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Our Travel Blog: The Free Five

Current Location: In our new home in Colorado Springs, CO

Welcome to The Free Five blog.  This is our web-home to document our travels across North America. We are a family of 5 that transitioned from an active duty military lifestyle to a year long full-time homeschool (road school!) adventure in our RV. We are also on Facebook under the same name.  The end of July 2018 means we were on the road for 12 months and full-time living in our RV for 18 months.  Wa-hoo!

While we have stopped full time travel, we have many places we still haven’t posted about- amazing places in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Kentucky. Once we get settled into the house (painting and more painting!) we will start catching up on our blog posts.

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Big News!

Big News everybody! We’re buying a house!

We are in the process of buying a house in Colorado Springs, CO.  Colorado has consistently felt like home each time we’ve come through, and Colorado Springs offers good schools and lots of sunshine, is close to Andy’s family, and the housing market is still within our budget.  Also important, there are direct flights into Denver for easy access to Suzy’s family. We have loved our almost-year on the road–but 2/3 of the kids miss a regular school experience, and Mom and Dad miss having someone else teach them!  CS schools start in Mid-August, so we used our Denver visit last month to check out the Colorado Springs area and narrow our househunting focus to specific neighborhoods.

That being said, we still have lots of blogs & pictures to post, from many amazing places: Chiricahua, Grand Canyon, Bandelier, Carlsbad, Meteor Crater, Petrified Forest, Grand Teton (we saw bears), Yellowstone (we saw more bears! Bison!) … plus the places we will see before school starts.  We will hopefully have a chance to catch up on our blogs once we slow down.

But (you ask)… is The Free Five’s RV grand adventure really over? Not exactly! We have so much of the US that we haven’t seen–the Pacific Northwest, New England, Mid-Atlantic, Texas, Alaska, and so on. Suzy is already strategizing for summer breaks, winter breaks, spring breaks, 3 day weekends… you get the idea. The travel bug isn’t dead…it just needs a little rest and recuperation. And the teenagers definitely need a little more personal space and more frequent showers. When the older two have graduated from high school in 5 years…I hope we hit the road again!

So, this week we leave Cody, WY, to attend the Bieber family reunion in Northwest Iowa this weekend.  On Sunday, we head on to Suzy’s parents’ house in Northern Ohio to spend a few weeks visiting.  Our last likely National Park for this chapter of RV full-time adventuring is Mammoth Cave–we may swoop down to Mammoth Cave, KY, so the kids can compare Carlsbad to Mammoth, and make their own determination which is better or bigger!

If you are coming to visit Colorado Springs this fall…we will have a guest room ready for you!  Cheers!

Mojave National Preserve

December 2017

Mojave National Preserve was an unexpectedly beautiful place.  We did not expect the variety of color, flora, and fauna.  Our stay had us here during the slow season–and it was so slow that the visitor center was only open a few days a week (and no days during our stay).  We stayed at Hole-in-the-Wall Campground–which was nestled up next to an old volcano remnant covered in a variety of cacti and desert shrubs.  The campground was difficult to enter (it had a really deep rut across the road into it) but once inside it had plenty of large level campsites. The vault toilets were clean.  We had noted some free camping along Essex road in as a backup plan.  Note that there is another campground, Mid Hills Campground, but the dirt road from Hole-in-the-Wall (a 2WD dirt road according to the map) was way too rough for a large RV to navigate and the washboard was painful in our minivan.  Likewise, Wild Horse Canyon road, marked as an unpaved 2WD road on the park map, had a sign up saying 4WD was recommended. However, the drive was worth it–we caught the sunset at Mid-Hills and it was spectacular.

We went to bed each night listening to coyotes yipping. It was so peaceful only nature to lull us to sleep.

There were several hikes that started and ended right in or near the campground.  The highlight for the kids was the Rings Loop Trail. This trail took us around some of the rocks and into a bizarre holey rock formation (old lava or ash flows) that we had to climb out of using rings anchored into the rocks.  The holey rocks beaconed to be climbed, but the holes’ potentially dangerous inhabitants–snakes and scorpions–encouraged restraint!

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We really only explored the one area of Mojave, and there is so much more we haven’t seen.  Despite its name, Mojave National Preserve is an intersection of three North American deserts–the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran, and has the ecosystems that are unique to each.  Prior to our travels, I had no idea of these deserts and how different they each were.  Mojave National Preserve shares features of Joshua Tree National Park–but is more remote and difficult to explore without 4WD.

Death Valley

December 2017

Death Valley – what a name!  Sounds like a scary place and, for a traveler on horse or foot during the summer a century or more ago, it would be scary – and deadly.

Death Valley in the winter is completely different – stark and beautiful in ways few other places are.  Its beauty surprised us and we really enjoyed our stay in the valley of death.

We stayed at the National Park campground right next to the Furnace Creek visitor center.  There were many sites large enough to accommodate us, even though it was December and we had no reservations. This campground was dry camping only, but the campground was much nicer (and cheaper) than the RV park nearby–really a parking lot with electricity hookups.  Since the weather was excellent, we didn’t need electricity for heat or AC, and used the campground restrooms to reduce the burden on our water supply and waste tanks. The campground also was near enough to the Furnace Creek Village and one of the many Borax mining works that first brought awareness to Death Valley. Of course, the night skies were stunning. Suzy broke out the telescope to make sure we didn’t miss out on this International Dark Sky Park.

We stopped at Zabriskie Point on the way in–a picturesque sculpture of layered domes of different colored sandstone. We could see that there were trails that led through these and we vowed to make sure we had a chance to check them out– and we did!

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The Golden Canyon trail took us into and onto these formations. That was a hot, exhausting, and spectacular hike.

We took a short drive out to Badwater Basin salt flats. What was striking was the fact that sea level was more than 200 feet above us–the nearby rock (mountain) wall had a sign (high up) indicating where sea level was. We got there we could hear singing–a traveling Taiwanese Christian student group was singing a quarter mile away out on the salt flats.  Right near the road at the edge of the salt flats was a natural spring bubbling and supporting life in this desolate place.

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Another hike was out to unique canyons clearly carved by vast amounts of rushing water–the kids (and Andy) climbed up into strange rock channels found at the upper end of the Mosaic Canyon Trail.

We’d hoped to see some of the more mountainous parts of Death Valley (as high as 11,000 ft above sea level, but that was just too far for a day trip, and not practical for us to drive the RV through. Despite spending a week here, we missed so much in this huge park, including the famous “Racetrack” (where rocks, moved by the wind, carve tracks into the salt flats) and Scotty’s Castle (under construction). So, we will just have to come back again to see more of this amazing place.

 

Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada) & Las Vegas

November 2017

Following our visit to Zion National Park, we continued down I-15 and opted to boondock in a wildlife area near Overton, Nevada. While the campsite itself was unremarkable, it was near to a place we wanted to visit, Valley of Fire State Park.   This was our “holiday” park as we visited on Thanksgiving Day and a month later, on Christmas Day–we liked it that much!  It has a nice campground, but we needed internet connectivity so we opted to stay near Overton.

One of the best things about our Grand Tour is discovering fantastic places that we didn’t know about, and Valley of Fire is one of those.  It is also a great place for kids, with tons of boulders and cool rock formations to discover, explore and climb.

The rocks here are so spectacularly unusual that they’ve been used in several movies, including the alien planet at the end of Star Trek Generations, where Captain Kirk dies. On satellite imagery, you can see the bright red rock formations that give Valley of Fire its name.

 

Zion National Park

November, 2017

Our plan to travel to all of Utah’s national parks this fall came to a halt when the kids decided they were “done with deserts with rocks”.  We had the older two read about Bryce, Zion, and Capitol Reef, and they decided that Zion would be kinda different, so that would be “ok” to see.

Overall, our experience at Zion NP was mixed–we struggled with traffic and crowds and didn’t get to see and do all that we wanted to.  But in our frustration, we decided to leave the main area and go to a less visited district at Zion. This was the best decision we made. and we had a great hike there.

We camped near St George, UT at Sand Hollow State Park, about 45-90 minutes from the main entrance of Zion.  There was major construction on the only road into the main entrance of the park,  resulting in long waits, as miles of road is limited to one lane.  Also, we were there a few days before Thanksgiving, so lots of families crowded the park (we didn’t think to check that, of course).  Even with two different day trips (Monday & Tuesday of Thanksgiving week), we never got to see the most famous park drive & sights.  When that part of the park (with limited parking) is full, they close the road and we never go there early enough.  During peak times of the year, Zion eliminates car travel entirely and makes everyone use shuttle buses.  Unfortunately, the shuttles weren’t running those days, so we were out of luck. Needless to say, that was frustrating.

Even with the mobs and closures, we still found the visit enjoyable and it’s easy to see why this is such a popular park.

 

After our second failed attempt to get to the main, upper portion of Zion Canyon, we decided to go visit the least-visited part of the park – the north-central portion between the Kolob entrance and Zion Canyon itself.  We really enjoyed this section – although it did not have the grand vistas of Zion Canyon, it still contained amazing geography, great hiking, and few crowds.

We hiked out toward the Northgate Peaks, which was an easy trail through beautiful pine forests and led to fantastic views.

Our visits to Zion and Arches reminded us of the problems and challenges of overcrowding in the most popular parks.  Parks like Zion and Arches are not any bigger, but they grow in popularity every year. The National Park Service is exploring new ways to manage the crowds, including a reservation system.  Given the alternatives,  we think Americans should support the changes to allow a better experience for all.  And maybe it will encourage  others to discover some of the reasons the less visited parks were made part of our National Park Service.

Back in Utah – Dead Horse Point State Park, Canyonlands NP Island in the Sky District and Arches NP

November 2017

After Colorado National Monument we returned to Utah. The Canyon Country in Southeast Utah is a favorite place for us, and has so much to offer.  Andy spent a lot of time in the area thanks to family trips over the years. Suzy starting coming too (and Slickhorn Canyon on the San Juan river is where Andy proposed!) and now we are back again.

“Canyon country” is a big area that covers part of a geological region known as the Colorado Plateau. For this visit, we spent most of our six days in two specific areas: Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky district.  They are adjacent, so it was convenient!  We also took a day trip to Arches NP which is also nearby.

As we mentioned in our previous blog post, Canyonlands NP is actually three separate districts divided by the Green and Colorado rivers – there’s no way to get directly from one to another without crossing a river or driving a LONG way around.  In a sense, they are three separate parks and that makes visiting them all in one trip quite difficult.

The best time to visit canyon country is in the spring or fall because that’s when the weather is best – Summers are too hot and winters are usually too cold.  In late September we visited Needles District. We originally planned to continue to Dead Horse Point State Park to meet Andy’s Dad and Step-Mother but, unfortunately, Andy’s Dad got sick and passed away. We rushed back to Colorado to spend time with him and family and stayed well over a month.  We are really thankful this lifestyle gives us the flexibility to spend time when and where we are needed.  Had we still be in Florida working our old jobs with the kids in school, we simply would not have been able to dedicate that much time.


Dead Horse Point State Park

Dead Horse Point is a Utah State Park nestled on the mesa top next to Canyonlands. a beautiful park in its own right with spectacular views of canyon country along the Colorado River.  It was also a great “base” for us–it had decent cell signal (due to proximity to Moab and elevation), mountain biking and hiking trails, and a nice visitor center only a 1/4 mile from the campground.

The campground itself had electricity at each big site, which is what we primarily need.  Water and a dump station were available, along with nice flush toilets.  On “school days” we were able to combine homeschooling with morning or afternoon excursions on foot or bike on the state park trails.  We watched several fantastic sunsets viewed from the park’s namesake “Dead Horse Point”.

We were reminded that winter was coming when, one night, the temperature dropped and it was super windy across the mesa–40+mph winds with gusts over 50 mph.  The next morning we saw one or two tent-neighbors had packed up and left in the night, including one that abandoned their wind-destroyed tent.


Island in the Sky District

This district is mainly a high plateau defined/carved by the Colorado and Green Rivers.  This area can be seen in the distance from the Needles District – it was interesting to look back at where we had been two months earlier. We found the canyon view at Green River and Grand View Point Overlook to be similar vistas to the Dead Horse Point overlooks.

Our first hike was to Upheaval Dome, which has two overlooks into a strange round rocky crater.  Upheaval Dome is either a collapsed salt formation or an ancient impact crater.  The current scientific consensus favors the latter explanation.  Regardless of the origin, it is an amazing display of geology, something that would look normal on an alien world.  The hike was quite nice except the wind was variable and made some of the more exposed parts of the hike a bit more interesting than we expected.  There is also a much longer trail called the Syncline Loop which circumnavigates the Upheaval Dome formation, but it lacks views inside the impact crater and was described as difficult to follow.  At over 7 miles it would have been a bit challenging for James, and we are view snobs!

We also hiked to Mesa Arch trail, a short, easy trail to one of the park’s most famous views. It was definitely worth a visit.

Below the mesa from is an amazing 4WD road and trail call the White Rim Road (or trail). It’s a 100-mile loop that goes around the park edges.  Someday…  It’s times like these we wish we had a 4X4 vehicle. We did decide to take a 2WD dirt road from the mesa top down the canyon side to a place called Mineral Bottom on the Green River.  The road is a steep descent and series of switchbacks literally carved into the canyon wall.  That part was pretty scary for Suzy, and a bit tricky for Andy to navigate the minivan down and up, but worth it to get up close to the river.  It reminded us that we hope a rafting trip is in our near future!

Arches NP

Arches, the most well known of the Canyon Country parks, is still a must-see, even if you don’t like “crowded” places.  It’s wasn’t completely mobbed, thanks to a late-season visit.

We only had one day here, which was plenty for us since we’ve been to the park before.  The first hike was to Delicate Arch, probably the most-photographed location in Utah. We got an early start for us (which isn’t actually early–we have a teenager), and managed to beat most of the crowds there.  There were only about a dozen people at the end of the trail and, surprisingly, no one yet under the arch.  We got a few pictures but it was an overcast day and the light wasn’t great.

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A nice, uncrowded visit to Delicate Arch – Arches National Park, Utah

Next, we checked out a neat network of trails at Devils Garden, including Landscape Arch, Tunnel Arch, and Pine Tree Arch.  We didn’t have the time or energy to complete the 7-mile loop, and bad weather was starting to roll in, but we did get the highlights.

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Pine Tree Arch – Arches National Park, Utah

We finished the day with a short walk around Balanced Rock.  We all had tired, sore feet by the end of the day.

Overall we had a great time in the area and we accomplished a lot of hiking as well as school and work.  The kids, however, were starting to tire of Canyon Country, so we decided it was time to see something new.  Originally we’d planned to see Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks, but decided to save them for a later date.  But one place we couldn’t pass up is Zion, which was our next stop.

Canyonlands Needles District – September 2017

After a great visit to the four corners area, in late September we traveled North for one of our favorite places – the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park. The weather was mild–60s & 70s during the day and 40s & 50s at night – just about perfect. We even got a little bit of rain – just enough to give beautiful sunsets and force us to have a slow day.  We hiked nearly every day – It helped that we had no cell service here, so the kids were more interested in getting outside.

After a great visit to the four corners area, in late September we traveled North for one of our favorite places – the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park. The weather was mild–60s & 70s during the day and 40s & 50s at night – just about perfect. We even got a little bit of rain – just enough to give beautiful sunsets and force us to have a slow day.  We hiked nearly every day – it helped that we had no cell service here, so the kids were more interested in getting outside.

The Needles district is completely off-grid – at least 40 miles to a phone line or power pole.  Facilities in the district are powered by diesel generators, though the park service is beginning the transition to solar. Cell service and internet were almost nonexistent.  We occasionally could get cell signal when micro-geography and wave propagation combined to tenuously link us to the cell towers near Monticello or Moab.

The campground in Needles district is small and difficult to get into during the high season.  Only a few sites can fit our RV and those are usually booked way in advance.  So we camped just outside the park entrance at a small private and primitive campground called Needles Outpost. It’s a convenient and affordable spot, given how close it is.  We had massive rock formations right outside the RV door that the kids loved to climb.

Needles District has a fantastic trail system with some of the most amazing geographies in the country. Many of the trails are quite long, however, or more easily accessed with a 4X4 (which we don’t have…yet).

Cave Spring Trail is one of the shorter hikes, but it’s a fun one that includes deep cave-like overhangs with spring water along with slickrock, ladder climbs, and excellent views.  As a near-year round water source, this location has a lot of history going back to ancient times.

Slick Rock Foot Trail is another one of the shorter trails at 2.2 miles.  Unfortunately, Katherine badly twisted her ankle about 1/2 mile into the hike.  While Andy helped her limp back to the car, Suzy and the other two kids completed the loop.  The trail loops around the slickrock above the confluence of Big and Little Spring Canyons and offers some great views.

Pot Hole Point is one of the most scenic locations in the entire park.  The trail isn’t much, but the location is excellent for evening light and sunsets as it affords a 360-degree view. It’s also a McNabb tradition so we came here twice this visit. Our the second time was after a day of rainstorms, bringing the “pothole” micro-biomes to life.

Chesler Park Trail was our “big” hike of the trip.  It’s a moderately difficult 5.5-mile total out-and-back.  This was several days after Katie sprained her ankle, but she did just fine.  This is one of the best moderate distance hikes in the park and is a great starting spur to longer hikes or backpacking.  Much of it is on slickrock, but there are a few steep ascents and descents.  We were actually able to get AT&T cell signal from a few spots on the trail as we had an intermittent line of sight to the towers by Moab, 35 miles away, up the Colorado River.