Our Vanlife Experience – Month #1

Hello family and friends! Can you believe we have lived in a van for a whole month now?! We sure can’t! Seems like just yesterday, we were both doing the ol’ 9 to 5 thang. We are so grateful to be on this adventure together and are soaking up every second of it! We figured we would fill y’all in on how the first month has gone so, here is our recap of the good, the bad, and the ugly during our first month on the road!

The Good Stuff

Lots of people have been wondering how Alan and I haven’t killed each other yet living in a 72 sqft space. Well truth is, transitioning to life in the van has been surprisingly easy for us.  Many of you know that Alan and I bought a house when we got married, quickly realized that we bought too much house. So we sold the 2,250 sqft house, moved into a 940 sqft townhome. Then after our lease was up, and the van build wasn’t complete as planned, my oldest sister graciously let us move into a room in her house. We had already moved our big stuff into a storage space and were already living simply. We also didn’t have any trouble fitting our belongings in the van and ended up having plenty of extra storage space. Also, Alan and I are entirely too comfortable around each other so, that helps too.

Los Peines and our van, Peligroso

The Bad Battery

Our first day on the road was the longest and most exhausting drive to date. We (Alan) drove 12 hours to get out of Texas and into New Mexico. We reached our campsite at Organ Mountains Desert Peak National Monument after the sun went down so it was pretty dark. Once we parked, we turned on the interior lights of the van, began charging our phones and got ready for bed. Soon after, our lights began to flicker and the inverter was giving a low voltage warning. A look at the house battery monitor indicated a voltage of less than 12 volts (basically meaning the battery was dead). It turns out we had over discharged the battery more than 30 times causing irreversible damage. BIG OOPS! This turned out to be a $1000 mistake but the good news is, our new battery is much nicer and forgiving to electrical newbies like us.

Basically all of our nights during the first week consisted of us making dinner around 5:30 PM and going to bed by 7 PM because it was too dark to do anything else! I love sleeping so if you ask me, I was having the time of my life getting 12 hours of sleep. Alan on the other hand was not too happy about the battery issue and didn’t rest easy until the problem was resolved.

Eating turkey chilli in the dark. Headlamps for the win!

The Ugly Budget

Prior to beginning this trip we estimated that we would spend about $2000 a month. We are happy to report that we have completely blown through our estimated budget and have spent around $3000 a month! YIKES! We blame that mostly on eating out and increased parking cost on the west coast. Just cutting out these two items will bring us much closer to our original estimate. I mean who would have thought changing your spending habits completely would be so hard? Stay tuned to hear if we break it or make it after month #2!

More Good Stuff

In one month, we (Alan) drove 4,000 miles, traveled across 3 states (New Mexico, Arizona and California), visited 13 parks and hiked about 100 miles. We have covered a lot of ground in a short period of time. However, this trip is not about speeding through the sites, we plan on slowing down some and spending more time in places we really like.

This trip is also about having the freedom to do whatever the heck we want, whenever the heck we want. Pursuing and achieving personal goals and exploring new dreams. Some of our goals include going on more backpacking trips, rock climbing outside, daily yoga/meditation and trail running. We are also practicing our Spanish more and hope to be fluent speakers by the end of the year.

Some favorites of the month

Alan’s favorite destination of the month: White Sands National Park

A handsome husband walking barefoot on white sand.

My favorite destination of the month: Chiricahua National Monument

Enjoying a hike in “The land of Standing Up Rocks”

Alan’s favorite food of the month: Sonoran Dogs in Tucson. He also insists we buy the yellow peppers at every grocery store now.

El Sinaloense Hot Dog Cart in Tucson, Arizona

That’s all folks!

If there are any other aspects of our vanlife you are curious about and want to read more about, let us know! Do you prefer the informational format on destinations or posts like this one that are more about us and our experiences on the road? We are still very new to blogging and want your feedback.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a California State Park located about two hours northeast of San Diego and it carries the title of being the largest state park in the continental U.S.A. with an area of just under 600,000 acres. This desert park is comprised of rugged badlands, palm oases and slot canyons galore. We didn’t originally plan on stopping at this park but we had a few days to spare before we visited some family in the Oceanside and Temecula areas.

We went straight to the visitors center when we arrived at Anza-Borrego however, it turned out there was a scheduled power outage throughout the entire town of Borrego Springs. Luckily, the park had a very useful 30+ page magazine on hand with maps and information about the park so it was easy to navigate and find hikes and points of interest.

The Slot Trail

The Slot narrow walls

The Slot canyon trail is a one and a half mile loop that explores one of the many siltstone narrow canyons at Anza-Borrego. This hike started off pretty steep as the trail lowers you into the canyon. Pretty soon after, we were maneuvering and squeezing through the narrow canyon walls. Some areas were so narrow you had to step onto the walls to get through to the other side. At the lowest point in the trail, the canyon walls widen and appear to be about 40 feet tall. The walls provided much needed shade from the desert sun above us. A nice couple on the trail suggested we turn around at the halfway point as the remainder of the trail is uneventful and it would be better to go back the way we came. So that’s what we did! We were able to revisit and squeeze past the slots a second time.

Siltstone walls of The Slot trail

Hellhole Canyon

Hellhole Canyon is a six mile trail, out and back and was my favorite of our two hikes at this park. The first two miles of the trail were flat, exposed, and well, pretty dang hot. We saw quite a bit of wildlife including Black-tailed Jackrabbits, Desert Cottontails, and Antelope Squirrels.

Desert cottontail rabbit (Maybe)

We also came across various desert vegetation such as Ocotillo, Cholla Cactus, Creosote Bush and, believe it or not palm trees! On mile three, the trail began transforming from arid desert to a palm oasis featuring California palm trees and massive rock boulders that we had to scramble up.

California palm trees

There was mention of a waterfall at the halfway point of the trail but we assumed it would be dry and non-existent since there wasn’t any snow on any mountains nearby. Much to our surprise we started to hear trickling water and came across a small stream of water along the trail so we continued to follow the stream, climb up rocks and finally found Maidenhair Falls! I was beyond excited to see this waterfall flowing. Alan couldn’t stop laughing at how amused I was. We also kept hearing one or two frogs croaking as we sat in the cool palm shade and enjoyed some snacks. This part of the hike was a great escape from the desert we had been hiking in.

A handsome husband snackin’ at Maidenhair Falls

Free Camping/Parking

We were stoked to see that Anza-Borrego offered so many free primitive campsite options and outlined them in the park magazine. Most of the primitive campsites also had restrooms so that’s always a plus for us. On the first night of our stay, we parked at Yaqui Well. We ended up being the only people parked here for the night so it was nice, quiet and we were able to see why Anza-Borrego is classified as an international dark sky. It was a little cloudy that night but we still saw lots of stars and planets. The only semi-downside was that there was little to no cell service here but we don’t mind that too much.

Yaqui Well free primitive campsite

Arroyo Salado was the better spot which we stayed during our second night at Anza-Borrego. This area was a bit more populated and surrounded by badlands. We missed the sunset but were able to catch the sunrise over the badlands the next morning.

Sunrise at Arroyo Salado primitive campsite

Takeaways

We only planned two nights and three days at Anza-Borrego so there was still so much left to explore by the end of our visit. A lot of the hiking trails in this park are only accessible via dirt roads so we would definitely come back to this park with a 4 wheel drive with high clearance and about a week to see the rest of the park.

We also came to this park at the right time of the year (early February), I can’t imagine visiting Anza-Borrego in the summer.

Want More?

For more photos from our visit to Anza-Borrego, click here!

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is in southern California near the cities of Joshua Tree and Twenty-Nine Palms. This park is a vast desert landscape with many mountains, unique rock formations, and, of course, lots of Joshua Trees. We spent three days exploring the park mostly by foot.

Parking in the Area

With the use of our old friend freecampsites.net, we were able to locate multiple BLM sites that allow multiple nights of camping. Two of which are located near the north and south entrances to the park (see links below).

BLM Camping Near North Entrances

BLM Camping Near South Entrance

California Riding & Hiking Trail

A 37.5 mile section of the California Riding & Hiking Trail stretches across Joshua Tree National Park. Since we have most often found the best way to take in a landscape is by foot, we decided to take a 3 day trek across the park via this awesome trail.

With this being the desert, there are no natural water sources on the trail which means you either have to cache water at various road crossings or carry it with you. We decided to carry our water (My back and legs paid the price!) and the night before the hike, we made our dry meals and packed our backpacks for the trip ahead.

Because the trail is “point to point” and not a loop and we only have one vehicle, we had to park the van at the North Entrance backcountry lot (finish location) and catch an Uber to the Black Rock trail head. Finally, at 11:30 am we started off from Black Rock towards North Entrance on the other end.

When hiked west to east, the first 12 miles of the trail are where most of the elevation differential occurs. We covered a little more than 12 miles the first day and found a mostly flat spot in a valley to stay the night. Day two, getting an earlier start, we completed 16 miles leaving an easy 10 miles to the finish. By noon on the third day we made it back to the van both of us dehydrated, hungry, and with some fresh blisters on our feet.

The trail led us through beautiful desert mountain landscapes and multiple areas lush with the park’s namesake tree. It was definitely a challenge for us amateur backpackers but it was worth it in the end and we gained more experience for future backpacking trips.

The Alltrails link for this trail can be found below.

California Riding and Hiking Trail

Takeaways

This park is vast and definitely deserves multiple days to discover all it has to offer. The only regret we have is that we did not partake in any of the world renowned rock climbing this park has to offer. Hopefully, in the future, we will return to explore the park from above on many of its beautiful granite walls.

Want more?

For more photos from our visit to Joshua Tree National Park, click here!

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is part of the National Park Service and is located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert near Ajo, AZ. As the name implies, this is the only area in the United States where the organ pipe cactus grow wild.

Ajo Mountain Drive

While visiting Organ Pipe, there are two mountain ranges you can explore, the Ajo Mountains or the Puerto Blanco Mountains. The park ranger suggested we visit the Ajo Mountain side to get the most out of our visit. Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21 mile one way dirt road with 18 points of interest and leads you to the 4 hiking trails in the area. The visitor’s center had an informative drive guide to accompany the points of interest so Alan drove while I read aloud the information at each point.

Ajo Mountain Drive

One of my favorite parts about visiting new places is learning about the native people that used to inhabit these lands. The Hohokam and Tohono O’odham people used to called the Sonoran Desert home as far back as 12,000 years ago. There are only two rainfall periods, one in the winter or spring and another in the summer so it is incredible to learn how people were able to survive by farming on a dry land.

Arch Canyon Trail

The start of the Arch Canyon Trail

Halfway through the Ajo Mountain drive was the Arch Canyon Trail. This trail was less than 2 miles round trip but there was an opportunity to reach the arch by adding 1 more mile and gaining 1,500 feet in elevation. So of course we kept going! The terrain got rockier and we had to scramble some but we eventually made it to the top. The clear skies allowed us to see miles away and into Mexico.

View from the top!

Twin Peaks Campground

Since we had a late start to the day and did not get to Organ Pipe until the late morning, we were still making our way around Ajo Mountain Drive when the sun was going down. Alan and I usually try to park our van for the night before it gets dark so we decided to stay inside the park campground that night. We were two weeks into this van life and this was the first time we actually had to pay to park somewhere. Not too shabby!

A cactus wren hanging out by our campsite.

Takeaways

This is a very family friendly park and has many short hikes for everyone to enjoy. The drive around Ajo Mountain Drive was scenic, educational and highlights all of the history and nature that make Organ Pipe so special.

Want more?

For more photos from our visit to Organ Pipe National Monument, click here!