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Whirlwind Tour of the West Travelogue

Dateline: 07/28/00

On the spur of the moment just under two weeks ago, my wife and I decided to take a quick tour of the southwestern U.S. It was a fast-paced but amazing trip to beautiful sites in California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. Here's what we did:

Day One

We left Sacramento (quite fitting as Sacramento was the starting point for the Central Pacific Railroad - one-half of the first transcontinental railroad) late in the afternoon after just a few hours of packing and coming up with a bare-bones plan. We hadn't realized that we both had been so severely attacked by the "travel bug" but there's only one way to cure it - hit the road.

We drove east on Interstate 80 to Reno but stopped at Donner Summit, where the ill-fated Donner Party met their match against the snow. While in Reno, the "Biggest Little City in the World" as their motto goes, we stopped for dinner at Circus Circus to enjoy the atmosphere of Nevada's second gambling town. We headed east from Reno about 33 miles and stayed in the town of Fernley - famous for being the location of once of Amazon.com's huge warehouses and shipping facilities.

Whirlwind Tour of the West Map
Day Two

We tried to take a tour of the huge Amazon.com facility, but being Sunday, we weren't able to go inside. We continued our trek east across the dry, barren desert in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada. The basin and range topography of Nevada was simply stunning. We lunched in central Nevada's metropolis of Winnemucca and continued east to Elko's Northeastern Nevada Museum. The museum is a wonderful hodgepodge of historical artifacts, natural history, and minerals that make for a diverse learning experience about the history of northeastern Nevada.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Utah and experienced the phenomenon that is the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Bonneville Salt Flats. From Interstate 80 in western Utah, all you can see are miles and miles of salt covering the ground. The desert was once part of as Lake Bonneville - a vast inland sea covering much of Utah and Nevada, the remnants of which are Utah's Great Salt Lake.

Great Salt Lake Desert
Great Salt Lake Desert
We stayed in Salt Lake City.

Day Three

My favorite part of the trip occurred on Day Three. For many years, I'd wanted to see the point where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads came together on May 10, 1869 to form the first transcontinental railroad across the United States. The place where this happened is called Promontory Point and it's about forty miles west of Brigham City, which is about 50 miles north of Salt Lake City. Today, there is nothing at Promontory except the Golden Spike National Historic Site, whose name refers to the golden railroad spike that was used to adhere the last rail into the last tie in the transcontinental railroad.

The historic site was quite impressive. Soon after our arrival in the morning two replica steam engines of the two that met at Promontory in 1869, the Jupiter from the Central Pacific and No. 119 from the Union Pacific, roll from their barn and onto the track behind the museum and exhibit building. While most of the railroad in the area was recycled in the 1940s for the war effort, there is about a mile of track at the historic site for the purpose of bringing out the replica engines to pose daily for visitors.

Promontory Point
No. 119 and Jupiter

After fun in Promontory, we lunched in the fabulously refurbished Union Station in Ogden and spent the afternoon enjoying the at Hill Air Force Base, south of Ogden.

Day Four

Salt Lake City is a beautiful city - it was well-designed and laid-out in a grid pattern by Brigham Young and his Mormon pioneers when they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The streets of the city and even the core area were designed to be wide enough to turn a horse-drawn wagon around so with the invention of the automobile, these same wide boulevards easily became six-lane streets, making downtown a pleasant place to drive yet somewhat sprawl-like, too. The mountains of the Wasatch Range provide a gorgeous backdrop for Salt Lake City, the home of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City and Temple Square in the foreground. Taken from Salt Lake City's tallest building, the LDS Church Office Building

We toured Temple Square at the center of Salt Lake City and the spiritual headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) along with the Mormon Tabernacle. It's difficult not to notice the impact that the Mormons have had upon the state - rightfully so, since they were the first from the east to arrive and settle there. While data on religion is not collected by the U.S. governments, many estimate that a majority of Utah's population is Mormon.

After a morning in downtown Salt Lake City, we ventured south to Provo for a tour of Brigham Young University. While on our tour, we were informed that the 98% Mormon university has a dress and grooming code that prohibits beards, "Men are expected to be clean shaven; beards are not acceptable," says the code. I immediately realized that during our time in Salt Lake City and environs, I hadn't seen another person with a beard (barring the obvious tourist, of course).

We visited Provo's Mall and stayed nearby for the night.

Day Five

We covered a lot of territory on Day Five. We left Provo early and headed south to Helper and a fantastic local historical museum there - the Western Mining and Railroad Museum. Helper is in the center of a major coal mining area of Utah which is still utilized as is obvious from the huge mounds of coal and mining machinery on the sides of the road. Helper is a great old town with a wonderful railroad-based downtown.

We drove a few miles south to Price for lunch and then proceeded to the Clevland Lloyd Quarry Dinosaur Quarry. It's a quarry that has been responsible for filling the labs and museums of paleontologists throughout the world. We were the only visitors to the quarry that afternoon and were greeted by a young man who drives the 40 miles every day from Price to be the lone staffer at the visitor center cum museum.

We're told that we can't miss College of Eastern Utah's Prehistoric Museum in Price so we stop there and sure enough, it's the best dinosaur museum I've visited. Don't miss it if you're in Utah.

After Price, we made our way south and stopped at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum along the Green River (a tributary of the Colorado River) in Green River (between Price and Moab). Powell was the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS history) from 1881-1894. He was also the first American explorer to navigate and map the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Powell rose to the rank of major during the Civil War but lost his right arm by amputation after he had been shot.

Just north of Moab are the Seco Canyon Petroglyphs and a tiny ghost mining town that we visited. Unfortunately, many of the petroglyghs have been defaced by graffiti that are definitely not indigenous in origin.

We drove to and stayed in Moab and were impressed to see how "touristy" the town has become.

Day Six

The early morning brought us to Arches National Park, just north of Moab. The terrain is, of course, very impressive, awe inspiring, and too beautiful for words.

Heading south, we crossed into Colorado and stopped in Cortez for lunch. It was our intention to visit Mesa Verde National Park, home to the cliff dwellings of ancestral Pueblo peoples (often called Anasazi). Unfortunately, shortly before we arrived a fire started in the forest near the park and though we were allowed into the park and made the windy trek uphill to the visitor center, just before we went to see our first cliff dwellings, we were notified that the park was closed and all visitors had to evacuate. Thus, we proceeded downhill and out the only road leading into the park, watching fire helicopters and planes try to control the flames as we went downhill.

Four Corners
The flags of the four states and the Navajo Nation wave in their respective quarter of the Four Corners monument

We arrived at Four Corners and I was just so giddy to be there! Though the place where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet is nothing extraordinary, the junction of the four states (being the only place in the U.S. that four states meet) made this geographer excited to be there. Most people just stand or put their arms and legs in each state but no, that wasn't enough for me! I had to experience the burning 100°-heated metal plate that marks the point by lying down...

Four Corners
I lie across Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah

We bid adieu to Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico and headed into Arizona and the Navajo Nation and first toured the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Monument Valley is home to a superb collection of buttes and mesas that are immediately recognizable as the stereotypical "western" scene, so often utilized in movies and television.

The Navajo Nation is a fascinating governmental entity in northeastern Arizona and in a small part of southern Utah and western New Mexico. It's the largest Native American reservation in the United States. While it lies within three states, it is a sovereign territory with its own government, law enforcement, schools, flag and seal, and even gasoline excise tax.

We stayed in Kayenta, a small town in the midst of the reservation. It was a depressing sort of town - most of the homes there were either government housing or mobile homes. The landscape was dry and bleak. Jewelry stands line the highway and sell silver and turquoise and other trinkets.

Day Seven

We left Kayenta and visited the Betatakin (the word Betatakin means "house on ledges" in Navajo) Ruin, a ancient cliff dwelling from the thirteenth century.

From there, we continued west to the Grand Canyon. There are two approaches to the Grand Canyon - from the North Rim or the South Rim. The South Rim is the more popular route and the one with more services. We went to the South Rim and approached from the west. Once's first view of the Grand Canyon from the west comes at the Desert View lookout. You pull off the road, walk over to the lookout, and say, "Wow!" The Grand Canyon is indeed grand - it's also magnificent, phenomenal, beautiful, unworldly, and huge. My photographs at the widest angle do little to express the grandeur of this amazing crevasse in the surface of the earth.

Grand Canyon

On the drive south from the Grand Canyon along Highway 64 toward Williams, Arizona, in the midst of thunderstorms, I spotted an amazing sign and knew I had to take a photo to include it here in this article...

NAU Geography Club

The Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff) Geography Club deserves kudos for not only their work in helping to clean the highways of Arizona but also in helping to get the word out about geography! Way to go NAU Geography Club!

We ate dinner in Williams at a delicious place - Rod's Steakhouse. After dinner, we got onto Interstate 40 and headed west to Kingman, where we spent the night.

Day Eight

We left Kingman early and drove northwest to Hoover Dam and Lake Mead to see the Colorado River for the third time on the trip (the first was at Moab, the second in the Grand Canyon). We took a tour of Hoover Dam, the highest concrete arch dam in the United States, which began with our guide telling us, "I'm your dam guide for this dam tour; if you have any damn questions, please ask because I'm filled with dam facts." It only got funnier from there ;)

After the dam tour, we drove to Las Vegas and checked into the world's largest hotel (according to the book Guinness World Records 2000), MGM Grand, with 5,005 rooms on 112 acres. The hotel, as with most Las Vegas hotels, is a city onto itself - a visitor could remain inside the confines of the hotel for days without ever tiring of something to do. The size and amenity of these palatial casino hotels is simply amazing. The MGM Grand includes a theme park, scores of shops, a lion habitat, a half-dozen pools, several clubs and arenas, ten restaurants, and plenty of gambling opportunities. We explored the hotel and ventured into the warm Vegas air to explore the "Strip" (as Las Vegas Boulevard and its adjoining casinos are known).

Day Nine

Our final day was a day that we spent the most time driving - about 14 hours worth. We started in Vegas and drove to Death Valley, where I enjoyed not only the heat (it was 108° by 9:30 a.m. when we left - the high was 123° that day) but also seeing the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.

Badwater is near the lowest point in North America

At 280 feet below sea level, Badwater is two feet higher than the lowest point at 282 feet but those points aren't as photogenic as Badwater. We toured the Death Valley Museum and topped our tank with very expensive gasoline at the only station around for dozens of miles. Proceeding from Death Valley, we drove to Lone Pine and were awed by the Mt. Whitney, the tallest point in the contiguous 48 states (at 14,494 feet).

We visited the remnants of the World War II Japanese-American concentration camp at Manzanar on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. Not much remains at Manzanar but the government is working to build an interpretive center and museum on the spot.

We drove past Mammoth Lakes, past Yosemite, and to home.

I thoroughly enjoyed this road trip and loved seeing so much of the west in such a short period of time. If I were to suggest the perfect trip, my only change would have been to have definitely spent more time in Salt Lake City - exploring and learning more. In order to do so without adding an extra day onto the trip, I probably would have skipped the BYU tour.

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