The American West with its wilderness, vastness and pristine beauty has always attracted the trekker and hiker in me.
Those mountains, hills, deserts, canyons, lakes and rivers present an open invitation and challenge for all those who like nature in its purest form.
Every summer, while growing up in Pakistan, I felt an insistent drive to go to the mountains — I considered these to be the best days of the year.
A decade later, a visit to Yellowstone and other national parks in the western United States sparked the same energy and enthusiasm in me.
I planned to take a road trip of about 10 days exploring as many national parks as possible.
As always, being a Pakistani citizen, I was anxious about going through the security clearance before boarding the plane at the airport. However, the flight to Salt Lake City was uneventful.
I was all prepared for travelling for a few days. I knew it would be long, physically tiring and challenging at times, but the idea of a relaxed vacation is not for me.
The journey began the next day with a short tour of Salt Lake City. Then I started north towards Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
My lungs really appreciated the cool and clear air of the mountains. It took a few more hours to get to Jackson Hole.
As soon as I entered the city, we saw a moose grazing in the bushes. There was even a ‘moose stop’ on the traffic signs.
I finally reached the house of friends in nearby Wilson, an upscale and well-maintained gated community with a golf course and indoor tennis courts.
Dick Cheney, the former US vice president, also owns a house in the community.
The house was simple but elegant with high ceilings and glass windows on two sides of the house, giving a spectacular view of the Teton Mountains.
Seated in this serene location, surrounded by wilderness, a stream running through the yard, I felt connected with nature.
The interior of the house was filled with French Impressionist-style paintings and other works of art including sculpture and glass.
The next day started with a boat tour of Jenny Lake and then a 1.5-mile steep hike in the mountains. The trail reminded me of my trekking and mountaineering in Pakistan.
Many times when our host referred to the Grand Tetons as “mountains,” I wanted to correct him; in Pakistan these would be considered foothills.
I had the same reaction on the trail. I saw hikers loaded with stuffed backpacks, a Swiss Army knife on the side, a flashlight in another pocket, two bottles of water, a bear repellent spray, hiking sticks and many other small gadgets and smartphones just to hike a trail of 1.5 miles.
A couple of women had even guns hanging at their sides.
Consumerism and capitalism really drove these tourists to prepare for every possible thing that might happen on the trail.
In Pakistan, we carried less than this to walk for days in terrain that was many times more difficult and posed very serious challenges.
It seemed excessive to see people loaded with stuff to walk an hour. But the view of the lake from the top of the hill was spectacular and worth the climb.
That night we ate around a bonfire in the backyard at the edge of the creek. While we were eating dinner, a deer and her young fawn came close.
They looked a little confused at what these humans were doing in “their” place.
For dessert, I had the most delicious raspberries that I’d ever tasted. They came fresh from bushes in the front garden from which I picked more the next morning.
The next day we started our hike at the Laurence Rockefeller Conservation Area and walked for a mile and a half along the river to Phelps Lake.
Later, I spent the afternoon in art galleries and stores in Jackson Hole. Most of the art was about the American West and was overpriced.
I did not find it exciting except for a miniature truck that was painted and decorated like a typical Pakistan truck.
The famous antler arches in the main city square attracted many tourists. We also visited a local art show and enjoyed some wood and glasswork and photographs.
In the evening, we took a gondola to the top of the hill at Teton Village, where we also had dinner. From 9,500 feet, the valley looked beautiful.
The air was cold and it was chilly on top of the hill. In winter, these slopes are used for skiing and the valley for cross-country skiing.
There were many bushes with colourful wildflowers. The valley was wide open below with a river flowing in the middle, inviting visitors to explore it.
I was very excited the next morning about going to the Yellowstone Park, the oldest and most admired national park in the US.
Before entering the park, we drove through areas where wildfires had burned thousands of acres of land.
Our first major stop was Old Faithful Inn, a gigantic structure made mostly of wood and some stone, a true work of art located right next to the famous Old Faithful geyser.
As expected, the Old Faith erupted on time. Thousands of people circle around it to observe the eruption that sends water and steam more than a hundred feet into the air. There were a few Indian and Pakistani families as well, some of whom I talked to.
The next stop was the Grand Prismatic Spring, another place of geothermal and biological activity, with different bacteria giving its water turquoise, blue, orange, yellow, green and other shades of colour.
After making short stops at several small geothermal ponds, we drove to Hayden Valley where bison sighting was expected.
Sure enough, dozens of bison appeared close to the road. I found a perfect parking place and got out of the car in excitement.
To my surprise, the herd started to walk directly towards us and soon they were only a few feet away.
One of the calves started to scratch its neck against my car. Soon a papa bison came and stood next to the car.
The bison was so huge that my rental car (a Toyota Corolla) seemed small next to him. I was sure if he got his horns under the car, he could turn it over easily.
When bison come to the road, they take their time to move across, causing mile-long traffic jams.
At a pullover spot, with guidance from fellow tourists and with the help of binoculars, I was able to see a grizzly bear sitting next to an elk on the bank of a stream.
After that excitement, I drove towards the inside-the-park hotel to spend the night. There are very few lodges inside the park and the accommodations are limited.
On the way to the hotel, all of a sudden, a small grizzly walked in front of the car. He crossed the road and then disappeared into the woods.
It a highlight of my day. He was only a few metres away yet I felt safe inside the car.
The next morning, we drove over the state line and had breakfast in Montana. The next stop was Lamar Valley, where there were hundreds, if not thousands, of bison.
I was also able to spot a few antelopes and other animals from the deer family. Someone spotted a wolf eating the carcass of a bison, but I missed it. Later in the day, I saw another big black bear and spotted other wildlife.
There are several waterfalls all along the park. We walked almost a mile to see the gigantic ‘upper falls.’ There was a huge rainbow across the valley over the falls.
Over the years, I have noticed that every South Asian resident or tourist in North America wants to visit the Niagara Falls.
Here I was more excited about the geothermal activity and seeing animals like bison, bears and antelopes.
These are things you can only experience in Yellowstone; falls and trails you can see in other places too.
I spent the night in Roosevelt Lodge in Yellowstone Park. I was able to experience a wood stove for heating for the first time; it kept the room warm for a few hours.
But around 4am the room felt ice-cold even under the layers of blankets covering the beds.
I got up and threw some chips into the stove and started the fire again. Soon after the room became cozy.
Maybe it was the sight of fire or the smell of wood or smoke, but it had a calming effect.
The scenery of the mountains was beautiful, but I started to sense some disappointment building inside me.
For me, mountains present the challenge of hiking, not seeing them from a distance. Because of park restrictions, there were only a few areas you could explore on foot.
This was not my idea of visiting mountains. I knew it was time to move on and explore the deserts of southern Utah.
Fortunately, in planning the trip I had left room for the unexpected. I am very happy I did, for it allowed an unforeseen turn of events that sent us on a new adventure.
We took the western exit of the park and entered Idaho. Soon the land became flat with miles of wheat and potato crop fields.
The scenery was very different from Yellowstone, yet both were magnificent and beautiful in their own way.
After two days — and several stops — I finally arrived in Bryce Canyon, in southern Utah. It is an impressive configuration of many rock towers standing next to each other in the desert.
We took a two-mile hike, going down to the base of the canyon from which the upward view of these amazing naturally carved stone towers was spectacular.
It is amazing how nature has carved stones into these towers. It took centuries for the wind to carve these delicate sculptures. I have not visited anything parallel to these canyons in Pakistan.
On one side of the valley, the wind and erosion have done some impressive work carving tall caves reminding me of the caves of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
After Bryce, I headed to Waves Canyon, taking a wrong turn and spotting a wolf, the best experience of the day.
I spent the night in a Spanish villa-styled bed and breakfast in Kenab, Utah. The place was peaceful and serene.
I visited art galleries and local handicraft stores and indulged in freshly made ice cream at a food parlour.
Next door was a gallery where the owner and artist were present. They provided information about some interesting local destinations that were not listed on tourist websites or in brochures. Locals wanted to keep certain things a secret to avoid the tourist crowd.
This was very useful information and we visited several sites the next day. The walk to Toadstools, a group of balanced rock formations in Escalante National Monument, started in a dry riverbed very close to different layers of red, brown, black, white and mixed-coloured rocks.
There were no tourists in the area and the internet did not provide information about it.
The trail ends on a beautiful plateau on which there were many small rock formations shaped like mushrooms.
It was a beautiful sight, but it was not possible to stay very long due to the scorching heat. I enjoyed the walk as it was the first time I was so close to nature without crowds of tourists.
After driving for an hour, we entered Arizona for the next stop at Horseshoe Bend Canyon. The Colorado River was a few hundred feet down in the canyon, following a course shaped almost like a circle.
There were no fences at the edge of the canyon’s vertical drop, and I was amazed how many tourists were standing or sitting close to the edge to get a perfect picture, just a few inches away from certain death in case of a slip.
We drove on through Bear Ears, past several lakes and valleys, on the way to Monument Valley, a symbol of the American wilderness.
I have seen it in countless movies and advertisements. A few red flat-top or tower-like rocks standing in a flat valley, it has always fascinated me.
Moab is a cool little town that serves as a gateway to Arches National Park. It has a fine independent bookstore, local handmade craft shops, and many other boutique stores.
There was also an advertisement for an upcoming music festival. The galleries sell stunningly beautiful photographs of different landscapes of the American West.
We started hiking to visit the world-famous Delicate Arch early in the morning before the temperature got high. It was a good decision. The 1.6-mile hike was all uphill with some steep parts at the edge of the rocks.
I walked through the contrast of dusty soil and soft red clay in the middle of the sandstone rocks. Delicate Arch is a stand-alone structure, probably five stories high on top of a rock which has one flat side. The other side looks like the edge of a circular trench.
Stepping just a few feet in the wrong direction can land you in a valley hundreds of feet below. I walked very carefully to the centre of the arch, and sat down in the shade of the petrified sand dunes to rest and enjoy the beauty of the arch.
Here I caught the first glimpse of a hawk on this tour. It was exciting to be part of the beauty, feeling powerful and significant as a human being, but insignificant and small in the larger picture.
Years ago I had seen this arch from a distance. This time I was able to climb right up to it. The sandstone structure seemed a beautiful piece of art; I was stunned by its beauty.
Soon the temperature soared up to 41 C; I believe it was the highest temperature I experienced in the US.
The next and last stop was Salt Lake City. We visited the Mormon Temple Square and walked near the Tabernacle and into the Old Temple, all majestic and opulent.
At the end of the trip I felt tired, physically exhausted and worn out, but my heart was happy and my mind had stored many images of fascinating scenery and exciting experiences.
It was the right way to spend my vacation as a fond reminder of those wonderful summers in the mountains of Pakistan.
Have you ever explored well-known or off-the-beaten tracks around the world? Share your adventures with us at email@example.com