Tour of Colorado Camper Van Trip

After a summer of flight-based trips, it is finally time to get the WanderVan out again. There is a 3 to 1 Marriage Conference in Colorado that we have been asked to help with, so we are taking the van out for 2 weeks of travel through Colorado before arriving at the marriage conference. Our idea is to visit 7 of the National Park properties in the state over the course of the 2 weeks, which should provide a balance of seeing plenty of country, but not exhausting ourselves in the process. Our dog, Hannah, is joining us for this trip, which might provide for some interesting challenges that we are not used to.

Day 1 – Monday, October 10, 2022 (522 miles driven)
Today is just a driving day. We packed food to eat along the way, so we stopped for a sandwich and to stretch our legs a bit outside a casino in Watonga, OK. Before leaving home, we had downloaded a sermon podcast series recommended by our daughter. So, we listened to one of those, and intend to do that on long driving days. Our plan was to stop for dinner and perhaps stay the night at Beymer Park outside of Lakin, KS, but we were not impressed with it as we drove through – rather dusty (granted there has been a drought) and run-down looking. So we drove to the Kearny County Fairgrounds in Lakin. There wasn’t anything going on there, so it was a quiet place to park for an hour to heat up and eat some white chili and cornbread that I had prepared at home, then take the dog for a walk. Once the sun was down, we drove on to Lamar, CO, and stayed overnight in the Walmart parking lot.

Day 2 – Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (197 miles driven)
After breakfast in the van, we headed to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. Once there, we bought an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, which, for $80, will gain us entry into all the national park properties, not just for this trip in Colorado, but for any we may visit over the next year. This old trading (not military) fort burned in the early 1850s, but was completely reconstructed in the 1970s using notes from one of the fort’s visitors in the 1840s. We watched the short video about the fort, then did a self-guided tour of the fort. There are park rangers in period costume to answer questions or give tours. It is a nice little stop, not necessarily a destination, but worth an hour or two of your time if you are driving in the area of La Junta, CO.
Driving on towards the mountains, we stopped at Shah’s Kabob & Gyro in Pueblo for lunch. Interesting place and tasty food! In Manitou Springs, we wanted to walk Hannah a bit at the Red Rock Canyon Open Space, a free scenic trail area, but Hannah doesn’t care for walking on gravel, and she clearly let us know that she didn’t want to go walking there! So back into the van she went (windows open and ventilation fan running), while we walked around for a half hour or so. Once in downtown Manitou Springs, we picked up “souvenir” cups and maps for the mineral springs from the visitor center and Hannah walked around downtown with us to sample the waters from the different springs.
In our research for where to camp in the area, we had found a dispersed camping area in the national forest near Woodland Park. Beyond Woodland Park, the road became worse, and once it went to gravel we had to drive extremely slowly because the road was so washboarded. We found the area where we wanted to be, though! Up in the mountains around 9300 ft, a view of Pikes Peak from across the road, a beautiful sunset, and just a few other campers around. We heated up some leftovers for dinner, and enjoyed a quiet evening.

Camping in the National Forest above Woodland Park, CO

Day 3 – Wednesday, October 12, 2022 (171 miles driven)
After creeping our way back down the mountain road, we made it to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.  The visitor center showed a very interesting video about the formation of the petrified stumps and fossils in the area and also had exhibits of some of the fossils.  Beyond the visitor center, three of the main petrified stumps are under a permanent pavilion cover.  Trails also begin behind the visitor center – the Ponderosa Loop is a ½ mile nature walk and the Petrified Forest Loop is a 1 mile loop, which passes several more petrified stumps.  We took those two trails, but several other longer hikes also take off from those trails.  On the Petrified Forest Loop, there were interpretive signs – which made it nice for catching our breath as we are getting used to the altitude!  We also took the Shootin’ Star trail, out for 15 minutes and then back for 15 minutes.

Lunch today was a picnic at Manitou Springs Memorial Park, and then we sampled another mineral spring near the park.  Then our longer distance drive for the day was from there up to Longmont, through Denver. Once in Longmont, we ran a few errands, restocking groceries and fuel, and found a campsite at the Boulder County Fairgrounds. It was a basic campground, but it will allow us to dump tanks and refill water in the morning before heading into Rocky Mountain National Park.

We met Bryan, a friend from church and work from 20+ years ago, for dinner. He and his family now live in the Longmont area, so we enjoyed visiting and catching up about each other’s families. We met at Jefe’s, which served very delicious burritos. After dinner, we drove back to our campsite at the fairgrounds and called it a night.

Petrified tree stump at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Day 4 – Thursday, October 13, 2022 (94 miles driven)
Today marks our first visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. The park had been using a timed entry system up until a day or two ago and Moraine Campground (the only one now open), also just went to first-come, first-served, so we were a bit concerned about getting a campsite. We arrived at the Beaver Meadows Entrance around 9:30 and had to wait about 10 minutes to get to the gate. The campground was not too far away and we headed straight there to find a site. We chose a site quickly and registered it at the campground office. Only one loop is open, and it was probably full by noon today.
We spent the rest of the day visiting various sites on the eastern half of the park and enjoying views of golden yellow aspen trees. Bear Lake was extremely busy, but we did find a parking spot there and took the nice trail around the lake. Sprague Lake parking was full, so we skipped that one. We moved on to Lily Lake where we walked the easy and accessible lake trail, then hiked the Lily Lake Ridge trail which provided views of the lake below. At the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, we watched the film about the park. We drove out to the Endovalley picnic area, then stopped at the Alluvian Fan area, where we took the short walk up to see Horseshoe Falls.
Back at the campground, we walked through Loop B, the one open campground loop, before warming up our leftover burritos for supper. (Having a microwave in the van sure is handy.) After supper, we walked through part of Loop A and were able to see mule deer in the open meadow area. Going a little further, we could see elk eating grass on the hillside and heard elk bugling. We are definitely in the Rockies.

Our campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hiking around Lily Lake
Aspen during a walk in the campground

Day 5 – Friday, October 14, 2022 (106 miles driven)
Today we wanted to see as much as we could of the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park. So, taking off fairly early, we headed out on Trail Ridge Road, which also happens to be US-34, a main route for getting over the Rockies in Colorado. Hidden Valley picnic area was our first stop, where we walked the ½ mile loop, enjoying the brisk fall air. We stopped at many of the overlooks either on the way out or on the way back, including stops at Forest Canyon, Alpine Visitor Center (closed for the season), Medicine Bow Curve, and Farview Curve. The highest point on the road was at 12,183 ft, and for those (like Jana), who do not like steep drop-offs beside the road, it can be a bit unnerving.
On the west side of the park, back at a more reasonable 9000 ft elevation, we stopped at Beaver Ponds where we made some hot tea and watched ducks and an otter swimming around the pond and a bald eagle flying nearby. At the Holzwarth Historic Site, we made the 1 mile roundtrip walk out to the old fishing lodges established around 100 years ago, before that area was part of the national park. The next stop was the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, where we saw the exhibits and ate our sandwich in the picnic area. The last stop on the west side was at the east end of Grand Lake, where we took the ½ mile hike out to Adams Falls.
Back over the mountains to the northeast corner of the park, we made a stop at Sheep Lakes to look for wildlife (saw none). Then to Fall River Visitor Center for the last passport stamp in the park and a quick stop for gas in Estes Park. Aside – an interesting thing about RMNP, each of the main visitor centers, and the only ones open right now, are actually located outside of the park, so you have to leave the park and come back through the entrance gate after going to the visitor center. Back at the campground, we heated some homemade soup (made at home, frozen, and brought with us) and cornbread, then walked out to loop A again to see the mule deer and elk feeding nearby.

Views from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Views from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Views from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Scenery on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park

Day 6 – Saturday, October 15, 2022 (306 miles driven)
We were headed west out of Rocky Mountain National Park today, so we left our campsite about 8:30 am to beat some of the crowds coming in from Estes Park. We had hoped to use the dump stations and refill our fresh water tank as we left the campground. Unfortunately, the dump station was closed and no water was available. We should be able to make it another two days, but it would have been nice to have a bit more slack. Since we had visited most of the viewpoints along the Trail Ridge Road yesterday, we did not make many stops as we drove across the very high route towards the Colorado River. Our only stop inside the park was at Beaver Ponds again. This time, we watched four small otters swim around the pond and chase a duck periodically.
We did stop in Granby, CO at a local coffee shop to pick up a latte and a scone to give us an energy boost for the day’s drive. We were able to get the OU – Kansas football game on satellite radio over Shawn’s phone, and we enjoyed hearing the Sooners do well whenever we had cell service. The scenery was very enjoyable as we drove US 40 west.
Our lunch stop was in Steamboat Springs at the Yampa River Park. We took as short walk around the park and ate a sandwich. We listened to a sermon podcast as we drove after lunch across remote territory to Dinosaur National Monument. We made a quick stop at the Canyon Visitor Center near Dinosaur, CO, before traveling on west to the Utah portion of the monument. The Green River Campground was first come first served, and we were able to find a camping spot for the next two nights. The campground is only open for another week until it closes for the season. We had chili for dinner and listened to the gusty winds along the valley as we called it a night.

Driving near Steamboat Springs, CO
Green River Campground in Dinosaur National Monument
Hiking along the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument

Day 7 – Sunday, October 16, 2022 (65 miles driven)
We had a leisurely morning, actually cooking scrambled eggs in the van instead of having our usual granola or oatmeal for breakfast. Then we drove a little over half an hour to Vernal, UT, to worship with the congregation at First Baptist Church of Vernal. It was a nice, blended service with lots of friendly people. Several people asked us if we would stay for their potluck dinner (held monthly), so we decided we would.
Back at Dinosaur National Monument that afternoon, we made a brief stop at the Quarry Visitor Center and made plans to drive up to the Quarry Exhibit Hall in the morning before leaving the park. We drove out to see 1000 year-old petroglyphs in the rock walls, then on to see Josie Morris’ cabin, where a local woman lived on her own for about 50 years, until 1964. From our campground, we hiked the River Trail along a hillside overlooking the Green River up to Split Mountain campground, a three mile roundtrip. Most of the leaves on the trees in the river bottom have turned yellow, so it was a beautiful time of year for making that hike.

Turtle Rock in Dinosaur National Monument
Petroglyphs by the Freeman people, about 1000 years old

Day 8 – Monday, October 17, 2022 (155 miles driven)
On our way out of Dinosaur National Monument, we made a quick stop to see the Shelter Rock Petroglyphs, then headed on up to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. It is an impressive looking building, but more impressive was that one wall inside was the side of a mountain where thousands of dinosaur bones are embedded. And the wall that is there is just a fraction of the original mountainside, most of which has been excavated and the fossils transported to various museums around the country. We made one more quick stop at the Quarry Visitor Center before heading back to Colorado.
Back in Colorado, we headed south on CO-139, stopping at one of the Interpretive Sites of Canyon Pintado, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). There are several sites along the way which have pictographs or petroglyphs from the Fremont culture of long ago. Continuing on, it was a beautiful time of year for this mountain road.
Once in Fruita, we stopped at the Colorado Welcome Center to use the RV dump station and refill our fresh water tank. Then up to Colorado National Monument, where we found a campsite in the Saddlehorn Campground. From there we walked to the Visitor Center, then back to the campground via the Canyon Rim and Window Rock trails. We drove back down into Fruita in the evening for dinner at a Mexican restaurant and some grocery items.

The wall of dinosaur bones…
Colorado National Monument, hiking along the rim near the Visitor Center

Day 9 – Tuesday, October 18, 2022 (48 miles driven)
Our morning consisted of taking the Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument toward Grand Junction. We took a couple of short walks along the way, including Otto’s Trail and the nature walk at Ute Canyon overlook. The highlight of the morning, though, was seeing bighorn sheep at Independence Monument View! There were four – a ram, two ewes, and a lamb – grazing on various desert vegetation next to and walking through the parking area. We sat in our van and watched them until someone drove up next to them, got out of their car, and approached the sheep, at which point the sheep went down the rocks and out of sight. {Shaking our heads.}
We had decided that this was a good day to take care of a few “town” things – like getting a haircut and doing laundry. It was also a chance to eat out again. Jana enjoyed her Panang Curry and rice and Shawn devoured his Spam hamburger and fries.
Back in Colorado National Monument, we found a new campsite in a different loop of the campground and then went to the visitor center to watch the film about the monument. Dinner was leftovers from last night. Hannah is starting to get used to this desert environment, although she is not crazy about having to do her business on gravel rather than nice, soft grass!

Formations along the rim drive in Colorado National Monument
Formations along the rim drive in Colorado National Monument
Our second campsite in Colorado National Monument

Day 10 – Wednesday, October 19, 2022 (156 miles driven)
As we came out of the Colorado National Monument into Fruita again, we stopped once more at the Colorado Welcome Center to dump tanks and refill water. Might as well since it was such a convenient stop and free!
Since the distance we were traveling today was not long, we decided to take a scenic drive to get there. Actually, as I was getting a haircut yesterday, the stylist recommended the route and a place to eat. Taking the advice of a local is generally a good idea, so we took the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway to go to Delta, and it was a beautiful drive. In Delta, she recommended DaVeto’s Italian Restaurant, and the Shrimp and Crab Alfredo Pizza was excellent.
At Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, we found a campsite. This took us down memory lane, as the first time for us to visit Black Canyon (back before it was a national park), was 31 years ago on our honeymoon. We didn’t have a van back then, though, it was tent camping. The rest of the afternoon was spent along South Rim Road where we stopped at all but one overlook and took the trails out to see the canyon. We didn’t have cell service until the end of the road, and while we were at that overlook, Nate called because Clary and Gus, our grandchildren, wanted to talk to us. We were so glad we happened to be where we had service!

Along the Grand Mesa Scenic Drive, in western Colorado
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

Day 11 – Thursday, October 20, 2022 (143 miles driven)
This was an interesting day for us, in that we did not have much planned, and only had an idea of where we might spend the night. We started by making a quick stop at the Black Canyon Visitor Center for a Christmas ornament, then we were eastbound on US-50. We had heard that there was significant construction – along with significant delays – on that section of highway, but it was still our best route. It was a 40 minute wait for us before we were able to drive slowly over the one-way 5 mile stretch of construction. We did have cell service there, though, so I (Jana) was able to call my dad and wish him a happy birthday today.
Our last NPS site planned for this trip was Curecanti National Recreation Area between Cimarron and Gunnison on US-50. We stopped at the Visitor Center for a passport stamp and the ranger there recommended the Neversink Trail. We had our sandwich and apple for lunch at the Neversink Picnic Area, then walked the 1.5 mile roundtrip trail that follows along the Gunnison River. We were just a little late for the fall colors there, but it was still a nice walk.
In Gunnison, we washed the van, then drank a huckleberry smoothie from the Gunnison Coffee Company at West Tomichi River Park. Then we picked up a couple of souvenirs after looking at “Colorado’s Largest Display of Mounted Trophies & Antlers” at Traders Rendezvous. Continuing east, we listened to a sermon podcast while going over Monarch Pass on the Continental Divide. Once in Salida, we picked up a few groceries, then took Hannah walking along the Arkansas River at Riverside Park. We went back west a few miles to Poncha Springs, to the Crossroads Visitor Center, where they allow overnight parking, to heat up homemade soup and cornbread, and stay the night.

The WanderVan on Monarch Pass, Colorado
Busy bee

Day 12 – Friday, October 21, 2022 (126 miles driven)
This morning was spent at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. We just made it across the gorge on the gondola, because immediately after our ride across, they closed it down due to high winds. We watched the film in the theater on that side, then walked back across on the bridge, recreating the picture from our honeymoon of me looking at the Oklahoma flag. For lunch, we warmed up leftover pizza while stopped at the Elkhorn Loop overlook.
In Canon City, we made a stop for gas, then went walking along the Arkansas River Trail. Our ultimate destination for this trip was Westcliffe, CO, and we made it there around 3 pm. We showered in the van at a park, then went to First Baptist Church Westcliffe for the 3 to 1 Marriage Conference. While there, we enjoyed a delicious dinner, heard testimony of how God fixed a broken marriage, and began meeting the sweet people of this tranquil Colorado town with its amazing view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Royal Gorge Bridge
Recreating a honeymoon trip photo from 1991

Day 13 – Saturday, October 22, 2022 (62 miles driven)
From breakfast to early afternoon on Saturday, we were engaged in helping with the marriage conference. We led a couple of the break-out sessions, but were also able to be on the receiving end during a session on Don’t Let the Enemy Have a Seat at Your Table. These conferences are always such a blessing to us as we get to help celebrate marriage and encourage others, while being encouraged ourselves, to live out a Godly marriage.
After a time of rest that afternoon, we drove over to Bishop Castle with the Atens and the Dixes (the couples we are helping with the conference). A man has spent the last 40(?) years building this rock castle in the mountains by himself. He allows people to come and tour through it, just requesting a donation (or perhaps a purchase at the gift shop). Back at Westcliffe, the six of us had a great dinner with the pastor of FBC Westcliffe, Glenn Shock, his wife Gwen, and their daughter, son-in-law, and infant grandchild.

Three2One Marriage Conference at FBC Westcliffe Colorado

Day 14 – Sunday, October 23, 2022 (331 miles driven)
On Sunday morning we attended an adult Bible study class at the church, then during the worship service, were included in a panel forum discussing various marriage topics. I always love hearing the Godly wisdom of these couples! The Shocks and a few other members fed us a delicious spaghetti and salad lunch before we all had to say our good-byes and head for home.
We drove back through Amarillo, and were blessed to be able to visit in the home of Rex and Karen, our former pastor and sweet friends who moved to Amarillo a couple of years ago. After a pleasant time of catching up, we stayed overnight in our van in front of their home.

A mountain view from the WanderVan parked at FBC Westcliffe, CO

Day 15 – Monday, October 24, 2022 (339 miles driven)
Drive, drive. Let’s go home! We made a tuna salad sandwich for lunch at a city park in Cache, OK. One final fill up once we made it back to Ada, then home to start unpacking in the drizzling rain.

WanderVan Report
The van performed great on this trip. We crossed over several mountain passes, and the van had no problems. We did not connect to electricity at any time on this trip. Our electrical system with 300W of solar panels and 4 golf car batteries provided all of our power needs. The marine style water heater heated water while we drove, and we never needed to use electric power to heat water. The diesel parking heater ran portions of eleven nights and used about 3/4 of a gallon of diesel! Our coldest night was 30 degrees, with most nights in the mid-30s to mid-40s.

By The Numbers:

2821Total miles driven
15Number of days on the trip
188Average miles driven per day
$39.85Average daily fuel (gasoline) cost
$11.75Average nightly cost to camp or park for the night
$51.60Average cost to travel per day (gas & lodging)
17.6Overall average miles per gallon fuel economy

1 thought on “Tour of Colorado Camper Van Trip”

  1. I was very surprised, at the end of your journal, to realize that you had not needed to plug into electricity for the entire trip. That is really impressive.

    Also, I did not know that Elk “Bugled,” so I bet that was very exciting to hear.

    Great journal stories. Thanks for sharing.

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