A glimpse of our southwest road trip
My fascination with nomadic living is at an all time high. Imagine the freedom to explore, owning minimal possessions and living simply when the modern, fast paced world becomes a little too much.
This past April, Darren and I decided to turn our southwest trip into a home on wheels experience, renting a VW Vanagon and staying at a variety of campsites. I'll preface this account of our journey by saying that not everything goes to plan, but that is something I've come to expect. You gotta roll with the punches because in the end things usually work out, sometimes for the better.
DAY 1: Valley of Fire, Nevada
We began our trip on a Friday in April when the temperatures are not too hot and it hasn't quite hit peak season. We flew into Las Vegas, rented a car for a night since our camper rental was for the next day, and headed straight for Valley of Fire. This is an incredibly beautiful spot just an hour away from Vegas complete with bright red Aztec sandstone outcrops.
We arrived around noon, as early as our flight allowed, but all of the campgrounds in the park were full. If you want to get a spot same day, arrive as soon as possible. It was in the plan to cross our fingers and hope for a spot, but we had a few backups as well. We ended up staying on BLM land just outside Valley of Fire, which was a bit further drive to the hikes in the morning, but it was nice and quiet.
The unique formations and colored rocks are fun to explore on day hikes. Quick hikes are easily accessible by car, we hiked 3 or 4 trails in a day.
If you have more time, check out some of the lengthier trails. Some short trails I'd recommend:
Rainbow Vista Trail and Fire Canyon Overlook
We car camped that night just outside Valley of Fire on BLM land. This was my first experience with BLM camping and I truly loved the primitive aspect with fewer crowds. I love falling asleep under a blanket of stars and waking up to the sun peeking over the horizon. Each BLM campsite has its own amenities, but most sites that I visited on this trip were bare bones- just a place to park, pitch a tent if desired and relax. No bathrooms, benches, water or garbage cans.
DAYS 2, 3 +4: Zion National Park, Utah
On Saturday we picked up our camper, a Westfalia Vanagon named Frankie, stocked up on supplies and headed for Zion National Park.
Zion is a true marvel, and everyone else thinks so too. This place is a hotbed of tourism and I'm very happy we decided to visit in the early spring. We had reservations at the Watchman Campground, but arrived late around 9pm (and even left a message with the office!) but they had sold our site. Luckily the camper who snagged our site was happy to share for the night. The following morning we worked out the kinks for our additional reserved nights and were moved to another open site. Some words of advice: if you're staying at a campground, especially those at a very busy National Park, book your trip well in advance due to popularity. If you have open dates, keep checking the booking site Recreation.gov as dates seem to open up sporadically, that's how this whole trip started for us!
We hiked several trails during the few days we were in Zion, varying in length and difficulty:
The Watchman Trail
Upper and Lower Emerald Pools Trails
The main trail we hiked was Angel's Landing. It's a strenuous 5 mile out and back hike with an elevation change of 1,488 feet, epic views and lots of scrambling. This trail is mega popular so we left on the first shuttle of the morning yet it was jam packed with people ready to explore Zion. Although there were lots of hikers on the trail, this was a rewarding hike with an amazing view of the canyon. Consider leaving early in the morning or later in the day for this hike so you don't have to stop for as many people trying to get through the one way section near the end of the trail. You can read more info about the Angel's Landing hike here.
If I had it to do over again I would have hiked Observation Point. It overlooks Angel's Landing and is much less crowded. Consider hiking the Narrows if you have a full day. We had plans to hike The Narrows but decided to leave a bit early to have extra time to explore our next destination, Bryce Canyon.
At the end of each day, we loved having the Vanagon to relax in after tiring hikes. The small camper was surprisingly cozy and not cramped as expected. There was plenty of room for the one of us (or more!) to lounge or prep while the other cooked meals. To add an extra homey touch, we brought our own string lights, candles and blanket. I kind of fell in love the first night and haven't been able to stop thinking about Frankie ever since.
After heading back to the camper and resting up, we decided to head back out for another hike. A few hours before sunset, we walked along the beautiful Pa'rus trail which meanders alongside the Virgin River. I especially loved this walk for its stunning views and simplicity. The majority of the path is exposed to the sun during the middle of the day, so I'd suggest hiking early or later in the day if you can. The path is paved, so it is accessible as a footpath, bikers and those with disabilities. Truly a gem!
DAY 5: Bryce Canyon, Utah
Easily one of my favorite parks, Bryce Canyon has lots of charm and many unique features. I would have loved to spend more time here, as we spent less than 24 hours.
We set up camp on BLM land outside of Bryce Canyon. It was a lovely wooded spot, but much colder than Zion due to higher elevation. We ended up using the propane heater provided with the van rental- it kept us warm and cozy all night!
As soon as we found our campsite, we headed in to check out a few short hikes and viewpoints. The park was so beautiful we ended up driving to the end of the 18 mile road to Rainbow Point, with stops along the way. There is a shuttle that takes you from point to point throughout the park without having to deal with traffic or parking, but we were early enough in the season that the crowds were small. The shuttle service operates from April through October. Along the drive the hikes and viewpoints I would recommend:
Queen's Garden hike
Sunset to Sunrise
The next morning we caught the sunrise (first photo) and stopped at the General Store in Bryce and bought a $2 token for an 8 minute shower. Our first real shower in Bryce was glorious. The van was equipped with a portable hot shower, which we had used once a few days before in Zion to rinse off, but this token shower was heavenly.
After our short lived adventure in Bryce Canyon, we decided to make the long haul over to Monument Valley with quick stops in between.
DAY 6: Monument Valley, Utah
Our plan was to stay flexible after Bryce Canyon, with thoughts of staying near Paige, Arizona, but we decided to drive the distance to Monument Valley. Holy cow, this place is in the middle of nowhere, and I absolutely loved it. I almost don't want to share this area, because I found it that magical. Darren wasn't as crazy about it as I was, but there was definitely some calming energy residing in this pocket of the world. PS: Every trip took longer (sometimes an hour or two!) than the Google Maps estimated arrival, due to slower speeds with the van, but it really causes you to slow down and enjoy the experience.
Our journey from Bryce Canyon included a detour into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument followed by a quick glance at Lake Powell.
We had also planned a quick detour to Horseshoe Bend. As we pulled into the parking area, I was shocked. I thought this was supposed to be a little pull off, a roadside viewpoint, but there were hundreds of cars, trucks, campers and buses crammed together. Porta pottys and garbage cans dotted the parking lot. Throngs of people everywhere, it felt more like an amusement park than a beautiful oasis. Darren and I took one look at each other and shook our heads. We turned around immediately and continued on to Monument Valley.
This brought up a conversation about how social media can cause more harm than intended. Sharing images of these beautiful places can bring tourism and financial gain to the area, but it can also cause ecological harm by pollution and trampling a fragile ecosystem. It wasn't worth it to me to get a shot of this place that has been photographed thousands of times and join the hundreds of others doing the same thing. I think it's important to keep in mind the effects of sharing an image just for likes versus actually having a genuine experience worth remembering.
We continued on to the middle of nowhere and camped on BLM land. It was oh so dreamy...
From Monument Valley we made our way back towards Vegas with Sedona in our sights.
DAY 7: Sedona, Arizona
On our way out of the Monument Valley area, we decided to drive the Moki Dugway. This dirt road is carved into a cliff edge which ascends 3 miles of switchbacks to the top of Cedar Mesa. The Moki Dugway is one of the most dangerous roads in Utah, which I didn't know until after our trip! With some careful maneuvering it shouldn't be anything to fear. The view at the top is worth the drive.
Sedona was a bit touristy. We should have expected it. Once we drove through Sedona, it was a long rocky, dusty, bumpy drive to find a campsite on BLM land only to find lackluster cramped sites on rutted roads. We drove away feeling defeated as we had spent a good part of the day wondering where to camp. Our hunt for a nice BLM site was a bust, yet we ended up discovering the cutest little oasis of a campground called Lo Lo Mai Springs. I took a bit of convincing because I was stuck on the idea of finding a free campsite with a great view of the red rocks, but this turned out to be a nice break. We found a darling spot at the end of the campground right next to the creek. Although a bit pricey, there were showers, WiFi, a pool and a station to refill your camper's water reservoir and cooking gas. Just what we needed at the end of another long drive.
We woke up early and headed to the Devil's Bridge hike in Sedona, which ended up being a very popular hike. At this point I think I'll spend the time it takes to research or explore the lesser known sites just to have a bit of solitude. There was actually a line to take photos on the bridge... still a super cool spot!
DAY 8: Lake Mead
This spot was as beautiful as it looks, but the environmental annoyances would likely drive most people away.
It's amazing how a scene can look so relaxing and pristine, but in reality be the complete opposite. This was one of the best views on our recent road trip, but it was over 100 Fahrenheit and dry AF. The bugs were absolutely relentless, we didn't even eat dinner that night because they kept flying into our eyes and mouths. Powerful wind gusts wanted to claim our belongings and I almost lost my precious light as a feather MH Ghost Whisperer jacket to that wind. With the wind came the dirtiest, dustiest campsite to date, yet I loved every second of it. There isn't good without the bad and I'm learning that every day.
That evening we enjoyed the company of wild donkeys grazing at the edge of our campsite!
This trip reiterated the fact that I don't need much to be happy. A place to sleep, a home cooked meal, and exploring the beauty of the rugged outdoors seem to keep me full of joy. I believe it takes much more effort to live a nomadic lifestyle. This way of living strips you down to your bare soul, your wants and needs are more simple and require thoughtful effort that feels necessary and rewarding.
During this trip we closed on a house, complete with conference calls in the middle of the desert at our fold out camper table. While moving, I've realized the amount of possessions one can accumulate in 5 years is quite shocking. I feel a little bogged down by all of this "stuff" I know I don't really need, as we managed just fine in the van with minimal possessions. It was only a week, but I would love to pursue this sort of adventure in the near future. I believe you don't need a camper or a van to pursue this lifestyle, you can take off in whatever vehicle, granted its condition is sound, and a tent to experience beauty on the road! Traveling in a campervan just makes it a little more luxurious. This home on wheels will be brewing in the back of my mind... in the meantime I'm just going to stay adventurous and I hope I can inspire you to do the same.