After a month in sunny, social, kid-infested San Diego, we fired up Barney’s engine, brought in the slides, lifted the jacks, and pointed his nose in a generally northeastern direction. Our ultimate goal was a swing through southern Utah to visit some of its great national parks but we needed to break the trip up, so we stopped at some non-traditional overnight accommodations, enjoyed an incredibly awesome campground, and visited one must-see site.
Breaking into Boondocking
Boondocking, or dry camping, is camping without hook-ups. Many, if not most RVers spend some amount of time each year boondocking. The majority of large RVs, including ours, are equipped with huge batteries, powerful generators, large fresh water tanks and even larger waste water tanks, all of which allow us to live for days or even weeks without hookups. We have to monitor our batteries to make sure we don’t let them discharge below a certain point (because it damages the batteries), and we have to restrict our water usage to make sure we don’t run out, but assuming we can manage these things, we can visit enormous swaths of the country without ever setting foot in a campground. There are millions of acres of federal lands in the west which are open to RVers for free camping and numerous online and offline resources to help people find available sites. Folks who really like to camp this way often install solar panels on top of their RVs and upgraded batteries that allow them to boondock without having to constantly run their generator (which can be noisy and create exhaust fumes).
Being comfortable with dry camping also opens up a lot of national park and national forest campgrounds. These campgrounds often don’t offer hook-ups, but they offer defined campsites and some facilities. They tend to be cheaper than commercial RV parks and much more beautiful. They offer a nice middle ground between the two extremes – basically, you’re not in the middle of nowhere on your own, but you’re also not ass to elbow with your neighbor and their stupid bicycle bell ringing kids.
As appealing as it all sounds, prior to this leg of our trip, we’d only dry camped one single night.
For starters, we spent the first year of our travels on the east coast where boondocking options are pretty limited. We could have dry camped in a Walmart, Cabela’s, or Cracker Barrel parking lot but whenever we needed a single night’s stay somewhere along our path, I’d usually book a cheap Passport America campground instead.
But now that we are out west where dry camping options are plentiful, and, more importantly, after absorbing several financial catastrophes in a row – monster veterinary costs, significant car repairs, and bad decision making in San Diego (ie: “Yes, of course we should go to another brewery!!”), we knew we had to save some dough. Indeed, our yearly budget had become nothing more than a pile of glowing embers in the corner, sadly looking up at us, tears streaming down its face, sending up smoke signals that read: “WTF??? Are you even trying???” Alas, the sad remnants of our once thoughtful budget had a point: we needed to stop spending money on crap campgrounds that weren’t worth their cost, and start spending time in places that were free.
So, upon leaving San Diego, we headed first for a couple nights of free camping on BLM land (That’s Bureau of Land Management – the government agency that maintains all this free public land) near the booming metropolis that is Zzyzx, California. And no, I did not just accidentally lean on my keyboard; that’s the name of the town where this particular parcel of land is located. It’s part of the Mojave National Preserve and it is in the middle of nowhere. To get to the site, we exited the highway, drove up a dirt road behind a gas station, and continued on until we found ourselves looking at some apparent campsites next to the dirt road.
We may as well have been parked on the moon.
While there were several obvious campsites that other people had used, we were the only ones there for our entire visit. In fact, over the course of the next several days, we only saw a handful of 4X4’s drive by our spot on their way into the mountains to go off-roading. Otherwise, it was dead quiet.
While there, we experimented with battery usage to figure out how long we could go before needing to run the generator and knocked a bunch of random items off our to-do list. All in all, the experiment was a success and we managed to save a couple bucks… which we then promptly spent in….
Fabulous Las Vegas!!
As we were sitting in the middle of this slice of nowhere, I was texting with our D.C. friend, Julie, when she mentioned that she was in Las Vegas for work. You probably could have seen the light bulb go off over my head as it occurred to me that we would be driving right by Vegas the following day on our way to our next stop. Approximately 8 minutes later, Kevin had re-routed us for a stop in Sin City so we could have lunch with our friend.
As an aside, it was funny to hear Kevin so nonchalantly agree to change our route and drive our enormous house into the middle of Las Vegas. To say his confidence driving Barney has grown would be an understatement. He’ll pretty much go anywhere now and deal with any challenge we might encounter (weather, construction zones, traffic) with characteristic Kevin-calm.
Anyway, we headed into Vegas, left Barney at a Walmart parking lot, took the car to Mandalay Bay, had lunch with Julie, and were on our way to Lake Mead a couple hours later.
By the time we got to the lake we were looking forward to some serious downtime and we hit the jackpot with this particular campground. First, because I’d booked it 7 or 8 months earlier (before the calendar rolled to 2018), we paid $35 per night. Come to find out, as of January, the campground increased the nightly rate to $50 per night – which is crazy. Second, we got a fantastic site at the very top of the campground with no neighbors on one side and a pretty decent view on the other…
The campground was beautiful, spacious, quiet, and altogether lovely. It was just what we needed after a chaotic several weeks. In fact, other than running a couple errands, we only made one serious excursion while we were there…
The Hoover Dam
We were right down the street from this most famous landmark and, as much as we wanted to just stay home, we couldn’t justify skipping it. In the end, we’re so glad we visited. What a fascinating place!
We parked in one of the small lots on the Arizona side and then walked across the dam to the Nevada side. (Tip: The Arizona lots are free. The Nevada lot costs $10).
This is the view from the area where we parked:
And here’s the view while standing on top of the dam looking back at Lake Mead:
Lake Mead exists because of the dam. When they built the dam in the Colorado River, water backed up (over the course of years) to create the lake. Water from the lake drains into the huge cylindrical water intake towers you see here and then flows into massive pipes under the dam.
Once inside those large pipes, the water is funneled into smaller pipes which drain into a series of hydroelectric generators.
Once the water passes through the generators, it’s released back into the Colorado river. The seemingly small waterway in the center of this picture shows where the water is released after being sent through the generators. The generators are located on either side of the waterway in the narrow buildings.
Here’s a diagram of the whole process:
On the right side of the diagram is Lake Mead, on the left is the exit waterway. You can also see the four large “Diversion Tunnels” on the top and bottom of the diagram. The workers built those tunnels first in order to divert the water around the construction site while they were building the dam. Today, they are overflow tunnels. Should Lake Mead ever get too high, engineers can open those tunnels and allow water to divert around the dam to release pressure on it.
Speaking of water levels, you may have noticed the obvious high water marks on the rock surrounding Lake Mead. The lake is at historic lows, currently at about 40% of its overall capacity. This is the result of 15 plus years of drought in the surrounding mountains. Not enough snow means not enough runoff to fill these waterways. If this continues, there will eventually be disastrous water shortages in Nevada, Arizona, and California, not to mention limitations in the amount of electricity the dam can create – electricity that currently powers millions of homes and businesses. All of which is terrible, but luckily, we have no reason to believe we are facing a future with higher temperatures which will lead to even less snowfall at higher elevations. So…. That’s good.
Anyway, we learned all of this from taking a tour at the Visitor’s Center (except the snarky commentary about climate change. That’s just me being helpful.) The tour was excellent – very well organized and operated by extremely friendly and patient staff.
Of course, it goes without saying that this is an incredible piece of engineering, especially given that it was built in the 1930’s. Not only did they come up with ingenious ways to solve problems, they did it before modern technology made projects like this easier and safer. Just how dangerous the project was is illustrated by the fact that approximately one hundred men died during the effort.
And if all of that wasn’t enough, perhaps the most mind boggling part is that the project was completed two years ahead of schedule.
No, seriously. I’m totally not kidding.
Two years ahead of schedule. Who knew that was even a thing?
Anyway, after learning about the dam and taking the mandatory tourist photos in front of it…
we went over to the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which runs parallel.
The bridge was built in 2010 to divert traffic around the dam. It is a gorgeous bridge that provides an awesome view of the entire area. In the center of the bridge we found a state divider marker. Here’s Kevin standing in two states….
The bridge is a modern day engineering marvel, spanning 1900 feet and, at it’s highest point, floating almost 900 feet above the river.
Our last stop on our way to southern Utah was another freebie night, this time at a casino parking lot. Casinos are popular among RVers because they are oftentimes located near major travel routes and usually allow RVers to stay for free for a night. Management assumes you’ll go in and play a couple games or have a meal in exchange for the parking space (so it’s not really free, but it can be pretty cheap if you exercise some self control). One particularly nice feature of casinos as compared to other free overnight places is they typically have pretty decent security driving around, so travelers can feel a bit safer than at random truck stops or Walmart parking lots.
I’d found this particular casino on Campendium and we were actually pleasantly surprised. We kinda expected a non-Las Vegas Strip casino to be a bit depressing, but this place was pretty nice. I didn’t take a lot of pictures, but this is the entrance and you can see an enormous set of fountains on the left.
They had a whole parking lot set aside for overnight RVers. The sites were easy to get into, reasonably level, and we felt perfectly safe.
After having a quick dinner at one of the casino’s restaurants, we went home, relaxed for a bit, and slept soundly.
So, all in all, our foray into dry camping was a success, we got some much needed downtime, we got to see an iconic American landmark, and we were headed the following day to one of the top locations on our travel bucket list: Zion National Park.
That’s up next.
Where we stayed:
Rasor Road, BLM Land in Baker, California – Campendium link here
Willow Beach Marina and RV Campground, Willow Beach, Arizona
Casa Blanca Casino, Mesquite, Nevada – Campendium link here.