Trails are nice, trails are great. I like trails (especially trails that lead to and through spectacular views!) But there comes a time when the inner anti-establishment in us all decides it would like a bit of freedom – and that’s when it’s time to find a place where you can go exploring. Where trails don’t hold you back, and there’s nothing keeping you from going further except your energy, water supply, and that nagging thought in the back of your mind that you’ll need to find your way back to the parking area at the end of the day…
At any rate, anti-establishment leanings or simply kids who like to crawl all over boulders, these are places to hike and explore, without trails and without knowing exactly where you’ll end up or what you’ll see along the way!
10 Places in the Western US to Go Exploring, Bouldering, and Otherwise Anti-trail Hiking
- 20 Mule Team, Death Valley National Park, California. If wandering is your specialty, 20 Mule Team may be the place you want to go. A road winds through it, and I’d guess the park service assumes most people will use it exclusively as a scenic drive. That’s all well and good – the scenery really is pretty crazy (mostly multi-colored badlands and similar). But use one of the pull-offs to park and go exploring the labyrinth of canyons, badlands, and general natural mayhem that changes with every storm.
- Pioneer Park, St. George, Utah. I only found this place because a guy who owned a garage (very drunk) was telling us about all the great things we could do in his city while we waited for our van to be fixed. Still, Pioneer Park is a gem, with so many sandstone rocks, caves, slot caves, arches, and more just waiting for anyone who wishes to wander around and find it.
- Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada. I found Cathedral Gorge by reading a sign outside the visitor center in Great Basin National Park, and decided it wasn’t too far out of the way to explore for a few hours. And I was right – it’s a great place to explore. There are so many natural canyons, exquisitely carved out of the hillsides, that it’s hard to know whether you want to explore in the caves, or scramble up above and look down on them first…
- Wind Caves, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California. You’ll need high clearance and maybe even 4×4 to get to the trailhead, but from there it’s no more than a mile up through the badlands to a place where the sandstone has been carved and hewn into hundreds – probably thousands – of caves, ranging from dime-sized to 10ft. openings. Most aren’t more than a few feet deep, but it’s still a fantastic area (and a favorite with families).
- Devil’s Garden, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah. If rock formations are your thing, this is a paradise. There are so many uniquely shaped rocks, monoliths, and even and arch or two. It’s not a very large area, maybe a couple acers or a bit more, but that makes it so it’s hard to get too badly lost.
- Flat Tops Wilderness, Colorado. Lest you think all wanderers have to visit the desert, the Flat Tops of northwestern Colorado offer a more meadows and cliffs experience, not to mention plenty of tiny ponds for fishing. You can literally walk for miles across the grassy plateaus. I personally recommend the areas near the Causeway or Amphitheatre Peak.
- Truckhaven Rocks, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California. They’re just there, along the side of the road. There is a parking area, but that’s about it. Walk up the wash, scramble up the rocks, whatever – you really get to make your own trail here!
- Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico. Bisti is a wanderer’s paradise come true. There are no trails – just a few cow trails and washes through the desert. Hidden away, though, are sculpted badlands, crazy rock formations, petrified wood, and who-knows-all-else I haven’t yet discovered on my three treks into the area!
- Lava Beds National Monument, California. (More (better) updated information here.) Now if underground is more your speed, check out Lava Beds – pick up your free flashlight rental in the visitor center, then explore the caves. There are no trails (save for the staircases giving access to the caves), no signs telling you to keep out – just lava tubes open to anyone who feels the urge to explore them (and aware enough to not get lost in them!)
- Tincup Pass, Colorado. The Sawatch Range is one of my favorite areas of Colorado, and Tincup Pass is located in the middle of it all. Sure, you’ll need high clearance (if not 4×4) to get up to the pass, but from there, you can wander the high mountain ridgelines on both sides of the pass. I couldn’t ask for more, could I?
Do you have a favorite place to go exploring? Let me know about it in comments below!