“Are you sure you want to drive this?” Paul asks me.
I’m looking at 27 intimidating feet of recreational vehicle, and I am anything but sure.
Paul, my best friend since college, and I are in the middle of a six-day driving tour of Utah’s state and national parks. We’re here, in the tiny town of Tropic, to meet the 2020 Forest River Forester RV that will be our home for the next three days of the trip. I’m not yet sure how I feel about that.
I’ve got a valid license, but neither own — nor regularly drive — a car. But RV travel is suddenly hip, and touring like a turtle in your own sanitized and self-sufficient shell has undeniable appeal in the pandemic era. Friends extoll the pleasures of #vanlife in their Airstreams and Sprinters. So, for a few days, we’re giving it a try.
Luckily for us, an entire industry connects road warrior wannabes with owners willing to rent their “rigs.” RVshare.com is one of the largest of these Airbnb-style rental platforms, and it’s connected us with Melissa and Roy Farley, who have brought the Forester more than two hours from their home in Hurricane, Utah. The base cost is $225 per night, which includes 100 miles and four hours of generator time per day. (Additional miles are 50 cents, and $5 per hour for the generator.)
Melissa and Roy have dubbed their gleaming RV “Adventure Seeker.” I nervously think of it as “The Beast.”
Roy runs us through operating the $100,000 vehicle — setting the air conditioning, switching the automatic transmission into “tow mode” (for steep hills), extending the exterior shade awning. The vehicle is plush, with a queen bed, upper sleeping berth, and a dining area that converts to a third bed. The kitchen has a gas stove and microwave, but we’ll probably check out local restaurants rather than cook. The bathroom (with a heated shower) is compact but comfortable.
“Do you want to drive it around a little before we leave?” Roy asks. I appreciate the offer, but a trip around the block isn’t going to save me. It’s time to hit the road. With Paul following behind, I ease out onto the highway. Let the RV-driving adventure begin.
Before picking up The Beast, we had started our journey in Albuquerque, in a much different vehicle — Paul’s 2005 Nissan. A little over five hours’ drive west, we’re in another world near the Arizona/Utah border, with massive sandstone towers and mesas glowing orange in the afternoon sun. “I wish we’d paid more attention in Geology 101,” Paul sighs. “Attention was paid,” I remind him. “But primarily to that cute professor.”
That agreed, we approach Monument Valley Tribal Park (navajonationparks.org, 435-727-5870). It’s both familiar (from John Wayne Westerns) and striking enough of a landscape to stand in for another planet (which it did, in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Covering about 92,000 acres within the Navajo Nation, the park is our first stop. We’ve been wiping away tears of laughter during our drive from Albuquerque. Now, the surrounding grandeur stuns us into silence.
We settle in at the iconic Goulding’s Lodge (gouldings.com, 435-727-3231). Harry and Leone “Mike” Goulding opened a Navajo trading post in the 1920s and later introduced filmmaker John Ford to the area. Ford’s 1939 movie Stagecoach made John Wayne — and the valley — a star. Now Goulding’s has its own airstrip, an RV park and campgrounds, and a museum. Our hillside villa (about $235 per night) is comfortable, with a front porch view to truly majestic spires.
Dawn illuminating the monuments is not to be missed. After breakfast, we meet Tim Linville, a guide who greets us in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language. “Yá'át’ééh!”
While a small number of vehicles at a time can drive the 17-mile Monument Valley park loop (no RVs, high clearance cars recommended), a tour with a tribe member lets visitors go off-road to explore these sacred lands. Tim leads us to petroglyphs and hidden caves, natural bowls where scarce rainfall collects to nourish white peach and piñon trees amid sandstone spires and buttes with names like “Mittens” and “Three Sisters” that tower up to 1,000 feet above the desert floor. (The 3½-hour tour is $79 per person.)
Days, even weeks, would not be enough to explore this landscape, but other wonders call. We head south and stop at the hogan-shaped Blue Coffee Pot Restaurant (928-697-3396) in Kayenta, Arizona, for delicious sandwiches and perfect fries. The road then heads west (and later north) toward Bryce Canyon, roughly 300 miles of arid loneliness, punctuated by an occasional upwelling of mesa or monolith.
Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches — have seen an enormous influx of visitors as pandemic restrictions have eased. Zion (nps.gov/zion, 435-772-3256), the country’s third-most visited park, reports hours-long waits to enter because of the traffic. We choose to skip it, with hopes to return soon.
We’re picking the RV up tomorrow in Tropic, where the Stone Canyon Inn (stonecanyoninn.com, 435-679-8611) offers bungalows — outfitted with fireplaces and soaking tubs — nestled among mountains scented with the vanilla aroma of ponderosa pine (around $245 per night). The inn’s Stone Hearth Grille (stonehearthgrille.com, 435-679-8923) offers locally sourced fine dining and a curated selection of beer and wine. We especially love the red wine-braised duck and chocolate mousse.
After a hearty breakfast at Rustler’s Restaurant in Tropic (rustlersrestaurant.com, 435-679-8383), we’re on our way to Bryce Canyon National Park (nps.gov/brca, 435-834-5322). Paul visited Bryce as a child, and recalls it as his favorite stop on that family vacation. “I loved it more than the Grand Canyon,” he says, though admitting the trip was “a few years ago.”
Technically not a canyon, Bryce is an escarpment of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, eroded into amphitheaters. Covering more than 35,000 acres, it contains the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos: bulbous crimson spires formed by rainwater freezing and thawing over millions of years. From April through mid-October, the Bryce Amphitheater section of the park is served by free shuttles that circulate from 8 a.m. to at least 6 p.m. daily. Since vehicles longer than 20 feet can’t park at most overlooks during shuttle hours, I’m glad we don’t have the RV yet. We park at the free lot adjacent to the historic Lodge at Bryce Canyon and hop aboard.
At Inspiration Point, we meet 10-year-old Bryce Albury, who’s visiting from Florida. He’s the same age as Paul was on his first visit and he’s delighted that most of the merchandise at the Visitor Center shop bears his name. Bryce’s father, James, hosts the astronomy podcast The Sky Above Us. The night skies above Bryce showcase some of the darkest, least light-polluted in the country. On a clear night you can see all the way to the Andromeda Galaxy — 2.5 million light-years away.
In the deep time of geology, the decades between the boy and Paul are less than a blink. In the even deeper time of astronomy, Bryce Canyon’s eons are equally brief, as are our precious hours in the park. Every vista is different, each fairyland more colorful and striking than the last.
It’s finally time to meet Melissa and Roy, get acquainted with The Beast, and begin the drive toward our next destination, Escalante, Utah.
The route I’ll drive, Scenic Byway 12, is stunning, passing the actual “stairs” in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It’s also 40 miles of narrow shoulders, stretches of construction, tight turns, steep grades, and open range cattle wandering into the road — just the thing for a nervous novice piloting 27 feet and 22,000 pounds of RV. Thankfully, there’s almost no other traffic. With white knuckles and deep breaths, The Beast and I arrive unscathed.
Paul, following behind in the Nissan, cuts short my crows of triumph. “People could have passed you on foot,” he says.
On the 20-acre grounds of an old drive-in movie theater, Yonder Escalante (stayyonder.com, 435-826-4440) has created a glampground experience. Opened earlier this year, Yonder has 10 vintage Airstream trailers (from $229 per night), 22 cabins (from $219), and 67 RV sites, which start at $59 for partial hookups (potable water and electricity) and $10 more for sites that include sewer service.
With a lot of frantic directing from Paul, I back The Beast into the site. Hookups are a snap, and we’re soon enjoying what we’ve missed most in Utah: margaritas. Yonder’s General Store is well stocked with provisions, including cocktail fixings. We sip and splash in the resort-worthy pool. For dinner, we grab a pre-prepped meal kit ($50-$70, serves two) that includes steaks, chicken, or vegetarian sausages, along with roasted vegetables, salad, and cookies. The cabin comes with firewood so we can grill our dinner.
We end the evening relaxing in front of the fire, admiring the stars. The Beast is safe and stationary, and life is good.
In the morning, I head to a spa-inspired bathhouse that feels like it belongs at a five-star resort. Fresh and refreshed, we split a breakfast burrito at the lounge and saddle up for a horseback tour at Kodachrome Basin State Park (stateparks.utah.gov/parks/kodachrome-basin, 435-679-8562).
The National Geographic Society was so taken with the basin’s brilliant blue skies and multihued sandstone spires that they named it after Kodak’s popular film. At Red Canyon Trail Rides (redcanyontrailrides.com, 435-834-5441), Harry “Hap” Heard — a lanky, lifelong cowboy — heaves me onto Quigley, a painted quarter horse. Paul, less clumsily, swings onto a calm quarter horse named Sonny. On our two-hour ride ($60 per person), Hap shares a wealth of knowledge about our surroundings, pointing out local plants like bullberry, Mormon tea, and yellow-blooming Kodachrome bladderpod.
Sadly, Hap has another tour to lead, so it’s time to bid our new friend goodbye. After well-smoked brisket and local beer at Escalante’s Circle D Eatery (escalantecircledmotel.com, 435-826-4125), we return to Yonder. Tonight, we watch Mamma Mia! at the drive-in from a 1964 Ford F100, one of the resort’s classic autos.
In the morning it’s time to say goodbye to Escalante . . . and to the remarkably unharmed Beast. After only a couple of days, I see the appeal of #vanlife — especially if you have other transportation for short jaunts. Most RVs we see are towing a second vehicle, but electric bikes are an increasingly popular option. RVs are undeniably more comfortable than camping, and if I don’t have to drive one, I’m all in.
Back in the Nissan, we stop for lunch in the tiny town of Torrey for excellent coffee, pastries, and sandwiches at the Wild Rabbit Cafe (thewildrabbitcafe.com, 435-425-3074) and art at Gallery 24 (gallery24.biz, 435-425-2124).
Capitol Reef National Park (nps.gov/care, 435-425-3791) encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile monocline (wrinkle) in the earth. With ruby-red cliffs and orchards, it’s one of the least crowded of the state’s national parks. The road continues through a desolate stretch where cell reception bars are scarcer than gold.
By late afternoon we’re approaching the town of Moab, with enough time to drive through Arches National Park (nps.gov/arch, 435-719-2299). The crowds have left for the day, and we enjoy a leisurely stroll to the iconic Skyline Arch, only steps from the trailhead.
Moab is an adventure lover’s paradise, with visitors flocking from around the world for fishing, hiking, mountain biking, canyoneering, and white-water rafting. We spend the night at the Homewood Suites by Hilton (hilton.com, 435-259-7000; from $143), which is close to the shops, restaurants, and microbreweries in the vibrant center of Moab. Desert Bistro (desertbistro.com, 435-259-0756) serves award-worthy creative cuisine, from bison empanadas to flown-in fresh seafood, accompanied by an extensive selection of wine.
After breakfast, we set out for our final explorations. The wild panoramas of Canyonlands National Park (nps.gov/cany, 435-719-2313), the largest park in Utah, can be experienced from the comfort of a car on 20 miles of paved roads, from a raft on the Colorado River, or for a few hours or a week in the backcountry. Mesa Arch, the most iconic landmark, is an easy half-mile round-trip hike in the Island in the Sky region, about 40 miles from Moab. While sunrise and sunset make the most enviable images, you’ll be competing with crowds of other eager photographers.
Paul and I have been making Thelma & Louise jokes all week, so it’s fitting that we end our journey at Dead Horse Point State Park (stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse, 435-259-2614), which stood in for the Grand Canyon in the film. Just a 45-minute drive from Moab, the park’s most spectacular vista is looking southwest from the Colorado River Overlook, with the gooseneck of the Colorado River and Canyonlands in the background.
“Let’s keep going” is the iconic line of the film’s dramatic finale. And we do want to keep going — to see more of this beautiful state and spend more time in the places we’ve loved. But for now, Thelma and Louise have to head home.
Cynthia Barnes is a scuba-loving travel writer who now calls Denver home. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plus: What to Know Before Renting an RV
By Kelsey Lu and Maya Homan
The Selection: Cruise America (cruiseamerica.com, 800-671-8042), which calls itself the nation’s largest RV rental company, offers a wide selection. Options fall into broad categories: compact, standard, and large. Compact RVs seat three people, standard RVs seat five, and a large one (about 30-feet long) can transport seven. Each RV has a generator; a dinette table that folds out to a bed; a kitchen with a cooktop, sink, refrigerator, and microwave; and a bathroom with a shower. They are also pet-friendly.
The Cost: Prices — ranging from $60 to $200 per night — vary with the season and peak in the summer. Cruise America also charges an additional 35 cents per mile traveled. To avoid spending your whole vacation on the road, the company recommends limiting trips to under 200 miles per day, or a maximum of two to three hours of driving.
The Details: You don’t need a special license to drive Cruise America RVs, but customers will likely need to reserve spots in advance to park overnight at national parks and campgrounds. Renters should return the RV with the waste tank empty — campgrounds usually have stations where you can flush the tanks — and the unit clean, with the same amount of fuel as when they rented it to avoid an additional fee.