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Campervan Spring Break: Northern Iowa to Las Vegas, Nevada

Day 1: Minneapolis - Ozawkie, KS

After last years awesome, but incredibly expensive San Francisco to Portland campervan vacation, I didn't think we'd be doing one of those again for years. But then Brooke had a work trip to Las Vegas and wanted us to tag along. That didn't quite work, but while researching a weekend campervan rental, I found a great relocation deal from northern Iowa to San Francisco during the kid's spring break. It didn't take much to persuade Brooke.

Since our West Coast trip with Escape Campervan's we found out that almost all of the campervan and RV rental companies need vehicles moved from time to time. They often offer 90% or more off normal rental rates. But we didn't realize that every spring many of the campervan rental agencies also need vehicles moved from mostly Midwest factories to all over the USA and Canada. Lucky for us the Winnebago factory in Northern Iowa cranks out a bunch of rental vans.

We had three proposed routes planned for this trip and it wasn't until the night before that we decided which direction to take. 

Ultimately we chose a southern route via Missouri and Kansas to the desert Southwest and up to San Francisco.

We had to get to Forest City, Iowa to pick up the Roadsurfer across from the Winnebago factory. A small expense (about $100) in order to take advantage of the almost free trip (all we had to do is pay for gas and insurance). We rented a car that could be dropped off in nearby Mason City after which we all moved into the campervan for the next 9 nights. 
 
We wouldn't be in Kwik Trip (Star actually) country for long. After an hour on the road we picked up some lunch.


We tried a few places to get Kansas City BBQ. We ended up arriving right as the homeopener for the Kansas City Royals game ended. 

Both the first place we'd stopped and the more famous Joe's Kanas City Bar-B-Que were packed. We got in line, but at some point I said, this ain't worth it. We still had to drive for another hour or so.

Had we planned ahead we could have attended the game to see them play the Twins. There were lots of baseball fans heading to get dinner at the same time as us. 

After our top choices were too busy we settled on a pizza place next door to Joe's. 

The neighboring 1889 Pizza Napoletana. The kids liked it and sometimes that's all that matters.

We then drove the hour to Old Town campground across Perry Lake from Ozawkie, Kansas. It was literally campsites on an abandoned street grid or it so it seemed.

After we arrived we had to open everything out of their packages and figure out where things went; as we were the first users of this van. 

Scott and Theo claimed the bottom bed while Meadow and I had the pop up bed. 

It's tradition now.

Day 2: Ozawkie, KS - Great Sand Dunes National Park
This was our first time staying at a campsite with hookups. 

There wasn't really anything to hook up on Escape Campervans. Those vehicles were pretty barebones, but did the job.

Breakfast and a strong breeze.


We arrived late at night, as we do. We were pleasantly surprised to wake up to purple wildflowers everywhere. 


Today was going to be a long drive for us. 

We found a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campground just south of Great Sand Dunes National Park. But that meant a 10 1/2 hour drive.

We broke up the drive by stopping for lunch in Salina, Kansas thanks to a billboard we passed on the highway. 

That billboard directed us to the Cozy Inn.

Turns out they specialize in sliders. So we ordered a bunch for the whole family. We love a good hole in the wall.

Salina was just south of Minneapolis, Kansas, but sadly we didn't have time to stop.

The guy that took our order asked where we were from. We said Minneapolis then quickly realized we should add the Minnesota one. 

Think I called it the "big one."

With no place to eat inside or outside we got try out the "dining room" in our van. 

Don't mind my long finger. We somehow never got charged in the hustle and bustle of the Cozy Inn, so I had to head back while Brooke and the kids ate. Then I probably cut my finger on the side of our seat when I tried turning it around. So, I was just showing her the cut. Obviously.

More like, I don't want any of your crappy cell phone pics on the blog. I told him I was going to post it. 

She did. But I was more perturbed by running back and forth to the burger joint.



This van is so much fancier than the Escape Campervan. 

Much, much nicer.

The table turned into a foot rest apparently.

Not the intended purpose, Theodorus. 

Kansas. I think Brooke finally took over driving. 

We hadn't set up the bathroom yet so pull over potty breaks were a must. 

Well, only for Theo.

Almost there! I took back over the reigns of the Winnebago around Walsenburg, Colorado. Brooke was afraid of driving in the mountains at dark, but really she just stressed me out. The ride was pretty smooth up to Zapata Falls Campground. My nerves less so.

Day 3: Great Sand Dunes National Park - Dixon, NM
Another late night campsite arrival. What a view to wake up to. 

Poor Brooke and Meadow were going to kind of freeze every night. The popup is above the cabin, but doesn't quite get full heat. Yes, this vehicle also has propane heat for the cold nights.

Brooke and the kids played while I probably ate last.

We went from summer to winter in one day. 

We picked this campsite as it was close to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Most of this trip was figure out as we go. 

I had our destinations planned but not the campgrounds. You'll find if you wait until a day or two before your camping you'll always find a campsite on Recreation.gov.

The highlight of this park is sand sledding. 

I think most people just walk the dunes, but Brooke loves influencers, so sand sledding it was.

We rented a sled at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis. The woman warned us that there would be no refunds and that the wind was brutal today. 

It was quite windy. 

But it looks epic, right?

We tried to find a good spot away from everyone else.

First mistake.

This is nothing like snow sledding. The woman at the rental also warned that the sleds can go up to 40mph. That was definitely not happening. 

Let me explain that Brooke did not follow the instructions on waxing the sled. She kept on just waxing the center...barely.

I did exactly as she demonstrated. 


So, we just walked around the dunes looking for a better hill while getting sand whipped in our faces.


Unlike a snow sled, you have to wax the bottom every time you use it. 

Aggresively.

The sand hitting your face was harsh. 

This ain't no Oregon Dunes. 







Eventually I took the wax and went crazy on the bottom of the sled. And I made it down and then tumbled off.

Of course once Scott gave it a try it worked great for him.

Once I took over waxing everyone took a turn, but we were kind of over this.




We ditched the dunes and went on a hike instead on the Montville Nature Trail. 

Did you add any of Theo's photos?

Indeed, I did! Theo loves taking photos of all the numbered signs. Math genius and all.

The dunes are the main attraction here if you want to explore any other parts of the park you need an off road vehicle. 

There are a few hiking trails accessible from the area near the campground, visitors center and point of no return. Not kidding. They actually call it the Point of No Return.


Look at this girl hamming it up for Theo.

Theo even peeped the dunes from the trail.

The kids collected their first badges of the trip and we were on our way. 

We were heading south to the greater Taos, New Mexico not-so-metroplex and got hungry in San Luis, Colorado.

The somewhat abandoned town had one Mexican/Thai restaurant left, Mrs. Rios. We opted for the Thai side of the menu.

After an hour and a half on the scenic route, through the New Mexcio-Colorado borderlands we arrived at my buddies place near Dixon. First we checked out Alex and Annika's neighbor's guesthouse where we'd be staying the night.

The tour included Annika's jewelry studio

The kids checked out the little one's loft.

Their house is pretty amazing. 

They definitely found a magical New Mexico duplex. You'd only know it was duplex if you asked them. The thick adobe walls and private yards on each side aren't like our up-down duplex in Minneapolis, that's for sure.

The kiddos made a lot of art.

And enjoyed the trampoline in their quaint yard.


My picture doesn't do justice to Annika's pizza. So good.


Gilda had just got this kids piano and loved to play for us. 

After catching up for hours, we hit the hay over in our guest house for the night.

Day 4: Dixon, NM - Monument Valley

Staying in the guest house made it feel like we were in Mexico.

We were so lucky to get this beautiful private space for the night. When I message Alex about stopping by their place, I just hoped to park outside and sleep in the campervan. This was a treat.



Did I mention that I adore their yard?

Meadow's favorite part about being at their house was their cats.

She was missing Pecan.

They spoiled us; having us over for breakfast too. Annika made us Finish pancake. We also learned that the Grand Canyon was not 4.5 hours away as Scott thought.

Well that was found out before we went to bed which threw me off. Instead they suggested we stay near Monument Valley. Before heading out we booked a Hipcamp right in the valley.

Gilda really liked the picture Meadow painted and asked if she could keep it. 

I think Meadow liked it, but we got Meadow to give little Gilda the picture.

It's been great seeing Alex and Annika twice in the past year. And wonderful getting to spend time with them in their lovely adobe.

While we were sleeping inside, the Easter bunny left us some eggs in the van. 

That Easter bunny is sure sneaky.

We stopped to get gas and cube shaped lollipops.


The scenery around here is just stunning, we had to pull over. 

I mentioned to Brittany that we were in New Mexico and she said we should stop at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The park consists of ancestral Puebloan ruins. 

Was crazy to see how they stacked rocks to make the walls. 

A common building technique around the world. I've been watching a YouTuber who bought a stacked stone house in the Italian Alps. But with only stone tools in this case? That's impressive.


The circular structures were insane.

Human ingenuity.

Theo really liked the petroglyphs. 

The kids had to draw some of them in their Junior Ranger books.



We didn't get to spend a ton of time here so only Theo finished his junior ranger booklet. Meadow's we will mail in later. 

Fair warning, the road into the park is rough. 

I've seen worse. But if it's been raining just know you ain't getting there.

It was Easter Sunday, so I had to send a selfie to my family.

There were two roads to get to our campsite for the night. One in Arizona or one that went through Utah. We chose the Utah side and were glad we did. 

We had originally planned to stop at the four corners but it was already closed for the day. 

This spot was used in the movie Forrest Gump so it's become quite the popular area. 

Our camp host later told me that people get run over very frequently imitating Forrest.

Had we taken the northern or central route of this trip we would have seen more of Utah. After only spending an hour in this state we'll have to come back. 

We did technically drive back in to Utah to get to our campsite, but in reality the borderland is home to the Navajo Nation. The countries largest reservation.

We followed Annika's suggestion and camped right at Monument Valley. 

A good number of Navajo campsites are scattered around the area.

What a view.

We had finally figured out how to swivel the front seat chairs. 

While the van has a heater, not much heat gets up to the pop up tent. We had bought some sleeping bags at Walmart on our first day and I regret getting the 50F rated bags. 

Brooke's also always cold camping. I keep telling her that you want a good all around 20 or 30 degree bag.

Day 5: Monument Valley - Grand Canyon

Our camp host said there was a trail nearby that takes you to an overlook of the valley. 
        
The trails were shared with the tribe's ATVs. The teenagers were still sleeping in the morning, but they were racing around when we had arrived.                                                                                                                     

I had thought going the southern route on this trip would have been warmer but at least there was no snow. 

Theo with another stunner.


We thought we were just going over here to see the mesa.

Thanks Theo.

Theo's pic.

Papa's pic. Ha.

Then we did find the actual trail or at least the horse trail for tours. 

This is the same trail you can take from the Navajo Monument Valley visitors center. This valley was used in dozens of cowboy and Indian films back in the day.

Papa.

Theo. A pattern is developing.

I like that Theo's photos look like film photos. I guess that's what you get when you use a 20 year old digital camera. 

Every young photogarpher must take a picture on a light angle. 


Our favorite hike so far. 

While we didn't drive through the valley, this was still pretty cool. 

I think looking at the Monument Valley was good enough this time around.


Then we headed straight for the Grand Canyon. This is the first popular national park we have been to and also one I had been wanting to go to for a long time. We even talked about taking the train from Minneapolis after Theo was born. 

Instead we'd be driving a Roadsurfer campervan 6 years later.

It feels so surreal, like it's not even real. 

Oh, it's real, just look at me.


Theo really zooming in on the canyon.


We later learned that the haze is actually caused by pollution in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles.


The architecture of the early National Parks buildings are meant to reflect and blend into the surroundings.


Once we finally found a parking spot by the visitors center we cooked our first meal in the van for lunch.

We stopped in the visitors center to get junior ranger books. Due to the crowds the ranger gave us the badges right away so we didn't have to come back. Nice!

Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eaters. But I guess I get it.

Only the south rim is open during this time of year. My sister warned that as tempting as it may be don't attempt to hike to the bottom and back in 1 day. She said it took her 3 days when she came. We stuck to the top on the Rim Trail. 

Along with everyone else. 

The areas closest to the visitors centers are a bit overwhelming. But once you get further down the trail, it's not bad. The Rim Trail is really more of a walk than a true hike.

Definitely not used to crowded parks. 



We didn't mind too much.


I sent this photo to my parents and my mom said she went to the Grand Canyon in 5th grade too. When I told the kids this Theo asked, "Was it a little canyon back then?" 


Theo and I just kept on capturing all the views.



Not too crowded a little ways down the trail.


Nice framing Theo.

The kids counted all of the geological layers that make up the canyon.

I had to stop in the historic hotel of course. 

Not quite up to the standards of Mount Hood's Timberline Lodge.

Then we explored the native goods at the Hopi House.

I was not expecting there to be a whole village up here. 

We wanted to see the Bright Angel trail thinking it wouldn't be open at all, but a portion was. 

So cool.

I'd come back to the Grand Canyon again only to hike to the bottom when the kids are older. 



I thought the trail was just closed for the winter but looks like it was actually for construction. 

Papa.

Theo.

Gosh he's so good. 

Theo!


This was the most stunning portion we got to see. Someday we'll make it to the bottom and do some camping.

We somehow snagged the last open spot at the full campground. It was going to be our coldest night yet, into the 20's. Of the 350 sites at this campground quite a few people were tent camping. Maybe if I had a proper sleeping bag.

Pretty sure there are a bunch of sites that were booked, but empty. Folks! Stop booking campsites you ain't gonna use.

I grumpily ate some Aldi tortellini while the kiddos refused to finish theirs. Apparetnly tortellini is totally different than manicotti or ravioli. Silly kids.

Theo and I worked on his Junior Range packet before bed.

See we didn't cheat, I still had the kids work on their books even though we already got badges. 

Day 5: Grand Canyon - Death Valley
And we were off. I'm not sure what this picture is showing as Brooke's mom would say.

I think Meadow wanted to see what her headband looked like that I made for her. 

On our way to Death Valley we decided to stop in Las Vegas.

Had we had more time we would have explored the Hoover Dam.

Theo caught a glimpse of Las Vegas as we arrived.

Neither of us had been to Las Vegas before. We love us some casino buffets so we had to stop. 

I could tell right away that this place wasn't my style. Even cheesier and less impressive than on TV. So fake.

But Theo was impressed by all the palm trees.

We ended up at the Excalibur's buffet since it was supposedly kid friendly and not $75 per person.

The kids loved it. I thought it wasn't quite up to Black Bear Casino's high standards. We judge all buffets on that buffet and you're always disappointed elsewhere.


I guess if there's a next time we'll have to try the $75 buffets. 

We were going to walk around some more when we realized the vistors center at Death Valley would be closing soon. 

So we only got to see New York New York and the rest of Excalibur.


See you in a couple weeks Vegas.

Not jealous of Brooke's work trip. But I'm sure she'll have fun.

This time of year the wildflowers are blooming. Our drive to Death Valley was beautiful. 

The wet winter had turned Ash Meadows on the Nevada side of the border into a lush paradise. Soon we'd be rolling into Death Valley National Park.

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