The weather was looking good, and the plan was a go!
I spent the weeks leading up to the trip working away in the van, adding the furnace for the chilly nights, adding the countertop and backsplash (rather than the plain plywood that had been installed previously), and adding stereo. Lots of other small things, and a little paint progress, and we were good to go!
We hadn't truly tested the furnace, nor had we tested any of our accessories at altitude, but what better way to test these things than to head into the mountains on the brink of winter, and hope for the best!
I laid out a painfully detailed plan, knowing that if we only got to do half of it, we would still have a great trip. With the shrinking daylight hours, I was hoping to keep our biological clocks on Eastern Time Zone. I would much prefer getting up and rolling out early, so we have plenty of daylight in the afternoon to find a campsite and relax. Other advantages were, the morning weather in the mountains is often better than the afternoon weather, and we were often having dinner during happy hour!
I cleaned out the van of residual building dust and parts, and we loaded it down for travel. Since we opted out of bikes or kayaks for this trip, we actually had tons of space. We packed clothes and hiking gear to be comfortable in just about any weather you could imagine. We filled the water tank with 30 gallons of sink/shower water, and brought 6 gallons of drinking water and enough food for daily breakfast and lunch sandwiches, and for a few days of dinner. The goal was to eat dinner at a local restaurant every day, but if we were running late in the day, I wanted to be able to head straight to camp and cook our own dinner.
We left Columbus bright and early, and made our first stop at the Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis. We took the obligatory pictures, walked through the visitors center, and had tacos for lunch. After the couple hour break, we moved on to Kansas City for a BBQ dinner.
We camped for the night at Lake Fork Campground on the Gunnison river, 1400 miles west of Columbus, but only 50 miles from our hike for the next day.
Van Life Meals:
For this trip we anticipated making our own breakfast and lunch, and having dinner locally at a restaurant near our camp. We packed plenty of sandwich supplies, as they can be made up quickly, and eaten while driving or hiking.
Because I was worried about finding dinner and camp before dark, we also brought a supply of precooked chili and cornbread. We knew it would last in the fridge if we didn't need it, but I wanted dinner food on hand in case we were late to camp and didn't want to stop for dinner. We have a propane oven in the van, and metal camping plates and bowls to reheat our food.
In the end, we chose to start eating our own dinners just to make for more relaxing afternoons. We could get to camp earlier that way, and we didn't have to worry about finding a dinner spot that was open, and catered to food intolerances.
The bowls of chili and cornbread in the oven worked phenomenally well!
We also packed 6 gallons of drinking water. The water in the van system is absolutely drinkable, but it's not always cold (more of an issue in the summer), and when we refill, it could be well water. It's just easier to grab a few $1 gallon jugs of drinking water from the store. I have 3 jugs that fit perfectly in the bottom of the fridge, so we simply bought a new one or two at the the gas station ever other day, and kept those full. I would refill our camelbacks every day for hiking, and we'd drink another couple liters while driving or in the van.
I brought a Mio Sport water additive (with electrolytes and vitamins), that we drank fairly frequently, but we found it didn't quite do the job to combat the dehydration of hiking in the dry alpine air. We ended up buying a supply of Body Armor brand sports drink. They were wonderful, and I do believe they helped us recover.
We also made a large bag of trail mix for hiking and driving snack. Beef jerky and some apples and bananas were also in our stash for driving snacks.
The plan had us starting in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This park is lower elevation than the rest of our trip, so I thought it would be a good way to get acclimated. We chose to hike to the Green Mountain summit via the North Vista trail. At 7 miles, it's one of the longer hikes in this park, but not bad by any means. Elevation goes from around 7500' to just over 8500'. We hiked along the rim of the canyon, and then up a bit into the mountains adjacent. Hiking to the bottom of the canyon is quite difficult, and only allowed with a special permit. It would have been a bit much for us on this trip, but I bet the experience would have been spectacular.
Van Life Clothes:
We are pretty well stocked on hiking type clothing already, so that was our focus for this trip. We did bring hiking gear for every season, just incase the weather decided to not cooperate. We needed everything we brought except the most extreme of cold weather gear.
The nice thing about hiking clothes is that they are fast dry, and generally resist odor. Not wanting to rely on that fact alone, we found a wonderful "Dry Wash Spray" to keep our gear (and therefor our van) smelling fresh. Love Home and Planet (brand) makes an aerosol spray that freshens clothes, and it seemed to work perfectly.
We would spray our hiking gear that we wanted to wear once more, and we would also quickly spray our dirty clothes bag. After 10 days of traveling, the van smelled just as clean as day 1. That was a bit of a concern of mine. Not anymore!
We were not loving the idea, but it actually worked out perfectly fine. We also took this opportunity to stock up on some more essentials: Drinking water, tissues, etc. We arrived just after dark, and parked near the only other RV in the lot. We buttoned everything up, and slept just fine. We decided the Walmart parking lot wasn't the place to hang out, so rather than making coffee and breakfast there in the morning, we headed about 15 minutes up the road to a scenic overlook. We saw several other RV's and vans camping there when we left, they all must have arrived after us.
Van Life Camping:
Our intentions were to avoid campgrounds. I know they seem like the obvious place to stay in a camper, but at $30-$80 per night average, they can really add up! You're also more than likely going to be stuffed in between other campers, and often just off a main road. Not the experiance we're after. Luckily, we are allowed to camp for free in most National Forest areas, and Colorado is full of these areas!
As mentioned, we stayed a few nights at Harvest Hosts, which I am actively trying to write a blog post about. Hopefully by the time you're reading this I have a great summary of our experience with that service. Short answer is we pay an annual fee to be allowed to spend the night at one of several thousand breweries, wineries, attractions, or farms. It's a wonderful way to travel, but unfortunately, the mountainous areas of Colorado are severely lacking in hosts! Update: Harvest Host Blog Post
Alternatively, we used a combination of Campendium (app) and freecampsites.net (website) to find free areas in the mountains. Browsing these sites worked well most of the time.
The disadvantage to all of the aforementioned camp areas: there is no electric, water, or sewer. Our camper is run off battery and propane (except the Air Conditioning), so no electric hookup is not an issue at all.
We can store enough water for 3 or 4 days worth of use (including showers), but after that, we need to refill our tank. By not staying at official campgrounds, we needed an alternative. Sanidumps.com is a helpful website for finding both dump stations, as well as water. The easiest answer for water is simply to ask around. Nearly every gas station has a hose, and would likely allow you to top off your tank if you're also buying gas. We asked at a visitors center in Leadville, and found the town water treatment plant had an RV water fill station attached. We also asked at the auto shop that did some work on our van, and they happily allowed us to fill our tank before we left.
Our van does not have a blackwater tank, rather it has a self contained toilet that simply needs dumped out every 4-5 days or so. I can dump it into an RV dump station if that is convenient, but it also can be dumped into any other toilet, like the pit toilets at trailheads or campgrounds. On this trip we emptied it into a dump station that was available early in the trip, and then we emptied it into a pit toilet at an overlook later in the trip. We use a treatment in the toilet tank that turns the emptying experience from being the most disgusting thing I can imagine, into something I don't look forward too, but really isn't bad at all. The treatment also removes any odor.
Having summited a peak over 12,000 feet the day before, this day we were striving for a 13,000' peak. The goal was to summit Sniktau Mountain, a shorter but higher hike near Loveland Ski Area. The hike started above the tree line, so we didn't get to enjoy any of the forest like the day before. The hike also had not one, but TWO false summits, so just like a cartoon, as you push hard up the hill to the top, you look up, only to see there is an entirely new hill, to an entirely new peak just in front of you. Regardless, we pushed on and eventually made it to the official summit! The elevation made hiking up hill surprisingly slow going, but it wasn't a particularly difficult hike, and we enjoyed the views the entire way. The most memorable part of this hike, as we made it about to the halfway point, a hiker that seemingly appeared out of nowhere heading downhill started shouting with joy! We looked up and there was a paraglider flying off the summit of the mountain! We learned that the guy coming down had bailed because of the wind, but his friend stayed on the summit hoping to take flight if the wind broke. As it turns out, he caught a break and was able to make the leap. As his friend watched with joy, and we watched awe-struck, this guy beneath his small parachute seemed to fly hundreds of feet up as he was creeping away from the summit and over the massive valley ahead of him. We chatted up the hiker for quite a bit about his parachute, flight time, and how often they fly. Everything you would want to ask someone who jumps off mountain summits for fun with a parachute, we got to chat with this guy about. We all watched for probably 10 minutes as his buddy drifted into the next valley, and out of our sight. It was a surreal experience; apparently was so unique I didn't even think to take a picture.
Them: We can't get the part till the morning.
Me: That's fine, I just need to find a place to sleep.
Them: There's a great free camping area 5 minutes up the road!
Me: Phenomenal!!! Then we just need to find something to do tomorrow while you work on it.
Them: There's a great hiking trail walking distance from here. It's right next to the coffee shop!
Needless to say, it worked out, just about best case scenario!
We camped just 5 minutes away from the shop, and I got a chance to meet some local guys that were hanging out in the camping area. One lived in a cabin next to the spot, and referred to himself as the unofficial camp leader. The other lived in truck camper, and would bounce between nearby areas. They were both old timers, although I bet they were not quite as old as they looked. Living a mountain life like those two, with the thin dry air and bright sun, can lead to more rapid aging. They had a mini bar setup on the back bumper of the truck camper and were smoking and sharing stories, much like I'm sure they do daily, or at least weekly. They invited us to join them, and I bet they would've talked the night away had we allowed it. We managed to get back to our van as the sun was setting, but not without hearing about the blizzard of 2003, which dropped 6 feet of snow on this area over the span of only 2 days.
I should mention, the town of Silver Plume is about as close to a ghost town as you can get. In addition to the auto shop and coffee shop, I believe the only other business in town are a head shop and a saloon. There are only a few streets, and all were dirt. The town seems precariously perched at the base of some very steep mountains. It's a bit hard to believe that a slide or avalanche hasn't wiped the whole place off the face of the Earth over the past nearly 150 years of it's existence.
I bought an entrance ticket to Rocky Mountain National Park for this afternoon, not knowing whether we would actually have time to visit or not. I knew the next day would be our big national park hike, and I doubted we would want to take the time to see the visitors center after a day of hiking in the mountains. It worked out well that we made it into the park with plenty of time to see the Alpine Visitors Center, hike to the nearby overlook, and then get back out to the closest free camping area outside the park. We could see a nearby wildfire from the overlook, and passed a couple small moose on our drive. We had another van issue at the campground, but I was able to fix it at the site. This was by far our most beautiful camp site, and I'm sure the stars would have been spectacular as well, but because of the van issue, we didn't even think to take pictures until it was too dark. Despite some extra stress, we were able to get to sleep reasonably quick so we could get into the park as early as possible the next morning.
We were on the trail just after sunrise, which is ideal for parking and crowds, but also provides for much more comfortable hiking, as the winds (and wildfire smoke) tend to pickup substantially in the afternoon.
This hike had us starting in a beautiful forest around 10,000 feet, and climbing up till we were well above the tree line. We had spectacular views the entire way, but the elevation and lingering smoke made for a slow going hike. We only saw a handful of others the entire way, and we reached the 12,800 foot summit of Mount Ida around noon. A light haze of smoke was noticeable, but it didn't become much of a nuisance until we were half way back down, when the wind and smoke picked up substantially. We made it back to the van around 2pm.
We stayed in a Harvest Host in Denver. We arrived too late for a wine tasting, but that worked alright with us, as we made a quick dinner and crashed.
We hit the road first thing in the morning, and the 600 miles to Kansas City went by reasonably quick and painless. We stayed at a Harvest Host on the east side of town this time, and it was wonderful! Arcadian Moon Winery and Brewery had an absolutely beautiful property, that was plenty large for us and the 4 other campers there that night. They even stayed open late since they had so many campers, so despite our arriving around closing time, they happily made us a great dinner and let us do a wine tasting while it was cooking. They were wonderful!
The next day was another 600 miles, and we pulled in the driveway around 6pm with Chipotle in hand!
The next day I was able to fix the fuel filter issue that almost stopped us in our tracks before our Rocky Mountain hiking day, and I also adjusted the furnace to hopefully work better on the next trip.
We had wonderful weather, great (hard) hikes, and an overall great time! That being said, getting home and having a relaxing day to recoup was much needed!