This blog post is dedicated to Ned, with whom I spent this unforgettable month of adventuring through California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. He is also the creator of these wonderful photographs!
Before beginning our journey we had rented a car that was converted into a camper-van with a bed, sink, cool box and gas cooker. This is a very convenient and fun way to explore the west coast. http://www.lostcampersusa.com
Here is an interactive map of the entire tour:
We started our trip in Berkeley and headed to Salt Lake City. On the way the roads became snowy and icy and we were warned of a snow blizzard that was coming up in Tahoe and would block the highway for the next few days. So we quickly passed the mountains and entered Nevada – except for Las Vegas this state is basically just desert. We spent our first night sleeping in our car in the remote city of Winnemucca. During this long drive we had our first realization of how humongous the United States is with its straight roads that disappear into the far horizon.
Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah and of the Mormon Church was transformed into a peaceful winter wonderland. Together with my friends, from the Ihouse in Berkeley, we celebrated a cosy white Christmas in a house that we had rented. Here we went for a wonderful hike through the deep, deep snow – the fluffiest snow we have ever laid eyes on. Ned and I were sleeping in our car in Salt Lake City where the temperature at night dropped to -12 degrees Celsius.
However, the temperature in Salt Lake City was nothing compared to the night we arrived in Bryce, with its proud -19 degrees Celsius. Wearing thick socks, curled up tightly and covered by layers of blankets we survived the coldest night of our entire trip. After peeking through the curtains and the frozen windows we discovered the beauty of the Bryce Canyon National Park. We hiked through the so-called ‘hoodos’, which are pillars of rocks that were shaped by erosion. Standing at the rim of the canyon, we gazed at the contrast of the soft white snow covering the bright orange rocks and the various layers of eroded rock. Bryce canyon is a very unique place with lots of wonderful hikes and unmissable viewpoints.
We left Bryce to drive to Springdale, where we stayed in the Watchman campground, nominated as one of America’s 21 most beautiful campsites. We arrived at night and only in the morning light did we realise in what a beautiful location we had slept. To me Zion National Park seems to be ‘Cowboy and Native American land’ – it is evident that ancient native people and pioneers wondered across this land. It is a high canyon with majestic orange and red sandstone cliffs. During the summer a shuttle bus takes you through the road of the canyon, whereas in winter we had the freedom of driving to all the spots in our own car. We headed up to a peak named ‘Angel’s Landing’, the trail began along the Virgin River and then steadily elevated in height. The last part of the trail is on a steep and narrow ridge with support chains. Unfortunately, we did not reach the top because we did not have any crampons for the icy and extremely slipper conditions – and if you take one bad step, you will never make a step again. Nonetheless, we still enjoyed the beautiful view right into the canyon and then completed the overlook trail where you got an awe-inspiring view of the massive cliffs – WOW.
On the road from Utah to Arizona the landscape slowly begins to look more and more like the Wild West and like the Grand Canyon. We spent the night in the overflow area of the campsite (they are usually cheaper!) in Page and indulged in a typical American meal at Taco Bell. We woke up early to see the early sunrays hit the ‘Horseshoe bend’, a famous lookout point of a horseshoe shaped curve of the Colorado River. We had reserved a tour to visit the Antelope Canyon, located on Navajo (native American) land. We visited the upper Antelope Canyon, a narrow slot canyon, named by the Navajo people as ‘the place where water runs through rocks’. We walked at the bottom of this 40m deep canyon, through the smooth, colourful and curvy rocks, which are lit up by single light beams that peak through the crack at the top of the canyon. Antelope Canyon has become a very popular location for photographers as well as sightseers. As a result, Ned and I were a bit overwhelmed by the mass tourism of this place and the natural beauty was a little ruined due to the many people that were crammed in this slit between the rocks.
From this narrow slit canyon we made our way to the majestic Grand Canyon. During the winter months there is only access to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, where we stayed at the Mather campground. We started off the next day by hiking down into the canyon to look up and later walked along the rim to look down into the canyon. As the name suggests, this canyon is massive, 446km long and 29km wide. It is a scenic view due to the depth, different layers of rocks and emerging colours. However, we found it difficult to fully appreciate the Grand Canyon because the view did not change much during our hike, as the scenery is just so large.
We spent New Years Eve in Phoenix, the capital of Arizona as well as the most populated state capital of the United States. There is not so much to do in Phoenix and we used it as a travel spot to pass through on our way back to California. Yet, to celebrate the New Year we treated ourselves with a hotel room and the best Indian food in town.
Our first few days of 2016 were in Joshua Tree National Park, an amazing area of two distinct desert ecosystems: the dry Colorado and the more lively Mojave. The surreal geologic features made this place so unique. The White Tank Campsite was our favourite campsite of the entire trip – very remote with only 12 sites in total. In the Joshua Tree National Park we spent hours climbing on the big rocks, hiked up Ryan Mountain and marvelled at the desert land with its funny-looking Joshua Trees.
Close to Joshua Tree National Park is Palm Springs, a little Oasis. This resort city attracts tourists due to its warm temperatures, golfing and pools. It is all man made: big streets, planted palm trees and large villas. We spent a night here sitting in the hot tub while staring up at the long palm trees of Palm Springs. I had read about an event called ‘RoboLights’. The artist creates psychedelic Christmassy/sci-fi art and light installations that he displays in his massive garden. It was a very, very weird and strange experience, unfortunately it was very difficult to capture on camera.
The next stop was Pasadena and then Los Angeles. LA, the city of fame, music, movies, the Hollywood sign, Beverly Hills and sunny beaches. Unfortunately, to see all of this you are going to be stuck in traffic first. According to the TomTom Traffic Index, a driver will spend an extra 95 hours in traffic every year, interestingly, the most congested specific day was Valentines day! Lucky enough, we still made it to see the stars on Hollywood Boulevard and the waves at Manhattan Beach. We saw a live performance at ‘The Viper Room’ on the Sunset strip, which used to be owned by Johnny Depp and a place for the Hollywood elite. We wondered through the ‘Getty’, a very large museum, looked across the bustling city from the Griffith observatory and indulged in good food (this is the place where Ned had his first encounter with In-N-Out – since then he can’t think of anything else but those ‘Double-double Animal Style Burgers’!)
The second part of our trip was to explore the west coast on highway one. We passed Santa Maria, known as the barbecue city of California where we had ribs for dinner and then stayed a night at Pismo beach. The coast had been a little flooded and the weather throughout our drive was not always the best Californian sunshine that one could have hoped for. Nonetheless, we enjoyed some breath-taking views along the Pacific Ocean.
One of my famous moments was when we stopped at the elephant seal spot. We had seen grey rocks scattered along the beach as we drove past and were not very optimistic about spotting these large aquatic mammals. However, as we approached the beach, we realised that what we had recognised as rocks were actually numerous elephant seals! They come to the same beach every year to give birth to their babies and to mate. We saw a half-an-hour-old-baby seal elephant and witnessed a big flock of seagulls fighting over the placenta.
We spent two nights at the Limekiln Campsite while going on hikes, beach walks and enjoying the sunsets. We stopped at the Sand Dollar Beach, Julia Pfeifer’s State Park, the really cosy Henry Miller Library, a valley of wild calla lilies leading to the beach and the natural state reserve of Point Lobos. This is a great spot to observe seals, birds and mystical forests.
Our next big stop was Monterey. We spent one whole day in the city’s famous aquarium, staring at the big Bluefin tunas, the graceful jellyfish and colour-changing octopuses. The HIGHlight of the end of our trip was when we safely landed from the world’s highest tandem skydive at 5,500m! I was so nervous at first but then everything went so quickly – jumping out of the plane and the 90 seconds of free-fall, screaming, viewing the Pacific Ocean and fields underneath me… then the opening of the parachute and flying along the horizon. WOOSH, what an unbelievable rush!!
Thank you for this wonderful month and the vast memories that shall remain.
As we followed the footsteps of Henry Miller along the coast, I feel that it is appropriate to finish off with a quote from this American writer:
“If we are always arriving and departing, it is also
true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination
is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”
― Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch