In September of 2017, my partner, LV, and I tested out van life for 10 days in a rented vintage VW Eurovan. We began in Denver, drove into western Nebraska and South Dakota then traversed Wyoming and looped back south to Colorado. It was epic, it was grand and adventures were had. This is the Road Trip of Coolish Vistas.
Preface: My travel partner was LV and she is a Packers fan. Each day we count how many comments LV gets on her Packers hat and/or jersey when she’s wearing them, Vintage VW Vans we see (not including the one we’re driving), Saturns (old crappy cars no longer in production). License plates (each day we count ones we have not yet seen, trying to get all 50 states, DC and Canadian provinces, and any special ones along the way), how many miles we hiked/walked, and how many miles we drove on the day. At the end of the trip, I tallied how many different NFL team brands I saw, how many Subaru Baja’s were spotted, how many Tesla’s (LV’s dream car), how many VW Alltracks (my dream car), and how many kitties we saw.
Day 1 Sunday Sept 10, 2017: Airport travel. Excited I got to watch the Packers vs. Seahawks game at the airport and the Sunday night game (Giants vs. Cowboys) on the flight. Everything went smoothly, flights on time, interaction with others limited (delightful!). I caught up on phone pic deletion, making space for the epic shots sure to come. Grabbed a Lyft ride from the Denver airport; quick and easy and on this day, I preferred it over Uber. Checked in to a Comfort Suites Hotel which was so much awesome. Way more lux than I expected and comfortable. Showered, organized, ate a snack and slept hard. I heard a cooing sound much like a dove, turns out it was the fridge. The fridge is the dove.
Number of comments on LV’s Packers jersey: 3.
Day 2 Monday Sept 11, 2017: The bed was so comfy and I slept great. I was more than ready to get going early for the van. Short Lyft ride was great again, no complaints. Continental breakfast was typical and fine (good sausages and biscuits, eggs not so much). Met Boyd @ Rocky Mountain Campervans! He rented us Black Beauty, a newer but still vintage, VW Eurovan (newer than the Vanagons anyway), explained everything fully, super nice, total VW geek and outdoorsy hippie. Van is super cool!
1st official stop was at Sprouts Farmers Market to get stocked up. First time in this store; nice natural foods chain in CO, had everything we needed and more (i.e. amazingly delicious turkey and pastrami, avo sandwich!). Must get this again on final trip day. Begin van mileage: 178,291.
Panorama Point was stop number two, the highest natural point in the state of Nebraska. My first time in this state! Had to take some sketchy gravel, fully exposed back roads to get here and a $6 fee is charged to drive up to the point, but it was worth it and failure is not an option once I plan to hit a particular place on the bucket list. Exit 32 sticker was placed inside the drawer of a metal cabinet that sits there; rep NH! Drove through Pine Bluffs, WY which has cool pine bluffs and the roads all through NE and WY were lined with tiny sunflower-like blooms and black eyed susans (swoon!).
Our third stop brought us to Courthouse and Jail Rock, giant rock formations worth a glance at. It was very hot, so we took some photos and enjoyed the view for a bit then moved on. Passed by many beautiful plains and yellow sunflower fields in NE. Our route took us through the small town of Bridgeport where the thermometer said 100 degrees.
Carhenge was our fourth and final sightseeing stop, a place I had found on Atlas Obscura and thought was worth checking out. A measured replica of Stonehenge made of old cars was a pretty neat sight and we got a nice evening glow from the sun shining straight across onto the car sculptures. The night was drawing near and we wanted to get camp set up. We found Nebraska National Forest’s Red Cloud Campground (a mere $5 fee). And what a great campground! This is my kind of camping; quiet, not a big built up “family campground”, beautiful scenery, a place you don’t need a lot of hullabaloo. I was really glad we got such a nice campsite to start off. Learning to set up camp took some time, and we made camp ramen for dinner, so so bomb. Really had a great first day in the van and looking forward to the coming days.
Saturns seen: 2.
License plates seen: IA, KN, MO, NM, CA, GA, FL, IL, KY, AZ, CO, UT, MN, MT, WA, TX, OH, NJ, WY, MI, NE, NY.
States traveled: CO, NE, WY.
End van mileage for the day: 178,606.
Miles driven on the day: 315.
Day 3 Tuesday Sept 12, 2017: Sleeping conditions were comfy enough for our first night. Our site was a bit close to the main road so vehicle noise was a factor. Got up early, good breakfast (LV made eggs and coffee/tea) and organization routine. Taking down camp was a learning experience but we have it down now. On road by 7am. The sunflower fields are just gorgeous!
1st stop of the day (aside from pee and ice stops): Badlands National Park. Badlands is incredibly hot (97 degrees, feels hotter). Did a short 1.5 mile hike on the Notch Trail, which I wore my new hiking shoes on: initial thoughts on new Adidas are I really like them. The Notch Trail brought us up a large climbing ladder, good photo opportunities and really a beautiful vista at the trail end. We enjoyed the hike but it was definitely too hot to do another one, so we just drove down the main park road Route 240, seeing the sights (a dirt tornado near the yellow mounds was pretty cool), stopping for photos and prairie dogs (too cute!). Upon leaving, I almost ran over one that stopped in the middle of the road, luckily I saw and stopped in time. That really would have put a damper on the afternoon, they are definitely my favorite things I’ve seen so far.
On way to Rapid City! We stopped at a cute cafe—Harriet & Oak-for a cold brew stop and trip planning and relax inside a vintage VW van. The cold brew was so needed and the skies opened and poured rain while we were walking to the cafe which felt great after the harsh temps of the Badlands.
We drove to Wolf Camp to set up for the night. Met a Minnesota Vikings fan, this was fine, we have Dalvin Cook rookie phenom on our fantasy team we said! He concurred and was possibly a bit confused that we were football fans (LV had her Green Bay hat on so that began the conversation). Initially wasn’t too psyched on the barking dogs, beer signs and hick-like vibe I was getting, but the grounds and showers were actually pretty nice and it was quieter than I expected.
License plates seen: SD, WI, SC, LA, CT, NV, TN, OR, ID, OK, VA, Quebec, NC, MA, Ontario, PA, MD, ND, IN, AL, Saskatchewan, Alberta.
Vintage VW buses seen: I.
States traveled: NE, SD.
Hiked mileage: 1.5.
End van mileage for the day: 178,868.
Miles driven on the day: 262.
Day 4 Wednesday Sept 13: I slept so well. Up early to drive down Needles Hwy 87 which was the most amazing mind blowing drive--and made even better by the early light. This is possibly the best time of year to be in this area, IMO; less crowds, less kids and perfect hiking weather. I was so thankful to do myself a solid and get up early enough for this experience. The photo ops were just astounding; a bison eating his breakfast solo; the magnificent cathedral spires painted in westerly shadow; the twists and turns of the highway sandwiched between landscaped cliffs; passing through the short, narrow tunnels. The first half of the day could have been spent there surely, but we had plans.
We stopped at Sylvan Lake (another beautiful picturesque locale) and began our high point hike up Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), which continued our awe we the Black Hills. The hike to the summit was one of the best hikes I’ve ever done and hands down the best high point I’ve done so far. There was a goat hanging out on the summit, resting in-between rock crevasses! Paid no mind as we took photos and tried not to disturb him too much. Great, 7.9 mile hike, which looped us back down to the lake where we ate lunch. This place is amazing. Definitely my favorite area so far.
We paid our state park fee and drove down 89 into Custer (quick food store stop) then to Wind Cave where we saw more prairie dogs, pronghorn and bison and a double rainbow! Took the Natural Entrance Cave Tour (.5 mile, 1.5 hour tour) with cool, dorky, funny, Ranger Lauren. The caves are neat, very chilly. Cool things of note: frostwork, boxwork, Barometric pressure weather prediction. Took a snack break afterward and decided what to do next.
Drove on in search of a campground. Saw more prairie dogs and bison, and wildfire smoke in the near distance. Back in Custer we stopped at Big Pine Campground-a more built up, family campground. Even though not my choice of campground styles, it was a nice place, with clean bathroom/showers, and was not too crowded near our site. Gorgeous scenery behind us and at our site. Got a great shot of the van, with top popped.
LV Packer comments last 2 days: IIII IIII.
License plates seen: AK, AR, Maine!
States traveled: SD.
Hiked mileage: 8.5.
End mileage in the van: 178,940.
Miles driven on the day: 72.
Day 5 Thursday Sept 14: We really did well on time this morning cooking and taking camp down. On to Jewel Cave first thing for tix to the 1.5 hour, .5 mile Scenic Cave Tour. Cool things about Jewel Cave: it’s HUGE!, crystals and geodes, cave bacon!
Drove north toward Spearfish, SD. Tons and tons of butterflies as we drove, especially through Spearfish Canyon, unavoidably flying into the van :(. Stopped in Spearfish, a place I could live (elevation 3,648 ft.). Quick stops at Good Earth Natural Foods (mostly supplements, disappointing) and Safeway & Green Bean Coffee (cafe inside a house).
Next stop was Devils Tower (America’s 1st National Monument). Saw more prairie dogs! Walked around a bit, but didn’t stay too long. We saw a giant, all terrain vehicle van/truck thing from Germany! Now those people are on an adventure!
*Side note: NO MORE picture regrets! 4 3 missed photo ops: Tiny sunflower-like blooms (opportunity snagged back), yellow tree, sunflower field, Mexico license plate.
Drove on to Moorcroft and Buffalo, looking for Bighorn Campground, which did not exist anymore. I had found it on maps but apparently Google had been by there a long time ago. Headed back into Buffalo as it was getting late and we didn’t want to continue onto the mountain pass with unpredictable weather predicted. We stopped at Mountainview Motel and Campground, which looked kinda sketchy but it was late and started raining immediately after parking so we stayed the night. Bathrooms were horrendous, so no shower on this night.
License plates seen: Manitoba, VT Xtrek, BC, New Brunswick, Germany!, MA, MS, Mexico!, 2 more Maine!
Vintage VW bus: I.
States traveled: SD, WY.
Hiked mileage: 2.
End mileage in the van: 179,230.
Miles driven on the day: 290.
Day 6 Friday Sept 15: Slept ok and slept in on this morning due to rain. It got a little chilly last night and is predicted to snow and get even colder in the mountains and at Yellowstone this weekend. We ate bfast @ Busy Bee Cafe in town-really yummy greasy spoon-sat at a table with strangers due to full restaurant, talked a bit about our plans. Contemplation of Yellowstone resulted in just going for it! We’re here, failure is not an option. #yellowstoneorbust!
Before leaving Buffalo, we spotted an orange mini bus from VT with the license plate “Squishy” and coincidentally headed the same way we were. Saw a huge moose and it snowed in the Bighorn National Forest along Hwy 16 (Cloud Peak Skyway). Hit a high elevation of 9,666 feet along Powder River Pass, where the snow was sticking to trees. First snow of the season for us, this early in September. I haven’t experienced that before, having spent most falls and winters in the Northeast.
We thought we might run into “Squishy” in Yellowstone or somewhere but we lost them on our way Into Worland and Greybull. The second health food store (this time Good Earth in Cody) we’ve been to was again meh, too many supplements. From Cody, we hit the East Gate Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Decided to camp inside the park because we were unsure of road conditions for the morning. Drove through snow toward Fishing Bridge, had to get a site further up at Canyon Village, beautiful vistas and many bison along the way. Hot shower included in campsite, made hot soup, settled in. Going to get down to mid 20’s tonight, brrr.
License plates seen: NH!!!, WY “Aloha”, DC.
States traveled : WY.
End mileage in the van: 179,511.
Miles driven on the day: 281.
Day 7 Saturday Sept 16: First ever full day in Yellowstone, America’s first national park! Cold morning and we ran out of propane making breakfast. Shit happens and on this morning it happened, but it certainly would not ruin our beautiful day in Yellowstone. Approximately an inch of snow had stuck to the ground and upon getting the van going, we discovered we were having coolant issues. Thankfully, it was an easy solution, stopped by the service station for water to get coolant levels up. Drove from Canyon Village to Norris Geyser, which was the best possible place to go early in the morning after a fresh snow. It was absolutely gorgeous, breathtaking views, steam, and just amazing color contrasting from the blue sky to the white snow. Then to Artists Paint Pots, even more gorgeous sights and beautiful colors. Here, we saw more of the yellows, reds and greens from the fumaroles and mineral interaction, really beautiful. Met the first Patriots fan on the trip, hailing from RI! Stopped for lunch at Gibbon Falls and reserved a campsite in Madison.
Decided to go for it on this day and head to Mammoth Hot Springs to see the Terraces. Did a lot of backtracking to do this because of the road closures; part of the main loop road was closed for repairs and another had closed due to weather but reopened later in the day. Beautiful drive through Dunhaven Pass, which is pretty hairy high up on the mountain, a lot of twists and turns and not much for guardrail protection, if you make a sudden turn or brake hard, it’s game over. There was a baby bear that had tumbled down a hill side and there were many gawkers pulled over to photo it.
Yellowstone is surprisingly spectacular. The vistas are gorgeous and plentiful; I haven’t seen something that wasn’t awe-inspiring. And the snow has added to the dramatic beauty. It’s magical! One of my favorite National Parks and another favorite stop on this trip. General store in Mammoth had sweet stickers for our souvenir purchase. Stopped to make dinner at Lava Pass Picnic area, nice, quiet and scenic and turned out to be a great idea because it was still light out while we ate and dark once we got back to camp. Nice to just have to get ready for bed at that point, after a long day of driving around the park. Another cold night ahead at the campsite in Madison.
Vintage VW Vans: 2.
License plates seen: RI, Nova Scotia.
States traveled: WY.
Hiked mileage: 6.7 (some light jogging, mostly boardwalk meandering).
End mileage in the van: 179,684.
Miles driven on the day: 173 (it felt like a lot, for only traveling within park boundaries).
Day 8 Sunday Sept 17: Our a.m. began as per usual, another cold morning. I was on a struggle bus this day. Started our day driving toward Old Faithful to Fountain Paint Pots, and took a brief ½ mile walk. We saw many bison in the foggy morning air and one even approached near us and went through the boardwalk. The bison was my struggle buddy and was too heavy for the boardwalk, breaking a few planks, but continued on with his morning. It was so foggy, it was hard to see much of anything and I could not warm up at all for much of the a.m., which made getting in and out of the van a bit difficult.
Our route brought us to Firehole Canyon and Firehole Lake Drive, Grand Prismatic Spring (which was too foggy to see much, this was when I was extremely uncomfortable and wanted to just keep driving) then to Biscuit Basin to hike Mystic Falls via an overlook (3.4 miles). Thankfully the sun had come out at this point and it began to warm up. LV stepped in doo doo and had tracked it into the van, so we had to clean that out. The hike certainly warmed me up. More of a hike than expected with a nice overlook vista and amazing falls at the end. Got a good video of a small geyser erupting at Biscuit Basin and other amazing colorful shots.
At Old Faithful we saw the geyser right away no waiting. Have to say it was not as spectacular as it’s hyped up to be; the other geyser’s we saw were more exciting to me. We absconded with a free shower at the Old Faithful Historic Inn, then did laundry at the Snow Lodge, hung out ate lunch while waiting for laundry, had a little chill time. Then on to Tetons via Route 89 Rockefeller Hwy.
Stopped in Colter Bay to check things out, decided to camp there for the night. Ate dinner (yummy buffalo burger and cornbread at Colter Ranch House), watched Packers vs. Falcons (yay!), had a nice chill evening, no cooking/cleanup! Parked at camp and hit the sack, bundled for a cold night.
Vintage VW Vans: II.
States traveled: WY.
Hiked/boardwalked mileage: 6.2.
End mileage in the van: 179,768.
Miles driven on the day: 84.
Day 9 Monday Sept 18: I had awoken in the night to use the toilet and even though we were not too far from the bathrooms, I had mistakenly forgotten my knife for bear and animal protection. This was discussed upon arriving back at the van during the night and we decided that we should always inform the other if we have to leave the van and to always take our knife with us.
Drove down Teton rd to Jenny Lake, hiked around the lake to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point then headed into Cascade Canyon a couple miles. What a beautiful locale! There was a particular area where the views were just jaw dropping. We also saw a grizzly bear doing its thing on the other side of the canyon valley, many people were stopped watching and taking pictures. We headed back after that and took the boat back across the lake.
Since we had done the big hike, we didn’t want to make dinner so we ate pizza at Pinky G’s (a hip, town eatery) in Jackson Hole. Pretty touristy town (i.e. shopping, art galleries and food), typical ski town. Reminded me of a larger Tahoe City, CA or Lincoln, NH. Got really exhausted sitting in Pinky G’s; it was nice and warm, I was enjoying the yummy pizza, and football news and highlights were on the telly. We sat for a bit and then headed back to camp. Spotted a black bear off the side of the road on the way back north to Colter Bay, so many people stopped in the road, breaking rules for photos. Showered (reluctantly, due to fatigue) at Colter Bay then set up camp early and cooked food for later (potatoes). Hung out and organized/journaled and got to bed early; a nice evening.
Vintage VW Vans: III.
States traveled: WY.
Hiked mileage: 9.
End mileage in the van: 179,848.
Miles driven on the day: 80.
Day 10 Tuesday Sept 19: Slept better, not as cold, but it was another chilly, wet morning. Blah. The bathrooms are so gross! Time to get moving! Hopefully to warmer areas! We absconded with “free” camping this time. Only paid for the first night, but agreed that $15 per night is much more reasonable due to the state of the facilities. Drove thru Bridger-Teton and Shoshone National Forests, where we came upon yet more beautiful vistas which is where we came up with the name The Road Trip of Coolish Vistas.
*Side note on origins of Coolish: We often use this word to describe the temperature of something or the level of fun we are having. The word originated in our vocabulary from Japan where there are outdoor vending machines literally everywhere and one of the ice cream brand names is Coolish.
This was just a day of driving, slow at times due to the weather. Drove through to Dubois and Lander then stopped to eat lunch at Sweetwater Station rest stop, grabbed some awesomely free Wyoming state road maps, then to Rawlins toward Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. We had our sights set on camping in the National Forest but it is a mountain pass and with the snow conditions we were not sure this would be the best course. As we drove, the conditions were getting worse and we were discussing alternate plans. We had begun to head into the National Forest pass and pulled over to the side of the road to wipe the ice off of the windshield wipers. A man pulled over his truck and got out to check on us. We discussed our original plan and he advised we head back into town since the weather was looking worse. Back in Saratoga, (elevation 6,791 ft.) we stayed at a nice campground on Saratoga Lake with beautiful views. The sites were well spread out and it was quiet, though cold and windy; we did not expect winter! LV cooked dinner while I snapped photos, we got settled in and finally played Slamwich for the first and only time on the trip, which was really fun. Snuggled for our final, cold night in the van.
Vintage VW Vans: I.
States traveled: WY.
End mileage in the van: 180,185.
Miles driven on the day: 337!
Day 11 Wednesday Sept 20: We made our best time yet this morning, ate breakfast, and ready to go in just over an hour; on our final day of our trip. Headed south to Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park. We wanted to do a short but satisfying hike and we chose well: Green Mountain Trail to Big Meadows, 3.6 miles. It was a beautiful day; saw some of the early leaves turning, enjoyed a nice crisp breeze and an easy gradual hike to the meadows. Sometimes it’s nice to just do an easy walk in the woods. LV thought she saw a large animal at the far edge of the meadow but we could not verify it. We didn’t see many animals on this day except for a few marmots up toward the top of the park.
After a quick lunch, our next stop was the Alpine Visitor Center for some sticker shopping and a short, windy walk to 12,005 feet above sea level. Drove the rest of the very windy Trail Ridge Road and finally into Estes Park to get organized and make reservations for the evening. Unfortunately, our favorite Comfort Suites was overpriced at the last minute so we opted for Comfort Inn instead.
The drive into Boulder and finally into Lakewood was extremely long and full of annoying traffic, something we didn’t deal with much on this trip. Counted a lot of Saturns and Vintage vans though! Got to the hotel, cleaned up, organized and re-packed. Definitely nice to shower, relax and have real beds (we even slept in separate ones) and temp control! Watched Django Unchained on the telly before hitting the sack.
Saturns: IIII IIII.
Vintage VW Vans: IIII.
States traveled: WY, CO.
Hiked mileage: 4.5.
End mileage in the van: 180,428.
Miles driven on the day: 243.
Day 12 Thursday Sept 21: Dropped off van, contemplated donuts, got Lyft to airport, saw so many prairie dogs along the highway in Denver, made us concerned for their safety. Got to airport very early but okay to just chill before the flight. I sent out a Yellowstone postcard to my mom. Flight and rest of travel day was uneventful, mostly just listened to tunes and looked at photos and talked.
All states traveled: CO, NE, SD, WY.
Total NFL Teams: GB, PIT, DEN, AZ, NYG, CHI, DET, BUF, CLE, SEA, KC, MIN, DAL, NO, SF, CIN, OAK, NE, PHI.
Total Baja’s: III.
Total Teslas: III.
Total Alltracks: I.
Total kitties: III (no cougars..sad)
Total end mileage in the van: 180,436.
Total miles driven: 2,145! (Very glad we purchased the extra mileage option, saved us a lot of money.)
So, would I do it again?! In a heartbeat! Here's to many more road trip adventures, whether by car, van, truck, or off road vehicle. Can't wait.