Heading North, part 2: North Carolina

While we weren’t the least bit tired of traveling or being on the road, we were a little tired of being tourists. The weather, though it had stopped raining, had turned colder and we weren’t inspired to head to any of South Carolina’s beaches. We also decided not to head in to Charleston but instead chose a leisurely morning at the campground and then got back on I95 heading north. We reasoned that the East Coast is a lot easier for us to come back to if we want to see anything that we missed.

We had a nice day, but little of it is blog-worthy. Nice conversations in the car, taking our time over lunch at a rest stop, not feeling hurried or pressured to see and do all that can be seen and done.

The increasingly colder weather was helping us process the change of seasons happening for us as well as in the world around us, and the hours in the car gave us plenty of time to start talking about what comes next.

Year-round campgrounds got harder to find as we headed north, but we found a KOA in Enfield, North Carolina that was still open and we stopped for the night. It was a bit drizzly and cold cooking dinner outside, and we woke up to the first frost we’d seen since Yellowstone. And, though we didn’t know it at the time, this was our last night in Home Sweet Pop-up.

Campground Review Enfield/Rocky Mount KOA:
Price: I forgot to note how much we paid, but the website shows a rate of about $35-$40 per night for a pop-up the size of ours.
Location: There isn’t much locally, but it is convenient to I95 and according to the website they are the only KOA between Fredriksburg, VA and Point South (where we’d stayed the night before). I imagine most of their business is overnight stays as people travel up and down I95.
Facilities: This one one of the smaller KOAs we’d stayed at. The pool was closed for the season. Use of the kitchen cost extra, so we braved the weather with our camp stove. The bathrooms and showers were fine.
Site-description: Grassy-field style.
Neighborhood: Practically deserted on a cold weekday in the off-season.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/enfield/
Comments: The “free wifi” was time limited (an hour, I believe) and restricted by a code to one device, so no getting on with both a smart phone and a laptop. I hope that they have since changed this policy.

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A beautiful but cold morning waking up in North Carolina

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Heading North, part 1: South Carolina

Despite all of the twists and turns we encounter in more than 12,000 miles of road, we often talked about our big trip having 4 main turns. We started by turning WEST in Pennsylvania, and though we wove around to see sights and visit friends, our general direction was west. When we reached the Pacific we made a giant left turn and started heading SOUTH along the West Coast. When we reached Mexico, we made our next big left turn and started driving EAST. Now, in Daytona Beach, we’d reached the Atlantic Coast. It was time for the last big left turn. Time to drive NORTH.

There was a vague restlessness in our camp that morning. After nearly 3 months on the road, moving every 2-3 days, we had developed some pretty good routines for breaking camp and getting on the road. But that morning, nothing seemed right. We were tired, a bit irritable, and lacked motivation. Eventually we had packed everything, hooked up the trailer, and buckled the kids into their car seats. We got in the car, looked at each other, and Staffan said, “North?”. It was then the reality started to sink in. NORTH was the last big turn. Once we made that turn, we were heading home. Something monumental was ending. For a brief moment we considered going west again instead, though we understood all the reasons why that wasn’t really an option. With heavy hearts, we made the last big left turn. North.

Not long after we got on the road, it started to rain. We’d been traveling for about 3 months but had only encountered rain a few times, and never in ways that interfered with our plans. Now the skies opened and the forecast assured us that this was not just a passing shower. It was almost poetic how the weather matched our moods, as if nature was mourning with us.

When we reached the Savannah, Georgia area, where we had tentatively planned to stop for the night, the rain hadn’t slowed and the wind blew cold. There were still several hours until bedtime, and while we had a small DVD player with us for such situations, we didn’t think it would keep the kids happily entertained and contained in the camper for that long. They seemed calm and content to be in the car and so we kept on driving.

We stopped for the night at the Point South KOA in Yemassee, South Carolina after a monumental yet uneventful day.

Campground Review Point South KOA:
Price: $44/night, which we felt was a little high for the off-season
Location: There’s not much in the area in terms of tourism but it is a beautiful area and the campground isn’t far from I95. It’s about 50 miles from Savannah and 60 miles from Charleston, so it could be reasonable to stay there and take day-trips to both cities.
Facilities: Most of the “extras” were closed for the off-season so it’s hard to comment, but we found the bathroom facilities to be perfectly adequate and they had a nice playground.
Site-description: Mixture of sand and grass, not strange for the Lowcountry. Plenty of trees.
Neighborhood: We didn’t have too many neighbors on a chilly, rainy weekday in November. Mostly retired long-term Rvers
Website: http://www.pointsouthkoa.com/
Comments: They advertise all kinds of other activities, like pizza delivery, wine tastings, and a coffee house, but on our one-night stay, we did not see or take advantage of any of these.

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Dayton Beach KOA – Campground Review

Since our friends were in a housing transition and staying with family, it was important to us to be able to visit with our friends at our campsite rather than expect them to host us. The Daytona Beach KOA gave us a great location to be able to do that. Here’s our campground review (spoiler alert: it’s a good one)

Price: $70 for 2 nights (not including KOA member discount)
Location: convenient to most Daytona Beach attractions. It’s not walking distance to the beach, but according to the website, it’s the closest campground to the beach.
Facilities: Great playground and a good laundry room. Bathroom and shower facilities were nothing special but perfectly adequate.
Site-description: Grassy sites with plenty of trees. The sites were also larger than what we experienced at many KOAs.
Neighborhood: November is obviously far from peak season, but on the weekend there were still a number of other campers in a variety of ages with a variety of camping styles.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/daytona-beach/
Comments: Fire rings are not included in the cost of the site, but cost $1 per day to rent.

Funny story about the fire rings: A couple that was tent camping on a neighboring site had read ahead of time that fire rings had to be rented for an additional fee. So they decided to buy their own fire ring to take with them. Once they had assembled it and used it for the weekend (literally 2 fires on 2 nights), they realized that they couldn’t fit the assembled ring back into their car to take it home with them. So they gave it to us and we happily accepted it. But for them, I’m pretty sure that renting for $2 would have been a better deal.

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Gulf Coast part 2: the Florida Panhandle

Continuing east into Florida, we stopped and spent a night at the Tallahassee East KOA campground. We had plans to meet up with friends in Daytona Beach for the weekend, so we did not take time to see or do anything in the area.
Here’s our review:

Price: $33/night after KOA member rebate
Location: Convenient to I-10 in the Tallahassee area.
Facilities: Great shower and bathroom facilities. The common room was comfortable, with armchairs and sofas like a family living room, and I sat there to work on updating our blog. I would have preferred to be able to sit in the camper, but the internet access didn’t extend out to the campsites, so that was a drawback. The playground was a little old and rundown, but since the ground was like one big sandbox, our kids were content to play around the campsite.
Site-description: Sand with some grass (the way it often is in areas where there is more sand that dirt on the ground); well-shaded with plenty of trees.
Neighborhood: A nice mixture of families and retired couples. No problems with noise or partying from other campers.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/tallahassee/
Comments: This campground offered baked goods at check in, and free continental breakfast including freshly made waffles on the weekends. But since this is no longer mentioned on their website, though, they may have stopped offering it. We would also recommend camping further away from the road. For us, the road noise was a drawback of this campground.

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Gulf Coast, part 1: Mississippi & Alabama

Leaving New Orleans, our next destination was Daytona Beach, FL. But since that trip was over 9 hours of driving time, we broke it up and made a couple of overnight stops along the Gulf Coast.

We didn’t spend much time in Mississippi, essentially just driving across the southern tip of it. But the Mississippi highlight was this exit marker off of I-10.

When I was a kid, my dad traveled often for work. I always asked where he was going when he left for trips, and often the answers were strange words like “Chattanooga” and “Pascagoula”. I naturally assumed he was teasing me and making up silly words. These couldn’t be real places. Imagine my surprise when I got a little older and found them on a map. Those are real places?! As a teenager I had the chance to visit Chattanooga, fully verifying its existence. And on November 8, 2012, though we didn’t take the time to visit, this road sign fully verified Pascagoula. Silly, maybe, but worth a photo.

IMG_3178 croppedIt’s blurry, but it counts!
Also, Cracker Barrel. Ubiquitous.

We stopped for our first overnight at Hilltop RV Park in Robertsdale AL. While we respectfully thank the hosts for the unique experiences we had staying there, we would not choose to return. Here’s a campground review:

Hilltop RV Park
Price: $25/night, after some discussion at check-in about whether we had to pay for the kids or not.
Location: Not so close to anything, as far as we could tell. It’s not far from the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida border, in the southern tip of Alabama.
Facilities: Adequate bathroom/shower building. There was also a common room/kitchen area, but we never used it.
Site-description: Grass sites with small trees and new-looking picnic tables
Neighborhood: Snowbirds. Somewhat exclusively, already in early November. The RV park markets itself to retired couples who want to spend the winter in a more moderate climate but who perhaps can’t afford to winter in Florida. Hence the pricing confusion over the kids. They don’t have a policy forbidding children, but they were obviously not used to having them.
Website: http://www.hilltoprvpark.com/
Comments: Of all the nights we spent in different campgrounds around the whole country, this one is the only one that refused to check us in under my name, because I’m a woman. Since Staffan was usually driving, it was usually easiest for me to register us when we first arrived. Apparently the registration needed to be in my husband’s name, and I needed to show his driver’s license as well as my own, to verify that we are married.
There were a few other things that made this RV park a bit quirky. They may be very well-suited to their niche, but family travelers may want to find another option. It was an okay place to spend the night, but we were happy to get back on the road in the morning.

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N’awlins

New Orleans is a city unlike any other we’ve been to, with a culture all its own. Since you could argue that this culture is built around alcohol and music, then for our purposes the music was in focus.

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We took a walking tour of the French Quarter and enjoyed beautiful architecture and waterfront views. We walked through an outdoor market and went to the Jazz National Historic Park (and stamped our national park passports, of course!)

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Beautiful characteristic wrought iron features and lots of flowering plants on porches and balconies.

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Because it’s famous, not because it was really our scene.
It was mostly deserted during the day anyway.

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Miraculously she did not fall in the fountain.
But the temptation to touch the water was just irresistible.

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Still plenty of riverboats to be seen. Makes me think of Mark Twain.

But New Orleans is above all a musical city. We went to a free concert that was indoors, complete with a stage and seats for the audience.

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Don’t ask me who this was… I’m not sure we even knew at the time.
He told stories and sang original songs.

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Attentive audience

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Captive audience (literally)

And we found less formal performances, like this one on a street corner where we found some curb seating.

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The band name: The Drunken Catfish Ramblers, written on a piece of cardboard.
It doesn’t get much more New Orleans than that!

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Not just any curb seating… under construction curb seating.
After all the walking it was just nice to sit down! And yes, my daughter is barefoot. In the middle of a city. What’s your point?

And a slightly different style down by the waterfront where we stood up to enjoy the performance (well most of us, anyway).

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During our visit to New Orleans we stayed 2 nights at the West New Orleans KOA campground.

Campground Review: West New Orleans KOA
Price: $78 for 2 nights
Location: Convenient to the most popular New Orleans tourist areas, but far enough away to be dark and quiet at night.
Facilities: perfectly adequate but nothing special
Site-description: grass/gravel, well shaded with plenty of trees. Sites are a little close together.
Neighborhood: A good variety of guests, from families to retired couples, camping with tents, pop-ups and larger RVs.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/new-orleans/
Comments: Shuttles are offered to and from the French Quarter, and public transportation is also an option. We chose to drive ourselves, mostly because of complications with car seats and for the sake of flexibility, so we can’t comment on this service. But as in most cities, parking downtown can be expensive and hard to find, so it might be a great option.

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Remember the Alamo!

The problem is I didn’t. Remember the Alamo, that is. I remembered that we’re supposed to remember the Alamo, but I couldn’t remember why. As we crossed Texas, we spent a night at the San Antonio KOA and decided to spend part of the day checking out the Alamo before heading on to Houston.

In between the time of our visit and when I’m actually writing this, I’ll admit that I’ve forgotten most of it again. I’ve had to “ask Mr. Google” for help with some of the details in order to be able to write a good post. Maybe the reason they have to tell everyone to “Remember the Alamo” is because otherwise it seems to be somewhat forgettable. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve heard that one shouldn’t mess with Texas, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

There is certainly an appeal in the “heroic struggle against impossible odds” (as the official website thealamo.org puts it) and I can appreciate the sacrifice of people laying down their lives for something they believe in. I suppose as a non-Texan, it’s hard for me to understand the importance of a “Shrine of Texas Liberty” when Texas was independent for a relatively short time (9 years) before joining the United States, where it’s been a part of the Union for about 170 years now (thanks Mr. Google). My impressions from watching the video in the visitor center and touring the area is that it was a tragic loss of life by some passionate and potentially influential young men (including the legendary David Crockett), cause by some poor decisions, bad strategy and with perhaps just a bit of arrogance and pride added to the mix. I confess myself unimpressed by the Alamo, and I don’t know that I would recommend anyone to go out of their way to visit.

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The old Spanish mission buildings have pretty architecture

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Inside the “Shrine” area

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This tree may be the coolest part of the whole place!

It’s free to visit, though parking in the area is neither free nor readily available. The environment is an interesting contrast, as on the one hand there are strict rules for treating the area and its facilities as a Shrine. On the other hand, there is quite a commercial and over-developed gift shop, and the line to get in is slowed down by requiring everyone to pose for photos on the way in so that they can offer you a wide range of personalized souvenir options on the way out. Out of respect for the fallen heroes? Although the profits from the gift shop sales help keep it free to visit so it’s not all bad. Perhaps I’m just being cynical, but our visit to the Alamo didn’t exactly move and inspire us.

Our stay at the San Antonio KOA, however, was much less disappointing. Here’s a review:

Campground Review: San Antonio KOA
Price: $30/night
Location: located only about 5 miles from the Alamo and other downtown attractions, and convenient to I-35, this campground has a great location
Facilities: lots of facilities for the money, although we didn’t stay long enough to take advantage of most of them. One particularly nice feature is that the campground is adjacent to a paved walking/biking trail the follows a creek. I took a very nice little twilight jog after the kids were asleep. Bathroom facilities were modern and well-maintained.
Site-description: Grassy sites, well-shaded.
Neighborhood: Lots of kids, including school groups and scout troops at the time we were there. It’s definitely a family-friendly campground.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/san-antonio/
Comments: We were pleasantly surprised by the natural surroundings considering how centrally located it is in a city. Just be aware that all those beautiful trees, grass, and creek areas are also home to quite a number of 6-legged friends, so plan accordingly.

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Problems in Fort Stockton

Texas is big. That may seem obvious, and we knew that but it wasn’t until we decided to cross it that we understood it from experience. To go from visiting our friends in El Paso to visiting our friends in Houston, given our self-imposed 4 hour per day driving limit, was going to take several days.

So why did we stay in Fort Stockton? Well, we looked at our route from El Paso to Houston, then looked at what was about 4 hours away from El Paso along that route. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So we thought about stretching the day a little longer but there was continued nothingness. Fort Stockton is right along I-10 and is the only dot on Google maps between El Paso and San Antonio. Decision made.

Our stop in Fort Stockton would have been just a campground review (we’ll get to that) if not for a little extra excitement that came as we set up Home Sweet Pop-up for the night. A cable in the mechanism that allows us to raise the roof (and holds it up once we’ve raised it) snapped. One of the corners couldn’t be raised with the hand crank and couldn’t support it’s own weight. Poor Staffan spent the whole evening working on trying to fix it but lacked the proper tools and equipment to do so. Eventually we solved it by Staffan lifting the disabled corner while I cranked up the other 3. When they were at full height, we supported the corner with a 2×2 that Staffan had cut to just the right height. It would get us through a night or two until we could get to Houston, where we could sleep in our friend’s guest room and try to get the pop-up repaired.

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Trusting that 2×2 to keep the roof from crashing down on our heads

In the meantime, as Staffan was working hard to make sure we had someplace to sleep, the kids and I ate dinner at the on-site “restaurant”. The food was okay, but the whole place had more of a church fellowship hall kind of ambiance and didn’t feel much like a restaurant. We were thankful for it, though, because we couldn’t cook in the camper while it was being worked on.

Our visit to Fort Stockton was thus mostly stressful, but we got to see more of the town than we would have otherwise as we drove around looking for what we needed to fix the camper.

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Princess Emelie reads a book for her little brother in the Fort Stockton sunshine

While in Fort Stockton, we stayed at the Fort Stockton RV Park. Here’s our review:
Price: $24/night
Location: convenient to I-10, and if you’re heading east, pretty much your last option for many, many miles
Facilities: adequate, but most things could use a little freshening up and modernizing
Site-description: gravel/dirt/grass with small trees that provide a little bit of shade
Neighborhood: We didn’t see any other families. It doesn’t seem designed for long-term stays, but for most it’s probably a place to stop and sleep on the way to somewhere else.
Website: http://www.ftstocktonrv.com/
Comments: The office is connected to the restaurant and has strange open times. This was inconvenient for us because we needed local help finding stores to get what we needed, and also because Peter left his favorite car in the restaurant when we ate dinner. He had just gotten it as a present in El Paso but he loved it. When we missed it, they were already closed for the night, and weren’t open in the morning until almost lunch time. We had lots of desert to cross so waiting wasn’t an option and we were forced to leave it behind. I hope another child got to enjoy it while waiting for his or her dinner!

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Campsite photo

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I would not plan to use the picnic tables unless they’ve replaced them. They seem to be made from unfinished plywood, weathered so that the plies are separating, held together but a rusty metal frame. Splinters with a side of tetanus? No thanks.

Alamogordo NM/White Sands National Monument

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I had never heard of White Sands National Monument before we started planning our trip through New Mexico. Maybe it’s because I’m from the East Coast and I had never heard anyone talking about going there, but this gem of a park was not on our radar until we started looking for a stop-over to break up the trip between Albuquerque and El Paso, TX.

Our visit to the park began at the visitor’s center with a short video explaining why the sand is white, the animals that live in this unique environment, and an overall history of the region. Then we headed deeper into the park to experience the phenomenon for ourselves. The reflection of the sun off of the white sand is particularly strong, so sun protection is important. We chose one of the many roofed (shaded!) picnic tables to eat our packed lunch, but the kids were too eager to get out on the dunes to eat a whole lot that day.

We were staying at a campground in nearby Alamogordo (see campground review below) that had sleds available to borrow for trips to White Sands. Since we live in a place that generally has about 6-7 months of snow each year, sledding isn’t exactly exotic for us, but it seemed to be the thing to do at White Sands so we gave it a shot. The white gypsum sand has a different texture than the sand we’re used to. It feels more like baby powder or flour. But it isn’t slippery. So while it was exotic to sled down a sand dune, it didn’t go very fast and much of the time we were pushing ourselves down the hill with our feet. Maybe we were doing it wrong? It was fun and we took a bunch of pictures, but we also realized pretty quickly that this was not an all-day activity.

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So we grabbed the park map and picked a few hiking trails. One was the Dune Life nature trail, a stroller and wheelchair accessible boardwalk with regular placards talking about different aspects of plant and animal life in this unusual habitat. It was a short, easy walk and we learned a lot.

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Lizard tracks spotted from the nature trail

But we were also up for more of a challenge. So we drove to another trail head and exchanged the stroller for the backpack carrier. We found a loop trail that went up onto some dune ridges and wound around showing different examples of plant and animal life. We quickly realized that there really isn’t any footwear that is well-suited to such a trail, and it wasn’t long before the whole family was barefoot. Staffan, who generally prefers hiking barefoot anyway, particularly enjoyed this rare occasion when the rest of us also ditched our shoes. As much as we enjoyed sledding near the picnic area and the boardwalk nature trail, getting away from the road and crossing the dunes with the sand between our toes was definitely the best way to experience the park, in our opinion. It’s not a strenuous hike, but definitely something we’d recommend. The park also offers moonlit hikes and stargazing, and maybe someday we’ll go back with older kids who can stay up a little later to experience that.

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During our weekend in Alamogordo, NM we stayed at the Alamogordo Roadrunner Campground. The campground seems to have changed quite a bit since we were there, including new ownership and becoming part of KOA, which they were not when we were there. The rates seem to have gone up a bit as well, but here’s a review based on how we experienced it:

Price: $29/night. We stayed 2 nights
Location: a relatively convenient 15 miles from White Sands National Monument. Just a short distance from the main road through Alamogordo, which offers a variety of stores and restaurants.
Facilities: sturdy concrete picnic table/benches, a light at each site. Bathroom/shower facilities were clean and reasonable.
Site-description: gravel sites, relatively close together
Neighborhood: there seemed to be a number of families that were living there long-term, which is a different environment than an RV park catering to shorter stays. This is probably a lot different now, though, if it’s a KOA. The staff was very friendly and helpful!
Website: http://www.roadrunnercampground.com/
Comments: The opportunity to borrow sleds for free for our trip to White Sands was very much appreciated! I hope they still offer that! Sorry, we forgot to take a picture of the campsite.

Petrified Forest National Park and the Holbrook/Petrified Forest KOA

Petrified Forest National Park was another of those stops that was never on our original itinerary. Our next planned stop was Albuquerque, but the drive there was longer than we wanted to do in a single day. As I sat in the little room at the Grand Canyon Community Library and searched the web for a good place to stop between Grand Canyon and Albuquerque, I stumbled upon Petrified Forest National Park. Only about 20 miles off of I-40 and almost exactly the midpoint of our journey, this was the obvious choice. And as an added bonus, it was one more national park to stamp in the kids’ passports and add to our tally.

We’d passed several other opportunities to see petrified forests along our route, but always chose to prioritize other things to see and do in those areas. It’s not that we weren’t interested, just that you can’t do everything. In this part of Arizona, there weren’t too many other options, so it was time to satisfy our curiosity about petrified wood.

I’m sure there was much more available to do at the park than we had time to do. We took the walking tour of the main area, checked out the visitor center and the gift shop, then it was time to get back on the road. It’s fascinating how minerals replaced the biological material in these old logs such that they are perfectly preserved and look just like logs despite being stone. At the same time, for me it was a “seen one, seen ’em all” kind of experience. “Oh look, there’s a big one.” “Oh look, an even bigger one.” The variation in size and color wasn’t enough to excite me so much. Alas, a geologist I am not.

IMG_2740Overview of the main field that the self-guided tour loops around

IMG_2741This is one of the smaller specimen (can you call them that?) but this is a pretty good representation of how they look… Like a log, but also like a rock.

IMG_2760A more artistic angle on the end of one of the larger “logs”

It wasn’t something that held the kids’ attention for long either. At 3, Emelie is at the age where the world is still new and everything is equally remarkable. A rock that looks like a log? Okay. No big deal. Why wouldn’t there be rocks that look like trees? But the desert provides more than enough sand to keep toddlers happy, and often we were the ones that were ready to move on first. The game that got us around the self-guided tour was “find the next number”. She was then just getting good at recognizing numbers and being able to put them in sequence, so she loved showing us what she knew. “What number are we on here? 5, right. And what comes after 5? Right, can you go find the 6?” And away we go.

IMG_2745Oblivious to the geological phenomenon beside her. It’s all about the sand!

IMG_2748Or we could see what happens if we put sand on the rock log…

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I’m not sure it would have been worth the trip if it hadn’t been right along our route and a perfect place for an overnight stop. But we got to stretch our legs, see something we’d never seen before, and it inspired a good theological discussion in the car about what we believe about the formation of these and other ancient geological phenomena.

The night before, arriving later in the day from the Grand Canyon, we stayed at the Holbrook/Petrified Forest KOA. Here’s a little review (sorry, we didn’t take any pictures).

Campground Review: Holbrook/Petrified Forest KOA

Price: $29/night. Very reasonable for a KOA.
Location: Approximately 20 miles west of Petrified Forest National Park, less than 2 miles off of I-40.
Facilities: Clean bathrooms and showers, a good playground, pool (May-September only). Wifi is available for an additional fee, but with limited range. I sat in the game room above the offices to use it.
Site-description: Gravel, some small trees.
Neighborhood: Mostly retired couples in larger RVs. In late October, this wasn’t so surprising.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/holbrook/
Comments: They also offer “Cowpoke Cookouts” every night for an additional charge. Menus are provided at check-in. We chose to skip it and cook for ourselves, so I can’t comment on the quality.