USA Southwest trip report
2008 we made a beautiful trip along the main southwestern USA National Parks. Having
school going children, we had to do our vacation during the school breaks, thus
we have to travel in the most busy season. But with some careful planning, we
succeeded in avoiding the main crowds. You can find a google map here.
Day 1: Arrival in San Francisco
Our flight arrived early in the afternoon, so when we got downtown by taxi, we could check in to our hotel (Marriot Fourth Street). The staff was very helpful, and we got a corner room, which had a bit more space to accommodate a rollaway bed. After a long flight (10 hours) we were glad to be able to stretch our legs, so we explored the Union Square area, and up into Chinatown. After a bit of Chinese food tasting, we called it a day.
Day 2: San Francisco
The day started with some light rain, so after a great breakfast at Sears’ fine food, we did some shopping. In the afternoon the rain stopped, and we walked up north, visited the Cable car barn, and continued north to Fisherman’s Warf and Pier 39. We took the tram back to Market Street, fetched some burgers for dinner, and turned in early again (still a bit of jetlag left).
Day 3: San Francisco
We took the bus to Golden Gate Park, and visited the Japanese Tea Garden, what a beauty! Next was the Botanical garden, and then we took a bus to the Palace of fine arts. We walked along the waterfront to Fort Mason, then by bus to Japan town. Back near Union Square, we found a nice route-66 themed diner, were we had our dinner.
Day 4: Marin County
Today we got our hire car. We first tried the view from Twin Peaks, but it was very cloudy, foggy, so we had not a good view. Then we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Raphael, to visit the Marin County Civic Center. I’m very interested in the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, so visiting this landmark building was a must.
Next we drove up to Mt. Tamalpais, and enjoyed the beautiful view over the northern bay area. Down to the headlands on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge for the tourist snapshots, and back downtown, where we had a nice Japanese dinner in Japan town.
Day 5: To Yosemite
We said goodbye to the Marriott, we will miss the hot pool for many nights to come. We took the Oakland Bay Bridge, the 580 to Tracy, 205 to Manteca, and from there the 120 to Yosemite.
In the afternoon there was some time to explore some of the easy to reach falls in the valley, and get us informed in the visitor center. From a ranger at the information desk we got a very good tip for the next evening: a sunset hike up to Sentinel dome. Today we could not stay late in the park, because our motel was in El Portal, about half an hour drive from the valley. I would advise anyone to try to stay in the park itself. We would have liked to stay at the Yosemite lodge at the falls, but it was sold-out when we booked our trip. So after dinner in one of the eateries in the valley, we headed out to the motel: Cedar Lodge. Nothing special, but high prices due to the park nearby.
Day 6: Yosemite
Our first item for today was the Mariposa groove of Giant Sequoias. When we arrived at the Mariposa groove parking, it was full, and we had to return to Wawona, and take the shuttle down to Mariposa. We had a nice walk around those impressive trees. The temperature was about 37C / 98F, so you get tired quite fast. We made our way back to the shuttle bus stop, but had to wait quite a long while to get on a bus back to Wawona. The shuttle bus system was not adequate to handle the amount of visitors (in the valley we had no problems with the shuttles). Back in Wawona, we explored the Wawona hotel and its surroundings: a very peaceful setting.
With our own car, we made it back to the valley. Because of some road works, it took longer then we expected, so we had to hurry to get some food before we had to get up on Glacier Point road. We had a very good pizza in Yosemite village. After that, up to Glacier point, where we had good view over the valley. At about 7pm we parked our car at the Sentinel Dome trailhead, and hiked up to the peak of Sentinel Dome. Together with several other hikers, we enjoyed the views, silence, and a beautiful sunset. It was possibly the single most impressive experience of the whole trip. After dark, we drove back to our motel.
Day 7: Over the Tioga Pass to Bishop
Next morning, we headed up to Tioga Pass, with a stop at Olmsted Point, where you have quite a different view of Half Dome (not the green of the valley, but mostly the granite grey). At Tuolumne Meadows we enjoyed the beautiful high alpine meadow between the grey peaks of the Sierra’s. At the Tioga Pass, we left Yosemite NP and drove down to Lee Vining, where we had lunch at the Woa Nelly Deli. At the South Tufa area of Mono Lake we hiked between the otherworldly tufa rocks.
Time to hit the road again: the 395 to Bishop, where we checked in into our motel (Vagabond Inn). We continued on the 395 tot Big Pine, and from there the 168 and the white mountain road up to the Schulman Groove, where at over 3000 meter altitude there live the oldest living things on earth: some of these bristlecone pines are over 4000 years old. Back to Bishop for some shopping and dinner. Although the outside temperature was quite warm, the motel pool was to cold for our taste, so we skipped our swim today.
Day 8: Death Valley
Each day was getting hotter and hotter. Today we would reach 122F / 50C, so any thoughts of serious hiking had to be abandoned. We drove to Lone Pine, and over the Panamint mountains into Death Valley. We would have liked to make a hike at Mosaic Canyon, but we had to skip that. We just explored Stovepipe Wells and the sand dunes nearby, and drove on to Furnace Creek where we checked in to our cabin at the Ranch. Further down the valley we visited Badwater, Devils Golfcourse, and the Artists drive. After a good dinner in the 49er Café, we went for a swim in the pool. It was already dark, and the starry night sky was beautiful. Just relaxing in a quite warm pool, gazing at the stars was a wonderful way to conclude this day.
Day 9: To Las Vegas
We used the coolness of the morning to visit Zabrisky Point, and Dantes View. Then we headed to Las Vegas, with a short visit to the Red Rock Canyon Park. It has a nice visitor center and a scenic drive along some colorful rock formations. On to Las Vegas. We had booked a room in the Platinum Hotel, a very new non-casino hotel one block away from the Strip. We where not disappointed, all rooms are huge, with 2 person whirlpools in a large bathroom. And no waiting lines at the checking, as we saw later at the large casino hotels. We visited Caesars Palace, New York - New York, and MGM, but after a while, our feet started hurting from the walking. We had a good dinner in ‘America’ in New York – New York, and enjoyed the lightshows at the casinos. Las Vegas is nice, but should be enjoyed in small bits. One day at a time is just right for us.
Day 10: Zion
Next morning we left Las Vegas on the I-15 to Utah. We made a short stop at St. George to see the Mormon Temple. Then on to Zion National Park. To see the Zion Canyon, we had to park our car at the visitor center, and take the shuttle bus into the canyon. At Weeping Rock we made the short hike up to the rock spring. Back at the visitor center, we drove our car through the tunnel to the east side, and parked immediately after the tunnel, at the trailhead for the Canyon Overview trail. That was a very recommendable hike, with lots of good views into the canyon, and the beautiful eroded rocks. Personally I think the eastern part of Zion is even more interesting then the Zion Canyon: it has an otherworldly quality with all the eroded rock formations and pancake stacks. Checkerboard Mesa is a worthy conclusion at the exit of the park. We drove on to Mt. Carmel Junction, where we checked in to the Thunderbird Lodge, a conveniently located Best Western Motel, with a helpful staff and a nice restaurant.
Day 11: Bryce
From Mt. Carmel Junction to Bryce canyon is nice drive, especially Highway 12 through the Red Canyon of Dixie National Forest. Bryce itself is a marvelous place. We did the Navajo / Queens garden loop hike, which descends into the canyon through the Wall Street formations. Those hoodoos are fantastic! Back at the rim we recovered at the nice old Lodge and restaurant, and then headed back to Mt. Carmel, stopping at some other Bryce canyon viewpoints.
Day 12: Grand Canyon North Rim
Most people will only visit the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is a pity (or good for us), because the North Rim is so beautiful and quiet: the very green Kaibab Forest covers the plateau just to the rim, making the first view into the canyon even more a spectacular surprise. From Mt. Carmel Junction it is just over 2 hour drive, so we had time to visit Point Imperial and Cape Royal before we checked in to our cabin at the Lodge. We had a pioneer cabin, very basic, but you can’t beat the location. The restaurant in the Lodge had a very good dinner, with reasonable prices. We took dinner early, to be at Bright Angel Point at Sunset. Those views are unforgettable.
Day 13: To the South Rim
Although the distance from the North Rim to the South Rim is only 10 miles / 15 kilometers, driving a car from north to south is about 215 miles / 350 km. But it is quite a nice drive. We stopped at the Navajo Bridge over Marble Canyon. The last time we where here, there was only one bridge. Now the old bridge is for pedestrians, so you can look down into the canyon. Cameron trading post makes another interesting stop, with lots of Navajo artwork. Then west again to the GCNP entrance at Dessert View. At the GC Village we checked in at the Maswik Lodge. Quite basic motel style rooms, but with AC, which was very useful. In the evening, after a beautiful sunset at Yavapai point, we attended a ranger talk. A very easy to understand introduction the geology of the Grand Canyon, suitable for all ages groups.
Day 14: Down from the Rim
Today we wanted to descent into the canyon. But due to the heat, we had to shorten the trip. But even a small trip below the rim gives you quite another perspective on the Canyon. Back on the rim we had some extra time to explore the rim buildings: the stately El Tovar hotel, Hopi house, and the Kolb studio.
Day 15: Sunset Crater to Petrified Forest
We leave the Grand Canyon, and our first stop is at Sunset Crater NM. It is fascinating how the lava flows are still barren after hundreds of years (the last eruption was in the Middle Ages). After a brief visit, we take the I40 East to the Petrified Forest NP. In the northern part, the Painted Desert is the main attraction. Further south in the park, we see more and more petrified trees, but also Indian ruins. Our motel for tonight is in Holbrook, so we head back there.
Day 16: Sedona
Driving out of Holbrook, we enjoy some Route-66 historic buildings, like the famous Wigwam Motel, and then we take the I40 back to Flagstaff. There we leave the interstates, and take the 89A through the Oak Creek Canyon to Sedona. The lookout point makes a good stop. It was a pity that a bit further on, at Slide Rock State park, all parking was occupied, so we couldn’t stop for some pictures. South of Sedona we admired the Cathedral Rocks, and on the way to the I-17 we stopped at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Fascinating architecture and a beautiful view! Next stop is Montezuma Castle: the only cliff dwelling on this trip. A pity that you can’t get into the ‘castle’ itself. On to Phoenix, where we checked in at the Firesky resort hotel. A nice hotel, with a beautiful landscaped garden / pool area, and architecturally interesting lobby.
Day 17: Frank Lloyd Wright
After a fine breakfast at the 5&Diner we visited Taliesin West, the famous architecture school of Frank Lloyd Wright. We had a interesting tour, where we could enjoy even the more private rooms of the premises. Afterwards, we visited some other FLW buildings in the Phoenix area, especially the Arizona Biltmore hotel. There was even some time left for shopping.
Day 18: Joshua Tree NP
Leaving Phoenix over the I-10 westbound, we had a quick trip to the south entrance of the Joshua Tree NP. This is a fascinating NP. Coming from the low desert, you rise up to the higher altitudes, where the Joshua trees live, and the jumbo rock formations are. Walking between those huge, smooth rocks is like visiting another planet. Due to recent flash flood damage, some roads were blocked, but we could leave the park at the northern side, to reach our destination for today: Twentynine Palms.
Day 19: Los Angeles
Our destination for today is Santa Barbara, we just wanted to make some brief stops in the LA area. As a FLW enthusiast, our first stop was at the Hollyhock house. From the hill where the house is located you have a nice view over the Hollywood hills and Griffith Park. Then westbound along the Hollywood Blvd, the walk of fame, and the Chinese Theatre. Time for some culture at the Getty Center: after some queuing at the car parking, we took the shuttle up the hill, where we enjoyed the beautiful architecture, some of the exhibits, and the view over the Santa Monica mountains.
We could have spent more time here of course, but we tried to leave LA before the afternoon rush-hour starts, so we hit the road again to Santa Barbara. After we checked in to our Hotel downtown, we went up to the Mission, beautiful illuminated in the late afternoon sun.
Day 20: Highway 1
Our first stop along highway 1 north is Mission La Purisima Concepcion near Lompoc. After the bustling LA area, the quiet solitude of the carefully restored (rebuild) mission buildings is refreshing. At Pismo beach and Morro Bay we reach the Ocean again, and with several stops we follow the road until we reach San Simeon, where we check into the worst motel of our trip: the Courtesy Inn. The room was plain filthy. To make up for the motel, the restaurant Manta Rey nearby provided one of the best dinners!
Day 21: San Simeon and Big Sur
We started the day with a tour of Hearst Castle. We took tour 2, which brought us in a nice small group (7 people) to the upper floors of the main building.
Back on the road, we made a stop at the sea lions at the beach. After several short stops along the marvelous coastline, we stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State park, and the McWay cove with the scenic waterfall. After a beautiful drive, with lots of stops to enjoy the views, we arrive at Carmel, and visit the Carmel Mission. The weather is not really bright, so we skip the 17 mile drive, and head for our hotel in Monterey.
Day 22: Back to San Francisco
It’s a short way from Monterey back to SF, so we take our time, and drive up to Santa Cruz, then north to San Jose, have a look at the Winchester Mystery house, and on to Stanford University, where we walk around the campus. The next day we have to fly back home, so we head early to our (disappointing) Comfort Inn & Suites at SFO airport to repack all our bags.
Day 23: Homeward bound
There is some time left after checking out of the motel before we have to return the car at the airport, so we do some shopping at a nearby mall, and then drive to the Alamo location SFO. Car return and flight check in went smoothly, and after 3 terrific weeks we were back on our way home.
23 days, we visited 12 National Parks or Monuments, drove 5380 km / 3343 miles.
The longest day trip was 523 km / 324 mi. We took about 4700 pictures.