19 december 2015

Grand Tour South West USA

Visiting California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada

By Renate In Culture, Food, Nature, Wildlife 10

Visiting California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada

In the summer of 2015 we went on a true bucket list trip: a Grand Tour through the South West of America. My boyfriend lived in San Fransisco when he was a kid and always wanted to go back there someday. When you are going on a road trip for a couple of weeks some preparations can be recommended. For me this process start with consulting websites of travel agencies, who have already done their best to put together the perfect itinerary. Next step was to customize our own schedule and make sure it was a feasible plan. For us, it was quite clear we would’t travel with a travel agency. We prefer to choose our own spots and enjoy the puzzle of creating the perfect trip. Since it really was the perfect trip, I like to share it with others.

Grand Tour South West USA

Day 1. Flight from Amsterdam to San Fransisco
Depending on where you are coming from: the flight alone will cost you a lot. And since there is not much difference between a lot and a bit more we choose for convenience: KLM. The flight took us about 14 hours. And the nice part: because of the time difference, at arrival the day starts all over again. Some Red Bull and coffee, please!

> From the airport to the City Center: take the Bart / about 20 -30 minutes

Day 2 and 3. Checking out San Fransisco
On the 2nd and the 3thd day we explored San Fransisco. What a fantastic city! Some of the highlights you cannot afford to miss are the painted ladies on Alamo Square, Fisherman’s wharf, a visit to Alcatraz and of course the Golden Gate bridge. In San Fransisco, we stayed in the lovely Victorian Hayes Valley Inn. A nice hotel in a popular neighborhood with lots of nice places to have dinner and a great German Biergarten just around the corner.

Alamo square

Day 4 and 5. King of the road with our rental car: to Monterey
> From San Francisco to Monterey: 2 hour drive/ about 120 miles

On the 4th day we picked up our rental car. A red and shiny Chrysler. Probably not the most environmentally friendly car but a very convenient one for a road trip.  From San Fransisco, we drove down to Monterey, once famous for its canned sardines. In Monterey we checked in to our first motel the Lone Oak Lodge. In Monterey, we visited cannery row where the sardine factories used to be. American author John Steinbeck has written a novel about this place. Reading it during a visit to Monterey really ads to the experience. Monterey also has a very nice wharf and is famous for having one of the worlds largest sea aquaria of the world: the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Monterey cannery row
Day 6, 7 and 8. Los Angeles, Hollywood and Newport Beach
> From Monterey to Los Angeles, Scenic Highway 1:  5,45 hour drive/ about 280 miles

On day 6 we left Monterey very early in the morning and continued our route along the Scenic Highway 1, also called the Big Sur. (must read: blog Big Sur breathtaking views) Here we made a pitstop at Point Lobos State National Reserve, our first park, famous for its sea otters. We continued and drove up to San Simeon where we visited Hearst Castle. During our drive we spotted a whale and a group of noisy sea elephants. Next stop was Santa Barbara. Since we did not have a lot of time anymore we skipped the city center of Santa Barbara and only visited Santa Barbara’s mission post and stopped nearby for Mexican food at La Super-Rica Taqueria. The queue in front of the counter was a good sign that we found ourselves a great place to eat. The food was delicious and not expensive at all. It was getting late and we stopped before throwing ourselves into the heavy traffic of Los Angeles at a place called Thousand Oakes where we checked in to a Motel 6. Our experience with Motel 6 is good. Don’t expect a romantic hotel, but it’s clean, spacious and lots of times there’s even a swimming pool. Sometimes wifi is free and sometimes you have to pay for it and the connection sucks. That’s probably the downside of Motel 6.

The next day we visited Los Angeles and Hollywood. Downtown LA really isn’t great. My advice would be to skip a visit to the city center and spend your valuable time on other things. Since it was our first time in LA, we visited most of the touristic hotspots like the Getty Museum, Venice (Baywatch) Beach, Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, the LACMA (museum of modern art) and Hollywood & Highland where you can spot the Hollywood sign, visit the Chinese Theatre and the Walk of Fame. Next stop was Newport Beach, again staying with Motel 6. On day 8 we decided to relax at the beach. We rented a surf board at the Surfari Surf School and spotted some dolphins while we were in the water! At Newport Beach you can surf pretty much all day, the waves here are just perfect.

Venice beach

Day 9. Joshua Tree National Park
> From Newport Beach to Joshua Tree National Park: 2 hour drive/ about 120 miles

Since we where now entering the desert, it is recommended to bring at least 2 gallons of water a person a day and enough food (salt!) to keep you going for a while. Of course also sunscreen and some good shoes might come in handy. We used the rest of the day to visit the Joshua Tree National Park. Here, we bought an ‘America the Beautiful’ park pass which covers a visit to all national parks. Temperature was rising but what an experience! At the end of the day, we checked in to Motel 6 in a small city called Twentynine Palms.

Joshua Tree National Park

Day 10. Montezuma’s Castle
> From Joshua Tree National Park to Montezuma’s Castle and Flagstaff: 6 hour drive/ about 378 miles

The next day would be a travel day. At one point we drove for three hours on end without seeing a living soul. No houses, no cars, no people at all, only a lost roadrunner who just in time changed his mind and did not cross the road. Again, it is very advisable to bring enough water and food while you are in the desert. On our way to Flagstaff we stopped at Montezuma’s Castle, a well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling.

Montezuma's castle

Day 11. Grand Canyon
> From Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon: 1,5 hour drive/ about 78 miles

We really enjoyed the small town called Flagstaff, where we stayed in Motel 6 again. Flagstaff has a historical city center with lots of nice places to eat and has several brewery’s where you can enjoy local beers. From Flagstaff, it’s still an hour and a half drive to get to the Grand Canyon. The south rim can not be visited with your own car so if you are visiting the south rim, park your car and continue with one of the shuttle busses. Although we knew this was going to be impressive, words cannot express the feeling you get when you are standing at the rim gazing into the miles and miles of canyon ahead of you.

Grand Canyon

Day 12. Horseshoe Bend & Antelope Canyon
> From Flagstaff to Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon and Hatch: 4 hour drive/ about 260 miles

From Flagstaff we drove towards Horseshoe Bend, a horseshoe shaped bend in the river offering you a spectacular view (read more about this magnificent place) and went on a guided tour into the Lower Antelope Canyon. I can recommend getting tickets in advance, since this tour is very popular. The tours around noon are especially populair since at this time, the sun is shining right into the canyon creating beautiful light beams. The canyon is absolutely magical. Less magical are the large numbers of people the organization lets in at the same time making it very crowdy. After our visit, we drove to a very small town called Hatch. We experienced the small towns in the US were really great. Nice people, good food and that feeling that life is slowing down, people living their lives at another pace here. We stayed at a great place called the Mountain Ridge Motel. Hatch only has three restaurants, but all are very good. We enjoyed the feeling of the sixties at the Galaxy Diner. All in all there was only one downside to Hatch: no alcohol allowed. Welcome to Utah!

Antelope canyon
Day 13. Bryce Canyon
> From Hatch to Bryce Canyon: 30 minute drive/ about 25 miles

We where up quite early and enjoyed the silence during one of our hikes into Bryce Canyon. I really got the feeling a dinosaur could just fly around the corner: Bryce Canyon was not like anything I had ever seen before in my life. The nice thing about Bryce Canyon is that you can easily descend into the canyon, where you will be walking between the hoodoos.

Bryce Canyon

Day 14. Zion National Park, Las Vegas
> From Hatch to Zion and Vegas: 4 hour drive/ about 220 miles

We doubted wether we would visit Zion National Park but we were so glad we did. Like with all parks we visited, Zion was again so completely different from anything we had seen before. A great park for people who love to hike. We spend a couple of hours in Zion and then continued our drive to Vegas. After hours of desert it is really weird to suddenly spot the gigantic city of lights (and one armed bandits).

Zion National Park
Day 15. Vegas Baby!
If you are going to visit Vegas, don’t save money on your hotel. Hotels are very cheap anyway and if you are not in a hotel on the strip, you are missing out on a lot of fun. During our visit we stayed in the Excalibur Hotel. From the outside very fancy, from the inside already a bit outdated (like with many other hotels in Vegas). Don’t expect to relax at the pool: we were in Vegas during the weekend and it really felt like it was Spring Break or something. And also: bring some nice cloths with you. You can’t be seen on the strip with your climbing shoes or muddy sneakers. Didn’t bring anything? Don’t panic: in Vegas the premium outlet store is always nearby.

Las Vegas
Day 16. Travelling to Lindsay, on our way to Sequoia National Park
> From Vegas to Sequoia National Park: 6 hour drive/ about 350 miles

We doubted very much if we would combine this ride with a visit to Death Valley. Since it was very hot and it was a long drive already, we decided to skip this visit. A nice lunch stop that can very much be recommended is at Peggy Sue’s 50’s diner where the staff still wears those pink outfits and you can listen to Elvis on the jukebox. We arrived at a small town called Lindsay and stayed in the Super 8 Olive Tree Motel.

Day 17. Sequoia National Park
> From Lindsay to Sequoia National Park: 1,5 hour drive/ about 50 miles

We entered Sequoia through the west entrance and took the Generals Highway from the General Sherman to the General Grant tree. We were very lucky to spot four bears on just one day! Want to know more about our visit to Sequoia? Read the blog Exploring the Giant Forest. After several hikes, we decided to spend the night at the Summerfield Inn in Fresno. Although the hotelroom was fine and there was even a swimming pool, the hotel was situated in the industrial area of Fresno. Not the nicest place to stay and besides fast food not many options for a nice meal nearby. But we saw four bears today, so who cares?!

Brown bear

Day 18 & 19. Yosemite National Park
> From Fresno to Yosemite National Park: 1 hour drive/ about 50 miles

Coming from Fresno, we entered Yosemite National Park through the entrance at Wawona. Before entering the valley, we took the road to Washburn point and Glacier Point where you will have the best view of the valley. We spend one day in the valley and then decided to take it up north since the valley is so crowded with people. It was definitely a good choice to leave mass tourism behind us: up North we spotted so many animals and could enjoy the beauty of Yosemite even more. We stayed in the best hotel ever: the Red Tail Ranch in Groveland, home of Kevin and Deborah. The 5 star rating on Trip Advisor says enough: this place was heaven! The people, the ranch, the dogs and horses, the hot tub on the hill where you can enjoy the view or look at the stars at night. Need I say more?

Yosemite National Park

Day 20. Back to San Francisco
> From Groveland to San Fransisco: 3 hour drive/ about 150 miles

With pain in our heart we left the Red Tail Ranch and drove back to San Fransisco entering the city by the Oakland Bay Bridge. You cannot leave the states without a visit to the Cheesecake company, where not only the cheesecakes but all food is delicious. We returned our car and checked in to our our airport hotel.

Day 21 & 22. Back to the Netherlands
After three weeks of so many different impressions it was time to go home again. Do not underestimate the time difference: when you fly back you will miss one day and might also be feeling that jetlag. The end of a great trip and the beginning of many more USA adventures! Yay!