THE PRONGHORN 3500
By Paul Strubell of Dirt Orcas – 4/26/19
The Pronghorn 3500 is the name we gave our recent road trip. Here is the trip report from our thirteen day adventure in April of 2019. We traveled to seven states, to visit seven National Parks, ten National Forests, many other monuments and cool towns along the way.
We camped for five nights, stayed in two Park lodges, four hotel rooms and one tiny cabin. We had booked some of our campsites and hotels in advance but some nights had to hope for the best on campground availability or weather conditions.
Below you will find a more thorough reporting of each days locations and travel distances. I have also included some pricing information and insights if you might be looking to recreate this type of trip yourself.
Daily Mileage and Destinations:
Day 1 – Fairfield IA to Junction City, KS – 371 miles – Stayed at a hotel ($49)
Day 2 – Junction City to Great Sand Dunes National Park – 590 miles – Stayed at an unheated cabin operated by Great Sand Dunes Lodge ($54)
Day 3 – Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde National Park – 202 miles – Far View Lodge inside the Park ($104)
Day 4 – Mesa Verde to Monument Valley – 128 miles – We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Kayenta ($140)
Day 5 – Kayenta to Grand Canyon National Park – 154 miles – Camped at Desert View Campground ($12/night)
Day 6 – Desert View Campground in Grand Canyon again
Day 7 – Grand Canyon to Kanab, UT – 210 miles – We stayed at the Super 8 in Kanab ($70)
Day 8 – Kanab to Zion National Park – 85 miles (Typically only 30 miles but roads were closed) – Camped at South Campground ($20)
Day 9 – Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park – 73 Miles – We camped at Ruby’s campground near the Park ($47 w/showers and firewood)
Day 10 – Bryce to Moab/Arches National Park – 259 miles (took the scenic route by Capitol Reef) – Super 8 in Moab, UT ($168)
Day 11 – Moab to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – 162 miles – Black Canyon Lodge in Montrose, CO ($54)
Day 12 – Montrose to Kearney, NE – 616 miles – Stayed at the Motel 6 ($49)
Day 13 – Kearney to Fairfield, IA – 430 miles – Home Sweet Home
Fuel was an average of $2.97/gal on the trip. We drove about 3500 miles. The 4Runner did nearly 20/MPG for the trip. = $520 in fuel cost
$779 was spent on cabins, campgrounds, and lodging. Most of the hotels included a free breakfast as well. We purchased a National Parks Annual Pass for $80 that paid for itself rather quickly, but we also spent about $65 on souvenirs and stuffed animals at the park stores. We also spent about $25 on firewood at some of the campgrounds and ice for the cooler.
Food budget was about what we would spend at home so no real additional cost to the trip there.
In total we spent about $1500 or $115/day on the trip.
On Thursday April 11th, we picked Bella up from school and headed out. Driving west through Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas. Theresa was scouting the potential stopping points and hotels as I drove. Around 10pm we pulled into our hotel and got a good nights rest. Up early for breakfast and back on the road, we soon crossed the boarder into Colorado. Once there we had out first sighting of the pronghorn dancing along the roadside. Anyone from the Midwest has had the experience of making the long pilgrimage across the plain states to Colorado. Once you start to see the pronghorn you know you are getting close to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
We arrived at Great Sand Dunes National Park around 6pm. We first took a quick drive around the park to see the campgrounds and then made our way out to the dunes and explored for a while. Crossing the tiny river as you leave the parking lot, you have no choice but to get your shoes a little wet. Entering the sand hills, we walked the dunes for about an hour as the sun set behind them. They are far more extensive than you can gather from a photograph. We had planned on camping here, but checking the weather as we drove in, we opted to purchase a small cabin just outside the park. It was unheated, but I pulled out our Mr Heater Buddy unit and it kept us nice and comfortable that night, even as the temps plunged to 25 outside.
In morning we opted to take a quick hike up into the mountains on the East side of the park before driving to Mesa Verde. It was a chilly but scenic trail. The drive to Mesa Verde was a pleasant one. We arrived there and stopped by the visitors center to get the lay of the land. We were instructed to spend the day doing the driving tours to many of the parks overlooks and to get out tickets for the up close / ranger lead tours the following morning, which would be the first day of 2019 that they would be running tours at Mesa Verde.
So that is exactly what we did. We drove the main road deep into the park and checked into our lodge. A nice room with a great view of the park. We drove to as many of the overlooks and ancient encampments as we could and then circled back for our most lavish dinner of the trip at the Parks swanky restaurant, The Metate Room.
In the morning we were up really early to get over to the Park Museum to purchase our tickets for the tour. We got the last 3 available for the 9am tour and then made our way over the location where the tour would begin. Our Park ranger Kim was excellent and ran a very informative walk and talk as our group of 50 explored the historic Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde. The steep canyon walls and wooden ladders gave Theresa a few fits but we all mostly enjoyed the experience learning about the archaeology of this unique place.
After the Cliff Palace tour we packed back into the car and made our way south towards Monument Valley. You’ll likely remember this place because it’s where Forrest Gump decided to stop running. It is land owned by the Navajo people. We entered the reservation and took the 17 mile loop trail that winds and twists over red dirt and under the rock monolithic towers. We saw all kinds of vehicles out there, so it wasn’t hard core, but it was also our first bit of off-road travel on the trip. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
On our way out of the trail, we met up with our internet friends and now real life friends, Ernesto and Taisa of @OverlandtheAmericas. (read my interview with them here). They have been Overlanding the America’s for four years now. Exploring many of the countries in Central and South America in great depth. After four years on the road they are making their way back to Seattle. We had been hoping to meet up with them at some point along this trip. They joined us for dinner in Kayenta at the Hampton Inn restaurant. After a nice meal and getting to see their world travelling 4runner build, we headed back to the room to catch the season premiere of Game of Thrones.
We had opted to stay in this particular hotel so that we would be close to Grand Canyon National Parks’ Desert View Campground. The sites are first come first serve and typically fill up by noon, so we wanted to make sure we grabbed one. We were on the road early and made a plan with Ernesto and Taisa that they would be along later in the day to camp with us for a few nights.
Things worked out well and I grabbed a site around 9:30am. All 55 sites were taken by 10:45am. We spoke with the campground host about a short hike we may be able to take that afternoon and he gave us a great recommendation. We cooked some lunch and then hiked to an overlook where you could see ten miles of the Colorado River running through the canyon. I was told this is the longest stretch of river you can see from any one spot.
A word about the Grand Canyon. It’s fucking incredible. It is so big that your senses can’t quite deal with it. It’s a mile deep. A mile. Each level of canyon wall is larger than most epic canyons in the world and there are four to five levels down each sidewall. You catch a glimpse of a bird flying and for a second you get a brief taste of the size, but then your brain goes right back to viewing it in total and you loose the perspective. I was stunned by the Grand Canyon. With so much hype driving traffic to Parks like Joshua Tree and Zion these days, I feel like people on social media might be mistaking the ability to capture a place well on a camera phone with the a real spectacle of nature. Not to take anything away from any other Parks, but they are no comparison to the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon. I think its immensity is actually preventing it from getting the love it deserves on the 2×2″ screen when competing for your “likes”. You can’t capture The Grand Canyon with a camera the way you can a shady slot canyon. Maybe that is a good thing? Keeps some of its majesty in tact.
Ernesto and Taisa arrived later that afternoon and we took them out to the overlook we had previously hiked. Bella really wanted to show them a tree she liked. We made dinner and sat by the fire talking about their travels. The next morning we all drove around the Rim Road, stopping at overlooks and doing some short hikes. We saw a few Elk in the underbrush and a beautiful coyote along the roadside. We also took the time to explore the Visitors Center and get Bella sworn in as a Jr. Ranger of the Grand Canyon. We had a nice lunch at the Park Lodge and then just beat the rain back to our campground that afternoon. Ernesto pulled Sooty up to the edge of the campsite and deployed his ARB Awning. We sat and talked there, protected from the rain as a cloud swept through the entire campground. The rain broke just long enough for everybody to cook up some dinner and crawl into our tents without getting wet.
The following day we said our goodbyes to Ernesto and Taisa (which was hard because they are really great people) and made our way to Kanab, UT for a planned maintenance day. We needed to hit a grocery store to restock the cooler and do some laundry. We had a nice dinner at a western style place. With Theresa being pregnant, she has been in the mood for a lot of steaks and burgers lately. Who am I to argue with that?
We had a campsite booked at Zion National Park’s South Campground the following day. Typically it is only about a thirty minute drive from Kanab to Zion, but the Parks East Entrance was closed for construction. We ended up having to go towards Hurricane, UT and enter the park from the West, which took about an hour and a half. The fact that our site was already booked made this not such a big deal.
Arriving at Zion was a bit of a zoo. They are very short on parking due to its recent uptick in popularity and there was a lot of construction happening near the Visitors Center. We made lunch at our campsite and then walked to Visitors Center to speak with a Ranger about which hike we should attempt with a six year old that afternoon. The Ranger recommended The Watchman Trail and we set out straight away. The girls both really like the trail and Zion at large. The Virgin River flows right past the campground and both Bella and I made our way into its freezing waters at some point. We cooked dinner and relaxed under a brilliant full moon at it rose from behind the cliffs.
Originally, we had planned to spend the entire next day at Zion to do a big hike, but the shuttles were really backed up (2 hour wait) by 8am and the river water was very cold (especially for a 6 year old) and so we decided to get out of dodge ASAP. Id love to get back to Zion to hike the Narrows and/or Subway at some point, but the crowds and lack of autonomy due to the shuttle bus wait time were really a turnoff.
So we headed North to Bryce Canyon National Park in search of a campsite at the park. We entered the park about 10:30am only to find the campground was full. So we pulled out the phones and found a National Forest Campground about 30 minutes back the way we came. Surprisingly, I found very little information about primitive National Forest camping in the area. Many of the roads are built with guardrails and you can’t turn off them for many miles. We remembered seeing that the National Forest Campground was closed for renovations. So that left us with Ruby’s. Ruby’s is a hotel, cabin, tee pee, tour service, campground, RV park in one and it’s positioned just outside the main entrance to Bryce. We grabbed a campsite there and were pleased with the option. It was expensive, but they had very nice restrooms, showers, and firewood that we purchased from them as part of the site. $47 for all that wasn’t too bad considering the alternative was driving back about an hour to BLM or National Forest to Primitive camp.
We choose to hike the Fairyland Trail Loop and I think it was one of the best hikes we did on this trip. It’s challenging because of its length (8 miles) but also it’s a steep climb out once you enter the canyon. Beautiful and unique land-forms though make it all worth it.
Originally we had planned to spend much of the day at Zion and only a brief stop at Bryce on our way to BLM camp in the San Rafael Swell this night but because we decided to leave Zion early and camp at Bryce things were a bit off. After waking up at Bryce we made our way over to Moab where we planned to be there in short order coming from San Rafael to go directly to Canyonlands and drive the White Rim Trail. Because we were now much further away, we opted to scrap that plan and go to Arches to hike to Delicate Arch instead. This worked out really well. We all sat for awhile and enjoyed the area after the crowded hike in.
We grabbed an early dinner to try and avoid the massive Jeep crowds in town for the Annual Rally and headed back to the room to rest. At this point we had been pushing pretty hard. Hiking big trails once or even twice a day and logging several hours in the car each day to get to the next stop. Moab is a town of under 5000 people. The annual Jeep Rally brings nearly 90,000 people to the area for the week. Staying in the room to relax was perfectly fine.
In the morning we had a bit of a drive out of Utah and into Colorado to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We arrived by about 2pm and made the most of our time here. We drove the entire Park, stopped at the Visitor Center, and got out to see each overlook with ample time to take it in. The Dragon Point was truly special to me. The sun broke through the clouds and lit the river up like a green fire. It was breathtaking. The Black Canyon is only about 1500 feet deep. Roughly the size of the Empire State Building. Far easier to comprehend than the mile deep Grand Canyon. The park was also still technically “not open” for the season. So there were hardly any people there. Each overlook is basically your own. I wasn’t in a position to hike down to the river with the girls with me. Black Canyon is a difficult hike. However that didn’t stop me from testing out the trails. I hiked down about half a mile and then back out again to get some better angles for pictures and get a brief experience from what the trails are like to hike. The steep, unmarked trails are comprised of loose rocks and poison ivy. I loved it.
We grabbed a nice but inexpensive hotel in Montrose about 20 minutes from the Park entrance and slept with full hearts. This was our last stop on this tour before officially beginning the slog back across Nebraska and Iowa to our home.
It was a beautiful trip. We accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. It was a good mix of wilderness, adventure, and creature comforts. The right mix for my pregnant lady and her six year old Jr Ranger.