The Blue Ridge Mountains have one of the world's longest and most colorful fall seasons. The mountains are gorgeous any time of year, but when the rolling terrain turns into an explosion of fall colors in October, they are absolutely jaw-dropping. Leaves begin changing at the highest elevations first, usually near the beginning of October but sometimes as early as late September. The colors spread down the mountainsides into the deepest valleys in the days leading up to Halloween. The land...
Southwest Road Trip Review
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In March 2022, I embarked on a 10-day road trip across California, Nevada, and Utah with a group of friends. They were towing a new Winnebago off road travel trailer with their truck, while the rest of us camped in tents. Having a trailer really expanded our camping options, as we were able to take advantage of dispersed camping in several locations. It was an active trip of hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and exploring many of the geological wonders found along our route. Overall, it was a fantastic road trip that I highly recommend. Here’s a run down.
Tucked between the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Owens Valley, the Alabama Hills spans 30,000 acres of oddly shaped rounded rock and eroded hills. More than half of the area is designated as a National Scenic Area. A popular filming location, more than 400 movies, including numerous westerns, and more recently, Tremors, Iron Man, and Django Unchained, have been filmed here.
The scenic area is located 3 miles away from Lone Pine, just off Highway 395. Most of the roads in the area are unpaved and require a 4WD to properly explore, though you can still drive to the main attractions in a 2WD by going slowly.
We spent most of our time rock climbing. There are more than 300 routes in the area, with the majority being bolted sports routes, though we did climb a few trad lines as well. Some time was spent mountain biking, including near Mobius Arch, which we also hiked to. Famous for its perfect framing of Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak, Mobius Arch is also very easily accessed via the 0.6-mile Arch Loop Trail.
One of the most popular ways to explore the Alabama Hills is to drive along Movie Road, which cuts through the scenic area, and showcases many film locations. This road has also become Instagram-famous in recent years.
In the town of Lone Pine, the Museum of Western Film History is worth a visit. A $5 donation is suggested and you can see an extensive collection of movie props, memorabilia, costumes, and posters from the many films that have been shot in the Alabama Hills.
The BLM has recently made changes made to the dispersed camping situation in Alabama Hills and really restricted where you can camp. You can find the latest information here. We found a campsite near the start of Movie Road. Backed against the bluffs, we enjoyed fantastic views of Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak. The road in is rugged, though most cars can make it if you drive slowly. There were 3 porta potties within a quarter mile of our site. An additional 3 porta potties can be found near the Arch Loop Trail. Wind can be an issue, so try to find a spot sheltered by the rocks.
Additional campsites can be found at Tuttle Creek (80+ campsites for tents, RVs (no hookups), seasonal drinking water and vault toilets), Portuguese Joe (20 sites for tents and RVs (no hookups), drinking water and vault toilets), and Lone Pine (44 sites for tents and RVs (no hookups), seasonal drinking water and vault toilets).
Spanning more than 3.2 million acres, Death Valley is the largest national park in the continental US. A land of extremes, it’s also the hottest, driest, and lowest point in North America, with an incredibly varied landscape that includes rolling sand dunes, massive salt flats, winding canyons, snow-capped peaks, and volcanic craters.
There are several entrances to the park: Highway 190 from the west or east; Highway 178 from the southwest or southeast; or Highway 374 or Highway 267 from the northeast.
We stopped at Father Crowley Vista Point, where fighter jets sometimes practice flying through the canyon below. We then hiked Mosaic Canyon, a fantastic and mostly easy 4-mile out-and-back trail that takes you past some interesting geology, including marble and mosaic breccia conglomerate.
Next day was an early start at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for sunrise (and moon set at the same time). The sunrise lit up the dunes in a dramatic shade of orange, which lasted less than 15 minutes. We also spotted numerous animal tracks on the dunes. We then stopped at the iconic overlook at Zabriskie Point, then went mountain biking in Echo Canyon after it cooled down a bit.
We spent our first night at the NPS Stovepipe Wells campground, which is effectively a parking lot with separate areas for tents. All 190 sites are FCFS, and cost $14 per night. Amenities include drinking water, flush toilets, and dump station. You can purchase showers (and access to the pool) for $5 across the road at the Stovepipe Wells Resort. Amenities include an outdoor pool, general store, saloon, restaurant, and gas station.
For our second night, we boondocked off of Echo Canyon Road, with open views across to Zabriskie Point.
Death Valley offers 9 developed campgrounds, ranging from below sea level (-196 feet-Furnace Creek and Sunset) to 8,200 feet (Mahogany Flat) in elevation, with 4 open year-round. Dispersed camping is also permitted at least 1 mile away from a developed area, paved road, or day use area. There are also 3 private campgrounds.
Valley of Fire
Located in the Mojave Desert, the oldest and largest state park in Nevada offers 40,000 acres of dramatic red Aztec sandstone cliffs, arches, and canyons, along with petroglyphs, petrified logs, and wildlife. The distinctive red sandstone formations were formerly sand dunes150 million years ago, around the time of the dinosaurs.
Valley of Fire is located 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas off Interstate 15, and 6 miles from the northern entrance to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
The park offers several fairly easy hikes, overlooks, and vistas. The two main roads, Valley of Fire Road and White Domes Road, are both beautiful scenic drives that wind past the dramatic landscape.
We stopped at the Beehives Rock formation to view examples of geologic cross-bedding. At Atlatl Rock, a staircase and platform lead up to ancient petroglyphs (which include depictions of the atlatl tool). We also hiked the White Domes Loop, an easy 1.1-mile loop that passes by a small slot canyon and the remains of an old movie set. We didn’t have time to do Fire Wave, which is another classic hike in the park.
We drove by Balancing Rock (near the Visitor Center) and exited the eastern entrance of the park. We saw bighorn sheep and a family of ground squirrels along the way.
The park offers two campgrounds (Atlatl and Arch Rock) and 72 sites for RVs and tent campers, with restrooms, drinking water, fire rings, and shaded picnic tables. Both campgrounds are FCFS, while a group campsite can be reserved at least 2 days in advance.
Unfortunately, our late Saturday arrival meant that both campgrounds were full. We boondocked around 3 miles away from the western entrance, which had space for 10 campsites. Additional boondocking sites can be found further from the west entrance and near the east entrance.
Escalante / Fremont Indian State Park
We planned to spend two nights in Escalante, but when we hit Cedar Rapids, it started snowing. We had concerns about going over a 7,000+ foot pass pulling a trailer, and decided it was too risky, especially since we were running out of daylight. We diverted to Fremont Indian State Park instead.
The small but impressive Fremont Indian State Park and Museum is a treasure trove of Fremont Indian artifacts, many of which were unearthed during the construction of Interstate 70 in the 1980s, when a large village was uncovered. Short hiking trails lead to hundreds of panels of petroglyphs and pictographs on the canyon walls. The park also provides access to the Paiute ATV Trail, and is a certified International Dark Sky Park.
The park is located in central Utah, just off Interstate 70, 7 miles west of Sevier, and 21 miles southwest of Richfield.
We camped the night, then spent some time exploring the excellent museum in the morning. We also went on a few short hikes and saw rock art panels along the walls of Clear Creek Canyon.
The Sam Stowe Campground is open year-round, and offers 7 full hookup RV sites, a central area for tents, group site, and a reconstructed pithouse. There are also 2 cabins. Despite arriving at 7 pm on a Sunday night, we were able to book a cabin by calling the park manager, who gave us the code to the lockbox, provided we could pay cash. It was $65 a night for a cabin, which included two bunk beds and a pull out couch, a fridge, and a microwave. It was $35 for an RV site. There was also drinking water, flush toilets, and hot showers.
An additional campground, Castle Rock, offers an additional 31 sites, including 2 teepees. It’s open seasonally, with closures for the winter season.
San Rafael Swell
Spanning 2,000 square miles in south central Utah, the San Rafael Swell is a giant dome of rock formed by ancient geologic upheavals, which time and weather has eroded into a rugged landscape of buttes, canyons, mesas, and pinnacles. Relatively undiscovered, there’s plenty to see and explore here, including hiking, biking, climbing, canyoneering, horseback riding, and off roading.
Goblin Valley, located on the southern end of the swell, is known for its unusual rock formations and hoodoos that resemble the likes of goblins, mushrooms, castles, and more.
San Rafael Swell is roughly 70 miles by 40 miles, and intersected by Interstate 70. Bordering towns include Price to the north, Hanksville to the south, and Green River to the east.
Goblin Valley is located around 25 miles southwest of Green River, and accessible via State Road 24. Access to the dispersed camping sites are along dirt roads that are sometimes quite rutted. Go slow and you should be fine. Watch out for patches of very soft sand.
There are no services (including cell service) for large portions of the swell. Make sure you have plenty of water, food, and fuel. You’ll also want a 4WD vehicle to properly explore the region.
We hiked Little Wild Horse Canyon, which is a fun and easy non-technical slot canyon that is suitable for families, including little kids—the 6 year old in our group had no problems. You can go as far as you want in an out-and-back, or complete an 8-mile loop with Bell Canyon.
We also hiked Ding and Dang Canyon nearby. Although more technical (a 50-foot rope and canyoneering experience is recommended), we were able to make it nearly 3 miles without having to use any equipment. The scrambles were higher and tougher than at Little Wild Horse, but no less fun.
We also went off-roading in the San Rafael Reef Wilderness. It was a fun ride, and we managed to see an old mine, abandoned building, car wreck, though no petroglyphs, and circled around Temple Mountain.
Goblin Valley is on BLM land, and we boondocked for 3 nights, tucked into the rocks near Gilson Butte. Although we arrived on a Monday, it was surprisingly packed—turns out, it was spring break week for schools in Utah and Colorado. Because we arrived late, we grabbed the first spot we could before it got too dark, then moved the next morning to a better spot for our group, which included three tents (with one breaking due to the high winds). There are no services and the area is quite exposed, but views and incredibly dark night skies more than make up for it.
Goblin Valley State Park next door offers a campground with 24 sites for tents and RVs (no hookups), 2 yurts (with heat and AC), drinking water, flush toilets, and hot showers. It’s a popular campground on weekends and should be reserved in advance.
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