By the time the holidays rolled around, I was itching to get away. With life moving a mile a minute, I find it hard to relax sometimes…to slow down, reevaluate and reset. I keep moving with it until abruptly sharply, I break down. When I get to that point, I’m normally already three steps past the line of sanity. This can result in a myriad of breakdown stories. I get sick, I push people away, I throw tantrums. You name it, I’ve been there. I wasn’t going to go down that path this year, so when I started feeling overwhelmed, I asked Andrew if we could steal away—just the two of us—for a few days.

Normally, this is the point at which I’d start planning the trip relentlessly, sending itineraries and a list of all the things I needed to fit in during a 5-day span. I knew that was only going to add to my stress levels, so I found the urge to control the situation and did something I really, really struggle with: I made no plan.

We found ourselves in Moab on the afternoon of December 27th. As we drove through the town, I second guessed not planning anything. The mesas were covered in at least 7 inches of snow. Camping in that much snow wasn’t necessarily something we were prepared for. We didn’t have snow gear at all…it was the desert right?

alex with fire sunrise

Night One

We drove south of town and kept going, the snow dissipating the further we drove. We ended up camping at the same spot we’d camped at the last time we were in Moab. Part of me was disappointed…I’d wanted to explore a new place, and I’d had my sights set on a specific camping area that happened to be under two feet of snow. I sulked a bit, in true Control Freak fashion. Then I started soaking it all in. We were the only people for miles, all we could hear was the distant hum of trucks in the background, which I found to be less of a nuisance and more of a comfort. We were tethered between this reminder of our world and the world we’d set in front of us.

Castle Valley Utah
Walking the line in Castle Valley

Fitting it all In

The next day, I itched to go someplace new. Instead, we took our time, cooked pancakes by the fire, hiked around the area and ended up watching dusk slowly strip away the light our spot. Then we drove to Castle Valley and stopped for a little walk around. We relaxed, drank some beers, watched the stars appear and talked. I thought about our last trip to Moab. We fit in ATVing, hiking, shopping, beer drinking and camping two different places in two nights. We drove to Arches, drove to Dead Horse Point, drove all the way back to Colorado…all in two days. It was exhausting. I loved the sights and the adventure, but I felt like we never really appreciated it because we were always preparing for the next thing.

I’m stubborn when it comes to doing something I’ve set my mind on…I’ll just fixate on it. If I see a place I want to go, I will push and push to get there. Oftentimes, the place is a letdown or mobbed with other people who also found it on a “top things to do” list. I wanted to brave the mass crowds and see Mesa Arch in Canyonlands at sunrise. In the end, we decided to forgo that experience for a road less traveled. I fought to just let things unfold and, in the end,, the relaxation was just what my mind and body desperately needed.

Alex and the hoodoos in San Rafael swell
Hanging with the moon in San Rafael Swell

San Rafael Swell

If you pass the turn for Moab and keep heading West on i70 toward Green River, you’ll reach a place called the San Rafael Swell—one of the most expansive and undeveloped regions in Utah. We headed there on our third day, after leisurely eating breakfast and packing up. We drove down a dirt road along wide expanse of public land, below mesas and hoodoos and crackling walls dripping in thick silence. The area was ours, so we took our time picking a spot to set up camp, kicking up dust and watching the world fade in the rearview. The camping spots were each nestled in their own cove beneath red spires, piercing the blue sky. We rounded a corner and I lost my breath. Among fields thick with cow shit, there is something truly magical there.

That night, beneath the full moon, we listened to the crackling of the fire, which cast a dense orange glow over the curved ridges of the rock. We drank whiskey and whispered even though we were the only humans for miles, huddled in the soft vibration of our undertones, as glowing eyes examined us from above.

alex little wild horse canyon
Taking in the slots at Little Wild Horse Canyon

Little Wild Horse Canyon

The next morning, we awoke to a bone-chilling cold. Ice hung on the inner walls of our tent, as we clustered beneath a pile of blankets. I unzipped the tent to find a herd of cattle grazing just feet from our sleeping place, paying no mind to the strange humans taking up space in their open range. Eventually, the sun peaked over red-rock pedestals and defrosted the cold earth beneath us. We drove a half mile down the road and parked at the trailhead for Little Wild Horse Canyon.

This slot canyon is a popular destination in the Swell—and for good reason, its high-walled, open slot canyon offers a memorable experience for everyone. Many slot canyons require canyoneering gear and an openness to feeling claustrophobic. While Little Wild Horse gets tight in spots, for the most part, it’s like walking through a high-walled hallway…on Mars. It’s a photographer’s paradise and a jungle-gym for adults.

Alex and Andrew under the stars in San Rafael swell

Utah in Winter

I won’t sugar coat it—our week was cold. We lucked out with little snow, but mornings and evenings were frigid. Before our trip, we purchased a propane-powered space heater. And while I wouldn’t recommend using it in a small tent with the flaps zipped, I did find it was an excellent source of heating the tent before bed (doors open) and then in the early AM when it was unbearable to unzip your sleeping bag.

I’d recommend eastern Utah in winter to anyone who asked. Even if you stay in a hotel, even if you sleep in your car, the ability to see these vast horizons without a hundred human dots rooting around is something else. It’s honestly like being on another planet. We stayed away from the towns, only stopping at gas stations for firewood and beer.

Winter Camping Recommendations

Bring blankets and a lot of layers. I tend to overpack and ended up wearing the same 2 pairs of Patagonia corduroy pants for five days, but I like the option to have layers if it gets extra cold.

Pack a cooler with staples for 5 days like apples, eggs, pancake mix, bagged salad, bread, etc. We also like to have a few dehydrated meals on hand for a hot dinner in case we don’t feel like cooking, so having a JetBoil or other small water-boiling apparatus is key for us.

Bring extra firewood! We ended up using 12 bundles of firewood over 4 nights. It would have saved money to fill the bottom of the truck bed with firewood from a firewood yard rather than gas stations, but we didn’t look that far ahead. Bundles of firewood in the nearest town to where we camped were $8 a bundle! That’s a lot of money on wood. If you’re going with a group, I’d suggest buying firewood ahead of time and divvying it up between cars.

Take it easy. Pick a camp spot you where you can explore the nearby area without driving long distances and take in the beauty of this unique place without crowds.

In the end, we had the place to ourselves and, to me, that’s always worth a little frostbite.

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