In a 2015 Arctic Fox 990, TCM explores the wackiest southern Colorado features including Bishop Castle, Colorado Gators, and a never again road in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Sometimes plans just come together perfectly. Towards the end of Summer, Angela and I were looking for a long-distance trip to test the real world performance and fuel economy our new 2014 Ram 3500 with a gas 6.4L HEMI. We were already scheduled to attend Overland Expo East in North Carolina, and were itching to drive out west. Then Northwood called.
“Hello, Gordon? Would you be interested in testing a 2015 Arctic Fox in early October? How about Yellowstone National Park?”
The idea was intriguing, and would scratch the heck out of our increasingly itchy go-west itch. But the more we thought about it, Yellowstone would be too busy, and the main features set-back too far for the kind of photography I like to do. A few days later, we counter-offered.
“How about Colorado? Colorado will yield significantly better and more varied photographs for the article.”
Northwood agreed and arranged to send a 2015 Arctic Fox 990 to Colorado. I asked for a 2015 Arctic Fox 992; a camper that we haven’t reviewed and, wet and loaded, would have taken our Ram’s 5,851 pound payload capacity right up to its limits. Unfortunately, a 2015 Arctic Fox 992 would not be available until weeks later. Only the 990 would be ready in time.
“Okay, send the 990.” We’re spoiled.
What we neglected to share with Northwood were all the other reasons we chose Colorado. First, I was really excited to go to the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival, the largest annual high-end stereo nerd-out event on Earth, and heaven for a music-loving audiophile geek like myself.
Second, we would have ample opportunities to talk with Colorado’s truck camper industry veterans about repairing and refurbishing our new-to-us camper. And third, it’s Colorado! We love the mountains, Indian ruins, Old West towns, rivers, parks, and amazing people of the Centennial State.
The Way Out West
The 1,456 mile drive out to Colorado took us two and a half days. When I was driving, Angela was working on the magazine, and vice-versa. This works especially well with the 110-volt outlet in our Ram, and Verizon providing high-speed internet via our wireless mobile hotspot. We can work form anywhere, including 62 mph down Interstate 70 in the middle of Kansas. All the while, we’re listening to 16 gigs of music from a SDHC card plugged into the truck stereo, or music on the radio from Sirius satellites a few miles above us.
On the way, we visited 2015 TCM Calendar winner D. Gorton and his wife, Jane, in Illinois for night one, and parked at Walmart in Hays, Kansas for night two. By the middle of day three, we were pulling into Hallmark RV in Fort Lupton, Colorado.
Bill, Debbie, Matt, and Andy Ward are the some of the most welcoming people you’ll ever meet, making Hallmark a must-stop any time we’re in Denver. Besides, we wanted to talk to Bill about our propane system, and get some pointers on caulking and sealing for an upcoming article.
Two days later, as the sun went down, Angela and I set out for the Marriott Denver Tech Center, flying the Jolly Roger and wearing our pirate eye patches. The plan was to sneak into the parking lot and camp where the vendor vehicles were parked for the weekend event. The next day the audio fest would begin, and I wanted to be there bright and early for a full day of audio gluttony.
Even with our long bed, dual rear wheel truck, and our eleven-foot hard side camper, we were able to park in a single parking space in the way back. Of course we backed in, putting the camper’s butt-end overhang over the grass. The truck nose poked out a bit past the lines, but not enough to cause issues. Arrr! Pirate parking. Love it.
Surprising Fox News
On Monday morning we departed for Pueblo West, Northwood’s chosen delivery point.
Immediately we were a bit confused. From the exterior, the camper looked just like every other Arctic Fox from 2014. Northwood was very excited for us to see their new for 2015 exterior graphics package but, for the life of us, we couldn’t see any difference. Time to call Northwood.
Northwood explained that the 2015 exterior graphics package did not make the shipping deadline, so they sent us an early 2015 Arctic Fox 990, minus the new look. While this news was initially disappointing, we simply adjusted the plan, and continued with the mission.
With Kent’s assistance, we dropped our camper, loaded the Arctic Fox, and transferred all the food, clothing, and supplies we would need for a week. Harley, our cat, was also moved into our temporary digs. He was unimpressed, but a flaming meteorite could land next to him and he wouldn’t care. He’s like that.
As we were loading the Fox, Angela and I were talking about our adjusted plan. Kent suggested Bishop Castle, an illegally built stone and iron structure with an enormous fire-breathing dragon’s head that had to be experienced to understand. That was an easy sell.
Dry Camping at KOA
It was mid-afternoon when we left Boardman. We stopped for lunch, drove to a CAT Scale to weigh the rig, and then pulled into a Walmart a few miles south of Pueblo.
There are good Walmarts for parking overnight, and there are not so good Walmarts for parking overnight. A quick glance around the lot told us this was not a good Walmart for overnight parking, so we continued on. Unfortunately, that left us with very few opportunities for overnight camping. Looking at the AllStays app (highly recommended) on our iPhone, we found a KOA in Colorado City, and decided to call it a night.
I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was pay, relax for a short while, and go to bed.
Left to right: Tim and Elena Johnson, KOA Campground Owners, and Scott and Julie Nash, KOA Work Campers
Then we got talking to the KOA folks, asking them what to do in the area. One of the KOA-ians recommended Colorado Gators Reptile Park, a large fish farm and reptile sanctuary in central Colorado. What? Alligators in the middle of Colorado?
That’s when it hit me. We would seek out the most over-the-top crazy things we could find. From Kent’s description, Bishop Castle clearly belonged on this list. Colorado Gators was also perfect for this new plan. Finally, how about 750 foot high sand dunes 1,000 miles from the ocean? Put Great Sand Dunes National Park on this docket, and we’ve got ourselves an adventure. Crazy Colorado, here we come.
That night we did the usual campground dance. We pulled into our campsite, unlocked the camper, locked the truck, and went to plug-in. All was going well until I couldn’t find the detachable power cord. Angela and I opened every compartment and looked in every cabinet, but there was no power cord to be found. A quick call back to Boardman confirmed what we had suspected, we were power cordless. We should have checked for a power cord before we left Boardman, but forgot that basic step.
Above: What’s missing from this photograph? Hint, it’s electric; boogie-woogie-woogie.
The Arctic Fox batteries were fully charged from a day of driving and, with all-LED lighting and an on-board generator, we were fine. That said, there was something equally hysterical, pathetic, and upsetting about paying $40 to dry camp at a KOA. After how the rest of the day had gone, all we could do is laugh, howl at the moon, and go to bed.
Actor Martin Mull once famously said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. If that’s true, then talking about the architecture of Bishop Castle will be like dancing about music. Wait a minute, that might actually make sense.
In a way, that really does help describe Bishop Castle, a multi-story, multi-room, and multi-faceted stone and iron work of art near Rye, Colorado. Just as Kent explained, Bishop Castle makes absolutely no sense, until you see it.
Above: The steep stairs leading up to the main room of Bishop Castle
Above: Gordon taking a photo in the main room of Bishop Castle
Then it still makes no sense, but you’re left in awe at the vision, audacity, and sheer labor of one brilliant and quite possibly insane man, Jim Bishop. Through this prism, Bishop Castle can only be celebrated, as art, and the triumph of singular will power the likes of which most of us will never know.
Above: A warning sign at Bishop Castle
Bishop Castle is also really cool, and incredibly dangerous. Everywhere you look there are signs that basically say, “You’re taking our life in your hands if you’re crazy enough to climb this illegal structure”.
Your common sense alarms will be telling you the same as you ascend the main stairway onto see-through wrap-around iron work lattice balconies several stories above certain death.
Need to cure your fear of heights? I’ve got the castle for you!
The reward for your bravery is to experience a structure unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The stone and iron work is simply extraordinary.
Above: The extraordinary iron work at Bishop Castle
The organic forms and towering stained glass reminded me of something Tim Burton would design. Seriously, someone should make a movie at Bishop Castle. Call Johnny Depp, and break out the scissorhands. I smell a sequel.
Above: Driving from Bishop Castle to Poncha Springs, Colorado
That evening we drove to the Walmart in Salida for food, supplies, and overnight parking. The following morning we met the team at Holiday RV in Poncha Springs for the first time, and then continued to Colorado Gators Reptile Park.
There were no other vehicles in the parking area at Colorado Gators. I began to wonder if they waited for unsuspecting tourists like us to show up, and then fed them to the alligators. I was always a little freaked out about what happened to Captain Hook, so this was not a good scenario to be walking into.
My fears were somewhat alleviated when I saw a sign just outside the entrance that read, “Caution: This is a working farm. It does smell.” Clearly the folks that work here were knuckleheads. My kind of people! Then the next sign freaked me out all over again.
After paying the $15 per person entry fee, were pointed to a doorway. On the way in, another sign read, “This facility has been accident free for…” and had no stated time frame. This was not looking good.
Just inside the building, we were handed Fluffy, a four foot alligator with two responsibilities; posing for photographs with guests, and bite-signing an official “Certificate of Bravery” once said photographs are taken. As you can see, Angela really took to Fluffy. Once the pictures were taken, Fluffy bite-signed our certificate, and we continued into the reptile building.
The reptile building was stuffed to the gills with a wide assortment of snakes, lizards, and turtles.
What I appreciated the most was the paw ratings on each cage that indicated how appropriate each of these reptiles would be as pets; five paws for a great pet down to one paw for the worst pet. Needless to say, rattlesnakes got one paw. The smaller turtles got five paws. Angela said I would get three paws, as a husband.
I also enjoyed how Colorado Gators had turned an old Sony tube television into an aquarium for two Leopard Geckos, “Evil Pete” and “Yedow”. Talk about reality TV. As actors, Geckos can be true chameleons with a real story to tail. The ratings could be off the scales.
Leaving the reptile building, we explored the larger multi-building complex. For acres and acres, there were literally hundreds of very large alligators in a series of pens, sometimes stretching for many hundreds of feet.
On one of the signs, we got the answer we were looking for; most of these alligators were originally pets. When they grew too big, or were seized by authorities, the alligators were brought to Colorado Gators, where they would spend the rest of their lives lounging with fellow alligators.
This made me feel better about Fluffy and his friends. Ideally, they would never have been pets in the first place, but this appeared to be a much more humane life than either destroying the animal, or attempting to return it to the wild. In essence, Colorado Gators is a no-kill reptile sanctuary. It was still a bit upsetting to see so many alligators in confinement, but it sure beats the alternatives.
When we got back to the Arctic Fox, we told Harley, our cat, all about Fluffy, and set out for Great Sand Dunes National Park. What was funny to us later is how Harley would be a better name for Fluffy, and Fluffy would be a better name for Harley. Let’s just say Fluffy wasn’t exactly fluffy.
Doing the Dune Walk
It was late afternoon by the time we ventured out to the dunes. From the visitor’s center, we crossed the wide but extremely shallow Medano Creek. In mid-October, the creek was little more than thin fingers broken by thick wet sand. We were able to strategically walk, skip, and hop across the creek with nary a wet shoelace.
About a hundred yards later, the sand dunes began. If you’ve ever walked on a sand dune at the beach, or are a particularly bad golfer, you know the feeling of two steps forward, one step back that sand dunes offer. Multiply that by a factor of ridiculous, and that’s what awaits you at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
It’s fun, exhausting, and a serious commitment to reach what you think is the top. Then you realize you’ve only crested one dune in a sea of ever higher dunes.
Above: My ridiculous “We made it” leap, published for posterity.
If you take on this challenge, bring plenty of water, and a good camera. The view from the top of the dunes is stunning, especially towards sunset, and you’ll need to rehydrate. Paraphrasing a certain series of commercials, side-effects from climbing the sand dunes may include heavy breathing, exhaustion, and delayed back ache or muscle pain. If you have a sudden decrease in vision, stop climbing the sand dunes, and call your doctor right away.
Above: Walking down was much easier than walking up
Above: The top looks decepively close
As we descended, the sun dropped behind the mountains casting a magnificent blue and orange glow across the Medano Creek. Naturally, my camera battery was nearly dead as the colors peaked, but we managed to get one more incredible shot for the day.
By the time we got back to the cat and camper, we were dog-tired.
The Over Scratched Itch
The next morning we got up early to explore Medano Pass Primitive Road. We wanted to take the rig off pavement to see how it performed, and get some off-road photography.
When we were in the visitor’s center the day before, we were very careful to ask the rangers about the conditions of the road. Our truck is four-wheel drive, but we are by no means off-road experts, not to mention that our truck is practically brand new, and the camper wasn’t ours. We described our truck camper rig to the ranger at the park information desk, and asked his opinion about Medano Pass Primitive Road.
“You have a truck camper? You’ll be fine” said the ranger. “Just make sure you don’t go beyond the Point of No Return. It’s four-wheel drive only after that. There’s a parking lot there so you can turn around.”
The first quarter mile or so went well. The dirt road was packed sand with plenty of clearance all around. Then the road narrowed to one lane, and the brush started to close in.
Moments later, the brush grew taller with trees and bushes stretching further and further into the roadway ahead of us. In this area there were no places to turn around. We were in a deep channel, surrounded by dense brush and trees.
In retrospect, going in reverse for a mile or so could have got us out of the pickle we were in, but we decided to push on. I kept thinking the ranger said it was okay, and maybe we were just getting through a tough spot before the road would open up again. Not so. The trees and brush closed in even further until there was no way for Angela to steer around them.
The horrible screeching of those tree limbs down both sides of the brand spanking new Arctic Fox filon and TPO roof top is a sound I will never forget. Here we are, trusted to take this camper out for a story and some great photographs, scratching the living you-know-what out of it. Even worse, we would have to go back through those damn trees to get out.
A few feet after we cleared the trees, we encountered two guys in a Toyota Tacoma traveling in the opposite direction. As I hopped out to help Angela steer, the guys pulled their truck into a side pull-off letting us pass. As Angela drove past, the driver in the Tacoma said to me, “You really don’t want to take that nice camper down here.” How I knew that already.
When we reached the Point of No Return a few hundred feet later, the parking lot was barely big enough for four or five cars. Had the lot been full, I’m not sure how we would have turned around.
I was absolutely livid when we finally got off that trail. We had asked the park ranger about the trail, and been given the green light. In all the many dozens of national parks we had traveled, never had we experienced a road as bad as this one. If we had been in our own camper, we would have chalked this up to a life experience, and probably bragged about the desert pin-striping we earned during the lesson. But this wasn’t our camper. Ugh.
After howling at the moon again, we gathered ourselves together and explored the rest of Great Sand Dunes National Park, from the pavement.
I found some spectacular fall colors to shoot with the camper, and a spot or two that allowed us to capture the sand dunes with the rig.
Back to Boardman
On our way back to Boardman RV, we explored Fort Garland and LaVeta, and ventured up Cuchara Pass in search of more photograph opportunities. Cuchara Pass was particularly beautiful, but the narrow two-lane road was lined with fences and offered extremely few places to pull over and capture the scenery. Eventually we broke out the Jolly Roger and eye patches again and started pulling into private driveways or any other nook, cranny, or cove we could find. Sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
We returned to the dealership late in the evening. I emailed Northwood about the scratches, and copied Kent. Having just de-oxidized our truck camper a few weeks earlier, we were fairly certain the scratches were nothing a good buff and wax couldn’t fix.
For all of you wondering how much trouble we got into, the answer is none. That’s right, Kent agreed about the buff and wax, and Northwood loved the photos and told us to forget about it. Phew!
2015 Arctic Fox 990
Above: The Arctic Fox 990 is a full wall single-slide camper for long bed trucks
Above: The spacious wet bath in the Arctic Fox 990
Since the 2015 Arctic Fox 990 we borrowed is nearly identical to the 2012 Arctic Fox 990 I reviewed, I will focus my comments on what’s changed since that time.
The 2015 Arctic Fox featured all stainless steel appliances including the microwave, range hood, range oven, and refrigerator. Stainless steel gives the 990 interior a brighter and more modern aesthetic. Of course not everyone likes the look of stainless, and you will be cleaning fingerprints a bit more compared to more traditional black appliances. Personally, I like the stainless look and hope Northwood keeps pushing their interior aesthetic to be more modern.
Another update for 2015 is a storage area under the dual slide-out drawers in the kitchen. We’re always in favor of more storage, and this recessed nook is tastefully done. At a minimum, we would use this as a quickly accessible spice rack.
Speaking of racks, on the front wall, adjacent to the refrigerator, is an in-set storage area. This would be well suited to books, maps, and other media items that can otherwise crowd a truck camper if not given a proper home.
Northwood also shoe-horned in an amazing storage drawer just to the right of the step-up into the wet bath. I have no idea what we would use this for, but it’s quite an impressive-sized drawer and a very welcome addition. It seems Northwood is finding places all over the camper where they can put in-set storage and found drawers.
This was our first experience with Arctic Fox’s tall contour profile cabover nose introduced in the Fall of 2013. We certainly appreciated the four-inches of additional headroom and increased feeling of space.
The cabover features another 2015 update, a shelf and in-set storage area above the headboard. Again, we love storage, but this feature had us worried that we were going to knock or heads when crawling in or out of bed. We never actually did, but it, for lack of better expression, it was never too far from our minds. One neat feature of this storage area is built-in strip lighting.
I would like to see Northwood reconsider the design and features of the forward-most cabover area. Specifically, it needs to be all-LED lighting, especially the side reading lights. The incandescent reading lights get way too hot, and use too much power. We also think the drink holders on either side of the bed are just plain silly. To use these would be very awkward, and asking for spills. As for the storage shelf, it’s also asking for trouble. Perhaps if it were shallower, mounted higher, and had a padded lower area, it could work.
Above: The Kenwood DPX500BT stereo changes colors
I certainly appreciated the Kenwood DPX500BT stereo with built-in CD player, Bluetooth, USB and aux-in, SiriusXM satellite radio, and internet radio capabilities. This is the kind of technology that many of us have become accustomed to in our cars, and can now have in our campers. It also looks really neat with it’s multi-colored back lighting.
Overall, I don’t have much to add that wasn’t said in my 2012 review. Once again, the fit, finish, and overall quality of the camper was excellent. The 990 continues to be a floor plan that makes sense.
The Bigger 990 Picture
Talk to any Arctic Fox dealership about the Arctic Fox line and they’ll immediately tell you the 990 is the big seller. In fact, the only complaint we hear about Arctic Fox from dealers is that they can’t get enough 990s in stock.
The reason for the 990’s popularity is simple; it’s a fantastic wide-open full-wall slide-out floor plan in a versatile nine-foot ten-inch length. Any longer and it would potentially inhibit some towing applications. Any smaller and you have the exactly nine-foot Arctic Fox 811, essentially a 990 with a tighter dinette and kitchen, and less storage.
When we took the 2015 Arctic Fox 990 to the CAT Scale, the well-optioned camper weighed 5,185 pounds, fully wet and loaded with our stuff. With late model single-rear-wheel one-ton trucks maxing out in the low to mid 4,000 range, the Arctic Fox 990 requires a late model one-ton to be within payload capacity. For example, our 2014 Ram 3500 dually 6.4L HEMI, with 5,851 pounds of payload, carried the 990 well with over 660 pounds to spare.
Northwood makes up for the weight of the 990 with quality and value. Over the past eight years, including two Northwood factory tours, one year-long Arctic Fox camper loan, several in-depth reviews, and hearing hundreds of Arctic Fox owner comments, we have been tremendously impressed with the quality of Arctic Fox truck campers. While we have not been back to the factory since 2010, the quality control measures at that time were second to none in the industry. For details, check out the Northwood Factory Tour article.
With average street prices between $29,000 and $34,000 depending on options, Northwood also offers a lot of features for the money. As we were exploring Colorado, we talked about our Ram truck and the 990 as a great value package. Taking the average street price of $32,000 for the 990, and a conservative price of $45,000 for our truck, the total rig would be $77,000. Add $2,000 for dealer wiring and installation, tie-downs, turnbuckles, and a rubber bed mat and your total is about $79,000. That’s impressive for a ready-to-go brand new dually truck and a brand new full-wall slide-out camper.
What Does the Fox Say?
This was definitely one of the more exasperating truck camping adventures we have ever been on. After the comedy of getting the not-quite-right camper, and dry camping cordless at KOA, we had a fantastic time climbing the vertigo insanity of Bishop Castle, meeting Fluffy and his reptile friends, and conquering the sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Had we just not gone down that darn Medano Pass Primitive Road, this would have been one of our favorite adventure stories. Unfortunately, that feeling got scratched. Would we do it all over again? Maybe, but just to see Fluffy.