In #20DaysToLA, Braxton and Craig visit some places I’ve never been, but I’ve been to a few they didn’t get to. Here are some of my favorite outdoor destinations that didn’t make it into the book. Note that all these locations are currently affected by COVID-19 closures, so check before you go.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is a surreal place, with Joshua trees, weird rock formations, and more climbers per square mile than any other national park. No surprise it was frequently used as a filming location by the original Star Trek. It feels alien.
In Aiming High, Flynn reminisces about his first climbing trip there.
One of his friends made a vegetarian Thanksgiving feast over a two-burner gas stove, and they ate by headlamp, a fire crackling in front of them and the sky overhead teeming with stars—more stars than Flynn had known existed, as though he’d landed on an entirely different planet.
Someone handed him a beer, and he had a few swallows. Then someone passed him a joint, and he took a few hits off that too, until the buzz and the stars and the laughter got to be too much. He wandered away from the fire, turning off his headlamp to let the moon guide him until he reached an outcrop of rock, full of shadowed nooks and crevices, just begging to be explored. He laid himself out on the ground below it, stared up at that star-filled sky, and knew he was home.
This was very much my experience (write what you know FTW!). J-Tree, as climbers call it, was also one of my first outdoor climbing trips and it occurred over Thanksgiving break. One of my friends made us a vegetarian feast, and after dinner I wandered away from the campfire to take a moment of private connection, just like Flynn. But you don’t have to be a rock climber to appreciate this beautiful desert landscape.
Yellowstone National Park
In #20DaysToLA, Braxton and Craig try to convince some bison along the side of the road in North Dakota to come closer—without success.
If you want to see bison, Yellowstone National Park is the place to do it. In fact, you’ll see so many bison, aka buffaloes, you might get tired of them. They have a tendency to walk right in the middle of the road, further slowing traffic that’s already hideously congested. Still, they really are magnificent (and big). Just don’t get out of the car to try to touch one. People die that way.
The other thing they have a lot of in Yellowstone is bacteria mats, which is the technical term for a big, stinky, weirdly colored field of mud. There’s a lot of freaky stuff going on beneath the surface of Yellowstone, and it bubbles out of these mats as well as spurting out of the geysers the park is best known for. You have to have some patience to see a geyser. Old Faithful can be counted on to erupt on schedule, but most of them are a gamble—hang out and hope. It makes the occasional payoff all the more rewarding.
Yosemite vs. Yellowstone. Even I get the names confused. Yellowstone is in Wyoming, and there’s no climbing there. Yosemite is in California and is home to some of the most magnificent rock on earth, including the famous El Capitan which was recently featured in the documentary The Dawn Wall and which Flynn and Spencer are on at the end of Aiming High.
There are two questions people commonly ask me when they find out I’m a rock climber:
1) Have you ever fallen? The answer to that is yes. Climbers fall all the time. That’s why we have ropes.
2) Have you ever climbed El Cap? The answer to that is also yes. Sort of. El Cap is huge, and there are many, many ways to get to the top. There are also climbs you can do that only go partway up. I’ve done one of those climbs. So it would be more correct to say that I’ve climbed on El Cap.
If you’re hoping for a bear encounter—like Braxton sort of is and sort of isn’t in #20DaysToLA—you can’t do better than Tuolumne Meadows, the higher altitude section of the park. Pitch your tent there, and you’ll be surrounded by them, but don’t worry—they only want your Doritos.
You’ve seen pictures of this slot canyon, though you may not know it by name. Antelope Canyon is a narrow, winding hallway of stone, several stories high. You climb down ladders into the bottom of it and walk on sand that could’ve come from a beach in the Bahamas while the light turns the rock above you red and orange and purple.
If you’re doing the southwest canyon tour, schedule a trip to Antelope Canyon. It’s between Bryce and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, not far out of the way at all, but you do need to schedule your visit, because you can only explore Antelope Canyon on a tour, and tours sell out early.
The farther ahead you plan, the better a time slot you can get so the canyon will have maximum light filtering down into it. We went at a non-optimal time, but it was still magnificent. The tours are operated by the tribe that owns the land, and we were treated to a traditional dance while we waited for ours.
I was born in the Seattle area and have traveled back there regularly throughout my life, which means the sight of Mount Rainier looming unexpectedly large on the horizon is a familiar one, though it never gets old. I’ve only made it to the park itself twice—once as a teenager, when I was unimpressed, and once as an adult, when I had more appreciation.
I’ve got friends who’ve climbed Mt. Rainier, which is a multi-day journey requiring mountaineering skills, but I’ve only hiked around the more accessible spots. A few hours of hiking will get you up to snow, even in the summer, and the meadows around the base are gorgeous when the wildflowers are out. FYI, if you’re ever trying to figure out how to spell Rainier, it’s spelled like rain-i-er, because it is.
In #20DaysToLA, Braxton and Craig buy a U.S. Park Pass, which gets you into any national park, monument, or conservation area for a year. When my partner and I recently made a tour of the southwest, we bought one, and it easily paid for itself (note that Antelope Canyon isn’t part of the U.S. park system, though it’s unquestionably worth the money). If you’re planning a road trip, definitely consider picking up one of these passes at the first ranger station you hit.