Following the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we quarantined for 1 month in a small town in Oregon. For full-time van dwellers like me and my partner, these were truly trying times, both emotionally and financially. We had always found secluded spots to camp out on national forest or Bureau of Land Management land, so we didn’t have a problem with social distancing. Upon reevaluating our choices and assessing risk, after 45 days of not leaving our rental apartment, we decided to pack up our 2001 Ford E-150 with backpacking gear and a month’s supply of groceries and left for a road trip.
To ensure we didn’t travel to crowded or popular locations, we built our road trip itinerary around lesser-visited destinations. Our first stop was down a long gravel road in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, surrounded by the towering peaks of the Wallowa Mountains. As expected, we didn’t see a single other person for the days we spent hiking and swimming in pristine lakes.
We slowly made our way up north, passing vast stretches of rapeseed farms—which I couldn’t help running through. We reached the mesmerizing Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, and basked in the turbulent glory of the Lochsa River—undoubtedly the prettiest drive we’ve done to date. The river follows the entire 100-plus mile drive, offering camping spots and steep hikes with awe-inspiring vantage points.
The end of Idaho’s Highway 12 brings you into Montana, where we planned to drive into Flathead National Forest. As we expected, we saw fewer than five cars during our week-long adventure, driving on dirt roads as far as our van would take us. When it was time for our next adventure, Yellowstone National Park opened its North Entrance to a limited number of tourists, and there was no way we could have missed this opportunity.
We were some of the lucky few to witness the beauty of Yellowstone after more than a month of closures. There was no traffic, the bison were roaming freely, and grizzly sightings were abundant. We felt the same innocent, bubbly joy that we did on our first vanlife adventure.
We rode this wave of awe and laughter as we exited Yellowstone onto Highway 191 and entered Grand Teton National Park. It’s hard to put the sumptuous beauty of the Grand Tetons into words as each peak has its own distinguished personality and form. To our excitement, the park was surprisingly empty, with fewer than 10 cars driving by in an hour. We hiked deep in the backcountry of the Paintbrush Canyon and witnessed why the Tetons are regarded as one of the most rugged and alluring mountain ranges in the country.
Going with the ebb and flow
With some pandemic-related restrictions easing, we decided to continue our journey south toward Colorado. Still weary of crowds, we drove to Rocky Mountain National Park around sunset when the crowds usually disperse. We woke up before sunrise the next morning and hiked up Mount Ida, a beautiful 13er (a mountain that’s more than 13,000 feet in elevation), nestled above the continental divide, eventually watching the sun set behind the snow-covered Rockies.
We pitched a tent on an alpine meadow, but the winds howled through the night. Despite the adversities of weather and a brutal knee injury, it was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life. The weather turned quickly the next day, so we descended and camped in a dispersed camping area along a creek in the White River National Forest.
Trudging along Interstate 70, we entered Utah and camped outside Dead Horse Point State Park, soaking in the vistas offered by the gorge carved by the Colorado River. We drove endlessly on dirt roads, trying to find the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers where the water turns different colors with the change in the sun’s angle.
A few days later, we found ourselves in another forest in Northern Utah, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache, home to the tallest mountain range in the state. The inspiring views were worth the steep hikes—I’ll never forget the sun slowly setting over the desert horizon as the mountains turned bright orange and red.
As life slowly returned to normal, we decided to return to our seasonal jobs in Oregon to financially equip ourselves for our dream road trip to Alaska, passing through the Canadian Rockies wilderness. We’ve since delayed our travel plans, but we continue to enjoy the great outdoors in our surrounding area.
Through the thousands of miles I’ve traveled so far, I’ve learned that beauty is everywhere. While some places offer unique and inspiring views, I thoroughly enjoy simpler landscapes that still provide the same calming energy of nature that more famous views bring. So don’t wait for that big trip, go take a walk among the trees today.