Friday, September 27, 2019

West Coast Camping Extravaganza: Karen and Louis Valentino's Tiny Trailer Travelogue

The Valentinos at the Kalaloch "Tree of Life," Olympia National Park, Washington

How do you define a "Camping Extravaganza"? How about forty-five days of travel, 5,000 miles from mid-June to the end of July, a tiny trailer tour of the Western United States--California, Oregon, and Washington, up the coast and then down the interior?

That's how Karen and Louis Valentino defined it this summer with their 2019 Extravaganza objective to take off with their Hiker Trailer, visiting seven national parks in the three West Coast states, "staying close to the coast on the way up and working our way back down through each state’s interior. We decided to set specific dates we would be at each, and make reservations in advance, either at a campground within the park or close by. The exception was our last stop, Yosemite. We decided to stay somewhere outside the park and wing it rather than try to reserve a spot."

"Holy Spectacular! North Cascades National Park is remote, and maybe that’s part of its wonder. So many areas to explore."

"We stuck close to the script," says Karen, "especially at the beginning. But we also discovered some wonderful one- and two-night stays between the parks. And as the trip progressed, we found we were enjoying opportunities to look for more rustic camping. Some of our favorite stops were at places we had researched during that day while driving."

Tow Vehicle and Tiny Camper

As the Valentinos planned their steps to retirement, they decided they wanted to scale down to one shared car, so in contemplating purchasing a trailer, they were clear they needed the ability to tow and fuel efficiency. They felt that a key appeal of a tiny trailer was its light weight and that it could be towed without investing in a beefy gas-guzzling tow vehicle. "We decided to buy a hybrid Toyota RAV4 SUV," Karen said. "With a tow rating of 1750 lbs. – 250 lbs. higher than the equivalent non-hybrid RAV4 – we felt comfortable we were in good shape. Our SUV averages about 33 mph when not towing, and when towing on fairly level ground about 27-28 mph. (It can go down to 16 mph or so going up steep grades.) At times we are very slow going up hills, but we’re retired! We’re not in any hurry."

Hiker Trailer 5x8 Highway Deluxe, pulled by a Toyota Hybrid RAV4

They originally had in mind a trailer with the classic teardrop shape. But during a road trip right after their joint retirement, they stumbled upon a Hiker Trailer at a dealer–literally the only dealer for the entire Western US–and were immediately won over by its simple, practical design and solid construction. They liked that it fulfilled their desire to “tent camp with a better tent.” They opted for the 5x8 Highway Deluxe, designed for use on paved roads and decently graded dirt or gravel roads. (Hiker also sells heavy duty models designed for offroad use.)

"Although there are three base models to choose from," Karen said, "each Hiker is fully customizable. That meant our trailer was going to have all of the options we wanted, and just those options–which we loved!–but we were going to have to wait for it to be built. We made good use of the time, researching and purchasing items to kit out our new toy. It was a very fun road trip driving to Lake Havasu, Arizona, to pick it up and bring it home."

They have found that "trailer optimization" never ends. "We are constantly tinkering with our baby. We have increased our solar capability, shed our dependence on ice by purchasing a refrigerator, rearranged the galley and tongue toolbox several times, and added many small toys to enhance our big toy."

The best way to organize the Valentinos' West Coast trip is to focus on the seven national parks in the order they were visited: the West Coast national and state parks, Washington state parks, Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic, and Yosemite.

The Coastal Parks

Two state parks stood out for the Valentinos, Russian Gulch State Park and Mendocino Headlands State Park. "Russian Gulch is very close to Mendocino, north of San Francisco," says Karen. "Mendocino is a beautiful long-time friend to us, having spent part of our honeymoon there thirty-five years ago and returned a few times since. The weather-beaten Headlands have a wonderful kind of wildness, even though they can be accessed in minutes simply by walking from the quaint 'downtown' toward the Pacific. And the campground itself has its own little beach and hiking trails. Campers at Russian Gulch also have access to nearby Van Damme State Park."

"Russian Gulch State Park, just north of Mendocino. $47 per day (gulp). (Probably includes a senior discount and the reservecalifornia fee.) Good hot showers, $1 per 5 minutes. Water, no shore power or cellular. Mendocino is breathtakingly beautiful."

Brown Creek Trailhead, Elk Prairie Campground, Redwood National and State Parks

"We stayed three nights at Elk Prairie Campground. Wonderful hiking, and the redwoods are spectacular. We have lived in redwood country before, but the majesty of the old growth forest at RNP is not to be missed. We met some hikers from Oklahoma and Tennessee, and it was wonderful to see things through their eyes--amazement at their surroundings."

"Great overnight stop at Cape Lookout State Park in central Oregon, on the coast roughly due west of Portland. A short walk from camp, beyond a berm, is the ocean. Drop dead gorgeous beach."

Cape Disappointment State Park

Karen and Louis Valentino
"We also liked our stay on the last loop at Cape Disappointment State Park, located just north of the Columbia River, at the southernmost tip of Washington. The weather was perfect, we had a great site with lots of trees, we took a good long walk along the beach, and we were treated to a fantastic sunset. Cape Disappointment was not a disappointment at all. On the way we visited Ecola State Park with sweeping views of Tillamook Lighthouse, abandoned and reclaimed by sea birds, and Haystack, a monolithic sea stack. We stopped to see Astoria Tower and got a 360 view that included a shrouded Mt. St. Helens and the confluence of rivers at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. We also visited Fort Clatsop where Lewis and Clark built a hasty structure to weather out a tough winter in 1805-6. Because we were only there overnight, we didn’t hike, but there are lots of opportunities: everything from old growth forestland to marshes and freshwater lakes."

Washington National Parks

The three national parks visited in Washington state--Olympic National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Mount Rainier National Park--each had their own unique beauty. "Olympic has incredible diversity, from Ruby Beach to Hoh Rainforest to Hurricane Ridge. North Cascades is vast, remote, and features glacial ice. Mount Rainier had . . . Rainier, and it was the first time I stepped foot onto the Pacific Crest Trail. All the parks provided fantastic hikes. We were lucky to meet up with a fellow Hiker Trailer owner who hiked with us at Kalaloch, Hoh Rainforest, and Rainier. We benefited greatly from having a local’s familiarity with the area."

"Kalaloch, how I do love thee! Fantastic beaches, the 'Living Tree' that lost the ground from underneath it and clings to life, miles of beach scattered with shells. And nearby the mystical Hoh Rainforest with its nurselogs, ferns, springs, and vine maples, with delicate moss everywhere. Coastal Olympic National Park. Phenomenal."

Hiking Olympia National Park

Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park

North Cascades National Park just continued the spectacular experiences that characterized the Valentinos' adventure. They found North Cascades "so vast that the longish trails we explored showed up as a quarter inch on the park map. We saw glacial ice, a lake colored by glacial rock 'flour' dust, amazing views and not a single bear or mountain lion. We walked for miles without seeing a soul. This is a park we will try to come back to. We stayed at Newhalem, close to the Visitors Center, for a staggering $8/night (senior rate). Paved pads, wonderful privacy . . . will stop gushing now."

North Cascades National Park, from the Cascade Pass Trail

NCNP, overlooking Ruby Arm, a section off of Ross Lake.

NCNP, Ruby Creek

"Mount Rainier is a capricious mistress." Despite four nights there, Mount Rainier just gave Karen and Louis an occasional peek . . . until they headed out one morning and saw sunshine and the mountain in all her glory. Nevertheless they got great hiking in, and saw so many wonderful sights, thanks in part to another Hiker Trailer owner and avid hiker who took Karen and Louis under her wing and showed them some amazing places on “her” mountain. "Apparently," Karen says, "everyone who lives near Rainier feels just as possessive."

Mount Rainier: "Yesterday we got a peek at the peak." 

"We had a wonderful hike up to Nisqually Vista where there was no view into the glacier, but there were lots of views of the Tatoosh Range, marmots, swaths of avalanche lilies, and lots of other wildflowers. Great day today, and great stay."

"Swaths of avalanche lilies."

"She deigned to show her face literally as we were leaving." 

Crater Lake National Park

Four weeks into their six-week camping extravaganza, Karen and Louis began heading south to visit three more national parks on their way home. Their camping stops passed through Deschutes National Forest and Bend, Oregon, where they "turned into city people for a couple of days." They stopped at "pretty, serene Elk Lake, which is tucked in near Mt. Bachelor and South Sister."

"We used our tubes on the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon. Floating the Deschutes is huge fun as there is a short section of man-made 'rapids' during the run. We camped outside Bend at Elk Lake Campground, a FCFS Forest Service campground on a peaceful lake with views of Mt. Bachelor and South Sister."

Heading toward Crater Lake National Park, they thought there was a bump in the road when they were notified that their park camping reservation had been cancelled due to hazardous tree removal. They put out an internet appeal for dispersed camping sites in the area. "There seem to be lots of options," they posted to fellow travelers. "Would like to find a spot our trailer can handle. We don’t have an off-road model but can do decent dirt or gravel roads."

However, after being informed their reservation at Mazama Village Campground was canceled, they "ended up with three nights there after all and were swarmed with mosquitos the entire time. (It was better up at the rim.) $35/night, no hookups, water, coin showers, coin laundry, camp store, restaurant onsite. Crater Lake is literally surrounded by National Forest land so there are endless boondocking options."

Phantom Ship Island--the smaller of two islands in Crater Lake. "Crater Lake is a prime example of how a photograph can never replace the human eye. So vast, so impossibly blue. My humble photos can’t possibly do it justice, but here’s my effort."

Crater Lake was where Karen and Louis "saw water bluer than the sky," feeling that the best feature of the park was "the view from many angles at the rim." Spending three nights at Mazama Village Campground "was amazing, but our enthusiasm was dampened by the mosquito population down at the campground. In July at elevation there is still melting snow and attendant mosquitoes. We went through quite a bit of Deep Woods OFF during the second half of our trek." There was good hiking as well, of which they took advantage. "For us, three nights was perfect. The lake is astonishing. $35/night, a store, laundromat and restaurant onsite. Water, flush toilets, no hookups. Bring your insect repellent if you show up any time around snow melt."

Mazama Village Campground, Crater Lake

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Heading south from Crater Lake, Karen and Louis reached California for an overnighter at Mount Shasta and a spur-of-the-moment side journey to Burney Falls.

"Wow! On a whim we visited Burney Falls State Park on the way to Lassen National Park. Water flowing through underground lava tubes appears to seep out of the rocks. What a beautiful park! We walked the trail on both sides of Burney Creek and were rewarded with so much beauty."

By the time the Valentinos hit Lassen Volcanic National Park, they had already been to five national parks and been reminded five times why the national parks are our country’s crown jewels. Karen was interested to visit Lassen, but hadn’t heard a lot about it; and having lived on Oahu as a girl and visited the Islands several times since, she said she equated “volcanic features” to those on the islands. "Boy, was I off!" she said. Let's let Karen describe the Lassen experience.

"Helen Lake, Lassen Peak, and stands of mountain hemlocks."

"Lassen blew my mind! There were lots of first-time experiences. First time I saw a boiling mudpot. First time I saw a 'boiling' lake (Cold Boiling Lake). First time I beheld the stench of sulphur emanating from the ground. Also the first hike over snow. First time I’ve undertaken a grueling half mile vertical climb that culminated in a walk around the edge of a volcano (Cinder Cone Volcano). First look at hillsides swathed in mules ears flowers (Mill Creek Falls Hike). First time I’ve seen turquoise-colored ice (Helen Lake)."
"Mules Ears on the Mills Creek Falls Trail."

"Louis and I love to hike. My three most memorable hikes were all in Lassen. In July some areas were still closed due to snow accumulation, including the closest parking area available to access Cold Boiling Lake, which gets its name from bubbles created by release of CO2 beneath the lake. We parked on the main road and walked down into the parking lot and out over snow in search of the lake. I was wearing my usual hiking footwear, trail runners, and Louis was wearing hiking boots. Because the trail was invisible beneath the snow for most of the hike, we initially navigated using our GPS location vs. the location of the lake on a map. Before too long we discovered how winter hikers do it: we became aware of trail markers attached to trees along the path. We had so much fun on this hike! Our hiking poles were invaluable, both to keep us from slipping and to test for areas of wet snow we might punch a hole through with our feet. When we reached the lake, we felt like conquering heroes!"  
"Cold Boiling Lake--volcanic gases percolate, giving the illusion the lake is boiling."

"The second hike in Lassen, to Mill Creek Falls, was recommended to us by one of the rangers at the Visitors Center. Louis and I are in our late 60s and as we got well into the hike, we both swore that whenever a twenty- or thirty-something park ranger calls a hike 'easy to moderate,' we will automatically reclassify it to 'challenging for us.' Beginning at the Visitors Center, where we had just had our encounter with the ranger, the hike was a 3.8 mile out-and-back that felt like seven miles, due in part to significant elevation changes, and to elevation; for us sea level dwellers 6,700 feet is thin air, and we felt it! But what a gorgeous hike! It felt almost surreal to walk through fields of mules ears, then wooded hillside – and then to see the picturesque falls, water dropping seventy-five feet before continuing its rush down the mountain." 
"During the eruptions in the early 1900s, Lassen cast off many large boulders that came to rest miles from the peak."
"Then there was Cinder Cone Volcano. We had read about a small cinder cone located in a remote area of the park, down an unpaved road near Butte Lake. We have twice hiked up an ancient cinder cone on the Big Island, so we were intrigued. After our strenuous hike at Mills Creek Falls, Louis decided he would not attempt the climb (he’s prone to altitude sickness), so he walked with me along the first, level part of the hike, then turned back to hang out at Butte Lake. The hike up the cinder cone was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and one of the most rewarding. It was a grueling 850-foot climb in the space of a half mile, the trail curving steeply up the side of the volcano. Every footstep was on loose volcanic rock, and each step slid about halfway back down. I used my poles to help pull me upward, and stopped frequently to rest. Along the way passersby came along down the trail, some who were turning back without reaching the top, and others who had been to the top and encouraged me forward with, 'It’s SO worth it!' and 'You’re almost there!'" 
"Lassen Peak from the Butte Lake cinder cone climb."

"Finally, I made it to the top and WOW! At the top the trail runs along the entire circumference of the rim, giving views in every direction including Lassen Peak, Snag Lake, Butte Lake, the Fantastic Lava Beds and the Painted Dunes. There’s also an inner rim, and from there a trail leads down to the bottom of the crater. I stayed up on the cinder cone for about an hour, drinking in the views and taking photos. Then I started plunging my way back down, carefully keeping my weight back as it would be catastrophic to lean forward, the trail was so steep."
Yosemite National Park

Some R & R was in order after the fun yet strenuous adventures at Lassen. On the way to Yosemite, Karen and Louis stopped for three relaxing days at Donner Memorial State Park, "making good use of our river tubes."  

At this point in their trip, Karen and Louis entered the unscheduled portion of their travels, winging it as they entered the Yosemite area, since they'd heard that the park campgrounds were very busy. In search of peaceful climes, they headed to Muir country, asking for advice on Facebook.
"We are about to enter the unscheduled portion of our camping extravaganza. Any recommendations for FCFS camping near Mono Lake/Lee Vining? Also looking for places in Sierra National Forest (with the intention to see King’s Canyon and maybe Sequoia). We are mostly looking at Forest Service land and county campgrounds. We can take our trailer on well graded gravel or dirt roads but it is NOT an off-road camper. TIA."
"Looking across the loop to our campsite. Tioga Pass is carved in the distance into the hillside."

"Onward to Mono Lake," Karen posted, "and the interesting feeling of not knowing where we’re going to spend tomorrow night." Sweet success, though!

"Wow! Winging it works well sometimes. We spent three nights at Aspen Grove, a Forest Service campground in the canyon off of Tioga Pass Road, which leads to the east entrance of Yosemite. We got perhaps the last available site (#16) at this FCFS campground, and it was a gem! Off of a loop at the end of the campground, we had ample privacy plus views of the canyon behind us and Lee Vining Creek across the loop. We could hear and see the roar as water raced down the mountainside. One of our favorite campgrounds of our 6-week camping extravaganza. ($7/night with senior pass. Vault toilets, dumpster, bear box, water at campground entrance.)"

"Lee Vining Creek off of our loop."
"We camped at seventeen locations during our trip. Aspen Grove, a Forest Service FCFS campground, is our top pick. At Aspen Grove, water was available at the entrance and portable toilets and dumpsters were scattered throughout the campground. The campground is not for luxury seekers. Tucked into a wall on the Tioga Pass, it’s just a 25-minute drive to Yosemite’s east entrance. We snagged the last campsite at the campground, on the end loop, and it was a beaut. We could see Lee Vining Creek roar down from the mountains across the loop from us, and we had a wide view of the canyon. We had to set up in increasing rain, but we slept like babies while it poured. We then spent our next three days exploring Mono Lake and scratching the surface of Yosemite."
 Karen and Louis had been warned Yosemite was crowded in summer, but as they drove through the Eastern side to Olmsted Point on the first day, stopping often to get out and view their surroundings, Karen thought to herself, “This isn’t bad at all.” Lots of hikers were staging to take trails out of Tuolumne Meadows and all along the road, but there was no heavy crush of people. "On our last full day we decided to drive all of the way to Yosemite Village. Aha! Yosemite Village was Crazy Town. There were people everywhere! There was nowhere to stop, so we just drove around the loop and right back out again." The too-busy atmosphere was unfortunate, because it was at that lower elevation that Louis, who suffered from altitude sickness, would have been able to hike, so they didn’t do any real hiking in Yosemite. They did, however, get a nice overview, and "Yosemite is close to where we live, so we will be back sometime when the crowds are gone."

Half Dome, taken from Olmsted Point

Karen and Louis Valentino's camping extravaganza was an experience of highs and lows--as in measures of altitude from all their hikes and camping spots. They planned their trip thoroughly, and then allowed for the unexpected and out-of-the-way. "We try to keep expectations low when we set off to camp. It’s hard to know what to expect when traveling to unknown places. And having expectations often leads to disappointment. Having already done a five and a half week trek the previous fall, we did have a very good sense what the pace of travel would be like."

Any expectations unfulfilled? Karen writes, "I have never seen a bear and that streak remained intact during our trek. I would really like to see a bear one of these days . . . from a distance!"

After Yosemite, they headed home, stopping for couple of nights at Arroyo Seco Campground in Los Padres National Forest.

Valentino Camping Extravaganza Itinerary

The Valentinos feel they are lucky to live on the Central Coast of California, with its extended camping season. In mid-October they plan to stay in Folsom, California, for three nights, riding the American River Trail on their bikes. Beyond that, they hope to "squeeze in another camping trip somewhere within an hour or two of home." Their 2020 camping plans are unformed right now, but more national parks feature high on the list. "So many choices! Eventually we will probably settle on two treks--one in spring, one in fall--interspersed with trips closer to home throughout the camping season. Can’t wait!"

Just keep posting those beautiful photographs and wonderful descriptions of your travels, Karen and Louis. You're an inspiration!

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