2016  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT

 

   
 
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   A LONG WINTER CAR TRIP FROM WARM ARIZONA 
DESERTS TO SNOWY MONTANA MOUNTAINS & BACK

TUESDAY, MARCH 8

 
"It's  the circle of life, and it moves us all, through despair and hope,    
through faith and love, till we find our place on the path unwinding."
 
~ from The Lion King
 
 
We are part of the circle of life.

I like this cool depiction of the concept in the form of a rock cairn. I found this photo during an internet search for an appropriate symbol:

Arched cairns are hard to build, so I'm impressed with that one and its location where it is reflected in the water to make a complete circle. Very artistic!

This entry is about a week-long trip we made recently for the funeral of a close family member in Montana. However, since this web journal has always focused on our sports and travel adventures, I will approach this topic in the same vein -- describing the travel part of it and not the personal aspects.

That is out of respect for our family; I never go into any detail about private matters like weddings, funerals, birthdays, and other occasions on this website. Other family members have posted information about the life of the decedent and his dignified military funeral on social media like Facebook. (Jim and I aren't on Facebook.)

Suffice it to say that it has a been a sad time for us.

PLANNING THE TRIP

Jim and I sometimes "fly by the seat of our pants" as we travel across the continent in our RV but as more and more people get into the RV lifestyle, either as full-timers like us or just on vacations, it has become increasingly important that we make solid plans -- and campground reservations -- weeks or even months ahead of our intended arrival anywhere.


We had to make reservations for this private RV park just outside uber-popular
Zion NP in Utah several months in advance, even for an early April visit. It was packed.

This time we had just a couple days to prepare to attend this funeral over 1,300 miles away in Montana. Funerals are like that -- you usually don't have a lot of notice, but we knew we had to go despite the fact that it was still winter up there.

We also knew that we'd be driving and we'd be taking our dogs, Cody and Casey, with us.

That meant making sure our aging 2002 Honda Odyssey minivan was in good enough condition for such a long trip, and making as many motel reservations as possible that would allow our Labs to stay in our room with us because once we got north of Arizona,

Baby, at the end of February, it's cold outside!


February 29:  snow along western edge of Yellowstone National Park

We never considered flying. I doubt either one of us will ever fly in a commercial jet again. We used to love to fly until 9-11. Now we have about 862 reasons not to fly because of all the security and other hassles. We'd fly on a military plane or small private jet but reserving seats on one of those on such short notice was simply impractical.

If you know us or have read any of our yearly intros on this website, you know that for the last twelve years we have tried our best to avoid winter weather by escaping to the Far South in our RV. We are un-apologetically Snowbirds!

This winter we've been parked for almost five months at Desert Breeze RV Park on Yuma Proving Ground, an Army base about 20 miles north of Yuma, AZ -- not far from the Mexican border. You can't find much warmer or sunnier winter weather anywhere else in the contiguous United States.

It didn't take long to realize, however, that we'd have to suck it up and drive two or three long days in each direction through some snow, and possibly ice, to reach our destination in Montana in time for the funeral and then drive back "home" to southern Arizona.

You do whatcha gotta do under such circumstances.

This entry is a summary of our travel itinerary for the seven days we were on the road in late February and early March. It describes our route, weather conditions, mileage, and places we stayed overnight.

It also includes scenic views in transit. If you aren't interested in the trip information, just scroll through the pictures!


The promise of more mountains ahead

Usually I describe trips we take with our RV, not the car or truck.

This time, the Cameo stayed in its site at Yuma Proving Ground while we were gone. If it had been a warm season in the North, we might have taken it with us. We much prefer the convenience of having our own bed, kitchen, and bathroom when we travel. We do not enjoy staying in motels or eating very often in restaurants.

DAY 1, SUNDAY, FEB. 28:  YPG to Hill AFB, Layton, UT

This was by far our longest travel day during this weeklong trip -- 755 miles and over 11 hours on the road. We stopped five times along the way.

We knew the weather conditions were predicted to be good and we had the most energy for driving on the first day, so we went for it.


California Agriculture Station westbound on I-10 at AZ-CA border; note the Navy airplane
on a flatbed trailer to the left, with its wings dismantled and strapped to the top.

Our destination was a suite at the Air Force Mountain View Inn on Hill Air Force Base north of Salt Lake City. We camped in the RV park there last September and are somewhat familiar with the base. We usually like military inns better than private motels because they are less expensive and quieter.

This time two of the motels where we stayed were nicer and worth the added expense.

Route:  

Imperial Dam Rd. east from the RV park on Yuma Proving Ground, then US 95 north all the way to Las Vegas. It follows I-10 west from Quartzsite, AZ to Blythe, CA, then north to Needles, CA, where it follows I-40 west a few miles to exit 133, then north to Henderson, NV and Las Vegas.


Old Route 55 mural on a business in Needles, CA


Sharp pointed peaks north of Needles, perhaps how the town got its name?

US 95 turns into I-515 in Vegas. We got on I-15 north and followed it through northeastern Nevada, the far northwestern corner of Arizona, and through most of Utah, including Salt Lake City, to exit 334 in Layton.

Hill AFB is a couple miles east on that road. We were surprised to see several RVs in the campground since it was only in the 30s-40s F. and there was snow on the ground.

Terrain & Scenery:

We went through a lot of desert terrain this day, flat at first and then increasingly hilly.

The first really interesting area with more mountains, color, and water was the Virgin River Canyon on I-15 in far northwestern Arizona.


Crossing the Virgin River at the lower (southern) end of the canyon


Nearing the construction zone in the canyon


Several miles were one lane in both directions.


Unless you're high up in a vehicle on the freeway, it's hard to get many glimpses of the river.


Near the top (north end) of the canyon


View toward colorful rock striations in the Kolob Canyon unit of Zion National Park

We gradually gained elevation throughout the day, topping out at 6,600 feet while I was driving between Cedar City, Utah and exit 188.

I took lots of pictures of mountains and snow when Jim was driving but very few when I was behind the wheel. The speed limit is 80 MPH on I-15 through most of Utah so we really had to keep our wits about us while driving.

I loved all the snow on the mountain peaks. The highest was Mt. Nebo at Nephi, Utah near exit 228. Jim joked that Nebo looks like Denali in the distance:

 

 

 


From a distance, the snow covering the valley looks like a lake full of water.

The Wasatch Front was beautiful, too. The most snow was on the north slopes of the mountains so I could see more of it in the rearview mirrors than the windshield as we were driving from the south. It was prettier going back six days later.  

It was sunny that day with increasing clouds as we approached Salt Lake City. The sun went down about 6 PM. There was still a little ambient light when we got to the air base.

Air Force Mountain View Inn:

Airmen and women can stay here between assignments or until their housing on or near the base is finalized. Military retirees can stay on a space-available basis. We had a comfortable bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and living room with sofa, chair, desk, and TV. The furnishings were old but serviceable and the accommodations cost less than a comparable private motel suite.

We were able to keep the dogs inside with us overnight. Our room was on the ground floor, end room, with no one next to us on the other side so it was very quiet. There was plenty of grass outside the building to walk the dogs.

DAY 2, MONDAY, MARCH 1:  Layton, UT to Billings, MT

We didn't drive as far this day --559 miles in 9 hours with five stops along the way. The weather was good and road conditions dry until we got to northern Idaho and took a tangent on US 20 to West Yellowstone.

Then we drove through a winter wonderland all the way up to I-90.

Route:

I-15 north to Idaho Falls, northeast on US 20 to West Yellowstone, Montana, north on US 191 to Bozeman, east on I-90 to Billings. Ended at the Boothill Inn above the Metra Convention Center at Main St. and Airport Rd. in the Heights. 

Terrain & Scenery:

We could see snow along I-15 in Utah as low as 5,000 feet but it got deeper and closer to the road level as we drove farther north in Idaho. It was especially beautiful when US 20 became two-lane. From there to about 30 miles north of West Yellowstone the snow was deep and just gorgeous.

 

 


We laughed when we saw this mostly-buried 65 MPH speed limit sign -- as if!

The highest point was 7,072' at Targhee Pass, before Yellowstone National Park. Snowmobilers were having fun in the snow and we stopped for a few minutes to let the dogs play in it.

Before we reached the town of West Yellowstone we ran into slush, and snow was blowing across the road from strong crosswinds in one of the wide, flat valleys:

 


The aptly-named "Flat Ranch"


Scenic setting for a (second?) home


Entering West Yellowstone with a windshield that was hard to keep clean

We saw semis, one large RV, and a tour bus coming toward us from West Yellowstone so we figured if they could do it, we could, too.

Fortunately, we didn't run into any ice. We stopped in town to inquire about road conditions on Hwy. 191 north to Bozeman, where the road travels about twenty miles through the western part of Yellowstone National Park, and were advised to just watch for some occasional ice.

We saw several large herds of antelope along I-90 but no moose, elk, or bison in and near the park, where it seems more likely we'd see them. The scenery along 90 miles of US 191 through the park, Gallatin River canyons, and valleys was just gorgeous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above and below:  Gallatin River

By the time we got about 20 miles north of Yellowstone National Park in Montana there was little to no snow on the ground the rest of the way to Billings.


Yellowstone River Valley along I-90

We read in the Billings Gazette that this is the third lowest snow accumulation in the area in February since it's been recorded.

Since we had no problems except slower speeds on the US 20-191 shortcut, I'm glad we took that route. It was "cool" to see so much snow.

We got into strong crosswinds again between Bozeman and Big Timber; two big electronic signs on the freeway warned drivers of the wind. We couldn't feel it but wondered how the drivers of big rigs and a couple motorhomes we saw were doing in the wind. We were glad we weren't pulling the Cameo behind us through there.

Boothill Inn & Suites:

As motels go, this one is very nice. We stayed here for two nights in Billings because it was convenient and some other relatives from out of state were also lodging here.

We had a very comfortable, modern room on the ground floor with two queen beds, lounge chair, desk, TV, large bathroom, refrigerator, and microwave so we could fix some of our own food instead of having to eat out. The price included some complimentary breakfast items, cookies and milk in the evening, use of a pool and whirlpool, and a small gym.

The only downside was not being able to keep the dogs inside with us. We parked both nights in a spot near the side entry door with an exterior electrical outlet where we could plug in a long power cord to the car. Although it was quite cold during our stay (mid-20s F.), the dogs stayed warm enough in the van with a small electric heater running both nights. We practiced this once before and knew it could work.


View of Billings from the "Rims"

On a historical note that other travelers may be interested in, nearby is the Boothill Cemetery, so named because many of its occupants went to their deaths with their boots on!

The cemetery was the burial ground for the town of Coulson, on the edge of what was to later become Billings. The most famous person buried here is H. M. (Muggins) Taylor, a scout who took news of the Battle of the Little Bighorn between Custer and the Sioux and Cheyenne Nations on June 25, 1876 from the battle area to Bozeman.

DAYS 3 & 4, Tuesday/Wed. March 1-2: in Billings, MT

We spent most of the time both days with relatives from Montana, Nevada, Illinois, and Texas who came for the funeral.

We also took some time for a hike with the dogs on the "Rims," the rocky ledge that runs for several miles along the eastern side of Billings. Most of the city is in the Yellowstone River Valley. Up on the Rims is another part of town called the Heights, where Jim and I lived from 2000-2004, when he retired and we began traveling extensively in our RV.

One of the places where we used to run was the trails along the Rims. I took these pictures while we were in town this time:

I also treated myself to a massage from one of our running buddies who is a superb massage therapist. I was tired from all the driving and sore from a nasty bike wreck in the desert several days before we left Arizona for this trip.

Kyle was very concerned about a golf-ball sized knot on my inner thigh. I've had these before from falls onto rocks while running or cycling and wasn't that concerned because they've always gone away. Kyle said I could very well have a blood clot in there that could dislodge and kill me, especially sitting for so many hours on our long drive.

That got our attention, of course, so we spent several hours that afternoon and evening getting evaluated. Jim was even more concerned when I mentioned that one of our neighbors at the RV park at Yuma Proving Ground -- she was a retired Navy nurse -- had told me the same thing and I ignored it.


View from the Rims above Billings of snow-capped
Beartooth Mtn. Range in the background (highlighted)

We went to at an urgent care center first, where a D-Dimer blood test was given to determine whether I had elevated levels of an enzyme that is produced by the body to break up blood clots. Since the results were borderline, the MD recommended I get an ultrasound at the Billings Clinic emergency room (by then it was after hours for the ultrasound department at the urgent care center).

Fortunately, the ultrasound showed no clots, just a contusion that would probably go away in time. [Almost two years later I still have a small bump there, but I'm not dead yet!] The doctor told me what signs to watch for in case a clot did develop at the site.

We were sorry we lost time visiting with relatives we hadn't seen in a while but at least we didn't have to worry about me having a stroke or dying anytime soon.

Continued on the next page: the final three days (funeral + driving back to Arizona)

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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