Van Life Ventures: Part 1 - Colorado
Adventure Elopement Photographer
Wow! I can not believe it has almost been a full month of living in the van and traveling! While my home base will still be Arizona my first few months are packed with traveling. I am currently writing this blog from my home I grew up in which is in North Carolina. This blog post is about all of my travels from Sedona and Colorado. We started out in Sedona for a week of photographing an elopement and couples adventure sessions. I can not wait to get back to Sedona! For van life it is a pretty perfect location, lots of free camping, tons of hiking and central to a small quite town with a Wal-Mart and central to a tourist town which has the best Starbucks. I have never been a huge fan of Starbucks, but you can not beat shaded parking when in the desert and wifi when owning your own business living on the road. The first week in the van felt great and familiar. All of my test runs in the van before moving in were pretty much spent in Sedona. I was familiar with the great forest services roads I could stay on and the spots that had the best phone service. Besides hiking around with my clients, chatting with locals at the star bucks and chasing the Milky Way I really enjoyed the nice desert rain storm from the van while editing photos.
Then it was time to actually hit the road! We drove to our first stop Durango, Colorado! While usually I am an avid planner I am trying this new thing in my life where I have less plans and more time to just go with the flow and let life happen. It also being the first road trip in the van past the couple of hours from Phoenix to Sedona I did not know what to expect. It was also my first time in Colorado! There are so many epic places in Northern Arizona I have wanted to see and explore since moving there that I passed and did not stop. I was trying to make it to the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, I know I will always be back in Arizona so decided to not make the detour. Good thing I did not! Traveling in the van takes a lot longer than expected. I had to skip the National Park and head for the camping spot I had mapped out earlier on the app I have been using to find free camping, Free Campsites.net. Turns out Colorado forest roads are a lot different than Arizona’s, lol. The first couple of spots I had picked out, the van could not access at least my comfort level said no. So the the third spot I found was down a paved road most of the way heading back in towards the mountain and then there were three smalls spots right along the river. The photo above with the mountains and small water fall was just a few yards from my van! It was a great spot to relax, spend the first evening in Colorado.
The next morning we got up early and found a local coffee shop to dine and work on the blogs for the website. We drove most of the way that day to the Great Sand Dunes National park stopping to stay at a cute, paid campsite for more wifi and showers called Base Campsite! The site was great with views of the mountains and to get into a little bit of civilization. The following morning it was up and at it to go explore the amazing sand dunes. Driving up to the dunes I was not very impressed thinking they looked smaller than the Glamis Sand Dunes. Once I arrived though and started hiking I realized I was very wrong. If you hike to the peak you can see the dunes go on forever!!! They are also surrounded by such beautiful mountains. You for sure do not want to get yourself caught on the dunes in the later afternoon during a storm though. The national park ranger said the storms typically come every afternoon in the summer. So if you are considering eloping here or hiking this during your own van life travels, keep that in mind!
The day at the sand dunes was also probably my proudest cat mom days! I took Indy, my boy cat that hikes often with me, to get some stretching in. I knew I had to carry him across the water because when we tried to hike West Fork’s Trail in Sedona a couple weeks before he was terrified of the water. On our way back to the van from hanging out in the sand he let me know he wanted down while trying to cross the river. I put the little fella down and he laid in the water! We ended up staying longer so he could walk, run and even swim in the flowing sections of the river! While my other cat, Sophie, still will not leave the van I have no doubt that Indy is having the time of his life living in this van.
That evening we camped at San Luis Wildlife area near the Great Sand Dunes. These sights are free if you have a Colorado State Parks pass or a hunting license. There are a few paid and a few free camping spots closer, but this one seemed to have the best reviews so we drove the extra miles. It was so worth it!!! The view of the stars over the lake with mountains and still being in viewing distance of the Sand Dunes was a treat. This camping spot also has tables with a shade cover, bathrooms and electric which you can’t beat!
Our next stop was Colorado Springs to photograph Izzy & Garrett’s reception. The days before Izzy and I with some of our other Arizona friends hiked the Incline trial on Pike’s Peak. This hike is a killer coming from Arizona’s altitude, with its 2000 ft elevation gain and 2,768 stairs. After the hike we enjoyed lunch and sight seeing the pretty town of Manitou Springs. I would then be heading to Aspen, to spend time at Maroon Bells and capture Izzy & Garrett’s honeymoon session. Afterwards though, I was heading back to Colorado Springs for an Elopement at the Garden of Gods and some day trips to hikes around Colorado Springs and Denver. The Gardens of Gods was beautiful, definitely recommend going there on a weekday and spending most of the day exploring the different areas and trails.
Ahhhhh, Aspen, the highlight of my time in the van while in Colorado. I choose to camp at Silver Bells which is within the “park.” From what I gathered on my apps and the locals of Aspen there is pretty much no free camping. So I figured if I had to pay I would pay to be close to this beautiful place. I spent three and half days here and it was great! So beautiful and a short distance into town for wifi for working. If you are coming to Maroon Bells to hike or elope you can check out this blog for more advice on and tips on visiting. Just know that season is busy, you need to book camping in advance and you are in bear country! Also note the foxes are super friendly. When I first saw this little guy I thought he was my cat, Indy, because of his coat color and being right at my van door! He circled the van for days, so the cats did not get out much with him hanging out near camp. He was super friendly and so fast on his feet. I photographed him from a distance, but at one point he rain right towards me! Yes, I panicked and he ran away, lol.
This was the first spot that I decided to give the bike a test ride. Now mind you, I have not been on a bike pretty much since college or the little beach bike I had in Florida that I would take a mile to work on flat ground. So the first day I thought it was a grand idea to ride my bike to Maroon Lake…..lol. Holy cow six miles up mountain is no joke, so I for sure walked it most of the way. The ride down though was a lot of fun and I got to stop and watch a mama and “baby” bear enjoy their evening meal. I thought I was only a couple of miles into Aspen so the next day I biked into town which turned into a nine mile one way. I think it is safe to say I did some major adventuring while in Aspen. Between the biking, hiking in snow and watching the critters it was a great time.
The morning I left I got up at 2am to get photos of the stars over Maroon Lake. I spoke with the forest ranger for some time the day before about the area at night and she mentioned there was an extremely small chance I would be alone, I was. I am typically a pretty fearless person, but doing van life as a single female there are definitely precautions to take and you are always aware of your surroundings. I set up my camera around 3am at the lake, had my headlamps on me and began. After each long exposure I shined my light around the area to make sure I was still alone. Right after I got the stars tack sharp I noticed what I thought was a light coming towards me down the trial. I shined my light their way and then turned it off to take another frame. When I shined it back their way I noticed it had not been another person, but some sort of animal. It was off trail now in the woods facing me from behind. I took a few more keeping an eye on the critter. I noticed it was getting closer and while it most likely was just a mule dear I was not chancing being in the wild, alone in the dark with a bear or mountain lion. I packed up the gear and went back to the the van for a nap before sunrise. I woke at sunrise leashed up Indy and grabbed the camera in hopes of getting the pink morning clouds in the reflection of the lake. It was a beautiful morning without many tourist yet. Indy was extremely bothered by the geese in the water though.
On the way back to Colorado Springs I made a pit stop to hike around Sapphire Point near Boulder, Colorado. This place was on my list of places to elope in Colorado and I just had to check it out. It was nice to get out and stretch the legs too after an early morning and day of driving. A short hike on the mountain overlooking the Dillon Reservoir. The area has places you have a picnic, hang up your hammocks and even an elopement ceremony. The chimp monks on this trail are insane!!! There are so many of them and they come right up to you, folks please stop feeding wild life :)
While there are many places to camp or stay in Boulder and even lots of camping around the Dillon Reservoir I decided to keep moving East to find free camping. This evening we stayed at a Reservoir near Fairplay, Colorado. We got to set up camp just a few yards from the lake with a great view of the mountains, the spot had a bathroom and lots of people were their fishing. I have learned it is great to have a plan for a camp site and maybe a back up , but you can usually find great spots once you are in the area you want to camp in that you couldn’t find earlier.
Before leaving Colorado I stopped at the Paint Mines in East Colorado. This area seems so unexpected to find as you drive down the terrible washboard road. The mine’s history dates back over 55 million years ago with human existence around it up to 9,000 years ago. The trails are pretty going through the rolling grass hills with lots of wild flowers and tons of rabbits. I arrived about 20 minutes after sunrise and had the place all to myself on a weekday to explore the trials. The mines are fragile and you want to practice LNT prinicipals strictly while visiting.
If you enjoy the images below click the button at the end to be able to purchase prints or feel free to share the link or this blog post! :) As always, questions are welcome about van life and this journey. Just drop them in the comments and I will answer!
So, What Have I Learned so far….?
Before setting out into van life full time everyone would ask me, “So, What is the plan after this…” Which I totally understand why people would ask this, but to me it is a little crazy to be able wrap my head around the idea of having an answer. Prior to moving into the van I was feeling super overwhelmed with the large amount of travel coming up in an old 1989 van, leaving home and leaving my community. I had no idea if I was really going to love or hate living in the van. I have to say though, only a month in I love it and I can not imagine really moving back into “normal” life until I am ready to buy a house and settle down. I know that van life, to me, is way more fun and enjoyable when on National Park land, BLM land or Forest service land over being in peoples back yards and drive ways.
You would think time goes slower in the van, but to me the days go by a lot faster. Everything in the van takes more time and has it’s own process. The evenings and mornings are the only time I really spend in the van and I love evenings. Cooking with the doors open watching Indy romp and roll around is so nice. Eating dinner pretty much with a view every night in the quiet is very relaxing. Meeting other folks on the road and hearing part of their story is always eye opening. You never know who you will meet and everyone has a different reason, goal or lifestyle in their van. Even though you meet these people for an evening or so they touch your life and journey in some way. At the end of the day we are all on an adventure to find our selves, where we belong in life, our happiness and joys.
This first month was a whirlwind, over 2,000 miles on the van and across six states. I moved around this first month and I will this next month too. I am excited to be still. Surprising coming from me, someone who likes to travel and go, go, go. Right now I am in a place where I just want to be, feel and experience. The journey has just begun….
Here are some of the questions you all asked me via instagram last week answered!
What is the biggest recommendation for someone getting ready to start their build? This is kind of hard for me to answer since I bought a van already built out. My suggestion would be see as many van as you can, in person. Spend time in your own van and think about what you really need and what you really do not need. Ask yourself how much time are you okay with spending to prep food, coffee, etc. Ask yourself where you will be spending most of your time and if you need a bathroom. Know you can always make changes to your van and to maybe do the build out slow so as you go along figuring things out you can make changes even easier. Van life is a no rush, laid back kind of thing, lol.
What do you do about the plumbing problem, aka bathroom? I bought a portable toilet for my van in case of emerency situations or not feeling safe leaving the van at night to go. Luckily, I have not had to use this yet. A lot of my camping has been disperse so I have been going out in the wild. I also use public restrooms or when I am staying at a friends house I use their bathrooms. My van has a shower that is perfect for when you’re in no mans land since it is outside or warm out, but if not there is always gym or camp showers.
Real Talk: Do you get lonely?? Loneliness, downtown and quiet time is something I have never dealt with well and a big reason I wanted to do van life. I have to say the first few nights in the van for test runs I got really lonely and sad, but it has been hard for me leaving my community in Phoenix. I have surpassed that by telling myself, hey this is not permament you will be back soon! I find that if I am lonely in the van it is because I have something on my mind bothering me or I am bored, lol.
Places to visit! All the places I went in Colorado I would recommend! Aspen was amazing, Durango is not too far from Arizona, Colorado Springs if you want a cute town with a 14ner to hike. The Sand Dunes National Park is well worth it. In Denver I recommend going to Little Man Ice cream and for sure the REI there! There is also this area not too far from Denver called Golden that has a neat brewery with a pizza truck that was fantastic, Mountain Toad. Golden also has a lot of great hikes! Some places I did not get to on this trip that I always hear great things about in Colorado are Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.