ROAMING THE WEST – A road trip through American wilderness

The American dream is a very real thing. It is a very obtainable thing. It comes in the form of a $1.95 optional extra. Bacon in a milkshake – the perfect American metaphor.

Sitting in a roadside Denny’s, polishing off the last of a hash brown and my milkshake, the enormity of the task of summing up a road trip across the United States of America reared it’s head. The place is colossal.

Each American state is like its own country with its own laws and its own quirks which encapsulate the subtle differences that lead to completely different way of life from what we are used to in Gibraltar. What was this American dream we’ve heard so much about? How obtainable was it for the average person?

When planning a road trip in America, people tend to find themselves presented with two enticing options, the first of which is the famed ‘Route 66’. This iconic stretch of road spans almost 4,000 km across the length of the country through eight states. The road has long since been declared obsolete due to newer, faster highways taking over, but the road has seen somewhat of a revival over recent years as tourists flock to drive ‘The Great Diagonal Way’. However, due to the fact that the route is mainly for tourists nowadays, people quite often find themselves looking at option number two; the West.

The West Coast is the perfect place to fly into, drive around, head inland, find Vegas, lose your money, and fly home from. It’s also very easy to take a few days stop-over in New York as an added bonus.

Choosing a hire car before your trip is one of your bigger decisions. When you envisioned your great American road trip at home, you were probably behind the wheel of a convertible Mustang, tearing up the open road with the wind in your hair. Whilst this is a possibility, it’s rather more expensive than hiring a standard automatic Hyundai with a spot of air conditioning. Nevertheless, you’ll be looking out into the scenery, not at the car.

This article aims to point out a few of the many things you can do in the West, without mentioning the big unmissable names of San Francisco, Las Vegas, and arguably Los Angeles. Leaving your chosen city of entry will provide you with a quick crash course in getting used to American road rules; generally, things are a bit slower and you can turn right at red lights, that’s about it. Moving roughly in a North to South direction, this is a road trip you can enjoy exploring anywhere from two weeks to six months. Start off by heading toward the familiar sounding Sierra Nevada…

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is a stunning sight all year round. In the winter, the lake is surrounded by snow and the area functions as a ski resort town, but at this time of year, the summer sees the end of the cold that is felt as late as May at this elevation. This popular tourist spot is up there with the best in terms of natural beauty. Hike the nearby peaks to get a better view of the lake, or, if you don’t like walking, you can rent a mountain bike. Days can be spent just walking/riding around and enjoying the calm serenity, but wait, there’s a lake, it’s summer, you’d be silly not to indulge in some water based activities. Chuck those walking shoes in the bin, pick up a paddle, and kayak out to Fannette Island, the only island, to get a different perspective of the lake. Clamber to the ‘tea house’, the stone shell of an abandoned structure, and perhaps indulge in some tombstoning (jumping from the rocks into the water).

Depending on where you’re staying in Tahoe, you may be able to walk across the state border into Nevada, at which point you’ll be inundated with casinos giving you your first taste of the gaming culture Nevada is famous for. My advice is to spend your time here with nature, after all, there’s a place elsewhere in Nevada with a few casinos which isn’t surrounded by luscious greenery. Quite the opposite.

Church in Bodie

Ghost Towns

Next on the road trip lies a couple of national parks, each with their own USP’s, but first there are a few wild west ghost towns to visit, the most interesting of which is called Bodie. From lake Tahoe, along some pretty empty roads, you’ll find a turning signposted to Bodie. Every person I’ve ever heard of trying to reach the elusive ghost town has encountered a road block proclaiming that the road is closed to the public, but you didn’t make this two-and-a-half hour journey for nothing. Swing around these signs and head straight on in and follow the road in (apparently, this road block has since been lifted). This town was founded in the mid 1800’s after the discovery of gold and once had a fairly thriving population of around 6000 people, 60 years later, this had dwindled to around 600 before reaching the official population of three in the 40’s. Bodie is now a Wild West ghost town with only a smattering of 100 or so dilapidated buildings remaining. Walking around the eerily empty streets, it’s hard to believe that this isolated town in the middle of nowhere once had the potential and ambition of big city life.

Bodie

For the hardcore cowboy film fans, there are even more remote ghost towns with even fewer buildings to walk around quoting Clint Eastwood, however, you’d only be adding more miles to the detour as you’ll have to take the same road back to reach your destination: Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite National Park

National Parks

Yosemite National Park

One for the lovers of the natural world, Yosemite National Park presents many a postcard picture opportunity. There is one expensive hotel in Yosemite village, which offers fantastic accessibility to various hiking trails, the rest of us are forced further out, but still within the park’s grounds. The area is a hotbed of biodiversity: cascading waterfalls, granite cliff faces, clearwater streams, and woodland wilderness await your arrival. The odd wandering Stegosaurus wouldn’t be out of place amongst the towering trees and glaciers. Yosemite valley makes up only 1% of the park but it is the only place the majority of tourists chose to see; even this is worth the trip. When hiking through the forests, you’ll encounter waterfall after waterfall, each as magnificent as the last, eventually, you just have to call it a day, you’re all waterfalled out. Be sure to clock the Yosemite Falls at least. A number of cliff faces will entice rock climbers from around the globe. Try your hand at bettering the millions of photographs of Tunnel View taken each year. If you enjoy peace and tranquility, stay here as long as you can and use the time to explore as much as possible, just watch out for the bears…

General Sherman tree

One last expanse of woodland wouldn’t go amiss at this stage, so on your way out of the Sierra Nevada, further South of Yosemite, is (the lesser, arguably) Sequoia National Park. With much of the same landscape (being in the same sort of area) as Yosemite, you might be thinking ‘why should I stop here’? Ask yourself this instead, ‘have I ever seen the biggest tree in the world?’ If the answer to this question is ‘no’, drop in and visit the General Sherman tree and marvel at it’s grandeur. Spoiler alert: it’s quite big. The park also offers numerous caves ripe for exploration (Google ‘Ted the Caver’) and a fallen sequoia over a road, which had to be tunnelled through to make the road passable. After you’ve had your fill, look at the greenery one last time because you’re headed away from park life to a more arid, desolate land.

Death Valley

Death Valley

Depending on what time of year you are travelling, you may have found some snow up in Lake Tahoe, it even gets chilly at night in the height of summer. In Death Valley, the heat of the summer sun beats down on the desert ground, the dense air of this area, almost 90 metres below sea level, catches some of the heat trying to escape. The valley walls also trap some of this hot air, and the combination of hot trapped air is heated further by compression. Science lesson over, the point is that Death Valley is consequently one of the hottest places on Earth, with the (disputed) highest ever recorded temperature. Bring sunscreen, a hat, a large bottle of water, and maybe one of those liquid cooling ventilation suits worn by astronauts.

Death Valley

The ominous name was given to the area by the first non-native Americans crossing the valley during the gold rush. You’d think that a party crossing one of the hottest places on Earth in the mid 1800s would be expecting a couple of deaths, as it happens only one of their party died, but the name stuck anyway.

Death Valley has a number of points of interest with fantastic names. How can you not visit a place called Tea Kettle Junction, which is ultimately just a sign with lots of kettles attached to it, but it’s a strange sight in the middle of the desert. Perhaps the most famous area with another great name is Badwater. The salt flats of the area mark the lowest point of the States. Walk out onto the flat to get the best picture of the Badwater Basin spring, because the water is too salty to drink, bad water. More simplistic, straightforward, and descriptive names are prevalent throughout the park: Visit Echo Canyon, a canyon that echos, Pleasant View for quite a nice view, and no prizes for guessing what you’ll find at Sand Dunes.

Echo Canyon

Out in Racetrack Playa, the mystery of the Sailing Stones was finally put to bed in late 2014. These rocks would move, seemingly on their own, forming a trail over a number of years. The trails stop and start over around a three year period, sometimes the stones flip over or turn at a right angle. Over the span of 100 years, many theories were put forward, now the phenomenon has been put down to a combination of wind and thin ice panels. Even without the mystery, it’s still a pleasant sight (not to be confused with Pleasant View).

Racetrack Playa

The place is littered with various rock formations from most of our planet’s geological eras. From Artists Drive, named so because the colours on the rocks resemble an artist’s palette, to Zabriskie Point, a stunning viewpoint,  there’s weeks of fun to be had for those who think geology rocks (sorry). There are also plenty of places to camp, which come nighttime, due to the lack of light pollution and cloud cover being a rarity, are an ideal place to brush up on your astronomy. If you’re little bit absolutely mad, the Badwater ultramarathon will take you from -86 metres to 2550 over 135 miles. In July. The hottest month. I know what you’re thinking. That ultra marathon is just a touch too intense for my liking. Well you’re in luck, the Grand Canyon hosts a pathetically short 78 mile ultramarathon.

The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, North rim

The trick here is to allocate a decent amount of time to the canyon. On arrival, you’ll be overwhelmed with the size of the park, the sheer scale of the missing chunk of earth. Without ample planning, you’ll join the rest of the tourists, driving along the south rim, stopping off at various viewpoints to take photos. While this is a fairly good way to take in various panoramic views of the colossal gorge, you need to take some time to do a few little hikes to gain access to its inner beauty. While you’re at the top though, be sure to stop by Deserts view, where the view of the old watchtower on the edge of the canyon coupled with the Colorado river below makes for a very pleasant photograph.

Zabriskie Point Valley

There are many, many options for getting stuck into hiking the thing. These range from a short 15-20 minute walk, to spending weeks at a time down there. If hiking in the summer, think about how much water you’re going to need, then bring more. In August, depending on where you are, the temperature will generally be somewhere in the 30’s, which is rather toasty. For the more adventurous among us, there’s also an abundance of unmaintained trails to get off the beaten track (onto a beaten track). The most famous of these treks is the Bright Angel Trail, which starts up in Grand Canyon Village, descending 1335 metres of endless, winding cutbacks down to Phantom Ranch, a picturesque area to stop for the night. The site of the ranch was once inhabited by native Americans, with pit houses being found that date back around 100 years. If you want to stay here, you typically have to book about a year in advance, although they are implementing a monthly lottery system in the coming years, to stop the waiting list becoming out of control.

Mountain lion, Grand Canyon

Animal lovers will have a field day: deer, coyotes, and hummingbirds are all frequently spotted on the hikes, but keep an eye out for the more exciting creatures. Mountain lions prowl the area, usually being more active at night, black bears tend to stay away from the busy areas but lurk among the canyon walls, and if you have very good eyes, you might spot the Grand Canyon Rattlesnake, which has a reddish-pinkish hue to assist its camouflage into the rocks. Bird watchers will be out to spot the intriguing California Condor, only existing in captivity in the 80’s, these large scavengers were released back into the wild around 30 years ago, but remain a rare sight.

Tea Kettle Junction

Trekking and searching for wild beasts done with, get your blood pumping with some extreme sports. Few natural settings can claim to boast a better view for your first (or next) skydiving experience. With the air futilely attempting to slow you down as you crash down to earth at 200kph, don’t forget to pull the chord as you stare in awe at the magnitude of the canyon from this aerial perspective. Like the idea of looking down at the canyon from above but don’t want to be terrified to your very core? Grand Canyon Skywalk is a glass walkway extending out over the edge in a semi circle. This can be a little daunting if you suffer from vertigo, but surely, a better option than plummeting from the heavens in fear for your life. Helicopter tours provide a tertiary option for gaining this perspective. Back on the ground (or water), white water rafting tours range from day trips to week long expeditions during the summer months and provide an opportunity to view the flora and fauna of the area whilst having a LOT of fun.

The beauty of a road trip is that you can chose your own course and find your own hidden gems along the way. While these places are all unmissable, there are plenty of stops in between you’ll find along the way. At the end of your trip, you can go back to Denny’s and reflect that you are trying to explore just a tiny portion of a massive country with so much to offer, and that there are many things to behold that are (slightly) more beautiful than the bacon milkshake in your hand.