Travel / USA

Back in Time: Dinosaurs, Geology, and Ancient Cultures of the American West

Let’s face it, America is a big place, and a cross-country road trip is a labor of love. We know, because we just finished a month-long camping trip from our home in Lexington, Kentucky to Colorado, New Mexico, Utah … and a few places in between. But honestly, it was worth every one of the 6,000 miles we drove.

We took the opportunity to re-visit favorite places, like Arches National Park, Santa Fe, and Taos, along with a few new sights like Mesa Verde, Bandelier, and Dinosaur National Monument.

A bucket-list visit to the K-T Boundary (you’ll hear much more about this later) in southern Colorado as well as near-constant views of colorful and complex rock formations reminded me why I love geology. And mysterious cliff dwellings and petroglyphs piqued both our interests in the cultural anthropology of the Ancient Cultures of the Southwest.

The National Parks of the American West are a true national treasure, and many of the sights are unique, in both the US as well as the world. In the coming weeks we’ll be sharing some of our experiences from our trip, and hope you’ll join us on the long road west.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Photo Credit: 3. xandert  

44 thoughts on “Back in Time: Dinosaurs, Geology, and Ancient Cultures of the American West

  1. I’m very interested in hearing about Taos. We have a cabin in Red River, NM so we go there often but I only know to go to the little square. Why else is there to do in Taos?

    • Alison, we were camped in the mountains outside Santa Fe, so Taos was a day trip for us, and much of our day was spent on the High Road/Low Road drive between Taos and Santa Fe. If you haven’t done this, it’s a destination in itself and is worth the trip. In Toas, we wandered the sqare and had lunch at a nice Mexican Grill, and mostly drove around town. We ran short of time, so while I can’t make specific recommendations for Taos, I have a couple of other ideas that take a bit of driving.

      1. The Santuario de Chimayo on the High Rd south of Taos. Its a pilgrmimage site and a wonderful place to wander. (And supposedly has healing powers.)

      2. You live near Trinidad, Colorada, which is the perfect place to see the K-T boundary, which is the rock formation which has evidence of the meterorite that killed off the dinosaurs. We will be doing a couple of posts on this, so watch this space. ~James

      • For Taos, besides the shops, galleries and plaza, there is the Taos Pueblo outside of town, Mabel Dodge house, Millicent Rogers Museum, a trip out to the Rio Grande gorge bridge and Earth Ship, the D. H. Lawrence Ranch (a bit north), and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. You will need to Google these places for hours or availability.

      • Thanks for the informative comment and for dropping by the blog. As I said, we ran short of time, and weren’t able to spend as much time in Taos as we wanted, but this info will help on the next trip, as well as give Alison some ideas. We were on the road a month and still didn’t get to see everything we wanted, so we’ll definitely be going again. The West is a big place. Thanks again. ~James

    • Isn’t this wonderful! The second I saw it, I said: “I want one!” This beauty was on a small gazebo outside the city of Vernal, Utah, which advertises itself as the “Dinosaur Capital of the World.” ~James

  2. What fun! Sometimes we run away to far off places & neglect to explore our own countries & all that they offer. I have a few provinces to still tick off my list as a Canadian but I am determined to visit them all!

    • Lynn, we’ve had a few reasons to not stray too far from home, so this trip out west was perfect. In fact, it had been on our list for years. And even though we travel abroad quite a lot, we’re also big believers in looking “in our own back yard.” As I said in the post, many of the sights in the Western US (and in Canada as well) are unique in the world, and as travelers … and North Americans, we owe it to ourselves to check them out. And FYI, we’ll be posting on dinosaur fossil sites in Utah and Colorado, and I understand there are some dandy places in Alberta and Sasketchewan to visit as well. ~James

  3. Can’t wait to hear more about Utah,that is one of the states we have not seen,was going to go back but,never quite made it .I all ways wanted to see the cliff dwellings and Arches National Park.

    • Joyce, we visited Arches years ago, and honestly, it’s even more amazing than we remembered. Also, in adddition to Mesa Verde, we visited the cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Park west of Santa Fe, and we’ll be publishing a post on it as well. We’re so happy to have finally made this trip. As you know, the American West is a marvel, and everyone needs to see it. Love to you both. ~JH

    • Leslie, it goes back to, well … the beginning. The marvelous thing about the West is that both human and earth history is on full view. And as a geologist, it’s nice that all that pesky vegetation isn’t covering up the good stuff. 🙂 ~James

  4. Oh I can’t wait for your posts! We are planning a return vacation to the Southwest next year. Love geology and Petroglyphs and dinosaurs – all my favorites! That weather vane is AWESOME!

    • Pam, we had a wonderful trip and it will be cool to write a few posts about it. Isn’t that weather vane fabulous. Since you love geology, you’ll probably be interested to hear that we stopped in southern Colorado at one of the best places around to see the K-T boundary, and nerd that I am, I thought it was awesome. Of course, you’ll hear all about it here. Have you planned where you’ll be going? Maybe this series of posts will give you some ideas. ~James

      • We have two trips in mind – one to Colorado and another for Utah. Was trying to decide whether it was worth the time to make the drive to Dinosaur National Monument. For Colorado I’ve always heard about Florissant. I geek out over this stuff!

  5. Having done the transcontinental drive a couple of times and some lengthy road trips from home bases, both down South and out West, one thought keeps recurring to Florence and me: This is a really BIG country!

    It’s easy to think that the U.S., with over 330 million population, is getting crowded. Then you get out and drive for a few hours and you can’t help but think – where are all the people? There’s room for a lot of people here!

    As always, I love your photos! – Mike

    • Mike, we hadn’t spent much time in the west recently, and it’s easy to forget how few people there are in some of these areas. And until you put in some long miles out there, it’s hard to imagine what “sparsely populated” really means. We drove from Moab to Dinosaur National Monument in the north of Utah, and not only did we not see many people, it was amazing how few houses and buildings we saw. Sometimes these long, lonely distances can be intimidating, but thank goodness for cell phones. ~James

  6. There is just so much to see in the US, you can probably spend years and never see it all. I would love to explore some of the National Parks, they really are unique. Great photos, I will be looking forward to hear more from your 6,000 miles road trip.

    • Thanks Gilda. If you can’t tell by now, you certainly will by the end of this series that I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to visit the American West. As a culture we’ve certainly left a mark, but there are so many huge National Parks with millions of acres of totally unspoiled land that its possible to see how the land has looked for thousands of years. Add the history of the Native American cultures and you have the makings for a wonderful experience.

      And since you guys have so much camping experience, keep in mind that there’s an active RV rental business on the west coast, which would put many of these areas within easy reach. I hope you can make it. ~James

  7. Nothing like a road trip and this one sounds amazing. As you know, I love New Mexico and even wrote a book about it. The Taos Pueblo is something else. I look forward to seeing more posts about this trip.

    • We visited the Taos Pueblo a few years ago Darlene, and I’ve really never seen anything like it. On this trip, it was interesting to see the modern pueblo cultures scattered around the Four Corners area, which are a testament to their determination to keep them going. America is such a big place, that’s it’s easy to forget that these noble, cultural holdouts exist, and a road trip through the area is a perfect reminder. ~James

      • So true. I´ve visited many of the states (but mot all of them, yet) and always find something interesting. On the surface, the history doesn´t seem as old as that of European countries but visiting the pueblos and cave dwellings makes you realize humans have been there a long time as well.

  8. The Southwest, one of our all time favorite places to visit James and Terri. Peggy and I have been there several times over the years and will be spending another month there in October/November. I’m excited to see where you travelled and to pick up some new suggestions. For one, we’ve never been to the K-T Boundary. I will be blogging about our experience as well. It will be fun to compare notes. –Curt

    • Curt, Oct-Nov should be the perfect time to visit. We visited in June, and it was starting to get hot and crowded. As for the K-T boundary, there are a few places to see it, but we saw it at Trinidad Lake SP in SE Colorado, and I can’t imagine a better or more easily accessed place to see it. In fact, the state park trail was very pleasant, but if you looked carefully, it was visible all over the valley. Very cool. I’ll look forward to reading your account. In a few days we’re off to England for an extended train journey around the island. It should be fun. ~James

      • If we are anywhere near, we will check it out for sure, James. Peggy and I riding the train from Sacramento to Washington DC and back to visit with our kids over Christmas. I am quite excited about that. We took the train from London to Edinburgh and had a blast! –Curt

  9. Because of the travels of bloggers, I’ve been introduced to the Arches National Park and the Hoodoos. They are like magical places and high on my list to visit some day!

    • Joanne, we visited Arches and will be posting on it, so keep an eye out. We visited years ago, and it’s even more amazing than we remembered. It’s sort of in the middle of nowhere so it takes a bit of effort to get to, but it’s worth it. The town of Moab is nearby, which is very neat in a outdoorsy sort of way. Also, it’s Mecca for mountain bikers. And it will give you a chance to thaw out. It was in the upper 90s when we were there, and a few days after we left, it was 103°. Bring the sunscreen. ~James

      • The first time I ever heard of Moab was from a cyclist I used to work with. Each year he and a number of friends would trek to Moab to cycle the trails and hills.

  10. Gorgeous photos. I love all the adobe buildings in Santa Fe and your photo of the brightly painted pillars is terrific. I would love to spend more time discovering this whole region of the U.S. one day.

    The cave dwelling, the arch, the red stone… all fabulous.

    Peta

    • Thanks Peta. I also love this photo and marvel that the contrast and combination of colors works so well. What some people see as garish, others call gorgeous. I guess it takes an artist to step up and take the chance … and he nailed this one. And from the geology photos you can see why adobe is so widely used in buildings in the Southwest US. ~ James

  11. James and Terri – Oh, good, we get to travel along with you on this fun trip. I bought my Golden Age Pass as soon as I turned 62, but I must say I haven’t yet used it like I planned. That’s our next several trips…and I will take a few hints from yours, so many thanks in advance. Cheers – Susan

    • Susan, like you, we bought the Golden Age Pass as soon as we qualified, and didn’t get much use for the first couple of years. Most of our US travel was east of the Mississippi where there aren’t many National Parks. However, on this last trip out west we made up for lost time. We visited Bandelier, Mesa Verde, Arches, and Dinosaur, which each had a $25 entry fee. Also, we camped in a 3 of these four parks and the camping was half-price. So basically, we now think the park pass is the bomb. This is another case of “If I’m going to be old, I may as well reap the benefits.” So get out there and use your pass girl! 🙂 ~James

      • James (and Terri) – Yes, I have no pride when it comes to senior savings. We’ve only used the camping savings once, and the entrance fees I think three times, but I do intend to get out there this coming year. I think it encourages us all to see places we wouldn’t have seen, like the Fish and Game and US Army Corps reserves. Do you still camp with your lite=weight shell? -Susan

      • Yes Susan we still camp in our tiny popup, and love it. Towing it on a 6000 mile trip took some energy, but it only weights 650lbs so it’s no major burden. But it’s an investment in the quality of our camping life and you won’t see us sleeping on the ground again. ~James

  12. Sounds like a great road trip! We were just at Arches last week, but I’m sure you were gone by then. The American West is made for road trips, and you certainly took advantage of its offerings on this one!

    • Lexie, we visited Arches years ago, and if memory serves it was winter and cold as hell. We were there in late June this time and it was much nicer. On the first visit Moab was just a funky little town for Mt. bike hammerheads, now it’s a pretty neat place. Like many of the places we revisit, I took more time and could appreciate it much more. With all the photogenic rock formations and the colorful geology on display, I think that everyone should endeavor to see it. Of course, we’ll be doing a post on it, so watch this space. ~James

  13. It’s a long time since I visited some of the National Parks in Utah, but your photographs make me want to come for another visits. Looking forward to reading more about your trips in the US.

    Lieve

    • Lieve, given the distances and remoteness of some of the locations, visiting the National Parks is a labor of love. We’ve been out west a few times and lived on the west coast for a while, and our philosophy has always been to take advantage of being there to visit as many parks as we can. A visit takes planning, but is definitely worth the effort. I can’t imagine anyone being sorry that they made the trip. ~James

      • Indeed, James, it is easy to forget what a vast country the US is and how much beauty we can find close to home. One country I definitely need to explore properly is the UK itself… There is the whole of Scotland with its ruggedness and wild seas still to tackle. Still so much travelling to do and loving every minute of it!!

        Lieve

      • Funny you should mention that Lieve. On Monday, we leave for a one-month train trip around the UK. We lived in London for 3 years and loved taking weekend train trips. This time we have more time so we’re doing a grand circle from London, up the east coast to Scotland and then down the west coast and back to London. It should be fun. ~James

  14. Just catching up on post reading while we are motoring east. Can’t wait to read about your trip! My dad had always said “West is best!” We are heading to NH to visit with family, first time I’ve been back in the 2 1/2 years we’ve been on the road. I’ll bet you give me lots of future destinations!

    • Laura, after reading your blog and seeing where you’ve traveled I think you will get some good ideas. Once you spend the time and miles to get out west it just makes sense to see as much as you can. Also, most of these areas can be very hot or very cold, so it’s good to have Waldo to keep you protected. After reading the posts if you have any specific questions send an email. Have a great time in NH … and watch out for Dorian. ~ James

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