The best way to experience the former ‘Wild West’ of the U.S. is an all-American road trip, with a themed playlist providing a soundtrack for the journey (tunes should include ‘Travelin’ Thru’ by Dolly Parton, ‘Wide Open Spaces’ by The Dixie Chicks and Paula Cole’s ‘Where have all the cowboys gone?’).
Driving through a state is really the best way to experience the sites that have become iconic through film and literature, as well as those that are off-the-beaten track so to speak. For me, as a South African who was immersed in American culture for three years, the all-American road trip was everything the movies and television make it out to be – and more.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about this part of the United States while I was living in New York, but I was determined to visit as many of the fifty states as I could. This road trip into the West helped me knock off five of them (an aside: I managed to tick off thirty-eight states by the time I left the country). This particular seven-day journey was one of my favourites, and it made me realise that there is more to the West than cowboys, horses and wide open spaces – although there are plenty of the latter.
Denver (also known as the Mile High city due to its elevation one mile above sea level) was a great starting point. From here, it was a fairly short drive to our first stop: Cheyenne, Wyoming. Because we were visiting on a Sunday, the town was fairly quiet, but we did see the state capitol building with its statues that pay tribute to the region’s history and original inhabitants.
The next stop was Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, where we ventured into the depths of the earth to explore the extensive network of limestone caves with a very knowledgeable guide to lead the way (and ensure we did not get lost). At approximately 84 miles long, this is one of the longest in the world. The earthy smell of the caves was overwhelming as we started our journey below, while the cooler subterranean temperatures provided a welcome reprieve from the heat above ground. The pathways were well-lit and fairly easy to navigate, but perhaps this attraction is not the best option for those suffering from claustrophobia.
The following leg of our journey took us to two of the country’s most impressive monuments, namely Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore, both located in South Dakota. Work on Crazy Horse started in 1948, and this monument to the American Indian of the same name is still many years away from completion. Nevertheless, even in its unfinished form it is awe-inspiring. The story of the monument’s construction, particularly the fact that it is funded solely by private donations and the money generated from the memorial’s visitors’ centre, is a fascinating one. Mount Rushmore seems almost small in comparison, but it is by no means less of an impressive sculptural feat. It was truly special to see the roughly sixty-foot-long faces of the four presidents, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt, looking down at me from this iconic mountain. It was worthwhile to stay until dusk when the monument was illuminated, giving it a completely distinct appearance.
The next national monument on our itinerary was Devils Tower (or ‘Bear Lodge’, which is the traditional Native American name for the tower). Located in Wyoming, this immense stone pillar is the USA’s first national monument, which Theodore Roosevelt established in 1906. The history of this geological structure is entwined with folklore and spiritual significance for 20 different tribes, and one does get a sense of its power when standing at its base. Visitors can explore Devils Tower via the Tower Walk – just ensure you have comfortable walking shoes.
We then visited the the first national park in the US: the famous Yellowstone National Park, which extends across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Here, the highlight was undoubtedly Old Faithful. After learning about the geyser in high school Geography, I was beyond excited to witness this amazing natural phenomenon in action. And she did not disappoint—the show was certainly worth the build-up (pun intended!). The drive through Yellowstone offered breathtaking scenery, interspersed with hot springs, mudpots, vast plains, meandering streams, spectacular waterfalls and even herds of American bison, which I had never seen before, let alone from a couple of feet away.
More natural beauty awaited us in Montana, and we fully appreciated the remoteness by spending a night in tipis at “Yellowstone Under Canvas.” It’s not difficult to see why this US state is referred to as ‘Big Sky Country’. While we were sitting around a roaring camp fire, we could truly admire a remarkable, star-sprinkled night sky. Fortunately, the bears left us alone, and there was no need to use the bear repellent that had been provided in our tipi. “Yellowstone Under Canvas” is highly recommendable for a novel, Western experience.
The following day, we drove into Idaho for a close-up view of the majestic Upper Mesa Falls. From here, it was a short drive to Jackson Hole at Teton Village, a popular Wyoming ski resort during winter months. We took the tram to the top of a mountain, and at an elevation of 10,450 feet we had a breathtaking, panoramic view of the landscape stretching out for miles below us.
Our road trip concluded where it began, in Denver, and we stayed at the historic Castle Marne Bed and Breakfast. Its quaint Victorian décor, charming gardens and interesting history, which visitors can learn more about by paging through several photo albums, make this the perfect place to overnight when visiting the city. The traditional, afternoon high tea they offer was definitely a highlight. The Colorado state capitol building is within walking distance of the hotel, and the area around it is characterised by colourful gardens, museums, sculptures and impressive architecture, providing a plethora of photographs to conclude my extensive album of memories of my trip out West.