Rock Solid Fun in the American West
Arizona, Utah, South Dakota
The United States is a vast place, and we had certain time obligations we had to meet, so we couldn't just stop at every interesting spot we came across. For instance, we largely missed the Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah, made the tough decision to skip Devil's Tower in Wyoming, and only stopped at Moab long enough to fill up the JUCY Trailblazer with gas before pushing on to Denver.
That said, it wasn't all sitting in the car listening to podcasts as the American landscape rolled by (although that pretty much sums up Wyoming). We did hit some of the highlights, and over the course of three days, we did take in some monumental sights—and a few that weren't quite so monumental.
The Grand Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been a place where many Native Americans have lived for thousands of years, but the first European to set eyes on it is thought be a gent named García López de Cárdenas, a Spanish conquistador (and war criminal), who explored the area in 1540. Samantha and I had been to the Grand Canyon many years before, but the kids hadn't ever seen it, so after we left Bearizona, we drove north along Highway 64 to the town of Tusayan and the Grand Canyon beyond.
Tusayan is one of the gateways to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and there are many signs here that recommended visitors park in town and ride the city bus to the Grand Canyon Village. It seems many people take that advice—the town was a bustle of activity. But we didn't have time for that sort of thing, so we trucked on into the park. After paying our $30 entrance fee, instead of turning toward the Visitors Center, we headed the opposite direction (east) down Highway 64.
The thing about the Grand Canyon is—it's sort of hard to miss. It's 277 miles long, as wide as 18 miles, and more than a mile deep. It was formed as the Colorado River cut slowly but inexorably cut a channel through the rock of the Colorado Plateau, exposing billions of years of geologic history in the process. Visitors can still see these distinct levels today.
So you don't need to go to the vistors center to see the Grand Canyon. Heading east along Highway 64 you'll find numerous turnouts and lookout sites with plenty of parking that offer great views of the canyon below.
Some of the best views of the Grand Canyon we had on this trip were from the observation deck of the 70-foot-tall Desert View Watchtower, located at the eastern end of the Grand Canyon.
We left the Grand Canyon at the east end of the park and headed toward the Four Corners National Monument, the perfectly square quadripoint that forms the borders between Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.
As we drove through the Hopi and Navajo Reservations, we suddenly found ourselves an hour behind schedule. This was due to some confusion about Arizona's adherence and non-adherence to daylight savings time (Arizona doesn't use it, but the Navajo Nation does). The monument, which is administered by the Navajao Nation, closes at sunset, and we arrived with just 10 minutes to spare.
Most of the vendors in the stalls around the monument were already gone for the day, so we missed out on having some Navajo fry bread and Navajo tacos, which was a bit of a let down. But I did get to visit a place that I'd wanted to visit since third grade, and that was quite satisfying. I wrote more about our exploration of the Four Corners Monument at Geekdad.
Hole N" the Rock
This is a weird little roadside attraction along Highway 191 in Utah, just outside of Moab. I'd read about it in a few places and had some passing interest in the oddness of it, so when we rounded a corner and saw the giant white letters painted on the red sandstone, we decided to take a look. The entrance to the parking lot for this place is right after a slight curve in the road, so it can sneak up on you. Entering and exiting the place is mildly dangerous.
But what is it? Mainly it's a 14-room house carved out of a sandstone cave that settlers have been using as a rest stop since the early 1800s. Way back in the 1940s, a gent by the name of Albert Christensen decided he wanted to live in a cave, so he started carving one out of the sandstone cliff face. He didn't stop for 12 years, and when he was done he had 14 rooms and a diner that fed hungry tourists and uranium miners. His family even lived in the house for a while, but one lives there today. You can take a tour of the site ($6 per adult, $3.50 per child). We opted out of that.
We also opted out of the on-site restaurant and small zoo, but we did take in the pelthora of welded metal artwork scattered around the parking lot.
We don't really have much to say about this place. It was a nice spot to stop and stretch our legs after sitting in the car for hours, but it felt more like tourist attraction over a monumental destination. It really wasn't our sort of thing, so after a short visit, we pushed on.
Best Bathroom in America
In 2015, Cintas honored the public restrooms of the small ski town of Minturn, Colorado with the dubious distinction of being the best public bathrooms in America. As luck would have it, our route had us traveling north along Interstate 75 from Moab to Denver, and we'd be going right past Minturn. We couldn't resist the allure of checking out some fantastic bathrooms.
The two small buildings, located at the end of Minturn's Main Street along the banks of the Eagle River, are crafted from layers of laminated plywood that resemble an adit, which, as I learned from the nearby informational plaque, means "the horizontal passageway leading into a mine."
After we parked and got out of our JUCY Trailblazer, a local gent out walking his dog asked us what we were doing in Minturn. I said, "We had to go to the bathroom, and where better than here?" He replied, "I can think of a few places. San Diego, for one." He went on to regale us with tales of bitterly cold winters filled with 350 to 450 inches of snow. He didn't seem to like living in Minturn all that much. I figured he probably didn't ski.
As for the bathroom, they've gone a little downhill since 2015. I can say with all certainty that these are not the best bathrooms I've used in America. On our 2017 visit, the women's toilet was overflowing, so everyone used the men's. Also of interest, there were no lights inside either building, and once the door closed it was rather dim inside—and we visited at 4:00 in the afternoon. If you've ever used a pit toilet at a campsite, these toilets felt a lot like that but with plumbing.
The Crazy Horse Monument in South Dakota, a tribute to the Lakota chief who defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, is a counterpoint to the nearby Mount Rushmore National Monument (more on that monument below).
After failing to get any traction on adding Crazy Horse's face to the Mount Rushmore monument, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear commissioned Korczak Ziolkowski, a student of Gutzon Borglum (Mount Rushmore's sculptor), to create a separate monument. So Ziolkowski conceived of this statue carved out of the rock of Thunderhead Mountain (just 17 miles from Mount Rushmore), a place the Lakota Sioux consider sacred. Construction began in 1948.
Ziolkowski's creative vision is massive in scale—upon completion, it's expected to be 641 feet tall and 563 feet wide. Crazy Horse's face (completed in 1998) is larger than any of the faces on Mount Rushmore. This creation of the monument is not without controversy, however. Not all Lakota Sioux are happy to have their sacred mountain blasted apart to create a monument to Crazy Horse—who by many accounts didn't like to be photographed and would probably not appreciate having a giant likeness of him carved into stone.
Because the momument doesn't accept any federal money, most people think it's unlikely that the monument will ever see completion. All its progress is funded by individual donors and site entrance fees—and the going is slow.
We paid $28 (the price for one car; the price for an individual was $11) to enter the memorial. I'm not sure it was worth it—you can get a decent view of the memorial from Highway 385.
Once through the gates you can't really get close to the monument—it's about a mile or so from the visitors' center. But your ticket does get you into the visitors' center where there are many displays featuring details about the history, tradition, and way of life of the Lakota Sioux. You'll also have the opportunity to buy jewelry, carvings, and other trinkets from many vendors set up in the hall of the visitors' center, as well as a number of the standard touristy gewgaws from the gift shop.
I visited this site on a family trip about 40 years ago. There wasn't anything to see but the face of Thunderhead Mountain back then, but I remember we drove right up the bottom and could watch the workers hammering away at the cliff high above us. Now you have to pay extra to take a bus to get that close.
It was interesting to see how much (or how little, depending on your perspective) progress was made in the last 40 years. But the project is so massive in scale, there's no way it will be finished in my lifetime. Although it will be interesting for the kids to return in another 40 years to see how far it's come.
One of America's most iconic monuments, and certainly the most famous in South Dakota, is Mount Rushmore—featuring the faces of four U.S. presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) carved in granite.
Mount Rushmore was always about tourism. As initially conceived, the carved heads were to be of larger than life heroes of the American West, like Buffalo Bill Cody, Lewis and Clark, and the Sioux chief Red Cloud. But when sculptor Gutzon Borglum was hired on to do the work, he brought a grander vision to the project.
Borglum chose to carve these four presidents because they represented 130 years of American history and each played an important roles in building the Republic—and because with the gift of federal funds came the mandate that in addition to Washington, the monument must display one Democrat and two Republicans.
This site was picked for a few reasons. It had good quality granite, it faced the southwest (this allowed for plenty of sun for the workers), and it didn't have a name. Well, white settlers didn't have an official name for it—but the Lakota Sioux did. They called it "The Six Grandfathers," named for the sun, the moon, and the four winds. But once these lands were taken from the Sioux in 1876, people didn't know or didn't care about and named the mountain after Charles Rushmore, a lawyer in New York who prospected for gold in the area.
After securing federal funds, sculptor Borglum and his team started carving and blasting. The job took 41 years and employed over 400 people—not one of whom died doing the perilous work, which is pretty remarkable.
We visited the site twice. The first time, we arrived as the sun was setting and the light was behind the monument, leaving the faces in shadow. So, since we were staying at the nearby Mount Rushmore KOA (a lively place, if there ever was one)—and becasue the $10 ticket to enter the memorial is good for one year—we revisited the next morning when the rising sun was shining right on the presidents.
So if you visit Mount Rushmore (and you should, it's pretty impressive on many levels), we recommend an early morning visit to get the best views.
After visiting Mount Rushmore that second time, the road was calling. So we loaded up and headed out, traveling across South Dakota towards Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Thank you to our friends at JUCY for providing us a discount to make our journey possible. All opinions are our own.