#VanLife in the Arizona Desert

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Let's be clear: our winters here in Alaska are long...and dark...and not always a snowy winter wonderland. After the fall shoulder season, we're usually pretty anxious to head south and catch some sun. With all of this in mind, Brad and I booked a three week trip to Arizona for the end of 2018 to not only take a break from the Heather's Choice kitchen, but also to explore areas we had never seen before. We booked a direct flight from Anchorage to Phoenix and took off just before Christmas with no plan but to see where the wind would blow us.

Three weeks is a long vacation by most standards, and as small business owners we were on a budget. Thankfully, a friend referred us to Escape Camper Vans after hearing about our extended travel plans. Since it was the shoulder season, we were able to rent a 15 passenger van with a dining table (that converted to a big comfy bed) with a small fridge, sink and camp kitchen for less than $65 per day. Not only did we have wheels, but we had a place to sleep, cook, and lounge. Meet our sweet camper van: her name is Riva!

We set off from Phoenix to grab groceries, drinks, and a few bundles of fire wood. Quickly, we learned that Arizona State Parks are AMAZING! No joke, I could live in one of these campgrounds.

Our first stop was at Lost Dutchman State Park just east of Phoenix. The staff was very helpful, the campsites were perfectly clean with large picnic tables and fire pits, and the best part of all...they have HOT SHOWERS!! What more could you need than a place to sit, a fire to keep you warm at night, and a blazing hot shower after hiking all day? I kid you not, desert life is the life for me.

While staying at Lost Dutchman, we enjoyed hiking the Flat Iron, which ended up being one of our favorite hikes of the whole trip. It was beautiful, sporty at times, and a good workout for the afternoon. If you find yourself in the Phoenix area, take four or so hours and do this hike to catch great views of the Superstitions. Orange Vanilla Packaroons were our flavor of choice that day ;)

From Phoenix, we headed south to Tucson eager to find warmer weather. We were lucky enough to spend one night at Catalina State Park and enjoyed more great hiking trails. I'd like to go back to hike Mt. Lemmon from the campground, so if you've done this hike, let me know how it is!

Again, Arizona State Parks made it SO easy to find and book campgrounds. Since it was full at Catalina for the next few days, we headed west to Picacho Peak State Park only to find more great camping spots, hot showers, picnic tables, sun shades (who needs those?) and fire rings. We even had electrical hook-ups so we could plug in a space heater at night to keep us warm in the van. Did you know it gets really cold at night in the desert?!

One of the best hikes we did on this trip was the Sunset Vista Trail coming down from Picacho Peak. This trail might be one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. It would be wonderful to go back and spend more time taking pictures!

It was Winter Solstice that night, and we had an INCREDIBLE full moon as a night light. My step dad, who is currently traveling around the lower 48 in his Sprinter Van, joined us around the camp fire for pork posolé and story telling. It's my new life mission to make a dehydrated posolé; it's SO GOOD! I ate it every chance I could on this trip.

Our trip had taken on a leisurely pace. We would wake up with the sunrise, make coffee and breakfast at camp, go for a hike with snacks in tow, come back for camp cocktails and a fire, make dinner, and relax. Brad and I got to spend a great deal of time playing the guitar, reading about the surrounding area, and cooking healthy, delicious food over an open flame. It was absolute perfection!

We continued our journey south to Lake Patagonia where we planned to spend Christmas. I had driven through Patagonia years ago on my way to Mexico, and it was exactly as I remembered! Small, quaint, funky, and had everything I could possibly need - including a coffee shop with an espresso machine and gluten-free baked goods, a natural foods store, post office, and a gym. I look forward to spending more time in this part of Arizona, where you'll find farming and ranches, wine tasting, and tons of mountains!

We woke up on Christmas morning to COLD weather! It was rainy, windy and threatening to snow. We snuggled into the van, drove to find cell service to call our families, and enjoyed a very leisure day. To celebrate the holiday, our Christmas dinner consisted of organic canned baked beans and grass-fed beef hot dogs. #vanlife, baby! ;)

From Patagonia we headed back north to Tucson, where we spent the better part of a week. We enjoyed a couple nights at Hotel McCoy, which I cannot recommend enough as a fun, new, local roadside motel. We also did the city thing, hitting up the laundry mat, playing putt-putt, and going to our favorite Arizona restaurant: Diablo Burger! If you haven't been, go there!

After polishing off the last of our mezcal, we headed north to Fountain Hills to spend New Years Eve with our friends from Wilderness Athlete. Courtney and Steve welcomed us into their home with open arms, and we were grateful to have a full kitchen, running hot water, and friends to hang out with! It was so fun to ring in the new year with our business colleagues and to talk about the long term visions for our companies. We owe a lot to the Denham family and are proud to call them partners.

On our last full day in Arizona, we woke up early and hustled out the door for one more adventure. Steve and Courtney treated us to a hot air balloon ride over Phoenix, and it is something we will NEVER forget! Check out that sunrise!!!

It was an incredible flight, and it was impossible to not smile like little kids the whole time. Afterwards, we enjoyed a toast with our friends and the pilot, Taylor, which was just lovely. If you're in Phoenix, be sure to take a flight with Arizona Balloons.

Check out the little hot air balloon they made with the champagne cork, so clever!

Our getaway was nothing short of amazing. It was nice to have so much down time where we had no plans, no obligations, no where to be - just open eyes and a set of wheels. It reaffirmed for me that the desert is my home away from home, and I can't wait to see more. I can always appreciate spending time outside, getting lots of sun, seeing tons of new wildlife, like coyotes and kangaroo rats, and admiring the cactus. Brad and I both look forward to going back to the desert over and over and over again!

One thing, however, is for sure. It's going to take more than a day of sunshine for these Alaskans to get a tan! ;)

Cheers to many more adventures in the new year, and thanks for your ongoing support!


Heather and Brad

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  • Great travel post. Thank you… we were doing the Tucson, Sedona, Grand Canyon, kanab road trip about the same time, 12/27-1/5. Lots of snow in the north – very special way to experience the Canyon.

    Ky on

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