Sunday, April 9, 2017 | 2 a.m.
You can fly just about anywhere from Las Vegas, but spring is all about the drive.
It’s cool enough to have the windows down and the radio up, and the West’s treasures are likely to be less crowded than the far-flung beaches that define Spring Break.
So pack your boots, your bikes and boards, your camera and your favorite wine glass — it’s high season for adventuring.
THE SCENIC ROUTE TO PALM SPRINGS: THE JOURNEY IS THE DESTINATION
There’s the fast way, and then there’s the right way. Driving to sun-soaked Palm Springs shouldn’t be a mind-numbing churn down the highway when there is an entire world of small-town charm on the old road cutting straight through the Mojave National Preserve.
If you didn’t stop, the “back way” would take a little over four hours, the same as the interstate. But stopping is the point of an authentic road trip, allowing many small vacations in one. Here are six diversions worthy of the notion that getting there is half the fun.
The route: Las Vegas > Nipton > Kelso > Amboy > Twentynine Palms > Joshua Tree > Yucca Valley > Palm Springs
The reason: Scenery, scenery, scenery, and whispers of the Old West.
Tips from travelers: Veterans of the scenic route advise first-timers not to tackle the drive at night. First, they’ll miss the sights. Second, the road can get rugged. One Reddit user said: “What’s nice is stopping about halfway through the (Mojave) preserve, getting out of the car, and breathing fresh air and being engulfed in utter silence.”
NIPTON: It takes you a few miles off course, but the Nipton Trading Post is a must. Wander the grounds for artful arrangements of cactus and rock before checking out the trading post’s selection of ice-cold domestics and endearingly corny tchotchkes. (You know you need a kissing-tortoise sculpture in your life.) Sip that beer on the shaded patio, where the spring breeze and rural quiet will wrap around you like a hug.
KELSO: You thought plastic saucers were for winter, but they’re the perfect vessel for experiencing the steep carve of the Kelso Dunes. The ancient sand deposits are gorgeous (and prone to “singing” when they settle), covering 45 square miles of desert and rising to 650 feet at the tallest. In spring, cacti blossoms and other wildflowers dot the land you trudge across in pursuit of a climb that will test your legs and lungs before sending you on a fantastic slide.
AMBOY: Born of the railroad and Route 66, Amboy is a piece of California nostalgia and a frequent set in creepy films. It’s technically a ghost town, though a few people live there and keep the gas stop, curio shop and cafe buzzing. Roy Crowe, who owned the town in the 1930s, is the namesake of the restaurant, which his wife spun from his old auto-parts warehouse. Fuel up for the rest of your drive with a burger and ask the staff about the famed paranormal activity.
TWENTYNINE PALMS: Ever wondered what a true oasis looks like? The city of Twentynine Palms boasts the Oasis of Mara, a source of water for more than 9,000 years. Before there ever was a town, there was a line of palm trees offering shade and water to native tribes and parched gold prospectors. While the spring has shrunk to one remaining pool, it’s still a natural wonder in the shadow of the historic 29 Palms Inn (join a tour led by a naturalist on weekend mornings).
JOSHUA TREE: Picture 800,000 acres of arresting rock formations sprinkled in an expanse of Joshua trees that seem as numerous as the stars popping in the dark, dark night sky. Joshua Tree National Park combines the desert’s stark beauty with exceptional access to rock climbing, to the point where particular campgrounds back right up to sport routes. Climbers flock on the weekends, so get there midweek to stake your claim.
YUCCA VALLEY: While strip malls are proliferating, Yucca Valley’s Old Town has maintained the retro aesthetics and pleasures of Route 66’s heyday. Stick to that part of the city for antiques and other mom-and-pop offerings. Compared to a “low-rent Sedona or Telluride,” the city began as a pit stop for the horses and mules of pioneers. Given that it’s the gateway to Joshua Tree, it offers an outdoor-recreation smorgasbord, from off-roading to horseback riding to bird watching.
HELLO, GORGEOUS: HAVASU CANYON IS WORTH THE SWEAT
Just over four hours from Las Vegas, Havasu Canyon is an Instagram-worthy wonderland of copper cliffs, gushing cascades and swimming holes. The Havasupai tribe, whose name means “people of the blue-green water,” have lived along this tributary of the Colorado River for more than 1,000 years, and they manage visitation to the canyon, which is home to the town of Supai, a basic lodge and a rustic campground.
Reservations are tough to come by, and even if you snag one it’s still a 10-mile hike or horseback ride to reach this idyllic scene — which is a good thing. While you won’t have the place to yourself, if it were any more accessible, Havasu Creek’s five epic waterfalls would look more like a hot day at Mandalay Beach than one of the Southwest’s most stunning secrets.
DRINK IT IN: THE TASTY SURPRISE OF ARIZONA WINE COUNTRY
Grapes ... in the desert? That’s right, wine lovers. Arizona's Verde Valley has the elevation and mild climate to be much greener than you’d expect, and an ancient volcano eruption gifted alkaline subsoils the local wineries compare to France’s Southern Rhône region. In fact, the tougher growing conditions force the vines to work hard to produce, and that effort results in less plentiful but intensely flavored fruit being turned into luscious sauvignon blancs, sangioveses, viogniers, tempranillos, rich red blends and more.
The Verde Valley Wine Trail begins just 30 minutes from scenic Sedona, taking State Route 89A to Page Springs Road. It winds through the area’s signature red rocks, leapfrogging seven wineries and eight tasting rooms with memorable sips and character developed over the past decade.
What recommends the wines of the Verde Valley? A volcanic past and sediment from Verde River drainage make the soil mineralized and softly alkaline, pushing vines to produce grapes with distinctive flavor. The growing area is only 714 square miles but yields more than 100 varietals, including a rare grape called cab pfeffer. Named for the German word for “pepper,” it is spice-forward with notes of red fruit and floral complexity.
Wineries: Alcantara Vineyards, Chateau Tumbleweed, Clear Creek Vineyard, D.A. Ranch, Javelina Leap Vineyard, Oak Creek Vineyards, Page Springs Cellars
Tasting rooms: Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, Burning Tree Cellars, Cellar 433, Fire Mountain Wines, Passion Cellars, Pillsbury Wine Company, Southwest Wine Center’s, Teaching Winery, Winery 101
Other Arizona wine regions: Sonoita is the state’s only official American Viticultural Area, established in the 1970s and known for grapes echoing those from France’s Burgundy region. Willcox produces a wide spectrum of fruit used by wineries across the state, grown in soil resembling the Rhône Valley in France and Mendoza, Argentina.
CRYSTAL COVE STATE PARK: A BEACH FOR ALL SEASONS
Beaches are the Spring Break standard for a reason. What better way to escape school, work and the urban crush than on velvet sand kissed by the bluest waves? Crystal Cove has 3.2 picturesque miles of beach, and it’s a straight shot down I-15.
From that beach you can swim, spearfish, kayak, surf the breaks, explore tide pools and even scuba dive in three sites and a 1,100-acre underwater park. Sharks, eels and schools of damselfish dart through a billowing forest of kelp and submerged history, including the ghostly body of a World War II F4U Corsair aircraft.
When you’re back on the sand, be mindful that native rattlesnakes might make a rare appearance. Park officials emphasize that they won’t bite unless “threatened, disturbed or cornered.” (In other words, no selfies.)
The Southern California state park also boasts 2,400 acres of hike-able, camp-able wilderness, as long as you’re willing to share the views with deer, bobcats and birds. There are four loop trails offering four levels of difficulty, but the strenuous 9-miler around the park’s perimeter is the best way to take in the backcountry.
Day use: $15 per vehicle
Must-do list: Crystal Cove is home to a federally listed Historic District — 46 vintage cottages built as a seaside colony in the 1930s and ’40s, 21 available for overnight rental and one that houses the Beachcomber Café. Try the Tunisian pizza, beignets and award-winning Bloody Mary. If you’re traveling with kids, the park’s Environmental Study Loop is a fun way to teach them about the ecosystem and the area’s history. If you happen to visit on Earth Day, April 22, you can join a beautification effort from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with activities ranging from beach cleanup to planting and painting educational banners.
ZION CALLING: THE COLOSSAL NATIONAL PARK THREE WAYS
Named for the biblical holy land, Utah’s Zion National Park has its own fierce spirit that reverberates from the hanging gardens, cozy canyons and 2,000-foot cliffs. It’s also less than three hours from Las Vegas, an all-natural playground hanging out in Southern Nevada’s backyard.
FOR RUGGED TYPES Zion’s basically an adventure buffet. Eat up.
On the way: Valley of Fire State Park, where Aztec sandstone forms a crimson landscape of arches and waves and ancient petroglyphs date back 2,000 years.
To-do list: Scale towering rock walls like Moonlight Buttress and Prodigal Sun, or swim, rappel and hike through the tubular Subway. Not into ropes? Follow the trail to lofty Angel’s Landing, wade through the mystical Narrows or ditch the beaten path for a trek to Observation Point.
Where to stay: Join the masses at Watchman (reservations recommended) or South campgrounds. What they lack in privacy, they make up for in access to Springdale’s amenities and the free Zion shuttle that transports visitors along the scenic drive to the Temple of Sinawava.
Insider tip: A day of calorie-torching activity deserves a full-strength beer. But this is Utah, so BYO or hit Switchback liquor store to stock up.
Next stop: Bryce Canyon National Park, to admire the towering “hoodoo” spires and revel in some of America’s darkest night skies.
FOR FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN Children thrive outside, and adults thrive when their kids are distracted.
On the way: Catch a show like Disney’s “Newsies” at the outdoor Tuacahn Amphitheater in Ivins, Utah, surrounded by red rock cliffs.
To-do list: Little ones should join the Junior Rangers program, while older kids can explore the Narrows. When you’re ready for a next-level adventure, book a canyoneering trip with Zion Rock & Mountain Guides, then grab some inner tubes for a low-key float down the Virgin River.
Where to stay: Zion Ponderosa Ranch, east of the park, is like summer camp for the whole family. Sleep in a cabin or Conestoga wagon, eat at the onsite restaurant and spend a day splashing in the pool, horseback riding, playing mini-golf or trying to summit the climbing wall.
Insider tip: When the crew gets cranky, bribe them with ice cream from the Springdale Candy Co.
Next stop: Cuteness overload aka Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. This refuge houses 1,600 dogs, cats, horses, pigs, bunnies and parrots. Register for a tour online and practice telling the kids they can’t take home Pickles, the pot-bellied pig.
FOR RELAXATION SEEKERS Not much for roughing it? Not a problem. Explore Zion by day, then spoil yourself at a gorgeous lodge.
On the way: Golfers should pull off in Mesquite, where desert courses like Wolf Creek are set among spectacular rock formations.
To-do list: Escape the crowds by sticking to the east side of the park, full of unmarked canyons and trails (and bighorn sheep). Next, choose your own adventure: fly fishing, mountain biking or horseback riding in the mountains just outside Zion.
Where to stay: Zion Mountain Ranch, where log cabins come with amenities like jetted tubs, and the restaurant pulls from the organic gardens. The ranch’s star attraction is its year-round residents — horses, goats and a herd of bison that call the property home.
Insider tip: Time your trip to coincide with Cedar City’s annual Shakespeare Festival and get your Bard on.
Next stop: Brian Head for blessedly uncrowded slopes in winter or summer fun like downhill biking and zip lining.
MENACE AND MAGIC: YOUR YEAR-ROUND CHECKLIST FOR DEATH VALLEY
Death Valley sounds ominous, and for good reason. Straddling the border of Nevada and California, the national park is a punishing landscape of extremes. But the same things that make it dangerous are part of its appeal: blistering heat and a vast, unadulterated desert that’s like stepping onto another planet.
Plan your trip well, and you’ll find a lovely, lively place that changes dramatically throughout the year. What to do depends on when you visit, so choose your season, then start checking off these one-of-a-kind highlights.
• Frolic through fields of wildflowers that erupt after winter rains. When conditions are right, Death Valley hosts a super bloom that blankets the land in colorful blossoms.
• Spot the rare pupfish, endemic to Death Valley, during breeding season at Salt Creek.
• Hike to spring-fed Darwin Falls in the Panamint Springs Area, where an all-season waterfall forms an oasis in the desert.
• Book a full-moon horseback ride with Furnace Creek Stables and experience the valley bathed in celestial light.
• Seek higher ground. When the lowlands are scorching, head for the Panamint Mountains and hike past juniper forest or ancient bristlecone pines on the way to Telescope or Wildrose peaks.
• Watch the sun rise over Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point or the dunes.
• Take refuge at the luxurious Inn at Furnace Creek, a historic, castle-like hotel with panoramic views and a spring-fed pool.
• Look up. The Perseids Meteor Shower will put on a spectacular show Aug. 12-13, and a partial solar eclipse will be visible in Death Valley on Aug. 21.
• Romp across the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, rolling hills of silica where you’ll feel like you’re playing in a giant’s sand box.
• Explore the alien expanse of Badwater Basin’s salt flats, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
• Hit nearby Tecopa, California, to soak in mineral-rich hot springs, then stroll the Old Spanish Trail and stop at China Ranch Date Farm for fresh date shakes.
• Wander the ruins of Rhyolite, a mining boom town gone bust that boasted a stock exchange and red-light district then was abandoned within 12 years. Don’t miss the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an “art situation” of large-scale sculptures in the middle of nowhere.
• Visit between Thanksgiving and Christmas to commune with the salt flats and sand dunes sans crowds.
• Listen to the symphony of salt crystal explosions on the Devil’s Golf Course, a landscape of salty spires left behind by an ancient lake. (This is not a real golf course, so leave your driver at home.)
• Pay your respects to ballet dancer and local legend Marta Becket in Death Valley Junction, where she performed inside the Amargosa Opera House for decades. Becket died at 92 this year, but you can still tour the theater or attend a show. Purchase tickets at the hotel.