When pondering the West -- that unwieldy stretch of U.S. soil from Texas to the Pacific Northwest -- travelers tend to flash on archetypes -- the Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Hollywood, Monument Valley, Vegas, the Alamo, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Hearst Castle. But the West is also an expanse of weirdness and wonder, boasting bizarre and purely sublime enticements, both natural and man-made. So, if you find some sojourning time this summer, consider these hidden (or at least, often-overlooked) gems.
FOR THE RECORD:
The Painted Desert: The Grand Canyon may be the big kahuna of canyons, but to the southeast is an often overlooked site that is a kahuna in its own right: northern Arizona's colorfully striated badlands, a 93,500-acre work of earthen art whose smoky tones come from Chinle formation rocks. Includes a 27-mile drive that's best to do at or before sunset. www.arizona-leisure.com/ painted-desert.html.
Bonus encounter: The stunning Petrified Forest National Park -- the only national park to protect and encompass parts of Route 66 -- includes Indian petroglyphs and the Agate House, built from petrified wood by native tribes. (928) 524-6228. www.nps.gov/pefo.
The Musée Mécanique: An old-school San Francisco treat. This wonderfully campy nostalgia museum contains one of the world's largest collections of antique arcade games, player pianos, funky mechanized figures and other coin-operated diversions. The museum, now off Fisherman's Wharf, was located below the Cliff House until 2002. On Pier 45, Shed A, off Embarcardero at the end of Taylor Street. (415) 346-2000, www.museemechanique.org. Free.
Devils Postpile National Monument, Mammoth Lakes: This bizarre formation in the southern Sierra is 60 feet tall. The narrow rock columns were formed about 100,000 years ago from cooling lava, then eroded by glacial movement. (760) 934-2289, www.nps.gov/depo.
San Diego Harbor Tour: Everyone will love the harbor tour. Take a full bay jaunt and learn about naval stations and the ships the Midway and the Star of India; catch waves from massive military tankers entering the bay; and get close-ups of the Shelter Islands, the Coronado Bridge and other attractions. On Hornblower Cruises. (619) 686-8715, www.sandiegoharbortours.com. $18 adults, one hour.
Bonus encounter: The sublimely modern yet organic Salk Institute in La Jolla was designed by iconoclast Louis Kahn and described by Dr. Jonas Salk as "architecture as a crucible for creativity." Many critics claim that, architecturally, the only comparable American campus is the Thomas Jefferson-designed University of Virginia. www.greatbuildings.com/ buildings/Salk_Institute.html.
Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon: This pueblo is one of the largest Anasazi "Great Houses" in Chaco Canyon. It was built about 945 and abandoned around 1120. The Ketl, with more than 500 rooms and 12 kivas, is a favorite haunt for nature lovers and has a popular Petroglyph Trail, which takes visitors past ancient native rock art. Info: www.colorado.edu/Conferences/chaco/tour/ketl.htm. Seven-day pass: $8 for vehicle, $4 per individual.
Ten Thousand Waves, Santa Fe: This vertical oasis, off the path for many tourists, is a meditative, wood-and-rock-terraced compound with pagodas and tatami rooms. It is patterned after a Japanese onsen, or public hot springs baths. Take a hot outdoor bath (private, communal, women's or men's), then snooze during a shiatsu-do (finger pressure) massage. $144 for 75 minutes; regular massage $94 for 55 minutes. Reservations: (505) 982-9304, www.tenthousandwaves.com.
Bonus encounter: In the far northwest part of the state, Shiprock, an 1,800-foot tall aptly named formation, is visible for miles, sailing the high plains like a volcanic-rock clipper ship. Look, but don't climb. It's sacred Navajo turf. www.lapahie.com/Shiprock_Peak.cfm.
Oregon Country Fair, Veneta: Sort of a family-friendly Burning Man. Except the fair, held July 11 to 13 in the meadows and groves of Veneta, near Eugene, doesn't have giant mechanized things aflame or a desert full of painted, naked people. Instead, it evokes a vaudevillian madness, with puppetry, fire breathers, parades, live music -- in a lush, super-eco-cool space. Admission: $18 to $27 per day; $48 to $51 for a three-day pass. No tickets are sold on site. (800) 992-8499, www.oregoncountryfair.org/index.php.
Bonus encounter: Northeast of Eugene is the Columbia River Gorge, with its spectacular falls. www.crgva.org.
McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis: This University of Texas observatory near Marfa ranks as one of the top astronomy facilities on the planet. It hosts nighttime star parties. Daily tours highlight the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Its 433-inch mirror optical telescope, one of the world's largest, is used to explore black holes. Near Fort Davis. (877) 984-7827, mcdonaldobservatory.org/visitors/faq.html. $8 adults.
Threadgill's Gospel Brunch, Austin: Threadgill's is where Janis Joplin and Willie Nelson cut their teeth and where, today, a mind-bending gospel ensemble serenades over savory soul food from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays. 301 W. Riverside Drive. (512) 472-9304, www.threadgills.com. $10.95 adults.
Bonus encounter: La Kiva in the ghost town of Terlingua, only a few miles from the Mexican border, is truly a peculiar place: a bar, restaurant and live-music venue built into a cavelike, semi-underground space in the elbow of a dry creekbed. Great steaks. (432) 371-2250, www.lakiva.net.
"Spiral Jetty" earthwork: Thirty miles west of Brigham City, on the Great Salt Lake's northern arm, is the "Spiral Jetty" sculpture, created from basalt and earth by artist Robert Smithson in 1970. It forms a 1,500-foot-long coil stretching into the lake. Constructed during a long drought, "Spiral Jetty" became submerged a few years later when lake levels rose again. In 1999, it resurfaced. For directions, see climb-utah.com/wm/spiraljetty.htm.
Bonus encounter: Head south to Salt Lake City to the Salt Lake Tabernacle at Temple Square, completed in 1867. Its dome is 150 feet wide and without center supports. (801) 240-4872, www.media.utah.edu/uhe/t/templesquare.html.
UNITED STATES | THE WEST