Everyone has this revolving idea of freedom. The inevitable craving for something different when routine has consumed your life. For some, it’s a one-way ticket to a new country, for others it may be an all-inclusive beach resort…for me it’s the road. It’s the real life metaphor of leaving your problems behind, or at least putting them on pause.
“Van Life” as cliché as it sounds, was the escape I’d been longing for...
I love my car and a good drive but it lacks key comfort pieces. There is no real bed, living space, or desk, not to mention a bathroom or shower. All of those missing components made me wonder what it would be like to experience real life on the road.
Now here is the hard part: a quick Google search is like opening a door into a new universe. Van Life is a movement, a lifestyle, an obsession like I haven’t seen before. There are countless rabbit holes of recommendations, but what I always found missing was real comfort. Some vans were too big to drive comfortably for the first time; some had so many features it seemed impossible to enjoy without an instruction manual. Some vans were so tacky and colorful and small it made more sense to sleep in a tent. Then I found Cabana. A hotel on wheels.
Seriously though, a hotel on wheels… minus the mint on the pillow and the room service. It was everything I could hope for. A reasonably sized van (with a backup camera, thank you!), a big comfy bed, no obnoxious colors, and best of all, a shower and flushing toilet. Those were the features that stood out, and I started my research into renting one of the vans.
I was planning on being on the road for about 5 days, and since I was new to this I didn’t want to worry about maintenance at all –– no refilling water tanks or dumping or recharging. Cabana had all of that dialed in. I could cook and shower and charge all my gear up without ever worrying about anything. I didn’t have to go to a rental car counter and get upsold on every single detail. It was all packaged up perfectly and crazy simple to book with their app (available for iOS and Android).
Plane tickets were booked and that was it: just pull the trigger and go. I opened the app and created a profile with my driver’s license and a quick selfie for verification. I selected my dates and van location and hit confirm. The reservation confirmation and a location to pick up the van followed on the next screen, and I received a notification that the van would be ready to unlock 15 minutes before my scheduled time.
Fast forward one month to find myself and my girlfriend walking down the street in Seattle to a parking lot in a cute little neighborhood. We saw the van ahead, clean white with a pastel blue trim on the top and the simple logo of “Cabana.” Seeing up close what would be our home for the next 5 days, we were stoked on our decision. I walked up to the van and opened the app, within a few seconds it said “Bluetooth connecting,” the screen asked, “Start rental?” and the doors unlocked! I couldn’t believe how easy it was. The keys were in the glove box with an RFID chip card inserted. It was everything we had hoped for: a fully functional shower/bathroom combo and a perfect sized refrigerator, coffee maker and sink. Above the crazy soft bed was a TV where you can connect your device for Netflix and all the other streaming services you may have.
We loaded our suitcases and bags into the garage (storage area) in the back of the van, stored the essentials up front, and hit the road. Because being mobile all the time allows you to cover the state in depth, we saw and experienced more than I can list.
To my surprise, driving the van downtown turned out to be incredibly easy. Initially it was daunting being downtown and navigating the streets of Seattle for the first time in a much larger vehicle than I was used to, but once the nerves subsided, it was smooth driving, especially once we got on the highway.
We headed north to the top of the Cascade Mountain, Stevens Pass. At the end is Mt. Baker and Artist Point, which is a well deserved title considering the awesome beauty. From there we backtracked a bit to the start of the North Cascades Highway and made our way east across the mountains. This whole drive was surreal –– I never gave much thought to why the Cascade Range was given its name, but it quickly became obvious. I had never seen so many waterfalls and rivers and creeks rushing around in so many different directions. We constantly pointed to this waterfall or that one, some pouring on the road, some so high in the mountains it was hard to tell until you saw the motion. We found Diablo Lake, the highlight in the middle of this stretch of road, and stopped for the day to hike and enjoy the 360 mountain views and beautiful blue lake.
After making coffee in the van and a morning hike we were on the road again, heading southeast towards the unique town of Leavenworth and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. I hadn’t done much research about the towns along our route –– it was the mountains I knew about and went to see –– but Leavenworth was mentioned in so many of the trip reports I read as a town you shouldn’t skip, and they were right. As you pull into town you immediately feel the charm. It’s like stepping into a fairytale mountain village in Bavaria. There’s gorgeous architecture and design to the area that really makes you want to stop and take a walk around. We had a quick bite to eat, picked up some local beers, and headed towards the place we would call home for the night.
If you have ever seen photos of Washington mountains, there is a good chance you’ve seen images from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It’s an ethereal area above the tree line that has endless views, including the gem of the area: Colchuck Lake, our end goal. If we had more time we would have explored much more of the area. It’s a hikers’ paradise, but we were on the hunt to see as much as possible, so we resisted the temptation to stay in this area for days. As we continued west on the Cascade Loop, Wallace Falls and the Skykomish River were next. Wallace Falls is a beast of a waterfall at 265 feet cascading down a canyon. Have a seat at one of the viewpoints and soak in how impressive it is. All along the drive is the Skykomish river which flows through massive trees and mountain peaks in the distance. It’s well known for white water rafting and kayaking. Had the river conditions been a little lower, we would have stopped in one of the towns to take a half day on the river.
Day 3 was a drive day –– only a few hours, but we were back tracking a bit as we left the mountains for the volcanoes in the south. Mt. Rainier is unbelievably large compared to the mountains we were in the previous days. For instance, the peaks that tower over Diablo Lake aren’t even 8,000 feet but seem massive. Then there is Rainier, towering above everything around it at about 14,400 feet. With the view of the impressive peaks, we were heading to Paradise. It’s an actual place called Paradise, and it sits in the middle of Mt. Rainier National Park. Surrounded by beautiful lakes and creeks and endless views, it’s the perfect spot, and typically the busiest area of the park. We decided to hang out in Paradise for a couple hours before heading into Stevens Canyon to reach some other areas of the park that were on our list. On the other side of the canyon is a dreamy forest filled with giants –– coastal Douglas-firs and Western hemlocks tower over the roads. You’ll want to stop at every pull off to stretch your neck upwards, trying to fathom how big those trees are. There’s countless trails to hike for all levels. We chose a couple easier ones: The Grove of the Patriarchs and Naches Lake Loop. One is a forest-y path through the trees and the other is a short alpine lake trail with beautiful views, if mother nature so graciously allows for it.
This is maybe my absolute favorite part about my Cabana. You can choose where you sleep –– a campground, a forest service road with pull offs, parking areas in the parks where they allow for it…you don’t have to leave behind the amazing views and find the nearest hotel to be comfortable.
The final night of the trip was my favorite. We arrived in the southernmost area of the state at Mt. Adams. Here, the van really was amazing to have. There were limited services in the area, but we had everything we needed. We drove along the Cowlitz river, with gorgeous blue-green color for us to marvel over until we turned south and into another beautiful forested drive. The road turns to one lane with side pull offs for passing, and from there it gets a little bumpy. We drove on about 8 miles of dirt roads that were fairly well maintained, and finally, we arrived at a spot called Takhlakh Lake. This perfect lake tucked away in the woods with a volcano directly in front of you is about as picturesque as you could imagine. The best part? We just so happened to be the only ones around at this camp area. I imagine the solitude is rare, but this was a week before peak summer began. We parked the van with the best view we could get of the lake and Mt. Adams, cracked a beer, and watched the clouds slowly consume the volcano and release over and over again as the sun set.
I could have spent a week in this location alone. There are countless trails and lakes to explore and significantly less traffic than Mt. Rainier. Sadly, in the morning we had to wake up and leave. However, Mt. Adams had a little parting gift for us. It rained through the night and dropped to pretty cold temperatures. (The vans heating system came in very very handy.) We woke up to fog and mist in the air, no peak in sight. I checked over and over again until I was convinced the clouds wouldn’t part. I packed up and organized and got ready to leave, then I noticed this glint of orange in the sky…I thought maybe, just maybe we might get lucky.
Sure enough, a few minutes later Mt. Adams started clearing, catching rays of sunlight slowly through the clouds, revealing this incredible volcanic peak in its entirety for the first time. It lasted no more than 5 minutes before everything turned grey and rainy again. It was one of those precious moments that we knew could have so easily been missed.
So, did it live up to the hype? The quit your job and live in a van and travel the world hype? Not exactly. I got to try out the lifestyle and see (without the hard work) what it would feel like to call 4 wheels a home. I realized it requires a lot of organization, regular maintenance, and some patience. The upside –– waking up in a cozy bed, in a heated space, in the wilderness, with views no hotel could give you –– is irreplaceable. It certainly feels like leaving your problems behind and living without a worry in the world, but I prefer to return the van at the end of the week.