Hail the Sunbelt

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, 1999 Annual Travel Guide

Hail the Sunbelt

From Death Valley to the Florida coast, six easy ways to ditch winter

Camel Trek, Utah
Just say "Hut!" and your camel will be up and trucking through the desert — not Lawrence of Arabia country but the San Rafael Swell, 60 miles northwest of Moab in eastern Utah. This parched, 50-million-year-old, 2,100-square-mile slab of red sandstone canyons and mesas, bristling with cactus and salt bush, serves as the backdrop for the country's only packaged camel safari.

The safari is led by Park City veterinarian Charmian Wright, who breeds and trains the camels herself and wrangles them in Hollywood spectacles like Independence Day. In September and October Wright sets up base camp — mountain tents, solar showers — in the Swell for three days of day-tripping on her gentle, personable "boys." Moving in a slow-mo walk, the camels pace off 20 miles a day, with a lunch break for kid-style camp cuisine: Peanut butter and jelly on white bread tastes better in the desert, plus you'll get an extra packaged pudding to buddy up to your camel (don't worry — the dinners are quite elegant). The saddles — of Wright's own devising — are actually comfortable and the steering pretty simple. You just bob along about eight feet off the ground among dry washes, canyons, and promontories, looking for Omar Sharif across the vast desert. Four-day trips cost $1,075 per person, including all meals and camping equipment except sleeping bag; call Park City Camel Ventures at 435-649-3863.
— Ann Jones

St. George Island, Florida
There's something elusive and lovely about St. George Island that has a lot to do with what it's not. For starters, it's not the vast morass across Apalachicola Bay called Tate's Hell Swamp, named for a farmer who's said to have pursued a panther into the sodden, gator-infested forest and never returned. This 25-mile-long island is more of a floating grace note, an apology from the forest, maybe, for getting so damned ugly there at the end.

Though the swamp serves as a kind of bouncer at the door, St. George, with its narrow ridge of piney woods (the island is only a mile across at the widest point), its low dunes fringed with sea oats, and its sugar-sand beach dissolving into the Gulf, is not particularly remote. The artsy oyster town of Apalachicola is across the sound, and Tallahassee is only 65 miles away.

In summer the beach rentals are all booked, but this is not a summer place. In winter, when the north wind rattles the palmettos and it's cool enough for a campside cup of coffee, you might see the occasional bottlenose dolphin surfing the swell, or bald eagles and osprey diving after the flash of a mullet. It's not too hot to hike; it's not too cold to swim. It's not hell, not by a long shot.

The 1,848-acre State Park at the island's east end has a nine-mile stretch of beach, a 60-site developed campground ($8-$14 per night), and one primitive campsite right on the bay reached by a 2.5-mile trail ($3 per person per night for up to 12 people). Call the park at 850-927-2111.
— Bucky McMahon

Hueco Tanks State Historical Park, Texas
As you approach Hueco Tanks State Historical Park, 32 miles east of El Paso, it looks more like a cruel joke than a magnet for rock climbers. The landscape is flat and barren, pockmarked with trailer homes and abandoned school buses that provide the only shade from the glaring sun. Suddenly, as you near the park's gates, a lumpen shadow of volcanic rock emerges from the ground. Only when you get close do you realize it's a jumbled maze of boulders guarding a delicate world of desert life.

Hueco is renowned for its bouldering, with more than 1,500 problems throughout the park. Climbers from around the world make annual pilgrimages, as it's the premier winter training ground for the elite. But there are plenty of routes for mere mortals as well. With ratings from V0- on up, even your mother can find something to play on. There are roped climbs as well, with more than 250 routes ranging from 5.7 to 5.13+. Some classics on North Mountain include the beautiful Malice in Bucket Land, a 5.9- with a bold start off a boulder over a 12-foot abyss, and Window Pain, a nicely bolted, sustained 5.10.

Restrictions have recently been implemented that limit open access to North Mountain; the rest of the park is accessible only with a commercial guide. Since the total number of visitors allowed is 210 per day, it's wise to make advance reservations by calling 915-857-1135.
— Liz Lee

29 Palms Inn, California
The Mojave Desert town of Twentynine Palms is a slapped-together sprawl of fast-food joints, pawn shops, and no-tell motels catering to the thousands of Marines who train nearby each year. But tucked up against the edge of Joshua Tree National Park at the outskirts of town is an unexpected oasis: the 29 Palms Inn, a rustic, out-of-the-way cluster of 19 adobe bungalows and wood-frame cabins sprawled among the palms around a spring-fed pond. The rooms all have private patios and antique-style wood and iron furniture; most of the units have terra-cotta floors, some have hammocks, and none has a phone. The restaurant — the finest in town — serves the usual fish, steak, and pasta along with fresh vegetables from the inn's organic garden and homemade bread.

The inn's claim to fame, though, is its proximity to Joshua Tree's world-class winter rock climbing and hiking: The warm quartz, monzonite, and granite faces, laced with 4,000-plus established routes, offer the best climbing in North America from October through May. Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School (800-890-4745) provides lessons and guides for all levels.

Hikers can try the 1.1-mile loop to Barker Dam to see a rare desert watering hole and native American pictographs. En route you'll pass through the Wonderland of Rocks, 12 square miles of gigantic jumbled boulders towering hundreds of feet in the air. A four-mile round-trip hike takes you to the site of Johnny Lang's Lost Horse Mine, which in the late 1800s produced 9,000 ounces of gold.

After a day in the park, head back to the inn and cut the dust with a margarita from the poolside bar. Lodging prices range from $103 for a simple bungalow to $260 for a two-bedroom guest house with kitchen and enclosed garden patio. Call 760-367-3505.
— Andrew Rice

Grapevine Canyon Ranch, Arizona
Spring roundup was just ending by the time I got to Grapevine Canyon Ranch. A bunch of dudes from Europe, Canada, and the eastern United States had already gathered, inoculated, castrated, and branded the herd of 300 — give or take — Brangus cows and calves. Regulars who work the roundups once or twice a year threw around words like "flanking" and "heelers" and crude jokes about dull knives. After a foot-stomping party in the main room of the old ranch house, they slumped off to sleep in a dozen cabins and rustic casitas tucked away in the forest of scrub oak, mesquite, and manzanita.

Owner Gerry Searle used to be a Hollywood horseman, standing in for Lee Marvin and James Coburn, but Grapevine Canyon is the real thing: a working ranch. The 64,000-plus-acre spread is sheltered in a rugged canyon (elevation 5,000 feet) in the Dragoon Mountains, the last stronghold of Cochise and his Apaches. The canyon provides plenty of loping room, and the riding instructors and wranglers soon turn dudes into riders and cowboys. Saddle-sore guests go hiking in the Chiricahua National Monument or go day-tripping to Tombstone, Bisbee, and the Amerind Foundation Museum of Native American archaeology and culture, all within an hour's drive of the ranch.

Grapevine Canyon Ranch is open year-round; rates, based on double occupancy, are $150 per person per day for cabins, $170 per person per day for casitas, including three meals and use of a first-rate quarter horse. Call 800-245-9202.
— Ann Jones

Death Valley National Park, California
Most people think that Death Valley is as inhospitable as its name, but this 3.3-million-acre national park (the largest in the continental United States) really lives up to its moniker only in the summer months, when temperatures soar as high as 120 degrees. At any other time of year you'll find comfortable temperatures and a fascinating expanse of sand dunes, mountains, volcanic craters, hot springs, and canyons. Because the park is so vast, the best way to take in the sights is to take a driving tour, with stops to hike and camp along the way.

Two hundred and twenty miles northeast of Los Angeles, you enter the park on California 190 over Towne Pass. About 17 miles in, you'll hit the valley floor at Stovepipe Wells Village, near where stranded Forty-niners once burned their wagons and slaughtered their oxen before hiking out over the Panamint Mountains. Today the village consists of a hotel, a gas station, a restaurant, a campground, and a general store. From here you can hike or drive the three or so miles to a windswept, 14-square-mile system of sand dunes where some of the scenes from Star Wars were shot. At dawn or dusk, soft light and shadows reveal their finest colors.

Watch for the coyotes, lizards, and kangaroo rats that live among the dunes, then continue east on California 190 for several miles, take a left on California 267 north, and drive about 33 miles to Ubehebe Crater, a gaping hole a half mile across and 800 feet deep. A 1.5-mile trail circles the rim and another half-mile, moderately strenuous trail descends to the bottom. Camp at Mesquite Springs, only seven miles southwest of the Crater and the only campground in the park that doesn't look like a dirt parking lot.

In the morning, head back down California 267 to the junction with California 190 and Daylight Pass Road. From there, it's five or six miles south on Daylight Pass Road to Salt Creek, where you might spot a pupfish, an inch-long fish left over from the Ice Age that exists only in Death Valley. Later, drive the nine miles back to the Stovepipe Wells area and hike along the floor of Mosaic Canyon (starting at the canyon's mouth, the first mile and a half are not strenuous; after that, it gets quite steep). The canyon, with its red- and orange-colored sedimentary rock layers, is nature's version of Italian mosaic tiles.

After exploring the canyon, drive south on California 190 for 25 miles to the Furnace Creek Inn in time to view the sunset over Telescope Peak. The inn, a red-tiled masterpiece from the 1920s with its palm oasis, flagstone paths, and gigantic swimming pool (which, unfortunately, is too warm to be refreshing), is the place to be (doubles, $230-$340 October-May, $150-$205 the rest of the year; call 760-786-2345). On a moonlit night, Furnace Creek stables will take you for an unforgettable ride through the valley and nearby canyons.

From Furnace Creek, head south on California 178 for 12 miles to Badwater; at 282 feet below sea level it's the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. This is the spot that reaches 120-plus degrees in summer, but winter temperatures throughout the park average a comfortable 65 degrees in the daytime, 39 degrees at night. Keep a lookout here for bighorn sheep.

For your last sunset in Death Valley, drive back up California 178, and then head south on California 190 for about five miles to the turnoff for Dante's View. Looking down from more than 6,000 feet you can see both the highest and lowest points in the continental United States — Badwater, right at your feet, and 14,494-foot Mount Whitney, 100 miles to the northwest. When the sun drops behind Telescope Peak, slug down a big cup of coffee and start driving home under the desert night.
— Andrew Rice

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