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How the West should be done

Grab your camping gear and head west. You're bound to find much to love in the great outdoors of these 11 states.

[Photo: Dan Leeth]
The sun sets beyond Salt Creek County Park in Clallam County, Wash.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

How the West should be done
Grab your camping gear and head west. You're bound to find much to love in the great outdoors of these 11 states.

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MONUMENT VALLEY, Ariz. -- Light flickered through the camper window. Squinting one eye open, I found myself engulfed in blazing color. The eastern heavens, ignited by the dawn, burned in a conflagration of crimsons and yellows. It was the four-alarm wake-up call of an Arizona sunrise.

I joined a handful of other campers standing at the edge of a bluff. In silence, we watched as the incandescent sky silhouetted Monument Valley's famed rock towers.

I would have missed this if I had not been camping.

For a fraction the tab of a resort hotel, one can buy a tent, borrow a trailer or rent a motor home and experience the pleasure of sleeping out at nature's inns.

The wallpaper comes in the form of mountains, forests, deserts and seashores. Rather than Muzak, burbling steams and trembling aspens offer background melodies. It's the aroma of pines, not pine-scented disinfectant, that lingers in the air.

When it comes to camping, there are few places better than the American West. Much of this grand land is publicly owned and sites abound.

Since first crawling into a Boy Scout pup tent outside Phoenix, I've camped in the 11 contiguous Western states. Here are some of my favorites:


Although this state boasts conifer-clad mountains, it is cactus country that still defines Arizona camping. My preferred place is along the Verde River in the central region, where Dead Horse Ranch State Park near Cottonwood provides a base for fishing, hiking and eagle watching. Nearby, the Verde Canyon Railroad offers scenic rides, the ghost town of Jerome presents apparitions of its coppery past, and arty Sedona delivers everything from galleries and golf ao New Age group gatherings.


An unparalleled array of national parks, forests and monuments grace Utah. Years ago, my hippie girlfriend and I were visiting Arches National Park near Moab. Too broke to pay for camping, we looked for a free site off Utah 128 on the Colorado Riverway. We soon fell asleep at an isolated spot beside the stream. A short time later, a boat's spotlight from a canyonlands-at-night floating tour awakened us.

The girlfriend has since become an ex and our site has been developed into a pay-to-stay campground. Still, the spot remains a favorite.

New Mexico

New Mexico offers deserts and mountains and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, an archaeological enclave southeast of Farmington. A thousand years ago, this was a trade hub and spiritual center for the Anasazi. It was also an astronomical site.

At summer solstice, mystic pilgrims now flock to one of its ceremonial kivas, where sunlight beams through an opening and illuminates a niche on the opposing wall. One year, a ranger placed a cardboard cutout of Elvis in the ruin. At dawn, the image of the King greeted the chanting revelers. I wish I'd been camped then to have seen it.


When summer's triple-digit temperatures melt the desert, the Rockies of Colorado beckon. Here, one can find camping in the shadow of 14,000-foot peaks.

My favorite place to pitch a tent is in the San Juans Mountains near the southwestern corner of the state. Crags touch the sky, eagles and hawks soar, and friends gather around the campfire where everybody's high (at least in altitude). It's like bivouacking in a John Denver song.


A sign warns visitors and campers about the bears in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

To the north of Colorado lies Wyoming, a state that boasts rolling grasslands, Devil's Tower (made famous in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and peaks that French trappers named the Tetons, for what they perceived as resembling the female breast. Its most famous landmark, however, remains Yellowstone National Park.

My wife and I generally camp there at Mammoth Hot Springs, an area that features wet terraces sculpted in limestone. Nearby, animals wander about, and campground signs warn us to beware of bears. I've never experienced a problem, but the thought of a midnight encounter makes the typical nocturnal toilet trip exciting.


Montana presents country so open and unpopulated that until 1999, the state did not bother with posted speed limits.

The eastern part of Big Sky Country features plains and prairies. To the west rise the Rockies. An artist once told me, "Sometimes you know a place is right because it feels good." In Montana, it seldom takes long to get that feeling.


While southern Idaho serves up spuds, the panhandle features forests of fir. Here, campers can still share the spirit of Lewis and Clark. Two centuries ago, the pair crossed Lolo Pass west of Missoula, Mont. Part of their route followed the Lochsa River, where today, a string of campgrounds along U.S. 12 provides riverside sites.

Near Jerry Johnson Campground, a 1-mile trail leads to primitive hot-spring pools. They offer simmering soaks to those of us whose tents lack tubs.


Washington features a variety of land-forms, each offering camping possibilities. My favorite remains the Olympic Peninsula.

On our last journey there, my wife and I camped at Salt Creek County Park near Port Angeles. From our mobile bedroom, we could watch cargo ships plying the straits between us and Canada's Vancouver Island. World War II artillery bunkers still exist here. At one time, big guns protected the two-nation waterway.


Water tumbles down the South Falls, in Silver Falls State Park, Ore.

I've spent many nights camped in Oregon, visiting deserts, mountains and coast.

Not long ago, I was exploring the Willamette Valley near Salem. I wanted to photograph its famous covered bridges. I was seduced by Silver Falls State Park, where streams tumble in cataracts over cliffs as high as 15 stories.


California offers unmatched camping possibilities. I prefer the Sierra Nevada's eastern escarpment, where granite ramparts rise in bands of peaks and palisades.

A favorite campground lies at Whitney Portal near Lone Pine. Relaxing under the trees, I can smile knowingly at the load-lugging backpackers who grunt upward toward 14,494-foot Mount Whitney, highest point in the contiguous states.

I, too, did that in my youth. Maturity has relaxing benefits.


Most know Nevada for its glitzy gambling, but beyond the neon lies the Great Basin, where barren valleys separate mountainous strips. This is a land so vacant, the military uses it for testing secret aircraft.

I love to top up the tank and go back-road exploring. At day's end, I emulate the pioneers and stop in a lonely spot surrounded by miles of nowhere. Unchallenged by the light pollution of civilization, the stars always seem to shine with intensity.

-- Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives, indoors, in Aurora, Colo.

If you go

Arizona: Dead Horse Ranch State Park. The park is near Cottonwood off Historic Highway 89A. Fees run $15 with electricity, $10 without. For information, call (928) 634-5283 or go to

Utah: Colorado Riverway. The area of the Colorado River along Utah 128 northwest of Moab has become a camper's mecca, with nine designated camping areas. Fees range from $5 to $10. Call toll-free 1-800-635-6622;

New Mexico: Chaco Culture National Historical Park. To reach the park, take New Mexico 44 to County Road 7900, 3 miles south of Nageezi, and follow the signs to Chaco. Much of the 21-mile road is unpaved. The campground features 47 sites available on a first-come basis. Fees are $10 per night. Check or call (505) 786-7014.

Colorado: San Juan Mountains. Located north and east of Durango, the San Juans offer dozens of campgrounds and undeveloped campsites. Most are in the San Juan National Forest ( but there also are fine Bureau of Land Management sites ( between Silverton and Lake City. Contact either agency at (970) 247-4874.

Wyoming: Mammoth Campground. Mammoth Hot Springs lies 5 miles south of Yellowstone National Park's north entrance, on U.S. 89. The campground offers 85 sites available on a first-come basis. Fees are $12 per night. Call (307) 344-7381;

Montana: Anywhere that feels good. The state boasts campsites in national parks, forests and recreation areas, plus dozens of state, county and private campgrounds. For help finding a spot, contact the Montana Travel Bureau. Call toll-free 1-800-541-1447;

Idaho: Lochsa River. The area along U.S. 12 contains a dozen Forest Service campgrounds of various sizes. Jerry Johnson Campground can be found 11 miles southwest of Powell. Fees of $8 apply at most sites. Contact the Clearwater National Forest (208) 942-3113,

Washington: Salt Creek County Park. Located on top of the Olympic Peninsula near the village of Joyce, the park can be reached on Washington 212 west of Port Angeles. Fees are $12 per night. Call (360) 417-2291;

Oregon: Silver Falls State Park. Oregon 214 east of Salem slices through the center of the park. The campground offers 51 tent sites and 54 electrical hookup spaces. Fees vary by season, with summer maximums reaching $16 for tent sites, $20 for those with power. Call (503) 873-8681;

California: Whitney Portal. To reach the campground, turn on the Whitney Portal Road 2 miles north of Lone Pine on U.S. 395. There are 43 sites, with a fee of $14 per night. Advance reservations (call toll-free 1-877-444-6777) are recommended. Contact the Forest Service at 760-873-2400;

Nevada: With most of the state publicly owned, Nevada offers matchless remote camping possibilities. A few favorite starting points include U.S. 50, dubbed the "loneliest road in America," U.S. 95, the "Silver Trail", and Nevada 375, the "Extraterrestrial Highway." Contact the Nevada Commission on Tourism, toll-free 1-800-638-2328;


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