Road-Tripping the Wild, Wild West

Reader Contribution by Benjamin Baer
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If you follow @BackyardBaers on Twitter, then you know I just got done traveling the West on a pretty serious road trip. A good friend and I embarked on a ten-day road trip that spanned through Austin, TX, Albuquerque, NM, Sedona, AZ, Las Vegas, NV, Yosemite National Park, and back to Las Vegas. I’m not someone that does a ton of traveling; I always feel like I’m much too busy to get away for any significant amount of time. This length of a getaway was completely unknown to me; I don’t recall the last time I was away from home for more than a few days. So, I originally had reservations about being away for so long. But it didn’t take long to get over that and start enjoying the open road.  

Day 0:

I flew from Central Virginia to Austin, Texas bright and early on a Thursday morning. Got into Austin around 9 a.m., and we immediately ran errands to pick up a few items for the trip. Then, of course, I spent the rest of the day strolling down memory lane, since I used to live in ATX. I had to visit the old house to see how the new owners are taking care of my once-prized lawn (not very well), and then I stopped at a few of my favorite places. We had lunch at one of my favorite tex-mex restaurants, grabbed a beer at my favorite happy hour bar, and then had dinner at my favorite BBQ joint. It was essentially all my favorite ATX places packed into one day … and it was great!

Day 1:

We left at about 6 a.m. on a Friday and spent the day driving. This was the only day of the trip that was essentially driving all day. It was a pretty uneventful drive, but I think we were so excited about what was to come and the idea of beginning this epic trip that it went by pretty quick. We saw quite a few wind farms, which was pretty neat. I had never seen wind turbines before, but we saw tons of them on our first day of travel. They looked like something from the future — which I guess makes sense, since that’s supposed to be one of the up-and-coming energy sources of the future. Late in the afternoon, we made it to Amarillo, TX, where we stopped and checked out Cadillac Ranch to take a few pictures and then continued to Albuquerque. We had dinner at a local brewery, and then relaxed to get ready for the next day of travel.

Day 2:

We started off the next morning for the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest National Park. It was awesome. The Painted Desert was intense; I had never seen anything like it. The Petrified Forest was not quite what I was expecting. I was thinking there would be a lot more petrified wood; I suspect people have been stealing it over the years, and it’s just not what it used to be. Still, it is hard to believe at what time it was a thriving forest, and now it’s a desert with chunks of petrified wood lying around. How our land changes; it’s truly amazing. We continued driving from there until we got to the Meteor Crater in Arizona. This meteor crater is the result of a giant asteroid that hit Earth an estimated 50,000 years ago. It measures 550 feet deep, 2.4 miles in circumference and almost one mile across. You don’t necessarily expect a giant hole in the ground to be so impressive, but when you think about it and stand there at the top; it’s pretty mind blowing to think about the action of an asteroid hitting the planet. From the Meteor Crater, we continued west until we got to Sedona, Arizona.

View in the magnificent Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park.

Days 3 and 4:

We spent 2 days in Sedona, and it was amazing. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it so much, but it was truly a cool place. The first night we just took it easy, had a good dinner at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and then just relaxed with a few brews. The next morning, we got up and went off-roading to Schnebly Hill Vista. It was about a six-mile trip on a winding, rocky, steep road to an overlook with a view you’ll never forget. After pulling out some lawn chairs and relaxing while taking in the view, we traveled back down the mountain to visit the ancient ruins of Palatki in the Coconino National Forest. The Palatki site was quite the historical experience, with cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and pictographs. These ruins were built by the Sinagua Indians, who inhabited the area from 500 to 1450 AD.

After leaving the ruins, we spent the evening doing some of the more touristy things. We walked around the downtown area, sampled some unique jerky, talked to different people (met a really interesting guy that looked just like Joe Pesci), and had bison burgers at a local restaurant.

View from Schnebly Hill Vista in Sedona, Arizona.

Day 5:

We left Sedona to get to Bearizona in Williams, Arizona just as they opened, as we read that was the best time to drive through because the animals are being fed and pretty active. That turned out not to be true for the wolves, who were mostly still asleep, but the bears were certainly active. Bearizona is a wildlife park in Williams, Arizona, which offers a drive-thru experience with wolves, bears, mountain goats, and bison. It was a pretty unique experience given that you can literally roll down your window and reach out and touch a bear (of course, that is strictly forbidden). I will admit, perhaps my hopes were a little too high, as I did feel a little underwhelmed afterwards — maybe because I feel like I see bears all the time now — but I still recommend it to anyone. I’m definitely glad we made the stop.

From Bearizona, we continued northwest to good ol’ Las Vegas. Other than Austin, this was the only part of the trip that I was already pretty familiar with, as I’ve been to Vegas quite a few times. And let me tell you, it hasn’t really changed other than adding a few taller and flashier hotel/casinos. One thing that has changed is my perception. Going to Vegas as a family guy has a completely different feel than going as a cocky, ready-to-conquer-the-world, 23-year-old. How age (and children) change us! Regardless, we still managed to have a pretty great time, but steered clear of any of the bad decisions that can occur pretty easily in the one and only Sin City.

Day 6:

The next morning we headed northwest to Yosemite National Park, the original highlight of the trip. The drive from Vegas to Yosemite Valley, which is where we were camping, was about 7 hours. However, it was probably about the longest 7 hours I’ve ever experienced. It was the type of driving where you are literally driving through desert. Where there are signs that say no services of any kind for the next 90 miles. It was also ridiculously hot. The temperature stayed between 105 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the trip. But the drive from the entrance to Yosemite to Yosemite Valley probably had the most amazing scenic views I have ever seen, and I have seen quite a few in the Shenandoah National Park as previously described. We made it to Yosemite Valley — where it was much cooler, fortunately — around 4 p.m. and checked in to the campground. The temps in the park were great, probably mid 80s during the day and then low 50s at night.

One of the many fantastic views upon entering the Yosemite National Park.

Day 7:

It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Yosemite. And while I will always be a homer for the SNP, Yosemite was probably the most impressive national park I’ve ever seen. The views, the trails, and the staff were all phenomenal and surpassed my expectations. Half Dome Village was pretty cool, and while it didn’t seem much like a campground, it still had a fun atmosphere. Honestly, it wasn’t much of camping at all, as the village had shops, restaurants, and a bar, but it was still a great outdoor atmosphere. Once we had breakfast, we headed to the visitor’s center to pick up a little knowledge, and then made the hike to see Lower Yosemite Falls, which had already run dry. From there we headed to Vernal Falls, which was a five-mile hike there and back with an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet. The views from the bottom and the top of the falls were phenomenal.

The park was extremely crowded. I didn’t know folks from outside the US were so impressed by our National Park system. We turned into a couple of social butterflies and ended up talking to a ton of people. We had great conversations with people from the UK, Boston, Orlando, New York, and had dinner with a couple from South France and another from San Francisco. We discussed current events, the park, parenting, traveling, all sorts of things. It was an element of the trip I didn’t expect, but really enjoyed.

Vernal Falls near Half Dome in the Yosemite National Park

Day 8:

We ventured out of Yosemite on the 8th morning to check out Mono Lake: a shallow, saline, soda lake in California. From there we headed to Bodie, where we spent most of the day. Bodie was so interesting, and eerie, and turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the trip. It’s a Wild West ghost town, preserved in a state of arrested decay, but at its peak had a population of 9,000 people. It was a booming mining town from 1859 until about 1940. Now, all that remains are abandoned buildings, still stocked with goods and various items, just as they were left several years ago. Of the once 2,000 structures, only about 10 percent remain.

The remains of Bodie, California.

That evening we returned to Yosemite for dinner and an evening hike. That night was a full moon, and I had been adamant we had to go out and get a good look from the Yosemite wilderness. And it did not disappoint. Of course, I managed to forget my camera, but seeing the full moon rise over Half Dome was spectacular. It’s a view I’m pretty sure I’ll think about every time I see another full moon.  

Day 9 and 10:

On day 9 we started the trek back to Las Vegas, where we stayed pretty low-key, and then I flew back to Central Virginia first thing the next morning.

What an experience! Yosemite was the original highlight of the trip, and I believe it remained so, but in a way, Bodie stole the show. It was just such an odd feeling to be walking the streets of a town, which once was a hustling, bustling, Wild-West mining hot spot, and is now reduced to abandoned structures full of people’s belongings that they just up and left. It just made you wonder, if walls could talk, the stories they would have …

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