It’s time for the mandatory year-end wrap up, wherein we marvel at all the places we have been and things we have done in 2019. And by “marvel” I mean we look back through photos and blog posts and other records in a possibly futile attempt to develop something more than a foggy recollection of this whirlwind of a year.
Our handy 2019 travel map shows that we spent the winter in Southern California and Arizona, headed to Utah for the spring, made crazy loops all over Colorado during the summer, and spent the fall in New Mexico, before finishing out the year in Texas and high-tailing it to Florida. Although there are some large cities in the Four Corners states we visited (Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque) for the most part we stayed in the sparsely populated hinterlands of those states. The empty roads, wide open scenery, and breathtaking dark skies were unforgettable, but I’d rather forget struggling to locate decent internet connections and find basic services in many of those places. Hitting eastern Texas and visiting the Austin, San Antonio, and Houston metro areas was a return to the environment of dense, multicultural population centers we’ve always called home. The traffic was a little unsettling at first but overall it was a welcome relief to get back to what we consider normal.
In addition to being out of our element for much of the year, dealing with a lot of cold weather, and suffering from beach withdrawal syndrome, we also faced a seemingly endless string of medical issues. At one end of the spectrum these included really serious issues like the one leading to Ken being a guest of Moab General Hospital for nearly a week. At the other end of the spectrum were more mundane but very annoying issues; I struggled with skin rashes from contact dermatitis for the entire year, even to the point of suddenly becoming allergic to the wedding ring I’ve worn continuously for 15 years. (Insert your own lame marriage joke here.)
The health issues made it a bit harder for us to enjoy ourselves, but despite these challenges, we saw truly incredible places, and generally managed our travel in a way that didn’t leave us exhausted and cranky. So let’s sum it all up with both numbers and subjective impressions.
By the Numbers
National Park Service Units Visited to Date: 86
We frequently target National Park Service units in our travels. We find the parks and scenic areas to be spectacular, worthy of being preserved and nationally celebrated. We also generally find the interpretation at historic and cultural sites to be informative, thought-provoking, and appropriate, though a few places we’ve visited clearly need to improve their dated materials. The 86 units we have visited so far represent just over 20% of the total units, which means there is still plenty more for us to see. We’ve made the biggest dent in visiting national parks and preserves, seeing close to half of the 72 units.
What types of NPS sites do we visit? Our very favorite places are national parks and preserves, which are the crown jewels of the system and typically offer incredible scenery, hiking, wildlife, and outdoor experiences. The second largest category we visit is monuments, which is a diverse group. Federal lands can be declared monuments by presidential proclamation, while national parks require Congressional approval, so many iconic landscapes were made into monuments when the president felt Congress would not approve a new park. See, e.g., Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, Bears Ears National Monument, and numerous maritime monuments in the Pacific Ocean. But monuments may also be historical or archaeological sites, like cliff dwellings, pueblos, Spanish missions, or Army forts. We’ve seen a lot of those this year. I tag all our posts with the types of sites we visit (national historic parks, state parks, etc.) so click on the tags to the right to see which ones we experienced in each category.
Here’s the unsurprising breakdown of all the national park service units we have visited to date.
States Visited: 11
This is quite a contrast to last year’s 18 states, and even more so because out of the states we visited in 2019 (California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida) we really only spent significant time in five of them. Our visits to California and Nevada were both under two weeks, we’ve only been in Florida three days at the time of this post, we stayed a single night in Louisiana, and merely drove through the skinny coastal parts of Alabama and Mississippi. Our five core states were all new to us, since we had never visited any of them together, and we are happy with our decision to really investigate these states in depth.
The winter in the desert was nice, and we started the year off right with a month-long residency in the very interesting city of Tucson. But our time in Arizona was made more challenging by a cold, wet winter and we experienced snow in late March in Flagstaff and at the Grand Canyon. The five national parks and two state parks we visited in Utah were incredibly scenic, offering some of the most breath-taking, mind-blowing scenery we’ve experienced in two years on the road. On the other hand, southern Utah is extremely rural and culturally one-dimensional, so it’s a place we are very happy we visited but would never consider staying for an extended period of time, much less living. Our time in Colorado was focused almost exclusively on the western half of the state, and we made only very brief visits to and through the urban area of the Front Range. The mountain scenery was gorgeous and we adapted surprisingly well to the high elevation, though lack of cell service in the mountains was a constant struggle. A month of our time in Colorado was spent in two two-week stints (#1, #2) volunteering with Habitat for Humanity through the Care-A-Vanner program. New Mexico impressed us with its vibrant art scene, interesting mix of Hispanic, Native American and cowboy culture, and many very cool science destinations. Texas was a complete surprise to us. When we originally planned our travels for the year, we pretty much viewed Texas as a large land mass that we needed to get through in order to get back to Florida for the winter. But we really loved every place we visited in Texas. The natural beauty, the variety of scenery, the friendliness of people, the multicultural communities, the dynamic cities, and the outstanding state parks we visited all won us over.
Miles Towed: 6,990
Our concentration on just five states generally kept our relocation driving distances short, but bouncing all around Colorado and crossing all of Texas and heading to Florida in the fourth quarter of the year really added to the overall mileage.We added another 8,310 miles to the truck’s odometer driving without the rig. This is all our fun driving, like heading to trailheads and taking scenic drives, but also necessary errands like getting groceries, propane, and haircuts.
Campground Stays: 53
Last year, our average stay length was 4.7 days. We felt that was much too rushed, and led to a lot of time wasted on travel days getting from place to place, so we made a concerted effort this year to plan on longer stays. There are always exceptions, particularly when trying to make miles or when pressed for time, but we did a good job of extending our visits to an average of 6.8 days per spot and allowing ourselves to become more familiar with locations. Extending our stays was one of the main reasons we made it through the year without complete burnout, even with persistent medical issues, frustrations about connectivity, and general challenges of being in rural areas like finding decent grocery stores.
We also made a more concerted effort to stay only in campsites that we really liked. It was worth it to us to get up early months in advance to secure spots in public parks on the first day of availability, and also to pay up to be camped in places we truly wanted to be. A perfect example of this is Dead Horse Point State park outside Moab, where we happily paid $40/night for an electric-only site. We arrived April 25, and the reservation window for Utah state parks opens exactly four months in advance, which meant that the first thing I did on Christmas morning in 2018 was get myself to a spot with wifi (we were in Death Valley at the time!!) to make our reservation. The cost and effort was completely worth it to us, since we stayed in a spot where I took my first decent Milky Way photos and we had access from our campground to outstanding hiking in some of the most eye-popping scenery in Utah. If we couldn’t get into a place we wanted to camp — we waited too long to secure a spot at one of the fantastic regional parks around Phoenix, for example — we just skipped the area altogether.
Here’s what our more intentional camping philosophy resulted in this year:
|Private RV parks||138||38%||Typically full hook-up sites, and also typically the most expensive and least scenic. One month in Tucson and four weeks doing Habitat were almost half this total.|
|State and county parks||135||37%||A broad category, but also the most consistent blend of good scenery and decent amenities (we like showers).|
|National parks||49||13%||Great locations inside national parks, but typically dry camping with no showers.|
|National forest / BLM campgrounds||34||9%||These are established campgrounds with very limited services. There are identifiable campsites, picnic tables, pit toilets, sometimes water spigots, but no hookups.|
|Boondocking||9||2%||This is free camping on undeveloped public lands, typically national forests or BLM land. It’s free but also unpredictable.|
A few of our varied camping sites (all with no hookups, by the way):
Blog Posts: 52
We stayed places longer, visited fewer spots overall, and therefore had far fewer blog posts than last year’s total of 75. But I like to think the quality improved even if the quantity declined. We owe a big thank you to all the readers who follow the journey and wish us well, most especially the people we have befriended as a result of the blog.
Good news! Just like last year, there is a financial voyeurism opportunity ahead. Stay tuned for financial details in an upcoming post, in which we’ll share how much it cost us to do all these things in 2019.
Our Favorite Things
And now for the subjective part of things….
In the order in which we visited, here are some of the places focused on natural beauty and the outdoors that were the most memorable, breathtaking, and overall enjoyable for us.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Despite limited services during a government shutdown, we absolutely loved our visit to this remarkable ecosystem in January. The namesake cacti were impressive, but so were the birds, wildflowers, palo verdes, saguaros, and other cacti. Finishing each day with a brilliant sunset was just icing on the cake.
Capitol Reef National Park. We visited all five of Utah’s national parks, and Capitol Reef National Park had the most varied hiking of the bunch, from steep climbs to flat mesa hiking to slot canyon explorations. Camping in the national park was idyllic, and we certainly weren’t going to say no to the fresh pies and cinnamon buns.
Canyonlands National Park. While possibly the least visited of Utah’s “mighty five,” Canyonlands had views that easily rivaled the Grand Canyon with a tiny fraction of the crowds. We visited two different units hundreds of miles apart and loved them both.
Rocky Mountain National Park. From the gorgeous glacier-carved valleys and scenic hikes on the east side to the bountiful wildlife of the park’s west side, to the alpine tundra where we towed the Airstream above 12,000 feet, this park was a winner for us.
Big Bend National Park. With a landscape as dramatic as the jutting mountains at Glacier National Park, we loved the variety of scenery and ecosystems in this extremely remote desert enclave.
Padre Island National Seashore. The biggest drawback to our 2019 travel itinerary was the lack of beach time. We had plenty of lake and river experiences, but nothing can really compare to a true ocean, and we started to refill our bucket at gorgeous and empty Padre Island.
Historical / Cultural Sites
This was a year that saw us visiting many remote places — and really struggling with internet access at times — but our rewards were in the form of jaw-dropping scenery. We had relatively fewer visits to historical and cultural sites, but there were still some memorable ones.
UA Laboratories in Tucson. One of the highlights of Tucson is the ready availability of activities associated with the University of Arizona. We never made it to any college basketball games during our visit, but tours at the Tree Ring Lab and Mirror Lab were memorable parts of our month-long stay in this enjoyable city.
Mesa Verde. In our travels though the southwest we saw more cliff dwellings and pueblos than we ever knew existed, but none of them hold a candle to the elaborate and remarkable structures at Mesa Verde.
Small Towns in Colorado. Criss-crossing the country, we have seen many struggling small towns and rural areas that are obviously in decline. Our experiences in Colorado were a notable contrast to this. While not every part of the state is booming, we visited so many compelling smaller communities that seem to have vibrant and healthy economies and an overall positive vibe. We enjoyed strolling around downtown areas with well-preserved historic buildings holding microbreweries and art cooperatives. Many towns had cool river walks that were enjoyed by people walking, jogging, and biking. The spots that particularly stood out to us were Durango, Pagosa Springs, Steamboat Springs, and Gunnison/Crested Butte, but we drove through plenty of other appealing spots.
Santa Fe. We stayed for 9 days, and kept busy the entire visit, yet we felt we only saw a fraction of what the city offered. Art, architecture, history, food, and museums galore are all located in this small city with a very walkable downtown. Santa Fe would make a great destination for a city-specific vacation for non-RVers also.
Balloon Fiesta. It’s my list, and I get to call this a “cultural” destination. While there were many things about the Fiesta that were incredibly annoying and difficult, it was also an unforgettable experience that exemplifies why we decided to travel the country in an RV to begin with. Being parked right at the field and volunteering on a crew made us a true part of the event, not mere spectators.
Austin. Another great town full of museums, cultural destinations, history, outdoor amenities, and a flagship state university, where we barely scratched the surface in a 10-day stay.
We debated at length where to focus our travels for the summer of 2020. We had already decided months ago that we would spent the winter and spring in Florida; thanks to the extreme competitiveness of getting sites in Florida state parks, we had to make those reservations 11 months in advance, as soon as the reservation windows opened. And since reservations are so hard to secure, we booked fairly long stays of 14 days (the stay limit) at most locations. As a result, we’ll be in Florida essentially through the end of the April, which suggested we should stay to the eastern side of the continent for the summer. One of the candidates for our summer travels included Montreal, Quebec, and the Canadian Maritimes. Another potential itinerary had us focusing our time in the prime summer months of June, July, and August in upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Ultimately we decided that we wanted to travel to places that are entirely new to both of us, and ended up looking at the upper Midwest and Great Lakes. Rumor has it that there are states — and even large bodies of water — located somewhere between New York and the Dakotas. This summer, we’ll be investigating that rumor by spending the summer months in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Our new 2020 Travel Map page has a graphic with the basic outline of our plans for the year. As we’ve discussed before, we prefer to have reservations for our travels, and as of now we have, with a few exceptions, reservations in place through Labor Day. The fourth quarter of 2020 is a bit fuzzy, and will depend on how the early part of the year goes. Stay tuned, and see you on down the road!