Got Car? Will Travel

Exploring the American West
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Photos by Celine Ui

Story by Nick Fuller

The Puget Sound, cradled by the Cascades and the Olympics, offers a lifetime’s worth of natural destinations to explore. With its beaches, forests, volcanoes and islands, our local landscape so spoils us and it is easy to forget about the incredible places that are just outside the radius of a daytrip. Crossing merely one, two or three state lines reveals that we aren’t the only spoiled ones; the American West is home to a world-class tour of dramatic cliffs, craters and canyons, wholly distinct from Washington’s charms. Last summer, my girlfriend and I embarked on a 50-day car-camping trip through the conserved regions of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and Oregon. Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes was an early and enduring highlight. Home to the tallest sand dunes in North America, the park is an exotic natural wonder only three borders away.

Here are a few other parks worth the trek:

Dinosaur National Monument
It encompasses the Northeast corner of Utah and the Northwest corner of Colorado, and it’s worth the trip. The most famous feature of the monument is the Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry, a slab of mountainside displaying approximately 1,500 fossils of large dinosaurs from the late Jurassic period. A Stegosaurus’ back plate appears just an Apatosaurus’ humerus away from a Camarasaurus’ skull in this log-jam of meticulously relieved, miraculously preserved dinosaur remains.

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Canyonlands and Capitol Reef
After two weeks in Utah, one gets the impression that the whole state deserves UNESCO World Heritage status (in fact, no sites in Utah bear that distinction). Utah’s three most visited national parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches — certainly deserve the attention. However, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks are equally awesome. In Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District, visitors find themselves high on a mesa, gazing down at a lower, white-rimmed plateau that looks like the convoluted edge of a gigantic, half-assembled puzzle. In Capitol Reef, color and shape animate the geology. Some rocks are eroded into spider web-like formations. Others look like scrunched-up curtains, cinnamon rolls or the friendly face of a cartoonish amphibian.

Valley of Fire State Park
Nevada’s oldest state park is a gem. Located halfway between Zion and Death Valley national parks, Valley of Fire is home to an abundance of orange, yellow, purple and red rocks, which often appear braided or wedged into each other.

Crater Lake National Park
A mere 7 hours from Bellevue, Crater Lake is a breathtaking destination that will expand your appreciation of the Cascade range. A single island (actually a volcano within a volcano) rises dramatically from the lake’s western edge. The lake is so blue that it makes every other blue seem a little green. In fact, Crater Lake holds the world record for water clarity, which apparently bodes well for its purity, as park rangers will encourage you to drink straight from the dock.

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