After successfully car-camping for two weeks this summer, I wanted to reflect back over the first time I attempted to camp in my Honda Element. It didn’t go so well… and I’ve never talked about that experience on my blog before.
I set off to visit some national parks and monuments on a 3-day road trip with Alyssa in 2017. It was the summer we spent out in Colorado with my Aunt, and we had some amazing experiences! Some of the best days were Garden of the Gods, the Paint Mines, Rocky Mountain National Park, and just exploring Denver. It’s one of my favorite cities.
The Original Plan
We had been having so many fun adventures, we thought let’s take more than a day trip and go see some amazing sights farther away from Denver. We had heard of people disperse camping in National Forests, and my Honda Element was large enough for us to sleep in. So we pulled out my road atlas and glanced around, ultimately deciding on heading Southwest.
We partially blew up an air mattress and squeezed it into the back, followed our road atlas and set off on an adventure to see the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, the Four Corners and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
Our trip started off really well. We drove four hours to the Great Sand Dunes, ran up and down the dunes until we couldn’t breathe, and we fell over in the sand until we recovered. Looking out at the vast expanse of nothing around us was amazing. Even driving up to the Sand Dunes was spectacular. You’re driving through flat farmland and grassland, then all of a sudden you see the Dunes ahead. They grow bigger as you drive closer, and you can’t truly appreciate their size until you’re standing atop them. I just loved it.
Where It Gets a Little Shady
Do you know how little cell service there is in rural Colorado? I’m not sure why I thought there would be cell service out there. It shows how much I’ve grown in the last three years. After we left the Sand Dunes, we were supposed to be heading to this free campsite I found, but my phone wouldn’t load. We eventually passed a McDonalds and we stopped for a cheap meal and free wifi so we could screenshot our directions.
Feeling a little more confident now, we set off again, this time with the pressure of the setting sun weighing us down. We started following the directions into the middle of nowhere. The already sparse roads grew even more remote, and then it turned to gravel. We drove through a cattle field with signs warning us not to trespass, and to watch out for cattle crossing. We were getting skeptical that we would find this campsite. With the sun setting and the campsite nowhere to be found, we had to make a tricky decision. Do we keep looking? Or do we opt for Plan B?
We decided we needed to go for Plan B, dispersed camping in a National Forest. Once we made it back to the main road, we started heading west and just kept driving until we saw a sign for the Rio Grande National Forest. Thank goodness! We turned left and followed the brown sign. It said the forest was just 7 miles.
What we didn’t know, was that the road was 7 miles of extreme gravel. Huge potholes and giant rocks littered the gravel path. We had to drive extremely slow because I was nervous about popping a tire. There was nothing around us except a house here and there. No trees in sight, yet.
Then, we came to an intersection. We had no idea which way we were supposed to go. We hung a right and hoped for the best. Everything looked the same, but then a house in the distance appeared. The house was surrounded by a fence, and the road ultimately dead-ended there. On the fence was a sign that read:
If you can read this, you’re in range.
And it had a picture of a target on it. I was NOT about to mess with whoever lived out here in the middle of nowhere and owned a gun. I quickly threw the car in reverse and turned us around, trying to speed out of there without completely wrecking my tires.
When we made it back to the intersection, and I hung another right, continuing on in the same direction we were originally going. After what felt like an eternity, I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding. We reached the edge of the National Forest and I saw the official board listing the rules and maps. Alyssa and I were both so relieved we had finally made it! All we had to do was find a campsite.
The Camping Bit
We pulled forward onto a man-made track. The grass had clearly been matted down by tires, which made me feel better that other people had camped here before. Not very far into the forest we saw a clearing with a fire ring and I knew that was going to be our spot. It was a little established campsite, totally free!
We shut off the car, let down the hatch and pulled out our sandwiches for dinner. We sat on the tailgate and just watched the sun set over the mountains in the distance. There was a little stream running next to us, and I finally felt okay about everything. This was going to be my first time car camping!
Alyssa and I both jerked our heads around, trying to figure out where the animal was. A dog ran down from the road into the campsite. Then we heard a sharp whistle. A man emerged and called the dog over. He raised his arm in a wave, and we waved back, but didn’t say anything as he retreated.
I felt nervous knowing there was a strange man camping so close to us, but the sun was almost set. I didn’t want to take off and try to find another campsite. With a pit in my stomach, we put on bug spray, packed up and then locked up the car for the night.
I look back at this picture of me, and I was so confident and excited to be out of my comfort zone. Plus I’d always wanted to camp in my car! Little did I know… it gets COLD in the desert! Do you see my outfit? I had on socks, athletic shorts, a t-shirt and a flannel. We had one sheet and one blanket. As the sun started to set, it started to cool down. It was a big difference from the 90-degree heat we felt at the Sand Dunes.
By 1 a.m. it was 41 degrees outside. We were freezing! I kept nodding off and then my body shivering would wake me back up. Alyssa and I snuggled closer to try and stay warm. At one point I was so cold I stopped caring about waking up other campers, and I turned the car on. I blasted the heat, but when we turned the car off the heat drifted away within minutes and we went back to freezing our butts off.
There was also this lingering fear in the back of our mind that we were out here in the middle of nowhere with a stranger camping nearby. While I kept holding out hope that he was just out here for the same reasons we were, but the nerves (and the bitter cold) kept me from sleeping very soundly.
Alyssa and I promised ourselves we would try to make it through the night. One positive was that the sky was so empty, we looked up through the sun roof in my car and saw the stars shining back at us. It was more stars than I’d ever seen in my life.
When Paige and I were planning our road trip this summer, I kept thinking back to that moment when I was freezing, nervous and sleep deprived, but then I saw the stars and they took my breath away. I wanted to see that open sky again.
Throughout the night I would doze off, then wake up. Finally, I woke up and it was 4:30. I looked over and Alyssa was up. “Are you ready to go?” I asked. “Absolutely!” she said. We quickly and quietly climbed out of the car, brushed our teeth and put our shoes on. We didn’t bother to change or put the back seats up. We just threw all of our belongings on the air mattress and got the heck out of the woods.
Onward to the Four Corners
We blasted the heat and slowly drove back over the long 7-miles of rocky, gravel road. I was clutching the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles turned white, praying I wouldn’t pop a tire. The sun was beginning to rise, lighting our way back to the main road.
We hopped back onto 160 and made our way. Once the sun was up farther, we passed through a little town where we could get breakfast and gas. We also changed our clothes in the back of my car in the parking lot. I felt like a grease ball, but we had to roll with it.
From our campsite to the Four Corners was 4 1/2 hours. We drove mostly in silence, so glad our night of camping was over.
“Alyssa, I don’t think I can do this another night.”
“Oh thank god, I can’t either.”
And so it was decided. We’d come too far to miss the Four Corners. We’d make it there and head back to Denver, scraping the rest of the trip. We drove through Durango which was pretty cool, and then we made it onto the Ute Reservation, so we knew we were close.
All of a sudden, we saw Arizona road markers. What? How had we driven five miles into a different state without realizing it? We turned around and back-tracked, keeping an eye out for the Four Corners National Monument. The second time around we saw it, so we pulled in, parked and hopped in line to take our picture.
Now we could officially say we’d been in four states at one time!
Once we had experienced the Four Corners, it was time to head home. Neither of us could handle car camping again. Alyssa was too freaked out being alone in the woods, and I couldn’t handle the cold. I know my words can’t do this experience justice, and even when we told our friends about the experience they couldn’t understand just how miserable we were.
We were miserable enough to drive over 8 hours back to Denver in one go, making for a 13-hour day of driving.
By the time we pulled up to my Aunt’s apartment we were delirious with exhaustion from the long day of driving and the lack of sleep. I’d never been so grateful to be home!
What I Learned From This Experience
When I think back to this trip, I know I’ve learned so much! Traveling teaches you so many important life skills, and it paid off because my car camping trip this summer was so successful.
- Always research weather patterns before you go somewhere. Growing up in the midwest, I didn’t realize the humidity traps in heat at night, which is why the dry desert gets so cold at night.
- If you’re going to sleep in your car, do it right. Don’t sleep on a half-inflated mattress in the trunk, build yourself a cool bed platform. Granted, the reason Alyssa and I decided to rough it was because we were nearing the end of summer and we were running out of money.
- Do more extensive research on campsites before you head out. You need to see reviews from others and have specific directions.
- Print out your directions. There’s often no cell service out west because there are so few people living out in the desert. You need to plan ahead of time so you know where you’re going.
- Never put yourself in danger. We should have left that campsite immediately after the strange man and his dog saw us. We were so lucky nothing bad happened to us, but you can’t trust that everyone out in the forest has good intentions. Since this escapade, Alyssa and I have actually left accommodations because we didn’t feel safe… maybe there’s another blog post coming soon about that!
Ultimately, I was able to see the Great Sand Dunes and the Four Corners, but looking back there is a lot I would have changed about this trip so we could have had a better experience. I’m thankful to Alyssa for always going with my crazy plans and for being such an amazing travel partner and best friend!