Sanford Park Campground, and a little camper history

There’s a running joke amongst my friends. I buy campers, sit on them for a bit, then sell them again without even using them once. The last three were like that. I don’t think the Ram van was my fault, though. The first time I loaded it up to go camping, it wouldn’t start. At least I made an attempt.

First there was the pop-tent camper. I was driving a Honda Element at the time, so I needed something super light. The pop-tent fit the bill. One of the aluminum rails was slightly bent, and required a fair amount of force to extend one of the slide outs. Ended up selling it for a little more than I paid.

After the pop-tent was the 1966 Aristocrat Travelier. A friend of a friend just wanted it off his property, so it cost me $50 in gas money to get it hauled from Seattle to Portland. I sold it for $400, never having taken it camping.

Not long after selling the Travelier, I bought my dad’s 1987 Dodge B350 camper van conversion. It was a tank. I drove it from Montana to Portland, parked it, and the first time I tried to go camping, it wouldn’t start. I broke even selling that one. The kid that bought it had some mechanical knowledge, and wanted to strap his motorcycle to the back and travel the country while working remotely. Millenials, amirite? I wish I had kept in touch with him–would love to see pictures of the van around the US.

Finally, last February, I decided to just bite the bullet and buy something new. The RV dealership near my house had a 17′ trailer on sale, so I went to take a look at it. It was part of their 2018 rental fleet, so it wasn’t exactly new, but I figured they probably inspected the thing every time it was rented, so I felt good about buying it. And the price was too good to pass up.

So for the rest of the winter, and into the spring, my friends were placing bets on whether or not this one would actually see a campground.

It did.

My buddy and I decided to head up to Tiber Dam to camp the weekend before Memorial Day. The forecast called for rain, but I lived in Portland for 20 years–you don’t call things off because of rain.

The drive up was windy but dry. I averaged 8mpg and burned half a tank of gas getting there, but it was an easy drive. It’s been decades since I pulled a trailer, so it took a few miles to get used to it again.

My buddy had driven up the day before with his camper, but had to run into town to meet up with his family, so I let his dog out of his camper and started setting mine up. The nice thing about a simple camper is that there isn’t much to set up. Jacks down, awning up, that’s the way we like to… Nevermind.

Once I was all set up, I rewarded myself with a beer.

Sidenote: Deschutes Twilight Summer Ale is my all-time favorite summer beer.

The dogs and I hung out for the rest of the evening, enjoying the peace and quiet that being in an empty campground offers. Why was it empty? We’ll get to that later.

Friday morning, I woke up to the pitter patter of raindrops on the roof of the camper. As forecast, we were getting a little rain. No big deal. The wind had picked up a bit, so I pulled the awning in and made my coffee and breakfast inside.

After a bit, I discovered one of the down sides to a small, simple camper: dogs with gas are lethal. So we decided that we needed to get out of the camper and explore a bit. I loaded them into the truck, and headed out.

This particular campground is in a little valley below the Tiber dam. To get out, one must travel a stretch of dirt road leading up a hill. It’s not a particularly steep hill, and when dry, it appears to be a pretty well-maintained road (the Bureau of Reclamation has offices next to the campground, so I’m sure they take care of it.) What I had forgotten, and in my opinion, the reason the campground was empty, is the type of dirt that graces this part of the state. Sans rain, it’s just nice dirt. But once it gets wet, it turns into a sloppy, slippery mess. I slid my way up the hill and stopped at a parking area on top to make a phone call (there’s no cell reception in the campground.)

When I was ready to leave the parking area, I was greeted by this image on my backup camera.

We decided to drive into Chester to fill up with gas, and discovered that all of the dirt roads were similar to the one leading out of the camp ground. The tires flung chunks onto the hood, the windshield, and the roof. I had a few concerns about actually dragging the campers up and out on those roads, but my buddy said I was being a wuss.

Friday night, my buddy and his family arrived back in the campground, and the quiet solitude was replaced by the happy squeals of kids. We spent most of the time in the campers, as the rain was really coming down at that point.

Saturday morning, we woke up to a little snow.

And a watchful hawk across the river…

We did a little more exploring on Saturday. It was cold, so we opted not to do any hiking. I didn’t care either way–I was just happy to be out of town and actually using my camper. We drove into Chester again so my buddy could fill his truck with gas, and so we could pick up some beer and brats for dinner. The roads were still sloppy.

As is often the case, the weather improved on the last day. We woke up to sun and birds and perfect camping temperatures.

After packing up, we headed up the hill.

I don’t know if it was the sun or the wind or what, but the hill didn’t seem as slippery as it was the days before. We made it up and out without much trouble. It was a long drive down the muddy roads to reach the highway, but nobody was in a hurry.

The road construction on Highway 2 ended up being worse than the muddy roads leading out of the campground. Just one huge series of potholes.

I learned how to dump my tanks in Cut Bank, said goodbye to friends, then headed south to Great Falls. The mud dried into concrete, and required a good hour of pressure washing to remove, but it was worth it.

I know it’s only one camping trip, but it’s one more than I’ve taken in any other camper I’ve owned. Plus, it was the first camping trip of the year, so double points. Ideally, this camper will let me comfortably explore more of the state, and drum up more content for this site. My plan was to take it somewhere every weekend, but life gets in the way sometimes. We’ll see how it goes.

Since the Tiber area is so huge, of course it gets its own project page.

First People’s Buffalo Jump

My mom will outlive us all. She and her service dog walk all over town. To yoga, to classes, to the grocery store. Wherever she needs to go, they walk. They might take a bus in the winter when it’s really cold, but only if it’s really cold. So when she visits, she requires walks.

Mom and Kaiah

The First People’s Buffalo Jump is just down the road from me, so on her last visit we decided to walk the lower loop. I’m almost ashamed to admit I hadn’t actually been to the lower part of the park before. I’ve driven to the top, looked around, even shot some Milky Way shots from the entrance to the upper area. I was looking forward to hiking the lower loop.

Milky Way over Central Montana

I am not in the same shape as my mom. Neither is my dog. So when we realized the trail starts off uphill, we were questioning our life choices. But it wasn’t bad. It was actually an awesome little hike. I had the camera out, hoping to get a shot of a rattlesnake, but we saw none. The second half (the downhill part,) makes for a nice leisurely stroll.

It’s a fun loop hike

My only advice would be to bring water, and watch for snakes. We may not have seen any, but it’s perfect terrain for rattlers. From a distance, they’re beautiful creatures. Just don’t try to pet them.

Heading West on the loop trail, Square Butte in the distance

If you’re feeling froggy, walk all the way up to the top and check out the prairie dog town. If you’re not feeling froggy, just drive around to the top of the park via Ulm Vaughn Road and check out the prairie dog town that way.

If you’re visiting in the winter, pay attention to the winter hours. Sometimes the upper area gate is closed in the winter–it depends on how much snow they get.

There’s a visitor center at the bottom, and a bathroom up on top. The park is open every day in the summer from 8am to 6pm, and 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday, 12pm to 4pm Sunday in the winter. It’s definitely worth the short drive from Great Falls.

More photos will be added to the project gallery as I take them.

Eastern Montana/Miles City

I was born in Eastern Montana–maybe that’s why I’ve always preferred flat lands to mountains. It’s not that I don’t like mountains, I just prefer to be able to see forever in any direction. Great Falls is pretty flat, but Eastern Montana is even better. So when I had a reason to drive out that way, I knew it was going to be a slow road trip with a lot of stops for photos.


There are a lot of small towns between Great Falls and Miles City. Moccasin is one I’d like to explore more.

There was some road construction, (of course,) but it was an awesome drive.

Sidenote: There are only two seasons in Montana: winter, and road construction.

Eddie’s Corner is where everyone stops on road trips. It’s at a crossroads. South to Big Timber and Billings, east to Lewistown, Miles City, and Glendive, west to Great Falls.

Eddie’s Corner

I passed through Cohagen on the way, too.

Cohagen Bar

According to my dad, there was once a Cohagen National Forest that consisted of one tree. I can’t find any info on it, and he’s prone to making up stories, but I really want to believe it.

We even passed by a Montana brothel…

Stay away from the blue-eyed one–she’s mine.

(You might have to be from Montana to get that joke.)

One of the best things about both Central and Eastern Montana is the summer thunderstorms.

Storm brewing over Miles City

I hadn’t been to Miles City since high school. I didn’t remember much of the town, except for a few specific spots, but driving through, places started feeling familiar. My brother and I ran in to Tilt Wurks Brewhouse to fill a couple growlers–I was surprised to see such a cool brewpub in such a sleepy little town. Also, they had cool hats, so I bought one.

Tilt Wurks Brewhouse and Casino

One place I definitely remember from my childhood is Spotted Eagle. My dad used to take me fishing there. Had to check it out.

I have memories of the house we lived in until I was four. I seem to remember a white picket fence and a yellow house. I don’t fully trust my 4 year old memories, so I had to drive by to check it out. It wasn’t really yellow, and the white picket fence was gone. Hell, it was nothing like the memories I have. But it was cool to see the place again.

The very first house I lived in as a kid

One of my most vivid memories of that house is the time I decided to take my dog on an adventure. We strolled out of the white picket gate and started walking down the street towards the railroad tracks. The rest of that memory is fuzzy, but I believe one of the neighbors saw us and ratted us out to my parents.

These days, I still take my dog places, but the neighbors generally don’t call my parents to tell them.

Diego the happy dog

I’ll definitely be doing more exploring in Eastern Montana. I need to get back over to Fort Peck, and really want to check out St. Marie and the old air force base.

Lost Lake/Dry Falls

When I was a kid, we lived in Highwood for a few years. I had no idea I was living 30 minutes from one of the coolest places I’ve seen in Montana.

The curved shonkinite walls of Dry Falls flank the west end of Lost Lake–remnants of what once was Montana’s own Niagra Falls (but bigger.) The history of this area’s features date back to more than one ice age. There’s a great write up here if you want more information.

Standing on the north cliffs, looking southwest

I found Lost Lake on Google Maps (of course,) so we all loaded up and drove out to see what the big deal was.

We ran into some Montana traffic along the way, but eventually made it to the make-shift sign reminding visitors that it is, in fact, private property. The sign also told us that we were hiking at our own risk.

We walked from the sign to the edge of the northern cliffs. I couldn’t believe I lived so close and never even knew this existed. Epic doesn’t even begin to describe this place. Imagining the vast amounts of water that used to cascade off the western edge, we explored (carefully–this is prime rattlesnake country,) for most of the afternoon. Aside from the rattlesnakes, there are hawks, rabbits, and other critters who call the rocks their home.

A lot of places in the US have history, and maybe I’m biased, but Montana seems to have some of the coolest history. Geological history, dinosaurs (see the Bynum post), ghost towns… Montana is full of it.

Looking southeast from the north cliffs

We finished up the day with ice cream in Fort Benton, because, why not?

If you make the trip out to Lost Lake, bring water, watch out for snakes, and be respectful of the rancher’s property. Also, you’re going to be driving on a lot of dirt/gravel roads, so it’s probably not a great idea to go after a heavy rain.

Update: Because it’s on private land, and people were trashing it, the landowner has now (understandably) prohibited public access. This is why we can’t have nice things.