By Jason Fry. Illustrations by Steve Thomas.
Catching a case of wanderlust is as simple as spotting a vintage travel poster. One glance at that print of Monument Valley and the caption “See America” and you’ll hear a little voice whisper “We’re going west” as if the trip’s already been decided. It has, and that’s the beauty of wanderlust, it’ll lead you where the heart calls and there’s only one cure: a healthy dose of travel. Travel in the Western U.S. means snowcapped mountains, cactus two stories tall, stone arches and trees that tower overhead so high they touch the clouds. So, let’s pack a good pair of trail shoes, grab the spare camera battery and let the setting sun guide us to new experiences.
Oh, and don’t forget to bring a hankie. After all, famed environmentalist and essayist Edward Abbey said of his beloved western landscapes, “There are some places so beautiful they can make a grown man break down and weep.”
Rocky Mountain High
The Rocky Mountains were a jaw dropping sight for westward bound pioneers and today’s no different. Let’s start exploring the west in Colorado, where Denver and Boulder offer up cosmopolitan city experiences — shopping, stellar restaurants and more breweries than you can shake a stein at — with the Rockies as a backdrop. Head high into the hills at Rocky Mountain National Park for a taste of crisp mountain air (and about a hundred elk sightings) before crossing the range and visiting the Western Slope. Along the way head to Vail and Aspen, make a side trip to the hot springs in Steamboat Springs, and make your way through the rich farmland and orchards of western Colorado. Surprises like Mesa Verde National Park — where the Southwest meets the mountains in a UNESCO World Heritage site — and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (yes, Colorado has sand dunes, go see for yourself) round out your views of the state (and might just convince you to move there).
The Secret Southwest
Around the Four Corners region of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico are places where secrets were kept for centuries. Sacred spaces and communal havens including ancient petroglyphs and whole communities carved from the cliff faces and canyon rocks dot the region. In one pocket of New Mexico you’ll discover Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo nation, and a memorial dedicated to the WWII Navajo Code Talkers who helped the Allies win the war thanks to their tribal language, a code so “secret” it couldn’t be broken; and places where artists have come for inspiration for eons. Exploring Taos and Santa Fe, hearing native legends about the landscape and desert creatures; and experiencing the mountains, mesas, meadows and deserts of the region will have you ready to come back to dive deeper and immerse yourself in the culture here.
Do The Desert
In California, two national parks will change your mind on the desert, the mountains and natural beauty. One is Death Valley National Park — home of the lowest point in North America and numerous geological oddities. The other, Joshua Tree National Park, is where rock climbers and rock stars have flocked for decades.
They are both stark and serene and unlike any park you’ve visited in the East, in the Rockies or even in California. But if all that gets to be too much, rest a while in Palm Springs where the midcentury architecture, chic fashion scene and remnants of the Rat Pack’s swank vibe reverberate throughout the town. Border towns like Yuma, Arizona, break up the endless but everchanging desert landscape as you leave the arid pocket of California for the cactus-rich deserts of Arizona, including Saguaro National Park where the saguaro cactus reach high into the sky like green fingers. Southern Arizona, with a rich food and cocktail scene in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson, blends nature — hikes to nearby mountains, exploring caverns and caves, even spending the day on the golf course — with urban amenities. Also, if you’re in Phoenix at the right time, you’ll be in for as many spring training baseball games as you can stand.
From San Francisco to Los Angeles, California offers up a wild array of landscapes and environments. Start in the south and work your way to the fabled Napa Valley by way of stunning coastal scenery and the Central Coast’s wine country before heading to Monterey and Santa Cruz and then on to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite’s one of those places where you could live your whole life and never tire of it. Giant sequoias tower over trails and awestruck visitors and granite cliffs — sheer and gorgeous — tower over the valley itself. Rope up and go for a climb or just head to one of the many overlooks for postcard-perfect views of this amazing national park. But no trip to California is complete without a glass or two of wine. Napa, Sonoma and the restaurant scene of San Francisco call and make for a perfect cap to a road trip through the Golden State.
Ready to Go?
Anxious to see the West for yourself? AAA can help out with flights and rental cars if you want to explore on your own. You can also opt for a curated experience.
Longtime partner Trafalgar leads group trips to the Western U.S. and beyond. Experience the Rockies on their 10-day “Welcome to Colorado” tour. Discover untold stories of the ancient southwest and wander landscapes that’ll leave you in awe on their 11-day “Southwest Native Trails” trip through the Four Corners region. Spend 10 days in the desert visiting otherworldly landscapes, iconic cacti, border cities and America’s deserts on the “America’s Great Desert National Parks” tour. Finally, get a taste of California’s beauty (and wine) on the 11-day “Coastal California with Yosemite National Park and Rose Parade” trip that’ll take you from Los Angeles to San Francisco with stops at Yosemite, the Central Coast wine country and the famed Rose Parade.
Exploring national parks has never been easier! Your AAA Travel Agent can help you choose your ideal Trafalgar itinerary. Call 800-750-5386 for details.