One of my favorite family memories is a spontaneous road trip we took in December 2013. I had some time off from Christmas until the New Year, so of course, I was itching for a new adventure. We loaded up our car with necessities and left our home in Scottsdale around 8 PM. The only plan we had was to drive north. When we got on the road, we planned to stop somewhere near Flagstaff and plan our next move in the morning, but when we reached Flagstaff, we decided to keep going. Four and a half hours later, we reached Page, Arizona.
We pulled into a gas station in Page since it was the only place open. We grabbed a couple snacks, took a bathroom break and headed down the street to the Page Lake Powell Campground. It was pretty cold out, so we quickly parked next to a tent site with an electric hook up, laid the seats down in the Explorer and plugged in our portable heater. We cozied up in our sleeping bags and had an amazing night of sleep. Before I dozed off, I asked Clayton if Lake Powell was nice. Little did I know, it was more than nice, and we were about to be amazed in the morning.
We woke up as the sun began to rise and as I looked around, the view was unbelievable. I was incredibly mesmerized and present in the moment that I forgot to take pictures. If you’re curious at what kind of view we had, just google “Page Lake Powell Campground”. Riley and I wandered around the campground in our pajamas and noticed that all of the other campers were in RV’s. While Clayton ran into the office to pay for our site, an elderly couple leaving their RV stopped their car to ask me and Riley if we needed help or “a ride somewhere”. Apparently, I looked like a homeless person. Amused and mortified at the same time, I took advantage of the amenities of the campground to shower and freshen up after I politely declined their offer and explained that I was camping. Since that experience, I make an effort to look more presentable when walking away from my campsite!
We made our way to McDonald’s for breakfast and wifi while we figured out our next move. It was then that we realized we were near Horseshoe Bend and after we saw pictures online, we had to go. The hike to Horseshoe Bend is 3/4 of a mile from the parking lot. The hike begins with a steep hill, then it’s a fairly easy walk in the sand to the view point. We decided to take turns looking at the view since there were no guard rails or anything to keep children from falling off the edge. Apparently, the best time to photograph Horseshoe Bend is between noon and 2 PM to capture the entire curve. Unfortunately, it was before noon so half of the bend was covered. We didn’t get the best pictures, but it was still stunning to see in person.
Back to the car and 2 hours later, we found ourselves in Monument Valley. After several years of seeing pictures and videos of Monument Valley, I was ecstatic to check this place off of my bucket list. This was also our first time in Utah and we were thrilled to explore a new area. We paid the entrance fee to drive the loop through the valley and we were reminded that the campsites in the valley were currently closed. After driving through the loop, we headed into the visitors center and had dinner at the restuarant in The View hotel. We stuffed our faces with Navajo fry bread while discussing where we should sleep for the night. Our first idea to sleep in the parking lot of the hotel was a bust. We tried to plug our heater into several outlets on the outside of the hotel, but had no luck. After giving up, we attempted to sit in the car for 20 minutes without the heater, but the cold was unbearable. We tried our luck across the street and found Goulding’s Campground. At last, we were able to plug in our heater and go right to sleep.
The next morning, we woke up around dawn so we could see the valley during sunrise. Unsure of which direction to go, we drove further into Utah hoping we’d find a small diner to have breakfast. We drove past little towns where nothing was open so we stopped at a gas station to fill up and grab a couple donuts to fill the void in our stomachs. As we continued to drive, we decided to head towards the Four Corners Monument. Being in four states at one time sounded like a cool idea, but once we arrived at the monument, it wasn’t exactly how we imagined it.
The biggest downside for us was maneuvering our way through all of the tourists. It took forever to take a picture where the four states meet because several tourists were unwilling to leave the spot to give others a turn. In addition to the immense amount of people, it was extremely cold. The cold wind started to upset Riley which led to a full on tantrum in all four states. After a couple photos, we ran back to the car and debated on whether we should go to Colorado or New Mexico. Turns out after discussing it for a minute, it was an easy decision. We always wanted to see Colorado and now was our opportunity to do so.
Driving into Colorado, it was love at first sight. It was during this trip that we decided we were going to move to Colorado someday. About 45 minutes into the drive, we found ourselves in Cortez entering a Denny’s for lunch. Our starving stomachs devoured veggie burgers as we reminisced about the beautiful things we encountered the previous day. As we walked out of Denny’s, Riley quickly made his way towards the brochures that highlighted attractions in nearby areas. And of course, he gravitated towards the brochure with a big train on it. It was the brochure for the Polar Express. As Riley begged to ride the train, we looked at each other and thought “What the hell! Let’s go ride a train!”
We drove to Durango which was about an hour away and called the number listed on the brochure to see if there was any room on the train. The Polar Express in Flagstaff was something we always wanted to do, but tickets were always sold out several months before Christmas. Luckily, we were informed that there were a few seats open, so we quickly booked the tickets and waited anxiously at a brewery until it was time for our first ride on the Polar Express.
The Polar Express was an amazing experience and we loved seeing how excited Riley was. Riley met Santa, ate cookies, drank hot cocoa, and met the reindeer at the end of the train ride. He was pretty starstruck when he met Santa and his expression is something we’ll always remember. After our Polar Express experience, we decided to drive to Gallup, New Mexico. We had to be back in Arizona by the next day, so we headed south in the dark and arrived in Gallup about 3 hours later.
We were closing in on midnight when we arrived at USA RV Park in Gallup. The park was right off of Route 66, and although it seemed a bit pricey ($25/night), we were tired and needed a place to plug in our heater. The next morning, we woke up at sunrise, showered and headed back towards Arizona. An hour into our drive, we saw a sign for the Petrified Forest National Park. We decided we had to stop. We couldn’t pass up seeing the Petrified Forest.
The Petrified Forest is famous for the petrified wood scattered around the park. The fossilized wood is from the Late Triassic period, about 225 million years ago. The petrified logs we encountered looked like regular logs on the outside and contained bright colors on the inside. Within the park, we also got to see the Painted Desert, pueblos from inhabitants who lived in the area thousands of years ago, and many petroglyphs. There are also hiking trails and camping spots within the park. We were a bit bummed that we didn’t have the opportunity to camp or hike, but figured we could come back another time to explore.
We ended our drive through the Petrified Forest and found ourselves back in Scottsdale three and a half hours later. Our trip with no definite plan became a trip filled with many memories and learning experiences. During this experience, we came to 2 realizations: we are happiest on the road and a trip with no itinerary makes the best adventures. What I miss the most is having the ability to spend the day without being constrained by time or a schedule. My hope is that someday we’ll be able to feel that sense of freedom again while exploring the wonders of nature with the people I love the most.