Out West: An Unforgettable Road Trip Through Six States and Several National Parks

by Jason Heidemann
Out West Road Trip Opening Photo

I’m on an ambitious Wild West road trip that will swing through six states and include visits to several National Parks, three big cities, and a plethora of small towns and roadside attractions.

I know I shouldn’t be hooking up during a pandemic, but one naked romp with a studious muscle twink before hitting the road isn’t the end of the world, right? I find this chiseled cutie on Scruff, bring him to my hotel and…well let’s just say there was definitely some super spreading happening. When I grab a cup of coffee and a churro doughnut afterward at Doughnut Club, its motto, “eat more hole,” gives me a chuckle.

Thanks to Denver friends steering me right, my backcountry drive through Colorado feels like a ride on Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Every thrilling descent, stunning gorge, scenic vista, and glimmer of the Wild West earns my admiration. Biden-Harris signs are surprisingly numerous along this rural route, and every time I spot one I am elated. In hippie chic Salida, I play pin-the-tail-on-the-sandwichboard at Sweetie’s, which is to say that this famous deli’s menu offers so many options, I end up closing my eyes and just pointing to one. The sub I land on, the Mona Lisa, offers proscuitto, stracciatella cheese and arugula smothered in olive oil…yum!

My big stop this afternoon is Great Sand Dunes National Park, a collection of dunes (the tallest in North America) that formed around the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains over the course of many years and now provide sledding opportunities for families and selfie ops for Instagrammers. It’s the perfect National Park to idle in for a couple of hours and I break away from the crowds to reprise my role of shutterbug and snap some impressive pics.

In southern Colorado, snowy peaks, black diamond slopes and crisp mountain air prevail, and in contrast to slick Denver the vibe down here is more gunslinger. After throwing my bags down at Aunt Mae’s Bunny Schack, the Airbnb I rent on the outskirts of Durango, I zip up my jacket (September has passed the baton to October and it’s again chilly) and head downtown for dinner. I’m feeling a little Durango unchained and dare to eat indoors at Fired Up Pizza. After a long day on the road, a simple wood-fired pie all by my lonesome offers the perfect reward.

Out West Road Trip: Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Photo: Oscity

The next morning, I rise and shine early for breakfast at College Drive Café, followed by a hike up the Sky Steps, a trail consisting of more than 500 steps leading up to the Fort Lewis College Campus and rewarding trekkers with amazing views. On the way out of town I pass Pinkerton Hot Springs, a geological oddity spewing forth hot water from a rock formation that over time has turned a rainbow hue (I said this trip was going to be gay!).

I am not expecting a National Park to appear out of nowhere, but along Hwy 160 this afternoon I do a double take as I zoom past the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. Although its tallest trees are still blackened from wildfires dating back 20 years, the fall foliage switch has been turned on and the landscape is blanketed in shades of burgundy, gold. and maple. Of course, the real highlight here is the meticulously preserved Ancestral Puebloan dwellings built into the cliffs which are ten times more amazing than I could have possibly imagined.

Indian Country (the official term used to define tourism that happens on Native American lands) has been particularly hard hit by COVID and I’m saddened to discover that even drive-thru attractions in Navajo Nation are closed to the public. Though I’m denied the opportunity to stand in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah all at once, I nevertheless, manage a selfie in front of the “This way to Four Corners Monument” sign. And though Monument Valley’s 17-mile scenic loop is officially off limits, I’m still able to drive within relative proximity of its stunning sandstone buttes and revel in its stark beauty.

A jumping off point for slot canyon tours, off-road adventures and boating on Lake Powell, laidback Page, Arizona thrums with tourist energy. I’m at BirdHouse, a former Sonic Burger turned chicken joint that locals flock to (pun intended) for fried birds and beer. There is a glorious sunset burning on the horizon and the wind is so gentle and perfect that I declare the breezes in Page are the best in the West. My hotel is a Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, and since they upgrade me to a suite for no particular reason, it’s officially my new favorite chain.

My last full day on the open road begins with slot canyons and ends with slot machines. En route to Kanab, Utah, I rise and shine early enough to swing by the most famous attraction in Page, Horseshoe Bend. This irresistible photo op features a thin ribbon of the Colorado River bearhugging an oversized nugget of red sandstone. A west-facing attraction, it makes sense to visit at dusk, though even at sunrise she’s still quite a beauty.

Out West Road Trip: Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado

Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park
Photo: Pecold

Although Antelope Canyon (located on Native American land near Page and currently closed due to the pandemic) is arguably the most famous of its kind, there are slot canyons all over the Southwest, and no one should feel like they have to book a tour months in advance to see one. My tour van is offroading in tiny Kanab (which calls itself the “The Greatest Earth on Show”), and I swear that to grind through soil this stubborn the tires on our vehicle must be the size of Ferris wheels. Nevertheless, about 45 minutes into our drive we reach Peek-a-Boo Canyon.

Slot canyons are formed by water rushing through rock over the course of many years; their narrowness plus the beams of light that stubbornly find their way to the canyon floor is what gives them their allure. In socially distant groups, we weave our way into the bowels of the canyon, marveling at the intricate grooves that have formed on the sides of the canyon walls over the course of many thousands of years. Our tour guide Tyler (of TJ Tours) knows exactly where to stand (and at what time of day) for the best photos inside the canyon. I can only imagine how many roles of film this two-hour tour would’ve eaten up if I were still shooting with my old 35mm.

Next up, the best road trip detour I’ve ever taken. According to Tyler, if I follow Hwy 89 up to State Route 9, it will plunge me straight through Zion National Park and shoot me out on the other side toward I-15 and Las Vegas. One thing I love about being an annual National Parks pass holder (something I highly recommend) is that visiting a National Park doesn’t have to be an event. Thus, I don’t feel guilty skimming the surface of Zion, a National Park which deserves at least a full weekend of exploration. Every twist and turn is like looking through an old viewfinder from childhood, and at last I finally understand why Zion’s beauty is unmatched elsewhere in the Southwest.

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