RV rookie takes an epic Utah road trip to national and state parks

Julene Raya

(CNN) — I had no idea when I decided to take the family on an RV vacation this summer that I would have to learn a whole new vocabulary. A three-way hookup isn’t a ménage à trois but an RV campsite with water, electricity and sewage connections. Blackwater isn’t a […]

(CNN) — I had no idea when I decided to take the family on an RV vacation this summer that I would have to learn a whole new vocabulary.

A three-way hookup isn’t a ménage à trois but an RV campsite with water, electricity and sewage connections. Blackwater isn’t a clandestine military contractor but one of three plumbing systems on a fully equipped RV. And a slide out isn’t tagging the runner at home plate but a portion of an RV that can be electronically extended from the vehicle’s main body.

The spark for the RV vacation was cabin fever born of the pandemic lockdown. The dreaded virus had already put the kibosh on college graduation and sports hall-of-fame ceremonies and two long-anticipated family weddings.

Feeling an extreme need to get out of the house — but to do so in as safe a manner as possible — we decided an RV camping trip was the best bet. With the aim of visiting multiple national parks, we zeroed in on southern Utah, which boasts five incredible parks that are close together: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands.

Having decided on a geographic location, it was time to choose our rolling home away from home.

Utah's red rocks make for a stunning road trip, and you can stretch your legs in Kodachrome Basin State Park.

Utah’s red rocks make for a stunning road trip, and you can stretch your legs in Kodachrome Basin State Park.

Joe Yogerst

Catharsis on the open road

I’m one of those people who grew up despising recreational vehicles. As a car road tripper, there was nothing worse than getting stuck behind a slow-moving RV on the uphill portion of a two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere.

Given all the RV-driving snowbirds that descend upon the Sun Belt each winter — and my Southern California beach town each summer — I viewed those who traveled by RV as a different species from the rest of us seeking catharsis on the open road.

For one thing, they were often loud. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve laid awake in a tent while the generator in a nearby RV groaned deep into the night. And don’t get me started on RV drivers who park their massive rigs horizontally across four or five car slots.

And there seemed to be a lot of one-upmanship. My rig is bigger, badder and newer than yours, that sort of thing. Some of the prices are mind-blowing: as much as $3.1 million for a fully tricked out EleMMent Palazzo with hardwood flooring, marble kitchen and bathroom, fireplace and pop-out sky deck.

So I began my own quest with no small amount of trepidation but a silent oath that I would not be one of those RV drivers.

The author's daughters Shannon, right, and Chelsea Yogerst pose in front of Thor in Hurricane, Utah.

The author’s daughters Shannon, right, and Chelsea Yogerst pose in front of Thor in Hurricane, Utah.

Joe Yogerst

My first challenge was choosing a rig for the trip. There are literally hundreds of makes and models to choose from ranging from tiny “teardrop” trailers that are cute as a bug but only sleep two people, to behemoth Class A diesel motorhomes that can sleep a small army (and may require a special driver’s license to pilot).

The choice was made much easier by the fact that we decided to drive the family car to southern Utah (savings hundreds of dollars in fuel cost) and rent the RV there.

We narrowed it down to Red Rock RV Rentals in the town of Hurricane, ordered a 28-foot Four Winds “Thor” online and they delivered the vehicle to our first campsite at Sand Hollow State Park near St. George.

The Vikings never had it so good

“Thor” easily slept four adults in three beds. There was an onboard bathroom with sink and shower (around the same size as many cruise ship bathrooms). The well-equipped kitchen included a stove, range and microwave. The fridge and freezer were rather small, but we compensated by keeping cold drinks in an ice-filled, five-day cooler.

Although Red Rock RV provided plenty of cleaning and disinfectant supplies, we brought our own just in case. The first thing we did upon taking possession from Red Rock owner Russ Stringham and his son Austin was spray and wipe down every handle, seat, counter, etc. So much so that we set off the onboard carbon monoxide alarm.

Red Rock was also willing to supply the bedding. But again, with Covid-19 in mind, we hauled our own sheets, pillows, blankets and towels from home.

The author's wife, Julia, and daughter, Chelsea, roast sausages in Kodachrome Basin State Park's campground.

The author’s wife, Julia, and daughter, Chelsea, roast sausages in Kodachrome Basin State Park’s campground.

Joe Yogerst

Last but not least, we premade enough meals — packed into Ziplock bags and Tupperware containers — for eight days in the RV. The main purpose of all that food prep was avoiding restaurant drive-ins, and grocery stores along our 800-mile around southern Utah. Although we didn’t always stick to that (more later).

The premade meals were probably the smartest thing we did to prepare for the RV adventure. My oldest daughter, Chelsea, is a whiz at packing for her own camping, hiking and road trips (she had climbed Half Dome in Yosemite just two weeks before and already undertaken a pandemic-era car trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton).

Together with my wife, Julia, and youngest daughter Shannon (a terrific campout cook in her own right), we had some amazing meals that were easy and quick to prepare each evening.

What was on our RV menu?

Burrito bowls with barbecued pulled chicken, Caesar salad with canned chicken, spicy beef and bean chili, gourmet sausages cooked on the Blackstone grill supplied by Red Rock, avocado toast, vacuum-packed chicken tikka masala, saag paneer and other Indian dishes, and charcuterie boards with various types of cheese, nuts, dried fruits and smoked meats.

A sunset celebration along the West Rim Trail in Dead Horse Point State Park

A sunset celebration along the West Rim Trail in Dead Horse Point State Park

Joe Yogerst

Hitting the road

The journey aboard “Thor” started off in grand fashion with a stop at remote Kodachrome Basin State Park, named by a National Geographic photographer in 1948 because the natural hues of the park’s rock formation reminded him of the legendary color slide film.

Camping is the only way to stay overnight at Kodachrome and relish the sunset as it makes the canyon walls even more vivid. At 5,800 feet above sea level, the evening temperatures were divine, ideal for a sunset hike along the aptly named Panorama Trail, s’mores and hotdogs over a campfire, and sleeping with the windows open rather than with the air conditioning blasting.

Kodachrome Basin was also the first place we noticed there wasn’t a lot of socializing in campgrounds. I’d heard from friends back home who RV all the time that recreational vehicle devotees are a pretty friendly bunch and like to shoot the breeze with fellow travelers.

But other than the occasional camper who came to my aid when I was struggling with the hookups, we saw very little interaction going on in the campgrounds and RV parks where we overnighted along the way. Travel in the times of Covid-19 seems to have turned everyone into recluses.

Having been forewarned that RV parking spots are scarce at Bryce Canyon — and wanting to hike in the cool morning air — we were on the road at dawn headed for the national park. After breakfast around the kitchen table in “Thor,” we took off on our respective hikes, the kids tackling the eight-mile Fairyland Loop while my wife and I trekked the much easier (but just as spectacular) Rim Trail.

Hiking the Grand Wash slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park

Hiking the Grand Wash slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park

Joe Yogerst

Other advantages of RV travel came to light at Capitol Reef, the second national park on our swing through southern Utah.

Two daytime activities worked up quite a collective family sweat — hiking the Grand Wash slot canyon at high noon and then picking apples and pears in the Mormon pioneer orchards at Fruita (both free and legal). But with an RV, you can shower and change clothes immediately afterward and then have lunch without driving back to a motel or setting up camp.

Most of day five was consumed by a six-hour drive from Capitol Reef to Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab. It was the first time “Thor” needed refilling. And the first time I’ve ever spent more than $100 filling up the gas tank on any kind of vehicle.

How can it be so dear?

Consider the fact that the vehicle weighs around 20,000 pounds, the Ford V-8 engine gets around eight miles per gallon (even less when you’re driving 65 mph on the interstate or going up a steep hill) and the tank holds 55 gallons. Until such time as Elon Musk (or someone else) produces an all-electric RV that can get at least 300 miles on one charge, RVs will be major gas guzzlers.

Shannon Yogerst cools off in the Fremont River after hiking the Grand Wash.

Shannon Yogerst cools off in the Fremont River after hiking the Grand Wash.

Joe Yogerst

Into the desert

Dead Horse Point State Park was our base in the Moab area. It’s right next to Canyonlands and an easy drive from Arches National Park and the town of Moab on the Colorado River.

The entire family would probably agree that our site in the Wingate Campground was our favorite of the entire vacation. Breezy, beautiful and within walking distance of amazing sunset viewpoints Rim Overlook and the park’s namesake Dead Horse Point — which overlooks the Colorado River and the spot where the famous final scene of “Thelma & Louise” was filmed.

However, daytime temperatures were soaring into triple digits by then. The heat made it difficult to undertake just about any outdoor activity (that didn’t involve lakes or rivers) between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Russ Stringham had explained when he handed over “Thor” that even with the AC running full blast, the indoor temperature is only around 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the ambient temperature outside. You can do the math, but suffice to say if it’s triple digits outside, taking refuge inside the RV provides only minor relief.

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

Joe Yogerst

We did another predawn drive to reach Delicate Arch in Arches National Park for sunrise … just in time to witness a marriage proposal beneath the geological landmark and a pair of “influencers” who schlepped a small white dog in a backpack all the way up the trail to pose for photos with pooch before quickly departing.

And we took a day off from driving by booking a float trip on the Colorado River with Red Rock Adventures (no relation to the RV company), a steady breeze blowing up the river canyon north of Moab and the water temperature perfect for a swim.

By then, the septic system aboard “Thor” was also acting up, no doubt another victim of the extreme heat. Our last night in the desert, camped at KOA Moab, we decided to use the (spanking clean and well air-conditioned) RV park toilet and showers rather than the RV bathroom.

The moral of the story is don’t rent an RV in summer in places with sweltering heat. But otherwise, I would definitely do it again. Especially if the pandemic continues.

As for whether I wound up being the type of RVer I had come to despise on earlier road trips, I tried my best to avoid that fate.

We ran the generator just once — to prepare lunch in the visitor center parking lot at Bryce Canyon. But the noise was so contrary to the tranquil surroundings that we flipped it of after just 10 minutes

Full disclosure: I did park “Thor” over multiple parking spots. But only at the back end of supermarket lots where there was plenty of space.

And when traffic started backing up behind us, I tried pulling over whenever it was safe.

Although on narrow mountain roads, where that just wasn’t possible, I do recall seeing a few fist shakes in the rearview mirror. Looking ahead, I’ll be much more patient when stuck behind a slow-chugging RV on future road trips.

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