Me and the missus have done two roadtrips in the US now, neither of which are particularly extraordinary but are probably pretty common for visitors to the US. We got some really,really useful advice from many people on this forum and I promised myself that I would write a report of our trip when I got back. I imagine that most of what you’ll read has been posted a million times before, but hey, there may be a few useful bits and bobs for people out there heading to similar places as us in the future. In summary, the trip was in July 2008 and Week 1 was a roundtrip from Vegas, through the desert, LA, up the coast, down through Death Valley and back to Vegas. Week 2 was up through Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon then back to Vegas. I’ll post up Week 2 over the weekend (probably).
Important Note: The pace at which we did this road trip probably isn’t for everyone. Whilst we enjoy a good walk, bike and hike as much as the next person this trip was always intended to be a bit of a quick buzz around as many places as we good. In addition I, in particular, have a pretty short attention span so quick visits tend to suit me down to the ground! If you’re a keen hiker or biker then you’ll want a much slower and longer trip to enjoy the national parks in more detail.
Important Note 2: It probably seems a bit strange that we missed out Yosemite and San Francisco, but we had visited both of these places not too long ago. We would have loved to go again of course, but we reluctantly dropped them to see new places. For those going to this area I would recommend both if you’ve not been to either before.
Day 1, 2 and 3 – Vegas
We spent our first three days in Vegas staying at The Hotel @ Mandalay Bay. It’s great being a Brit in Vegas in Summer 2008: you could get $2 to a pound, so we got a stunning suite in a great hotel for the same price as a Travel Inn Room in Slough (somewhere for the Americans on here to Google). We had our car with us for these three days and whilst we didn’t want to go too far we did visit Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead and had a rather fine lunch at a place called Mel’s Diner in Boulder City. A proper family place where our waitress was the 10 year old daughter / granddaughter of the owner (she seemed very happy to be doing it, before anyone gets concerned about child labour...).
I want to hate Vegas, I really do. I love the East Village in New York and the St Germain area of Paris. When I’m in London I like getting off the beaten track, I own albums on the Sub Pop and Ipecac label, I buy books by left wing authors (that I never get round to reading) and listen to Radio 4. So I want to be culturally above Vegas and hate the place for being so awful. But I can’t. I love being there. There’s enough information and tips on the web about Vegas though, so I won’t go on about it here.
Day 4 – Vegas, Mojave, Twenty-Nine Palms
(Copyright: Google Maps)
By the way, my first major tip for anyone not really experienced with roadtrips in the summer in this area would be to buy the optional breakdown and cover insurance with your car. I’ll go in to more detail later on. We had a Jeep that we rented and it was brilliant. I wouldn’t want to drive it anywhere in Britain of course as it is about 5 times to big for our road and my missus could never park it at Sainsburys, but we loved it out on the road in the US. I believe it was about £350 for 14 days rental in case you’re getting quotes.
We set off nice and early at about 7.30 from Vegas. I did that normal British thing of not having a clue what type of gas to put in the car (or even what type of gas they do in the US) so a friendly man laughed at me and gave me some pointers. For those also with a fear of not knowing the etiquette at US gas stations, it seemed that most want you to take your card in to the counter first, then you go back and fill up, go back in and pay. I signed for everything too, no chip and pin.
We stopped off for an hour at the Fashion Outlet of Las Vegas, around 50 miles south of Vegas on Highway 15 for a few clothing bargains and to buy my 189th pair of cheap sunglasses, after yet again mislaying pair number 188. This shopping centre is no different from any Brit shopping mall (Trafford centre, Bluewater etc.) except that is ari conditioned and is about 1/3 of the price you would pay in the UK.
We stopped for a paranoid gas stop in Baker and had a gawp at the world’s biggest thermometer before turning in to the Mojave desert. I guess the thrill of being in the desert proper for a Brit is akin to an American seeing a castle. You know that you just don’t get to see these things in your own country and you feel as though you’re seeing something really alien to you. We took a higgledy route through the park, stopping at the visitor centre at Kelso to speak with the friendly guide and have our packed lunch. We then took the 40 along the bottom of the park, followed by the Kelbaker road to Amboy. What a strange old place Amboy is. There’s obviously the tree that’s full of shoes (lots of photos available, just google!) and we stopped at the famous Roy’s Motel before heading a couple of miles down the road to see the Amboy Crator which is worth a look.
We then drove down the Amboy Road all the way in to Twentynine Palms (very interesting to see all the desert communities along this road. We’re all different, but it would not be my choice of location to live). It was interesting to see the mailboxes all gathered together at the side of the road for residences that were scattered in the distance.
Twentynine Palms is a bit of a strange place. It’s a military town and feels a bit... I dunno... sparse, I guess. We stayed at a great little place though called Sunnyvale Garden Suites which had a really friendly owner and had a great ‘feel’ about it. Recommended.
Day 5 –Twenty-Nine Palms, Joshua Tree, Childhood Ambition, LA, Lompoc
(Copyright: Google Maps)
This day is probably the best example of a day that looks waaaaay too rushed for most people (which I can completely understand). However, this was our favourite day of the trip and one the best days of our lives full stop.
We arose at dawn and head straight in to Joshua Tree park. The solitude was amazing and we often just stopped the car to wander in the silence or on climb in the big rocks (isn’t it odd how when there are two of you alone in an isolated, silent place you whisper to each other?).
We also had a stroll around the cactus garden before heading out of the south of the park on the 10 towards LA. This won’t mean much to 99% of the people reading this, but in my teens I loved an album called Sky Valley by a band called Kyuss and I still listen to it quite regularly now. The front cover of this cult album was the sign welcoming visitors to Sky Valley, which is a small place on Dillon Road, just west of Palm Springs. My missus indulged me and allowed me to put the album on nice and loud and take a detour through Sky Valley on our way to LA. Album cover and my photo for a comparison!
Different sign, but I was still a very happy man.
We then went pretty much non-stop down the 10 in to LA, with our next stop being Hollywood Blvd. We parked the car on a side-street off the ‘Walk of Stars’ (I didn’t think we’d be able to do this, but there seems to be a lot of cheap parking) and we did touristy views of the stars on the floor, the Chinese theatre etc. After a bit of a wander we joined Sunset Blvd and took a lovely, slow wander via Beverley Hills to Topanga Beach. Just this one or two hour drive was so much fun, if you haven’t got the time to do LA in style I still think this little snapshot is worth it. We got out the car at Topanga beach for a wander and a paddle, before heading up Highway 1 through Malibu. We stopped at a great place called Neptune’s Net for a bite to eat. It is basically a fast food seafood place, where you can grab a beer from the fridge, order your deep fried octopus and fries (or standard fish if you’re not so adventurous) and sit outside watching the sun going down over the LA coast. Lovely stuff.
We then had a nice long drive up the coast to stay in America’s Best Value Inn (or something) in Lompoc. We knew we would get there at about 10pm so we just picked Lompoc from the map and as we left at dawn, I have no idea what the place is like. If you’re the type of person who likes anonymous white box hotels with no character, with pretty non-descript staff and very average amenities then I can’t recommend America’s Best Value Inn highly enough.
Day 6 –Lompoc, Highway 1, Big Fire, Turn Back Around, Up An Awful Highway, Carmel
(Copyright: Google Maps)
Another dawn start but we stopped in Orcutt, near Santa Maria for a nice diner brekkie. We stopped at a placed called Jack’s which had wood panelling, great food, lovely waitresses and generally felt like we couldn’t be more American. It was ace. We then popped to a local store just up the road for a few supplies and something for our packed lunch later on. We knew there were lots of fires in the area and were planning to spend the day travelling the relatively short journey up Highway 1 to Carmel-By-The-Sea. At the checkout we asked the store owner if he knew whether Highway 1 was closed further north. He didn’t know, but gratefully offered to turn on his computer on check on the internet for us which was lovely of him. He confirmed that Highway 1 was closed for a 30 mile section south of Carmel. We thought about it, decided we didn’t want to miss Highway 1 and decided to go as far as we could, turn back around and take the Highway 101 instead.
We’re so glad we did.
The parts of Highway 1 we got to see were amazing. You can google photos of it, but none of them do it any type of justice. And the road is just a great drive. Definitely one of those once in a lifetime things... unless we go back and do it again... which we might do...
But as the road was shut we has to go back down the coast road and all the up the very boring and very long Highway 101. I had a bit of an internal moan, quickly remembered that people’s houses were burning down, realised how selfish my small moan was, and stopped moaning.
We arrived at Carmel in the evening and stayed at a place called the Lobos Lodge which was one of the more expensive places on our trip, but was great (especially our breakfast). We both loved Carmel. The whole experience was like being in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or something, but it was unlike anywhere we’ve been before. Everyone was so friendly too. We had a few beers in the lovely Jack London’s pub in the evening and then went on to another place where the bored owner convinced us to drink guiness mixed with beer and play Nintendo Wii with him. The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur to be frank.
Day 6 –Most of the day mooching in Carmel before driving down to Ridgecrest
We spent the morning looking around the shops in Carmel and got ourselves some nice bread and other goodies and had lunch sitting on the beach. Twas a lovely morning.
We then set off on a rather long and uneventful drive back down the 101, through Bakersfield and on to Ridgecrest where we were staying before our trip in to Death Valley the next day. The ride down to Bakersfield was pretty dull, but really picks up just east of Bakersfield as you wind around the mountains and lakes. We stopped in a pretty little area for a dinner from bits and bobs we had left over from lunch and it seemed as though we had the whole mountain range to ourselves.
Our dinner spot.
We then drove the last hundred miles or so listening to preachers on the radio, as it seemed to be the only thing we could tune our radio to.
We stayed in a really great place in Ridgecrest, which was a little B&B called BevLen Haus. It is basically Beveley’s house with, I think, two or three guest bedrooms. It was one of the cheapest places on our stay but one of the nicest. Our breakfast in the morning was tea, juice, fruit picked from the garden and proper homemade pancakes all served on china plates. Worth the money alone.
We went to the local supermarket to stock up supplies and popped in to Starbucks on the way back to the B&B with the purpose of just getting some iced coffee to walk with. However, we got chatting to two American guys for about an hour about our travels, their travels and the differences between our cultures, which was great. One of the guys asked me the great question, “So, what’s Norway like?”. I explained that I’d never been to Norway to which he replied, “Well why not? It’s only about 300 miles isn’t it?”. A good point well made.
Day 7 –Ridgecrest, Death Valley, Back To Vegas
(Copyright: Google Maps)
Another early start (bit of a theme) on our trip in to Death Valley. We took a quick detour down the 3 –mile dirt track to the ghost town of Ballarat but didn’t bump in to the one resident (Rock), although his dog was wandering around which made it seem even more eerie. Another place where we were the only people for miles and miles, but we still tiptoed around, whispering to each other.
We ventured on in to Death Valley, which is a spectacular place. I know car thermometers often lie but ours was reading 51c / 125 f in the park, which was pretty hot to say the least. But we loved the scenery and took our time driving north to south, checking out the Devil’s Golf Course, Salt Plains, Badwater, the dunes and the main park centre.
A picture of me wandering in the golf course:
After a great day here we sailed back through to Vegas for another night before setting off to the east of Vegas the next week.
If I haven't bored everyone to death I'll do week 2 soonish.