How can we travel safely in the time of COVID-19? That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves ever since we reluctantly cancelled our carefully crafted trip to Indonesia, where we planned to celebrate Bea’s grad school graduation. We’re completely aware that the minor inconvenience of a cancelled trip doesn’t compare to the suffering of so many people who lost loved ones because of this virus. But still, we wanted to find a way. There had to be a way.
The answer to our question came while reading a Geekwire article about a new Seattle startup named Cabana. Cabana outfits Ford Transit vans with a bed, fridge, sink, toilet, shower, and optional stove, and rents them by the day to travelers. Bookings are easily made online, similar to Airbnb, and the vans are available for contactless pick-up at various parking lots throughout the city. Each van has a stylish and functional interior, plentiful storage, and free wifi. This was clearly a concept and a business we wanted to support. We were sold.
After going more than a year without travelling (the longest we’ve gone since we met 15 years ago), we definitely had itchy feet. So it felt surreal to finally pick up our van today. Cabana promises to thoroughly clean and disinfect, and indeed the van was very clean. But just in case, we aired it out for a few hours, and cleaned it again while wearing masks. By the time we packed the van and departed, we felt safe.
Our first day on the road went smoothly. The van is only 20 feet long, so not much longer than an SUV, which makes it much more maneuverable and enjoyable to drive than a standard RV. We traversed the green forested Cascade mountains, the Yakima valley vineyards, and the rolling hills of northeast Oregon, ending the day after dark in southwest Idaho. Tired out from a full day of packing and driving, we were glad we could park at a rest stop and eat, pee, and go to bed without ever getting out of the van!
We started the day at sunrise — though you wouldn’t know it from inside the van because all the windows can be covered with blackout shades. After a quick breakfast, we were back on the road. Today’s drive started out in farmland, with occasional herds of black cows dotting the fields of yellowed grass. Bales of hay stood ready to… do whatever farmers do with hay in the fall. Arriving in Salt Lake City in mid-afternoon, we were greeted with an impressive view of the downtown skyline against its backdrop of rugged mountains. We stopped just long enough to pick up a delicious late lunch from Tulie Bakery, then continued on.
By late afternoon, we started seeing hints of the landscapes that Utah is famous for: red earth, rocky canyons, and flat-topped mesas. We drove up the steep slope of the San Rafael swell just as the sun was starting to set, and parked at the Spotted Wolf Canyon viewpoint where we got a fantastic view of the winding road crossing the canyon. Drone time, dinnertime, then bedtime.
Traveling during a pandemic has one huge advantage: there are no crowds. We hear that Goblin Valley State Park is generally teeming with tourists at this time of the year, but we instead experienced the beauty of its strange rock formations in solitude. The “goblins” in this park are like an army of triangular-headed aliens that were plopped on Earth by a spaceship then quickly petrified. They form rows and rows of oddly-shaped creatures just waiting for the activation signal that will re-animate them when it’s time for them to take over the planet.
We spent lunchtime at a viewpoint overlooking this army of invaders. Lunch was noteworthy partly for the view and partly because we prepared a delicious meal with vegetables we had brought from home (thanks to our local CSA). We enjoyed walking among the goblins (aliens) in the afternoon, sticking around until sunset for the best light. We decided to spend the night at a nearby RV camp so that we could easily replenish the van’s water supply.
Today it feels like we spent the day on Mars, though in reality we explored the area around Factory Butte. Factory Butte itself is stunning — it looks like a massive stone fortification on top of a giant mound of eroding lava. We had seen photos and were drawn to its majestic beauty. But we were also pleasantly surprised by the other, less-well-known geological features in the area. Exploring some of the off-the-beaten-path places nearby, we saw rock formations that would be major tourist attractions anywhere else in the world. But this area is so packed with bizarre, unexpected shapes and colors, that they go unnoticed.
While planning this trip, we tried to strike a balance between including some of the “must-dos” while leaving plenty of room to explore lesser known areas. Today was all about exploration, which is definitely our preferred way to travel.
We decided to spend the night parked just off Coal Mine road, a well maintained but completely deserted gravel road that offers a fantastic view of Factory Butte. As we type this, the sun has just set, the clouds are glowing pink, and the even, soft light allows us to see every crease of this massive rock formation. We couldn’t have asked for a better view to put us to sleep.
Watching the dawn gradually illuminate Factory Butte was a fantastic way to start the day. Shortly after sunrise, we departed on our drive to Boulder, crossing the beautiful stratified cliffs of Capitol Reef National Park. We then decided to take a little detour and drive along the Burr trail, a path used by Mormon pioneers to move cattle from the mountains to the valley. This scenic road, paved only in the 1980s, took us between the vertical red sandstone walls of Long Canyon, punctured by holes reminiscent of Swiss cheese. Along the way we were glad to spot the entrance to Singing Canyon hidden behind some cottonwood trees. This narrow canyon doesn’t go very far, but has dramatic sheer walls and cathedral-like acoustics — plus rock climbers rappelling down into the canyon while we were there.
Considering how remote Boulder is, we were pleasantly surprised by the great food we got there. We had a casual but delicious lunch at Burr Trail Grill before our afternoon drive. On returning to town, we picked up a fancier dinner from Hell’s Backbone Grill, where they serve meats and vegetables from their own farm. We got the food to go, so we could eat at a scenic overlook on the way to Escalante.
Driving from Boulder to Escalante along Scenic Byway 12, we were treated to a constant barrage of impressive landscapes. At one point, the road twists along a narrow ridge with sheer drop-offs to both sides and a panoramic view. Wow!
We started the day by picking up a lunch for later at Mimi’s Café — they have great sandwiches and croissants. Then we drove out of town on Hole in the Rock Road, which leads to several scenic spots and great hikes. Our first stop was a hike to Zebra slot canyon. The trail took us through a beautiful desert landscape filled with funky-shaped geological features and spiky vegetation — so different from the Pacific Northwest where we live. But the real star of the show was the slot canyon at the end of the hike. This particular canyon starts out wide enough for both of us to walk side-by-side, but quickly narrows to a point where only one of us fits… and only if we turn sideways and hold our backpacks over our heads. As if that’s not challenging enough, the canyon starts out filled with ankle deep water and proceeds to frigid waist-deep water. And then the walls get so close together at their base that we have to scoot along with our feet on one wall and our backs on the opposite wall. The reward for enduring these challenges? The most beautiful undulating red-and-white zebra-striped walls that give the canyon its name. It was definitely an adventure, and well worth it!
In the afternoon, we explored Devils Garden, an outdoor sculpture park created by mother nature. All the pillars of stone in this area have gray bases, rust-colored middles, and tan tops, in a variety of odd shapes. We hung around for sunset, and finished the yummy sandwiches from Mimi’s. Capping off the day, we parked the van in a secluded spot off the road and watched as the stars and the Milky Way galaxy emerged overhead.
We headed over to Devils Garden before dawn, to take a photo of a group of stone pillars from a location that is very popular with photographers at sunrise. We fully expected to have to squeeze in among a crowd of photographers, in the dark, carefully navigating the extended tripod legs and the protruding long lenses. Instead, it was just us… and a couple of cottontail rabbits chasing one another. At least there’s some silver lining to the dark cloud of the pandemic.
We drove back to Escalante, had a relaxing lunch on the patio of the Escalante Mercantile, and then continued on to Kodachrome Basin. This state park is known for its sandstone chimneys and vivid red and white contrasting colors. It’s a small park, but it did not disappoint. The layers of rock sediment deposited at different periods are visible to the eye, making for a visually pleasing composition. Or, as Eric explained in his pretend-scientific tone, “there’s strong evidence of paleo-Mesozoic pre-Cambrian monolithic stratification here.” 🙂
We had heard from other people who have visited this area that Bryce is their favorite national park. After experiencing it for a day, we can understand why. We arrived before sunrise and went straight to Sunset Point (yeah, we’re rebels). We waited for the sun to peek over the mountains and gradually reveal the landscape in front of us. We could hardly believe our eyes when we saw row after row of delicate spires spread out in the wide canyon below where we stood. There were white, pink, and rust colored spires, some pointy and others knobby, all beautifully illuminated by the dawn light.
We spent the morning hiking around the canyon, eventually heading to a more secluded area to have a picnic lunch away from the increasing crowds. We were surprised by how crowded the park became by noon, even during an ongoing pandemic. We were so glad we arrived early, both for the sunrise photography and to experience the park in relative solitude.
In the afternoon, we headed to Kanab in southernmost Utah, close to the border with Arizona. We picked up dinner from Wild Thyme Café and had a relaxing meal at Dark Sky RV Campground where we’ll be spending the night.
If you’re following our posts with the goal of planning your own trip to this part of the world, you might want to consider going to Zion. We’re skipping it because we’ve been there before, and also because we’re not eager to join the crowds at national parks. Zion is beautiful and well worth a visit though.
Today we decided to hike to an intriguing rock formation known as the Wahweap hoodoos. It’s a 9-mile (14.5 km) hike that’s mostly level, following the sandy and rocky dry riverbed of Wahweap Creek. We got up well before sunrise, drove one hour to the trailhead, and started the hike just as the sun was rising. This turned out to be a wise decision, since it gave us cool temperatures and some shade for the start of the hike. The return trip under the fierce sun was more slow going. It wasn’t difficult to find our way, but we were glad to have the AllTrails app to track our progress using GPS and see which way previous hikers went.
The hoodoos are spectacular — the most beautiful ones we’ve seen so far. There are three groups of hoodoos, and the last group is amazing. They look like delicate white fluted columns, each one balancing an oversized brown rock on top. It’s as if the natural forces of erosion have created a bizarre circus act. The stone bases that support the hoodoos look unreal, undulating with gentle lines that appear to have been carved by cascading water. At first sight they look soft and fuzzy like a plush fur throw — we had to touch them to assure ourselves that they’re indeed made of hard rock. We had the hoodoos all to ourselves, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring this playground for photography. We have no idea why this hike isn’t more popular, but for now it’s a secret gem.
After the hike, we made our way to Page, Arizona, where we had an unhealthy but oh-so-tasty fried chicken dinner at BirdHouse, and parked in the Walmart parking lot for the night. (Please don’t judge us.)
Last night’s camping spot may not have been glamorous, but it was certainly convenient for our sunrise destination: Horseshoe Bend. This beautiful bend in the Colorado River has become popular in recent years due to the cliché Instagram shot of a woman wearing a wide-brim hat sitting on a red rock overlooking the bend. Or the shot of someone’s legs and shoes dangling off the rock overlooking the bend. Or the shot of a woman wearing a long flowy dress (sometimes a wedding dress) walking near the rim overlooking the bend. In fact, variations of this shot are so overdone that we debated whether this was a place we wanted to visit.
Well, we’re certainly glad we did. Yes, it’s a popular destination, but we could hardly contain our excitement when we first spotted the steep walls of the red canyon and the elegant curve of the river bend below. Absolutely stunning. It looked particularly serene and peaceful under the soft light just before sunrise. A woman sat down cross-legged on a high rock close by and started meditating. We felt at peace too.
We continued on to the edge of Monument Valley, where we were transported right into the set of an old-fashioned western movie: endless plains of sagebrush with towering red rock mesas jutting up on the horizon. We explored the area in the afternoon and shot photos of the sunset before turning in for the night at the Monument Valley KOA campground.
For sunrise, we photographed a Monument Valley landscape that’s known for its appearance in the Forrest Gump movie (where Forrest ended his cross-country marathon run): a straight road leading to a vast plain with three funky shaped red buttes in the background. This photo is often taken from the middle of the road, and there was one other photographer who was crazy enough to get up at the crack of dawn just to shoot a silly road — so we took turns. Whenever there was a lull in traffic, one of us would rush to the middle of the road, adjust a tripod, and shoot, while the other photographer watched for approaching cars. At the next break in traffic, we would swap. It was very effective.
Satisfied with our sunrise photo shoot, we made our way to Moab, with stops at Goosenecks State Park and Mexican Hat Rock. Moab is a mecca for outdoor adventurers, and it felt busy after spending so many days in remote parts of the state. The upside was the food: a great lunch at the Quesadilla Mobilla food truck, and our first grocery resupply of the trip at the excellent Moonflower Community Cooperative store. We drove up to the “Island in the Sky” area of Canyonlands National Park and watched sunset from Green River Overlook, then parked for the night at Lone Mesa Campground.
This morning we joined the throng of tourists photographing Mesa Arch. We got to the trailhead more than an hour before sunrise, and there were already several cars in the parking lot. We were able to set up our tripod in a decent spot near the arch, but we were soon surrounded by a crowd. Seeing the sun rise through the arch was spectacular, and the photos are going to be awesome, but the number of people around us detracted from the experience a bit. This confirms our inclination to minimize our time in national parks, and discover more off-the-beaten-path locations in Utah.
We explored some more of the park in the morning, then decided to check out the area along the Colorado River in the afternoon. We drove within an imposing red canyon alongside the beautiful meandering river, stopping at every viewpoint. The Colorado River is really long, so we only saw a very small portion of it today. It’s impressive how much impact it’s had on the landscapes around it, having carved out the canyon here in Moab as well as the Grand Canyon and many others on its way from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico.
In the late afternoon, we found a nice shady spot to camp at the Goose Island Campground, where we’ll be spending the night.
We started the day by photographing Balanced Rock in Arches National Park. Just before sunrise, this precarious rock formation looked beautiful silhouetted against the La Sal Mountains. We then checked out a few of the park’s other features, including the Windows and Delicate Arch.
We headed back into the town of Moab to get lunch and groceries before moving on. We were intending to try a new restaurant, but Quesadilla Mobilla was so good that we couldn’t resist going there again! Once we had resupplied, we began our homeward journey, driving north as far as the quaint historic town of Helper, where we got a site at Castle Gate RV Park.
Today we started our long drive from Utah back to Seattle. We made sure to stop in Salt Lake City for a quick look around and a bite to eat. We were impressed with the mix of green parks, historic architecture, and modern design — the city library is a particularly striking contemporary building. We got excellent sushi and tempura from Takashi for lunch, then hit the road.
Never content to take the shortest path, we went a hundred miles out of our way to swing past the Great Salt Lake and cross the vast Bonneville Salt Flats to the west of SLC. The endless white plain of salt brought back fond memories of our adventures in Bolivia, where we crossed the Salar de Uyuni (biggest salt flat in the world). That expedition required four-wheel drive vehicles and took several days; our drive today was considerably shorter and easier. After the salt flats, we got to see a portion of northeastern Nevada, then southern Idaho — where the rolling hills and farmland seemed odd after so many days among strange rock formations in southern Utah.
It seems hard to imagine that just two days ago we were uncomfortably hot under the glaring afternoon sun of southern Utah. During today’s all-day drive, we experienced just about everything else: morning rain showers in southern Idaho turned to gusting winds in northeastern Oregon, then fog so thick we could barely see the car right in front of us, and then a light snow flurry in eastern Washington. The snow resumed as we climbed over Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades, dusting the dense evergreen forest with white and clinging to the mountain peaks. The sun was low in the sky by that time, giving pink and red hues to the rows of clouds that surrounded the mountaintops. It was such a contrast to the desert landscapes and cloudless blue skies of the last couple of weeks, and also a pleasant welcome back to the Pacific Northwest.
It’s amazing to think about all the places we saw in two weeks (and 2800 miles of driving), and we have a renewed appreciation for the wide range of experiences that are within driving distance of Seattle. It’s also awesome that we could spend so many days in a van that’s not much larger than our home’s bathroom and enjoy each other’s company so much! We’re glad we did this trip, and equally glad to be home.
After spending two weeks travelling the American southwest in a Cabana camper van, we got used to the Cabana life. The space was so well utilized and so convenient that we felt like we could have kept going for another month or even longer in the van. In case you're planning a trip using a Cabana van, we want to pass along some tips and tricks that we learned along the way.