Road-tripping & Camping from Denver to Big Sur

For many years now, it’s been a bucket list item of mine to take a road trip to California, just so our dachshunds could visit a beach. This may seem like a silly endeavor to pursue just for a couple of dogs, but if you have read my blog post on being childfree-by-choice, you know I’m a bona fide dog mom, through and through. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for my pups and there is hardly a place we’ve visited that the dachshunds haven’t tagged along for. Besides, every dog deserves to experience sand between their paws at least once in their life!

We finally had that opportunity to take our dachshunds to the beach this past winter break when both hubby and I had time off between the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays for the first time EVER in our relationship.

We had just gotten home from our Christmas Eve overnight camping trip when we began brainstorming what we would do with our precious time off for the next week. With the whole country and world still in a pandemic and places having gone into lockdown recently, there wasn’t much we COULD do, much less WANTED to do, since we were trying to be safe and responsible.

Fortunately, hubby and I are no strangers to the ultimate socially-distanced activity, camping, which would help lay the groundwork for planning a last minute pandemmy vacay. Our plan (or lack there of) needed very little thought before we decided we would take an impromptu road trip to the west coast, camping along the way, just so our QWeens could set their paws on west coast sand for their first ever beach visit.

Day 1 >> Denver, CO to Grand Junction, CO

We left the day after Christmas and with a leisurely start on the road of 11am, we barely made it to the west border of Colorado, just outside the town of Grand Junction, right before dark. Throughout our trip, we noticed this recurring theme that the short winter days allowed very little leeway to get a lot of driving done while still finding and setting up a campsite before dark.

Along with the number of daylight hours not being on our side, neither was the weather/snow. We knew that the weather would be relatively cooperative, with no big snow storms on the way; however, there was still snow left on the ground in Colorado, making it difficult to find roads that were open for camping. We eventually found a spot and set up camp with our propane fire pit to keep us warm. If the dachshunds could talk, they would have surely told us on day 1 that we were crazy and camping out in freezing weather surely was not worth it to spend a day at the beach!

Day 2 >> Grand Junction, CO to Fallon, NV

Waking up on the second day of our trip set the theme for how our entire trip would be: cold! Hubby and I hadn’t done much camping in the winter and we quickly realized that we hadn’t been missing out all these years by not doing so.

One the second day of our trip, we drove 12 hours, the most number of hours we did during our entire trip. We were determined to make it to the California coast on our third day!

Day 3 >> We reach the California coast!

On the third day of our trip, we drove over six hours from Fallon, Nevada to Monterey, California and finally reached the thing we set out for, the beach!!! We barely made it in time to see a beautiful sunset over the ocean horizon before needing to quickly figure out our sleeping arrangements for the night.

We had left for our impromptu California trip with such a nonchalant concern for any plan because we didn’t really need one with our intent to camp along the way; however, we had learned a very important detail the second day of our trip, which was that California had just tightened its pandemic lockdown restrictions at the time. This mainly affected restaurants and hotels, which had no impact on us, but we soon learned it also applied to paid campgrounds, which were our backup plan if we couldn’t find dispersed/backcountry camping.

As if the pandemic closures weren’t enough of a monkey wrench in our plans, what we also hadn’t taken into consideration were the summer wildfires that had ravaged California. We had intended to find dispersed/primitive (non-campground) camping along a forest road, but when we arrived at our intended forest service road route at 5:45pm in winter pitch darkness, we were bamboozled by a road closure that was due to unstable ground from the summer wildfires. We literally had no alternative plan because with hotels AND campgrounds closed, what was left?

As we continued to drive south from Monterey along Highway 1, we realized our only option was to boon-dock alongside the highway. There were no signs specifying that camping or parking overnight along the highway was not allowed and we had no cell service to double-check, but at the same time, we had no choice but to chance it. We had noticed several camper vans hitched alongside the road that were clearly intending to stay the night, but we were certainly not in a convenient camper van; our sleeping arrangement was a big ole’ tent, which would be much more obvious and inconvenient if camping wasn’t allowed and we had to pack up and leave in the middle of the night.

After over an hour driving along the coastal road of Highway 1, we happened upon the perfect spot where we could set up our tent behind a hill and hidden from the passing traffic from the road while also having prime, oceanside views. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to camp right by the ocean!

Day 4 >> Exploring Big Sur

I had worried all night long that we might be woken by a police officer telling us we couldn’t camp off the side of the highway and we would be forced to hastily pack up our tent in the middle of the night, but the only thing that ended up keeping me awake that night was the sound of the crashing waves outside our tent. We don’t know if it was luck that we had been able to camp peacefully for the night or perhaps camping/parking restrictions weren’t being enforced as strictly during the pandemic because the authorities had bigger things to worry about or perhaps there were no camping restrictions at all (this last one was very unlikely), but in any case, we were glad we were able to enjoy our perfect, oceanside camp spot for the night.

We packed up our camp early on the fourth day, not only because we didn’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves as we cooked breakfast in our PJs off the tailgate of our Jeep alongside the road, but also because we had a few bucket list items to take care of that day and we were in a race against the clock to hopefully not be setting up camp again in the dark (Ha! Fat chance!).

::Our Big Sur Bucket List::

  • McWay Falls:: This waterfall inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park only requires a short walk and although visitors cannot walk to the beach that the waterfall descends to, it’s still incredible to see the waterfall and seafoam green waters from the overlook.
  • Bixby Bridge:: We had crossed this bridge the previous day, but we hadn’t known it would be such a cool-looking bridge that deserved a stop. We were pressed for time on our drive in anyway, so we wanted to revisit it.
  • Coastal Off-Road:: We had hoped to explore some of the forest service roads off Highway 1, but due to the recent summer wildfires, this road was the only road open for exploring. The start of it went through dense, tall trees that were nothing like the trees found in Colorado and at the apex of the road, we had panoramic views of the ocean.
  • Pfeiffer Beach:: This beach had unique purple sand and some interesting rock formations. We were glad we had some time left at the end of our day to relax at this beach, even though there was a queue of vehicles to get in and it was a bit busy!

After exploring Big Sur all day, we had to find a camping spot again for the night. We had hoped we would find a camping spot along the Coastal Off-Road earlier in the day, but there seemed to be no allowable camping along the road (as a huge section of it was actually through private property). We knew we were going to be forced to spend another night boon-docking along the highway, but this time, we paid closer attention to every possible spot along the road, hoping to find something a little more inconspicuous.

We ended up driving the whole length of the Big Sur highway (which takes almost two hours in its entirety) without finding anything better than what we had camped at the previous night. We resigned that if our old spot was open, we would snag it again. And it was!

Day 5 >> Monterey, CA to Mojave National Preserve, CA

By the fifth day of our trip, it felt like we had done more driving than resting. Nonetheless, it was time to head back to Colorado! Instead of going back the way we came, which took us through the northern parts of Utah, Nevada, and California, we decided to do a loop that would take us more south through California and Utah.

On our way south down the California coast, we happened upon a fun surprise – hundreds of abnormally large seals plopped along the sandy beach for miles and miles. At our first sight of these huge, boulder-like creatures, I demanded that hubby find the next available spot to stop the car, only to find there was no stopping alongside the road. As it turned out though, there was a designated area called the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery where visitors could walk on a bridge overlook to view and listen to these magnificent seals barking, fighting, and snoozing on the beach.

That night, we arrived at our intended camping area in the Mojave National Preserve well past dark and set up camp just in time to witness the moon setting below the horizon. We could see the silhouettes of the Joshua trees surrounding us and we couldn’t wait to see them in full light the next morning!

Day 6 >> Mojave National Preserve, CA to Moab, UT

On our sixth [cold] day of our trip, I woke up early to catch the sunrise only to be surprised by another startling sight – every Joshua tree around us was burnt to a black crisp! In the darkness the night before, we hadn’t known that we had set up camp in an large area that had experienced a fire just recently in August 2020. It was a creepy sight to see, but also a really sad realization that almost no western state in the United States was exempt from wildfires.

At the end of this day, we had to concede and rent a hotel in Moab, Utah, since snow had just recently fallen in the area and we were also slated to arrive way past dark. As we drove into town, we could just barely make out the white landscape, which assured us we had made the right decision not to camp for the night! Plus, there was a hot tub at the hotel that had our name on it the next morning!

Day 7 >> Moab, UT to Denver, CO

On the seventh day of our trip we were glad to be going back home to our comfy home and bed… but not before receiving a warm welcome with the typical, nightmarish I-70 traffic heading back into Denver, delaying our arrival by at least an extra hour. Did we miss the state? Maybe no. But maybe yes!

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