Our road trip was tiny in terms of what many undertake in the US, and after finishing it we wished it was longer.
We had originally planned to have a car for the whole of our US trip, but it didn’t seem sensible in LA and San Fran, and driving up to Montana in the winter wouldn’t have been the best idea!
So our trip was restricted to San Francisco to Las Vegas, with plenty of stops in between…
We picked up our car at 12pm from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and drove straight out of the city across the Golden Gate Bridge, which was pretty epic, though also quite scary when you’ve only been driving on American roads for about 10 minutes.
Our final destination for the day was Sacramento, where we were meeting up with a friend that we last saw in Chiang Mai. It was under 100 miles, so it couldn’t take more than a few hours, right?
Our first stop was Sausalito which we briefly cruised through. It seemed a nice enough town but we were reluctant to stop for long so early on. We did stop at the seafront to take photos of the city, where I managed to kerb the car, not being used to driving a left hand drive car. Luckily the tyre survived and we were able to continue on our way.
Our next stop was the Jelly Belly factory! When we found out it was en-route to Sacramento, it was a no brainer – we were going. The clincher was that the tours are absolutely free, with plenty of free samples. It was in sealed corridors above the factory floor but you did get to see the whole production process which was so cool.
The best thing was the generous freebies and the free ‘flavour bar’ where you could taste any of the multitude of flavours.
By this point, it was getting late, and we still had to stop for lunch! (In-N-Out Burger of course). We eventually made it to Sacramento at 6pm. It had all taken rather longer than we expected.
We just about had time to check out the Fab Forties houses in Sacramento – several streets of grand houses with some amazing Christmas lights before we met our friend for dinner.
The next morning we set off early to get to Yosemite, 150+ miles away. Winter weather meant that the easiest road into the park (Route 120) was closed so we had to take a much longer route via Route 49 and 140.
Frustratingly, after several stops and wrong turns, we didn’t enter the National Park until 2pm, which when it gets dark at 5pm, is far from ideal. However we paid the $20 entrance fee and spent 2 hours seeing some of the most beautiful natural scenery we’ve ever seen.
Luckily the car meant we could zip about between viewpoints and treks, and while we would have course have got far more out of a full day, in the winter cold we were actually kind of glad we only had a few hours. We plan to return one summer and do it properly.
We then had a long slog ahead of us to reach Bakersfield, CA, where in classic road trip style, we rested at a motel in a room that smelled like wee.
This day was going to be purely driving – we had to cover around 500 miles to get to Flagstaff, AZ where we would be staying to see the Grand Canyon. Considering our slow progress ver the previous few days this was no mean feat.
However we managed it, over a long and mostly uneventful day, though the desert landscape was beautiful to behold. In fact at no point was driving boring during this trip – America has some epic scenery.
The highlight of the day was probably Seligman – a kitsch Route 66 town. We followed a sign for the historic road and town, and were glad we made the detour.
It was full of quirky diners, gift shops and motels, celebrating the classic road. Some of the establishments looked like they’d been unchanged for many years.
We eventually reached Flagstaff (itself another town on Route 66) and after spending a while wondering why most of the restaurants were closed (there was an hour time difference in Arizona which we hadn’t realised) we had to settle for a Taco Bell and bed.
Finally, a day purely for sightseeing! We left around 9am and drove the 75 miles to the Grand Canyon National Park entrance. There is a whole little town around the entrance, though everything is massively overpriced, as we found out later when we got some food!
We were at the South Rim, the most visited, and we didn’t have much choice, since the North is closed during Winter.
The first logical visit when arriving is the viewpoint by the visitor centre, Yaki Point, where we got our first view of the canyon. It might have been the most crowded one we saw all day but it still blew us away. Not all ‘must see’ sights live up to their hype – the Grand Canyon absolutely does.
Next we chose to drive the lesser travelled side of the rim (since it’s only accessible via car) – Desert View Drive. We drove all the way to the Desert View Watchtower, which looks like a ruin but is actually an early tourist attraction built in 1932 by Mary Colter, who designed several other buildings in the park as well.
We stopped at several other viewpoints on the way back along the road, and while I can’t remember the names of them all, I was without fail in awe every time I caught sight of the canyon – I’ve just never seen anything on such an immense scale before. So beautiful.
After going back past the visitors centre, we stopped at a few more viewpoints along the ‘Hermit Road’. My personal highlight was a short hike beneath the rim at Bright Angel. While I couldn’t go far due to the amount of snow around (and the fact I would be one slip away from death) it was still pretty awesome.
Katy didn’t join me as she didn’t feel comfortable with the sheer drops, which I can understand. I’d love to go back in the summer (a common theme for our whole trip) and do a big hike down to the canyon base.
We drove out to Hermit’s Rest, the westerly most part of the road, and then reluctantly headed back to Flagstaff. Unlike Yosemite, we really made the most of our entrance fee here!
We had a quiet evening back in Flagstaff, aside from me being accosted by an ultra religious guy in Subway, of all places. If there was ever a time to lie about your religion this was probably it – it would have saved me having to hear about Jesus for 10 minutes (and stopped my sandwich going cold).
We started with a cruise around downtown Flagstaff, which felt like a proper American town with it’s historic buildings and signs.
All we had left ahead of us was 250 miles of road. But we had to make one more stop – the Hoover Dam. This was something I’d always wanted to see, and while not in the same league as the Grand Canyon of course, it was still stunningly beautiful feat of engineering.
Equally impressive was the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge. We parked up and walked out across it but arguably it is best viewed from the dam itself. I was amazed to learn that prior to the completion of the bridge in 2010, highway 93 used to run across the dam itself!
A pleasant surprise was that the Hoover Dam was completely free to visit – there were plenty of signs insinuating you had to pay $10 for parking but actually there was loads of free parking a bit higher up.
After these stops there was nothing between is and the bright lights of Vegas. That is, apart from the suicidal drivers once we got into the city – we thought we’d got used to American roads but Vegas is a whole different beast.
Still, we survived and our trip was complete. We both absolutely loved it and I now totally get why American road trips are such a ‘thing’. We now totally want to do a proper cross country one in the future..