I think we are finally starting to get the hang of vanlife and living on the road. We have slowly fine-tuned our daily and weekly routines, and while we could always exercise more, eat healthier, and be more productive on the blog, those were all things that we struggled with before – some things never change!
Welcome to our third monthly update on our overlanding adventure! This month is filled with secret and hidden places in Utah, Utah bucket list places we were finally able to check off, exploring Nevada, and an abrupt ending!
May brought excitement and anticipation related to COVID-19 as almost all Utah state parks opened up, restaurants re-opened, and many National Parks began opening as well. We would finally be able to visit all the hidden places in Utah we have been wanting to see since crossing into Utah in March!
On the other hand, Bettina was fast approaching the 90-day expiration of her tourist visa to stay in the United States, which brought back a lot of the stress and anxiety that we were trying to avoid!
If you missed our other Vanlife adventures, you can catch up here:
- Month 1 on the Oregon Coast
- Month 2 - Best Slot Canyons of Utah
- Month 4 in the Canadian Rockies
- Why we decided to quit our jobs and pursue vanlife
Clucking Along the Chicken Corners Trail – Moab, Utah
Moab is one of the most famous Utah towns for adventure, though in our case restaurants weren’t quite open, the nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks were very much closed, and you couldn’t even camp anywhere in the county. Moab has been on our “must visit” list for so long that we decided we had to visit while still adhering to the COVID-19 restrictions.
We decided to camp on BLM land just outside the county, spend the day exploring, and make sure to leave the county again every night.
Not wanting to miss out on all the secret and hidden places in Utah and what Moab area has to offer, I decided that we should tackle one of the most famous off-road trails in the area, The Chicken Corners Trail. This trail is about 20 miles (32 km) one-way and has some spectacular views of the Colorado River. Across the river is Deadhorse State Park and a Utah hidden gem: Thelma & Louise Point. This place was made famous from the ending scene of the movie Thelma & Louise.
The 20-mile road took us about 4 hours as we tackled the various rock obstacles and sections of deep sand along the way. I should probably add at this point that Bettina is not a huge fan of off-roading but I thoroughly enjoyed the excitement and thrill to explore uncharted territory and discover more hidden places off the beaten path in Utah. We were rewarded with an incredible view at the end and nobody else around us for miles – a perfect place to spend the night.
The next morning, we woke up early to take in the sunrise, and then tackle the same 20 miles back to civilization. It was just as bumpy as the day before but luckily we were able to shave off a half hour this time through!
We weren’t done with Moab just yet though! While on the Chicken Corners Trail we could see some brilliant blue lakes on the other side of the Colorado River. Bettina was immediately intrigued, as these days any hidden place in Utah with blue is a photo shoot opportunity. We learned that they were the evaporation ponds of a nearby potash mine. We were able to get decently close to the ponds, and the blue colors were even more vivid up close! This is definitely one of the great hidden gems in Utah that doesn't get talked about too much.
One of the places we wanted to explore around Moab was Arches National Park. Unfortunately, the national park was still closed and we had to search for alternative hidden places in Utah with arches that we could visit.
As luck would have it, Corona Arch, came to our rescue (ironic name in this case). Getting to Corona Arch was a relatively easy hike and well worth the incredible view of the arch.
Walking Amongst Goblins
We thought we had seen it all when it comes to unique rock formations in Utah, but we had yet to visit Goblin Valley State Park. This beautiful state park has a field of goblins, all waiting to be explored. We spent the day completing some amazing southern Utah hikes in this park, walking amongst the goblins and even venturing deep into the goblin’s lair.
If it looks familiar, Goblin Valley State Park was featured heavily in the movie Galaxy Quest. The intriguing looking rocks, or goblins, are formed from sandstone that has existed for 165 million years. The rock has unevenly fractured and eroded over time to form what we can see today.
One of the Best Hidden Places in Utah - The Utah Badlands
After spending over a month in Utah, we have become very used to orange-colored rock. It has become our new normal, and the resulting orange dust has found its way into every crack and crevice in Swifty. This is why we were so excited to see some exotic grey rocks in the Utah Badlands. The Utah Badlands are definitely one of those hidden places in Utah that nobody would think of visiting but they are well worth seeing and a true Utah hidden gem.
In fact, the Utah Badlands would not look out of place on another planet, and apparently NASA agrees because there is a Mars Desert Research Station nearby. However, for us – the sight was quite unique!
The skyline of the Utah Badlands is dominated by Factory Butte, a massive flat-topped sandstone peak, surrounded by desert nothingness.
We explored the Utah Badlands, coming across all sorts of rock formations and colors before finding another epic place to set up camp for the night at the edge of a very steep drop-off.
And if you are feeling adventurous, there is a lone spire of rock begging to be climbed for the perfect photo. It was actually quite safe to get there, and appeared incredibly strong and sturdy, though that did not stop Bettina from, understandably, freaking out a bit.
The Utah Badlands were ab it off the beaten path, but an incredible place to see, and even better place to camp! It is a completely hidden place in Utah as we hardly saw anyone around. There is almost no light pollution which makes for a great opportunity for star gazing.
Finally, Open! Capitol Reef National Park
It seems like we have been dreaming of this day ever since we arrived in Utah. The day that we would finally be able to visit one of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks: Capitol Reef National Park.
Only the remote backcountry of Capitol Reef National Park was open at this time, but that was okay with us. We set off on the remote backcountry byway, battling some of the dustiest and driest sand we had seen yet. If you have ever baked with large quantities of flour, then you can imagine how dusty this area was. In some parts the dusty road was like driving through a pile of flour.
We made it to the famous Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon in good time, but a storm was rolling in and our time there consisted of intense blowing sand and a bit of rain. We barely remembered to snap a picture before continuing on our way.
We saw a few other really unique sights, such as a massive sinkhole and a striking line of vertical stone that ran across the desert floor, up the mountain, and continued as far as we could see. We reached the nearby campground and had one of our roughest nights of the trip as Swifty was pummeled by rain and intense wind gusts throughout the night.
We needed a lot of coffee to get going the next morning, but were rewarded with stunning views of Cathedral Valley, the highlight of the backcountry area of Capitol Reef National Park and another of our favorite hidden places in Utah. While Cathedral Valley is located in a National Park, it requires at least an hour each way of off-road driving meaning that it is an area that is relatively less visited compared to the more accessible areas of the park.
Best Views at Bryce Canyon National Park
With parks now opening, we weren’t going to waste any time to see the next park on our list: Bryce Canyon. Again, after a month of staring at the various rock formations in Utah, you would think that we become a bit jaded and unimpressed by rocks. It’s true, we now have a higher standard of what we deem “impressive” but apparently, we weren’t yet “rocked out” as Bryce Canyon blew us away!
The area is so unique and surprisingly large. As a point of comparison, Goblin Valley State Park also had a fairly large area of densely placed unique rock formations, but Bryce Canyon was easily ten times larger, and one of the many gems in Utah.
Even more incredible than the size and shape of the rock formations, is the intense orange color. Bryce Canyon has a large number of relatively easily accessible viewpoints along the main road. We started at Sunset Point for the most impressive view.
We would have loved to complete the Navajo Loop hiking trail, however it was closed due to construction, so we will have to wait to go back at some point! Another great nearby viewpoint is Inspiration Point with similar views but a slightly different perspective which will blow you away as well.
We followed the road to the very end at Rainbow Point, but were still most impressed by the Sunset Point view. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually stay here until sunset, but had to hit the road, returning back to Cedar City.
Toquerville Falls - A Must Add to Your Utah Bucket List
While Bettina and I generally get along quite well, especially when we are traveling, there is an added level of difficulty when you have had no outside social interaction for the past three months.
When we were camping at Alstrom Point, which you can read about on our first monthly update, we met another couple camping who happened to be from Utah! Bettina kept in contact with them as we traveled around Utah, and as we were in the area where they lived, we decided to meet up for some appropriate social-distancing socializing. We were sure glad that we did!
We had never heard of Toquerville Falls but our Utah friends suggested we go there for a day trip. It is one of those stunning hidden places in Utah which is not known to tourists like us, but very popular with the locals.
We all decided to make the trek out to the falls for some swimming, eating, and drinking. The road to the falls is very rough and well of the beaten path in Utah. It should only be attempted in a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. The drive was totally worth it for us though as we were rewarded with these beautiful waterfalls.
What makes Toquerville Falls unique is that you can drive across the river just above the upper falls…
…and jump into the river below from the lower falls.
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The water was refreshing and clean, which made Toquerville Falls one of our favorite afternoons of our trip and one of the best secret places in Utah!
The start of our overlanding adventure was initially delayed a couple months due to my health, and when we began our trip I was in a pretty good spot, but we were really looking forward to getting additional treatment at a specialty clinic in St. Louis. This treatment was originally scheduled for the end of March, but COVID-19 caused it to be rescheduled to the end of May.
Additionally, we initially planned and booked flights to fly from Salt Lake City to St. Louis, but with the elevated risk of flying (and the exorbitant cost) we decided to make the 24-hour, 1,500 mile (2,400 km) drive to St. Louis.
While our Toyota Tacoma with Swifty is pretty easy to drive, it is not by any stretch of the imagination, very speedy. We figured that we could drive at least 25% faster in a rental car compared to Swifty, and would save a lot in gas along the way. So we packed up Swifty and left her safely parked in St. George, Utah while we embarked on a few days of non-stop driving.
The drive was long, but uneventful, and our time in St. Louis was relaxing as we celebrated Bettina’s birthday and I completed a few days of treatment.
To spice things up on the return 24-hour journey we decided to take a more southerly route through southwest Missouri, across Oklahoma, a small portion of Texas, a very large portion of New Mexico, and all of Arizona. This contrasted nicely with our route on the way there through central Utah, all of Colorado, all of Kansas, and 99% of Missouri.
In the end we drove just shy of 3,300 miles (5,300 km) in the span of a week, which was, a lot.
Oppressive Heat in the Valley of Fire
We were very glad to get back to Swifty and our “home” after a week away. After hanging around St. George for a day or two we set out further south, leaving our favorite hidden places in Utah and ready to explore Nevada's hidden gems.
Our goal was to visit Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada, but as usual I wanted to take a more indirect and adventurous route to get there. We drove the Bitter Springs Trail to position ourselves near Valley of Fire for a sunrise photoshoot the next morning. The road was rough, but we got a nice taste of the scenery in Nevada, and found a great place to camp in a wash close to the trail.
The area was so beautiful and quiet, and we even saw some wild horses nearby.
We surprised ourselves and were able to get up early – hitting the road before sunrise on a mission to explore Valley of Fire State Park. Luckily, Valley of Fire State Park is not an overly large park, which makes seeing it all in one day very attainable.
Bettina’s heart was set on getting the iconic Valley of Fire shot from the main road, and as we were there so early, we had more than enough time with the road all to ourselves to take as many photos as we liked. The temperature at this point was quite comfortable, and so we also decided to go on a short hike to rainbow vista.
Temperatures that day were projected to climb over 100 F (40 C), so we were on a time-sensitive mission to check off all our bucket list place before it would get to hot. The hike to rainbow vista was not very long, however, it was not even 8:00 AM yet and it was already 90 F (32 C).
The north end of the park has two great short hikes, one is called the White Domes Loop, and the other is The Fire Wave. Both hikes are relatively short and the views are incredible, making it very much worth your effort.
If it wasn’t for the heat we would have spent a lot longer out exploring. As lunchtime approached, the temperature was fast approaching the high for the day, 108 F (42 C). That was a bit too warm for us, so we headed for some shade to make lunch before stopping by elephant rock on the way out.
Melting Away in Las Vegas
As we drove into Las Vegas, we were filled with mixed emotions. This was our first properly big city in a long time, but also where we were supposed to fly to Europe from, over a month earlier. Not only that, we now knew that our original plan to continue our vanlife journey to Mexico was in imminent danger as the US-Mexico border closure had been extended by an additional month.
Our first day in Las Vegas was spent trying to avoid the heat. Normally, we could park close to a Starbucks or McDonald’s and work in Swifty while on wi-fi, but it was far too hot to do so, and indoor seating was still closed. As a result we walked into some stores to cool down, then back to Swifty to work, and then back inside to cool down. Not the best solution, but it worked temporarily.
For the evening we drove south to camp near one of Bettina’s most anticipated locations: The Seven Magic Mountains.
After a restless sleep in the heat, we dragged ourselves out of bed and were still able to make it to Seven Magic Mountains as the sun was rising. If you haven’t been there yourself, surely you are familiar with the brightly colored towers of stacked rocks in the middle of the desert.
An unusual sight, but very interesting and also very popular. We were not the only ones there and around 6:00 AM, there were already well over 20 people walking amongst the rock towers. If you want the perfect picture, make sure to arrive very early!
The Long Drive Home
At this point we had tried to extend Bettina’s ESTA visa in the United States, but learned that it was not possible. We had also called the Canadian Border and Canadian Embassy in the United States to see if I could bring her into Canada, but that was also not possible. With plan A, B, and C out the window, she would have to fly back to Switzerland, and I would drive back to Canada.
We left Las Vegas late on a Friday night, aiming to reach Seattle on Sunday night before her early flight on Monday morning. It was another few long days of driving as we had 1,200 miles (1,900 km) to cover over the next two days. The journey was mostly uneventful, but we did get rather rudely woken up while camping at a highway rest stop in Idaho by a hailstorm.
Arriving in Seattle, we had quite literally come full circle from where we began our journey just three months before. When we started in early March, the thought of our adventure ending like this so soon was not even a possibility in our minds.
The Stats – Month Three
Miles driven: 2,574
Nights in Swifty: 19
US States crossed: Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Washington
Number of Wild Horses Spotted: 3
In-N-Out Burgers Consumed: 10 (there’s two of us but Kyle had more than half!)
Number of Sunrise Photoshoots: 5
Number of Nights Hailed On: 1
Days over 35C / 95F: 8
Favorite Meal: Burgers at In-N-Out in St. George, Utah
Favorite Campsite: Utah Badlands
Just as we were really starting to get a hang of the whole #vanlife thing, and enjoyed exploring all of the hidden places in Utah, we’ve been forced to cut our trip short. It is disappointing, and made harder by not only having to stop, but being separated halfway across the world. At this point it is hard to know what the future will hold. I am not able to enter Europe to visit Bettina in Swizterland, and Bettina is not able to enter Canada.
With COVID-19 impacting so many countries around the world, especially Latin America at the moment, the future does look uncertain. However, we are remaining optimistic that borders will re-open at some point this year and we can continue an amended version of our trip. We are fully aware that our situation is still far better than many people who have had their lives impacted by COVID-19.
As a result of having to put our #vanlife adventure on hold, this will also put a temporary hold on these monthly updates. At the moment, the hardest part is the uncertainty of when borders will re-open and it will be safe again to travel. Our travel adventures are not completely on hold as Bettina will be sharing much of her Switzerland stay on her Instagram. Make sure to stop by every once in a while to see the magic of summer in Switzerland.
Save this pin in our road trip Pinterest board for when your next road trip across the US!
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