Something about the great American West captivates me. It invigorates the senses and makes me feel alive. I could give credit to the lower humidity, crisp morning air, endless big sky, or the absence of over commercialization. Regardless of the why, when I’m there, it’s like I’m living in a parallel universe, aware that reality lies just beyond the horizon but living in a moment where time seems to stand still. I cannot explain my love of the west; only describe those things, which breathe life into my bones. The scrub vegetation, the sound of silence, the constant breeze that causes the prairie grass to gently sway back and forth, the wisdom of rock formations millions of years old, the site of uninhabited mountains that fall to a flat plain with no rolling foothills, or the lure of the Native American culture that holds this land in a sacred head space. These forces draw me to the west, a curiosity of sorts.
Recently, I went on a short two-part trip out west. Part one of the trip included Northern Utah and Southern Idaho. Part two included Eastern Wyoming and the Black Hills of South Dakota. The two parts were spaced about two weeks apart with only a short amount of time in each location.
We flew into Salt Lake City, a rather quiet and very clean city. Unfortunately, construction around Temple Square made it almost impossible to enjoy the beauty of the Mormon temple and the gardens that surround it. When construction is complete, I recommend spending a couple of hours enjoying the beauty of the grounds. I especially recommend getting a few photos of the Temple lit up at night, a spectacular sight. In addition to the Temple Square, the Utah State Capitol is a beautiful building sitting atop the hill north of the Temple and is worth a drive up to see. Beyond that, we spent most of our limited time outside the city.
On day 2 we headed west to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Although you are passing the salt flats for much of the drive along Interstate 80 West, most people drive all the way to the Bonneville Speedway, which lies at the Nevada-Utah border, some 120 miles west of Salt Lake City. At the speedway you can drive on the salt flats. It’s a unique experience that I highly recommend. My sister and I took margaritas out on the flats and used the salt beneath our feet to salt the rims of our glasses! All along I-80, you are passing what used to be Lake Bonneville that covered much of present day Utah. It’s hard to image the miles of salt flats being covered in water. In its peak, Lake Bonneville was nearly the size of Lake Michigan. Words to the wise, although it looks tempting, do not try to drive on the salt flats you see on either side of the interstate. You are likely to get stuck quickly and removal is expensive!
On day 3 we headed southeast towards Alta, Utah (a ski town in the winter). We hiked Devils Castle, a 3-4 mile hike that takes you up to Cecret Lake and then on around the side of the mountain before returning to the parking lot. The trail is not marked very well after reaching the lake. Getting to the lake is a popular hike with short switchbacks as you ascend up. Once you reach the top, head left to start of the Devils Castle trail (not marked). I suggest using the AllTrails App, which uses satellite to show your position on the trail.
After hiking, we made our way to Crater Hot Springs. The crater is located on a resort but you can pay a small fee (around $15) to soak in the hot springs for about 45 minutes. The Crater is not large but it is deep (around 65 feet) and the water temperature hovers around the mid 90’s. If you’re into diving, it’s the only warm water dive in the Continental US. From there, we drove about a half hour to Park City and enjoyed appetizers and a cold brew at the High West Saloon. Be sure to try the charcuterie board!
On day 4 we drove west about 20 minutes along I-80 to the Great Salt Lake State Park- basically a small marina with a beach area where I decided to see what it was like to float in the salt lake. It’s eerie to wade into a lake that essentially has no life (except for brine shrimp), is murky, and is totally absent of other recreation seekers (at least on the day I was there). After wading out, I got an obligatory photo of me bobbing in the buoyancy of the salt lake (you have to wade out further than you think because the lake is very shallow with an average depth of around 14 feet). What a unique feeling to float effortlessly like a wine cork in the lake’s high salinity- 10 times that of the world’s oceans!
Another activity to consider is a trip out to Antelope Island. It takes about an hour and a half to drive up but the whole island is a drivable park containing bison and other wildlife. A few hikes include marvelous views of the lake. Also, consider an evening drive
to the Great Saltair, which lies off the same exit as the Great Salt Lake State Park (previously mentioned) on I-80 just west of the city. The building looks like something out of Aladdin. It’s history is worth a Google search but it has all but faded into disrepair at this point. However, it’s a great location for photographing the sunset over the lake. Expect a crowd but there’s plenty of room to spread out. You can walk right out onto the dry dusty beach and even take a picnic or some camp chairs and make it an outing!
That afternoon, I drove up to Twin Falls, Idaho to meet up with a buddy. We rented an AirBNB overlooking the Snake River. Before sunset, we took in some paddle boarding and a brief swim in the river. It’s worth mentioning that the Centennial Waterfront Park was an ideal location for viewing the falls, swimming, kayaking, paddle-boarding, and just hanging out along the river.
On my final day, we took a brief hike near the Hagerman Fossil Beds, a quite peaceful place. Here you can see parts of the Oregon and Emigrant Trails. Stop at the visitor
center located in town to discover the extinct Hagarman Horse. Driving south, we set out for our final stop, the fascinating City of Rocks. It was like a miniature version of Monument Valley as you drive through the impressive rock formations. Don’t forget to stop by to see Register Rock. Here you can see the original names of pioneers that blazed the Oregon Trail left painted on the towering rock.
This time, we flew into Denver. It was a long day of driving north into Wyoming. Our goal was to camp that night in the Big Horn Mountains along the Hwy. 16 Scenic Byway. Many campsites are available throughout the Big Horn National Forest because camping restrictions are much more relaxed in National Forests than they are in National Parks. We chose our spot in an area around Meadowlark Lake. Plan for weather! It was August and temperatures fell to 42 degrees that night and I was not prepared! We camped at an altitude of around 9500 feet.
The next morning we took a side trip down the Crazy Woman Canyon Road. I would highly recommend checking it out for camping (even more than the lake where we camped). We descended down through the canyon on a narrow rough road that snaked through giant boulders towards the end; the scenery was spectacular. I would recommend an SUV if possible. The road is not marked so you need to consult a map in order to locate it.
I could spend days in the Big Horn National Forest. The mountains are known as a sister to the Rockies and it’s not hard to see why. Our next destination moving east was the Devil’s Tower National Monument. Before that, though, we stopped at the famous Occidental Hotel in Gillette, Wyoming (just outside the Bighorn National Forest) for some breakfast. The saloon itself is worth seeing with that old western feel that takes you back in time.
You can see the Devils Tower in an hour or less. It’s not hard to see why it is known to be
a sacred spot to the Native Americans. I recommend seeing the monument at sunrise. What a moving experience to gaze at this natural wonder in the cool morning air with nothing but the strange sound of wind as it echoes through the rock.
Finally, we headed into the Black Hills of South Dakota towards the Badlands National Park. After researching the camping options, we found the perfect spot in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, just 10 minutes off the interstate! Before camping, we stopped in the famous little town of Wall to have dinner at the drugstore and stock up on supplies. Wall Drug is a must see while you’re in the area. The National Grassland essentially bleeds into the Badlands National Park. We camped along the cliffside that overlooks the Badlands. We were fortunate to have a full moon while camping and it was spectacular!
The following day, we did a driving tour of the Badlands, with stops along the way to observe big horn sheep, prairie dogs, goats, and gorgeous overlooks. We also took an 8-mile hike along the Castle Trail. If you do the loop, you get the rock formations on one side and the grassland on the other. It’s worth at least a few hours if you find yourself in or around the Black Hills.
On the way from the Badlands back to Eastern Wyoming, we made stops at Mount Rushmore, the Cosmos Mystery Area, and Custer State Park taking in the famous Needles Highway and the Wildlife Loop Road. The final stop before arriving at our AirBnb was to see Fort Laramie and the Oregon Trail Ruts. The National Park Service maintains both. We arrived too late for a tour, but seeing the grounds alone in silence was moving.
On our last day, we drove to Laramie, stopped to see the campus of the University of Wyoming, and walked around the quaint downtown area. Driving further west, we took the road to Snowy Pass in the Medicine Bow National Forest. I wish we had planned more time here, as this ended up being a highlight of our trip. This place has the optics of a fairytale setting. I will be making a return visit to Medicine Bow! Finally, it was back to Denver with a stop at the Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne for lunch and one last beer.
Visiting the West is like being in the middle of one of those choose your own adventure books I read as a child. The Great American West is a wide-open playground for the adventure seeker, so what are you waiting for? Get out there!