For those of you who don’t know me, you likely don’t know that I’ve got a full-time desk job that keeps me pretty well rooted in Bend, Oregon. My fellow weekend warriors, then, would probably agree with me when I mention how often I find my brain drifting off to fantasy worlds full of road trips and adventures.
About a year ago, I upgraded my primary vehicle from a 1986 F-250 to a 2016 Toyota Tundra. I had plans of turning this new truck in to an adventure-ready vehicle, in to something that Dani and I could live out of for prolonged periods of time on the road; venturing from national park to national park, adventure to adventure. It took a while to decide how I wanted to build out my first adventure truck, on a budget but also knowing that some things are worth splurging on. After a lot of back and forth, I finally settled on a fairly simple design, building out a compartmentalized and carpeted sleeping platform with some modest storage, underneath my canopy that housed a Cascadia Vehicle Tents awning on one side, and plenty of room for storage on the remainder of the roof, including a wire bin, doubling as a great place to tie down my Goal Zero solar panels so I could have power when I needed it. The solar panels kept my two trusty Yeti 400s charged and ready for action. A trusty 40 year old Coleman stove would keep our food hot, and several Hydro Flask Growlers would keep us hydrated, since we didn’t have to worry about the water freezing at night inside them.
After a couple of test trips, we settled on pushing off for our first longer road trip of ten days. The route was planned to be something like this:
- Drive on day one from Bend to Redwood National and State Parks, sleep there night one.
- Day two, explore the Redwoods, camping somewhere north of San Francisco.
- Day three, wake up, get the pup some In-n-Out burger for her tenth birthday, and head in to Yosemite for three nights of camping.
- After Yosemite, we’d head north, camping somewhere near Lassen National Park.
- We’d wrap up the trip with some snow camping in Crater Lake National Park, before heading back to Bend to unpack and readjust to normal life.
Here’s the thing about plans, though. They’re good to have, but rarely work out as you’d expect. That’s what makes things fun.
If there’s one thing that living out of a vehicle teaches you, it’s that we all have too much crap. It also teaches you that the things you think you’ll need, you likely won’t, and the things you do need, you probably don’t have.
We pulled in to the main campground at Jedediah Smith State Park at dusk on night one, circling the campground until we could find the perfect spot. A note here – most campgrounds in the wintertime in the PNW are somewhat limited to less sites available. After finding one, we began the nightly shuffle of moving things from the rear of the truck in to the cab, and setting up the sleeping platform. We also rolled out the CVT Awning and strung the Goal Zero lights underneath for a little ambiance. We made some dinner, had a few drinks, played some cards, and watched the stars above. A recent rain meant that it was too wet to have a campfire, so we decided to head to bed early in preparation of the long day on the road the next day.
As we thought it might, the rain picked up again as we drifted to sleep. The raindrops on the canopy of the truck were so peaceful, that it didn’t take long at all to fall asleep. Suddenly, sometime around one in the morning, the entire truck shook and we heard a loud crashing sound. Naturally, when things like this happen, you immediately think of the worst. Our conclusions, as we woke from a slumber, were either that a bear was attacking us, or that a tree had fall on us. We couldn’t see outside too much with the tinted windows and condensation that had accumulated on the inside, so the only option was to climb out of the truck in the rain. As it would turn out, the light rain turned in to a torrential downpour. The awning, which was angled somewhat in anticipation of some showers, had taken on too much weight. One of the stabilizer poles that comes out from the truck had snapped in half, rendering the awning useless for the remainder of the trip. That is, until I could get my hands on a few zip ties and wooden dowels to brace it.
We woke up that morning to a new day, and packed up in the rain the best we could, learning lessons all along the way. While frustrations from a sleepless night were running high, we were excited to explore the Redwoods as we made our way down the California Coast.
The Redwoods are mystical. Tall giants that make you really take note of the power of Mother Nature. While stopping at one roadside pull of, a passing motorist mentioned to me that back in the day, cannabis farmers used to hide their crops in the canopy of the forest. After seeing these things in real life, it’s pretty easy to understand why.
We continued down the 101, stopping every time we saw something that took our breath away. Elk grazing in a meadow. A tree you can drive through, fog rolling through the valleys while rivers carving their way through the mist. It was all so surreal, and as we began to get closer to San Francisco, we realized that we had spent too much of the day playing and hiking to make it that far south. We adapted, and headed east towards Sacramento as it got dark out. Driving up in to the mountains, we could only imagine what kind of views we were missing in the dark.
With our golden retriever (Tanner)’s tenth birthday approaching, we had promised her some in-n-out burger for her birthday the following day. Knowing that we had to hit one in Sacramento, we decided to camp at the most glorious of all campsites that night, a rest area just north of SAC along I-5. We awoke that morning to the sound of rush hour traffic outside the truck, and decided at that point that curtains might not be a bad addition to the setup. We made some coffee on the tailgate, poured it in to our trusty Hydro Flask True Pints, packed up and hit the road, bound for Yosemite (with a quick pit stop for the burger). As it would turn out, In-n-Out burger didn’t open until 11, and we wanted to be in Yosemite by then. We tried, in our best dog voices, to apologize to Tanner and let her know she’d still get that delicious burger, but maybe not today.
By 11 that morning, we were rolling in to the Western entrance of Yosemite National Park. We had read online that in November, no campground reservations were necessary, so we headed directly to the Pines campgrounds, where we had thought it was a first-come, first-serve basis. I was surprised to see how many visitors were in the park during the last week of November, but was even more surprised to pull up to the campground after five hours of driving to see a “Campground Full” sign hanging in the window. Shit. What were we going to do? They instructed us that the campground up at near the entrance was likely open with some spots, so not wanting to miss out on a campsite, we headed back up, out of the valley, dazzled by the amazement around every corner. On our way out, we decided to try calling the main reservation phone number. Our timing must’ve been perfect, because as we called, a site had just opened up for the following two nights. Knowing that we had secured a site, and hearing that the Hodgdon Meadow campground would not fill up, we took our time to explore a few sights in the valley before heading up the hill to set up camp.
Hodgdon Meadow campground was a welcome and peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the Valley floor. When we pulled in, there was only one other group camping there. We had a small fire, held off the rain, and enjoyed a quiet night while we planned out our next two days in the park.
The following days in Yosemite were a whirlwind of adventures. We set up camp at North Pines then headed out for a hike to Mirror Lake. That night we enjoyed a campfire with some neighbors before waking to 13 degree temps in the morning. The cold brought some fresh snowfall to the park, so we loaded up and headed up to Tunnel View. Having always been a fan of Ansel Adams’ work, I was hoping we’d catch some dramatic weather with the parting clouds. The views did not disappoint, and after several more hikes around the park that day, we left Yosemite some very happy campers with future plans already forming in our heads.
The trip north from Yosemite took us to Lassen National Park. The park, while closed to vehicular traffic in the wintertime, is a snow lovers paradise. Short on time to do any longer excursions, we headed out on our cross-country skis for a loop around the lake, leaving explorations at higher elevations for another time. We camped outside of the park at a lower elevation, giving us views of stars under the first clear sky we’d seen in over a week. The following morning, as we rolled back in to Oregon, we were sure to stop at In-n-Out Burger to get that pup her birthday burger. She was forever grateful.
As we got closer to the end of our trip, we were tiring of everything being at least slightly damp. Knowing that our camp at Crater Lake the following night was sure to be cold, we immediately decided it was time to treat ourselves to something a little nicer than the back of the truck. After calling around to a few different places, we were lucky enough to score a cabin at Union Creek Resort, a charming little lodge with cabins near the south entrance to Crater Lake National Park. A fireplace, heat, and a real bed never sounded so great, while the Peanut Butter Pie they serve at Becky’s across the street is the stuff legends are made of.
The following morning, after another delicious meal at Becky’s (try the cinnamon roll french toast), we were ready for a snowy adventure at Crater Lake. Again, our timing was perfect, as the ranger was telling us that this was the first time all week they had been able to see the lake from the rim. We didn’t get blue skies, but the break in the weather was at least enough for us to put on the skis one more time to play around in the snow. Someday we’ll be back for a longer winter camping adventure there, too.
You see, here’s the thing about adventures, it’s like the strongest of any possible drug you could think of. Always calling you back for more, never getting enough, and invading your thoughts day and night. But hey, if adventure is a drug, I’m here to admit it. I’m hooked.