Sunset Travel - The 50 Essential Western Travel Experiences

The 50 Essential Western Travel Experiences

Raft the mightiest river -Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

“You hope you’ll be right side up at the other end.” That’s how late rafting legend (and former Sunset editor) Martin Litton described running the Colorado through this greatest of gorges. Sometimes you have to test yourself against the most nature can throw at you. This is one of those times, when you’re soaked and frantically paddling, and the rapids you’re about to meet stir anticipation verging on terror: Sockdolager, Hermit, brutal Lava Falls. Then, later, the river calms, and you help guide the boat onto a beach, and the canyon’s ocher walls fold around you protectively, and there’s dinner and a campfire and the Milky Way in the sky. Does any day get more intensely, fully lived than this one? Nope.

Shop like an Angeleno -Grand Central Market, Los Angeles

Part of the boom in Western public markets, Grand Central has morphed into one of L.A.’s must-see destinations. By Southern California standards, this enormous space, with its sawdust-covered floors and aisles of food stalls, has been around for an eternity—or since 1917, to be more precise. A wave of new purveyors, including the onetime food truck Eggslut and DTLA Cheese, has helped Grand Central evolve into a contemporary public market. But for all the newfound foodie/artisanal appeal, Grand Central hasn’t sacrificed its vintage character. So sure, indulge in your espresso fetishism at G&B Coffee. Or boost that immune system with an organic elixir at Press Brothers Juicery. Just don’t miss the carnitas at Villa Moreliana. 317 S. Broadway; grandcentralmarket

Sip a great Cab - 2011 Stag’s Leap wine cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon

Talk about pedigree. In 1976, French wine experts gathered to compare France’s best against bottles from upstart California. The top red in the Judgment of Paris? The 1973 vintage of this Napa Valley Cab. Now the world had to take California wines seriously. Over 40 years later, Stag’s Leap’s S.L.V. Cabernets are as fabulous as ever. The 2011 is focused but generous: You’ll taste red berries, mocha, a hint of cardamom, vanilla, and earth. Raise a glass and toast La Belle France—to show we’re good winners. $125;

Buy a classic at a classic - Singing Wind Bookshop, Benson, AZ

If Singing Wind lacks the convenience of instantaneous downloads, it has treasures that you just can’t get online: Winn Bundy and wide-open spaces. Since 1974, Bundy has run this bookstore on her cattle ranch outside Benson, 48 miles southeast of Tucson. To get there, take exit 304 off Interstate 10 and go left at Ocotillo Street; you’ll spot a mailbox with bullet holes, then turn right on Singing Wind Road. Travel down this long dirt road, where a metal sign reads headquarters for books about the southwest. If a bookstore can have terroir, then Singing Wind does. Handmade from the ranch’s mesquite trees, the shelves in the front rooms of Bundy’s house are filled with a remarkable collection of books she’s selected. A home on the range for tomes on the range. 700 Singing Wind Rd.; (520) 586-2425;

Find artistic inspiration - Spiral Jetty, Great Salt Lake, UT

The West is filled with giant artworks that do stuff—e.g., Hoover Dam. So the idea of earthworks—landscape art that does nothing but be—can seem a little precious. Not Spiral Jetty. In 1970, artist Robert Smithson created the 1,500-foot-long work that coils into Utah’s fabled lake, and it retains its allure today. Part of the pull may be that the jetty is like the Loch Ness monster, appearing and vanishing as the lake falls and rises. great-salt-lake-state-park/spiral-jetty.

Sail true north - Inside Passage, AK

How beautiful is this 500-mile swath of Southeast Alaska coast? So beautiful that even John Muir, who spent his whole life waxing rhapsodic about nature, was rendered temporarily speechless: The scenery was, he confessed, “hopelessly beyond description.” Those 500 miles unfold into 15,000 miles of shoreline, with more than 1,000 islands, rain forests and glaciers, brown bears and orcas, and Alaska towns whose capsule descriptions (Gold Rush Skagway, Russian Sitka) don’t do justice to their indomitable idiosyncrasies. Sail the passage aboard one of the glamorous cruise ships with their casinos and spas, or, for fewer bucks, the humble, comfy Alaska State Ferry. Either way, find a spot on an upper deck to become a human periscope, turning 360°, scanning for the next wonder.

Swig a cult sauce - Huy Fong Foods Sriracha

A good hot sauce ignites the tongue. A great hot sauce ignites lawsuits. That’s what happened to this vivid red-orange condiment with its iconic rooster and bright green cap. In 2013, Irwindale, the L.A. suburb where the Thai-inspired sauce is brewed, charged that its factory spewed unendurably spicy fumes and sued to close it. Sriracha­pocalypse! tweeted sauce partisans. The fracas even roiled the 2014 California gubernatorial campaign when Texas threatened to steal the factory (which generates an estimated $60 million annually in sales). In the end, Irwindale and the sauce makers made peace. Moral? Don’t mess with the stuff we put on our scrambled eggs.

Hike a hidden paradise - The Wave, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZ

Getting here takes work. Hiking permits—20 per day—are granted by BLM lottery, half online up to four months in advance and half walk-in. Only permit holders receive directions to the trailhead and the strenuous 6-mile hike that leads to The Wave. Once you arrive? Totally worth it. Sand dunes from the Jurassic period—170 million years ago, give or take a million—have been compressed into stilled swells of coral-colored rock, hallucinatory, unforgettable. No lottery will ever garner you a bigger prize. $7;

Find Sin City’s secret oasis - Springs Preserve, Las Vegas

In 1855, Mormon missionaries built a fort in the desert, drawing water from these nearby vegas, or meadows. From these beginnings came the casino buffet and Cirque du Soleil. But this restored preserve near downtown offers more than irony. Three-plus miles of trails run through verdant desert habitat; nearby is the history-minded Nevada State Museum and natural history–focused Origen Museum. And you can find a commodity rare in Vegas: peace and quiet. From $10;

Whoop it up Alaska-style - Fur Rondy, Anchorage

You don’t think Alaskans would throw an ordinary party, do you? For this winter shindig—officially the Fur Rendezvous Winter Festival, in honor of the city’s trapping past—there are dogsled races and snowshoe softball. Also ice bowling and outhouse races, which is to say, people skiing with outhouses strapped to their backs. Also the Running of the Reindeer, where people dressed up as reindeer attempt to outrun actual reindeer. Plus opportunities for drinking, but you already guessed that. Late Feb – early Mar;

Catch an epic wave - The Wedge, Newport Beach, CA

Asked what it’s like to bodysurf one of the most famous breaks on Earth, a regular once opined, “It’s the closest thing to the great trauma of being born.” When a big swell hits the Wedge, already gigantic waves bounce off the jetty at the south end of Balboa Boulevard; combining with the next wave, they create magnificent, malevolent monsters that can top 25 feet. The scene on the beach is only slightly less raucous than the one in the water, hundreds of onlookers hooting at the prowess, and wipeouts, of the world’s best bodysurfers. Wise mortals wait for calmer days and bodysurf the more forgiving waves on the beaches near the Newport Pier. At the end of Balboa Peninsula;

Fall in love with a flower - The Matilija Poppy

Outsiders tend to view California’s ubiquitous chaparral with disdain, using adjectives like “brown” and “drab.” To them we say: Look at this poppy. It’s a classic chaparral plant, evolved to survive bouts of drought and wildfire. It’s not much to look at a lot of the year. But come spring, pow—it morphs into a parade float of white-and-yellow blooms. Too often ignored here, the Mati­lija is grown and celebrated in Great Britain. (Brits know a fascinator when they see one.) Catch them in bloom at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. $12/vehicle;

Feel the burn - The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion

Yow. If this chile were from Spinal Tap, it would be turned up to 11. At more than 2 million Scoville units, it’s 6 1⁄2 times hotter than a wimpy habanero. Although originally native to Trinidad, it has found its true home in New Mexico, the nation’s number one chile producer. The state’s chile cred is burnished by institutions like New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, which sells its own line of seeds, and by Albuquerque’s National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show, held each March. And by the less incendiary but sublime native Chimayos, available at farmers’ markets and roadside stands come late summer and fall.;

Hike a Hawaiian icon - Diamond Head State Monument, Oahu, HI

This ancient volcanic crater overlooking Waikiki has starred in America’s tropical fantasies for generations. Which is what makes the short (0.08 mile) hike to its rim such a fulfilling experience. At its start the trail is anything but impressive, meandering through dry brush. But you climb, gradually then steeply, entering a narrow tunnel blasted through dark brown rock to arrive at the crater’s summit and the incomparable view: all of Honolulu and seemingly the entire Pacific Ocean sweeping half the globe. $5/vehicle;

Climb a Colorado peak - Long’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park

Decades before it legalized marijuana, Colorado fostered a cult of getting high by luring travelers to scale its 53 fourteeners (peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation). Today, bagging all 53 is a badge of honor. Start easy, with the drive up 14,110-foot Pikes Peak. Then hike up 14,148-foot Mt. Democrat: From Kite Lake Trailhead, you’ll gain 2,150 feet over 1.8 miles for stunning summit views. As for Long’s, it’s for actual mountain climbers—so why not become one?

Drive the coast - California Highway 1

“My Funny Valentine” is the world’s best song. “The Little Kicks”—you know, the one where Elaine dances—is the best Seinfeld episode. Sometimes you have to go with the classics. And that’s what Highway 1 is. Whether it’s your first time following its winding route or your 100th, the coast and ocean views never disappoint. The best stretches? Difficult to choose, but if pushed, we’d opt for the spectacle that is Big Sur and the moodier but lovely route along the Sonoma Coast.;

Note that landslides often cause Highway 1 closures, especially in the Big Sur area. Check road conditions before setting out.

Feast on fresh oysters - Walrus & Carpenter Picnic, Puget Sound, WA

Standing on a squishy oyster bed on a mid­winter night might sound crazy. Add expertly shucked oysters to slurp, carefully paired wines, and a bonfire, and you have bivalve nirvana. This is the picnic named for Lewis Carroll’s oyster-loving duo and held each winter on a southern inlet of the sound. The event began in 2002, brainchild of Seattle seafood consultant Jon Rowley and Taylor Shellfish Farms of Shelton, Washington. Their goal: to savor the freshest oysters—elusive Olympias, exotic Totten Virginicas, and plump Pacifics—direct from the waters that give them their flavor, with proceeds going to the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. We echo the Walrus: “Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear, We can begin to feed.” $150; Feb;

Honor a legend - Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe

“Ridiculous,” she called New Mexico, because “it’s so beautiful.” Georgia O’Keeffe arrived in New Mexico in 1929 from New York, and it turned out this was the place she had been looking for—for the next five decades, she painted the region’s sere mesas, its sculpted skulls. She was a female artist and a Western artist, both of which could have marginalized her, except she didn’t let that happen. Pay attention to me and to my land, she told the world. It did, and does: Her 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 sold for $44,405,000 in 2014. See her work at the museum, and visit her home and studio in Abiquiú. From $13;

Cross 11 bridges - Portland

It’s the City of Roses, sure, and the City of Food Trucks. But Portland’s really the City of Bridges, 10 of them spanning the majestic Willamette River. So listen up: You don’t truly know Portland until you’ve walked, cycled, or driven across green, Gothic-spired St. Johns, elegantly arching Fremont, and intricately trussed Hawthorne. In 2015 ame bridge 11: Tilikum Crossing, the nation’s first multimodal bridge to carry streetcars, light rail, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians—but no private cars. It opened just in time to be part of Portland’s annual bike-all-the-bridges Providence Bridge Pedal Festival in August of that year.

Cowboy up in Montana- Miles City Bucking Horse Sale

Montanans call it Cowboy Mardi Gras, and it’s the most Western event in the West. Cowboys, broncs, and cowboy-boot-wearing visitors swarm this Plains town for the equine sale that started in 1913. There’s a Main Street dance, stagecoach parade, and lots of country music (check out the century-old Montana Bar & Steakhouse), but the real action is at the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds. Here, rodeo contractors bid on bucking horses as they explode into the arena, cowboys hanging onto the saddlehorns or bareback as horses crow-hop and buck—or lie down. From $15; mid-May;

Haunt a ghost town - South Pass City, WY

A Western mining town was a chancy start-up. Although a few succeeded to become big cities, far more crumpled picturesquely into dust. South Pass City is among the most evocative. Here, near where the Oregon Trail crossed the Continental Divide, an 1867 gold strike launched a town of 1,000, which dissolved once the gold ran out. The state of Wyoming restored many surviving buildings, giving you a chance to stroll, sip sarsaparilla, and ponder Western failure and success.

Worship the bean - Slate Coffee Roasters, Seattle

In a city that’s made coffee its religion, the original Ballard neighborhood Slate location is Seattle’s most fervent shrine to caffeine. The micro-­roastery and cafe uses only the most minimally processed whole milk and thoroughly vetted coffee beans in season (like produce, coffee regions have seasons). Each cup is hand-brewed using a pour-over method so precise, it requires a gram scale. Yes, it sounds fussy, but the results are phenomenal. 5413 Sixth Ave. N.W.;

Cycle high in the sky - The Route of the Hiawatha, ID

The West has lots of bike trails. So why go all the way to Northern Idaho to pedal? Because if your criterion is an incredibly scenic trail that a normal, not-insane person can do, this is the best bike ride in the world. The trail follows the path of the fabled Olympian Hiawatha passenger train, starting near the Montana border and continuing 15 miles to Pearson, Idaho. Along the way, you’ll cycle across high railroad trestles and through pitch-black tunnels, emerging to gape at views of waterfalls and Rocky Mountain peaks. And here’s the thing: You can ride one way, east to west, all flat or gently downhill, then catch a shuttle bus back to your start. Trail open late May-late June; $10, shuttle $9;

Drive the West’s best mountain road - Beartooth Highway, MT/WY

It’s a 19th-century landscape painting you drive into. Open most years from May to October, the 68-mile-long Beartooth Highway switchbacks up Montana’s Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, then sidles across a windswept Wyoming plateau before presenting you, ceremoniously, at the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Along the way: Beartooth Falls, placid Gardner Lake, many moose, and life-changing vistas. Seriously. Rumor has it that views from West Summit—360° of mountain peaks and 3 million acres of wilderness—have sparked more than one marriage proposal. It’s easy to see why. This is a road that makes you say, yes, yes.

Order the perfect martini - The Musso & Frank Grill, Los Angeles

They’re bartenders, not mixologists, at this Hollywood landmark. Because those serious gents in the red bolero jackets with the black shawl lapels are here to honor the classics, not revel in the molecular-level genius of their own concoctions. After all, you came for the martinis, much as movie mavens and minions alike have been doing since Musso’s opened in 1919. So settle in at the mahogany bar, where the old cash register forever reads CASH .01. Check out the black-and-white toile wallpaper of peacocks and pastoral scenes before the martini arrives, crystal clear and cold, with a tiny iced decanter bearing a few bonus sips by its side. The message is clear: “There it is. Drink it.” 6667 Hollywood Blvd.;

See the tallest tree - General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park

By volume, it is the largest tree in the whole world. And beautiful.

Immerse yourself in a bizarre landscape - Bisti Badlands, New Mexico.

This rock wonderland—officially the BLM's Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness—is one of the most beautifully eerie places in the world.

Climb a Yosemite icon - Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

This 14- to 16 mile round-trip (including a final 400 steep feet climbing on cables) to the 8800' top of the famed chunk of granite gives you amazing views and even better bragging rights. Go when the cables are up, usually between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. But you'll need a permit–visit for information.

Drink a mai tai - Mai Tai Bar, Waikiki

This classic cocktail makes every day a tropical vacation. Invented in Oakland, the mai tai reaches a pinnacle of perfection at Waikiki spots like the Royal Hawaiian's Mai Tai Bar and the Halekulani's House Without a Key.

Discover lushness in the desert - Indian Canyon, Palm Springs

On Agua Caliente Indian lands, Palm, Andreas and Murray canyons are the lushest desert oases you'll ever see--each shaded by gorgeous California fan palms, the only palms native to the golden state.

Get up close to a coast redwood - Redwood National Park

These are the tallest trees in the world, and epitomize California coastal beauty.

Tune up at a musical Mecca - Musical Instrument Museum, Scottsdale

This is one of the most impressive musical museums anywhere, displaying 6,000 instruments from 200 countries, and giving you lots of opportunities to hear music from around the world. Good concert series, too.

Road trip amid red rocks - Utah's Highway 12

This southern Utah road trip gives you more spectacular scenery per mile than any other road in the world—Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. All this and delicious Hells Backbone Grill in Boulder, UT too.

Stand atop an epic summit - Mauna Kea summit, Hawaii

At 13,796 feet, you’re standing on the very top of the Hawaiian Islands. Views stretch halfway across the Pacific—and deep into the universe, too, thanks to the dozen giant telescopes that perch here.

Admire modernist classic design - Taliesin West, Scottsdale

Genius architect Frank Lloyd Wright began building his desert retreat in 1937; even today it wows with its dramatic architecture and base-of-the-McDowell Mountains setting.

Make a Pliny pilgrimage - Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, CA

Some call Russian River Brewing's Pliny the Younger the best craft beer in the world—which is why hop heads from around the globe swarm to the Northern California brewpub each winter for its super limited release. Kegs are tapped the first or second Friday of February—and they're dry around 10 days later. So go early and often.

Bask in nature's best light show - Aurora borealis, Alaska

Watching the northern sky shimmer and flicker and burst into celestial colors from late fall through early spring is the greatest light show you'll ever see.

Swoon over saguaro - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

With their lofty height (up to 50 feet) expressive arms and beautiful blooms (which only last 24 hours) saguaro cacti are just incredibly cool. Bloom season is mid-spring, but any time spring, winter or fall is great.

Get serenaded by cascades - Multnomah Falls, OR

In a state rich in waterfalls, this is the absolute best–a two-tiered, 600-foot cascade surrounded by lush northwestern forest and with the graceful Benson Bridge spanning its base.

See the West's other Grand Canyon - Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park

If in sheer size it's not as grand as that other canyon in Arizona, in some ways it's more magnificent, with Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls splashing down canyon walls of golden rock.

Drive the highway to heaven - Hana Road, Maui

52 miles, 54 one-lane bridges, countless curves, all leading you to a destination, Hana, that is as close to paradise you're ever going to find.

Surround yourself with wildflowers - Anza Borrego Desert State Park, CA

In March, this vast state park east of San Diego is wildflower central, with more than 200 species of flowers in full bloom.

Sip a prickly pear margarita - Arizona

This vivid pink variation on this Western classic is practically Arizona's state cocktail. Good ones abound, but we're especially fond of the version mixed at Tii Gavo restaurant at Sedona's Enchantment Resort.

Watch whales breach - Maui

The spectacle of a humpback whale leaping out of the Pacific is something you'll always remember. Peak whale watching season is December to April.

Learn about the natural world - California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

This state-of-the-art natural history museum lets you step inside a four-story rainforest, then climb outside to admire the green undulations of its grass-and-wildflower-planted signature roof.

Drive by a greatest hits of Western landscapes - Catalina Highway, Arizona

Driving this 27-mile highway (also called Sky Island Parkway) near Tucson is like driving from Mexico to northern Canada—you start out in Sonoran desert and end up in pine forests at the top of Mount Lemmon, with stunning views the whole way

See a California condor soar - Pinnacles National Park, CA

One of our rarest bird species has found refuge in one of our newest national parks, with several dozen condors calling the park's peaks home.

Ride in a mountain biking paradise - Moab, UT

Moab is to mountain biking what Aspen is to skiing or North Shore Oahu is to surfing. It doesn't get any better.

Worship at a shrine to whiskey - Multnomah Whiskey Library, Portland

1,500 whiskeys to choose from, many of them crafted here in the West, like California's St. George, Utah's High West, and Washington's Samish Bay.

Peep some tropical eye candy - Allerton Garden, Kauai

You've seen some of Allerton's giant trees (the Moreton Bay Figs) in the multiplex—they starred in Jurassic Park. And those are just some of the wonders to be found at this branch of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.