Small Towns and Big Parks – Our 3-Week Inland Western USA Roadtrip

Road trips are awesome, at least I think so. Of course, a good plan helps ensure a great outcome.

Let us take you along on our amazing three-week inland Western United States road trip where we witness historic towns, natural wonders, and massive national parks.

Highlights of this 3-week road trip that traversed seven states include Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Wyoming, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, Williams Arizona, Sedona Arizona, the Sonoran Desert, Monument Valley, Natural Bridges National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, both Ouray and Telluride in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and Baker City, Oregon.

Many of these destinations were on my bucket list of places to see. More were added as we discovered them during both the planning process and the trip itself. We chose to concentrate on the inland western states as we have done several road trips from Washington down to California in previous years. As wonderful as these were it was time to explore some new territory.

The route consists of a couple of larger loops that almost form a figure 8. This will allow you to start and finish the trip from a location that is convenient for you.

The following map shows our driving route from the US/Canada Border Crossing, locations we stayed at for one or more nights and highlights and attractions we visited.

Day 1 – Chilliwack to Spokane Valley

We started in southwestern British Columbia, crossing the Sumas border crossing north of Bellingham and followed Interstate 5 toward Seattle and Interstate 90 toward Spokane Valley. Preferring the more relaxed pace and lighter traffic on the secondary highways we chose a longer, but more scenic route.

We exited Interstate 90 at George, taking Route 283 which becomes Route 28 at Ephrata. North of Ephrata we turned left onto Route 17 which leads into a valley narrowing into a coulee or canyon as you progress northward. This picturesque valley contains a string of lakes starting with Soap Lake, followed by Lenore Lake, Blue Lake, and Park Lake. In the area from Lenore Lake north, abundant caves can be seen in the ravine walls. The vistas in this off-the-beaten-path route rivaled those of the famous National Parks we were yet to see. Being less than a day’s drive from our home, we must go back one day.

Upon reaching Highway 2 we turned right toward Grand Coulee. After passing through the town, we followed picturesque Route 174 to Wilbur and then Highway 2 to Spokane.

The first night, we stayed at the MyPlace Hotel in Spokane Valley. It was nothing fancy but was clean and comfortable – good value for an overnight stop. The goal for day 2 was to reach Livingston Montana putting us in position for a day of exploring Yellowstone Park.

On our first day we stopped by the Wild Horse Monument overlooking the Columbia River in Washington State.

View of the Columbia River from Wild Horse Lookout

View of the Columbia River from Wild Horse Lookout

Looking north from Banks Lake Recreation Area

Looking north from Banks Lake Recreation Area, part of our longer “scenic route” on the way to Spokane Valley

Day 2 & 3 – Spokane Valley to Livingston and Yellowstone Park

We arrived in Livingston on a very dark rainy night with a risk of thunderstorms in the forecast for the next day – not very promising for our planned day in Yellowstone Park. The situation worsened when we had to evacuate our room around 1 am upon discovering bedbugs. Ouch, this was certainly the low point of our trip. Fortunately, we had not even unpacked our suitcase and got out quickly so none came with us. We ended up with a sleepless night and headed south toward Yellowstone at the crack of dawn. It was still raining, but conditions improved during the day and the spectacular sights ahead kept us awake and alert in spite of little sleep.

It ended up being in our favour that we had such an early start with so much to see in Yellowstone Park (it is huge). Our ambitious plans included seeing many park highlights while leaving enough time to drive south to Jackson and over a mountain pass to Victor Idaho where we had reserved a nice B&B for the next night. Ideally, we would have stayed at one of the rustic park lodges, but that requires booking about a year in advance, not a great option unless you can be certain of your travel dates.

Traffic in Yellowstone can come to a grinding halt as people stop in the middle of the road when they spot wildlife, not something they should do where there’s no pullout. At one point this behavior brought traffic at Canyon Junction, a major park intersection, to a complete standstill resulting in huge backups in every direction. An angry park ranger had to get the offending cars moving again.

Despite the traffic congestion, we saw everything we set out to see that day. Driving around Grand Loop Road, we spent time exploring Mammoth Hot Springs, Mt. Washburn, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the Lower Falls, West Thumb Geyser Basin, and Old Faithful. We arrived at Old Faithful just a few minutes before it erupted. Tip: If you see a large crowd on the boardwalk as you approach, chances are it is going to erupt soon, The crowds disipate right after it finishes. We also saw a Black Bear with her cubs, Elk, Mountain Goats, and numerous Bison making it a very memorable day.

Planning to spend the next day exploring Jackson Wyoming, we drove an extra 30 minutes over a high mountain pass into Victor Idaho where we spent the night at the Fin and Feather Inn, a beautiful upscale B&B for substantially less than a Motel 6 in Jackson would cost.

Upper Falls of the Yellowstone

Upper Falls of the Yellowstone – This area is also nicknamed The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Park.

Bison Grazing on lush green grassland in the scenic Hayden Valley

West Thumb Geyser Basin

Lots of steam was rising off the hot springs in the West Thumb Geyser Basin

Close up of a hot spring in the West Thumb Geyser Basin

Hot spring pools like this one in the West Thumb Geyser Basin can reach the boiling point. That is why you must stay on the boardwalk

Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful was faithful indeed, showing off its stuff 10 minutes after we arrived at the viewing area

Day 4 – Jackson Wyoming to Afton

Jackson Wyoming is a fun bustling little town with a real western vibe located in a beautiful valley south of the Grand Tetons and the National Elk Refuge. It also sits at the base of Snow King Mountain, a popular resort for skiing, hiking and other outdoor activities. We visited the Town Square getting the requisite photos in front of the famous elk antler arches. We phoned our kids so they could see us live on Jackson’s main intersection YouTube stream. Following that we hunted for souvenirs in the many surrounding shops and visited art galleries exhibiting beautiful paintings of the local area. We enjoyed our day in Jackson but the town does strike me as a bit of a tourist trap. If we had more time to explore the outdoor areas we would have enjoyed it more, but it was a good day all the same.

Later that afternoon, we drove 2 hours south to Afton Wyoming where we spent the night in a very nice log cabin at a Kodiak Mountain Resort by the highway. We chose Afton to position us farther south in preparation for the long drive to southern Utah.

Western shops and galleries adjacent to Jackson Wyoming Town Square

Western shops and galleries are plentiful around Jackson Wyoming’s Town Square

Day 5 & 6 – Afton to Hatch Utah and Bryce Canyon

On day 5 we began the long day’s drive toward southern Utah. Our next destination was the very small town of Hatch, a place we chose because of its ideal location between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. It would be our base for 3 nights. The location was excellent for our purpose and Hatch Station motel offered better value than accommodations closer to either park. The room was clean, our number one priority, but small for a 3-night stay. If we were to go again, we would look for accommodations that are a little larger. The town of Panguitch, about 20 minutes north, is also a good location for exploring Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, but not quite as convenient to both parks as Hatch.

After having a good sleep and breakfast, we headed for Bryce Canyon. Along the way, we were soon sidetracked by the stunning red hoodoos of Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest, an area that rivals Bryce Canyon itself (no easy task). This was such an enjoyable area we decided to stop again on the drive back and hike some of the trails adjacent to the highway.

I’d rank Bryce Canyon as one of the top highlights of our entire trip. To say our first view from the edge was breathtaking would be an understatement – it was almost surreal. The park was busy, but not to the point where parking was a problem. We stopped at each viewing area and hiked along portions of the canyon rim. Later, we hiked part way down into the canyon on Queens Garden Trail.

Hoodoos in the Dixie National Forest

We were first greeted by Hoodoos as we passed through Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest on our way to Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon National Park

Our first view into Bryce Canyon was almost surrealistic

View of Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon from another one of the many viewpoints

One of many hiking trails that lead down into Bryce Canyon

One of many hiking trails that lead down into Bryce Canyon

View from Queens Garden Trail in Bryce Canyon

View from Queens Garden Trail as we hike down among the giant hoodoos

Day 7 – Zion National Park

This was our day to see Zion National Park. Following Route 89S from Hatch to Mount Carmel Junction, we picked up State Route 9 also known as the Zion Park Scenic Byway. Beyond the east entrance the road is very narrow and winding. In spite of that, frequent pullouts make it easy to stop and soak in the amazing vistas.

Our route took us through the famous 1.1 mile Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel that was completed in 1930. While the tunnel does carry two-way traffic it was restricted to one-way alternating traffic when we went through, not surprising as it is narrow and dark and there have been many accidents between larger vehicles trying to travel through the tunnel in opposite directions. In addition to the park fee, vehicles taller than 11’4″ and/or wider than 7’10” including mirrors and jacks must pay an escort fee of $15.00 to drive through the tunnel. This includes most motorhomes and trucks pulling travel trailers. The time of day you can drive through the tunnel with a large vehicle is also subject to restrictions. These vary by season. For more information see https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/the-zion-mount-carmel-tunnel.htm

Zion National Park has become so popular that cars are no longer permitted to drive along Floor of the Valley Road. Visitors can ride one of the frequent shuttle buses that make seven stops along this route. You will want to get off at all seven stops as we did. The view from each stop is unique and spectacular in its own way. This system works well and eliminates the traffic jams.

Our goal was to park near the first shuttle bus stop at Canyon Junction Bridge and ride the shuttle bus to explore the Valley. However, we encountered signs indicating parking was full and directing us to park in the town of Springdale beyond the south entrance. The charge for parking in town near the entrance was $20 and these too were full.

We later learned there is free parking farther into town where free shuttle buses transport visitors to the park entrance. From there, they can transfer to the Floor of the Valley shuttle.

Determined to find a parking spot, we re-entered the park through the south gate and returned east along Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Lo and behold, we found a parking spot on the side of the road just large enough for our Toyota Prius! This was the last spot available before passing through Mount Carmel tunnel again and was within walking distance of the first shuttle bus stop. From there we were able to carry out our plans to see the narrow Virgin River Valley that carves its way through the magnificent mountains that make one feel so small. In spite of the 100°F heat, we enjoyed our day taking in the breathtaking landscapes and geology of this beautiful park. Tip: It is a good idea to bring bottled water and sunscreen along when visiting the park.

We visited all seven shuttle stops and enjoyed walking along the valley trails and craning our necks upward to look a the majestic walls of rock towering high above us.

Traveling in the opposite direction on our drive back to Hatch gave us a whole other perspective of this magnificent landscape.

View from Zion - Mount Carmel Highway

Looking west along Zion – Mount Carmel Highway as we drive through Zion National Park

Walking path in the Virgin River Valley of Zion National Park

Enjoying a hike though the Virgin River Valley in Zion National Park

Virgin River Valley in Zion National Park

Another part of Virgin River Valley in Zion National Park

Day 8 – Hatch to Grand Canyon National Park and Williams

Our eighth day came with grand plans. We had many miles to cover in one day and we wanted to see the South Rim of the Grand Canyon along the way. Would we have time to do both? Turns out we did.

We began by heading south on Route 89 until we got to the town of Kanab. From here we had a choice of continuing on route 89 or taking route 89A. Route 89A takes a little longer but passes through some different scenery including Marble Canyon. We opted for the latter and didn’t regret the choice. It was a very scenic drive. At Marble Canyon we walked across the Colorado River on the old bridge. It is remarkable to realize this narrow little gorge grows to become the magnificent Grand Canyon less than 40 miles to the southwest. However, driving to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is considerably further. With great anticipation, we pressed on until we could finally peer into the Grand Canyon for our first time. I imagined this moment for many years and it did not disappoint.

As was our experience with the other National Parks, there were plenty of viewpoints to stop at. Parking was not a problem at any of the pullouts and we stopped at them all. Eventually, we arrived at Grand Canyon Village where we again parked and looked around. The village itself is busy and can be confusing to navigate, but we found a parking spot in front of Bright Angel Lodge and enjoyed dinner in their dining room. The prices where reasonable considering we were in a prime tourist area.

After dinner, we purchased some souvenirs from the gift shop. Following that, we strolled along the walking path skirting the south rim and enjoyed the warm glow and deep shadows created by the setting sun. Since my eyesight isn’t good at night, we didn’t dwell for too long. We still had a one hour drive to Williams Arizona for our next night.

Colorado River at Marble Canyon

At Marble Canyon this narrow gorge carved out by the Colorado River grows to become the magnificent Grand Canyon about 40 miles downstream

Grand Canyon from the Desert View Lookout

Our first view of the Grand Canyon was from the Desert View Lookout

Grand Canyon National Park

Looking west from the Sourth Rim of the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon from the Village at sunset

The setting sun casts deep shadows and a warm glow across the Grand Canyon in this view from the Village

Day 9 – Williams to Sedona and Scottsdale

The next morning in Williams, we ate breakfast and then spent the morning exploring some interesting buildings and businesses located along historic Route 66. Williams is an interesting town that takes you back in time with it’s classic cars and other nostalic pieces displayed throughout. It would be nice to spend a full day there, but we had to keep moving. Our goal was Scottsdale Arizona where we would spend 3 nights enjoying accommodations at a resort with a full apartment.

On our way, we drove through Sedona where we planned a 2 night stay on the return leg. This gave us a preview of this unique region. We drove up to the Sedona Airport lookout for an overview of the city. TIP: When we visited we found we could park for free at the airport rather than paying to park right across from the viewpoint. It’s only a slightly longer walk. On the road up, we saw a small parking pullout with a trail leading to a rocky knoll. We took note of this as something to do on our return visit.

As we closed the distance to Scottsdale, we started to see increasing numbers of Saguaro cactus on the hillsides, something I’ve always wanted to see close up and in person, rather than just pictures.

With help from our GPS, we safely arrived at Scottsdale Links Resort. We got an excellent rate on this property through Booking.com, partly because it is the quiet season in Scottsdale and partly because they were promoting timeshares at the resort. They invited us to a presentation a few times. We weren’t there for that and declined.

Route 66 in Williams Arizona

Before leaving Williams we spent some time exploring the historic section of Route 66 that passes through this town

Day 10 and 11 – Scottsdale

We were at the halfway point of our 3-week road trip. This was planned intentionally as a time to recuperate and get our laundry done, thanks to the in-suite laundry facilities. The apartment was spacious and had a good size deck, overlooking the golf course, where we could sit and enjoy a quiet drink.

The temperatures soared to 104F, dropping slightly into 90s at night. It was a dry heat so it didn’t bother us, especially with our air-conditioned apartment and spending much of our day relaxing and swimming at the pool. The resort has two pool areas, one for families and children and another just for adults which was much quieter to our liking.

On the second morning, we visited the McDowell Sonoran Preserve a few minutes drive from our accommodations. In spite of going in the morning, it quickly got hot, but we enjoyed walking around the loop trail which was fascinating and had excellent signage about the desert environment including the plants and animals. Living in a temperate climate, I found this area most interesting. If we were carrying more water we would have spent more time there, but, for me, it was an unexpected highlight of our trip.

Saguaro Cactus in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

During our relaxing break in Scottsdale, a visit to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve turned out to be a highlight of our trip and I got to cross seeing a giant Saguaro Cactus off my bucket list

Day 12 and 13 – Back to Sedona

After enjoying two full days to relax and recuperate it was time to continue our journey. Going to Scottsdale we took Route 89A, however, we returned to Sedona on Route 179 through the Village of Oak Creek. This route offers dramatic vistas of the unique landscape as you drive by Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte and the iconic Chapel of the Holy Cross. After settling into our modest motel, we bought some groceries, put together a quick meal and went for a relaxing swim in the pool. Due to the higher elevation, it was still warm, but significantly cooler than Scottsdale.

The next morning we drove up Airport Road to the trailhead we saw when we passed through Sedona on Day 9. This trail leads up to a rocky knoll called Airport Mesa. From there, we enjoyed expansive views in every direction. We hiked part way along Brewer trail which leads downhill to Brewer Road in Oak Creek.

That afternoon we drove to Chapel of the Holy Cross. Built in the 1950s on a red rock butte, this iconic landmark is deceptively modern. They have a lower and an upper parking lot. If the upper lot is full, they provide a free shuttle service from the lower lot by means of a golf cart. The fabulous views from this vantage point definitely make this a worthwhile side trip. Later, we spent time exploring a number of unique shops and galleries on the way back to our motel.

Planters and yard ornaments on  display at Son Silver West Galleries in Sedona

Planters and yard ornaments on display at Son Silver West Galleries in Sedona

Hand crafted metal sculptures for sale at Son Silver West Galleries in Sedona

Hand crafted metal sculptures for sale at Son Silver West Galleries in Sedona

View toward the Village of Oak Creek from Brewer Trail

This view toward the Village of Oak Creek was photographed from Brewer Trail that starts from the Sedona Airport Mesa

View of Sedona from the Chapel of the Holy Cross

View of Sedona from the Chapel of the Holy Cross

Day 14 – Sedona to Monument Valley to Blanding

After two nights in Sedona, our goal included a long day’s drive which took us through Monument Valley, another place I have always wanted to experience in-person. Our destination for the night was Blanding Utah. We chose Blanding bcause of its location between Monument Valley and Arches National Park. This gave us this option to return and spend more time in Monument Valley or to do a day trip to Arches National Park. More on that later.

Our journey took us through vast tracts of the Hopi and Navajo Indian Reservation. Monument Valley is entirely located within the latter. Nearing Kayenta we could see rocky buttes similar to, but less dramatic than, those in Monument Valley; a hint at what was to come. Reaching Kayenta, we turned left and began the spectacular drive along Route 163 flanked by eroded sandstone buttes rising high above the Colorado Plateau. Like most natural wonders, photographs and videos don’t leave the same impression as being there in person.

One thing we discovered when driving through the reservations is there’s a charge to access some areas. I understand the reason for doing so; what I don’t understand is that the fees are not disclosed at the turnoff point, enabling an informed choice. You see a sign for a scenic viewpoint, take the turnoff, then follow the road for some distance when you suddenly find yourself at a gatehouse where a fee is requested. You’re free to turn around and go back, but it wastes time and may make you feel awkward. We experienced this before the Grand Canyon, in Sedona and at the turnoff for the Monument Valley Interpretive Center. As it was, we skipped the interpretive center but did capture some good photographs of the area before resuming our drive.

Mexican Hat was the next little town we passed through as we left Monument Valley in our rearview mirror. It is aptly named after a large flat rock perched precariously on top of a narrow rock – truly something to marvel at.

The remaining miles to our destination of Blanding passed quickly. There, we stayed for 2 nights.

Sandstone Buttes of Monument Valley

The incredible sandstone buttes of Monument Valley

Looking south toward Monument Valley

A final look back where we drove from before heading north out of Monument Valley. The distances appear vast, but the drive goes surprisingly quickly.

Mexican Hat Rock

It was immediately obvious where the town of Mexican Hat got its name when we saw the 60 foot wide sombrero-shaped slab of rock precariously perched on a much smaller rock. Nature is truly amazing.

Day 15 – Natural Bridges National Monument

Our stay at the Stone Lizard Lodging in Blanding provided us with a superb home-cooked breakfast buffet giving us a good start to the day. We originally planned a day trip to Arches National Park near Moab but, on the previous day’s drive, we noticed a sign for the turnoff to Natural Bridges National Monument. This was a place I had not heard of before so I looked it up on my phone and read many comments about what an amazing place it was and also how quiet it was compared to Arches National Park. It was also a shorter drive to get there from Blanding. I knew we would not have time to see both so after reading the positive reviews we decided to visit Natural Bridges.

While I am certain Arches National Park would have been spectacular, we were not disappointed with our decision. The scenic and beautiful drive to Natural Bridges and the area itself proved to be one of the highlights of our trip. It was very quiet. A one-way road that loops around the park offers stunning viewpoints of the natural bridges created by water as opposed to the arches in Arches National Park that were created by wind and blowing sand.

Hiking trails lead down below a number of the natural rock bridges from the various viewpoints. Some are more difficult than others. We chose to take the trail from the last viewpoint which is one of the easier trails. To walk down and see this natural wonder from underneath is an amazing and humbling experience. Nearby, massive slabs of granite standing on their edges made me ponder exactly how they came to rest in such a precarious position.

We returned to Blanding for dinner and afterward had time to relax in the garden area behind our motel. This was a nice reprieve before our drive to Colorado the next morning.

Natural Bridges National Monument

Part way down the trail to the last Natural Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument

Looking up from under the last Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument

Day 16 – Blanding to Canyonlands and Wilsons Arch to Telluride and Ouray

On this day we had a considerable drive ahead and wanted to see lots along the way. Our goal by day end was Ouray Colorado, but we were not taking the quickest route. We had numerous options, any of which would have been awesome. We chose to head north on highway 191 to Needles Overlook Road. Needles Overlook was a side trip requiring a one hour round trip off the main highway. If ever an hour was well spent, this was one of those times. The narrow, but fully paved, 2 lane road traverses the plateau passing many interesting rock formations as it gets closer to the rim of Canyonlands National Park. We did not pass a single vehicle on this road both coming and going, however, we did pass a group of deer beside it.

When we arrived at Needles Point Lookout and peered over the rim into the vast Canyon, considerably wider than the Grand Canyon. We were spellbound. In some sense, it is even more breathtaking than the far busier, and more famous, Grand Canyon. Like the Grand Canyon, it is carved out by the Colorado River which meanders along the Canyon floor, barely visible from our high vantage point.

Our route continued north on Route 191 where we stopped right in front of Wilsons Arch. With no time to visit Arches National Park, we still got to see an incredible natural arch created through erosion from wind and sand.

Having more miles to drive and another stop along the way, it was time to continue through the ever-changing landscape. We turned onto Route 46 which leads east and southeast. In due course, we crossed into Colorado and arrived at Mountain Village perched above the town of Telluride. Not our final destination for the day, but another stop along the way, Telluride is a very picturesque town nestled in a deep valley in the Colorado Rockies. We drove to Mountain Village first for two reasons. First, parking is scarce in Telluride whereas you can park for free in Mountain Village. Second, from the public parking lot, you board a free Gondola for a spectacular ride over the ridge and down into the town. This 13 minute Gondola ride has been operating since 1996 and functions as more than just a ski lift. It provides public transportation between the two towns saving commuters a 20 minute 8-mile drive. Adventurous cyclists utilize the bicycle racks on each gondola for accessing the top of the mountain bike trails. The town of Telluride is small enough to explore on foot.

After stepping off the Gondola into the town we walked a few short blocks to Colorado Avenue, Telluride’s main street. Like several small towns in the Colorado Rockies, Telluride started as a mining town in the 1800s. Due to its spectacular setting and changing times it has transitioned to a popular year-round playground and tourist destination. We enjoyed walking around and exploring some of the unique shops and galleries before deciding where to eat dinner. After a relaxing meal, we explored the town some more. A little before sunset we headed back to the lower Gondola station, once again enjoying the stunning views as it carried us up the mountain to our car.

Our final destination on this full day of travel was the town of Ouray, another former mining town that is now a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s located about an hours drive from Telluride in the next valley to the east.

When we pulled into Ouray we looked for the Matterhorn Inn where we would be spending the next two nights and checked ourselves in, tired, but pleased with all we had seen in a very full day of travel and exploring.

Ouray is a pretty location, not as spectacular as Telluride, but still very picturesque and rugged. Accommodation rates are on the high side for what you get, but less expensive than in Telluride. Ouray has many historic buildings, some containing unique shops and galleries. There are plenty of places to dine. Like Telluride, you will not find any of the familiar franchise stores or restaurants. Off course, that is part of the charm. Several companies in town offer Jeep rentals and tours to explore the surrounding mountains.

Staying for 2 nights gave us a full day in Ouray. After eating breakfast just up the road from our hotel, we walked around the town checking out some of the unique shops and art galleries. In each block along Main Street, information placards on pedestals describe the history of the historic buildings. At the north end of town is a park and a large swimming pool filled by a natural hot spring from the mountainside. It’s a popular location with locals and tourists alike, although the price of admission surprised me, certainly an expensive proposition for an entire family.

Later, we drove north from Ouray to the nearby town of Ridgway and spent part of the afternoon exploring it. The critically acclaimed Western, True Grit, released in 2010, was filmed in Ridgeway and the surrounding area. You can look for some of the film locations with the help of a printed guide from the Visitor Center or, on Fridays at 11am, you can join a guided walking tour from the same location. We enjoyed an old fashioned ice cream before returning to Ouray for our second night.

Looking north from Needles Overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Our side-trip to Needles Overlook in Canyonlands National Park was a major highlight of our roadtrip

Looking south from Needles Overlook

View to the south from Needles Overlook

Wilsons Arch in Utah

Wilsons Arch, located right by the highway, was the next stop along our route

Descending into Telluride on the free Gondola

Descending into Telluride on the free Gondola was great fun with spectacular views

Looking east on Colorado Avenue in Telluride

Looking east on Colorado Avenue, the main street in Telluride

Looking north along Main Street in Ouray Colorado

Looking north along Main Street in the historic town of Ouray Colorado

Ouray Hotsprings Pool in Fellin Park

Ouray Hotsprings Pool in Fellin Park with the town and mountains beyond

Day 17 and 18 – Ouray to Ogden to Baker City

Getting close to the end of this memorable vacation, and it was time to head towards home – a full 3-days drive but we chose a more leisurely 4 days. Our first day brought us to Ogden, Utah just north of Salt Lake City. Rather than driving through Salt Lake City and the associated traffic we made our way north via Route 189 past Deer Creek State Park and Park City. We followed Route 80 north and then Route 84 west through the mountain pass to our hotel, a Best Western Plus, located just off the highway.

After a good nights sleep, we headed out the next morning toward Baker City in southeast Oregon. At Twin Falls Idaho we stopped for a bite to eat and then visited Shoshone Falls Park on the Snake River. After checking into our motel in Baker City we still had time to drive into the historic downtown core where we walked around and explored many interesting historic homes and buildings. It was Independence Day, so everything was closed and it was very quiet as all the celebrations were happening on the outskirts.

Shoshone Falls in Idaho

On our way between Ogden and Baker City we took a little detour to see Shoshone Falls in Twin Falls, Idaho

Historic Buildings in downtown Baker City

We enjoyed walking around the historic downtown area in Baker City

Front facade of an old apartment building in Baker City Oregon

Front facade of an old apartment building in Baker City Oregon

Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City

The Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City

Day 19 and 20 – Baker City to Moses Lake then Home

We could have pushed through and made it home the next day but opted for one more stopover in Moses Lake midway between Spokane and Seattle. We stayed at the Best Western Plus overlooking Moses Lake. This was about a 4-hour drive from Baker City. After settling into our room, we enjoyed a swim in the outdoor pool and later walked along a path between the freeway and lakeshore to nearby Blue Heron Park. After exploring the small park and relaxing on the pier, we returned and enjoyed the sunset from our hotel room balcony.

On our final day, we did not have too long of a drive so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast that was included in our stay before heading out. We took a slightly longer route in order to drive through Leavenworth, a Bavarian-themed town that we visited the previous year. This route avoided driving through Seattle and the inherent congestion. What we did not anticipate, was traffic congestion driving into Leavenworth. It’s far more crowded in the summer than when we visited it in September. Once we got into the town we stopped for a break and a picnic lunch we had prepared before leaving Moses Lake. From there it was just a little over 4 hours drive to our home including a short lineup at the border.

Sunset over Moses Lake Washington

Watching the sunset over Moses Lake Washington from our hotel balcony on the eve of our drive home

Summary

All in all, this was a fabulous and memorable trip to parts of the USA neither of us had been to before. It was not without some hiccups along the way, some of which I have not mentioned, but overall the trip went very well. Our Toyota Prius was both reliable and frugal as it always is. Fuel cost us less than $500 for the entire trip helping to offset the cost of accommodations.

We had an ambitious agenda for three weeks but, with the exception of Arches National Park, saw all of the places we set out to. Indeed one could spend far more time, even a lifetime, exploring each of these areas, but we sure saw many incredible land formations and diverse regions in the time we had. The trip did not feel overly rushed. Having our accommodations pre-booked and carefully planning driving distances to avoid excessively long days helped a lot.

Would we do it again? We’d certainly love to see some of the places we visited again. Yellowstone and Zion National Parks were both fabulous but, personally, I would be more interested in a repeat visit to Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, and Canyonlands National Park. Also, we really enjoyed our time in Scottsdale Arizona. The resort was a great place to just relax and the desert reserves are interesting to explore. Perhaps we will do a shorter version of this trip sometime in the future, but other trips including another road trip across Canada are higher on our bucket list for now. In any case, if you have not dedicated a vacation to visiting some of these incredible national parks, I would highly recommend it.

July 19, 2019 / by / in
Ten Reasons You Should Choose a Small Town for Your Next Vacation

We are sharing this infographic that embraces our belief that small town vacations can rival visiting a big city in terms of fun, entertainment, and most certainly relaxation. Scroll down for an accessible text version.

infographic-Reasons to Choose a Small Town for Your Next Vacation

Content Provided By Red River Real Estate

Text Version

Getting Big Time Fun Out of Your Small Town Vacation

Small towns offer numerous opportunities for fun and relaxation for your next vacation. Here are some ideas to help you plan a trip off the beaten path.

  1. Local Festivals:  There’s a good chance that the community you’ll visit has some type of seasonal event. Do research and find out if your vacation lines up with a summer concert series or a winter carnival.
  2. Antique Shopping:  Many small towns feature a plethora of resale and consignment stores filled with unique and quirky items you’re not likely to see anywhere else. This makes your trip an opportunity to find the vintage coffee table are rare collectible you’ve been seeking.
  3. Picnic in the Park: One of the great joys of the quiet countryside is that there’s plenty of room for everyone to savor the space. You can take advantage of this by planning a picnic lunch for your family in a park or forest preserve.
  4. Walking Tours: There’s no better way to experience the history and color of a city than taking a walking tour. A lot of historical societies offer guided explorations that can give you a greater appreciation of the area’s heritage.
  5. Enjoy Live Music: You  Don’t have to be in a massive civic center to attend a concert. It’s easy to find venues in the area that feature live music, whether it’s a bar or gazebo in the town center.
  6. Sample the Cuisine: Smaller communities are more likely to have diners and restaurants that are locally owned, meaning you won’t find the same chain eateries in countless places. This gives you the chance to try something different and perhaps discover a new favorite.
  7. The Great Outdoors: If  you’re interested in hiking, kayaking or another outdoorsy activity, you’re sure to find plenty of opportunities off the beaten path.
  8. Discover Museums: Local museums and history societies feature in abundance of fascinating exhibits detailing the history and culture of the area this can be an enlightening way to spend an afternoon.
  9. Experience Horseback Riding: One common activity not often found in large cities is horseback riding through the countryside. Find a ranch in the area that offers it and you’ll have an experience your family won’t soon forget.
  10. Scavenger Hunts: Create a list of sights, sounds and souvenirs and have your family members race to locate as many as they can. Having everyone take photos of items on their phones as a fun modern twist on this idea.
  11. Do Your Research: Before traveling to an unfamiliar community, look up spots of interest on the internet. There are websites dedicated to cataloging unusual and little-known places all over the country.
March 22, 2019 / by / in
Exploring 16 Small Towns along the Oregon Coast

Route 101 along Oregon Coast is a spectacular route that one can never grow weary of driving. So many spectacular vistas unfold as you make your way us the coastal highway, that you will find yourself stopping over and over taking it all in.

The entire route from Cresent City (which is in Northern California, just south of Oregon) all the way to Astoria can be driven in about 8 hours without stopping.

This makes it a doable day trip, but, with only enough time to jump out of the car for a few minutes at some of the more spectacular viewpoints along the way.

The problem is, many people do make it a day trip (guilty more than once), but, in so doing, they miss the opportunity to really experience the many charming small towns along the way.

I suggest allowing 2 or 3 days, even longer to really enjoy this wonderful road trip.

Below are my picks for the best towns to spend extra time exploring as you drive the Oregon Coast.

1. Brookings

We’ll start off in southern Oregon where the first town you come to is Brookings. This small town of about 6400 residents will not disappoint. One benefit of being located farther south on the Oregon Coast is a milder climate.

The main part of the town sits on the north side where the Chetco River completes its journey to the Pacific Ocean.

If you start your in the south, this will be your first introduction to the rugged Oregon coast. Be sure to check out Chetco Point, Harris Beach State Park and Azalea State Park. The downtown area is easy to walk.

2. Gold Beach

About 30 miles up the coast is Gold Beach. As the name suggests, the beach and ocean are truly spectacular. Like Brookings and several other small towns along the Oregon Coast, Gold Beach sits at the mouth of a river – in this case, the Rogue River.

Popular activities reflect the Ocean and River environment and include beach combing, tide pooling, boat tours and fishing. The town also has a nearby golf course and a museum.

3. Port Orford

Port Orford definitely has some history behind it. It’s not only the oldest town on Oregon’s coast, it is also the most westerly town of all the 48 lower states.

This is not a town where you will find shopping malls or fast food outlets, not surprising considering it is home to just over 1100 residents. What you will find are locally owned restaurants, art galleries and gift shops.

A multitude ofB&Bs, RV Parks, camping and motels to cover any accommodation needs.

4. Bandon

This little city of a little over 3100 was incorporated all the way back in 1891. There’s plenty to explore here including the the historic old town, the famous ocean beaches and sand dunes, and the world class West Coast Game Park Safari which is just 7 miles south of the city.

The Old Town is a great place to stroll and explore art galleries and boutique shops. It is also a great place to enjoy a quick bite or fine dining. Of course fresh seafood is a staple.

5. Coos Bay / North Bend

These are actually two towns, but they are only separated by a small body of water and a bridge. Coos Bay is to the south and North Bend is where its name suggests. The historic McCullough Memorial Bridge stretches 1708 feet as it crosses high about Coos Bay into North Bend. It was quite an engineering feat when it was completed in 1936. The combined population is nearly 25,000, so you will actually find plenty of amenities, shopping and dining in the area including the largest indoor shopping mall on the coast.

These towns are actually separated from the ocean by a long sandy spit. The area of sand dunes along the coast extends north about 50 miles to Florence and includes Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area by the very small town of Winchester Bay.

Renting dune buggies and exploring the dunes is a real blast.

6. Florence

Located roughly midway along the Oregon Coast on the outflow of the Siuslaw River, Florence is a small town of about 6200 residents. You can take a step back in time with a visit to the historic Old Town next to the river. The older colorful clapboard buildings house art galleries, boutique shops and quaint restaurants.

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is just to the south.

You must not miss visiting the Heceta Head Lighthouse 12 miles north of the city. This is considered one of the most striking lighthouses, not only on the Oregon Coast, but anywhere in the world. It is also open to visitors. Farther north you can checkout the world famous Sea Lion Caves. They are a must-see during a visit to the Oregon Coast.

7. Yachats

One of the nicest small towns on the Oregon Coast, Yachats is a great place to relax and enjoy nature. The town is small enough that it is easy enough to just drive on through on the 101, but that would be a mistake.

Every day is a good day in this laid back little town. Be sure to see the red covered bridge on the river road. Visit the beach by the mouth of the river, especially during low tide. Enjoy fresh seafood at one of several little restaurants. Sample goods at the farmers market. It’s all good and the town folk are very friendly. Plenty of budget motels and camping can be found in and around town.

8. Winchester Bay

Winchester Bay is a very small town, better described as a village, located by a sheltered bay on the south bank of Umpqua River. The town itself is not right on the ocean, but if you make the wise choice to exit the highway you will discover incredible stretches of beach and the highest sand dunes in Oregon. The historic Umpqua Lighthouse and museum is a must see. Within the town you will find numerous gift shops and fabulous places to dine.

This town has plenty of options for RVs, camping and boating. Try your luck at crabbing, clamming or tidepooling. It’s great when the weather is good, but when it’s bad, there’s storm watching.

9. Waldport / Bayshore

Waldport and Bayshore straddle both sides of Alsea Bay and are joined by the striking concrete arch bridge the crosses the same. Classified as a city, Waldport is home to about 2000 residents. Like most small towns along the Oregon Coast, casting a line, lowering a crab trap or digging for clams are popular activities.

There’s also a 9 hole public golf course, nature walks and plain old relaxation.

9. Newport

With a population just over 10,000, Newport is one of the larger cities along the Oregon coast. It is the county seat for Lincoln County and boasts several interesting and educational attractions. Attractions include the Oregon Coast Aquaarium, the Hatfield Marine Science Center, Pacific Maritime Heritage Center and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse (Oregons tallest active lighthouse).

Popular areas to explore on foot are Nye Beach, an artsy area where you will find book stores, galleries, eateries and lodging, and the Historic Bayfront area, home to commercial fishing fleets, but also boutique shops galleries and restaurants. There are some great places to enjoy fresh seafood.

10. Depoe Bay

Depoe Bay is a small city of about 1400. Its claim to fame is the smallest navigable harbour in the world. Outside the small sheltered harbour is rugged rocky shoreline where you will enjoy watching the ceaseless pounding of the breaking waves. Windswept Rocky Creek State Viewpoint just south of the city and Boiler Bay State Viewpoint just north provide outstanding vantage points from which to view the crashing surf.

Immediately north of the harbour the OPRD Whale Watching Center operated by Oregon State Parks is a must see. Where the Oregon Coast Highway passes through town opposite the Bay there are a myriad of quaint shops and eateries to explore.

11. Lincoln City

Just north of Depoe Bay, Lincoln City stretches for a considerable distance along the Oregon Coast. It is an amalgamation of 5 smaller cities and communities that merged in 1965. Even so, the total population is still only about 8500 residents.

This coastal city features over 11 kilometres of sandy beach. The expansive beaches are endowed with a consistent ocean breeze making it a world famous venue for flying kites. Two kite festivals are held each year, one in June and one in October.

During the later part of June and the beginning of July, the Siletz Bay Music Festival features performances at different locations and venues throughout the city.

Overlooking the beach, Chinook Winds Casino Resort in Lincoln City boasts 24/7 Las Vegas-style casino action, along with a hotel, arcade and several restaurants.

Lincoln city is large enough to offer plenty of options for shopping, dining and accommodations.

12. Tillamook

You’ve probably heard of the famous cheese named after this town, and boy is it good. This place is worth visiting for that alone, but there’s much more to this coastal town than its renowned cheese. Take the aircraft museum for instance, where an amazing array of vintage aircraft are on display. Well worth a few hours out of your day.

13. Manzanita

Situated just north of the Nehalem River and Bay, the picturesque village of Manzanita boasts one of Oregon’s longest stretches of sandy beach. Nehalem Bay State Park is located immediately to the south and the village of Nehalem is located a couple of kilometres inland.

Manzanita is quaint, charming and beautiful. Situated on top of a cliff at the north end of the long stretch of beach the Neahkahnie Viewpoint offers spectacular views along the coast looking back towards the town. Located right on the Oregon Coast Highway, the lookout is easy to access. For even more spectacular views, try some of the hiking trails on both sides of the highway just north from the lookout.

14. Cannon Beach

Renowned for its natural beauty, Cannon Beach is a small, artsy village best known for the gigantic Haystack Rock rising 235 feet above the surf offshore from the town’s expansive sandy beach. This is possibly one of the most photographed portions of the Oregon Coast. For one of the most spectacular views on the Oregon Coast (and that is no easy feat) be sure to drive to Ecola State Park – only a 12-minute drive north of the city center.

In addition to its natural beauty, the walkable town features an abundance of art galleries, boutique shops, cafes and fine dining. Visitors also have the option to enjoy live theater performances. If you want to spend a night or two there are plenty of great accommodations to be found.

15. Seaside

Named after Seaside House, a resort build in the 1870s, the population of Seaside has grown to about 6500.

In addition to its long stretch of sandy beach, this picturesque town offers plenty to see and do. You can enjoy a round of golf at the golf course, play games at the arcade, try some taffy at the saltwater taffy shop, and explore many quaint shops and restaurants.

A 1.5-mile long promenade provides a great place to enjoy strolling along the waterfront. Located on the promenade, the Seaside Aquarium has been educating and entertaining visitors for 80 years.

Thanks to the large open beaches, Seaside hosts the world’s largest beach volleyball tournament each year in August.

16. Astoria

At mile zero on the Oregon Coast Highway, Astoria is a great place to begin or end your journey, depending on your direction of travel. Astoria is located at the mouth of the Columbia River, about 10 kilometres in from the Pacific Ocean.

Founded over 200 years ago, Astoria is rich in history and charm. Area attractions include High Life Adventures ziplining and the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

One attraction you simply don’t want to miss, is the Astoria Column. This 91 year old landmark is a 125 foot tall column that sits in the city park on top of 600 foot high Coxcomb Hill. The 164 step spiral staircase winding up the inside of the column is a bit of a workout, but the stunning view from the observation deck is absolutely worth the effort.

December 15, 2017 / by / in
Welcome to Small Town Explorer

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Welcome to SmallTownExplorer.com. This is our first post and we would like to introduce you to our site and what it is about.

Lets begin by saying I love smaller cities and towns. During our travels we have always enjoyed our stops in those little places along the way, even when our final destination is a large city. I often wonder what I’m missing out on by not visiting that town thats 20 miles off my route. Is it worth the trip?

What I’ve found lacking, is that while there are varying amounts of information to be found about the smaller cities and towns in the country, nothing is organized into a map based directory using a consistent format….

January 5, 2017 / by / in