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Western United States

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Travel Guide North America USA Western United States

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Introduction

Route 66 mural, Tucumcari, New Mexico

Route 66 mural, Tucumcari, New Mexico

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The American West has given rise to an entire genre of films. Sun-scorched land, horse-riding cowboys and epic gunfights are the standard images conveyed by Hollywood. But when talking about the region now defined as the Western United States, these images don't quite hold true. Instead, the West is a vast and diverse region, from the snowy peaks of the Rockies, to the warm Pacific coast and beyond the mainland to Hawaii and Alaska.

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Geography

Along the Pacific Ocean coast lie the Coast Ranges, which, while not approaching the scale of the Rocky Mountains, are formidable nevertheless. They collect a large part of the airborne moisture moving in from the ocean. East of the Coast Ranges lie several cultivated fertile valleys, notably the San Joaquin Valley of California and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Beyond the valleys lie the Sierra Nevada in the south and the Cascade Range in the north. Mount Whitney, at 4,421 metres the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states, is in the Sierra Nevada. The Cascades are also volcanic. Mount Rainier, a volcano in Washington, is also over 4,300 metres. Mount St. Helens, a volcano in the Cascades erupted explosively in 1980. A major volcanic eruption at Mount Mazama around 4860 BCE formed Crater Lake. These mountain ranges see heavy precipitation, capturing most of the moisture that remains after the Coast Ranges, and creating a rain shadow to the east forming vast stretches of arid land. These dry areas encompass much of Nevada, Utah and Arizona. The Mojave Desert and Sonoran Desert along with other deserts are found here.

Beyond the deserts lie the Rocky Mountains. In the north, they run almost immediately east of the Cascade Range, so that the desert region is only a few miles wide by the time one reaches the Canadian border. The Rockies are hundreds of miles wide, and run uninterrupted from New Mexico to Alaska. The Rocky Mountain Region is the highest overall area of the United States, with an average elevation of above 1,200 metres. The tallest peaks of the Rockies, 54 of which are over 4,250 metres, are found in central and western Colorado.

The West has several long rivers that empty into the Pacific Ocean, while the eastern rivers run into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River forms the easternmost possible boundary for the West today. The Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi, flows from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains eastward across the Great Plains, a vast grassy plateau, before sloping gradually down to the forests and hence to the Mississippi. The Colorado River snakes through the Mountain states, at one point forming the Grand Canyon.

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Cities

Downtown San Diego

Downtown San Diego

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Sights and Activities

Beaches

Santa Monica

Rollercoaster, Santa Monica

Rollercoaster, Santa Monica

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Although Santa Monica is a city itself rather than part of the city of Los Angeles, it basically is the playground for the beach bums in the LA. Most of the action in Santa Monica is centred around the Santa Monica Pier, where the official end of Route 66 is located. The pier, with its activities like rollercoasters and all sorts of shops, splits the beach into two halfs. The northern one is less attractive and most parking takes place there. The southern half, towards Venice Beach, is more attractive, with cycle- and foothpaths and palmtrees. The water here is pretty cold like most of the Californian coast, and watch out for riptides or strong currents at times. There are lifeguards patrolling around the waters, but better safe than sorry!

Venice Beach
While Santa Monica Beach is more of a family style beach, Venice Beach is more the beach for the young and the ones that like to see and to be seen. Apart from the beach, there is also lots of sport grounds, including the famous Muscle Beach, where you'll find the big guys pumping their iron.

T-shirt shop, Venice Beach

T-shirt shop, Venice Beach

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Next to the beach runs the Ocean Front Walk, or just boardwalk, full with souvenir shops, snacks, drinks and even 'legal' (as in 'good for health problems') marihuana shops. Things can feel a bit worn down and downright shabby after the sun sets, but most of the times it's nothing more than a feeling and certainly not an unsafe place!

Deserts

The western part of the USA contains quite a few deserts, ranging from hot deserts like the Mojave desert to colder ones like the Great Basin.
Mojave Desert
Named after the Mojave tribe of Native Americans, the Mojave desert stretches across four states in the western part of the United States. The majority is located on Californian grounds, while the remainder can be find just across the borders with Utah, Arizona and Nevada. A typical characteristic feature in the Mojave desert are the Joshua trees and the appearance of these remarkable trees actually forms the official boundaries of the desert.

Death Valley Road, California

Death Valley Road, California

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht


The Tehachapi, San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges are other indicators within which the Mojave desert lies and they are outlined by the two largest faults in California: the San Andreas and the Garlock. To the south is the Sonoran desert (low desert as opposed to the high desert that Mojave is called). The Mojave desert does see occassional rain and thunder storms, but it's drier than its southern counterpart. Death Valley is located within the Mojave as well, being the lowest and hottest place anywhere in North America. Officially, the highest recorded temperature ever is its honour, being 56.7 °C (the record in Libya is doubted!). The desert is easily accessible by good tarmac roads that cross California and into the other three states and is one of the most popular and most beautiful areas anywhere in the country.
Great Basin
The Great Basin desert is a large arid region in the western states of the US. The Great Basin itself is actually a little bigger and the Great Basin desert proper is defined by the extent of characteristic plant species. It is roughly located roughly between the Wasatch Mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountains and covers the extreme east and northeastern border areas of California, a southern portion of Oregon, a very small part in Idaho, the western half of Utah and most of the state of Nevada. The Great Basin itself follows approximately the same borders, but extents onto the border with Wyoming and mainly covers a larger area to the south, including parts of the Mojave desert. It basically forms a high plateau in between the above mentioned mountains ranges and and covers a significant amount of watersheds, bounded by larger ones at all sides. Some of these have become dry as a bone, leaving behind places like the Bonneville Salt Flats (where world landspeed records are broken over and over again, it's totally flat!) and the Black Rock Desert. Main urban areas within the Great Basin Desert are Salt Lake City in Utah and both Reno and Carson City in Nevada. The scenery is fantastic and it's a good area to travel along some of the most amazing roads anywhere in the US, including Route 50, the Loneliest Road in America, which runs across of Nevada on its way between the west and eastcoast of the country. Several railroads, including the California Zephyr, run across the area as well, one of the most scenic Amtrak routes in the USA.
Colorado Plateau
The famous Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

The famous Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

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The Colorado Plateau is a cold winter desert in the central west of the United States. It is a plateau in between several mountains ranges and is bounded by the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and by the Uinta Mountains and Wasatch Mountains branches of the Rockies in northern and central Utah. It is also bounded by the Rio Grande Rift, Mogollon Rim and the Basin and Range. It covers the west of Colorado, the north of Arizona, west and south of Utah and northwest of New Mexico. About 90% of the area is drained by the Colorado River. The area is one of the most popular to go on a typical American roadtrip and visit dozens of fantastic places with many national parks and monuments to choose from. It has the greatest concentration of national parks in the United States, including Grand Canyon NP, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Capitol Reef NP, Canyonlands NP, Arches NP, and Petrified Forest NP. Among the national monuments are Dinosaur NM, Hovenweep NM, Wapatki NM, Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, and Colorado NM.

Natural Sights and Activities

See also United States National Parks
The Western United States have the highest concentration of natural highlights and national parks of the country. Alaska and California alone have 16 of the 58 national parks in the USA, while Utah and Colorado add another 9 and states like Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington are thinly populated and nature abounds. Some of the highlights are mentioned here in detail, otherwise check the US National Parks link above or visit the articles of the respective national parks instead.

Arches National Park

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

© All Rights Reserved jjstroke

Arches National Park: the name says it all. This national park, located in southeastern Utah boasts the highest density of rock arches anywhere on this planet: over 2,500 in an area of just about 116 square miles. While some of them might be just a few feet, others like the Landscape Arch stretches over 300 feet (almost 100 metres). Combined with magnificent rock-desert landscape and snowcapped peaks (at least in winter) in the background, it doesn't come as a surprise that this is one of the most favorite parks in the southwest of the USA and also a favorite place for movie makers! Although there probably will be arches forever, arches do come and go under the constant process of erosion - the influence of water and wind, freezing temperatures at night and hot days.

Denali National Park

Mt. McKinley (Denali)

Mt. McKinley (Denali)

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Denali National Park and Preserve is a park located in the central part of Alaska. The park is named after the Denali mountain, the local name for Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in the United States and in fact of North America. The park and preserve together for almost 10,000 square miles of pure nature and wilderness, with loads of trekking opportunities and wildlife as well. Although the park is open year-round, most visitors come to Denali National Park from late May to mid-September. This is the time that all visitor services and activities are available. Mid-June to mid-August is the high season and this is also the time that almost all roads are open, buses operate and trekking is possible. In winter, dogsleds form the main mode of transport, but be prepared for extreme winter weather and most roads are not plowed and only driveable for a few miles into the park.

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular tourist sights in the world with over 5 million visitors a year. The Colorado River and its tributaries created the Grand Canyon by moving through the sandy soil of the desert. Most of the Grand Canyon is located within the Grand Canyon National Park within Arizona, although parts of the canyon are in Utah and in several Indian Reservations.

Yellowstone colours

Yellowstone colours

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Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is one of the most famous natural parks in the world. With over 2 million visitors each year and covering more then 8,983 square kilometres (3,468 square miles) this wilderness area is amazing. The park is mainly in the state of Wyoming (96%), although parts cross into Montana (3%) and Idaho (1%).The park has a diversity of land formations such as lakes, canyons, mountains and rivers. There are also countless animal and plant species within the park including several endangered species like grizzlies, wolves and bison.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is a massive national park, with 95% designated as a wilderness area, covering over 761,266 acres in several counties in east central California. Over 3.5 million people visit this park every year to see its stunning beauty.

Spectactular view from Glacier Point Road, Yosemite NP

Spectactular view from Glacier Point Road, Yosemite NP

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht


Its main attractions are its amazing granite cliffs, waterfalls, pristine streams, Giant Sequoia groves and stunning biological diversity.

Pacific Coast Highway

Colourful mailboxes along Big Sur, California

Colourful mailboxes along Big Sur, California

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of the most beautiful roads along one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It stretches along much of the Californian coastline. It starts at Interstate 5 near Dana Point in Orange County, south of Los Angeles and runs north past places like Santa Barbara, Cambria, Santa Cruz and San Francisco up to US Highway 101 near Leggett in Mendocino County. There is plenty to see and do along this magnificent drive, including the great Elephant Seal Colony near Cambria, the San Simeon Castle, the beautiful stretch of Big Sur with the famous Bixby Creek Bridge and of course the Golden Gate Bridge, shared with Highway 101.

Skiing

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Events and Festivals

Ballooning

Ballooning

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  • The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a nine day event held every October and is the largest hot-air balloon festival in the world. Over 700 balloonists participate and the event draws approximately 100,000 spectators. It is a truly spectacular sight to see the sky filled with hundreds of brightly colored balloons of different shapes and sizes. The Fiesta includes day and evening activities.
  • Burning Man, is a large non-corporate music and art festival in the desert out side of Reno, Nevada. The theme is to build a giant city in the desert with no money. Everyone must bring everything with them and trade for the things they did not bring with them.

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Weather

As the Western United States stretches from the subarctic regions of Alaska to one of the hottest deserts in the world, describing the climate in general terms is quite difficult. While temperatures hit over 50 °C in California and Arizona, at the same time temperatures in northern Alaska might be below 0 °C at night. Still, summers are between June and September everywhere with generally warm to hot conditions and apart from the most southern states nights are quite pleasant. Winters last from November to March, though could easily begin earlier and last longer in Alaska, where temperatures can drop to below -50 °C during some nights. At the same time, in the extreme south along the border with Mexico temperatures are pleasant at around 20 °C or even a bit more.

Hawaii is warm and humid during most of the year with extremely high rainfall possible, especially in the mountains which are one of the wettest places on earth.

Alaska and the northern states are best visited during the summermonths, while more to the south you might find spring and autumn a better time and Hawaii can be enjoyed almost any month of the year.

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Getting There

By Plane

There are many airports serving the west of the USA.

  • The main airport however is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). It is one of the busiest airports in the world, handling over 60 million passengers a year. LAX is located in southwestern Los Angeles in the neighborhood of Westchester, 16 miles (27 kilometres) from the downtown core. The airport has 9 terminals: number 1 to 8 and the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), serving hundreds of destinations within the US and to Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Europe and Oceania.

Other major airports include:

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Getting Around

By Car

Many international rental companies have a wide selection of rental cars and these include Hertz, Avis, Dollar, Thrifty, Enterprise, Budget and Alamo/National. Most companies will require you are at least 25 years of age, although younger people might be able to rent cars at slightly higher rates and with some insurance differences as well. A national driver's license is usually enough, but an additional international one is recommended. Also note that it usually costs more to include lots of other extra things. For example extra drivers, GPS, the first full tank, SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance), PAI (Personal Accident Insurance, usually covered already at home), road assistance/service plan, and drop-off costs for one-way rentals.
If you want to book a car, it is recommended that you book your car before arriving in the USA. This is almost always (much) cheaper compared to just showing up. Also, try and book with a so-called 'broker', which usually works together with a few or many car rental companies and can offer the best deal. Some examples include Holidayautos, Holidaycars and Sunny Cars. Some of the cheapest deals to book from Europe, includes Drive-USA, which also has a German version.

For more information and tips about renting cars and campers, additional costs, insurance, traffic rules, scenic routes and getting maps and fuel it is advised to check the USA Getting Around section.

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Sleep

Hotel and Motel Chains

There are dozens of hotel and motel chains, ranging from budget to top end. Allthough they are not the most charming accommodations, they usually have a very decent midrange service with good rooms and are generally good value. At least you know what to expect and in some cases they are either the only or the best option in the area. Some of them include:

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This is version 46. Last edited at 10:03 on Dec 5, 12 by Utrecht. 17 articles link to this page.

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