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The Good, The Bad, and The Snuggly

A Winter Car Camping Adventure

By: Isaac Orloff + Save to a List

The Who

Any good adventure tale always starts with a good cast of characters. On this adventure we have four travel companions, of varying sizes and species. First off, we have myself, a 29 year old east coast transplant to San Francisco who is a professional illustrator and avid weekend warrior. By my side is my girlfriend Kim, a long time Bay Area resident and professional graphic designer. Along for the ride is Roo, a ten year old spunky cattle dog mix who's happy to be outdoors no matter the weather. Along side her in the back seat we have Sammy, a pit mix of equal seniority who prefers to spend his time indoors, away from cold temperatures or moisture of any kind. Our little family is a far cry from professional mountaineers, van lifers, and other fully committed explorers. Just a coupe of hard working artists trying to milk every moment out of a 14 day yearly PTO allowance. 

The What

For most, the holidays is a time period of rest and relaxation, a time to see family and reflect on the past year. Traveling across the country to visit family for the holidays can be costly, which has led me to discover a new yearly tradition: The Winter Road Trip. Traveling over the holidays has it's own pros and cons. Weather conditions can be challenging, but often times the roads are clear and campsites are aplenty, a luxury that many know is rare during peak travel seasons. This year the destination was the Southwest United States, with an origin of San Francisco.

The Where

I am admittedly a terrible planner. I'm usually so busy that vacations sneak up on me before I've had a chance to pack. Road trips strike a nice balance of spontaneity and preparedness. While one should always be mindful of weather forecasts and safety concerns, I more often find myself making it up as I go instead of adhering to a strict itinerary. For this trip, we started with a hit list of locations we wanted to see and a loose timeframe of where we should be along our two week long adventure. Zion National Park, The Wave, Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Sedona and Joshua Tree were the cornerstones of our itinerary along with a healthy amount of "That looks cool, lets go there!" along the way. 

First Destination: Wild Willie's Hot Springs

The majority of our travel is done by car. No Sportsmobiles or RV's here, just good ol' fashion Subaru packed to the ceiling and a full gas tank. Driving at night is a big theme of this trip. Considering the early sunsets, it's s great way to make sure you don't waste a moment of daylight sitting in a car. Bags packed and ready, we left immediately from work, battling rush hour Bay Area traffic in hopes to get as far as physically possible before finding camp for the night. For our first stop, I had hoped to reach Mammoth Lakes. This was not the most efficient way to reach our first destination but I would always prefer to stretch the drive a little longer if it means adding additional destinations. We arrived at our destination in the early morning, too tired to care about the sub 20 degree temperatures, we quickly emptied the cargo and huddled for warmth under sleeping bag and blankets in the back of the car. We awoke to ice covered windows and a stunning sunrise of frozen tundra around us. Despite the thermometer sitting comfortably below 20 degrees, we started our first official day with a dip in the hot springs before repacking the car and continuing on our way to Kanab, Utah. 

Next Stop: Kanab, Utah

Onward we went, traveling 8 Hours to our next destination. This was a designated travel day with no specific stops along the way, so we were free to stop and shoot photos, turn down side streets, and enjoy all the flexibility that comes with traveling by car. 

Arriving in Kanab we caught our first glimpse of the type of weather that was in store for us. The latter part of our drive was through long periods of rain which showed no signs of relenting. For the first time we realized car camping does not play well with rain fall. Because of our limited space, setting up our sleeping area requires removing all of our gear from the car and placing it in the front seats. In an effort to stay dry we used the shelter of a gas station to cook a quick meal and turn the car over to sleeping quarters. Luckily Kim is small enough to safely operate the vehicle away from the gas station to a quiet side street where we turned in for the night, tired and cold from long wet day on the road. 

The Wave

Our first destination was "The Wave". Like many other natural wonders, the wave is becoming increasingly difficult to visit due to a lottery system, or inflated costs of tour companies. We were undeterred by our long odds and elected to enter the lottery in hopes that the extended weekend would give us better odds in gaining a permit. We waited eagerly as numbers were called, shockingly multiple parties were called at random twice but after about an hour of waiting we were out of luck. We would have to cross the wave off our destination list, but our experience in Kanab provided an interesting first glimpse of the tourism industry in the United States. More on this later on.

Next Stop: Zion National Park

With the Wave lottery over, we were now free to focus on our first major destination, Zion National Park. Zion had long been on both of our hit lists of places to visit, and arriving at Zion was a exhilarating first major destination. The scale of the walls rivals Yosemite but provides a much more intimate experience. The massive faces are everywhere and the beautiful orange rock was only an arms length away from the car window at times. Kim and I were excited to experience all this massive park had to offer and eagerly snapped photos of the many tunnels, cliffs and canyons as we entered the park. 

We had not secured a place to stay in Zion, so our first step was to lock down a campsite close by. In winter, many campsites are closed for the season but luckily the Watchmen Campground was open for like minded winter adventurers and we quickly reserved a space for the night. This was a perfect example of how things can sometimes fall perfectly in to place. Luckily our early arrival from Kanab got us in before the crowds who flooded the campground later on that evening. However our luck would soon change. 

After setting up camp we set out to explore the park, as in many national parks, our fuzzy backseat travelers are not allowed on trails, so we used the map provided to find a dog friendly walk for them before retiring them to car security while we scaled the side of the canyon. As our first hike we climbed the Emerald Pools Trail. A moderately easy hike, just an easy way to get to know the park before experiencing some of the more difficult terrain. Spoiler Alert: There's no emerald colored water, at least not in winter. The weather was cloudy and a bit drizzly, so after our hike we returned to the campsite for a warm meal and some planning for our time in Zion. 

When traveling through rural areas, cell phone service and wifi are luxuries not often encountered when needed most. Luckily at Zion, the Watchmen Campground provided both and it was extremely useful in getting a glimpse into the weather system that was hot on our heals. It quickly became obvious that our time in Zion would not meet expectations due to a large winter storm that was bearing down upon us. The following day up to 3 ft of snow was expected at higher elevations and there wasn't much point in trying to out run the storm so we hunkered down and hoped for the best. 

We pitched our 3 season tent to store gear and un-needed clothes giving us more room in the car and a hope of keeping things dry in an ever persistent drizzle which would soon turn to rain and snow. We cooked dinner at the campsite, while the Watchman stood tall above us shrouded in low hanging clouds.

Zion Day 2

As the weather forecast accurately predicted, we awoke to a steady rainfall. Eager to seek advice regarding inclement weather activities, we visited the neighboring visitors center and reviewed maps and planned our activities for the day. Before the weather become too bad we decided to drive to Canyon View Trail, in hopes to get in a hike before the impending snow. It took but a few minutes to realize we were too late. The short climb in elevation from the campground to the trailhead brought heavy snowfall, and extremely low visibility. Luckily the trails were passable albeit a bit slippery, but with careful footing we made our way off into the white. The trail was truly magical during the heavy snowfall. The roar of the river was the only noise to be heard as the snow muted any sound of cars or other visitors. Unfortunately visibility was extremely low, and we were disappointed to miss out on the infamous canyon views from the trail's end but we were thankful to have the unique experience in hiking during a heavy snow fall. 

After returning to the car, we were informed traveling any further out of the park was impossible due to multiple car accidents so we set back down to the valley for lunch. Along the way we snapped some photos of Mule Deer who milled about as if we were invisible. After some hot soup and sandwiches we set out to visit the River Walk, a trail that was the gateway to one of our most sought after trails, The Narrows. The River Walk was partially closed due to ice and at this point we started to suspect that our time in Zion was to be cut short due to the persistent weather. We returned to our campground to cook and take shelter before the heavy snowfall arrived along with the dropping temperatures. 

Time to Move On

We awoke to a blanket of snow, luckily much lighter than forecasted, but still heavy enough to deter us from attempting any of the more strenuous hikes such as Angels Landing. After packing up our gear we set out to take one last drive through the park. All long the way we found cars stuck in snow and road closures. With heavy hearts we admitted that we would have to cut our time in Zion short, and with that we decided to press on in hopes of finding clear skies and friendlier weather. After a couple hours on snow covered roads, we were lucky enough to get our first glimpse of sun at Red Canyon in Dixie National forest. Red Canyon has spectacular arches which attracts nearly every passing caravan for a photo op. We waited patiently for cars to clear and finally snapped a photo of the beautiful red arches under blue skies. 

Due to our unexpectedly short time in Zion, we were excited to add additional destinations to our itinerary, one of which being Bryce Canyon. Bryce canyon too had been hit with heavy snowfall but luckily the roads were clear to Inspiration Point. We were lucky enough to get a quick glimpse of bright white snow under direct sunlight for just a short period of time while we took photos from the stunning panoramic viewpoint. 

After our brief stops in Bryce and Red Canyon we returned to Kanab where we found a dog friendly hotel ( Quality Inn ) to dry our soaking wet gear and do some laundry. Additionally, it being Christmas we decided to trade cup o' noodle for real chinese food, which is a family tradition for myself and many others who don't celebrate Christmas. Luckily there was one chinese food restaurant in town and we enjoyed a hearty feast before retiring to the hotel.

Destination: Sun

After over three days of mostly rain and clouds we were pleased to awake to clear skies, despite nearly single digit temperatures. When traveling by car cold is a less formidable opponent than moisture.  We were prepared with hand warmers, jackets and all the necessary gear to keep us warm when the sun was not enough. Without any real destinations today, we searched the Outbound for nearby activities and selected two that look approachable. Our first destination was Paria Canyon. The trailhead was easy to find and we eagerly bundled the dogs and our selves, eager to explore our first slot canyon. Everything seemed hunky dory. 

As we got closer to the entrance I noticed the steady flowing river of ice cold water which I suspected we would have to enter. Sure enough after a couple river crossings we realized that ice cold water and temperatures hovering around the freezing mark weren't the best mixture. While I have no doubt with proper waders we could have ventured further, Kim and I elected to turn back to avoid soaking our only pairs of boots for the rest of the trip. As we had discovered from our first few days, wet gear is much harder to dry in cold temperatures and hypothermia would be a really unfortunate way to end the trip. Lesson learned: For slot canyon exploring in less than ideal weather, bring waders. We explored the rocks and the area around Whitehorse Campground and carried on to our next stop, The Escalante Toad Stools.

The toad stools were great road trip stop, we were happy to enjoy he quick .8 mile approach hike.    Easily accessible for families and pets, I'd highly recommend this great stopover point for anyone passing through. 

The Horseshoe Bend

Our original plan to visit Horseshoe bend came later in the trip, however seeing as we were running ahead of schedule and the skies were clear, we elected to go early. Weather had proven to be a worthy adversary so far and I did not want to miss out on an opportunity to visit this amazing viewpoint with empty skies. We arrived at the viewpoint nice and early, and was surprised to find large crowds of tourists. We set up and cooked some breakfast burritos for lunch in the parking lot before making our way over to the viewpoint. 

Instagram Vs Reality

As many know and most will find out, instagram is not an accurate portrayal of real life. This is illustrated all too often when visiting national parks and popular tourist destinations. I almost felt silly walking down the path to horseshoe bend wearing hiking boots, surrounded by literal bus loads of tourists wearing everything from flip flops to high heels. There was no way around it, horseshoe bend was crowded. Although as we got closer, I found it really interesting that many of the tourists stayed in one place. The closest view point was packed nearly shoulder to shoulder with tourists snapping mostly photos of them selves in front of the view point. Their proximity to the edge and surprising disregard for people around them seemed alarmingly dangerous so we eagerly set out to find our own view. A quick walk took us out of earshot of tourists and we were able to take in a magnificent sunset view in near solitude. 

What Americans?

During our time in Kanab for the Wave lottery I made an observation which was confirmed again upon our arrival in Page, Arizona. At all the heavily trafficked tourist locations it became increasingly obvious that there were almost no domestic tourists. To the point where I felt like I was the tourist in a country I did not live in. I was surprised to find so few Americans taking in the magnificent sights our country has to offer, and maybe even a little ashamed that such amazing places weren't drawing the domestic crowds they deserve. Our country is stunning, It's one of the factors that motivates me to take photos share my experiences in hopes that more people get out and take in what other parts of our country have to offer.

Antelope Canyon

By now everyone has seen the desktop worthy images of sinuous colorful rock walls of Antelope Canyon. It's no surprise this destination is so popular, and it lives up to every bit of the hype. One of the few heavily researched locations of our trip, we had booked a photo tour in Lower antelope Canyon. As any travel website will tell you antelope canyon is crowded. The flow of tourists though the canyon is as unstoppable as the water that created it. We were lucky enough to book a photo tour, which is an absolute must for anyone hoping to shoot the canyon walls. The tours are quick and to get the most out of your visit I would recommend booking more than one tour. Every moment of the canyon is as picturesque as the last and you'll want more than one crack at documenting it's wonder. While crowded and quick, antelope canyon lived up to the hype and we were relieved to have accomplished one of our most sought after destinations. 

WaterHole Canyon

After completing Antelope Canyon we craved a more relaxed, calm slot canyon experience and were happy to find that Waterhole Canyon was just a quick drive away and provided just that. The Canyon proved easy to find and after a bit of scrambling we made our way to the narrow canyon floor. We quickly made our way through the varying terrain, even climbing through the wreckage of a classic car that fell victim to raging flood waters. We weren't quite prepared for a full on canyoneering experience so after a couple hours of exploration we returned to our car to continue on our journey.

Lady Luck
As previously mentioned, I am not the best planner and the majority of our stopping points were selected with little to no advance. As darkness fell we started our search for a stopping point. We descended through Oak Creek Canyon towards Sedona, we noticed the majority of the campgrounds were snowed in and closed. Luckily the well-mustached camp host of Manzanita campground awarded us the last available site for the night and our campsite good fortune smiled on us again. After some quick shoveling, for the first time on the trip we were able to sleep in our 3 season tent. While far from "warm" the temperatures just above freezing were a relief and we enjoyed a hearty breakfast before heading out for Sedona.

The Devil's Bridge

Sedona is strikingly beautiful. There's no shortage of trails in and around sedona and the scenic red rock views are to die for. As an avid mountain biker I had long heard of Sedona's winding tacky single track and unique rock features. Our primary destination was Devil's Bridge and we were confident that The Outbound would help us with any additional adventures. 
    The warm winter temperatures of Sedona were a relief and we quickly set off to visit Devil's Bridge. The hike to Devil's bridge was primarily fire road and double track with a short but very steep single track climb to the bridge as the finally. We spent the majority of the hike sloshing through mud that looked like an ocean of sweet potatoes, which made the hike extra fun in waterproof boots. 


The bridge itself is magnificent. A beautiful setting and easily accessible. With the ease of accessibility comes the issue of tourists. We were surprised to wait long periods of time to snag a tourist-free photo on the bridge. We waited for around an hour for that perfect moment. I'd recommend hiking this trail at off peak times for a more peaceful experience, but the stunning views kept smiles on our faces the whole way back to the car.

Disperse Camping

An unfortunate side effect of winter adventures are much shorter days. After completing devils bridge, and with only an hour or so till sunset we elected to start a search for a campground. Spoiler Alert: there are none. All campgrounds were closed for winter in Sedona so for the first time we turned our sights on BLM land. Heading outside the prohibited camping zone we turned into the first open park land we could find and quickly found plenty of open camping opportunities.  We quickly set up our campsite and I enjoyed comparing the different uncomfortably large footprints cris-crossing our campsite. With nice weather and open skies we elected to treat ourselves to a special treat of a Salmon filet for dinner. There's nothing like being able to prepare good quality food and enjoy it in the great outdoors. 

Sedona Hiking

The following morning we enjoyed a leisurely morning, after sleeping comfortably in the tent in Arizona's more forgiving evening temperatures. Breakfast burritos and a nice morning dog walk had us heading out with smiles on our faces and full bellies. We sorted through the Outbound to find some local trail systems and found the trailhead at Yavapai point. We hiked a number of trails of beautiful rolling single track with minimal tourists with beautiful panoramic views of Bell Rock and Courthouse Rock. Be sure to bring lots of water because even in the cool desert temperatures, its easy to become dehydrated. After a scenic hike we returned to the car to visit other Sedona view points before journeying on to our next destination. 

Watson Lake Sunset

Arguably the best aspect of traveling by car is the ability to alter your route to include unexpected stopping points. Before embarking on any leg of our trip, I would glance at a map to see if theres any good destinations along the way. Watson Lake immediately caught my eye and required a detour of only a few minutes. We arrived only moments before the long shadows of sunsets stretched across the lake. We scrambled over boulders and hopped across rocks catching as many photos as possible in the fading light. The size of the lake is quite surprising and could easy be explored for a full day, a fantastic campground for any road trippers to boot. After the sun set we continued on to a stopping point a bit closer to our next stop: Joshua Tree. 

A Soulful Display

On our way to Joshua Tree, we passed a great mix of desert views. Muted landscapes, big skies, and...old sneakers? While en route to Joshua Tree on CA-62 we quickly hit the brakes as we passed by a enormous shoe fence on the south side of the road. If you've got a pair of shoes you've been thinking of retiring, it's always good to keep them in the car on a road trip, you never know what you may find! Luckily I had one a old pair that I had recently torn up, I've always wanted to participate in one of these. Bucket list item: check!

29 Palms

As we approached Joshua Tree National Park, passing through seemingly endless desert landscape, we came upon remote area called 29 Palms. We started to pass one room shanty dwellings scattered throughout the desert landscape. I was immediately drawn to these interesting structures and repeatedly hit the brakes to snag a photo. We quickly realized that many of the seemingly abandoned dwellings were far from unoccupied. After realizing this I was extra careful not to be intrusive and welcomed the site of another photographer amongst the near ghost town. After stepping cautiously around broken glass and nails to peek inside a few of the dwellings, I returned safely to the car to continue on our way.

Final Destination: Joshua Tree

A recurring theme of our trip was uncooperative weather, and after a few days of clear skies the grey skies returned as we arrived at our final destination: Joshua Tree. Our first stop in Joshua Tree was " Noah's Purifoy Outdoor Art Museum". A sculptural  outsider art exhibit that is free to the public, this experience set the tone for a lot of our Joshua Tree experience. It's easy to recognize some of these iconic sculptures as you walk among the various contraptions of reclaimed materials. After a brief visit we continued into Joshua Tree park to explore the park. 

Joshua Tree is a great park with fantastic accessibility. We pulled off and on to photograph the rock formations in between rain showers, hoping for the sun to poke through the clouds. Hidden Valley trail was a short but fun trail littered with boulders to climb and take in the truly unique landscape. After enjoying a distant sunset from Keys Point, we again had to come to terms with an unfortunate weather forecast. With only more rain in store over the next day or two, we elected to travel on and forego our campground reservation in hopes to see more destinations on the final leg of our journey. 

Any experienced traveler knows that the only thing you can count on is that things won't always go to plan. Thankfully Kim and I were both able to recognize the several points in our trip where the weather had plans of its own, and we were able to adjust our schedule accordingly. Tired of rain and things not going to plan, we elected to drop in and see friends in Los Angeles before heading home. 

After a rainy stroll on Venice Beach, with bellies full of Porto's, we journeyed north along Route 1.  We pulled in to San Francisco at 11:55 PM on a gas tank well below the E to enjoy new years at home, thankful to be home safe and proud to have made it through 2,500 miles of challenging but rewarding winter adventures. 


We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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