The central Rockies include the states of Colorado, Utah and Nevada. There is a great diversity of spectacular scenery in the many National Parks of this region, plus some interesting urban areas, as well. Check out my favorites below and then look for the photo album which will soon follow.
1. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, located in the southwestern corner of Colorado, is the premier Native American archeological sight in the USA. The highlights for most visitors are the striking cliff dwellings which date back to about 1200 AD. These are stone communities in the alcoves of the sheer walls of the canyons which probably housed over 100 people (Cliff Palace).
Mesa Verde is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is recognized the world over for its cultural and historic importance. There is great mystery here, since the culture that built the dwellings disappeared in the late 1200’s and little is known about why they left or where they went.
Note that the Far View Visitor Center is 15 miles (23 kilometers) from the park entrance. It offers information about the park and daily activities which are available.
The most important attractions are Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House. Keep in mind that descent into the ruins is only possible on a Ranger-led tour and these may involve steep paths, stairs, and metal ladders.
Cliff Palace, one of the most popular of the cliff dwellings, requires a ticket for a Ranger-guided tour (worth whatever is charged) which takes visitors into the cliff dwelling to discover the intricacies of its construction and the uses of its various sections.
Stop at the overlooks along Ruins Road in Mesa Verde for scenic views of the dwellings and the canyons.
A great base of operation for an exploration of the park is Durango, Colorado. This quintessential western town had its heyday during the gold and silver booms, but now serves as a gateway to several spectacular tourist areas. The downtown area has many Victorian buildings which herald its earlier prominence and the town still hosts rodeos as a reminder of its cowboy days.
The road, US 550, which runs from Durango to Silverton, CO, is known as the Million Dollar Highway for its breathtaking views of the San Juan Mountains which it traverses. For those who are afraid to drive the winding, cliff side route, the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers a different way to experience these precipitous mountains. It is about a 9-hour round trip.
2. Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas is one of the most exciting locales in the world. Many casinos vie for the tourist dollar by enticing them with both free and fee attractions. This is truly a place that never sleeps! Whether it is the water show at the Bellagio, or the “Battle at Buccaneer Bay” at Treasure Island, or shopping at the forum at Caesar’s Palace, or taking a gondola ride at the Venetian, Vegas has something for everyone, even those not into gambling. The nightly shows are tremendous, with semi-permanent top performers, such as Celene Dion, or Danny Gans, or Cirque de Soleil and, occasionally, famous guest performers. Each casino has tried to outdo its competition with beautiful and authentic venues. Examples include various Parisian monuments like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc d’Triomphe at the Paris, a huge Egyptian-style pyramid at the Luxor, a tall monolith topped with an amusement park at the Stratosphere.
Be sure to walk up and down the Strip to check out all the major hotels and their particular theme (the lobbies and interiors of some are spectacular). Another characteristic of Las Vegas hotels is to offer huge, elaborate, and reasonably-priced buffets, which are extremely popular with tourists.
The Freemont Street Experience is a laser-light show projected above this pedestrian street in the old part of Las Vegas. It transfixes observers with its incredible colors and action. While here, check out some of the casinos which dominated the scene before the Strip became the Mecca of the area.
Hoover Dam, located about 30 miles (48 km) from Las Vegas, is an imposing monument to man’s ability to modify his own environment. The Dam created Lake Mead when it was completed in 1936 and is still recognized as one of the greatest public works projects of all time. See the orientation video at the Visitor Center, then take a tour of the facility. Do visit the Hoover Dam and take the tour! The “Hard Hat” tour is worth the extra money.
Unless the visitor has never been out West before, don’t bother to visit Red Rock Canyon. It’s nothing spectacular!
3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah, is a fantasy land of shapes and colors. The visitor looks down, or walks down, into a bowl of spires, called hoodoos. Each hoodoo is layered with colors, primarily red, orange, yellow, brown, and white, and rises from the amphitheater below in weird shapes or formations. Most of these pillars are narrow and fingerlike, but others are wide, forming small buttes. The colors change over the course of the day, due to shadows and lighting, but the views are always spectacular.
Ride along the rim road stopping at each of the overlooks to appreciate all areas of the park. Particularly beautiful views are found at Inspiration Point, Rainbow Point, Bryce Point, and Fairyland Point.
While in Bryce Canyon National Park, hike at least one of the park’s trails to get an up-close and personal look at the hoodoos, and a different perspective on the area. Many trails are fairly strenuous because of the elevation changes as you descend into the amphitheater, but there are easy trails as well.
Not far from Bryce to the south lies Capitol Reef National Park which is located just off Highway 12 in Utah, a beautiful scenic drive in its own right. The park preserves a dramatic section of the Waterpocket Fold, a noticeable uplift which extends approximately 160 km (100 miles) in total. The park roads traverse a very scenic section of the Fold, and trails from the road give access to other areas of the park.
In Capitol Reef, take the Capitol Gorge Trail, a fairly easy walk which provides access to an interesting area where pioneers camped and left their names and short philosophies on the rocks of the canyon.
4. Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park, in Utah, is a another monument to the forces of erosion and their effect on the landscape. The difference between Zion and other parks such as the Grand Canyon, is that here, the visitor is at the bottom of the canyon, looking up at all the creations. The park, as its name suggests, has a religious theme since it was discovered by Mormons who applied various religious epithets to the park’s landmarks. A shuttle service operates to reduce or eliminate traffic on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, the most popular part of the park.
Zion Canyon is the most spectacular and most frequented area with prominent features such as, the Great White Throne, the Three Patriarchs, Angel’s Landing, etc., greeting the visitor at every bend of the 5 1/2 mile (8 kilometer) scenic drive.
Walk the trails to Weeping Rock and to Emerald Pool for some different types of terrain and environments.
Other parts of the park require motor travel. For instance, the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, which cuts across the southern part of the park, is a state highway and frequently congested because of through traffic. The highway allows access to some very different and unusual landscapes. This area is characterized by smooth, sculpted mounds, interspersed with evergreen trees, known as checkerboard mesas. Geologically, this area was once a series of sand dunes which have now been transformed into rock.
Another area of the park (Kolob Canyons) is accessible via Interstate 15 (about 50 miles from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center). A five mile (8 kilometer) scenic drive provides spectacular views of red sandstone cliffs surrounding a verdant valley — very beautiful. This area, because it is isolated from the major area of the park has considerably less traffic and crowds.
5. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park includes a portion of the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Mountain scenery is spectacular as Trail Ridge Road leaves Estes, Colorado, and rises to the Continental Divide (an imaginary line which pertains to the movement of rivers — rivers to the east of the divide travel to the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico, rivers to the west travel to the Pacific) and beyond. Notable locations on the highway include Berthoud Pass and Grand Lake. Wildlife sightings are usually frequent.
The Colorado Rockies area, just west of Denver, offers a variety of year-round activities, besides those already described in Rocky Mountain National Park. Golden is the location of the Coors Brewing Company. Boulder is the home of the University of Colorado and its setting, at the base of the Rockies, is truly spectacular. The area is very popular with rock-climbers. Leadville, which prospered because of its silver mines, is interesting to visit because its looks very much like it did during its mining days.
Aspen, Colorado is one of America’s foremost ski areas. The town, nestled in the Rocky Mountains was once a premier location for mining silver, but has now been transformed into a resort area in the winter, and attracts many of the rich and famous as well as snow buffs from all over the world.
Vail, Colorado, like Aspen, is one of the nation’s premier skiing areas. Vail has the look and feel of an alpine village and offers activities throughout the year to capitalize on its reputation.
An interesting day trip while in the area is to head 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of Denver, to Fort Collins, where numerous companies offer white water rafting trips on the Cache la Poudre River. Be sure to make reservations in advance, since these excursions are extremely popular.
6. Air Force Academy & Colorado Springs, Colorado
The United States Air Force Academy, just north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is located in the foothills of the Rockies. Besides the opportunity to see military cadets engaged in various activities, the Academy grounds include a static display of aircraft and a beautiful chapel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which is both futuristic and solemn.
Also in the Colorado Springs area is Pike’s Peak which has a certain mystique, even though it is only one of Colorado’s many mountains which tower over 14,000 feet (4,500 meters). Perhaps the allure has to do with the fact that it was here, at the top of the mountain, that Katherine Lee Bates was inspired to write the words of the song, America the Beautiful in 1893.
The main allure these days is the 30 km (19-mile) highway to the top which offers spectacular views along the way as well as at the summit. Understand that the drive is challenging because of the many hairpin turns and because of the elevation which frequently leaves visitors breathless. Actually, the downward trip may be more dangerous because of the excessive braking which may cause brake linings to overheat. National park rangers actually conduct a brake inspection on the downward journey and frequently ask visitors to pause for a while to allow their brakes to cool down.
Garden of the Gods State Park, located at the base of Pike’s Peak, near the city of Colorado Springs, has numerous, multi-colored, unusual rock formations, such as Balanced Rock and Kissing Camels. It is a Mecca for mountain climbers, since the sheer faces of the formations can assist in preparation for more formidable climbs elsewhere.
7. Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park preserves the largest number of natural stone arches in America. The park roads lead the visitor near many of the most well-known arches, but, in many cases, walks or hikes are necessary to get close or to see some of the more remote ones.
Delicate Arch is one of the major attractions but other arches and more dramatic scenery can be found throughout the park.
While in the vicinity of the national park, there are several possible excursions that can be taken. One involves traveling northeast into Colorado to visit the Colorado National Monument, in western Colorado, an area of canyons more than 200 meters (600 feet) deep. A scenic drive, Rim Rock Drive, allows access to some of the park’s notable features and also provides overlooks. Access to the monument is available from Fruita, Utah or Grand Junction, CO.
Another nearby attraction is Canyonlands National Park, in southeastern Utah, which preserves an area of river gorges and unusual rock formations carved by the Green and the Colorado Rivers. The park is huge and is actually divided into several districts, with separate access. The two most accessible sections are the Island in the Sky District, northwest of Moab, UT, on SR 313, and the Needles District, southwest of Moab, on SR 211. There are spectacular overlooks and numerous trails to explore.
8. Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah
Temple Square in Salt Lake City is a huge area which is owned and managed by the Mormon Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and includes many buildings sacred to members of this religion. The Church provides guides who will escort visitors throughout the complex. The Tabernacle (where the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs) is one of the noteworthy stops on the tour. The tour guide usually demonstrates the excellent acoustics of the auditorium by having someone whisper or drop a pin at the front while the group listens at the back. The Seagull Monument also tells an interesting tale, and the Temple itself, although closed to the public has an impressive exterior. Be prepared to endure the obligatory recruitment talk, but the attraction is worthwhile, nevertheless.
9. Lake Tahoe, Nevada/California
Lake Tahoe, which straddles the border between California and Nevada, is a year-round vacationland which combines magnificent scenery with winter (skiing) and summer (boating and swimming) sports activities as well as gambling casinos. There are numerous resorts around the large, deep lake with its crystal blue waters. Scenic drives are available on all sides of the lakeshore.
Also in the vicinity is Reno, Nevada, another area popular because of gambling. The city is ablaze with neon lights at night and bills itself as the “Biggest Little City in the World” with a huge, lighted, neon sign to prove it.
10. Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado/Utah
Dinosaur National Monument straddles the border between Colorado and Utah and preserves an area rich in fossilized dinosaurs. Some of the more spectacular specimens unearthed here are on display in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in Pittsburgh, PA.
Park Headquarters is in Colorado, and allows access, via a paved park road to a scenic series of canyons carved by the Green and Yampa Rivers.
More popular is the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center, in the Utah section of the park, just north of Jensen, UT, which gives visitors the opportunity to see partial excavations of dinosaur bones in place.
11. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose in west-central Colorado, preserves a 20 km (12 mile) section of the Gunnison River gorge, which is almost 3000 feet (1000 meters) deep. The South Rim is more accessible because of its proximity to major highways, but the North Rim can also be explored via a partially paved and partially gravel road from Crawford, CO.