From Tulsa to Seattle and back: The perfect family vacation, with lots of mountains and a little soccer
May 29, 2017
The Grand Tetons: America's greatest range.
It may have happened in a small boat on Jackson Lake, fighting off sunburn in search of trout at the foot of the Grand Tetons.
Or maybe it was when our break from a bloody-knuckled father-daughter tetherball match became an impromptu movie night at a Seattle campground.
Possibly, it came as Devil’s Tower slowly rolled into view and no one but the driver, yours truly, saw it because everyone else was dreaming campfire dreams in the back of the RV.
Then again, I guess it probably occurred on Day One of our cross-country western sojourn, at some non-descript I-70 rest stop west of Hays, Kansas.
I was making 70 miles an hour while my wife was making steaks.
One of my favorite meals ever.
It was likely at that moment, stepping out from behind the wheel of our rented RV and taking a seat with the family at our dining table, when I realized that this vacation, a 16-day getaway from Tulsa to Seattle and back with my wife and two teenagers, was — or soon would be — the greatest vacation I’ve ever had.
Bad vacations are rare. Even when your flight is delayed or you lose your wallet or it rains cats and dogs atop the Empire State Building, you’re away from work and with family and recording good memories and even better stories.
But great vacations — the truly great ones, not just another refreshing getaway or some first-time experience — are just as rare.
Trepidation nearly overwhelmed me: the intensive planning, the pressure to give the family an unforgettable trip, the anxiety over driving a 30-foot vehicle for the first time.
The whole toilet thingy.
But less than two days into our voyage, all fears were allayed. I quickly knew that this was going to be amazing. Anytime your wife can whip up four juicy New York strips with mashed potatoes and mac and cheese while you’re driving 70 toward a flaming Kansas sunset, it’s got to be great.
Our 11-state, 5,640-mile circuit from Tulsa to Seattle and back, with a little help from Mapquest.
I’ve been wanting to take the family on an RV trip for years. With my daughter graduating high school in 2015, the urgency was upon us to make it happen.
The first plan, hatched in January, was to make a circuit through America’s greatest western sights: Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in western Wyoming, Arches and Bryce Canyon in Utah and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
The plan was set. How perfect could it get?
Then my daughter’s club soccer team got their postseason marching orders. This year, the national playoffs would be staged in Seattle.
That’s another 750 miles on the other side of Yellowstone, a good 15 highway hours by RV.
So, a detour.
We had taken the kids to the Grand Canyon back in 2005. They were small but still remember much of it. So we scratched that leg from the itinerary. And the sandstone majesty of Utah was not exactly on the route between Tulsa and Seattle. Sadly, we ditched Utah.
So while my daughter’s teammates and their families would hop planes and hurriedly fly to the Emerald City for four days of soccer, we were going to take it slow, see the sights, visit America.
Our nation’s splendor awaited.
With our trip scheduled around the national club soccer playoffs in Seattle, our dates were set: June 20 to July 4.
Around March, I started pricing rental RVs from dealers around the Tulsa area. There are a handful of reputable establishments. But the minute I stepped into Jim Dickson’s office inside Hunter RV on Route 66 just north of Sapulpa, I knew I was in the right place.
Jim is a noted fan of the Oklahoma Sooners’ football team. On one of the walls of his office is a collage of photos of him and his family posing with various Sooner luminaries. Jim immediately knew who I was from my 10 years covering OU football, and he became an instant friend.
I told him what I hoped to do — give my family the greatest vacation ever — and at once his suggestions started rolling. He sounded certain that I couldn’t screw this up, and he was resolute to make sure of it. Thanks to Jim, my confidence soared. I began to harbor hope that I could actually pull this off.
As spring turned to summer, the reservations and the route firmed up. Then, a couple weeks out, I got a call from Jim’s assistant. The RV I was told would be rented to me was being taken out of service. That sounded bad, particularly given all my anxiety. But that development couldn’t have been better: it was being replaced by a brand new model, right off the showroom floor.
Our rolling home for 16 days: a 2014 Coachmen Freelander.
Turns out one family had made a reservation ahead of ours, and our particular rig was going to spend a weekend in Arkansas. Not all bad, if you think about it: someone else was going to test it out for us. Any unexpected problems hopefully would be discovered on its maiden voyage.
I was insecure in my own driving skills of such a large vehicle, and asked Jim if I could come in a day early to take it for a trial run, around the parking lot, down the street, up on the highway and back. He laughed and assured me I wouldn’t need it, yet of course accommodated my request without hesitation. RV dealers can’t possibly be friendlier or more professional than the folks at Hunter RV.
So the day before disembarking, we met our rig, a special 50th anniversary 2014 Coachmen Freelander, a Class C motorhome equipped with all the necessities: a refrigerator/freezer, a gas stove and oven, a microwave, a double sink, cabinets and a pantry, a four-person dining table, a shower, toilet and sink, lots of electrical outlets, a TV (with external antenna) and four separate sleeping areas, including a queen bed in the private master bedroom — plenty of space and amenities for the four of us.
The Coachmen floor plan: spartan, yet spacious.
Moreover, Jim was right: driving the vehicle itself couldn’t have been easier. Our Coachmen rode much like a truck. The only real difference was in remembering — and never, ever forgetting — that this was a 30-foot long, 10-foot high truck and would require slightly wider turns and an awareness of low clearance.
A half-hour crash course on the RV’s electrical and plumbing systems (I recorded a video on my phone and then made a checklist), and the Coachmen was ours.
After packing the RV, we pulled out of our driveway in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, around noon on June 20, bound for the granite grandeur of Rushmore.
Carhenge is weird, but quirky cool.
No disrespect to the glorious uniformity of Kansas and Nebraska, but other than that steak dinner near Hays, an I-80 rest area sleepover just west of North Platte, Nebraska, and the morning oddity of Carhenge (a bunch of cars stacked up to resemble England’s ancient Stonehenge near the northwestern Nebraska hamlet of Alliance), there weren’t many highlights along our path — I-35 to Wichita, I-135 to Salina or I-70 to Hays, U.S. 83 to North Platte — especially after dark.
We had a date with four of America’s greatest presidents, and we wanted to make good time.
Along the way, we snacked, told stories and my passengers played HedBanz, a board game in which participants strap a card to a headband and, with clues from the competition, try to guess the word on their forehead. Those were two of my favorite hours on the whole trip — nothing but laughter and silliness from a mom and two teens.
It’s a three-hour drive from North Platte to Carhenge (we stopped for an hour for cold drinks and weird photos), and another three hours up U.S. 385, U.S. 18 and South Dakota 70 to Keystone, South Dakota, where we had reservations in a spacious but spartan campground called Heartland RV Park and Cabins.
The Avenue of Flags at Mount Rushmore.
From there, Rushmore was just a 10-minute drive into the Black Hills, a spectacular jaunt of loops and switchbacks between craggy buttes, layered spires and ponderosa pines. In an RV, such tight paths can elevate one’s blood pressure a bit, but we made it.
On the drive in, visitors get numerous glimpses of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln from afar. It’s tantalizing. Photo ops peer at you around every curve, stone faces 60 feet tall posing for portraits. But each curve also brings the presidents closer, closer, and soon you realize you can’t keep stopping. For chasing memories in these Badlands, patience is a virtue.
Like any good American landmark, Mount Rushmore National Memorial has a gift shop, a food court and a truly fascinating education center that details Gutzon Borglum’s unmatched mountainous sculpture. Finished in 1941, it took Borglum and his son 14 years to complete.
Beyond the commons areas is the striking Avenue of Flags, a long, polished stone walkway lined by flagpoles with banners from all 50 states. Beyond the flags and the visitor center/museum is a gorgeous amphitheater, the Grand View Terrace, where visitors can sit and ponder the monument. It’s a powerful experience.
A light rain began to fall. We brought umbrellas, but I didn’t want one. It obstructed the view as the presidents first appeared to be crying, then slowly changed colors altogether. About three hours of studying and staring and snapping photos was enough for the four of us, so we moved on to Rushmore’s rival, the Crazy Horse Memorial 16 miles to the southwest in Custer, South Dakota.
Under construction since 1948, it’s an ambitious project that will tower over its counterpart, 641 feet tall and 563 feet wide, if it’s ever finished. Right now, it’s just Crazy Horse’s face (completed in 1998) and a giant, crude guide sketch of his horse’s head. It was $28 for a carload (more than two people) to visit, however, so we asked the attendant if we could pull into the parking lot, snap a few photos and turn around. He said yes.
As the sun dipped behind the Black Hills on the way back to our roadside campground, we pottered through Custer State Park and a herd of pasture-bound bison, one of whom seemed eager to race. At the bottom, a lakeside campground, nestled in a quiet valley with a 360-degree mountain view, mocked us. Next time we’ll stay here.
The following morning was uneventful — that is, my very first detachment of sewer and power lines was a success, and a quick visit to the lodge for some bison jerky — and we were bound for Yellowstone.
Ahead of us was a nine-hour drive almost due west on I-90 and U.S. 14. Only, I knew it would take longer than that.
We enjoyed a hearty breakfast of pancakes, bacon and eggs — cooked at 65 mph, of course. It was delicious. Much of this leg was four-lane, so yes, I ate while driving. It was easy.
There wasn’t much to see right out of the Badlands so, already tired from the trip and bellies full of flapjacks, everyone else dove into a mid-morning nap as I plowed ahead. They were all unaware of my scenic detour.
Is that Roy and Jillian? No, just Cameron and Danielle.
Just three hours west of Rushmore in northeastern Wyoming (get off I-90 at Sundance and don’t miss the Wyoming 24 exit), Devil’s Tower is an 867-foot monolith of igneous rock standing curiously alone on the high plains. It’s a geological wonder, in that geologists still wonder exactly what the heck it really is and why it’s there. It’s also America’s first official National Monument, established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. (TR’s visage 133 miles to the east no doubt would smile if it could.)
The beauty of the moment — like Rushmore, this was my first time to lay eyes on Devil’s Tower — was that only one person in the Coachmen knew where we were going. As the others slumbered, I marveled at this approaching icon from my childhood, the inescapable image of Roy and Jillian’s otherworldly vision from Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I loved that movie as a kid and still watch it on occasion. Devil’s Tower is amazing.
When I finally pulled the RV over to snap a photo, the others awoke, looked around and were equally smitten.
“Is that the alien thing from that movie?” my son asked, obviously impressed by my navigational skills.
We spent more than two hours at the monument, parking, browsing the visitors center and gift shop, walking the winding paths, climbing the bed of boulders beneath the mountain, posing as conquering heroes at the foot of this stone behemoth.
It was an unforgettable stopover, but one that added more than four hours to our westward trek to Yellowstone. We departed at nearly 5 p.m. This wasn’t good. I could hear it now:
The Coachmen in its element: at our Yellowstone slip.
“Hey, who’s the mondo jerkwad creaking into his RV slip at 1 in the morning?”
Oh, it’s just us Hoovers.
I didn’t want to be That Guy.
Interstate 90 west of Devil’s Tower was a monsoon. This soaking wet, three-hour stretch, strangely, was the only time in 16 days that my wife drove the RV. It really was hard to see, but the road was flat and wide. As she safely negotiated the elements, I watched the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team tie Portugal 2-2 in World Cup group play on my new Father’s Day tablet. It was quiet and dull, so my daughter wrapped herself in whatever Harry Potter novel she’d brought (she peeked up frequently for soccer highlights) as my son streamed “Breaking Bad” on his iPhone.
Once back at the wheel (it stopped raining for me), I decided on another brief detour, a nine-mile strip of I-90 that took us into Montana. We crossed the state line, posed for a few pics, retraced our path back into Wyoming, then continued west on U.S. 14 — into the heart of the stunningly beautiful Bighorn Mountains and Bighorn National Forest.
The climb was dramatic, and slow. But being in the Bighorns took our breath away — literally, one of the passes between Dayton and Shell is over 9,000 feet above sea level. Entering the edge of the forest from the east presents one upwardly switchback after another and requires caution and common sense. Life on the Great Plains doesn’t prepare one for a drive through the mountains, not the elevation nor the beauty. But oohs and ahhs here, especially in a seven-ton beast, are for passengers only. One untimely weave and you’re on the express elevator to the bottom.
The descent was far scarier.
The Yellowstone River near Crystal Falls.
Gravity wants a word with you, right now, and heavier vehicles are harder to control on the way down. They need a lot of braking. And a lot of braking in a Class C motorhome can mean, well, hot brakes. And by hot, I mean red-hot. Molten, almost. Smoking hot.
It was as tense as I’ve ever been driving, looking downhill at another 3,000 feet of elevation — about six miles of highway — as the cabin filled with smoke from our front brakes. You can’t let off the brakes without the certainty of a 120-mph pile of destruction at the bottom, but you can’t stay on the brakes without the certainty of a fire melting your brand new RV.
Jim would not be happy with either outcome.
So we pulled off the highway twice onto scenic overlooks, filled several cups with water from the sink, and cooled off our glowing red brakes with a steamy splash. It was like an old-timey fire brigade, one person handing off a container of water to the next, then getting back an empty cup to pass along for a refill. It worked, but it taught us that the mountains can be terribly unforgiving for those without desperate ingenuity.
The majesty of Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park.
We made it down just before sunset, and an hour later, the Old West town of Cody — named for Buffalo Bill himself — was our prize. Dark falls quickly out here, however, and we ultimately missed most of this thriving little burg. Fuel and jerky refills left us 52 miles from Yellowstone’s East Gate and two hours to our campsite at Fishing Bridge RV Campground.
We reserved our slip for June 22, but didn’t pull into Fishing Bridge until 12:05 a.m. on June 23. Rather than be the obnoxious idiots who prattle into a quiet RV village after midnight, we backed into the lodge parking lot, far away from the other campers, and fell into bed.
Our slumber was truncated by a 6 a.m. knock on the door from a park ranger who was confused why a 30-foot motorhome with Oklahoma plates was jamming up his parking lot. We offered our apologies and said we hadn’t wanted to wake the other campers the night before, but he said late arrivals are common and that they would much rather us navigate the campgrounds after midnight than sleep in their parking lot. Our check-in information was on the front door of the office. We hadn’t anticipated that.
We checked in (technically a day late), then found our campsite. It wasn’t ideal, a few feet of clearance on either side between us and our neighbors, a fire pit, an electrical pole and a septic tank pipe. But it was, for the next two days, home.
It was the middle of summer. The trip had been a warm one so far, sticky, sweaty hikes to the monuments and back. But the night we pulled into Yellowstone, it was 31 degrees with snow flurries. The cool air carried the smell of pine needles and campfire smoke, transporting me back to my childhood in Alaska. It’s amazing how the nose can trigger ancient memories, memories as clear as the alpine air. For me, it was paradise.
Park staff recommend visitors stay in their vehicle. Mostly.
We did the usual Yellowstone tourist stuff — wait for Old Faithful, find the Lower Falls and Crystal Falls, seek out various thermal pools, drive the loop road, take selfies with wildlife (this is frowned upon by park staff and, frankly, it’s dangerous) and buy groceries and souvenirs at Old Faithful Inn.
Although the campground itself sometimes felt a bit crowded, we did spend a lot of time at our site enjoying the outdoors and the company, cooking in the fire pit or laughing at our pitfalls, or simply hiking the nearby trails. (Do be aware of bears; they’re most likely aware of you.)
Yellowstone isn’t perfect. Old Faithful might be something of a letdown (all the hype and onsite buildup from friendly rangers doesn’t help), and summer traffic snarls can rival the worst of any city due to summer crowds, highway repairs, bison herds or general road closures (it’s nature, after all). Some locations stink of sulfur, naturally, and gift shop prices are not modest.
But Yellowstone is one of America’s great treasures and should be experienced from the inside. The wildlife viewing is unparalleled (we saw thousands of bison, a few elk, some moose and even spied a galloping grizzly bear on our way out of the park). There are countless rivers, mountains in all directions and waterfalls around every bend.
If you haven’t been, don’t deprive yourself. Go. And take your family.
Spending two full days in Yellowstone brought us the unparalleled peace of nature. But eventually, the soccer fields of Seattle beckoned. We had to go. Unfortunately, that meant a 16-hour journey, the longest leg of our trip. We pulled away from our campsite at 8 a.m. and, other than the traffic jam that stopped to marvel at that grizzly sprinting along a ridge, our getaway was clean.
A spectacular waterfall in an urban setting: Spokane Falls.
Yellowstone’s West Gate borders with Montana (West Yellowstone is one final, rustic stop before hitting the open road), and within minutes of driving north on U.S. 191, we skirted Hebgen Lake, one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. It sits sanguinely but dramatically in a mountainous valley, with westbound U.S. 287 running along its shores beneath 11,214-foot Echo Peak. Downstream is Earthquake Lake, famously created in 1959 by a powerful and tragic earthquake (28 campers died in the 7.3 magnitude temblor). Quake Lake is six miles long and sits at a surface elevation of 6,391 feet, one of America’s most visually striking alpine lakes. Try to make time to stop at the roadside visitor center and overlook, or at least safely admire the sprawling homesteads along the lake.
A quick jog west on Montana 359 from Harrison to Cardwell (keep your eyes open for a broad hillside of yellow flowers) put us on I-90 west through the National Bison Range, the Thompson River State Forest, the Saint Joe National Forest and the Coeur d’Alene National Forest toward Spokane.
Even in a 30-foot RV, getting off the highway to take in the Spokane Falls in downtown Spokane is a must. I had been here two years earlier to cover an NCAA Tournament basketball regional, so I knew I had to show the family. There are two viewing areas from which to easily enjoy the falls: the Monroe Street Bridge over the Spokane River overlooks the lower falls, and the Post Street Bridge overlooks the upper falls. (Space to easily park your RV can be found on the street just north of the falls.) We considered grabbing a bite at Anthony’s at the Falls, but voted instead to walk around River Park Square, a shopping mall and entertainment complex. The uniqueness of such a powerful natural phenomenon in an urban central business district should be enjoyed.
Take in the whole spectacle because once west of Spokane, it’s over. From here to Seattle is as flat as Nebraska, apple and cherry orchards and other types of farms on all sides, and it was a grind.
The endlessly interesting Seattle Space Needle.
By sunset, my wife had created another culinary delight in our speeding kitchen — sirloins, roasted potatoes and seasoned rice — so we had dinner at another highway rest stop. There are actually great maps online denoting by mile marker exactly where these rest stops are located, so it’s easy enough to plan dinner according to when you’ll arrive at the one you prefer.
We pulled into the SeaTac KOA in Kent, Washington, around midnight. The office isn’t open at that time, but if management knows you’ll be arriving late, they’ll post on the door your check-in information (which slip you’re in, after-dark rules, what to do in the morning). That would’ve been helpful to know before Yellowstone, but such is the nature of being a first-time RV’er.
Most of our time in Seattle was consumed with soccer, and that was more OK with us. Our daughter was back from a knee injury for the first time in six months. We took joy in just watching her practice again, let alone competing. She played magnificently, though the team didn’t advance.
Our campground was conveniently situated two miles from the team hotel, so my daughter easily made all the team breakfasts, meetings, practices and walk-throughs. The game fields, however, were 25 miles away, on the north side of Seattle, which wasn’t ideal.
But the rest of the time was devoted to vacation, and there are not many American cities in which to vacation that outrank Seattle.
Of course we spent a day at Pike Place Market at the Public Market Center. Touristy, yes, but we were tourists, and there’s certainly no place like it in Oklahoma. We bought fresh produce to munch on while we shopped, we bought fresh fish to grill at the campsite, and we bought T-shirts and souvenirs. We also shared a lunch with several friends/teammates in the Waterfront District at Lowell’s, which offers three floors of one of Seattle’s best harborside dining views. I had the mixed seafood grill — king salmon, a crab cake and tiger prawns, all harvested locally — and it was perfect.
Pancakes as big as the plate, and Greek sausage to die for.
Other Seattle highlights included a private tour of the Seattle Glassblowing Studio (we watched new items being blown by glass artists and also got a behind-the-curtain look at the studio’s secret storeroom; the owner also pointed out nearby places he said had served as recording studios for Nirvana and Heart), a visit to the original Starbucks store across from Pike Place (it was more than an hour wait to order so we settled for selfies outside), a few hours at the endlessly interesting Space Needle (we didn’t go up; tickets were $24 each and the wait was more than three hours — reservations are highly recommended) and a relaxing stroll (a.k.a. shopping) in the downtown Westlake Center and Pacific Place malls.
One of our trips downtown was soccer-related: the Seattle Reign took on the rival Portland Thorns in a National Women’s Soccer League game. Memorial Stadium is ancient and something of an eyesore, but sits literally in the shadow of the Space Needle. The game itself was immaterial to us, but did feature five players from the U.S. Women’s National Team: Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Sydney Leroux, Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara. For the teen girls in town from across the nation, it was a treat to watch such high-level soccer played by the game’s contemporary icons.
It did rain every day we were in Seattle, but the summer months gave us pleasantly light and brief sprinkles. Still, plan accordingly.
Two other personal highlights: the astonishing Greenwood Car Show in suburban Greenwood to the north, where vintage, classic and custom automobiles line both sides of the street for five blocks each June, is nationally renowned for its wonderfully unique vehicles; and breakfast at Voula’s Offshore Café, where the pancakes barely fit on the plate and the Greek sausage is truly one of life’s rare treasures. Voula’s is not easy to get to but is spectacularly nestled under the Interstate 5 bridge over Lake Union.
Nothing weird here. Just the Greenwood carshow.
While in the Pacific Northwest, we also took the opportunity to visit Canada — Vancouver, specifically. Again, our time was short, so we only got about five hours in one of North America’s most picturesque cities. A 3 ½-hour drive up Interstate 5 from Seattle (surprisingly, nearly three mostly unimpressive hours of which were in Washington) occasionally took us past various Pacific bays and straits that barely caught our eye.
A quick web search suggested (and a Seattle concierge confirmed) that dinner at Bridges Restaurant would not disappoint. On the water near downtown Vancouver — literally, between a network of bridges connecting Granville Island with other areas of the city’s striking skyline — Bridges is fine dining in a casual atmosphere with a legendary pub downstairs. We sat outside on the patio, in the warm sunlight and cool sea breeze, admiring both the view and the food. I had an appetizer of Vancouver Island halibut followed by the New York strip with Béarnaise sauce, grilled asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes — one of the best meals I’ve ever had. My son still talks about going back for the mashed potatoes.
Bridges is one of the jewels of Granville Island’s brilliant shopping and entertainment district, which also included a massive produce, fish and meat market that dwarfed the more famous one in Seattle. There’s also the spectacular downtown skyline and boats coming in and going out — it’s a sort of industrial magic.
Most of our fun in Seattle was at the KOA Campground.
Gas prices in Seattle during our trip were around $3.50 a gallon, but in Canada, that almost doubled to more than $6.50. We pumped only enough fuel to get us back to the States. Also, it took us only about 15 minutes to cross the international zone going in, and about 10 minutes coming back. But there are also tales of lengthy waits, so plan for a slowdown. And don’t forget your passport.
Ultimately, some of our family’s more memorable moments in Seattle happened at the KOA. This campground featured a swimming pool (closed in winter), an outdoor movie screen (just unfold your lawn chairs), tetherball courts, a giant chess/checkerboard set, dog park, group fire pit, bike and jogging paths to nearby neighborhoods and free wi-fi. They also offer bike rentals and guided tours of Seattle. Every night we were at the fire pit, the movie screen, hiking the paths or smacking the tetherball — videos of which will elicit laughter for years.
Isn’t that what we all really want from our vacations?
Not far south of Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons rise like massive, snow-capped castle spires over Jackson Lake. Grand Teton National Park virtually abuts Yellowstone, but doesn’t have Yellowstone’s infinite thermal pools or unfettered access to wildlife. But it does have those mountains.
Wild Horses Monument. If you climb it, ditch the flip-flops.
Some 900 miles from Seattle, our next destination was the first stop on our journey home. We slipped quietly out of our campsite under cover of darkness, around 5 a.m., and by first light, majestic Mount Rainier, king of the Northwest, was in our rear-view mirror. Painted pink and orange with the rising sun, it was all we could do to stay away. Instead, facing another 15-hour drive, we trudged on.
About 2 ½ hours east of Seattle on I-90 is Lake Wanapum, part of the magnificent Columbia River. As the highway bends sharply north, look for the Wild Horses Monument, a sculpture (named “Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies”) that dramatically strides a hill overlooking the Columbia River. There’s a paved parking lot at the bottom of the hill, but it’s a challenging, 150-foot ascent to the sculpture. At the top of the hill are 15 larger-than-life stylized steel horses in full stampede. The summit offers a 360-degree view of the Columbia River basin. The trail is clearly marked, but the descent is even trickier than the climb. With so many loose rocks, climbers should ditch the flip-flops for real shoes.
We stayed on I-90 east another six hours through eastern Washington and Idaho to Missoula, Montana. (This was a bit regrettable, as we’d been westbound on the same four-lane trail just a few days earlier, but using the interstate saved more than an hour — which we would later expend on U.S. 93 south of Missoula through the remarkable Bitterroot National Forest).
Many deer were harmed in the making of this Jackson oddity.
It was still just past midday, but on this part of the drive, the sun now frequently fell behind the sheer mountain cliffs and towering evergreens. We crossed briefly again into Idaho and jumped on Idaho 43, which about a mile later turned into Montana 43. It has to be the quickest in-and-out state border in America. We finally caught I-15 south to a quiet backroad called the Twin Bridges County Highway that took us back to U.S. 287. Sadly, nightfall obscured our view this time of gorgeous Quake Lake and its surrounding mountains, but we were now only three hours from Headwaters RV Campground in Grand Teton National Park.
Again, we pulled in around midnight, and again, the campsite was a tight fit but otherwise fine. The morning light, however, illuminated the joy of our coming days: endless pine trees, winding trails, calm waters and the timeless majesty of those 13,000-foot peaks.
This was finally our down time, our R&R. It was early July, we were camped 6,300 feet above sea level in a grand forest, and both the soccer tournament and that dreaded Pacific-to-Rockies drive were behind us. From here, we would take every step slow and easy. My son and I had reserved a motorboat and some fishing gear for a four-hour trip onto Jackson Lake, while my wife and daughter took a day trip into Jackson Hole for shopping and sightseeing.
We slept in and ate breakfast by campfire. By 9 a.m., half of us strolled toward the lake while the other half drove south into Jackson.
Our fishing trip was reserved and prepaid online ($40 per hour; we got back short of the fourth full hour and so were billed for only three). The Marina at Colter Bay was just a five-minute walk from our campsite through the woods and along the lake. Folks in the lodge, in the bait and tackle shop and at the marina were friendly and helpful. I’d captained a dinghy before, but not for a decade. By the time we disembarked, they had restored my confidence at the helm of my own 15-foot craft.
Captain on deck ... and mountains in the background.
Unfortunately, my fishing skills were as poor on this trip as they were my last time out. We got a handful of bites but never saw one fish. We circled Elk Island just out of the marina, and we circled Donoho Point to the southeast. We avoided Hermitage Point thanks to a flotilla of partygoers, but we dropped lines in both Spalding Bay to the south and Moran Bay to the west without any results. We didn’t have time to explore the lake’s northern reaches.
Once back at the marina, we learned that no fish were biting that day because of the heat — it was 90 degrees out on the water, too hot to eat, apparently. Frustrated by the fish, we still made amazing memories. My son drove the boat in, smiling all the way at his own prodigious mariner skills.
The girls raved about Jackson, a quaint-turned-kitschy village, once a playground for the rich and famous now replete with coffee shops and T-shirt vendors.
That afternoon, we and a surprising number of other vacationers invaded the Jackson Lake Lodge to watch Team USA take on Belgium in the World Cup knockout round. Over juicy burgers and crispy fries, we squirmed as the Yanks had chances to win late but lost 2-1. Too bad. It would be our last taste of soccer on this soccer-heavy trip.
Colter Bay Marina runs into Jackson Lake.
The next day, we slept in, enjoyed another late campfire breakfast and wandered the marina admiring the boats and the mountains. We hiked some trails just off the campsite, then spent the afternoon in the totally empty auxiliary marina parking lot throwing frisbees and knocking around a volleyball, with a short respite at the Colter Bay amphitheater (which most days hosts Ranger presentations on the park or the mountains or the lake; Rangers also offer guided tours throughout the park, though reservations fill up fast).
What made this trip truly great was that none of us were really interested in guided getaways. Corny as it sounds, our fun was in the four of us just being together, playing catch or sitting fireside, laughing or eating or whatever came our way.
That night, sweaty and sore, we enjoyed roaring hot showers at the lodge. The RV shower served its purpose and certainly could get hot, but it was appropriately confined and could never be called roaring. It definitely was worth the small fee, about $4 each. That night, our next-to-last on this adventure, we made s’mores.
And s’more priceless memories.
We left Grand Teton around 9 a.m., but had to wait for a deer standing in the checkout lane outside the lodge. Not sure what nightly rate he got, but he was in no hurry to leave.
For the first hour south of the park, the Tetons are your guide, looming to the right. For this part of the trip, I was the only person on the left side of the RV. The others locked their gaze out the passenger side at the craggy peaks, and I felt shortchanged. Other than the Andes and the Alps, there are few mountain ranges in the world as sharply pronounced as these behemoths, and yet they’re so precisely placed. Once you pass Jackson, they’re gone.
Our last meal at Headwaters RV Campground.
U.S. 191 south out of Jackson was another memorable stretch of canyon road, the Rocky Mountains and their endless unnamed cliffs on each side. The route follows two winding rivers, first the Snake and then the Hoback, for some 55 miles through the National Elk Refuge.
Soon enough, the mountains are completely gone. There are rivers and streams everywhere, but make no mistake: the earth has flattened into Wyoming’s southern High Plains. More high-rises lay in the distance, but you don’t truly experience them until you’re into northern Utah and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
(One quick warning: we fueled up at a middle-of-nowhere spot called Daniel Junction, and were viciously attacked by mosquitos. After placing the nozzle and starting the pump, I dove back into the RV and we could literally hear them hitting the windows trying to get to us. The only other time I’d been attacked like that was during a similarly isolated fuel stop in Glennallen, Alaska.)
Flaming Gorge stretches some 35 miles into Wyoming, but doesn’t intersect with U.S. 191 until about five miles into Utah, an impressive road of sharp climbs and drops to the reservoir, which sits 6,040 feet above sea level. The reservoir, completed in 1964, dams up the Green River. The highway crosses over the dam and then quickly turns out into a recreational parking area. We stopped and walked around the man-made peninsula, reading up on the lake and exploring the two small boat docks.
Island Acres sits by the Colorado River between two mesas.
Our destination was the James M. Robb-Colorado River State Park/Island Acres RV Park on I-70 just east of Grand Junction, Colorado. Today’s elapsed travel time was about nine hours, so if we were going to hook up before dark, we couldn’t dawdle. That meant rumbling past the Steinaker Reservoir just north of Vernal, Utah (where we caught U.S. 40 east) and past Dinosaur National Monument in Utah’s remote northeast corner. Just across the border, we did manage to snap a 60 mph photo of the welcome sign for Dinosaur, Colorado, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Curiously pockmarked sandstone buttes and mesas rose on either side as we raced another 90 minutes south to I-70 and Grand Junction (the closest thing to an actual city we’d seen since Seattle) and another 20 minutes east past Mount Garfield and Mount Lincoln to the campsite — which left us pleasantly shocked.
With a nondescript name like James M. Robb (he was a Colorado civic leader who championed public land; the state park that bears his name actually is five separate small parks along Grand Junction’s I-70 corridor), we had extremely low expectations — especially having overnighted at such national treasures as Rushmore, Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
James M. Robb/Island Acres: so spacious.
Amazingly, this oddly-named, out-of-the-way state park blew them all away.
Where the big parks had cramped slips and crowded grounds, Island Acres was spacious and open and startlingly unpopulated. We had access to two fire pits, a grill, a covered and paved picnic table and patio, pull-through parking, and lots of square footage to roam within our campsite. The closest campsites to ours were 150 feet away. Also, Island Acres sits hard by the Colorado River between two towering mesas, which were vividly hued at sunrise and sunset. It also features a small swimming hole, though we just dipped our toes and skipped rocks.
On any future trips to Wyoming or points west, we’ll overnight at this hidden gem. It was secluded and serene, the sounds of a powerful river echoing off canyon walls and into a starry sky. The crisp air of the high desert was practically medicinal. At the end of a long and occasionally stressful trip, this was the perfect stop, and we all said we wished we’d stayed two nights here instead of one.
Sweeping Down the Plains
Finally, it was time to go home. Oklahoma was in our sights. The only thing between us and our destination was 15 hours of road — all on the Fourth of July.
The otherworldly Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
A long time ago, my wife’s father told us we must one day stop and visit Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Today, it was the perfect waypoint out of Grand Junction, just over an hour and a half drive south on U.S. 50 past Montrose to the south rim entrance.
Our jaws dropped.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an ancient dark and dazzling canyon that cuts sharply through the surrounding mountains. The Gunnison River saws through the landscape at an average drop of 34 feet per mile (by comparison, the Colorado River drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile through the Grand Canyon). It is said that parts of the gorge receive an average of just 33 minutes of sunlight per day, contributing to the almost foreboding nature of the canyon. The rugged canyon walls rise from the river like the Manhattan skyline from Sixth Avenue.
We meandered up and back on the Rim Drive Road (there’s a parking loop and hiking trails at the end), pulling out at nearly every overlook for photos and brief trail explorations. Don’t miss Painted Wall, a towering dark metamorphic rock cliff striped with off-white pegmatite veins — the tallest sheer cliff in all of Colorado at 2,250 feet.
Before leaving, though, we decided to accept the challenge and take our motor home down to the river. There was a checkpoint and a brief discussion about whether we could safely navigate the road — the cutoff is apparently 30 feet, and our Coachmen technically was a 27-foot model — and after producing the proper documentation, we were allowed to pass.
Forget Rushmore, forget Spokane or Seattle or Vancouver. This was by far the most stressful drive of the entire trip. Portal Road from the rim to the river features 13 switchbacks, and many of them were barely wide enough for two standard vehicles to pass, let alone a Class C
Getting down to Gunnison River is a challenge in an RV.
motor home. On the way down, other motorists yielded to our girth. Maybe they saw that our brakes were smoking again. This was not a pleasant descent, but the destination was worth it. At the bottom, there’s a falls feeding the river and a parking area about a hundred yards down. The narrow road continues on to Crystal Dam, but we pulled off at the parking area to let the Coachmen catch its breath while we beheld the precipitous cliffs before us.
The climb out of the canyon also was a challenge, but for the motor this time, not the brakes. Our 324 horsepower Chevy 4500 V8 squalled at us all the way up as it searched for the proper gear, but with 373 foot-pounds of torque, it never struggled. In all, we spent about four hours in the park, and that meant we would be arriving at home sometime after dawn.
On the way out of the park, at the bottom of Colorado 347, we stopped for drinks and trinkets at a cool roadside curio store, then rejoined U.S. 50 east to start our final 14-hour push.
Up first is the serene Blue Mesa Reservoir and Curecanti National Recreation Area. The highway crosses the lake twice, then runs along about 10 miles of shoreline. Soon enough, you’re climbing again into the Rockies, this time northerly on another fabled stretch of U.S. 50 across Monarch Pass. We checked our EasyTrails app, which placed us on the Continental Divide at 11,312 feet elevation, so we pulled off the road to enjoy the mountain air. It was Independence Day, and it was 55 degrees.
It is here, in the cloudy peaks of the Sawatch Range (there are nine summits over 14,000 feet!) that begins the south branch of the mighty Arkansas River — the same Arkansas River that trickles through Tulsa some 700 miles to the east. (The river’s actual headwaters start about 60 miles north near Birdseye.) It’s but a good-sized puddle as it runs under Tulsa’s 71st Street bridge, but just out of the mountains, as it finds U.S. 50 and cuts east toward Salida, Colorado, it is a raging torrent, and supposedly America’s most commercially rafted river. The highway has a handful of seven-degree grades, so use caution.
The Continental Divide at 11,312 feet: yipeee!
We sailed through Salida (where, oddly, we saw an Oklahoma Sooners tour bus and a deer sitting under a tree next to motel) and through Howard. At Parkdale, the highway turns south. That’s where we said goodbye to the mountains. We fueled up in Canon City (ours was a 57-gallon tank, and at 11 miles to the gallon, we wondered if we would make the whole 651 miles), and continued east to Pueblo.
Once on I-25 south, with canyon walls replaced by Fourth of July fireworks, the final sunset of our journey fell into the Rocky Mountains. From now to Oklahoma, the only things we would see would be illuminated by our headlights. That didn’t stop us from adventuring a bit more.
We got off I-25 and caught U.S. 64 at Raton, New Mexico. It was too dark to see the Capulin Volcano National Monument, but we talked about it (my son and I had climbed it the year before; we strongly recommend stopping if the park is open). At Clayton, U.S. 64 turns into U.S. 412, or the Boise City Highway as it’s known locally.
By now it was nearly midnight, and I pleaded with my passengers to stay awake a bit longer. We had one more state border to cross — our
That's no puddle. That's the raging Arkansas River.
.11th state in all — and while the detour was brief, it was not at all popular.
We got off U.S. 412 just as it brushed against the northwest tip of the Texas Panhandle and trucked down a gravel byway called Rinker Road. It was only two miles to the east along the Texas Panhandle and then and another 1 ½ miles running north on Feeder Road along the Oklahoma Panhandle, quite literally on the border of three states. But the road was in poor shape, and our home on wheels rattled and bounced and no one else cared one bit about my quirky little curiosity of the map.
“Dad!” came the shouts. “How much longer on this stupid road?”
Clearly, this vacation was over — right after one more photo with our final state line sign: Oklahoma.
After 16 days, our last photo with a state sign: Oklahoma.
locally and tastes amazing, like real beef jerky, like what you’d imagine cow hands might’ve had on a cattle drive in 1880.
As the rest of the crew slumbered — the ladies snoozed in the master queen in the back, the boy slept on the canopy bed above my head — my only company on our two-lane highway was an endless train of 18-wheelers on an overnight westward haul. One of these, while still in the Oklahoma Panhandle, was terrifying: the driver veered into my lane about a quarter mile away and didn’t immediately correct. I let off the gas, then tapped the brakes, then braked hard and sounded my horn as the other driver finally returned to the correct lane. Unfortunately, upon my final braking, the girls slid off the bed and into the floor.
We hadn’t read anything about that in researching the “RV Life.”
The final 400 miles of the trip became a miserable stretch, seven hours of night, seven hours on a solo grind. At sunrise, I was still a half-hour west of Tulsa near Keystone Lake, and the fatigue overcame me. I struggled to keep my eyes open, blinking hard and shaking my head to stay awake. I rolled the window down, I turned the radio up, but it was tough. Eventually, my son climbed down and sat next to me, and with his company, I pushed through the final 45-mile homestretch, returning both this fantastic vessel and my precious cargo safely to our driveway.
The final road tally was 5,640 miles. Including the Canadian splash, fuel cost us just a drop under $1,800. Another $1,000 or so went to Hunter RV for mileage on the vehicle (we got a certain number of miles free; the rest cost 25 cents a mile). The total cost of the RV including the rental fee and fuel, came to just over $4,000. With overnight campground fees and food, the whole 16 days (not including souvenirs) came in at less than $5,000, or about $75 per person per day.
So was it worth it?
Through more than 5,600 miles, our RV was a champ.
I was deeply anxious that my idea of the perfect trip would not be met with the same enthusiasm from the rest of my family. But other than that last grueling stretch — that damn gravel road and that sleepy trucker dumping half of us in the floor at 65 mph in the middle of the night — I was wrong.
My teenagers were given their space for the entire 16 days — within reason, for four people in a 30-foot RV — and with an occasional gentle reminder to put down the book, put down the phone and look out the window, their highway boredom never really set in like I feared it would. They enjoyed almost every mile, every stop, every state line photo op.
My wife, a renowned worrywart, was at ease throughout our journey, tuned in as usual to the minute details like the gas gauge and the septic hose, and yet at peace with my navigating the mountains and the campfires and the open road.
For 16 days, I was their captain in a 30-foot ship, their navigator on a fantastic voyage, their tour guide through the American West. We told stories and made s’mores and played tetherball and fished under the Tetons and took lots and lots of photos.
It was the greatest vacation ever.
Of course it was worth it.
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