Updating your travel bucket list; S. California and Southwestern US destinations

Update your travel bucket list with Southern California and Southwestern US destinations!

Californians are blessed by close proximity to our state’s and the American Southwest’s incredible spaces, all within a two day drive or closer. With so many spectacular destinations nearby and a New Year, take the time to update your list of western destinations.

San Clemente's public pier, with the fine and reasonable priced Fisherman's Restaurant, always a "must stop".

For a winter sojourn, let’s start with Southern California. A trip to the area from Huntington Beach to San Diego almost always offers shirt-sleeve weather, and in winter the crowds are reduced from summertime multitudes. Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, San Clemente  and other towns offer both campgrounds on or near the ocean, as well as plentiful motels, including classic older properties with reasonable rates. San Clemente’s Pier, with Fisherman’s Restaurant, offers quintessential old California vibes!

San Diego, blessed by over 260 days of sunshine each year, offers surfing, swimming, biking and hiking opportunities throughout the city. The city’s revitalized waterfront includes traditional favorites like Balboa Park, including the San Diego Zoo and 15 museums, Petco Park (home to the Padres baseball team) and the nearby Gaslamp District with a host of classy restaurants and night-spots and the recent opening of Waterfront Park, a new greenway complete with fountains, wading pools and family-friendly picnic areas.

Corona Del Mar State Beach, and Newport Beach Harbor entrance to right top.

Don’t miss other attractions like the Hotel del Coronado, Little Italy and Liberty Station, a former naval base on the northern edge of San Diego Bay. The old base offers restaurants, shops and galleries in the repurposed Officer’s Club and barracks, museum and the Liberty Public Market.

Other winter destinations include the California desert, from Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks to Anza Borrego State Park. From either Joshua Tree or Anza Borrego, take a side trip to the ghost resorts along the Salton Sea, formed in the early 1900s when the Colorado river overflowed its banks and filled the Salton Sink with water 55 feet deep, creating an inland sea 35 miles long and 20 miles wide.

Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park, with San Gregorio Mountains in the distance.

The Salton Sea become an ecological disaster; the former resorts and towns which prospered in the 50s and 60s are nearly abandoned, creating ghostly reminders of the sea’s former glory.

For you baseball fans, plan a March tour to the greater Phoenix area, home to 16 major-league baseball spring training sites including the Giants, As, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs. Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa and Tempe offer urbane amenities; nearby attractions like the Sonoran Desert National Monument to the south, or Sedona and the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the north present extended options.

Machete Ridge in Pinnacles National Park, just 2.5 hours southwest of San Joaquin County.

Always a good place to update your list, our national parks: California leads the nation with nine parks, Alaska has eight, Utah, five, Colorado, four, Arizona and Washington, three each. With the exception of Alaska, all are within a two-day drive of central California. Our state’s nearby national parks include Pinnacles, Lassen, Yosemite (don’t miss hidden portions like Hetch Hetchy Valley) and Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

Our short list of favorites in the Southwest are the five Utah national parks, Great Basin in Nevada and the Grand Canyon. Inveterate travelers can string all seven together in one epic two week trip. Utah’s parks are strung like a necklace through noble canyons south of Salt Lake City.  Zion, closest to California, was our starting point with its towering red and yellow rock canyons. Take time to hike the Lower and Middle Emerald Pools Trail, and the Grotto Trail above the Virgin River.  The short trail to Weeping Wall offers a misty waterfall cascading over a cliff above visitor’s heads.

Viewing (and hiking in) Bryce Canyon National Park's eerie HooDoos is always an other-worldly experience!

Nearby Bryce Canyon offers more dramatic rock formations. Here, traverse the Queens Garden/Navajo combination loop trail starting at Sunset Point, a 2.9 mile trek descending 600 feet from the Rim Trail down into the canyon, where you’ll be amongst hundreds of Hoodoos (strangely-shaped pillars of rock in multi-hued colors of white, red, yellow and blue, standing after millennia of erosion).

Capital Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks followed, each with their own allure and memorable scenery. Our favorite of these was Arches, with 2000 wind- and water-eroded natural bridges, many accessible within a short walk of the park’s main road.  Landscape Arch, spanning over 330’ was a favorite, though it has lots of competition. After our tour of the five Utah national parks, we added a 200 mile detour southwest to the Grand Canyon’s north rim, a special place and much less visited than the tourist-jammed south rim.

View for the Grand Canyon's North Rim Point Imperial is awe-inspiring - and the crowds are slight compared to the South Rim.

Each Grand Canyon 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.

In September, 2015, my wife and I approached the park’s north rim at midday to find aspens changing stunning shades of yellow and part of a 400 head herd of bison outside the park entrance (the original small band brought to the park from Yellowstone a hundred years ago) and the canyon bathed in stunning hues – incredible!

So, update that list; next week, we’ll offer more western US suggestions!

For more information: our national parks, nps.gov; Visit California, visitcalifornia.com; Visit Arizona, visitarizona.com; Visit Utah, visitutah.com.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in the west!

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