I used to dream about a journey along the West coast of the United States, one of the most popular road trip destinations. We would be the ones determining the pace and mood of the trip, driving on empty roads, along foggy mountain ranges and mighty forests, the odometer turning in hundreds of miles, not just dozens. On the 25th of January, departing from the Frankfurt airport and listening to Sarah Brightman’s new album “Dreamchaser” in my headphones, I am completely convinced that the journey is going to be even better than I imagined and dreams are supposed to come true!
Planning the trips almost always follows a certain pattern with me, a few days before and after buying the tickets I spend almost all of my free time planning the route, and then I stop. About three days before the journey the crazy last-minute planning begins. This time around was no different. From the very beginning I knew that first five days I am going to be on a business trip in Los Angeles. From January 30th till February 14th I would spend time with my husband seeing every possible place. We had planned the approximate route before – Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Preserve, Grand Canyon and Las Vegas with Hoover Dam, through the Death Valley to Kings Canyon (Sequoia) National Park, Yosemite National Park and San Francisco, with two days extra just in case. We created the route to be able to determine when to buy the tickets back and what sort of mileage are we talking about. Our estimation was roughly 3500 km or 2100 miles. In the end we managed to drive 4500 km or 2800 miles and take 3700 shots with our photo camera. We spent the two extra days visiting Petrified Forest National Park, Antelope Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and several other smaller locations on the way. I wish I had 20 extra days! I am certain we would have enjoyed those to the fullest as well, driving nearly 300 km or 190 miles every day, sleeping just a few hours and spending every moment of light or dark to see more, more & more! After such journeys I can really say that the person needing vacation the most is the one who has just returned from one! Not only because you feel pleasantly tired and need to get used to your own bed again, but also because you want to see the pictures sooner, wallow in memories, read the collected brochures again and dream of places you didn’t have the time to visit this time.
My husband is visiting US for the first time, I am here for the fifth, but for the first time on the West coast, so I am guaranteed to have new impressions! The second largest city in USA is Los Angeles (according to the legend, historically called El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula), and it will always remain in my memories as one of the flattest cities I have ever seen. Seems that all buildings are only two floors high. It is a city than spans in width not height. I will also never forget the feeling driving on the highway here, 6(!) lines in every direction, everyone driving as fast as 140 km/h (85m/h), and the distance between the cars is no bigger than in my hometown Riga, where everyone drives only 50km/h! We really are shocked at first, luckily don’t get into any accidents, but all three days we spent driving there, it was not pleasant. I was expecting American drivers to be nicer, but they would switch lanes chaotically, horn a lot and without shame. What other memories do I have of LA? Long Beach Aquarium, because I must visit one in every city and take a look at my favorite animals stingrays! Short walk on Hollywood Walk of Fame, where not only you plenty of Darths Vaders and Captains America disturb you, but also young musicians try to stick a CD in your hands. Just right next to them PETA supporters are taking an improvised shower and invite you to become a vegetarian, and numerous languages can be heard all around the place.
By accident we find ourselves in a bad neighborhood of the city, where everyone has a hoodie and wears it, and ordering in Kentucky Fried Chicken feels like in a jail. Not far from it is famous Beverly Hills with zip code 90210 and also Burbank, that must have the best Buy More store in the whole world. There is also a small town next to LA, called Pasadena. The Big Bang Theory fans will recognize it as a place where Dr.Sheldon Cooper and other characters of the series live. For a proper visit we go to Pasadena Cheesecake Factory, where Penny should be working a shift, but unfortunately she doesn’t wait our table that evening. After a good meal we take a walk in Pasadena and observe the unusually European architecture. Another place to visit in LA is California Science Center, which is home to space shuttle Endeavour since October 2012, the world’s fastest human piloted aircraft Blackbird, and numerous exhibits for children and adults.
We spend the last day on Los Angeles visiting Griffith Observatory and Santa Monica pier, which will be recognized by those watching Private Practice. If you love seafood, you definitely must come to Santa Monica Enterprise Fish Co, which serves delicious dinner! Santa Monica pier is also the place where famous Route 66 ends, “the mother of all roads”. It used to connect Chicago and Los Angeles since 1926; some of its sections are being included in modern maps now as well. This route is especially popular among Harley Davidson fans, is there a better thing to do than drive on this route on the most famous bike in the world? Los Angeles is only the first stopping points for us, a slow warm-up before the bigger part of the road trip – national parks.
Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve
Before leaving Los Angeles we do some serious shopping for the road – nut and protein bars, fruit, snacks, 24 bottles of water, 12 Cherry Coke’s, some clothing, blanket for sleeping in the car and other small items. Leaving the city we take a detour to national park administration bureau to pick up our “American the Beautiful” national parks permit. Already in the beginning of the journey we do all the driving in the evening, during dark, which is also the best way, since it gets light around 6-7 am, but dark already at 5pm, so we use the daylight to see the sights and nighttime to drive. Leaving the flat Los Angeles with the last rays of sunlight, we see how the scenery begins to change, mountains appear. We reach Twentynineplams already in the dark; it’s the closest town to the entrance of Joshua Tree National Park.
We wake up in the morning, and it desert all around us! Not the sandy kind with camels, but it still looks like from a different planet. Cacti, shrubs, and later also the famous Yucca brevifolia or Joshua tree. This plant is named so because of the Mormons crossing the Mojave desert in the 19th century. When they saw it for the first time, it reminded them of Bible story of Joshua praying, having his hands risen to the sky. This name stuck, although there have been numerous attempts to rename it to cabbage tree, or yucca palm. It’s quite possible if the first national park I ever visited was some other than Joshua Tree, it would also have left me with such strong impression, but Joshua Tree park really has a special place in my heart. Enormous boulders where wind has carved strange shapes, desert where not only you get to see blossoming bushes in January, but also bees! Enormous cacti garden and amazing views from the top. Thirsty for the unknown, we stop almost in all marked places and numerous unmarked ones. I was really surprised by the excellent condition of the road and the abundance of restrooms every few kilometers. This was also the park where we first met the rangers, extremely pleasant, welcoming and helpful. They suggested which places to see, how to drive to get to the Mojave National Preserve and they were willing to repeat it again and again to every visitor who was willing to ask. Now it seems funny that our initial plan was to spend only 2 hours in the park. 2 hours in Joshua Tree?! Driving away after five hours it still seemed that we had seen nothing, that we should have spent more time, climbed a few other place, seen more. And we still had to see Mojave preserve and on the same day!
We managed to get to it only an hour before the sunset, stopping on the way at a salt lake and driving on a segment of Route 66. In the preserve we stopped in a few unmarked locations, saw the big Kelso dune and then just before it got dark our navigation started driving us on small dirt roads along dead trees and abandoned campgrounds, it really looked like something out of a horror movie! Finally reaching the main road we still have another 500 km to drive, leaving California and entering Arizona.
Grand Canyon National Park
The last thirty kilometers we drive with open windows, loud music and even stopping on the way not to fall asleep. Fantastic night sky, full of starts awaits us. We notice that there are trees around us and it’s really cold. Exactly how cold we realize only once we park our car in Tusayan, “next to that pile”, which turns out to be a pile of shoveled snow. We fall asleep the minute our heads touch the pillow and waking up in the morning realize than we have missed the breakfast for 55 minutes exactly, since it’s Arizona and it’s a different time zone! We feel tired, it’s raining (which isn’t typical, as usually there is a meter of snow in February), but we still want to see the park! It’s unusually cold for us, since most of the planning was done just a few days before leaving, we fail to account for the weather here. I put on three T-shirts, two flimsy coats, a thicker coat with a hoodie and wear two pairs of socks. We are from the north, why are we so cold? Sunny California got us used to +25°C and good weather, so now 0°C seems unbearable! You can only buy gloves for an extremely high price in the hotel or in the park. We pay $30 for our stupidity and, holding a warm cup of cocoa, head to the park.
The first place we see is Mather Point. Red, garnished with a thin coat of snow, it’s the Grand Canyon! My husband’s dream has come true. We decide to spend one more night at the canyon. In the evening we watch Superbowl game at the local pub with some authentic fans, and take a helicopter tour next day. I get lucky, since helicopter seat assignment is according to the weight, the lightest person gets to sit next to the pilot, and it’s me! “It’s a Beautiful Day” blasting through our headphones, we are up in the air, listening about the history of the canyon, humans around it. You can listen to the stories of Native Americans, learn the history, but it’s impossible to really describe what it is. We saw just a tiny bit of it, two days of what is essentially a lifespan of Galapagos turtle. We haven’t seen it covered in clouds, during snowstorm or in hear. But the photographs we have taken during this time, speak the loudest.
Petrified Forest National Park
We drive through the forest, its dark again. Dark highways, feeling tired and falling asleep in an instant once reaching the hotel. We wake up and it’s desert again! This time we are next to Painted Desert. And it really is painted! Hues of red, lilac to green, brown, almost black and white gray. Few of the hills have succumbed to erosion, as there are constant changes here. Where it hasn’t happened yet, we see the best kept secret – petrified trees. I clearly remember how when I was 12 years old and went to the National History Museum in London, I was surprised by an enormous rock, which turned out to be fossilized tree. This park has thousands of those. Big, smaller, well preserved, in logs, splinters, purple, green (depending on what minerals have soaked into them, for example, chromium causes green-blue, iron – red –brown color). They shine in the sun as precious jewels. In fact they are semi-precious stones, so rangers have to be vigilant to ensure none are stolen. As they said themselves, suddenly folks start collecting, seeing the trees. How are they formed? 225 million years ago, current territory of Arizona used to be next to the equator, at that time Pangea continent. The trees fell deep inside the streams, into layers of rock, and got preserved. Due to different geological processes soil depressions of that time rose up to 3000 m high 60 million years ago, and processes of erosion begun. This way new and new layers are uncovered, and they hide inside them fossilized trees and animals.
Leaving the park we think that this might be one of those days when we reach the next destination during light hours, but not long after leaving the park we notice signs saying that there is Meteor Crater nearby! Few days later, already in Frankfurt, we hear news of Chelyabinsk meteor and can use our knowledge! As we found out in the museum, Kali crater in Estonia is among the newest ones in the world!
Horseshoe bend, Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell in Page
After driving during the night again, we reach the city of Page. We heard somewhere that the Antelope Canyon, which we have planned for the next day, is only available for organized group, so we urgently sign up for the tour the next morning. As the excursion is at 9 am, we decide to see the sunrise at the Horseshoe bend, where the river takes a turn, forming a shape similar to a horseshoe. We are not the only ones so early up. Seeing the pictures beforehand we were convinced that those must have been taken from above, but reaching the location we see the bend in all of its glory. There are no railings, so if you fall, it’s your own responsibility! We fearfully crawl along the very edge and then go to eat breakfast and visit the Antelope Canyon. It’s the only private park we have planned to visit during our road trip, and it belongs to Navaho Native Americans. It was discovered in 1931 by a young girl, who couldn’t understand where here sheep disappeared, as nothing indicated that you could enter into the canyon.
It’s completely opposite from the vast Grand Canyon, it’s like a small door you enter, and then, almost touching the walls, go through. Antelope Canyon is the most photographed canyon in the world. From March till August rays of sun shine into the canyon from the top, creating surreal light. As it is only February, there are no rays, so we take the regular tour, visiting it together with 10 other people, so there is not much stopping on the way. There are two reasons why you can’t enter the canyon on your own, one is vandalism (“Jane was here” type of carvings) and the other is the threat of flood. Canyon was formed from rain water, and, even if it rains dozens of miles away, the water can reach it quite quickly and visitors can drown, this is what happened in 1997.
After visiting the canyon we slowly start to get ready to go to Bryce Canyon National Park, observing beautiful scenery near Lake Powell dam, on the border with the state of Utah and on the sides of the road. For the second time our navigation tries to take us somewhere else, showing 200km shorter route than what we expect, which would be a very good benefit. Unfortunately just after turning to small road there is a sight “This is not a road to Bryce Canyon”, so we decide not to tempt the fate and take the longer route.
Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks
It’s the first time we reach a destination while it’s still light. The scenery changes every half an hour, from vast fields and blue mountains in sight, to bright red cliffs near us and Alpine meadows with snow, thick forests and winding roads.
We reach the destination not long before the sunset. We have already read that Bryce Canyon is again completely different from what we have seen before. We saw wide, we saw narrow, now this one looks like amphitheater! Like stalagmites, columns rise up in the air, being constantly formed by snow and ice. Although the sun is shining, 8000 feet up it’s quite cold and right after the sunset we see how puddles freeze. We take last shots and leave to the hotel to get warm and plan the next day’s drive. Before going to Las Vegas, we still have planned to visit the Zion National Park. Yet another type of cliffs! This time we walk along the river in the valley, do a short hike and are still surprised how different the places can be, being just few hours’ drive apart. We also noticed that some locations that we found beautiful, where completely unnoticed by others, at the same time the famous Emerald pools didn’t seem impressive to us at all.
Las Vegas was a city that puzzled us. A good 4-star hotel for barely 20 €?! We studied it for a while, surprised at the price. Free parking, small charge for the internet, but still. Apparently, casinos want to attract visitors so much that if you book the hotel last minute, it’s really possible to pay only 20 € for it. This is also the reason why all of the parking garages in Las Vegas are free. Also many hotels provide free shows. It also seemed that every respectable hotel in Vegas has its own Cirque du Soleil show. In the previous days of the road trip several people asked where we are headed to next, and once I said that we will be visiting Las Vegas as well, everyone was smiling and saying „You are going to love it!”. We arrived just after it got dark, and it took us nearly 15 minutes to find our way from the garage to reception. The room, as promised, had a view to The Strip, the segment of the city that has the most well-known casinos with neon signs.
We decided to go for a walk. If in LA you really had to make an effort to get rid of the movie characters offering to take a picture with them for a fee, then in Vegas flyer distributors were much more intrusive. We called them “flyer shakers”, because they kept shuffling their cards with a particular noise. At every traffic light there would be a bunch of “shakers” who were offering the leaflets to everyone, including women and seemingly underage kids. Each of the “shakers” had a sign on their back, saying “Girls in your room in 2o minutes!” Pavement was covered with these leaflets, different sizes, level of nudity, every possible taste. Apart from the “shakers” there were also many very drunk people, who would constantly fall on someone with a blank gaze. I still don’t understand what is it exactly that we were supposed to love about this place.
We decided to go to the famous Bellagio fountain. It was quite chilly on the streets, and we were curious about how the other hotels and casinos looked like, and this was such a mistake! Casinos try to hold on to every customer who has entered. Some examples include patterned carpets that all look the same and you can’t figure out where you are, only emergency exits are visible, but normal ones are not marked by anything. All rooms are like mazes, and I’ve heard that some casinos, such as Caesar’s Palace, increase amount of oxygen in the room, so that the players would feel awake. As a result, you are lost, very awake and quite anxious. After getting lost in Bellagio, we decided not to go exploring other casinos further on. The famous fountain was all right, some shows more impressive than the others (every 15 minutes a different show).
Since we were staying in a casino hotel, we decided to spend each $2 and see how long they would last. We soon realized that it is exactly as we have heard, the machines have been programmed to keep the customer playing as long as possible, so it would give a small win every once in a while. This is supposedly what makes them so addictive. We chose the machines with the smallest amount needed to play, $0,25. Several times, when we had only one coin left, we won $10 again and again. For the fun of it we printed out the winning coupon and wanted to see how much longer would we last? In the end it took more than an hour and a half and I think we managed to lose it only because we kept putting bigger bets (to lose sooner). I also got a very bad impression of the casinos because it’s allowed to smoke there and many people were very drunk, and constantly kept bothering us, being so “friendly”. We saw a few people who were still sitting by the machines in the morning, when we were leaving the hotel. We did not have any illusions about going to Vegas and becoming millionaires, so didn’t have hard feelings about the $4 we lost (yes, I know we should have left with the $10 we got, but it was not the purpose!). I was mostly surprised that even some of my acquaintances, hearing that we are headed to Las Vegas, told us to set aside 300-700 € to spend in the machines.
One of the main attractions for the next day was the Neon Museum, the home of the old casino signs. In the same way as with Antelope Canyon, it’s mandatory to take a tour, because the signs are in various conditions. The museum is located outside, where the signs are subject to wind and rain, so additional harm is not needed. During the tour we heard a lot about the history of the signs, success of casinos during the years, and also the fact that most of the signs are LED right now. But, there is a new law that requires a certain percentage of the sign to be made with neon, to ensure the historic look of the city. Right next to the city is Hoover Dam, 221,4 m tall and 379 m wide dam over Colorado River, Black canyon. Due to the flooding a new lake has been formed, Lake Mead. The dam was finished in 1936; and more than 150 people died during the construction. The resulting plant is important source of power. Looking from the top of it, it seems unbelievable that it’s currently only 47th largest hydroelectric power plant in the world! It’s an important tourism object, and is yearly visited by a million people. In order to enter the territory, visitors are subject to security check. We must have not looked dangerous, so they wave us in right away. Once we are finished with the dam and Neon museum, we are ready to return to the state of California. We selected a route that would take more time, but would allow us to see a very famous place.
Why did we want to go through the Death Valley? First of all, to be able to say that we have been to the place that holds the current heat record in the world. 1913. July 10th it was 56,7°C here. For a long time Libyan Aziziya record of 57,8°C was considered, but then it was declared invalid due to measurement mistake. Is it really possible to say who was right a hundred years ago? Maybe, but anyhow, Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world, where it’s more than 30°C for more than 192 days every year and it’s extremely dry here. Despite that, leaving Death Valley it started to snow heavily. On the other side of the road there must have been an accident, because the traffic jam spanned for several dozens of kilometers. Most probably they would have to wait all night. Death Valley is also the place where NASA is testing equipment. I’ve read that initial machines for finding remnants of life on Mars wouldn’t find anything in Death Valley either, although it’s full of flora and fauna.
With the sunset we reach one of the most beautiful places in the Death Valley, the Zabriskie point. We see a bunch of guys with big cameras and tripods, who are fully ready to shoot the not-so-colorful sunset. We march right past them to see what is still left to see, with our own tripod, and hear them whispering “What do you have to do to persuade a woman to join you here?!”. Unfortunately Zabriskie point is at the very beginning of the park, and we have been too infatuated with beautiful scenery on the way and there is no time left to spend in the park. With the last rays of light we see what is left and decide that this is one of the places we must come back to. Not far from where we are is Mount Whitney, which is the highest point in the United States, located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s not possible to cross directly over there, so we have to make a circle to go around. This was our driving record day, as we drove 900km, 700 of those straight. Finally we reach Three Rivers and go to sleep.
Kings Canyon (Sequoia) National Park
We wake up in the morning and are surrounded by a different world. They are showing Boston on TV, where it has snowed almost a meter of snow in one night, but we have a blossoming tree just outside the window, moist pavement and it’s spring! Having finished the breakfast, we go to see the park, my first dream-come-true place. I have wanted to see it since I was in the 5th grade, when I was doing a project on Cherokee and heard about the enormous trees for the first time. One of the legends says that the trees have been named after Sequoyah, the man who created alphabet for the Cherokee, making it the only case in the world history that illiterate tribe member could create a working system for writing. Park rangers say that it’s not really clear how the naming worked, but it’s clear that the trees were named this way not long after his death.
What is sequoia tree? It’s a tree that does not sound real. Firstly, they are largest trees in the world according to the volume (biggest tree in the world, General Sherman, has 1487 cubic meters of wood in it), they only grow in one location, Sierra Nevada Mountains. They reach roughly 50 to 85 m in height (record is 94,8 m), 6-8 m in diameter (record 17 m), and the oldest tree according to the scientists is 3500 years old. These are trees that have to be on fire in order for the cones to open up, and seeds start to grow in the burned areas. The cones can hang in the tree for 20 years, and if they drop in fallen leaves, they will never grow. Nowadays the area is burned on purpose to ensure tree survival, and it has to be done roughly every 80 years. Another surprising quality of the tree is that only the lower branches burn, and it doesn’t hurt the bark, since it does not have resin in it. Even when the trees fall down, they don’t deteriorate. They are not prone to any sickness or pests due to tannin contained in the bark. And the pests, who can penetrate the cones, only help the trees proliferate! The only thing that can harm the tree is tree itself. It has a very narrow root system, and continuing to grow, it falls because of its own weight. They are also extremely picky about the place they grow at. Certain temperature is needed, not too much, but enough moisture, certain type of soil, and they don’t like growing next to other trees. It’s like Oscar Wilde has said: “I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”
It has been snowing in the park during the night, and it’s covered in fluffy snow. There aren’t too many people wandering around, but I have wanted to see these trees since I was a child! Standing next to sequoias you are awed. They have been here for thousands of years, who are we in comparison to them? Even ants have bigger purpose in this world. But it’s very pleasant around these trees. They seem as enormous guardians of the piece. After a few moments the mountain is covered in clouds and we find ourselves in deep fog. But we are not scared, because there is nothing that can happen to us here in winter. In summer there are rattlesnakes, but in winter is calm and quite, no wind or noise. It’s snowing slowly again, there is a stream not far from us and you can hear other park visitors in the distance. Although there must be millions of other incredibly beautiful places in the world, and rationally thinking it does not make sense to return to the same place again, this park is special, and the mood in it makes me think about it again and again. If I would have to name one, the most beautiful place during the road trip, it would be Kings Canyon National Park.
Yosemite National Park
In this park we understood that it’s a good thing it’s the last one. We were really tired at this point. Not only from the constant driving and worrying about small stuff (will we need snow chains? Where is navigation taking us again to?), but also from sleeping in the hotels (last one in Okahurst was really the worst one). There were too many impressions at this point. Every day was so intense that it could be more intense than any single day in a year at home, and suddenly we had every day like that! At the moment when I saw “yet another” cliff with a nice cloud “hat”, valley full of trees and a white waterfall next to it and I didn’t want to even get out of the car, I understood that it has been too much. Maybe it’s because I had told myself that I already saw the best – sequoias, so nothing could surprise me anymore. Now, when I look at the pictures, not feeling the cold and tired, it all seems fun and interesting again. Most probably, if we had just one more day to rest and relax, or spend a couple more at the park and hike, I would feel differently.
Our last stop before the cities was on a citrus farm, with a wonderful sunset, and we are off to the final destination in our trip.
Driving to the city of the famous Golden Gate Bridge, I kept thinking. Would it be just like in the movies? Fog over the bridge, steep, narrow streets and the cable car? And again, my first impressions of this city were created by television, having watched Charmed as a teenager. San Francisco doesn’t disappoint me, it’s even better than I imagined! I agree that it seems slightly European, however, I have heard this is not something the locals like to be compared to. As one journalist said – have you seen people smiling in Europe lately? Have you seen a traffic jam in Italy because drivers keep waving to each other to go first? Drivers are certainly more polite than in Los Angeles! Actually, if you compare anything in LA to San Francisco, San Francisco would win. Before I started my trip, several people warned me not to stay long in LA, and I completely agree to them now! Every additional day in San Francisco can be spent in a more interesting way than in Los Angeles! What to begin with, where to run? Only three days and the list of sights to see requires at least a week! Turned out that the hotel we had booked was very close to the pier area Fisherman’s Wharf, just next to the Lombard/Crookedest street. Russian Hill is 27°C steep in this place, which is not suitable for cars, thus it has been “flattened” with several turns. Having seen the hill we go to the pier.
What next? Must begin with well tested values! Pier 39 aquarium, and I certainly was the most active participant in the stingray touching pool! Just leaving the aquarium we notice many sea lions. Apparently they appeared only after the earthquake of 1989 and now live in the bay! First there were 10, then 50, and after a short while 300! The scientists said to keep the lions be. Now for more than 20 years they are wonderful entertainment for the visitors of the pier. Just further on, right after the sea lions, there are two ships, SS Jeremiah O’Brien and USS Pampanito. I am not too much into that kind of thing, so after a short visit we go to ride the cable car! San Francisco cable car is the last manual cable car system in the world! To be able to ride it you have to wait in the line for a while, observing some street musician or magicians’ performance. The way they turn the car around is an interesting sight to see, as well as getting seated in the car! We get lucky and sit in the front of the car, facing the road. They don’t have doors, so you must hold on to the rails! Conductor still manages to walk around somehow. At first we thought that cable cars are there only for the pleasure of the tourists now, but also the locals use them. The car goes through most beautiful streets of San Francisco, near Crookedest Street, to China Town, which is best to be visited at night once the lanterns are turned on.
Also driving in San Francisco is a whole new experience, as there are very many Stop sights. Seeing in the rear mirror at an 18% incline that there is a truck right behind you does feel uncomfortable! After all the adventures of the day we return to the hotel and have a dinner at a wonderful restaurant (recommended by locals!) without any signs on the street. Going to bed again feels amazing. The first thing we do the following morning is visiting Alcatraz. The famous prison about which it has been said: “You break the rules, you go to prison. You break the prison rules, you go to Alcatraz”. Listening to the guided audio tour, which has been done by four former inmates and four prison guards, we find out that such infamous criminals as Al Capone have been here. We learn about the history of the island before prison and now as a museum and bird sanctuary. The author of the Shawnshank Redemption must have really been inspired by this prison! Visiting Alcatraz also lets you see the Golden Gate Bridge from a different angle, an additional reason for a visit! It’s also good to visit California Academy of Sciences, which has numerous exhibits about science and nature, simulation of an earthquake, planetarium, aquarium with stingrays and the living roof, which regulates temperature inside the building. I must admit that the tastiest meal I had during the whole road trip was here! Right next to the Academy there are botanical gardens, magnolias were starting to bloom. There are 33 different kinds of those, blossoming at different times.
We decided that we must take some pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge during the sunset, and went exploring the best locations already several hours ahead. We also drove to the very end of the road, the beach, where looking into the ocean we thought – the next stop from here is Japan. While we were chasing the sunset we saw a couple raccoons digging something in the dumpsters, diving deeper when someone approached. Imagine the surprise you’d get, throwing away you Coke tin and a raccoon jumping out! Now we understood why the national parks had special kinds of dumpsters, locked for animals.
On the last day of the visit we also saw the famous fog of San Francisco. San Francisco has a special type of climate where cold air masses from the ocean meet the warm masses from the central valley, forming thick fog. We were at the Twin Peaks viewing area when the wind really picked up and suddenly fog started rolling over the hills, into the valley. The first impression was as in an apocalyptic movie, when dark forces are entering the city. This one was not evil, but only cold, and because of the fog you get the strange climate of San Francisco. On this foggy day we also went to neighboring Treasure Island, to view the skyline and say goodbye, as the next day we were heading home. San Francisco has one of the world’s top 10 airports. Another dream came true – we saw San Francisco! The full map of our journey is here.
Did we see everything we wanted to? Yes and no. We saw every location we had drafted in the initial plan. But while on the road we kept getting new ideas on what to do, even if those were supposed to take only 30 minutes, and usually took an hour or four. Planning two national parks per day is insane, and now we know it. We thought that we must see as many places as possible, because who knows when will we come back? But I really understand those who do longer hikes in the parks, stay the night and see the nature from a completely different side. If traveling was the only thing in life I had to do, this would be exactly the way how – until becoming close friends with the places, and not superficial acquaintances. We visited so many places that it still seems unbelievable that we really saw it all with our own eyes. Four seasons, chasing our dreams, our reverie, visiting so different America, with empty roads and small stores, enormous cars, windy roads and tourists, glamorous hotels and peaceful harbours.
Airline tickets, health insurance, airport lounges
Since the first part of the visit to LA was a business trip, I did not have much choice for the tickets, the only option was to select a different airport for the departure. Thus the flight was Riga-Frankfurt-Los Angeles-San Francisco- Frankfurt –Riga, roughly 995 € ( I know, crazy expensive, you can sometimes get tickets for the third of this price). On the way back we had to spend 10 hours in Frankfurt, so we used Lounge Club card, which allowed us the entrance for two in Sky Lounge or Luxx Lounge. The permitted length of stay is 3 hours, during which you get to use WiFi for free, eat snacks, get something to drink (they have spirits too). Although I have heard that they won’t kick you out if you have overstayed the allowed time limit, the lady at the counter must have reminded us like 5 times that the limit is 3 hours.
I already have corporate health insurance, but my husband bought Seesam travel insruance. When visiting US you must buy it (although it’s not mandatory by the law), because healthcare is extremely expensive and you can easily get a bill of hundred thousand dollars. Insurance for two weeks cost my husband roughly 60 €. It’s better to buy the insurance in advance, if you do it in the last three days and then suddenly cancel the trip, you might not get any refund.
Renting a car, insurance, gasoline, snow chains and toll roads
For this kind of journey you need a car. We decided to take mid- size SUV, so we would have enough space for two large suitcases and other stuff in the trunk. Someone at home persuaded me to take a slightly larger (regular SUV) one, paying additional 60 € per rental period, which was a mistake. In Alamo car rental both of those were exactly the same cars, so I paid extra for nothing. We registered with the cashier, she told us which line to go to and pick whichever car in that line. We chose Hyundai Tucson, although it did seem that all of the cars were smaller than in the descriptions on the website. We made a picture of the license plate and the car from the outside, so we wouldn’t get any bills, put on the phone holder for the car. We used Samsung Galaxy SII phone and CoPilot navigation, which mostly was mostly “behaving” well.
For 15 days of Alamo car rental, picking up the car in LA and returning it back in San Francisco, we paid 366 pounds or 465 € (using www.netflights.com). We also had to pay additional $42 for the half-empty tank (if we would have filled it up on our own, it would have cost us $20-30, but we were out of time at that point). And return processing fee was $4. Gasoline is significantly cheaper in USA than in Europe, although there are differences between the states. The average price was around $4 per gallon (1 gallon-3,7 l). Once you arrive at the gas station, you must authorize the payment for the gasoline (for example, $50), then go fill up the tank and the unused amount will be returned to your card (only works with credit cards, for debit card I have had experience of the full sum simply being charged). In some tanks you can leave your ID, then fill up the tank, then return to pay. Self-service only works with cards issued in the US. Driving from Las Vegas through Death Valley to Kings Canyon during the night, there were no gas stations for a while (some were closed for the night) and at one point the car stopped showing how many miles we have remaining. Luckily, there was a station soon after that, and it seemed that every tenth car was going in to fill up. When looking at the map it seemed that we will see a gas station not far from highway, but in fact those where usually “deeper in” some small towns, not near it and roughly 20 miles further than we expected.
Our car did not have a limit for how much we can drive, it had all of the insurance and waivers (except the one for flat tires or lost car keys, we did not think it would be needed). We did not have to pay anything in addition for returning it in a different location, as Alamo in California and Nevada offers that for free. When we got the car, it had a mileage of 4500 km, which we doubled. We also asked about the toll road passes, but the cashier had not heard of them and in the end there were no toll roads on the way. We only had to pay for Bay Bridge ($5) and Golden Gate Bridge ($6) in San Francisco. Our car had M/S tires, which was good (all the rental cars I’ve seen have M/S tires). Although it was +25°C in LA, in the mountains the temperature was well below zero, the roads were iced and it was snowing. Entering Kings Canyon National Park we had to take snow chains with us. Rental companies usually don’t agree to that, but the chains we got did not scratch anything on the car, so we used them. If you are planning to go to Yosemite as well, it might be the case than it’s cheaper to buy the chains. For rental in Three Rivers we paid $30 and $100 deposit, and had to use the chains, as they wouldn’t let you in otherwise. At Yosemite it was more difficult, the only place to rent them was at Fishcamp, and you had to buy them for $100, and if you would use them, they wouldn’t take them back. If you didn’t use them, then you could return them until 6 pm for $70. We got lucky and didn’t need them in Yosemite (but we understood why you might want to, seeing a car hanging over the cliff). The only vehicles allowed to go without snow chains were those with winter tires and 4 wheel drive. M/S with a certain depth of the protector classified as winter tires. In Kings Canyon, where chains were mandatory on that day, we saw a couple of Japanese tourists who were really struggling with putting the chains on, and then decided to go as it is. We wouldn’t risk it, because in some places it was pure ice on the road and such turns and so steep that I can’t imagine it being safe. You don’t have to put the chains on as soon as you see the warning sign that you must have the chains. Everyone puts the chains in one location, and then the ranger checks if everyone has put them on correctly. The parks website has all the information about closed routes, snow chains and it’s updated regularly.
National Parks pass “America the Beautiful”
The entrance fee to the parks ranges from $15 to $25 per vehicle. We planned initially on visiting several parks, but weren’t sure how many exactly. Annual pass costs $80. We bought it in Los Angeles, and it was prepared on the spot. It is valid for one year and it has space for two signatures on the card. It means that if you hang it at the mirror, it’s valid for entrance for all the people inside the car. Then you can pass it on to someone else, who signs again and uses it again. The people using the car don’t have to be related. We bought a new card and then you can sell it afterwards to someone else for $40. If you count that it, then the pass pays for itself in two-three visits. As they explained to us in the bureau, the card is valid for entrance to all locations that says “National”. It’s not valid for entering private aquariums and the like. In our case, it was not valid for entering Antelope Canyon. It was the only place where we had to take an organized tour. There are two types of tours, regular and professional photographer’s tour. 11:30 is the most expensive time. The regular is roughly 2 hours (including the driving), professional one supposedly highlights the most beautiful shapes and is longer. We took the regular tour because there are no sunrays from the top in February. You do have to go through quicker with the regular one. We paid $30 per person, because we reserved through hotel and after 9pm for the next morning. Not all national parks checked our pass, for example Death Valley or early morning Grand Canyon. But some of those did check the cards when leaving. I’ve heard they can stop any vehicle in any place in the park and check the pass. In some locations they only asked to see the pass, in others also matching ID. In Yosemite you didn’t have to use then hangtag on it, but in all others it had to be visible. Kings Canyon even gave us a different hangtag to prove that our card was valid. I’ve heard there are people who try getting in the parks without paying anything, but I think if something gives you such joy as national parks, you should support its existence.
As we were extremely busy, many times we skipped a meal. For two people the costs at a diner or similar establishment were roughly $25-30. The servings are enormous. Often one starter was enough for two people. The tastiest food was at the California Academy of Science.
The overall expenses were roughly 5500 € for two, not counting in the big shopping. Roughly 1000 € for the hotels, 950 € for 1 ticket, 925 € for car and gasoline, 570 € for food, 355 € for helicopter tour, 355 € for different tickets and the rest was parking, medicine, small purchases in the gas stations or supermarkets.
We thought for a long time if it makes sense to book the hotels for the whole stay, some days or not book anything. In the end we decided to book them one day in advance, either the previous evening or the day of stay. We chose all the hotels based on criteria: free Wi-Fi, free parking and preferably free breakfast (if not included, not a big deal). We booked all of the hotels through booking.com, because all of the hotels were cheaper there than on Expedia or other sites. As we usually were very tired in the evenings, we just booked the first reasonable hotel without much thought. Prices were averaging 20 to 65 € per night, while touring the parks, in San Francisco it was 70 € per night. Booking hotels on the spot in the hotel is almost always more expensive than going to neighboring Starbucks with free WiFi and booking it online.
Where we stayed:
Los Angeles, CA Parking $20 per night, hotel 77 € per night, recommend.
Twentyninepalms, CA 50 €, would not recommend
Holbrook, AZ 47 €, recommend
Page, AZ 40€ would not recommend
Bryce Canyon, UT 60 €, would not recommend
Las Vegas, NV 20 €, recommend
Three Rivers, CA 62 €, recommend
Oakhurst, CA 60 €, would not recommend
San Francisco, CA 70 €, recommend
Many Europeans are lucky and can go to USA without a visa; I still have one from before, so I used it, but by husband ordered a new type of passport (all the fancy electronic stuff in it) and requested an ESTA. It’s an electronic authorization which costs $ 14 (you can apply to one here). When applying, you must know the first address in US. Usually it doesn’t take long to get a permit, maximum a few days for the kids, sooner for adults. It can take longer if you have been denied a visa before. An acquaintance of my colleague had provided some false information on the authorization and got deported (handcuffs, paying for the return ticket himself) and cannot return for 10 years.
All of the pictures are taken by my wonderful husband Jekabs Andrushaitis, who has been my most amazing travel partner for years. He takes pictures and I write. This journey allowed us to win the first ever National Geographic Latvia travel story competition, not only winning the monthly competition and getting our story published, but also winning the annual one and visiting National Geographic headquarters in Washington!