It was a few years ago that my love for travel was ignited. My dad took me to Spain and Turkey in the same year and I couldn’t believe how invigorating it felt to learn about the world on a global level. I was obsessed with traveling abroad, I even went to study in Italy. Recently, with my new job and exploring my love for camping again, I decided that though of course I would keep traveling, maybe I’d get to know my own state, my own country a little better. I started to realize that I didn’t have to go as far to see wonderful, beautiful places or to learn new things about the world or myself. It’s not to say that I won’t keep traveling internationally, but this more local travel has encouraged me to find beauty in my own home. To not take where I come from for granted. I went to Utah, traveled the PNW and most of all, I feel like I really got to know my own state: California. And it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I’m continually impressed and awestruck by all the different geography and landscapes. I feel lucky and proud to have fallen in love with my home. Somewhere I used to want to leave to feel like I changed/moved on, but all I needed was to open my perspectives and realize that I don’t have to go thousands of miles away to find new experiences. Seeing places like this has made me love my home and I love travel, in every form, for that.
I got a notification on Facebook that it’s been two years since I’ve graduated from college and I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on how much I’ve grown since. I had an old friend message me recently and ask about how I got into living my life the way I do and it made me think about how it is that I do live it. What I seek out in order to keep doing what I love. I definitely live for what I’m passionate for and not for money, I live for what I want now instead of my college years when I felt like I was living based on society’s expectations. I figure I can always make my life work around what I love. And my first response was to say that I find the things that make me happy and do that. Then I thought about that. Of course happiness is great, but it is not a permanent thing. We are always feeling different emotions, it’s who we are. There is so much going on in this world that we are meant to feel every emotion and that’s what makes our lives beautiful (it’s something I’ve been learning just this year).
So what I seek out instead, is what inspires me. What reminds me of my passions, why I’m here on this planet, why I want to keep working every day to do good, why I want to keep exploring, why I work every day to be a better person. Because if I’m always being given inspiration, I can handle any emotion. Of course the happiness is in plenties, because I’m doing what I love. But to be inspired helps get you through everything. No matter what you’re feeling- happiness, sadness, exhaustion, frustration, if you have something that is always inspiring you, it fuels you through whatever state of existing you are in. It motivates you to continue your happiness, get beyond your frustration or reminds you that the exhaustion is worth it. If you live a life filled with inspiration, you feel you can do anything and regardless of the emotion, there is an always present fulfillment and contentment, your life always has purpose. I’m inspired by nature, travel, kids, teaching, spreading compassion, family, animals. What inspires you?
Our journey through Southern Utah was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was incredible to see so many different types of geography within such a short distance from one another, like visiting other worlds only hours away. The energy was so friendly, light and encouraging and I felt it should be shared. So, I made a little video to give you a snippet of our adventures and hope it gives you a sense of the lightness, love, fun and adventure we experienced!!!
One of my favorite things about road trips is finding the random, beautiful and spontaneous spots to call home for the night. During our trip through the Mighty Five, we stayed every night in a different free spot between and around the amazing national parks. I find that once you travel outside of Southern California, where I’m from, there is so much BLM (public land) accessible for camping. To me, these are often the most scenic, peaceful spots since they are usually overlooked by the masses. You can find yourself in a place where nothing interrupts your moments with nature.
One of my favorite parts about trekking the Mighty Five, which includes Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches, is that once you get to the first park, starting from either the western most (Zion), or the eastern most (Arches), the parks are all in within 2 1/2 hours from the next one on the route. So you really don’t spend too much time driving, which of course leaves more time for exploring. Plus, not only are the parks incredible, but the highways between are just as stunning. Filled with so many colors, roadside attractions and geographical beauties. Scenic Byway 12 is especially gorgeous. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best places to free camp if you decide to trek the Mighty Five someday!
Zion National Park
We started our road trip with Zion National park and here we stayed two nights. The first night we stayed off of Sheeps Bridge Road. About 12 miles south and just off the main highway that leads to the Western entrance of Zion. The campground doesn’t have any view of the park, but it offers many open spaces off of a windy dirt road. A few others had heard of this spot, so we had neighbors. But we slept under the beautiful stars and woke up to beautiful red mountains on either side of us. If you’re looking for an easy to find campsite with quick access to the park, Sheeps Bridge is a great place. Plus, we were only 10 minutes from the Springdale Visitor Center just outside of Zion for when we needed to use the bathroom in the morning 😛
Our second night, we stayed off of Kolob Terrace Road, which was my favorite of the two. It is one of the recommended scenic drives to take around Zion, so when looking for home sweet home, you get to see some incredible views. Kolob Terrace Road is a highway that takes you to the back side of the park and along the way you can find camping just about anywhere. People were pulled off on dirt roads, car camping or with full campground set ups. The best way to find a spot to camp is to look for already built fire pits so you can use them to roast yourself some dinner, or s’mores!! But I think the best part about this spot is that there is a free ranging tribe of cows that roam the mountains here. Make sure you drive slowly and you’ll get a chance to say hello to some mommas and their calfs. We fell asleep to the sound of their cowbell and I couldn’t help but wake up smiling.
Bryce Canyon National Park
It’s so hard to pick a favorite Utah national park since they are all unique and pretty much incomparable. But if I had to choose, the other worldly feel of Bryce was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before!! It seemed like ancient, alien life forms that chose this very spot for their tribe. There are adorable small towns on either side of the park that offer affordable hotel and motel lodging, but if you’re looking for a free campsite, we found the perfect spot!! Just west of the turn for Bryce Canyon, there is a road that leads to the East Fork of the Sevier River. It’s a dirt road, but pretty flat and my little hyundai hatchback survived it. If you go for a few miles, once you start to think you haven’t seen anything and probably won’t, you’re likely almost there! Forest Road 80, to the left, offers quite a few small campsites with already built fire pits. They’re big, private campsites amid tall trees and along an old river bed. We didn’t stay here but it was definitely a spot we were going to go back to if we didn’t find another one within half an hour. We decided to chance it and drive a couple miles further until we reached the Tropic Reservoir. All of a sudden we saw a beautiful, giant body of water surrounded by trees and campsites. It was beautiful finding a spot in the quiet woods tucked seemingly so far off the main highway. I will say, if you plan to stay here, which I highly recommend, make sure you are prepared to make yourself cozy!! It was freezing, which I should’ve expected since there were several, random unmelted snow piles that decorated the campground. But it’s all worth it to sleep amongst the trees and be so close to Bryce!!!
Capitol Reef National Park
So, I’ll admit, as much as camping is my boyfriend and I’s favorite way to adventure, we sometimes like to treat ourselves! Capitol Reef National Park was not only our most pleasant surprise, but it had such a wonderful energy that it encouraged us to do what we sometimes like to, and indulge. We rented a hotel called the Affordable Inn, just to the west of Capitol Reef and for just about a hundred dollars, we had a cozy little home nestled in the beautiful red cliffs of the area. We had dinner at a restaurant called the Red Rim Cafe and we watched every shade of orange, red and brown the sun turned the mountains around us. Even though we stayed inside that night, there is plenty of BLM just outside of Capitol Reef. Between Torrey, Utah and the western park boundary, south of highway 24 is all BLM (free camping) for your convenience. On the eastern side of the park, there is BLM on all sides of Hartnet Rd and Notom-Bullfrog Rd. I highly encourage a visit to Capitol Reef. Don’t overlook it even if you’ve never heard of it. Seeing evidence of every shift of the earth as the sun glinted off the rocks is a sight I will never forget.
Canyonlands National Park/Arches National Park
Canyonlands and Arches National Park are within 40 minutes of one another. They are both local to Moab, Utah, which is an awesome adventure hub for outdoorsy travelers. Since we were coming from the West, Canyonlands came before Arches on our route. To get to Canyonlands, you take highway 313 to make it to the incredible view points of the canyons. The road winds you through open pastures and some of the most uniquely shaped canyons that don’t even begin to prepare you for what it’s like when you finally make it into the park. Along the way, you’ll see a turnout for Dead Horse Point State Park and about halfway between here and the entrance to Canyonlands, you’ll see some dirt roads that venture off the west side of the highway. They’re a little bumpy, but about a mile back you will find a little intricate system of campgrounds that overlook part of Canyonlands. It was one of my favorite spots. We watched the sun go down beyond the canyons we had just explored, drank some beer named after Bryce Canyon’s Hoodoos and felt as if the earth went on forever.
Valley of the Gods
This was, in my opinion, the coolest named camp spot and also our last little home in Utah. We were wrapping our way down the Eastern side of Utah after leaving Arches so we could make our way into Arizona. We wanted to see Monument Valley, which is a famous view used in many old western movies, but once you pass through, there is Navajo owned land for about 4 hours and you can’t free camp within. So we needed to find a place before. We saw a small sign for a place called Valley of the Gods about twenty minutes north of MV and after talking to a ranger at a local state park, the Goosenecks, we decided we would stay in the royal valley. It is a 20 mile, winding loop that takes you through the home of giant, red rock gods. Their phenomenal shape and size makes you feel as if your surrounded by stone, sleeping creatures that might awake if you’re even slightly too loud. The power in their presence was astonishing. There were campsites all along the winding way with already made fire pits. We set up in windy conditions that only added to the brilliant energy but dwindled as the night went on. We got to watch the sun set behind these magnificent structures, watching the silhouettes change with the light and getting a preview of Monument Valley in the distance.
After a night of sleeping in frigid temperatures near Bryce Canyon, I don’t think I’ve ever packed up our camp so fast to move on to the next spot. I wasn’t ready to leave Bryce, but I was ready to travel to warmer temperatures, lesser altitudes. After driving through several small towns with populations of less than a thousand people, we had settled on taking a forest road to the Sevier River just south of Bryce Canyon. From walking amid rock structures under the golden sun, to sleeping amongst tall pines and random, unmelted snow piles, at 5 in the morning we were ready to head to our next destination.
Our next stop was Capitol Reef National Park. I had never even heard of this particular park before we had decided to do the Mighty Five in Utah and was excited that the one directly in the middle would be a complete surprise of geography and energy. We arrived closer to evening time, as we had made a stop at Lower Calf Creek falls on our way, and I was entranced by the way the late afternoon sun lit up the rock formations we were driving through. It’s hard to describe the majesty of the structures that looked like giant, stationary elephants allowing us into their tribe, the park and area exuding a wonderful, welcoming energy.
It was Easter weekend and many families were spending their holiday in the joyful park so we backtracked a bit looking for a wild camp or small town that might host us for the evening. The cheery energy encouraged us to do something we do once in a while, indulge ourselves and get a hotel. Because sometimes we like a slight essence of luxury during our long stretches of roughing it. We stayed in a cute inn that shared a small slot in the giant canyons with a little store for snacks and a restaurant called the Red Rim Cafe. It was a perfect, red cabin eatery that had windows on all sides of the cozy dining area. We sat at a table in the middle, porter in hand and watched the earth cast a glow and then a shadow on the surrounding red cliffs as the sun went down. I might go back to that very spot, just to eat with that view again. To watch the red canyons gleam with light. It was a magical feeling to be so aware of the sun saying goodnight. To recognize every moment of the light changing, every shift of the earth.
We got up early since we were ready to explore the park, having not had much of a chance the night before. Making our way to Capitol Reef in the morning light was just as beautiful as the previous evening. The way the rocks were formed in this park made it look completely different depending on where the sun sat in the sky. It was such a jolly feeling, entering the park on a Sunday, Easter for that matter. I’ve never been one to celebrate Easter much but our family has always gathered to visit and I’ve never spent too many holidays away from home. But having my love with me in a place that had the most family friendly energy I had yet to experience was a wonderful treasure. Now, all of Utah was incredibly friendly. People smiled everywhere we went and were happy to help with advice on our adventures. But there was just something about Capitol Reef that made us feel so light and warm. Families were out exploring, there were horses that roamed the grounds, a still standing pioneer village that decorated the center of the park and orchards that welcome signs invited us to pick from, free of charge. But, I think the best part was the fresh baked pies that were sold out of one of the old pioneer homes.
We walked into the shop, deciding if we were going to get pie, but we knew we had to, I mean it was Easter and when do you find pie in a national park?! The little house was laced with red checkered curtains, local honey, old fashioned ice cream, and there in the back was a shabby chic, white pantry filled with morning fresh pies. We picked out a strawberry rhubarb that we thought we’d have a few bites with our coffee and took it outside to picnic next to the horses. As we took one bite, we looked at each other in disbelief of how delicious a national park pie could be and proceeded to gobble every morsel that existed. I’m pretty sure we even licked the tin!! We still talk about going back some day just for that pie.
Two nice ladies who had sold us the pie told us that the Hickman Bridge hike would be a great introductory hike considering our time limit. So we filled our stomachs with pie and headed to the trail head. We were met by a sage green creek framed by trees of neon green leaves, all the colors enhancing the red and tan colors of the rocks. As we hiked through, the rocks kept shifting colors, from shiny red to sandy beige. I sat in so many naturally made caves and walked over small rock bridges, peering down at the people who decided to walk beneath. There was something so ancient about the canyons we were walking through. The walls that you could tell had been weathered by the winds and the waters over millions of years. The little holes in all the walls showing the beautiful scarring that time and weather causes. It was like walking through the Land Before Time. I half expected dinosaurs to walk around the corner if the rocks themselves didn’t transform into them.
After walking through a mile of these canyons, touching the rough walls and deciding whether to climb each one, we turned the corner to see the Hickman Bridge. National parks will always surprise you. Walking through ancient but seemingly normal canyons and having them open up on to a 138 foot bridge was a jaw dropping sight. I sat beneath it, looking straight up and realizing what an incredible feat of nature it is to create something like this. To suspend the earth above you and allow you to walk beneath it.
Capitol Reef had so many surprises for me. Starting with not even knowing it existed. The colors of the rocks, the history, the pie, the arches. Since I didn’t hear much about Capitol Reef, I didn’t expect that it would capture my heart as much as it did. That I would fall in love with its energy. But as with love, I guess we find those things that make our heart full when we least expect it.
It was hard to leave Zion. To pack up and drive away from such a beautiful place. But the promise of another one less than 3 hours away motivated us to wake up and start packing up our things as soon as the sun hit our tent. We stayed just off the Kolob highway, which runs from about 20 miles south of Zion to the very east border of the park. We wanted to try a different spot from the Sheep’s Bridge Road camping and we were glad we did. I’d highly recommend it, if not solely for the fact that we drove and walked alongside a little family tribe of cows that free roam the mountainside and fell asleep to the jingling of their cowbells. I mean what could be a better lullaby??
Leaving Zion would be the start of our journey on the beautiful Utah scenic byways. We drove through a part of the park yet unseen and a mostly undeveloped countryside on our way to Bryce Canyon. It was pleasant to see the beautiful farmland backdropped by red mountains, to slowly feel the slight pull upward as we gradually climbed to a higher elevation. The cows, horses, goats and llamas didn’t notice as we drove by but we sure saw them, having to fight stopping and saying hi to each one. About halfway through our quiet and undeveloped drive, we happened upon a small strip of crystal shops and, being us, had to stop. Called the Rock Shop, it was a molded, almost glob like mound of pink stucco with a white cap. I assumed a representation of red mountain with snow on the top? But it’s up to your own perspective. No matter how it looked on the outside, the inside was filled with such a genuine energy. A little pocket of sunshine on an otherwise solo drive for us. I even met the current owner and the past owner who happened to be in the shop, both telling me all about the local gems that were found just within a mile of where we all stood.
It was a perfect little halfway point, we even grabbed a poppyseed danish from a German bakery to quell our hungry anticipation of what to expect at Bryce Canyon. The only thing I knew to expect was the hoodoos, which I was obsessed with since we started this trip. Their name and their character. And I was not to be disappointed. We had decided to take the Queen’s Garden Trail since I had heard it gave you the best, personal acquaintance opportunity. Of course, I couldn’t resist getting to know the “legend people” that the Paiute Indians said these hoodoos were. Frozen in time by the trickster god Coyote.
When we started the trail, we walked along the Rim Trail to the Sunrise Point, where we thought we were seeing a grand view of all the hoodoos! Which we were, but we didn’t realize how expansive the park was and how many perspectives there were of these and other hoodoos. When we began our descent, it was like we were immediately transported into another world. I could’ve sworn we stepped through a portal to Mars. We couldn’t walk ten steps without stopping to take a picture of a different rock chimney, person, window or alien. Each one was so unique that we couldn’t help but try and capture all of them.
The entire trail was filled with close interactions with hoodoos and their families. A 4 mile trail, I never bored since each path brought its own energy and personality, including the ground squirrels and chipmunks that scaled the rock faces so easily and swiftly. Scampering around and greeting us with doeful eyes, silently begging for a piece of our trail mix. The almond we dropped was I’m believe the best snack one little guy had ever eaten. He sat upright, eyes closed, as if savoring every morsel. Another little one grabbed my hand when I crouched down closer and then grabbed my go pro lens just to make sure it wasn’t some food he could stuff in his chubby cheeks. We chuckled as if channeling him and I think the video of him grabbing me and the camera just might be my pride and joy.
After the hike, we drove higher and higher. To reach all of the viewpoints that overlooked every angle of Bryce Canyon. What added to the uniqueness of the hoodoos, was the snow that filled in the crevices of their shapes. The white beautifully contrasting the red of the rock and green of the ponderosa pines that grew tall from the base of the canyon and hoodoos. Bryce Canyon is known for its varying temperatures of warm and cold, which is precisely what causes the formations of these rock people. The warm weather melts the snow, which seaps into the porous stone. Then the cold refreezes the water inside the rocks, which causes the frozen water inside to expand and shatter the rocks from the core. Isn’t that crazy?!
I’m pretty certain there’s other beings that live amongst us and other worlds outside of us. Or within us even. I’ve always wanted to meet them or to go there. To hear their stories and travel their worlds. If anywhere has ever felt like I breached the boundary, touched another life force, it’s Bryce. It’s as if you’re walking among rock gods and goddesses that cohabit with fairies. Or maybe that’s just my imagination, but that doesn’t mean the experience is any less real. There’s something about the energy, the sentience of the structures that must be seen and felt. I encourage you to walk amongst them, breathe in the 9,000 ft brisk air and imagine. It might just make your heart explode from the inside.