Published: May 14th 2008May 14th 2008
Kerry next to a giant in Big Basin state park
Some of you may have concluded, after reading our last brief blog, that we were starting to flag and that the excitement of the trip had worn off. Not at all! Infact, we had already been in the States for three weeks when we wrote it and New Zealand already seemed a long time ago. Also, we had 20 minutes to write the blog and attach photos before the library shut for lunch (Hot tip: if you want to use the internet in the USA, don't bother looking for an internet cafe as there aren't any...go to the nearest library and you get free access!)
We arrived in San Francisco on 14 April, but having already been into Wellington and Auckland, going 'downtown' was not on the schedule. Instead we hoofed it down Highway 1 which hugs the coast, to Santa Cruz and to the Henry Cowell and Big Basin State Parks, home to impressive stands of coast redwood. These may not be the fattest trees in the world but they are the tallest, reaching over 350 feet! After years of supressing fires in these forests, the state is now carrying out prescribed burns as fire is part of the natural
system. The redwoods have fire-proof bark so can withstand the flames. Some of the trees which are over 2000 years old must have survived many burns. The Californian coast, where left undeveloped, is a haven for birds and is on one of the main migration routes. At Elkhorn Slough Reserve, a former dairy farm with coastal lagoons, we were soon building up a good bird list with great and snowy egret, black necked stilt, blue winged teal, long billed dowitcher, western grebe, turkey vulture, Anna's and Allen's humminbird, and black shouldered kite (birding in the USA is much more mainstream than in the UK. Many of the state parks, national parks and national forests produce comprehensive bird lists which are really useful for novices like us!) At Monterey Aquarium, the wildlife in the sea outside is almost as good if not better than what you pay to see inside. We saw lots of sea otters, brown pelicans and marbled murrulets. Until the 1970's no-one knew where these little seabirds nested. Then the amazing discovery was made;they were found nesting in the top of the coast redwoods of Big Basin State Park where we hadjust come from. Weird eh? From Big
Sur (more big trees) we continued south along Highway 1 as turkey vultures were heading north above us, sometimes as many as 20 in the sky at a time. At Point Piedras Blancas, we found hundreds of elephant seals hauled out for their post breeding moult. You can get withing 20 feet of these amazing animals at a highway layby, with just a rope between you and them. Thought to be extinct on several occasions due to over-hunting, they clung on in Mexico and recolonised Piedras Blancas in 1990. Now over 2000 pups are born here each year.
At this point we had a choice. We could either head north east to Yosemite and Kings Canyon which, given it was still only mid April, could still contain lots of snow, or we could head south east to Joshua Tree which could be at its best as deserts tend to be in Spring. We chose the latter and were rewarded with a stunning display of flowers; yuccas, cactus, sego lilies and lots of annuals plus lots of lizards and birds. We liked it so much we stated for three days with just 3 gallons of water to last us. Camping in
the desert is a fantastic experience and we heard coyotes as well as lots of other strange noises every night! From there we raced across southern Arizona, avoiding the sprawling horror that is Phoenix but taking in an extraordinary state run arboretum/botanic garden -the Boyce Thompson Arboretum- with huge collections of desert and 'mediterranean' plants from around the world, plus loads of hummingbirds and other wildlife. The high temperatures (30 plus centigrade/90 fahrenheit) drove us to seek cooler air in the mountains, first the Pinal Mountains, part of Tonto National Forest, where it was just like spring in Cumbria (leaves just coming out on the trees, lots of birds), then even higher to the White Mountains in eastern Arizona. At Alpine (8000ft) there was still snow on the ground and the forecast of freezing temperatures persuaded us to stay in a motel rather than the tent. After a good meal at the Bear Wallow Cafe, a real traditional diner, we enjoyed a campfire chat with a group of ageing bikers. It got a bit deep and only later did we realise that one of them was trying to convert us to scientology! Anyway, next morning we had one of the
finest couple of hours birding since arriving in the country. At Luna Lake we say over 40 species, of which 15 were 'lifers' (this birding thing gets to you if you are not careful!) Best of all we watched an osprey catch a fish only to have it stolen by a huge bald eagle (yes, the national bird is a piratical tyrant!). O.K, that's enough birds for now.
Sedona is said to be one of the most beautiful towns in the US with its towering red rock spires and buttes, and lush canyons, however the Amreicans seem intent on spoiling it. The town is already sprawling way beyond its original limits and it has more malls than any other town we've seen to date. And now they are in the process of blasting a dual carriageway to it. Why? Just so it can get even bigger and obliterate even more of the landscape for which it is famed. We decided to take a hike up a local canyon and were encouraged by a sign which said 'Wilderness Area'. This did nothing to prepare us for the huge 'Enchantment Resort' which hove into view as we turned the first corner. George
Bush has clearly been selling off the crown jewels again. Building a holiday resort in this place is the equivalent of putting a Centre Parcs in Glencoe or next to Stonehenge. Although some of the walkers on the trail were clearly staying at the resort (they were wearing tennis shoes and listening to iPods and generally carrying only a small bottle of water) others were as horrified as we were by the scene. Two plain speaking Alaskans we met summed it up neatly; "It sucks !"
After an extremely cold night on a volcano (Sunset Crater) when the tent nearly blew away, we crossed the Colorado at Navajo Bridge, the head of the Grand Canyon, hoping to spend a couple of days on the less busy North Rim. We found, however, that winter is still not over here and the whole north rim was closed due to snow (now 2 May!) so we pushed on to southern Utah where temperatures of -7 centigrade forced us into cabins at the strangely named town of Tropic (who says Americans don't do irony?) Then, realising we couldn't keep up this $85 a night luxury, we bought a blanket! Southern Utah takes some beating
A very recent Volcano in Arizona. We camped here
when it comes to national parks and monuments. West to east you have Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands then Arches. As all of these are stunning places they inevitably feature on the itinerary of everyone who visits this part of the States and consequently they get busy. So much so at Zion that they have a fleet of complimentary buses taking people up the canyon and back from 6am to 10pm every day. We found that once we got beyond the vaguely theme -parkish valley bottom, we were virtually alone in some of the most spectacular scenery either of us has come across
The flowers were superb too (Zion has over 800 species of flowering plant including several penstemons, larkspur, and an endemic shooting star). Bryce Canyon was again stunning buy way too busy so after a day there we drove to Canyonlands. Here we found some solitude on longer walks, so camped for another four nights in the desert. The verdict of one American we spoke to was that Canyonlands was equal in splendour (if not quite in scale) to the Grand Canyon. So we feel we have more than made up for missing Yosemite
and the GC, After all, they'll still be here next time!
There are more photos below