Oregon Trip Planning: Dee Wright Observatory

Our second time at the Dee Wright Observatory was even more impressive than our first. We ended up there by default when the campground we aimed for was full. Oregon trip planning isn’t really something that I do very well. I actually don’t tend to do any trip planning at all.

Since we have been unable to get to our cottage this year, I have been trying to fill in the gap by buying another kayak and googling every freshwater lake in Oregon.

Oregon Trip Planning: Santiam Pass

We packed everything from kayaks to remote control trucks and headed to Big Lake Campground, near Sisters, Oregon. Most of the campground is first come, first served. It was mid-week and I was foolishly hopeful. The campground was full. For those of you interested in Big Lake Campground, it shares a driveway with Hoodoo ski area and is adjacent to Big Lake Youth Camp, which happened to be one of CD’s re-supply stops when he hiked the PCT. The campground was crowded and the sites were small. Other than feeling bad about driving all that way and not getting a campsite, I wasn’t too disappointed to not camp there.

Camping everywhere between there and Sisters was full. We headed back west on 242.

Cold Spring Campground had 2 spots available even though it was nearly 7:00 at night. We opted to gamble on the Willamette National Forest and continued west.

McKenzie Highway Pass: OR 242

McKenzie Highway runs between Sisters and Belknap Springs and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I recommend this route as long as you are not in a hurry, enjoy driving twenty miles per hour, and are not prone to motional sickness.

If you chose this route, the pay off is one of the most interesting lava fields I have seen.

It wasn’t long before we caught our first glimpse. The lava runs right up to the road to the north and towers high above it but to the south there is just the usual landscape.

Oregon trip planning at its finest! Check out the lava flow next to the road!

We hoped to camp at Lava Camp Lake Campground. Be careful not to confuse this with Lava Lake Campground, east of Bend. The entrance to Lava Camp Lake Campground is just before McKenize Pass summit when headed westbound. The entrance is difficult to find and is a dirt two track on the south side of the road. You follow this for approximately two miles to a day use area and a hand full of camp sites. Most sites are not on the lake. I wouldn’t have wanted to drive anything higher or much longer than our Sprinter down the road and when we got there, the campsites were full, of course. It is National Forest and I am sure some people slept in day use area parking but we chose a brief walk and drove on again.

Dee Wright Observatory

Less than a half of a mile up hill is one of the most unique places that I have been.

We pulled into the parking lot of Dee Wright Observatory, I opened the door and set up the stove. It was well passed dinner time and we all needed a break and a second to think of what to do next. I was lighting up the stove when some people a few spots away shouted: “you must have the same idea as us.”

It took for a moment to see what was going on but then I realized that this couple was setting up a tent on the sidewalk, a table next to thier car, and two camera tripods. Another couple at the other end of the parking lot were sitting in thier car playing cards and eating chips. Everyone was there to see the comet NEOWISE.

Dark Skies, Oregon Trip Planning

Here we were at the top of McKenzie Pass, surrounded by 8 miles of black lava rock and not an artifical light in sight. It was nearly dusk. The kids and CD went for a hike while I made dinner. We moved the kayaks to the sidewalk and turned the van around for prime coment viewing. We just happened to find a great camping spot!

The excitement in the parking lot was obvious. People were chatting and pointing while be attentive to social distancing. It was helpful that there are two large parking lots and there was never more than six or eight cars at a time.

Between the cool temperatures and the wind, there were few mosquitos. We opened our van doors and watched the sky. We saw the comet in between camera flashes. It was good for the soul.

Cars came and went until midnight or so and then it was quiet and dark. We slept until 9:00 and woke up feeling like we had landed on the moon!

Trees and lava next to each are impressive, however.
Lava and mountains

From the observatory you can see glaciers on the Three Sisters, views of Mt. Washington, and random trees growing out of lava flows. There is a paved walkway with signs discussing different features of the lava flow.

Oregon trip 101, have fun, of course!

Pacific Crest Trail Access: OR 242

CD is pretty much always looking for PCT access. Approximately a 1/4 mile west of the observatory, on the north side of the road, there is PCT day use parking. You can hike southbound and head towards the observatory or northbound and head for Belknap Crater. We did both and they were both amazing! The landscape is so unique. Wildflowers, red dirt, and trees touch fields of black lava. The lava towards 10 or 20 feet above the ground at times and it feels bizarre to imagine how it just stopped flowing and piled up in such dramatic fashion.

The trail is well marked. Footing on the lava is a bit tricky but the dirt trail is easy walking. For this PCT day hike you don’t need much more than a parking permit, sunscreen, snacks, and camera. Enjoy!

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Sprinter Camper Conversion: Things I Learned

We chose a 2015 Sprinter 144 for our family of 4 camper van. It is our third camping van and our second camping conversion. We chose it because we drive more than we camp.

I am not much of a camper. In fact, I am really only starting to learn to camp and this can be painfully obvious for my husband at times. It was recently that I realized it would be best if I tried to learn to camp.

I am really a cottage girl. I grew up with a cottage and that is where my skillsets lie. It could be argued that few are more skilled at the art of cottaging. I can arrive at the cottage any time day or night and have everything I need. My biggest concern may be getting the cold food and drinks in the fridge and my chair positioned correctly on the deck.

So, here I am, the proud owner of a Sprinter 144 DIY camper conversion. There are dozens of great things about this van! CD gets all of the credit for the modifications. They are amazing and have helped to ease me into van life. New cabinets, fishing rod holders, and LED lights are our latest upgrades.

Even with these latest upgrades, 2020 has been an eye opening year. Here are a few things I have learned so far.

1. A Van Chosen For Driving May Not Be Ideal For Camping

It may seem like I am stating the obvious but this one took me a bit to wrap my head around. Last summer’s trip racked up 8528 miles and 190 hours and 55 minutes of total trip time. Our average mileage was 23.4 miles per gallon.

Our van is easy to drive in nearly all conditions. It is fast, comfortable, gets decent mileage, can park in any parking spot, and makes a U turn like nobody’s business. We may drive a couple of hundred miles during a day in the Rockies but nearly 1000 miles once we hit the plains. No matter how many miles we put on in a day, we rarely spend more than an afternoon at a campground. Our Sprinter has rolled into some of our country’s most beautiful campgrounds at dinner and left the next day. We have slept at a gas station in South Dakota, a rest stop in southern Michigan, friends driveways all over the US and Canada, and plenty of Walmarts.

Yet, our van is a Sprinter 144 DIY camping conversion. So what happens when we camp?

Sprinter camper conversion

2. Camping In Our Sprinter Is More Like Car Camping Than Van Living.

It turns out that I don’t really know how to camp. Even the best camping conversion may be hard for me to navigate.

My cooler is always a mess. I spill things and burn dinner regularly. I am constantly rearranging everything. At the campground, I take things out of the van and put them back in the van. CD recently pointed out that even people with RVs tend to arrange thier campsite by using outside space. I have since noticed water coolers on tables, dish washing stations on benches, accesory tables full of who knows what, chairs all over the place, laterns, and so many things that I can’t even remember.

So, is the idea to set up and tear down your own mini cottage at each campsite? If so, I think I can work towards that, although I am not sure I fully understand it yet.

Are these the things that I use to build my mini-cottage each week? Sprinter camper conversion

3. Camping In Our Sprinter Is More Like Car Camping Than Thru-Hiking

Okay, this one is really for CD. He has hiking tons of long trails, including thru hiking the PCT in 2004. Some of the skills that he learned on the PCT are not fully transferrable to our Sprinter. He does not need to drink the cooking water, save his one spork for every meal, eat two breakfasts, or check his pack weight for our day hike. Even though he doesn’t need to, he does all of this anyway. I guess that if I need to set up a mini cottage each week, he can act as if he is on a thru-hike! I am just glad that he hasn’t gone back to eating pop tarts in order to up his calories!

CD’s tent on the PCT

4. Putting Up A Tent Does Not Mean We Failed Our Sprinter Camper Conversion

The kids love tents. If we were staying at a campground for a few days and put a tent up near our Sprinter, it would not mean that we failed. It may mean that CD can sleep alone outside or the kids can play in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

The only time we put up a tent next to this Sprinter was last summer when we took our annual camping trip with my nephew. CD slept in my twenty year old tent. The rain seeped up from below and he soon realized that it is no longer water proof! The kids and I laughed about it while watching the storm from inside the van.

This was our first Sprinter and this actually did mean we failed. The low roof Sprinter did not work for us and we often used a tent to escape it! Waterton National Park

5. Camping, Either By Van Or Not, Requires Skill and Practice

It takes time to put up the table, organize the dishwashing station, unpack the kayaks, look for a fishing hole, or find a place to launch a boat. This all takes time away from my personal rest and relaxation. How much does that matter? Not much, I guess. My time is currently well spent organizing campsites and exploring unchartered rivers. Do I wish I was sitting on a deck or in a super fancy Sprinter drinking coffee and waiting for the best time to go fishing? Well, maybe – but now that I know that the van is just one part of the campsite, everything is looking up!

Schwarz camp

Would I change anything about our Sprinter camper conversion?

Not really. Well, maybe. Given endless time and a bottomless wallet, I would get a custom built Sprinter 170 for driving and camping. CD could spend his time doing minor modifications to the exsisting camping conversion, rather than being in charge of every detail starting with camping conversion design all the way through finish carpentry.

Wood paneling around rear AC. Part of our recent upgrades!

Would I recommend a Sprinter 144 camper conversion for a family?

Sure. Please make peace with its limitations in space and love its efficiency! I do!

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Sprinter Van Shopping List For The Minimalist
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Sprinter Roof Rails Self Installation: 12 Easy Steps.
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Packing for a Pandemic Road Trip.

I never expected to be writing about packing for a pandemic road trip. I consider packing to be a highly subjective and personal topic. Everyone has different preferences and techniques for packing based on their needs.

So, here I am, mid pandemic, packing for our annual cross country road trip.

Below are 5 ways that Covid 19 is changing our trip.

1. Food. Much More Food.

We cook nearly all of our meals at the van and have been surprised how many beautiful and out of the way spots we have found only because we wanted to cook lunch.

With that being said, we also love fresh fruits, local food, and finding reasons to get out of the van mid-road trip. Over the years, I have learned to pack less food and stop more often. We enjoy checking out fruit stands and local grocery stores. We stretch our legs, soak up the culture, and buy food often during our trips.

This time, however, I have been stock piling food. Costco, Safeway, and homemade cookie baking have supplied enough food to live in our van for weeks. To CD’s dismay, I have even resorted to 54 single serving bags of chips, granola bars, drink boxes, and even a few bottles of water. I basically made my own convenience store in the back of our Sprinter. We will see how far it gets us!

2. Clorox Wipes and Hand Sanitizer.

While I like to keep things clean, I am not prone to wiping things down all day long. We use water with a spigot and a bar of soap to wash our hands before we eat. I typically carry one tiny bottle of hand sanitizer for emergencies. This time I packed two containers of Clorox wipes, two large bottles and three small bottles of hand sanitizer. I still have the bar of soap but that just didn’t seem like it would cut it. We will see.

3. Masks.

I didn’t see this one coming. I have two adult makes with ties, two adult masks with elastic, two kids masks with ties, two adult N95s, two kids N95s, and a bit of anxiety. As a health care provider, I hope that we don’t get into a situation that seems like it requires a N95. Wish us luck.

4. Luggable Loo And Extra Accessories.

The Luggable Loo is our potty of choice. I use biodegradable bags and poo powder. I have not typically bought extras. This time I did.

5. Guitar.

Okay, this isn’t new but it seems like a good idea when faced with a socially distant pandemic road trip. I can already hear the music.

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Sprinter Van Shopping List For The Minimalist
Storage In Our Sprinter: A simple solution
Fresh food. This time it may look more like empty chip bags and mac and cheese but we shouldn’t be hungry.

5 Tips for Starting Your Sprinter Camper Make-Over.

We have been home since mid-March. Our pandemic projects include sour dough bread making, teaching home school, and continuing work on our Sprinter camper. CD’s progress with the Sprinter has been the most successful of the three.

Roof rails are installed, LED lights are wired to a dimmer switch, cedar tongue and groove is in place, and two new cabinets are ready to be filled.

Writing guides for each of this projects will take a me a bit of time but while I work on that, CD offered his top 5 tips for our diving into a Sprinter camper project.

Sneak peek! I can’t wait to share more.

1. Accept gaps in wood spacing or make custom pieces.

CD chose to custom cut each piece of wood. Time was not of the essence.

2. Realize that your Sprinter is not square.

No matter how square things start out, your van is not square.

3. Create things with wiggle room.

Plan on fine adjustments and be flexible.

4. Consider both your ideal end product and your acceptable end product.

Decide which of these you are working towards.

5. Be honest about your timelines.

Realize that your acceptable product will likely take as long you thought your ideal product would. Set out to make your ideal product and you may end up with your good enough one. If you are set on your ideal product, plan to increase your time spent ten fold and have plenty of extra wood on hand.

Have Fun With Your Sprinter Camper!

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Sprinter Roof Rails Self Installation: 12 Easy Steps.
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Sprinter Low Roof vs High Roof
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Here is great source for van campers! Check it out!

DIY Promaster Camper Conversion Guide – Part I

Sprinter Camper Conversion: Amenities

Our first Sprinter camper conversion was a 2012 low roof passenger van with limited amenities. It didn’t work out.

We are a family of four and stand by our decision to camp and travel in a passenger van but our decision to start with a low roof van was ill informed and flawed.

5 reasons why we chose a low roof Sprinter:

  1. It would be a more practical daily driver.
  2. We could drive under bridges, park in parking garages, or go through a drive thru.
  3. Additional vertical space wouldn’t offer additional benefits.
  4. The kids can stand up and I can nearly stand up.
  5. It cost less.

5 reasons why this reasoning was flawed:

  1. A low roof and a high roof are essentially the same when using as a daily driver.
  2. Parking in a parking garage, going through a drive thru, or driving under some bridges may not be possible in either Sprinter.
  3. Vertical space adds many more storage options!
  4. I really want to stand up. Oh, my aching back!
  5. The low roof initially cost less but we lost any initial savings when we sold it four months later.

All about us.

  • We are a family of four, including two kids under 10.
  • More days are spent driving than camping.
  • We love windows!
  • CD is 6′ tall and I am 5’8″. We are both over 40 and maybe not as flexible as we once were.
  • Sometimes we stop along the road just to hang out in the van.
  • Money is a consideration but we would rather spend a bit more to have a van that suits us than have an aching back and a cluttered van.
Our high roof Sprinter with some fun amenities.
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Passenger Van: Pros and Cons

Pros:

Windows!

  • The kids can see.
  • Improved visual field when driving.
  • We can see if the kids are in the van from outside.
  • Sunsets!

Cons:

Windows.

  • People can see in from outside. It doesn’t bother me really but it is worth being aware.
  • We spent a few hours and a little money making curtains. Each day we spend a little time putting up and taking down curtains.

Seats

  • Safe seats for the kids.
  • Seats for family members and friends.

Seats

  • Spare seats take up garage space.
  • The spare seats are not easily removed and re-installed.
Sprinter amenities. Seats anyone?

Other Sprinter Amenities: Blind Spot Monitor, Electric Running Board, and Cross Wind Assist

These are things that our first van did not have. Do we enjoy these features?

Yes!

Blind spot monitor: changes my experience every day!

Electric running board: a bench, a welcome mat, a table, and a reminder to close the door fully.

Cross wind assist: We think it actually helps.

Thoughts on rear AC.

Rear AC: It cools the van to arctic temperatures, even on the hottest days. Luckily, it cools all the way to the front as the main AC isn’t very effective. I sometimes walk to the back and realize that the kids need blankets while I am just right. We debate its importance each time we look at solar panels for our roof but then re-affirm our need for it each summer. Our solar panels will work around it and our Maxxair fan fit just fine.

Please follow our blog and our Sprinter adventures!

Sprinter Roof Rails Self Installation: 12 Easy Steps.
How do you know when family van life has gone off the rails?

For other insight on choosing a van, check out this article!

What Is The Best Van To Live In?

Oregon Winter Stay-cation: A Morning In Our Sprinter

Here we were in the middle of an Oregon winter. The sun was shining. It was nearly fifty degrees. We are waist deep in home projects and ready for a stay-cation.

Sunday morning started off lazily but the sun was too tempting to stay home.

McDonald – Dunn Forest is a short drive from our house. Using my mom instincts, I packed a light lunch and spare socks.

Sitting in the van is like a breath of fresh air. There is something comfortable, simple and refreshing about it. I think we all feel it.

The Vineyard Loop: Oregon Winter

It is a well traveled 3.4 mile route with a view from the top. We like to sit and stare off into the distance. The kids made up a game where they were having a Superbowl party for cats and dogs. They walked and talked the whole way.

We spent an hour and half walking and a half an hour in the van.

Van Life: Memories of Summertime

The kids took theirs shoes off and hopped up on the bed. They looked out the window with the door open and the sun shining in. I got the snacks out but they didn’t eat. CD and I ate the cheese and crackers until it was time to go. I am sure that they would have stayed up there looking out all day.

Sprinter life requires a different pace. It is good to be reminded that a slower pace is just fine too.

Our trail
The trail is easy to find.
Trees and sky. A scene from a book.
Our view was perfect. The end of the trail.
The woods were green and wet with rain and it was a great day.
The woods are thick and full of lichen, of course.

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Oregon’s Coast, Manzanita: A Hidden Gem.
Cape Perpetua, Oregon Coast Day-Trip.

Suttle Lake, Oregon: Camping Review.

We live in the Willamette Valley and enjoy camping in Oregon.

The coastal range is to the East and the Cascades to the West. It rains; it is wet. Lichen and fungi are prolific.

CD and I met in the high mountains of Colorado. The high desert is a comfortable climate for us. With that being said, we both enjoy the Willamette Valley. It is not typically until I leave the valley that I realize how much more comfortable I am with brown pine needles than with banana slugs and trees chocked by lichen.

Birthday Weekend Camping: Oregon

It was CD’s birthday weekend. We had been home from our summer trip for less than a month. Our Oregon to Oregon odometer reading for the summer was 8528 miles and our trip timer reading was 190 hours and 55 minutes. Even with just having returned home, we missed the Sprinter life. The kids and I suggested an overnight camping trip for CD’s birthday. It needed to be a quick 1 night get-away.

We all agreed to drive East towards Sisters. CD had eyed up a few places and chose Suttle Lake mostly because we were short on time. It wasn’t as far as Sisters or Bend but was still on the dry side of the pass. There were several National Forest campgrounds and had easy access from the highway. Although he is not a fisherman, CD was kind enough to suggest that the kids and I bring our fishing poles and try our luck. We were sold.

If you have even driven Highway 20 from I-5 to Sisters, you may remember that there is a tipping point were the lichen stops and the high desert begins. I can’t tell you at exactly which mile marker this happens. This time, I didn’t think much of it until we pulled in to the campground. The ground and the air was dry.

The campgrounds were only a few miles from the highway. We drove through Blue Bay campground. It was nice but we kept going and settled on Link Creek.

Link Creek Campground

There were plenty of sites available. We chose a central site so that the kids could fish from the dock and we could see them from the van.
There was a dirt boat launch, fish cleaning stations, and pit toilets. The sites were plenty large and it was generally clean.

It was CD’s birthday so he was calling the shots. CD was happy to sit on the picnic table, strum his guitar, and enjoy the air. The view wasn’t anything spectacular.

Sprinter DIY. #vanlife
Sprinter DIY. #vanlife

I set up the kids fishing poles and started dinner. There were a few boats on the lake. From where we stood, it was shallow and not very inviting for swimming. It may be noted, however, that I was born and raised in Michigan and have high fresh water standards.

The Boats, Oregon Camping at Suttle Lake

In any case, it wasn’t long before we heard a motor revving. Some sort of race boat with two exhaust pipes sticking up launched at the adjacent dock and was driving around the lake. This lake isn’t huge, by the way. The boat would speed around the lake two or three times, then idle for a bit. When it was driving it was so loud that we could barely talk to each other. I am sure other campers were irritated but I was more amazed, interested, and surprised. The whole thing went on for an hour or so and then they loaded the boat on the trailer and drove away.

The second most interesting thing we saw was a good sized cabin cruiser. It was anchored off shore a bit. Again, this is not a huge lake. I assumed they would sleep there but rather than doing so, they pulled into the dock at the campground and slept in a tent.

I guess people really love boating on this lake. Based on our lack of success fishing and the fishing equipment on their boat, it occurred to me that you may need a boat to get to the fish.

Several campers had kayaks pulled up on shore and easily accessed by walking paths from their campsites. This seemed like a nice idea to me.

The Great Awning Experiment

By the time the kids and I got back, CD was fully immersed in his much anticipated awning experiment. Years ago he made an awning for our minivan. He had been wanting to try it out on the Sprinter. Rain was expected over night and I guess he decided this was his chance.

Here it is. Don’t trip over the guylines. Sprinter DIY. Oregon camping
oregon camping

Well, he did it. It was set up and surprisingly solid. I was curious about the sag in the middle but it sounded like he had a plan. The guylines were a bit of a hazard but I was willing to humor him and give the thing a try. It was his birthday after all.

He told me to walk around the van to see how he secured the awning.

This is what I found:

oregon camping

He seemed to know it was ridiculous and not any sort of ground breaking invention. Since we couldn’t open the driver’s side door, it was barely even a short term solution but he was so happy.

HB woke up around dawn. We found a bridge that we had failed to see the night before. There were fish rising and jumping all over the place. We tried every fishing trick I knew but they just didn’t bite. We watched the sun come up, saw trail runners and walked some of the trail. It may be worth mentioning that you can see and hear highway 20 while standing on the shore but we didn’t notice this from our campsite.

Shortly after CD and Grace woke up, the skies opened up. The awning held. We ate oatmeal in the van and broke camp.

The Suttle Lodge

CD was curious about the Suttle Lake Lodge. It was near Highway 20 and not far off the road. We walked into the main lodge and were greeted by a crowded room of happy lodge guests. There was shelf after shelf of board games. The dining area was community style with big long tables next to sofas and coffee tables. Dogs were welcome and everyone was smiling. Big windows and glass doors offered a lake view. A large patio and lawn were beyond. There were docks with row boats and fishing boats for rent.

I am quite sure that CD didn’t intend to spend time or money here but it was just too tempting. I ordered fresh squeezed orange juice, grapefruit juice, and an egg sandwich with aged cheddar.

We already had breakfast at camp but the opportunity to drink fresh squeezed juice while playing board games by a hot fire with tons of happy people just seemed like the right thing to do. The kitchen was slow but for good reason. The place was packed and they were obviously making every order one by one. We didn’t mind the wait.

In Summary,Oregon Camping Review:

Would I camp at Suttle Lake again? Probably not.

What would I do differently if camped there again? Walk, boat, or bike to breakfast at the Suttle Lake Lodge. Spend time playing corn hole and drinking fresh juice. I may consider happy hour at the lodge too. I may consider just staying at the lodge if I need an easy to get to lodging location for a few people that like that kind of thing.

Please follow our blog for more adventures!

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