My wife Abby and I travel our great nation with a sense of respect and admiration for its natural beauty, and for the customs and rights of her people. For reasons that have always remained somewhat elusive to me, I have always loved the desert, and since out first vacation together in 2003, Abby does too.
Since Abby and I got married at the iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, it is an obvious first choice as a recommendation as a travel stop. The only drawback to the Moab area is its increasing popularity. Despite the fact that it might be crowded, the area is amazingly beautiful, and is easy and fun to explore. One excellent way to avoid the crowds in the area is to visit in winter or another off-season period.
The Moab area offers much more than its nearest National Park. Largely ignored by the masses is nearby Canyonlands National Park. The park is divided into three districts, the Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze, by the confluence of the Colorado River and Green River. Unlike nearby Arches National Park, Canyonlands is wilder, and the trails are almost all more difficult and challenging. The Maze District, which I have only visited once, is very challenging, and nearly empty of people.
My experience with the south rim of the Grand Canyon was not good, simply due to the huge number of often ill-mannered tourists. The north rim, even in summer, is much less crowded. The same applies to Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Another area I expected to be more accommodating was the Sedona, Arizona, region, which wasn’t as beautiful as I expected, and was much more crowded.
I have been amused to find that in crowded areas of the southwest, English is often not the most-spoken language, and if I had to guess, I’d say I am hearing more German than anything else.
In trying to decide what to recommend, my list kept getting longer, so here are my top five recommended places to visit in the American Southwest:
- Canyonlands National Park, Utah
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
- Arches National Park, Utah
- The San Rafael Swell, Utah
For hiking and camping, here are a few tidbits I have learned from years on the trail.
- If your vehicle is stuck in soft sand, try putting your floor mats under the wheels. Avoid the situation in the first place by not stopping in soft sand.
- Real four-wheel-drive roads require a decently capable vehicle, but more importantly they require a talented and experienced driver.
- As I try to travel lighter, particularly when I am camping, the iPad, despite its limitations, is emerging as my favorite over my laptop.
- Canned soup tastes like the best banquet of your life after a day on the trail.
- The National Park Service recently changed their regulations such that if it is legal for you to carry a concealed weapon in the park’s home state, it is legal to carry in the park. It remains illegal to discharge your weapon, however.
- At most National Parks, pets are prohibited, both for the benefit of other visitors and the safety of pets and wildlife. As a result, Abby and I often seek out trails and attractions in areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), whose rules are usually less strict.
- If you visit a lot of National Parks or other fee areas on federal land, consider buying an Interagency Pass, which cost $80 a year.
- While there are certainly plenty of people who enjoy camping for its own sake, to me and many of my friends, camping is a means to an end, allowing me to concentrate on certain areas for hiking and exploration, and be in the middle of nature for sunrises and sunsets.
- For car camping, I find that bottled propane is clean and easy. The size and weight of the bottles is not a good choice for backpacking, and I would consider a white gasoline stove for that.
- I’ve never been a “cook out and hang out” person, so I try to keep camp food as fast and easy as possible. As a rule, canned chili, canned soup, tortillas and crackers are about all I need at meal time.
- Cheap tents (like ones from Wal Mart) assemble and sleep as well as expensive ones for car camping. Expensive tents, however, can be much lighter and more compact, thus suitable for backpacking.
- I was surprised at the ease of use and cleanliness of the inexpensive portable toilet I found in the camping section at Wal Mart. The double-bag system meant disposal was tidy and odorless.
- If you are going to venture away from your camp site for some time (to hike all day, for example), I recommend putting the rain fly on your tent even if rain is not forecast, and filling the tent with items like sleeping bags to help it stay put if the wind comes up.
- For food on the trail, I tend to like breakfast bars and trail mix bars. I know a lot of people, though, who make their own trail mix and eat it by the handful out of a Ziplock bag. I know at least a couple of people whose favorite trail food is peanut butter, particularly if they can find it in squeeze tubes. Some wrapped bar food like the Nature Valley Sweet and Salty Nut Bars will melt and become messy on hot days on the trail.
- More and more, I see people on the trail with backpack/hydration pack combos on their backs. Carrying a load mostly on my shoulders like that tends to hurt the middle of my back, and I have enjoyed better results in recent years with a waist pack. I also noticed recently that hikers on a couple of my trips had very sweaty backs and no effective way to ventilate them. Carrying hiking stuff on my waist has the added benefit of leaving my shoulders free for cameras.
- As the years have progressed, I am carrying less and lighter photography gear.
- Most of the hiking I do is day hiking from a base at a campground. There are some destinations on my slate that require backpacking, and I might get into that aspect of the outdoors more soon.
- I see some people on the trail using hiking poles, but I think that trend peaked a few years ago. I don’t use them because I want my hands free for scrambling and for photography. I’m not sure what benefit of hiking poles offer, and they might just be a trend, like leg warmers.
- Abby and I are surprised by how many hikers, particularly in crowded areas, are not carrying water. As a rule, water is the first thing you should plan on carrying on a hike.
- The most important piece of hiking gear is shoes. In recent years I am hiking in Moab Ventilators by Merrill. Your shoes need to be the best, and that will be different for everyone, so choose carefully.
Watch this space for more tips and tricks as I collect them over the years, and remember the most important tip I can give you: have fun.