Exploring Oregon – Part 1

Compared to my last month-long trip into Canada and Washington and struggling to find things to fill my time I figured 18 days in Oregon would be easy to fill…and the first 10 days were.

I headed over the mountain on Highway 12, and south of Mt Rainier…the few clear views I had of the volcano were certainly impressive. The day had weather predictions of 60* and rain but once I got over the pass and onto the west side of the Cascades things quickly warmed up.

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We stopped for lunch and a walk, and in the warm sun it smelled like summer. What does summer smell like to you? To me it smells of two things, depending on where I am, but summer predominantly smells of sun-warmed pine trees…there is nothing like that smell to let you know that winter is done and that there are adventures ahead.

We stopped for gas and beer in Yakima before heading east to one of favorite campsites (cell service and solitude) near Vernita Bridge and The Hanford Reach, on the Columbia River. I started in the location I had camped twice before but the rapidly rising water (a millimeter a minute) forced me to move my truck twice before I felt comfortable. A millimeter a minute on a river the size of the Columbia is A LOT of water.

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I was in a hurry as I was trying to reach Walla Walla for a meet-and-great with Steven Amell (of The Green Arrow fame) but when I arrived at the location I discovered it was a VIP event and ticket-holders only…and very expensive tickets they were too. I was disappointed that while Steven Amell had mentioned the event on his personal FB page he had failed to mention it was a ticketed event.

With a failed celebrity encounter behind me I headed out of Walla Walla in search of a campsite. Sadly, while it was good National Forest land, most of the back roads were covered in snow and the air temperature was not conducive to wanting to camp (or at least be outside the truck, and there was no cell service). I eventually found a gorgeous campsite alongside a creek that made for a pleasant evening despite being damp.

La Grande was the next town along the road and finally being in Oregon (no sales tax) I got a much-needed oil change. I am very thorough with my vehicle and after reading some reviews on the place I double checked my oil level…two quarts high. I took my truck back and had them drain some of the excess oil until the level was reading correct. The guys were accommodating and courteous and made things right but an over-fill of two quarts can ruin an engine (as evidenced by a previous Google reviewer).

La Grande was a neat little town and I spent a few hours exploring the downtown area, including a pretty decent outdoor store, Blue Mountain Outfitters. With a six pack of good beer in the cooler I headed up to the free campsite above town and on a lake where I found a lovely gravel camping location along the lake shore. While pretty and free, the place is very popular and busy…and probably more so in the summer.

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I put La Grande in my rear view mirror and headed south and west once more, not quite sure where I would stop for the night. The road I followed, was absolutely stunning as we followed it through the Umatilla National Forest and past the Bridge Creek Wildlife Area. I didn’t see many signs for hiking trails but it would have been a great area for day hikes or even an overnight or two.

The views never disappointed as we turned south at Ukiah and then west again at Long Creek towards Kimberly, Service Creek and then on towards Mitchell. There were definitely some great camping spots alongside the river but unfortunately all of them were BLM pay-to-stay sites and I had run out of cold hard cash. I finally located a beautiful campsite at the mouth of the Black Canyon, just north of Mitchell, after guessing which road it was on from a very pixelated Google map (no service). And while the site had no service the view was stunning and we were surrounded by amazing red cliffs and canyons.

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A gorgeous night was followed by a chilly morning and all thoughts of hiking the canyon disappeared from my mind as we bundled up and hit the road early, heading west again towards Prineville. The views continued to be stunning and we stopped for lunch at Smith Rock.

Again the lack of cash was catching up with me as Smith Rock (well worth a visit, and about 45 minutes NE of Bend) required a $5 day use contribution. Still, I enjoyed lunch and took a few pictures while walking the dogs before we headed out to look for an early campsite.

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Freecampsites.net once again listed a great location just west of Terrabone with some fantastic views of the Three Sisters and Mt Bachelor, as well as the Deschutes River canyon. There were dozens of campsites to choose from, some with better views or better cell service than others…and all were sandy.

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We picked a remote site with decent cell service but no view since we arrived early in the day, and then went for a long walk around the access roads in the area. I dropped a Google pin that pinpointed the truck and set out…this turned out to be a great decision as it would have been very easy to get lost and disoriented with all the winding roads, and we almost did.

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The following day a quick, chilly but very cheap shower was found at the Cascade Swim Center before we headed south into Bend, Oregon…but Bend deserves its own dedicated post.

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Washington and Canada – Exploring Washington

After crossing back into the US we headed for the town of Oroville to fill up with gas and head south. I had only spent 10 days in Canada and had crossed back into the US April 1st (there’s some great April Fool’s joke in there somewhere). I still had until April 19th before I would head back to my friend’s place near Tacoma…that was almost 3 weeks to fill and Washington isn’t that large.

We followed the Okanogan River south to Tonasket and then to Omak where we stopped for lunch and other groceries before heading through the Colville Confederated Tribes Reservation. This is somewhat barren desert land but to me it is still a more forgiving and prettier environment than Arizona (or at least the NW part of it) which I hated.

The highway through the reservation was pretty and we were soon surrounded by pines and spruce and small patches of snow. We paused briefly so the dogs could get a nice long walk before we headed down the pass towards Coulee Country, an area of central Washington well-known for it’s deep ravines with long lakes and sheer basalt cliffs. With the contrast of blue water and black rock the views were certainly stunning as I drove.

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I constantly use an app called freecampsites.net and have found it invaluable (I think I’ve mentioned it before and should probably get paid for advertising at this point), especially in the late winter/ early spring months to find free camping locations. I was relying on it this time also but the locations it pulled up left a lot to be desired in this area. Washington has a permit system that uses the Discovery Pass, a $30/year permit that allows free access to any state land, including camping (except RV parks in state campgrounds). The only decent place I could find to camp (with an iffy outhouse) was on one of these permitted sites…and knowing I would probably make use of it I drove up to the state park and bought an annual pass. (I have since made use of it more than a dozen times making the cost plenty worth it).

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With permit in hand I found a pretty albeit windy place to camp for the night on the north shore of Blue Lake. It was chilly but we had some protection as the location I had found was hidden between two rock pinnacles and was somewhat protected. The dogs and I made do and bundled up on the leeward side of the truck and in the sun and enjoyed the gorgeous views, not to mention that the location was quiet.

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The next few weeks were spent campsite hopping, with way too much driving in between. We saw Coulee Dam, a huge monstrosity at a half mile wide behind which were the beautiful blue waters of Banks Lake. We spent several days in and around Richland, Kennewick and the Hanford Reach (an old nuclear reactor involved in things similar to the Manhattan Project) and enjoyed walking in several of the off-leash wildlife areas.

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Campsites included a chilly and slightly public place in the midst of several man-made lakes near Quincy with some views that would rival the Grand Canyon, a couple of stays by Vernita Bridge across the Columbia River, a boat ramp on the Columbia River more than once (and once where we almost got blocked in) and at least one casino which was probably my least favorite (no surprise there).

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The trip involved way more driving than I intended and we covered a lot of miles but we also got to see some beautiful country. My favorite place to visit on the trip was Pendleton, Oregon where I did a tour of the famous wool factory and thoroughly enjoyed a tour of the Pendleton Underground.

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The Pendleton Underground tour covers an approximate single square block of the town although the original underground town (and it still exists) covered 16 square blocks. Many of the tunnels under the town have now been blocked off and filled in under the roads due to safety issues and collapsing roofs. There was a lot of history to be learned about the area including the involvement and importance (and harsh treatment) of Chinese workers. The non-profit organization that runs the tours has done an amazing job of recreating bath houses, laundry facilities, butcher cellars and ice cream freezers…it is well worth the $15 fee. Reservations are required and it is a popular tour. Follow the link here for more information and to book tours: Pendleton Underground Tours

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The other highlight of the month was the town of Chelan, famous for the long lake to its west. Chelan was small, not too touristy (at least for mid April) and quaint. I loved it. Sadly the weather wasn’t ideal and while we spent time in the state park and the city park (for the dogs), I enjoyed the brewery and the coffee house more. The stores were fun to poke around in and the museum was worth a couple of dollars in donation to explore; the history of Lake Chelan alone is worth a dollar or two.

My final hoorah of the trip was treating myself to a wine tasting at Tsillan (pronounced Chelan) Cellars which was then followed by dinner. The wine was sublime and I found myself (regrettably, or maybe not so much) buying a couple of bottles of the wine…it was extremely good. I justified the cost by knowing that I would have spent $10 on the tasting and another $15 for a couple of glasses of wine at dinner…so I really only paid for one bottle! (I have to keep telling myself that).

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Sorrento’s Restaurant is a beautiful Tuscan-inspired villa that is attached to the winery and part of the complex. I had made an early dinner reservation for myself and I chose mushroom-based pasta dish, which was absolutely sublime and I enjoyed every single mouthful…slowly. I also enjoyed my wine. And then I had desert. I never have desert…but they had TIRAMISU…and it was AMAZING and I ate it ALL!!! I can’t describe in words how much I loved this place. They have a beautiful outdoor patio surrounded by trees and flowers and waterfalls that I enjoyed looking at but could only be enjoyed in warmer weather. I highly recommend this place as a treat if you are looking for one and the prices weren’t completely unreasonable; with wine already purchased from the winery I only paid $37 including tip for the meal.

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With the road trip winding down I headed for the last couple of campsites for the trip…the last one, sadly, infested with nasty, tiny deer ticks…two of which I found on me, two in my bed later, one on my driver’s seat and two on the dogs. (I can just about deal with dog ticks as they are larger and much easier to see. Deer ticks are about the size of a grain of rice and much more difficult to see, although not as tough to remove as the squishy soft-bodied tick).

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The second to last night was spent at a paid campground at the county fairgrounds in Monroe as I couldn’t find a decent place to spend the night for free (the only one anywhere close had some seemingly-sketchy people there and several dogs), but at least I got a shower. The second was in the aforementioned tick-infested Capitol State Forest…beautiful views but not the greatest choice of camping locations due to the ticks.

With a month of travel behind me I headed back to Yelm for a week to recoup, refresh and be a bum for a week while celebrating my friends’ kid’s birthday.

Washington and Canada – Victoria to Osoyoos

Poor Cody struggled with the ferry ride from Port Angeles to Victoria. The water was rough and there was a lot of movement in the boat that Cody didn’t understand. He was allowed in the passenger compartment above the vehicle deck so he could stay with me but he was constantly up and down and very stressed. There was little I could do for him. Kye, on the other hand, did just fine and slept most of the way.

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Customs and immigration in Victoria was the toughest I’ve been through and apparently my answers didn’t inspire confidence in the Canadian Border Agents as I was told to pull aside and wait. Eventually I was asked more questions. Without a fixed address and permanent job in the US apparently I come across as a possible illegal immigrant (2-3 weeks planned in Canada without permanent ties to the US other than a passport and 90% of my belongings still in Washington). The border agent was perfectly nice and just doing her job and after a quick search and a few more questions we were permitted to go.

I let the dogs run free at one of the many off-leash dog parks along the coast and then headed inland a way to see the city. I parked the truck in one of the free parking garages in Victoria and left the dogs to sleep. Sometimes I wish I had a van for roadtrips but when it is hot out the truck is better for the dogs as they have shade under the toolbox. The only spaces were on the fifth level and it certainly took some maneuvering to get around some of the tighter turnings to get there with such a large truck and my vertical height was pushing the limit…I kept ducking involuntarily when the beams got close. I wandered downtown and the harbor area and eventually stopped at what looked like a very British pub for lunch…sadly it wasn’t as English as it looked and certainly didn’t list any kind of English/ Irish/ Scottish food on the menu.

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With the weather looking pretty unpleasant I decided to make the longer journey north to Black Creek rather than wait it out in a local Provincial Park. The three hours north on the Inland Island Highway was fairly unpleasant due to the constant rain and dark clouds. I stopped briefly at Cabela’s for a short break and debated staying but was completely over the constant rain and continued on.

An old friend of mine from the UK had put me in touch with a friend of hers on Vancouver Island and it was to their place I was heading. I arrived just as dark was settling and I drove past the place once. The house still had lights on and I had been told to “head on in” when I arrived…which I did. It was chilly but very homey and I quickly got a fire going in the wood stove to drive out the damp chill.

The house was wonderful and reminded me of several places in the UK, and my host was a great collector of fabulous clocks. I made myself at home and drank a couple of local beers…something I enjoyed very much after a stressful drive. The dogs made themselves quite at home with the massive dog bed in the living room.

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My host arrived home and we spent a couple of hours talking, drinking and getting to know each other, and talking about fond memories of a very special friend. It was a wonderful evening and I completely felt at home…probably too much so. I went to sleep that night in one of the most comfortable beds I have ever laid in and passed out into the most wonderful dreams.

The next week passed in a blur. Andy and his girlfriend, Emily, took me to dinner at a fabulous Chinese buffet one night and I was introduced to his daughter, Kelda, and her boyfriend. They were wonderful hosts and great conversation for the evening. Over the next few days I explored the local beaches with Emily and the dogs, the city of Campbell River, and a really great brew pub with a whole lot of very cute bearded lumberjack-types eating dinner…it was a good time.

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I checked out a couple of hikes to waterfalls in the area. Elk River Falls near Campbell River was the first I did as it was close to Andy and Emily’s place. A mile long hike from the parking lot, it was easy to find but the path was certainly steep once past the first half mile. The views once out of the trees were incredible and the roar of the falls was deafening. To get the best view of the falls you have to cross a slightly-scary suspension bridge that moves A LOT; not recommended for nervous dogs or people with a fear of heights. Even for someone without those fears it was a slightly disconcerting experience but the up close and personal overlook of the falls was worth a few uncomfortable steps.

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All too soon a week was gone; I didn’t want to overstay my welcome and I headed out. I made a brief detour to Port Alberni, driving past/through Cathedral Grove (the place was way too busy to make me want to stop) with the intent of camping in the area. However I didn’t find the town too inspiring and we didn’t do much except play in the park and check out the boardwalk.

On the way back from Port Alberni we stopped at Little Qualicum Falls. It was a lovely two mile hike that followed the river up one side and down the other and crossed a couple of bridges. It was a dog friendly trail although not as easy to navigate with dogs on leashes, which is required, and my two are used to being able to get out from under my feet and climb rocks without a 6ft limitation.

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The last set of waterfalls we stopped at I did alone and left the dogs in the truck. Englishman River Falls. The most notable thing about the upper falls on this river is that it flows sideways into one of the narrowest waterfall canyons in British Columbia. The narrowness of the canyon also makes it difficult to establish the exact height of the waterfall but it is somewhere between 75-100ft. It is an easy hike and below the lower falls is a great swimming hole that is popular during the summer.

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BC has a nice website to show camping locations and I found one not too far from Naniamo where I would be taking the ferry from in the morning. I camped one night in a horse camp before hopping on the ferry to Vancouver. Thankfully this was a much bigger boat and I asked for a top level location to park the truck; I was able to stay with the dogs and the vehicle, but being larger the ferry had so much less movement that Cody didn’t care.

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Vancouver was a brief stop for lunch and to let the dogs out and play before we headed for the Canadian crossing of the Cascade Mountains.

A decent campsite outside of Princeton, alongside the river, was our home for the night. I gathered some great firewood and got a wonderful fire going in the afternoon and kept it going as dusk came upon us. With bed in mind and as darkness fell I dropped off some extra firewood I had collected to the people in the Class A that had pulled in behind just behind me and was invited to join them for a fire. I made the mistake of grabbing an extra beer as I thought they would be social for a while but alas they hung out for 20 minutes and then headed inside….and I was no longer interested in finishing my beer.

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I awoke with the sun to a light dusting of snow on the ground and on the truck. The dogs’ water bowl had a decent layer of ice on top of the water. I dismantled the truck camp quickly in the cold and was ready to head down the road. It was a beautiful albeit cold and damp morning as we headed for the US border in Oosoyos and covered some amazing terrain.

The border crossing in eastern Washington back into the US was far less painful than the crossing into Canada. I think that the minor border crossings are far less strict and worrisome than the major ones and would highly recommend finding the less-busy locations, especially in the height of tourist season or weekends. Of course I am a US citizen which makes it a lot easier to cross this way than the other.

Washington and Canada – Yelm to Port Angeles

Mail always seems to take forever to show up when you are waiting on something specific, in this case a new day pack. It was something I needed to take with me.

Now that the RV and most of my belongings had been sold it was just back to the dogs and me in the truck on the road and we headed out on a beautiful Monday afternoon. I bid my friends farewell and headed south from the Mt. Rainier area towards Portland. A quick stop at the bank and to grab a salad for lunch from Safeway was all the break I took on the way to Astoria, Oregon. Scenic views and port river bridges provided the background to the country music on the radio I listened to as I drove.

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A less-than-pleasant bridge across the Columbia River dumped me on the Oregon side of the Columbia River and we followed Hwy 30 for an hour before reaching the quaint town of Astoria.

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When I reached Astoria a sign pointed me to the Astoria Column and I thought “why not?” and drove up some crazy-steep hills and followed roads that weren’t well sign-posted (sound familiar?) to finally find the column and the 30 acre city park. There was an entry fee that I didn’t think was worth paying just to look at a carved column and the view so the attendant permitted me to drive in to turn around. I shot a few pictures of the column which was built in 1926 with financing by the Great Northern Railway and Vincent Astor, the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, in commemoration of the city’s role in the family’s business history. Patterned after the Trajan Column in Rome (and Place Vendôme Column in Paris), the Astoria Column was dedicated on July 22, 1926. In 1974, the column was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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After checking out the tower I parked along the main road and headed to the local brew pup for a pint of the local ale which was a pretty decent IPA although slightly too citrusy for me; I could have drank another but decided it was time to move on. I wandered downtown briefly but saw little of interest and then followed the river back to the truck, pausing to take a couple of pictures of yet another dreaded bridge that would be taking me back into Washington and the massive ships on the river.

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The rest area we spent the night was not ideal but it was a safe place to park. I got some sleep but it wasn’t the greatest…too much traffic and we were parked on an angle. As soon as it was reasonably light I was packing up and driving again. The fog made for some dreary driving but it made for a pretty amazing sunrise over the river.

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The clouds finally lifted near South Bend and it was nice to pause to allow the dogs to run for a while. Even the cobwebs on the trees looked amazing in the sun.

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I hadn’t planned on driving so much but there was little to do with the colder weather, and there were few to no camping locations along the coast…at least no free ones. I continued to drive north, taking a break at one of the beaches with the dogs…their first time to experience the waves of the ocean. I kept them back from the surf as the waves were pretty hefty and I didn’t want them to get dragged in. I let them run for a while and pose for pictures on some driftwood before heading back to the truck.

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A quick detour through the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park was gorgeous but the trails didn’t feel particularly inspiring and I just played with the dogs in the picnic area. The highlight was the herd of elk along the highway that were happy to pose for a couple of close-up pictures.

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From the Hoh we headed to Forks (home of the dreaded “sparkly” vampires of Twilight) where I grabbed a bite to eat and drink beer before heading to a campsite near Beaver Lake. It was a wonderful quiet night even if it was chilly and I slept well.

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I was up later in the morning and had slept better than the night before, but we were still back on the road by 8am.

We passed the beautiful blue Crescent Lake and found ourselves in Port Angeles much earlier than expected. I found the ferry terminal and the lady recommended I book my ticket online as it was cheaper so I headed back to the truck and booked my ticket for Friday morning.

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I spent the rest of the day exploring the local area and visited the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge where you could look down from the bluffs to the sandy beaches. I didn’t make the hike along the sand spit to the lighthouse but I did make the drive to the town of Dungeness and saw the lighthouse from a beach there. We also headed to Port Townsend and then to Ironwood County Beach Park where we took a long walk on the beach…it was a great time for the dogs and they could get out and stretch their legs after being mostly stuck in the truck for the better part of three days.

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I ate a terrible BLT in Sequim before heading to the best campsite yet above Blyn. Rain threatened so we hunkered down in the truck for a while as it sprinkled a few rain drops on the roof as we listened to the radio.

The morning dawned chilled and damp as we packed up and headed back down the rough dirt road and headed for Port Angeles. I checked in with the attendants early and then went in search of a mail box to mail my sister’s birthday card while I was still in the US. It was definitely chilly and a guy almost ran us over as we crossed a street, honky and yelling at me despite the fact that I was in a crosswalk and had the right of way. Some people are just jerks.

Soon it was time to head back to the truck and get ready to take the dogs on their first boat ride.

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RV No More

After arriving at my friend’s place in Washington I was still feeling that same feeling I had in Arizona…something was missing. I was surrounded by the things I wanted….water, trees, grass, more water, and some snow, and I had friends here…but there was still something that didn’t feel right.

I had spent the last seven years in Wyoming with a good job, quite a few good friends, and family I saw for three months a year when they visited from England…and that is what I was missing. My reasons for moving to and living in the US were no longer the same reasons I had left the UK and stayed in the US.

I realized that my adventures in the US were coming to end after 20 years; it was time to move back to the UK and make memories and create new adventures with my family and old friends, not to mention explore Europr. It was a decision that I had already started to make before I had gone to back to the UK in 2017; I knew eventually I would move back as family got older…I just hadn’t expected it to be so soon. I had thought I would be in the US as long as my dogs lived, and to complete a thru-hike of the PCT when they were gone…and THEN move back to the UK after a four month trip to New Zealand. My, how things change.

With my decision mostly made and 95% certain I chatted with my mom and the decision became 100% after hearing myself talk about it. I booked my ticket home for October 3rd so I could enjoy one last summer in the US and get in more road-trips, a wedding and as much backpacking as possible.

Somehow I managed to pack up everything I owned and wanted to keep and sell the RV within 6 days of arriving in Washington. I didn’t get what I wanted for it, especially with all the upgrades (and the 200W of solar I had JUST installed 3 weeks prior) and everything I let go with it but I did get more than my minimum. I was also able to sell the hitch separately which helped. Everything was either then stored in the hay shed or donated to the local Goodwill.

My friends graciously let me stay with them while I had my truck checked out for a couple of issues. During that time I started getting my travel itinerary and summer organized and packed up almost everything to be shipped to the UK. After a month I knew I was over-staying my welcome. I was also itching to be traveling. With no RV and just my truck, me and the dogs I was ready to embrace freedom and on March 19th I headed to the coast and then on to Canada.

So my RV life is over but my nomadic travels with the pawprints in my life are not. Do I regret it? No; I loved the 6 months I spent with the RV but it was also too big for what I needed, although perfect size for what my original plan had been (work in one place for 8 months and travel for 4). There have been many times over the past few months since selling it that I have felt relief at not having to haul it. I do miss the space when the weather is crappy and the three of us are stuck in 36sq ft of truck cab, or the days it would be nice to just chill and watch a movie and do nothing. I miss the fridge and having my own bathroom and shower, but the convenience of being able to randomly and easily find campsites with just the truck more than makes up for it, not to mention using less fuel.

So it is farewell to RV life and hello to truck life

Six Months in…my favorite RV campsites

Traveling with an RV is not all rainbows and roses…sometimes it can be damned hard to find a place to camp, for free. RV parks are easy to find and easy to find reviews for them; free campsites that are RV-accessible are less so. Apps like freecampsites.net, Campendium and All Stays help A LOT but aren’t always accurate or helpful with reviews. These campsites are my favorites either due to accessibility, views, proximity to attractions or some other reason. They are all boondocking sites and do not provide services. These are not in any particular order:

Vernita Bridge, Hanford Reach/ Columbia River, Washington

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This site beside the Columbia River offers great views, fishing access, great cell service and has easy access for pretty much any size or type of RV. The grey gravel road boat access is the most popular area but there are other dirt roads that lead to plenty of level parking sites. There is a LOT of room along the river front but the river does rise and fall a lot during the spring and summer. Bugs didn’t seem to be a problem in March or April. Great boondocking location for autumn, winter and spring but probably not for summer as there is little shade and it gets hot. Dogs loved it for playing in the water. A full-service rest area with very clean bathrooms, a dump station and fresh water is available across the bridge. While I did not stay here in my RV I’m listing it here as is very suitable if I had.

The Pads, Death Valley National Park, Nevada

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This was one of my favorite sites due to the proximity to Death Valley National Park and the ease of finding a good RV space. Some of the concrete slabs are usable but most are not, however flat dirt spots are easy to find and there is plenty of space. The views are stunning and the location is quiet. There is no cell service however which made longer afternoons after spending time in the park a little too long and more beer was consumed than maybe should have been. Ease of access to the park is my prime reason for listing this location.

BLM Land, La Verkin/ Zion National Park, Utah

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I utilized this location for a week as I visited parts of Zion National Park and St George. The views are stunning and the proximity to Zion is fabulous, although a slight drive. Cell phone service was great and I was able to get a lot of work done on blog entries and applying for jobs. It was fairly popular with others in all kinds of set-ups from tents to vans and Class Cs to travel trailers and box trucks. The road in is a little rough for Class As and wouldn’t recommend it. There is a lot of space to camp in the area but most seem to congregate in the “circle” for some reason.

Morgan Lake, La Grande, Oregon

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With all but two campsites along the edge of Morgan Lake this location is gorgeous and great for fishing. It is only open during late spring and through to the end of October. The cell service was great for the most part and people were extremely friendly. It is popular with the day-use crowd for fishing but has about 12 camp sites, two of which are away from the lake and all have fire rings. This place has a 3 day camping limit but it is free and it seems very well taken care of with trash cans being provided everywhere which helps with litter issues seen elsewhere.

Warning: The road grade to the lake is 17% (yes, really). Do not attempt if your vehicle does not have adequate power. Reviews on freecampsites.net mentioned one vehicle over-heating. And remember, what goes up must come down (which is actually worse on this hill in my mind since it is pretty curvy, and gravel, with washboards).

Grassy Lake Road, Yellowstone/ Grand Teton NP, Wyoming

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I stayed at this site in 2012 and 2015 with my truck but almost all sites were RV-friendly. Grassy Lake Road is just west of the John D Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway, a short section of non-national park national forest between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The proximity to both parks made this an ideal camping location if you don’t mind driving a little. I can’t speak to the cell phone coverage in the area as it has been a while but the remoteness and being surrounded by beautiful trees and meadows are well worth the stay. Both sites I stayed in had on-site pit toilets that were clean and picnic tables. Wildlife was also common and I saw a pine marten in one location.

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So these are the six places that stick in my mind that would be great for the majority of RVs, trucks, vans and occasionally tents. There are many other campsites out there that I stayed at but I either can’t remember the exact location or they are only suitable for trucks/vans.

Death Valley National Park Insights

I was not prepared to like Death Valley National Park as much as I did. I am no fan of the desert in general but I actually spent more days in Death Valley than any other national park so far.

 

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There is so much to do in the park but it is also extremely massive and spread out. If you have a week pick a handful of things that interest you most and focus on those.

Things I noticed about Death Valley National Park that I wish I’d known beforehand:

– Fuel is EXPENSIVE. It is twice the cost of fuel found in Beatty, NV and it is worth filling up before you enter the park. Even in Shoshone it was $2 more per gallon.

– Recommended time to visit the park is October thru April when temperatures are decent and you can enjoy most of the park’s attractions. Even in February I found places like Salt Creek pretty hot. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to visit this place in mid-summer…they’d have to be slightly crazy already!

– Roads in and out of the park have pretty steep grades on winding roads. If you are coming into the park with a large Class A or towing a big fifth wheel or travel trailer I would highly recommend coming in via Death Valley Junction. I drove several of the passes in and out of the park and that was easily the best and least scary when driving a bigger rig…I was on my brakes or in a lower gear with just my truck on most of them. Be prepared to shift down and take it slow.

– The “campgrounds” in the park itself are basically large parking lots with hook-ups…not very pretty. If you want a view there are prettier places outside the park to take advantage of. Boondocking is great at The Pads, GPS co-ordinates: 36.3391221210022,-116.599555313587

 

 

 

 

 

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There is also some great BLM land a couple of miles west of Beatty that can be accessed by most rigs and is really close to the park. Wild burros are also plentiful and fun to watch nearby, and Rhyolite and the Goldwell Museum are just a mile down the road on the way to the park.

– While I didn’t do nearly half of what there was to do in Death Valley I would certainly recommend renting a Jeep for half a day and doing Titus Canyon. It was, by far, one of the most amazing and rewarding 4 hours of my life and I will never regret that time spent. Look out for bighorn sheep once you get past Leadville; it is worth stopping and having lunch in the canyon as that is when it was quiet enough to hear them shift rocks and I would never have seen them otherwise.

 

 

 

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– While Badwater is the lowest point in the US I’m not sure it is worth the mile walk out to the exact point…it all looks the same; flat and salty. Some may argue that it was, for them, but there are better hikes in the park. It was definitely worth driving to and seeing how far below sea-level you are but only you can make the decision if the mile-long walk out to the marker is worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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– Make a point to see the sand dunes during the sunrise or sunset when the lighting is best, or even head out when the full moon is out…apparently that is pretty amazing. The dunes don’t hold quite the magical appeal in the middle of the day when the sun is directly overhead. Watch for sidewinders at night.

 

 

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– Carry plenty of water if you plan on hiking and hike early if you can. I carried a liter for the Golden Canyon-Gower Gulch hike at 4.8 miles and it probably wasn’t enough. The warmer the day and the later you start (more sun, less shade) the more water you need to carry. Start hikes as early as you can; in mid-winter this is less important but it still helps.

 

 

 

 

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– There is almost no cell service in Death Valley (only found at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and minimally at Panamint Springs). If you are hiking alone or in remote areas carry a GPS SOS device and/or let someone know where you are going and when they should expect to hear from you. Death Valley is remote, rugged and dangerous…be prepared.

Death Valley is strangely beautiful and I am surprised at how much I really enjoyed my time there. It may look like a desolate, barren wasteland but there are so many hidden gems that are worth checking out.

Death Valley National Park, Day 4: Mosaic Canyon and Salt Creek

Mosaic Canyon

The one day I wanted to be up early was the one morning my alarm went off before I got up and I wanted to stay in bed. It was 5:30am and it was my aim to be at the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes for the sunrise.

I dragged myself out of my warm and comfortable bed, let the dogs out and made lunch while eating breakfast. I loaded the cooler and we headed for the truck, the early morning sun just barely turning the eastern horizon cerulean.

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Once again we crossed Daylight Pass into the park and paused at a parking area at the junction of 190 and 374 to watch the first rays of light hit the mountain peaks and the sand dunes. It was worth the early rise and braving the chilly morning to get some good pictures. The sand dunes look very out of place when seen in the grand vista of the basin and are only found in two places in the park; Mesquite Flats, and Eureka in the north (a lot tougher to get to). The only reason for the sand dunes in these places is due to the geographical locations and climate anomalies these places share.

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From Mesquite Flats we drove through Stovepipe Wells Village and turned onto a dirt road that took us 2.2 miles to the base of Mosaic Canyon. I was the first one there for the morning and quickly got myself and the dogs situated.

If you know me at all by now you know I like to make things difficult for myself and without much guidance except a very poorly-diagramed map in the parking lot I wasn’t completely sure which way to go. Two tracks led away from the parking area and having seen the one that traversed the hillside, and knowing that the elevation gain was 1200ft, I hiked up the steep side of the mountain. Now the view from the top was incredible but it certainly wasn’t easy.

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From the top I looked down into the wash of the canyon and carefully made my way along treacherous, scree-clad paths to the safety of the flat, gravel wash. I was once again surrounded by copper-colored majestic peaks although a myriad of colors could be seen complimenting the common copper and yellow tones.

I hiked up the flat wash and made detours to check out other narrow canyons and washes that flowed into, out of, or parallel to the main thoroughfare.

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After about a mile the canyon started to narrow and some rock scrambling was required. I was excessively careful as I still didn’t have the strength or dexterity in my right hand to grip rocks or save myself from slipping if I needed to. I am always careful when on my own (even when carrying my GPS SOS device).

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Slot canyons made up the last 1/4 mile of hiking and there were certainly some tough places to get through, despite my being constantly careful. The trail finally ended at a 30ft rock wall although a trail (50ft earlier in the canyon) seemed to continue further up if one was inclined to climb more.

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I paused for a bite to eat as I was once again feeling shaky after the 1200ft of climbing and needed an energy boost. I also made sure to stay hydrated.

With my belly full and feeling a little more energized I headed back down the canyon, surprised to not have run into the couple that had pulled into the parking lot less than 15 minutes after I had left. I had the canyon all to myself and I continued to take some amazing pictures as the sun provided some really amazing lighting.

Upon reaching the trail I had followed down earlier I decided to check out the lower canyon, thinking it would be blocked by a massive boulder that was could not be traversed…and hence the reason for the up-and-over trail. But, NO! This was the actual Mosaic Canyon trail and it was much easier than the route I had taken. Oh well…saved the best for last and was pleasantly surprised and got the best of both worlds….views and the narrows.

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One side of the narrows was smoothed white marble while the other was a compact mixture of pebbles such as you see on pebble-dashed houses…and hence the name Mosaic Canyon. The whole thing was beautiful and I’m actually glad I made the mistake in taking the upper trail so to be surprised on the way back…I’d actually recommend it.

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From Mosaic Canyon we took a short drive to the top of the pass into Panamint Valley where I had thought we might hike Darwin Falls. I, however, made the mistake in thinking it was a 6 mile hike (I’d looked at the wrong hike on the visitor guide)  instead of the 2 miles it actually was…something I now regret not double-checking…and I made the decision not to continue on to the trail head and save on fuel.

We paused at the Devil’s Cornfield, a salt flat near to the sand dunes that is home to strange corn-sheave-shaped plants. These are caused by the roots of the plants forming a solid base that resists erosion from water and wind as the dirt and other sediment is washed or blown away around it.

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Salt Creek

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So with my mistake not quite computing yet I drove to Salt Creek and took a short 1/2 mile hike on the interpretive boardwalk trail. It is times like these that people REALLY PISS ME OFF when you see the remnants of the actions of people who think the rules don’t apply to them. Salt Creek is a very fragile and delicate habitat and stepping off the board-walk is prohibited to protect it…but everywhere you look people have left footprints in the salt marsh and mar the landscape…there were even tiny kid’s footprints with adult prints which tells me that parents are teaching their children that its okay to break the rules. It makes me so mad!

Moving On…

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Salt Creek is the only home of the very rare Salt Creek Pupfish.

Thousands and thousands of years ago Death Valley was the home of Manly Lake. When the climate changed and became drier the water from the mountains needed to sustain the lake disappeared. As the lake dried up pockets of pupfish remained in various locations, all now different and distinct species from one another despite all descending from the same ancestors.

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Salt Creek Pupfish have a pretty tough life, having a one year life-span on average, and they rely on small pockets of water from a small spring to remain consistent throughout the summer. They retreat to these pockets during the heat of the 120*+ summers when the rest of the creek dries up. The Salt Creek pupfish have adapted to living in water that is often many times more saline than sea water, and unlike many salt-water fish they actually have to drink water or they get dehydrated. There are around a dozen different species of pupfish in the deserts of California and Nevada that can all trace their ancestry back to the same locations.

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Winter and spring are a good time to see the creek at its best and to see the rare pupfish that live in its waters.

After having learned about this unique and intriguing habitat I headed home to get fuel without the trailer in tow and get ready to depart Death Valley.

Death Valley National Park, Day 3: Titus Canyon, Or the road that left me speechless

The day started at a more reasonable hour for a change but I was quickly dressed and out the door as I wanted to be ahead of whatever crowd Titus Canyon might draw, and to appreciate the drive in the early morning sun. Not to mention the joy of seeing two wild burros, a momma with last year’s foal, as I left camp.

The turn off for Titus Canyon was only a few miles from my RV on the main highway. Unfortunately the dirt road was nothing but washboards for four miles and the going was rough and slow. The National Park Service only recommends a high-clearance vehicle and not four wheel drive for this road.

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After crossing the valley we started climbing into the foothills where the terrain was very reminiscent of Wyoming and I felt instantly at home. The gradual climb was the easy part as the road suddenly dived steeply down into another valley, complete with sharp twists and turns and harsh grades. It was fairly easy to navigate in low gear for my truck but I wouldn’t recommend attempting it anything much larger (even a dually may struggle). What amazed me the most was the huge variety of color in the rocks…something neither of my cameras could pick up very well…blues, greens, red, purple, yellow, black, white…every color of the rainbow.

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After dropping into the valley the road turned across the draw and started another steep climb to Red Pass. Another narrow road with another steep drop-off…but nowhere near as bad as the track that led down to the Colorado River from Canyonlands NP. On this road I felt safe, and of course knowing that it was one way traffic helped…I wasn’t going to run into someone coming the other way.

I paused briefly at Red Pass to assess the road, snap a few pictures and let the dogs take a break, especially since Cody hates bumpy, windy roads and tends to destroy anything left in the back of the truck. One or two of the remaining buildings of the ghost town of Leadville could be seen in the distance.

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The road down from the pass was definitely a little more hairy than the drive up; it was narrower and steep cliffs threatened mirrors and paint work. At one point I was hugging the cliff so close I had barely two inches between my mirror and the wall of the cliff. The steep descent was short and we were soon in the valley and paused to take a look at the old mining town of Leadville.

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A jeep passed by as we were parked and headed down into the canyon. We followed a few minutes later and soon we were swallowed by the towering walls of Titus Canyon. The road followed a wide wash and we were hemmed in by massive slabs of sandstone and granite. It made me feel extremely small.

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The road remained good and confirmed what the ranger had told me…it was the best he had ever seen it. If it hadn’t had been for an occasional large rock in the path with a large drop or a couple of large holes it would almost have been suitable for a high-sitting car.

The wash widened slightly and yellow grass covered some of the slopes. I really started looking for big horn sheep but wasn’t having much luck, despite knowing what I was looking for. My stomach was growling and I found a place to pull over to eat lunch. I let the dogs out and grabbed my cooler, and that was when I heard the skitter of loose rocks down the wall of the canyon. Expecting to see a rock slide I saw nothing, but then caught the flash of movement of two big horn sheep traversing the scree and knocking rocks loose.

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I watched the sheep for a while and took some pictures…easier said than done since the sun was almost to bright to see the LCD screen of my camera. I enjoyed watching them for a while as I ate my lunch. I was still watching them as another vehicle passed by; I was staring up at the mountain and I’m surprise they didn’t stop to see what I was looking at…but I didn’t have my camera out.

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With a full belly and with the dogs having had their fill of water we continued down the canyon and into the narrows/slot canyon section. I can honestly say that I have rarely felt so amazed by a road (hiking trails, yes, but not roads) and I felt dwarfed by the narrow path that led me between sheer rock walls. I stopped so many times to take pictures that I lost count…but of course the pictures really don’t do justice to how it looks and feels.

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Four more miles of windy canyon paths and following the gravel wash finally dumped me out in the parking lot of Fall Canyon trail head. In hindsight I am glad that the one way road ends where it does…the slot canyons are absolutely stunning and a great finale to an incredible drive.

A couple of videos of this amazing drive…forgive their length and the wind

A quick stop at Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station to report the sheep sighting (something they request you do if you see any) and I headed home.


Titus Canyon Road is a 27 mile gravel track limited to one way travel from the east to the west and the access point is well sign-posted about 6 miles from Beatty, NV on the way into Death Valley National Park. A 2WD high-clearance vehicle is required due to infrequent rocks and a number of washouts in the road but with gravity on your side there is no need for 4WD. Experience driving on narrow canyon dirt roads would be beneficial but certainly not necessary. If you don’t have a suitable vehicle for this drive I highly recommend renting a jeep for half a day and taking your time…I rarely got out of 1st gear as I wanted to soak it all in. This trip was the highlight of Death Valley for me and something I would put on the must-do list if you are visiting the park.

Death Valley Junction to Beatty, NV

For whatever reason when I need to get up early (like when I have to work) I struggle to get up when the alarm goes off. But when I want to sleep in (the rest of the time) I am awake at 4:30am.

Just like my first morning outside of Death Valley National Park I was awake at 4:45am although not because I mis-read the clock this time. I managed to convince my body to stay in bed for another hour before I finally crawled out of the warmth and into the frigid 54* morning temperature of the camper which wasn’t much better than the 51* outside temperature.

I slowly packed things away and got them ready for travel before loading the dogs in the truck just as the sun was peaking over the horizon. I headed east, back down the pass towards Death Valley Junction before turning north to Amargosa Valley and Beatty NV.

Freecampsites.net had two locations near Beatty, NV listed for boondocking and I had my directions. I pulled into the first one, Bumbo’s Pond but wasn’t convinced about the location just off the highway and I almost got stuck in the soft dirt.

A few miles up the road, and just west of Beatty, was another recommended dispersed camping area on BLM land. I got out of the truck and walked the area, finding a decent camp site a 1/4 mile from the main road that headed into the national park. Sadly I didn’t manage to get the camper quite level and I was sleeping on a side-to-side incline for a couple of nights despite a couple of levelers under each tire.

With the RV set up I let the dogs play for a while and was really glad to make use of the 4G cell service as I had been without for a few days. I caught up with friends and returned emails and PMs from family.

With such an early arrival to a campsite I used the rest of the day to explore Rhyolite (see below), an historic mining town, and have lunch and get fuel in Beatty. I spent the rest of the day at the camper catching up with my blog, enjoying a beer or two in the sunshine and watching the wild burros across the wash while trying to get my truck stuck in order to get closer to them and get some pictures.


Rhyolite

(Information courtesy of Wikipedia)

Located in the Bullfrog Hills, about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, near the eastern edge of Death Valley. The town began in early 1905 as one of several mining camps that sprang up after a prospecting discovery in the surrounding hills. During an ensuing gold rush, thousands of gold-seekers, developers, miners and service providers flocked to the Bullfrog Mining District. Many settled in Rhyolite, which lay in a sheltered desert basin near the region’s biggest producer, the Montgomery Shoshone Mine.

After 1920, Rhyolite and its ruins became a tourist attraction and a setting for motion pictures. Most of its buildings crumbled, were salvaged for building materials, or were moved to nearby Beatty or other towns, although the railway depot and a house made chiefly of empty bottles were repaired and preserved.

Also on site is the outdoor museum with some unusual pieces including a nod to the ancient Greek statues with a touch of the very modern.


Next to the old townsite of Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, a free museum run by the Nevada Nonprofit Organization. There are multiple intriguing and interesting pieces of artwork including some well-known Belgian artist Albert Szukalkski. The first and most prominent sculpture is “The Last Supper” a fiber-glass coated plaster life-size interpretation of the Christ and his disciples reminiscent of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the same name.

Other additions included other plater-cast figures, the Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada which refers back to classical Greek sculpture while maintaining a pixelated presence in the high-tech world of the 21st century. Various other sculptures and pieces of ironwork provide some interesting insight into how the artists viewed the landscape or felt about the area and its history. You can find more information about Goldwell Open Air Museum at www.goldwellmuseum.org