Sunday, 29 June 2014

Bryce Canyon National Park

Leaving Cedar City on Utah 14, the road immediately began to climb again. The gentle slope quickly became steeper, and less than five miles out of the town, we were crawling upwards at 20 mph. We had the rare pleasure of overtaking a truck on the steep road, albeit an old one pulling a trailer full of heavy aggregate.

Unlike many other states that we’ve visited, Utah seems to be almost entirely covered in Public Land. You can pull of the highway almost anywhere and find a beautiful landscape in which to walk, drive around or camp, with few fences or gates to restrict movement. Even areas not nominally called National Forests, Parks or Monuments are usually owned by a public body such as the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service, and have free public access. It is extremely rare that we see a Private Property – No Trespassing sign in Utah, and so a few miles into the forested mountains flanking Utah 14, we pulled over went for a walk. We walked up a badly deteriorated dirt road through the pine forest, finding rivers and lakes along the way, and in our two hours in the wilderness the only other people we saw were a group of three guys out riding their dirt bikes together.

Back on the highway we continued east, until we reached the turnoff for the 148, a road which passes through the Cedar Breaks National Monument. At over 10,000 feet above sea level, Cedar Breaks is noticeably cooler than the surrounding area, and we stopped to take a walk along the rim of the magnificent red rock amphitheatre in the heart of the park.

Not feeling up to a steep hike below the rim, we continued on our way, eventually joining Utah 12, headed west towards Bryce Canyon National Park. By the time we arrived near Bryce it was late in the day, and not wishing to waste our money on a campground in the park, we drove into the adjacent Dixie National Forest on East Fork Road, looking for a place to spend the night. On our map, we found an unnamed forest road which branched off East Fork Road and appeared to lead directly into the National Park, near to Bryce Canyon Lodge.

East Fork Road is a wide, well graded and well maintained gravel road. The road which we came off onto, headed east towards Bryce, was significantly less convenient. It was narrower and rockier than we would normally choose to drive down, but the convenience of having a free, forested camping spot, just outside the park, was too appealing to resist. We found a place to park, sheltered amongst the trees and with a well-used fire pit nearby. In the morning we drove further down the four mile road towards Bryce; thankfully the road did not deteriorate, and we reached the park boundary safely and in good time. Unfortunately, what our map, and the sign posts failed to mention was that there was a locked gate at the end of the road. We could see the Bryce Canyon National Park Road from the gate which we were stopped at, but with no bolt croppers to hand, we turned around, and drove the 25 miles back to the park entrance, going the long way round.

Zion National Park

Since leaving Phoenix, we had ascended over two kilometres in altitude, but on leaving the Grand Canyon, it was our turn to descend again, losing a kilometre over the short drive to Zion National Park. We stocked up with supplies at Kanab, before entering Zion at the east entrance. At the Grand Canyon we’d bought an annual parks pass, entitling us to free entry to all national parks and monuments. The pass gave us free entry to Zion, but being too wide and too tall to pass through the Mount Carmel tunnel at the same time as oncoming traffic we were forced to pay $15 for the privilege of having a ranger temporarily halt traffic coming from the other direction.

There are few trailheads or parking spaces on the east side of the park, and so we drove west from the entrance gate, passing through both tunnels. A lot of fuss is made in the promotional material for Zion about the astonishing engineering feet in constructing the tunnel, and the unique experience of driving through such a tunnel. For anyone who has driven through the Alps, the tunnels in Zion are a major let down. The Mont Blanc tunnel, through the French Alps, is more than eight times longer than the longer of the two in Zion, and the tunnels around Lake Garda in northern Italy are certainly more than eight times more scenic (scientifically proven). Nevertheless, the scenery along the Zion Mount Carmel Highway is breathtaking, and while one can see the Grand Canyon approaching from several miles away, the dramatic canyons of Zion appear out of nowhere.

Stopping at a scenic view point, we met a guy from Colorado who was canyoneering with his two children. He who was generous enough to offer us his paid-for campsite for the night, and so we drove to the Watchman Campground where we spent the night. The Watchman Campground is booked by advance reservation only, and like the Grand Canyon, gets booked up several ahead. In the morning we moved to a shady riverside spot at the first-come-first-served South Campground; a system better suited to people like us don’t know where we’ll be in 10 minutes time and can’t book a campsite months in advance.

Grand Canyon and the Kaibab National Forest

Flagstaff is less than 80 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but in a bid to avoid the summer crowds we decided to instead head to the North Rim, over 200 miles away. We had always planned to visit the multitude of national parks in southern Utah, and our route towards Zion Canyon took us close to the North Rim regardless. As we left Flagstaff, the scenery changed from green pine forest to a sparse desert landscape as we passed through the vast, and largely empty Navajo Indian Reservation. As we crossed the Colorado River, we got our first glimpses of the canyon, cutting a deep swathe through the flat desert plain. Heading west, the scenery began to look more like I’d expected, and we stopped at the site of a historic cave dwelling to admire the first views of the red rock canyon walls.

Advanced planning is not our forte, and 30 miles from the North Rim entrance station we stopped at the Jacob Lake Inn to make a call from the payphone to the North Rim campground to see if we could book a space for a few days. Predictably there was no availability for several weeks and so we drove south into the Kaibab National Forest, hoping to find somewhere to park for the night before visiting the canyon in the morning. It quickly became obvious that our poor preparation had been a blessing.

The Kaibab forest is covered in a vast web of dirt roads that reach every corner. I presume that the roads were constructed for logging and fire prevention us, but for people like us in a self-contained motorhome, one could easily spend a year camping in the beautiful pine an aspen forest without ever staying at the same site. Dispersed camping is permitted throughout the forest, and we easily found a site less than 20 miles from the Grand Canyon entrance, with astonishing views of the Saddle Mountain Wilderness area of the canyon. We spent the night in far more beautiful surroundings than the North Rim Campground, in complete solitude, and costing us nothing.

Distracting the Overland Journal Team

On leaving Scottsdale, we got on the I17 headed north to Prescott, and immediately started gaining altitude. Jim is always slow when going uphill, but on a particularly steep section of the interstate, I felt a sudden loss of power and Jim began to have trouble maintaining his normal speed. Of the 230hp, 280hp, and 330hp options available when Jim was purchased, Brinks skimped and opted for the lowest horsepower model. This combined with the 14 tonnes of weight we are usually lugging around, means that we are often down to 30mph or less when climbing steep grades. Nevertheless, I could tell that something wasn’t right, and before long an MR (engine fault) light appeared on the dash, warning of reduced engine power.

We trudged onwards and upwards, until we reached our exit from the interstate, and I found a place on the 69 where we could safely pull over and find out what the problem was. Thinking that the diagnostic computer I’d bought with us would offer the quickest diagnosis, I opened the boot and got out the case with the laptop, multiplexer and assorted cables. On my way back round to the cab, I had a quick glance under the chassis, and immediately spotted the cause of the problem. The air intake hose which I had replaced in Oaxaca, had split and become detached, all but blocking the intake to the air filter housing. It was a miracle that the truck had continued to run at all, and we were lucky that the engine didn’t stall when the hose became detached. I removed the offending hose again, and on starting the truck, full power was restored, and the MR fault light didn’t reappear. We continued towards Prescott, once again sucking air from directly behind the driver’s side wheel arch.

Arriving in Prescott, we stopped to do some shopping and immediately noticed the fall in temperature. The climb in altitude had finally succeeded where the drive north had failed, and the temperature was at least 10 degrees cooler than what we had left behind in Phoenix. We had decided to make a stop at Prescott, not for the town, but to visit the Overland Journal headquarters locate there. Overland Journal is an awesome publication, issued four times per year and filled with great writing directed at adventurers, overlanders and expedition travellers. Despite us not warning them that we’d be visiting, the team made us feel welcome and at home, and we spent the evening in a Prescott brew pub with some of their staff. We spent a night camped in their car park, and spent more time than we should have distracting them from their work and abusing their hospitality. I am unashamedly jealous of the team at Overland Journal; there can’t be many people on this planet who make a living from undertaking exciting overland trips and writing about their adventures. 

A Scenic Drive to Phoenix

The quickest way from Tucson to Phoenix, where we were headed, is on the I10 interstate. Thankfully we were given a recommendation on the Expedition Portal Forum to follow a more scenic route north, avoiding a boring trudge across the state. We left Tucson on the 77, headed towards globe. We stopped on the way to visit the Biosphere 2 scientific research centre, and at Globe, we joined the 188 and drove into the Tonto National Forest. I had always assumed that the south of Arizona was a landscape of flat, rocky desert, interspersed with giant Saguaro cacti, but it was clear on joining the 188 that the rugged mountainous terrain that I’d not expected to find until nearer the border with Utah, was to be found much further south.

A visit to Biosphere 2 on our overland journey through the US

Unlike many national forests, Tonto does not offer a camping free for all. The official name for boondocking on public land seems to be ‘dispersed camping’, and it was clear from the many signs we saw that it was banned in much of the forest. Far from finding a multitude of little used logging and forestry roads leading into a wilderness, Tonto National Forest is based more around organised campsites, and many of the roads leading off of the highway lead to expensive resorts with marinas and hotels. We stopped for the night at Theodore Roosevelt Lake, driving down the only road we could find without a hotel or resort on it. At the end of the road was a campsite, with a notice that camping permits could be bought several miles back on the main road. With no honesty box at the gate, we chanced our luck at the deserted campsite, and spent a (free) night camping by the lake.
Naomi and Boris stand dwarfed by a saguaro cactus near Roosevelt Lake, AZ

Sunset over Roosevelt Lake AZ

The next day, following the recommended route posted on Expedition Portal, we joined the 88, a gravel road that heads west past Apache Lake and Canyon Lake towards Phoenix. The road starts well, passing a beautiful dam, and continues to impress until the tarmac starts again 30 miles later at the town of Tortilla Flat. The road passes through some astonishingly beautiful terrain, and ranks as one of the most beautiful roads that we have driven down on this trip. The gravel road is well graded, but it had some pretty bad corrugations when we drove down, and there where sections where the dashboard was shaking several inches back and forth even at a road speed of only 15mph. The narrow switchbacks, overhanging rocks, and steep grades around Fish Creek would make it slow going in anything much bigger than Jim.

Roosevelt Dam, AZ before hitting the Apache Trail in our heavy overland truck

Tortilla Flat, AZ at the west end of the Apache trail

Friday, 20 June 2014

A Beer or Three in Tucson

We arrived in Tucson in the early afternoon and used our finely honed sense for finding decent places to free park on our map. Our first priority when looking for a place to park in a city is finding a park or green space marked on our map. A park not only gives us a place to walk Boris, but it also has the double advantage that it often gives us some shade from roadside trees. In addition, nobody cares if we park outside a park; if we park outside someone’s house or business, there’s a good chance that we’ll piss them off. Parking in the car park of a municipal park can be risky business, as most have bylaws preventing camping and overnight parking, and there is always a chance that a policeman or warden will move us on. Parking alongside a park has always worked well for us. Once we’ve located a few parks we choose one which is close enough for us to walk into the town centre, but not so central that we’ll make a nuisance or spectacle of ourselves. If there is still a choice of appropriate parks, independent coffee shops and bike shops usually indicate that an area is amenable.
We quickly found a quiet and central place to park in Tucson, but the dry climate and poor soil means that shade trees are in short supply and so we had to settle for a spot in the sun.

The cloud cover had increased as we’d driven towards and over the border, and the temperature was barely 30°C by the time arrived in Tucson. Consequently shade was not a critical issue when we had more pressing issues at hand. With the truck parked we immediately went into the centre, in search of a beer emporium.

Mexican beer ranges from terrible to fairly good, but the problem for us is not the quality, but the limited choice; for 3 months we had been drinking the same few acceptable but uninspiring lagers. Whether you buy Modelo, Tecate, Pacifico, Sol, corona, dos equis or Indio, you are essentially getting the same thing, a low strength, low taste lager. Many of the Mexican beers are better than their American counterparts such as Miller or Coors but in general they are not up to European standards such as Kronenberg, Stella Artois, or Lowebrau. Mexico does produce two decent beers, namely Negra Modelo and Bohemia Obscura, but even these get boring after 3 months, and we only found them infrequently. Imported beers are expensive and hard to find in Mexico, and are usually limited to more uninspiring lagers such as Heineken or Budweiser. Finding decent stouts, porters, IPAs or dark ales is almost impossible.

After a ten minute walk into central Tucson we hit gold with World of Beer, where we ordered a triple hopped IPA and a 9% ABV Imperial Stout, both on tap. It’s easy to criticise American beer in the UK, where pretty much all we import are the watery domestic brands, but in many of the states that we’ve visited, the choice of awesome craft beers is better than you’d find at equivalent pubs, bars or off licences in England. With our thirst quenched we walked up 4th Avenue, unable to choose from the multitude of restaurants that were not serving tortilla based meals. We settled on Pizza and the rest of the day was spent in a joyous delirium or corn free food and strong, tasty beer.

In a thinly veiled effort to prevent US citizens stocking up on cheap and good quality food across the border, America has made it difficult to bring any fresh food back into the US from Mexico. Consequently, our second day on American soil was spent filling our fridge. As is the case across the US, we found nowhere to buy food except at a major supermarket chain, but thankfully one has a wide choice of independent liquor stores at which to buy wine and beer. We quickly found a store with a huge choice of local and national ales. Not only did we get a crate of beer, but we also made a friend and got given a shady place to park for the night. Unfortunately the clouds of the previous day had lulled us into a false sense of security, and with clear skies the temperature quickly rose above 40°C.

We moved the truck to the shady front yard of our friendly local liquor store manager, and waited for him to finish his shift and show us around central Tucson. That evening we were given a tour of central Tucson’s beer drinking establishments, and at last we were able to fill the pint glass shaped hole which had diminished our quality of life so drastically since leaving Texas in February. The following morning demanded a slow start, but with the thermometer at 44°C for much of the previous day, we were adamant that we should continue our crawl north in search of cooler weather.

A Long Drive North

There is plenty to see in the northern part of Mexico, in particular the undoubtedly impressive Copper Canyon, but for us the heat and humidity were becoming uncomfortable. After leaving San Blas we decided to abandon many of the waypoints that we had marked on our map, and the next few days were largely spent driving long distances in the direction of Nogales where we planned to cross back into the United States. Over the following five days we drove over 1000 miles, stopping only in Alamos for an afternoon of site seeing. For many travellers this is not a lot of driving, but for us it was undoubtedly the speediest travelling we had done since arriving in Georgia in December, and even at Jim’s speed limit of 55mph, drives of over 200 miles take up most of the day.

About 100 mile south of the Nogales crossing, we were subject to a 10 minute vehicle search by Mexican military. The search was cursory at best, and would only have found drugs or weapons (had we possessed any) if we’d forgotten to hide them. We surrendered our vehicle import hologram about five miles from the border, and we were soon out of Mexico and into no-man’s land. The queue of trucks at the Nogales crossing was huge, several days long I suspect; thankfully we drove straight passed the truck queue and joined the shorter private vehicles queue. The queue of cars seemed no more than an hour long in each lane, but we didn’t even have to endure this. We were ushered into the bus lane (which seems also to serve RVs) and spent about two minutes showing a US customs agent around our truck.

With the customs agent satisfied that the several thousand hiding places that he didn’t look in were not filled with cocaine, we were allowed into the adjacent building where we spent a further two minutes convincing the officer on duty to extend our stay in the US. The previous six month stay that we had been granted at Orlando airport in December had all but expired and we were nervous about whether our stay would be extended. We needn’t have worried as we were soon on our way with a further six months added to our B2 visas.

Enjoying the fine tarmac, clear road markings, and roadworthy vehicles, we rolled into Tucson, ready to slow our travelling pace down again.

Guadalajara to San Blas

In our Mexican camping book, the San Jose del Tajo Trailer Park in Guadalajara is listed as being in a pleasant in rural setting. Driving down the six lane highway out of the city from the perifico, it is difficult to imagine how this is true. As you pass Walmart and other superstores, you pull off the road at a flyover and it still seems impossible that the campsite is on anything other than the fringes of a shopping centre; but to our surprise and relief, our book was correct. Barely 300m from the highway, the campsite is in a leafy ranch setting, at the base of a green hillside. If it wasn’t for the occasional roar from a two-stroke truck engine, you’d find it difficult to believe that the metropolis was so close.

Most of the people staying at San Jose del Tajo are permanent or seasonal residents, living in trailers, RVs and permanent dwellings around the outskirts of the site. If it weren’t for these residents, we would have been one of only two passing travellers staying at the site, and it was a welcome change to have so many people to hang out with, after months of being the only people at the campsite’s we’d visited. We spent three days in Guadalajara, and much of our time was spent with the friendly and hospitable Mexican, Australian, American and Dutch people we met at the campsite.
Guadalajara is a grand and impressive city, with a wealth of cultural attractions. We spent a day walking around the city, eating at the particularly awesome three level market, visiting some of the colonial buildings, and soaking up some of the atmosphere only found in such a large city. We also spent a hilarious evening at the Arena Coliseo, watching Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling). If it hadn’t been for the 60 minute bus ride into town I’d have gladly spent another day in the city centre.

We left Guadalajara by continuing along Mex 15 towards the coast. We passed through Jalisco state’s primary Tequila manufacturing area, stopping at the Tres Mujeres distillery to take a tour and sample some of their premium Tequila. After a short day’s drive we stopped for the night on the shores of the beautiful lake at Santa Maria del Oro. The deep lake is in the crater of a long extinct volcano and I enjoyed a swim in the cool water as the sun set over the surround volcanic ridge.

The next day we dove to the coast at San Blas, a town in Nayarit state. San Blas is small and uninspiring, but the beach is nice, and there are a number of great seafood restaurants at which to spend the day drinking and eating. Both of our guide books had warned us, but it was still a shock to experience the mosquitos at San Blas. They were out all day at the campsite we stayed at, but particularly in the evening, the unusually large mosquitos became an unbearable plague. The size of the mosquitos meant that as they bit you, they felt more like a small bee sting, and the bites would leave a large lump that itched for several days. On our second morning in San Blas, I couldn’t wait to leave, for me this otherwise pleasant town had become almost insufferable.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Escaping the heat at 4,000m

After deciding to change our route and head inland from Acapulco, we had a few choices on where to point the steering wheel. The 95D from Acapulco goes straight into Mexico City, and we again considered the prospect of spending a few days in the giant metropolis. Again the complications of finding somewhere to camp, and the problems with getting to know such a huge city in just a few days, put us off the idea. The southern coastal areas in Mexico are now into the rainy season, and the heat and humidity are accompanied by regular bouts of heavy thunderstorms. We took the decision to change our route as an opportunity to escape the oppressive weather, and headed to the Nevado de Toluca volcano. The volcano is north, inland and upwards from Acapulco, all of which help to lower the temperature and delay the onset of the rains.

The toll road from Acapulco towards Mexico City was uninspiring, but it gave us the opportunity to gain considerable altitude and cover a decent distance without spending days weaving through switchbacks up mountain trails. As we left the 95D, we immediately started climbing on winding local roads, and by the time we reached the base of the volcano, the roads had become extremely steep, surrounded by pine forests. After leaving Camino La Puerta Sultepec near Raices, the tarmac ended and we drove 3.5km up a steep but well graded gravel road. Arriving late in the day, we reached an unmanned gate and we entered the road to the volcano without paying; we found a place to park near to the gate and were pleased to open the truck door to a blast of cold air. After the day’s drive from the coast to the volcano, we had climbed to 3,720m above sea level, and the temperature had fallen from above 30°C to below freezing. The change was a blessed relief and all of us enjoyed sleeping under a duvet, without the sweating and discomfort that comes with the tropics during the rainy season.

The following morning we continued our drive up the slope, following a beautiful but poorly maintained dirt road towards the crater of the volcano. We stopped to pick up a hiker who had bravely attempted the ascent on foot, and after 11km, we found a locked gate within site of the summit. We parked the truck and continued the climb on foot. The road continues a further 6km, ending up inside the crater itself, but at 11km, there is a gate, kept locked most of the time.

The walk to the summit is short, and significantly easier than the path that we attempted to the summit of La Malinche to the east, but at over 4,200m even an easy path seems like hard work for someone more used to breathing the thick, luscious air found at sea level. Nevado de Toluca is a tall peak by almost any benchmark, and it is fairly remarkable that visitors are able to drive so close to the summit. For anyone not willing or able to climb such a peak, it is a rare opportunity to experience such an altitude. I’ve no doubt that the ranger manning the top gate would be willing to open the final section of road to enable a vehicle carrying someone with a physical impairment to reach the summit.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Oaxaca and Guerrero Coast

We’d been recommended Ziplolite by some friends in London, but after a few travellers that we’d spoken to had said that it was nothing special, we stopped there not expecting an awful lot and pretty much got what we expected. The coast at Zipolite looks just like hundreds of miles of the Mexican Pacific coastline, and offers little that you can’t get elsewhere. If Zipolite offered something else to entice visitors I could understand its popularity, but the sea is usually too dangerous to swim in (strong undertow and rip-tide), and the development that backs the beach is largely run down and hurricane damaged. If you want somewhere quiet to get stoned and eat pizza, Zipolite is great, but entertainment is limited to what you bring with you.

There is a campsite in town, but it had little shade, and knowing that the tap water at campsites by the sea is usually too saline to drink from, we offered to free camp and save some money. There was a fair a choice of places to park, it strikes me as the kind of laid back place where nobody would bother you wherever you choose, but we parked on an undeveloped plot next to a hotel and fronting the beach. It was nice to be so close to the sea, but the waves is Zipolite were huge when we were there, and anyone who doesn’t sleep like they’re in a coma will find the noise of the sea keeps them awake unless they move further back from the waterfront than we did.

Knowing that we had thousands of miles of beaches ahead of us, we stayed only one day before we got onto Mex 200 and headed to Puerto Escondido. We could have headed west on the local road, and stayed a night in Mazunte, but the urge to make some progress after several days of short drives meant that we chose to get on the highway to cover some miles.