Painted Hills in Arizona and driving the Million Dollar Highway

Did Someone Say Road Trip!

As we shared previously, we’d decided to switch our State of Domicile from California to South Dakota and had already changed our address and all our bills. Now it was time to go to South Dakota and get our driver’s licenses! Since it was a big trip anyway, we planned to spend a few days at Glacier National Park, visit my sisters in Colorado and a few other places as well. 

I mapped out our itinerary based on those three primary objectives. However, getting the licenses was the most important and had to be done within a specific time frame, given the minuscule DMV hours of operation. Everything else was planned around that. 

We had our tent, sleeping pads, and blankets, but we also had the Suburban set up for sleeping if we wanted to do that. We’d already camped for about a week around Los Angeles and didn’t set up the tent once. It was much easier to sleep in the vehicle on a great mattress! However, this time we had 12 nights to cover. We knew we’d stay a couple of nights at my sister’s house, but the rest would be camping. Oh, my goodness, that’s a lot of camping!

Day One

As you can probably tell from the photos, our trip began south of Phoenix, Arizona late in the afternoon. We knew we couldn’t cover many miles that night and planned to sleep at one of the many campgrounds in the mountains northeast of Phoenix. 

The first couple of hours of the trip were dreadfully hot and crowded! After we got some distance north of Phoenix and into the mountains, the temperature dropped as did the traffic. We also found ourselves on a one-lane road with a 45 mph speed limit. I’m all for blue highways, but it was excruciatingly hot, and I hated it.

Mogollon Rim

About an hour after that – we found trees! There are trees and forests in Arizona! Okay, we know there are trees, we’d seen them in Flagstaff and Sedona. We found a place to pull off, and it turned out to be a visitor center for the Mogollon Rim. Have you heard of it? We certainly hadn’t. It was a beautiful overlook at over 7,000 feet elevation. What a view of all the mountains between Phoenix and us! 

We walked around a bit and then realized there were several campgrounds within a mile or two. We checked out a couple of them, but they were full. Then we went back to the Visitors Center to see if there were some other options nearby. There was a dispersed campground listed on my camping app on a dirt road east of where we were. Hey, let’s try that!

We drove about a mile (at three mph) and began seeing campers of all sorts along the road. Dispersed means no bathroom facilities, no water, and camping wherever you can find a spot. My first chance to use our toilet, yippee! We liked it even though it was an incredibly dusty, dusty place. The campground was called FR 171 (Forest Road).

Our Home For the Night

Here it is! See the sign? It says ‘camp here.’ All you get is a picnic table and a ton of dust. At one point, I took off my shoe and sock and couldn’t believe the amount of dirt stuck to my foot. Jim had sandals on, and his feet were even worse.

We put our tarp between our vehicle and a tree to hide the toilet, took all the bags off the bed, and our home for the night was complete! Here it is, looks cozy, right? Good thing we like each other because that’s a full-size mattress, not a queen! It’s a bit tight, but it is incredibly comfortable, and our comforter is warm!

Day Two

When you go to sleep at 9:00 pm it’s easy to wake up early and hit the road, which is just what we did. We headed down the mountain, saw a herd of elk along the highway and noticed the ‘add oil light’ was on. We had quite a time finding the right oil since we only found two gas stations along the way. Eventually, we found Interstate 40 and headed east for a bit before stopping at the Petrified Forest National Park.

Most of the park is south of the Interstate, and we could only visit the north end, which is very small by comparison. I think the southern area was the more interesting part, but we at least wanted to check this section out since it was right on the Interstate.

We stopped in at the Visitor Center first and looked around. I noticed that a few people walked up to a stand and put what looked like a date stamp in a book. I looked around and found there is indeed a book you can purchase – the National Park Passbook.

Wait a minute! You mean there’s something like this, and we didn’t know about it when we had visited all those other parks? Now we have to return to all the others and get a date stamp! We bought the book and Angela got her first stamp. Getting those stamps became a ritual in all the parks we’ve been to since. 

The photos you are seeing are the Painted Desert section. You drive around the rim and look down at different vistas. They are interesting for sure but very similar to the Painted Hills in Oregon so not interesting enough for us to try and hike down anywhere. 

We’ll have to come back again and drive from the south to the north or down through the southern section, which is out of the way, but it’s a National Park, and I need to check it off my list. 

Welcome to New Mexico!

Soon after leaving the Petrified Forest National Park we crossed into New Mexico, got to Gallup which is just inside the border, and then drove north towards Farmington into the north-west corner of the state. Our destination for the day was somewhere north of Durango, Colorado.

This part of the drive was miserable for us. I think it was the worst section of the entire trip. It was scorching, as the sun was shining directly on my window for hours. There was a small two-lane road, and we had to deal with lots of typical summer road construction and the endless delays. We figure the flaggers had it worse, standing out in the sun all day.

Even though the area was ugly and dry and boring I did figure out one thing – I can use one of the window reflectix pieces and put it partially up on the window or just put it over my body, and it blocks a ton of the heat from the sun, Cooley Dooley. Survival instincts do eventually kick in. 

Then north up through New Mexico at the far west corner. Farmington took forever to drive through, hot and tons of construction.

A Good Sign

Boy, were we ever happy to see this sign! Within a few minutes of crossing into Colorado, the entire landscape changed we saw hills and trees like we hadn’t seen in hours and hours. Soon enough we found ourselves in the lovely city of Durango.

I had a hideous headache and couldn’t cope with much: just plain too much sun and heat. We ended up eating a quick fast food lunch, as much to get in out of the sun as the food. Next up – getting a bit more ice and then traversing the Million Dollar Highway. My camping app listed quite a few free campgrounds in the area, and we figured we could find one between Durango and Ouray.

Okay, it’s tough to see, and it’s a terrible photo, but – see that brown thing off to the side of the road? Our first ever bear sighting. We stopped for a closer look, but the fellow was off into the woods in a flash. 

The Million Dollar Highway

You can find a zillion descriptions of this million dollar road, and Jim had done that several times when living in Colorado during the last century. A few facts: it was built in the 1880’s and redone since then, 25 miles between Silverton and Ouray, goes over three passes, one at 11,000 feet, use caution, check the weather, apply for the snow plow driver job if you like living on the edge. Otherwise just enjoy it. The views are majestic in every direction along the way. 

We did see the one thing you never want to be a part of – a couple of seniors standing in the middle of the steep two-lane road outside their stalled car attached to which was a trailer on top of which was a pickup truck. Every part of that scene was scary.

Tons of other drivers had stopped to help: some putting blocks behind the wheels, others directing traffic – thankfully – on the up-hill side of the road. Cars could get through, trucks and RV’s had to wait until the National Guard showed up to fix things. Traffic got a little jammed up there you might say. We will restrain ourselves from commenting on the wisdom of towing a truck up that section of road. Maybe there was a bet involved? 

Everywhere you look around here there is evidence of mining, most of it abandoned long ago.

Copper anyone? It seems like there might be some around here.

If you’re planning a quick trip on this road, you might want to reconsider. They say speed kills, but along here speed will help you fly further into the canyon if that’s your choice for the final chapter.  Not a single guardrail in sight. The photo below was the scariest part.

The sky up there is a stunning shade of blue providing a lovely backdrop to the mountain tops.

Where Can We Camp?

We had our sights set on a few campgrounds just outside Ouray, but it didn’t work out. The first one was full, except for a couple down a road that was too small for our car. The second one full too, and the third, the same. So back up we went to an area we saw before.

Finally, we found a spot along a creek downstream from a dam/lake. We got the last place available with any privacy, just down from the highway. During a walk around the area after dinner, we marveled at how people get their campers into tight spots, on purpose that is: like between trees, just over a big rock and onto a level space, all going backward.

There we were with maybe a hundred other campers, up very high, with snow-capped mountains all around, a little stream swishing in the backgrounds, a few cars going up or downhill on the highway.

The sun dropped below the peaks quite early and left terrific colors on them. Then things started to cool-down, all the way to 38 in the morning! Great stars filling the sky – Jim saw a falling star that night, something I, apparently, am not allowed to see. 

In the end, we found the highway nowhere near as scary as some make it out to be. Maybe that’s a bit of tourist hype. We’ve been on far more terrifying roads without even trying. But few more beautiful.

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2 comments

    • Sam and Veren on January 21, 2018 at 4:56 am
    • Reply

    As soon as I saw the cover image I was going to ask if you had the National Parks Passport for stamping!! That was one of the most fun parts of our West roadtrips – I have to say I took so much pleasure in getting a new stamp each time!! Of course I have the debate with myself too – should I could national monuments, etc. or just parks? It can fill up quickly! Beautiful photos, making me miss the West Coast. We’re thinking of doing a stint housesitting out there this summer. There’s just nothing quite like those landscapes!!

    1. It is a fun addition to the visits. However, now it seems like a contest with myself. I agree, what do you do with the monuments, too many of them to possibly see them all. Hope you do get out there this summer. We’re hoping for a stint in the Rockies during the summer!

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