West Coast Road trip: ultimate guide part IV


Death Valley to Yosemite

After seeing an Ansel Adams photography exhibition in London, Yosemite National Park has been at the top of my list of places to visit. Although the whole trip was quite spontaneous and we didn’t necessarily plan on arriving at Yosemite in early October, it turned out to be the perfect time to visit. The flowers and trees were still in bloom and the weather was sunny and balmy.  More importantly, there were hardly any crowds or traffic, which I’ve heard can be an issue in the summer.  It was just as well as we were only at the park for 2 days and ended up doing most of it by car. Although we agreed that we’d love to return to hike it as we did in Zion, Yosemite is actually a great driving park. We were even lucky enough to see a baby bear crossing the road! N.b. bear in mind that in October some of the waterfalls may be dry.

Trails –

Glacier point – This short loop-trail ends with what is probably one of the most iconic views of any national park. It is not hard to see why. The summit looks out on to half dome – a huge, granite dome-shaped cliff that is actually a deep cleft carved out of the rock by long-melted glaciers. The view of the lush, U-shaped valley flanked by these massive, sheer cliffs is almost indescribable. Stay for the sunset as the sun illuminates the head of the dome.

Olmstead Point – The most accessible of all the views by car. Panoramic views of smooth, rolling granite peaks dominated by the side of half-dome and a very picturesque, photo-bombing pine tree.

Tenaya Lake – A short hike from where you leave your car around the lake. A crystal-clear alpine lake surrounded by lodge-pole forest and of course the ubiquitous granite domes.

Where to stay and eat: We stayed in quite generic park lodgings with an expensive and forgettable bar and restaurant. From what I saw a lot of the accommodation in Yosemite was over-priced. If I were to do it again I would love to hike around the park, camp in a spot I liked when I was tired, and prepare my own food on a fire and eat amongst the trees while admiring the views. It would definitely be worth the hassle of getting a Wilderness permit to avoid the summer crowds at designated campsites. Though note of course note that there are a few restrictions when it comes to wilderness camping. If this doesn’t sound up your street then the tent-cabins of Tulomne Meadows Lodge and Half Dome Village are a good compromise.


Yosemite to San Francisco

At this point we had the obvious choice of taking highway 120 out of the park onto 580 direct to San Francisco, but this seemed such an anticlimax after the beauty of the park we thought we’d take the back roads instead. We weren’t ready to leave the trees for the freeways quite yet, and it meant we could catch a small part of the Pacific Coast Highway. We took the 140 South, onto the empty roads and wheat-colour hills of rural California. I think we saw about 3 cars during the 2 hours before our lunch stop in the tiny, sleepy town of Raymond.

Formerly called Wildcat Station, Raymond grew up around the railway and has the definite nostalgic feel of a once-busy, now bypassed town. You can still see the sleepers for the Southern Pacific highway and eat in a virtually unchanged 1890s general goods store. We felt we’d walk  through the swinging saloon doors of the only bar to have everyone turn around and stare at us. As it happened they (about two people, including the bartender) did turn around and look but were about the friendliest people you could hope to meet. We spoke to one man who told us that Raymond was going through one of the worst droughts in its history – forcing a lot of young people, including his son, to move to San Francisco for work. He said it hadn’t rained in Raymond in 6 years.

From here we continued onto our 3 hour drive to the coastal town of Santa Cruz, where we stayed in a roadside motel. There’s a strange feeling that you get at the end of a long road-trip, one simultaneously of satisfaction at having seen so much but also a pre-emptive sadness of not wanting it to be over. We lounged in bed the next morning half-watching  the ends of movies and day-time TV shows, in no rush to give back the car we’d grown attached to, but still looking forward to catching the sunset over the famous cliffs and angry waves of the final part of the Pacific Coast Highway.

West Coast Road trip: ultimate guide part IV

West Coast road trip: Ultimate guide part III


Zion to Death Valley

This is the longest stretch of the route, so prepare for your GPS to shout discomforting things like, ‘in 245 miles turn right.’ If you take highway 15 as we did the route actually takes you through four different states! But this is also the best ‘on the road’ part of the road-trip itself. Flanked by looming canyons on each side, the roads are flat and almost totally empty, especially as you near Death Valley. Route 95 turning into 373 at the famous alien center truck stop into Death Valley was our favourite part of the route. Completely flat, infinite and carless roads that get so hot that they transform into dark grey waves of tarmac. This is, after all, the hottest point on Earth.

Things to do –

Zabriskie Point – I’d always wanted to visit after seeing the 1960’s film of the same name. I could see how an artsy cult movie would be set here. It’s strange to think that there was ever water in this desolate place in the middle of the badlands but the strange, cream-coloured crevices of Zabriskie point were formed out of a lake that dried out 5 million years ago. Pink Floyd seemed an apt soundtrack for it

Artist’s Drive and Palette – Artists palette is a scenic loop drive through the volcanic black mountains and ends in a weird, rainbow-coloured rock formation caused by the oxidation of different metals. The colours weren’t very bright when we were there but I was told that the best time to go is at sunset.

Ghost towns – We didn’t have time but on my map of Death Valley I saw a number of ghost towns that I would LOVE to go and see one day. They must be really eerie sights. If you do visit these make sure your car is in good condition and you stock up on plenty of water as these side-roads will be even more desolate!

Lone Pine – It was nightfall as we left Death Valley so we had to find a place to stay in the first town we came across – Lone Pine. We woke up to find ourselves in a lovely little Wild-West town of sheriffs, cowboys and women in bonnets. Thinking we’d stepped into a Death Valley time-warp at first, we discovered that Lone Pine was in the middle of its annual film festival that celebrates movies and TV episodes that have used the town and surrounding Arizona hills and Sierra Nevada mountains as Wild-West backdrops.

Where to Eat – 

There was only one place in Death Valley as far as we saw – Furnace Creek Inn. We only had a coffee here as we had to get back on the road before nightfall but I would love to stay sometime in this somewhat eerie resort in the middle of the hottest desert in the world – and whose staff I assume make up the ‘population 20’ of Death Valley. 

In Lone Pine we had the best breakfast of our trip at the tiny Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery. 

West Coast road trip: Ultimate guide part III

West Coast Road triP: Ultimate guide PART ii


Vegas to Grand Canyon:

There aren’t as many Kitschy tourist attractions on this route as there are on East to West Coast U.S. road-trips i.e. the world’s largest ball of twine, but there is a quasi life-size replica of Ponte Vecchio in the middle of the desert in Henderson just outside Vegas, and it’s pretty much as surreal as you’d expect. (I’m noticing a theme about this trip).

After Henderson the route from Vegas to the South rim of the Grand Canyon takes you through Lake Mead National Park. I love driving through National parks in the US – you pay a small fee to drive past amazing views on immaculately kept roads. You also usually get a pamphlet upon entering explaining the surroundings, which is good for passengers to enlighten/bore their drivers with trivia. We got to the Canyon later than I’d have liked but we did manage to catch an incredible sunset. There’s not much I can say that does justice to seeing the Canyon for the first time. The best I can say is that if like me you’ve wondered whether it might be anticlimactic given just how famous it is, it definitely isn’t!

Doing it again I’d try to spend at least a couple of days at the Canyon to take in the breathtaking views from all four rims. I’d particularly like to try the skywalk, which is not technically in the National Park but on Hualapai tribe land on the West rim. We vowed to return to go white-water rafting on the Colorado river one day among the stunning, iconic crevices of the West-rim canyons.

Where to stay – There are various different bases for the Canyon but for the South rim I would suggest Flagstaff, which is a charming college town that was originally part of historic route 66. This was actually the only part of the trip where we got to drive the route for a few exciting minutes! Because it’s a popular base for visiting the Canyon, there are a lot of generic hotels like Comfort Inns etc in the area. We chose to stay at the Weatherford hotel – a really characteristic, quaint, and creaky old hotel with an interesting history. They have frequent live music events in the bar and you can have meals on their balcony overlooking the town.


Canyon to Mount zion

We weren’t sure what to expect from Zion National Park as we hadn’t heard as much about it as the more famous landmarks on our trip, but it ended up being one of the highlights. Driving into the park you’re immediately struck by the strange and dramatic sandstone cliffs and their unique, burnt red colour. Even the park roads that tunnel through and weave around the rocks are a dark burgundy. It is a dramatic entrance and a fitting introduction to the Park.

Trails – We did Angel’s landing (5 miles), Lower Emerald Pools (1.2 miles) middle Emerald Pools (2 miles), upper Emerald pools (3 miles) and the Riverside Walk (2 miles). Angel’s Landing is probably the most famous and most strenuous of the trails. Hugging the Virgin river, it starts as a serene riverside walk among the pines and then slowly and steadily begins to gain elevation through steep switchbacks up to the summit, where you get amazing, precipitous views of the cliffs and valley down below.

Emerald Pools is actually three different parts of one longer trail – each part ending in a clear-water pool formed by waterfalls cascading from the top of the cliffs. There are parts of the trail where you walk behind the waterfall itself.

Riverside walk is by far the easiest of the three trails. Completely flat and paved, the trail goes through a valley by the river with bubbling brooks and waterfalls along the way. We saw a lot of mountain deer on this trail.

Where to stay: Zion Park Motel. Not only is this the closest accommodation to the park but because it’s nestled at the base of Zion’s cliffs it has spectacular views. I loved the out-dated, 60’s motel charm of the rooms. I tried to do an artsy shoot but I don’t think I’ll be quitting the day job anytime soon.

Where to eat: Cliff Dwellers. Just after the Navajo bridge on our long drive from the Canyon to Utah, we stumbled upon this cute but inconspicuous restaurant/lodge.  We weren’t expecting much in the way of food from the middle of nowhere the menu turned out to be amazingly varied with options like seared Ahi Tuna and Sauteed Bree with home-made ciabatta. We asked the owner how he managed to make such food in the middle of the desert and he said he gets fresh deliveries every day by truck all the way from Vegas. He had some really good craft beers too. Oscar’s Cafe’ is right by Zion Park motel and is well-known for its good Mexican-style breakfasts.

West Coast Road triP: Ultimate guide PART ii

West Coast Road-Trip: Ultimate Guide Part I


“Sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whiskey and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind but falling in love and not getting arrested.” Leave out the whiskey part (while you’re driving, anyway) and I’d say Hunter S. Thompson has a pretty good outlook on life on the road. There’s just something about looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing nothing but endless stretches of empty, dusty roads while you’ve got your favourite tunes on full-blast. I don’t know if it’s the not knowing what lies at the end of the road that feels so satisfying, but I’m sure it’s also got a lot to do with the sense it gives you of that most treasured of American dreams – freedom.

LA to Vegas

The road from Los Angeles to Vegas is pretty uneventful for the most part, but the dry, arid scenery does start to give you an idea of that movie-like atmosphere you’ll come to expect if you’re continuing on to Arizona and Utah. By far the most stressful part of the journey for us was driving out of L.A. The highways there are some of the most terrifying I have ever experienced – four lanes on either side with very little warning about when you have to exit! Unless you’re used to this kind of driving (or you really, really love maps) I would strongly recommend getting a GPS system when hiring your car. We got a super-generic four-door hatchback.

As I’m sure it is for many people, our only stop on the way to Vegas was Peggy Sue’s diner – a super kitschy diner with menu options like meatloaf and Buddy Holly bacon cheeseburgers served by women in baby-blue aprons and soda jerk hats. It was our first tiny taste of the totally unapologetic ostentatiousness that is Las Vegas.

If you can, I would try and time this trip so that you arrive in Vegas at night-time. We had a few false alarms where we thought we’d arrived but were actually in surrounding casino towns like Primm, but there is definitely no mistaking it when you do arrive. Nothing quite prepares you for the sudden spectacle of lights you encounter when you roll in to the city from the pitch-black and desolate Mojave desert.

Where to stay: We decided that the only way to do Vegas was to really do Vegas, so we stayed at the Venetian. Of course there are plenty of hotels that are synonymous with Vegas but I liked the thought of the especially tacky, themed ones like Ceasar’s Palace. Our room had an amazing view overlooking the Nevada desert but was otherwise quite understated. The real spectacle is the lobby downstairs, where you can take a totally surreal stroll through the streets of a fake Venice with actual water canals and eat at your own ‘al fresco’ table in a fake Piazza San Marco. The most impressive part for me was how the clouds on the ceiling are painted so that they move while you walk!

If staying at one of these huge hotels I definitely recommend taking a chance at an upgrade. They’re so massive that they quite often have empty rooms and some are quite willing to bump you up at no extra cost, especially if you go on about how much you’re going to gamble at the front desk!

Where to eat: We took the same approach to where we ate as where we stayed. We were lucky that we happened to be in Vegas on a weekend when the Wynn hotel does its famous buffet brunchWe’d read about it and knew to expect a big buffet but it really has to be seen to be believed. Quite simply, there was A LOT of food – and I’ve been to weddings in southern Italy. Any type of food that your imagination can conjure up, and they will have it, all at a very reasonable price of $30 on the Saturday and $40 on the Sunday. Try to get a seat in the incredibly elaborate dining area in the front and pace yourself! It’s definitely a once (only) in a lifetime experience!

Heart Attack Grill – Like a lot of Vegas, this place is totally ridiculous. We stumbled upon it in the Fremont East district of Vegas and saw its flashing neon sign outside proudly claiming that people ‘over 350 lbs eat for free’. We tried the scales outside and didn’t quite qualify but we had to try it when we saw the giant syringe needle and pill-box they had as decor. You get a wrist-band and scrubs when you go in and the waitresses are all dressed as nurses in – naturally – glossy, red high-heels. But the best part – you get a spanking from the nurses in the middle of the restaurant if you don’t finish your meal. The food must have been good because both me and Josh finished ours. Definitely the most surreal dining experience I’ve ever had!

Things to do:

  • Bellagio fountains. You’ve heard a lot about them and the show is actually really impressive. It happens regularly throughout the day and is set to a different song each time.
  • Go to the Fremont East district – this was probably my favourite part of our time here. While it’s not exactly surprising, the main strip can seem a bit, lo-and -behold, commercial – i.e. souvenir shops and throngs of tourists sipping from giant neon-colour cocktail pipe-things (I’ve still got no idea what they were). ‘Old Vegas’, as I called it, felt a bit more like what the city may have been like once upon a time. It feels more dated and seedy but that’s exactly what I liked about it. Also, games and drinks are cheaper – Josh actually had a pretty good Poker streak here.
  • Lose money. Josh did not have a good streak on the main strip. If you’re like me and hate gambling, do the slots and wait for the waiters to come around with free drinks 🙂
  • Forget your own name
  • Get married. We did not.
  • Whatever you want. Remember, what happens in Vegas…


West Coast Road-Trip: Ultimate Guide Part I