Best of the West

Celebrity Travel — By NileGuide staff on March 23, 2009 at 9:43 am

Editors Note: We’re excited to share a guest post from avid traveler and television journalist Doug McConnell of OpenRoad.TV. Doug has spent many years traveling the American West and telling the stories of local experts on video for KRON TV in San Francisco. He is the former host of Bay Area Backroads and the author of Bay Area Backroads: 50 Northern California Adventures.

Best of the West

I’m asked every day to name my favorite places to visit in the West. I always say that’s impossible because I have too many favorites to list, but when the NileGuide crew asked me to give it a shot, I relented. I guess I like them and their website too much to say no. So, despite my misgivings and with the caveat that I’ll probably change my mind tomorrow and add another 10, 20 or 30 spots to this bunch, here goes….in no particular order:

  1. The Big Island of Hawaii. I like it because it really is big and growing. From its base on the ocean floor to its frequently snow-capped summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii is the tallest mountain on earth. One of its volcanoes, Kilaeau, has been erupting continuously since 1983 adding new land to the currently expanding island. Someday, after Hawaii has ridden fault lines away from the oceanic lava vents that feed its development, the island will collapse of its own weight, lose its massive scale and became a flat atoll like Midway far to the northwest. But that’ll be a few years from now. In our lifetimes, Hawaii’s above water scale will remain awfully impressive.
  2. The eastern Sierra Nevada. The Sierra uplift is pretty impressive, too. From the lowest points of the Owens Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney and other peaks pushing and surpassing 14,000 feet, the mountains rise straight up almost two miles. No foothills. Just a sheer mountain mass of granite and grandeur. Well, actually, there are some foothills of a sort near Lone Pine. The rounded rocks of the Alabama Hills have been used in more movies than almost any place on earth. Hollywood discovered this fascinating terrain about 90 years ago. This is where Roy Rogers first rode Trigger. Where the Lone Ranger got his name. And where Kevin Bacon was chased by huge, carnivorous moles in Tremors. Lone Pine is proud of its movie-making heritage, and celebrates it every year with a film festival. The haunting Japanese-American internment camp from World War II, Manzanar, is nearby. So are Bristlecone Pines, Big Horn Sheep, high mountain lakes, ghost towns and much more. Take Highway 395 along the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada, and take your time.
  3. San Francisco. I’m a little biased, in that I’ve lived in or near “The City” for a long time. But the more I know it, the more I realize what an intriguing place it really is. In its fewer than 49 square miles, San Francisco’s hills and valleys are packed with many diverse and truly distinctive neighborhoods. The whole planet lives here and has from the first moments of the city’s sudden creation following the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Back then, the world rushed through the Golden Gate in search of fortune, and then stuck around to build a unique international community. Every culture and cuisine flourishes here. San Francisco is a great walking town, too. In the past 20 years, its waterfront has been renewed, restored, beautified and given back to pedestrians, and its parklands, open spaces and historic sites are many, varied and easily accessible. If it weren’t San Francisco, I’d vote for Vancouver, BC as my favorite city in North America. Tough choice, but I’ve got to cast a local’s vote.
  4. Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Taos. Northern New Mexico is spectacularly beautiful and deeply historic, and you can find some awfully good food and art there as well. Santa Fe is a must-visit wish-I-could-live-there kind of place at the foot of the Sangre de Christo mountains. It’s been the capital of New Mexico for about 400 years, making it the oldest capital city in what is now the USA. The city seems to grow organically out of the rugged landscape. Others lived in this neighborhood long before the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century. Drive west a short distance and explore the cliff dwellings of ancient people at Bandelier National Monument. Then, visit the recent past in adjacent Los Alamos where the atom bomb was built by Robert Oppenheimer and his team during the second world war. Head north a bit to see Taos, and its Pueblo Indian and Kit Carson legacies, and loop back south along the historic High Road to Santa Fe. Don’t hesitate to drive uphill from Taos and Santa Fe through the aspen and into the mountains, and always take time to appreciate the scale of the sky and the colors of the land. Every season is magical. One of my personal favorites is July when thunderstorms sweep powerfully and majestically across the high desert. Nature in full force and in all her tempestuous glory. No fireworks display of humanity comes close to matching the show she puts on. Watch with eyes wide open, and then run for cover.
  5. Southcentral Alaska. I have a long and close relationship with Alaska. I lived there from 1973 to 1982 and get back as often as I can. For the past seven years, I’ve served on the board of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, in some ways the Grand Central Station for conservation in the Great Land. Our prime objective is to raise money to support critical conservation efforts throughout the state. Anyway, all this has taken me through many parts of Alaska, and they all have a lot to offer anybody interested in exploring wild places. I’m picking Southcentral here just because it’s so accessible and so diverse. Fly to Anchorage, get a vehicle, hit the road, and you won’t be disappointed. At the edge of Anchorage are the Chugach Mountains and trails that take you up and in to magnificent landscapes and the haunts of moose, grizzlies and Dall sheep. Drive down to Seward and cruise out into Kenai Fjords National Monument to see feeding whales,calving glaciers and birds beyond counting. Further on south to Homer you’ll discover one of the most beautiful town settings on earth, and few good restaurants, art shops and decent coffee places to boot. North of Anchorage, the Parks Highway (or the Alaska Railroad) takes you to the gates of Denali National Park. If you’re lucky, and it takes some luck for the clouds to back off, you you’ll see Denali, or Mt. McKinley as outsiders call it, rising over 20,000 feet into thin air and a crystal clear sky. Everything in Alaska seems to be and often is larger than life. By the way, go in the winter, say early February, when the light is returning but the tourists aren’t yet and you’ll have the place to yourself and the locals. Snow is up, prices are down and you’ll have a terrific time. Just dress for the occasion.
Photo courtesy of Anirudh Koul
Tags: Alaska, Bay Area Backroads, Big Island, Doug McConnell, Hawaii, Los Alamos, New Mexico,, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Sierra Nevada, Taos


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