USA Road Trip – 7 National Parks, 1 Capital City and New York, New York
In 2018, my mad family and I set off around the world on a 43 and a half foot sailing boat. Most of a year later, we hauled the boat out of the water on a little island in the southern Caribbean called Curaçao and took a break from sailing to go on a road trip across the USA. This holiday from our holiday took us to the strangest country I have ever visited – The United States of America.
You can read my review of our 2019 sailing adventures by clicking here – 2019 Review – Sailing Adventures on SV Fat Susan
Our USA Road Trip begins
We began our American expedition by catching a flight from Curaçao in the Caribbean sea to San Francisco on the west coast of the United States. Or we tried to. The flight had a connection through Miami in Florida and, on that particular day, America had one of the longest entry processes in the world. Our flight landed late at night and there were four customs people for the whole of Miami airport. Long story short, it took four hours waiting in very long lines to get through, by which time we had missed our connecting flight as had most of the passengers. In fact our connecting flight had landed in San Francisco by the time we had finally cleared in to the country. Then we had to wait another hour and a half sorting out some accommodation and onward flights, and waiting for a bus to the swanky hotel that the airline had put us in. It was so late that I was able to text one of my friends back in England before I went to sleep as they had just woken up.
First stop – San Francisco
We finally landed in San Francisco, the first destination on our USA road trip, late at night the day after we were meant to be there and simply collapsed into our beds. The next few days were spent thoroughly exploring the city. We took a boat trip to the Golden Gate bridge (well, the bottom of it, the top was invisible because of an immense fog bank) and saw Alcatraz (didn’t go on it because $$$). We rented bikes to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge. We saw the seafront, nearly got blown off the top of the bridge (actually saw it this time) and took a ferry back across the bay with our bicycles.
For our next trick, we rented a small car, spent a day in Walmart buying tents, camping equipment and food and set off on our road trip for the National Parks. First stop: Lake Tahoe, where we tried out our new tiny homes for the month and found the loudest squirrels on earth.
Yosemite National Park
After that (and a long long long drive) we arrived in Yosemite National Park, an unbelievable landscape, formed by glaciers and absolutely full of life where we had our first taste of bear proof everything. There were warnings everywhere, warning of bears (which we didn’t actually see the whole time we were in America) and their fearsome car destruction skills. We walked for miles, saw majestic waterfalls and rode many overcrowded buses.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park was the next stop on our USA road trip and if we had any old people with us it would have lived up to its name. Whilst we were there the temperature hit 52°C (126°F). According to the guy in the visitor centre that wasn’t even one of the hotter days. If our air conditioning had broken down I’m not sure we would have survived. Evan started feeling dizzy after a two minute walk. The whole place looks like Tatooine from StarWars (because it is) and is the least hospitable place I have ever been.
Las Vegas weirdness
We left Death Valley with the aircon on full and set course for Las Vegas, eyes peeled the whole time for Area 51. I have visited many, many cities and I have understood at least something about all of them, except this one. There is almost nothing about Las Vegas that I understand.
There are adverts for weed everywhere, every building has a casino or slot machine of some kind in it (even the petrol stations!) and it seems that they have stolen a bit of several cities and shrunk it down to a third of the size. They have a London Eye, an Eiffel tower and most of Venice underneath a casino. It seems to be the weirdest city in the world and I was personally glad to leave and enter Zion National Park.
Zion National Park
In Zion NP, we learned an unhealthy amount of geology and did an absolutely astounding hike along the valley and a mildly perilous climb for one of the most astounding views I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. This was the Angel’s Landing trail. It’s a 5 mile round trip with sheer drops, that takes you up to the top of a huge rock, 460m high. We also had lots of fun when we found an actual tarantula about 10 metres from our tents on the way to the loo.
In Zion National Park, we also hiked The Narrows. The Narrows are a long, narrow (I bet you didn’t guess that ) valley that is almost entirely full of water up to shin (sometimes thigh) height, with sheer cliff either side. Have you ever tried hiking up the middle of a river? It’s not the easiest thing in the world. It was astounding though, especially in the places where the walls started to lean in over the top of you and you couldn’t help but wonder weather they were likely to fall in.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Yet another long road trip drive later (at this point we were a wee bit tired of these), we began exploring Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce is unique as far as I know. It is almost entirely made of hoodoos, giant orange limestone monoliths that can form impenetrable walls, gigantic towers and one supposedly looks like tower bridge (though I couldn’t see the resemblance). We walked in the sweltering heat for hours on end and the amazing views never stopped.
Everywhere we went we saw canyon jays, medium sized birds jumping from tree to tree or hoodoo to hoodoo squawking away to each other. Then there were the crows. These crows were some of the largest had ever seen. A meter long from head to tail they were completely content to sit just within arms reach and stare deep into your soul whilst occasionally squawking so loudly that it shook the ground. However, apart from that (and endless millions of chipmunks) there wasn’t much animal life here. The trees had somehow found ways to balance themselves on top of hoodoos and were astoundingly resilient to everything nature threw at them, slipping roots into the tiniest of cracks to stop them falling.
Arches National Park and the Colorado River
The next few days of our USA road trip was spent in a small town called Moab. Moab is a very interesting place. It is found where the Colorado River, Arches National Park and an interstate highway meet. It’s set out kind of like a cowboy town but it feels much more chilled.
When we arrived we set up the tents and headed for Arches National Park. Arches National Park is full of arches (amazing, I know). After the visitor centre (my dad can never pass up an opportunity to read something even if it is just about rocks) we saw Balancing Rock, so called because there is a large rock balancing on top of another rock (what a creative name) before moving swiftly on to big arch (I’m joking but I had you there for a second, didn’t I.)
The south window (finally some creativity!) is a huuuuge arch located next to another huuuuge arch (which I believe is also called south window so forget what I said about creativity). We clambered around under the arches for a while, stared at the magnificent views and carefully wondered why there were so many arches here without letting my dad overhear (he would probably make us figure it out ourselves).
We left Arches (also known as Creatively Named National Park) and the next day we did something amazing (in a place with another creative name)… we went kayaking down the Colorado river.
The Colorado river (at the beginning) was slow, wide and lazy. Then it picked up speed and became a wee bit challenging and I get the feeling that without the guide telling us how to take each set of rapids we would have popped our inflatable kayaks quite early on. We stopped for lunch and afterwards the rapids really started to be impressive.
The scenery was astounding. Huge buttes (don’t laugh, that’s what they’re called) rose into the sky around us. Dead trees lined the banks and the inescapable sun beat down like a laser. After that we ate some amazing brownies and slept well that night before heading to Monument Valley (which you will recognise) and ending the month with some amazing smores on a fire in the middle of nowhere.
We thought we would start big this month so our first road trip destination was the Grand Canyon (go big or go home). It truly lives up to it’s reputation. This massive crack is so big its almost impossible for your brain to process the scale. It takes two days to hike across the width in the deadly heat. A guide said that they’d had a good year that year and they had only lost 19 people instead of the 60ish from the year before, who weren’t fit enough and had heart attacks.
We hiked partway into the canyon and the view was astounding. Vultures circled overhead looking for tasty rodents (sometimes known as children). You could veeery faintly hear the unstoppable Colorado River that had decimated this landscape so magnificently. On the canyon rim, tourist hoards prowled insistently, snapping photos of the canyon and fighting for the best photo opportunity.
However for me one of the most amazing things was the wildlife. I had assumed that the canyon was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by desert or rocks or something. Apparently not. There is a healthy forest that rings the canyon and it’s full of life. There are some massive elk that just wandered around the campsite (but unlike New Forest ponies in the UK they didn’t steal your breakfast cereal). They were massively intimidating and at one point they decided to claim a water fountain for themselves and the rangers had to keep yelling at people to “Get away from the elk, you idiots, that thing could knock you unconscious!” (or something along those lines). They were truly immense. Even the babies were huge. Although we didn’t see a male up close, the one we saw from a distance was even bigger than the females and its horns looked like ineffective snowplows as wide as me with my arms out (I have long arms).
As large as it may be there is only so much you can do in Grand Canyon so we left and (several wrong turns and days later) we arrived in Sequoia National Park aching from being folded into a tiny car for too long.
Massive trees in Sequioa National Park
Sequoia National Park was the opposite of Grand Canyon in many ways. Instead of a monstrous, dry crack in the floor, here the main attractions were towering trees, moist meadows and illusive bears.
It also rained. A lot. Drizzle was something we hadn’t really experienced since leaving England over a year ago (we had our year of travelling anniversary in Yosemite) and it made me slightly homesick. Sequoia reminded me of the New Forest in Hampshire, UK, in some ways (the key is ignoring the stupidly large trees). It’s a strange thing that you can move almost constantly for over a year and only experience English rain once. The world is a strange place.
Despite several hikes and a long time in the forest we had still managed to not see a bear. However, we did see the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman. It’s not the tallest or the widest or the oldest but by volume it’s the largest. It was 2200 years old though so I think that’s plenty old enough to be impressive. It’s also 11 metres wide and almost 100 metres tall. One of the branches had fallen off a while before we got there and it was wider than I was tall. And that wasn’t even the largest branch. It was also (surprise surprise) quite long. We had a liiiitle bit of car trouble here but we managed to fix it and set off for San Francisco where our next adventure awaited.
Across America on a train
On this trip around the world, since we left the UK in August 2018, we had used all sorts of travel. We flew to the Canary Islands and America, we did a little bit of sailing and now we had driven 4000 miles by car. There was only one major form of transport left. Trains.
So the morning after we dropped off the car (after adding 3000 miles to the clock) we took a bus to the train station and our USA road trip became a train journey. We boarded an Amtrak train bound for Chicago with a connection to New York – The California Zephyr, one of the greatest train journeys in the world! 3000 miles over three days from the west to the east coast of America, through the Rockies, following the Colorado river. It was without a doubt the nicest train I had ever been on (probably not surprising as the other sleeper trains I’ve been on were in India, Thailand and Vietnam).
We had two cabins with chairs that folded down to form a bed and another bunk that came down down from the ceiling. The views were stunning. It was almost perfect for Evan and me as we got to sit around all day chilling, looking out the window, playing games and eating splendid food. Being stuck in a small place for three days might have been a bit hard on the other passengers but for us, who were used to long passages on Fat Susan, this was luxury. The train was so long that when you went round a corner you could see the last few carriages behind you in all their two-story-tall glory. Most of the time we were trundling along through canyons with rivers at the bottom full of (occasionally mooning) rafters and rapids. It was a lot like being on a passage on Susan, but so much nicer and easier. You didn’t have to helm or mess with sails, people cooked your food for you, the floor barely moved, the seats were actually comfortable and the views changed all day. It was absolutely splendid and we arrived in Chicago well rested.
Unfortunately we didn’t spend long in Chicago as our connecting train left the same day. We did have a look round the centre though and it looked like a lovely place.
Our second train was different to the first one in several ways. The most notable one was that there was an aeroplane toilet in the room next to my bunk. Imagine my surprise when I woke up and Evan was sitting there doing his business greeting me with a “Mornin’!” like this was a normal thing to do! There were also large amounts of free brownies at lunch (“were” is the most important word in that sentence. I think Evan and I ate them all).
New York, New York
We arrived in New York late at night and were thrust immediately into the lunacy that is midtown New York. A quick Uber ride and we were at our AirBNB apartment in New Jersey. We promptly collapsed into our massive beds after a long day of sitting on a train (I find doing nothing to be a very tiring business.) Our house was actually in Jersey City in New Jersey, a fifteen minute PATH Train and subway ride from New York City itself.
Visiting New York is a very strange experience. Wandering round this frankly monstrously large city gave you sudden feelings of deja vu from all the films you had seen that were based here. After a few days I found that I could actually navigate quite well. We did almost everything. It’s a big place full of lots of famous stuff. We went up the Empire State Building and One World Trade Centre. We visited Central Park, Times Square, Brooklyn, the Highline and Chelsea Market. We probably saw the Museum of Natural History five times and we wandered the streets for countless hours.
The people were also interesting. New Yorkers lived up to their stereotype. They were very, very loud, not the slightest bit introverted and everyone seemed to be in a rush. This struck me as strange. We had been sailing the Caribbean for months and everyone there “lives on island time” (“Why rush maaan? Whatever happens will happen when it happens, just chill and we’ll do it in a minute”). New Yorkers have the opposite belief (“If I don’t walk to work at the speed of that car everything I have ever done will have been for nothing. GET OUT OF THE WAY!!!!”). We were completely unprepared for this and subsequently almost drowned in the tsunami of people that rushed forward at our first zebra crossing (or ‘crosswalk’ to the ‘Mericans). They are also more than happy to risk their lives by sprinting out into a road full of cars moving a good 50mph in order to be somewhere thirty seconds faster.
Our grandparents and mad Uncle Adam came out to visit and many happy afternoons were spent wandering around New York, showing them everything we had found. It was nice to have family from home visit again and it was a surreal thing to get up in the morning and see them just sitting there on the sofa. We regularly ended up walking 10 miles a day getting between places. Coming from not leaving Susan’s insignificant amount of standing space for several days at a time, this was luxury.
There were also a disproportionate amount of pizza shops selling over sized slices of pizza that would fill your average person up with just one. We had a massive surprise when we ordered takeaway pizza and were handed at least twice the amount of food we expected (we still ended up eating it all though).
After Granny and Nanna had flown back to the UK, we had a weekend trip to Washington D.C. That was also a very strange place. Most of it was just a normal city but the middle bit was intriguing. Having visited over thirty countries at this point I had never been in a capital city designed to be a capital city. The massive central area is laid out symmetrically with massive fields of grass between most buildings. It is full of museums for everything from art to natural history and monuments to everything from the Vietnam war to one of their presidents and on top of all that there was a castle, an actual castle, just off to the side (why that was there I couldn’t tell you but it looked cool). It was another surreal experience because D.C has been in its fair share of movies too and for such a famous place it was surprisingly chilled. Kids played football under the big white stick from spider man and adults strolled through the vast expanses of the lawn. I liked D.C. but I was glad to get back to New York and have a base again.
We spent six weeks in New York altogether but we still didn’t see everything. It’s ridiculously huge and even if we had gone to see something every day we still wouldn’t have got everything in.
An Amazing USA Road Trip…
Our time in New York was one of best things we did this year and I would happily do it again. In fact, spending three months in America on our USA road trip was amazing. We visited seven amazing National Parks, saw all the scenery and wildlife, travelled across the country on one of the world’s best train journeys and spent six weeks living in and exploring New York with our family. America is quite possibly one of the strangest countries I have ever been to, Las Vegas especially. It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.