Leaf peeping in Crested Butte totally lives up to the hype. But the options can feel a little overwhelming, the lodging expensive…and the trails a little steep. Crested Butte’s beauty is the result of a lot of big mountains erupting straight up out the valley it’s situated in. I was worried about finding beginner-friendly hiking with the views I was after. But I was wrong!
It’s also warm enough to still eat outside (as long as you bring a jacket), and most restaurants downtown greatly expanded outdoor dining to help folks be more safe during the pandemic. My partner and I visited at the end of September for four days and were able to travel responsibly, enjoy stunning scenery, and have plenty of date nights, too!
Once you purchase the guide through PayPal, you will immediately receive an email with a link to the pdf.
Getting to Crested Butte from Denver
Crested Butte is in the southwest corner of Colorado. There is an airport in Gunnison, which is 40 minutes south of Crested Butte. Driving there from Denver is a little over four hours.
It’s a beautiful trip, particularly over Cottonwood Pass. Most of the drive is on two- to four-lane highway. It’s paved the entire way, but does involve driving over a few mountain passes that are steep and curvy. Take your time and you’ll be fine!
Where to stay in Crested Butte
By the end of September, the nights are getting close to freezing, which is too cold for me to want to camp. Gunnison is a bit too far to be making daily trips into Crested Butte so I wouldn’t recommend staying there.
Crested Butte lodging is bananas expensive, so your best bet for more affordable lodging is Crested Butte South. You still have to drive into Crested Butte, but it’s a very manageable 15-minute drive. There’s also a bus that runs between CB South and downtown Crested Butte.
When to go to Crested Butte for leaf peeping
The “peak” of the aspen trees changing color is typically at the end of September, but varies each year depending on the weather. This year, September 17 – October 1 is predicted to be Crested Butte’s peak.
If you can go during the week, DO. Crested Butte is a world-wide destination for its enormous aspen groves. It is packed on the weekends. I went during the week, though, and the trails were nearly empty. Town was a bit busier, but we only had trouble finding a spot for dinner on Thursday night.
Best beginner-friendly leaf peeping trails
There are so many options for hiking in Crested Butte it can feel kind of overwhelming. Plus, a lot of trails are super steep or tricky to get to. These three options are very beginner-friendly in distance and hilliness:
The Snodgrass Trailhead in Mt Crested Butte is the best bang-for-your-buck trail for leaf peeping close to town.
Kebler Pass is what gets all the fuss. Try the Three Lakes Trail. It”s one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, but confusing to navigate. Buy my complete itinerary for a turn-by-turn guide (with pictures).
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The Brush Creek Trailhead is an easy stop before or after dinner, depending on how early you eat.
Complete Four-Day Itinerary
If you’re interested in detailed trip-planning information, download my detailed four-day itinerary for just $15. In clickable pdf form, you’ll have an easy-to-understand, beginner-friendly guide to making the best of your leaf peeping trip to Crested Butte.
Worried about how hilly the trails are in Crested Butte? I’ve got pictures. And turn-by-turn directions! What happens if you accidentally miss the Jack’s Cabin turn-off? I’ve got you. Where do you get an early but quick breakfast in Crested Butte? You guessed it, in the guide!
There’s no way around it. Outdoor gear is expensive. I’ve devoted an entire post to how to save money on outdoor gear. One of my tips is to (not so) patiently wait for sales. Let me help you wade through the hundreds of items on sale at REI (Aug. 27 – Sept. 6) with a few Outdoor Beginner recommendations.
Headlamps and Lanterns: 25% off
Black Diamond makes my favorite headlamp and lantern. They last forever, get the job done, and are reasonably priced. Both come in right around $20 with the sale.
My Cosmo headlamp has lasted me nearly a decade and shows no signs of slowing down.
The Moji lanterns are my go-to for camping (and actually come in handy for attic/crawl space/home adventures). They’re tiny but emit a TON of light. Plus, the attached D-rings make it super easy to hang the lanterns from anywhere and the battery life is excellent.
If you’re not sure why you need a headlamp or lantern, check out this earlier OB post.
REI Raincoats and Rain Pants: 30% off
When my partner’s Patagonia raincoat finally gave out, he didn’t feel like splurging on a new one. The REI men’s raincoat doesn’t fit *quit* as sharply (at least on his thin, taller frame) but it still fits well and does a great job of keeping him dry. It performed great on our rainy trip to Alaska and hasn’t shown any signs of wear and tear after a few years of use.
Rain pants also come in handy for the warm, but snowy, days we often have in Colorado. I love them for snowshoeing and really warm skiing days.
Hiking and Running Socks: 25% off
Darn Tough are my all-time favorite non-cotton socks. This Vermont-based company has fun colors and their socks last forever, so they’re a great investment. The company will replace them for you if you ever get a pair with a hole.
The Micro Crew Hiker has been a trusty partner since I started hiking (and I haven’t needed to buy any new pairs since those originals). Find my detailed gear-guide for socks here >>
Extra 20% off REI Outlet
I highly encourage perusing the REI Outlet site even without a sale, but during the Labor Day sale, you can get an extra 20% off an item. You do have to be an REI member to get it; just use the discount code EXTRA20 at checkout.
Isn’t there like… a lot of other stuff on sale?
Yes, of course. And if you have something specific in mind, I would highly encourage you to scroll through clearance clothes or other items. For this post, I’m sticking to the basics for products I own and love. Add in the comments if you see something on sale that you think would help other beginners!
This post contains affiliate links. This means if you buy something using the links in this post, I get a small commission. This commission doesn’t add anything to your purchase price, and I can’t see who purchases what or any other personal data from your purchase.
Affiliate links support all the free content on Outdoor Beginner, and the only links in this post are items that I personally have used for years and recommend.I have not received any additional compensation or any editorial oversight from REI for this post.
If you would like to support Outdoor Beginner, but prefer not to use affiliate links to do so, you can head directly to REI.com and support our content below:
My husband was incredibly lucky to have Summer 2020 off for parental leave. I was staying home with Baby OB, and at the beginning of 2020, we had lots of grand travel plans for this once-in-a-lifetime time off.
Then the pandemic threw a big wrench in that.
Once it was less dangerous to leave home, we started considering how we could travel locally without exposing ourselves to other people. Enter the camper van: self-contained sleeping, eating, and transportation.
We dove headfirst into #vanlife with Baby OB, renting a very vintage VW Eurovan before upgrading to a Dodge Ram conversion. We learned a lot along the way, including that vacation with a baby isn’t *quite* a vacation. (Yes, this may seem obvious in retrospect but we are new parents with no idea what we’re doing!)
But it’s also not not a vacation…so even though doing anything with a baby is hard, I hope you’ll give it a try too! We went on two trips with a seven-month-old, non-crawling (but rolling) baby.
How do you know if the car seat will work in a campervan?
Test it out ahead of time. Surprisingly (maybe not to non-parents) “people with a baby” aren’t exactly the van rental companies’ target audience (that would be “single people maybe with a dog”).
Most conversions aren’t done with a car seat in mind, so we had to eliminate several rental companies solely because there was nowhere to safely put one. The best way to test this is to bring your car seat with you and try to install it when you take a peek at the vans.
Testing car seat installation yourself is especially important if the staff doesn’t have kids. This isn’t a judgment, non-parents just probably won’t know how car seats work (I didn’t know this either before having a kid). One company said the jump seat in the van would likely work with a car seat, but once we got there and tried it ourselves it clearly wasn’t going to happen.
We were referred to Rocky Mountain Campervans in Lakewood, CO since none of the conversion van rentals were working with a carseat. The owners, Boyd and Erin, have extensively campervanned with their kiddos. If you’re in the Denver area, they are incredibly wonderful people and SO helpful! Their passion for camping with kids is infectious.
Our car seat worked in the Eurovan Full Camper, but it had its own challenges which I’ll get into shortly. As of 2021, Rocky Mountain Campervans also has more modern, non-VW vans which I would definitely check out next time! For our second van trip, we were able to find a converted Dodge Ram through Outdoorsy (get a $25 credit using my link) from people with kids.
Where should we go for our first family campervan trip?
Close to home! Seriously. We were way too ambitious the first time out and ultimately realized that being within two hours of home was ideal.
How do we feed the baby and ourselves while camping?
I was dead set on the idea that bottles and formula were going to be way too difficult. Fortunately, I was wrong.
By the time our second trip rolled around I had stopped breastfeeding. I only ran into trouble trying to make formula in the middle of the night with ice cold water. The formula wouldn’t dissolve because the water was too cold, Baby OB was screaming, I had to shove the bottle under my clothes to warm it up. It was a little bit of a mess but ultimately fine. So par for the course for life with baby!
The biggest challenge is not having a place to put a baby in a van (except for their car seat). For our first trip, we fed Baby OB in our laps which got very old very quickly.
For the second trip, I found the Hiccapop Omniboost Travel Booster Seat. I like it much more than the very-popular Summer Pop because the Hiccapop’s straps are are better designed. I also liked the Hiccapop better than the Ciao Baby, which has an even more poorly-fitting, awkward strap situation.
The Hiccapop isn’t a very rigid chair, so it only worked for us because Baby OB could already sit up on their own and wasn’t flopping over anymore.
The Hiccapop came in handy for a place to park them while we fed ourselves, too. We didn’t have enough room to bring a pack n’ play, but that’s an option to consider if you do have the room.
Dinnertime for Billy and I was tricky. Once Baby OB was in bed at 6:30, the van was off-limits. We had to either eat super early (but then get hungry before our bedtime) OR think through everything we needed for dinner ahead of time.
We settled on one person being in charge of baby bedtime and one person in charge of pulling everything out for dinner. Generally, dinnertime was less of an issue at campgrounds with bear boxes where we could store food outside of the van for the entire time we were there.
How does baby sleep in the van?
We didn’t co-sleep, so we got a PeaPod for Baby OB to sleep in on the floor. Leading up to each trip, we acclimated Baby OB to the PeaPod while we were still at home. By the time we left, they were already napping and sleeping in it for at least a few days.
Note: at the end of our trips, I found a warning label that PeaPods aren’t meant for children under one. We didn’t have any issues but I am in no way a professional or guaranteeing that’s the case for your kiddo. PeaPod at your own risk!
Overall, I was shocked at how well Baby OB tolerated the cold, particularly because they were too little to wear a hat while they slept (at least for our comfort level). We dressed them in well-fitted layers without a hood under a fleece sleep sack.
We did our normal bedtime story/bottle/song in the adult bed part of the van, and then put Baby OB in the Peapod while we gingerly stepped over them and tried to quietly shut the door. There was some crying involved, but it was brief and we were comfortable with letting them fuss for a few minutes.
Check to make sure the van comes with some sort of black-out curtains for the windows. Bring your own if not. We didn’t have a white noise machine because there was no way to plug it in. This ended up not being an issue, even when we had to keep the windows and vents open during the day when it was hot.
What about naps while you’re camping?
Baby OB was taking two naps a day when we did our trips. We decided to make Nap 1 “on the go” so we could actually get out and about during the day. We would hike in the morning and Baby OB would nap in the backpack. Or, we would be on way to our next stop and they would nap in the car while we drove.
For the second nap, we did the same thing we did at bedtime and hoped for the best. Typically, we did get at least 45 minutes of a nap in. It wasn’t as long as normal, but we did our best and chalked it up to being on vacation.
Take some downtime for yourself and also rest for at least one of the naps. We were all getting up WAY earlier than normal and not sleeping as well overnight, so we were eager to also nap with Baby OB. If we didn’t want to also lay down, we’d read in camping chairs outside the van. Similar to dinner, we made sure to grab everything we needed since the van became off-limits once Baby OB was down.
I was very anxious about Baby OB not getting enough sleep during the day, but ultimately I decided I would rather go on this trip and have things not be perfect than to just stay at home (where, spoiler alert, things are also not perfect).
That sounds very nice and breezy, but this was VERY hard for me. I didn’t do it perfectly. I had some panic attacks about their sleep. But looking back months later, I am SO glad we went for it and did these trips.
Obviously, sleep is a Hot Button Issue for parents. I’m not saying what we did is THE ONLY WAY TO DO IT. It’s just the way we did it, and hopefully the context is helpful for you.
Which van was better for a trip with a baby?
Five Days in a VW Eurovan Full Camper
I’m not going to lie, there was a VERY steep learning curve of the Eurovan. Coupled with the learning curve of camping with a baby for the first time, this was a difficult first few days. There were multiple times when I was on the verge of tears and THISCLOSE to telling Billy we had to go home. But I think it was still easier than tent camping.
Hardest part of the Eurovan with a baby
The biggest challenge is the main thing that makes the Eurovan cool – it’s retro and quirky. However, the quirks became very anxiety-inducing once we were in the thick of trying to make things work.
For example, the bed needs to be put away if you’re going to use the kitchen. You pull/push the bed out but it’s quite rickety and tricky to do. I tried doing it with Baby OB in one arm, but the panel around the handle that I was yanking on suddenly flew off. We both fell over, I dropped Baby OB (they were okay), and we both immediately burst into tears.
Not having a place to put Baby OB down was tough. It was easiest to put them on the bed, but we couldn’t keep the bed set up and make food. It did feel exhausting for one of us to constantly be holding or supervising them.
Driving the Eurovan
This van isn’t particularly tall or long, so it’s very maneuverable. However this is an old vehicle (obviously). We were flooring it up mountain passes and going like 30 miles per hour.
It was initially stressful, but then I really got into the forced slower pace. I noticed so much more of our surroundings, even on the part of 70 that we’ve driven a million times! Plus, the whole point of vacation is to just be together. I really enjoyed the extra time to just hang out with Billy.
Sleeping in the Eurovan with a baby
If you’re co-sleeping, it would be a tight fit for two adults and a baby in the bed. The van rental company suggested sleeping one adult and the babe on the bed, and then having the other adult sleep in the pop-up top. We ended up using the pop-up for storage (we probably packed too much) so this didn’t work for us, plus we weren’t co-sleeping.
If you’re not co-sleeping, there isn’t enough room on the ground for a pack n’ play once the bed is pulled out. That’s the other reason we went with a PeaPod (at our own risk).
Kitchen and amenities
I think it would’ve made more sense to ditch the full camper model with the fridge/kitchen and propane tank. The propane tank makes the van lower clearance, and we could’ve gotten the model with a bed out out all the time instead.
A normal camp stove and no fridge would’ve been totally fine, which is the main difference. We didn’t need a real kitchen after all! Our combination of AO Cooler and Yeti ice pack kept everything much colder than the propane fridge.
If you cook a lot of complicated meals (you probably aren’t camping with a baby?) the sink could be worth it, but we didn’t use it enough to justify having the whole kitchen area.
Charging phones turned out to be really tricky because the adapters and plugs the rental company offered didn’t work. We should’ve brought our own or had a back-up solar charger.
Three days in a 22-foot Dodge Ram conversion
A converted van is a van that used to be something else, like a delivery van, and then was “converted” into a camper van. You may also see them referred to as “custom conversions.”
The van we rented from Outdoorsy was significantly bigger and more modern than the Eurovan. This made everything easier, including packing. Not having to shuffle furniture around was also a game changer. The bed was always a bed (and it was really big) and the kitchen was easily accessible.
Hardest part of the converted van with a baby
The doors are heavier and much harder to discretely close without startling a baby. The electricity panel also was super bright at night and we had to get creative to cover it up so we could all fall asleep. Honestly, that’s it. I loved the converted van.
Driving the converted van
22 feet is a LOT OF FEET. Parallel parking this bad boy on our street in Denver was a little anxiety-inducing. But I drove it from Commerce City to Denver in rush hour traffic and got the hang of it very quickly.
The power of a modern, diesel engine was really nice. There was no issue getting up any hills, which did give me more peace of mind than the Eurovan.
Driving perhaps also felt like less of an issue because we just didn’t go as many places. We drove to the campground and then stayed there for multiple nights. This trip was also all paved roads, and very tame compared to the Forest Service “roads” we went on with the Eurovan (and survived!).
Sleeping in a converted van
The van was bigger, so the bed was bigger. The queen bed was WAY comfier for us to sleep on. I actually slept through the night several times, which is unheard for me when camping. If you’re co-sleeping, this is a more realistic fit for two adults and a baby.
Kitchen and amenities
We had a basic DIY-converted van, so it wasn’t anything Instagram-worthy (which was totally fine). The kitchen was a camp stove with no running water. We were right about not needing a fridge or running water – this basic set up was all we needed.
I also loved that we had solar electricity in the van. This made charging electronics a breeze. We probably could’ve also figured out how to bring our white noise machine, but we didn’t bother.
Camping with a baby ain’t easy. But let’s face it, nothing is. Just like having a baby, though, it’s worth the hardship! We may not have been super well-rested at the end of either trip, but we were mentally restored and so glad that we went.
It’s also okay if you want the nice, big, custom conversion van. I didn’t think I was “that kind of person” and then I very quickly realized that there was absolutely no problem with being a Big Van Person. Or maybe just a Modern Van Person? I’d love to check out the smaller, but more modern options available at Rocky Mountain Campervans now. But I’d also happily re-rent the big 22-footer!
I know this is a lot of information, but it’s all information I was desperately looking for when we were planning our trips. I hope it comes in handy, and don’t hesitate to let me know if I missed something!
Editors Note: This post was written by my partner, Billy. I’ve yet to go backpacking, mostly because the initial start-up cost of gear is significant. *However* his beginner’s experience taught me that backpacking is a lot more beginner-friendly than I had assumed, and I thought it was important (and helpful) for him to share it!
So you’ve decided you want to go backpacking but you don’t really know where to begin. It can be intimidating and everyone who does it seems so advanced that you could never do it too. I felt that way, too, so I’ll share my own experience and some tips for how you can get started. I hope you’ll make the leap, because views like this await, miles from civilization.
Buying all the gear you need for backpacking can be pretty expensive, so I’d recommend renting the first time. There are several companies that have full backpacking rental kits, including REI and Outdoors Geek. These kits will come with most, if not all, of the equipment you’ll need for your first time out. You’ll likely still need to augment the rental package with food, clothes, and a couple other items.
What do I need to bring?
Here’s a basic packing list:
Backpack (50-60L capacity is great for beginners)
Tent, tarp + groundcloth, or hammock (the size of your tent should be the number of people + 1, so if you have two people, get a 3 person tent unless you like getting *really* cozy)
Cookset (stove, fuel canister, pot – if you’re buying one, this Soto is a great cookset)
Utensil (plastic spork works great)
Water (reservoir with hose or water bottles), ~2L per day
Physical map (Nat Geo maps are the gold standard, but AllTrails app on your phone can download maps for offline use with the Pro version if you don’t have a map)
Headnet for mosquitos
Here’s what my gear looked like all spread out prior to packing up my backpack.
I had to do quite a bit of research to feel comfortable with what I was getting into, so I’ll try to address some of the things I was more uncertain about to help give you a bit better starting place.
How do I figure out where to go?
The most important thing for your first time backpacking is to have a good experience and learn something while you’re at it. There’s no need to push the limit of what you think you’re capable of this time around.
Keep it simple and scout out the trip ahead of time so you know a bit about what you’re getting into for preparation and peace of mind. Go somewhere within an hour or two drive from your home if possible just to lower the pressure. And make sure you’re going at a time of year when the weather is reasonable. Ideally, you want highs no warmer than 85 or so, and lows no colder than 40.
For my trip, I chose Colorado’s Lost Creek Wilderness because it’s at slightly lower elevation (8k-10k feet) and less difficult terrain compared to many other backpacking options in Colorado. The trail also crosses at least two creeks, so water was relatively plentiful. And I chose to delay my trip by two days due to an abnormal early season snowfall. As I mentioned before, your goal should be to have a good experience, not to win the Olympics of suffering.
There’s a ton of information and trip reports available by just googling “best beginner colorado backpacking trip” and substituting your state or area for Colorado. Then you can cross reference whatever trail you’re considering with trip reports and websites like AllTrails and Google Maps. There, you’ll find reviews of the trail and useful information like the best season to go and whether the road to the trailhead requires a high clearance vehicle.
How far should I go each day?
When you’re scouting out your trip, try to plan for a realistic amount of hiking based on the elevation, terrain, and elevation gain/loss. A reasonable rule of thumb for most people is averaging 1 mile per hour uphill, 2 miles per hour on flat, and 3 miles per hour downhill.
Be sure to leave plenty of margin for the mileage being somewhat off or taking more breaks than you expect. Nobody wants to be setting up camp at 9pm in the dark after 12 hours straight of hiking. And if you plan overly conservatively, you can always set up camp early and then go for a short afternoon or early evening hike to explore the area before dinner with a lot lighter pack!
What food should I bring backpacking?
Packing food was one of the things I was least confident about ahead of time. It’s a tricky balance to figure out how to keep your pack weight (and size) down while also ensuring you’re getting enough calories to keep you going in the backcountry.
A good rule of thumb is that you want to consume 2500-3500 calories per day. But you’re limited in what kinds of food you can realistically bring, just because a lot of food is heavy and doesn’t pack down small enough to fit in your backpack.
I had good luck with a combination of dehydrated meals for breakfast and dinner, and bars and summer sausage for snacks. To keep the size down, especially for longer trips, you can repackage two or more of the same dehydrated meal into a larger Ziploc bag, and only bring one of the original foil packages to use for re-hydrating each meal.
For lunch and snacks, I decided to try to find the highest calorie per size/weight thing I could find. I opted for Range Meal Bars, which are 700 calories in a bar that’s quite small, and Pro Bars, which are 380-410 calories in an even smaller package. Both of these taste pretty decent, especially the Pro Bars with fruit. My favorite Pro Bar is “Wholeberry Blast,” which doesn’t taste like cardboard like many high-calorie bars out there. Snickers bars also make a great mid-afternoon pick-me-up during a grueling hike, so consider throwing a couple of those in.
In packing food, be sure to segregate your food bag from the rest of the contents of your pack, especially overnight, and put any toiletries or other scented items in your food bag also because they can attract bears and critters.
I wasn’t entirely sure how to use an Ursack bear bag even from reading the description, and this video was really helpful. If you’re a beginner backpacker, please do not try to hang a bear bag. It’s impractical, really challenging to do correctly, and potentially dangerous. Ursack bags have decent resale value as well, so if you aren’t able to find a good option to rent, consider buying one and then resell it on eBay or Craigslist if you don’t plan to use it again.
How do I take care of the environment while I backpack?
Check out the Leave No Trace principles ahead of time and read up on wherever you’re headed so you know what to expect. It’s worth reading through each of the 7 principles ahead of time, but the biggest things I found useful are understanding how to poop in the woods, learning what kinds of wildlife are in your area and what to do if you encounter them, and practicing fire safety especially in fire-prone areas.
The bottom line
Regardless of how much you plan, you’re almost certainly going to forget something or wish you were better prepared at some point along the trail. So just try to lean into that uncertainty, know you’re not alone in being worried about it, and get out there and enjoy yourself and appreciate the opportunity to get out into nature.
I’m not going to lie, Devils Garden tested me. Not so much my physical strength, but my willingness to get out of my comfort zone and push my boundaries. The hike to Double O Arch is absolutely doable for beginners (or it wouldn’t be so popular) but if you have a fear of heights, it will push you.
That being said, I whole-heartedly encourage you to let this hike be a way to get out of your comfort zone in a safe, exciting, and stunningly beautiful setting. Hiking Devils Garden is challenging without being overwhelming and doesn’t have the huge crowds of Delicate Arch.
How do I get there?
Devils Garden is in Arches National Park, located outside of Moab, Utah. There’s a campground at Devils Garden, so if you’re planning a trip, reserve your campsite early (like six months in advance) and stay right in the park!
If you’re driving from Denver, it’s five and a half hours without traffic. Stop in Fruita for a pick-me-up before you cross into Utah! Moab is just under four hours from Salt Lake, but I’ve never driven that direction, so I can’t give you any pointers.
If you’re coming from Colorado, it’s a different story! Make sure to take the scenic route instead of I-70 the entire way. After you get into Utah, take the Cisco exit and follow Highway 128. This will at first seem like a very sketchy road that will definitely not take you anywhere – it’s not paved and it can be rutted out. But after a few miles, the pavement returns, the red rock canyons surrounding the Colorado River open up, and it’s just gorgeous.
Where do I go?
You gotta drive alllll the way through the park to the end of the road. But there’s only one road so it’s hard to get lost. It’s paved the whole way and driving through Arches is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. You feel like you’re on another planet!
There are two beginner-friendly options for hiking around Devils Garden (honestly, why do they call it this? It sounds terrifying). The hike to Landscape Arch (pictured below) is just under two miles round-trip, is very flat, and is all on smooth, gravel or sand pathways.
You can add on mileage with side trails to see other arches, but there’s a ton of scenery from the main trail so don’t feel like you’re missing out. If you want to get really wild, you can opt for the primitive trail back from Double O that puts you at just over 7 miles. You may also want to opt for another blog because that level of adventure was not something I was looking to get into.
The other beginner-friendly option is the hike to Double O Arch. This is technically listed as “strenuous” on the national park website. It’s 4.2 miles with a few steep sections. The most strenuous part is that you have to climb up on the rock fins. Like I said, it’s doable. But a little bit outside my comfort zone!
The first mile of Devils Garden is super tame, but once you pass Landscape Arch there’s a lot of “trail” that’s actually just slick sandstone that you’re climbing up and over. It was a little intimidating, but definitely something beginners can handle (see below).
But then you get to the “rock fin” about two-thirds of the way in.
This was when my fear sweats kicked in. You’re on a four- to five-foot-wide “fin” of rock that comes out of the ground and takes you up and over to Double O Arch….with a nice big drop-off on one side.
I know my fear of heights is a ridiculous trick my brain is playing on me, but part of the phobia that sets in is vertigo, which only increases my fear that I’m going to plummet to my death.
I was comforted by the fact that I could look to the left side (on the way out, right side on the way back) of the rock fin to a much more tame drop-off. The north side is the doozy, although literally thousands of people do it every day and don’t die or fall off.
That is the comforting mantra I soothed myself with as I baby-stepped my way across. I may have looked like a drunk baby horse learning to walk thanks to my white-knuckled grip on my hiking poles, but I did it!
Could you skip the rock fin and just turn around? Yes, and you could still have a nice hike up to Partition Arch that may be less intimidating.
But SO.MANY.PEOPLE. do this trail and are totally fine. I wanted to push myself and not wimp out. I suggest you do the same because the pay-off at the end (Double O Arch) is pretty great, in addition to the feeling of badassery you will have. HOWEVER, do not be ashamed if you can’t do it. Just trying is brave, and you should be proud of yourself for trying something at all that scares you, no matter how far you get.
What should I wear and bring?
There’s essentially no shade. There will be some shadows among the rocks in the morning, but once the sun gets nice and high, it also gets nice and hot. This is manageable when the high is 71 (like it is in April). Not so much when it’s 107 (like it is in June).
If you go in springtime, it will likely be chilly in the morning and you’ll be inclined to wear a bunch of layers. Learn from my mistakes. Don’t do that. Especially if it’s sunny. You’ll end up jamming them all in your backpack and cursing yourself for wearing two long-sleeved layers on a hike through the desert.
I ended upwearing a light long-sleeve shirt, capri-length exercise leggings, a hat, and sunglasses. I also wore trail running shoes for the hike, but I wish I had worn my hiking boots and had a little bit more support on the uneven rocks later on. I saw all kinds of footwear out there, though, so wear whatever is comfortable and a little grippy!
I would highly recommend bringing at least one liter of water with you. It’s super dry in the desert, and I’m always surprised by how much water I end up drinking. Double O Arch is a great spot for lunch, so pack some food to enjoy there, too. Remember to bring everything back out with you, including all of your trash.
Is it crowded?
Being an iconic national park, Arches is also super crowded. We got to the trailhead by 10, which I honestly was worried was going to be too late. In April, it wasn’t, but by the time we were done hiking, the parking lot was packed and there was a line of cars waiting for spots.
The campground around the corner from the trailhead was closed for construction when I did this hike. That was generally a bummer since we couldn’t camp in the park, I think it helped with the number of people getting an early start on the trail. Now that it’s back open, it’ll probably be even more busy.
Anything else I should know?
It costs $30 per car to get into the park, and if you’re planning on visiting five or more parks in one year, it’s more cost-effective to spring for the annual pass. If you’re planning on going to Canyonlands as well, then you could opt for the Southeast Utah Parks Pass, which is valid for one month and gets you into Canyonlands, Arches, and Natural Bridges as many times as you want for $55.
Colorado National Monument was the first stop during my summer 2016 road trip, and I quickly realized that this area of Colorado is best visited at literally any other time of year than when I went in June with my husband. (Ok, July and August are probably even hotter)
But the scenery? Totally worth the 6 a.m. wake up call.
This post was updated during the COVID-19 pandemic, so please recreate responsibly. Follow all CDC and local guidelines for traveling, and at the absolute bare minimum, bring and wear a mask properly (that means over your nose and your mouth). I would recommend skipping the inside of the Visitors Center during the pandemic to avoid indoor spaces with others.
How do I get there?
Colorado National Monument is in between Fruita and Grand Junction on the Western Slope of Colorado.
From Denver, it’s a four-hour drive across the state on I-70. If you’re coming all the way from Denver, I recommend camping at Saddlehorn the night before so you can get an early start. This obviously isn’t a day trip from Denver, and spending a night under the stars in Saddlehorn is a great road trip stop!
Admission is $25, or included if you have an annual National Park Service pass (aka the America the Beautiful pass). You can pay by credit card or cash at either entrance. If you are entering the park before rangers are manning the entrances, please make sure to pay on your way out!
The hiking options covered in this guide are closer to the West Entrance outside of Fruita. If you spent the night in Grand Junction or Palisade, you can make it a day trip to Fruita by driving in the East Entrance, hiking along the way, and then getting breakfast or lunch in Fruita. My breakfast go-to is Best Slope Coffee, and lunch is a no-brainer. You have to stop at Hot Tomato Pizza!
Where do I go?
The most beginner-friendly option is taking several short hikes at different points around the monument. Each of these hikes are half a mile one-way (or less!), with only one involving any sort of descent/uphill hiking.
Stop 1: Window Rock Nature Trail
Starting at the West Entrance, begin at the quarter-mile (one-way) Window Rock Nature Trail. You get incredible views of the monument and sweeping panoramas of the Grand Valley.
Stop 2: Visitors Center and Canyon Rim Trail
Next, hit up the visitors center (for gifts or for guidance). This is a great place to fill up your water bottles and make a pit stop at the bathrooms. The Canyon Rim Trail leaves from the back of the Visitors Center and follows the rim of the Monument.
Stop 3: Otto’s Trail
Hop back in the car and drive to Otto’s Trail, which takes you out on one of the rock formation you can see from Canyon Rim. This trail also has incredible views at the end, but the overlook is a doozy if you’re afraid of heights. It’s completely safe, and in my opinion, totally worth pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Stop 4: Upper Monument
Next stop is the Upper Monument Trail parking area. This trailhead will take you to the Coke’s Oven area. It looks like a straight line on the map but is actually pretty switchback-ey at first, descending pretty quickly into the canyon. You don’t get to the floor, and it flattens out after a few minutes.
Don’t panic, you won’t accidentally ending up on the super long trail that goes down to the bottom of the monument (I totally didn’t panic about that. TOTALLY). The trail is still manageable for beginners – the climb back up on your way out is short and very doable.
Coke’s Oven was also the best trail for viewing the monument’s most plentiful wildlife, the collared lizard. I couldn’t get any good photos of them, but they were everywhere! In a cool way, not in a make-your-skin-crawl kind of way. And this is coming from someone with a pretty big reptile phobia.
Stop 5: Ute Canyon Overlook
Those four trails took Billy and I about an hour and a half. If you have one more scenic view in you, stop at the Ute Canyon Overlook on your way back to the East Entrance. (Or, if you’re starting at the East Entrance, stop here first!)
The views are incredible, and just a short walk from the car (you can almost see the overlook from where you park).
What are the trails like?
Each of these trails is no more than a half-mile in length (one-way). With the exception of the Coke’s Oven trail, they’re all also completely flat. You can see the Coke Ovens from the Overlook just west of the Upper Monument Trail parking area if you don’t want to do any hills.
The trails aren’t paved, but they aren’t rocky either. You either hike along fairly even dirt, or on smooth rock (like in the above picture from the Ute Canyon Overlook). The Canyon Rim Trail at the Visitors Center is the only one that’s tricky to follow. Since everything is the same color in the desert, it’s not always super obvious where the trail is. Keep an eye out for a slightly more worn path. Luckily, you’re always between the canyon rim and the road, so it’s not nearly impossible to get lost.
If you have them, binoculars are also a great companion. There is a ton of bird life in the Monument, plus binoculars can help you explore the rock formations from afar.
Is it crowded?
Not particularly. Colorado National Monument is still a hidden gem, so you won’t have to contend with many crowds (especially compared to Front Range trails near Denver).
Anything else I should know?
We visited for the first time in June, which in retrospect was not the best time of year. The highs were in the upper 90s, so we were on the trail by 6:30 a.m. It turned out we not only needed to beat the heat, but also the insects. The early wake-up call was totally worth it – by 8:30 a.m. it was blazing and the bugs were out in force!
Spring or fall are much more mild times to visit. I’ve since been back to the Monument in April, which I think is the best time to go. You get a little break from the chilly winter! Fall would also be a lovely mild reprieve before winter really sets in!
In both shoulder seasons (fall and spring), snow is a possibility on your drive from Denver. You have to drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel as well as over Vail Pass. Check the weather across the state before you leave. It can be snowing on one part of your drive and perfectly sunny on another!
If you’re looking to spend more time in the Grand Valley, Palisade has wineries, vineyards, and of course, peach orchards (the best time of year for peaches is the hottest, though). Grand Junction’s Main Street is very cute and Fruita is a renowned mountain biking destination. The Colorado River meanders through the entire valley, making it a prime spot for beginner-friendly, laid-back rafting as well!
Outdoor gear is effing expensive. There’s almost no getting around it. Well, almost. Fear not, my fellow sticker-shocked outdoors beginners – there are ways to save some cash while gearing up.
First, a word on getting ALL THE STUFF
If you want to go on a hike for an hour or two, you do need to be prepared. You do not need Fancy Shmancy Gear. Do your homework on what the trail is like, bring some water, don’t wear flip-flops, be careful. But other than that, you probably already have everything you need to go hiking. I hike with my normal, non-hiking backpack all the time. I wear cotton t-shirts hiking and it doesn’t kill me.
There are other outdoor activities where it’s a little harder to get by without gear, like camping. So if you’ve decided you do need some gear, but don’t want to break the bank, you have options besides buying everything new (obviously the most expensive way to do it).
Deciding when to splurge and when to save
Always *try* the cheaper brand. More generic brands like REI’s Co-op brand continue to get better and better, and REI most often has sales and coupons for its own brand. I have their knock-off of the Patagonia Nanopuff and see no difference between it and my husband’s actual Patagonia. My running shirts from Target are my favorite ones, and I paid $12 for each of them.
Decide what features are non-negotiable to you. Patagonia and SmartWool will always have cooler colors and designs and more features. There will always be a fancier model. But if you aren’t camping in extreme conditions, or doing a higher-risk activity like rock climbing, you can probably get by with a less expensive brand.
One argument for a name brand is that they can last longer, so they can become more cost-effective over time.
For example, Darn Tough socks are double the price of REI’s brand. But I wear them all the time, and after six years of use they are still in excellent condition, so I haven’t bought hiking socks in six years.
On the other hand, my husband went for the way-cheaper REI sleeping pad for an upcoming backpacking trip because he’s just dipping his toe in the backpacking waters.
If you’ve tried the less expensive brand and it doesn’t fit as well, doesn’t have features you’ve decided are non-negotiable, or if reviews clearly show it’s not as long-lasting, it can be time to splurge. And, if you’re in time crunch and can’t wait for a sale, you may have to pony up.
BUT if you can play the long game, you may not have to pay full price.
Buy last year’s model
Trail running shoes are a splurge for me. I have found the ones I like, and I only run in those (Brooks Cascadia if you’re curious). I bought a pair for full price at the beginning of the year, but I also know that I will only run in these shoes for the foreseeable future. So I check for sales regularly.
Low and behold, Brooks has come out with the Cascadia 15 and is now dumping all the 14s. I love the 14s, so I kept watching the price until I saw them at REI for 50% off this month. I don’t need another pair yet, but it’s rare to find this good of a deal, so I snag them and they can live in my basement until I need them. (I personally haven’t experience a degradation in materials like some shoe snobs claim happens over time.)
Wait for sales and discounts
I know everyone needs another email newsletter like they need a hole in the head, but it’s a great way to get free shipping and first dibs on sales items.
Retroactive price checks
Even if you’ve already bought your item, keep an eye on what goes on sale. If something you bought goes on sales within 14 days, you can get a refund at REI for the price difference. I’ve retroactively saved between 20-30% on items I paid full price for just by flipping through the sale catalog that came to my house. Other brands may have similar policies.
Online flash sales
For those of you that have a penchant for flash deals, I highly recommend you check out Steep and Cheap. It’s a flash sale site specifically for outdoor gear. Unlike many mainstream flash sale sites (I’m looking at you, Zulily), you can return any product you get on Steep and Cheap within 30 days, no questions asked.
Places that aren’t REI
Backcountry is an online site that has full price gear, but also has great sales. They also have a pretty robust influencer marketing program, so almost any ~outdoor influencer~ on Instagram will have a discount code for your first purchase (my personal favorite is @themirnavator).
MooseJaw is another online option with killer sales.
Buy second-hand or used gear
This option has the added benefit of being earth-friendly since you are recycling and reusing gear! It’s most helpful if you know exactly what you’re looking for, otherwise it can get a little overwhelming to peruse shops and online forums.
Right now it’s harder to shop in person thanks to coronavirus. There’s a local shop in Denver called Wilderness Exchange that I highly recommend for normal times (I’m personally not comfortable shopping indoors at the time of writing this, so I can’t in good faith tell you to do that).
A quick Google search can tell you whether you have a used gear shop near you, and many shops have pivoted to online sales to make it through coronavirus.
Navigating the Interwebs
The Internet has made it infinitely easier to find used gear. Poshmark (for clothes), Facebook, and good ol’ Ebay and Craigs List can be treasure troves of used gear.
Facebook Groups and Marketplace
Groups such as Patagonia B/S/T on Facebook are helpful to peruse regularly even if you don’t have your eye on something specific. You can also search the group for an item you want. I bought a hat there for Baby OB that was in great condition and was half price!
I also see posts all the time for giveaways/used gear in my local moms group and the huge trail running women group I’m part of. You can also find new gear at a discount. A lot of people would rather resell something online then deal with the rigamarole of returns. I don’t personally understand this, but I will happily benefit from it. Don’t forget to search Facebook Marketplace, too!
I also recently found @isellaoutdoor consigment on Instagram. Isella is specifically working to combat this toxic culture of “have all the nicest best new things or get made fun of,” which I LOVE. They are based in Washington state but will ship anywhere in the U.S. All buyers and sellers are welcome!
REI Used Gear
REI recently created a used gear site where you can find second-hand camping and hiking gear, along with clothes and shoes. By the time you add shipping, sometimes the deals aren’t all that great compared to what you can get a new item on sale for. But if buying secondhand is really important to you values-wise, this is another option.
WildKind is a new, membership-based website for information about getting outside with kids. I think their $70/year membership is fairly priced for the library of information you get, but you also get discount codes for gear. WildKind also offers scholarships for free memberships if you’re unable to pay for one.
They also are launching WildKind closet, which is a free gear loaner library. Outdoor Beginners with kiddos can find out more here.
Is an REI Membership worth it?
If you’re already shopping a lot at REI, it can be worth it to become a member. It’s $20 for your lifetime, and you do make that back very easily in your annual dividend.
However, there are a lot of exemptions, so I don’t think it’s quite as necessary as I used to. For example, you don’t earn a dividend for anything on sale. And I buy 90% of my stuff on sale, so in the last few years my dividend has been less than $10. There’s also exemptions for a lot of expensive items, so my splurges (like a running stroller and a new North Face jacket) didn’t count toward the dividend either.
That said, you get more codes for sales as a member, so it probably evens out.
You also get discounts on gear rentals, ski and bike repair, and REI trips and training classes. The benefit of this also depends on your local resources. In Denver, there are tons of local shops with gear rentals often half the price of REI (or at least cheaper than the member discount). That hasn’t been the case with bike repairs and cleaning, so I have benefited from that discount.
One member-specific benefit is the REI Garage Sale, which is currently suspended due to COVID-19.
But for normal times, everything at the garage sale has been used and returned, so it’s all heavily discounted. The key is going with specific items in mind and getting there early. The sale is just a giant room of stuff that’s loosely organized by category, so it’s easy to get distracted or overwhelmed. However, this is an investment in your time that you may just not be able (or willing) to make.
How to get cash back on full-price purchases
If you’re going to be paying full price, consider an Active Junky account, which is a free way to earn cash back on your purchase. They have hundreds of partners, including Cabela’s, REI, Nike, and a bunch of other big brands. The percentage you get back varies with the brand, but since it’s completely free there’s no reason not to try it out. There are no hidden fees and it’s free forever!
The Bottom Line
Even generic brands aren’t all that cheap. Outdoor gear involves an investment, but fortunately more options are emerging for used and loaner gear. Even if you aren’t investing as much money, time is involved in watching for deals and discounts. There’s no way around it.
Get out there in what you have. You can wear jeans hiking if you want to. You can wear whatever you have in your closet for a few hours (or less), no matter what Instagram says. Rent what you don’t have instead of buying everything new. Just get out there and try it!
Leadville, Colorado is an awesome escape from the summer heat. But 10,000 feet of elevation makes hiking and trail running a LOT more difficult, particularly if you’re trudging up the side of a mountain. I used to think the only beginner-friendly options were simply running around town (which is honestly still quite hilly). That is, until I got some local insight (thanks @scoutycowdog!).
The Interlaken trail and Turquoise Lake trail are both lovely, rolling trails with beautiful lake and mountain views. Both are popular for this reason, but if you leave early or head out on a weekday, you’ll have a great beginner-friendly hike or trail run! I spent about two hours hiking each trail, one with an 18-pound baby in a backpack, and covered between four and five miles fairly easily (my legs were tired afterward but the hikes themselves were manageable!).
This blog was originally written in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Please follow local and CDC travel and safety guidelines to be respectful and stay safe. At the bare minimum, bring and properly wear a mask!
Are Interlaken and Turquoise Lake basically the same hike?
Yes and no. Both are (relatively) flat trails along a lake that is bordered by stunning mountains. They are both out-and-back trails, meaning you walk to a certain point and then turn around and come back the same way. Turquoise Lake is technically a loop, but it’s more than 10 miles around, so I assume if you’re reading this beginner-friendly blog you’re not doing the entire loop!
There are differences between the two trails, though, which is why I enjoyed doing both of them.
Turquoise Lake is almost totally flat. There is slightly easier beach access. It’s basically right in town. You will see more people because the trail goes along some campgrounds and crosses the parking lot for the boat ramp. The road to get there is significantly easier to drive on. This hike is pick-your-own length. Just walk as far as you want to go and then turn around!
Interlaken is 20 minutes outside of Leadville. It’s hillier. The access road requires a higher-clearance vehicle (our Forester was fine). There’s a very cool historic site that you hike to (the old Interlaken resort). And just beyond that is a meadow with absolutely stunning views of the surrounding peaks. If you walk to this meadow and back, it’s just under five miles. It took us just over two hours.
Both are fantastic options for beginner hiking or trail running, so if you have the time, why not do both?!
How do I get there?
Turquoise Lake can be accessed from multiple points around town. We drove to the south end where Matchless Boat Ramp is, which was a 12-minute drive from in town. The road is paved the entire way and very easy to drive on. If there are parking spots available along Route 9C, you can park there to access the trail. If you’re leaving from the boat ramp, head to the north side (to the right if you’re facing the lake) and you’ll see the trail heading out from that end of the parking lot.
The Interlaken trailhead is just outside of town in Twin Lakes. It’s a 20-minute drive on paved, flat roads until the last half-mile when you get off of the main road into Twin Lakes. The road gets very hilly and rocky, and I wouldn’t recommend driving it in a car with low clearance. Alternatively, you can add a half-mile onto your hike and park in the lot on Route 25, which is easily accessible by any car (but still requires driving a short distance on a dirt road).
Where do I go?
Turquoise Lake has just one trail that goes around the lake, so it’s not hard to find or stay on. Because of all the beach access, there are a lot of meandering social trails down to the shore, but they all hook back up to the main nature trail.
The only point that was truly confusing was when there was actually a sign for the trail near the campgrounds. It pointed away from the lake but said that the nature trail continued that way. We walked a short ways in that direction before realizing it was definitely the wrong way. Maybe it led back to one of the campgrounds? Regardless, when in doubt, stick close to the lake and you can’t go wrong.
Interlaken runs along the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, so there are a few intersections along the way. There’s only one way to go from the parking lot, so getting started is easy. There are a few forks for the Colorado Trail or CDT, but stay to the right and you’ll be headed the right direction. This is also considered the Collegiate Peaks East segment, so follow signs for that when they pop up.
Make sure to keep walking past the first historical building you see. This is the Dexter Cabin; I thought it was the actual hotel and was ready to turn around. Not only is the second site where the Interlaken Hotel is very cool, but if you walk just past that, you hit a meadow with absolutely spectacular views (see the image at the beginning of this blog post). Don’t turn around early and miss it!
What is the trail like?
Both trails are a few feet wide, dirt paths with rocks and roots.
Turquoise Lake has almost zero rocks and very little elevation change. There is one very small hill just south of the boat ramp, and one or two spots with some roots sticking out. There were two downed trees across the path as of August 2020. One that you had to limbo under and the other that you had to step over. Both were manageable, although I had a baby in a backpack on, so limbo-ing required some guidance from my husband and liberal use of my hiking poles to stay upright!
Interlaken has three hills that are steep but short. Even if you take a lot of breaks, they wouldn’t take more than 3-5 minutes to get up. You’ll be hiking up them on your way back, so you’ll be going downhill on the way out. The hills are the rockiest parts, and otherwise the trail is quite smooth. There are a few points where one side of the trail steeply drops off and slopes down into the reservoir, but the likelihood of you tripping, falling, and tumbling down the hill is slim to none.
What should I wear and bring?
Plenty of water! You’re at 10,000 feet, so it’s very very easy to get dehydrated or forget to drink enough water. I would define “plenty” as one liter per person.
I also recommend a hat, sunglasses, and liberally applied sunscreen. The sun doesn’t mess around at 10,000 feet! You’ll burn faster than you would at lower elevation. Find safer sunscreen on this website. I like this sunscreen from Thinkbaby (for adults and kids). If you have darker skin, it does leave a pretty significant cast, but I have heard good things about Black Girl Sunscreen.
Also, because we’re in COVID-19 times, bring and properly wear a mask! That means over your mouth AND your nose. It’s easiest to wear a Buff or other neck gaiter and just pull it up or down as you run into people. We forgot those and wore regular fabric masks, which were a little less convenient to take on and off a bunch, but of course worth it!
These are both popular trails and you WILL run into other people. You definitely will not always be able to get six feet apart to pass, so wearing a mask is critical. Try not to touch any of the signs/plaques along the way, and if you do, hand sanitize!
I wore trail running shoes for both of these hikes, which was perfectly adequate. You can of course wear hiking boots if you have them! If you don’t have trail shoes, just regular sneakers will do but be careful going downhill since you have a little less traction. At no point will you be getting your feet wet, so don’t worry about that.
For more information on what you should bring hiking no matter what trail you’re on, read my previous post here.
Is it crowded?
Busy, yes. Crowded, no. (Particularly if you are from Denver and judging based on those trails)
You will definitely see other people and you won’t be by yourself. The later in the day you go, the busier it gets. When we hiked Interlaken, the mountain bike traffic also picked up significantly around 10:30 am. We started both trails around 9 am and enjoyed nice, cool weather, and very little company.
Anything else I should know?
Neither trailheads have maps at them, so an app like AllTrails can be useful in keeping track of where to go. I have T-Mobile and had service the entire time on both hikes, so you should be able to refer to any map on your phone while you’re out there.
There’s a bathroom at the boat ramp of Turquoise Lake. I didn’t see a bathroom when we were at Interlaken. There are campgrounds near by, so I’m sure you could find one in the general vicinity before or after your hike, but be prepared to pee in the woods if you need to! For my fellow ladies, this requires being okay with getting some pee on your heels (unless you can find a tree to hang onto while you lean back and squat!).
If you want to make a day of it in Twin Lakes (where Interlaken is), drive into the very small town of Twin Lakes after your hike and stop at Punky’s Food Truck for BBQ. Don’t miss the curly fries!!
We didn’t see any wildlife while we were out, but being Bear Aware is always a must in Colorado. There are also people backpacking throughout the Colorado and Continental Divide trails, so if you stumble upon anyone’s campsite, be respectful!
This post was originally written before the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. It was updated when we traveled locally in our state, taking every precaution we could. Please travel and recreate responsibly based on your local area’s restrictions as well as guidelines for your destination. This website is a great resource.
By the time Baby OB was two months old, I was getting stir crazy. But jumping in the car when a newborn seemed intimidating. Fortunately, my husband was game to jump in and just try it. Since that first trip, we’ve driven across the country (thanks COVID) and gone on a camper van trip around Colorado. Here are my tips and tricks for getting on the road with baby in tow.
First, decide how far you want to go. This depends a LOT on your baby’s sleep and feeding schedule, plus your tolerance for turning around and going home if thing turns into a sh*tshow (literal or figurative). Always give yourself some buffer time for how long you will actually be in the car.
At two months old, Baby OB could care less where or when they slept, so it made the road trip pretty smooth even though we ended up driving almost double our planned amount on the first night.
But by seven months old (our second road trip), Baby OB was adamant about not being in the car close to bed time. We left Denver hours after our goal departure time thanks to some rental van snafus, so we were still cruising down the highway an hour from the campground when the screaming started. Fortunately, my husband getting in the backseat worked out. Make sure this is an option for you too! In our regular car, we do have to shuffle things around a bit to fit in the backseat, but in a campervan we could just pop into the backseat without even stopping!
First of all, be okay with breaking your routine/schedule because it will likely all go down the toilet. The first trip, we left home right around bedtime and tried to get back home by bedtime. It went pretty smoothly, but that could’ve been luck and certainly was helped by the fact Baby OB loved sleeping in the car at the time.
What time to leave
For our first trip, we left in the evening, but before Baby OB’s bedtime (8:30 pm at the time). They were car-sleeping champs, plus we couldn’t leave any earlier because my husband had worked that day. Baby OB slept in the car for hours and it was actually really nice time for my husband and I to catch up!
For the second trip, this was not going to fly. Baby OB had recently decided that being in the car past 5 pm was reason for a major meltdown. We aimed to leave between their two naps, around mid-day. We ended up leaving WAY late and were still in the car at 5 pm. This meant my husband was climbing into the back of the van to entertain Baby OB until we got to the campground. He was pretty wiped out at the end, because it was basically nonstop singing/clapping/toy swapping.
If you have an older baby, I would recommend trying to leave between the two naps. Unless your baby can sleep in the car well, it’s not worth trying to nap or do bedtime on the road!
Where and how does baby sleep?
I’m going to say it again. This is not the time for schedules/keeping to your normal routine. You can certainly endeavor to stick to them as closely as possible, but at least for us, it was less stressful to just go with the flow and feed/put down for naps based on Baby OB’s cues.
At two months old, naptime looked like Baby OB sleeping in the carrier and car all day, and that was okay with us. They had almost no routine or schedule anyways.
At six months old, this looked like a morning (short) nap in the backpack while we hiked and then a normal length nap at some point in the afternoon when they started yawning.
Our second trip, Baby OB was up two hours past their normal bedtime and still rocking on the day we left. Naturally they did not sleep in two hours the next morning, but a couple days in and they were back on schedule (for bed time at least).
I will also acknowledge that this isn’t easy. The first trip, I had a really hard time breaking from the routine we had started to build because I was worried about being a bad parent/not giving Baby OB what they needed. From what I hear, that never really goes away, but this was really good practice in following Baby OB’s cues instead of worrying about all the “what ifs” without even trying. It was hard, but good.
Ok, so where do you put them at bedtime?
We don’t co-sleep, and haven’t attempted co-sleeping while camping or road tripping. No judgment if you do, but just a head’s up that these suggestions don’t include co-sleeping!
If you’re staying in a hotel
Our first trip was only one night in a hotel, so we just brought all of our normal stuff with us since we had room in the car. During the day, all the naps were happening either in the car seat or the carrier because this was possible for us at two months old.
We don’t use a travel crib/bassinet, we just have an all-in-one that I love. The Guava Lotus Crib + Bassinet packs down into a backpack, is super light, and takes about five minutes to break down or set up.
I am well aware that the $300 price tag looks steep, but we sprang for it because that’s the only bed we’re using. We don’t have a separate bassinet, crib, or pack n play. The Guava does all of those things!
We set up the Guava in the far corner of the hotel room, plugged in the white noise machine we use, and that was it…except that Baby OB is a SUPER noisy sleeper. My husband and I had already kicked them out of our room at home, so having to go back to sharing a room resulted in very little sleep for both of us.
In retrospect, I might’ve put the white noise machine right next to us instead of right next to the bassinet so that we could’ve drowned out his snoring a little better. I also would’ve packed ear plugs!
If you’re camping
We’ve yet to pilot sleeping in a tent, but I can give you some advice for a campervan that could translate to a tent if yours is big enough (our tent is not, which is why we haven’t tried it!).
Baby OB spent five days sleeping in a Kidco Peapod, however on the last day of our trip I found the tag that said this product is not supposed to be used for children under one year. So use at your own risk!
A week before we left, we started putting Baby OB in the Peapod for naps, bedtime, and then ultimately every time they slept. In my mind, this made sure it wouldn’t be a big shock when we pulled out the Peapod away from home.
The Peapod lived on the floor of the van in front of our bed, so once again we were all sleeping in the same room. Fortunately, Baby OB was quieter overnight by this age (eight months). Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how early they actually woke up. At home, we don’t hear them until 7 am. Apparently they actually wake up at 6 and just babble until then! We had a lot of early mornings camping.
We put up blinds all around the van to help keep it dark (they went to bed more than an hour before sunset). By the time we were going to bed, Baby OB was so zonked they didn’t even hear us come in the back of the van (or noisily shut the door).
I was very worried about Baby OB just *not* going to sleep. I was prepared to pull out all the stops that we don’t at home – rocking to sleep, nursing to sleep, holding him, singing forever, whatever it took! Fortunately it didn’t come to that, and there was only one night that he took a little longer to settle down.
Both trips it only took 1-2 days at home for them to catch up on sleep and be back in their normal routine.
How to navigate eating
There isn’t a convenient way to feed an infant because they are ALWAYS eating (or at least it feels that way). Feeding on the road was all over the place and on-demand, which was outside our normal routine too.
For both trips, breastfeeding was still working for me, so we decided to not bring any bottles or my pump to cut down on how much stuff we had.
I mostly nursed Baby OB in the car or van. I personally find it easier to wedge an elbow on the door handle or car seat to help support them instead of having them just in my lap in a restaurant. If you’re feeding in a restaurant, though, make sure to ask for or snag a booth for more privacy (if you want it). I wasn’t a fan of whipping out my boob in the middle of this one very small, open coffee shop, but then managed to sneak into a booth. No one even noticed!
Note: our first road trip happened before the coronavirus became a pandemic in the United States. If you are reading this during the coronavirus outbreak, I do not recommend eating in restaurants even if they are open and particularly if you have traveled there from a different community.
For the first road trip, I packed the Boppy. I only used it once or twice, and it ended up being more of a pain in the car then I thought it would be. I would skip it!
Even with the Boppy, there were times that Baby OB wasn’t totally comfortable. During our first road trip, they definitely didn’t eat as much as normal. But by the night we came back, they just had a big meal before bed and then were totally fine. Plus, the only way to get them comfortable eating on the go is…eating on the go. By the time we went out at eight months, eating on the go was pretty easy for them.
I’ve quit breastfeeding ahead of our next trip, and I realize that my initial concerns about formulas and bottles being in convenient was totally unfounded. It’ll be easy to pack one bottle and make that work all day, plus the formula container doesn’t take up much space. Just bring lots of potable water!
If your baby has started on solids, I personally have found that making food ahead of time has been more convenient. We brought four mason jars of homemade baby food for a five-day trip. We kept them in a cooler the entire time and it ended up being way less messy than pouch purees, plus it was more cost-effective. I was also pleasantly surprised that it didn’t take more than 30 minutes to blend up a bunch of stuff at home and pack it.
I would’ve loved to have a travel high chair once Baby OB was eating solids. This could’ve also been a useful place to park him, which we didn’t really have in the campervan since he kept rolling and bonking his head on the hard walls of the van.
The Ciao Baby chair a friend handed down to us didn’t really work unfortunately. Baby OB was always slumped over in it, and getting their chunky legs in and out of the poorly placed (in my opinion) straps resulted in so many curse words at home that I never even brought it on the road with us. I want to try this one next road trip.
How to navigate rest stops
Depending on how long your drive is, and your baby’s personality, they may want a break. After spending all day in the carrier or the car seat, Baby OB got very sick of being in the car seat during dinner (before coronavirus). I finished eating first, so I just held him in my lap while my husband finished up and that was fortunately all he needed.
All that time in the car seat did end up irritating Baby OB’s sensitive skin, though. We didn’t know they had ezcema before we left, but we certainly did by the time we got home! Our pediatrician prescribed some steroid cream that cleared it up.
We didn’t pick noisy restaurants (before coronavirus) on purpose, but it ended up helping a LOT because no one notices a crying baby in an already noisy restaurant.
In the coronavirus world, we’ve made the most of town parks and other outdoor places to stop. Bring a picnic blanket with you to make sure you’ve got somewhere to set them down! When we drove to Illinois (7 hour days in the car), just 15-30 minutes of tummy time/sitting time in a park would rejuvenate Baby OB for several hours!
But what are they supposed to do for all that time in the car?
At two months old, Baby OB wasn’t super interested in toys and pretty much just slept any time they were in the car. We decided to throw the sleep schedule out the window for the two days we were gone, and it worked out totally fine for us. I like to think it was helpful in making Baby OB a bit more flexible!
When Baby OB was less than two months old, having one of us in the back wasn’t helpful at all. It didn’t do anything to stop the crying, so we decided on that road trip to both stay up front.
Now that they’re older, though, one of us usually ends up getting in the back at some point, even if it’s just to keep them company! We bring 6-8 toys (I especially love this Bug Jug since you can fit lots of toys inside it), 2-3 books, and reserve teething biscuits for a special car treat.
It’s not going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it! Drink lots of coffee and enjoy the immeasurable happiness that comes from the good moments. Take a deep breath in the bad moments.
What to pack
Double the clothes you think you will need (in case of poosplosion) and plenty of layers.
Our first road trip was an overnight in February in Colorado, so I brought:
4 onesies (long sleeve with covered feet) – these were their base layer for every outfit
2 pairs of pants, to layer on top of onesies with the hoodies as needed
2 pairs of slippers (we use these instead of socks)