Epic western US travel destinations; update your “bucket List” for 2015


The Grand Canyon from Mather Point is a wonder of colors in the late afternoon!




We central Californians are blessed by close proximity to the American West’s incredible spaces, all within a several day drive or closer. With so many spectacular destinations at your back door and a New Year, take the time to update your bucket list of western destinations.  Two weeks ago, we offered insights into California’s incredible places; here are some of our favorites in the west.

Of the USA’s 59 national parks, several in nearby states stand out: California leads the nation with nine parks, Alaska has eight, Utah, five, Colorado, four, Arizona and Washington, three each and Wyoming two parks.  With the exception of Alaska, all are within a two-day drive of central California.  Our short list of favorites in the west are the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake,  Yellowstone and Grand Teton and Glacier Park. 

I first visited the Grand Canyon with my family as a 15 year-old, and several times as an adult.  Each visit comes with the jaw-dropping, catch-your-breath amazement that accompanies the first look into that huge, colorful abyss, some 5,000 feet deep in the Arizona high desert. 

A year ago, my wife and I recently approached the park’s south rim at 5 PM to find the canyon bathed in stunning hues from the setting sun – incredible!  This is a landscape to inspire the multitudes; the Colorado River runs 277 miles through the park, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep.

The majority of visitors enter the Grand Canyon at the south entrance. Tour the south rim, running for miles with unique vistas and history, including the Tusayan Ruins and Museum; noting the history of the native people that once made their life on the rim. Take a hike down the Bright Angel Trail used by mules to take people all the way to the canyon bottom – we hiked about a mile down the trail, then had approximately 700 vertical feet to climb out – definitely tougher than the trek down!

Near the top of our list is Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, just north of the California border and offering wonderous vistas. Start at the Crater Lake Lodge area on Rim Drive’s southside.  Walking to the crater’s nearby rim, that first view remains always inspirational.  Crater Lake, which filled a collapsed volcano’s caldera some 7,700 years ago, 5 miles across and 6 miles long, is the bluest blue you’ll ever see.

Yellowstone/Grand Teton National Parks are also must-dos.  Located in Montana and Wyoming, they offer a double shot of western beauty, sharing a common border.  Most visitors plan to spend several days in each park, to see Yellowstone’s scores of geysers and thermal basins and to share in the bison, elk, moose and stunning mountains that call both parks home.

A tour of Glacier National Park in north central Montana can be linked to a visit to Yellowstone, though the two parks are separated by almost 500 miles of monumental Montana scenery.  Glacier, home to most of the US’s surviving glaciers, is a gem of carved, rugged Rocky Mountains.  If you can add a few days, plan also to voyage north to Canada’s Lake Louise and Banff area, about 300 miles further north. 

For destinations “not quite a national park, but awe-inspiring none-the-less”, Mount St. Helens, WA, is a national monument and well worth the visit.  Just 50 miles northeast of Portland, a wonderful route shows the swath cut in 1980 when the mountain’s northside erupted with immense force.  Almost one cubic mile of the mountain’s northeast side exploded, reducing the once grand 9,677 foot peak to  8,365 feet, leaving a gaping, horseshoe crater. devastating an area about six miles wide and 20 miles in length and killing 57 people. Just 60 miles further north is Mt. Rainier National Park, so couple the two destinations into one. 

Mt. Rushmore National Monument, in South Dakota, though created by the hand of man, is also a destination for anyone’s bucket list and the surrounding Black Hills hold their own scenic rewards.

For cities with special urban delights, Seattle would rank at the top of our list.  With waterfront vistas almost everywhere, marvelous seafood dining, the old Pioneer Square area, the Space Needle and Pike Street Market, Seattle is an eminently walkable, bikeable and tour-worthy city.  Running a close second are Portland, OR, and Vancouver, British Columbia.  Each have similar attributes and their own special character to rank near Seattle.

Look for unique experiences that, coupled with great destinations in their own right, make for special memories.  Spring training baseball, late February to March, makes the Phoenix area an even more special place to visit.  Mix in a stop at the Grand Canyon, and you’ve added several noteworthy places to your expanding list. 

Fifteen major league teams make the Phoenix area their Cactus League headquarters.  Last March, we saw the Cleveland Indians beat the San Francisco Giants, and toured the parks of the Chicago Cubs, Oakland As and others. Or, couple a summer vacation with visits to football training camps for your favorite teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos!

When traveling, watch for unique “by accident finds” like the Imperial Dam on the Colorado River, just outside Yuma, AZ.  The dam and huge settling ponds allow sediment to settle before the irrigation water is pumped to the Imperial Valley, CA, one of the US’s largest agricultural regions.  Nearby is the eerie Salton Sea, a former barren valley well below sea level (similar to Death Valley).  It became an environmental disaster in the early 1900s when the flood-stricken Colorado River overflowed its banks, forming a landlocked sea now 35 miles long and 25 miles wide; floods in the 1970s created five ghost resorts surrounding the lake. 

Take the New Year’s start to update your own Western USA bucket list – and, get exploring! No list can ever be complete, so polish up your own and share notable destinations that I have missed.  I’ll publish other reader favorites in my upcoming Record Valley Travel blogs!

What to take: fishing rods, good hiking shoes, binoculars and camera, maps and/or a GPS unit. 

Where to stay: The nice thing is that all these destinations have in-park lodges (many historic and memorable), fine campgrounds in beautiful settings and good-value motels nearby.  If you are a senior, get the America the Beautiful Pass, costing $10, getting you into most national parks free and saving you up to ½ off federal campgrounds! 

For more information on any of our National Parks, go to: http://www.nps.gov and pick your destination.  For insight into Seattle, go to www.visitseattle.org (or similar visitor sites for the other cities). For Phoenix and Cactus League baseball games, www.cactusleague.com.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; to contact me, tviall@msn.com. 

Happy travels in the West!

This entry was posted in Central California, Mountain West (Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado), Northern California, Pacific Northwest USA (Oregon, Washington, Idaho), Sierra Nevada, Southern California, Southwest USA (Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment

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