Great attractions in the western US  states to add to your bucket list

Although each section of the US is home to its’ own share of beautiful places, I have to say the West’s monumental range of breathtaking natural wonders is pretty hard to top. The diverse geography, beautiful mountains, and abundance of natural wonders make it an easy choice for me. Beautiful desert landscapes, sandy beaches, towering redwood trees, bustling cities, charming rural mountain towns, historic national parks: you will find a bit of everything out West! Some of my favorite areas out West include Northern California, Northern Nevada, Southern Idaho, and Southern California. After many western road trips, I have compiled a list of 10 of my favorite Western tourist attractions.

Note that I have yet to visit much of Oregon or Washington, hence, why you will not see any wonderful areas in this section of the country on the list. Mike & I love combining nature and fun, so you will find many hiking, biking, & other recreational activities on this list. What are your favorite Western attractions? What would you add to this list?

Yellowstone National Park

Bison at Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone, America’s First National Park, is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The highlight of a drive through this park is the opportunity for numerous wildlife sightings. Although we never caught sight of any bears during our drives through the park, we were fortunate enough to come across both bison and elk. We were able to catch amazing shots of bison crossing the road right in front of our car! It is such an amazing experience to watch wildlife freely roam around the park. We were also lucky enough to see photographers capturing images of a bear in the distance, although it was much too far away for the naked eye to see.

One of the most popular sights within the park is Old Faithful, the most predictable geyser in the world, with eruptions occurring approximately every 91 minutes. In addition, you will find waterfalls, rivers, beautiful mountains, hot springs, geysers, and mud pots.

Admission normally costs $35 per car or $20 per adult by foot, bike, etc (good for 7 days). However, if you visit during National Park Week, you get in for free! During the winter months, various companies offer snow coach tours through the park. I imagine a ride through the snow covered roads and forests would lead to a breathtaking experience – in fact, this is one activity at the top of my winter bucket list!

Yellowstone is located primarily in Montana, with small sections in Idaho and Wyoming. I recommend staying in West Yellowstone, as there are plenty of hotel, dining, & entertainment options in the area. The West Yellowstone Visitor Center gives out free park maps, and staff is more than willing to give their advice on the best wildlife viewing paths.

The West Entrance of Yellowstone is located on US 287 in West Yellowstone, Montana.

Mesa Falls

Mesa Falls in Idaho

Mesa Falls Scenic Highway is a spectacular Southern Idaho drive which takes you through mesmerizing forests and rivers until you finally reach the incredible Lower and Upper Falls. This 29 mile drive, which begins near Ashton, Idaho, dazzles with some of the most spectacular scenery you will find in Idaho. There are plenty of breathtaking overlooks along the way for taking pictures. The drive is peaceful and uncrowded, with absolutely no feeling of being a tourist attraction.

Both the Upper and Lower Falls are spectacular, at 110 and 85 feet. These are the only Idaho water falls not used for irrigation purposes, which leads to a more peaceful, rustic setting. The Upper Falls, the more scenic of the 2, is easily viewable via a wooden pathway and observation deck. Despite the man made setting, as you stroll along, you will hear nothing but the soothing sound of the rushing water and river below.

If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of some wildlife, either along the drive or near the waterfall. Unfortunately, cows on the road were the extent of wildlife viewing on either of our trips. Mike & I were both so impressed with the drive, that we came back for a second (and third) visit! Mesa Falls is well worth a trip in itself, but if you are heading out to Yellowstone & limited on time, you might as well plan for a stop here along the way. The scenic drive is generally open from Mid-May until October.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the world, and for good reason. Driving across this bridge is an incredible experience, however, walking across it is a thrilling once-in-a- lifetime experience. Did you know that there is a 1.7 mile long pedestrian walkway along the bridge? What better way to experience the sights of San Francisco (which are fabulous, by the way) then by walking across this historic landmark?

Great views of the San Francisco skyline and surrounding hilly landscapes will have you reaching for your camera every step of the way. Don’t just drive across the bridge – the walk is a much more memorable experience! Yes, it is a little noisy and windy, but that is just part of the fun! Visit the Golden Gate Bridge website for information on operating dates and parking. There is no charge to walk across the bridge, so you can add this to your list of San Francisco freebies!

Redwood National Forest

The enormous coastal Redwoods of Northern California

I had seen pictures of Redwoods in print, but that didn’t prepare me for the majesty of these trees. These tall beauties are absolutely stunning and you really do not appreciate the massive size of these ancient trees until you view them for yourself. Most of these trees are between 500-700 years old, with the oldest surviving up to 2000 years!

Amazingly, these trees can reach over 300 feet tall! The truly amazing aspect is the diameter – standing next to these trees you feel incredibly small. Look at the width in the photo above!

Trees of Mystery (a quirky roadside attraction off of Hwy 101 in Klamath, CA) offers a fun, unique way to take in the beauty of the redwoods via a gondola ride which soars up over 1500 feet to a scenic overlook. This is a great experience for first timers to the area. You will be mesmerized, both with the fun & scenic ride up through the gigantic redwoods, and again by the views from the overlook.

You also have the opportunity to walk around learning about the different types of trees via an interpretive trail. Also, on the fun side, you can stroll around a unique Redwood/Bigfoot themed museum. Although many have rated this attraction as too touristy, I have to say I completely disagree! It’s a great time that is both educational and fun, and the views are amazing! Please visit my Pacific Coast Highway Roadtrip post for pricing information, dates of operation, and additional pictures.

Trees of Mystery is located at 15500 Hwy 101 N. Klamath, CA 95548.

Emerald Bay State Park

Beautiful views from Emerald Bay State Park in Lake Tahoe

Make sure to add a visit to the incredible Emerald Bay State Park onto your travel bucket list! Located in beautiful Lake Tahoe, this stunning state park offers dramatic views of both the lake and forests from every angle. A hike through Emerald Bay is a breathtaking experience; the views being amongst the best you will find anywhere. You will definitely want to pack your camera for this hike! Mike and I complete lots of hiking trails across the country, and to this day, this is one that stands out the most in our memories.

If you wish, you can also take a tour of historic Vikingsholm Castle. Tours run daily from 10:00am-4:30pm.  Visit the Vikingsholm Castle website for additional information. Other activities/attractions within the park include camping, beaches, biking, and more. Be aware that black bears frequent the area, so stay update on what to do in the case of a bear encounter!

With all the pricey South Lake Tahoe attractions, Emerald Bay is a welcome change. Take the opportunity to visit this peaceful state park away from the crowded casinos and tourist attractions. Outstanding views, peace and quiet, and an awesome workout await you at Emerald Bay: sometimes the best things in life really are free!

Parking for Emerald Bay is located on Hwy 89.

Sedona – Red Rock Country

Devil's Bridge in Sedona, Arizona

Sedona is home to some of the most stunning scenery out West, if not anywhere in the country. It would be unfortunate to take a vacation to the Grand Canyon and not take the extra time to visit Sedona, which lies just 2 hours south. Towering red rock formations dominate the region. Any hiking trail will take you past these incredible rock formations, some of which date back 300 million years ago! For the best views of all, consider a hike along the stunning Devil’s Bridge trail, pictured above.

Camping, fishing, mountain biking, and just about every other type of outdoor activity are all popular in Sedona. With such stunning backdrops, it is hard not to want to be outside your entire time in Sedona. Even if you are not a fitness or nature buff, there are plenty of other ways to take in the incredible scenery. For starters, the amazing 14 mile long Oak Creek Canyon drive will take you on a leisurely scenic drive from Flagstaff to Sedona as you take in the drastically changing scenery, which starts with amazing ponderosa pine forests and ends with Sedona’s magnificent red rock scenery.

Many of the restaurants in town feature outdoor patios where you can dine alongside the beautiful rock formations. You could also sign up for a scenic trolley tour which will take you for a leisurely little ride complete with red rock panoramas in every direction. The very popular Pink Jeep Tours which take guests on an adventure through various hiking trail in town, are very popular. That being said, I recommend saving some money and getting out there yourself and exploring the wonderful nature trails!

Sedona is an incredible vacation destination for nature lovers, photographers, and fitness buffs. Regardless of whether or not you are visiting the Grand Canyon, the breathtaking scenery in Sedona and nearby Flagstaff, along with a diverse variety of outdoor activities, make Sedona more than worthy of a vacation of its’ own.

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, CA

Did you know that the 3000+ acres surrounding the observatory, including the exhibit hall and planetarium were offered as a donation to the City of Los Angeles by Colonel Griffith J. Griffith in 1896? Griffith wanted to make astronomy accessible to the general population. Hence, we have this beautiful Observatory, complete with magnificent views, educational opportunities, and even public opportunities for telescope gazing.

Views from the Observatory are one of, if not, the best views of the city of Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign. The night views of Los Angeles are absolutely incredible. And you must not leave without a walk along the on-site hiking trails, which allow you to get up close and personal with the iconic Hollywood sign. Although the observation deck provides incredible views of the Hollywood sign, nothing tops the hike which will lead you to the absolute best view of the sign anywhere.

Many interesting space and science related exhibits are available to browse through inside the Griffith, although the real highlight is gazing up at the stars at night with the city lights in the background. A public telescope is available nightly (as long as there are clear skies) for visitors to use, along with assistance from knowledgeable staff. What a great free date night activity in the L.A. area!

All this is free, although there is a small fee to see the planetarium shows.  I recommend both a daytime visit (to hike the beautiful Mt. Hollywood trail with the fantastic views of the Hollywood sign) and a night visit (to stargaze and appreciate the beauty of LA from a distance).

The Griffith Observatory is located at 2800 E. Observatory Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90027

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon views from Skeleton Point South Kalibab trail

As the most visited tourist attraction in Arizona, and one of the most popular in the world, it is no surprise that the scenery at the Grand Canyon is pretty spectacular. During your visit, you will get to take in the sights of this amazing geologic wonder which is 277 miles long, 1 mile deep, and 18 miles wide! You have seen it in TV shows and magazines before, however, you really need to see it in person with your own eyes to truly appreciate the immense beauty!

There are many unique ways to explore the canyon besides the most popular choice of gazing over from the various overlooks along the paved Rim trail. Whitewater rafting trips, mule rides, helicopter rides, and my personal favorite, hiking within the canyon will all give you a much more personal & memorable experience. Hiking is by far the most amazing and peaceful way to explore the splendor of the canyon. And, it also happens to be free compared to the pricey attractions listed above.

If you have the stamina (and you must as the trails are high altitude (7000+ feet) and extremely hilly), hiking is the way to go. Even if you are not in the best of shape, you can just go out to the first overlook and turn back. The best hike is the South Kalibab Trail. The South Kalibab trail includes various turn around points so you can go out to your personal comfort level. If you are up for a real challenge, complete the 1.5 mile journey to Skeleton Point. It is a tough, although quiet and secluded hike, with tremendous ending views of the river which you cannot see from any of the overlooks. It’s a once-in-a- lifetime experience that I (and my sore legs) will never forget!

Overall, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is an obvious addition to any nature loving traveler’s bucket list. To make your trip even more memorable, I recommend staying in Flagstaff or Sedona and enjoying all the wonderful hikes and natural attraction found within these 2 areas.

National Elk Refuge

National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

While on a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Mike & I decided to check out the National Elk Refuge. This refuge was established as a winter habitat for elk. Each year, thousands of elk migrate down from high country beginning in the winter months. The food draws and keeps them at the refuge. A charming winter sleigh ride takes you through the refuge. You will notice antlers lying about; these are shed by the elk. They have been collected and displayed in several arches around Jackson Town Square.  Make sure to stop by downtown after your ride to take a look. This quaint area is worth strolling around and perhaps stopping for a snack (Pearl St. Bagels is great!).

The tour guides are excellent; ours gave us an interesting, informative history of he refuge and the overall Jackson Hole area. They definitely keep your attention and make the ride more interesting and educational unlike some boring tour guides who make you wish the ride was over. Unfortunately, we visited too late in the season for the sleigh ride. Due to the lack of snow on our visit, the sleigh ride was transformed into a wagon ride. Most of the elk had already migrated, so if you want to see thousands, plan your visit during the snowy winter months.  To me, this is an ideal Western attraction – snow capped mountains, free roaming wildlife, and lots of open land! I would definitely return again!

Visit the National Elk Refuge website for ticket information. Tip: take the drive along Gros Ventre Road in the nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest. This is a great drive for spotting wildlife: we saw several moose along the route!

The National Elk Refuge is located at 675 E. Broadway Jackson, WY 83001.

Harriman State Park

Winter scene at Harriman State Park in Island Park, Idaho

When planning a vacation to Idaho, most people only think of the big parks like Yellowstone and Coeur d’Alene Parkway. However, you will be missing out by ignoring Harriman State Park, a hidden gem in Southeast Idaho. This beautiful park is located just 45 minutes from Yellowstone. In fact, we passed it several times on our way out to Yellowstone before deciding on a separate visit.

The natural beauty of the area is unparalleled, especially during the serene winter months. The winter is the perfect time to test out your skiing skills on the 25+ miles of groomed trails. The views are absolutely amazing no matter which trail you pick (over a dozen varieties ranging from beginner to advanced exist).

The idyllic setting sets the perfect tone for any winter activity. We loved the feeling of being by ourselves in the wilderness – a feeling which exists more so out West due to a number of attractive factors including plenty of open landscapes, large mountain ranges, and sparsely populated areas.

The summer months present opportunities for wildlife viewing while biking, hiking, or horseback riding. In addition, camping is another popular activity for outdoor lovers looking for a rustic experience in a gorgeous area of the country. Special events are held throughout the year. Visit the Harriman Park website for information regarding upcoming events.

I highly recommend a visit to this beautiful state park, whether as a side trip on your way to Yellowstone, or as a day out in itself. You will leave with a great workout, a wonderful quiet nature experience, stunning photographs, and long lasting memories!

Harriman State Park is located about 38 miles from Yellowstone and 14 miles from Mesa Falls. All 3 of these natural wonders are must-see attractions in the area! Harriman is located on Green Canyon Road in Island Park, Idaho.