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Know the West

Readers’ essays on favorite spots to recreate

Tell us where we can find you paddling, walking and hunting.


We asked readers to tell us stories about their favorite adventures on the West’s public land. Here are some off-the--beaten-path places to recreate.


Location: Southeast Wyoming
By Manasseh Franklin

Climbers scale granite cracks in Vedauwoo.
Coulter Sunderman/CC Flickr

A friend once said that living in such close proximity to Vedauwoo is like living in a national park. Most days, I quietly disagree. The wind in southeast Wyoming is intolerable at best, crazy-making at worst. The landscape is mostly rolling, mellow, void of high summits and the knife-ridge summits I moved to the West to explore.

But there is something oddly enticing about these rolling high plains, something about the hardness of the wind-scoured lands, particularly in and around Vedauwoo. Here the landscape is punctuated by towering rock colonies that seem to have been deposited at random. Some days, these granite figures do feel like mountains — commanding, humbling, erratic and enticing. But they feel like something more, too — mysterious, operating on their own accord.

This didn’t hit me, I didn’t get it, until I took a trail run one day. Now, I can’t stay away.

It was spring, warm. Birdcalls filled still air. Green shoots burst from the edges of a trail that wound among piles of boulders, some as the size of one-story houses, others as tall as city skyscrapers. There were fins of rock, striations extending from the far edges of the trail, rock layers embedded in layers of prairie hill, sagebrush. My legs charged up, my legs braced down. In some spots, aspen groves spilled out between rocks. The white bark popped against the sandy-colored granite. A muted breeze touched my face, bare arms, neighboring sage leaves.

In between hard, fast breaths, I filled my lungs. I filled my eyes. This place is incredible. I laughed. And I ran, and I ran, until my breath — but not the space, never the space — finally came up short.

Location: The West
By Aaron Anderson

The best place to recreate in the West? It’s the unexpected place, the impulsive detour into the unknown.

I once drove the West with a good friend, on a trip that took three weeks. The hours behind the wheel were sometimes intolerable. Every day, we stopped to run, to stretch our legs and keep ourselves sane. (It reduced any sibling-style road-trip bickering.) Armed with only a Rand McNally Road Atlas, we would pick a patch of green on the map and hope for a trail.

These unplanned detours were the highlights of our trip. A quick exit off I-80 revealed Turtle Rock jutting out of the Wyoming plains, sunset illuminating the pine-ringed rock. We spent a joyful afternoon on the Skyline-to-Sea Trail, washed in the scent of eucalyptus and golden meadow on the California coast. A hot night run in the Mojave showered us with meteors, framed by sparkling stars and the craggy silhouettes of Joshua trees.

We spent one night in a roadside ditch in a national forest in Utah, stringing up our “emergency tube tent” just below the road. When the first dump truck roared overhead at 5 in the morning, our groggy annoyance was tempered by a view of golden peaks reflecting the soft sunrise.

This is not to disparage the Big Surs and Grand Canyons of the West ––- there’s a reason people visit those places. (Heck, we certainly did.) Go explore the national parks, the mountains, the canyons, the coastlines! But whenever the opportunity strikes, on a trip or at home, take a moment and detour to someplace unknown.

Folks bask in the sunset at the Hidden Valley campground in Joshua Tree National Park.
Arthur/CC Flickr

Location: East of Wenatchee, Washington
By Carolyn Holthoff

Dusty Lake, one of the ancient lakes in a region east of Wenatchee.
Peter Prehn/CC Flickr

Six separate lava flows are visible in columnar basalt formations.
Peter Prehn/CC Flickr

Steep canyons and coulees formed from 17 million-year-old basalt surround you as you wander through the sagebrush and bitterroot. This delicate shrub-steppe environment, a patchwork of public lands east of Wenatchee, Washington, has no official name. Just a fragile, vanishing landscape carved during the ice age floods, complete with caves and mesas, trails and endangered plants — beautiful and wild and open to all.

I’ve hiked those trails, winding along dry streambeds, surprising chukars and partridges and sidestepping rattlers. I’ve stumbled across old forgotten homesteads, where all that remains are the small, brittle details of a hardscrabble life. I’ve outrun lightning storms from high atop mesas and inhaled the sage-filled air. You can feel small and alone here, but not lonely.

Few people know about this place; most travelers simply drive past the towering basalt cliffs on their way to somewhere else, in search of a landscape more dramatic or famous or simply more welcoming. They never realize that they are missing something remarkable.

Nameless and fragile, yet alluring and impressive, this area represents our open public lands at their best, offering solitude, adventure and peace of mind.

Location: Great Basin National Park, NeVada
By Howard Watts III

I’ve found my piece of our public land. “Home means Nevada,” as my state song says, and Great Basin is the only national park in this rugged, expansive and downright weird Western state.

The park is just hard enough to reach, at four to five hours’ drive from major cities, that you can spend an extended weekend there without seeing crowds of tourists. It gets 100,000 visitors a year, nothing compared to nearby Zion’s 3.2 million. A trek across seemingly endless desert valleys and mountain passes, then an easy-to-miss turn at the sleepy gateway town, and suddenly you’re in the heart of the mountains. There are pines here that sprouted before the pyramids, sprawling limestone caverns, glassy alpine lakes and the clearest night skies I’ve ever seen. This little, remote, almost-unknown park has a way of enveloping you.

Once, two companions and I set out along the Baker Creek loop for a quick autumn jaunt. Seeing a sign for Baker Lake at the halfway point, we charged forward on a whim instead of heading back. For the next five miles, we followed the creek on a path of glittering, frosted aspen leaves, flanked by turning trees. As the altitude increased, we trudged through deepening snow, following a lone set of footprints and telling ourselves at every bend that our destination lay just ahead. Finally, we made it to the half-frozen lake and sat silent, tired and content in the pews of the surrounding mountain cathedral. Then we walked back, never seeing another soul. That night, with the creek’s babble as our lullaby and the Milky Way our blanket, a satisfied exhaustion gave way to sleep, with the promise of wild turkey gobbles to wake us.

Great Basin National Park has some of the darkest night skies in the park system.
Dan Duriscoe/National Park Service