By Peter Starr
To paraphrase a famous saying, life is what happens to us while we’re busy making plans. Well, “life” certainly happened to us — my nephew Richard and me — during our recent trip through Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.
The way I look at it, anyone can tow a trailer and go camping in summer, but I like the road less traveled and destinations less crowded, when the air is crisp and the snow sometimes still covers the mountains like a fresh coating of alabaster. Our trip would have us visit the Four Corners area and head east from there to Taos, New Mexico, before heading south to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and west back to Southern California.
The Honda Ridgeline and Lance 1685 travel trailer might be considered by some as a lightweight combination; the Ridgeline has a tow rating of 5,000 pounds. I am in the “less is more” stage of life, and this package promised a great way to go for this trip.
I had driven the Ridgeline two years prior, and its basic formula has barely changed since then. Its 250-hp 3.5-liter V-6, complete with VTEC, is a great power source, if a little lacking in the low-end torque department for towing. The EPA estimate of 20 mpg promised reasonable, if not stellar gas mileage.
Ergonomically this Honda works well, too, with a very comfortable electronically adjustable driver’s seat and plenty of storage space for handling the more-often-than-not cockpit clutter.
The Ridgeline drives like a sophisticated SUV with the bed-storage capability of a pickup.
I have always enjoyed slideouts in small trailers. They provide the space you need while camping but reduce the size and wind resistance while towing.
Lance has done a great job to this end. The 1685 is relatively lightweight at 3,400 pounds, yet with sleeping positions for up to five, and all at a very attractive price. With a full queen bed and a dinette that drops down into another queen bed and bunk bed for the kids, accommodations are commodious enough for most small families. I particularly liked the standard electric awning, TV with built-in DVD player and the high level of fit-and-finish.
We equipped the Ridgeline with a trailer-brake controller and weight-distribution spring bars before hitching up the Lance, and then we hit the road. Although the Lance’s empty wet weight was well within the Ridgeline’s tow rating, users should be aware of the truck’s tow rating relative to the trailer’s overall weight potential. If the trailer is loaded right up to its 5,400-pound gross vehicle weight rating (gvwr) the Ridgeline is then technically overloaded by 400 pounds. With this truck and trailer duo, users will need to deduct that 400 pounds from the trailer’s 1,610-pound payload capacity to help avoid an overloaded situation. The weight of passengers and cargo in the tow vehicle also figure in the equation, but that’s standard for any towing setup.
After some uneventful miles while driving into Nevada, we spent a day in Las Vegas acclimating to the rig, before heading across the much less-populated desert of northern Arizona, which became the first real test of the Honda/ Lance combination.
My initial impression of the towing package was very positive. The Honda handled the weight and “windage” very well, and the Lance looked and seemed every bit a natural part of the package. After refueling in St. George, Utah, we headed to Zion National Park, a place I had wanted to see for a long time. Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed, as unexpected and torrential rain had washed away the road in the park and the ranger advised against taking a trailer through the park without an escort. So, tail between our legs, we headed back to Hurricane, Utah, topped off the gas tank and spirited down Highway 59 and into northern Arizona to join up with Highway 89 at Kanab. Our goal that night was to make it all the way to Cortez in Colorado, a distance of 492 miles. A lot of driving, but I was anxious to maintain our schedule.
The drive through Arizona, back into Utah (at Kanab), and then Arizona again (at Page) was uneventful. From Page, we took Highway 98 across the Navajo Indian Reservation, and that is where our road trip changed. Richard was driving and I was reading when we spotted a little dog on the side of the road, and decided to pick it up. The small, black puppy was little more than skin and bones. In minutes Richard picked it up and made a bed out of a cardboard box for it in the cab of the Ridgeline. It must have felt very safe, not to mention warm, because it immediately fell asleep and did not wake up until we stopped for the night in Cortez.
There we hit the local market, where we bought a doggy bed, puppy food, dog shampoo, wormer, etc., and began the role of dog rescuer. Our first order of business was to introduce the dog to the new experience of bathing. It actually went easier than expected. He wolfed down some dinner and then promptly fell asleep.
The next day we left the trailer in the campground and spent the day in Mesa Verde National Park. The area outside the park is teeming with top-notch campgrounds, including A & A Mesa Verde RV Park & Campground (800-972-6620, www.mesaverdecamping.com), Mesa Verde RV Resort (800-776-7421, www.mesaverdervresort.com) as well as Sundance RV Park (800-880-9413, www.sundancervpark.com). The Mesa Verde wilderness area is a melting pot of remote nature — we saw a rare northern pygmy owl in close quarters — and ancient history, the amazing living quarters of the Pueblo Indians at Spruce Tree House. The blue skies and cold air made the spectacular vistas of the Mancos Valley and the snow-covered San Juan Mountains even more crisp and alive.
The drive to Durango, the pivotal destination of our planned trip, got us into our first experience of driving the lash-up over snow and ice. We set up camp at the Westerly RV Park (970-247-1275, www.westerlyrvpark.com), owned by Jeff and Eugenie Schlittgen, across from Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs, about five miles north of Durango. A light snowfall was fresh, but nothing compared to what was to come. The RV park is close to the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad route, a perfect location for our base camp. Gallup KOA (505-722-2333, www.koa.com/campgrounds/gallup) is also near.
Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs, where the likes of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe had bathed in the 107˚ F mineral springs, beckoned, so with the backdrop of 10 inches of snow, I enjoyed every minute.
Durango is a wonderful small-town experience full of down-to-earth people and plenty of things to do. The focal point of most tourists is the steam train that runs year-round, though in winter months it does not go all the way to Silverton but only to Cascade Canyon, a five-hour round trip. This wilderness destination is a great setting for photo opportunities or a walk along the Animas River, but bring snowshoes during the snowy season.
The train trip is hard to describe without resorting to usually unbearable clichés. The views are stunning as the train chuffs its way along the narrow tracks on the edge of 400-foot drops down to the Animas River. The snow enhanced the wilderness experience and gave some insight to the hardships endured by the original miners of Silverton in the early 1900s.
Other recommended places to spend time in Durango are Steamworks Brewing Company, a brew pub with outstanding beers and excellent food, and the Cyprus Café, where natural food from local sustainable farms is a memorable culinary treat with a friendly presentation. With five days of feeding and grooming, the puppy was now looking decidedly healthy and, with the help of some friends, we found him a new home.
The exceptional hospitality of all the people we came across in Durango made this trip particularly memorable, and the days in Durango went by all too quickly. However, with very heavy snowfalls and fast-falling temperatures that added to the already dangerously icy road conditions, we had to make more executive decisions regarding the travel plans.
With even worse weather on its way, we decided that the road to Taos and Santa Fe was simply too risky to take with our trailer, and so we set out south to Farmington, New Mexico, and Gallup in the hope of warmer weather at lower latitudes. Were we wrong! After leaving Shiprock and heading south on Highway 491, as day quickly turned into night, we encountered a road of packed ice and temperatures 30° below freezing — not counting the wind-chill factor. The Honda handled everything in stride, confidentially pulling the Lance through it all and to the overnight stop in Gallup. Here, I wished for one accessory that we could have used — an electric heater for the Lance. That night was so cold we ran out of LP-gas for the furnace.
We headed out the following morning along I-40 toward Flagstaff, expecting miserable and perhaps dangerous driving conditions, but we were prepared. A quick stop at the Petrified Forest National Park Ranger Station revealed the park drive was closed due to ice, and so we drove to lower elevations to get to warmer climes in Sedona. A campground is at Lo Lo Mai Springs (928-634-4700, www.lolomai.com) that borders Oak Creek. There, we spent two days recovering from the cold and enjoying the wonderful scenery and the mystical ambiance unique to the Sedona area. Rancho Sedona RV Park (800-641-4261, www.ranchosedona.com), also along Oak Creek, is yet another fantastic camping option.
In the almost 3,000 miles of driving in these trying weather conditions, I was comforted by the confidence I felt and the safety afforded by the Honda during the day and assured with the warm, cabin-like ambiance and lots of storage of the Lance 1685 while camped. The only disappointment of the entire 10-day trip was the less than stellar mileage, which averaged 10.1 mpg while towing, but that’s about par when towing a full-profile trailer.
Overall, I’d recommend the Lance and Ridgeline combo for its ease of towing, comfort, thoughtful amenities and ability to withstand the extreme weather conditions on this early-spring adventure.
American Honda Motor Company, www.honda.com
Durango Area Tourism Office, (800) 525-8855, www.durango.org
Lance Campers, (661) 949-33221, www.lancecamper.com
Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs, (877) 811-7111, www.trimblehotsprings.com