Inspired by films and iconic images, photographer Thibaut Buccellato took to the open road on a trip across the wonderful and wild western portion of the United States. Along the way, he experienced much of what California and the nearby states have to offer.
Here are 11 of the best spots in the western part of the U.S. — and why each should be added to your road trip itinerary.
Check out the very best of California’s national parks while you’re out west, and use our national park trip planner to make sure you’re prepared to have the best experience possible wherever you go! And because everyone should be able to experience all this natural beauty, have a look at wheelchair-accessible trails out west.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
This coastal city is known for the fog, steep streets, eclectic architecture, Golden Gate Bridge, and one former island penitentiary. The famous cable cars are the only National Historic Monument that can move (albeit, at only nine miles an hour). San Francisco is also home to the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island, and the city features more than 200 historic landmark buildings.
Why you should go: For the beauty of the streets and the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge
LAKE TAHOE, CALIFORNIA/NEVADA
Freshwater Lake Tahoe straddles the border of California and Nevada, and is the second deepest lake in the U.S. Formed about two million years ago, the lake is known for the clarity of its water and the beautiful surrounding mountains. Tahoe experiences sun 75% of the year, making it the perfect photographic pit stop.
Why you should go: For the relaxing blue of the water
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIFORNIA
The Mono people have lived in this area for thousands of years. The site is both geologically active and geographically diverse. Thibault couldn’t help but notice the shift from city to desert to fields to forest. Only four square miles in size, the town is actually located within Inyo National Forest, and is home to one of the most well-known ski resorts in the western United States.
Why you should go: For the tranquility
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
L.A. boasts more cars than people, and the sprawling, neighborhood-like metropolis is surrounded by mountains on three sides and opens into the Pacific Ocean. The second most-populous city in the country, Los Angeles is also home to the Hollywood entertainment industry. The film and television business wasn’t moved to the West Coast for the optimal weather, though, but rather to get away from Thomas Edison, who held most of the country’s film patents at the turn of the century.
Why you should go: For the sunsets and skaters at Venice Beach
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
This southern California city sits right on the border of Mexico, and was the first site visited by Europeans when they first came to the West Coast. Originally claimed by Spain in 1542, San Diego became part of the U.S. after the Mexican-American war in 1850. Though it’s a major U.S. city, San Diego is also home to the largest number of farms in an urban environment and produces more avocados than any other place in the country.
Why you should go: For the beaches
SLAB CITY, CALIFORNIA
Snowbirds flock to this city in the winter … and no, not the kind with wings. Slab City, which takes its name from the concrete slabs found at an abandoned WWII Marine Corps barracks, is a popular choice for those seeking a retreat from the cold weather up north. “The Slabs” offers free parking, but has no electricity or running water, so most residents (both permanent and temporary) use their own generators.
Why you should go: Because it was featured in the film adaptation of “Into the Wild”
DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
Thibaut was only able to bear the heat of Death Valley for a few minutes, and rightly so, since it is one of the hottest places on Earth. Gold seekers named it when they had to cross the desolate expanse to reach the gold fields in the mid-1800s. Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States, was featured many times in the “Star Wars” franchise, and is home to mysterious stones that seemingly move of their own accord.
Why you should go: To experience the unique desert landscape
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
Now famous for its casinos and exorbitant nightlife, Las Vegas only legalized casino gambling 86 years ago. Thanks to the influx of people due to construction of the nearby Hoover Dam and the city’s increased tolerance for gambling and entertainment, the city has boomed ever since. Now, there are so many hotel rooms that it would take one person 288 years to spend a night in each one.
Why you should go: For the mesmerizing neon signs that light up the night
MARBLE CANYON, ARIZONA
This section of the Colorado River technically marks the beginning of the Grand Canyon. It’s a popular place for river runners to start their journey through the magnificent crater, and is known for the Navajo Bridge, a pair of steel arch bridges that cross the chasm. Despite its name, there is actually no marble here at all.
Why you should go: For the colorful landscapes
GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA
This massive hole in the ground is arguably the most well-known canyon in the world. It is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and over a mile deep at some points. The Grand Canyon has exposed nearly two billion years of Earth’s history, and has been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years. Explorer John Wesley Powell once said, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” Upon seeing the canyon, Thibaut agreed wholeheartedly.
Why you should go: Because no photos can truly show the scale of the landscape
MONUMENT VALLEY, ARIZONA/UTAH
The “Valley of the Rocks” is a cluster of sandstone buttes near the border of Arizona and Utah within the Navajo Reservation. It may look familiar, as it’s a well-known visual symbol of the Western U.S. due to its presence in many of director John Ford’s movies. Critic Keith Phillips said, “Its five square miles have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.” Thibaut remembers it as the place where he saw one of the best sunrises of his life.
Why you should go: For the sunrises and feelings of being in the Wild West
See more of Thibaut’s work on Instagram.