In October of 2020 I finished a set of Air Force orders longer than 181 days -meaning I legally had 90 days before I HAD to return to my civilian job. At the start of my orders we (my wife and I) were planning a 2-month long trip to Spain followed by a relocation cruise (a one way cruise trip that is much cheaper than regular cruises) to Puerto Rico and then stay on a beach in Panama for another month. As the story goes, the pandemic didn’t go away and we had to postpone those plans for a future date. So I pulled out the old bucket list and looked for pandemic compatible adventure options and settled on a national park road trip hiking adventure. I decided to only take a month since we are still on the path to FI and I since I had the option to remote work I turned the second portion of the trip into a scouting mission. We grew up and currently live in Minnesota but are not fans of the winters and have been considering relocating to a warmer climate (like every Minnesotan). I considered Tucson, AZ as my final destination as a place we have visited and really enjoyed but I opted for Palm Springs, CA with the intention of continuing onto San Diego to spend time visiting some relatives there afterwards. I also have relatives who winter in Palm Springs and it has been recommended by other friends several times over the years. The original plan was to drive to California and my wife would fly to meet me out there (she was less excited about spending 3 weeks sleeping in the back of a car). Spoiler- the pandemic ultimately cancelled the San Diego plans. Check out my article on ROAD TRIP PLANNING for the process I followed to plan the details of this trip.
Shortly after returning home I hit a deer with my 2010 Ford escape (an unfortunately common occurrence in MN) and “totaled” it. We found a 2011 Prius for under 10k on craigslist (following Mr. Money Moustache advice) and it turned out to be a great vehicle. Thanks to YouTube instructions I removed the back seats of the Prius and built a platform for sleeping and storage out of scrap wood and bolts from my father-in-law’s garage Ultimately turning the car into the “Pramper” (acknowledgement to my friend Molly for naming it). I didn’t get too fancy and make curtains or anything like that and kept it simple. I did create space for a 5-gallon water jug with a pump on it behind the driver’s seat and that was an excellent addition in convenience for someone who drinks a lot of water and was headed into the dessert (where a gallon of water at a gas station was 6 bucks).
The Road Trip:
Day 1: I only made it about 3 hours outside of Minneapolis before a blizzard forced me to spend the night in the parking lot of a truck stop. This was actually fine; I had a bathroom to use and slept well to the hum of dozens of neighboring semi-trucks.
Day 2: Drove to Badlands National Park. This was my first time visiting despite having driven past it several times. This was a great time to visit, there were only about 10 other people in the entire park so I had the hikes mostly to myself. I had originally intended to camp at the campsite within the park but realized it was 20 miles further into the park and found an incredible campsite just outside the park thanks to freecampsites.net. There are tons of free campsites on federal land. I found I preferred these sites over the crowded, expensive sites in the national parks.
Day 3: Drove from Badlands to Devils Tower. There’s a nice 6ish mile hike around the base of the tower. This looks like a cool place to do some serious rock climbing and I wouldn’t mind getting back to check it out someday (but I’ll have to find some pro climbers to go with, I’m fairly amateur myself). After some time staring at this rock in awe I headed to Gillette, WY for some civilized sleep and to balance daily drive time. I’m getting kinda old and high maintenance and so I don’t mind spending 40 dollars every couple of days for a hot shower and a bed. I found a preference for motels over hotels on this type trip because I could park right next to the room and not have to carry my stuff in past other people. I carried disinfectant with me and cleaned the room soon after entering to reduce my covid catching chances.
Day 4: Drove to Dinosaur National Monument via a pitstop in Saratoga for a dip in the hot spring. I love hot springs! I also had a lovely unplanned hike around independence rock (the one from the Oregon Trail computer game I played as a child). I found a free campsite just outside of the national monument (I still don’t know the difference between a national park and a monument). The campsite was sketch to get to with a prius and I earned a scratched bumper in doing so but it was worth it.
Day 5: I hiked and explored Dinosaur National Monument and camped in the park. I was a pretty big dinosaur nerd growing up (in the era of Jurassic Park) and yet this was not the most exciting of my stops. You can see actual dinosaur bones still in the dig site but not much else going on. I’d recommend a visit in the summer when one can raft the river in conjunction with the park.
Day 6: Drove to Arches National Park. I hiked and camped there. Amazing hiking and wasn’t too busy this time of year. You do have to arrive at the campgrounds early to get a spot. It was here I learned the difference between the National park military pass and the access pass.
The National Park military pass is available to Active duty military and Reservists. You show your military ID when you get to the park and they will hand you a free annual pass -worth $85. To note, they don’t record when you receive it so if you forget to bring it they will just give you a new one. In even more exciting news as of October 28th, 2020 this pass was opened up to ALL VETERANS and gold star families. The military pass does not get you a discount on camping fees.
The Access Pass does get you 50% off camping fees in addition to free admission (camping fees vary- it was $6 at Dinosaur and $25 at Arches for example). To qualify for the access pass one needs to be “permanently disabled”. Most VA ratings of 10% or more should qualify a veteran for this pass. Check the national park website as these are only issued at certain locations (most of the big parks). Or you can pay a $10 fee to order online. Your VA rating paperwork should suffice -although the park ranger who issued mine didn’t even ask to see it.
Day 7: Did an amazing sunrise hike to Delicate Arch (from the Utah license plate) and eventually went into Moab to stock up on supplies, play a round at the disc golf course (link to disc golf article), and refresh with an evening in a motel.
Day 8: Drove to Canyonlands National Park- Isle in the Sky district. I got a campsite in the park and hiked some amazing trails. This was the only time I set up my tent on the trip although it was to “mark” my campsite as being taken as I had to drive to the trailhead. I didn’t actually sleep in it. It was often below freezing so sleeping in the car was warmer and more convenient. I can’t wait to get back and explore the other districts some day (there are 4).
Day 9: Drove to Capitol Reef National Park. This one is a hidden little gem. The campsite is pretty cool as it sits in an apple and pear orchard alongside a river. In harvest season you can pick your own fruit to take with you. As a stand alone the hiking would be amazing but compared to Arches and Canyonland the hiking was not the highlight of the trip.
Day 10: I stayed another day at Capitol Reef and hiked to Navajo point for some very windy 360 views of the entire area.
Day 11 -12: I had Air Force training this weekend so I ended up getting a fairly expensive AirBnB in Escalante so I could have the internet and a place to work. I spent the evenings exploring this little town and stocking up on groceries.
Day 13: I drove to a hike called Peek-a-Boo. The drive to this hike in my Prius was miserable. It was about 25 miles down a continuous washboard gravel road. I was certain my car would fall apart. The worst part was I had to return back on the same road. Fortunately the hike made up for the teeth shattering drive. It was one of the coolest slot canyon hikes I’ve ever done. I discovered slot canyons to be an amazing experience and enjoyed all of the ones I could do on this trip. I camped in the parking lot (and by camped I mean I slept in my car). This was a perk of the car camper; I could just stay in a parking lot where there weren’t official campsites. I suppose now’s as good a time as any to explain bathing in these circumstances. Wipe yourself with a lot of baby wipes. Yup, that’s about it. We had a term for this in the Army and I beleive the politically correct version would be “sex worker bath”.
Day 14: Drove to Bryce Canyon National Park and got the last camping site. Note- carry an assortment of small bills in cash. At some of the parks you need to pay cash in an envelope to secure your campsite in the off seasons. I had to make a trip back to the gift shop to get some change and risked losing the campsite. I hiked the main trails of Bryce but it was much busier than the other parks and I had to hike with my mask on for the majority of the main trails. Typically I carried it in my pocket and put it on when encountering other hikers or wore a neck gaiter style mask since it was often cold anyhow. Bryce was amazingly beautiful but very popular and seemed less like a nature retreat and more like a tourist hotspot.
Day 15: I took a gamble on trying to get a pass to hike “the wave” in Kanab, UT. Basically waited in a gymnasium for an hour for a 5% chance to win the lottery. I didn’t win. I went with a consolation hike at Buckskin Gulch after a short pit stop to visit the dilapidated filming site of the Gunsmoke TV series (my dad is a big fan of the show). Buckskin Gulch is an amazing hike. If I could have done it again I’d plan to hike the entire 20+ miles and camp overnight in it.
Day 16: The Zion National Park experience. At the time of writing this you had to get a timed bus ticket 1 day prior to get into Zion. I went on the website exactly when the option opened up (while waiting to hear about the wave lottery) and found an overwhelmed site that I had to continually refresh to get the option to buy (tickets were $1). The first available time slot I could get was for 2pm entrance. This didn’t leave much time to get a good hike in before the buses stopped running at 5pm. I drove to Zion later in the morning and thought I could hike a few extra miles to get to the trailheads. Turns out I couldn’t and Zion was an absolute zoo. Since I’ve been to Zion before I decided not to wait around and deal with the crowds (still wanting to avoid Covid). I headed for Joshua Tree National Park instead with a pit stop to play a round of disc golf in Las Vegas. It was getting late so I found a “campsite” just off the road and called it a night.
I found my “campsites” using a combination of the website freecampsites.net and the ioverlander app. I recommend planning in advance when you have internet and phone service since there were a surprising large number of times where I didn’t have phone service. To find the sites I still have an old fashioned Garmin GPS that I’d plug the grid coordinates into.
Day 17: I hiked in Joshua Tree National Park. This was pleasant as it was the first warm hike of my trip. I managed to find a nice long hike with few other people on it. I couldn’t get a campsite in the park since this was the high season for this park (who are all of these people who plan trips months in advance?) but I found a very cool dried lakebed full of other campers just outside the park.
Day 18: I did another hike at Joshua Tree before heading to Palm Springs to check into my AirBnB I’d be staying at for the next month. My work shifted to full remote for the pandemic so I figured I’d take my meetings outside by the pool rather than in the cold December of Minnesota.
Day 19: Made a day trip to Torrey Pines State Park near San Diego to meet my sister-in-law and family for their weekly hike and picnic and to complete my trek by dipping my toes into the ocean. I made a detour pitstop in the scenic village of Idyllwild; the real life setting for every Hallmark movie.
Day 20+: I can’t give a fair analysis of Palm Springs. After starting work I immediately jumped into very long days of helping plan Covid vaccine administration. I enjoyed the warm weather and you are never more than 5 minutes drive to the base of the mountain for some hikes. I ended up heading home a couple of days early to make it in time for Christmas with three long days of driving.
Being a FI bound minimalist I like to buy few things so I research things quite a bit before I buy. Below are recommendations of items I found handy on this trip. I don’t get any affiliate fees (haven’t convinced anyone to give me money yet) so just my honest recommendations:
Exped Mega Mat: While the bulkiest of any sleeping mat I’ve owned (definitely not for hiking) it’s very comfortable, especially for a bony side sleeper like myself. It has the highest R rating (insulation, not scariness) of most any sleeping pad so it kept me warm even on the 14 degree nights. The self inflation is nice too- but remember to deflate before driving into the mountains to avoid popping it.
Spot Gen 4 GPS tracker: I debated this purchase for a long time. It’s basically a GPS connected device you can send emergency messages with. I ended up getting it mostly as a gift to my wife and family to reduce their worry when I was out of cell phone range. It’s pricey and requires a subscription to use. I debated between the different models and the even pricier Garmin versions. I opted for this one for it’s simplicity since I planned to give it to my family after this trip so my dad could take it with him on his solo fishing adventures into the Northern MN wilderness and friends who visit the boundary waters.
ioverlander app: A super handy app for finding campsites, water, and other road trip essentials.
Alltrails app: Handy for picking hiking trails. I never did splurge for the paid version but it would have been handy at some point. Since this trip was mostly National Parks and popular hikes I never worried too much about having specific tracking.
Jetboil: I’ve had my jetboil for many years and love it for it’s simplicity to make me hot water and heat things up.
Aeropress: Along with the jetboil above, this is an easy way to maintain your coffee snobbery on the road. Here’s a video of the process I follow (I use pre ground coffee when traveling to reduce overhead).
Hardcore History Podcast: Absolutely amazing podcast. I save these for road trips since they are 12+ hours per story and often take years between episodes. I also recommend downloading some audio books through your public library for free.
A puffy blanket: I don’t know the actual brand of the one I picked up, but I got it on sale at an outfitter. It’s basically like a sleeping bag but in blanket shape. They’re very warm and pack well. They’re handy to have on the cold nights or for sitting by the campfire.
Moccasins: I use a pair of moccasins as my camp shoe. They are super comfortable after a long day of hiking and relatively lightweight. I opt for the double bottom softsole. I like feeling the ground under my feet but the regular soft soles wear out eventually so splurge for the double bottom.
Fozzils bowls: These are my favorite camp dishes. Cheap, light, pack well, and versatile. Enough said.
Maya Kaimal food: These are super handy meals for car camping. Just drop into the jet boil for an easy delicious meal. Can be eaten cold in a pinch.
National park maps: I DON’T recommend spending money on the national park maps. I love maps and picked up a couple but found I never came close to wanting to use them. The trails are all so well marked there’s little value in having them for the price they cost.