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.

Rasor Road BLM land

Rasor Road BLM land 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.

Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas

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.


Lake Mead

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…

Driver’s side….

Campsite at Willow Beach Marina and RV Campground

Patio side…

Campsite at Willow Beach Marina and RV Campground

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:

View of the Hoover Dam from Arizona parking lot

And here’s the view while standing on top of the dam looking back at Lake Mead:

Lake Mead and water intake towers at the Hoover Dam

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.

Hydroelectric generators at the Hoover Dam

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.

View of the Hoover Dam from the O'Callaghan Tillman Bridge

Here’s a diagram of the whole process:

Diagram of the Hoover Dam

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.

The Hoover Dam

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 Mike O'Callaghan Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

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.

Casino Parking

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.

Entrance to the Casa Blanca Casino in Mesquite, Nevada

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.

RV parking at the Casa Blanca casino in Mesquite, Nevada.

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.

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    • Thank you! We have learned so much on these trips too. I had no idea how any of this stuff worked. Now it all makes complete sense.

  1. Sounds wonderful. We are currently in Indianapolis at the Speedway. Our adventure has been more driving, but we have visited a lot of Route 66 spots and lakes. Which you were in Lake Havasu. Could have stayed at our place for a free boondocking week and watered the plants for us…ha. Hope all is well. Jana and Mike (Lake Havasu)

    • Glad to hear you guys are out on the road. I have heard good things about the old Route 66 sites. We haven’t checked any of them out yet, but it will be on the agenda at some point. We’ll definitely let you know next time we are in Lake Havasu!

  2. You brought me back to out Vegas trip several years ago – we stayed at Mandalay Bay and went to the Hoover Dam. We took the “dam tour” (there are two tour options, but the “dam tour” as they love to keep saying, has more options/things to see – well worth the few extra dollars) and really enjoyed it. We also walked on the Pat Tillman Bridge. Honestly it was one of the highlights for me. I found Vegas itself to be way too expensive for what you got and really liked the things we did off strip better. Glad you enjoyed it, too!

    • Yeah, I agree. We love Vegas and always have a great time there, but it’s super hard to justify the cost. We had no intentions of visiting at all until we realized Julie was there. Otherwise, we would just have skipped it. And yes, there are a TON of other things to do in this area and many of them are free or low cost. Speaking of which, we agree, the Hoover Dam tour was definitely worth the money. We did the mid level tour. It didn’t go to all the possible viewing areas, but it went to enough that we really understood what we were seeing.

  3. Love your added commentary on climate change…they should add that to the dam tour! Looks like you had a beautiful spot at Willow Beach campground, but wow, what a ridiculous price increase! We’re finding campgrounds are increasingly expensive, and are trying to mix it up with more boondocking (or dry camping) options. We’ve yet to stay in a casino parking lot or Walmart, but we’ve spent plenty of nights in forest service or BLM campgrounds with no facilities and have loved it. I’ve always shied away from parking lot camping, but I’d stay in a casino that looked as nice as the one you were in!
    What, you didn’t try to replenish your beer fund at the slots in Vegas? Because that always works out well! :-))

    • The ever increasing price of campgrounds is a frequent topic of discussion between us and other RVers. I think it’s simply a function of supply and demand and it’s only going to get worse. Pretty soon, I think a lot of people are going to get priced out – especially when you consider the cost of gas and increased costs for tourism related stuff. It seems like everywhere we go is overwhelmed with visitors and that usually ends up meaning higher prices. In the alternative, more and more people are going to be heading for BLM land, which means more crowds and trash and all that. It’s an interesting situation and I do wonder what things will look like 10 years from now.

  4. Travel planning tip from a non-scientist: If something is described as an “engineering marvel” you MUST GO. It will be amazing. We visited Central America several years ago, and while the macaws and toucans and monkeys were OK, the Panama Canal was simply incredible.

    • Yeah, I can definitely see that. It’s not just the “wow” factor of what you’re seeing, but truly understanding how the thing was built, how it operates, etc. gives a whole new appreciation for what you’re seeing. From the Hoover Dam to the Space Shuttle to fighter planes to aircraft carriers, since we’ve been on the road, we’ve learned so much about these incredible feats of engineering and they really have been some of our most memorable experiences.

  5. You are just too freakin funny! I almost spit out my morning tea while I was reading your blog this morning!

    Now, since you’ve visited the Hoover Dam and have all those facts and figures fresh in your head, read “The Wet Desert” by Gary Hansen.

    • I have not heard of this book before, but I just looked it up on Amazon and it looks like a fun read. Going on my Kindle now. I will report back soon! Thanks!!

  6. Isn’t it great that we have so many options? I would add Harvest Hosts to your list since you can boondock, there are some awesome locations!

    • We JUST signed up with them a couple weeks back! Haven’t actually used our membership yet, but as soon as we have one on our route, we’ll try it out. It’s kinda hard to pass up wineries after all!

  7. I hope you went to Escalante Park while you were at Lake Mead. It is my favorite, and the canyons empty out into the lake. You should definitely hit it up on your way back through if you missed it.

    • We did not because I have never heard of this place before – and we really didn’t do much while we were there. But I will add it to our list of places to check out. There’s a lot in the Lake Mead area that we need to return to – Valley of Fire State Park being the biggest, but there are a ton of other interesting sites and hikes in the area. We will most certainly be back before too long. Anyway, thanks for the tip. It is now on “the list”!

  8. Sounds like you may be boondocking more and more, what with no money and all. 🙂 Just kidding, of course. Believe me, _ _ _it happens . Unexpected expenses, beer, etc. We love boondocking, and although when we started full-timing we turned our noses up at the idea of Walmart camping, we have overnighted in many Walmart parking lots by now. In fact, we’re in one now…Cortez, Colorado.
    Just north of Vegas, off of the 15, is Valley of Fire State Park, a must-see/must stay. Typically, if you’re in the Las Vegas area and heading to Zion, you would pass right by it, but it sounds like you might be approaching Zion from another direction.
    We just finished a week stay at Lone Rock beach over near Page, AZ at Lake Powell. It’s boondocking dispersed camping for sure but gorgeous. $7 per day with our “National Park”Geezer pass. Lone Rock is actually just inside Utah nt too far from Kanab. Check it out on Campendium.

    • Ha! I think we may have JUST missed you. My blog is way behind. We are near Lake Powell right now. We already visited Zion, Kanab, and Bryce…. If I had known you were here, I would have said we should grab a beer. Dammit. Oh well, hopefully we’ll cross paths later this summer. In the meantime, yes, I think there will be plenty of boondocking in our future – but probably not in the desert when it’s 100 plus degrees. I do like my hook-ups then!

  9. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your post Laura and as always, the pictures are amazing ! Your description of your yearly budget is too funny…ours has become a pile of ashes and its only May! Happy Trails !

    • Thank you!! Isn’t it incredible how quickly a budget can get destroyed? Though, I guess, on the other hand, that means we have PLENTY of time before the end of the year to get things back on track. That right there is some “glass half full” thinking!!

  10. We love Las Vegas, but haven’t ever been with the RV. We always stay at the same hotel, so I’m not even sure I’d enjoy it as much without that. Maybe I’ll plan a trip to stay farther out at someplace awesome like the Willow Beach campground you shared, and then spend a few nights at the hotel too. 🙂 I was shocked at the low water level at Lake Mead when we were there last year. So sad.
    Thanks for sharing your travels. We’re heading west next year with the RV and I’m taking note!

    • We’ve never stayed in Vegas in the RV. We, too, have only stayed at hotels. And we’ve always loved that experience, so I think that would be our preference as well. On the other hand, Vegas is super expensive and we haven’t been there since we started traveling. It’s just hard to justify the cost. I’m sure we’ll visit again at some point, but it’s pretty low on the priority list at the moment. As for the west, we have absolutely LOVED it out here. There’s so much to see and so much natural beauty. It’s really fantastic and I bet you guys will enjoy it!

  11. Glad the boondocking is working out for you. It is especially nice on those one nighter’s when you can stay for free! I’m sorry we missed your stop at Lake Mead. We are only five miles from the lake! It would have been great to catch up. Glad you enjoyed our little area:) The dam is quite impressive and the lake and mountains are spectacular.

    • For right now, that is exactly our plan. Boondock for those overnight stops that we just don’t need a campground for. Spending $30 for a crappy campground just isn’t worth it and those dollars add up quick! And we will undoubtedly be back in the Lake Mead area in the future and can hopefully meet up. We were just worthless during this visit – never made it to Valley of Fire State Park, never checked out any of the cool hiking trails around Lake Mead, never even rented a kayak and we were AT the marina. It was pretty bad. But – next time we will redeem ourselves and do more stuff…Hopefully you’ll be there when we visit and we can all hang out – if we don’t see you out on the road somewhere before then!

  12. We boondocked with me kicking and screaming (I’m a full hookups kinda girl), but discovered I adore the pretty places we can stay. We had a nice little place on Lake Mead and we enjoyed the peace and quiet. Loved your reference to your budget. Another informative and funny post. Safe travels to y’all! Dawn

    • I am hoping that most places we find will be slightly more picturesque than that spot in Zzyzx, but I am definitely not complaining about the peace and quiet. That was a VERY nice change form San Diego!

  13. I drove right by Zzyzx years ago! I’m excited you saw it too!! Don’t knock the kids ringing their bicycle bells… Enjoy and I can’t wait for the next post! Miss you!

    • I’m surprised more people haven’t seen Zzyzx. I mean, with a name like Zzyzx, it has to be awesome, right? So many Zs!!!!! ???? Anyway, I miss you too. Stay well!

  14. Laura, don’t know if you remember me but I was a victims witness volunteer at your old office for a few months, right before you left on your adventure. We are doing something similar right now – driving across the US in a 37 foot RV and towing a car, aiming to visit as many national parks as we can over a 4 month period. Right now we are driving across Texas heading for Sedona and then the Grand Canyon. Lisa Bowman gave me the link to your blog and I’ve been enjoying it tremendously. One thing came to mind while reading the latest entry about boondocking. Ed is a member of the Elks and Moose lodges, which often have low cost RV parking for members. Nothing fancy, although some actually do have hookups. Generally $15 per night. They are just fine if you’re on the road and need a place to stay for one night. Ed also said you can stay overnight in Cracker Barrel although we haven’t yet done that. Just wanted to drop you a line, and say hi and wish you happy travels.
    Judy Richmond.

    • Hi Judy! Yes, I absolutely remember you and it’s so cool that you guys are traveling across the U.S. now too. Small world! I had actually heard of the possibility of camping at Elk’s lodges, but never really looked into it. So far, we’ve done ok with what we have available, but it’s nice to know there are other options if we ever need them. I’d also heard of the Cracker Barrel parking options but I try to keep Kevin from getting into too much trouble with his cardiologist. ???? Have you guys had the RV for a while or is this all new? Where to after the Grand Canyon?

  15. I just finished reading “Wet Desert” and I immediately refer back to your pics of the Hoover Dam just to refresh me the setting of the book, fascinating read more so now that you are in Page AZ, where the story began. Anyhow, in case you passed that way again, a boat ride on the other side of Hoover dam cruising at Black Canyon gives you another perspective of the dam.
    We have done just one boondocking at a Casino, and it was at the stateline of NV and CA, and we had the whole parking lot to ourselves.

    • Sue mentioned that book as well and I have it downloaded. It sounds like a fantastic read, and it will probably be even more interesting now that we’ve been through the area. I think there’s a boat that goes from Willow Beach Marina (the campground where we stayed) to the Hoover Dam. It might be the same trip you’re talking about. We passed on the opportunity this time, but it does sound like a fun excursion. It’s certainly a fascinating landmark and we’re happy we visited.


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