Road Tripping The West: Travels Through Time – Western North America

Road Tripping The West: Travels Through Time

Western North America

In comparison with the grand castles of Europe and the brownstones of the east coast, the west coast of North America could be said to lack a little in historical appeal. That’s the appeal, right, that it’s fresh and brassy? Well, yes, but it’s also surprisingly easy to follow a road-trip route that focuses on history (even if it’s not always the history of the place you’re visiting). The stops on this trip cover more than two thousand miles and just as much in years, ranging from a look at the west pre-colonization through to a history of the future.

The route begins in British Columbia, heads south through Washington, Oregon and northern California before swinging east into Nevada, Arizona and southern Colorado.

Count on ten days at a minimum to cover this route, two more of straight driving to return to the start of the loop. Two weeks would help do many of these stops more justice. Remember that there are some long stretches of road out here, so butts will be stuck to car seats a lot. Time to break out those west-themed mix tapes: “California Dreamin”,” “Hotel California,” “Route 66″…

The Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC is within walking distance of other popular tourist stops like The Empress Hotel and the Parliament Buildings. Here you can get an overview of history in the Pacific Northwest. The first exhibits deal with natural history, the way the land was before man, featuring dioramas of various environments (forests, swamps, seashores). These aren’t schoolkid box dioramas, but life-size replicas, so you walk through what looks like a living, breathing forest and see a grizzly bear fishing in the stream. The museum’s most popular exhibit is the huge replica of a wooly mammoth.

Cost: The museum costs $12.50 for an adult.
Accommodation: If you feel like a (very big) splurge, book a night at the beautiful Empress Hotel. If you don’t have $600 to spare, have afternoon tea at the Empress and stay at Ocean Island Backpackers instead, where you can get a double for as low as $28 a night.

Drive out of Victoria on Hwy 17 to the BC Ferries terminal in Schwartz Bay to cross to Vancouver. Fantastic views of the islands of Active Pass are worth the $50 it will cost two people and a car to get onboard. (There’s no other way to get a car across the water, anyways).
Time: 3 hrs

A carved figure welcomes visitors to Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology
A carved figure welcomes visitors to Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology
Once across the water, drive from Tsawwassen to Vancouver (Hwy 17 joins Hwy 99 going north; after crossing the Fraser River, head west on Marine Drive, which goes all the way to the UBC campus; about 45 minutes). The Museum of Anthropology is located on the University of British Columbia campus, at the western end, near the ocean. The bulk of the exhibits are given over to artifacts from the British Columbian First Nations people, giving you a sense of history before European colonization. Totem poles, masks, and a longhouse convey a sense of dignified mystery; the huge windows here break any associations you might have between the words “museum,” and “stuffy.”

Cost: The museum costs $9.00.
Accommodation: In summer, the beautiful HI hostel at Jericho Beach is open and within walking distance of the UBC campus.
Other Stops: If the museum in Victoria hasn’t exhausted your patience with places that recreate the past, Storyeum in Vancouver and Burnaby Village Museum, just east of the city on Hwy 99, both traffic in recreating the area’s past, with actors in full costume.

Head south of Vancouver back along Hwy 99, which takes you to the Peace Arch border crossing into the USA. After crossing you’ll hit the I-5, which is the major road for most of the coastal route of this trip; after about three hours you’ll land in Seattle, Washington.

While the city has a lot of historical attractions one of the best things to do here is explore the history of the future at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

This monument to pop culture will appeal to anyone who grew up loving Star Trek, ET, Jurassic Park or Star Wars, with exhibits like Captain Kirk’s chair from the original Star Trek series (you won’t believe how fake the science gadgetry looks up close – “computer panels” from Star Trek look like wooden boards with marbles glued to them). The piece de resistance is the alien from Alien, looming over a “cargo bay” filled with other movie critters. For a family road trip, this is a kid-friendly stop, filled with flashing lights, computer touch screens and shiny robots.

Cost: $12.95 for entry to the Science Fiction Museum
only; $26.95 for a combo ticket for the SFM and the Experience Museum Project, which is housed in the same undulating, colorful building. Both at once is a good deal as the EMP ticket alone costs $19.95.
Accommodation: Seattle’s HI hostel has a fantastic location, right on the edge of Pike Place Market, with a water view from the expansive lounge.
Other Stops: Other sites of historical interest in Seattle include the world’s first Starbucks, just across the street from Pike Place Market, and Klondike Gold Rush National Park, one of the few indoor national parks in the country and the place to learn about the gold rush and the men who rushed.

Rejoin the I-5 heading south from Seattle; four hours of driving gets you to Portland, where a turn to the southeast on Hwy 213 brings you to Oregon City, where your dose of western pioneer history awaits at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (yup, more guides in costume). For fans of the computer game “Oregon Trail,” come to reminisce about the time your digital pioneer’s wagon made it all the way down the trail. Or come to see the big wagons and information about the journey that pioneers endured to cross the continent.

Cost: $7.00 to enter the interpretive center.
Accommodation: Portland is the area’s major hub; try the Hawthorne Hostel.

The next stop on this historical road trip takes you back to Olde Englande, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. From Portland, the I-5 takes you the whole way in about five hours. The festival doesn’t just run Shakespeare shows any more, offering more modern theatre as well, but the main focus in town is still on the Bard. A sampling of 2006’s offerings: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Diary of Anne Frank, and A Winter’s Tale.

You can visit anytime between February and October to see a play, but at the height of summer the whole town is filled with theatre and dancing and the cafes are packed with actors barely out of makeup. The warmer months are also the best time to take in a show in the wonderful Elizabethan theatre, an outdoor stage that mimics what theatergoers in Shakespeare’s time would have seen; fortunately, unlike poor fans in Elizabethan England, you won’t have to stand to watch the show.

Cheaper than the shows and just as entertaining is the backstage tour, where an actor from the festival troupe will lead you backstage at a number of the theatres, showing the inner workings of a multi-show festival. A highlight is watching the crew completely remove one elaborate set from the stage and replace it with another.

Cost: Festival tickets are available online. Tickets prices change depending on seating and season, but range from about $30 to $65 a seat. It’s $11 for the backstage tour.
Accommodation: During summer, it’s a good idea to book ahead, as town accommodations often sell out in advance. Chain hotels, like the Best Western and the Windmill Inn on the outskirts of town, run festival shuttles that take you to and from your show.

Head south from Ashland on the I-5 through the mountains of northern California until you hit the I-505, which connects up with the I-80 to bring you into the San Francisco Bay area. San Francisco is one of the most interesting cities for exploring West Coast history in; between earthquakes and its foundations in the Gold Rush, the city’s earlier days were fascinating ones.

Ride one of the cable to the top of Nob Hill to see the neighbourhood where the city’s rich and famous built in the late 1800s. In North Beach visit City Lights Bookstore for a trip to Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation. Haight-Ashbury is the place to revel in the city’s hippie heritage; Flower Power Tours run amusing “hippie tours” that take visitors to all the counter-culture hotspots (those that remain, at least, as the area is fairly gentrified). A ferry trip to Alcatraz to explore the history of the infamous prison is a must.

Cost: San Francisco is an expensive city; wallet-watchers may want to spin through as many of the city’s sites as possible in a day and then move on.
Accommodation: From personal experience – a $200 a night hotel forced me to regularly plunge my own toilet, while $25 a night at a hostel in a great mid-town location gave free tickets to nightly entertainment, all with working plumbing – it seems that San Francisco is definitely a good city for hostellers. The HI hostel in the downtown core is good, many rooms coming with private bathrooms; there’s another HI hostel on the waterfront, which is a little more secluded.

One of Hearst Castle's opulent pools
One of Hearst Castle’s opulent pools
From San Francisco, follow Highway 1 as it hugs the coast; Big Sur’s twisting cliff-edge route will be harrowing for anyone taught to drive in the Midwest, so take it slow. Hearst Castle is just outside San Simeon; park at the visitor centre and go inside to pay for one of four tours of the castle, which is a fascinating look at the lifestyle of the rich and famous. William Randolph Hearst’s mansion is an ode to indulgence, with its European architecture, stupendous pools (the indoor one has gold leaf on the tiles), in-house movie theatre and abundance of foreign statuary, tapestry and art. Tours focus on different elements of the castle; tour #1 is the best introduction to the site if you’ve never been before.

Cost: Tours of Hearst Castle cost $20 per person.
Accommodation: Sadly those guest houses at Hearst Castle aren’t taking guests anymore; you’ll have to put up with something a little less decadent, probably a motel in San Simeon; prices as low as $35 a night.

Turning east to cross California’s interior deserts makes for a full day of driving, and you may want to break it up with a stop somewhere along the way. Driving directions from Hearst definitely rate as the most confusing on this otherwise straightforward itinerary: just south of San Simeon, turn east on Hwy 46, which jogs up through Paso Robles and then continues east, crossing the I-5 before joining Hwy 99, which goes to Barstow. Now swing north on the I-15, which leads across the state boundary and up to Las Vegas – a fantastic place to find both world history and a buffet lunch. The cash in your wallet may also be history after a visit to Vegas.

For inspiration, the casinos in Vegas have mined the world’s history and great cities and produced some spectacular imitations. At Paris, you can see the Eiffel Tour, Arc de Triomphe and the Paris Opera House, all without leaving American soil. At the Venetian, try out a gondola road on the indoor canals before heading to Caesar’s Palace for a look at a recreation of the Roman forum. The sky here changes from day to night if you stay long enough, while at the Aladdin, a storm whips through the faux-Arabian harbour.

Cost: As much or as little as you want. If you don’t gamble (much), don’t shop, and just tour the casinos to enjoy the spectacles, Las Vegas can be very good value. If you want to dine out, ride rollercoasters, try poker and indulge in retail therapy, not so much.
Accommodation: Las Vegas is one of the few places where you may get a better deal by staying right in town, rather than on the outskirts; it’s also a place where it pays to do some research. While rooms on the top floor of the Bellagio are going to put you back a pretty penny, plenty of the cheesier casinos (the Excalibur, for example) have good room deals; $70 for a double right on the Strip is cheaper than a motel or, split between two, almost as good as a hostel price.

The drive east from Nevada across Arizona has some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, including the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. On the road between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, you’ve got a chance to indulge in some road trip history. After taking the 93 out of Las Vegas, head for Kingman, Arizona, where you can turn off onto the longest remaining stretch of good ol’ Route 66. Armed with a CD of classic Route 66 songs (it’s surprising how many versions of the “getting my kicks” song there are out there; what’s less surprising is how fast it’ll drive everyone in the car nuts), drive the winding, dusty route to Seligman, Arizona, where the road joins up with the I-40. Kingman’s got a Route 66 museum, too. Don’t expect the road to really give you much in the way of kicks; the most entertaining thing about it is the overabundance of Route 66-themed hotels and motels in the towns, all with a run-down, old-fashioned charm. Drive it not for the sites, but to say you’ve done so; it’s not much longer than sticking to the interstate.

Cost: Free to drive; $3 for the museum in Kingman.
Accommodation: Any of the Route 66 motels will put you up cheap, but don’t bother. You can drive Las Vegas – Grand Canyon in a day and stay somewhere with a spectacular view instead.

After taking in the Grand Canyon, head out for the final two stops on this whirlwind historical tour. Hwy 64 out of Grand Canyon Village intercepts Hwy 89 (turn left), then right onto Hwy 160, which will take you northeast towards the “Four Corners,” the border where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Mexico all meet. The only town of major note along the way is Kayenta, where the road passes through the startling spires and buttes of Monument Valley. It’s also the perfect place to combine a fast-food pit stop with a little bit of World War II history. Kayenta’s Burger King, right on the main road, is home to a “museum” of sorts – really just a glassed-in exhibit, but the information it provides is fairly thorough – on the Navajo Code Talkers (subject of the Nicolas Cage film Windtalkers). These Navajo men shipped out during World War II and were asked to use their native tongue, already considered tough to learn, to create an “unbreakable” code for use in the war. They did, and their efforts helped keep communications in the war safe from enemy codebreakers.

Cost: Free to look at the exhibit or use the washroom; about $5 if you’re looking to have a burger, too.
Accommodation: Don’t stop here, but continue on to Mesa Verde.

Keep going on Hwy 160, which passes “the Four Corners.” It’s $3 per person to stand on the stone slab that marks this border; all you get for that is an opportunity to queue up to take a picture of yourself bending over backwards to get a limb in each state, but it’s one of those “now I can say I’ve done it” stops that’s hard to resist. Hwy 160 continues on into Colorado; bear right after Cortez and you come to the turnoff for Mesa Verde, home to a mysterious past. The road up onto the mesa switchbacks wildly for miles through the charred remains of recent forest fires.

Mesa Verde's Cliff Palace
Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace
Mesa Verde is the best-known and most accessible of the ruins spread through the southwest, but canyons and cliffs throughout Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado have crumbling cliff-dwellings, too. For a while – at least when I was growing up, and was first awed by a picture of Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace in National Geographic – the people who created these mysterious cities and fortresses hunkering almost inaccessibly under cliff ledges were known as the “Anasazi.” Rangers leading the tours at Mesa Verde will call them “Ancestral Puebloan” instead; Anasazi is a Navajo word with a connotation of “enemy,” and the descendants of these cliff-dwellers, such as the Hopi Indians, prefer a name with less enmity.

Spruce Tree House is the easiest of the cliff-dwellings to visit; it’s a short walk down from the Chapin Mesa Museum, and you don’t need to be on a ranger-led tour to visit. There’s also a good hike on the Petroglyph Point Trail from here. As the name suggests, you’ll see petroglyphs.

Cliff Palace is the grandest of Mesa Verde’s ruins. It’s thought to have once housed more than 250 people in the multi-story stone dwellings. A ranger leads groups down steep stairs and ladders before entering the site; the tours are carefully timed, so you won’t have much time to linger before having to make the strenuous trek back up. To visit you have to pick up a tour ticket ($2 per person) at the Far View Visitors Centre, which you pass on the way to the ruins; you also need tickets for the tour of Balcony House, which is accessed by a 30-foot ladder and a series of tunnels. The rangers make a point of calling the tunnels “claustrophobically tight” and the ladders “vertiginous;” unless you suffer from a severely crippling fear of heights, you can safely ignore the warnings.

Cost: $10 per car to enter the park; $2 per person for each guided tour.
Accommodation: There is accommodation in nearby towns, but it’s more fun to stay on the mesa top; the Far View Lodge has rooms for as low as $95 and they aren’t kidding about that far view. Budget-watchers can try the Morefield Campground, at the base of the mesa, for $18 for a site, open May-October.

While most of the sights along this route aren’t as old as the ruins in Europe, hopefully road-trippers will get a sense of the amazing variety of the west, both in the past and present. To return to the start of the trip without retracing the coastal route, cut northwest across Utah and Washington on the I-84. This drive takes you through a variety of scenery, from red rock formations in Utah to dense coniferous forest in Washington; count on another two days of driving to complete the loop.