Each Fall, after we close the cabin and harvest the last of the Ely Hilltop Garden, we get on the road in the Van. Typically, we head west in the Fall to get the Fall colors and the cooler weather in the mountains. We left after the Weekly Dish Radio show on 9/11. Here is our itinerary and some thoughts on the places and parks we visited on our van trip west.
Luverne, Minnesota, is a cute smaller town in Southern Minnesota. We enjoyed antique shopping and visited the local brewery, Take 16 Beer, celebrating its 7th anniversary. From there, we made our way to Blue Mounds State Park. Blue Mounds State Park is a park that houses a herd of over 110 Bison. The herd is protected and grazes on prairie grasses in the park. We made parked in the campground and made dinner listening to the bellows of Bison not far in the distance throughout the night. In the morning, we hiked the Bur Oak Forest Trail, which takes you through the Prairie to observe the Bison and through a colossal quartz quarry. Did you know there are Pear Cactus on the Prairie? Me neither, but there are.
The next day we drove to the Black Hills of South Dakota and Horse Thief Campground. This is an excellent Campground on a Trout Fishing Lake. It is comfortable for tents, campers and RV’s and is close to the town. There is a walking path around the lake and clean bathrooms though no showers or WIFI. We have spent time in the Black Hills before, and you really need to visit Custer State Park and drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop that takes travelers from forests to prairie grasslands. On the loop, we have seen Bison, pronghorn, deer, and prairie dogs. The Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway in Custer State Park was named one of America’s 10 Most Outstanding Byways. The loop includes the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road that takes drivers through rock tunnels and across bridges to Mount Rushmore. Everyone should do Mount Rushmore Once and don’t miss Crazy Horse a bit further down the highway. We did make it to Deadwood. I was a bit underwhelmed here. It is basically a street of T-shirt shops and bars centered around the shooting of Wild Bill. I did not find it very interesting and hoped for more history, but that’s just me.
From here, we went to Boulder, Colorado, for the first time. Boulder is a great college town with plenty of shops, bars, and bike shops. The dispensaries in Boulder are interesting places to visit. I have used THC and CBD oil on my back, and once you get carded and escorted into a room, you can see all the varieties that legal Marijuana now takes. Oils, creams, gummies, chocolate bars, chips, sodas, and coffee are all currently available infused with THC. Check out Snarf Burgers for a burger, and if you are looking for a place to stay, we liked the cute Base Camp Boulder Hotel; the rooms were nice and clean and decorated in the camping style with wool blankets lanterns, and Coleman Coolers as footrests. Centro Mexican Kitchen in downtown Boulder on Pearl Street had a killer spicy margarita.
From Boulder, we drove to Aspen which has one of my favorite campgrounds called Difficult Campgrounds right outside the city of Aspen. It is gorgeous with a flowing stream and Aspen trees everywhere. The John Denver Sanctuary is a park in the heart of town with beautiful flowers, and right outside of the park are many hikes that take you up into the mountains, including the Hunter Valley hike that was 2.5 miles up into the mountains to a beautiful meadow that was so picturesque and gorgeous with the Fall colors. In Aspen, we ate our first $42 Wagyu Beef Hamburger at the French Alpine Bistro. The beef was buttery but what really stuck out was the brioche bun, so we probably wouldn’t go out of our way to spend $42 on a hamburger again, but after a 5-mile mountain hike, we were starving.
Our next stop was Fruita, Colorado, on our way to Capitol Reef Park in Fruita, Utah. You may recall Fruita Colorado was where we traded our @WonderbreadVan (the 1972 Dodge Xplor that Kurt rehabbed and started our initial love of #Vanlife). We got off the highway to get gas and needed to fill our water tanks in the Van, and we recalled where the water fill station was. While we were driving, we talked about our old Van and reminisced as we both missed the inside of the Van and how cute and cozy it was, just not how hard to drive and unreliable it was. As we were talking and driving, Kurt said, “Oh My God, there it is.” Parked behind a house that was not far from where we left, it was the Van. It was clean, had been licensed and registered, and someone had touched up the Blue Stripe on the outside. We peeked in the windows, and it was all the same. Even the curtains Kurt made were still hung up. We knocked on the house door where the Van was parked, but no one answered, so we left a note. So far, no one has contacted us to swap van stories.
That night we made it to Fruita, Utah, across the border in Capitol Reef. Capital Reef is a national park in Southern Utah that is simply breathtaking. Canyons and dramatic rock formations surround the Fruita Orchard, established by a Mormon family long ago, and still operates. There are Petroglyphs, hikes, and a campground in the valley with no WIFI or Showers, but they do have hot pies every morning for breakfast from the Orchard. We hiked 8 mikes here through a stream bed up to the Cassidy Arches, which was stunning.
Scenic Highway 12 took us further into Utah, where we camped in a friend’s driveway in Boulder, Utah. After pulling into the sand driveway, we promptly got the Winnebago stuck (she is a heavy beast) and had to wait for a tow while the neighbors drove by and gave us the side-eye. As a reward for a harrowing day, we ate at Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm that we stumbled upon and happened to be the James Beard Award finalist in 2020. This restaurant and the small inn were very special. They had a cookbook and made everything from scratch on their farm, including these fantastic biscuits, and they have a little store with jams, infusions, shrubs, and pickles from their farm. It was a delicious respite after a challenging hot day waiting for the tow truck. The next day we hiked straight down into a Canyon 1.5 miles down that had a waterfall and pond that Kurt swam in, and then we hiked out up and out on what they call slick rock, which is a giant swirled rock that’s smooth and whirled, and you feel like you are walking on Mars.
It was a beautiful drive through the Mountains and Rock formations of Utah to Bryce Canyon National Park. This is the land of Hoodoos, tall thin spires of rock found in dry, hot areas of dessert. Hoodoos can rise to the height of 10 story buildings at Bryce Canyon is full of them. This was one of the most beautiful and unique national parks I have ever been to. The campground was quiet and well-appointed, and people spent most of the days hiking. We saw a van in the campground just like ours and made friends with a woman named Jane who had recently lost her husband to cancer. We invited her over for Happy Hour, and she explained how it was her husbands’ lifelong dream to Van Camp, so when he died suddenly at a young age of rare cancer, she took the leap alone. It was fun to share van stories, compare notes about things we did and didn’t like in our vans, and talk about modifications we had made. I was glad we had her over for happy hour as she seemed like she enjoyed the company. The next day we hiked 7 miles throughout the park, climbing down into an area they call Wall Street. Wall Street had slip rock canyons you could climb through. The hiking trail ended with the Wall of Windows, wind, snow, and ice-carved portals in the walls of Hoodoo formations that you could see peeks of blue sky through them, forming a breathtaking backdrop. I feel like there will be many more visits to Bryce Canyon and neighboring Red Rock Canyon that also had epic hikes and mountain biking trails.
The next day we drove through the Valley of Fire State Park on our way to Las Vegas. We cleaned the Van, did the laundry, and stored our unread books for next time. We bundled our leftover spices and packets of dried noodles, coffee, and hot tea in Tupperware bins and kept the vodka and whiskey for our next adventure this Spring. We left Winnie at an RV storage facility and Ubered to the Vitara in Las Vegas for a proper shower, a French 75, and a Steak at Mon Ami Gabi outside the Paris resort. My husband is finishing some research for his next book set in a 1980’s nightclub in Las Vegas.
It was a great trip.