First, I gave you the wrong name for my recommended map – it is the “AAA Indian Country Guide Map,” available at AAA or Amazon.com. Before starting I might mention that I have to rely mainly on memory as I have no adequate map here other than a large scale US atlas… I do not know how adventuresome you might be and am passing along places I appreciated and enjoyed.
I did not realize the distance between Birmingham and Santa Fe – it is quite a hop! I did not find Santa Fe very interesting beyond good restaurants – too precious! At any rate, assuming you start from there I would make my west to Chaco Canyon (I rather liked Acoma Sky City west of Albuquerque but that will probably be hotter and a bit out of the way). Chaco may seem like a bleak desert place to some but I found it very peaceful, powerful and interesting, plus it is on the way to places we found special (Canyon DeChelly is interesting and greener but I would not go that far out of the way to go there). At Chaco we liked to explore the numerous Anasazi roads the converged there.
Heading north there is Aztec Ruins NM then Mesa Verde nearby (cooler, inteesting, nice walks, popular). Then Hovenweep NM, is not far to the west. We liked it as it is a small ruin and we could imagine people living there. Not much further along the same road are a couple of additional ruins with even fewer people around (There are many places one can camp in the desert without having to find a formal campground). The Desert Rose Inn (http://www.desertroseinn.com/) in Bluff is run by very knowledgeable and helpful people. We did a multi-day rafting trip from there down the San Juan River one time. Bluff does have one good restaurant.
At this point I would probably head north and spend a bit of time in the world class Canyonlands NP (including the famous “newspaper Rock”) then hit Moab, world capital of mountain biking (Honest Ozzie restaurant was pretty good) with Arches NP nearby (easy camping nearby up Colorado River). Heading west you have to go north to Green River first, then south on UT-24. About 25 miles south of I-70 you can take the gravel country road 1010 about 20 miles back east to the edge of the wonderful Horseshoe Canyon (see googlemaps for details). Camp at the edge and hike down to explore scenery, petroglyphs and pictographs (a narrow side canyon is where that guy got stuck and had to amputate his arm with a dull pocket knife after 127 hours to escape alive).
Continuing south to Hanksville the west to Capital Reef NP – very nice with good walks to explore. The campground is big but pleasant enough. Heading toward Escalante I think you will be near the Waterpocket Fold section of Capital Reef. You could head south from the eastern edge of Capital Reef the turn west to go up the steep switchbacked (but very short) road to the top with beautiful and rather remote place to camp. You would then continue on toward Escalante. If you went directly to Escalante from Capital Reef you could explore Waterpocket Fold from that direction although I do not recall just how far it would be to the top of the steep section mentioned earlier. Just before Escalante I seem to recall a pleasant campground up a little stream and canyon on the right at the bottom of a hill. At or near Escalante you can head south on dead end road to explore some ‘slot country’, wandering down beautiful small canyons.
Continuing west the next goal would probably be Bryce Canyon NP. It is at a high altitude and no doubt cool or at least not hot. We found the hikes down into the labyrinthic canyon interesting but did not spend much time there. Zion NP is probably a “don’t miss” as it is beautiful. If I was not going to LA I would continue west through Caliente, Nevada, to and through Yosemite (assuming the pass was open) but you will probably want to head through St. George and Las Vegas. The ‘Strip’ speaks for itself and is worth a walk around if you have not been there before, but I would head for Redrock Canyon, 17 miles further west (developed campground), then, unless you don’t want to miss Death Valley, which we love but will no doubt be hot and dry (although there is at least one cooler high altitude campground on the west side), you will probably skate on to LA.
Your LA friends will probably be able to pass along more LA area tips than I could but if you want suggestions, let me know.
Heading up the coast (assuming you will want the cool and possibly windy coast route), the Hearst Castle is worth a stop (http://www.hearstcastle.org/) Reservation probably required for the tour and you can’t go up without one. Further up the Coast, Big Sur is a big and popular state park. Just south of Carmel, Point Lobos Reserve is very nice – be sure to take the walk to China Beach there.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is very good, as well as very popular (http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/) . Try mid week late afternoon – they usually close at 6. Just north of Monterey is a very nice place to rent a kayak and paddle up the smooth, flat sloughs for seals, otters, birds, scenery, but necessary to time it with tides so you go up with tide and don’t get stuck in mud – Elkhorn Slough.
Further north, at Año Nuevo State Park adult male elephant seals may be viewable. Too much to see and do in the Bay Area except to recommend the new DeYoung museum and Museum of Natural History across the way. If you’d like a place to shower and park in front overnight I think my tenant in Berkeley would be hospitable (let me know).
As you head north across the Golden Gate Bridge you might want to take the first exit and circle up the hill to a fine spot to view the bridge and SF, continuing on up and down the other side past a black sand beach, through a one-way tunnel and back onto US-101 north (would skip the touristy xx just west of there) to San Rafael at exit 452, where I would head west on the Sir Francis Drake Blvd. to CA-1 and the Pt. Reyes National Seashore about 30 miles away to camp and explore, maybe going out Pierce Rd. to walk to beaches, etc.
Many parks and beaches as you head north. Goat Rock and Salt Point (big campground) come to mind. Where CA-1 turns inland toward US-101 one option would be to turn off CA-1 at that point and continue more or less along the coast (some gravel roads – make inquiry) to the remote Lost Coast and Sinkyone State Park and, eventually winding down steep hill and to Ferndale. Remote, interesting and lovely (and serious dope growing area, or used to be).
If you would rather take the much quicker route to 101 you won’t miss the Rockefeller Grove, in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This is a DON’T MISS! It is a few miles off to the left on a good side road. Just beyond it in an apple orchard clearing is a very nice campground. A short trail connects the two.
Continuing north through Eureka (I am a Sizzler fan and do not miss one of their senior dinners if I can help it) to the college town of Arcata (entering hippie twilight zone) I’d suggest stopping there to take a walk to see how they have transformed their bayside sewage treatment facility. Nice town and I am sure you could camp in my friends’ place on a farm a few miles west of town and use their shower (let me know ahead of time) and explore the Mad River beach west of there.
Town of Trinidad north of there worth a quick side trip as is the nearby Patrick’s Point State Park. Further north you come to the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The side trip to Fern Canyon in the park, past probable elk herds is interesting with camping places (windy on the ocean). Be sure to take the road through the park instead of the highway around it (I forget its name). Maybe 1/4 mile past the visitor center on the main road stop and walk the trails for at least 1/2 hour on the west side (another sacred place to me) before continuing on to Crescent City.
At the southern edge of Crescent City if you take Humboldt Road forking off to the right, continue on to where it sort of Ts, right onto Howland Hill Road which leads to a windy very scenic back way through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. You could spend some time there and eventually backtrack to the left where it hits US-199 toward Crescent City. Also fine beach walk in Crescent City by driving past airport to point at end of the road. Windy, gorgeous. Dr. Acquaintance of my has or had a clinic in the old lighthouse at the end of the road.
Returning to 101 north into Oregon numerous nice beaches, scenes and parks. I do not remember the names of special ones but be sure to take the road to the right up to the lookout point above Cape Perpetua. I recall a small campground not too far south or there a short bit inland where we have stayed several times but lost its name (some creek in the name?), with the entrance just past a bridge heading north.
The only other thing that comes to mind is the world class aquarium at Newport (http://aquarium.org/), which I recommend. Not far south of there is a good but funky seafood restaurant as well. If I was getting tired of the coast by now I would head inland at Newport to the pleasant university town of Corvallis (rated one of the top places in the US to live) and join US-99, then I-5, to Portland.
I have been getting a kick out of writing this and will save it to possibly share with others, or relevant segments. I will send it to you now and may send an updated version later but if you have any questions, feel free…
But don’t forget – if you see bicyclists on a hot day in a remote area, take pity on them and offer to top off their water!