USA ’17 – Day 17 – Joshua Tree National Park

OK, so I am running out of superlatives now.

I said yesterday that it was sad now that we have done all the “big ticket” items and we have really. Nobody is going to put Joshua Tree National Park above the Grand Canyon or Yosemite but they should and you really really should. It is a real gem.

We spent all day in the park today and it is the most amazing place. Better even than the Grand Canyon and that was pretty spectacular. Partly that is because, I suspect, that all we had time for at the canyon was to stand at the rim and look down. At Joshua Tree you are in it with it all around you and although it is pretty small in area there is so much diverse scenery to see and be part of.

Arch Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

As we walked around the many trails and was wowed once more I did feel a little like a vandal through. This place has stood untouched for millions of years and now we are trampling over it and wearing it down at a faster rate than ever before.

Nevertheless, trample we did as we went to Hidden valley, Skull rock, Face rock, Split rock, Arch rock, Cholla cactus garden and Barker dam.

The cactus garden is a great example of the diversity of the area. It is an area of about five acres in which nothing but Cholla cacti grow and they are found nowhere else in the park. Very peculiar.

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park

By the end of what was a pretty full on day we came back to Joshua Tree the town where we found an Indian restaurant and had a taste of home before returning to the B&B.

Now I am sitting outside our room and there is zero noise or light pollution and if I look up it is so dark that you can see not only many stars but the milky way too.

This is definitely somewhere I would want to come back to again.

USA ’17 – Day 16 – On the Road to Joshua Tree

Today was probably the longest drive of the whole holiday travelling from Williams, Arizona to Joshua Tree, California. Helen and I both realised that even though we still have five-ish days of the holiday left with the Grand Canyon out the way all the “big ticket” destinations are now done (with apologies to the Joshua Tree National Park and San Diego!) which is sad.

The route took as through the Mojave Desert which had long, long straight roads with flat sandy desert either side. Pretty much like the above really. Not the most exciting scenery we have been through on our travels.

The views from our overnight stop though were fantastic, even if it did require some off-roading to reach. The Desert Lily is just at the edge of the Joshua Tree national park and is reached via an unmade road to a beautiful B&B in the quietest location I think we have ever been. I’m currently sat outside in the shade typing this and it really is idyllic (and hot – 30 degrees).


As I have some free time let’s talk about tipping. Whenever you read anything about eating out in the US tipping always comes up and it does seem to be a big deal. That is because tipped workers are paid less than the minimum wage in the expectation that the difference will be made up through tips. I personally think that is outrageous. Basically it is an excuse to pay workers less.

So you are expected to tip heavily. If you tip 10% (which would be usual in the UK) this is considered that you haven’t enjoyed your meal or service in some way. 15-20% is considered the norm.

I don’t mind tipping but my reason for giving a tip is for good or exceptional service not just for doing the job but that seems to be the case here. I remember the service being great in Florida but here on the West Coast it hovers somewhere between ordinary and mediocre. That is apart from the woman at breakfast this morning who I wanted to tell “look you are getting a tip can you please turn off the smile? It’s 8am for goodness sake!”

Where tipping gets really silly is places like Applebees (a mistake going in there I know) where we ordered through a machine on the table and also paid this way. We only ever saw our server once when they brought our food to the table but I was still expected to tip even though I had done all the work!

And while we’re at it the process is incredibly insecure too. First you get the bill which you check over and find that, of course, there are two flavours of tax added. In San Francisco along local taxes (7.25%) there was also an additional 4.9% “in part to help offset the cost of Government mandated expenses”.

You leave your credit card and THEN THEY COME AND TAKE IT AWAY!!! Have they never seen The Real Hustle?

Having no doubt cloned my card and taken the money off it is returned to me (no chip & pin required here, nor a signature check for that matter). I am now also given multiple bits of paper and a pen onto which I can add a tip. This is then returned and at some unspecified later date the additional amount is also taken from your card.

What a complete and utter pain in the arse. It’s a wonder anyone leaves anything.

USA ’17 – Day 15 – Grand Canyon

Another stop at a national park today but for once we weren’t driving but arriving by train.

Last night we stayed in a town called Williams which happens to also be the starting point for the Grand Canyon Railway. Originally built to transport goods to and from the south rim of the canyon it now fulfills the same but for tourists.

We arrived at the station in time to see a fun wild west show before boarding the train. The amount of leg room available in our carriage was impressive when you are used to GWR as was the pastries provided.

The view out of the window was pretty flat and uninteresting but fortunately there was plenty going on in the carriage to fill the two hour journey including a singer/guitarist and our host Starlie (I sometimes think that there is merit in the old French rule limiting the names you could select for your child).

When you arrive at the station you wouldn’t know you were at the Grand Canyon. You then walk up a set of steps and suddenly you are on the edge of the canyon. And wow what a sight it is!

Like Yosemite nothing prepares you for the sheer scale of the canyon. It is very deep and very wide. No, not that very deep and very wide but even bigger than that! And again the pictures really don’t do it justice and even on a wide angle you cannot capture the whole thing in a single shot.

We had just over three hours at the canyon before the return train so we took one of the free shuttle busses to a point a few miles along the rim and walked back from there. We took pictures every few yards so have captured the place from every single angle.

One thing that was surprising was that given the perceived view of litigation culture here that there was no guard rail between the path and a one mile drop to the bottom of the canyon. Helen stood well away from the edge… The walk back was slow as we made regular stops to admire the view and take more pictures.

It really is amazing just how much damage a little water can do. The Colorado river that created the canyon did so over a relatively short five million years (unless you are a creationist in which case it was done last month). I was left wondering where all the material that it removed ended up. The Colorado feeds out into the Pacific somewhere so it must be piled up there I guess.

I was thrilled that the engine on the return trip was steam. It was great looking out the window as the engine made a turn ahead of us and I could see the smoke filling the air. We were lucky as they only run the stream trains on the first Saturday of the month which happily coincided with our trip. All in all a fantastic day.

USA ’17 – Day 14 – Las Vegas, Hoover Dam & Williams, Arizona

There was one thing left that I had on my todo list before we left Las Vegas and that was to go to the Welcome to Las Vegas sign. We drove along the strip until we got to half a mile from the it when everything ground to a halt – everyone wanted to stop and see the sign it seems.

Eventually we were able to park up and walk to the sign. It was newer than I expected and so I suspect that it has been renewed fairly recently. It was also quite busy and there were a couple of news crews there too. This turned out to be as a temporary memorial to the recent shooting had been erected there. I have to say that you could have spent all your time in Vegas and not been aware of the tragedy at all. Business as usual it seems.

The sign done we left Las Vegas and made our way to our next overnight stop in Williams, Arizona. This we did via the Hoover Dam another oversized American monument. It really is huge but the most interesting thing is just how low the water is in the dam. You can clearly see how high the water can reach in the picture below.

Ever since we have been in the States there has been talk of a drought here but no sign whatsoever of anyone taking any positive action. There has been plenty of sprinklers, fields being watered and, in LA, the pavements being cleaned. The water level in the dam suggests that they do need to take some positive action but, as we were told in LA – the Californians like their water.

Despite the level of the water being low I am still impressed that anyone could have swam across it. How did they get down to the water for a start.

Tomorrow we ride this beauty to the Grand Canyon!

USA ’17 – Day 13 – Viva Las Vegas

Las Vegas is nuts, there is no getting away from that fact, but it is also tremendous fun. This is my second time here and I feel the same as I did the first time – this is an adults equivalent of Disneyland.

We arrived yesterday afternoon and spent some time trying to orient ourselves in our hotel – Caesars Palace. These places are huge, Caesars apparently has 4,000 rooms, and so making your way from one area to another takes forever. We got lost a couple of times and had to ask for directions!

When it comes to entertainment there is one big hitter in town – Cirque du Soleil. They have seven different shows playing and last night we went to see ‘O’ at Bellagio, what I consider to be the classiest of all the hotels on the Strip.

Like most things in America the theatre and the show were huge. Many times larger than the London theatres I have been in and not just the seating area but the stage itself too. This one went back and up seemingly forever.

‘O’ is water based and so the stage is a giant swimming pool where they can raise and lower the floor during the performance turning it back into a traditional stage. I have no idea just how deep it was but part of the act was to have Olympic high divers diving into the pool from unfathomable heights. The other amazing trick performed was where performers dived into the pool never to resurface!

All Cirque shows are the same formula – a series of circus acts with ‘distraction’ acts inbetween while the next big set piece is set-up. However, all the acts have a real wow factor and you are left wondering either how they do it or in some cases why! If you have never been to one I urge you to go.

Today we have spent the day walking up and down the strip looking into all the hotels and the gaudy treats that are on offer. We went to see the galleons outside of Treasure Island, the wonders of Venice at The Venetian, Paris, New York and many more besides. The further you go along the Strip the tackier it gets.

The level of detail that goes into these places is amazing. The shops that are part of the Venetian are just like walking through the streets of Venice. This includes a canal complete with gondolas that you can take a ride on and a copy of St. Mark’s Square. The ceilings are painted with clouds and it really is like being part of the a Venetian version of the Truman Show!

Oh, we also went on the slot machines, which will please the owner of Caesars Palace no doubt. I have to say that it was all too complicated for us and we quickly moved on as we shall tomorrow.

USA ’17 – Day 12 – Death Valley, Badwater Basin & Red Rock Canyon

We had a relatively short drive today from Stovepipe Wells in the Death Valley National Park through to Las Vegas but we had plenty of interesting stops on the way.

The first stop, at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, was only a short distance from our overnight hotel but was so unexpectedly different from all the surrounding landscape. It was a proper desert with shifting sand dunes in amongst the more arid and rough landscape of the rest of Death Valley.

Visiting the sand dunes had been an unexpected surprise but our next stop, Badwater Basin, was planned. At 282 feet below sea level Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the western hemisphere. It was interesting in a flat, salty, kind of place.

Once again the drive brought changing landscapes as we moved closer to Las Vegas. There was one final stop today that we made to the Red Rock Canyon, somewhere I had been about 12 years ago and was keen to revisit.

The canyon is about half an hour outside of Vegas but I’m not sure that many make it there but it is a fascinating place. As you can see from the pictures it is not just that the rods are red but there are layers of coloured rock making it seem like large dollops of sweets.

Today’s post is a but rushed as we are now in the adult Disneyland that is Vegas and we are out to see a show. More tomorrow.

Death Valley Pictures

Red Rock Canyon Pictures

USA ’17 – Day 11 – Death Valley

Today was mostly taken up with travelling from Yosemite National Park to Stovepipe Wells Village in Death Valley National Park. A journey which took us from an elevation of 10,000 feet and zero degrees to zero feet and 30 degrees.

Before we left Yosemite we had one more landmark that we wanted to visit before leaving – Tunnel View. This is an elevated viewpoint looking across towards El Capitan on the left, Bridal veil falls on the right and Half Dome in the distance. Unfortunately for us the sun was in the wrong position for the best shot but it did look pretty atmospheric.

We left Yosemite via the Tioga Pass and it was amazing how quickly the landscape changed.  We passed through the Inyo National Forest which was green and hemmed in with snow capped peaks to the side. Then via Mammoth Lakes where the ground started to flatten out and become more sandy.

Finally, over another set of hills and into Death Valley the hottest place on Earth, although fortunately today the temperature isn’t anywhere near the 56.7 degrees recorded to gain that record.

The place that we are staying really is in the middle of nowhere. This means that it is incredibly dark as there is no light pollution. Because of this I was looking forward to some star gazing but, as luck would have it, tonight is also a full moon so that might put a dampener on proceedings.

USA ’17 – Day 10 – Yosemite

Full day in Yosemite today and the first time I have been forced to wear long trousers and a jumper since we arrived! It was a chilly six degrees when we left the room and only got to 17 at the height of the day.

Despite a couple of people suggesting we walk to the top of the Upper Falls (thanks, but no thanks Liz and Tony) we elected to stay closer to the ground and do the Yosemite Valley Trail. This is a loop around some of the better know sights of the park.

We initially set off in the wrong direction and by the time we had realised I had already completed my 30 minutes of exercise as monitored by my watch.

As usual we didn’t have to get very far from the hotel for the people to disappear – most only seemed to make it as far as the falls a short walk from the hotel. As yesterday the views were simply breathtaking and a camera really doesn’t do it justice.

The walk took us along side the Merced river to the base of El Capitan (other operating systems are available) where we then headed back on the other bank to the hotel. All in all this was a total of nine miles and by the end of it I was ready for a sit down and a cup of tea.

My ability to get a good cuppa here in the States has been pretty mixed I have to say. They don’t seem to understand the concept of wanting to put milk in it and the tea itself seems pretty weak so takes days to brew. Then there is the milk which seems to be most often “half & half”. I’ve decided that this must be half milk and half toilet cleaner. And, I don’t seem to be able to find a Costa at all. In the UK you only need to randomly throw a stone and you are bound to hit one.

We are on the move again tomorrow, this time to Death Valley.


USA ’17 – Day 9 – Yosemite

So after two thoroughly enjoyable and action packed days in San Francisco we headed off this morning on the next leg of our journey to Yosemite National Park. The drive took us out over the Bay Bridge which was five lanes of fast moving traffic. It was only when half way across that I realised that there wasn’t any traffic coming the other way and that it must be a double decker bridge with the other five lanes above us.

The landscape slowly changed over the four hour drive from the dry hills of San Francisco to something much grander and greener as we approached Yosemite. The problem with a driving holiday is that someone has to be behind the wheel, supposedly concentrating on the road rather than the scenery but that is very difficult to do when the vista is so amazing.

I have seen many images of Yosemite, particularly now that Apple have started to name their operating systems after features in the park. However, no picture can do justice to the sheer scale of the landscape here – everything is just huge. It is an incredibly beautiful place.

We had been advised to stay in the park which I am glad that we did for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the nearest accommodation outside the park is probably an hour away and while the drive in is stunning it is also slow. The second reason is that where we are staying, the Yosemite Valley Lodge, is just like Centreparcs only the view from our patio is a huge waterfall.

The lodge also provides useful advice on how to handle the local wildlife:

If a black bear attacks while you’re in Yosemite, fight back.

I’m hoping not to have to put that to the test.

We have a full day in the park tomorrow and so will be out and about.

USA ’17 – Day 8 – San Francisco, Sausalito & the Golden Gate Bridge

All over San Francisco there seem to be places that will hire you bikes. At first you would think you would need to be some kind of special masochist to want to cycle the steep roads. However, there is one route that does make sense commonly called “bike the bridge”. And that is exactly what we did today.

We picked up a couple of bikes just off Ghirardelli Square and set off along what, to begin with at least, is a flat cycle route that follows the coast towards the bridge. Today was a wonderfully clear day and so we got some great views of the bridge as we crawled ever nearer avoiding the Saturday strollers and runners.

As you get nearer the bridge it becomes clear that the deck is a lot higher off the ground than you and so some climbing is going to be necessary. Cars are given a nice long run up to the bridge but cyclists and walkers are expected to just get on with it. Once up you do get some great views over the bay and the bridge itself is a great thing – even if it could do with a lick of paint.

On reaching the other side of the bridge we then made our way towards the town of Sausalito. On the video we were shown when collecting the bikes we were told that it was a nice downhill run to Sausalito where we could take the ferry back to the city. Let’s just say that their idea of downhill and mine are very different!

Sausalito is another pretty little place. Helen has got it right though that a few too many of the towns we have visited just look at little too much like Seahaven – the fictitious town in The Truman Show.

From Sausalito we caught the ferry back to San Francisco before cycling back to return the bikes. This was a round trip of about nine miles and we exercising different muscles to those used when walking. I suspect we shall be reminded of our ride for the next few days every time we move our legs!

This evening we dined at a restaurant called The Stinking Rose where every dish has garlic in it. The slogan outside says “We season our garlic with food” and they were not wrong!