First Time Boondocking in Flagstaff

Monday Lee went out to get some drone footage of the ruins at Two Guns and the Canyon Diablo train bridge from the other day, and I spent the morning relaxing and taking bird pictures.  Being near a lake this time of year is great, and the marshy area near our site was full of birds in full color.  I got some new birds, and better pictures of some I already had, so thought I would share a few with you.

Killdeer a first for me

Yellow-headed Blackbird another first

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Lee’s pic of a Red-Winged Blackbird

Lee’s pic of a Great Blue Heron

As a bird lover it was so much fun, and Lee was very happy with the drone footage he got.  I really recommend McHood park for free camping, especially if you can get a spot right near the water.  The people were nice, and there were trash receptacles and toilets onsite. But time to move on to our next spot in Coconino National Forest.  Because we don’t have a separate vehicle, it’s tough to scout out spots, but I read about this one from our friends Jim and Barn’s blog and since they have a rig our size we knew we could fit.  (35°10’52.78″N, 111°29’42.78″W) It was another short travel day even with a stop at the nearby Flying J/Pilot to dump our tanks, which was only $5 with our Pilot fuel card, and take on water, which was free.  There were several sites available when we got there, and I ended up picking one on a large loop with the mountains in the background and a really beautiful tree in front of us.

Loved this tree

Lots of ready to go fire rings that showed signs of recent use

We walked back a little bit to get this view of the San Francisco Peaks which are actually part of one large dormant volcano


Setting up when boondocking is much faster, so we were settled in by 11:30am and Lee took a little walk to explore the area.  After I was done with the inside he wanted to go exploring a bit so we took a scenic drive, partly on Historic Route 66 and partly on 180.  I was reading the description of the scenic drive on his phone and saw there was a lava tube nearby.  That sounded cool, so we turned off on Forest road 245 and headed that way.  There is no sign (other than a small one for the road itself) on 180, but once we got on the forest road itself we did see signs.  Eventually we found a parking area with several cars, and then again with a little difficulty found the path.  I didn’t understand why they made this place so hard to find, but once we were there it made more sense.

Path to the Lava River Cave.  See the sign way down at the end

This is what you see on the surface

And this sign shows it is a 1-1/2 mile tube

When we got to the entrance we were lucky enough to meet a local who was waiting for her family to return.  I say lucky because this cave is not something that should be attempted lightly, and we were completely unprepared.  You need at least two lights, water, a jacket, and really good shoes.  It’s very dark even getting down into the cave and thankfully she warned us about the black ice in between the rocks, because it was very slippery.  With some effort we managed to get down into the mouth of the cave and she was nice enough to take a picture, but that was enough for me.  Claustrophobia set in almost immediately and when Lee wanted to go farther I said I absolutely can’t do that.  It’s a shame because it is something I would have liked to have done if able.  We talked about Lee going back later, better prepared, but I was worried about him doing it alone. Seriously, this cave is no joke, and the lava rock is sharp.  I slipped a little getting down to the entrance and the point of a rock drew some blood and gave me a bruise.  So if you want to try it please be careful, but I would love to see the pictures of inside.

You can see the lady we met sitting at the entrance

As soon as you walked down to where Lee was a cold blast of air hit us. Warm clothing definitely called for

This is with the night setting on the camera. Much darker where the ice was

Low ceilings are also a danger. We could see blood where someone had hit their head

Made it this far. The entrance is behind the ice to the left and it was a ice slide to get down

You can see by the look on my face I was done

Whew out. Just typing this makes my chest constrict lol

After the cave, we continued driving up 180 and found a little church that was not on Roadside America.  It caught my eye and we stopped to take a picture and I realized it was open to the public.  What an amazing find, and I submitted it to the app developers for future people to see.  The Church of the Holy Dove was built by a local Doctor and is now open to the public.  Many people hold weddings there, but the only way to show how special it is is through pictures.

Me in the pic for scale.  The front door was unlocked so I opened it and wow!

The front doow is tiny but it opens to this amazing two story  view of the mountains

Inside facing the door.  Would have to be a small wedding, but what a great place to have the ceremony.

After driving the rest of the loop we headed back and had some dinner. We had lots of things on our list for the next day, but I am going to put all of that in the next post.  To finish this one up though I want to leave you with some of my current thoughts on boondocking. The morning I started this post, I woke up with lots of thoughts in my head about boondocking, and wanted to get them down while they were still fresh, so I will leave you with one last pic of the area, and then jump in.  If you just like the pretty pictures, I would recommend stopping here 🙂

We really like boondocking in wilderness areas.  It’s quiet, the views are amazing, and you can get close to nature.  Plus of course it is cheap. But it’s not totally free, as some people might think.  You will need to pay for dumping, unless you want to use an app to find a free dump location, which can be few and far between. Plus you will be using propane for your fridge and water heater, and anything else you might normally run on electricity. It’s definitely still cheaper than most campgrounds you could find with similar circumstances.   But there are some downsides, at least for me.  So in the interest of full disclosure, a couple of incidents happened during the 2-1/2 days we were here and I thought I should mention them, mainly because we know people like to get as many details as possible, so they are better prepared.

I have a general level of unease when we are this far removed from other campers.  Part of that I know is because we are still pretty new at boondocking, but it’s also based on factors that make sense to me.  First are the wild animals.  We have found animal carcasses and/or old bones every time we have boondocked.  That makes sense because we are in the wilderness, but it also indicates that there are probably large predators around.  I know intellectually that they will generally avoid people, because there is easier prey, but it still makes me more cautious.  My solution to this by the way is to keep a bear horn handy.  We are living on their land, so if an animal came along my desire would be to frighten it off not hurt it and hopefully the bear horn would do the trick. (It would not. It’s not so much a bear deterrent as it is a “call to dinner”. – Lee)

Secondly, despite the remoteness there are signs of people.  These spots are generally well known, or we wouldn’t find them, and there are people in the general area either camping or making day use of the area.  Sometimes that makes me feel less isolated, but other times, depending on the type of trash we find, it adds to the unease.  Shell casings, which we see frequently, mean people come to the area to shoot and of course beer cans and smashed liquor bottles mean they come to drink. The combination of both paints an unattractive picture in my mind, and although we have never personally seen this kind of rowdy behavior it is in the back of my head. Trash tells its own story.

If we stayed near the RV all day I would probably be less worried, but part of the reason we do this is to explore, so we generally leave the rig unattended for large stretches of time.  As a general rule folks like to spread out from each other as much as possible, especially in dispersed camping areas, but there is nothing to stop someone from parking right next to you.  This happened on our second night here.  We went out for the scenic drive and we got back around 3:30pm there was a white Toyota Prius parked in a spot behind us, about 30 yards away, with the driver just sitting in it. And it was parked in such a way that the driver was looking out his front windshield at our rig. At first I thought the person was just hanging out and would move on,  but as the evening wore on it became clear they weren’t leaving.  They didn’t pitch a tent, we actually didn’t see them outside of the car at all, and ultimately it was clear they were going to sleep in their car overnight.

Don’t get me wrong, we have run into lots of people who travel and sleep in their cars  and a White Prius is not exactly a scary vehicle, but since the driver’s window was looking right at us,  it made me uncomfortable, and ultimately drove me inside for the evening.  The person left around 5am (they must have been freezing sleeping in their car) which was good, but I just couldn’t relax while they were there.  I’m not saying they didn’t have as much right to be here as we did, and maybe they chose to stay near us for concerns about safety, but for me it was definitely not optimal. I understand many people wouldn’t think twice about it, but at this point I am not one of them.  Again, maybe with more experience that might change. There are lots of folks out there who are living off the grid and traveling with non traditional setups. We’ve met several people in this category throughout our travels, and they do have different motivations.  Some people are just taking some time off “regular life” and are on an adventure, others are reclusive and simply want to be left alone, some people are convinced we are all headed towards a catastrophic event and are preparing for that eventuality, and others are just living close to the edge, being forced into “camping” by circumstance rather than choice. I have rewrote this paragraph about 5 times now and would just delete it, but it seems important to talk about, so I’ll just do the best I can here and quit pussyfooting around.  When we run across an unusual camping setup, it’s not easy to tell which of the above applies. When it happens in a surrounding that includes other campers and or some sort of authority there is at least the illusion of safety.  Meet in a remote area, with no one else around and less so.  Here’s an example.  Ever see someone in a dark alley?  95% chance the person is a fine, upstanding citizen, but your senses are heightened and you are probably extra cautious.  That’s what remote boondocking can feel like to me.  I am not saying I am right about it, just saying that is how it is, for me, in this moment.

My other concerns are more mundane.  We are early risers and as nice as it would be to change our schedules to accommodate the sun (and the electrcity it brings via our solar setup) that doesn’t seem easy for either of us.  Nothing quite like getting up in the total dark and hanging out until the sun comes up.  We could use the generator of course, because there are no quiet hours in the forest, but that costs money, so we tend to not do that.  Even when the furnace is working, Lee likes to avoid using it so he often gets up and starts a fire.  There’s not much to do in the cold and quiet early morning hours so he uses his phone and just hangs out.  We also like coffee, but for some reason he hates percolated coffee so has gone to pretty extreme (in my mind) measures to simulate drip brewed coffee.  He heats the water in the percolator pot, and then uses the filter and carafe from the regular coffee maker to make the coffee and then reheats it on the stove.  This all takes awhile and is quite a bit different from the 2 minute Bunn coffee experience when we have on electric, but it matters to him so it’s OK.  When he gets up first its all fine for me.  The fire is going, the coffee is made, and things are starting to warm up, but unfortunately I am frequently awakened in the middle of the night and if I can’t go back to sleep I just lay there.

One of the things that wakes me up is the beeping on the refrigerator when we are out of propane.  We have four 20# tanks and Lee likes to have only one of them open at a time to keep track of how much we’re using. Murphy’s law says the tank will empty in the middle of the night, and the refrigerator will start beeping. It happened more times than I can count in Quartzsite and happened again our last night here and my choices are to go outside in the pitch black and open a tank,  or just turn the fridge off and go back to bed. I chose the latter this morning because the prospect of dealing with the dark, the cold, and the long coffee process was just too much for me to handle that early in the morning.    I know I should be hardier, but you try dealing with all that when it’s 40 degrees.  I’ll pass.  It’s just another example of what the beautiful pictures don’t show and since I am as guilty as anyone else of forgetting about the less pleasant aspects of boondocking I thought I would mention them while it was all fresh in my mind.

Some people love all of that and I admire them for it.  But we were never campers before we became full time RVers and there was a reason for that.  Living like this requires compromises and it’s up to the individual person to decide whether those compromises are worth the remoteness and the quiet.  In this spot we have had beautiful weather (cold mornings aside), plenty of sunlight for solar power,and a strong internet connection which is great, but those other things can also be a factor.  And despite all of these we will continue boondocking, because the benefits do outweigh the negatives.  But it’s not without it’s challenges and we absolutely need to get the furnace fixed!

(I think she’s a big cry baby and a wimp, and Laura Ingalls would laugh at her and eat a moose or something. – Lee)

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11 thoughts on “First Time Boondocking in Flagstaff

  1. By the time I was 18 I had spent a year camping in the wild with no negative encounters with large wildlife and only once with rattle snakes. Although you guys are staying in areas where wildlife is more abundant at times, I would think the chance would be rather low of getting mixed up with something like a bear or cougar. I would think surprising one when you go out the door in the night or morning would be one potential risk especially if you left any food out. I still can’t get over how people are able to kayak in waters with alligators. To me that seems like asking for a problem. But then again I have no experience with alligators and overtime might become more relaxed.

    An Assistant Prosecutor at work went on a cross country trip between jobs. He would stop and sleep for a few hours in remote areas. He puts bad people in prison for a living. So the ones you see in cars might be a good guy.

    I like the idea of having a bear horn.

    You know most of the fear is in our head! Yet to find a blog where anyone had any real issues and never met anyone while camping who ever did.

  2. Thanks for your insights. We want to get solar and boondock, but what you write about is very much in my head. I guess I’m afraid of the dark.
    Once again, thanks for your honesty!

    • I absolutely recommend trying it before you decide. We are definitely going to do more of it and it’s a great way to keep costs down. Just wanted to share the other side of it

  3. You need to get Lee a one cup at a time cone drip thing for his coffee mug. You boil the water on the stove and pour it through one cup at a time. Easy peezy. They sell them in Walmart – cheap – and you can get cone filters. This one is at Bed Bath & Beyond.,store:14009722091141104792&prds=oid:6174993759294347893&q=one+drip+cup+at+a+time+coffee&hl=en&ei=-9z7WKfNMcTtmAHg3riwBw&lsft=gclid:CjwKEAjw_uvHBRDUkumF0tLFp3cSJACAIHMYpAuw3CT7X0LQiK0ocUDfnZVODIroQqUvv0sqU2R2EBoCLPjw_wcB

  4. Coffee recommendation for Lee- maybe try an Aeropress? We bought one for our last camping trip and it was a success- best camp coffee we’ve ever had.
    Interesting thoughts on the downside of Boondocking….I’m not so worried about wild animals as long as I’m treating them with respect and am aware of my surroundings, making noise when hiking, carrying bear spray and putting away all food, garbage, etc. but that may be because of familiarity living where I do. However, I am much more nervous of people. I know rationally it is highly unlikely that I’ll be harmed out in remote nature by other people…. rationally I get that but then again, fear isn’t necessarily a rational emotion… I’ll be interested to hear about your perceptions as you continue to boondock. Thanks!

  5. Wow that little church was quite a nice find 🙂
    Add let Lee know that I will go and explore the cave with him. Looks like a really cool spot 🙂

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