The Weird and the Wonderful: The WestBy Kellilynn Hann
Unearth the unique and unusual in the Four Corner states
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Work, home, dinner, TV, sleep—rinse and repeat. If you think about it, we can even get into a vacation rut, choosing the same type of getaway every time.
If you’re aching for something new that will truly re-energize you, this series—The Weird and the Wonderful—is your ticket. It’s a guide to bizarre and unusual places around the US that are guaranteed to jolt you out of that rut.
This first part of the series covers Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Visit your favorites independently, or follow them in order for an epic road trip!
Swetsville Zoo, Fort Collins
“What did you do this weekend?”
“Well, I had a picnic lunch under a giant metal spider. You?”
If you’re tired of the ordinary and want to step up the weird factor, head to the Swetsville Zoo, a fascinating collection of upcycled metal art created by former farmer, Bill Swets. See a dinosaur band and a menagerie of enormous bugs, play who-can-spot-the-most-dragons, or sidle up to an alien in cowboy boots. Just grab your camera and a few sandwiches and let your inner kid out to play.
Denver Zine Library, Denver
Print media usually favors mass appeal over creative genius. This has given rise to “zines,” booklets that are published (often simply photocopied) by the author/artist themselves. Each one is a rare treasure, usually with few copies in circulation.
Incredibly, the Denver Zine Library has amassed more than 20,000 unique titles from all over the world. It’s easy to lose a day discovering wacky poems, bizarre art, beautiful stories, or simply a good belly-laugh. If you love art and creative writing, this place is a must for your bucket list.
Casa Bonita, Lakewood
Yes, this is the Casa Bonita from South Park. And yes, you really can see cliff divers, explore Black Bart’s cave, dance to live mariachi music, watch a puppet show, and get an old-timey photo taken. You can also, of course, fill your belly with hearty Mexican fare!
This quirky, all-in-one attraction is worth a stop. Seriously, where else can you see a gunfight, parade, and pirate show, bust open a piñata, and play some classic arcade games while strolling around sipping margaritas?
Mystic Hot Springs, Monroe
When is the last time you said, “I love soaking in a bathtub in the middle of the desert”? Never? Well, get ready to add this phrase to your lexicon.
A former resort, Mystic Hot Springs has been transformed into an amazing (and wonderfully odd) place where you can soak in the healing heat and minerals of natural hot springs. In addition to three bathtubs in the middle of nowhere, you have seven larger pools of varying heat and depth to enjoy.
A bath that never gets cold and has an amazing view? Yes, please.
Pando, the Trembling Giant, Fishlake National Forest, Richfield
What weighs more than 6,000 tons, covers 107 acres, and is about 80,000 years old? It’s not the opening to a joke; it’s Pando, the Trembling Giant—a single quaking aspen that has cloned itself about 47,000 times to create an entire forest. One organism, one enormous root system, 107 acres.
I’ll let that sink in a minute.
The Pando (Latin for “I spread out”) forest offers gorgeous and easy hiking. In fall, it will take your breath away. But don’t wait too long to see it—drought, pests, and overgrazing have weakened this gentle giant. Scientists are working to save it, but soon it could be lost to us forever.
Sand Hollow State Park, Hurricane
More wonderful than weird, Sand Hollow State Park is definitely worth a visit if you like cool rocks, red sand dunes, clear blue water, and plenty of Instagram-worthy photo ops.
The red sandstone layers weather at different rates, leaving rocks that look like stacks of cinnamon pancakes. There’s even a rock where you can impress folks back home with your cliff diving skills. If you’re into ATVs, the dunes give you a chance to work your knobbies.
Oatman donkeys, Oatman
Donkeys roam everywhere in this Old West town—in the street, on the wooden sidewalks, and walking into shops as if they’re the boss. They’re wild but are very acclimated to humans, so you can pet them, take a donkey selfie, and feed them (approved donkey food only, please—we don’t want these donkeys to get aggressive around humans eating people-food snacks).
Bonus: The Oatman Hotel is rumored to be haunted. They no longer rent rooms, but you can visit and hope for an eerie encounter.
So make some donkey friends, get some ice cream, tour an old mine shaft, and maybe meet a ghost. Cool, right?
This very cool experimental community blends architecture and ecology as an example of a responsible alternative to urban sprawl.
Started by architect Paolo Soleri in the 1970s, Arcosanti has invited people from around the world to participate in the project. The community supports itself by making and selling Arcosanti Bells (also called Soleri Windbells) that are so beautiful you’ll want every single one.
Tour the amazing buildings, visit the bell foundry, stay overnight, have a bite to eat, and get a new perspective on how people and the planet can coexist.
Curious Nature, Phoenix
“Let’s see… African waterbuck skull, jar-o-snake, set of bug marbles. Yep, my holiday shopping is complete!”
Interesting, unusual, and sometimes gross, Curious Nature is a “taxidermy emporium” where you can get everything from botanical prints and pretty butterfly jewelry to mounted caribou heads and preserved squid—or a preserved leech, depending on your décor.
Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch, Picacho
If you love monster trucks, ostrich fishing, and giving goats kisses, this is the destination for you. “Think of this place as a petting zoo on steroids,” the website says. It’s a weird combination of farm animals and exotics—from rabbits, sheep, ducks, and donkeys to lorikeets, fallow deer, and stingrays. But feeding ostriches orange slices on a string from the back of a monster truck? That’s just pure vacation gold.
Alien Zone Area 51, Roswell
This place is flat-out silly. Whack-a-doodle, rubber-alien, tacky-gift insane. It’s perfect.
For three bucks you can spend hours in cheesy vignettes and pose with alien figures. Share an outhouse with an alien. Go on a date. Have a barbecue. Witness (or become) an experiment.
When you’re done being goofy, hit the weird little gift shop. I walked away with some Space Cooties hand sanitizer. Better safe than sorry.
Breaking Bad Tour, Albuquerque
The BaD Tour by the Albuquerque Trolley Company is a Breaking Bad fan’s dream. You’ll get to see all the big filming locations— Los Pollos Hermanos, Walter and Jesse’s houses, the car wash, Saul’s office, and so much more. Along the way you’ll play a Breaking Bad trivia game and get a chance to win some cool merch. It’s an R-rated experience, so no kids on this one.
Bisti Badlands, near Farmington
This is one of the most beautifully bizarre hikes you’ll ever take. The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a National Conservation Lands area with really weird rock formations. You’ll see hoodoos, clinkers, and petrified logs. Gaze up at two-story spires topped with thin, flat, car-sized disks or giant boulders that look like cracked dinosaur eggs. Some of the gravity-challenged formations seem more like fabric blowing in the breeze than rock. The area is remote and without amenities, so bring water and common sense—and do not forget your camera.
Soak it all in
So, you’ve gotten out of your comfort zone. You’ve seen things you didn’t even know you wanted to see. You’ve gotten really weird.
Before heading home, take a moment to reflect on your experiences at the Four Corners Monument, where you can literally be in four states at one time. Your head can be in Colorado, your heart in New Mexico, and one foot each in Arizona and Utah—or whatever Twister configuration you want. It’s your weird and wonderful vacation.
Be sure to check out the other articles in the series, covering the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast.