After a few hours of flying you land in Denver. What’s next? Where will the road take you?
The last time I had to make that decision, my route was pretty set. I made my way around Colorado, bypassed most of the glorious National Parks of Utah (which I'll eventually turn into another route), mostly because the trip was about something else, and then headed to Wyoming and Montana.
I didn't know what to expect from the real West. While visiting small towns, going to the local rodeo, exploring Yellowstone with buffalo walking by my side, driving the Beartooth Pass down to Billings, I somehow found peace I didn’t have for years.
This story is about my adventure in the Wild West, the real West. This is the set of my favorite stops combined from two trips, in summer and in winter.
LOCATION: DENVER, COLORADO
Denver is one of those cities that feel like home. Industrial buildings with small startup companies residing in them, local breweries, cheese stores, and all kinds of craftsmanship on every corner, and mostly young people under 45 is what you can expect from Denver.
Rocky Mountain National Park is just a little ways outside of Denver and is an epic hub for hikers and backpackers. I’ve never been there but eventually will do a trip.
Denver is the home for some of my favorite brands: Artisan Obscura and Topo Designs. Colorado is becoming the epicenter for all things cool. I'm sure in 10 years it will be a different city, but right now it's pretty spacy, friendly, and where you can find quality beer, shopping, and outdoor adventures.
We drove to the West and the views are pretty amazing. You ride at the bottom of the Colorado river with the railroad by your side, trains passing by, and epic cliffs hanging over you reminding of how little we can do against natural forces.
I took these shots somewhere a few hours out of Denver and this is definitely the mood we had - ready for open lands and life that has a bit of a different pace.
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
LOCATION: MESA VERDE, COLORADO
Standing at the lookout point overlooking the great canyon below at Mesa Verde National Park may not seem like a lot at first, but when you focus your eyesight across the canyon, you can notice the etches of a civilization that once roamed these lands. You see an ancient city that carved its world in the cliffs hidden from everyone else. And that’s an unreal view to see.
Mesa Verde was the home to many generations who lived above and below the top of the overhanging cliffs. By the late 1270s, the population migrated south for various reasons. No one is quite sure why the people left the area. Some say there were attackers, while others speculate they ran out of food resources over the years. Whichever historical theory you may believe, Mesa Verde still serves as a rare insight into an ancient civilization.
The architecture in the Cliff Palace to the Balcony House speaks for themselves just how innovative the people who lived here were. I would highly suggest taking a Cliff Dwelling Tour if you happen to be near Mesa Verde, you will not be disappointed. They don't happen in winter, so you need to do the tour in any warm season when tours are available.
I made it to Mesa Verde on a separate trip during a winter vacation. The park was empty and the roads were icy. There were only a few people in the park and we couldn’t get too close. It’s pretty interesting to see desert plants covered in fresh snow.
RIMROCK RODEO IN FRUITA
LOCATION: FRUITA, COLORADO
There is nothing quite like the vibe of a rodeo. The crowd can waver from a hush to a great sound when watching a rider on a bull. The atmosphere of a rodeo feels homegrown, as it is a tradition that has been passed down through many generations. You don't really know if you're on a movie set or if this is real life. At least for me it felt that way for the first time.
The Rimrock Rodeo in Fruita, Colorado runs every Tuesday evening from June through August. It was my first time at the rodeo and I only brought my film camera. I didn’t what to expect, but the culture of the sport is fascinating and I just needed to watch what’s going on around me to get a sense of complete respect for the tradition.
Jerry Berentis first started the rodeo in Fruita over 22 years ago with only a handful of volunteers. It began as an event that did not have fancy lights or big money, it simply was for the thrill and tradition of a rodeo. It used to have only 5 riders but now has grown to over 20 professional riders that come to participate every week in the summer.
Professional Rodeo riders hold a certain air about them, as they daringly ride a bull with their lives on the edge. From catching bulls to riding them, a rodeo is something that everyone should experience in their lifetime. This was my first time and I’ll never forget it.
LOCATION: OLJATO-MONUMENT VALLEY, ARIZONA
When you get closer to the destination on your GPS app, you start looking around trying to find the views you’ve seen in thousands of images. I didn’t even realize what I was looking at when we got so close that we were just a few miles away.
Monument Valley looks much like it did over 3,000 years ago. It was thankfully overlooked in the grand movement of people to the West, and still is a hot and wild desert along the border of Utah and Arizona. The historic Route 66 goes a few hundred miles south.
You can see many of the monuments along the main 14-mile dirt road that guides you along to see the main sites like The Mittens, Totem Pole, Ear of the Wind, and John Ford's Point. To go deeper into the valley, you will have to sign up for a guided tour that is run by the Navajo tribe.
Monument Valley is a unique window into how the Navajo have lived and survived in the desert valley, but also is an insight into how people began to view the American West. John Ford's western films, that started with John Wayne in Stagecoach in 1939, gave a new look to the raw and real landscape of America, or in other words, the great American Wild West.
There is a very nice hotel by the grocery store, you can't see it from the road, but you've got the open balcony view to the sunrise and sunset in the valley and I don't know if you can even put a price tag on those precious moments.
BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS
LOCATION: GREAT SALT LAKE DESERT, UTAH
Bonneville Salt Flats is a strange place of intense heat and incredible brightness. It creates an almost unbearable environment, but the salt flats stretch beautifully as far as the eye can see. They’re like nothing else I’ve seen before.
Covering over 30,000 miles of land, Bonneville Salt Flats are just west of the Great Salt Lake. It almost appears to be snow as you walk across the crunchy surface, but it is the exact opposite of snow with the temperature escalating to over 100 degrees.
The salt flats used to be a vast lake called Lake Bonneville. The Great Salt Lake is a small remnant left in comparison to what the lake once looked like. With the climate shifting and changing, it dried up the lake and created what we now see as the salt flats.
Along the I-80, you can stop at the conveniently made rest stop that allows for a break from the road and the opportunity to walk as far as you like along the salt flats. Be aware of the heat of the day though, as it is the perfect environment for a bad sunburn. The salt is also pretty sticky and can destroy a lot of materials, like backpack zippers, so be careful with your gear. Rental cars are also not allowed to drive on the salt flats, but that looks very tempting.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
LOCATION: MOOSE, WYOMING
Grand Teton National Park is right next door to Yellowstone, and if you're entering Yellowstone after, you might as well buy an annual pass that's only $30 more.
When you first break out of the trees from the highway, the mountains captivate your eyesight and leave you with a certain gratitude for the land being protected.
The mountains and the lakes below were once traveled by Native tribes but also were home to many trappers, explorers, and settlers. The mountains seem ageless, yet they have seen their fair share of the changing climate. There are not many views like this left in the world.
Even if you can only spend a few hours in the park as you are passing through to Yellowstone, it is definitely a sight you should check off your list!
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
LOCATION: YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING
Yellowstone National Park is by far one of the most popular parks, and can often be crowded with thousands of tourists. It was a bit strange to see benches set up for the spectators and tourists in the areas where The Old Faithful erupts every 90 minutes or so.
In 1916, Yellowstone marked the beginning of the National Park system in the United States. It was the first time that land was set aside for the protection of wildlife and the opportunity for future generations to enjoy. From wonders around the park such as Old Faithful, Morning Glory Pool, and the geothermal basins, you can see why the park has attracted so many people over the years.
I only had a day in the park, but we had to make a full figure 8 and come back to Jackson Hole for the overnight stay. At night, we got stuck in traffic because of bisons walking on the road. I still remember that day and how we kept driving at night with only the moonlight and just bare beautiful wildlife all around us. It was not scary, mostly just beautiful and peaceful.
Beyond the insane prism patterns on the ground throughout the park, Yellowstone is home to a sacred animal, the Bison. Bison tends to be generally uninterested towards people unless approached. They can be funny animals that roam the main road through Yellowstone of their own accord, but they also are fascinating to watch in their natural environment. There is a field in the park that is mostly covered in bisons at night.
Even though it’s the most visited National Park in America, it didn’t feel totally crowded in the middle of the summer. The territory is so vast, that there is no problem with finding quiet spots to enjoy nature, prisms, wildlife, and quality roads to get you back to your hotel.
CODY STAMPEDE RODEO
LOCATION: CODY, WYOMING
Since 1919, the Cody Stampede Rodeo has been happening every summer. When you enter the rodeo stadium in Cody, you know you are in the presence of history in the making. Cody is renowned for being the "Rodeo Capital of the World" and certainly lives up to its name.
Before the rodeo, it was Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill knew the general public's fascination with the Wild West and took full advantage of spectators willing to get a glimpse into the great American West.
Buffalo Bill officially closed his show in 1913 before his untimely death in 1917. The rodeo continued in the spirit of the west, and soon became a cultural tradition for many. The Cody Stampede Rodeo is not only the longest running professional rodeo, but it also is the only rodeo in the United States that runs nightly during the summer.
Going to a rodeo is something you truly have to experience for yourself. The vibe is lively, spirited, and gives you the feeling of the what the great American wild west felt like even 100 years ago. The little kids treat it like a profession and are so skilled that you almost begin to question what you are actually good at yourself.
BUFFALO BILL MUSEUM
LOCATION: CODY, WYOMING
Buffalo Bill is a name that everyone knows in the United States. It is a name that is etched in history and is forever associated with the wild west. The Buffalo Bill Museum offers great insight into the life and existence of William F. Cody, otherwise known as Buffalo Bill.
The museum is very high tech and you’re greeted by the hologram of Buffalo Bill himself. This fact in itself is pretty amazing as you stand in the middle of the least populated state in America with nothing but green plains as the eye can see.
Buffalo Bill was the definition of style in his heyday with his signature mustache and goatee, Stetson hat, and his slick white long hair that paired with the frills on his leather jacket. He was the pioneer of popularizing the West and changed the perspective for many who soon saw the west as the new American dream.
The museum displays the experience of Buffalo Bill's lifetime that helped shape his understanding of the west. He was an adventurous spirit like many of us and was always looking for new opportunities. He suffered in his fame at times, causing a stream of bad investments and strain on his family.
Although he may have been lonely at times in his adventures, he still continued to keep the spirit of the American West alive. As you wander around the museum, you get the rare chance to see a collection of his life that makes the west seem all the more close at hand.
LOCATION: BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY THROUGH MONTANA AND WYOMING
Quick question: do you remember the moment when you felt completely free, happy, at peace, and just enjoying what’s in front of you?
This was the Beartooth pass for me several years ago. Nothing beats it to this day.
The Beartooth Highway has some of the most stunning views in the west. It is considered the wild side of Yellowstone, and winds through 68 miles near the border of Montana and Wyoming. It has a magical way of letting all your worries disappear when you are amongst such wild terrain on an open highway.
The highway has been open since 1937 and continues to be a gateway to the West. It is only open during spring and summer because the snow in the passes blocks the way for travel.
If Yellowstone proves to be too crowded for hiking, hikes along the Beartooth Pass are the next greatest place to be amongst the wild places. The alpine landscape seems untouched by humans, even with the highway reaching the highest elevation in the Northern Rockies.
You can choose to pass through Cooke City, Red Lodge, and Cody through the Beartooth Highway. Each town is unique in itself and has locals in the area that truly create the charm of the area surrounding Yellowstone. Stop by one of the western cafes or general store along the way to truly capture the full experience of the modern day wild west.
On the way out of Cody, you’ll first drive on Chief Joseph Pass, which is also a pretty amazing drive.
Many travelers confuse what it means to visit the American West. It’s common to say that if you drive the triangle LA - Vegas - San Francisco, then you’ve seen it all. Some adventurers include the western part of Route 66 and some national Parks. But this trip I did is the path less traveled, but probably the one that will help you relax, reflect, get some alone time, connect with what’s around you, get a bit of local vibe with rodeo and natural beauties of the area, and then finish off with the epic ride in no cell reception zone over the Beartooth Pass.
Whatever attracts you, don't put away making those trips for too long. This route might be the one you need, or maybe it will lead you to create your own trip to explore the world outside of the busy city jungle. Either way, I hope you’ll take some Asilda items with you.