2017 has been a year. A year of beauty, and of shock and awe for many in the US (at least politically: the environment here feels more fractured than at any other point I can think of in my life). But for us, it’s also been a year filled with forward momentum and incredible experiences. We finished our van build, headed out on the road full-time, gave The Van Project a visual update, wrote for and were published in two books (The New American Dream and the United We Van Cookbook, which is donating all proceeds to The Nature Conservancy), made good headway growing our online, remote, digital nomad careers (see Matt’s beautiful new photography site!), and of course visited lots of beautiful spots along the way.
What were our favorite vanlife adventures in our first year on the road full-time? It’s pretty hard to narrow down, but we somehow managed!
So without further ado, our 2017 recap…
The Van Project’s Top 10 Vanlife Adventures of 2017:
10. Biking around Arches National Park
Our end of 2017 Southwest road trip got pushed by twice, so it was already December by the time we made it to Moab in Southeastern Utah. The original plan was to climb in Indian Creek, but wintery weather was a bit more than we bargained for, plus we quickly realized we aren’t in tip-top climbing shape right now, so we ended up cutting our time in Moab short. We still had a great stay: we ran into Derrick (@firstclassdumbo on instagram), who we’d first met in Bishop this spring, and he helped get us out on the rock for a day. We also visited Arches National Park, where we biked and hiked near some of Utah’s famous arches. We’re already talking about heading back this way in early spring 2018 for more climbing, hiking, and biking adventures.
9. Monument Valley
Okay. This place is instafamous for a reason. With its mittens and towers, Monument Valley is undoubtedly one of the most scenic drives we did in the Southwest. By that point we wanted to make it to warmer weather, and didn’t even drive through the paid section, but even the drive around the area is worthwhile. It’d be a really beautiful spot to bike ride. (Add it to the list!)
8. Eastern Sierra Climbing: Crystal Crag, Patricia Bowl, Pine Creek
After we finished our van build, we headed for the Eastern Sierras to help our friends Mary and Charlie launch their mobile (based out of a converted airstream trailer) ultralight backpacking gear shop, 2 Foot Adventures. We rented and sold gear to PCT, JMT, and Mount Whitney hikers, and spent our days off adventuring in the 395 corridor. The Eastern Sierras have whatever you’re looking for as far as outdoor adventures go: deserts, hot springs, and a literal lifetime of possibilities as far as mountains and peaks. We explored some of the fine climbing in this area: from the amazing sport at Pine Creek, right outside of Bishop, to some of Mammoth’s offerings like Crystal Crag and Patricia Bowl. While we checked off some climbs this year, after all of our adventures in the Sierras this summer, our list of must-do climbs here only keeps growing.
7. California’s “Superbloom” at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, and Lake Elsinore
Thanks to the record-breaking snow and rain this year, 2017 was the first year in quite a few where California showed all of her colors in the spring. People flocked to SoCal for the “Superbloom” to see the fields full of California Poppies. Luckily, we were working on our van build at the time *in SoCal,* so we made time during a few well-planned breaks to visit the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve and Lake Elsinore. (Hint: flying drones around the poppy fields is epic AF).
6. High Sierra Fishing
This year, HUGE amounts of snow stuck around until late in the season. As a result, it was almost impossible to fish the Sierras’ streams and rivers until the flooding subsided. Matt left his fly rod in the van, and thanks to a tip from our friend Scott, grabbed a spinning rod which worked great in the lakes around Mammoth. Scott also alerted us when the Twin Lakes Campground opened for the season (in July), and we booked up there to meet him for what turned into one of our most memorable moments of 2017. Matt and Scott headed out before sunrise and quickly pulled in fish after fish, catching their limits. Scott even caught a 4 ½ pound hold-over rainbow that we shared between the three of us for breakfast. It wasn’t like any trout we’d eaten before: the bright pink flesh was deliciously rich and fatty (in the good way), and tasted more like salmon than trout. We brought the rest of our limit with us to San Francisco to share with our friends that weekend at the Game of Thrones season opening party. And as the fishing season came to a close, Matt finally caught a fish on his Tenkara rod!
5. White Mountain Bristlecones
The oldest trees in the world are Bristlecone Pines and the oldest known living Bristlecone lives somewhere in the vicinity of White Mountain (right across the Owens Valley from Mt. Whitney) in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. We drove all the way up the mountain roads to the Patriarch Grove, a spectacular area above 11,000ft where these unique trees cling to life on the side of the mountain. There are trails that lead through the grove and we highly recommend walking them so you can see the full spectrum of forms that these trees grow into in this harsh environment. We caught some photos at sunset as we drove up the long road, and then walked around the Patriarch Grove by moonlight to capture shots of the old gnarled trees silhouetted with stars.
4. Mount Russell
California has spectacular mountains, many of which are concentrated in the Sierra Nevada range in Central California. Because we were working in Lone Pine, Amanda and I regularly read through the Sierra climbing books, identifying the peaks and climbs in the Sierras that were easily accessible from our home-base. Mt.Russell is one of these peaks, a rocky 14,000ft crag immediately next to Mt.Whitney (but with only a small fraction of the visitors). We spent three days attempting to climb the East Ridge, a 3rd class scramble with AWESOME exposure and views. After the grueling approach, we learned that we weren’t as physically strong or as acclimatized to the altitude as we had thought, but attempted the climb anyway. We made it within two hundred vertical yards from the summit and decided to turn around. We’ll definitely be going back to this peak in the future to finish familiarizing ourselves with the East Ridge which is the descent route for many technical 5th class routes like the Fishhook Arete and the Mithril Dihedral (both routes we plan to climb in the future).
3. Bryce / GSENM / Zion
In February 2017, before we finished the van build, we drove to Utah to spend time with Amanda’s mom near Zion National Park. We spent about a week exploring Zion, Bryce, and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, mostly camping and hiking. These three places are each visually stunning and unique. In Zion, we had mixed weather, with one fogged in day where we could barely see five feet off any viewpoints, and one clear day when we hiked the ultra-famous Angel’s Landing. We then headed to Bryce, to do some daytime hiking and sunset photography. In February, Bryce still gets sub-freezing at night, but, when the sun is out, a snow-capped Bryce is perfection. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is a bit lesser known than the other two, but deserves no less attention, especially if you’re interested more in remote desert landscapes, incredible stars, free camping and solace. We visited Devil’s Garden (which has arches and hoodoo-like structures like Bryce Canyon) and hiked to Zebra Canyon and didn’t see anyone else the whole day. Unfortunately, President Trump and his cronies recently signed a bill that if it stands would reduce the size of this incredible place by nearly 50%. We’ll be keeping an eye on what happens with this place over the next year, and helping support organizations like the Access Fund, The Sierra Club, The Grand Canyon Trust and others that fight to keep our public places public
2. Finishing Our Van Build
What can we say, it feels great to finish long-term projects. We bought Tez in November 2016, and didn’t consider her “finished” until May 2017. We set out a list of goals for the renovation, which included updating the interior aesthetically (lighter and brighter baby!), adding a larger bed, and increasing the storage. Since neither of us has ever done construction or renovation work, the only background we had to rely on was our Burning Man building experience, which, honestly did help because building at the Burn requires you to be flexible and focused on solving problems. There were definitely some hard moments along the way. Around March, we doubled-down and committed to finishing the van within 2 months. Needless to say, we’re incredibly happy with our results (video tour here), which isn’t to say we don’t have many small fixes in mind down the road… of course we do! The van build was probably one of the most intensive projects either of us has completed. It required focus, flexibility and stretched us mentally as we had to learn about dozens of new systems from plumbing to solar and electrical (thank you to the internet, friends, family, reddit, and YouTube!). Oh, and it challenged us to improve our communication with each other. Luckily, the build only brought us closer together in the end. If you want to test a relationship, tackling a crazy goal together isn’t a bad way to go about it.
1. JMT & Mount Whitney Sunrise
After spending more than two months talking to and helping PCT and JMT thru-hikers find the perfect gear for their thru-hike, we got to hop on the JMT ourselves. The John Muir Trail is a 211 mile hike that brings you from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney, through John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness, and Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park. We left Lone Pine in the afternoon, hitched successfully all the way into the park, arriving at the permit office around 4pm. We somehow scored last minute walk-in permits to start out of Tuolumne Meadows the *next morning!*
This was Amanda’s longest thru-hike and Matt’s first time completing the full JMT (he hiked some of the trail in 2014, but wasn’t able to finish due to money and time constraints). If you’ve wanted to do a longer hike, you don’t need to look beyond the Eastern Sierra. We’ve hiked all over South America, Patagonia, etc. and trust us when we say that the Eastern Sierra is truly spectacular.
The JMT finishes (or starts) on top of Mount Whitney, and we absolutely recommend planning your summit for either sunrise or sunset. Bonus points if you bring blankets and a warm beverage. Watching the sun kiss the horizon from the tallest point in the contiguous 48, while cuddled under our sleeping bags on the side of a rock, drinking hot tea tops our list of amazing adventures in 2017.
Finally, we’d like to extend a warm thanks and a very, very happy (early) new year to all of you, our readers. We love meeting you in person and interacting with you on instagram, facebook, and YouTube, and in our comments here.
After such an incredible year, we can’t wait to see what 2018 holds.