.” And on some of those 25 sites, it will be next to impossible to get level.

With all those imitations, you might wonder why one would even bother with NPS campgrounds. The most important reason to me is that they put you living inside the park. You don’t have to go through the hassle of driving to the park each day and waiting in line at the entrance gate. You also get to enjoy the evening ranger programs, which are a really wonderful tradition in the National Parks. And finally, NPS campgrounds are not RV parks! I’m not a big fan of RV parks. I don’t enjoy being packed in like sardines, or sitting outside looking at my neighbors sewer hose. Oh, and one more: NPS campgrounds are a bargain! Apgar Campground costs $20 per night. I think I can remember paying fees ranging from $14 to about $23 per night.

So how do you get a site in one of these perpetually full National Park campgrounds? There are 2 cardinal rules: 1) Don’t arrive on a Friday or Saturday, and 2) Arrive early!

I left Yellowstone on Monday and drove north towards Glacier, arriving in the town of Columbia Falls mid-afternoon. I parked in the parking lot at the Super 1 Foods store, which allows RVs to park overnight. While there I restocked the pantry and settled in for the night.

Apgar Campground, Glacier National Park

I was up at 5:30 Tuesday morning, and by 6:30 I had unhooked the car and, leaving the motorhome parked there, was driving to Glacier. By 7:15 I was in Apgar Campground, cruising the loops looking for an empty site that I could maneuver the AdventureMobile into. It took a few laps of each of the loops, but by 8 o’clock I had found a site someone had just pulled out of that would work. I set up a couple of folding chairs I had brought with me to mark the site as taken, and filled out the self-registration form, paid the nightly fee, and clipped the receipt to the campsite post. It was a lot easier driving around and around the campground with just the car rather than my personal little road train of motorhome plus car.

Site secured, I drove back into town and hooked the car to the motorhome. While at the campground I had noticed that the dump station was quite tight, and also very busy. So I paid $5 to dump my tanks at the Conoco station in town, then drove back into the park to the campground. There was a long traffic delay due to chip sealing work going on, but since I had a site secured I could relax and not worry. Well before noon I was all set up in my site and sitting outside relaxing.