2020 COVID RV Trip Out West

2020, the year of COVID. So much has changed at this point. Our vacation plans for 2020 certainly didn’t include renting a big ass RV and driving it across the country and back. But as COVID swooped in and crushed the cruise industry, canceled our cruise, and ruined the majority of dive destinations by way of limited inter-country travel, that’s exactly what happened.

Out west is amazing. I’ve seen parts of it on two previous motorcycle trips. Both times I’ve been in awe of the beauty and magnificence of it all. I lack the vocabulary to properly describe what’s out there. You just have to see it for yourself and photos simply do not do it justice. Claudine experienced this on our trips to Europe. You can describe the Alps, you can take photos of the Alps but until you’re there, breathing the air and looking up (or down) across them you just don’t “Get It”. That was the motivation for this trip. To share that awe with her and Matthew. Doing it by motorcycle was out of the question. We had talked about flying out, renting a car, and driving around but COVID made that problematic. While I understand travel isn’t horrible and there are hotel rooms are available, we wanted to be 100% self-sufficient. What better way to do that than with a big Class A RV that can support you self-contained for days at a time?

At this point, I will focus on our trip, how I planned it, where we visited, and share some stunning photos. I’ll put together another post on the RV we used for the job, how I came to that decision, where I found it, what worked, and what didn’t.

I had 11 workdays of vacation (two weeks and a day) to maximize. I picked up the RV on Friday, August 7th, drove it to our house where we packed it for an early departure on Saturday the 8th of August, traveling out west in a southern to northern loop (more on that later) returning home on Saturday the 22nd to unpack before returning the RV on Sunday the 23rd. 17 days, 16 nights with the RV and/or traveling provided us with the sampling of “Out West”.

Having done it twice on the motorcycle there were places I knew we wanted to see. Pikes Peak and Beartooth Pass speak to me so they were must-haves. Sadly the latter wouldn’t make it on the trip since we weren’t going to be close enough with a rental car at hand and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take a 36 foot RV over Beartooth. Not that it can’t be done, but it’s not my RV.

I had started to plan the trip north to south but realized that would put us in the Black Hills during the 2020 Sturgis Rally. I don’t have anything against Sturgis or my fellow bikers who choose to ride Harleys, but where masses like that are gathered, well, that’s just not for me. Plus the point of this trip was not to mingle with millions of people amid COVID. So I planned it backward (to me).

Our route looked like this.

I used a couple of very useful apps to plan. The first of which was RVParky.com and you can see the entire itinerary here including addresses for parks and where we stayed. RV Parky is particularly useful to call out places you can stay in an RV, even if that stay is a Walmart parking lot that permits overnight parking. Since we were in a self-contained Class A, we assumed we’d probably spend one or two nights on the cheap this way. Turns out we didn’t need too. As I was planning our trip, I made only one reservation and that was night number 1. The entire trip was tentative and subject to change based upon weather, or if we decided we just wanted to stay somewhere longer.

RVparky has both a website and an app (which really only loads the website). But it was extremely handy. The reviews were often dated, and links to websites for a lot of parks were bad. But you could generally find them without too much trouble.

The other application that I stumbled on thanks to brilliant google adwords targeted marketing. You know, when you start looking for cars or RV’s on the internet and then all you see on the internet are RV and Car ads. Yeah that. Was:

HarvestHosts.com

All it took to hook me was a 15% off coupon code. For $79 you’re a member and can request to park or stay overnight at any of their hosts. These are generally wineries, breweries, museums, or farms. The idea is that in exchange for letting you park there you’ll patronize their wares (wine/beer/farm). You’re supposed to be self-contained, no hookups, but we found that some did offer electric hookups for a fee.

On our first night (1 on the map), we stayed at Arcadian Moon Winery just east of Kansas City. We got there early enough to order pizza and a bottle of wine. We’re wine snobs and prefer big bold Cabs and Reds Blends. Most midwestern wineries focus on sweet wines which are not our thing. I bought a bottle of their darkest red and it was OK, but it wasn’t awesome (for our tastes). Their pizza was amazing though and I’d definitely go back or stop again if I was in the area.

Free parking (with purchase of wine and food), but we would have had to eat anyway. 🙂

Day two of the trip was the slog across Kansas to get to Colorado Springs. Driving through Kansas sucks, there’s no other way to say it, up long hills, epic winds, and just plain, flat, basically boring scenery. I’ve done this first hand on the motorcycle and expected the worst. We got lucky, the winds were kind, and outside of being hot enough to have to run the generator to keep the beast cool, it wasn’t bad at all.

As we arrived into Colorado Springs we began calling around to find a campground. I had anticipated staying at the base of Pikes Peak in the Pikes Peak RV Park but they didn’t have a spot. Using the power of RV Parky we stumbled upon Lone Duck Campground

The woman on the phone assured us she had room for our 40 foot RV (36 feet with 3+ feet of bicycles on the back). We made our reservation and started hunting for a rental car. We found that at the Airport so we swung by the Col Spring Airport picked up the rental and drove to Lone Duck.

Lone duck’s driveway was a little intimidating for me at first, and when we pulled in we noticed the following on their website. Something our reservation person failed to mention to us.

The owners were kind though, honored the reservation, and helped us slide into one of their few open spots at an angle. This is a small family campground, with a fishing lake, pool, as well as a restaurant (closed for COVID), and an arcade full of vintage machines. It was quiet with lots of activities and kids for Matthew. He made a few friends that day, one of which he still talks to almost daily.

We were clearly the largest “thing” there and we felt just a little out of place.

We’d be here for two nights (2,3 &4 on the map), spending the 3rd day of our trip visiting Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, then some simple campground rest/time.

After two nights in Colorado, we headed towards Moab, UT. We took the RV safe route up through Denver and across 70 until wildfires pushed us around a 4-hour detour north through Steamboat Springs around to Rifle, CO where we could hop back on I-70 (6,7&8 on the map). We headed towards Moab without a place to stay or a plan.

The smoke from the wildfires could be seen for hundreds of miles and was actually quite thick during some of the detour affecting visibility. In the photos below you can see the cloud of smoke and if you zoom in can see some of the fire raging on top of the butte.

We once again leveraged RVParky to find a pull-through RV spot with full hookups for our 4th night at Moab RV Park just north of town (9 on the map). Our goal was to get up early and drive through Arches and Canyonlands. The detour really hosed us and put us in the RV park in the dark after the office had closed. It was a great park though, very well maintained, and easy to maneuver in. We had an end spot and hooking up in the dark wasn’t that bad. In fact, Claudine drove us into Moab and parked the RV.

The next morning she got up and did her sunrise thing, and I broke the drone out for a little sunrise photography. We had a great breakfast and coffee then took off for Arches.

Arches, Oh My… What a beautiful place.

So much amazing scenery in a single park. It was mind-blowing. We spent about 4 hours driving through, taking photos, seeing the sights. Claudine and Matthew took a short hike up one of the easier trails. We’ll spend a lot more time here next time for sure.

Canyon Lands – The Northern Rim.

Our original plans had us getting into MOAB in the early afternoon. We were hopeful that we could check the Arches box upon arrival but the detour ruined that plan so we needed to squeeze them into a single day. We were already north of Arches/Moab so we focused the north rim of Canyon Lands; Island in the Sky and the Grand View.

At this time it was time to turn the trip north. (Point 12 on the map) Up through Provo, Salt Lake, etc. towards Tetons and Yellowstone. But not before spending the night at what would become one of my top 3 spots or stays (#12 on the map).

Once again, HarvestHosts.com for the Win! While planning the trip I didn’t really expect to stay at more than two harvest hosts, there just weren’t that many along our trip. The ones that did exist were in the first half and last half. But deep in the middle, near Hiawatha, UT, was this thing labeled a FARM/Ranch but we didn’t know what to expect. It was a bit out of the way but it was intriguing. When the detour messed up our plans heading towards Moab I showed it to Claudine and asked her what she thought. She liked it, and we were jonesing for a boon-docking experience with big skies and no other lights so we called the number and asked if we could spend the night there.

Leo, the owner of LZJ Ranch’s Hiawatha Hideout, said he had an opening. Harvest hosts need to be self-contained, if we wanted electricity we needed to book via the campground site in the link provided.(Essentially there’s a huge difference in the level of release/indemnity/coverage from the campground broker than there is from Harvest Hosts). So, we opted to just do Harvest Hosts self-contained camping.

On our way there the winds were out of this world, a crosswind sucked a window right out of the RV. One of the escape windows has a bracket that’s glued to the glass, it ripped the glass from the bracket. I knew there was a reason I had Claudine buy the double-sided Gorilla tape.

Upon arrival we were amazed. A little campground, out in the middle of nowhere, with a huge fire pit, picnic tables for two camp spots complete with fire rings. He allowed us to park there w/o hooking up to electric. I got the drone out and started flying while Loe tended to some chores; filling up the cistern, and feeding the horses. Claudine and Matthew went for a hike down the path and I sat and chatted with Leo for about an hour. He inquired as to our route and asked me what exactly I needed to see in Salt Lake. “Nothing ” I said, “It’s just on the way.” He said we were doing it wrong, we needed to take 191 all the way up to Tetons, through Vernal, UT, across the Red Fire Gorge Dam. So we did.

We had a great night looking at the stars, cooking over a camp fire that Matthew started with a flint and striker that he bought at a gas station. Never mind the fact that he got so excited he lost the flint into the fire. He’d never make it on Alone…

Up and at-em early we headed up 191 towards the Tetons as Leo suggested, with a single over-night at Pine Ridge to fill up on water and dump the poo at Rim Station (#14 on the map).

When we rented this RV, I was very skeptical about taking a 26,000lb gas-powered RV over any significant mountain ranges. Up 191 we topped two 10k passes, all without issue. You just have to drive it like you care. 25/30 MPH up the mountains at reasonable RPMs and low gear saving brakes down the mountains. It was so much better than I expected that I thought about making the trek over Beartooth pass. However, I made a commitment to the owner that I wouldn’t, so I didn’t. I would have taken my RV up and over, despite being cussed buy all the guys on Motorcycles 🙂 (I used to be that guy, so I have first-hand knowledge.)

The Bridger Teton Forest boon-docking night was certainly top 3 and might be #1 (#15 on the map). We had planned to boon-dock “around” Tetons but didn’t know where. Claudine did some research and was given a tip to try the Pacific Creek campground. This was just outside the park, in the Bridger Teton National forest. Up Pacific Creek road was a riding stable and a small loop with 9 camp spots. Nine!.

First-come, first-served, no reservations. You either got a spot or you didn’t. Once you were in a spot you filled out an envelope, dropped a check in the box, posted your stub, and stayed up to 5 days. It was 8 miles up a pretty rough 1.5 lane gravel road (40+ minutes in the RV) only for us to find no spot, as we circled around near the trailhead where there was additional parking with horse corals for the trailhead. That’s where we found spot #9 was completely vacant. The stub still had the days date, but clearly they were gone and had cleared out. Not a single chair, or a scrap of garbage, so we backed in and set up.

Matthew and I went for a hike first, then Claudine and Matthew took a hike along the river. We gilled amazing steaks and Claudine discovered that Caymus is the bomb-digity. What an amazing stay. On the way out we were passed by a camper, we flagged them over to let them know we had vacated #9. About 15 mins later they passed us going back down the hill and asked if we’d seen any bears. We hadn’t up to that point. They were told bear #3xx was active in this area and they had driven up to take a look. Not 5 minutes later we round a bend and there he is, having breakfast. We stopped the RV and watched him for about 10 minutes before he rambled off back into the woods.

Bridger Teton forest was point 14 on the map, but I have no idea what day we’re on at this point. Right about half way.

From Bridger Teton, we headed back out, finished our drive through Teton up towards Yellowstone. Our accommodations tonight would be a one night stop in West Yellowstone KOA after taking in the South and Western Yellowstone sites including Old Faithful.

Ahh Yellowstone

Pictures simply cannot do Yellowstone justice. Most of what we saw falls into that category. Try as you might, nothing can represent those breathtaking views. Literally Breathtaking. We spent time at a number of scenic stops, including skipping rocks in the river. Unfortunately, this entire trip would be the equivalent of a “Sampler”. I can easily see 3-4 days just in Yellowstone next time.

In typical; Traveling with Claudine fashion, we rolled into the Ol Faithful parking lot, walked to the geyser, waited maybe 7 minutes and watched it erupt. When I visited on the motorcycle I remember standing around for well over an hour, in mid-July heat in full moto-gear. It sucked. After the show we headed to the Yellowstone gift shop and loaded up on items for everyone in the family. I picked up a new Tilley hat so all was right with the world.

Our stay that evening was at the West Yellowstone KOA. This was our first KOA on the trip, but only the first of many. What a great, clean campground. It was about 85% full, but we secured a full hookup pull-through spot. We opted for their dinner and had some of their “Almost Famous Ribs”. Look, I know ribs, and well my expectations were pretty low, but the price was right and we didn’t have to cook. They were amazing! Matthew rode his bike, made friends, played basketball, and had a blast. He’s a campground kid for sure.

Not much beats a full hookup; water, electric, and full sewer. It’s not cheap though $108 just to park the beast. KOA’s are premium and for the most part, they deliver.

Today we’d circle back through Yellowstone, up north, see some waterfalls, exit the east, through Cody and up to Billings where we’d again camp at another KOA.

The Billings KOA was THE FIRST KOA. It didn’t have the best reviews, but for our needs it was great. Again, full hookups. Their restaurant/grill was closed as was the pool. Actually as I write this it wasn’t all that memorable. Wait, I remember now, overall the campground was fine. Matthew and I attempted to use the pool, it was nasty. Then we tried the hot-tub, or rather the lukewarm tub and it was worse than the pool. We actually had a fire pit we could use without setting the RV on fire so that was good (not the case in West Yellowstone). I’d give this place a C+ to a B-.

Claudine got up, walked to the river for her early morning first light and sunrise. Saw some deer and talked to some local fishermen on the river.

Up and at-em early to another Top 3 destination/overnight. Devils Tower. By way of Custer’s Last Stand near Hardin, MT.

Devil’s Tower, I don’t have the words. We drove up to the Tower, hiked the easy trail around it. Matthew played on the boulders, then he and I rode our bikes down the mountain from the tower towards the bottom (Downhill all the way if you didn’t catch that part). We snagged a spot in the Devil’s Tower KOA (again with full hookups), with a view of the tower for Sunset and arrived just before the show. It was amazing.

From Devils Tower we headed towards Rushmore and the Black Hills. Our initial strategy was to swing by the airport in Rapid City, SD and pick up a rental car for two days to explore the Black Hills. Instead, we discovered that some KOA’s rent cars, and so did the Rushmore/Palmer Gulch KOA. So we procured a full hook up spot and rental car from the KOA. This KOA is large, and very well maintained and managed. We actually got a great pull through spot, out of the main KOA pull-through parking-lot. As they guided us past all the big busses and diesel pushers and 45+ foot campers I was initially concerned. Once we parked though, I was very glad we weren’t with everyone else. We had a great spot, on a hill and didn’t have to star in our neighbors windows.

On day two we took the rental car to Rushmore before everyone else got there, circled around, and drove Needles Highway, then up to Deadwood for the afternoon. It was a great day.

From The Black Hills, we started the sad, 3 Day drive home. Our epic journey was coming to an end. We left Rushmore and headed northeast up to 90 towards the Badlands. Of course, we had to stop at Wall Drug on the way in. I’m sparing you photos of Wall Drug, if you’ve been to our Jungle Jim’s it’s about the same thing. We stopped, we ate, we shopped. People loath the signs advertising it for 100’s of miles, but honestly that adds to the charm of it. It is what it is and you know what? I’ll stop every time on my way through for FREE ICE WATER or a 5 cent cup of coffee.

From Wall we dropped into the north side of the Badlands and drove through the park stopping along the way for Matthew to climb and take in the views. The Badlands are Epic as well. Hard to follow up on the scenery we’ve already witnessed but it’s unique in its own ways.

The initial goal was to stay at the ONE campground in Interior South Dakota, just south of the Badlands, but we popped up Harvest Hosts, com again and started looking for something a little closer to home to make the next two days less than 600 mile days and that’s what we found it. #4 on my Top three stays list. (Stop #23 on the map)

So many great photo opportunities. Out near Wagner, SD is a little Brewery; Choteau Creek Brewing Company. Paul and Lisa, run a little bed and breakfast while Paul works on building his Micro-Brewery. We camped, we drank, we ate. Lisa made us a killer breakfast, and if you stop by do not miss an opportunity for one of her pizza’s.

Really, one of our favorite stops, after this it was all driving, driving and more driving. We did find another state park for our final stop. On the river at the Illiniwek Forest Preserve campground in Hampton, Illinois.

Just a basic campground, water and electric, first come first serve with a dump station. There’s a story here but you’ll have to buy me beer or bourbon to get it. One last night of cooking over an open fire, then 500 miles to home

So, in total, 4960 miles round trip, untold gallons of gasoline, 14 sunsets and sunrises, an infinite number of memories created, vivid images burned into my memory. A little exhausting, lots of driving, some stress here and there when it’s not your RV. Only two Oh S### moments, a few RV repairs, all basic, but simply one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.

Now that a week has passed, I’ve had time to think about the trip, the mechanics of it, what I’d do differently, and what would remain the same. Honestly, I wouldn’t change much. We had a lot to do and see in a finite amount of time. It certainly wasn’t ideal RV’ing, but given our constraints, it was awesome. I am thankful that the owner of the RV entrusted us with his baby for this epic journey. Asking someone to let you put 5,000 miles on their RV, even when you rent it is a tall ask. Mileage is what kills the value on them. You can find this RV on RVshare.com if he’s still renting it. I believe they are but I wouldn’t ask to take it out west.

I’m going to write up my RV specific experience thoughts in another post here, this one is long enough as it is. It’s breaking my web host with all the images.

Will we be RV owners in the future? Stay tuned.

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