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Southern Arizona Road Trip in an Escape Campervan: Favorite Destinations

southern arizona escape campervan

We really excited to share some of our favorite destinations from our southern Arizona road trip in a handpainted Escape Campervan!

In an earlier blog post, we talked about our dip into van travel for two weeks back in February! We talked about the differences between bus and van travel, check that out if you’re curious…

Our van trip was somewhat planned but kept very flexible, just the way we like it. Our goals were eating really delicious food, hiking and running as much as we can. We wanted to explore some of the places in southern Arizona that we hadn’t been able to see yet in our bus for one reason or another.

buslife vanlife pros and cons
Adventure vehicles! Top (Escape Campervan rental), bottom (our bus, full-time living).
Bottom photo courtesy of Maine Homes and Design.

We’ve traveled 20,000 miles over a huge portion of the United States in our big blue bus conversion and another 1,300 miles in this cool van. We’ve seen a lot of what our beautiful country has to offer as far as diversity in landscapes, communities and people (our favorite!).

Nationwide road-tripping gives us a better perspective and appreciation of the unique ecosystems, industries and the cultures. There’s something to learn everywhere you go. That’s the best part! Here goes…

We Really Love Arizona

Arizona has been our go to state when winter has a tight grip on our home in New Hampshire for the past two winters. Why?

Arizona is one of the most RV and traveler friendly states with its accessible roads, water/dump station/fuel/camping services galore. There are plenty of public land options for free camping too, our favorite. Check out some of our favorite travel apps for more information on how we find these spots. 

Exploring Southwest AZ

I think we also love the southwest so much because of its EXTREME contrast to where we grew up in the northeast. We really love both landscapes so much.

The deserts are spectacular, the mountains are wild and rugged, and the plants and wildlife are so unique. It just made sense that AZ be the state we explore on a deeper level during our bus (and van!) travels.

We started with renting an Escape Campervan Big Sur model. They’re all a bit different, ours was called “Jumper.

We also connected with Arizona State Parks to gather a handful of recommendations for state parks to explore on our route. Did you know they won a National Gold Medal award for best managed parks?! After going on this trip, we’re not surprised at all.

Since we can’t fit EVERYTHING we did in one blog, we picked a handful of highlights to aid in your AZ explorations. 

Here are several of our FAVORITE destinations and notes from our southern Arizona trip with Escape Campervans:

Dinner at 24 Carrots: Tempe, AZ

24 carrots wild drive life road trip

Since the bus was parked just outside of Phoenix and we don’t normally drive that behemoth in cities, the first night of our trip we took the van through the downtown area of Tempe, AZ and had dinner at 24 Carrots!

We so rarely go out to eat while traveling in the bus since it’s a great way to save money. It happens MAYBE once every few months. We decided to explore a few foodie spots on the van trip and treat ourselves. We could finally fit into their parking lots without worry, woohoo!

The vibe at 24Carrots is so welcoming; casual and upbeat. Chef/owner and her crew have serious culinary skills. They bring deep and interesting flavors to the table in their dishes, everything is well thought out, GORGEOUSLY presented and healthy.

We highly recommend the Topopo Nachos and the chocolate cupcakes that say “love” on them. Go ahead and get two of them! Ah-mazing.

South Mountain Hike: Phoenix, AZ

hiking southern arizona wild drive

Before we left the PHX area we decided to hike nearby South Mountain with Moose! Moose went on all our hiking and running adventures with us. That’s how we choose where to go, really!

South Mountain is easy to get to and pretty close to downtown Phoenix. We called our friends @journeybyvan to see if they wanted to join with their two dogs Zuke and Mooney. They were about to head out for a hike anyway so it was perfect. They hopped into their campervan and met us at the trailhead. Moose loves their them and their doggos!

South Mountain is a 3.5 mile (with other trails & options) easy, accessible, dog friendly hike. There are great views of the city below and some fun rocks formations and side trails to explore too. It gets pretty busy on weekends, just as an FYI.

What did we bring? Our camera, Larabars, water and Moose’s travel bowl in a small pack. Use your judgement re: sun protection, snacks and additional gear needed. Always wear comfortable and supportive footwear!

Lost Dutchman State Park Camping: Apache Junction, AZ

lost dutchman state park arizona road trip

We left Phoenix and pointed the van west toward Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction. It was only a 50 minute or so drive from PHX. What a breathtaking place!

The campground was easily accessible, super clean and could accommodate any size vehicle. They welcome everything from tents and campervans to full-size motorhomes and RVs.

It’s smart to have reservations since this park is so gorgeous/popular. We got lucky with a spot along the perimeter (highly recommend) of the park after someone cancelled. Woohoo!

Flatiron Hike + New Friends: Superstition Mountains, AZ

hiking wild drive life southern arizona

Part of the Superstition Mountain range, Lost Dutchman offers beautiful nature walks, wildlife, and a couple more rugged hikes.

Ben and I obviously wanted the biggest and baddest hike they have there. We decided to venture up to the iconic Flatiron peak that towers over the surrounding area. It is a 6.2 mile out and back trail.

It was a rainy, foggy and windy day and after a quick stop to chat with the rangers we parked the van at the trailhead and went for it!

We felt right at home on this hike and thought, “Are we back in the New Hampshire White Mountains right now?!”

Notes on Hiking

Rockslides and washouts can mimic a trail and be confusing for hikers on this southwest terrain. People also make their own cairns sometimes, trail markers are few and far between, etc. We’re not used to this AT ALL coming from the northeast hiking trails. Blazes and signs at every intersection are the norm in most areas we’ve hiked in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

We suggest doing research on your planned hike, speaking with a ranger for any more information you need before venturing out. Better to be safe. Always make sure that you have GPS/map resources with you. This goes for any hike, really.

The challenge picked up after a gradual uphill climb to Siphon Draw. We arrived at a water carved canyon and waterfall. The winds were so high the water was flowing backwards in one part of the stream below! 

We got a little lost…

hiking flat iron lost dutchman

After following a wrong turn over toward another Flatiron looking butte we added some unplanned distance to our hike but no worries! We quickly hopped on All Trails and made our way back.

A mile or so later we rejoined the trail and we met another couple on their way back from also being lost. After a laugh, we decided to ascend the rest of the trail together from there! We all took another false trail again (yes, again!) onto a gnarly alternate route. I’m telling you, it’s so easy to get lost on this trail! We were all prepared and fine, even Mr. Moose!

We happily summited amidst high winds and fog that broke JUST long enough for us to catch a view below. We finished the hike with new friends and a story to share.

What did we bring? We brought our fully-weighted and supplied packs (20-28 lbs.) on this hike to train for the Appalachian Trail which we do often. It’s doable with a smaller pack of course just be prepared & remember your essentials.

Kartchner Caverns State Park: Benson, AZ

It was pretty quiet at the park. Ben and I tend to travel to more touristy destinations at off-peak times, highly recommend!

The next morning we headed South toward Benson, AZ. We buzzed through Tucson since we planned to spend more time there at the tail end of our trip. We continued on to Kartchner Caverns State Park and the tours that began our obsession with caves!

Beautifully preserved and meticulously maintained, Kartchner Caverns offers some of the most breathtaking cave formations you can imagine. They feel very ALIVE, formations still growing in real time as we walked through!

We were lucky enough to find openings in both the Big Room tour and the Rotunda/Throne Room guided walking tours.

It was warm and humid down in the caves, about 70 degrees or so. The tour guides were extremely knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic about the discovery and preservation of this natural wonder. Ben and I had to be right up front, of course! 

Each tour was unique and interesting enough for us not to feel like one was better than the other. We highly recommend BOTH TOURS.

Photography is not allowed in the cave, which made it kind of nice to unplug and simply soak in the experience. If you’re in southern AZ this is a must see destination.

There are a couple of easy hikes/trails to run and walk in the foothills around the caverns too! We went for a run with Moose and met another full-time RV couple (Diane and Steve!) at one of the lookouts. We love those moments!

Roper Lake State Park, sort of!

After two days at Kartchner we set off Northwest to a little town called Cactus Flat and over to Roper Lake State Park. It’s a popular destination for fishing, boating, and birding.

We got on the road EARLY and caught a majestic sunrise on our drive up 191 with views of Mt. Graham and the surrounding range. That was my favorite part of the day!

Unfortunately it was about 35 degrees with howling winds when we arrived. The natural stone hot tub was closed for service. We went for a quick, sort of hilarious windy run on one of the trails and said, “Want to keep driving south?!” Bummed as we were about the weather, now we know about Roper Lake and would love to go back another time.

Road Trip Tip: Go with the Flow

Ben and I try to go with the flow of what we enjoy, especially when traveling together. It’s just less stressful for all involved! Our year of bus travels trained us well. We hopped right back in the campervan and kept going to Bisbee, AZ.

Our original plan was to visit Tombstone, AZ but we got some feedback from our amazing Instagram community that Bisbee is less touristy and more our style!

They were right!

In that moment I was so thankful for the simplicity of this van road trip vs. bus travel. I love having the space of our bus when we’re parked but in the van we could travel more miles, more comfortably and with less stress. It was a welcomed break!

When a Radio Station Makes Your Day (and your road trip)

En route to Bisbee we found the best radio station on our entire trip: 100.7 in Wilcox, AZ. Pairing experiences with music has been a natural part of my life since I can remember. Music means the world to me, it enhances moments, it is therapy, even the hilarious and nostalgic tunes!

100.7 wasn’t your run of the mill 80’s, 90’s, and today’s hits kind of station. When 100.7 says variety, they mean variety. The sets were so random we couldn’t help but love it. We’re talking Tammy Wynette, Gerry Rafferty, Smash Mouth, Bell Biv Devoe, Bob Dylan, and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Not kidding, that was the actual line up in that order. It was so good it earned a spot on our road trip highlights.

Bisbee, Arizona: Running, hills and artwork galore.

A former mining town carved into the mountains back in the late 1800s, Bisbee is a real gem in the southwest. Much of the town buildings and houses exist on steep valley hills and winding streets.

Our run (mentioned below) took us past unique street art pieces, crafty outdoor decor; colorful fences, metalwork, and a giant rose sculpture. It was like Jack Kerouac and the Banksy were on the city planning board or something, I loved it. You just have to see it!

We were so thankful to have had the campervan there too, the steep streets would have been a wee bit of a challenge to traverse and park on with the big bus.

We spent one day there. I’d recommend that, maybe two depending on the events going on and what your plans are. FMI on Bisbee happenings and history…

BISBEE 1,000: Five Mile Run

If you’re a runner like we are, we highly suggest embarking on the iconic Bisbee 1,000 4.5 mile course. Another person in our Insta community suggested it to us (thank you!).

Bisbee’s neighborhoods are somewhat like what you’d see in a cliffside town in Greece: houses on houses on narrow streets with twists and turns galore! So, the course traverses an interconnected maze of nine staircases and 1,000 individual steps peppered all throughout the town. It’s a great way to see it all and get a workout in.

The Bisbee 1,000 is considered one of the most unique and difficult physical challenges in the country. We somehow made it a 5.2 mile loop with a couple wrong turns, naturally. If you like to run or are just in for a beautiful scenic walk through this iconic town then hit the stairs of the Bisbee 1,000. 

Queen Mine Tours: Bisbee, AZ

Bisbee was built around a massive copper mine known as the Copper Queen Mine. The city started booming in the early 1900’s and has had an art & tourism revival since the mine closed in the 1970’s. 

Today you can take a guided tour down into the mine and get a taste of how life was like for the miners of yesteryear.

“During almost a century of mining, 8 billion pounds of copper, 102 million ounces of silver and 2.8 million ounces of gold along with millions of pounds of zinc, lead and manganese were produced. By 1974 ore reserves had been depleted and December brought the announcement of the impending closure of mining operations in Bisbee. Phelps Dodge curtailed open pit operations that year and ceased underground operations in 1975.” Source

We hopped aboard the original rail cart that was used by miners and plunged into the mountain. Our tour guide was a retired miner himself! He was a Sam Elliot cowboy lookalike, had the best stories and in my opinion he was as much a part of the tour as the mine itself.

Miller Canyon (BLM camping): Sierra Vista, AZ

After a quick stop in at Bisbee Coffee Co. for cold brew and vegan cookies (so good), we headed out for a scenic drive toward Miller Canyon. We spent the night at a public land campsite we found on Campendium in Sierra Vista.

Miller Canyon was beautiful, very remote, almost eerie. Ben woke up to go to the bathroom and saw four sets of eyes staring back at him! At this point in our traveling days, not much phases us. It was perfect for the night and we’ll keep that location pinned in our Google maps for sure.

We caught a really cold week overall, we know this spot would be AMAZING in warmer temperatures! There are hiking & trail running options nearby.

Patagonia Lake State Park: Patagonia, AZ

Patagonia is the supreme, we mean SERIOUS birding destination (we didn’t know this before arriving!) for naturalists and hobbyists alike. The park was super friendly and clean. We landed a site that sat almost directly on the shore of the beautiful Patagonia Lake. We highly recommended reservations in advance here too.

There are dirt and paved trails all over the park to explore. We set off on a morning run up to Patagonia Outlook. We followed trails to a service road and found the trailhead on a gorgeous sloping hillside; cacti, agave and wild flowers all around us. Patagonia Outlook features great views of the valley and lake. It even has a stone bench at the top to sit and take in the scenery.

After a quick stop at Gathering Grounds in Patagonia for some coffee and tea we made our way back north toward Madera Canyon, our next boondocking camp spot. We made sure to charge up the Jackery while driving so we would have charging/power capabilities while parked for a couple days.

Madera Canyon: BLM Camping

There are some incredible hiking options in and around Madera Canyon. I’m amazed that it’s less an an hour south of Tucson!

You find everything from gradual shorter trails for families up to higher elevation challenges all within a short drive. There are free (BLM) and paid camping options available. There was still a lot of snow up on the peaks at this time (mid-February) but the lower areas where we camped were very mild, 60’s during the day, 30’s at night.

We camped at the base of Mt. Wrightson in the canyon for the night with plans to hike to the peak or something close the next morning. I knew we wouldn’t go far past the snow line because we forgot our micro spikes in the bus back in Tempe!

Miller Canyon Hiking: Bog/Kent Spring Loop

The next morning, after coffee, a green smoothie and oatmeal, we made our way to the Mt. Wrightson trailhead. We were turned away at arrival by police due to an active search for a missing person. It’s heartbreaking. They never found the elderly hiker after an exhaustive two week search effort. 🙁

At the time we were really hopeful, wished the crew well and went on with our hike at a lower elevation. We took the Bog Springs trail for a six mile or so loop around with beautiful views of the snowy taller peaks surrounding us. The nostalgic alpine forest dusted with snow reminded us of home in the northeast which we loved.

We brought our fully weighted packs just to train for our April Appalachian Trail hike but this hike is doable with a smaller day pack and the 10 hiking essentials.

Titan II Missile Museum: Sahuarita, AZ

Another must see in the Green Valley area is the Titan II Missile Museum in Sahuarita. We stopped here on a whim but it was one of our favorite experiences of the trip. This location has the last nuclear missile silo of its kind in the world!

The museum offers guided tours throughout the immaculately preserved site and missile control room. You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate the heavy and quite honestly terrifying role the Titan II played during the Cold War.

Being the front of the class nerds that we are, Meag and I were selected to simulate a launch as it might have happened back in 1963. We got to sit in the captain and co-captain’s chairs (Meag was the captain of course) and go through the steps to launch a warhead, turning the original keys in the ignition ports in unison. 

The thing about we love about road tripping is that you visit some obscure spots you may have overlooked otherwise, this experience was no exception.

Lovin’ Spoonfuls: Vegan Comfort Food in Tucson, AZ

We hopped back in our Escape Campervan and drove 45 minutes north to arrive in Tucson. We zoomed over to Lovin’ Spoonfuls on recommendation from another helpful follower on Insta. THANK YOU!

I saw right away on their specials board: creamy vegan mac n’ cheese with soyrizo or buffalo nuggets. SOLD! It was amazing.

Catalina State Park, Cacti and Wildflowers: Tucson, AZ

We spent the night at Catalina State Park just outside the city. You would never know Tucson is just a stone’s throw away from this natural getaway. These is my favorite kind of camping find (car/tent/campervan): you get the remote feel, hiking/running trails, nature everywhere paired with any conveniences you may need nearby. 

The hiking/running/biking/horse trails around Catalina State Park feature some of the most beautiful and plentiful saguaro cacti and colorful wildflowers I’ve ever seen. The wild spearlike tentacles seemed longer and thinner than most others we’ve seen around AZ.

We ran about 6 miles each day we were there. We hopped over creeks, climbed stairs to lookouts, passed horses as we went, sun shining (finally!). It was some of my favorite runs on the trip!

Did we mention these were the best shower facilities of the entire trip? Spacious and super clean, they knew how to make the guests feel welcome!

Driving up Mt. Lemmon (from summer to winter!): Tucson, AZ

The next morning we embarked on the iconic drive up Mt. Lemmon (28 miles up, 28 miles down). This was another spot where our Escape Campervan really shined. I don’t think we would have been able to make it up the 28 mile mountain drive and back with the bus. 

The mountain road wasn’t particularly steep it was one very long, slow hill.

The Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway takes you through multiple biomes starting with desert and ending in a Canadian forest zone at 9,159’. There are many pullouts along the way to snap a photo of some spectacular views and hoodoo rock formations. It was sunny and 65 at the base and a chilly WINTER day with snow on the ground at the summit.

Gordon Hirabayashi Historic Site

On our way back down, we stopped at a historic site of the Catalina Federal Honor Camp off Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway. The historic site is named after Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American civil rights activist and inmate there back in the 1940s. He was given a formal apology and his conviction was finally overturned in 1987.

This historic site is a must see for those who want a little world history with their natural history. It was really humbling. For more information on this, head here.

Redington Pass BLM Camping: Tucson, AZ

We spent the night at a public land (BLM) spot off of Redington Pass outside of Tucson. We arrived just before sunset, made burritos (prime time road trip dinner option!) and went to bed.

The next morning, after coffee, green smoothies and oatmeal we set out for brisk 6.8 mile run straight up the pass. We like a good challenge, haha. It makes a run more interesting than simply… running straight and level. Windy conditions and the steep incline of Redington Pass added a gratifying mental challenge to our morning workout.

Tumerico Scratch Kitchen: Tucson, AZ

We started the journey back to Phoenix and made one last stop at another amazing vegan restaurant! Tumerico in Tucson was the perfect close to our food/hiking/running tour.

Tumerico’s menu is one of the most creative I’ve seen and it changes daily! They have the best authentic Mexican inspired vegan food and delicious lattés to boot! We ordered the CBD Pesto and the jackfruit tacos.

Bittersweet End to the Trip

The Escape Campervan made seeing all these places in such a short time really easy to do. It eliminated the stress of driving our big, beautiful bus and we didn’t have to pay a dime for a hotel.

USE CODE WILDDRIVE10 at Escape for 10% off the nightly rental rate.

Restrictions apply, depends on availability.

It was such a treat to drive around southern Arizona but we did really miss our bus. Would we want to live in something as small as the van? No, not for us full-time, BUT, for road trips it’s great! Needless to say, we were going to miss having the van around. I’m sure it’ll see plenty of adventures ahead in and around Phoenix.

We gave the bus a big loving hug when we returned and marked the end of a great van-cation. And maybe we had dinner that night at our favorite Phoenix vegan restaurant, Green. We just couldn’t help it. 🙂

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