The Best Road Trip for Fall and Winter
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
A 12 day Desert Photography Escape to Mojave, Zion, Capitol Reef, Saint George and Valley of Fire
Fall and Winter are great seasons for active travel and road trips! Not only are there fewer crowds but the temperatures for exploring can be ideal in desert regions which can reach triple digits in the Summer. We love van-camping and this year, we decided to take on several shorter road trips, instead of one long one like last year's six-week Canadian Rockies Road Trip. There are so many gorgeous National Parks in the USA, and several are within driving distance from the Central Coast of California. So this year, we decided to design van travel itineraries that could explore the western side of our own country. You can go here to read about the two-week Pacific Northwest National Parks road trip that we completed this past July.
I created this particular trip as a surprise birthday gift for my husband. Since he is a professional landscape photographer and I know that he loves shooting in the Utah region, I did my best to research and scout out unique sunrise and sunset locations in this region. And I must have done a pretty good job, as he was grinning ear to ear for ten straight days. Some of our route was familiar terrain. But most of it was completely new to us. The Mojave desert showcased some impressive dunes and Capital Reef completely surprised us with its raw beauty and diversity. I lost count of how many times I muttered, ‘wow’ in a single day! Although we had previously been to Zion National Park, it justified a return and we still managed to find new trails to explore. The area around Saint George proved to have some tucked-away, hidden gems and Valley of Fire impressed us with its unique campgrounds and varied geology.
So read on. And I’ll do my best to show you why we think your next road trip needs to be in the desert this Fall or Winter.
2017 Mercedes Sprinter Van – 4x4; 19’ long; diesel engine, gets 14-17mpg; 14-15 gallon water tank; 2 solar panels, AC and DC power; shower head (between rear doors out back with snap-on curtain); hot water heater; DC space heater; electric penthouse canopy; sleeps 4 (but 2 adults have most room); outdoor roll-out canopy; automatic sideboards; off road lights; air compressor; fridge; sink; microwave; lots of storage. Code name: the Stover Rover.
Time of Year
October – temperatures varied from 55-70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 30-45 (F) degrees at night. The Fall foliage around Fruita was fantastic and there were very few people. We often found ourselves on trails for hours without seeing another person.
One of the items I wished I had planned for earlier was our permit application to hike a trail called ‘the Subway’ in Zion National Park. This area is really unique and a coveted portfolio addition for many photographers. But in order to protect the area, only a limited number of hikers are allowed access each day. Although I was able to put in for the ‘late lottery’ seven days in advance (they save 20 spots for this), I wasn’t lucky enough to get a permit for either of the days that we were in the area. I believe if you apply earlier (several months in advance), you have a better chance of getting a specific date.
Go here to learn more about getting permits for protected trails at Zion.
TIP - Fruita Campground in Capital Reef is gorgeous and fills quickly year-round, so book early.
HOWEVER, there is lot of options for wild or free-camping in this area, especially if your camper van has four-wheel drive or at minimal has good tires.
Average daily cost
We monitored three areas for this on a weekly basis: Food (groceries, restaurants, alcohol), gas, and miscellaneous spending while on the road. We grocery shopped for breakfast and snacks items and cooked at least four or five dinner meals a week on our Coleman stove. We did not skimp, ate at a few restaurants on occasion, and averaged $99 USD/day. We spent more on gas on this trip than we did on food and drink. I think this was due in part to the colder temperatures, which made drinking hot tea more enticing than drinking alcohol.
Campground fees, hotels - total: $1657 USD. On this trip we spend only $60 in campground fees but could have free-camped the entire time. Capital Reef National Park is surrounded by BLM land and the boundary lines run really close to interesting sites all over the park. So if you drive the Cathedral Valley loop, you will not have any problem finding areas to free-camp. However, we did stay a night at Fruita Campground when we first arrived. And at $20 USD a night, this beautiful, well-equipped spot was a bargain. The same was true around Saint George and Valley of Fire. However, I also wanted to check out and review two unique accommodations around Zion and Capital Reef: Under Canvas (outside of Zion National Park) and the cabins at Capital Reef Resort. In total, we spent four nights of our road trip at these places and that is what contributed the most to our total (with fees and taxes) above. However, this is an area of expense that can be modified according to individual preference and budget. If you decide to spend this entire trip in an RV or camper van, then your price will be much lower, as campgrounds in the areas we traveled were only $10-$20 a night.
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Stop 1 – Mojave National Preserve
We only scheduled one overnight here but we got to see two completely different areas of the park. We experienced Kelso dunes at sunset on the day we arrived, and then the next day at sunrise, we hiked Teutonia Peak trail with its surrounding dense grove of large Joshua Trees.
Drive time – 6.5 hours*
Nights - 1
Camping options – there are a few designated campgrounds, but we easily found areas to free camp at pullouts or at trailheads.
(*drive times are approximate)
TIP – days and nights in the desert can vary wildly in temperature, so pack accordingly. We started our sunset hikes in short sleeves and a ball cap and ended up hiking back to the car in a down jacket and fleece beanie. Then we’d experience the reverse for sunrise the next morning.
Suggested activities or hiking trails
Kelso Dunes is great at sunset and Teutonia Peak Trail and a view of Cima Dome is a nice option for sunrise. Other options include Mitchell Caverns and Lava Tube trail, where many photographers can digitally capture unusual light beams.
Stop 2 – Zion National Park
We absolutely love Zion. We had been there in previous years and hiked the Narrows, Observation Point, Angel’s Landing and Watchman trails. This time, we stayed outside the park on Kolob Terrace road, which gave us access to trails with fewer hikers on them. If you can get a permit for the Subway/ Left Fork trail, approaching it from the Kolob road side is far less technical than from inside the park. This approach requires no special equipment other than something to keep your feet and calves warm. On this trip, since we didn't get a permit in the drawing, we hiked West Rim trail instead – a fabulous 15-mile RT hike with spectacular views. We also hiked Right Fork trail, which although bursting with colorful Fall foliage, was not maintained and required a lot of ‘bushwhacking’ and trail finding. Honestly, I wouldn't recommend this trail unless they clean it up.
Check official site for updates before you go.
Drive time – 4.5 hours
Nights - 3
Camping options – If you don’t have reservations within the National Park, simply drive up Kolob Terrace road (outside of the town of Virgin) and you will find areas that you can easily free camp.
Other accommodations outside of the park
We enjoyed our experience in the Stargazer tent at Under Canvas, which allowed us to lay in bed while naming constellations and watching for shooting stars. However, we decided that if we came to this Under Canvas location again, we’d select a standard walk-in unit that offered quieter surroundings. The small town of Virgin has some inexpensive accommodation options as well and we enjoyed a great home-cooked, hearty meal at Fort Zion restaurant. And of course Springdale, just outside the park entrance, is a bustling quaint town with all sorts great shops, cafes and outfitters.
TIPS - Don't miss having brunch at the Bumbleberry Café and trying some of their tasty chicken fried steak and berry-filled pancakes. David West Gallery showcases some gorgeous local photography, and Sol Food Market is a great place to pick up snacks and groceries as you head into the park.
If you decide to hike the Narrows this time of year, although the water level is low, you will be much warmer and happier by renting waders and waterproof boots from Zion Outfitter. Other favorite trails are Observation Point, Watchman, and West Rim. If you are a not afraid of heights, give Angels Landing a shot. This is a difficult hike with great views but is not fun if windy or rainy. It’s steep, narrow and has large drop-offs on either side. Also, if you are interested in hiking the Subway trail from either side, it requires application for a permit.
Check official site for updates before you go.
Stop 3 – Capitol Reef National Park
This is one of the most under-rated gems that we have in this country. Often overshadowed by its neighboring competitors of Moab, Arches and Bryce Canyon, this National Park offers some incredibly diverse geology with fewer crowds and a beautiful campground in Fruita. We loved our time here and plan to return.
If you have a 4x4 high clearance vehicle I’d highly suggest driving the fabulous 65-mile Cathedral Valley loop, which contains some of the most interesting landscapes in the national park. This outing deserves an entire day and there is a short river crossing at the start of the loop, typically 9-10 inches deep in Fall and Winter. However, if you can't make it across the river, you can still see much of the valley by driving the loop in reverse as far as you want, and then doubling back. For this, you need a vehicle that will withstand a lot of washboard and rocky dirt roads. Much of the drive is nicely grated but there are parts that we were glad we had a 4x4 vehicle. Some of our favorite spots on this 65-mile loop were the Bentonite Hills (~ 8 miles after the river ford), Jailhouse Rock, Upper Cathedral Valley and the Monoliths, and Temple of the Sun and Moon in lower Cathedral Valley.
See video below to get an idea of the river crossing at a 9 inch depth
As previously mentioned, Fruita Campground is one of the prettiest campgrounds we’ve seen. At certain times of year, they allow picking and on-site consumption from their apple, peach and cherry orchards.
NOTE - make sure you stop at the Gifford Homestead and get a fresh fruit pie!
TIP - the park boundaries are such that you can easily free camp in the Bentonite Hills (which are actually on BLM land) and only a ½ mile from the Temple of Sun and Moon in lower Cathedral Valley. There is one free, official camp area within the National Park boundaries, which is first come, first served.
Drive the Cathedral Valley Loop, the Scenic Drive (including the easy gravel section at the end), hike Hickman bridge trail, Frying Pan trail, Sunset Pointe, check out The Castle (just outside the visitors center), Grand Wash trail.
TIP - if you don’t mind a 2-mile walk on the road, you can hike a nice loop connecting Frying Pan to Grand Wash over about 8-9 miles.
Other accommodations in the area
We stayed one night in Torrey, Utah at the Capitol Reef Resort in one of their newer individual cottages and thought it was really comfortable. This resort also offers inexpensive ‘motel’ style rooms as well as novel options like sleeping in a teepee or a covered wagon during the Summer months.
Stop 4 – Saint George
We had originally intended to drive up to Gooseberry Mesa and free camp, trail running the infamous mountain bike trail in the morning for sunrise. However, when we arrived in Saint George the temperatures dropped significantly and severe winds kicked up, making all longer distance canyon landscape shots a hazy blur of sand. Nic had a hard time getting a decent shot from the Snow Canyon Overlook at sunrise. However, Yant Flat proved to be one of the most unique places we’d ever seen! We were able to climb down onto the flatter areas between the striped bluffs and thus, were protected from the wind. The next day, we also made a last minute change of plans to drive ninety minutes to and from a former, now not-maintained state park called Pine Park. The odd, white ‘whipped’ top hoodoos were really eerie and strange, and we were the only ones there.
NOTE - It's hard to find information online about this area (Pine Park) , as it is so remote and no longer officially managed. Professional photographer, Adam Elliott, has some gorgeous shots and a bit more information on his website. You can also look in the Northwest corner of the Utah Gazetteer book, and find it marked as a campground called Pine Creek.
TIP - My husband often downloads maps of an area onto his phone, when he thinks will have low cell coverage . That way, if we do drive out of range, and our van’s navigation system stops, we still have a live Google maps that can operate off our phone’s GPS signal. We found this useful for the Pine Creek outing, as its location is far from any cell tower.
Drive time – 4.5 hours
Nights - 2
Camping options – we saw are several options for free RV and van-camping on the dirt roads, trail heads and pullouts in the Pine Valley Recreation area and the Red Cliffs National Conservation area North of Saint George. We accessed them via Leeds, Utah on FR32. Free camping is also allowed at the Red Mountain trail head in Dammeron Valley, as it is located just outside the park boundary.
Suggested activities and hikes
TIP - many stores and retailers are closed on Sundays in Saint George, so plan your shopping accordingly. But there were several restaurant open.
More established campgrounds and resorts
Campgrounds around Sand Hollow State Park southeast of Saint George.
Stop 5 – Valley of Fire State Park
We only camped one night here but wished we had stayed for two. The road that leads out to White Domes offers spectacular multi-colored vistas and there are many short hiking trails that showcase some incredibly diverse rock and sand formations.
Drive time – 1.5 hours
Nights - 1
The campgrounds are inexpensive ($10 USD when you also buy a park pass for $10 USD) and really unique. Some are nestled up individually amongst the red rock formations. We stayed at Arch Rock campground as it was quieter and felt more secluded, especially as you wind around through the campsite into higher numbered sites. Each site is equipped with shade ramada, fire ring, barbecue grills and potable water spigots. There is a dump and water fill station between the two campgrounds
TIP - drive the full Arch Rock campground loop before you pick your site. It is larger than it looks and some of the coolest spots are tucked away at the back of the loop.
Suggested activities and hikes
Note - park rangers have stopped telling people how to get to the Pastel Canyon trail in efforts to prevent roadside parking. We were able to easily connect Fire Wave trail to Pastel canyon in a thirty minute walk. Once you get to the Fire Wave, hike down past it, veer right back towards the road and follow the wash up to the canyon over another ten minute walk.
Stop 6 - heading back home. Have fun!
Feel free to check out some of our other van- camping road trip itineraries!