Out of Town - National Parks of the Southwest
Visitation at America’s best-known national parks has skyrocketed in recent years, so it’s no surprise that these monuments to natural scenery and wide-open spaces have become increasingly popular with gays and lesbians. Whether you’re into camping, serious hiking and off-road trekking, or you’re more likely to stay in a romantic lodge, check out the park museums and spend most of your time in your car, you’ll be happy to know that most national parks offer a balance of both mellow and rigorous diversions.
The southwestern United States, from the sweeping deserts of interior Southern California to the spectacular rock formations, deep canyons and craggy cliffs of Arizona and Utah, contains several of the nation’s most celebrated national parks. Here’s a look at five of the most impressive.
Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Utah
Of the five national parks and one national monument in southeastern Utah, Arches and Canyonlands — which lie close together, near the funky and low-keyed town of Moab — are among the most memorable. The Colorado River cuts through the southern edge of Arches and then — where it’s joined by the Green River — snakes around the brilliant red sandstone formations of Canyonlands. The latter park takes days to investigate thoroughly. It comprises four districts, all miles from one another by car.
At Arches, on the other hand, you can get a quick sense of the park’s grandeur in one day. More than 2,000 sandstone arches — some of them as tall as 50 feet — dot this jagged, almost surreal landscape. A paved road allows access to most attractions, but you have to get out and follow one of the many trails to truly appreciate the park. The must-see is Delicate Arch, reached via a moderately strenuous 3-mile round-trip trail (with an ascent of 500 feet).
Driving distances: Salt Lake, UT (225 miles), Aspen, CO (230 miles), Las Vegas, NV (450 miles), KC, (958 miles).
Where to stay: Sorrel River Ranch (www.sorrelriver.com) for elegantly rustic accommodations by the Colorado River, and Mayor’s House B&B (www.mayorshouse.com) for attractive, mid-priced rooms in downtown Moab.
Where to eat: Sorrel River Ranch (www.sorrelriver.com) for upscale, regional American fare, Eddie McStiff’s (www.eddiemcstiffs.com) for local microbrews and great burgers.
Death Valley National Park, California
Covering an astounding 5,200 square miles (making it just slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut), Death Valley National Park is immense in scope — it contains the lowest point in the United States, Badwater Basin, a salty, mud-caked spot that you can walk to easily from the road. And it claims the hottest summer temperatures in the country (late fall through early spring are mild and comfortable, however). But the park’s extreme aspects sometimes take away from the tremendous diversity of its terrain, from the cooler high mountains peaks (some with elevations above 10,000 feet) that overlook the valley to the undulating sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells.
You could explore Death Valley for a full week and never come close to seeing all of the park’s notable sites - the remains of historic borax works, hikes through the dramatically colored rock formations of Mosaic Canyon, costumed tours of the remote and eccentric 1920s mansion known as Scotty’s Castle. This is one park, because of its enormity, where it can be very helpful to book a guided excursion — Pink Jeep Tours offers informative trips around the park in modern, comfortable, fully enclosed vehicles.
Driving distances: Las Vegas, NV (120 miles), Los Angeles, CA (285 miles), Palm Springs, CA (300 miles), KC (1484 miles).
Where to stay: Inn at Furnace Creek (www.furnacecreekresort.com) for historic, atmospheric rooms with expansive valley views, and Ranch at Furnace Creek (www.furnacecreekresort.com) for affordable, smartly furnished rooms in the heart of the park.
Where to eat: Inn at Furnace Creek (www.furnacecreekresort.com) for truly exceptional, creatively prepared American food and a lavish Sunday brunch, and Wrangler Steakhouse (www.furnacecreekresort.com) for hearty burgers and steaks.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
It’s fair to say that enough has been written and said about the Grand Canyon that even those who’ve never been often feel they have a good sense of it. Still, it’s nearly impossible to comprehend the full splendor of this massive chasm that’s 18 miles across, 300 miles long, and over a mile deep - it must be seen to be believed.
A surprising number of visitors come by for a day, stop by a few viewpoints, and continue on. If at all possible, try to spend at least a couple of days here. The South Rim is the most accessible than its higher-altitude counterpart, the North Rim (which is also closed in winter). On an ideal visit to the South Rim, you’ll stay at one of the several lodging options inside the park (book many months in advance if you’re planning a summer visit), hike at least part of the way into the canyon, and ride the park shuttle bus along the rim, stopping at the many noteworthy viewing areas. If you have extra time, consider riding the scenic Grand Canyon Railway from the town of Williams, about 60 miles south.
Driving distances: Phoenix, AZ (230 miles), Las Vegas, NV (280 miles), Albuquerque, NM (400 miles), KC (1202 miles).
Where to stay: El Tovar Hotel (www.grandcanyonlodges.com) for its architectural significance, upscale accommodations, and enviable setting on the South Rim, and the nearby Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins (www.grandcanyonlodges.com) for less pricey rooms and wonderfully charming rustic cabins that are also steps from the Rim.
Where to eat: El Tovar Dining Room (www.grandcanyonlodges.com) for its old-world elegance, and Cameron Trading Post (www.camerontradingpost.com) for simple, hearty, and delicious Southwestern and Native American cooking about 30 miles from the park’s east entrance.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
A short drive from the world-famous gay resort Palm Springs, this 800,000-acre park at the convergence of the deathly hot Colorado and slightly cooler Mojave deserts feels miles away from civilization. It looks almost lunar like in places. Of course, it’s famous for the thousands of curious-looking Joshua trees for which the park is named. These distinctive members of the lily family grow about an inch a year and bloom winsome white flowers ever so rarely.
This aside, seeing a Joshua tree is but a minor reason to visit. There are several scenic drives — the 6-mile spur out to 5,100-foot Keys View affords breathtaking vistas over the entire Coachella Valley. Several short but fascinating trails penetrate the park’s myriad ecosystems: a brief scramble through the Cholla Cactus Garden will introduce you to the regional flora, while the 1.3-mile High View Nature Trail entails a 300-foot ascent to magnificent Summit Peak. Longer trails past piles of massive boulders and by oasis like hot springs offer the possibility of spying bighorn sheep and golden eagles.
Driving distances: Palm Springs, CA (50 miles), Los Angeles, CA (150 miles), Phoenix, AZ (270 miles), KC (1446 miles).
Where to stay: Palm Springs Riviera Resort & Spa (www.psriviera.com) for swanky, over-the-top whimsical rooms, and Ace Hotel Palm Springs (www.acehotel.com/palmsprings) for economical, arty rooms and a retro-hip attitude.
Where to eat: Copleys on Palm Canyon (www.copleyspalmsprings.com) for stellar contemporary American cuisine, and Wang’s in the Desert (www.wangsinthedesert.com) for enticing pan-Asian fare and a hugely gay-popular happy hour.
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Comprising two distinct districts that bracket the scenic city of Tucson, this 91,000-acre park is named for the captivating, cartoonlike saguaro cacti that dot the region. These massive plants, with enormous forks, tower as high as 50 feet and grow at an amazingly slow rate of speed - many are well over a century old. Although the park is dedicated to preserving the saguaro landscape, it’s actually a preserve of countless types of flora and fauna that thrive in the Sonoran desert, from cholla cactus to elusive pig-like javelina.
You’ll find visitor centers, scenic park drives, and numerous trails in both sections of the park, one about 15 miles east of downtown Tucson, and the other roughly 20 miles to the west. Highlights include the 8-mile Cactus Forest Drive loop-road, in the eastern section, which has several short and notable hikes off of it. If you’re exploring the western sections, drive along the Bajada Loop Drive, setting aside an hour or so to stroll the short Valley View Overlook Trail - this is one of the best photo ops in the park. And while you’re at the western part of the park, check out the nearby Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where naturalistic enclosures provide a viewable habitat for more than 300 different animal species indigenous to this part of the Southwest.
Driving distances: Phoenix, AZ (130 miles), San Diego, CA (425 miles), Albuquerque, NM (440 miles), KC (1257 miles).
Where to stay: The new Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain (www.ritzcarlton.com) for its thoroughly posh yet refreshingly hip and modern vibe, and Hotel Congress (www.hotelcongress.com) for rock-bottom-priced, funky rooms on the edge of Tucson’s gay-popular 4th Avenue district.
Where to eat: Janos (www.janos.com) for refined classically inspired Southwestern cuisine, and Bentley’s Coffeehouse (www.bentleyscoffeehouse.com) for inexpensive coffees, terrific sandwiches and salads, along with fun people watching.
Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.