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Road tripping off-the-beaten track in Western USA

Palm Springs

Craving a road trip, but don't want to follow the crowds?

If you're researching a trip to the western states of the U.S., you must have seen these ''Best of the West'' itineraries left and right, with most of the same big highlights to visit. At KILROY, we're also guilty of this crime, with our all time favourite Classic California and Nevada road trip itinerary. For those of you who would rather take the road less travelled, we've created this blog post sharing many of our beloved hidden gems in the Western states following the popular road trip route from L.A. to San Francisco (or vice versa). Enjoy!

The classic road trip route

A classic road trip through Western USA is something you need to experience at least once in your life. Starting in Los Angeles and concluding in the iconic city of San Francisco, it's a breathtaking journey through diverse landscapes and legendary destinations. After leaving the beaches of Santa Monica and the glamour of Hollywood behind, you'll visit the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon, feel the wild west vibes in Utah, experience the neon shades of Vegas and hike past the stunning mountains and lakes of the Sierra Nevada mountains before crossing the iconic Golden Gate bridge.

While this is already a great itinerary, this blog intends to spice it up with some lesser-visited hidden gems and ''off the beaten path'' suggestions - only following the crowds is just too boring, right?

Bombay Beach at Salton Sea in California

The first stop on our route is Bombay Beach at the Salton Sea. This little gem is easy to reach from both L.A. and San Diego, which we imagine will be your gateway into the western states.

Located between Palm Springs and the US/Mexican border towns of Calexico and Mexicali, this lakeside community has undergone a transformation into a canvas for creative minds. Explore art installations that have sprung up in this unconventional desert setting. While you're in the area, make a stop at Slab City, an off-the-grid community where all kinds of creative and free spirits find each other. It's best not to stay the night though, as Slab City has a reputation for being lawless, and the last free place on earth. Even though that's only true to a certain extent, the community attracts all kinds of people that don't fit in with the establishment, for various reasons.

Just outside Slab City is a place you absolutely do want to visit, called Salvation Mountain. Leonard Knight, the visionary artist, spent nearly three decades constructing this brightly coloured, folk art masterpiece out of clay and donated paint. The mountain is decorated with religious messages, Bible verses, and colourful murals, creating a visually stunning environment, whether you're into religion or not at all. 

Art installation made of TV's at the Salton Sea in California, USA

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Continuing south, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is up next, revealing a surreal landscape punctuated by vast expanses of sand, rugged mountains, and unique vegetation. You can cross this national park by cark, passing slot canyons and hidden oases. Don't miss the famous Fonts Point overlook, offering breathtaking views of the Borrego Valley. While you're exploring, keep an eye out for the iron animals that rise from the desert. The sculptures are part of an outdoor art installation known as "Galleta Meadows Sculptures." These large metal sculptures, created by artist Ricardo Breceda, depict various prehistoric creatures and historical figures. The sculptures are scattered throughout the park, and they've become an unexpected attraction for visitors of the desert landscape. The collection includes dinosaurs, mammoths, bighorn sheep, and even depictions of characters from the region's history. 

Iron sculptures in the desert at Anza Boreggo National Park

Navajo Nation and the Painted Desert

Cross into Arizona and you're suddenly part of cultural landscape that is the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the United States. Navajo Nation covers 70,000 square kilometres of land in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. It has a population of about 300,000 people who speak Navajo as their primary language. The area is rich in culture, history, and natural beauty, and offers many attractions and activities for visitors, such as museums, monuments, parks, and festivals. Navajo Nation is huge, and has plenty of things to see.

For example, there's the beauty of the Painted Desert, where the earth's history is written in layers of colour and rock. It looks like someone took a big brush and painted the rocks and hills with red, orange, yellow, purple and pink, but in reality it's because of the different minerals and rocks that are in the soil. Over millions of years, the weather and erosion have exposed these layers of colours. The sunlight also changes the colours depending on the time of day and the season. 

Be sure to include a visit to Grand Falls, often referred to as the "Chocolate Falls," where a chocolate-coloured waterfall tumbles down the rocky staircase. Grand Falls is taller than Niagara Falls and is fed by the snowmelt and rain from the White Mountains. You can hike down to the base of the falls and enjoy the spectacular view of the muddy cascade, but be careful of the soft ground and respect the Navajo land. Grand Falls is only accessible by unpaved roads and requires a four wheel drive vehicle, so plan your trip accordingly and check the water level before you go. Once you make it, you won’t regret making the effort for this natural wonder in the middle of the Arizona desert!

Monument Valley in Navajo Nation during winter

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden gem that often flies under the radar, overshadowed by its more famous sibling, the Grand Canyon. Despite its relatively low visitor count, the national park offers something special for the traveller looking for a more quiet and remote experience. One of Capitol Reef's most iconic features is the Waterpocket Fold, a geological ridge that stretches across the park and seems to cut the land in two. 

If you're feeling adventurous, you can explore some of the park's slot canyons, narrow passages carved by water and wind over millions of years. Some of the most popular ones are Burro Wash, Cottonwood Wash and Sulphur Creek. You'll need to be prepared for some scrambling, wading and even swimming, depending on the water level. But the reward is worth it - stunning views of the colourful rock formations and a sense of awe at nature's power.

Another way to enjoy Capitol Reef is to take a scenic drive along one of its paved or dirt roads. You'll get to see some of the park's highlights, such as the Fruita Historic District, where you can learn about the Mormon pioneers who settled here and see their orchards and buildings. You can also stop by the Visitor Centre, where you can get maps, information and souvenirs. Or you can head to the Capitol Gorge Road, which leads you to some of the park's most impressive landmarks, such as the Capitol Dome, the Pioneer Register and the Tanks.

Stunning view over Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, USA

Valley of Fire and the Seven Magic Mountains in Nevada

It's time to cross another state line into Nevada, where the Valley of Fire is waiting for you with its almost red sandstone formations that seem to light up in the desert sun. As you hike through this rough and rocky landscape, you'll find nature's artwork etched into the rocks. And just a short drive away, don't miss the Seven Magic Mountains, a mesmerising display of colourful, towering boulders that pop against the desert backdrop. These iconic landmarks make for some pretty awesome pictures, especially when the sun starts setting. 

The artwork Seven Magic Mountains in the desert in Nevada, USA

Mammoth Lakes and the nearby Lake Crowley

No road trip through western USA would be complete without a stop in Mammoth Lakes, California. Surrounded by pristine natural beauty, the town serves as an excellent base for exploring the region. Don't miss nearby Lake Crowley, which is not only stunning, but known for its fishing culture. If that's not your thing, just sit down and relax while taking in the scenery here. If this doesn't calm you down, we don't know what will. Once you're fully rested up, Mammoth Lakes offers a host of outdoor activities, from hiking and mountain biking to winter sports, making it an all-season wonderland.

Lake Crowley with ultra clear water, and a stunning mountainous backdrop

Refreshing hot springs with a Yosemite backdrop

Before concluding your unforgettable journey, make your way to the Crab Cooker Hot Springs. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada, this hidden gem offers a rejuvenating soak in natural thermal pools while boasting a stunning backdrop of Yosemite's majestic wilderness. It's the perfect place to unwind and reflect on your extraordinary road trip.

Even if this is not the end of your travels yet, it's a great place for some well-deserved rest and relaxation before or after exploring Yosemite National Park and maybe even San Francisco. In case you'd like a little more of a ''resort spa'' experience, there are several other bigger and fancier hot springs in the area, though they often come at a price. Take your pick! 

Crab Cooker hot springs near Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite National park

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Our journey of less ordinary attractions ends in northern California, at the almost apocalyptic Lassen Volcanic National Park. Here, bubbling mud pots and impressive geothermal features paint a vivid picture of our planet's fiery core. Explore the park's pristine lakes, jagged peaks, and tranquil meadows, all while witnessing the earth's geological wonders up close. It's a world away from the big cities California is known for, and where you'll return soon again to fly home from.

But before you say goodbye to this amazing park, make sure you check out some of the awesome activities it offers. You can hike to the summit of Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world, and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. You can also visit Manzanita Lake, a beautiful spot for kayaking, fishing, or picnicking. Or you can walk the Bumpass Hell Trail to see the largest hydrothermal area in the park, with colourful pools, steam vents, and mud pots. There's something for everyone in Lassen Volcanic National Park, so don't miss this chance to experience its unique landscapes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, USA

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