Setting off in search of adventure, good views, great eats and inspiration for OutGrowth’s next chapter, my husband Anthony and I stuffed my little hatchback with sleeping bags, a tent, hiking gear and the list of great stops put together by my sister. As someone who advocates getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new and doing things for the sake of experience, I knew it was time to shake it up.
We traveled the old Route 66, scattered with remains of abandoned motels, deserted diners and faded billboards on what was once considered the "Main Street of America.” As someone who delights in all things vintage, the authenticity of this journey was not lost on me.
We ended up in the southwest, an area of the country I had always wanted to explore. Sure, I had seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, heard about Denver’s great food and music, and learned about the Native American reservations throughout New Mexico and Arizona. Despite my knowledge going in, I wasn’t quite prepared for the significance of this experience or the beauty I was on track to discover. But isn’t that always the way with travel?
After years of traveling internationally, I feel like I stumbled upon some of the most special places in the world, right in my own country. As a result, I just have to share my top six must-sees, so that you, too, can set out on the old Route 66 and take in all of the beauty and kitsch this country has to offer. So in the spirit of always growing out, here they are:
1. Manitou Springs, Colorado When we first saw Manitou Springs, we were driving from Denver at sunrise to do the famous Incline Hike- a steep, mile-long staircase to an incredible view worth every drip of sweat. There was a morning fog as we drove through the mountains that eventually lifted to reveal a vast landscape. The town of Manitou Springs is worth a visit in itself. Located at the base of the mountains, there are great little cafes, hikes ranging from easy to very challenging, and natural spring water that you can drink right from the ground. One of our favorite spots is a sensational café called The Principal’s Office, an old high school building converted into restaurants and eateries. If you go to Colorado, be sure to make time for this very cool stop.
2. Denver by Bike Denver is different, and you can feel this the minute you arrive. The pace is slower than the east coast, and there is a dedication to outdoor activity and high-quality living that sets it apart. On a Wednesday afternoon by bike, you will find people headed to the Rockies game, and markets bustling with lunch goers and ice cream eaters. The city is speckled with art, lush parks and unique breweries, each with a distinct look and funky brand style. Extremely bike-able, there is no better way to experience Denver than meandering through the streets on two wheels.
3. Santa Fe at Sunset Be prepared to be transported. Santa Fe is a cultural mix of Mexican and Native American influence, from food to architecture to jewelry. Whether you take time out to dine at Sazon, the number one restaurant in Santa Fe (and meet the incredibly talented head chef who sports a cowboy hat) or just walk through the gardens tucked away within the plaza, you are in for a real treat. With outdoor live music, street markets with some of the best tamales you’ll ever taste and plenty of rooftop spots to choose from, you will be consistently delighted by all Santa Fe has to offer. As the sun sets, the entire city turns golden, as the colors of the stucco buildings and desert sands become illuminated. It was clear to me that whoever coined the term “The Golden Hour” to describe the sunset must have seen it here first.
4. Zion National Park
You can stop your search for the best place in the USA, because I've found it. There is truly nothing like Zion National Park. The enormity of the canyons is breathtaking, and you just never get used to it. Whether you do a short hike from the visitor center, or spend a day hiking through the Narrows- a walk through a river that runs between two canyons, this will be some of the best hiking you ever experience. You can go canyoneering in the summer and ice climbing in the winter. Venture just outside the park, and you will be able to hike or camp with little chance of running into anyone. The canyons become your own private space, which makes you constantly question, “Are we not allowed to be doing this? Should we check that we are permitted to hike here?” But you are and we were- it’s just that remote. Take in the sunset, feel what it's like to experience real adventure, and whatever you do, be sure to eat at the Mexican restaurants in Springdale (our favorite one here). You won’t regret it, and you make even hike a little longer the next day to work it off.
5. The Painted Desert & Navajo Nation
When we first got a glimpse of the Painted Desert, we said, “This must be called something. What is this area called?” It is that spectacular. We were in awe of the purples, blues and pinks that spanned miles of canyons. Driving through Arizona felt like a privilege. Hours flew by as we tried to capture the views on camera, only to follow each picture up with, “It doesn’t do this justice.” In the Painted Desert, you have the chance to drive through Navajo and Hopi land, stopping off at various stands and stores to support local businesses. One of my favorite parts of this trip was meeting Navajo families, learning about the symbolism in their jewelry and artwork, and taking tours of the land. We learned about fossils and dinosaurs and Native American heritage. There are certain times during travel when you know that you will be changed by the present moment. Hands down, this was one of those times.
6. The Grand Canyon, North Rim
You can do the Grand Canyon a couple of different ways. The South Rim tends to be swarmed with people, guarded by railings, and lined with concrete. If you can venture out from those areas, you will fully get to experience the full beauty of the canyon. If you're like me, you may even cry because it is that overwhelming. One of the best ways to see the canyon is to visit the less-populated North Rim. You can also drive around the South Rim of the canyon and reach any number of trail heads. It is surprisingly easy to get away from the crowds if you drive out even for a mile. Sunrise and sunset are of course the most special times. Regardless of which view you choose, you will be wowed. No picture or video can capture the magnificence of the Grand Canyon. I was blown away, along with others, as we sat in silence and gazed with wonder at what our world has to offer. There is a reverence that can be observed among people gazing across a canyon, collectively realizing just how big the world is, and how small we are.