Bahia Honda: Camping in the Florida Keys

The journey from Miami to the Keys will forever be one of my favorite road trips. My little car, windows down, skipping across tiny islands like a river rock hopping across flat water. Salty air rustling my hair into a knotted mess, sunshine warming my skin, and the temptation of Cuban espresso from roadside cafes dotting the highway. The drive feels like an old friend now, but I’ve always cruised straight through to Key West with minimal stops along the way. Until now.

Photo: Pat (@outsidethebun) and Spark Brand

Photo: Pat (@outsidethebun) and Spark Brand

Bahia Honda is a state park perched along mile marker 37. A mellow entry gate hides the stretches of coastal camping sitting on over 500 acres of island–and that doesn’t count the offshore island where you can snorkel and hunt for seashells. Despite living only a few hours from Bahia Honda for nearly two decades, I had never taken the left turn into the park–I didn’t even know it existed. Cue the squeals and smiling-so-hard-my-face-hurt as we drove under a bridge, past beachgoers, and all the way to the very last campsite at the park.

Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys. Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in Florida.

Did I mention this campsite was sitting directly on the water, tucked away in a perfect mess of mangroves, limestone, and washed up sea grass? Because, it was. It still is, if you want to go see it yourself. Campsite 80, trust me.

I camp, a lot. There was that one time I spent a year living on public lands, and last summer I spent four months traveling solo while camping nearly every night on public lands–but I’ve never spent an evening snoozing with the shoreline nearly within arm’s reach. It was one of those life scenes that made me seriously reconsider how I ever moved away from the ocean.

Setting up my tent was difficult to focus on–snapping poles together suddenly felt laborious when a sun-kissed jetty was begging to be explored a few yards away. With a rocky limestone landing, tent stakes were useless. Tip: Keep your tent weighed down by tucking your heavy packs, water bottles, or even rocks into the corners. Florida gets breezy, and no one wants to watch their tent get blown out to sea.

Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.

Once we got camp settled, my old friend Alex and I cruised back to the front of the park to dig our toes into the sand for a little underwater exploration. For outdoorists who spend most adventures climbing up toward the sky, taking a dive beneath the sea’s surface is a refreshing perspective. I spend so much time going up, it felt healing to sink downward for a change. Tiny fish darted back and forth, tufts of sea plants tickled my legs, and my skin eagerly drank in all the salty satisfaction.

Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.

As I crawled into my sleeping bag, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to snooze soundly with another warm body only inches away, but within moments, I zonked out. That night, I slept more deeply than I have in months. It was my first night in my new tent, and the first night I had slept in a tent with someone else next to me in over a year. The wind stirring leaves, water lapping against the shore, and buzzing bugs just on the other side of my tent wall were the perfect lullaby.

In the morning, I rose with the sun, but stayed curled up in my bag for a few hours to soak in my surroundings before it was time to take down camp. The easy location and accessible site made it simple to pack up the car, cook a quick breakfast, and then cruise back up the Keys toward home–with a pit stop for cafecitos and empanadas on the way, of course.

I could keep telling you about the bliss of seaside camping and going snorkeling before sleeping under the stars–but it’s better to show than tell, right? Check out the video produced by VISIT FLORIDA from the trip, and see for yourself:

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of VISIT FLORIDA. The opinions and text are all mine.

That time we went to Moab on a Monday.

From my leather journal. (With new thoughts sprinkled in while I transcribe.) 

3/20

Note: Please excuse any bumps and inky bruises on this page; I’m driving. Well, Brody is driving. We just turned off the highway at Crescent Junction, on our way to Moab for the week. I don’t think either of us really know why we’re in my car heading south right now, but I’d like to think that part of it is just the magic. Like the purple and the orange glow of the sunset streaming through the haze of this passing dust storm.

View of Castleton Tower in Moab, UT.

3/21

Good morning, Moab.

Right now, I’m sitting on a rock somewhere up Long’s Canyon off Potash Road. My face and ears are covered in tiny little flies. It’s early, and I’m not in a rush. Brody made french toast with berries and maple syrup for Dakota and I when we woke up. My piece is kind of burnt, but I don’t like sweet breakfast anyways so it’s okay. I hardly slept last night. My sleeping pad deflated. I can’t wait to climb.

Brody makes french toast on the first morning of our trip to Moab.

Later.

I didn’t believe we were actually going to Moab until I pulled up to Brody’s downtown apartment with my rig full of gear. A never-gonna-happen whim had turned into an oh-I-should-pack overnight, so we left Salt Lake City on a Monday afternoon and pointed south to the desert–my happiest of places.

We met up with our soon-to-be new friend Dakota (Jones, you might know him if you’re a runner–he’s real fast and a rad human being), at a dimly-lit park just after sundown. On the first and second nights, we slept down Long’s Canyon. We started the trip climbing classics at Wallstreet on Potash Road, then returned to our camp spot for a lazy lunch. Once my belly was full of veggies and tortilla and weird beet dressing, we sailed the Pilot up a bumpy dirt road to Maverick’s Buttress. I had never climbed there before, but I think I’d certainly like to go back.

Climbing at Wallstreet on Potash Road outside of Moab, UT.Gear, everywhere. Okay, Brody pretty much always makes the food. I just eat it.Climbing at Maverick Buttress down Long's Canyon in Moab, UT.

On the last full day, we climbed the classic Kor-Ingall’s route up Castleton Tower. I stood on top of the proper summit first, and took my moment of solitude to soak in the overwhelming feeling of smallness. I’ve never felt so tiny. Unsurprisingly, I cried a little bit at the top before the boys scrambled up. It was one of those moments that just remind you how audacious it is to be alive on this earth.

What a gift that I get to exist on this planet and do things like climb up a sandstone tower on a Wednesday afternoon.

Brody and I somewhere on pitch three of the Kor-Ingalls route up Castleton Tower. Enjoying a peaceful moment at the top of Castleton Tower in Moab, UT.On the summit of Castleton Tower with Dakota Jones and Brody Leven.

[Insert things about love and stealing kisses between pitches and two sleeping bags in the rain. I can’t share every detail from my journal, you know.]

Thursday morning, I awoke during twilight to the sound of rain pattering on the roof of my rig. We slept with the hatch open to catch the breeze, and I jolted up sure that our feet would be soaked from the storm. I patted our sleeping bags, and while a little wet, it wasn’t enough to wake up and shut the door.

Later, I woke back up to sunrise pouring over the La Sals with mist rolling over the mountains and drips of sunshine filling the space between the peaks and my sleepy bones.

(The last three photos, from Castleton Tower, were all taken by Brody. Thanks Brody. I left my phone and camera behind for the climb, and I’m so glad I did.)

Florida: The USA’s Hidden Outdoor Adventure Gem

Here’s the thing: When I was a young adult living in Florida, I spent every weekend trying to get outside. And for some reason, I thought I had to cross state lines in order to achieve outdoor bliss. I’d spend up to 12 hours driving in a single weekend to go camp.

If only I knew then what I know now.

I went on a two-day camping trip to Ginnie Springs to film an outdoor video for VISIT FLORIDA, and it completely changed my perspective on getting outside in my home state. Spoiler alert: I’m already planning my next adventure down to Florida. It’s that good.

Here are five reasons why Florida is the USA’s untapped, entirely underrated gem for outdoor adventure:

Camping at Ginnie Springs.

 There’s an activity for every outdoorist.

At the Ginnie Springs welcome center, I saw folks hauling personal watercraft, inner tubes, scuba and snorkeling gear, hiking equipment, camping gear, BBQ supplies — the works. In just 24 hours, I managed to canoe up the river, chase fish while snorkeling in the springs, explore trails, eat steak around a campfire, hunt (unsuccessfully) for crawfish, attempt slack-lining, and get a full night’s sleep in my tent perched on a dewy peninsula overlooking the water.

If you look past the notion that Florida is nothing but beaches and retired folks, you’ll see that the Sunshine State is home to an abundance of outdoor opportunity. There are 3 National Parks, 161 State Parks, and more public recreation spaces than I can count. Bike paths stretch for miles, unique ecosystems beg to be explored, and a lack of mountains means you’ll always find a flat spot to pitch your tent.

The wildlife feels like you’re on another planet.

Lizards that can walk on water, birds waking you up with a cacophony of sound, manatees munching on sea grass, bejeweled beetles, and masked raccoons peeking out at you from the mangroves? Yes, please! I’m a sucker for creatures, and Florida knows how to deliver.

During my camping trip to Ginnie Springs, our crew was woken up in the middle of the night by two dueling owls who had taken up a battle of hoots in the trees directly above our tents. Sure, it interrupted my slumber–but it was worth it to get a front row seat to pure nature.

The water temperature in the springs stays at 72º all year.

Swimming at Ginnie Springs.Swimming at Ginnie Springs.

In the summertime, it’s the perfect way to seek relief from the heat–and in the winter, the water actually feels warm when the temperatures drop at night. I was expecting to jump into the spring and immediately want to bail, but I ended up snorkeling for hours.

And this isn’t just Ginnie Springs–I’m talking about every spring in Florida. Find the nearest one, load up your snorkel gear, and get psyched to make a splash off a rope swing–they’re everywhere.

You don’t have to be a hardcore adventurer to enjoy Florida’s outdoors.

Camping at Ginnie Springs.

I like to challenge myself outdoors, but I don’t always need every outing to be the kind of trip I need to train six months and buy $1,000 in technical equipment for. Florida’s outdoors is accessible to anyone who wants to experience it. Just want to car camp and spend a weekend under the stars with your family? Easy. Want to go on a multiday cycling and backpacking trip along the coast? Done deal.

When I lived in Colorado, we used to spend hours looking for an open campsite on the weekends–and once had to turn around and drive home after giving up on finding a spot. In Florida, you aren’t battling massive crowds to find your own slice of outdoor heaven, and many sites are easily reserved online.

This is what winter in Florida looks like. Seriously. Cue the mic drop.

Camping, swimming, and exploring at Ginnie Springs.Camping, swimming, and exploring at Ginnie Springs.Camping, swimming, and exploring at Ginnie Springs.

I’ve been around the USA block a few times, and I’ve experienced just about every type of seasonal weather from heat waves to blizzards–but nothing compares to a winter in Florida. While folks are waiting hours in lift lines and scraping ice off their windshields, you can be basking in sunshine and wearing sandals.

Disclaimer: If you’ve been following me on social media, you already know–VISIT FLORIDA sponsored this trip and provided compensation for me to get out and explore Florida’s outdoors. As usual, all thoughts, #LoveFL vibes, and opinions are my own.

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of VISIT FLORIDA. The opinions and text are all mine.

Celebrating 27 – City to Creek to Camp to Climb

The week approaching my 27th birthday was, frankly, a bit humdrum. I had been so busy with ‘life‘ and work that I hardly even registered it was my birthday week until someone else pointed it out. “Oh well, 27 isn’t a big deal–let’s just go with the flow on this one,” I figured, and decided to not sign myself up for any crazy climbing birthday challenges or big trips. We had a fly-fishing clinic scheduled as a work outing on my actual birthday, and that was groovy enough for me.

Every outdoorist should have an ‘adventure bug out bag’. You know, that one pack that always has your outside playtime essentials ready to go at a moments notice. In my evrgrn Kickback pack, you’ll find a Hydro Flask, my trusty notebook + pen, my Nikon D7000, an extra scarf–because autumn is upon us, chapstick, and a spare $20 in case I find a taco stand in the middle of the woods. You never know.

Photo: Mehri Russo

Photo: Mehri Russo

As it turns out, I’m a much better photographer than I am fisherman. The time I spent along Boulder Creek with a rod in my hand primarily consisted of me trying to perfect the flick of my wrist and then spending 10 minutes untangling the line. I did catch something though: a rock. The lack of freshly caught fish for dinner didn’t deter me though–I tossed my pack into the car, hauled from Boulder to Denver, and caught up with some of my favorite people for a latin feast at Cuba Cuba.

The next morning, I realized that a birthday weekend can’t just go to waste–so Mcgoo and I grabbed our packs, tossed our down comforter into the back of his Subaru, loaded up on cheese and kabob ingredients at Whole Foods, and headed towards the mountains. We ended up at West Magnolia Trailhead near Nederland, miraculously finding the perfect campsite at 3:00 PM on a Saturday. There were rolling mountain views, sprawling fields for Amble to plow through, and plenty of forest to explore. We played, relaxed by the fire, and I even got a jumpstart on my birthday resolution to start writing more snail mail. I’ll let the photos tell the story:

20151017-DSC_363920151017-DSC_367020151017-DSC_370720151018-DSC0358920151017-DSC_376520151017-DSC_377720151017-DSC_381520151017-DSC_3822 [Read more…]

Backpacking the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park

Here’s a little secret: I am not a backpacker. I have little to no experience backpacking, and my only overnight hiking trip was the Columbia Sportswear sponsored Omniten trip to Havasu Falls where all my water, food, and camping supplies was hiked in for me, cooked for me, and hiked back out for me.

I believe the term for backpackers like me is “total noob.”

The start of the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park.Niko has had his sights set on the Olympic Peninsula since the beginning of our trip, and his goal was to do a 3-day hiking trip from the forest to the coast. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any trails that accomplished that, but we got a great consolation prize with the Hoh River Trail. The trail leads up to Mt. Olympus, while winding through meadows, lush rainforest terrain, riverside beaches, and everything in between.

We were joined for the hike by our buddy Mcgoo, who had been traveling with us for a few weeks starting in San Francisco. Our little crew of three was absolutely scrambling to prepare, unsure of what we would be facing, and planned to camp with two people sleeping in a one-man tent, and another up in a hammock. Folks, this should be an indication to you that things are about to get interesting.

The trek began on a rainy morning, but only after we got stuck with a dead car battery on the side of the road we were boondocked on – the first shenanigan of many. We finally arrived at the trail head, filled up our hydration packs, and set off down the paved portion of the Hoh River Trail.

By the time the pavement turned into muddy mush, I was already exhausted. I have a perpetual issue with packs: my body is simply too tiny to ever properly hold a pack. The straps don’t get tight enough, so I spent the entire hike carrying the weight of my pack on my shoulders. A mile in, and I was ready for a break.A much needed rest area along the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park.

We splashed along the soaked path past a small waterfall, over countless wooden bridges, and beyond the point where most tourists make it. As the day drew on, I quickly realized that there was no way I’d be able to carry myself up the 4,000 foot elevation gain and relentless switchbacks planned for the second day’s hiking. This was going to get ugly.

I carried on (did I have any other choice?) up 10 miles of deep mud pits that led us through some of the most incredible forest scenery I’ve ever witnessed. We paused to pet banana slugs, argued about appropriate times to take breaks, refreshed our hot skin with splashes of river water, and clapped our way through the thickets in hopes of scaring off any lurking bears. It was one of the most arduous experiences, but every sluggish step was worth it.Mcgoo and I on the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park.Misty hiking along the Hoh River Trail.

Our final resting spot was Lewis Meadows, where we set up camp for the evening after meeting a Canadian couple who was planning to summit Mt. Olympus the next day. Soaked from the rain, caked with mud, and aching from swollen feet, we gladly ate an uncooked dinner and promptly passed out. But the day wasn’t over.

Our camp set up at Lewis Meadows on the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park.At some point long after the sun had set, I awoke to Niko rustling from his hammock. Smooshed next to Mcgoo in our too-tiny tent, I peered up from my sleeping bag to see Niko poking his head into the tent.

“I’m really scared, guys. I farted in my hammock, and realized that I basically smell like a giant sausage hanging from the trees. What if I wake up to a bear nudging me from under the hammock? I’m coming in the tent.”

I laughed, because this idea of fright was so foreign to me. I was too sore to worry about getting mauled by a bear, but apparently I was alone in that sentiment. Mcgoo quickly chimed in:

“Dude, I have been trembling in my sleeping bag for hours. I’ve literally been praying for that we just make it to the morning.” – A pretty strong statement from a devout atheist.

At this point, my laughter became uncontrollable. Maybe it was the exhaustion, but I’ve never giggled harder. I couldn’t stop laughing as Niko crammed himself into the tent and the boys squashed me between their terror-filled bodies. Two grown men feared for their lives while my damsel self felt no distress. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

The next morning, I “awoke” after an evening of little rest. With no sleeping pad, and forced into a tiny space with two large men, my body lay sideways the entire night, perched on a tender hip and half-asleep shoulder. I was miserable.

I could hardly contain my excitement when the group agreed that a combination of really wet socks and hiking boots plus a strong desire not to spend another cramped night in bear country meant we’d ought to ditch our plan to continue onwards and just head back to the trailhead. Frankly, I wouldn’t have made it much farther. Hiking with a full pack is immensely more difficult than I was prepared for.Niko and I trucking over a log bridge on the way out from our Hoh River Trail hike.

Despite being sore beyond description, the hike back out was far more enjoyable and manageable than the path into Lewis Meadows. About halfway through, we decided to split up and finish the hike solo. Niko ended up getting back to the van an entire hour before me, and Mcgoo held up the rear arriving back at the trailhead about 40 minutes after I did. Traveling at our own pace was a fantastic decision that allowed us to each focus on our own journey rather than focusing on speeding up or slowing down to maintain the pack.

Hiking by my lonesome allowed me to do something I hadn’t on the way in: slow down and look around. I’m always the slowest hiker on a trail, so I spend most of my time trying to catch up. Forging the path alone let me pause for moments like meeting a bushy fox as he sauntered over logs, getting startled by a herd of elk just off the trail, and washing my face with icy spring water. It was peaceful, invigorating, and reflective.One of many beautiful views enjoyed along the Hoh River Trail in the Olympic National Park.

In the end, we traveled about 21 miles over the course less than 30 hours. A laughable journey for many ambitious backpackers, but for me it was a triumph: I had survived my first overnight backcountry adventure with Niko – and I was ready for another. I definitely have a lot to learn about backpacking, but I’m excited to continue the journey.

Why we never make it to the crag before noon at Indian Creek

I wake up in the morning with sticky skin. Last night’s thunderstorm, and accompanying flash flood, did little to tame the desert temperatures – it’s way too warm to be sleeping in my thick bathrobe. I hear the rustlings of camp outside the van, so we get up and start a batch of coffee in the french press.

While Lauren sets to work cooking a batch of apple cinnamon pancakes on her one-burner stove, I perch myself on the picnic table beside her bench and admire the morning. The North Six-Shooter beams upward behind our campsite, the sun is already baking my skin, and all manner of birds are calling out from the thick brush surrounding us.

The Six Shooter as seen from our camp at Indian Creek.

Mornings here are highlighted by the habitual migration to the outhouse. One by one, we make the short trek up the dirt road to the most magnificent pit toilet I have ever sat on. There’s nothing fancy about this facility, with a small chain hooked across two planks of wood as the only indicator of current occupation and the lack of any roof – which is possibly the best part. Here you are, in the middle of Utah’s finest desert landscape, taking a dump while the breeze brushes past and the open ceiling offers an unobstructed view of the big blue sky.

My view from the outhouse at the Superbowl Camping area in Indian Creek.Today, the heavens are hued like a bluejay. In the corner of my outhouse view space, small spindles of clouds float by like wayward tufts of spun sugar. I’ll say it; these are the best poops I’ve ever had.

The path back to camp is a short jaunt lined with potholes filled with red clay water from the storms and more chirping birds in the bushes. My distractions nearly cause me to get hit by a stray frisbee, but the boys get it stuck up a tree instead. We should be packing up to hit the crag before the sun begins to beat down with merciless heat, but we prefer to take our time.

Niko and Christian continue their frisbee tossing, aiming to hit an axe sticking out of a stump – but miss every time. Lauren tidies the picnic table from her breakfast mess, while Jeremy settles by the fire ring while strumming our ukulele. This morning has inspired me to write, so I take a seat near Jeremy on a crash pad caked with red dirt. Bouldering gear becomes furniture here in Indian Creek.

After a few more morning musings, we connect with our Australian friends from a few campsites down – the only other occupants of the Super Bowl camping area – and finally succumb to the call of our tape gloves.

A rumbling upstream: Flash flood sweeps past my Indian Creek campsite

By the time we left the Super Crack parking lot, it had already begun to pour. This unusual desert rain had plagued us for two days now, and we rushed back to the campsite to make sure the van would still be able to trudge through the thick mud. We stayed huddled in the van with Jeremy for a bit before the storm eased up, then set about the usual evening musings in preparation for dinner and a fire. Seeing the desert landscape in a storm is a special treat at Indian Creek.

Earlier that day, Niko and I spent a few hours rummaging around a small creek running behind our campsite. It was charming, a six-foot wide stream no more than knee-deep, and often just barely skimming over rock beds. I’ve always been attracted to rivers and creeks, so I made plans to return and trek as far up the waterside as I could.

A result of the flash flood in Indian Creek.When we finally made it back to camp that evening, Jeremy decided to check out the creek while the rest of us began to chop onions and fire up our stoves. A few minutes later, we heard him shout.

While eyeing a path of stones so he could cross the little creek without getting his toes wet, Jeremy heard a deep rustling in the trees upstream. He thought our Australian companions were perhaps out exploring as well, but quickly realized otherwise as the rumbling sped towards him.

He thought it best to take a few large steps back from the water’s edge, just in time to watch a tall foaming wall of water gush up the once trickling stream, churning forward in a chaos of broken tree limbs and red mud. The flash flood raged past him, turning the once small stream with a clear view of the bottom into an angry, murky mass quadrupled in size.

We hurried down the wash, and stood astonished at the newly created scene. The little creek from this morning was now unrecognizable, and the rushing water created loud rapids that sped past small brush plants clinging to the remaining embankment. Floating logs frequently amped past, leaving crackling echoes in their wake as they crashed against stones in the flood.

I had never seen anything like it.The flash flood that swept through the wash just below our campsite at Indian Creek.

Our little crew stayed and admired the flood until the sun set and the wash began to grow too dark to navigate. When we returned the next morning, all that remained of the flash flood was a vast stretch of wet mud where the water had surged the previous night. The little stream now ran a cloudy red color. It was hard to believe that this was the same wash that had been gushing with violent water the night before. The creek was calm once again the morning after the flash flood.

By the time we left Indian Creek, the entire creek bed dried up, leaving nothing more than a few muddy patches of thigh deep quick sand and sad little puddles of stagnant water. During the past few months spent in the desert, I’ve heard a lot about the dangers of flash floods – but it has always centered around places like slot canyons. Experiencing the flood first hand was really eye-opening about how surprising and influential flash floods can be. For Jeremy, the landscape morphed in an instant, changing from docile and manageable to a volatile place where he easily could have been in harmed if he hadn’t taken those steps backwards from the water’s edge.

I guess that’s why you’re not supposed to set up camp or hike in dried up washes!

 

Dirtbag Beta: Review of the Hueco Rock Ranch

If you’re planning a trip to climb at Hueco Tanks, you basically have two options for lodging: camping inside the park, or staying at the American Alpine Club’s Hueco Rock Ranch. Of course, you could always rent a motel room closer to town, but let’s get real.

With the park campground often being entirely booked during peak bouldering season at Hueco Tanks, your best bet is to snag a campsite at the ranch. When I visited, the park was full, but the ranch had plenty of space.

The cost isn’t the cheapest, but the fees make up for it with free wi-fi, a spacious barn to cook and relax in, hot showers, and did I mention free wi-fi? The nightly rate is normally $10, but if you are an American Alpine Club or Access Fund member, you get a discounted price of $7/night.

To the Hueco Rock Ranch!

There are also a few rooms available in the main house area, but this beta is intended for dirtbags, and I doubt any of y’all are trying to get fancy.

The campsites are well laid out, and marked with numbered stones. If you’re setting up a tent, make sure you really secure it to the ground. The desert is notorious for freakishly windy weather. Car camping is also allowed, and I’d recommend it during the winter season if you aren’t experienced with cold weather camping.

Since you’re surrounded by fellow climbers, it’s safe to leave your gear out at the Hueco Rock Ranch. Many folks left their food tubs next to their tents during the day, and we left our crash pads sitting next to the van each night.

A panoramic view of our 'camp' spot at Hueco Rock Ranch near Hueco Tanks State Park.

The real attraction at the ranch is the recently renovated barn where climbers gather each evening. There are a few couches spread out, a big picnic-type table, and a sizeable kitchen to cook in. The barn has plenty of plugs, and the wi-fi is decent (but don’t bother trying to watch any climbing videos on most days). You’ll also find a library of random books, a foos ball table, and three full bathrooms in the ranch. In my opinion, the barn is what makes Hueco Rock Ranch worth the money.

Here are a few more tips for staying at the Hueco Rock Ranch:

Important Shower Beta: Do NOT use the rightmost shower. I repeat, do not use the rightmost shower unless you want to feel like you’re getting peed on. That was the first mistake I made. The second mistake? Not realizing that the hot/cold sides are switched on the shower knob. Folks, the ‘cold’ side is hot, and the ‘hot’ side is cold. You’re welcome.

Feeling hungry? The closest grocery store is Vista Mercado, a funky little Mexican market where you are highly encouraged to give yourself a taste of local food. For the best and cheapest tacos near Hueco Tanks, stop by El Pasito Meat Market. It sits inside a little gas station-type market, but it’s delicious.

Looking for ways to get into Hueco Tanks without a reservation? There’s a blog post for that! 

The easiest tent you’ll ever own: Review of the Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent

Here’s the first full review from my Holiday Gift Guide for Outdoor Adventurers.
Check it out, and stay tuned for the rest of the reviews!

Picture this: You’ve finally arrived at your campsite – and it’s now 2:30 AM. You’re exhausted from the drive, but your car is too jam-packed with adventure equipment to allow for sleeping comfortably in it. What’s the last thing you want to do right now? Spend ten minutes fumbling with tent poles and hooks in order to snag a wistful few hours of sleep before waking up and deconstructing your tent all over again.

Major bummer, dude.

Now picture this: Same late-night camping scenario, same levels of I-just-want-to-sleep, but now you’ve got a Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent. You grab the bright yellow sack that holds your tent, unroll it, and within about 45 seconds, you’re ready for bed. You snuggle up in your sleeping bag while your buddies fumble around with their clunky tents.

Niko sets up our Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent at Grandfather Mountain Campground in NC.

Major victory, dude!

When Niko and I received our Outfitter XXL Quick Tent, we were elated – even more so when we managed to go from a sealed package to a set-up tent in less than three minutes. And that was our first time EVER setting it up. We were both instantly impressed, but the real test came when we took the Teton Sports tent on its first adventure to North Carolina for the Hound Ears Triple Crown climbing competition.

After keeping us cozy through misty mountain mornings, light afternoon rain, and some pretty gnarly wind gusts – the Outfitter XXL Quick Tent passed our camping test with flying floors.

Here’s what I love about the Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent:

  • It is the easiest tent I have ever camped with. Both set-up and take-down are simple tasks that take less than a minute.
  • It packs down extremely easy, and the roomy stuff sack doesn’t require a battle to get the tent packed away. With a weight of only 4 lbs, it’s light and easy to carry.
  • The tent was designed as a topper for camping cots, but the waterproof base and sturdy structure makes it an ideal tent for ground camping as well (I have only used it directly on the ground).
  • Where many tents offer a small window or two, the Outfitter XXL is entirely wrapped with see-through mesh, so if the weather allows you to go without the rain-fly, you can wake up surrounded by natural beauty.
  • When the rain-fly is up, there is an ample vestibule area for keeping your dirty hiking boots sheltered from the elements without dragging them into the tent. Plus, the rain-fly is easily assembled with four simple clip-ons.
  • While a larger person may find this to be a one-man tent, Niko and I fit perfectly together in it. This is a great tent for adventure couples.
  • It’s my favorite color – and it totally matches my big yellow van.

Peek-a-boo, that's me creeping inside my Teton Sports Outfitter XXL Quick Tent.There is only a single caveat I have with the world’s easiest tent: there are no pockets. But what I love about Teton Sports is their amazing receptiveness to user feedback. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their next tent release features a pocket.

The bottom line: I would highly recommend this tent. It retails at $100, but could easily sell for upwards for $200. The value can’t be beat, but it’s the impossibly simple set-up that will win you over instantly.

Don’t believe my rave reviews about how quickly this tent sets up? Check it out for yourself:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctjyEtu8coo]

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A Guide to Car-Camping – in Walmart Parking Lots

As any experienced road tripper, climber, or long-term traveler can attest, one of the biggest issues with life on the road is finding a place to rest every night. Between tight budgets, uncertain routes, and evenings spent driving at ungodly hours, there is often a need to find a makeshift place to catch a few hours of sleep.

One of the tried and true traditions of my climbing trips and cross-country excursions is the practice of spending a night (or two) in a Walmart parking lot. I was extremely reluctant and nervous my first time, during which I hardly achieved a few moments of rest. However, after nothing but positive experiences, the sight of a glowing Walmart sign on the side of a highway has become a welcoming landmark.

While Walmart founder Sam Walton has allegedly been quoted in feeling strongly that all travelers should reverie his stores as a destination for safe rest and refuge, there has been a lot of debate surrounding the practice of overnight camping in the parking lots. While I have never been approached during my brief stays, I have heard plenty of stories of people being asked to leave, or told they couldn’t stay.

So, should you spend the night in a Walmart parking lot? I’d say sure, but first, educate yourself on the do’s and don’ts of overnighting at one of these fine American institutions (ha).

What You Should Do:

Depending on your attitude, calling ahead to inquire about a specific location’s overnight policies is the safest course of action. However, if you’ve pulled into a random store in the middle of the night, desperate for sleep – you will likely be fine. Always be discrete. While large campers and RVs are sitting ducks in the parking lot pond, sedans and smaller vehicles have the advantage of blending in fairly well.

A few crucial elements of discretion include parking away from store entrances where shoppers should have priority, keeping your ‘space’ clean, and leaving as early as possible in the morning. Additionally, you should make an effort to give patronage to the place that is giving you a safe place to sleep – buy something. If you just grab a protein shake and cheese stick in the morning, fine. Need to stock up on some camping supplies? Even better – you’ll make the entire car-camping community look good.

Just because Walmarts are generally a secure place to stop for the night doesn’t mean that every location stands equal when it comes to safety. Always be aware of the surrounding neighborhood – a sketchy area equates to a sketchy Walmart parking lot. Be smart. Always keep your keys within reach. I prefer to keep the driver’s seat open and easy accessible, in case there is a need to make a quick getaway.

What You Shouldn’t Do:

*Note: Niko wasn’t actually in a Walmart parking lot in this photo, no worries.

Basically, don’t be that guy. If you roll up to a Walmart at 11 PM, pop open the hatchback, and set up a few chairs around your parking spot while throwing back a few beers – don’t be surprised when you get the boot. Anyone traveling in a non-car rig is should never set-up camp in any conspicuous manner. If security or management approaches you, don’t be disrespectful. It is a privilege to have access to staying overnight, and travelers must remain understanding that some locations have had bad experiences with long-term or disruptive ‘campers.’

Don’t leave a mess. You should be practicing this in all aspects of your adventures, but littering free accommodations is especially offensive. Nothing leaves a bad taste in a manager’s mouth than rude overnighters.

Despite the usually relaxed overnight regulations at most locations, there are some stores that are actively against travelers shacking up in their parking lots. Check out this listing of Walmarts that do not allow overnight stays.

Niko says: “I’ve been crashing in Walmart parking lots ever since I was able to drive — it’s a “simple comfort” for dirtbags. On long nights, you know that just down the road there’s a parking lot where you can grab some munchies, clean up in the 24-hour bathrooms, and shut your eyes for a couple hours. I always crack a window in my car to get some fresh air, and like to stop in the store to grab breakfast before heading out – think of the cost of your milk and cereal as a camping fee.”

If you aren’t bothered by the unavoidable florescent lighting and likelihood of waking up in a sea of cars from Walmart’s morning floods of blue collar customers, pulling into one of their many parking lots provides a great venue for catching some rest before embarking on your next day of adventuring.

Have you ever spent the night in a Walmart parking lot?
Got good any experiences to share? Any bad experiences?
Sound off in the comments and contribute to the conversation!