For years, we’ve witnessed the Missoula masses steer their winter-crusted vehicles south to the Utah desert for spring break. This year, we joined them.
First we stopped off in Boise for our daughter’s regional jump rope competition. It was a new mama experience for me, watching my girl work so hard for years and then get out there in front of a panel of judges to perform her tiny, perfect heart out. She aced it and we found out that love can be expressed in hugs, jumps and one’s willingness to sit on middle school bleachers for 13 hours.
Andy has never been able to take spring break off so this year felt extraordinary right out of the are-we-there-yet gate. He’s a funny and charming travel companion plus he does pretty much all the driving so my tasks are map reading, snack fetching, dog wrangling and trying my very best to hold it together when an entire container of dried seaweed flies into the air like confetti.
We intended to push from Boise all the way to the San Rafael Swell on Sunday but after the stop for breakfast, after the stop for camp fuel, after the stop for ice, after the stop for vodka…we decided not to push it into dark. Another task of mine is rerouting and finding things like gas stations and campsites while also pointing out red tailed hawks and antelope for the children to enjoy.
I have been CRAVING warmth after an exceptionally cold winter. Like, I want to feel actual warm air and for my body to be warm to its core. So I found this little hot springs with a campground for us to stay at for the night. GPS took us off the interstate and through a sleepy and rundown town with chickens racing across the street like tumbleweed. It felt perfect. But the hot springs development was under construction, the parking lot full of partying people and the campground wasn’t really what we had in mind. We did a drive by and kept on heading south.
I hopped on the airbnb app just to see and found a sweet little place that was cheap, cheerful, excellently located in the Salt Lake City valley, loved dogs and was available that night. We were an hour away and I heard back from the owner immediately. She promised us fresh chocolate chip cookies. Sold.
The next day after we repaired our water container, after one last trip to REI, after three bathroom stops we were again on the road. The landscape changed so quickly and soon our kids stopped asking, “are we in the desert yet?” because they just knew. I kept waiting for the heat. Oh please let there be still, smoldering sunshine.
Our friends had already found a spot and set up camp at the Wedge Overlook. We followed snaking dirt roads toward rocks that looked like squatting humans, mushrooms and Turkish architecture. And it was warm. Warm enough for windows down. It was the first day of spring.
The kids were bouncing all over the back seat as we’d let them unleash from their seat belts while we crawled toward the bliss of nothing at all. I asked if they wanted to get out and run and they leapt at the idea. Andy and I listened to Pearl Jam and drove behind our girls and dog, all three blond and fast and smiling and kicking up dust.
The Wedge Overlook is a connecting fortress of canyons and our camp site was situated at the top of one. The kids could walk down to the canyon’s bottom independently to explore caves and rocks in every shape imaginable.
We brought our bikes with us and the trails along the canyon rim was scenic and fun for all the ages and abilities.
The next day we decided to pack up and head a bit further south toward Crack Canyon. It felt like we were time traveling as we rolled our modern four wheel drive cars over slick rock, around washed out corners, over millions of years of fossilized creatures. We found a pretty epic spot to set up our temporary home.
We planned to stay put for the next four nights and adventure from there so we took time to haul all our gear down to a sweet little spot nestled in pocked rock formations, twisted junipers and surrounded by storied canyon walls.
The wind picked up a bit but we managed a camp fire and fell asleep under a blanket of stars that rivaled the south central Montana skies. Our tent door zipper had broken the first night so we were thankful for the dry, still air. The next night was a little more exciting…
We woke to cloudy skies and decided to head into Crack Canyon for a day hike. Walking straight from our site, we followed the river bed into an increasingly narrow canyon. There were several drops where we took turns handing the kids down to each other and I remembered that feeling from my childhood: nervousness in exploring the unknown but feeling got, safe, taken care of.
Mabel hurt her paw when we were several hours from camp. Her pad was completely raw. A bandage helped immensely and when she started limping again, she caught a ride on Andy’s shoulders. Goodness I love this dog. And this man.
The air shifted as we approached camp. We could feel a storm brewing but I think we all thought it’d blow in and out. We made dinner and a fire. The rain started out a drizzle and picked up quickly. We all got in our tents, ours held together with safety pins and clothespins, zipped into our bags and listened as the sky cracked open into a mighty rain storm.
We all knew about the flash floods. Andy and I were actually caught in one on a hike when we were last here. With no land to absorb water, it’s absolutely wild how quickly the water starts flowing. Our kids slept through the whole thing. Andy and I were awake all night. When it didn’t seem like it could rain harder, thunder would crash and shake a waterfall loose. I felt under my sleeping pad and there was an inch of water. We repositioned the kids and moved some things around and waited and watched the steady stream flow through our tent. The rain finally let up sometime before the sunrise and the wind picked up, which we were actually grateful for as it helped dry our soggy situation.
As soon as dawn broke, everyone was awake and so cold. Temperatures in the thirties, I drank the best coffee in my life. Looking around, we could see where the water had flowed. The side of the tent I slept on was perfectly lined up with a little slot in the rocks. All that water straight toward me. There was a waterline several inches up on our cooler and things that hadn’t been put away — mostly my children’s clothing and shoes — were buried in red mud or found down the canyon. We started sharing our stories from the night before.
Our friends had the more dramatic experience. I had been envious of their camp spot. It was a bit further down from ours in a sandy bed tucked between rocks. See where I’m going here? They stepped out of their tent into shin-deep water. Securing the tent the best they could, they grabbed their kids and retreated to their truck.
The night had us all wanting a different scene so we packed up and headed toward Goblin Valley.
As much as we prefer primitive camping, on this day, I was supremely grateful for warm running water and toilets.
I had found and dug up some clay at Crack Canyon. When the sun reemerged, the kids had fun making nests and pinch pots. We let them dry in the sun and then finished them off over the campfire.
We stayed here for the next two nights, getting out on bike and foot to explore the landscape.
I noticed I stopped telling stories and started just captioning. It’s because I feel like I’ve been editing photos and writing about this for years. Wrapping it up!
Hike up Little Wildhorse Slot Canyon. It was absolutely stunning. But more crowded than I like a hike to be.
We broke up the drive home, staying in Pocatello. And, of course, stopping at the Mexican bus in Dillon! It was great to get home. I still haven’t totally unpacked. Our car floors are still dusted with pink soil. And I continue to discover stashes of the 129 pounds of rocks Ruby brought home. But I did finally just finish washing all of our sleeping bags and blankets.
I often get asked about camping and our family’s approach. I plan to do another post, updating our car camp kit and addressing your questions. So, if you’ve got them, please ask away!