Snow-capped mountains, wolves and bears, a super-volcano, deep canyons, dramatic deserts and a quick stop in Sin City — a drive through the US Wild West is truly wild.
The perfect introduction to Wyoming
Having left the UK on a ten-hour flight to Denver (1. see map below) , followed by a connecting flight to Jackson Hole (2. see map below), I expected to feel a little jaded or weary. My spirits lifted as I glanced out of the airplane window to view the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, which stretched for miles and miles below. This overview provides the perfect introduction to Wyoming, and reiterates the fact that you are homing in on true wilderness. The least-populated state in the USA, yet the tenth-largest by landmass, helps you understand that you are about to embrace nature.
Shortly after touching down in Jackson, I picked up my rental car, which would be my metaphorical horse while 'riding' through the Cowboy State. Jackson is an interesting town. It's popular throughout the year and attracts a worldwide fan-base of winter sports enthusiasts, wildlife lovers and outdoor types. Driving through, you pass George Washington Memorial Park where all four entrances are shrouded in an archway of antlers; it sets the tone of the town.
After a short drive via winding mountain roads that climbed higher and higher up East Gros Ventre Butte, I reached my hotel, Amangani (3. see map below) — also known as 'peaceful home'. Its unparalleled views of the Grand Teton Mountain Range and Snake River give it a sense of serenity that would overcome even the most stressed minds. Amangani is simply effortless; providing excellent hospitality is a key credential among its staff. After a long day of physical exertion, there is no better place for miles to sit back and muse over what wondrous sights have been witnessed. My second day was spent in Grand Teton National Park (4. see map below), for which a three-day pass costs a mere $12.
I joined an excursion provided by Teton Science Schools, which takes a unique route around the park to ensure you get to see what you choose. We saw moose, grizzly bears, pronghorn antelope (the second-fastest land mammal in the world) and bison. Other must-see highlights include Jackson Lake, Schwabacher Landing and Signal Mountain.
On my final day in Jackson I decided to eat like a local and went to the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where elk and bison are readily available and bar stools are fitted with Western-style riding saddles. To complete my three days in Jackson, I attended a rodeo at the recommendation of the locals. Bucking broncos, rampaging bulls and a great atmosphere provide a real Wyoming experience that will make you want to buy a Stetson before you leave.
Old Faithful and a supervolcano
I hopped into my car and followed the John D Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway, 43 kilometers of scenic driving that took me into Yellowstone (5. see map below). Here, the first noticeable difference was the pine trees, which dominate the landscape. Yellowstone is America's original national park, and spills over from Wyoming into Montana and Idaho.
I drove to the Old Faithful Lodge and checked in to my room, which had a direct line of sight to Old Faithful itself. This area is one of the most visited parts of Yellowstone due to the geyser — the most predictable geothermal eruption in the park.
The lodge is a hive of activity and is host to a number of essential services including fuel pumps (it is vital to stay topped up), restaurants and tourist information. In the peak travel season, rooms can be sold out up to six months in advance; so a trip including Yellowstone should certainly be prepared with this in mind.
The most surprising thing about Yellowstone is that so much life thrives atop an active supervolcano. The bubbling mud, spraying geysers and incredible, vividly colored hot pools form a unique environment where there is beauty in destruction. The soaring temperatures and underground activity have sculpted this epic landscape and created a range of natural attractions. Grand Prismatic Spring is arguably the most spectacular natural wonder I have ever cast my eyes over; there's also the constantly shifting travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs and Yellowstone's very own Grand Canyon.
I spent several days in the park exploring by car and on foot at my leisure, and driving into Montana and Idaho to see the far-reaching parts of the park. It is worth getting up early as well as doing drives at dusk to have a better chance of seeing wildlife. Elk Creek, near Tower Junction, is a particular hotspot for black bears. For a glimpse of the elusive wolf, try the Lamar or Hayden Valleys.
Abundant national parks
Leaving Yellowstone, my trip continued into Utah and the desert. En route from Wyoming to Salt Lake City (6. see map above) and beyond, the landscape gradually unfolded, changing mile upon mile until, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by giant red formations and a deep-orange earth.
There is much to see in Utah, and the state's national parks serve up a real treat. Arches (7. see map above), Canyonlands (8. see map above), Bryce (9. see map above), Zion (10. see map above) and Capitol Reef (11. see map above) are contrasting parks, each with a unique feel yet all providing a real sense of being in the Wild West and the great outdoors.
My personal favorite was Zion National Park due to its rock formations, and the incredible walks and viewpoints that are accessible. In Zion there's a free shuttle service to all access points in a bid to restrict traffic. As a result, the park preserves as much of a natural ambience as possible.
The excursions range in difficulty; if you are not good with heights, it would be advisable to avoid Angel's Landing — it's a nerve-trembling walk to the top of the canyon with a metal chain-link as your only means of assistance!
A walk that is accessible to visitors of all ages and abilities is 'The Narrows', which takes you through miles of winding pathways as you follow the river. Special boots and sticks can be hired from the park entrance. It is a great way to cool off on a hot day — be prepared to get wet and have fun.
Situated just outside of the park is Springdale, which is where most visitors stay. It has a lively feel to it and offers a number of quality restaurants and hotels that have superb views from nearly every window. Other attractions include the natural amphitheater and the Colorado River, which meanders through the town.
To visit the parks in Utah, I would suggest at least seven days to maximize your time. The driving distances between the parks are not long and you can follow a logical loop, which prevents you from having to double back on yourself.
Ending with Sin City
To complete my journey I drove for three hours from Zion to reach glitzy Sin City, Las Vegas (12. see map above). This 'love it or hate it' city divides opinion; however, it has to be seen to be believed. Walking the Strip to people-watch is really one of the highlights. Other attractions, of course, include the 24-hour casinos and the world-famous shows, such as Cirque du Soleil. And where else can you find a replica Manhattan skyline, Eiffel Tower and Venetian canals all within a mile of each other. If you do wish to get back to nature for a few hours, you can fly by helicopter to view the mighty Grand Canyon in all of its glory.
On the plane home, as I watched the glitzy lights of Vegas' world-in-miniature be slowly absorbed by the extraordinary landscape surrounding it, I certainly felt like I'd hit the jackpot.
USA — the Rockies fact file
Approximately 4 hours (New York to Denver)
When to go
The best times to travel are in late May and June and also in September and October. These periods avoid both the heavy snowfall that occurs during the winter months and the very hot summer temperatures.
The breathtaking mountain scenery in Wyoming and Colorado is surprisingly verdant. The red, rocky canyons of southern Utah are equally impressive but offer a very distinct contrast. Both are the backdrops to excellent outdoor adventures along with abundant wildlife and a tangible Western spirit.
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