Roaming the Wild West in a VW Camper Van

Twist hits the road with DeNai Jones, co-founder of Petunia Pickle Bottom.

Wanderlust was instilled in me at an early age. As a child we circumnavigated the US, Canada, and parts of Mexico in our 1968 VW bus. My dad was a college professor and my mom stayed home with us, so summers were really our time to explore, and we did so on a shoestring budget. Pulling up to our campsite late at night, popping our camper top and looking up at the stars is still one of my all-time favorite memories of those days. When I met my husband, he owned a VW Westfalia, a perk for sure!

We spent our college summers touring the US and eventually getting engaged on one of those trips. We have been through a handful of VW Campers vans over the years, but our favorite is the one we have no, a VW Syncro because we like to camp on the lesser-known, open land (which is also known as BLM camping or dispersed camping). Our VW Syncro enables us to go places, we could not confidently venture previously.

When planning our trips, we prefer to pick a few landmarks on the map, and wander our way to those locations, but never pick a true path. The unplanned parts of the trip tend to be our favorite method of wandering, so we do leave room for that to unfold.

When setting out on a road trip, my travel tips are to search in two ways: Google the area and click ‘images’ which usually leads to some great finds. The other requires a bit of a “gypsy spirit.” I have an App on my phone called Public Lands, which tracks your location and shows where you can freely camp on BLM land.

TIP: Camping on Bureau of Land Management is “dry camping,” no water or facilities, and most importantly, you need to camp out any trace of inhabiting the area.

Once our van enters into BLM territory, we generally cross reference the area, checking to see if it is safe and clear to camp—then, we just hunt for a beautiful and protected spot. No neighboring campers and usually no cell phone service, of which we both prefer.

One of our recent trips was to Joshua Tree. We camped in the National Park for one night, and then meandered around the surrounding area in Yucca Valley, ate at Pappy and Harriets in Pioneertown, and had a nice night in an Airbnb (shower and laundry night).

Camping and exploring in our van is my favorite way to travel.
It is inexpensive and definitely forces our family to draw inward.

The Airbnb app is definitely helpful when looking for last minute stays, and when a washer and dryer is a must. We then worked our way down to Mecca Hills, which offers beautiful slot canyons to hike and BLM camp in the canyon. A lunch stop at the Ski Inn along the Salton Sea was a real treat. Salvation Mountain, a tiny bit south, has been on our bucket list for some time. Our boys skated the nearby, empty pool in Slab City, and then looped our way back towards home.

The Eastern Sierras are where my family chose to camp when I was a child—and where my husband, kids and I still prefer to go to today. We like this area because it is a bit less populated than the Western Sierras, very diverse with so many dirt roads to explore. Our favorite past time in the summer is to choose a couple of dirt roads and see where they take us– we often end up at hot springs, beautiful Ghost Towns, or geological sites. There really isn’t a bad spot to camp in the Eastern Sierras. One stop on the way up to Hwy 395 is Alabama Hills, with lots of beautiful rock formations, and a dark sky amazing for star gazing.

Death Valley is another favorite we go back to time and time again. We try to visit on the off -season when the crowds are down. Spring is their busiest season. Death Valley and the surrounding areas have so many beautiful geological marvels. If you have four wheel drive, a couple of favorites we love to tour are Titus Canyon, Saline Valley, and the tallest sand dunes in North America.

This last summer, we took a larger three week trip up the Pacific Coast, over to Utah and “raft camped” the Green River with a few other families for three days. Raft camping essentially means getting dropped off at one location, camping at your leisure as you float the river, and getting picked up on a certain day down river. This is truly a beautiful part of our country. We worked our way up to Yellowstone National Park, and all the way up to the Northernmost part of Montana. We met up with five other vans and camped along the Flathead River, experiencing some of the best views of Glacier National Park (just across the river).

We spent the last week working our way home and camping our way back to Southern California.

What I find most enjoyable on all of these trips is how the least amount of “stuff” creates the most amount of joy and memories for our family. Our motto we share with so many other amazing van families: #memoriesbeforestuff

Andrea Fellman is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Twist Travel Magazine. She is a stylish nomad and expat mom living in Barcelona with her husband, two kids and a dog! She blogs about family travel, expat life, and her online business adventures at Wanderlust Living.

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