My Solo Wanderings of the West

#1
This blog/trip report has actually been a work in progress; as of the day I'm posting this I've been on the road for about a month. At first it was hard to find time to work on it, now that I am settling in to my travels it's easier to make time to write and edit the photos. I should get this caught up pretty quickly.

In recent years I've come to love the western states for so many reasons. I've lived in Illinois all my 60+ years, and in the town of Galena for 25 years, and while I've really loved living in such a unique and beautiful place, I wished i could spend more time traveling and exploring the west. Sometime this past winter I realized that there was never going to be a better time for me, that I could take off to travel and actually be a "full-timer". I decided on a date, May 1st, that I would be moved out of my house, be done with work, and leave Illinois to go exploring in my camper/van.

From the time I committed to this plan I only had a few months to get rid of unnecessary belongings, move what was left from my house into a tiny 5x10 storage locker, and get my van ready to be my new home. Finally, a house full of stuff was down to a few tiny piles and I was deciding what things I really needed to take with me.




Unfortunately, while I made my moving date of May 1st, weather had not been good for working on my van build and the van was far from ready to go traveling. I loaded up everything I thought I needed and headed 160 miles south to see my son and daughter-in-law, and to complete the van build.




For the next two weeks I worked my tail off to get the van ready. I focused on the work I wouldn't be able to do on the road, whatever was left to do would be a work in progress.

I had a really great time, got a lot of work done on the van, and enjoyed a spectacular day on the Illinois River on their boat.







We even had an unusual visit from a small plane that dropped by.




After two weeks I decided I was ready as I needed to be and it was time to head out; I would go back to Galena to repack the van and take care of some final business and goodbyes. My first stop was the storage unit where I sorted what items stayed and what would go. Then I drove out south of town where the Corps of Engineers has a camping area on the Mississippi River, this would be my first night in the newly built van. It was an absolute mess, everything was so disorganized.




I woke to a gorgeous morning on the (flooded) river and then spent at least an hour trying to find coffee fixins in the van. I still had a lot of work to do to get organized.




The mighty Mississippi River.




I spent another night in Galena behind a great old farmhouse.




I've been asked, what's your destination, and how long will you be gone? The answer to both is I don't know. People have asked me what will be the first place you go when you leave? Again the answer was I don't know. My only commitment is a family gathering in Oregon later in July, and by November I think I'll be deciding whether to head south for the winter.

I've always traveled west through Iowa and Nebraska, so I thought about taking a southern route for a change of scenery, but try as I might, I couldn't google up anything that interested me in traveling through Kansas or Oklahoma (other than pictures of tornados). Since I was back in Galena I just headed west across the Mississippi.

 
#2
To give an idea of my style of travel; In 2013 I took a trip of 6,000 miles over 31 days to California and the Sierra Nevada, Nevada, Utah, Arizona. I only drove on interstate highways for a few hundred miles, I drove about 600-800 miles off-pavement, and by camping mainly on federal lands I spent only one night in a paid campsite. Until I got to Fresno, California, the biggest city I drove through was Dubuque, Iowa, 12 miles away from home.

I wandered along in northern Iowa and visited a few state parks. For my first night away from Illinois I stayed at Dolliver State Park near Lehigh. It was a lovely area on the Des Moines River.




I was starting to think about a rough route. I would head across Nebraska and the Sandhills, then cut across southeastern Wyoming to Colorado, then through Colorado eventually into southern Utah. I've gone this way before but I won't take the same roads. I really love the Sandhills and this will be my fourth time through, when I've been there I always feel like there's so much more to see.

When driving across Iowa you don't think much about photo opportunities, but even the vast farmlands have real beauty. Further west in Iowa becomes pretty hilly and you see these terraced farmlands.




Usually when traveling west I just hightail across Iowa but now i was not in a rush. Boon-docking is not so easy in Iowa so I was visiting state parks. I had picked a park on the map north of Sioux City for an overnight stop, but when I arrived it was small and cramped and promised to be a noisy night with what looked like a group of high school prom couples on one side and biker dude and friends blasting death-metal on the other side. I really only needed someplace to park and sleep so I went to a Walmart. I'm not a big fan of Walmart "camping" but sometimes it just works out. With my van setup I can park in a spot and be set for the night, and in the morning I can make coffee, or go inside and buy my coffee, and be ready to hit the road early.




Just a little bit about my van/camper; I bought it in 2009 to use as a work van. I gutted the rear passenger area, blacked out the windows, and built shelving to carry tools for my work as a carpenter/builder. In 2010 I took a trip to Nebraska where I threw an air mattress on the floor. In 2011 I made my work van double as a camping van by adding a nice pullout bed and replacing the tools on the shelves with camping gear. I built a vent into the roof and made a swivel base for the passenger seat. That year I traveled 5,800 miles to Washington and Oregon and started to learn about boon-docking and dispersed camping. I believe I only stayed one or two nights in paid campgrounds.

In 2012 I added a "house" power system and a refrigerator; I traveled to Michigan, then later to Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. In 2013 I built a bike rack to carry my new-to-me XT225 and made the trip to the Sierra Nevada and more. Along the way I had made many improvements to the van itself to better suit it for my type of travel.

When I decided to go vanning full time I looked at a lot of alternatives. For months I scoured Craigslist and eBay for bigger vans, high-top vans, 4x4 vans, and I thought seriously about buying several that I liked. In the end my 98 Astro won out. It would no longer double as my work van so I would do a complete rebuild with a new camper interior. Much of the work that I'd already done to it would carry over, and I know the van inside and out and trust it to drive anywhere, it gets great mpgs, and I love the van like a comfy old pair of boots.
I'll be writing more about the van build later, but a few of the new features are a built in "kitchen" area with stove, sink, and water storage, a dedicated bed setup, a lot more organized storage, a bigger more efficient refrigerator, 200 watts of solar panels on the roof, and a soon to be finished solar hot water system. I fabricated an attachment for my new BusDepot awning and a screen enclosure in case it gets buggy.
I have an older build thread on the Astro Safari forum. I haven't updated it in quite a while. http://www.astrosafari.com/viewtopic.php?f=127&t=12268
 
#3
One of the spots I've wanted to visit in the Sandhills is Long Lake state recreation area in Nebraska. The area features a number of pretty good size lakes. Long Lake is described as a primitive, no-fee camp area. It's a long way from any town, and I almost missed the tiny black and white sign that directed me up this lane from a single lane, hard-packed sand road.




The road in to the area, after going through a gate and a somewhat private looking group of buildings, consisted of tire tracks in the grass,




and deep, loose sand ruts in the grass.




The actual area is really beautiful, but terribly neglected. Except for recent tire tracks in the grass you wouldn't guess the area had been visited for quite some time.
The view beyond the lake is barren Sandhills with not a sign of any building or people. It really is a desolate area.




There were a few broken down picnic tables sitting in tall grass, a pair of falling down outhouses, and no sign of any path or layout of the area.




The next morning I thought about hiking around some, but it was overcast and drizzly, and if it stormed I didn't feel like driving out in wet grass on loose sand.




I left Long lake and started out for the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey, Nebraska, about 30 miles south. It was a spot I knew and enjoyed and seemed like a good place to land for Memorial Day weekend. I made it a leisurely drive and stopped a lot to look around and take pictures.







 
#4
Early in the day I arrived at the National Forest and headed for a campsite I knew from the previous year. It's about 10 miles out on a forest road, and in a quiet area of the Forest, well away from the ohv trails.




It never did storm but rained on and off so I got to try out the new awning.




The Nebraska National Forest is interesting because it actually is a forest in the middle of the Sandhills. It was originally planted as an experiment and continues to operate a huge nursery operation that supplies trees for the Forest Service all over the country. Sadly, this forest seems to have suffered a lot of damage from pine bark beetles.
I like this area because you can get out and explore the Sandhills but come back and enjoy a shady campsite.




It rained on and off for a couple days so I stayed close to camp, but got in a few bike rides during breaks in the weather.




Canoe paddlers on the Middle Loup River.




Finally, with a good weather forecast I planned a long bike ride out to areas of the forest I haven't seen. A lot of the roads are packed sand but ofhttps://ten the sand gets loose like this; it's really hard to ride through this on a motorcycle.

[IMG]https://tenkeygeezer.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/dscn7113b-960w.jpg


This is a remote campground. accessible only by almost 20 miles of sandy two-track. The attraction is many miles of trails for ohvs. Just about every camp site has at least a couple quads.




Here at the junction of four roads was really deep, loose sand. It was where I dropped the bike for my first time.




On the ride back I took a road through the densest forest area I'd seen there.










The forested area came to an abrupt stop at a fence line, and the road continued into open Sandhills.




About seven more miles of this sandy two-track and I was back on the road to my campsite. I rode about forty miles that day, which doesn't sound like much, but riding through sand is pretty exhausting.

 
#5
Over the last several days I realized that my two "house" batteries were no longer taking or holding a full charge and I decided that they needed to be replaced right away. I had wanted to spend a few more days in the Sandhills, while heading toward Scottsbluff and then Wheatland, Wyoming. Instead I was headed down to North Platte.

The first thing I saw in North Platte was the Platte River and along the river was the sprawling Buffalo Bill Cody city park.




Back in a corner of the park was this display of Union Pacific trains and depot. All the trains were open to explore and I killed way too much time there and looking around the park.




It was late in the day by the time I made it to Walmart where I got two new batteries. Swapping them out was something of an ordeal; when I had finished with that and returned the old batteries, then shopped for supplies, it was after dark and I decided to park and sleep there.

 
#6
Leaving North Platte I poked along Route 30 for a while but it was sufficiently boring so I hopped on Interstate 80 around Sidney. I was heading for the Lone Pine area of Medicine Bow National Forest, just east of Laramie, Wyoming. When I arrived there I heard the first reports of what would be many area closures because of late snow and poor road conditions.

The only roads open in that area were at Vedauwoo, but I was able to find a nice campsite.




I was starting to see some great views of the very snow covered Rocky Mountains.

 
#7
I wanted to spend some time in the mountains of southeast Wyoming. I had been to the Snowy Range before and really loved it, now I wanted to see some other areas including the Sierra Madre. I stopped at the ranger station in Laramie to get a report on road conditions. It was not good, because of the late snowfall most of the areas I wanted to visit were not accessible. However, the road over the pass at Snowy Range summit had just opened and I was excited to see that area with all the snow. Also it sounded like there might be some camping in some areas below the Snowy Range.

I headed west out of Laramie toward Cenhttps://tennial and the Snowy Range. It was not a very nice day, where I would normally start to see mountains were only low hanging clouds.

[IMG]https://tenkeygeezer.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/dscn7210-960w.jpg


There was a lot of water in low lying areas and swollen creeks and rivers from the snow melt.




Coming up on Centennial, Wyoming on Highway 130.




As I started up the mountain pass most of the spur roads looked like this.




Up on Snowy Range summit, quite a view for May 31st.









Down below I found one road that was open maybe a mile before it was blocked with snow and off of that a few spurs that you could just turn onto. There I found this spot to camp. I stayed there for four nights.



Well, this is all I have written so far. Right now I'm posting this from the information center in downtown Moab, Utah. I don't know when I'll get on wifi again but I will continue to bring this up to date this as soon as I can. Right now I'm heading up into the Lasal mountains and hopefully cooler temps for the weekend. Thanks for reading!
 
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#8
Great start to a thread. I especially like the pictures of places I'll never see.

I never thought to ask anyone doing this type of excursion. What is the bathroom situation? Walmart? Portable/camping style with bags?
 
#9
Very cool. Great photos and sounds like you will have a wonderful experience to share ! Looking forward to hearing of your travels.
 
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#11
Great thread..........Being from New England, here you can nearly NEVER camp anywhere for free, I'm interested in how you find these free camping areas. Are all National Parks free to just pull off the road and camp?

Did you install a shower or toilet in the van?

Thanks for the thread....Keep it coming!
 
#12
Sort of. I don't think the Parks are. Copy and pasted.

There are 155 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands in the United States, comprising 191 million acres—that's bigger than Texas (www.fs.fed.us). What makes them a camper's secret weapon is National Forests don't charge admission, and camping is absolutely free—so long as you steer clear of official campgrounds (which charge between $5 and $25 for the privilege of pit toilets, picnic tables, and close neighbors in giant RVs).

This is called "dispersed camping," and the rules vary. In most forests, you must pitch your tent at least 100 or 150 feet from the nearest road, trail, or official campground; in popular areas, it might be as much as half a mile.

It can be a bit of a mixed blessing, since these hidden campgrounds tend to draw two types: nature nut budgeteers who pack in what they need and pack out all of their trash, and cheapskates looking for a place to crash with no late-night noise rules to hamper their drunken revelry—and they tend to leave their trash.

- See more at: http://www.reidsguides.com/destinations/northamerica/general/free_camping.html#sthash.Fav4CVVl.dpuf
 
#14
Thank you all for the great replies! Before I post some updates, answers to a couple questions.

As far as a toilet, I tried a bucket and bags for a couple years. I know there are products to use for this, but for me it was always stinky and disgusting. Last year I got a Thetford portable toilet. I think it was less than $80 and it's just the greatest thing. With a good deodorizer added, it can go days before needing to emptied. In fact it is so odor free that my last stop I forgot to empty it. It's very easy to empty and clean. I have it in an enclosed cabinet and it slides easily in and out. I can use it comfortably inside the van with the doors closed (stealth mode) or open the van's side door and enjoy the great outdoors.

I don't have a shower, yet. There is a long answer to this but in short I have the makings of a solar hot water system on the van. It will have a long hose that I can use outside the van. I don't have headroom inside the van, but I may do something for a sit-down shower.

Blind Cleric, that's a pretty good summary of dispersed camping. But, in addition to the National Forest, all of the BLM land in the west is open for camping. That is probably at least quadruple the area of National Forests. With the exception of more popular areas, where they have established campgrounds and some camping restrictions, most BLM land is open for dispersed camping. You may get to share your camp with grazing cattle, but it's free.
 
#15
When I first came to the Snowy Range in 2011 I fell in love with the area and this would be my third time back. I took this picture in August 2011.




And this is roughly the same view taken this June 1.
















The air was clearer than i had seen it here before and there were spectacular views of distant mountain ranges. This was looking south toward Fort Collins.




And looking southwest toward the Sierra Madre.




In the picture above notice the number of dead trees. All over the mountains are covered with trees killed by damage from pine bark beetles.
In 2012 while in southern Wyoming I talked to a fellow who first told me about this problem. He pointed out a bunch of trees around us that showed signs of beetle damage and said, "…in two years these forests will be wiped out." Later I was driving into the Black Hills and saw whole mountainsides of brown, dead trees.

This is a campground that used to be densely wooded. Trees had to be clearcut and burned because as they die they loose their roots and will fall creating a hazard. Along roadsides are big swaths of cut areas like this and huge piles of cut trees that have been burned.




I camped in this very spot three years ago when it was so densely wooded it felt like a forest cave.




There's a lot of new signage that's come from this. Highway signs warn not to take cut firewood out of an area.

 
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