The plan was simple. The American West. Where and when exactly? We didn’t know. All we knew is that we were heading south, with the intention of escaping the harsh Canadian winter and eventually finding ourselves basking in the warm, dreamy, Californian climate. Desert sunshine and surf were on our minds, and we couldn’t wait to leave the snow-covered mountains behind us. So on December 29, 2015, we left Alberta, Canada, for one of our most exhilarating and spontaneous adventures yet.
This is the story of our road trip across Western America. Seven-thousand kilometers, 12 days, one car, and little to no idea of what was ahead. Our goal was to make it to the Grand Canyon for New Years, then head west to the coast and back up to Vancouver. So we hit the road.
Our first night, we made it a grand total of 4 hours before giving up and sleeping in the back of “Kevin,” Ben’s affectionately named Ford wagon. Setting up our Therm-a-Rest mattresses and double-down quilt in the back, we snuggled in for our first (and hopefully only) night of sleeping in -28 degrees Celsius. Though we woke up warm, “Kevin” unfortunately looked like we had stuck him in a freezer for twenty years.
Our goal was to go straight through Montana and most of Utah, until we reached Bryce Canyon. Stopping only for a nap just outside Salt Lake City, we made it just in time to spend the last day of 2015 taking in the sights of one of the world’s most-breathtaking canyons, followed by sunset at Horseshoe Bend.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve at a little cabin just outside the Grand Canyon, a perfect last moment to remember a great year. To say we felt lucky would be a complete understatement. Most of the trip we tried to stay on a tight budget, car-camping for the majority of the time. But sometimes it’s nice to splurge (and by splurge we mean a $40.00 cabin in the desert).
We welcomed 2016 with a trip to the Grand Canyon. Short but sweet; we hiked down Bright Angel Trail until icy conditions (and a poor choice of footwear) forced us to head back to the rim. However, to see the Canyon covered in specs of white snow was a sight in itself. Coming from Canada, you always imagine a place like Arizona to stay hot year round, so seeing it in the middle of winter was a treat.
Leaving the Grand Canyon, our plan was to drive towards Joshua Tree and the edge of the Mojave Desert, with a goal to find a pull out to park the car for the night. An eeriness overcame us as we followed a backroad deep into the darkness of the Mojave. With not a soul in sight, we took our chances at a spot twenty minutes off the highway. Shining our headlamps, we could see cacti and mountains all around us. We built a small fire, cooked up some soup, and fell asleep to the howls of a nearby pack of coyotes.
We awoke surrounded by the most beautiful sunrise either of us has ever seen. Our car was lit up with an extraordinary shade of orange shining through our windows. As we crawled out of our sleeping bags we saw that purple-lit mountains and glowing cacti surrounded us with the rising sun.
We spent the day scrambling on boulders and exploring Joshua Tree National Park. The park was incredible, with many different landscapes and flora to keep your eyes distracted at every turn of the road. We hopped off the trail at Cholla Cholla Cactus Garden and headed into the thick of it to shoot the glowing cacti as the sun went down. Needless to say, there’s a reason there’s a pathway. We walked away picking cacti out of our jeans, shoes and everything in between.
Next up, what we were both waiting for. Surfing. We headed straight for San Clemente, California, to catch a bit of the winter swell at San Onofre. We picked up gear from a local shop, only to be warned of the infamous “rock dance.” Laughing it off, we headed for the sand. The San Onofre beach shoreline is lined with tiny boulders that roll in and out as the waves come in forcing you to do a nice little dance to avoid getting your toes crushed. Regardless, the waves were good and we surfed until dark.
From there we traveled north along Highway 1 up the coast, stopping at a few incredible places on the way. Driving through Big Sur has been on the list for quite some time. The heavy rain and wind throughout the day only seemed to amplify the beauty of this legendary coastline. Some other California highlights were $1.00 tacos in Huntington Beach, a beautiful sunset in Santa Barbara, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge and exploring the windy roads of Mount Tam just outside San Francisco.
Once we left San Francisco, we aimed to make our way home. Both of us have traveled around Oregon and Washington quite extensively so we knew the area well. Cape Kiwanda and Pacific City has long been a favourite place of both of ours, so it was a treat to have an extra day to explore before heading back to Vancouver.
This was exactly what we wanted to do to kick off the New Year. We’ve traveled around the world, but sometimes the most incredible places are just few hours’ drive away. Adventure doesn’t have to be far, sometimes you just need to open your eyes and start driving.
Originally published February 16, 2016