November 27, 2019
Las Vegas to Denver Itinerary: From Red Earth to Fall Foliage
By Emily Hlavac Green
The tail end of summer felt like a good time to escape the city and head out west for an adventure. Having never visited Utah or Colorado, we made a rough plan to drive east from Las Vegas to Denver. 11 nights, 10 hikes, 7 national parks.
Las Vegas to Zion National Park
Our Las Vegas to Denver road trip started when we picked up Torpedo (a Big Sur model) from the Las Vegas campervan depot and took her to the streets of Vegas to explore. While we did step inside a casino and throw down a twenty on the slots, one of the hidden joys of Vegas for me was discovering the wealth of epic thrift clothing. We picked up some fun vintage outfits for a bit of an impromptu engagement shoot in the desert and spent time exploring the arts district.
The next day we headed out to Zion National Park and found our first primitive camping goldmine of the trip. Let me just pause right here to say with the exception of the first night in Vegas & the last night, we didn’t pay for a single night of camping! Using the Campendium App, we navigated Utah & Colorado’s BLM & State Land to find primitive camp spots, often with no one else in sight, which really made the trip unique. For the most part, we found our groove of sleeping somewhere near to a National Park, waking up early to drive to the parking lot to make brekkie before it got busy, doing a hike in the morning, then driving on to our next destination in the afternoon.
Our first morning peeking out of the cozy rooftop sleeper we could see the mountains of Zion glowing yellow and pink in the dawn sunlight. We drove a short distance into the park and hiked Angels Landing, which in places drops off on either side of a knife’s edge trail. Having a chain to hold on to only eases the fear slightly, but I have to say the views are worth it. The river at the base of Angel’s Landing was perfect for a post-hike dip, even with bunches of tourists staring at us stripping down to our underwear. Because we loved it so much and it was super close, we stayed again on our cliff’s edge camp spot in the Smithsonian Butte.
Zion to Bryce
I could’ve spent a week in Zion alone, but we were on the move so squeezed in one more hike there. We rented a wooden stick (crucial) and waded up the river through The Narrows hike. At times the river was waist-deep and we scrambled over rocks, which was such a thrill!
Later en route to Bryce Canyon the rock formations began to change, getting more carved out and spire-like. We set up camp at Cabin Hollow just out of Bryce. With a backdrop of hoodoos behind us, the temperature was much cooler so we snuggled round the fire and dried out our soaked boots.
Bryce to Escalante
The next morning we hit Bryce early and hiked a decent chunk of the trails – Queens Garden to Wall St, and Peek a Boo to Two Bridges. It was magnificent walking through arches and popping out into another expanse of orange ant-hill like formations.
Onwards to Escalante, we stopped at a cool little store called Escalante Mercantile for fresh local mozzarella, tomatoes, and arugula to make pizzas. I was determined to see what we could create in our Escape kitchen, and it worked! You can check out my pizza recipe here. That night we camped at Hole in The Rock amongst wildflowers under a clear, starry sky.
Escalante to Capitol Reef
The slow bumpy drive out to Spooky and PeekaBoo slot canyons in the middle of Escalante taught me the true meaning of washboard roads. Getting there is totally worth it though, and the place was completely quiet. After a searing hot walk through the desert we found the canyons and slalomed our way through, some gaps only just big enough to fit through with rock falls to crawl under and the odd tarantula. I can see why they call them spooky!
Later that day we drove along the top ridge of the Dixie pass road and stopped at a very hidden trailhead to Upper Calf Creek Falls. We scaled the rocky cliff down for a swim then hiked back up to the van. The rest of the alpine pass through to Capitol Reef National Park was stunning; glittered with birch trees catching the twilight and open ranch cows grazing roadside. Barely able to move after miles of hiking, that night we camped just out of the park surrounded by towering red rock, with a few well-deserved beers.
Capitol Reef to Monument Valley
This next leg was a biggie; we covered some serious ground in a single day and I reckon could have done with an extra night in here to explore Capitol Reef more. But we got on the road early, stopping on a local’s recommendation at Mesa Farm Market for fresh goat cheese, yogurt, and wood-fired bread. We hit up Natural Bridge National Monument and Bears Ears, continuing the drive through Mexican Hat to stop for a delicious Navajo Taco, and onto the epic Monument Valley.
Monument Valley to Canyonlands
I should’ve done a little more research here as Canyonlands is HUGE, and just one day isn’t enough. We chose the southern Needles section and hiked the Devils Kitchen route – a decent 18km walk. Afterward, we drove through Moab to find an epic camp spot perched above the Colorado River where we met up with our friends traveling from Seattle.
Arches National Park
Our group hiked the Devils Garden Loop, this was pretty short but had some fun rock scrambles. It was the busiest of all the parks we visited, and to be honest, not as challenging as some. We favored the longest or most difficult rated trail in a park, and this was a breeze. The highlight of the day was actually a shorter hike to Mill Creek Waterfall trail in Moab for a swim and beers in the afternoon sun.
Moab to Durango via the San Juan Skyway
This portion of our journey was where we really saw the landscape change as we entered Colorado. Parts of the winding drive were along the old silver mine trails with minerals making the mountains striking pink and trees changing from green to fiery yellow. There were still beautiful old wooden sheds intact high on the hills and against the autumnal palette it felt like driving through a postcard. We made a detour to Telluride for a coffee, then spent a cool night camped just out of Durango in a forest.
Great Sand Dunes National Park to Valley View Hot Springs
The thing about these dunes is you really have to see them in real life to truly understand their scale. We rented a couple of boards and wax from the store on the way in and loaded up on oatmeal in the camper before taking to the slopes. It is a tough hike up to the highest peak, and not many people were going the distance, but worth it for the exhilarating trip back down on the sand boards.
To treat ourselves on our last night, we booked a camp spot at Valley View Hot Springs and arrived in the dark. We spent hours under the stars in the natural hot tubs soothing our achy legs and swapping stories with travelers from all over.
Valley View Hot Springs to Denver
Nothing really rivals the freedom and flexibility being out there campervanning in the wild gives you. It is never easy saying goodbye to something that’s provided a bed and a kitchen, plus transported you through such a diverse range of landscapes and experiences. It doesn’t mind if you’re dusty and dirty, go without a shower for a week, or play the same songs on repeat.
Back in Denver, we parted with Torpedo (by now, affectionately named Shark Tank and Fish Bowl), and we were suddenly on foot again. With the better half of the day to explore the city we visited a couple of breweries and made our flight out – just in time.
If you want to take a similar campervan trip from Las Vegas to Denver, start thinking of what you want to see and then book with Escape Camper Vans.