Photo of Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border in the Southwest United States

Solo Road Trip in the Southwest

Words and Photos By: Jess Woodhouse

As a photographer I spend most of my time in the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest. For a little contrast, I have always wanted to explore the desert landscapes of the Southwest on a solo road trip. The perfect opportunity to do that came up when I found myself in Phoenix for work. Instead of hopping on a plane for the two-hour flight back to Portland, I took the scenic (and much slower) route home in a camper van.

Camper van drives through Monument Valley on a road trip

On a beautiful Sunday morning I met Becca, my van host, in a neighborhood of Phoenix. She showed me everything I needed to know about the basics of operating my van, a Dodge Ram ProMaster named Carmen. I had never driven a large van before. Admittedly I was a bit nervous, however I quickly realized I had nothing to fear. Carmen was a breeze to drive and the features (shower, water pump, camp stove) were all a cinch to operate.

Phoenix to Sedona

Heading north from Phoenix, I drove to Sedona for my first night in the desert. Becca had been to Sedona in Carmen before so she shared with me the coordinates to a beautiful camping spot on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.

As I drove down the forest service road, the colors of the iconic cliffs became more and more vivid. I had an incredible view of the red rock landscape that evening. I’d say it’s one of the best spots I’ve ever camped, and because it was on public land, it was completely free.

Campsite in Sedona, Arizona

Pit Stop at the Grand Canyon

My next destination was Monument Valley, which sits right on the border of Arizona and Utah. The winds were high and a wildfire north of Flagstaff had grown in size overnight, blocking my original route. I recalculated my path on Google maps and the nearest detour took me west to Grand Canyon National Park. I had debated whether to go to the Grand Canyon while planning my trip. At the time I decided it was too far off of my route. However now it seemed like it was meant to be!

Seeing the park in person is the only way to understand the sheer endlessness of the canyon. I parked at a viewpoint, made myself a sandwich, and just sat looking out for almost an hour. I snapped a few photos in the midday light while wishing I could stay for a beautiful sunset. But Monument Valley was my finish line for the day and I still had a few hours left on the road, so off I went.

Monument Valley

I made it to Monument Valley just as the sun dipped below the horizon. I stayed at a Hipcamp site called Hummingbird Campsite for the night. My hosts, Brian and Alberta, gave me a warm welcome. They offered me Navajo tacos and tea from their onsite kitchen. We chatted until dark about their business and places I should go hiking at sunrise. There is nothing better than receiving wonderful hospitality when you’re traveling alone. Staying at their site made me feel safe and excited to explore the next day.

I woke up at sunrise and hiked over the ridge. There I was greeted by an iconic view of Monument Valley. I had seen it many times in movies and on postcards, but it’s another place that is best appreciated in person. The landscape is dominated by three towering bluffs that almost look extraterrestrial. I spent the morning hiking the ridge with my camera, appreciating the morning air and the desert wind.

It’s been said before, but the greatest part of a solo road trip is the freedom to pause and go where you want. When traveling with others I’m less likely to pull over and take a photo, or to linger at a viewpoint. The flexibility to change your destination or your route at any time makes the journey that much more exciting.

Moab, UT

Just a few hours away was my next stop, Moab. The space between Monument Valley and Moab is very remote. At times I felt like I was the only person on the road. Just me and Carmen traveling on what I imagine must be similar to the surface of Mars. Every hill I crested offered a mesmerizing view of Earth’s crust. Deep red cliffs and bizarre rock formations stacked up on the horizon as far as my eyes could see.

Moab in April is full of adventure-seeking tourists (myself included). That can make it a challenge to find a campsite, even mid-week. I knew I would have better luck finding a place for the night if I drove east out of town, so I headed to Fisher Towers. A narrow canyon of towering red cliffs dominates the first few miles of the drive. Then suddenly a wide valley opens to a view of Fisher Towers. The famous formation almost looks like a ship’s bow emerging from the earth.

I circled a few small camping areas before finding the perfect spot at Lower Onion Creek Campground. I oriented the van at the site in a way that gave me picturesque views from the bedroom and from the sliding door. Once I settled in, I cooked up my dinner of chickpea curry on the camp stove. Meanwhile, the sunlight danced across the sagebrush-covered valley. Behind me, the sun was setting. I had no cell service at this site, which can feel pretty luxurious these days. It was the ideal place to have nothing to do but stare out at the world in front of me from the comforts of my temporary home.

Camper van sits in a quiet campground as the sun rises over Moab, Utah

Solo Road Trip in a Camper Van

I couldn’t have asked for a better traveling abode than Carmen the Dodge Ram Promaster. Having the freedom to set up camp in the middle of nowhere and still have the comforts of home was something I felt incredibly lucky to experience. Taking a solo trip through the desert was just what I needed to reconnect with my creativity and with myself.

Feeling Inspired?

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