National Park

Member Trip Report: Southwest Road Trip, Pandemic Style

Fleeing the pandemic, Active Pass Member Robin Mino and her husband take a Southwest road trip through Utah and California.

Member Exclusive

Become a member to unlock this story and receive other great benefits.

Join

Already a member?

Sign In

With the pandemic raging nationwide and social isolation the expected norm, my wandering soul became a bit stir crazy. I’d spent the summer navigating the Colorado Trail, but after a few months of only day trips I felt the need for something more substantial.

Inspiration came from a desire for both longer, wilder trips and personal connection. My husband’s and my children are scattered across the US—Hawaii, Alaska, and Colorado—and so any opportunity to connect in person is both rare and welcome. A perfect window arose when our Aloha State daughter, Paige, took a temporary job in California in November and December, and it was decided; we were going on a Southwest road trip.

Our nineteen foot camper van, Jolene, is our planned retirement home, so a chance to road test her and spend time with two of our three children while exploring some new territory seemed just the thing for my pandemic doldrums.

My husband and I began our journey on Black Friday, with our first destination at Capitol Reef National Park. Departing early enough to ensure some trail time on arrival, we secured a spot at Fruita Campground, then headed out on the Cassidy Arch trail. We timed our hike perfectly, catching the warm red glow of the Utah cliffs at sunset as a conclusion to our first day and a taste of adventures yet to come on our Southwest road trip.

Following a restful night in Jolene we hiked to the Rim Overlook and Hickman Bridge, where we again paused to admire the work of sandstone, wind, and time. The land seemed to fall away from the rim, broad escarpments of bright red and orange stone trickling away into flatter desert. We were sad to move on, as many slot canyons beckoned, but we had a reservation in Snow Canyon State Park (outside St. George, Utah) for the night (my husband chose this destination based upon a prior Backpacker article). What a true little treasure we found here! We had a full day to explore and pieced together a hike of over 10 miles through the Petrified Sand Dunes and Padre Canyon, where tiny arches hid along the trail’s edge. The following day I explored the upper Red Cliffs along the Gila Trail, descending into several slot canyons along the way.

Following our two nights in Snow Canyon, our next destination was Mojave National Preserve. We knew we’d arrive well after sunset, but a brilliant full moon lit our way on the eerie drive to Hole-in-the-Wall campground. Between the oddly rounded edges of precarious rock towers and the desert scrub it felt like driving through a Dr. Seuss landscape. The following morning we journeyed off on the Barber Peak Loop for a hike through sandy washes, over lava rocks, through free range cattle country, and up the amazing Banshee Canyon, complete with rings to grasp on the ascent. I particularly enjoyed the spectacle of the desert vegetation: barrel cactus, beavertail cactus and Joshua trees dotted our surroundings.

Onward to Joshua Tree National Park we ventured. I’d been looking forward to this stop; our daughter would meet us at Jumbo Rocks campground, and on her birthday too! Having visited JTNP before, we set out to explore a new section of the park and settled on the Panorama Trail, with its easy ridge walk and views of Mt. San Jacinto and the Palm Springs area.

We spent the next night of our Southwest road trip in the hills above Palmdale, California, before venturing through Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. Paige, an avid birder, rejoiced in checking a rock wren off of her life list. 

Staying one step ahead of the coronavirus shutdowns we spent a day driving across California, from the desert of Death Valley to the oceanfront town of Morro Bay. Paige happily identified the abundance of sea birds for us as sea otters and sea lions slid in and out of the water below. 

As we haphazardly pieced together our itinerary on the fly we discovered Pinnacles National Park. Though we’d never heard of the park, the chance to see California condors was all the draw we needed. We awoke in Jolene surrounded by deer and wild turkeys before heading up Condor Gulch to High Peaks Trail with some marvelous past the Pinnacles themselves to hills hazed with distance. Sadly there were no condors to be seen, but I was entertained by the California quail running around, and truly impressed by the huge pinecones from the Gray Pine trees.

We moved on to Half Moon Bay after retrieving our son Blake from the San Francisco airport. 

We had time for one adventure for all of us together before Paige flew back to Hawaii, and we chose a walk through Muir Woods National Monument. We were astounded by the massive California Redwoods surrounding us. Our spirits soared, even as the ancient trees reminded us how truly small we are. 

The two weeks of our Southwest road trip gave me the break I needed from my house and my local trails. We were able to give Jolene her first extended shakedown tour, explore some new state and national parks, and revisit some prior favorites, all while responsibly socially distancing. Sharing these adventures with our adult children, and realizing they’ve each also developed a passion for the outdoors and our natural wonders, brought tears to my eyes and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my life.