The Wild West: THE dream journey. What curious magic makes us cross deserts just to take pictures of big rocks from Arizona to California? This big question deserves a big answer. So let’s go over a few iconic stops on the road to San Francisco.
Johnny Depp once said that the United States had every appetite possible without any of the tastes. That is probably part of the charms of Vegas. Walk down the Strip the way you see fit and have a look at its famous casinos. The Paris casino will show you how some Americans still picture France. The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino will allow you to save yourself a trip to Italy by bringing you Venetian canals. You can actually have a Gondola Tour! Then there is the Caesar Palace and its plaster columns, the Excalibur Hotel and its grooms dressed up as Robin Hood… If you want a delicious steak, I suggest passing by the famous Bellagio Hotel and Casino. Be careful though not to let your children run around in the aisles: it is strictly forbidden. Cowboys playing Poker with young and successful men from Dubai, Shanghai, Austin… Native Americans drinking by retired couples come to enjoy the delights of retirement, pretty waitresses walking between the tables… You can feel the thrill of the game everywhere. I suggest you take one long evening before hitting the road.
One of the most striking features of these regions is the speed with which you pass from one environment to another, completely different. You drive into the desert besieging Las Vegas, and in 700 feet you’ve passed into a green prairie or a forest.
So even before reaching Bryce Canyon you’ll see how quickly the landscapes can change. Should you long for a night in the wild, I suggest the Right Fork Swamp Canyon Campsite which, of course, is not located in a swamp. This park is very popular, and rightly so! Thus you better start early to enjoy the main hiking trail along pillars of stone, carved by the rains. But there is more hiking to be done apart from this famous trail: Mossy Cave trail for example, will lead you to a nice little river carved by Mormons some 120 years ago.
A word on the Mormons: Utah is almost their country. The more you travel north, the more of their churches you will see, where large families gather. They are known for their strict moral codes (no coffee, no alcohol, family first…) but the West just wouldn’t be the same without them. 150 years ago, things were complicated: led by fanatic missionaries, Mormons created Utah as the land of the righteous, a promise land away from sinners. Sinners being, of course, everybody else. There were fights, massacres and retaliations. They even were an independent state for a moment: a theocracy in the land of cowboys!
Today much has changed of course. Mormons are very welcoming and America almost had a Mormon president with Mitt Romney.
Arches National Park
I know what you’re thinking: talk about a simple name! There are arches of stone around here, so let’s just call it Arches National Park! Is it an homage to the simplicity of a pioneer’s life? Is the area so wild that nothing of interesting ever took place? Whatever the case, this park is a backpacker’s delight. To see the biggest natural arch of the United States, head for the two hours long trail of Devil’s Garden. The Devil’s Garden campground is a marvellous place to enjoy a quiet evening in the desert.
The Green Plateau in Spanish, offers a glimpse of the great Pueblo Nation as they were some 900 years ago. Once a very powerful confederation stretching from Colorado to New Mexico and Arizona, they built mighty fortified villages where they developed their arts. This prosperity drove warlike tribes like the Apaches, Comanche and Cheyenne to them. The Site of Mesa Verde reveals the complexity of Northern America before any European interference. It is better to walk in with a ranger to gain access to all sites at once. Otherwise, make sure you return for the sunset: totally worth it.
Camping at Lake Powell
This gigantic reservoir is a very impressive sight to behold. Picture a Lake where boats of every kind and sizes circle around in an endless ballet. If water activities are not to your liking, you should head for one of the accessible canyons created by the Glen Canyon Dam. Page will be the place to resupply: there isn’t much to see, but it can be a nice place to get a taste of the true West. Have a drink at the Dam Bar and Grill or have a steak at the Butterflied Stage. You’ll see truckers having a break after a long day on the road, Paiute working in the kitchen, veterans on vacation… There is a campground at Wahweap, on the other side of the dam, away from the city and the roaring of engines: this is the place to set up camp.
Some places carry the memory of everything that happened on their soil: old countryside, ruins, inscriptions and old photographs enable us to fill those areas with images, bringing them to life. But Monument place is not such a place. It is not an historic, or a cultural or a religious place. The land here is virgin and new, not like in the Old World where very mile has its memories. Monument Valley is rather the embodiment of the Wild West as we all dream it: boundless, gorgeous, eternal. One does not come here to visit a park but to gaze upon the legend made manifest. Although it is true that it there is always quite a crowd. The Visitor Center main interest lies in the regular traditional Navajos dancing sessions that you can see for free. A tour in a jeep or on horseback will be perfect to better appreciate the view. The best moment to appreciate it is at dawn or at dusk. You better not camp around Monument Valley though, for this is not a park but an Indian reservation and as such, there is a lack of infrastructure.
Finally! The greatest of them all: the Grand Canyon! You’ve seen it on TV, you’ve seen it on photos but it is still a shock to find yourself facing this stone titan. In front of such depth and grandeur, one realizes the astonishing might of Nature. But let’s be clear: it’s crowded. Very crowded. So don’t linger at the observations points of the Grand Canyon Village and head down the South Kaibab trail/Cedar Ridge or the South Kaibab. But if you don’t feel like walking down the Canyon, you could stick to the scenic road by the edge. Should you choose to follow the South Kaibab Trail, cross the Colorado on a suspended bridge to spend the night at Bright Angel campground: You’ll tell the story of how you’ve slept at the bottom of the Grand Canyon!
On the Road
You can find two sorts of people rolling down the western roads: bikers and retirees. It is actually a very common thing in this country: you work hard, raise your children the best you can, and then you just sell the house and spend all your money on the biggest motor home available. Thus do the retirees spend their golden years, coming home to their grandkids only for the holidays. Not the worst retirement plan you can imagine, right? They’ll probably be your neighbours on the campground, and I am sure you’ll get the chance to share a battle. The other main character is the biker. You can recognize them by those big monstrous bikes they ride like kings, and to the chapter’s name on their dirty jacket. If you can catch a glitch of a ‘1%’ badge or a ‘Lone Wolf’ on them that means these are real tough gang members, not amateurs.
I guarantee you are going to remember the moment you’ve opened the door of your air-conditioned car after arriving in the Valley for a long time. To say that it is a hot place is quite the understatement. It naturally depends on the time of the year you choose to come, but if there’s one stop where you definitely need to stop at a Hotel rather than a campground, it’s this one… Yet Death Valley is actually a place of life and beauty, where many trails are available, even by cars. Spend the night at Stovepipe Wells.
Yosemite National Park
This most famous of destinations marks the border between the Wild West and the rich and densely-populated California. Once populated by natives and brave pioneers, the area is still as wild as it used to, except for the few necessary roads that were carved through. Once again you’ll be amazed by how quick the landscape changes from desert plains to Mountain prairies. To preserve the environment, most of the accommodations are located at the Yosemite Village, surrounded by mountains. From there, you could go for a swim at the iconic Yosemite Falls. Be advised that there are a few adventurous bears lurking around: do not leave any food on your way! You can frequently see rangers Pick-up trucks carrying big cylindrical cages: there may be an overconfident bear inside, being relocated to a safer location. But don’t worry; there are enough trails for everyone to follow! For good view points, go for Tuolumne Meadows or Glacier Point. For charming rivers, try Happy Islands.
You should definitely stop by Mariposa Grove on your way out, to see giant Sequoias. Even the greatest of buildings pale in comparison to the majesty of those centuries-old trees.
They say it is the most European of American cities. Yet this really feels like the US: gigantic Chinese neighborhood, hippies playing drums in the parks, towering buildings, big impressive cars… So many things to see! Make sure to pass by Pier 39 to observe seals living the happy life right in the middle of town. Looking for your dream-house? Visit Haight Ashbury. The iconic Lombard street and its flowery loops certainly deserve a few pictures as well. If you plan on visiting Alcatraz, I suggest you make a reservation before the beginning of your trip. As for the Golden Bridge, it is definitely worth a bike rental. Make sure you also have a look at the other cities of the Bay. Oakland, for example, is changing really fast and looks less and less like the birthplace of the Hells Angels it once was. All across the bay those old forgotten neighborhoods are being turned into something new by students, Silicon Valley workers and new companies, bringing with them restaurants, new shops, and the all Californian lifestyle. Finally, if you want to buy yourself a new wardrobe, return to Union Square in San Francisco: you will find all the brands you need.
And there we are: You’ve seen quite a bit of the American West! Such a trip means spending a lot of time on the road, but the landscapes are so beautiful, so iconic that with the right music and most importantly, the right persons, you’ll drive happily. Why is such a trip an unforgettable tour? Because you’ll find breathtaking landscapes, because Americans are fantastic people, because behind the scenery: the legend of the West remains. A hard and free land, where people care little for decorum: you’ll see Buddhist temples in the middle of the desert, you’ll see organisations devoted to the observation of UFOs, gardens filled with plastic flamingos, cowboys riding quads, hippies in roller-skates… To travel there is to convince oneself that the Wild West still exists.
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