Grand Canyon National Park
There’s a reason more than 5 million visitors per year come to this UNESCO World Heritage site. The Grand Canyon, as its name implies, is one the largest canyons in the world, period. President Teddy Roosevelt perhaps best described the canyon’s appeal: “In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.” One popular way to experience the Grand Canyon’s majesty is on the back of a mule. It’s a great way to descend through time without the hard work of having to climb back out under your own power. From the South Rim, you’ll go down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River a mile below, where you’ll visit Phantom Ranch, which dates to the early 20th century (Ancient Puebloan ruins are also nearby).
Monument Valley, Navajo Nation
Ever since it appeared in the 1939 film Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, Monument Valley has stood as an iconic image of the American West. In the 1950s, that status further solidified when the Marlboro Man—long a symbol of cowboys—was pictured here. Located within the Navajo Nation on the Colorado Plateau near the Arizona/Utah border, the valley is a stark landscape of sandstone buttes, of which the Mitten Buttes and Merrick’s Butte are the most famous and most photographed. For a unique twist on a trip to the Four Corners region, check in with the All Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association to find a local rodeo featuring Navajo cowboys.
California’s Eastern Sierra has attracted people for as long as Americans have laid eyes on its high granite peaks, capturing the hearts of photographer Ansel Adams, wilderness proponent John Muir, and many others. The centerpiece is undoubtedly Yosemite National Park, with its soaring rock walls, picturesque waterfalls, and giant sequoia trees (Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove is home to some 500 mature sequoias, nearly 300 feet tall and with trunks 40 feet in diameter). From Yosemite, make your way south to Bishop, a town built by cowboys—early ranchers raised beef here to feed surrounding mining camps. Then continue to Lone Pine, home to the Lone Pine Film History Museum, and the nearby Alabama Hills, where more than 150 Westerns have been filmed, including The Lone Ranger, How the West Was Won, Maverick, and Westward Ho.
When you sing “for purple mountain majesties” in the patriotic song “America, the Beautiful,” you’re actually singing about Colorado’s Pikes Peak—the lyrics began as an 1895 poem fittingly titled “Pikes Peak.” (The mountain also became the rallying cry of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859, with westward-bound fortune seekers declaring “Pikes Peak or Bust.”) The first American sighting of the lofty 14,115-foot summit is credited to members of the Zebulon Pike expedition of 1806, but a European-American didn’t stand on its summit until 1820. Since then, people have been working their way to the top by all manner of transport. Hikers embrace the Barr Trail (13 miles one way with 7,400 vertical feet of ascent!). Trail runners race to the top (and back down) in the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon. The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb attracts premier drivers from around the world who speed up the mountain’s twisty road. And the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the highest cog rail in the world, brings visitors up America’s Mountain in iconic red trains.
Bob Marshall Wilderness
Roughly 110 million acres of American terra firma are federally designated as wilderness. Some 1 million of those acres are Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, known to many simply as “the Bob.” One striking feature of the area, the Chinese Wall is a long escarpment that averages 1,000 feet high. Famed explorers Lewis and Clark passed through just south of these parts, and the Bob hosts a concentration of grizzly bears second only to Alaska in the United States. And this is cowboy country, with ranching a staple of the economy in surrounding valleys. One of the best ways to visit the wilderness is via a horse packing trip arranged through one of the many local ranches.
Taos could easily take New Mexico’s moniker “The Land of Enchantment” as its own. Outdoor enthusiasts know it for the steep ski resort and rapids of the Rio Grande Gorge, but the real gem is Taos Pueblo, the American Indian community one mile north of town, with its large and distinctive adobe structures. Roughly 1,000 years old, it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities (and the oldest continuously inhabited building) in North America. To the South, artsy Santa Fe is ripe with cowboy culture—from custom cowboy hat maker O’Farrell to the Lucchese Boot Co. to the historic New Mexico History Museum (in the historic Palace of the Governors on the town plaza), which opens a new comprehensive exhibit this year, called “Cowboys Real and Imagined.”
Black Kettle National Grassland
The deserts and mountains of the American West often get top billing, but the Great Plains are just as visually and emotionally satisfying, if less obviously dramatic. For a dose of endless skies and amber waves of grass and grain, make your way to Black Kettle National Grassland in western Oklahoma, where cattle graze and wildlife abounds. Then turn east-northeast into Kansas and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. This pocket of prairie in the state’s Flint Hills survived the plow that overturned much of the rest of the Plains, maintaining a view and a landscape largely unchanged since Zebulon Pike first passed through these parts in 1806.
If a child took a box of Crayola crayons and colored the landscape, the aptly named Painted Hills of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in central Oregon would be the result. Layers upon layers of eroded volcanic ash set the land ablaze in bands of reds, oranges, yellows, and other hues. Over the past 200 years, cowboys have worked the land, a stubborn ranching tradition that continues at places like the 9,000-acre Wilson Ranch Retreat in nearby John Day, Ore. Four generations of the Wilson family run cattle here, a proud family legacy that dates back to traveling down the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s.
Spanning the South Dakota/Wyoming border, the rugged Black Hills feature the highest mountains east of the Rockies. This landscape is home to both Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower, America’s first national monument. But for a real taste of the Old West, point your compass toward Custer State Park, named for Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The park features a free-roaming herd of 1,300 bison (“tatanka” in the native Lakota Sioux language). Then head to the historic mining and gambling town of Deadwood, which hosted motley characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Palo Duro Canyon
Texas is big ranch country, of course, nowhere more so than in and around stunning Palo Duro Canyon. Today, portions of the canyon are a state park, but during the late 19th century, most of Palo Duro (which means “hard wood” in Spanish, a nod to the canyon’s abundant mesquite and juniper trees) was home to the JA Ranch—still in operation as the oldest privately-owned cattle ranch in the Panhandle. The ranch was originally operated by Charles Goodnight himself, father of the chuckwagon and pioneer of the Goodnight-Loving Trail that extended from the Texas Panhandle to Wyoming. A short drive east of Palo Duro and north of JA, Goodnight, Texas, is the site of the Charles Goodnight’s original house, which completed a major renovation in the fall of 2012 and opened a new visitor and education center earlier this year.
Arches National Park
Southern Utah is world famous for a string of national parks and monuments: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef. But the centerpiece is Arches National Park. With more than 2,000 protected arches, it’s home to the highest concentration of natural rock arches in the country, and maybe the world, including oft-photographed Delicate Arch. Edward Abbey, a park ranger here during the 1950s, called it “the most beautiful place on earth.” Explore the desert, and when the hot sun and dry earth have you yearning for civilization, make your way to Moab. There, the Red Cliffs Ranch, a working cattle and horse ranch since the 1800s, is also home to the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage (the region is comparable to California’s Alabama Hills for the sheer number of Westerns filmed here, including City Slickers>/i>).
Yellowstone National Park
Established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 as America’s—and the world’s—first national park, Yellowstone National Park is home to the majority of the world’s geysers, including Old Faithful. American Indians called the region home for some 11,000 years. Early Europeans established places such as Fort Yellowstone, a historic district today. But the real attraction is the land itself. Yellowstone is the crown jewel of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest remaining, nearly-intact landscapes in the temperate region of the northern hemisphere. This stunning country also includes Grand Teton National Park to the South, where the abrupt Teton Mountains rise majestically from the Snake River, and the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range to the East, where mustang descendents of early Spanish horses roam free. At the center of it all is the town of Jackson, where elk is often on the menu and wooden boardwalks still line storefronts along parts of the main drag.