7 Great National Parks to Visit in Late Fall

If I had to pick, I’d say that Fall is my favorite season for Airstream travel, no matter where I am in North America. The air is less humid and the mornings are crisp, the leaves are changing, and the summer crowds have gone back to school and work. It’s an ideal time to spot wildlife, explore in the middle of the day without dreadful heat, and cook outdoors.

Those of you in extreme northern or high-altitude areas might find campgrounds closing in mid-October, or but otherwise it’s fun and easy to camp in the late Fall with just a few simple preparations. Here are some of my favorite national park destinations for this season (along with tips to make your experience better):

EASTERN US

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia has the advantage of being beautiful and convenient to large cities on the east coast. Its slightly higher altitude means it gets fall foliage a little earlier than the Shenandoah Valley region, and hiking in the forests can be a sublime experience. On my last trip with Bert Gildart we spotted a bear cub racing down a hillside, historic old cabins, and stood on high rocky precipices with stunning views.

As with most of these destinations, late Fall weather can be changeable, and a heavy fog is just as likely as clear blue skies, so be ready for anything.

For more on this park, see this blog entry.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is another popular one because of its proximity to population centers and ease of access, but don’t let that dissuade you. In the Fall it’s much less crowded. You can pick how you want to spend your day: exploring historic sites by car or with easy walking, or hiking hundreds of miles of trails that will quickly get you away from civilization.

Like Shenandoah, it’s a mountainous region so the weather is highly variable, and the roads are occasionally winding, but it’s rare to have conditions that would be unsafe for Airstreams in the fall. The park is so large that you’ll never see it all on a single visit, and that makes it a great place to visit year after year.

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is great in Fall for the same reasons as the others (less crowding, great foliage) but with a twist: the caves are always the same comfortable temperature year-round. There are many cave tours to check out, most of which involve easy paved walking trails and lighting, but you can also opt for wilder experiences where you’ll need to gear up and slither through tight spots.

If you’re a bit claustrophobic, the park offers mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and other options—well worth exploring while your adventurous companion roams the underground world. In any case, the campgrounds and caves are located in forested areas so if you can time your visit for fall foliage season you’ll have a spectacular experience.

WESTERN US

Out west, it’s not latitude that determines where you can go, it’s altitude. High-altitude parks (above 6,000 feet) are generally off limits by late October due to snow and freezing temperatures. But that still leaves plenty of great options.

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is spectacular—and chilly—in late Fall. There are four campgrounds in the park that support boondocking RVs but if you want hookups you’ll probably end up in a commercial campground in nearby Estes Park. But the minor inconveniences are well worth it in the elk mating season, when the male elk gather their harems and “bugle” and occasionally do head-butting battle with other males.

It’s a spectacular wildlife show. Bring a good set of binoculars, a spotting scope, or a long lens for your camera, because you have to observe from a distance. For really great viewing, check out the line of Swarovski optics offered at the Airstream Life Store.

If frosty mornings don’t appeal to you, hit the beach! Padre Island National Seashore in Texas is an under-appreciated resource in the national park service, in my opinion. You can tow your Airstream trailer out on the beach and camp anywhere in a 60 mile stretch (assuming you have 4WD). It’s nearly-unique opportunity to sleep in your Airstream and hear the waves all night long, and the breezy fall weather makes for ideal conditions (no need for air conditioning). If you have a 2WD drive there are still five miles of drivable beach you can camp on—or you can pick from several no-hookup established campgrounds.

Further west there’s always the venerable Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. In late Fall the north rim is closed due to higher elevation, so aim for the south rim instead. In the summer and early Fall it’s crowded, but if you time your visit carefully you can catch that sweet spot between crowds and freezing temperatures.

Personally, this is the only time of year I’ll go to the Grand Canyon south rim. Otherwise it’s just too crowded for my taste. The Trailer Village campground offers full hookups and there’s a shuttle bus that can take you to major sights along the South Rim so you can leave your tow vehicle behind.

A quieter spot is Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. Primarily it’s known as a hiking park, with plenty of great trails, but it also has a hidden benefit: it’s only 40 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, so you can get a two-fer. Carlsbad doesn’t have any RV camping, and most people end up in the uninspiring White’s City RV Park nearby. That’s not a terrible option (and it’s the only option if you want hookups) but for the intrepid boondocker who prefers great scenery, it’s hard to beat the quiet camping available at Guadalupe, surrounded by a bowl of mountains and directly adjacent to hiking trails.

One final recommendation from me: Know Before You Go! Things change rapidly in national parks, and so to get current information on any national park site (including camping options, closures, and weather) visit NPS.gov.

Tire care made easy!

With all the online debate about tires, pressure monitoring systems, and the mystery of how to change a trailer tire, I’m not surprised that most people feel it’s a confusing subject—and avoid it. It’s less intimidating to simply think “I’ll call roadside service when there’s a problem.”

But trust me, speaking as a long-time Airstreamer, you do not want to end up in a situation where you’re waiting for someone else to come cure a tire problem. Usually that means a long wait in a place you don’t want to be, and sometimes there no help to be had at all because you’re out of the service area or there’s no cell signal.

It’s really simple to take good care of your tires and avoid problems on the road. The trick is to build tire maintenance into your routine. Here’s how.

  1. Make sure you have the right tools on hand to do these things:
  • check air pressure
  • change a tire
  • inflate a tire, and
  • identify a problem before it gets serious.

Keep these tools in your Airstream all the time so you never can forget to pack them. Read on, and you’ll see exactly what you need.

  1. Before every trip you take, check the air pressure of all the tires.

You can do this with a simple air gauge (obtainable at any hardware store or general merchandise store like Wal-Mart). If you have the Airstream Life Tire Changing Kit, there’s a good gauge in the bag.

But I prefer to just turn on my TST Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) and let it verify all the pressures for me while I’m doing something else. This is the easiest, most accurate, and most efficient way possible. If any of the tires need air, the TST system will let me know on its digital display. I highly recommend this system, available at the Airstream Life Store.

Most late-model Airstreams come with Goodyear Endurance tires which need 80 psi of air pressure when they are “cold,” which means before you start towing. This is why you want to check the pressures while you’re getting ready to go.

If the temperatures have dropped in your area recently, or you’ve changed altitude during your trip, you may find that the tires need a little more air in the morning to reach 80 psi. That’s why I make the next recommendation…

  1. Have an air compressor in the Airstream at all times.

It’s a real pain to search for a gas station with an air compressor in an unfamiliar town. That’s why I always carry a portable air compressor and an extension cord. I can add a little air to the tires anywhere, anytime—and that’s a huge convenience.

Late model Airstreams have inverters built in, so you can use a 120-volt AC (household power) air compressor. Portable ones are inexpensive (less than $40), light, small, and come with convenient carry bags. Simply turn on the Airstream’s inverter and plug the air compressor into the outside power outlet. I recommend this approach if possible, because it will be much more effective at filling tires than a 12 volt DC (battery powered) air compressor. Look for them at auto parts stores, hardware stores, and general merchandise stores.

  1. While you’re preparing your Airstream for your trip, do a visual inspection of the tires.

You may see a problem that can be fixed before you go. For example, look for objects embedded in the tires (a bit of gravel is normal in the treads, but a screw or nail has to be removed and patched).

You might also notice that the tire tread is getting thin, the sidewalls are cracking, or the tread is worn unevenly. These are all signs that there’s a problem or it’s time to get new tires.

For more information on what to look for, get a copy of “The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance.”

  1. During your trip, take a moment to look at the tires again at every rest stop.

You’re checking for the same things as in step #4. It only takes a minute, and making this a habit will pay off some day.

  1. If you have a flat, make sure you have all the tools needed – even if you’re not going to change the tire yourself.

Roadside assistance may not be equipped to change a trailer tire. The Airstream Life Tire Changing Kit includes everything you need:

  • torque wrench (to properly tighten the lug nuts)
  • breaker bar
  • extension
  • sockets
  • safety vest
  • pressure gauge
  • instruction booklet

Keep this bag in your Airstream and you’ll be ready.

The 6-page instruction booklet includes photos and clear directions so you don’t have to remember the procedure if you’re stranded by the side of the road. I also demonstrate the entire Airstream tire changing procedure in this video.

  1. Make tire inspection a systematic part of your pre-departure checklist.

This checklist lists the 6 simple steps I follow before every trip we take. Print it out and keep it handy for your next trip!

Getting your chill on

It’s going to be 106 degrees in Tucson today, so it was quite refreshing to get this email this morning:

Hi Rich, My wife and I are headed to Rocky Mountain National Park next week and the forecast is for snow on one of our 4 days at the park and the nighttime lows are below freezing 3 out 4 of our nights. Do you think our 16’ Airstream will do ok in this unexpected cold? Any suggestions? Thank you. John

First of all, I’m envious. A little overnight snow in September sounds pretty good to us desert dwellers. And rest assured, you’ll be fine through the overnight freezes. Your Airstream is built for freezing temperatures and can easily handle temperatures in the 20s.

On most Airstreams the furnace has a little duct that spills some heated air down to the holding tanks, so they don’t freeze. On other Airstreams, there’s an electric heating pad for the tanks. The fresh water plumbing is all contained inside the body of the trailer, so it will be fine as long as there’s heat inside. Basically, if you’re comfortable, the plumbing is too.

If you have a water hookup and a typical vinyl hose, you should disconnect it at night and let it drain. Those hoses can fail if they are allowed to freeze. (If you have our Ultimate Water Hose you don’t have to worry because it won’t be harmed by freezing.)

In extreme temperatures, like close to zero, you may find the dump valves frozen in the morning. This is rare but if it happens you should not attempt to force them. Wait until temperatures rise before trying to move the valves, or you’ll damage the seals and they’ll leak.

I usually set the nighttime temperature at 62. This is my personal balance between propane conservation and comfort. With a few blankets on the bed (or a warm partner, or a dog) it’s very comfortable. Still, with nighttime lows just below freezing and daytime highs in the 50s or 60s you should expect to use up a 30-pound propane tank in 4-5 nights. For an extended trip you’ll want to know where propane refills can be found. Also keep in mind that on exceptionally cold or windy night the furnace will run a lot more than usual.

The real challenge is electricity. Having an electric hookup is the best option by far. But if you’re in a national park campground there may not be an option to plug in. This makes things very tough in the winter. The furnace alone chews up between 7 and 10 DC amps when it runs, mostly to power the blower. In a very cold night the furnace can cycle on and off every few minutes, consuming 25-40 DC amp-hours by breakfast. Add to that your normal daily electrical usage and (assuming your Airstream has the factory-spec batteries) you’ll be out of power in 24 hours.

While I’m a fan of solar panels, in the winter the sun-gathering opportunity is much less due to low sun angle and cloudiness. Solar still works but it might not be enough if you aren’t conserving power very carefully. In this case, a catalytic heater may be a good option to consider since it doesn’t consume electricity.

Another option is to add more battery capacity. There are several ways to do this, and the best solution depends on the layout of your Airstream. Usually people find a spot toward the front of the trailer (such as under a couch or in an external storage compartment) to install a bigger battery bank. At the same time it’s an opportunity to upgrade to Absorbed Glass Mat batteries, which last longer and are safer.

Otherwise, a generator is probably going to be needed after a day or two of winter boondocking. It will work, but I’m not a big fan of generators for battery recharging. You can read more about that here.

The other thing I think about when going into a winter situation is whether there might be significant snow accumulation that makes driving difficult. Most of us don’t have winter tires on our tow vehicles and many of us don’t have four-wheel drive, so with the added weight of a trailer, getting stuck is a real risk. Even getting in and out of a slushy campground, like the one pictured above in Fort Collins CO can be tough. (Fortunately that vehicle had All-Wheel Drive.)

Towing down a mountain road with snow on the road is a formula for disaster if you aren’t very careful. You’ll want to be confident that your trailer brakes are dialed in so that they don’t over-brake or under-brake, and in any case keep your speed down. When in doubt, wait it out. A couple of hours of sunshine can make a huge difference on the roads.

Otherwise, most of my preparation for a winter camping trip is to bring gear that makes it fun. I like to do a little cooking with the Dutch Oven after dark, so I bring all that gear plus plenty of warm clothes for myself.

Perhaps since you are planning to go to Rocky Mountain National Park in September, you are hoping to spot some elk. It’s the perfect time to go. Definitely bring some good binoculars (or a long telephoto lens for your camera).

Late-season and winter camping can be awesome, and your Airstream makes it possible. Don’t fear the cold—just prepare, and you’ll have a great time.

 

How to replace a fuse in your Airstream

It’s so easy you’ll be wishing that fuses would blow just so you can show off your mad fuse-replacing skills.

All you need is a replacement fuse of the same amp rating, and a little plastic fuse-pulling tool. You’ll find both of these things in Airstream Life’s Maintenance Essentials Kit.

The process is shown in the 1-minute video below:

If a fuse blows shortly after replacing it, you’ve probably got a short circuit somewhere. Stop and check with an RV technician. Don’t replace the fuse with a differently-rated one!

Locked out of your Airstream

It seems to happen at every large Airstream rally:  someone, somehow, gets locked out of their trailer or motorhome.

I have seen it far too many times.  There’s panicked look of owners as they realize they can’t get back in. They think about their wallet, pets, cell phone, and everything else they need that’s inside.  Then the the slow circulation of bystanders begins, anxious to help but not capable of doing much.

Then someone suggests climbing in through a cargo hatch.  This can work (and I’ve done it) but it only works on a few floorplans that have an exterior cargo compartment that goes under the bed—and you’ve got a very thin person on hand—and the bed is on hinges—and the hinges are not locked down.

Finally the inevitable call to a locksmith goes out.  An hour or two later, and a $100 bill, and they’re back inside.

Why is this such a common problem?  Several reasons:

  1. Some Airstream door locks have an “interesting” ability to occasionally self-lock when slammed
  2. It’s easy to drop your Airstream keys when you’re out and about
  3. People don’t think to stash a spare key
  4. Local locksmiths don’t usually have the correct blank in stock for Airstream door keys

Fortunately it’s very easy to prevent the shock of being locked out.  We sell blank keys for most Airstream trailer locks (door handle and deadbolt), plus Basecamp, Nest, and most motorhomes including Interstate and Atlas.  As I mentioned, you can’t find these at most locksmiths, so you need to order the blanks in order to get duplicates made.

Sometimes locksmiths say the key blanks won’t work because they have slightly different head shapes or grooves cut into them. We promise they will! For more explanation, watch this video:

After you’ve had the duplicates made (I suggest two spare sets), put one set in a hidden place. There are lots of interesting hiding places on the outside of an Airstream if you think about it for a while.  I won’t mention them all here (why help potential thieves?) but if you walk around the outside and look closely at the trailer A-frame, various unlocked access hatches, underside, wheel wells, and compartments I bet you’ll come up with a few ideas of your own.  A magnetic Hide-A-Key is helpful for fastening your keys to steel parts.

Another place to keep spares is in your tow vehicle, but that assumes you’ll have access to the vehicle even if you’ve left your Airstream keys inside.  Or, hide a spare key for the tow vehicle on the outside of the Airstream, and hide an Airstream key inside the truck.

But whatever you do, get a couple of spare sets of keys for your Airstream now!  Someday you’ll be glad you did.