I bloody love a good road trip.
There’s nothing better than jumping in the car, pumping some tunes and exploring nature. When Scott and I travelled the USA earlier this year, we embarked on a 12-day road trip around the Southwest states, including Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Colorado.
I’m not kidding when I say that the landscapes we saw during this trip were some of the most incredible natural scenes I have ever seen with my own eyes. We spent most of the driving with our eyes glued to the windows, gasping in awe every time we turned a corner. In fact, the word ‘wow’ was probably said to one another approximately ten thousand times in the 12-day period.
Anyway, it was an awesome road trip and I want to not only share with you some stories from our travels, but also the itinerary we chose, just in case you one day find yourself going on the same adventure. The places we visited were amazing but with that being said, there were also so many that we just didn’t have time to see. I guess we will have to go back one day, right?
So, here is our 12-day Southwest USA itinerary!
DAY 1-3: LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
We began our road trip with three crazy nights in Sin City. For Scott, it was his first time in Las Vegas, but for me, it was my fourth. I was beyond excited to show him around the adult playground where nothing seems real.
We stayed at the New York New York Hotel & Casino, which is on the southern end of the Strip. It was the perfect base for our time in Vegas. We flew in from Hawaii late in the afternoon and headed straight there to check-in. I used my Qantas Frequent Flyer points to upgrade our room to a Spa Suite and was definitely not disappointed when we arrived. In the corner of our room, a few metres from our bed was a huge spa bath. I made a mental note to make the most of it over the few days we were there, but for now, we had to get ready to go exploring.
After a quick shower, we headed downstairs for dinner at Chin Chin Café & Sushi Bar, which was conveniently located right outside the elevators to our room. The food was delicious, the cocktails were even better and with full stomachs, we were ready to finally start exploring the Strip.
The first stop was my favourite place in Las Vegas – Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. It was busy, so we grabbed ourselves a margarita and decided to continue wandering up the Strip. I think we walked almost 8km that night, just walking around. When we got home, I ran a spa bath and enjoyed a glass of red. Oh, Vegas.
The next couple of days were spent pretty much the same way – waking up mid-morning, grabbing a coffee at Starbucks (legitimately the only good coffee place in the city, and that is saying something), then we’d get some food and our first alcoholic beverage for the day. I wish I could tell you exactly where we went and what we did, but honestly, it was all just walking around, getting drinks, eating food and having a great time. Oh, and riding the roller-coaster at our hotel.
Of course, we had to hit up some buffets. To all my vegetarian, vegan and plant-based traveller friends – you must go to the Buffet at Wynn. Apart from the incredible décor and reasonable price, it is also one of the best buffets on the Strip for vegan food. The owner of the casino, Steve Wynn, is a vegan, which meant there were plenty of delicious options for me!
After three days of drinking, eating and sleeping in, it was finally time to begin our road trip. We said goodbye to the trip and picked up our Cruise America truck camper and head off into the sunset.
Since we left Las Vegas a little later than expected, our first night was spent on the outskirts of the city in the Valley of Fire National Park. We pulled up to a free camp spot, made some dinner and relaxed as we watched the night sky light up with stars.
It was bliss.
DAY 3-4: ZION NATIONAL PARK, UTAH
The next morning, we woke up bright and early to begin the two-hour drive to the next stop on our itinerary – Zion National Park in Utah. I was absolutely buzzing; Zion National Park had been high on my bucket list for a while now and I had heard nothing but rave reviews about it.
The two-hour drive turned into a lot more, considering the fact that we had to stop and pull over every five minutes because the scenery was so bloody impressive. Seriously, when you go on big road trips in Australia, you’re pretty much driving on flat, straight roads the entire time. Over here, around every corner was a sight that caused you to audibly gasp. I’ve never seen anything like it. Think huge valleys, tall rock faces and just so much space. Maybe we’d spent too long in the city but being out in nature again was just what we needed.
We stopped in a town to grab supplies before finally making it later that afternoon. We decided to free camp on the outskirts of Zion National Park in a place called Virgin, UT, which was about twenty minutes from the entrance of the park. We set up camp before going on a little hike around the area.
We trekked through the red dirt, discovering dirt bike tracks all over the place. Using them as a guideline, we kept wandering; walking up to the tops of small peaks, wandering through empty canyons and simply breathing in the fresh air. We didn’t want to waste too much energy though, because we had big plans for the next day.
EXPLORING ZION NATIONAL PARK
When our alarm went off the next morning around 7am, we jumped out of bed and made a quick breakfast before heading into the park. The car park fills up pretty quickly, so we wanted to make sure we got a spot for the day. When you visit Zion, you need to park your car or van in the town of Springdale, or in the actual carpark upon entering the park. Then, there are shuttle buses to take you to various stops around the park.
We decided to tackle the Angel’s Landing hike first. Most of our mates who’d been lucky enough to travel here had told us that it was the best one, and we couldn’t wait to start. The air was crisp, but with the sunshine out in full force, it wasn’t long before we’d peeled off most of our layers. The hike was steep with long drop-offs and narrow ridges and was overall pretty physically challenging. The views were definitely worth it, though!
We made it to the summit and had two choices: continue up the ridge to the peak of Angel’s Landing or go in the opposite direction towards the peak of the West Rim trail. It was hard to decide, but ultimately we opted for the West Rim trail because there were a LOT of people lined up to do the peak of Angel’s Landing and we didn’t want to wait in a line for a trail. We made the right choice though, as the view from higher up was amazing. The giant sandstone cliffs were a sight to behold, with their red, cream and pink colours perfectly contrasting the bright, blue, cloudless sky.
We also made a few friends all the way up there – I was very surprised to see a herd of deer grazing on the steep cliffside, as high as can be. We sat and watched them for a while, blown away by their ability to get to such heights. Suddenly, we saw something even more incredible – a California condor. Guarding what we assumed to be a nest, the huge bird would often take off from the cliffside, effortlessly soaring through the air with a nine and a half foot wingspan before returning again. It was a beautiful sight to see.
Eventually, we began the journey back down to the bottom. The descent was much easier on the legs, and again we admired the incredible views from the trail. Once we made it back to the van, it was time for a well-earned lunch and an even more well-earned nap.
TIME FOR THE NEXT HIKE
I woke up from my nap two hours after closing my eyes, dishevelled and confused. Why did my legs hurt so much? Why was it so sunny? Why was I starving? There were no time for answers, because we had another hike to do before the sun set for the day.
We decided to take on the Watchman’s Trail, one of the most popular hikes at Zion National Park. With only a couple of hours until the sun was due to set, we got our backpacks ready, our hiking boots on and headed out the door. Luckily for my tired legs, this trail wasn’t as intense as Angel’s Landing, and before we knew it, we’d reached the summit. It was almost 7pm at this point and we were two of only a few others who were enjoying the peaceful silence. As we watched the sun fall slowly behind another peak, we smiled. It was truly one of my favourite days I’ve ever had.
That night, we agreed that it was too late to begin driving to our next stop on our itinerary, so we headed back towards Virgin to spend the night at the Zion River Resort Caravan Park, where we welcomed a hot shower with open arms.
DAY 4: KANAB, UTAH
After a slow morning, we left Zion National Park en route to our next major destination. However, we had a pretty special stop to make on the way. This special stop was located in nearby Kanab, UT, a little over an hour away.
I’d heard about the Best Friends Animal Society while researching our road trip, months and months before we’d even left. As a passionate animal lover and dog rescue volunteer, I was very keen to try and make sure we could fit in a visit to the Best Friends Animal Society’s sanctuary during our road trip.
Every single day in America’s animal shelters, roughly 2,000 cats and dogs are euthanised simply because they don’t have a home. That equates to over 700,000 animals a year who lose their lives. Best Friends Animal Society is the only animal welfare organisation in the country who are dedicated to ending the unnecessary killing of cats and dogs in America’s shelters under their Save Them All mission. Now THAT is something I can support!
To put it briefly, Best Friends began when a group of like-minded friends decided that they couldn’t accept the idea that animal shelters had to kill ‘unadoptable’ animals, so they banded together and began rescuing animals from shelters whose luck was about to run out. This group of friends (or as I like to call them, absolute bloody legends) helped these animals overcome their problems find their forever homes. The animals who weren’t ready for adoption lived at the sanctuary the group built, the same one that Scott and I toured on our visit to Kanab.
Today, the sanctuary is home to around 1,600 animals, the majority of which have special needs and require special care. While most are dogs and cats, there are also horses, rabbits, birds, pigs and plenty of other species. These animals are getting the training, medical care and love that they need to move on and find a family to love them forever.
The sanctuary itself is spread over nearly 4,000 acres and almost 30,000 people visit Kanab every year just to go to the sanctuary to learn about Best Friends, meet the animals and tour the USA’s largest no-kill sanctuary for companion animals. To learn more about this incredible organisation, please visit their website.
MAKING NEW BEST FRIENDS
We arrived just in time for the last tour of the day. Before we got there, we had absolutely no idea just how big the sanctuary was. When we were put into a small van, Scott and I looked at each other. This was going to be a much different experience than we expected.
Our first stop was Dogtown – a ‘gated community’ with several buildings that house various groups of dogs. Some of these dogs are victims of abuse, trauma and neglect, others are under-socialised or riddled with anxiety or have special medical needs. At Dogtown, they’re just dogs who got a second chance.
We were taken inside one of the building and learned all about the dogs who lived there, how they were trained and just about everything to do with their day to day lives and care. We also got to meet a beautiful dog during our visit. Her waggly tail and enormous smile showed us that with a little bit of love, a little bit of hope, and a whole lot of compassion, everyone has the chance to thrive at Dogtown.
For those interested in learning more about Dogtown, there was a documentary-style TV show produced by National Geographic named ‘Dogtown’ that features the stories of some of the individual dogs and the work of the caregivers and trainers at Best Friends. I haven’t watched it yet because I bought the book version and spent the next few days sobbing in the car while I read about their stories. I’m not sure I could emotionally handle the TV version!
The next stop on the tour was Cat World. With over 700 kitties in residence, Cat World is more of a cat village, with each house providing a free-roaming environment for its residents. The house we visited was the home of cats who suffer from feline leukemia, a serious and fatal disease. Although, you’d never suspect that these cats were sick. They had the exact same spirit as any other cat you may meet, and of course, they all loved getting pats.
As we made our way to the final stop on the tour, we passed a few other places, like Horse Haven (home to horses, donkeys and other larger animals), Marshall’s Piggy Paradise (I was devastated that we couldn’t stop here), Bunny House (home to 130 rabbits and a few guinea pigs), Parrot Garden (did you know that some parrots can live up to 100 years?) and Wild Friends (a wildlife rehabilitation home).
The final stop on the tour was Angels Rest, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a few tears during our time here. Angels Rest is a final resting place for the animals of the sanctuary as well as the beloved companions of Best Friends members and staff.
Set in beautiful Angel Canyon, Angels Rest is a peaceful place. Surrounded by wind chimes that ring calmly in the breeze, it is a place to say goodbye, reflect on the time shared and the love given to the animals who rest there. Each month, the Best Friends team hold a ‘monthly blessing’ to honour the sanctuary animals who have passed since the last ceremony, where everyone is able to come together in remembrance. It is a beautiful concept and one I wish we had been there for.
After an emotional time at Angels Rest, it was time to finish the tour. We returned to the main building, made a cup of tea and thought about how incredible the work the entire team at Best Friends were doing. I bought the Dogtown book from the gift store, and then we said our goodbyes. It was time to head to Page, AZ.
DAY 5: PAGE, ARIZONA
A little over an hour later, we crossed the border into Arizona and arrived in the town of Page. It was close to sunset, so we decided to head straight to the famous Horseshoe Bend to watch the magic happen.
If you haven’t heard of Horseshoe Bend, it is a pretty popular natural landmark about 15 minutes from the centre of Page, just off U.S Route 89. As we drove towards Horseshoe Bend, we noticed a lot of signage on the side of the highway. It was saying that the carpark at Horseshoe Bend was closed and we had to go to a temporary carpark located closer to the town. Confused, we turned around and found the temporary carpark.
Here, we discovered that the only access to the area was via shuttle buses from the temporary carpark, which cost $5 per person. It was almost time for the last bus to leave for the day and since we had no cash on us, we decided to wait until the morning. Annoyed, we headed back into Page to find somewhere else to explore and watch the sunset.
We ended up on the outskirts of the desert town and pulled our van over to explore some giant sandstone boulders. With a beer in one hand and our cameras in the other, Scott and I explored the boulders until the last rays of the sun were gone and all that was left was a glittering pink sky. We watched as the moon rose high and the stars came out. In the desert, the stars light up the sky brighter than you can imagine.
Using our WikiCamps app, we found out that you’re allowed to camp in the carpark of Walmart in most places, so that night, we took advantage of the huge carpark at Page’s local Walmart. As unglamorous as it sounds, it was actually quite comfortable! We felt really safe too, as it was well lit and there were plenty of other campervans, RV’s and cars spending the night.
We killed some time by wandering around Walmart, looking for weird items to laugh at and snacks to take back to the van before settling in for the night. Despite the Walmart being located next to a busy road, it wasn’t as loud as I expected it to be and we actually had a decent sleep. The next morning, we woke up bright and early to get the first shuttle of the day to Horseshoe Bend.
INSTA VERSUS REALITY AT HORSESHOE BEND
To be honest, Horseshoe Bend was a little bit anticlimactic. Like many popular tourist spots these days, it was absolutely chockers with people. Even though we got one of the first buses of the morning, there were still hundreds of people around. As we hiked the easy kilometre-long track towards the overlook, we understood for the first time the impact that social media can have on a destination or landmark.
I’m not going to lie – I first discovered Horseshoe Bend on Instagram. When the time came to plan our trip, I’d seen enough beautiful photos of the natural attraction to decide that I, too, wanted to visit. In fact, we’d sacrificed visiting a couple of other places specifically to visit Horseshoe Bend.
As I stared out at the overlook and down towards the 300m drop into the Colorado River, I anxiously watched other travellers walk a little bit too close to the edge (there is only a fence covering part of the overlook). I watched others arrive, snap a selfie and then head back up the track to the shuttle bus. I saw people sitting on the ground, heads buried in their phones, oblivious to the natural beauty of the place.
It really got me thinking – why did people make such an effort to visit a place without truly enjoying it? Did these people really just come to take a quick photo and carry on with their day? Did they only come because the landmark is popular on social media?
After we left ourselves, we learnt that the reason that the carpark was closed was that a bigger car park was getting built. Since Horseshoe Bend had become such a popular destination on social media, changes needed to be made. We learnt of the many fatalities along the busy highway where tourists had started to park, due to the overcrowding of the tiny carpark that existed previously. We learnt that the tourism board of Arizona had decided to make money from the previously free attraction, due to its newfound Internet fame. It made sense to us, especially considering many tourists aren’t as considerate as others, leaving behind their rubbish or walking off the main walking track, damaging native plants. Maintenance of places like Horseshoe Bend cost a lot of money, especially when the number of visitors increases significantly.
So, would I recommend a visit to Horseshoe Bend? Kind of. If you’re already going to travel through Page, then it is definitely worth checking out. Try going as early as possible, such as sunrise, to enjoy the beauty without the crowds. I can only imagine how serene the overlook would’ve been without hundreds of others to share the view with.
After getting the shuttle back to Page, we headed into town to a local laundromat to catch up on some washing and make breakfast. We had also wanted to head to Page to check out Antelope Canyon, another popular natural landmark, but due to the cost of the tours, we’d decided against it. The universe seemed to agree with our decision, as when we were driving out of town and past the turnoff to the canyons, a huge dust storm began, meaning if we had booked a tour, it would’ve likely been cancelled.
As we drove past the dust storm, I started to get excited butterflies in my stomach. It was time to make the two-hour drive to a very special bucket list destination, just back across the border in Utah.
DAY 6: MONUMENT VALLEY, UTAH
I first heard about Monument Valley while I was studying at university. One of the media subjects in my undergraduate degree had a strong focus on spaghetti westerns, many of which were filmed there. As we watched the movies in class, most of them directed by John Ford, I was mesmerised by the huge sandstone towers scattered across the great valley and made a conscious decision to one day go there.
We arrived in the late afternoon to gale force winds blowing sand everywhere. The dust was thick and unfortunately, the visitor centre at Monument Valley was closed until the next morning. We drove a little further north to escape the weather, deciding to stop in a carpark and make something to eat. While Scott braved the winds outside, I relaxed on our camper bed enjoying my book.
Before sunset, we drove further north again to the Mexican Hat Rock, where we free camped under a starry sky. I wish I could describe the quiet here; it was insane. We were one of two or three campers parked in the general vicinity of the rock, but no one else was even within sight of our camp spot. The only sounds we could hear were of the gentle breeze, which had calmed down from earlier in the day. We fell asleep after a few games of cards and a few glasses of red wine.
SNOWING IN THE DESERT
The next morning, we drove back down the highway en route to the Monument Valley visitor centre, which thankfully had reopened. When we arrived, however, we were greeted with a rather unusual sight.
Gone was the dusty wind and falling from the sky onto the dusty ground was snow. That’s right, it was snowing at Monument Valley, in the middle of the desert. It was absolutely freezing! After purchasing our pass to enter the park, we drove up to the visitor centre and ran through the falling snow to get inside.
After grabbing a cup of hot tea to warm up our chilly bones, we sat by the large windows and watched, spellbound, by the sight of snow falling onto Monument Valley. We decided to wait it out and hoped that the snow would stop so we could explore properly, and after spending an hour or so checking out the visitor centre, we headed back to the van for breakfast.
Finally, after a couple of hours, the snow stopped and the sun came out, shining brightly over the monuments and enticing us to get back outside. Despite the sunshine, it was still freezing, so after I chucked on about six or seven layers, I was ready to go!
Unfortunately, our campervan wasn’t allowed to drive on the roads throughout the park, so we had to settle for a track close to the carpark which circled the West Mitten Butte. Strapped for time, we didn’t walk the entire loop, but still enjoyed the incredible scenery before us as we wandered through the windblown sand. It felt surreal to finally be in Monument Valley.
On our way back from our walk, we stopped by the Navajo hogans next to the carpark. A hogan is a small house built by propping wooden poles together and covering the surface with leaves, branches and mud. Traditionally structured hogans are considered pioneers in energy-efficient homes – the use of packed mud against the wood structure kept the home cool by natural air ventilation. In winter, the fireplace in the centre kept the inside warm and cosy well into the night. For the Navajo people, this was home. For us, it was a fascinating look into history and a brief respite from the icy cold wind.
Then, we hopped back into our camper and it was time to make the two and a half hour journey to our next destination – Moab, UT.
DAY 7: MOAB, UTAH
We arrived in Moab, UT in the late afternoon, hungry and cold. Desperate for a hot shower, we decided to stay at the Canyonlands RV Resort & Campground for the night. After checking in and setting up camp, we had the hot shower we so desperately craved before heading down the road to the Moab Brewery for dinner and a beer.
We thought the Moab Brewery was going to be a small, quiet little pub where we could enjoy some dinner and have a beer with the locals. When we arrived, however, we were shocked to find the line was already out the door! The brewery was the exact opposite than what we expected; instead of a quaint pub, it was a bustling restaurant, jam-packed with locals and visitors alike. We grabbed a delicious dinner and a couple of beers before heading back to the campground to get some rest for the huge day of exploring we had planned when we woke up.
EXPLORING ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
The next day was undoubtedly one of the best days of our entire trip. For our last day in Utah, we visited the Arches National Park. With over 2,000 natural stone arches scattered across the park, Arches is a unique landscape full of absolute wonder. The best part was that we were able to drive our campervan across the entire park, making it easy to access the hiking trails. As we drove through for the first time, my eyes were glued to the windows, staring at the hundreds of soaring pinnacles and giant balancing rocks that seemed to be everywhere.
Our first hike of the day was to the summit of the Delicate Arches trail, arguably the most popular trail in the whole park. In fact, it is a widely recognised symbol for the state of Utah. At 14 metres high and nearly 10 metres wide, the Delicate Arch is the largest freestanding formation in the park.
When we started our hike up to the Delicate Arches, the sky was blue, and the sun was shining. By the time we reached the top, the sky became dark and moody and before we knew it, it was snowing once again in the desert. Our legs felt like jelly by the time we’d reached the summit, so we sat for a moment to enjoy the view. With the breeze turning icy cold with the arrival of the falling snow, I quickly regretted my decision to wear shorts!
We weren’t alone at the top of the Delicate Arch trail, sharing the view and area with at least fifty or so others. We waited patiently in line to snap a quick photo underneath the arch before walking back around the other side to sit and continue to admire the view with shelter from the snowfall.
Eventually, the snow stopped, and it was time to head back down the trail. The ground was wet and slippery, so it was a slow descent. On the way back, we stopped by the Wolfe Ranch cabin, which was built by John Wesley Wolfe in the early 1900s. I am fascinated by historic buildings, always stopping for a moment to imagine what life must have been like back then. We also wandered through another path near the cabin, where a wall of Ute Indian petroglyphs was visible. It was so cool!
THE BROKEN ARCH TRAIL
When we got back to the camper, we made a quick lunch before driving up to the next stop. Here, we explored the much shorter Sand Dune trail, where we found ourselves walking through thick, red sand, feeling dwarfed between the tall sandstone fins. It is incredible to think just how much time had passed to create these geological wonders; I can’t even comprehend the millions of years it has taken for them to get to this point.
Up next was the Broken Arch trail, which started quite conveniently right next to the Sand Dune trail. My already tired legs were grateful that this walk was mostly flat as we hiked through the small sandstone fins. The best part was the fact that no-one else was around. It was quiet and serene, and we only saw about five other people the entire time.
As I looked around at my surroundings, I couldn’t help but feel like we were on a different planet entirely. We came up to the formation, scrambling over rocks as we climbed to the centre. Standing underneath the Broken Arch (which isn’t actually broken yet, but will eventually erode in the future), we took a moment to breathe. It felt so right to be here, standing next to a natural rock formation, the fresh air filling our lungs and revitalising us from the inside out. It is amazing what spending time outside can do to your soul.
From a distance, we watched as a storm front closed in, miles away on the other side of the park. The clouds got darker, so we decided it was time to head back to the carpark. As we walked back to the van, we figured we had time for one more trail to finish our epic day.
THE LAST TRAIL OF THE DAY
For our last trail, we headed up to the Devils Garden, where one trail leads to a number of different arches and viewpoints. The start of the trail was mostly flat until we reached the famous Landscape Arch. At 94 metres long, this arch is the longest in not only the park itself but the whole of North America. While the Landscape Arch is best viewed in the morning light, it was still a pretty spectacular sight. We even saw the remnants of the piece of rock that fell from the bottom of the arch in 1991, leaving the rest of the rock formation hanging by a thread. It just goes to show that things can change dramatically in nature, sometimes in an instant.
With a little bit of daylight to spare, we continued up the narrow ledges beyond the Landscape Arch, scrambling over rocks on the steep Primitive Trail as we climbed higher and higher towards the Double O Arch at the peak. Dusting red sand from our hands and knees once we reached the top of the Primitive Trail, we decided to change course due to the distance to the Double O Arch, which at another 4km or so was a bit too far, given it was getting close to sunset.
Instead, we walked down to the Navajo Arch, which was by far the most unusual arch we saw that day. More of a tunnel than an arch, the Navajo Arch was spectacular. The quiet was peaceful, and again we only encountered a couple of other people up there, so it felt like we had it all to ourselves. We sat, we watched, and we listened to the sounds of nature for a little while.
Darkness began to set in, so it was time to head back to the van. On the way down, we seriously considered spending another night in Moab so we could come back and continue exploring the next day. Unfortunately, though, we had a pretty big drive ahead of us already, which would be made even longer if we stayed another night. Sadly, we said goodbye to the beautiful Arches national park, vowing to come back again one day.
As the sky turned a fierce orange, we travelled back down the windy roads leading to the exit of the park, exhausted yet full of energy from our incredible day. We drove for two hours, crossing the state border into Colorado in the dark of the night. We pulled up at a truck stop in Grand Junction, made some dinner and crashed in our bed. I’m pretty sure I was asleep before my head even reached the pillow.
DAY 8-10: BOULDER, COLORADO
We woke the next morning to the sounds of truck horns and heavy traffic, a vastly different tune to the sounds of nature we’d been enjoying only twelve hours earlier. With a four and a half-hour drive ahead of us to Boulder, CO, it was time to get up and start the day. We grabbed a coffee at a small café before we hit the road.
Even though it was the longest leg of our road trip so far, the drive to Boulder was stunning. Gone were the vast, open valleys and huge sandstone towers that we saw during our time in Utah and Arizona. Now, we stared out the windows at giant mountains and deep forests, all covered in a blanket of fresh snow. As we drove along Highway 70, we passed through the ski villages of Colorado, eventually stopping just past Vail for a quick lunch in our van. We didn’t stop for as long as we’d liked because I was so, so eager to get to Boulder.
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
In 2010, I moved to Boulder, CO to study abroad for a semester and I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the absolute best things I have ever done. Throwing myself completely out of my comfort zone, the time I spent in Boulder moulded me into the person I am today. I was beyond excited to show Scott around the university town that had given me incredible friendships, amazing memories and a seriously low-grade point average.
The first thing we did once we arrived in Boulder was head to the ‘Hill’ for a beer. Located next to the campus, University Hill is full of college share houses, sorority and fraternity houses and plenty of bars and restaurants. We made our way to the Sink, one of my favourite bars, and grabbed a drink. Almost immediately, waves of nostalgia and familiarity washed over me. Looking at Scott sitting across the table from me was surreal; like all the different pieces of the puzzle that is my life had come together.
After our beer, we met up with a friend, Hannah, who we’d met in our hometown of Wollongong the previous year. Generously offering us the use of her hot shower, we cleaned ourselves up before heading back out to meet up with some of her friends at a Mexican restaurant where we devoured tacos and margaritas. Then, we wandered from bar to bar, eventually walking home in the early hours of the morning to Hannah’s place where our van was still parked. A light blanket of snow began falling as we walked through the streets, so we danced and twirled and jumped in the piles of fresh, white snow accumulating on the footpath.
The next couple of days were a blur. We spent the entire weekend exploring Boulder, catching up with old friends and wandering around my old university campus, with the nostalgic waves continuing to wash over me like a huge swell with every familiar place we visited.
With one last night of our road trip remaining, we said goodbye to Boulder and began the short journey to the very last destination on our road trip itinerary – the Rocky Mountain National Park.
DAY 11: ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, COLORADO
We drove towards the mountains, en route to a campground next to Carter Lake. When we arrived, we realised we were one of only two cars at the entire campground. Despite this, we certainly weren’t the only ones there.
After we parked the van and set up camp, a large herd of deer surrounded us, seemingly undisturbed by our presence. They grazed, metres from were we stood, on the bright green grass. Picking a few blades, I slowly and cautiously approached them, holding out the grass as a peace offering. Slowly, they approached, curious, but didn’t take the grass from my hands. Only feeling slightly offended, we left the deer and wandered down the short path to Carter Lake.
As the sun set, we walked along the shoreline of Carter Lake, breathing in the mountain air. It was so, so still; not a breath of wind in the air nor were there any people around. It was silent, but for the gentle sound of the tiny waves washing up onto the rocky shore. Once the sun had fully set, we made our way back to our van for dinner and a game of cards.
Before bed, we decided to walk up to the toilet on site, since we tried to avoid using our van toilet unless it was absolutely necessary. Terrified by the darkness, I gripped onto Scott’s arms as he led me to the toilet door. He waited outside until I was done, shining our torch into the trees. Little, bright eyes glared at him from beyond the trees, likely our deer friends from earlier in the afternoon. An unsettling sight, we walked at a much quicker pace back to the comfort and safety of our van, locking the door and going to bed.
THE LION AND THE BEAR (LAKE)
The next morning, we woke to a beautiful day. As we went outside and stretched our legs, we noticed a pile of fresh poop next to our van. It definitely wasn’t deer poop, and the clumps of hair nestled into it seemingly confirmed this. We went wild with speculation; did a mountain lion pay us a visit in the night? The tree next to the poop was covered in scratches, fuelling our theory that a big cat had gotten up close and personal with us.
On our way to the entrance of the Rocky Mountain National Park, we stopped to pay our campground fees and showed a ranger the photo we’d taken of the poop. He pretty much confirmed that it belonged to a big cat, most likely a mountain lion, although it could’ve also come from a bobcat. Yikes!
As we drove through the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance, we were yet again gobsmacked at the beauty of the landscapes around us. The wooded forests were a stark contrast to the desert scenes that had been the main focus of our road trip. The snow-capped mountains in the distance were also a sight to behold. It was very clear that we’d reached real wilderness in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
With only a few shorts hours to explore, we decided to visit Bear Lake and wander the nature trails surrounding it. Located just a short walk from the carpark, the alpine lake was completely covered in ice and snow. We wandered around the perimeter of the frozen lake, careful not to step through loose ice. I was nervous the entire time, wondering if my next step would cause my hiking boot to plunge through the snow into the icy water. While the snow was knee-deep in some parts, we were lucky enough not to fall through the ice. We were luckily warned by a couple coming from the opposite direction to avoid a particular section of the lake, as the husband had fallen through only moments earlier. Hearing this did little to calm my nerves, but we made it the entire way around Bear Lake without trouble.
With a little time left before we had to leave, we decided to walk another short track up to Nymph Lake, which was also completely frozen over. We had a look around and enjoyed the views of the tall peaks in the distance before turning back. As we trekked through the snowy path back to the carpark, we encountered a playful squirrel. Bounding through the snow in front of us, the squirrel leapt to a tree branch where he stood still as Scott snapped his portrait. It was almost as if he was posing for the camera the way he turned and paused every few seconds!
Almost as quickly as it began, our time at the Rocky Mountain National Park was over and it was time to drive to Denver, CO – the very last stop on our Southwest USA road trip.
DAY 12: DENVER, COLORADO
We arrived in Denver late that afternoon, heading straight to the beautiful home of an old friend of mine. I met Kat in my hometown of Wollongong, NSW the semester before I studied abroad in Boulder. As fate would have it, she went to the University of Colorado in Boulder and of course, we became fast friends. Kat was my first friend in Boulder, helping me move into my dorm, took me on hikes, introduced me to her awesome group of friends and even took me to my first ever college football game.
After 9 years, we’d kept in touch and we were so excited to see each other again. Kat and her partner Alexis welcomed us with open arms. Oh, and did I mention that they have three dogs? After our reunion, Kat and Alexis showed us around the home and to their spare room, where we’d sleep in a real bed for the first time in almost two weeks. We still had our van for one more night, but the offer to sleep in a comfortable bed was just too good to refuse. That night, we all went out for dinner for a Mexican feast, complete with margaritas, of course. It was great to catch up!
The next day, Kat and Alexis had to go to work, so Scott and I returned the campervan, we hung out with their dogs, did all our washing from our road trip and went for a wander into the city of Denver. It felt strange to walk around city streets after spending so much time in nature, but luckily Denver is a pretty gorgeous city.
For our last night in Colorado, we went to the other side of the city to catch up with another old friend of mine, Lindsay. I met Lindsay in a similar way that I met Kat, only it was the other way around. I first met Lindsay while I was studying in Boulder, and again, as fate would have it, she was heading to Wollongong the following semester to study at my school.
We arrived at her apartment and promptly went out to a rooftop bar, which offered a stunning view over Denver, and we had a few drinks while we watched the sunset over the city. We didn’t stay out too late since Scott and I had an early flight back to Vegas the next morning.
AND THEN, IT WAS OVER
And then, it was over. We flew back to Las Vegas and there we picked up a hire car to drive to Joshua Tree National Park en route to Coachella Valley. But that, my friends, is another story altogether. Plus, if you’ve made it this far, you are probably very sick of reading right now!
I’ll finish with this – this road trip was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I felt more magic in my bones during our adventures than I’ve ever felt before. The landscapes we encountered really showed how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. How foolish we are to think that this planet is ours alone, to use and abuse as we please. This world of ours is far more precious than that. We cannot even begin to imagine the things that have happened here or the things that will happen in the future. All we can hope for is that the things that happen in the future are as spectacular as those in the past.