Our Mojave National Preserve roadtrip

Sunset over Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve

It was February 2009 when Kim and I brought friends Victoria and Terry on a short roadtrip to California. Our primary destination was Mojave National Preserve, a national park unit tucked away between I-15 and I-40 near the borders of California, Nevada, and Arizona. It was a first visit for Kim and I, who had been on a quest to visit all of the national parks.

Along the way, we stopped at the Blythe Intaglios, a series of rock geoglyphs near the Colorado River. Because it had rained just before we left Arizona, some roads in Mojave were a bit rough and the park ranger suggested we stick to just a few parts of the park. We spent some time at the Kelso Depot and Kelso Dunes, and camped and hiked near Hole-in-the-Wall. We also managed a tour of Mitchell Caverns within the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area. When it was time to head home, we traveled along historic Route 66 and stopped off at Joshua Tree National Park for half a day before finishing the drive home.

It was a short trip, but we managed to see quite a bit. I’ve finally posted the photos from the trip, so please feel free to take a look and leave a comment or two.

This just in: John Madden has terrible taste

John Madden's table and shrine at Chuy's in Van Horn, TX

We’ve stopped in Van Horn, Texas on a few occasions before. Each time, we managed to hear or read about the local Chuy’s restaurant, which is rather infamous. Apparently, the restaurant attracted the attention of John Madden years ago, who has said it’s his favorite place to eat. And Chuy’s has naturally exploited the hell outta it. For his part, Madden seems to have played along, at least initially.

How he ever decided to stop and eat there, we’ll never know.

Chuy’s is the name of a chain restaurant that Kim and I used to eat at nearly weekly for 2 years. We had received a set of 24 one-free-meal-a-month coupons for each of three windshields replaced in a 6-month time span. [Thanks Empire Glass!] And with all those free coupons, we made the most of it as we could. I never did really enjoy the food there. Well, ok, I guess I did like the chili – I’ve actually returned as a paying customer in the last few months to order it.

So as we were in need of dinner about the time we’d be in Van Horn, we figured we should give it a try. Besides, I was craving some of that chili. Of course, the Chuy’s isn’t the one we’re thinking of; it’s just an independent, family-owned Mexican restaurant. That’s ok, so we enter.

The menu’s pretty plain but was sure to make mention of Madden. The  food wasn’t any better, and the service was lacking. The restaurant has an area reserved for John Madden, but we were seated on the other wing of the place so we couldn’t even ogle the shrine. Besides the photo of the sign and the roadtrip memory (“Hey, remember that time we ate at that ridiculously indescript Mexican restaurant that John Madden loved?”), the stop was definitely a disappointment.

So I’m here to confirm the obvious: John Madden has terrible taste.

An inauspicious start to the roadtrip

I’ve been dying to go on another national park roadtrip for months now, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting this morning’s departure. I knew today was all about driving as far as we could get into Texas. I assumed it would a pretty boring day.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. We started out the day four hours later than expected – and with us both utterly exhausted. That doesn’t make for a great start, but the kicker happened just a third of the way through today’s drive:  our car battery died. At a nearly vacant rest area. In a small podunk town, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

Fuck.

Read more about today’s driving adventures over at scottandkimmie.com.

Brownie, the traveling bear. Or boot.

The original Brownie, the traveling bear

Kim and I have several traditions on our national park roadtrips. We get our passport stamps. We take our picture from my outstretched hand. We take a picture of the Forester in front of the park entrance sign. We get a separate shot of the entrance sign, too.

But on the eve of our wedding, we thought it made sense to add yet another ritual to our list.

Meet Brownie, the traveling bear.

Brownie was born when we purchased him from a gift shop in Yosemite National Park. He’s our contribution to the internet meme of capturing one object in a series of travel photos. His first duty came during the above picture, taken just minutes after our wedding ceremony. We faithfully included him – sometimes in a hand, sometimes sitting in the background – in pictures from each of the parks we visited after the wedding. Brownie was quickly becoming a fixture in our daily park routine.

Until, that is, we visited Davy Crockett’s birthplace in Tennessee. As I walked over to take a photo, Brownie slipped from my pocket and landed on the edge of a concrete pathway. It was a painful fall, and two of Brownie’s legs cracked off, though they remained stuck to the base. We attempted to superglue him back together again; but like Humpty Dumpty, it just wasn’t meant to be.

Brownie would never be the same.

During the rest of the trip, we continue to use Brownie – bad legs and all. But when we arrived in Texas that winter on another roadtrip, we decided that it was time to redefine what it means to be Brownie. We decided that any object we employ towards this goal automatically becomes a Brownie. We quickly settled on a Texas boot for this trip, and Brownie the traveling boot was born.

Brownie II, the traveling boot

Brownie II hasn’t been dropped yet and is still in great condition, but it’s also unclear if or when he’ll be replaced. Will we get a bayou-inspired Brownie on this winter’s trip? It’s hard to say at this juncture. Either way, Brownie will live on – in some form or another.

Do you have your brownie? Tell us about it in the comments.

Our winter National Parks roadtrip: LA, MS, AL

Winter09_NPS_trip_map

It’s nearly the holidays, and that means that Kim and I are planning another roadtrip. Usually, this trip is half-planned for us: it’s often centered around which bowl game ASU will be playing in. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case the last couple of years.

Last year, we took advantage of the planning freedom afforded us by a sub-par season to hit as any of the Texas National Park units as possible. We nearly completed them all, had I not managed to get sick and delay our departure.

This year, we’ll build on what we accomplished last winter and the summer prior to that by finishing off a good chunk of the South. In particular, we’ll finish up the states of Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Not necessarily the places you’d think of, well, vacationing in, but it’ll get done an important chunk in our quest to visit all 392 units of the National Park Service. And we always enjoy our roadtrips, no matter where we end up. As we plan and get started, I’ll post additional information. For now, here’s our expected itinerary:

  • Big Thicket National Preserve
  • Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve
  • New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • Natchez National Historical Park
  • Vicksburg National Military Park
  • Poverty Point National Monument
  • Cane River Creole National Historical Park

We’ll also try to spend some time in the city of New Orleans, tour an old plantation, and maybe even mark Fort Bowie National Historic Site (Arizona) and/or Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Oklahoma) off the list, too.

Returning to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

It’s been far too long since I’ve been to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a unit of BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System just west of Las Vegas, Nevada. It holds a special place in my heart as it was one of the first out-of-state destinations that Kim and I went to together. Back in March 1998, we borrowed my dad’s old Cadillac and drove up to Las Vegas for a few days. We didn’t have much money, but Kim hadn’t seen Vegas before and it seemed like it could be a cheap vacation.

We stayed in a cheap Motel 6 just a block off the Vegas Strip, next to the MGM Grand, and spent the first night wandering up and down the Strip looking at the spectacle that is Las Vegas. Since we’re not drinkers or clubbers, and didn’t have any money to waste on slot machines, we simply took in the sights. The next morning, we headed out to a part of Vegas that far fewer see. We drove up to Charleston, turned west, and drove until we found Red Rock Canyon NCA. Red Rocks has some interesting resources and we found ourselves spending much of that day exploring the Calico Hills area. I still remember taking the a much-treasured picture of Kim curled up in an alcove.

After some time exploring that area, we continued along the loop drive, stopping at each turnout to read the signs and snap some more photos. We took a few short hikes before completing the loop drive and heading back to the bright lights of the city for dinner.

While Red Rock Canyon didn’t quickly vault to the top of our must-see-again list, we had a surprisingly good time there. We hadn’t expected to do much hiking at all on the trip, but the visit to RRCNCA and nearby Valley of Fire State Park made the trip uniquely special to me. Not only was it the first time we had ventured out the state together, but we did it on our own terms and managed to stumble upon some really cool places – foreshadowing, I suppose, the wandering National Park roadtrips we’re now known for.

So it was great to stop by and visit – even for a short time and by myself – and reflect on the importance of the site to the last decade of my life. And this time, I won’t let another decade go by before I return.

Observations from our Texas roadtrip

We’re back from our Texas Roadtrip. While it wasn’t quite what we had originally planned – we ditched the camping entirely, for instance – we still had a good time and managed to see quite a bit. A few observations gleaned from our trip:

  • It’s great to get back a day early, so you have time to unpack, unwind, collect yourself, and get ready for the shock of going back to work. It feels great to arrive home early enough to unload the car, unpack our bags, get laundry started, and start to get things back to order.
  • Nobody goes to Texas. It was incredible how few out of state license plates we saw on the trip. Usually at national park sites, many if not most, are out of state, plus some Canadian plates mixed in. But not in Texas – only Texans go to Texas parks. I guess that’s not too surprising, as Texas plates are always underrepresented at other national parks.
  • The Alamo is worth a quick stop, but don’t arrive with high hopes and don’t waste your time standing in line. It’s small, surrounded by tourist trap attractions, and let’s face it, only Texans care about this place. It’s a cool place for a photo or two, though, to help alleviate that burning childhood desire to see an inflated icon of the West, and to mark it off the life list.
  • Texas is windy as hell, and it’ll affect how much fun you’ll have at several sites – Fort Davis, Guadalupe Mountains, and Padre Island to name a few. Wind blows.
  • The iPhone 3G is quite possibly the best piece of roadtrip gear ever. We used it to listen to music and audiobooks during the drive, and even streamed an NFL game from a NY radio station. We used the Maps app to calculate driving directions, find restaurants, and even used Street View to preview a site. We typed draft blog posts on its WordPress app, used the clock feature as our morning alarm clock, and updated friends and family using the Twitter and Facebook apps. The camera and a couple of camera apps allowed some quick shots when the camera wasn’t handy. I checked and replied to email, kept up to date on my Reader items, and checked wikipedia for additional information on some of the places we visited. We searched hotel listings and prices, checked photos, and reserved online hotel deals every night – and looked up rewards account numbers. I added tasks to my to do list, blog article ideas to Evernote, and checked the next day’s weather. We kept up to speed on bowl game scores and NFL stats. I even used an app to locate free wifi networks for my MacBook Pro and consulted an app on Texas speed traps. And of course, we used Safari to hit a bunch of other websites. We did all of this on a small, elegant device that fits into my pocket – wow, what a great roadtrip device.

Planning our winter roadtrip

With our attention no longer focused on which bowl game we’ll be attending (um, none), we’re now in unusual territory in our quest to visit all of the National Park Service units: we can go wherever we please. Well, anywhere we can afford, at least. This year, that means anywhere within driving distance – and no place with snow.

With those limitations – and the caveat that we want to focus on units we haven’t been to yet – it’s really down to either the Bay Area, the California desert…or Texas. It’s all about strategy in choosing.

We’ve visited all but a few NPS units in the Bay Area (Eugene O’Neill, SF Maritime, Rosie the Riveter, and Port Chicago) but love the area and could easily bunk in with family and find other non-NPS sights to visit. We could also hit Mojave and the Santa Monica Mountains, two places that we’ve passed through, but haven’t really stopped in. However, we’re planning a roadtrip to a future ASU away game (maybe Stanford on Oct 24 next year) and we could easily find ourselves in the Emerald Bowl next year as well, so we can always do those units then.

Next on the list is the California desert. This trip would include stops at Mojave, Death Valley (we’ve been there, but didn’t get to see everything we wanted to), Manzanar (we drove past without stopping back in ’99), and maybe a stop at Santa Monica Mountains and/or Lake Mead. Most of these places are places we could visit in conjunction with a Vegas Bowl trip, or technically a Rose, Holiday, or even Poinsetta Bowl trip for that matter. They’re also close enough to just hit on a short 3-4 day trip.

Finally, there’s Texas. This trip would focus on Big Bend and Fort Davis, plus any other stops we could work in. But we always figured that we’d tack Big Bend and Fort Davis onto a Sun Bowl trip. We’ve also been “saving” Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns for an additional Sun Bowl trip or a shorter 4-5 day trip. Of course, we’ve also planned on taking a long roadtrip to hit the rest of the South, mostly focused on the units around the Gulf Coast – so we’d probably be driving passed these Texas units on that trip.

So, what did we decide? We’re headed to Texas.

Yeah, I know, it’s Texas – a state we do our best to avoid. But here’s the rationale. We’re quickly running out of trips that we can drive to, and Texas is far enough away to make for a serious roadtrip while not making us feel bad about eliminating shorter long-weekend-type trips. And, let’s face it, it’d be great to get Texas out of the way and instead fly into New Orleans and start the Gulf Coast loop from there.

So here are the units we’re considering hitting:

Other possible add-ons:

Texas NPS units

That trip would get most of Texas done in a little over a week, and if we were able to tack on Big Thicket and Guadalupe Mountains, then we would actually completely finish off the state. Of course, Guadalupe Mountains would get done whenever we do Carlsbad Caverns, and Big Thicket could easily be incorporated into the Gulf Coast loop, so we won’t be orphaning these units if we skip them this time around.

It’s not a particularly glamorous National Park roadtrip, with only Big Bend making on to my top 25 NPS units I still haven’t seen list. But it does get a bunch of stuff done – and hopefully for cheap, as we can camp at most of the units (or in adjacent state parks). And while Big Bend is definitely the main attraction, though I think it will be interesting to see The Alamo and some of the San Antonio Missions, and you never know when you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

We’re still planning the trip, but I’ll post the final trip plans whenever they come together.

Our upcoming roadtrip

After several weeks of deciding and occasional planning, we’ve finalized–at least for now–our upcoming roadtrip. We’re technically holding off on our honeymoon until next summer when we tackle either the Alaskan parks or the Amazon. Here’s what we’re looking at doing this year:

National Park Service units

  1. Manzanar National Historic Site (CA)
  2. Devils Postpile National Monument (CA)
  3. Yosemite National Park* (CA) for our wedding
  4. Lassen Volcanic National Park (CA)
  5. Whiskeytown-Trinity-Shasta National Recreation Area (CA)
  6. Lava Beds National Monument (CA)
  7. Oregon Caves National Monument (OR)
  8. Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park – Seattle Unit (WA)
  9. Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve (WA)
  10. San Juan Island National Historic Park (WA)
  11. North Cascades National Park (WA)
  12. Ross Lake National Recreational Area (WA)
  13. Lake Chelan National Recreational Area (WA)

Canadian Park Units

  1. Mount Revelstoke National Park (British Columbia)
  2. Glacier National Park (British Columbia)
  3. Yoho National Park (British Columbia)
  4. Kootenay National Park (British Columbia)
  5. Jasper National Park (Alberta)
  6. Banff National Park (Alberta)
  7. Banff Park Museum National Historic Site (Alberta)
  8. Cave and Basin National Historic Site (Alberta)
  9. Bar U Ranch National Historic Site (Alberta)

We are also considering hitting a couple additional Canadian parks and maybe an additional NPS unit or two as well. This would bump up our total National Park Service units visited to the low 180s, and would get us to about 9 total Canadian national parks (about 30%).