Dispatches: A Week-Long #Vanlife Experience Traversing Colorado’s National Parks

Kuku Camper shot
The beast, in all its glory. Photo: Katie Rodriguez

Seven days. Four national parks. A couple of bikes, a couple of kayaks. A sandboard. And a van.

I was ecstatic about this trip, packing at a frenetic pace for a week road-tripping in Colorado. We had plans to hit all of the national parks in the state – Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Rocky Mountain National Park – eager to get a glimpse of the iconic transformation of leaves in the midst of the changing seasons.

I am no stranger to road trips, but traveling out of a van was not something I had done before. I’m old fashioned; my most common roadside abode is a tent, the trunk of my car, and every once in a while something glamorous like a teardrop trailer. This lifestyle is one that has infiltrated the outdoor community and beyond so much, that it could almost feel like I had traveled out of a van before. I have friends that live out of vans, interview vanlifers for Adventure Sports Network’s Van Tours video series, and live in a San Diego beach town that could be considered a vanlife hub.

The Colorado Boot Loop.

Traveling by van is a fantasy that has piqued my curiosity for quite some time, but I had personally not traveled in one for more than a night or two.

Nothing seemed to punctuate our travel plans more than a van; a vessel for our precious cargo of various toys, something that could serve as our transportation and a place to easily withdraw from each day into a simple sleep setup.

We found a small business named Kuku Campers – born (and flourishing) in Iceland with a fleet of at least 300 vans, and just beginning to make their mark on Colorado. We opted for a RAM ProMaster cargo van complete with a kitchen, modular bed, plenty of storage space and unlimited miles.

Time suddenly seemed precious. One fell swoop brought the keys to the ignition, and our minds quickly drifted to the playgrounds we were about to encounter, and the micro-adventures that would litter our next week.

Here is Katie Rodriguez’s dispatches from Colorado.

Colorado Road Trip

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Sandboarding “The Largest Sand Dunes in North America” was first up. We stopped off at a gas station one would likely assume must be out of commission due to the retro aesthetic of the signage and rusty, minimalistic machinery of the pump. (We confirmed, however, all was still in working order.) The small general store adjacent to the gas station had boards for rent resembling a small snowboard with wakeboard-like foot pads, used to ride down the dunes.

It’s difficult to describe the magnitude of this park. Some of the dunes tower over 700 feet high, yet the height comically failed to deter attempts to race up its ridges. There are no trails, just 19,000 acres of massive sand mountains. The park has an almost trance-like effect; the miles of undulating soft sand appear so inviting, yet the vast landscape and the gradient of all its folds isn’t understood until one attempts to run up them (cue that deep calf burn).

Colorado Road Trip

There was no strategy behind choosing which dune to sandboard. We parked the car, grabbed our socks, picked a mountain and ran towards it. At the top of the ridge, we applied a coat of wax to the bottom of the board, launched ourselves down the slope and discovered: sandboarding is deceivingly difficult.

The thrill of going down the hill at a faster-than-anticipated speed is essentially what motivated us to get up after falling countless times, propelling us back up the dune to do it all over again. The bigger the dune, the faster you go, and the more speed wobbles you face. It’s truly a one-of-a kind feeling, and the most simple form of exhausting fun. For those who face problems sleeping at night, I highly recommend a day at the dunes.

Mesa Verde National Park

A couple hundred miles southwest of the Great Sand Dunes lies the archeological wonders of Mesa Verde National Park. We opted to explore the park via the Mesa Top Loop route, a road which winds through a series of stops and overlooks that provide panoramic views of the canyons below. A drive through the park truly gives the viewer an unparalleled opportunity to get a glimpse of the past. The landscape is home to numerous cave dwellings, towers and massive structures carved out of the sides of the cliffs that communities of Ancestral Pueblo peoples occupied for more than 700 years.

We viewed these incredibly well-preserved structures from the sides of nearby overlooks atop overhanging cliffs. We could clearly see the connectivity between each of the cliff dwellings, and imagine what it must have been like when people lived entirely off the land, creating a life based on the orientation of the sun and the availability of resources. A drive through Mesa Verde can induce a much needed perspective shift, reminding us of the luxuries many of us have now, and how little humankind once needed to flourish.

Colorado Road Trip

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

There is a highway in Colorado known as ‘the million dollar highway,’ and for good reason. The road is not long, running about 25 miles through Colorado’s mining country. Narrow switchbacks running along the mountainside and steep cliff drop-offs abound, boasting spectacular scenery the entire way.

It is one of those stretches that’s so stunning, we drove about 20 mph slower than the required speed, stopping every few miles to fully take in the views. By no surprise, our slow and satisfying pace inevitably chipped away at our precious time to explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Fortunately for us, we had bikes. And this park in particular – which spans only seven smooth, relatively-flat but gloriously-windy miles along via South Rim Road – was the perfect park to explore by bike, especially with limited time.

Photo: Ben Judkins

I’m a huge proponent for exploring a national park by bike (assuming they let you do so). It allows you to cover more ground than on foot – ideally for those on a time crunch – but slows you down enough to digest the landscape more than you would by just driving through. Not to mention, you get a work out while you’re at it. Relative to the other national parks in Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is reticent in its beauty, only revealing the enormity and depth of it’s sweeping canyons from the edge of the overlooks. We breezed past onlookers, with our bikes granting us the flexibility to stop when we pleased. The freedom from our car after many hours of driving left our bodies happy, and ready to hit the road toward our next stop.

Colorado Road Trip

Pit stop: Meridian Lake, Crested Butte

We brought with us a couple of Oru foldable kayaks, about 25 pounds each, that neatly folded down to fit in a compact 33″ x 12″ x 29″ backpack. They were perfectly sized to fit inside the van along with our bikes, boards, backpacks and various clothing (Bonus: even with all of these things, there was still room to cook).

As we arrived at Meridian Lake, the leaves sprawling the surrounding mountains were aglow in the early morning light. The lake, completely empty upon arrival aside from some wild cattle, was a short hike from where we parked the car.

We paddled out in complete solitude, the only noise accompanying us being the sound of our paddles dipping into still water. A light breeze swept yellow leaves from the trees, and the surface of the lake – gently dancing with the wind – resembled a rolling sheet of sequences with the brightly colored leaves coating the water. I had never seen anything like it. Neither had one of the locals – one of the very few people we encountered here – despite being a frequent visitor of Meridian Lake for the past 25 years.

Rocky Mountain National Park

With bleary eyes we got ready to drive to the trailhead to hike Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, arguably one of most iconic of the 14,000+ ft peaks in Colorado. It was around 3 a.m as we fumbled getting our things together, feeling a subtle tinge of exhaustion after arriving late at camp from (classically) lingering just a touch too long in Crested Butte.

We stumbled out of the car and began our cathartic trek through miles of dense forest. The sun pierced the horizon, rising over the meadows overlooking the surrounding Rocky Mountains. We scrambled across the boulder fields and through the ‘key hole’ – a pass that quite literally looks like its namesake – then up and across a rocky ridgeline called the ‘narrows.’ More than 15 miles and almost 4,000 feet up the mountain later we summitted with gently squeezed lungs, patches of rain approaching the mountain in the distance.

Clear skies for the first half of our trek provided some respite from our apprehensive mindset after witnessing omnipresent rain clouds on our drive from Crested Butte. Still, we quickly consumed our PB&J’s, took a brief moment to catch our breath, gave thanks to nature for not bringing our concerns to fruition, and started our way down.

Returning to the van quite literally felt like returning home. Before leaving the parking lot we cooked up some sort of veggie and egg concoction for dinner, and made for one last night in Colorado to conclude our trip. The night was filled with the sound of wild elk nearby – loud and oddly analogous to the sound of a screeching cat, but something that just felt wildly right in Rocky Mountain National Park.

In just one week we managed to hit four national parks, with plenty of stops in between. Given the amount of ground covered during our time in Colorado, it’s almost unfathomable that we accomplished as much as did without feeling rushed. But we did, and so can you. For those looking to explore the perks of #vanlife, this trip is a perfect way to test it out. A word of advice for those looking to replicate parts of this trip: check the conditions before heading to any of these destinations. Weather conditions can vary drastically, and rock slides and thunder storms are known to happen regularly along this route.

You can check out a vehicle that best suits your travel plans at Kuku Campers.

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