10 Places to Go Exploring in the Western US

Bonneville Pass is another great place to go exploring, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming

Bonneville Pass is another great place to go exploring!

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…

 

 

The Castle Trail in Badlands National Park also offers some options for exploration.

The Castle Trail in Badlands National Park also offers some options for exploration.

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!

There really aren't any trails in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, so while there isn't much to find (except more sand!), every hike is an adventure!

There really aren’t any trails in White Sands National Monument, so while there isn’t much to find (except more sand!), every hike is an adventure!

10 Places in the Western US to Go Exploring, Bouldering, and Otherwise Anti-trail Hiking

An eerie sky over 20 Mule Team in Death Valley National Park, California

An eerie sky over 20 Mule Team in Death Valley National Park

  1. 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.

    One of the arches in Pioneer Park in St. George, Utah - to the right are rock formations, to the left, slot canyons.

    One of the arches in Pioneer Park – to the right are rock formations, to the left, slot canyons.

  2. 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.

    You can walk right into the formations (locally known as

    You can walk right into the formations (locally known as “caves”) in Cathedral Gorge State Park

  3. 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…

    The view from atop the Wind Caves area, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

    The view from atop the Wind Caves area

  4. 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).

    Some of the more fantastic rock formations in Devil's Garden, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

    Some of the more fantastic rock formations in Devil’s Garden

  5. 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.

    You can walk for miles across the Flat Tops Wilderness in Colorado - and if you get close enough to the edge, you're sure to see lakes and awe-inspiring cliffs

    You can walk for miles across the Flat Tops – and if you get close enough to the edge, you’re sure to see lakes and awe-inspiring cliffs

  6. 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 - there's no trail to get here, so you can explore to your heart's content! Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California

    Truckhaven Rocks – there’s no trail to get here, so you can explore to your heart’s content!

  7. 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!

    One area of weird formations in Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico

    One area of weird formations in Bisti

  8. 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!

    Chocolate

    Chocolate “lavacicles” in one of the lava tubes in Lava Beds

  9. 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!)

    Above Tincup Pass, Colorado, you can walk all the way long this ridge, along the ridge to your back, or the ridge on the other side of the pass... the possibilities are near endless!

    Above Tincup Pass, you can walk all the way long this ridge, along the ridge to your back, or the ridge on the other side of the pass… the possibilities are near endless!

  10. 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!