Exploring National Parks and van life

The past month has been spent exploring our National Parks. I have seen so many beautiful, unique, and historical sites in such a short stretch of time. We spent many days driving around national parks taking in the scenic overlooks then doing a few miles. On some days we choose just to hike doing 8-14 a day with a daypack. It was an easy life as we went back to our van with a mattress and other camping luxuries.
Van life still is not as fine tuned as my hiking lifestyle. I loose things all the time in the van. There is never a good place to put a dirty dish pot and we always have too much trash. It is easy to fill up gallons of water at the parks then filtering. We also had the task of finding a campsite each night. Some nights the site would be clear and the evening was easy. Other times you drive farther and farther down a road to find no campsites. 

We could lounge in zero gravity chairs and drink cold beers in the afternoon. Then when the bugs got bad it was inside the van to play cards, read, or play on the phone. I have loved the freedom of having a car again. But the long lines at the parks, expensive gas prices, dozens of people on some of the hikes, and constant uncertainty of where you will be sleeping each night had us both craving a thru hike. But van life is a special and rewarding way to live. The only item we bought to live this lifestyle was a folding metal frame. We saved $100s of dollars on hotels while also spending a lot of gas. Thru hiking will be nicer to the budget. 

Soon we will be beginning the Pacific Northwest Trail. Hiking from Glacier National Park to the Pacific Ocean for 1,200 miles. I am eager to be back in the mountains for days on end. I am thrilled to hike in Washington state again! I loved it in 2015 on the PCT and doubt my opinion of it can change for the worse. I love the idea of walking along the Ocean for 40 plus miles. This trail is going to be difficult going East to West traversing many mountain ranges. It will take 10 or so weeks to complete. I have personal goals as always for each hike and look forward to new revelations. Mostly, I am eager for new views, exploring small towns, and meeting others that share the join. Happy Trails!

I will post National Park reviews about our hikes this Fall and Winter. Here is a sneak peek of some of our best photos.


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To Utah! AZT complete!

May 20-

It was a chilly night and morning making me want to stay in my sleeping bag all day. Before 6, we were packing up and making our way out of the campground. We had breakfast and charged our things at the laundry/ shower area. It was chilly in the shade, but the bathrooms were warm. We began the .7 walk out of the campground back to the trailhead where we finished our climb up from the Canyon floor yesterday.
My right calf was so tight and tender that the downhill was so painful. I took a few Advil and pushed on. We entered a part of the trail in Grand Canyon National Park that no ones hikes. There were lots of fallen trees and obstacles to jump. As I was cursing, I saw him sitting on the road that runs parallel to the trail. We had a snack break together deciding to walk the road which still had many down trees, but less than the trail.

As we were putting on our packs, a thru hiker was walking down the road. Elinore hiked with us the rest of the day and shared wonderful stories of her life and adventures. She is a fellow badass woman hiker with over 15,000 miles of hiking after this trip and she even paddled the Mississippi River last year and winter hiked the AT. It was so nice to meet her and share stories. I look forward to staying in touch. She has a plane ticket home so we walked more then we planned to stay with her.

We held our first horned toad today. She also taught us some information about the various trees. It was nice having a new hiker to get to know. We all climbed a fire tower looking back at the North Rim. We hiked part of the East Rim which looked back on the canyons. This is a beautiful section of trail as you go from dense forest to a viewpoint. Most of the day we were on old roads so we could all walk alongside each other and chat. We found a wildlife tank with many friendly deer. We walked a few more miles totaling 24.1 trail miles for the day. Elinore and I talked until 10pm from our tents to each other as Paperweight snored.

May 21

Elinore was heading out as we were just beginning to pack up. We were both sore from the long day yesterday and the past few days. We finally got moving a bit before 8. We had a few little ups and down throughout the day, but nothing more then 400 foot climb. We entered a huge burn section for many miles. We got more water from a wildlife tank which was essential. There are lots of deer in Northern Arizona. We both zoned out to Podcasts for most of the day. 

We ran into two Hayduke thru hikers going the opposite direction named Veggie and Karma. I would of loved to talk to them longer, but we each had to keep moving. We took a lunch break at a muddy cow pond that was difficult to scoop from. I had lots of little bugs floating in my bottle. Luckily, the Sawyer filtered them all out and I also used a piece of tent repair netting to remove more debris. 

We were both were exhausted today, but still managed to hike 21 miles. We entered cow land and searched for a campsite finding one alongside the old road. We cooked a warm meal then relaxed in our tents for a while trying to keep our eyes open. We fell asleep 31.6 miles from the Utah border!

May 22

We were 4.7 miles from Jacob Inn which was our breakfast destination. We were on trail much earlier then yesterday since we were motivated by breakfast. It was still chilly since we were above 8,000 feet. We walked along a dirt road and few times along a trail. It was a beautiful area of large ponderosa trees. We made it to the trailhead and up to Highway 89. We began walking and I started to pout when I realized it was uphill and 2.5 miles not 2 away. Lots of cars passed us, but after .7 miles two women and their dog in a camper van stopped for us. Thank you Miren and Aimee for the ride.They were on their way to the North Rim and even knew what a “Triple Crowner” is.

So a bit before 9 we were seating and ready to order breakfast. Tough morning! I’m currently lounging in a leather chair typing this as many tourists wander around. I guess I’m a tourist too! We got a ride back to the trail from an AT thru hiker and his lady who was happy to give back. We may have convinced them to hike the AZT. After the highway crossing, there was a section of standing dead trees. We split up with a plan to meet at one of the dirt road crossing.

We reached out to the AZTA (Arizona Trail Association) before we started our thru hike and offered to help anyway we could. They sent us a list of GPS coordinates that may be a valuable water source. Today we were on a mission to check out four of them. Our adventure took off down a dirt road that hasn’t been traveled in a while to a huge tank with dripping cold water. We investigated a strange umbrella shaped catching system that had water, but not the best quality. The third was through a fence with two large tanks holding clear water. But my favorite was the last water source. We were both pretty exhausted so I went by myself. I bushwhacked a bit in the sagebrush until I found a well worn old cow trail. I came to a deep clear cement tank full of water. This source will help split up a long water carry for hikers. If you have enjoyed reading my blog and would like to donate to a cause close to me consider a tax deductible donation at http://www.aztrail.org/donate.html. I am grateful for this organization and all of the others that maintain, build, and support hikers. 

Our day was full of delicious food, walking, and searching for water sources. We are back in the desert surrounded by cactus and sagebrush for our last night on the Arizona Trail. We ate quickly and lounged in our tent which will be packed up for a few weeks as we transition to van life. This has been quite the trail and a tough adventure for sure. I have had ups and downs emotionally and physically, but as always have stuck with it. Our relationship has grown stronger and we have shared memories that will last a lifetime. 

May 23

We woke up bright and early ready to complete our thru hike of the Arizona Trail. We had 11 trail miles to the Utah Border. This is the first time I have only hiked thru one state. This is the first time I’ve considered quitting multiple times within the first few weeks. I am not meant for the heat and high 80s and 90s really slow me down. If it wasn’t for my loving partner I would of thought of bailing to the mountains.

The Arizona Trail is diverse, beautiful, and full of wildlife. It is also a challenging trail both mentally and physically. The lack of flowing water sources means lots of cow troughs especially early on. The trail is also fairly new so many people in town are unaware of the trail, but the AZTA has worked very hard to inform the trail communities. I was hoping to meet lots of new hikers, but we started later then most other thru hikers. It would of been a lonely trail without Paperweight. I enjoyed our stays in town especially cold showers and AC.

I fell in love with Saguaro National Park and the Grand Canyon!! It is a pleasure to walk through the two national parks. I would like to explore them both some more in the future. I do love the desert beauty especially in the morning and evenings as the birds are singing. The blooming flowers and variety of grasses brought great color to the desert reminding me how alive the desert really is.
I do not love the heat! I realized after more reflection that my heart will always be in the mountains. I struggled mentally and physically this year with thoughts that rarely cross my mind. I also had more foot pain and aches then my other much longer hikes. I debated many hours if thru hiking is still a passion of mine or if I have completed all the trails. I realized I no longer need to prove to myself that I am capable of a long hike as that fact is certain. It comes down to hiking trails that speak to my soul. I value the AZT for the valuable lessons it taught me, but I am not considering a desert hike again for many years. (My boyfriend wants to hike the Hayduke Trail next year… he might be on his own). 

The last few miles were beautiful as I was in awe of the rock formations ahead of me. Hello, Utah! The trail drops downhill for miles getting closer and closer to Utah. My smile was large and we discussed our favorite towns, parts, and what was unexpected as we always do at an end of a hike. It was a pleasant drop to the heat and desert floor. We moved over 3 miles an hour and suddenly we reached a picnic table with a few beers. We each picked one up and walked towards the end of the trail. We made it! 809 miles complete in a little under two months. Nothing compares to that feeling of completing your first thru hike, but this one felt great. I survived my own self doubt, the heat, the snakes and scorpions, and managed not to have any serious injuries. I drank my Yuengling Lager beer knowing our trip was not quite over.
After leaving the Stateline Campground, we began a short mile walk towards the Wire Pass Trailhead. A car stopped asking what we were doing and apologized for having too much stuff in their vehicle. By the time we made it to the next parking lot, we only had a minute to check out the information at the lot before we were offered a ride. Two gentleman I’m assuming father and son offered us a ride in the back of their pickup truck along the bumpy road to the highway. I’d guess the father was in his late 80s. The view was spectacular as we bounced along staring up at the rock formations. Our driver passed a few slow cars and we slid along in the back. This was my first ride in the back of a truck on this trip and it couldn’t of been on a better section. He dropped us off and said he hoped it wasn’t too bumpy as he apologized that he wasn’t heading into Page.

We walked up to Highway 89 that would lead into Page where our van has been stored for the past two months. It only took a few cars before one stopped. A man and woman vacationing from Canada scooped us up and drove us into town. They live near the Arctic Circle where it was in the negatives when they left home. She is originally from Afghanistan and this is her first time exploring Utah. They were both wonderful and a perfect ride to finish our trip. They dropped us right off at the locked gate that would lead to our stored van. We made it! After a huge Chinese buffet, we will be living van life for the next few weeks before heading to Glacier National Park to begin a thru hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail. 

The Grand Canyon

May 17-We were 4.5 miles to the junction of Mather Campground this morning. We set an alarm for the first time in a while and got moving before 6am into the Grand Canyon National Park. The trail is a bike trail meaning paved road and quick walking. Right before we got to the campground we encountered a herd of elk. There were at least eight of them and they had little care about us hikers or cars that passed by. We waited for the campground to open and reserved a night at the hike in/ bike in site. The car part of the campground was already full for the day. We set up our tent quickly and put most of our things inside of it so we would just have a day pack.

With our day packs on we headed down to the shuttle pick up point. We made our plans for the Grand Canyon back in Flagstaff. This is my first visit to this national park. I have been looking forward to this day for many years long before I began thru hiking. I never envisioned my first visit would be after walking from the Mexican border into the park. But this has been a recurring theme the past three years for me! We took the shuttle first to the backcountry office to get a permit to camp in the canyon. The rangers were very accommodating allowing us to camp at the stock site since the sites are booked way in advance this time of the year. With our morning chores done and it not yet 9 we took the shuttle to Hermits Rest.

The weather forecast had an afternoon rain and thunderstorm possible so we were on a mission. We could of taken the shuttle to visit all of the locations along the western side of the park getting off at each stop to enjoy the view. We decided it would be more enjoyable to walk along the rim for a few miles before riding the bus to the stops that are farther spread out. This allowed us to be in between the bus loads of people and have a few viewpoints to ourselves.

The views certainly did not disappoint. I was in awe and couldn’t take my eyes away from the Grand Canyon. The colors, rock formations, the crazy switchbacked trails, the birds flying about, the Colorado River down below us, and the size of the Canyon had me mesmerized. We walked along the rim for about 3.5 miles with our days packs so I felt like I was floating. We then rode along the shuttle to the last few stops getting off each time. It was a fun way to see the Western part of the South Rim.

We took the shuttle back to our starting point and walked towards the dining hall for lunch. We sat inside at a table near the outlets to charge our devices and enjoyed a warm meal. I always enjoy doing a little people watching in town and at National Parks it is even more entertaining. We relaxed here for about an hour before filling up on water to venture back to the rim.

We began hiking eastbound on the rim trail from where we got off the shuttle. The sky was dark, but the weather would hold out for a bit longer. It was wonderful to have this time to walk together along the paved trail. We stopped at a visitor center, the historic Hopi House, and stopped to read all the signs along the way. Lots of people were rushing about some feeding chipmunks sour patch kids, kids and adults climbing off the side of the rim onto rocks, and many unhappy kids being dragged along the rim trail. We were content with light packs and views. We could see the Kaibab Trail as we headed father East as I got more excited to hike down to the bottom tomorrow. 

The farther from the center of the park the less people were on the trail. We walked until the sky looked gloomy and waited for a shuttle to pick us up. Right before the shuttle pulled in it began to rain and we quickly jumped on. We would come back to this exact spot in the morning and walk a mile more along the rim trail to the South Kaibab Trailhead to continue on the Arizona Trail. The actual trail does not come to the rim until that point. We hiked many more miles then the AZT and I couldn’t of missed this section. So we made our own route that connected our footsteps and walked most of the Rim Trail on our town day!

We had to get off at an earlier stop then the campground so our footsteps would connect. We stopped by the store to charge our phones and eat a pizza for dinner. Not a tough day, but we had put in over 12 miles. We spent a while here before walking the last bit to the campground. He called his mom and I retreated to lounge in the tent. As I was relaxing, the storm of the day finally rolled in. It was an intense thunder storm with downpours. Water was pooling outside of the tent and the wind was whipping. He was under an awning by the laundry as I laid inside listening as it passed overhead. We really lucked out that it happened late in the day.
I must recommend a trip to the Grand Canyon for anyone who has never been. I can tell you about a few free campsites right outside of the park and give lots of advice of how to spend a day there. In our one day, I felt very satisfied with our visit and how much of the south Rim that we had the opportunity to explore. I have a feeling I will be back someday and look forward to sharing this destination with family and friends.
May 18
We woke up bright and early as we packed up quickly. It was chilly this morning as I put on my jacket and hat. We took the shuttle towards the cafeteria. It was cold so we took the long ride around the park just wasting time and staying warm. It also allowed us to see a few other shuttle spots we hadn’t seen before. We enjoyed one more meal while charging our phones. It was still a bit chilly as we made the long journey by shuttle back to our stopping point yesterday. Before we got off the bus, we took off our warm layers and prepared to warm up. We had a leisurely stroll on pavement towards the trailhead. There was no one else on the rim trail this morning. We made it to the South Kaibab Trailhead and ran into a crowd of people. We quickly filled up our bottles and got ready to descend to the canyon floor.

We have 4,770 feet to descend to the Colorado River. We are both picking up a maildrop at the North Rim so our packs are light besides a few liters of water. The trail starts with quick switchbacks heading downhill. Today was a day where my smile never faded and I loved every minute of this section quickly saying we will be back someday. We did pass by lots of people and met a few early risers climbing out before the heat of the day. You have to step off to the side meaning someone is standing on the ridge of the trail. We chatted and took so many pictures along the way as we stopped at a few waypoints for the “perfect picture.”

Two groups of mules were heading uphill so we had to step off the trail. The first group had tourists with binoculars and cameras. The second were two employees with the mules packing out the garbage from the ranch at the bottom to return later today with more supplies. If you book way in advance and have a good chunk of money to spend, you can stay at the Phantom Ranch which is at the bottom of the canyon along the river. The mules are used to help stock the business.

We stopped for a short break at the first bathroom since we were both super hydrated before moving along. Watching hikers climbing out the canyon exhausted had me a bit worried for tomorrow. The farther down we climbed the warmer it became, but today is actually one of the cooler days of this week. We truly have been lucky with this trail. You can see the trail far ahead of you as you twist and turn. We were making great time and decided to have a snack break with a grand view.

After the break, we started hiking again to come to an edge that overlooked the Colorado River. Flowers are still blooming and the sky was clear. Did I say I loved this section? Maybe because it was all downhill as well. We twisted and turned around some large rocks before getting the view of the tunnel and the bridge over the river. People were rafting and swimming in the river. The only hard part of this downhill was finding a place to duck off the trail to pee without people seeing you. Lots of other hikers unlike most of the Arizona Trail. 

We came to the tunnel which is carved into a rock before entering the suspension bridge over the Colorado. The Colorado River is at 2,421 feet and today we did not feel too warm. If it was warmer, I am sure I would of went for a dip, but there was no need. We passed by Bright Angel Campsite. These spots are in a gorgeous location and I said this is where we should camp when we hike it again someday. People were lounging by the river with the large canyon walls surrounding them. 

We made it to the famous Phantom Ranch where we both bought a bagel and cream cheese. It was nice to have some filtered water as well. We relaxed in the shade constantly yelling at a hungry chipmunk who lives outside the ranch. It was entertaining watching people show up exhausted and ready to get to their room. I learned you can purchase a “duffle” and have a mule to carry up your gear from the canyon for a high price. I might try to get a job hiking up packs for people. Hey, I’ll even carry their water too. We relaxed for a bit then quickly got moving on a gradual uphill.

The weather was still nice and lots of runners going Rim to rim in a day zoomed by us. We had fun walking along flowing water and staring up at the massive canyon walls. We gradually climbed up 1,638 feet to Cottonwood Campground. We passed all of the sites until we found the last one labeled “stock only.” It was a large site with a picnic table and food storage containers just like all of the other spots. We set up quickly as dark clouds were threatening. I cooked a huge portion of broccoli cheddar soup as it began to sprinkle. I sat at the table with my umbrella as he relaxed inside of the tent. The drizzle didn’t last too long, but I still climbed into the tent to relax. We were rewarded with a colorful sunset to finish off our beautiful day of hiking. Only love!

May 19

We were the first ones to leave the campsite this morning as the sun hadn’t yet peeked over the rim. We are 7.1 miles to the top of the North Rim and have to climb 4,171 feet to get there. My legs are a little sore this morning from all downhill yesterday. We moved quickly to start the day and slowly begin to be ascent towards the top of the rim.

By the time we made it to the pump house which is a water source and bathroom along the trail we were running into lots of other hikers. We had to wait in line to us the bathroom before more uphill. I let Paperweight go ahead of me as I took it slow and steady. The trail slowly winds uphill on the edge. I can only imagine all the work it took to build this trail. Large yucca trees were blooming along the way. My legs were feeling the burn all the way.

We were making great time and took a break after a foot bridge. As we smacked, we watched a NPS helicopter land on the side of the canyon dropping off two workers. This winter a large rock slide damaged the water pipe lines. We watched workers and the helicopter going back and forth between two spots. Now that is one intense job. We also thanked workers making the trail larger and repairing worn sections.

We came to the Supai Tunnel next which was fun to walk through before continuing up the switchbacks. I took lots of quick breaks and talked to various people along the way. The views back into the canyon were unreal and we took in the view one last time before busting it to the top. We were done before 11 and happily walking towards the facilities of the North Rim.

I was exhausted after this section and we did our typical town chores. We got a stunning campsite near the ridge of the North Rim, showered, did laundry, picked up our mail drops, feasted on a large pizza, and sat in large wooden chairs overlooking the Grand Canyon. What a day! We finished it up by sitting on a bench drinking beers and watching the sun set over the canyon. I loved this section and am so happy to share this experience with my hiking partner turned love of my life. I look forward to us visiting again someday!