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Top 3 campervan travel destinations in the American Southwest

Three spectacular destinations to see in your campervan in the Southwestern US

The best way to experience the American Southwest is on a road trip. Miles of open roads make this an ideal region for campervan travel.

In this article, we’ll review the best Southwest destinations for campervans.

Our top three locations to take our campervan in the Southwest are Moab, Bishop, and Caliente.

There is so much to see and do at each destination that you’d want to stay there many nights.

Scroll down for more information about each of these great campervan travel destinations.

How we chose the best Southwest van travel destinations

Vanlife means being self-sufficient. In campervans, we can stop anywhere we want. No need for expensive motels, massive RV’s or tents.

The locations we’ve chosen allow us to camp in beautiful settings, yet they are close to civilization. This allows us to restock on food, water and other provisions, or just visit a nice town, as needed.

Our ideal campgrounds are within reasonable driving distance to amenities and attractions.

In the nearby towns, we can dump our trash and recycling, find Wi-Fi, gyms, and showers and visit the shops.

On the other hand, we are willing to pay a small amount to use a toilet every now and then. Of course it’s always best to have a portable toilets on board..

Cathedral Gorge, Calente NV Vansage Campervan travel destination
Cathedral Gorge, Calente NV. Image courtesy of Dolev Schreiber

Where is the American Southwest?

Before we go any further, we’d like to define the Southwest. The American Southwest is an arid area between California and Colorado.

The region loosely encompasses the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau.

This big rural area spans the entire states of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.and includes parts of Colorado and California.

Major national parks of the US Southwest include:

  • Yosemite
  • Joshua Tree
  • Death Valley
  • Saguaro
  • White Sands
  • Grand Canyon
  • Zion
  • Bryce
  • Mesa Verde
  • Canyonlands
  • Arches
  • Capitol Reef.

Major cities of the US Southwest include Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City.

The most important aspect to take into account is to prepare for long driving distances. Supermarkets, gas stations, banks, and ATMs are few and far between.

In a campervan, this is not a problem. In fact, this is a reason the Southwest is ideal for vanlife.

How big is the Southwest?

It’s big.

The American Southwest is bigger than the total area of France and Italy combined!

Here’s another way to look at it: All the six New England states plus Pennsylvania fit into Arizona alone.

Even more mind-blowing, the population of Nevada, Arizona, and Utah totals 13 million.

That’s less than the entire population of the Netherlands.

Not only is the Southwest big, but it’s not overpopulated. This leaves a lot of untouched land to discover.

Campervan travel destination Zion National Park Vansage
Zion National Park “Subway” natural rock formation. Image courtesy of Dolev Schreiber

Why the Southwestern US is a great campervan destination

Aside from lack of people and big open spaces, the main draw to the Southwest is its breathtaking natural features.

In fact, the region is home to some of the biggest and most beautiful national parks in the US.

Every view you see may turn out to be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.

Other large protected lands span the space between the park boundaries. This is magical for travel in a campervan.

When you need a quiet place to park for the night, pull off on the side of a dirt road.

If you need any amenities, keep driving to the next town. It’s as simple as that.

When is the best time to visit the Southwest in a campervan?

Winter. Go in winter.

You’re traveling in a campervan, so it shouldn’t matter to you if it gets cold or starts to snow or rain.

Get a good quality Campervan Heater and proper clothing for your destination and you’ll be all set.

Be aware that some roads and campgrounds close in winter.

Nightly temperatures may reach below freezing. Days are shorter.

On the upside, sunny winter days are ideal for mountain biking, hiking or trail running.

As an extra bonus, many of the most popular summer destinations are empty of visitors.

And the icing on the cake: No snakes!

Example: I visited Chaco Culture National Historic Park at the beginning of December.

A park ranger told me I was one of only five visitors to the park that entire day!

As far as I’m concerned, though, I was the only visitor to the park that day.

I didn’t see a soul aside from the ranger.

More examples: In winters past, I have hiked to the Wave and the Subway,  places that limit access to 20 permitted individuals per day.

During high season, permits are so popular that there is a lottery to win them.By going in winter, I always won.

 The Wave Moab Utah Vansage Campervan Travel Destination
The Wave Moab Utah. Image courtesy of Dolev Schreiber

The second-best time of year to visit the Southwest

Spring and fall. The weather is mild. Days aren’t too hot. Nights aren’t too cold.

You may encounter some snow in the highest elevations. Aspens change color in fall. Flowers bloom in spring.

There’s a greater chance of spotting animals at any time of day, including snakes.

The Southwest is more challenging during the summer months.

This is when all the tourists come out to play. It is also the hottest season, and it’s monsoon season!

Of course, it’s still very beautiful even in summer.

If that’s the only time you can make it, then by all means go.

Make sure you have a campervan ceiling fan and/or roof vent or some means of cooling the campervan at night.

Watch out for flash flooding any time of year. Especially during the monsoon rains.

No Van? No problem. Renting a campervan is a great way to see the American Southwest

Are you new to Vanlife? Maybe you want to test the waters of conversion van travel before buying or building a van.

Or maybe you want to experience awesome campervan travel destinations without the cost and other responsibilities of owning one.

If your’e a veteran with a great van, but live too far from the American Southwest to drive there, Campervan rental is the answer.

We’ve got links to vans for rent in each of our featured destinations, below, as well as campervan rentals available around the nearest airports.

What are the top Southwest destinations for campervan road trips?

Now that we have loosely defined the Southwest, here are our top picks for campervan road trips.

#1 Southwest destination: Moab, UT

Moab is a small town of 5000 residents in eastern Utah.

It sits on the bank of the Colorado River, at the foothills of the La Sal Mountains.

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks border the town to the west.

In the past two decades, Moab became a tourist mecca for outdoor adventure sports.

Hotels sprang up quickly and raised their prices. Campgrounds, on the other hand, remained untouched.

For this reason, the Moab area made it to the top of our list of Southwest destinations for campervans.

The town has all the amenities you may need.

You can stock up on food, take showers, splurge on a restaurant, and buy souvenirs.

Two miles away is the desert. Park the van, open the doors, and enjoy the view.

Renting a Campervan for Moab, UT travel

There are many great camper vans for rent in Moab and surrounding areas.

Favorite campgrounds in the Moab area

All the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campgrounds along the Colorado River are wonderful.

Of those, our favorites are Goose Island and King’s Bottom Campgrounds because they are the closest to Moab.

All BLM campgrounds in the Moab area are first-come first-served. They fill up quickly, especially in summer.

Get there early to get a spot and prepay for at least three nights.

There’s a lot to do in the Moab area, so plan to stay awhile.

The nightly fee per site is $20 (current for 2020). Each site has a picnic table and fire ring.

There are pit toilets in the campground, but no drinking water.

Moab is also surrounded by BLM land. Drive 20 miles in any direction to practice dispersed camping.

Campervan Travel destination Fisher Tower Moab, UT Vansage

Things to do around Moab

#2 Southwest destination: Bishop, CA

Similar to Moab, Bishop is a small unassuming town of less than 4000 residents.

It sits at the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California.

BLM and Forest Service lands surround the town.

Bishop is well on its way to becoming another US tourist mecca for outdoor adventure sports.

It sits exactly halfway between Death Valley and Yosemite National Parks. It’s about 3 hours of driving from the heart of each.

This makes Bishop a great resting point between the two parks.

As in Moab, hotels use Bishop’s coveted location to raise their prices. Campgrounds remain reasonably priced. Another win for Vanlife!

For this reason, the Bishop area made it to second place on our list of Southwest destinations for campervan travel.

The town has all the amenities you may need.

Just a few miles away you’ll find a plethora of camping spots and outdoor activities.

Renting a Campervan for Bishop, CA travel

There are many great camper vans for rent in the Bishop area.

Favorite campgrounds in the Bishop area

Avoid the private campgrounds in town and drive toward the mountains.

You’ll find Forest Service campgrounds at the lower elevations along some of these roads.

These campgrounds, such as Bitterbrush Campground, are great in winter.

In summer, continue up those mountain roads to higher elevations.

The higher up you go, the more popular the campgrounds as they offer fresh air and they are the closest to lakes and trail heads.

This makes them coveted destinations. Examples are Big Pine Creek Campground and Convict Lake Campground.

Be aware that these campgrounds are near private seasonal resorts. This increases the number of cars on the road.

The beautiful, serene campgrounds, however, make you forget about the crowds.

During peak season you can reserve your spot before you go on recreation.gov.

If sold out, get there early to find spots that are first-come first-served.

Note that these campgrounds and resorts close in winter.

Bishop is also surrounded by BLM land. For dispersed camping in your campervan, drive the dirt roads east of town.

There’s plenty of space up and down the Owens Valley corridor.

Campervan destination Vansage Bishop, CA Sierra Nevada
Bishop CA, Sierra Nevada Mountains. Image courtesy of Dolev Schreiber

Things to do around Bishop

#3 Southwest destination: Caliente, Nevada

With a population of just over 1000 residents, Caliente is considered a semi-ghost town.

Its main draw is its close proximity to a handful of Nevada State Parks.

Reflect on this: The entire state population of Nevada is 3 million.

Over 80% of those people live in Las Vegas and Reno metro areas.

That leaves roughly 200,000 people in an area twice the size of New York State.

Consider driving here if you need to get away from it all.

Though you will see people on the roads and in the parks (mostly on ATV’s), no place will be crowded.

Renting a Campervan for Caliente, NV travel

Favorite campgrounds in the Caliente area

The campground at Cathedral Gorge State Park is our favorite.

For a low nightly rate ($15 in 2020), you get hot showers and flush toilets.

As an added bonus, the bathhouse is heated in winter.

There’s also a book exchange bookcase randomly placed in the middle of the campground.

Our second favorite is the campground at Kershaw-Ryan State Park. Showers here are coin-operated.

The Caliente area has many more camping options, both official and dispersed.

Thanks to this, official campgrounds rarely fill up. They are all first-come first-served.

Note that not all state park campgrounds offer shower facilities.

Things to do around Caliente

Walk among the strange bentonite clay formations of Cathedral Gorge State Park

Wade into the desert oasis at Kershaw-Ryan State Park

Learn about Nevada history at Elgin Schoolhouse State Historic Site (by appointment only)

Fish at Echo Canyon or Beaver Dam State Parks (permits required)

Visit the Railroad Depot Museum in Caliente

Conclusion

The American Southwest is a huge region best explored by driving.

There is no better vehicle for exploring Southwest destinations than a campervan!

What Southwest destinations have you been to in your campervan?

Please share your experiences with me in the comments.

 

This is a guest post from Dolev Schreiber

Dolev is the founder and CEO of DetourOn.com, an online travel resource and planning tool.

During her free time, she roams the Southwest in her Sprinter Campervan.

 

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