47 days, 18 nights camping, a spot of couchsurfing, 6500 miles on the road, 6 National Parks and 3 pretty cool city breaks and Moana, lots and lots of Moana! Here’s the first part of a recap of our USA road trip. Hope you enjoy reading it. (this is written by me, Iain, the Dad and driver on this trip we’ve undertaken)
After our flight from Gatwick we had a few days in San Francisco before picking up our hire car. We felt like excited teenagers as we were finally beginning our year of travel as a family and we couldn’t wait to get stuck in. San Francisco didn’t disappoint. Predictably for that time of year, the weather was rubbish but we still managed to cram in Chinatown, a cycle across the Golden Gate bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and lots & lots of walking as we began to immerse ourselves in some of the West Coast, Bay Area culture.
The experience of being a tourist in the US and of travel itself was new to all of us and we were lapping it up; the sheer size of a US city, it’s hectic pace, the hobos on the street, the colourful characters on the public transport and the tacos at La Taqueria on Mission (which still ranks as my #1 US eating experience and a must-visit if you find yourself in San Francisco). We had such an appetite to take it all in. The girls were beaming too as we took the first steps in our big adventure.
After two nights in a downtown hotel we took the BART out to Richmond point where we met Johnny, a guy who Rachel had been in contact with through a couchsurfing website. To say that our two nights with Johnny were memorable wouldn’t be
doing it justice. It was as clear an example of selflessness as I’d ever experienced and a gentle reminder to us of our duties as human beings to be kind, generous and considerate. Johnny picked us up at the station, housed us, fed us, advised us on our forthcoming trip and was generally excellent company and a great host. He’s genuine, friendly, (the right side of) eccentric with an infections appetite for life and the great outdoors. He asked for nothing and expected nothing in return. It was a prime example of altruism and a fantastic way to begin our family travel journey. We all look forward to keeping in touch with Johnny.
I picked up our rental vehicle at San Francisco airport. It was a beigy grey 7-seater Nissan “chick magnet” Quest, I returned to Richmond Point to pick up the troops.
We began our journey with a trip down the California coastline with a vague idea of a plan, some general guidelines about what we were looking to achieve and a bucket load of enthusiasm. And Moana, the soundtrack to Disney’s latest animation movie about a girl from an island in the South Pacific. There was always Moana.
The route down Highway 1 is stunning and although part of it was closed (due to a recent landslide) we made it down to Big Sur and Point Lobos where we stopped to take in the ocean air before continuing our journey south.
We spent two days in the warmer climate of the California’ coast’s middle section taking in Santa Monica and Venice Beach. Not wanting to blow our budget in the first few days and struggling to find any accomofmodation within our price range we ended up in a couple of somewhat underwhelming places to stay but we loved the beaches and the warm Californian sunshine. Venice Beach in particular which was an eye opener with so much going on and everyone had a smile on their face. We stumbled across an impressive slam dunk contest complete with MC and some pretty heavy beats which we all thoroughly enjoyed.
It was time to head eastward. Our first stop was a small town called 29 Palms, staying with friend’s parents whose house backed onto Joshua Tree National Park. We stopped on the way to raid Walmart for our camping equipment. $500 later, we left with the Chick Magnet full to the brim with new sleeping bags, pillows, a tent, cooler, cooking and eating equipment.
Ben’s parents, our hosts, made us feel at home immediately. It felt good after saying goodbye to our own family only a week ago. The oatmeal pancakes breakfast we shared with Ben’s Mum in the backyard backing onto the spectacular national park was memorable. Her conversation was wise, liberal and humble. Upon reflection we wished we would meet more people like this as we travelled East. The pancakes were spectacular too!
We bought our National Park Annual Pass and took in the splendour of Joshua Tree National park that day. Once the sun had set we re-packed our bags and the car for tomorrow, ready for the adventures ahead. The open road awaited us and we had a plan to try and camp for 10 days before we were due in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
We drove 6 hours to Sedona, Arizona. An early start helped get the first couple of hours under our belt with the kids still asleep. We travelled alongside the park before turning south to pick up the highway towards Arizona. We drove in silence, in awe of the grandeur and sheer emptiness of the desert landscapes. We set up camp on a quiet campsite with next to no neighbours apart from couple of wandering deer and sounder (yes, I had to look that one up) of wild boar who came to check out our site during the night. I bravely chased them away with a plastic chair. It was our first night under the stars. Although I wouldn’t classify my campfire culinary accomplishments that evening a success, that night remains a stand out memory as it was just us as a family, under the starry night sky.
Sedona’s surrounding area is fun and we particularly enjoyed splashing and sliding about Sliding Rock state park.
After a couple of days in the area we headed north towards the Grand Canyon. We had breakfast with an old friend in Flagstaff before the short drive towards the South Rim of the canyon. Being a weekend and unsure of the availability of sites in the area we were pleased to have arrived early enough to secure a site inside the National Park at Desert View campground for a whopping $ 12 a night. The canyon’s edge was a short walk from where we pitched our tent. It felt great to be somewhere so special with so little hassle. My campfire cooking exploits hadn’t improved in the slightest but we were happy to be there. The girls made friends at the campsite too which was nice for everyone. The highlight of our stay was a trek into the canyon to Cedar Ridge, a ridge and lookout point about halfway down. The girls did well in the sweltering heat and although Gemma spent most of the four hour hike on my shoulders and Holly had a mini-meltdown on the way back up, we did it and were pleased with our accomplishments.
Our plan was fairly vague once more as we packed down and left the campsite after 2 nights at desert View. We were heading towards Zion National Park but were pleased to stumble across Lone Rock Campground which is located on a beach, on man-made lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Park. Our site cost us $14 this time round. The vista was once again breathtaking, the weather was great and he had the added bonus of watching the solar eclipse from our beach site during our 2nd day there. The girls made friends once more which once again was beneficial to all. We stayed for 3 nights. The only downsides were that the massive RV’s and their noisy generators outnumbered the tent campers and the winds picked up every evening we were there blowing sand in all directions and enforcing an early night.
Onwards to Zion where once again we lucked out at a first-come-first-served campsite within the National Park. Zion is another place of outstanding natural beauty. A gorge and valley weathered away over thousands of years by the Virgin River.
We ventured to the end of the valley to the Temple of Sinawava then onto The Narrows, a hike into the narrowest part of the gorge tramping through the river bed itself. Again, the girls rose to the occasion and revelled in it. We made it a good way into the gorge and back knee-high in the water with no major falls in the river. It was both fun and spectacular scenery. We enjoyed the park and being at the campsite. It was well run and had a visitor’s village nearby with a pub which brewed it’s own tasty selection of beers.
With a couple of days to go until Steamboat Springs, where some friends of ours from home had very kindly offered us their place to stay for a few nights, we headed in that direction and found ourselves in Moab, Utah. After 8 days camping rough we were pleased to check into a private campsite. It was more expensive at $40 a night but had a pool, wifi, showers and a washing up area. The National Parks are great and one of their appeal is how basic they are but after our time on the road we were very much in need of a few creature comforts.
We weren’t particularly impressed with Moab itself. We expected more and found it soulless and restrictive, particularly with kids. I guess that’s Utah laws though and we weren’t going to argue.
We did enjoy the surrounding parks however and took an adventurous, albeit somewhat irresponsible trek in Arches National Park.
We hadn’t planned on it and probably should have thought better before embarking on a hike through the desert and up to Delicate Arch. We weren’t prepared, had no water, sunscreen and needless to say midday on an August day wasn’t an ideal time to take it on. We made it though and are still here to tell the tale but we did get some rather disapproving looks from other better prepared hikers.
On then to Colorado where we were looking forward to a bit of R&R after 10 nights in the tent. The drive was amazing leaving the red sandstone and desert behind and heading north to green valleys with shallow streams and grazing cattle. The scenery from some of the drives was one of the major take-aways for me for this first segment of the journey. Breathtaking is a good way of describing it but it’s even more than that. It’s so vast and so varied from the moment we left Los Angeles there wasn’t one stretch of road that wasn’t impressive for it’s own reasons. And weirdly, that bloody Moana soundtrack kindof suited the majority of the landscapes. There’s something about it’s narrative of indigenous people living in harmony with the world around them that paired well with our surroundings, at least that’s what I’d managed to convince myself. We felt good too. On the road together as a family and despite a few backseat scraps and arguments over muesli bars or seat belts we were enjoying each other’s company.