A Grand Road Trip in the Majestic Western USA

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North America » United States
July 29th 2018
Published: August 19th 2018
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After the dust settled on our Hyundai Elentra there were 5300 miles, eight states, and nine national parks of travels behind us. It was the first domestic vacation that I had taken in a number of years and I didn’t want to get cheated. It was time to knock Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon off the list. There were many highlights and many awe-inspiring moments in nature where all you could do is say ‘wow.’ At the end of the summary I will tell you what we would do if we were to do it all over again. We started and ended in Las Vegas and completed a 22 day loop that went up the west coast, east to Yellowstone, south to the Grand Canyon, and then back to Vegas. We stayed mostly in Airbnbs with a few nights in hotels. Here is summary organized by our overnight stops:

Las Vegas (1 night). Seda had never been to the Strip so, after arriving on our flight, we quickly checked into an Airbnb located a couple miles away, grabbed a very tasty pizza at Gramaldi’s (highly recommend!), and headed for the Bellagio. Going through this joint pretty much gives you a summary of the Strip with the endless gambling options and also the elaborate botanic garden. After seeing the water show out front and ambling around for another hour or so we called it a day.

Death Valley (1 night). We were lucky (unfortunate?) enough to visit Death Valley in the hottest recorded month in history. It hit 130 Fahrenheit on the scale at the visitor center while we were there. As soon as you got out of the car it simply felt like you were in a furnace. It was overwhelming unlike any other weather-related feeling I’ve had before. You could do much other than a quick couple minutes to snap a picture at each site. We check out Artist’s Drive, Badwater, Mesquite Flat sand dunes, and Zabriskie Point. I suppose with more time and a little less severe heat there would be other interesting things to do. On the way to the park I was happy to snag some yummy desert honey at a corner with the honey truck and an ice cream shack. We stayed at a nice Airbnb that night in Cedarhurst, CA. We bought our national parks year pass card here for $80 and definitely got our money’s worth out of it with so many national parks and monuments that followed.

Sequoia/Kings Canyon & Yosemite National Parks (3 nights). Next, we based ourselves in Fresno and made day trips in to Sequoia, Yosemite, and then Kings Canyon National Parks. Seeing the forests of giant redwoods was certainly one of the highlights for me on the trip. There is nothing like walking and driving amongst these majestic giants. I only wish we had had time to do more hikes in these two parks. In Sequoia the visitor center itself is a highlight as it is situated underneath the redwoods with an excellent set of trails leading out behind it. We hiked there for a while and then headed over to complete the hike to Moro Rock. The rock is huge and leads out to fantastic views of the surrounding area. The cut out walking leading to the top is interesting in and of itself. We then headed over for the short hike to see the General Sherman tree before sunset.

As expected Yosemite was a flood of people in July. After having been there one other time in the off season it was if Yosemite village went from a sleepy outpost to a thriving metropolis. We arrived in the park in the early afternoon thus leaving us with just a short visit until sunset. That allowed us just enough time to get up to the Glacier viewpoint and to come back down and explore the Yosemite Valley. I suppose the hike up Half Dome will have to wait. One thing I especially enjoy is wondering around the water near sunset taking in the reflective views of Half Dome. There is a very peaceful, post crowd, feel in the area. On the way back to Fresno we were fortunate to see a bear rooting around on the hillside just off of the road. We would recommend the tacos at El Cid on the road back to Fresno.

We were very glad that we decided to spend a day in King’s Canyon as opposed to a second day in Yosemite. The drive through the Canyon is beautiful. And we really enjoyed the hike to Mist Falls that starts at the end of the Canyon. You get numerous views walking along the water with the highlight of the Falls at the end. We also saw a cub followed by the mama bear walking just off of the trail. We were able to watch from a safe distance near the water. At sunset we were able to see the amazing General Grant tree and have the whole grove to ourselves.

During our trip we stayed at three very memorable Airbnbs. One included Bill and Rose Ann’s place. Bill had designed the house and Rose Ann cooked up amazing breakfasts for

Monterey (1 night). Seda had never seen a whale so this required a straight shot drive west to Monterey from Fresno. Along the way, we stopped at two excellent fruit stands. One, just outside of Fresno, Blossom Trail Fruit Stand and another a ways down the road. I was able to stock up on honey, including pomegranate honey, at Blossom Trail and we bought a whole slat full of fruit, honey, and nuts at the next place. In Monterey we took Monterey Bay Whale Watch for one of their 3-4 hour afternoon trips. Unfortunately, it was quite chilly on the boat but, mission accomplished, as we saw a number of humpbacks from fairly close range. No dolphins or sharks but we did see the odd sunfish that had a large fin resembling that of a shark. Back onshore I was hoping to get a dose of saltwater taffy (sold everywhere here) but $16/lbs I had to settle only for a few pieces. That night we had nice really nice Indian food at Ambrosia India Bistro. The next morning we took in a bit of the very touristy Cannery Row and also Lover’s point in Pacific Grove.

Petaluma, CA (1 night). A fairly uneventful day driving up from Monterey through San Francisco. We stopped for nice views of the Golden Gate bridge and also drove in to a very foggy Point Reyes national seashore. We stayed at a very nice Airbnb in Petaluma.

Crescent City, CA (1 night). Another fairly uneventful day driving up through California. But there were three little highlights that really made the day enjoyable. First, we happened upon Moonstone Beach. Wow. I had never heard of this beach but it turned out to be a magical place. We started with views from the parking lot of fog rolling in over the beach mixed through the sunlight with horses strolling along in and out of the huge rocks and boulders that lined the shore. We took some time to walk down the beach and were rewarded with a very scenic and mystical little place. Highly recommended stop if you are going this way. Next, was a quick stop in Eureka where we enjoyed walking through the old downtown and getting a great cinnamon and honey ice cream at Living the Dream. I make ice cream testing a serious component of my travels and this one measured up, in fact the best such stop on our trip. Finally, we ended with a magical sunset above the clouds unlike any I have seen in the past. We noticed people pulling off on the coast and then started looking to see the sun literally going down above a layer of clouds. Great experience.

Next visit: Hiking in the lush and beautiful Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Bend, OR (3 nights). I have been hearing about Bend for a number of years as an outdoor mecca and I was looking for an excuse to get here. We were not disappointed, both agreeing that this was one of our very favorite experiences on this trip. On the way up we hit Crater Lake National Park. Another wow! I had seen a lot of pictures of Crater Lake so I thought I knew what to expect but it is still so impressive seeing it firsthand. I only wish we had more time to hike around the crater.

Bend has so many outdoor options very close to the city. And literally everyone here has kayaks, paddleboards, snowboards, etc. We stayed at a great Airbnb at the confluence of two canals with a host named Bud who was the mold of the perfect Airbnb host. Bud really enjoyed hosting and talking to his guests. Our other Airbnb was a family of outdoor enthusiasts with the son being a professional snowboarder. One day we went out to Tumalo Falls and then hiked past the Falls for a while. Another day we did the Green Lakes hike. This is a beautiful trail that follows a river with many chances to be up close the water. And the trail culminates in a series of beautiful green lakes. We also walked around the beautiful Todd Lake. The vibe in Bend is very outdoorsy and progressive. Good restaurant scene – we recommend Kababa and for ice cream Bonta natural. Bend was such a relief from the over-touristed parks. I definitely want to go back and spend more time here.

Next visit: Complete the hike up Garfield Peak Trail for views above Crater Lake and hike at Smith Rock State Park. Also, head further north to the Columbia Gorge area. We had it on the itinerary for this trip but with some of the road/sites closed due to previous forest fires we decided to wait and visit at a later date. Finally, I would like more time to explore the Oregon coast.

Burley, ID (1 Night). This was a travel day for us en route to Yellowstone. It was a fairly long and uneventful drive. One exception was Twin Falls, home of the amazing Shoshoe Falls. I have never seen a town have an impressive gorge running right along it like Twin Falls framed with the iconic Perrine Bridge. It was quite a site at sunset. The Shoshoe Falls definitely elicited a ‘wow’ reaction from us. One of the largest falls west of the Mississippi River and I had no idea they existed.

Yellowstone National Park (2 Nights). Yellowstone wasn’t on our original plan but the more we talked about it we realized we just couldn’t leave it off. So, we swung our driving arc up through Wyoming and southern Montana to see the park. We stayed in a nice Airbnb in Big Sky, MT. This was a nice base for entrance into the western side of Yellowstone and also a nice, scenic town in its own right. Disappointing for me was the endless train of cars on the jammed roads in the park and the lack of wildlife sightings. The lack of wildlife was probably due to the fact that we really didn’t get off on any backcountry trails. One of the highlights was seeing the scenic Lamar Valley with bison everywhere. At one stop in Lamar a group was watching the movement of a wolf chasing pronghorn antelope, however, the distance was too great for us to watch with the naked eye. Bring binoculars if you go. Another highlight of Yellowstone for us was the Grand Prismatic spring, a hot boiling oval of deep, vivid colors. Of course, I knew of Old Faithful and the famous geysers in the park but the Prismatic spring was quite a surprise for me. Speaking of Old Faithful we climbed the hill and avoided the crowds to get a top-down view of its show. The canyon and Yellowstone Falls are also a must stop if you are in the park. The Falls are majestic and the canyon setting just adds to the amazing diversity of the landscape within the park.

Next visit. Take on some trails in the park getting away from the crowds.

Grand Tetons National Park (1 Night). The Grand Teton park is interesting as it is situated so that you get different viewpoints of one set of Teton peaks from many different angles. Unfortunately, we only had one day to go through the park and I was left with the desire to stay and take on some of the many great hikes that were offered. I would definitely recommend a drive down Route 191 with some great stop-offs and viewpoints of the Tetons. Beautiful park . . . just wish we had more time there.

Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park (2 Nights). We stayed at an Airbnb in Cedar City for our visit to Bryce and Zion and this turned out to be a pretty nice location. Also, while there we learned about Cedar Breaks National Monument and it was well worth the visit offering a beautiful vista. It was very hot during our visit here, over 100 degrees in Zion. There we hiked the Narrows with a few thousand of our closest friends. Actually, it turned out to be a great experience. I would definitely recommend hiking poles. The Narrows is a nice option when the temps are soaring because of walking through the water and being cooler in the slot canyons. I would definitely recommend this iconic hike – but go early in the morning (or off-season) if you want to avoid the crowds. In a previous visit to Zion I did the Kolob Canyon hike which I would highly recommend, however on this visit both that and the famous Angels Landing hike were closed. In Bryce, we hiked around the rim and took in the sunset, a very nice experience. Last time I was there snow was covering the park and it was freezing cold so this visit was a nice contrast. Both Zion and Bryce are majestic parks that are ‘must sees’ if you are doing a trip in the West. On our way down to Flagstaff we stopped for sunset at Horsehoe Bend near Page, AZ. Beautiful place and definitely recommend as a stop.

Next visit. Visit Antelope Canyon in off-season and try our hand at the lottery to visit the Wave near Kanab, AZ.

Grand Canyon area (2 Nights). So, the Grand Canyon was a must for us on this trip. And it truly is as majestic as the pictures you see. When you are standing at the rim it just seems like you are looking at a huge panoramic painting. I really wanted to do a rim to rim hike down and up but didn’t have a full day to do it. We hiked down to the first check point on the Bright Angel trail and got an appreciation for what it is like to walk back up the canyon in short order. Sunset is a big event here and people line the South Rim for the event and then getting out of the park is a rather large log jam going south. We loved our stay in Flagstaff, our base for seeing the Grand Canyon. We stayed at one of our three favorite Airbnbs and can’t wait to go back. On our first day I was a bit under the weather and we decided on a short visit to Sedona. Of course, I had heard about the vortex energy centers and knew that it was a place for all sorts of quirky shops but the setting is just beautiful. The trail system around Sedona is very extensive and the red rocks are amazing. We checked out Cathedral Rock and Bell Rock but I would have loved to have had time to get in some longer hikes here.

Next visit. Definitely get in some good runs around Flagstaff and explore the area more. Also, see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and complete a rim to rim hike on the South Rim.

Williams, AZ (1 Night). For our transition back to Las Vegas we stayed at Williams, an interesting little Route 66 tourist town just west of Flagstaff. This turned out to be an interesting quick stop. There are a handful of restaurants here and some quirky Route 66 stores. We stayed at a little hotel, Canyon Country Inn, that served our purpose well and was centrally located. The next morning we took off and checked out another hub for Route 66, Seligman, AZ. Here Route 66 is represented with over the top décor on shops and restaurants making for some good photo ops. If you are a fan of Route 66 and classic Americana items this is the place to be. On our way back to Vegas we also hit up the Hoover Dam. This was the first place where I ever remember a charge for going into the visitor center – one that we refused to pay. It was blazing hot (112 degrees) when we arrived so we just parked and did a quick walk across the bridge for views of the dam. Not sure I would recommend going too far out of your way for a visit here as it really seems to be a money trap compared to so many other places we visited.

Next visit. Head to Valley of Fire State Park

Las Vegas (1 Night). For our last day in Vegas we were very fortunate to be able to stay with a longtime professor friend. It was a great chance to catch up and relax. The highlight of our last day was the chance to hit up Grimaldi’s pizza again and also to take in Red Rock Canyon. Unfortunately, our national park pass wasn’t good here and we had to kick in $15 for a short visit. I had been to the park a couple times in the past and have enjoyed it each time. The rocks and cliffs are a beautiful array of reddish color and there are some nice hikes.

Overall Reflections and Recommendations:

• If you are heading out to do a similar type of trip I would recommend you to go on the shoulder season, possibly May or September. The summer crowds in the National Parks were overwhelming. We showed up around 8am in Zion to do the Narrows hike and had to wait in a line to get on the bus to the trail that snaked back hundreds of people. Also, carefully consider your route and plan for places to stay. We did this last minute and it was a bit stressful with costs and lodging. Prices are significantly inflated during the summer tourist season, another reason to go on the shoulder seasons if possible.
• Definitely take advantage of staying in Airbnbs. All of the places we stayed with the exception of one were excellent and three in particular really elevated the quality of our trip. Read the reviews carefully and find locals who really enjoy hosting. The experience can be so much richer (and less expensive) than staying in a hotel.
• Consider the weather. It was scorching hot in many of the places we visited in California, Utah, and Arizona.
• If you do visit a series of National Parks during the peak of the tourist season consider arriving early or, like we did, head into the parks in the later hours when the crowds curtail a bit and the sun is setting. The early evening hours can make for great photo opportunities.
• If we were to go back for another trip we would definitely pick some places to spend more days. This was a highlights trip of sorts but we would really like to take in some places in more depth. We really enjoyed our 3 days in Bend but would like even more time there. And Flagstaff and the surrounding area had so much to offer that we are definitely planning our return trip. If we had had an extra week or two we would have liked to add more 3-5 day stops. But, at least now we know a number of places where we would like to return.
• Packing recommendations would include sunscreen, bear spray, hiking poles, hats, swimsuits, bug spray/repellent, good hiking shoes, downloaded google maps (because you lose internet coverage in many places), a cooler for the car, a guidebook (or some good planning upfront), binoculars (particularly for Yellowstone), and music/games for the drives (although you will be mostly taking in the views).

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