16 Days, 5 States, and 4 College Tours

This summer we decided to take a good old fashioned American road trip. Our intent was to visit a few towns that we’d heard encouraging things about, in addition we wanted to survey Glacier National Park, and in the mix visit some universities with our son who is a senior in high school this year. We had about two weeks at our disposal before my wife had to return to work and school started for my son. This may sound like a lot of time but our journey would lead us through 5 different states, cover about 3000 miles and require multiple days in several locations to have even a chance to spread out and enjoy ourselves in the process.

Our Proposed Itinerary –

  • Lassen Volcanic Park, CA
  • Boise, ID (Boise State)
  • Ketchum, ID (Sun Valley area)
  • Stanley/Salmon, ID (Salmon River, Lewis & Clark Trail)
  • Missoula, MT (University of Montana)
  • Glacier National Park (West Entrance)
  • Whitefish, MT
  • Spokane, WA (Gonzaga University)
  • Hood River, OR (Columbia River Gorge)
  • Corvallis, OR (Oregon State University)

So, the three of us packed up our bikes, hiking boots, a new paddle board we bought for the trip, and hitched up our travel trailer and set off. Of course every journey will have its challenges. As we rolled out, the areas we were intending to visit were experiencing what the meteorologists were calling a “heat dome”, where a once-in-a-century weather pattern had established itself causing temperatures to be unnaturally high from the upper 90’s and even exceeding 100 in several of the regions where we were headed.

Additionally, what is becoming a normal pattern for the western United States, summer fires were raging through northern California, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. In other words, we were headed for high heat, and lots of smoke! What follows is a brief journal of each of our stops along the way …

Friday (7/23): Butte Lake Campground, Lassen National Park, CA –

So, as the western United States were burning we headed out, leaving our peaceful home on the San Mateo county peninsula with the temperature in the mid 60’s, a light marine layer keeping the sun muted and the air cool and crisp. By the time we hit Interstate 5 the thermometer in the truck had surpassed 95. We also started to encounter smoke from a series of fires burning in both California (Dixie Fire) and Oregon. Entering Lassen National Park the smoke was thick and the sky raining little pieces of ash.

Today, we had planned to do some paddle boarding on the lake, hike the cinder cone trail and then cook a nice dinner with our friend who had met us from Sacramento. Instead, the lake was eerily low and the smoke was too thick to paddle or hike, so, by necessity, we decided to slow down and hang out under the canopy on our trailer and drink some wine, eat a mix of finger food and catch up on lost time with a good friend. This turned out  to be just what the doctor ordered for our first day on the road.

As the night progressed and temperatures cooled enough the oppressive smoke seemed to lift giving us a bit of a reprieve for a good night of sleep. This cool air also opened up a window of opportunity in the morning to get that hike in to the top of the Cinder Cone before breaking down camp and hitting the road.

Hiking the Cinder Cone in Lassen National Park
Hiking the Cinder Cone, Lassen National Park, CA

A few comments on the campground… Butte Lake Campground

Saturday (7/24): Boondocking at a Rest Stop outside of Burns, OR

Day two of our trip was intended to get us as close to Boise, Idaho as possible without forcing a grueling drive or arriving at night. The drive from Lassen to Boise can take somewhere between 10-12 hours, when pulling a trailer and making a few bathroom/fuel stops, and there are a lot of windy, and windy (that’s a heteronym), bumpy, two lane highways that need to be traveled to make it in that time. I can confirm that on this route (route 395 to 20) there is literally nothing between these two destinations besides a few beautiful farms, Burns, OR, and Vale, OR. I’ve always believed road-tripping is about the journey, the unwinding, the enjoyment of seeing new places and meeting new people and less so the schedule or destination. In that spirit, we decided to stop a couple hours outside of Boise and cook a good dinner and catch a night of sleep before arriving in the morning. Rather than unpack ourselves at a campground or RV park we simply pulled into a friendly rest stop for the night, ate, cleaned ourselves and slept. Yes, in some states, like Oregon, you can actually just pull over and stay for up to 12 hours in a rest stop. Check out this link for more information on the “rules” for Boondocking at rest stops

Long driving days, while road tripping can be the worst, especially late in the day when you’re hungry, grumpy from driving all day, and especially when you’ve just got word from your son’s girlfriend that your cat has an abscess that’s ruptured and she’ll need to take him into the vet. Well, after some emotional drama we all calmed down, cooked some dinner and got a good night’s sleep. Here’s a picture of my wife and son after eating, drinking a little wine, and winding down for a night of boondocking at Buchannan Spings Rest Area, outside of Burns, OR. As the sun set and the traffic died down it was just us and the cows who remained for the night.

Sunday (7/25): Boise, ID

Hottest real estate market in the country, heat dome overhead. It’s been too hot for too long says the guy at the gas station. We’re cooling off by the river along the green belt. If you visit, definitely walk or bike this path, it’s a great way to see the soul of this town. Later, mountain biking above the city near Bogus Basin following Sweet Connie down the hill. Finally rewarding ourselves with some local food and drink along the river, of course. A beautiful city filled with friendly people surrounded with hundreds of miles of high desert. In the morning, visiting Boise State with its strange blue field, orderly campus connected to downtown, and a college bound son taking it all in. 

Stayed the night at Riverside RV Park in Boise, “whew, you made it!” says their sign. Click to see review. Was nice to be so close to downtown Boise.

Monday (7/26): Sun Valley and Ketchum ID

Private jets carry in the wealthy to park their money and play here. For the rest of us natural beauty abounds in this valley surrounded by steep mountains that the Big Wood river snakes through and nourishes. Winter brings the skiers, snowshoers here as the mountains turn white and the river freezes, but not now. Campers in buses, vans, & tents are plentiful as are great hikes and bike rides. Thank you Mary W. Harriman for leading us through the local aspen, cottonwood and pine blanketed by grasses, and wildflowers arriving at hot springs and more trails to explore. A steep ascent up highway 75 leaves the valley in our rear view mirror moving towards Stanley and the Salmon river where angler, rafters, and cattlemen live.

Stayed the night at North Fork campground about 7-8 miles up the road from Ketchum. Our camp host, with the sweet school bus conversion including a bathtub inside, pictured below, says there’s a large moose that shows up at night, particularly if you’re playing cards and making a lot of noise; haven’t seen her yet:)

Tuesday (7/27): Salmon, ID

A curving, twisty, narrow road provides us an overhead tour of the Salmon river. My son driving, pulling the Airstream through the canyon with white knuckles and excitement. Civilization is minimal here, as are gas stations, markets, and people. There are few brave ranchers that use the river to feed their cattle. I imagine winters here are not for the faint of heart. Road signs seem limited to “Slow Down, Sharp Curve Ahead”, “Watch for Livestock on Road”, and “Historical Point of Interest”.

We don’t have far to go today, but with this road, you don’t make very good time, nor would you want to try. Finally, the sun is setting over the hills as the bugs and birds are dancing in a ritual of survival. We roll into our campsite just as the last hint of daylight disappears, nestled comfortably along the river where the heat of the days is quickly dissipating. Stayed the night at Wagon Hammer RV Park & Campground run by a very nice couple who manages the campground through the spring and summer months then hightails it to Baja California with their trailer where they live on the beach for the winter. Sounds like a good life to me.

Wednesday – Thursday (7/28-7/29): Missoula, MT

Love this little town that mixes college kids, earthy vegans, and ranchers, somehow it seems to work out for everyone here; maybe it’s the water, or beer. A natural blend of old and new buildings, people, and businesses make for an interesting walk through town. Stopped at “Ear Candy Music Store” and got lost in time perusing their vinyl collection like I used to as a kid; Im a sucker for towns with record stores. It’s hot here too, and as the day wears on, seems like everyone in town is floating down the river on something, either the Clark Fork, which runs through town, or the Bitter Root, which runs around town. Lots of water for sure as sprinklers are out on lawns and fields are being irrigated, either way it creates a lot of green. People seem happy, maybe because it’s summer, maybe it’s because life around here moves at a modest pace with purpose, or maybe it’s because of the abundance of outdoor activities that the area provides. Anyway, I would definitely like to come back and spend more time here if I get the chance.

We stayed at the Square Dance Center & Campground in Lolo and enjoyed it. No, we didn’t dance, nor did anyone make us feel like we needed to. This was a good basecamp for many outdoor adventures, including some good mountain biking, as well as being just 15-20 minutes from downtown Missoula and the rivers.

Friday – Sunday (7/30 – 8/1): Hungry Horse, MT (Glacier National Park)

There are only a few places in the world that are so grand and majestic that the brain has difficulties digesting and understanding just what you’re seeing; Glacier National Park is one of those places. Driving up the “Going-to-the- Sun” road takes you on a thrilling roller coaster over the continental divide where glaciers have created one of the most fascinating natural wonders that I have ever seen. Sheer rock walls that seep water and provide the perfect structures for waterfalls to live alongside dense forests that provide for an abundance of wildlife including bald eagles, grizzly bears, longhorn sheep, mountain goats, and mountain lions. I doubt there is a place in the United States, apart from Alaska, that is as detached from human touch than the outer regions of this place.

The next day in the area we spent in Whitefish, MT, about 20 minutes from the park, with our son testing his downhill mountain biking skills at the local ski resort, as we hang out at the city beach on the lake and do a little paddle boarding. My son calls and requests a pick up and reports a couple of broken spokes but no broken bones, so we pick him up and stop on the way down at the Bonzai Beer Garden (https://bonsaibrew.com/) to cool down with some IPA’s while listening to some quality funk playing in the background. This area is certainly beautiful too, but more in a family vacation destination rather than a “wonder of world” way. On the way back to our campsite the skies open and, in a fury, a much needed rain hits the area. We quickly navigate to North Fork Pizzeria (http://www.northforkpizza.com) in Columbia Falls for some dinner and a drink as the storm wears itself out.

As a basecamp, we stayed at a “Hipcamp” site in Hungry Horse, MT. It was a very convenient location to access the park, as well as Columbia Falls, and Whitefish.

Monday (8/2): Spokane, WA

After a beautiful, meandering 5 hour drive from GNP though Montana, Idaho, and ultimately Washington we arrived in Spokane, WA. What I’m sure is normally a beautiful city that embraces the Columbia river and highlights the Spokane Falls, today was filled with toxic smoke from multiple forest fires burning in the area and plagued by unrelenting heat (100 deg F). Our plan was to spend a couple of days here by the river, however, we quickly decided to abbreviate our stay and head southwest towards Portland and the Columbia Gorge, where temperatures appear to be more tolerable and air quality breathable. Before leaving town, we participated in a tour of Gonzaga University with my son; it too seemed underwhelming likely due to the backdrop of heavy smoke and heat. Two more quick stops, including one at a helpful bike shop (https://www.thebikehub.com/) to fix the broken wheel, and another at a tasty restaurant to grab a bite to eat (babaspokane.com). We spent one short night at Riverside State Park.

Tuesday (8/3): Near Stevenson, WA & Hood River, OR

Another long drive today, trying to escape the heat and smoke around Spokane, about 6 hours along interstate 90 to 395 southwest towards The Dalles, OR. Now I haven’t spent a lot of time in Eastern Washington, but I can tell you without hesitation that there is literally nothing between Spokane and The Dalles, OR. Luckily, we found a great place to pull in for the night on the Washington side of the river named Timberlake Campground & RV Park. The road to get to this place is the most fun I’ve had all day, first crossing an old metal bridge that crosses the river, then meandering along the river through several old tunnels in the hillside, and finally up a twisty, forested road to this hidden gem of a campground. We meet “Harold” the camp host upon our arrival and talk mountain biking, then settle in for a home cooked meal and quickly doze off to sleep afterwards. We spent the night at Timber Lake Campground & RV Park and wish we could have spent more time there.

Wednesday – Thursday (8/4-8/5): Columbia Gorge between Portland & Hood River, OR

What river is big, extremely wide and long, and is the 4th largest in the United States? It’s the Columbia River and it’s followed us here too as an unescapable back drop carving itself through the canyon. This is the land of bridges and dams, and we cross the “Bridge of the Gods” with the trailer in tow and let me tell you, it was tight 🙂 The wind always seems to be blowing here across the wide river where wind surfers and barges compete for their share of the water. Between the town of Hood River and Troutdale, streams entering the river have carved out deep gorges and steep waterfalls that are fun to hike up to and around; the mother of all these is named the Multnomah Falls; chances are you’ve seen pictures of this one. 

While here, my son also finds some more great mountain biking in the area just up a road named “Post Canyon” road in the town of Hood River, which keeps him busy two mornings in a row. Not surprisingly, my wife finds a fun little winery (Cathedral Ridge), where we do a quick tasting of wine from the region. As we rise from sleep, on the last morning of our stay, rain is falling and the clouds settle into the area, as I suspect is more usual than not based on the local flora. We spent two nights at Ainsworth State Park and slept well among the large trees and water.

Friday (8/6): Albany/Corvallis, OR

We’re spending the night with our trailer parked on a small blueberry farm (Terra Fluvia), that Hipcamp has lead us to, on the Willamette river, not far from Corvallis. $10/day all you can pick. We pick about 5 pounds of berries, which is about all I think we’ll need for a while. Once again, my wife finds a nice little winery (Emerson Vineyards), which specializes in Pinot Noir. We taste and talk to the guy working behind the counter, it’s just three of us and him this afternoon. He’s attending Oregon State in the fall, and wants to someday become a winemaker himself. Ironically, later in the day, we take a guided tour of Oregon State University with our son, home of the “Beavers”. We come away impressed by the campus, which is clean and beautiful, My wife wants to buy a bedazzled shirt that says “Beaver” across the front of it, I tell her that I think out of context, this shirt might not go over that well; she begrudgingly agrees. After the campus tour, we spend a little time exploring the town, including a dinner atop a rooftop overlooking the hills, very nice day! On the way out of town we stop at the local farmers market in Albany, OR, grab some yummy baked goods and coffee for the road. Google Maps says we’re looking at 600 miles of road between here and home!

5 thoughts on “16 Days, 5 States, and 4 College Tours

  1. Wonderful journal Todd! The pictures are beyond beautiful. Looks like you saw some of the most incredible areas of the USA!

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  2. Great blogpost Todd! Besides music, you have a future as a feature writer for outside magazine! Great photos & vivid descriptions- i wasthere!

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    1. Thanks Dan. Definitely is a step up from the old tent trailer. A little small for three of us on a long trip like this but will be perfect for Nancy and I once Ethan is away at school in another year 😉

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