Tag Archives: camping

Dirtbag Beta: Review of the Hueco Rock Ranch

If you’re planning a trip to climb at Hueco Tanks, you basically have two options for lodging: camping inside the park, or staying at the American Alpine Club’s Hueco Rock Ranch. Of course, you could always rent a motel room closer to town, but let’s get real.

With the park campground often being entirely booked during peak bouldering season at Hueco Tanks, your best bet is to snag a campsite at the ranch. When I visited, the park was full, but the ranch had plenty of space.

The cost isn’t the cheapest, but the fees make up for it with free wi-fi, a spacious barn to cook and relax in, hot showers, and did I mention free wi-fi? The nightly rate is normally $10, but if you are an American Alpine Club or Access Fund member, you get a discounted price of $7/night.To the Hueco Rock Ranch!

There are also a few rooms available in the main house area, but this beta is intended for dirtbags, and I doubt any of y’all are trying to get fancy.

The campsites are well laid out, and marked with numbered stones. If you’re setting up a tent, make sure you really secure it to the ground. The desert is notorious for freakishly windy weather. Car camping is also allowed, and I’d recommend it during the winter season if you aren’t experienced with cold weather camping.

Since you’re surrounded by fellow climbers, it’s safe to leave your gear out at the Hueco Rock Ranch. Many folks left their food tubs next to their tents during the day, and we left our crash pads sitting next to the van each night.A panoramic view of our 'camp' spot at Hueco Rock Ranch near Hueco Tanks State Park.

The real attraction at the ranch is the recently renovated barn where climbers gather each evening. There are a few couches spread out, a big picnic-type table, and a sizeable kitchen to cook in. The barn has plenty of plugs, and the wi-fi is decent (but don’t bother trying to watch any climbing videos on most days). You’ll also find a library of random books, a foos ball table, and three full bathrooms in the ranch. In my opinion, the barn is what makes Hueco Rock Ranch worth the money.

Here are a few more tips for staying at the Hueco Rock Ranch:

Important Shower Beta: Do NOT use the rightmost shower. I repeat, do not use the rightmost shower unless you want to feel like you’re getting peed on. That was the first mistake I made. The second mistake? Not realizing that the hot/cold sides are switched on the shower knob. Folks, the ‘cold’ side is hot, and the ‘hot’ side is cold. You’re welcome.

Feeling hungry? The closest grocery store is Vista Mercado, a funky little Mexican market where you are highly encouraged to give yourself a taste of local food. For the best and cheapest tacos near Hueco Tanks, stop by El Pasito Meat Market. It sits inside a little gas station-type market, but it’s delicious.

Looking for ways to get into Hueco Tanks without a reservation? There’s a blog post for that! 

The easiest tent you’ll ever own: Review of the Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent

Here’s the first full review from my Holiday Gift Guide for Outdoor Adventurers.
Check it out, and stay tuned for the rest of the reviews!

Picture this: You’ve finally arrived at your campsite – and it’s now 2:30 AM. You’re exhausted from the drive, but your car is too jam-packed with adventure equipment to allow for sleeping comfortably in it. What’s the last thing you want to do right now? Spend ten minutes fumbling with tent poles and hooks in order to snag a wistful few hours of sleep before waking up and deconstructing your tent all over again.

Major bummer, dude.

Now picture this: Same late-night camping scenario, same levels of I-just-want-to-sleep, but now you’ve got a Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent. You grab the bright yellow sack that holds your tent, unroll it, and within about 45 seconds, you’re ready for bed. You snuggle up in your sleeping bag while your buddies fumble around with their clunky tents.

Niko sets up our Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent at Grandfather Mountain Campground in NC.

Major victory, dude!

When Niko and I received our Outfitter XXL Quick Tent, we were elated – even more so when we managed to go from a sealed package to a set-up tent in less than three minutes. And that was our first time EVER setting it up. We were both instantly impressed, but the real test came when we took the Teton Sports tent on its first adventure to North Carolina for the Hound Ears Triple Crown climbing competition.

After keeping us cozy through misty mountain mornings, light afternoon rain, and some pretty gnarly wind gusts – the Outfitter XXL Quick Tent passed our camping test with flying floors.

Here’s what I love about the Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent:

  • It is the easiest tent I have ever camped with. Both set-up and take-down are simple tasks that take less than a minute.
  • It packs down extremely easy, and the roomy stuff sack doesn’t require a battle to get the tent packed away. With a weight of only 4 lbs, it’s light and easy to carry.
  • The tent was designed as a topper for camping cots, but the waterproof base and sturdy structure makes it an ideal tent for ground camping as well (I have only used it directly on the ground).
  • Where many tents offer a small window or two, the Outfitter XXL is entirely wrapped with see-through mesh, so if the weather allows you to go without the rain-fly, you can wake up surrounded by natural beauty.
  • When the rain-fly is up, there is an ample vestibule area for keeping your dirty hiking boots sheltered from the elements without dragging them into the tent. Plus, the rain-fly is easily assembled with four simple clip-ons.
  • While a larger person may find this to be a one-man tent, Niko and I fit perfectly together in it. This is a great tent for adventure couples.
  • It’s my favorite color – and it totally matches my big yellow van.

Peek-a-boo, that's me creeping inside my Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent.There is only a single caveat I have with the world’s easiest tent: there are no pockets. But what I love about Teton Sports is their amazing receptiveness to user feedback. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their next tent release features a pocket.

The bottom line: I would highly recommend this tent. It retails at $100, but could easily sell for upwards for $200. The value can’t be beat, but it’s the impossibly simple set-up that will win you over instantly.

Don’t believe my rave reviews about how quickly this tent sets up? Check it out for yourself:

Want more from the folks at Teton Sports?
Send ‘em your thoughts on Twitter, or check out the Teton Sports Facebook page
– they’re always hosting giveaways and posting great outdoor content!

A Guide to Car-Camping – in Walmart Parking Lots

As any experienced road tripper, climber, or long-term traveler can attest, one of the biggest issues with life on the road is finding a place to rest every night. Between tight budgets, uncertain routes, and evenings spent driving at ungodly hours, there is often a need to find a makeshift place to catch a few hours of sleep.

One of the tried and true traditions of my climbing trips and cross-country excursions is the practice of spending a night (or two) in a Walmart parking lot. I was extremely reluctant and nervous my first time, during which I hardly achieved a few moments of rest. However, after nothing but positive experiences, the sight of a glowing Walmart sign on the side of a highway has become a welcoming landmark.

While Walmart founder Sam Walton has allegedly been quoted in feeling strongly that all travelers should reverie his stores as a destination for safe rest and refuge, there has been a lot of debate surrounding the practice of overnight camping in the parking lots. While I have never been approached during my brief stays, I have heard plenty of stories of people being asked to leave, or told they couldn’t stay.

So, should you spend the night in a Walmart parking lot? I’d say sure, but first, educate yourself on the do’s and don’ts of overnighting at one of these fine American institutions (ha).

What You Should Do:

Depending on your attitude, calling ahead to inquire about a specific location’s overnight policies is the safest course of action. However, if you’ve pulled into a random store in the middle of the night, desperate for sleep – you will likely be fine. Always be discrete. While large campers and RVs are sitting ducks in the parking lot pond, sedans and smaller vehicles have the advantage of blending in fairly well.

A few crucial elements of discretion include parking away from store entrances where shoppers should have priority, keeping your ‘space’ clean, and leaving as early as possible in the morning. Additionally, you should make an effort to give patronage to the place that is giving you a safe place to sleep – buy something. If you just grab a protein shake and cheese stick in the morning, fine. Need to stock up on some camping supplies? Even better – you’ll make the entire car-camping community look good.

Just because Walmarts are generally a secure place to stop for the night doesn’t mean that every location stands equal when it comes to safety. Always be aware of the surrounding neighborhood – a sketchy area equates to a sketchy Walmart parking lot. Be smart. Always keep your keys within reach. I prefer to keep the driver’s seat open and easy accessible, in case there is a need to make a quick getaway.

What You Shouldn’t Do:

*Note: Niko wasn’t actually in a Walmart parking lot in this photo, no worries.

Basically, don’t be that guy. If you roll up to a Walmart at 11 PM, pop open the hatchback, and set up a few chairs around your parking spot while throwing back a few beers – don’t be surprised when you get the boot. Anyone traveling in a non-car rig is should never set-up camp in any conspicuous manner. If security or management approaches you, don’t be disrespectful. It is a privilege to have access to staying overnight, and travelers must remain understanding that some locations have had bad experiences with long-term or disruptive ‘campers.’

Don’t leave a mess. You should be practicing this in all aspects of your adventures, but littering free accommodations is especially offensive. Nothing leaves a bad taste in a manager’s mouth than rude overnighters.

Despite the usually relaxed overnight regulations at most locations, there are some stores that are actively against travelers shacking up in their parking lots. Check out this listing of Walmarts that do not allow overnight stays.

Niko says: “I’ve been crashing in Walmart parking lots ever since I was able to drive — it’s a “simple comfort” for dirtbags. On long nights, you know that just down the road there’s a parking lot where you can grab some munchies, clean up in the 24-hour bathrooms, and shut your eyes for a couple hours. I always crack a window in my car to get some fresh air, and like to stop in the store to grab breakfast before heading out – think of the cost of your milk and cereal as a camping fee.”

If you aren’t bothered by the unavoidable florescent lighting and likelihood of waking up in a sea of cars from Walmart’s morning floods of blue collar customers, pulling into one of their many parking lots provides a great venue for catching some rest before embarking on your next day of adventuring.

Have you ever spent the night in a Walmart parking lot?
Got good any experiences to share? Any bad experiences?
Sound off in the comments and contribute to the conversation!

 

Thick slabs of steak, creamy baked brie, and camp cuisine that spoiled my outdoor perspective

During my first few climbing trips, my campside cuisine consisted of canned soup and instant mashed potatoes. Soon, fellow campers enlightened me about the camping bliss that could be achieved by simply adding an avocado to my instant mashed potatoes. Eventually, my food bin felt like a culinary success filled with parmesan cheese, canned Indian dishes, black beans, and tortillas.

I felt pretty darn fancy. I even started carrying a few spices with me to add a little extra flavor to those wonderful instant potatoes.

My humble perspective on outdoor cooking was absolutely shattered during the Havasupai excursion with the OmniTen and Columbia Sportswear. Holy mother of delicious. Our trip was guided by the wonderful folks of Arizona Outback Adventures, who not only successfully herded our crew through the canyon to the Havasu Falls campground, but truly blew our socks off with the best camping cuisine I have ever tasted.

It started with a gander at the camp’s impressive kitchen set-up. Our guides have a semi-permanent area pitched throughout the entire season, and the kitchen area was fully stocked with multiple grills, preparing areas, giant cookware, and everything in between. The first thing our guide, Brian, whipped out was a giant box of grapes – “well that’s a nice snack,” I thought to myself.

I was delighted by the prospect of popping a few plump grapes into my mouth to refresh my parched body after a 10-mile hike in the desert, but it didn’t stop there. Rather than tossing a bowl of grapes on the table, we were presented with multiple platters – of baked brie sprinkled with nuts and cranberries, assorted crackers, and a fanning spread of cheeses.

Wait, this was just the ‘starter’ course?

Judging by the appetizers we were served before dinner, I had a feeling things were about to get outrageous – and they did. For dinner, we feasted on the thickest steak and asparagus stalks that have ever entered my belly. The meat was complimented by a healthy helping of quinoa cooked with veggies, plus fantastic grilled mushrooms. I was a very happy camper at this point.

After a night of deep sleep, I woke up excited for a new day of exploring waterfalls and travertine tunnels – but first, breakfast. I stumbled out of my tent to find artfully plated platters of fresh fruit waiting to be devoured; and devour I did.

Our crisp and cool morning bites soon gave way to the main attraction: a sprawling cornucopia of scrambled eggs, grilled sausage, cheesy potatoes, and more. In an effort to accommodate our vegan companion, the crew even whipped up a batch of veggie sausage patties and vegan pancakes.

When it came time for our final dinner together before the 10-mile hike back out of the canyon, Arizona Outback Adventures once again outdid themselves with an Asian meal fit for royalty. Having experienced their culinary masterwork the night before, we were all curious about what we would be treated to as we watched the chefs get down to business.

To begin, they fattened us up with huge piles of edamame, and then continued the superior snackage with veggie pot stickers while they got to work on our main course.

Dinner left me wishing I could live at this camp forever. We were wowed with thick strips of Mongolian beef with sauce-smothered broccoli, grilled tofu and shrimp, white rice, and a colorful vegetable stirfry. Like I said, this was not your average campside meal. 

I think the entire Columbia Sportswear and OmniTen team will join me in extending an enormous amount of gratitude towards Brian, Jenn, Chris, and Sheldon for creating a truly unbelievable outdoor experience. While I will likely never again feast on two-inch thick steaks while camping, I am grateful for this amazing opportunity to partake in an adventure that was entirely catered and guided.

Sigh, now it’s back to instant mashed potatoes and corned beef hash out of a can – not that I can really complain; corned beef hash is the best way to start a long day of adventuring.

Five Ways to Piss Off Your Campmates

First of all, my time spent at Land of the Arches Campground was an overall phenomenal experience. The site was a mecca for climbers seeking to avoid the chaos of Miguel’s, and my buddies were big fans of the foos ball table located inside the main bunker.

Unfortunately, our camping was not without a few hiccups – thanks to a family of loud hillbillies with no concept of hushed voices, delicate footsteps, or playing by the rules. We had set up our camp in a quiet, unoccupied corner of the campground, satisfied by our wide-open surroundings, and content with our little plot of land. Look how perfect it was:

So, you want to piss off your campmates? Here are five steps to a guaranteed grumpy neighbor.

  1. Begin by arriving at to the campground at 2:30, in the morning. Lights out at camp is 11 PM? Silly campers, this group is just getting started. Forget a quickly pitched tent and instant snoozefest – this collection of inconsiderate campers went right to town setting up their gaudy tented empire. Blow up a giant air mattress with the noisiest pump you can find, hammer in your tent stakes with the mightiest banging possible, and be sure to step on your neighbor’s tent a few times in the process.
  2. During your boisterous twilight set-up process, bicker with your spouse as much as possible. “I wasn’t being nasty, you were being nasty.” – You know what’s nasty? My attitude in the morning after listening to the woes of your finicky relationship all night.
  3. Show total disregard for the concept of shared space. Sure, there’s an enormous amount of grassy sprawl across this campground, but why claim your own area when you can pitch your tent just inches away from another group? Who wouldn’t want to hear the sounds of your quarrels, complaining children, and assorted ruckus? Hog the fire pit, and for bonus points, keep your headlights on for as long as possible when pulling into the site – shining directly upon someone else’s tent, of course.
  4. Let your kids run amok. I know we’re outside, but that doesn’t excuse your excessive use of your outside voice during an hour when everyone else at camp is trying to snooze. I’m not sure which constantly repeated phrase was more obnoxious, “When are we going to Cracker Barrel?” in the middle of the night; or “Who threw away the last frosted Pop Tart?” all morning. Kid, your Pop Tart is in the trash – fish it out and eat it, or shut up and munch on something else.
  5. Don’t forget to rival your entrance spectacle with your exit strategy. Quiet hours run from 11 PM to 7 AM? Perfect, let’s wake up at 6. Since your annoyed campmates moved their tents away from your infuriating mess of a site, ensure that your noisy departure is loud enough to still reach their ears. Rev your truck’s engine a few times for good measure, let the kids haphazardly attempt taking down the tents, and loudly shout “It’s time to wake up!” in a pitch that can awaken everyone else at the campground too.

Thankfully, these rude campers only remained as our camp neighbors for two nights before heading out to infect other parts of Kentucky with their obnoxious disregard for others – but fear not, a few days later, a field trip of 30 middle schoolers descended upon the campground. Thankfully, this time we were wise enough to move ourselves to the most secluded spot in the area.

Moral of the story? Don’t be that guy. 

Do you have any sour experiences with not-so-awesome campmates? I’d love to hear ’em!

My first sport climbing adventure to Little River Canyon in Alabama

Last August, I journeyed up to Steele, Alabama for my first sport-climbing trip to a crag known (by some) as Sandrock. Despite the graffiti-drenched boulders defaced by locals, and an ungodly amount of broken glass strewn about the trails, I had an amazing time leading my first routes – but the most lasting impression from this trip was left by a small metal sign on the drive towards the mountain. It read “Little River Canyon,” and pointed towards the north.

After a few seasons slipped by, Niko and I finally made plans to check out the mysterious Little River Canyon. Perfectly timed with the release of the new Dixie Cragger for Georgia and Alabama, we were able to embark on an informed journey to the new crag. I practiced my light packing skills, tossed our gear into the trunk of our buddy Bo’s car, and spent the seven-hour drive up to Alabama dreaming of sandstone.

Naive about any camping situations available in Little River Canyon, our crew decided to stick to the free, and unbelievably scenic, camping at the top of Lookout Mountain, deep in the rural bits of Alabama. Things got a tad interesting on Easter morning, when we woke up to a passionate sunrise sermon held a few yards from our tent.

It must be noted that the small metal sign beckoning climbers to detour towards “Little River Canyon” is slightly deceptive. What we had imagined to be a quick hop, skip, and jump over to the crag from Sandrock was actually a 30-minute haul – but I enjoy leisurely mornings, so I had no complaints.

I was pleasantly surprised by the ease at which we were able to locate the climbs at Little River Canyon. Our main haunt was The Gray Wall, which is accessed via a discreet trail that sits right off the winding mountain road that runs through the preserve. Given that we were in a canyon, the approach involved a bit of scrambling, down climbing, and getting dripped on by miniature waterfalls.

At The Gray Wall, we were introduced to a crew of southern climbers who demonstrated a keen passion for Little River Canyon, which is actually a national preserve. The boisterous group welcomed us to ‘their’ crag with enthusiasm, and offered to let us use their draws on a few warm-up routes.

And by warm-ups, I mean a wide row of 5.11 climbing.

I hear there is just one 5.9 hidden somewhere in Little River Canyon, and a small handful of 5.10s are strewn about – which basically means that this crag is a destination reserved for more advanced climbers.

 
In my honest opinion, I believe the more demanding level of climbing is what has kept this crag as well preserved as it is. I saw nary a single spray of paint on the sandstone, nor any piles of wayward trash. Unlike Sandrock, this crag has evaded traffic from the masses, and retains its pristine natural glory.

It’s such a pure area that I honestly hesitated to feature it on the blog. So if this post inspires you to visit Little River Canyon to bask in the beautiful climbing, I implore you to exercise the utmost respect and land stewardship.

As for the actual climbing, this canyon delivers such phenomenal lines that our crew all agreed we’d probably never visit Sandrock again if we were in the area – Little River Canyon trumps it tenfold. I climbed my first 5.11a, a pumpy ledge-filled route called “Obsession” – admittedly on top-rope, and it was not a red-point. The boys climbed a handful of 5.11s at The Gray Wall, and then Niko briefly jumped on a burly overhanging route called “Tension.” We also fooled around on a quirky, short slab route that no one could conquer. Check out the photos:
 The main event of our adventure was our time spent on the hardest section of The Gray Wall. The star of the show was Lion, a 5.12c sport route with stout movements and burly demands. The boys were eager to hop on it after watching a local climber, Rob, barrel through the cruxes. (Did I mention that Rob is about to turn 60, and crushes sandstone harder than I ever will? He was such a cool dude.)

        In true Katie form, I hardly climbed as much as I should have. Instead, I busied myself by climbing up one of the 5.11 routes, clipping myself into a bolt using long runners, and hanging from the sandstone while waving my camera around at the boys as they climbed.

The trip was a huge wake-up call for me – it mercilessly reminded me that as a boulderer, I seriously lack endurance. Both Bo and I were pumped out every few moves on our climbs, and we both left the trip determined to improve ourselves. Thankfully, while we were totally shut down by lengthy climbs, we managed to not be conquered by chiggers (unlike my last trip to Alabama, when I ended up with chiggers nesting in my belly button, true story.)

Despite the harsh realizations, this trip got me incredibly stoked on sport climbing. My silence on the blogging front is a direct result of my newfound passion for training. Little River Canyon motivated me to dive into hardcore endurance training, and I have since spent every single day climbing to my limits. Last night, I red-pointed my first 5.11 in the gym, and practiced my lead climbing on a few easier routes. Today, I’m indulging in a rest day, after seven straight days of training.

Stay tuned for more updates on my training efforts as I prepare my body and mind for my upcoming trip to The Red River Gorge.

An adventurous road-tripper’s top 10 travel moments of 2011

What travel blog would be complete without a year-end review of the best travel experiences from 2011? As I begin to daydream of all the amazing adventures that 2012 has waiting around the corner, I can’t help but reflect on the outrageous and memorable times I had on the road this year. Every moment spent road tripping across America is held dearly, but these ten moments stick out above the rest.

10. Escaping for a week of relaxation in the mountains around Hendersonville, North Carolina

My seven-week September solo trip deserves a big mention, but the leg of my adventure that deserves the biggest accolades is the week I spent lounging around Hendersonville, North Carolina. My ex-girlfriend’s mother invited me to stay at her charming country home, and I spent the week sampling the area’s best cuisine, picking apples at an orchard, dancing the night away at a climbing buddy’s wedding in Flat Rock, and exploring the mountainous region of Brevard.

My solo trip commenced with a rough patch of personal heartache, so this miniature escape truly assisted in establishing up the positive vibes that I carried throughout the remainder of my travels.

9. Celebrating my 23rd birthday boating on Lake Dillon in Frisco, Colorado

My solo trip ended just days before my 23rd birthday, and in true girly fashion, I was determined to make my celebration one to remember. Having freshly transplanted myself and my belongings to Denver, Colorado, I wanted to capitalize on my new surroundings. After browsing potential ideas like a pedal-yourself beer wagon, we settled on renting a pontoon boat on Lake Dillon. The drive out to Frisco was absolutely gorgeous, as was the entire day of mountainside boating. I discovered my new favorite whiskey, vanilla-infused Phillips Union, and our crew downed countless cans of beer while we cruised around the frigid lake.

Having been raised boating on the warm waters in Miami, this Colorado lake experience introduced me to a whole new style of waterfront fun – no sandy beaches around, this day was all about mountain peaks and snow forest landscapes.

8. A wild hike up a muddy cliffside during a rainy day at Boulder Canyon in Colorado

This was one of those totally unplanned, totally unpredicted experiences that taught me the value of relinquishing control and embracing the idea of getting very, very dirty. On our way to what we thought was a sport climbing area, a group of cohorts and I scrambled up a steep, chossy cliff that led to frequent falling rock calls, one very bloody knee, and more dirt caked underneath my fingernails that I could ever imagine – but it was too much fun.

I was skeptical about the messy scramble at first, since I was carrying my beloved Nikon camera and equipment in my pack, but after a sprinkle of rain turned our dirty hike into slushy chaos, all bets were off. I returned to the car slathered in mud, and spent the evening picking sticky burrs out of my hair – but again, too much fun.

7. Watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon in Arizona

As the final ‘big’ stop on my post-graduation road trip with Niko in May, we made a pit stop at Grand Canyon National Park – but our original intentions didn’t involve a sunrise. Niko had been dying to see the sunset, so we raced our way along barren roads to catch the sun before it dipped beyond the rim of the canyon. Literally missing the sunset by three minutes, we decided to spend the night in the nearby tourist town so we could watch the sunrise.

After spending a very uncomfortable night sleeping in a hotel parking lot, Niko roused me from my catatonic state and we returned to the park. This time we made sure to arrive well before the sun, and were pleasantly surprised to find the area was nearly deserted – I guess the 5 AM wakeup call for the sunrise is reserved for only the most diehard adventurers. I was cranky and cold, but I ended up with one of my favorite Niko photos of all time.

6. Pitching my tent at Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park

This campground, located inside Yosemite Valley, is one of the most legendary watering holes for famous climbers. It was inspiring to camp at the same spot that housed icons like Lynne Hill and Ron Kauk – Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia even used to sell homemade gear from the camp’s parking lot.

Everything from waking up at 6:00 in the morning to queue in line for camp registration to the rusty bear-proof food lockers and name tags we had to tie on our tents for the ranger check-ins combined to create this inspiring air of climbing confidence and community vibes that spread throughout the grounds. I woke up in the morning pumped to climb some Yosemite granite.

5. My first sport climb at Sandrock in Alabama

An avid climber from the moment my fingertips first grazed the plastic holds at Tallahassee Rock Gym, it was a damn shame that I had never sport climbed until August 2011. Two years into my climbing obsession, I finally embarked on a sport climbing trip to a beautiful crag called Sandrock near Steele, Alabama.

The exhilaration of clipping into the anchors at the top of my first lead was only rivaled by the experience of sleeping out beneath the stars atop the rock formations at the mountain summit, and waking up to explosive hues of sunrise. It was one of the moments that cemented my adoration for the outdoors and living in nature – although the chiggers that infested my bellybutton on this trip weren’t the best reminder of why I love living in nature.

4. Getting a taste of desert life in Moab, Utah

Anyone who has asked me about my travels in 2011 has heard an earful about my infatuation with Moab. Niko and I spent a week living in the desert in May, when we came to visit our two buddies who spent the summer working as river guides in Moab. I became enthralled with the lifestyle of these dirty, leather-skinned desert people.

Over the course of a very short week, I photographed beautiful roadside climbs at Potash, hiked through Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park, ate sandy campfire food alongside my fellow tent-dwellers at the Lazy Lizard Hostel, and met some of the most amazing people I have ever encountered while traveling – Josephine, Paul, Chelsey, and Mike, I’m talkin’ to you.

Seriously, you must visit Moab. It is my most highly recommended destination.

3. A weekend at Still Mountain Retreat in Willits, California

After weeks of vagabonding throughout Moab and Yosemite, Niko and I readily accepted an invitation to join some friends for a relaxing weekend retreat at family cabins tucked high in the mountains near Willits, California. The entire weekend was a fantastic blur of great homemade food, excursions into the woods and nearby waterfall, and peaceful time spent in great company.

Niko and I stayed in a small cabin with an attic-like entrance to the second-story sleeping area – which inspired notions of simple living and small spaces.  It was so refreshing to experience this place tucked away from civilization, where all that mattered was when the next shuffleboard tournament would take place.

2. Driving into the mountains on I-25 on my way to Denver, Colorado

My September solo trip concluded with a final haul down to Miami to load up my hatchback with my belongings before returning to Denver to move-in. The push back to Colorado from Florida was grueling with a jam-packed car, but as I finally hit the Rockies after driving through hours of flatlands, I was overwhelmed by the most intense feeling of pure joy I have ever felt. My music was blasted at full volume, all windows were rolled down, and I literally burst out with ecstatic squeals as I wound my way through the beautiful mountains that would soon become home.

1. Camping solo for the first time at Lake Barkley State Park in Cadiz, Kentucky

Of all my travels throughout 2011, there is one experience that shines above the rest. My first night spent camping solo was a huge milestone for me as an independent traveler. While I spent seven weeks on a solo road trip, the first night of successfully pitching my tent, building a fire, and surviving the wilderness through daybreak was easily my biggest accomplishment.

My evening was spent at Lake Barkley State Park, a tranquil slice of outdoors paradise sitting near the town of Cadiz in rural Kentucky. Family and fans of my adventures had been dreading this day since the beginning of my trip, but I approached the evening with a calm attitude and wound up having a great night tending to my fire and basking in the peace of solitude. My first experience camping solo left me with overwhelming sentiments that I can handle anything my travels throw my way – and I don’t need anyone’s help to do it.

What are your top travel moments from 2011?
If you’ve got a link to your own blog post, I’d love for you to share it below in the comments section! You can also tweet pics and links to @themorningfresh, or share your experiences on The Morning Fresh Facebook page.

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