Author Archives: mbnorthrup

Campground Review: Carlsbad KOA, Carlsbad NM

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Campground Review Summary

  • Name: Carlsbad KOA
  • Dates of stay: 10/31 – 11/5, 2020
  • Location: 2 Manthei Road, Carlsbad, NM 88220
  • Type of campground: Private / KOA
  • Cost: $49.27/night (ValuKard discount)
  • Additional fees: none
  • Stay limit: none
  • Accepts mail / packages: did not ask
  • Cell reception: ATT good
  • Website: https://koa.com/campgrounds/carlsbad/
  • Pros: level FHU sites, reasonably near the Caverns
  • Cons: none

Full Review

Although there are several campgrounds closer to the National Park than this one, we thought the Carlsbad KOA was the nicest of the lot.  This KOA offers the usual RV sites and cabins, along with a number of amenities. While the other campgrounds appeared to be little more than gravel parking lots, this KOA has trees and nice landscaping. The layout was good for big rigs, with wide and solid interior gravel roads and sites.

Our gravel pull-through site was hard-packed and perfectly level. It was fully long enough for bus and vehicles, and included a picnic table, fire ring and full hook ups (50 amp electric) including a very decent cable TV hookup. We couldn’t get many over the air channels way out there, but between the cable TV and our satellite Direct TV, we had all the channels we needed. We were escorted to our site by staff, which is typical for KOA. They did not provide daily trash pick up, but the dumpsters weren’t far away.

One note about the water:  I found it to be extremely hard with a very high mineral content. It was hard to create suds in the shower, the water was so hard. I didn’t like the taste (and it didn’t altogether agree with me), so I ended up drinking bottled water for the most part. YMMV

In these COVID days, the pool was closed/drained and gas community fire pit was turned off. The main men’s bathhouse was being renovated during our stay, but the central bath house was open, which provided several individual bathroom units. The main women’s bath house facility was open and functioned fine, but was a little tired looking. Perhaps that will be next on the list for renovation during the off-season. The playground, horseshoe pits and basketball court were accessible, but I didn’t see anyone playing at them. (The campground was only lightly occupied during our stay, even during the weekends.) There is also a dog run area. 

The campground smokes BBQ on site to supply their small restaurant. Due to COVID, the dine-in area was not available, but they would deliver full BBQ dinners right to your door. During our short stay, we didn’t take advantage of this option, but other reviewers rave about the food. We were too busy stuffing our face with New Mexico food from a delightful food truck (El Charro) in Carlsbad to go anywhere else!

The KOA is located about 20 minutes north of Carlsbad, and about a half hour from the entrance to Carlsbad Cavern National Park. Shopping and dining options can be found in Carlsbad. After my ValueCard discount and cashing in some points, our cost was a moderate $49/night.

Bottom Line: Great choice near Carlsbad Cavern National Park.

Aliens and mountains

No visit to the Carlsbad area is complete without a visit to Roswell, home of the most famous UFO crash site. So one fine day, we mounted the motorcycle and rode north to see the aliens! It was election day, so somehow that seemed appropriate …..

Roswell is also home to the international UFO museum. The museum described the events of the 1947 incident in great detail through first person accounts and affidavits. Allegedly, all of the physical evidence was taken by the military (soon after, Area 51 was formed) and eyewitnesses were threatened to stay silent about what they had witnessed. The eyewitnesses seemed pretty credible to me! The truth is out there …..

The museum isn’t very large — essentially just one big room. It only took us about an hour to peruse the exhibits and take a few alien pics. After fortifying ourselves with a hot beverage and snack at the local Stellar Coffee, we continued on our motorcycle loop.

Our ride took us from desert floor upward into the nearby mountains. As we increased elevation, we entered pine forests and passed small lakes. We even saw snow, melting along the hillsides. We soon arrived at the town of Ruidoso, home to several casinos. We popped into one, just for fun. I tossed $20 into a couple of slot machines and won a quick $1.50. Woo-hoo, winner winner chicken dinner!! However, on the whole, casinos just aren’t that much fun in these COVID days. With many restrictions and social distancing, it just isn’t the same experience.

Back on the bike, we headed down the mountain almost reaching the town of Alamagordo, then turned left, back up the mountain to the tiny hamlet of Cloudcroft. Perched at 8700 feet, it was 20 degrees cooler here than at the desert valley floor. We stopped at a small local pub and tucked into a tasty burger and beer, while perusing the unusual wallpaper. (The pub’s TV channel was tuned to early election results — couldn’t get entirely away from it!)

After our late lunch, we climbed aboard for the nearly 2 hour ride back to our campground, arriving just as the sun set. It was quite an epic ride for us, about 270 miles. But it was an absolutely beautiful journey through desert, mountains, forest …. and aliens!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park has been on our bucket list right from the beginning of our RV adventure. We wanted to hit it on our first loop West, but it was just too far out of our way. So, we routed specifically there as we head out West for the second time.

Carlsbad Caverns did not disappoint. We visited Mammoth Cave National Park last year, and loved it. But, Carlsbad was even more impressive. Mammoth Cave is a huge interconnected network of enormous caverns, with a limited area of cave formations. Carlsbad offers the largest underground chamber in North America, and it is literally covered with formations — stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, soda straws, popcorn, etc.

In this COVID time, there were no guided ranger tours offered, but we were able to do a self-guided tour. We waited a bit at the entrance — groups were spaced to allow for better social distancing. After hearing the customary ranger talk (no touching the formations, etc), we walked down and down through a dozen switchbacks into the gaping mouth of the natural cave entrance.

The paved path led us steadily downward as the light from the entrance slowly dwindled to blackness. Our eyes soon adjusted to the dim artificial lighting. After about a mile or so of walking (mostly down), we entered the famed Big Room. Photos really cannot do justice to the scale and beauty of the formations therein. The path snaked around the perimeter of the enormous chamber as we walked, agape. Our minds constructed fairy villages, huge chandeliers, and frozen waterfalls from the crystal-rock. We saw what appeared to be bottomless pits, one with an old abandoned ladder snaking down it. No, thank you! I wouldn’t make a good spelunker, the dark crevices are way too creepy!

We estimated that we walked over 3 miles in the cavern. Finally, the one-way path led us to the elevator that would take us back up to the Visitor’s center at the surface. We had descended 750 feet from the surface!

In non-COVID times, the elevator area also hosted a gift shop and snack bar. All closed. It would have been really cool to hang out down there, while enjoying lunch. But, back up we went, to the surface and reality. We didn’t hike here, but we did do the Walnut Canyon Desert drive. The one-way, single lane gravel drive was a bit rough in spots, but very scenic. I’m just sorry that we couldn’t take a ranger led tour. Our Mammoth Cave experience was greatly enriched by our ranger tours and I’m sure it would have been the same here. Perhaps on a future visit …..

So, Carlsbad Caverns has now made it to my (personal, biased) list of top 5 favorite National Parks. (OK, I know you’ll ask. In no particular order: Great Smokies NP, Glacier NP, Yellowstone NP, Sequoia NP, and now Carlsbad Caverns NP)

I’m so glad we finally got here.

It’s always good to have a backup plan ….

After our cold and wet stay in Hot Springs, we were ready to high-tail it south to warmer weather! Our next planned campground was near Carlsbad, NM — about 800 miles away. Since we try never to exceed 400 miles travel distance in any one day, this required an overnight stopover on the road. As mentioned previously, our preferred option is overnight parking at a rest area, because of the convenience factor.

Our I-30 route across Texas didn’t offer many rest stop options. Most are older/smaller rest stops, with few truck parking spaces. Where there is truck parking, most are the “parallel” parking type, which can be problematic for us. We spied one new rest stop, with ample parking, about half way along our route. Perfect! We headed that way, only to find it blocked by road construction. Oops! The remaining rest stops along our way weren’t really a good option. It was too late (after 5 pm) to book a campground for the night. We had already traveled over 400 miles and were tired. We hadn’t really planned an alternative — but we needed to come up with one in fairly short order!

Allstays app to the rescue! Using the app, I spotted a Walmart about 12 miles up, just off the highway. Those of you that are RV-ers know that Walmart overnight parking is a Thing. Walmart typically allows overnight RV parking, unless specifically prohibited by local ordinance. We’ve stayed at Walmarts before, but have found them to be difficult to maneuver due to crowded parking lots, abrupt pavement transitions (scraping bottom of bus) and low-hanging tree branches (scraping top of bus). So, Walmart isn’t typically on our radar for overnight parking. Still, needs must, so we gave it a shot.

Although the parking lot wasn’t especially large, we found a good spot on the edge. We asked, and received, permission to stay — so it was a go! Our stay gave us an opportunity to pick up a few things, to boot.

The next morning, Jeff discovered he had left an attachment to his Viair portable air compressor back at the last campsite. Major bummer. Normally, he checks the air pressure in all of our tires at the beginning of every travel day. But, no problem, we were at a Walmart! He was able to find something that worked and readied our tires for travel.

So it all worked out. We found a quiet and safe place to stay. We ended needing some things — and Walmart had them. We may just have to put Walmart back on our list of potential parking spots!

Campground Review: Catherine’s Landing, Hot Springs, AR

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Campground Review Summary

  • Name: Catherine’s Landing
  • Dates of stay: Oct 23-29, 2020
  • Location: 1700 Shady Grove, Rd., Hot Springs, AR 71901
  • Type of campground: Private / Independent
  • Cost: $46.67/night
  • Additional fees: boat/canoe rentals, zip line
  • Stay limit: none
  • Accepts mail / packages: did not ask
  • Cell reception: ATT fair
  • Website: catherineslanding.com
  • Pros: Good location, big rig friendly, FHU
  • Cons: none

Full Review

Catherine’s Landing is a large, private campground full of amenities that is located near the resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. The campground has it all:  dog park, disc golf, meeting pavilion, pool, dog wash, even a zipline, along with the customary bath houses and coin laundry facilities. The park appears to be a newer facility, and is well laid out for all rig sizes. The park offers cottages and yurts for rent, in addition to RV and tent sites. The park is also located on Lake Catherine, with waterfront sites, boat ramp, and boat rental concession.

Our back in site offered full hook ups (50 amp electric), cable TV, paved pad and patio area, picnic table, fire ring and charcoal grill. It was long enough to park all of our vehicles. And for a wonder, the paved site was actually level! It’s amazing how many sites we’ve visited that had a paved, concrete site that was NOT level! These guys built it right. Our site was also satellite friendly. Our ATT hot spot worked just OK, slow at times. The campground wifi was unreliable; sometimes fine and sometimes absent. There are just a few over the air channels available, but the cable TV was adequate — a little snowy on some channels, but watchable. The campground staff picks up garbage twice a day, which is always a nice service.

In these COVID days, all check-in paperwork was left on the outside late pick-up board so an inside office visit wasn’t required. The packet included the receipt for our pre-paid fees and a brochure with directions noted to our site. Since we visited off-season, most of the amenities were closed. During non-COVID summers, this place could be a blast. With walking trails, a zip line, boat access to Lake Catherine and more — there’s enough to keep the family busy and happy for days.

We also found staff and guests to be exceptionally friendly. The only issue we had during our stay was a slow-draining sewer connection. We alerted maintenance and it seemed to drain somewhat better the next time we dumped. The sewer connection is a nonthreaded type, which was surprising for a park that seemed otherwise so new and up to date. The cost was a moderate $47/night (at the weekly rate), which is reasonable for all the park offers.

Bottom Line: Great park in the Hot Springs area with a ton of amenities during the summer season.

Hot Springs

Hot Springs National Park is one of the most unusual National Parks that we’ve visited so far. Instead of a remote setting, this park is located smack-dab in the city downtown area! The reason for the park is, of course, the natural hot springs.

In this area, water bubbles up from the depths of the earth, emerging at a temperature of around 143 degrees Fahrenheit. The springs produce over a million gallons of hot water per day! For centuries, the Native Americans used the mineral-laden water for medicinal purposes. The first bath houses built to take advantage of this hot water supply were essentially huts or log cabins built over rough excavations in the rocks. Over time, however, much more elaborate structures were constructed, some which are still in use today. Andrew Jackson designated this area the first Federal Reservation in 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone became the first National Park. When Congress established the National Park Service, Hot Springs Reservation became Hot Springs National Park in 1921.

The highlight of the Park is Bathhouse Row, a street lined with Golden Age era structures. Many have been converted to other purposes (dining, shopping, lodging), but two still operate as bathhouses. The Buckstaff provides a private traditional bathhouse experience (bath/massage) while the Quapaw (named after the local Native American tribe) offers a public mineral pools experience along with traditional spa services.

We elected to visit the Quapaw to experience the mineral pools for the nominal fee of $20 per person. The pools are available on a first-come-first-serve basis only, no reservations taken. Due to COVID, occupancy of the pools area is limited to 30 people, to allow for social distancing. We queued up on a busy Saturday morning and were #10 and #11 on the waiting list. Before entering, we were health checked with a questionnaire and temperature screen. We had to stay on property, but passed the time easily in the onsite cafe, enjoying hot beverages and a light snack during our wait. After an hour or so, we were called to the front, were given locker keys and escorted to the dressing rooms. Masks were required at all times, unless actually in the pools area.

There are four pools to choose from, at temperatures of 95, 98, 102 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The room was beautiful too, with a gorgeous barrel-vaulted ceiling and tiled pools. Everything was immaculately clean. Pool attendants provided an unlimited supply of iced mineral water and towels, as needed. The room was large enough that we never felt crowded, and had no trouble maintaining adequate distancing. The changing room had showers, lockers, and a swimsuit spinner that centrifuged my bathing suit almost dry! It was a great way to spend a few hours on a cold October day.

We soaked ourselves limp, then exited to explore the shops along the street. The National Park visitor center building was closed, but park literature and the passport stamp station was available just outside. Along the row, there are several public hot springs fountain dispensers where anyone can take home their own supply of water — just bring containers!

Unlike Missouri, Arkansas does impose COVID controls, so we felt much more comfortable exploring the area. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. It rained (and was COLD) during virtually all of our stay which restricted our usual outdoor activities. Jeff did manage to slip out between rain showers to mountain bike once. Still, we managed to explore the Park a bit, dined out a couple of times, and definitely enjoyed our hot springs soak.

We continue to head south and west, next stop — Carlsbad, NM!

Throwback Thursday Post: Overnighting at Rest Stops

Here’s a Throwback Thursday post, first published in January 2018. Now that we’re making tracks out west, the distance between campgrounds is lengthening, necessitating overnight stops on the road.

We still find that rest areas provide the easiest and most convenient overnight stopover. We’ve stayed now at rest areas all over the country and have never been hassled OR felt unsafe. Enjoy this Throwback post!


5-tips-rest-stop-1When I was a kid, I remember stopping at rest areas while on road trips with my parents. The rest stops were equipped with clean restrooms and picnic tables. We’d have a bite of lunch and would be encouraged to run around to “get the wiggles out”  before settling into another long stint in the station wagon.

Until we bought the RV, I hadn’t stopped at a rest area in years. We took plenty of road trips, but our modus operandi was to do everything we needed in one service station stop: gas, potty, and food to go. With two kids, we could be in and out of a gas station in under 15 minutes and not stop again until the car was on E. Rest stops weren’t even on our radar.

That all changed when we bought the bus. Driving the rig can be intense and tiring. We seldom drive for more than a couple of hours without taking a break, and rest stops provide a perfect facility for that. They are right off the road, easy on/off, and offer segregated truck parking fully long enough for our bus plus toad. After all, we can’t just pull into your typical gas station! Truck stops are fine for fueling and a quick restroom break, but few have pull-through parking spaces (and we can’t back up), so there is no place for us to park for a longer stay. Rest stops are perfect. And not only are they good for a short rest break, some states even allow overnight parking.

So why would we want to park  overnight at a rest stop, when we could stop at a perfectly nice campground? The main reasons are cost and convenience.

The hardest part of moving the rig from one place to another isn’t the driving, it’s the packing and unpacking. It takes at least two hours to completely load everything, prepare the bus, hook up the toad, and get ready to move. At the destination, it takes another couple of hours to do the reverse. Because of this, we don’t want to go through all of that effort until we are somewhere that we want to stay a while. Also, since we don’t like to drive more than 300 or so miles in any day, it may take more than one “traveling day” to get to our next destination. In that case, we need to find someplace for an overnight stop.

We can (and have) gone to a campground for just one night. There are lots of options located conveniently near interstate highways. But pulling into one often requires unhooking the tow vehicle (due to lack of maneuvering room) and then, since we are paying for it, we’ll connect the hookups and put the slides out. In the morning we have to prep for the road again. But … wait … do we REALLY need hook ups for just one night? Nope. That’s the beauty of being fully self contained! We have a generator, we have fresh water, we have holding tanks – why pay $30-50 just to park somewhere?

So …enter the rest stop option. Rest stops have a safe parking area, sometimes with overnight security. We can pull in, rest, and just pull out in the morning. Rest stops have clean bathrooms. They are free. Sold! The only downside is that not all States allow overnight parking at rest stops. A summary of State rest stop policies is here.  For example, our home State, Florida, does not allow overnight parking and in fact has a 3 hour stay limit. We did stay at Florida rest stops overnight several times during our Hurricane Irene evacuation trip, but that was an unusual circumstance. I’d rather not push it. But quite a few States DO allow overnight parking, including Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. If you do plan to stay at a rest stop overnight in your RV, here are a few tips:

  • Plan ahead and pull out needed items from cabinets that are inaccessible with your rig’s slides in. You’ll have a parking spot, not a camp site – not a place to put out slides, awnings and hibachi!
  • Fill your fresh water tanks and dump your waste holding tanks before leaving the campground. Make sure you have plenty of fuel for your generator and heating/cooling systems.
  • Check the State’s rest area regulations at the link above or that State’s rest area website. When you pull into the rest area, check the signage to make sure overnight parking is not expressly prohibited.
  • Arrive at the rest stop by early evening. Later on, truckers tend to fill up all available spaces and even overflow spaces. If you arrive too late, there may not be a spot for you!
  • Be courteous and quiet.
  • Enjoy your rest!

In the states where overnight parking at rest areas is not allowed, there are parking lot options such as at a Wal-Mart. But that’s another post!

Branson …… bust.

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It was sad for me to leave my hometown after such a great visit. Being able to spend time with my family made me feel, well, normal, after so many months of isolation. Our next stop was Branson, Missouri — well known for its variety of shows and attractions. Unlike Pigeon Forge, Branson doesn’t have a defined “strip”, instead includes a fairly large rambling area dotted with strip malls, restaurants and numerous theaters.

Under normal circumstances, I’d have been in show hog-heaven. I could have seen live entertainment literally every day — comedy, variety, band tribute shows — you name it. But …. COVID. It’s ironic that early this year, we couldn’t see and do a lot of tourist activities because States weren’t open. Now, some areas are TOO open!

Quite a few shows in the Branson area are open and actively performing. But, the State of Missouri has no mandated COVID controls, as far as we can tell. The city of Branson has enacted a mask mandate, but it seems to be inconsistently followed and/or enforced. Shows have no capacity restrictions, which means they can sell tickets to all the seats, if they want – no social distancing. And although masks might be required going into the theater, they are not required while seated, presumably so that you can enjoy your purchased concessions. The idea of sitting in a packed (indoor!) theater, for 2-plus hours, with essentially no COVID precautions, just doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Restaurants don’t have any mandated capacity or social distancing requirements either. We stopped at a small diner while out motorcycling our first day here, and the tables were stacked like usual. We were able to socially-distance, because we went at an off-peak time, but the waitress and other workers (and other patrons) did not wear masks at all. Folks in this region are mostly living like this pandemic doesn’t exist.

The area also has the Silver Dollar City theme park, but after our somewhat disastrous pandemic-time visit to Cedar Point, I’m not sure Silver Dollar City will offer a much better experience.

I’m not going into the politics of the pandemic, or getting into an argument about whether masks are effective or not. But, as responsible adults, we have to make decisions about the health risks we are willing to accept. Considering the uptick in COVID cases throughout the country, we’ve decided that, for this visit, we would forgo shows, restaurants, and attractions. We focused on motorcycling, outdoor activities, and maybe some shopping during off-peak times.

Since it rained more than half our stay, even outdoor activities were constrained. During the couple of nice days we had, we rode the countryside. This area is really beautiful with rolling hills, lakes, and valleys. One of our rides involved taking a free ferry across a lake. That was pretty cool!

All in all though, Branson has been sort of a bust.

I look forward to coming back some day when we can actually participate in all the attractions this area offers.

Campground Review: Anderson/Muncie KOA, Anderson, IN

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  • Name: Anderson/Muncie KOA
  • Dates of stay: September 30 – October 14, 2020
  • Location: 3230 E 75 N, Anderson, IN 46017
  • Type of campground: Private / KOA
  • Cost: $50/night (with discounts)
  • Additional fees: $10 to wash bus
  • Stay limit: none
  • Accepts mail / packages: did not ask
  • Cell reception: ATT adequate
  • Website: koa.com/campgrounds/muncie
  • Pros: Inexpensive, close to family
  • Cons: aging bath house, militantly enforces 5 mph speed limit

Full Review

This is our second stay here at the Anderson/Muncie KOA. Our first was about 18 months ago, you can read that review here. We requested same site as the last time, which the campground was able to accommodate.

Anderson Indiana isn’t exactly known as a tourist mecca, so campgrounds are few in the vicinity. There is a nice State Park in town (Mounds Park) which surprisingly can accommodate our size, but only offers electricity hookup. That works for a week or so, but not for an extended stay. Fortunately, we found this KOA park on the northeast side of town that fit the bill.

I was pleasantly surprised by the big rig friendliness of this older park. Our site was a back-in concrete site with concrete patio, picnic table and fire ring. The electrical box and water spigot is at the rear of the site, far enough away to require virtually all of our electrical cord to reach! The water pressure can be high (up to 100 psi at times), making a water pressure gauge essential. Our Direct TV satellite was unable to lock onto a signal due to an ill-placed tree, but we were able to pick up a fair number of over the air TV channels. We didn’t try the campground wifi, as our ATT hotspot worked adequately. This trip, I was even able to stream Amazon Prime video using our mobile hotspot – wow! That’s better bandwidth than typical.

The campground is pretty, quiet and tidy with expanses of mowed lawn, mature trees and a large pond that served for both fishing and swimming. The leaves were changing during our stay, and the wooded area was really beautiful. The campground provides daily trash pickup from your site, which is always a nice convenience. There is also a club house, small camp store, and playgrounds. Even during this fall shoulder season time, the campground was fairly busy on the weekends. The weekdays had much less occupancy. There appear to be some long-term (year around) residents here, but their sites are well maintained. 

I mentioned last time that the campground workers are quite militant about enforcing the 5 mph speed limit. No one flagged us down to tell us to slow down this time, but we were very careful to creep along slowly during this stay! Ironically, the workers in their golf carts and trucks zip along quite a bit faster that 5 mph but, you know how that goes …..

There are couple of idiosyncrasies here. The shower in the bath house are the “push button” style which stays on for what seemed only seconds at a time. You also can’t adjust the water temperature and the bath house is unheated. I just used my own shower. Also, during our previous stay as a “monthly” renter, we were required to mow our own site’s lawn. We’ve had extended stays at quite a few campgrounds now, and no other place has had that rule! I guess that way they can’t possibly cause any damage to our rig? At least they provided the lawn mower.

Our last stay was 3.5 weeks and we were able to snag a very reasonable monthly rate, which brought our daily rate down to around $33/night. This time, we paid around $50/night for our 15 night stay, which included my ValueKard discount plus I redeemed $50 in points. The rules called for a $5 guest fee, but we had family members popping in and out briefly and were never hassled. We always did our socializing at our family’s homes. Other than mask requirements while in the office, we didn’t notice any impact of COVID to the campground operations or amenities.

Overall, as before, it was a quiet and pleasant stay. It’s not a fancy place, but it does the job. We will likely go back because of the proximity to our families. From a budget perspective, a longer stay is worthwhile if schedules permit.

Bottom Line: A site that works,  near our families.