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11 Must-See Travel Spots in the Western United States

I have been an avid vacationer in the Western United States for over 40 years. I love exploring and discovering new places.

Having lived in the Western United States my whole life, I have found the example of the European traveler to be quite informative. I believe that when Europeans travel to the United States they actually see more of the country than we residents do.

Vacationing at Lake Powell (which is located on the Utah/Arizona border) for the past 40 years, I have had an opportunity to visit with many European tourists. I discovered some of their basic itineraries and found them very impressive. I thought I would share with you some of their favorite travel spots in hopes that you might like to join them this summer.

11 Western Vacation Ideas

  1. Grand Canyon
  2. Monument Valley
  3. Lake Powell
  4. Zion National Park
  5. St. George, Utah
  6. Las Vegas
  7. Disneyland
  8. Big Sur
  9. Yosemite National Park
  10. Death Valley
  11. The Golden Gate Bridge
The Grand Canyon at sunset.

The Grand Canyon at sunset.

1. The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a gift that must be seen to be appreciated. Its immense size is overwhelming. The Canyon is 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep. The color and geological formations are breathtaking.

Whether you see the canyon by vehicle, shuttle, on foot, or bicycle, your trip will be enhanced if you pick up a little publication called "The Guide." This free newspaper is available at all the entrance stations and visitor centers throughout the park. It contains the best maps, a listing of ranger activities and special programs, articles of interest about the park, and a list of all available services. This can make your trip to the "Canyon" much more enjoyable.

The South Rim of the canyon is much more developed than the North Rim, and so accommodations must be booked well in advance. You may either choose to stay in the lodge located there or stay in the developed campground. There are also many restaurants available in the park itself ranging from formal dining to fast food. Seven miles south of the park is Tusayan, Arizona the nearest city that offers accommodations and other services.

The North Rim is more than 200 miles away from the South Rim by car or a strenuous 21 mile, two to three-day crossing by hike. There is no public transportation to the North Rim other than the Trans-Canyon Shuttle. Services are limited on the North Rim.

The Grand Canyon is a backpacker and hiker paradise. Exploring the inner canyon may be done by mule rides which are available. These are booked well over a year in advance, so start planning early. River Running is also an ultimate adventure that is offered in the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River can be experienced by paddle rafts, motorized rafts, and dories. There are several Canyon Expedition tours available, book early also.

The Grand Canyon Skywalk

The Grand Canyon Skywalk

The Grand Canyon Skywalk is located on the western side of the canyon, and it is a horseshoe-shaped glass skywalk that allows visitors to peer into the canyon. It is owned and maintained by the Hualapai tribe.

Best Times to Visit the Grand Canyon

The two best times to take a trip to the Grand Canyon are in the spring (March-May) or the fall (September-November). Peak tourist season is during the summer months so try to stay away from the park at those times. Winter is another good time to visit but keep in mind that the north rim closes after the first snowfall of the year.

A view of the Monument Valley via Highway 163.

A view of the Monument Valley via Highway 163.

2. Monument Valley

One of the most iconic landscapes in the west, the breathtaking scenery is a sight to behold, especially the massive sandstone buttes that dot the plateau. Located on the Arizona/Colorado border, the valley is easily accessed by highway 163. The valley is not a valley in the traditional sense. Instead, it is a relatively desolate landscape that contains many massive buttes that rise hundreds of feet into the air. Monument Valley was the setting for many classic western movies, in particular, the films made by the iconic director John Ford.

While you can see a lot of the landscape from the highway, the best way to see Monument Valley is to go off the highway and go the adjacent Navajo Tribal Park. While in the park you can drive down the 17-mile Valley Drive which will take you through many of the valley's most iconic rock formations. While the road is dusty and steep in certain places, most family-style vehicles can make the trek, though jeep rentals are also common as well.

Best Times to Visit Monument Valley

Seeing as Monument Valley is a desert, you will want to avoid the summer months as it will be unbearably hot. The ideal time to plan a trip is during the spring or the fall when temperatures are milder.

An aerial view of Lake Powell.

An aerial view of Lake Powell.

3. Lake Powell and Surrounding Areas

Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the United States. It's 186 miles long and has 1,960 miles of shoreline, which is longer than the entire west coast of the continental United States. There are over 96 major canyons to explore, which require some sort of watercraft. Its tributaries include the Escalante and San Juan Rivers, which converge onto the Colorado River making Lake Powell a water expressway. Home of the Glen Canyon Dam and the Rainbow Bridge Monument, Lake Powell is a boaters paradise.

Water Sports Are Extreme Fun on Lake Powell

Lake Powell offers the opportunity for the ultimate wakeboard or water skiing experience. The small canyons are perfect for personal watercraft adventures. Tubing and swimming are perfect with water temperatures in the mid 70's in the summer months. World class fishing is also available on Lake Powell. There is really something for everybody to experience.

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The famous antelope slot canyon.

The famous antelope slot canyon.

Hiking the Famous Slot Canyons

Located just adjacent to the Lake are the famous Antelope Canyon and Escalante Canyon. These are a hikers paradise offering many unique and awesome views seen nowhere else in the world. Make sure to bring your camera as the canyons offer some of the most interesting visuals you will ever see.

Best Times to Visit Lake Powell and the Slot Canyons

The ideal time to take a trip to Lake Powell is in September when the temperatures have cooled off, and there is not a lot of rain and wind. The lake will also be less crowded at this point, but the water will still be quite warm. Early October is also a great choice as well. The main tourist season will be over so you can easily make it out to the slot canyons.

Angel's Landing in Zion National Park.

Angel's Landing in Zion National Park.

4. Zion National Park

Zion National Park is Utah's oldest national park, filled with world famous slot canyons cut by the power of rushing water and wind.

The Virgin River has been the water source that has created the majestic scenery found in Zion Canyon. The canyon walls are hundreds of feet high while at times only an arm span wide.

Hiking is at its peak in this river cut corridor of canyon walls. There is hiking available for all levels of hikers, each offering a view that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

Best Times to Visit Zion

The park is open year-round, so there isn't really a bad time to go. That being said, the park does get hot in the summertime and there is a lot of snow runoff in the spring, both of which make it difficult to hike any of the slot canyons. Fall is one of the best times to visit Zion due to the mild temperatures and the lack of tourists.

An overlook of St. George and the adjacent Pine Valley Mountains.

An overlook of St. George and the adjacent Pine Valley Mountains.

5. St. George, Utah

Known as "Utah's Dixie," St. George serves as a major gateway to Zion National Park. It has a temperate climate, with a very mild winter, making it one of Utah's top travel destinations. Located directly off of Interstate 15 it is right on the way from Zion to Las Vegas, making it the perfect stopover before continuing on the rest of the trip.

While in St. George there are many attractions for all types of visitors. Whether you love to golf or just relax and shop, the city offers a wide variety of adventures. There are several different museums if you would like to spend the day indoors in an educational atmosphere. Two of the top in the area are the Dinosaur Discovery at Johnson Farm and The Rosenbruch Wildlife Museum.

Another attraction that is available is the Tuacahn Amphitheatre, which offers world class entertainment in a 2,000 seat outdoor amphitheater surrounded by red rock cliffs and man-made waterways. Combined with the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, a Charter High School, it is one of the most magnificent arts and educational facilities in the world.

The nearby red cliffs offer adventures in mountain biking, ATV riding, and other outdoor experiences. Historical tours are offered to give the visitor a flare for the history of the surrounding areas.

There is so much to do in St. George; you might want to spend an extra night just to take it all in.

Best Times to Visit St. George

Much like Zion National Park, the ideal time to visit St. George is during the fall, particularly during September or October. At that point in the year, the temperatures are mild, and there is not much rainfall or inclement weather.

6. Las Vegas

If you want entertainment, Las Vegas is the place to go. Hotels, casinos, night clubs, restaurants, shopping, and many other attractions await you in Las Vegas. If nightlife is not your thing, there are plenty of other options if you leave the city limits. Red Rock Canyon is located 17 miles outside of Las Vegas and features plenty of stunning views. If you want to stay in the city, there are lots of other attractions to keep you occupied. There are plenty of roller coasters and thrill rides to go on as well as gun ranges where you can actually crush a car with a tank!

For those who like to experience speed, you can go to the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Las Vegas Speedway. You can sit next to a professional driver as they zoom around the racetrack at 140 mph or you can get in the driver's seat yourself if you really want a thrill.

Best Times to Visit Las Vegas

Due to its climate, you will want to avoid going to Las Vegas during the summer when the weather gets unbearably hot. The winter is mild, but that is peak tourist season, especially around New Year's. The best times to take a trip to Las Vegas are from March to May and from September to November. Also, try to take a trip during the week when hotels are less packed and the Vegas strip is not incredibly overcrowded with tourists.

Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom

7. Disneyland

Where else would you go once you have seen all the beauty this trip has to offer? Yes, you would go "to Disneyland!"

Truly the "happiest place on earth," Disneyland is still the choice of most vacationers. With the opening of Disneyland, Paris, and Disneyworld, in Florida, you would think that Anaheim California wouldn't have the same draw, but I guess everyone still must see the "original" for themselves.

There are so many fun things to do in the park that you are certain to have a great time. Just keep in mind that some rides periodically go down for maintenance so be sure to check and make sure your favorite ride is still open.

Best Times to Visit Disneyland

Seeing as Disneyland has great weather year round, you will want to plan your trip to avoid the massive crowds of tourists. This means that going on a holiday weekend or during the summer is a bad idea and something that should be avoided. The best times to go to Disneyland are in late fall from late September to early November, and late winter from January to March.

8. Big Sur

Located on the central coast of California, Big Sur offers amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and plenty of rugged, rocky coastline. You can access Big Sur by the scenic Highway 1, and while the area is sparsely populated with few places to camp, the impressive beauty is a sight to behold. There are plenty of guided tours and camping areas for those who are interested.

Most locals recommend that you simply do nothing and just take in the impressive beauty of the scenery.

Best Times to Visit Big Sur

Like many destinations on the California coast, peak tourist season for Big Sur is during the summer months. Therefore, fall is the best time to take a trip if you want to find affordable lodging and fewer crowds. Going in the springtime has its advantages as well since you will be able to see the wildflower blooms.

9. Yosemite

One of the most popular tourist destinations in the west, Yosemite National Park is well worth the trip. Located in the eastern part of California, the park contains some of the most breathtaking sights of any national park. There are plenty of things to do in the park, particularly if you enjoy hiking. There are over 800 miles of trails throughout the park, ranging from easy strolls to grueling hikes up mountains.

Best Times to Visit Yosemite

Due to the fact that many trails and roads are closed during the winter, the most popular time for people to go to Yosemite is during the summer. If you want to avoid the crowds and book a campsite, going in the fall is your best option. The crowds tend to thin out after Labor Day and the temperatures drop as well.

10. Death Valley

Situated in the southeastern corner of California, Death Valley is one of the most unique places you can visit in the entire US. The lowest point in North America, Death Valley is also one of the hottest and driest places on the earth. Plenty of stunning geographical features dot the landscape such as large salt flats and sand dunes.

Due to its remote location, Death Valley has one of the darkest night skies in the US, making it an ideal place to stargaze. Additionally, there are plenty of scenic sights to take in, such as the wildflowers that bloom during the springtime.

Best Times to Visit Death Valley

Due to its climate, the best time to visit Death Valley is during the fall, winter, or early spring. Spring is the most popular time for tourists to visit as the combination of mild temperatures and the wildflower blooms make for an ideal time to go. If you want to avoid the crowds, try to go during the late fall or early winter.

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands.

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands.

11. Golden Gate Bridge

One of the most iconic bridges in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge connects the San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County. The bridge offers breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The bridge is open to pedestrians and bikes for free, and there is a toll for vehicles.

There are plenty of other great things to do in San Franciso and the entire Bay Area, with lots of trails, breweries, wineries, and entertainment options available.

Best Times to Visit the Golden Gate Bridge

Due to San Francisco's climate, going in the summer is not the best idea due to the fog that rolls through the bay, making visibility difficult. Spring and fall are the best times to go but just keep in mind that there is always a chance of fog coming through the strait.

Happy Vacationing!

So take it from my European traveling friends, go and see the Western United States. It will be the trip of a lifetime.

© 2008 In The Doghouse

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