The Israeli holiday season of September 2018 made it quite easy to get an extended vacation without using too many leave days. As such, I could squeeze in a little more than 3 weeks for my annual US trip.
I thought about visiting the national parks on the Eastern part of the country (e.g. along and around the Appalachians), but eventually decided on a road trip through all (or at least most) of the parks on the Western part that I had missed on my previous trips. I planned a one-way route starting in Boise, ID, zigzagging West and East while generally going South, and ending in Los Angeles, CA.
My reason for going to Boise was to catch the Smashing Pumpkins' reunion tour. Unfortunately, they canceled the show about a month in advance. I decided not to make any changes and use Boise as a starting point anyway.
It was especially important to me to return to Zion National Park in Utah. Zion was the first national park I've ever visited, back in 2012, but I only drove through the park back then and missed a lot of what it had to offer.
All in all I visited 6 states and 7 national parks; drove through some of the longest stretches of road I've ever done; returned to Las Vegas after a three year absence, and generally had a blast.
Crater Lake National Park
I landed in Boise, ID on Friday morning, September 7, after a connection in San Francisco. I picked up my rental car and drove to town to run some errands and preparations for the road trip. Despite my original reason for being in Boise - the Smashing Pumpkins show - being canceled, and as a lesson from previous trips, I decided to stay put on the first day and get some rest of the journey to the US. I fell asleep quite early in the evening, and woke up very early the next day.
After an early morning workout in the hotel's fitness center and a swim in the pool, I started driving on Saturday east towards Oregon. On one of my gas station stops in the heart of Oregon, I was looking for locations close to Crater Lake National Park to stay that night. As there weren't many options, I decided to veer a bit north to Bend, where lodgings are plentiful. I booked a night in the "Riverhouse on the Deschutes" hotel, which was pretty great, what with its beautiful riverside restaurant/bar. Speaking about bars, I have grown to appreciate hotels that have bars, some of them can be pretty cool, and this one definitely was.
My sleep schedule was still wacky on the third day, so I left the hotel earlier than usual and started driving south-east to Crater Lake. Due to lots of wildfires raging through Oregon and Northern California, visibility wasn't particularly great, so even though the skies were clear, the air was a bit hazy with smoke. Still, the lake is quite stunning, and the deep blue color of the waters is amazing.
I drove around the rim of the lake, stopping at certain view points, before reaching the Mount Scott trailhead. The 8km trail climbs its way to the peak of Mount Scott, the highest peak in the park. Located to the east of the lake, it provides great views of the lake and the surrounding areas.
After finishing the trail I exited the park through its southern exit and drove south to Grants Pass, still in Oregon. The city had its own wildfire still raging a short distance from it, making the entire city covered in smoke.
Redwood National Park
On September 10 I left Grants Pass and drove south west towards Redwood National Park. The park is actually called "Redwood National and State Parks", as it is a complex of state and national parks managed both by the NPS and the California Department of Parks and Recreation. As such, I drove through several disjointed sections of the park. I reached the Pacific Ocean after some of these sections, and started driving straight south on the 101, a highway I've driven several times before, but not so far north in California. I wound up driving a bit too much south, right to the edge of the park, before turning back and driving for a few minutes to the Prairie Creek Visitor Center.
I decided to hike the James Irvine trail, which at 17km is probably the longest day hike I've ever made. The trail endlessly switches back and forth through the Redwood forests while making its way north-west to the Pacific Ocean. After about 2 hours of hiking I could see the mist of the ocean waters rising through the trees. By the time I reached the ocean, perhaps 2.5 hours had passed. I spent some time on the beach, which I do admit was a bit of a letdown and not as beautiful as I expected. I then had to make the same way back to Prairie Creek. I was pretty exhausted, but the journey back to me roughly 2.5 hours as well.
After returning to my car, I drove south, stopping at the small town of Orick to check out some of the wooden souvenir shops. Continuing on the 101, a little before the sun went down, I noticed two deer chilling out at the beach. It was like a scene from a Disney movie, and I'm afraid the pictures I took with my phone could not do it any justice. Eventually I reached Arcata, where I spent the night.
My next checkpoint for the trip was Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is about 320km from Arcata, so I had a long drive ahead of me for the next day. I decided to not attempt to do that in one day, and just get myself as close as possible. Therefore, on September 11 I drove east to Redding, a relatively large city not so far from the park. Not far from Arcate, I picked up two Italian hitchhikers who were going to some festival close to Weaverville, which is on the way to Redding. We drove for quite a while along the banks of the Trinity River, which made for some beautiful scenery. The drive took longer than expected, as there were several construction works on the road. After dropping them off, I reached Redding, which was ridiculously hot. Driving and walking around the city, it was hard not to notice that on every building - be it a private residence, a business or a hotel - there were signs thanking the firefighters.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
On September 12 I drove to Lassen Volcanic National Park, which includes the eponymous Lassen Peak volcano (among other volcanoes), various lakes and areas of geothermal activity. I hiked the "Terrace, Shadow and Cliff Lakes" trail, which climbs _down_ through the mountains to these three Alpine lakes, before ascending back to the trailhead, located on the Lassen Peak Highway.
After finishing the hike I continued driving to some viewpoints, mostly of Lassen Peak but also of some of the geothermal locations where water was boiling out of the ground.
Leaving the park I spent a few hours in the small town of Chester, before continuing all the way to Reno, Nevada, where I stayed the night in the Atlantis Hotel and Casino. I guess I would have liked to stay in Reno for more than just the night. It's definitely similar to Las Vegas, at least from what I could see, and seemed like an interesting place. The hotel/casino was full of people, and the casino area even had a live band, which I haven't seen in any Vegas hotel. Seeing as how I already made my plans to stay a few nights in Vegas, I resolved to stay just one night and Reno.
The Loneliest Road in America
Being in Reno, I was considering traveling south to Lake Tahoe and finally getting to see it, but I decided it would be risky schedule-wise, as my next "strict" target was Great Basin National Park, which is located on the eastern edge of Nevada, no less than 620km east of Reno.
Driving from Reno to Great Basin means driving (almost) the entirety of the Nevada section of U.S. Route 50, an extremely long highway stretching across the entire country, from California in the west to Maryland in the east. The Nevada section is named "The Loneliest Road in America", and is an absolutely amazing and weird ride. The reason for the road being given that name is that there's almost no population or settlements along that long stretch of road, with those settlements that do exist either being really small or just ghost towns, and the traffic on the road is pretty log, although it has increased in recent years.
Of course it did not make sense for me to drive the entire stretch of the road in one sitting, but I did want to get most of the distance behind me that day. I drove for 520km to the biggest city on the road - the ~4200 people town of Ely. Driving route 50 is quite an experience: after passing through Fernley and Fallon on the western part, the road reaches the desert and continues straight like a ruler. To the left and right (north and south that is) all you see is desert. Directly in front of you, mountains are clearly visible miles away in the distance. You drive and drive and drive until reaching a pass through the mountains, and then you're back in the desert, and another range of mountains reveals itself in the distance, to be passed as well later on. Traffic is quite slim, and with cruise control on the chances of you touching any of the pedals are slim as well. There are only a handful of inhabited locations along the way, such as Austin and Eureka, where I stopped to eat lunch. Before them though is "Middlegate Station", an old gas station/bar/motel comprised of 2 or 3 wood buildings that seem to be falling apart. There were quite a lot of ATV drivers hanging out at the station.
Reaching Ely I couldn't not feel like I accomplished something. It's not that I've never driven such distances before in one stretch, but this one did feel special. It's not for naught that the state of Nevada provides an "I Survived the Loneliest Road in America" certificate for those who take the trouble of mailing some proof.
Ely itself is an interesting town, and I immediately noticed it was full of race cars. It turned out there was a three day car race taking place in the deserts near the town. I spent one night in a motel, and the another night in the Historic Hotel Nevada, a six-story hotel that used to be the tallest building in Nevada. I started that day with a quick drive to Cave Lake State Park, just to sit for a while. In the afternoon the race car drivers drove through town in a procession, throwing candy at the bystanders who came out to view them. Among the myriad of luxury brands I saw, the American Chevy Corvette was the clear favorite of the drivers.
In the night I went to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, a historic railroad with various train rides. I signed up months before to the "Star Train" - a star gazing train ride with ranger from Great Basin National Park. The train was hauled by a 1950s Diesel locomotive, and the cars were from the 1920s. We rode for a while east of town (though not into the park), and then stopped for some star gazing with a few telescopes. We watched Jupiter and a few of its moons, some star clusters and of course, our Moon.
The next day I drove to Great Basin, taking the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive to the top of the mountains. I decided to connect 2 hiking trails into one, starting with the Alpine Lakes trail (which crosses through Stella and Teresa lakes), then continuing on to the Bristlecone and Glacier trail. Great Basin is one of the least visited national parks in the lower 48 states; quite a few people I spoke with during the trip never even heard of it. Despite that, I saw quite a few people on the trail, and spoke for a while with some Utah residents in Stella Lake.
From Great Basin, I drove south east into Utah and had myself another fairly long drive through the desert and mountains until I reached Cedar City, a city I visited before in my 2013 trip. If you ask me, that drive was even lonelier than the one on route 50.
Zion National Park
With four previously unvisited national parks behind me, I now set my sights on finally doing a proper visit of Zion National Park. If it wasn't clear by now, I've been kind-of working on visiting all the national parks in the lower 48 states. But I've always felt like I haven't really "earned" Zion as I only drove through it, and hardly seen anything of what it has to offer. Going back was such a great choice and I'm so happy I did that. Zion is without question one of the most beautiful parks I've been to in the US.
Leaving Cedar City in the morning, I drove to the amazing town of Springdale right at the entrance to Zion. I parked my car at the Bumbleberry Inn - where I booked two nights - and immediately took the shuttle to the park's entrance. The park was packed with visitors, as it is one of the most popular parks in the National Park System. After four parks relatively short of visitors, who almost all seemed to be American, Zion was full of foreign visitors, especially from Germany (or other German speaking nations I guess).
From the visitor center I took the internal Zion Canyon shuttle to the "Weeping Rock" station. Back home I was debating doing either the famous Angels Landing trail or the Observation Point trail. I was frantically reading Joe's Guide to Zion, an absolutely fantastic website, to decide on the trails to take. Angels Landing and Observation Point are similar in that both provide incredible views of Zion Canyon from high above, but different in that Angels Landing is shorter, somewhat easier (but still very difficult) and insanely popular to the point of having to wait in line to reach the famous viewpoint. Observation Point was a clear winner for me. When I got to the park though, I found it the choice was already made for me, as storms and rockfalls forced the NPS to close Angels Landing. This meant all those planning to take the famous trail took to Observation Point instead, and the trail probably had a _lot_ more hikers than it usually does.
Observation Point was rough in the intense heat. I packed a lot more water than usual with me and drank a lot of it. When you begin the trail from Weeping Rock, the reddish canyon walls rise tall above your head and you _believe_ that the peak you see is the peak of the trail. Far from it. The first peak is just one of several, and it took me several hours of strenuous hiking to finally reach the highest level. From there I could see the viewpoint in the distance and the other hikers lining up for photos. After a few more minutes (or more? I really can't remember) of relatively level and much easier hiking I found myself at the viewpoint. My timing was pretty good as the number of people there seemed to have gone down a bit. The views were absolutely breath-taking, and looking into the canyon I realized just how much of a mistake it would have been to have not seen it. As Observation Point is higher than Angels Landing, the famous viewpoint was also visible directly in front. If not closed, I would have expected to see lots of people on it.
After spending 30 or 40 minutes at the top, I started making my way back down. It was very hard on the knees, and after a while my legs got very tired. Thankfully, I always carry some Oral Rehydration Solution with me, which helps a lot with muscle cramps (among other potential issues when hiking in the heat). It took more several more hours to find myself back in Weeping Rock.
Leaving Zion, I took the shuttle back to Springdale, where I had lunch in a local brewery. I then checked in to the hotel and spent the rest of the night enjoying the incredible view from the room's balcony. Springdale is just a beautiful town in a prime location.
I spent the next day giving my legs a rest, walked (or took the shuttle) around town, sat at some bars, swam at the pool and watched a movie or two.
On the third day, that is September 18, I checked out of the Bumbleberry Inn and drove out of Springdale and into the Kolob Terrace Road, which takes you to a remote section of Zion, which sees much less visitors than the main Canyon. I hiked the relatively easy "Northgate Peaks trail", which affords some very nice views of the Zion Wilderness, and a nice contrast to the scenery of the main Canyon. I only encountered a handful of other visitors.
A Quick Hop to Arizona
After one night in Hurricane, UT, I took a "quick journey" east to north Arizona, to check two more items off my bucket list. When I was visiting the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley on my 2013 trip, I really wanted to get to see Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon, both located right next to Page, AZ. But it didn't work out and that's too bad, because since then Horseshoe Bend has exploded in popularity, to the point that just this year the parking situation got so bad that NPS rangers and police officers are often there to manage traffic.
I drove east for about two hours, crossing the Utah-Arizona border twice before crossing it again not far from Page. I stopped at the Wahweap Overlook to get a glimpse of Lake Powell, then crossed the Glen Canyon Dam before making it into Page. I was expecting it to be difficult to get a parking spot in Horseshoe Bend at that time (it was around noon I believe) and that I would go later in the evening, but thought I might as well give it a try. There was one free parking spot when I got there.
Horseshoe Bend is the name of a point in the Colorado River, where the east-flowing waters take a 180 degree turn west. A stiff cliff from above, located close to the US 89 Highway out of Page, gives a terrific view of the bend, and that's where flocks of visitors are coming to see the river figuring out it was going the wrong way and switching back. There were just so many people there. The hike from the parking lot to the viewpoint was short, but surprisingly not easy. I have seen many pictures of Horseshoe Bend from the viewpoint, but seeing it in person is an entirely different experience. It was much bigger than I though, much more impressive, much more striking. A cabin located on the banks of the river seems to be there only to give visitors a sense of the scale of the rock walls.
From there I drove back north and slightly west, to Navajo land. I booked a guided tour of Lower Antelope Canyon, one of two famous slot canyons in Arizona that can only be visited with guides from the Navajo tribe. Antelope Canyon is a heaven for photographers, but it takes good weather and great timing to get the best pictures out of it. I got there afternoon with cloudy skies, so not the best time, but still very impressive. The walls of the slot canyon, forged over years by flash floods, are truly a sight to see. I took many picture, hoping at least some of them will manage to do justice to the beauty of the canyon. As with Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon was full of visitors as well.
After crossing these two locations off my bucket list, I again took to Highway 89 and drove back out west, stopping for the night in St. George, another Utah city I had visited before; this one back in 2012, on my first US trip. My motel was located right next to the motel I stayed at back then, and seeing their swimming pool I could almost see myself swimming there late at night, almost six years to the day (it was September 21 then and September 19 now). Back then I was making my way from Utah to California. I was doing almost the same thing now, but this time I was going straight to Vegas.
Back in Vegas
It's been three years since my last Vegas visit, and I was itching to get back. I love Vegas. That might just be a bit uncharacteristic of me, as I'm much less a big-city person and more into small town USA. But I just love being in Vegas, and I could spend days playing blackjack at the casinos. And at this point, the South Point hotel basically feels like home to me. I booked four nights there for the sole purpose of relaxing, playing blackjack, bowling, working out at the gym and having as much fun as I can.
On my second day, I walked the strip between different hotels. The strip is always impressive, what with the Egyptian statues of the Luxor, the "streets" of New York New York, the Roman design of Caesar's Palace, the European walkways of the Paris hotel and many more. That night (or was it the next one?) I drove to the Encore theater at the Wynn to see the Moody Blues on their "Days of Future Passed 50th Anniversary Tour". I was never a big Moody Blues fan but I do enjoy some of their work, and the concert was pretty good.
On the third night I went to see Carrot Top and the Luxor. I had seen him before, maybe in 2012 or 2013, and really enjoyed his show, which surprised me. I was kind-of wary of going to see him again, seeing as how I went to no less than four Jerry Seinfeld shows who were all exactly the same over the span of six years. But Carrot Top had all new material, and maybe two or three jokes I remembered from the previous show.
Death Valley National Park
Before this trip, I've been in Vegas four times and in California three times. I had wanted to visit both Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks on each of these occasions, but never actually did for various reasons. This year I had no intention of skipping them again. Death Valley is one of the hottest places on Earth, with temperatures often rising above 50 degrees Celsius. To avoid the heat, I left Vegas at noon, thinking it would take me about 2.5 hours to drive to reach the park and its Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Not far out of Vegas, Nevada Highway 160 was closed for construction, and I was forced to backtrack and find another way. Therefore, I drove north through Red Rock Canyon, another location I really should have been to years ago. I then took US 95 north-west, then south on Death Valley Junction Road, and finally west on California 190 to Death Valley. The detour added another hour or so to my drive, so I got to Death Valley even later than I had planned.
As I was getting closer and closer to Furnace Creek, and slightly losing altitude, I could see the reading on my car thermometer rising and rising. When I made it to the visitor center, it was 45 degrees Celius out, not as bad as I thought it would be, but damn was it hot.
In the summer, the National Park Service does not recommend actually hiking in Death Valley, and visitors are instead directed to drive through a few points of interest, leaving their car for no more than 15 minutes at a time. Harking back to my rule of having to hike in a national park to be able to mark it as "visited", this made me worry. Fortunately though, my first point of interest was Badwater Basin, the lowest place in the US (though not as low as the Dead Sea in Israel), where the immense salt flats are located. You can walk as far as you want on the salt flats basically, but with the park's 15 minute limit I wasn't sure if I'd be able to see the "good part". I took some water with me and started walking (along with quite a few other visitors). The heat was intense, but not so much that I couldn't do more than 15 minutes, so I walked as far as I could into the salt flats, until the hexagonal patterns of them were at their most impressive, and then walked back to the parking lot. Took me about 35 minutes and I was still alive.
From Badwater Basin I drove back north and took a right turn to "Artists Drive", an interesting drive through the desert with a few overlooks, including the "Artist's Palette" viewpoint, where the desert hills and rock take weird colors including a light shade of blue. Unfortunately, the pictures could not capture the blue color as my eyes could.
After that I drove to Zabriskie Point, one of the most famous locations in the park, due to the striking patterns of its landscape and the pointy shape of the "Manly Beacon" rock. The sun was starting to set when I got there, which only made Manly Beacon even more impressive (if not more difficult to photograph). I have seen quite a few deserts in my life, but Death Valley is one of a kind. The only word I could use to describe it was "alien", like it did not come from Earth. It's easy to see why Death Valley has relatively high visitation rates despite the immense heat.
By now it was getting late, but I had quite a bit of a drive ahead of me as lodging options in the area are very scarce. I drove in the dark for more than 200km south through virtually empty land until I reached the familiar Interstate 15. I then drove 80km more south-west to Barstow, where I stayed at the Rodeway Inn. I had stayed in that motel before, in 2012, but the only thing that was familiar to me was the Wienerschnitzel near the motel.
Joshua Tree National Park
On September 25 I drove from Barstow to Joshua Tree National Park. I have seen Joshua trees before, mostly on the I15 in the area of the Mojave National Preserve, bit never really up close. Driving towards the national park you start seeing more and more of them. I arrived in the town of Joshua Tree, where one of the park's visitor centers is located, and consulted with the rangers about hiking trails. As with Death Valley, they recommended taking it easy due to the intense heat.
Driving into the park, I started with a quick stop at the "Keys View", and then headed to the "Hidden Valley" trail. Joshua Tree NP protects a large area in which both the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet. Apart from its eponymous Joshua trees (which are not true trees), the park is also known for its large and plentiful boulders. The Hidden Valley trail mostly afforded a showcase of these large piles of boulders, and various desert plants.
After that hike I moved on to the Barker Dam trail, where early cattle ranchers built a dam and a water tank, in the days were there still was enough water in the area. There's still some water in the dam today, but not much.
Finishing my hiking for the day, I drove east and south to the Cholla Cactus Garden, and continued south out of the park and onto interstate 10. Turning right I drove to the resort city of Palm Springs, where I booked two nights at the Holiday House hotel. Uniquely designed, it was a good choice for taking things easy for a while. Palm Springs was so hot that almost all restaurants in town feature water sprayers that constantly spout a cool mist of water on the streets. I spent two days walking around the city's main street (South Palm Canyon Drive) and all the shops, restaurants and bars located on it or around it; chilling out in the hotel's pool; playing Blackjack in the town's casino, and watching "Maniac" on Netflix.
With my main objectives for the trip completed, I had three remaining days to spend before flying back home from Los Angeles. My friend Eitan from back home had moved to West Hollywood a little over a year prior, so planned on hanging out together on those last days. I booked three nights at the Cambria Hotel in El Segundo, very close to the airport. After checking in, I immediately drove to West Hollywood to meet Eitan. It's always weird having to "battle" the heavy traffic and frequent jams of Los Angeles (or southern California in general really) after driving for so long on the free and clear highways of small town USA.
After meeting Eitan and his wife in their apartment, Eitan and I drove to Griffith Observatory to get some views of Los Angeles from above (and to see the perpetual cloud of smog that covers the city). We then picked up one of his LA friends and drove to an all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ, which apparently is a _thing_ in LA.
The next day we decided to visit Universal Studios, and spent a few hours doing different rides and checking out the attractions. We spent the rest of the day and evening eating and chilling out in his apartment.
On my last day of basically every US trip I always have some preparations to do for the journey home. After almost a month of driving in a rental car over vast distances, it starts to look like you've been living in that car, and packing your bag for the flight back home tends to be harder than it was when packing for the flight out (both physically and mentally).
Regardless, I had spent most of the day in the beaches of the greater Los Angeles area, starting with Santa Monica Pier - where I went out for a run of about 3 or 4 kilometers - and ending in Venice Beach. As it was the weekend, the beach was full of people and had a very "festive" air to it. I walked for a long while across the Venice Boardwalk, checking out a lot of the booths and shops, seeing the bodybuilders in Muscle Beach, and relaxing on the beach.
The early hours of the next morning I returned my car to the rental lot in LAX, and hopped on a plane to Toronto, and another one back home to Israel. A successful trip, I visited more US national parks on it than in any of my previous trips. By now I was up to 29 parks out of 48 located in the United States mainland (and 60 overall). I definitely have a lot more to see, and I have every intention of getting to see all of them. I believe three more trips should cut it.