22 days, 11 national parks and 6000 kilometers

This was an amazing trip. We’ve both been to US numerous times and for us driving has always been part of the experience. In 1994 we drove from Boston to Niagara Falls and back. Later we spent many vacations driving around Florida and now recently on the west coast. We had been to Everglades in Florida but we never planned visiting national parks unless they were en route. This all changed when we visited Yosemite in April 2017.

In Yosemite National Park Visitors Center Minna laid her hands on a booklet: Travel Stamps U.S. National Park Series Album & Guide. It is a book in which you can collect a stamp (or actually a sticker) from each National Park of the U.S. We bought our first sticker from Yosemite.

You can buy stickers from National Park visitors centers but you can also order them online. We pasted the Yosemite sticker in the book but it looked very empty so we ordered the Everglades sticker from the supplier. It still looked very empty. We had been planning Route 66 trip to celebrate our 50th birthdays. We started having doubts about driving through midwest so we started plan B. What if we tried to collect as many stickers as we can during three weeks?

We started investigating the map and we found out that there were several national parks in the west which were very close to each other: Zion and Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Arches. We realized quickly that we could visit 10 national parks quite easily. Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Channel Islands were not in the original plan. We calculated the distances and noticed that it would be possible to see 8 parks quite conveniently. After Grand Canyon, which was supposed to be the last park, we had 5 more nights to go. In five days we would still have time to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon or stay around Los Angeles. We had been to LA before so it would be a shame to skip the parks as it would also require another visit in that region. The map below shows that Ventura was really between Kings Canyon and LA so it would have been silly to skip it.

What did we learn then? The Americans don’t, usually, build national parks to boring spots. Zion was amazing, Canyonlands had the vastest vistas, Joshua Tree was exactly the way the hippies saw it in the 70’s. To be honest why would you travel to Europe when you have such amazing sights in your own country?

We also learned to understand a little bit of the concept of Manifest Destiny. Driving through the desert gave us a glimpse of the hardships the pioneers must have faced. The Finnish concept of ”sisu” is not unique. People who crossed the desert in their wagons with all of their possessions with them did certainly have ”sisu” too.

Entrances 1
Entrances 2

We had one night left and we spent it in Hollywood. We found an affordable, very clean and nicely located hotel just a couple of blocks from Hollywood Boulevard: Hotel Lexen. There is another one in North Hollywood and we drove there first by accident.

Here is a 30-minute-video of the whole trip with some nice timelapses:

11th hour

We ended up driving to Ventura. My 50th birthday was approaching and there was one more National Park nearby: Channel Islands. Unfortunately America the Beautiful pass didn’t give free access to this one. The visitor center is on the mainland in Ventura and another one in Santa Barbara. There is a private company Island Packers providing boat transportation to the island. The weather was cloudy and we were worried it would rain. We booked the trip when we arrived at Ventura and took the boat next morning. A round trip takes approximately half-a-day. The boat was full of noisy school kids but there is plenty of space on the island. Dolphins played in the wake and it was very exciting to see them follow the wake of the boat. The boat landed at Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

Channel Islands vegetation

Channel Islands National Park is very different from the other parks we visited. We took a 7 kilometer hike from Scorpion Harbor to Potato Harbor. The vegetation on the island was mainly grass. The most interesting natural wonder on the island is the island fox. It was impossible to be missed as there were plenty of them.

Island fox

The park itself was a bit of a disappointment after Zion, Grand Canyon and the rest. Even Capitol Reef made a bigger impression. I have to admit that the weather had also something to do with it. Cloudy sky really didn’t bring the best out of the park.

Scorpion Harbor
Potato Harbor hike

We stayed in Best Western Inn of Ventura and had tacos for dinner in Spencer Makenzie’s Fish Company. This was certainly tick-the-box National Park for us. Not particularly interesting but on the way back to the airport.

That’s a big tree you got there General Sherman

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks are practically the same area. They are very convenient to visit on the same trip and we visited both in two days. We left Barstow in the morning and drove all day to arrive at Plantation B&B in Lemon Cove, CA. It is very conveniently located with easy access to both parks. It also served excellent breakfast on the patio outside. Many of the rooms have a private bathroom (some not though) and so did ours. Plantation B&B was an old citrus plantation and each room has a Gone with the wind -theme. We stayed in Belle Watling -room. There is a swimming pool available on the patio but unfortunately we didn’t have time to enjoy it.

Plantation B&B, Lemon Cove, CA

We checked in and drove to Sequoia National Park main entrance which was just 30-minute-drive from our B&B. The drive from the park entrance to the park itself was an experience in itself. Generals Highway had tight turns and some roadwork which made our progress very slow but the scenery was perfect.

Promises, promises. No bears here.

At this time of the day parking was problematic. We parked at General Sherman Trailhead and walked to the biggest tree of the park. It rained a bit because this area is more than 1000 meters above sea level. It is also cooler than Lemon Cove area.

General Sherman and sergeant Huttunen

It was Memorial Day weekend and restaurants were quite full in Three Rivers when we got back from the park.

The next morning we drove along Dry Creek Drive from Lemon Cove through Badger to Grant Grove Village where Kings Canyon Visitor Center is. Kings Canyon is actually much more interesting compared to Sequoia. Sequoia has bigger trees, which Minna said look like the trees the kids draw, and Moro Rock but Kings Canyon has very a beautiful valley with rapids and waterfalls. Kings Canyon also had less visitors during our stay.

At Moro Rock, not on the top though

Kings Canyon Scenic Byway took us to the far end of the park. First section of the road descends to the bottom of the canyon and then the road follows the river. At the end of the road we took a small hike around Zumwalt Meadow. The snowmelt from the mountains made the river flow rapidly and it was full of fish (see the fisherman and the fish by the walk bridge in the video below).

Kings Canyon Scenic Byway

Kings Canyon was supposed to be the last National Park of our trip. We still had 2 more nights before the flight would leave and we had planned to spend those nights in Los Angeles. But we had been to LA before, Minna even on this same trip.

California

We got our kicks

At first our plan was to drive from Chicago to Los Angeles and follow whatever there is left of Route 66. However, the national parks of the southwest seemed more tempting especially when we considered the drive through midwest possibly a bit boring for the first couple of days.

From Grand Canyon to Oatman

So we decided to enjoy Route 66 in small pieces starting from Williams and driving through Ash Fork, Seligman, Peach Springs, Hackberry, Kingman and Oatman to Topock. Then we drove through Needles to Barstow. We had originally planned to drive through Amboy and Bagdad but it started to be late and National Trails Highway was closed between Mountain Springs Summit and Essex. This was a big disappointment as this part of the route would have had some very nice abandoned gas stations. We ended up taking I-40 from Needles to Barstow in the dark.

There were very nice old neon signs along the route but Williams and Seligman had commercialized Route 66 so they had a lot of Route 66 memorabilia stores with brand new Route 66 items on sale. I was not looking for anything new but authentic pieces of the Mother Road. The section from Kingman to Topock was clearly the most interesting and authentic part of the Mother Road we drove this time. Oatman was just plain weird with donkeys and all and if we’d known better beforehand, we’d stayed over for a night there.

Frontier Motel, Truxton, AZ

The three mandatory stops along this leg of the journey I’d recommend are Hackberry General Store (authentic Route 66 memorabilia, licence plates etc), Cool Springs Station (there was actually an old dude playing the blues on the front porch when we arrived), and, of course, Oatman.

Hackberry General Store, Hackberry, AZ

Oatman is an old mining town but now a popular Route 66 destination of the gamblers across the state border. As soon as we arrived we thought that we should’ve stayed over. The main street looked very peculiar and there were wild donkeys walking around. I opened the window to take a picture of a donkey and it immediately pushed its head into the car. I was like ”What the hell” but then I noticed a sign which said ”Burro food”. Apparently they were not that wild anymore.

Howdy tourist. Got any burro chow?

We arrived at Barstow at night, had some sleep and continued crossing Mohave desert in the morning. 330 kilometers ahead and a possibility to visit Sequoia National Park in the afternoon.

Between Oatman and Topock

P.S. Suddenly, on the way from Barstow to Lemon Cove, we saw lines of Jumbo Jets in the middle of the desert. We hadn’t planned this beforehand so it was merely an accident that we happened to drive by Mojave Air & Space Port.

Mojave Air & Space Port

The grandest of the canyons

We arrived at Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower at sunset and I took my most memorable shot.

Grand Canyon sunset

Minna had booked accommodation in El Tovar Hotel well in advance. Even if a bit pricey, staying within the park had several benefits: the hotel was right on the edge of the canyon, you could take the early buses around the park without queuing at the entrance and the overall the ”Twin Peaksey” atmosphere of the lodge. Another thing that needs to be booked well in advance is the dinner at El Tovar.

In the morning we took a bus to Hermit’s rest and hiked about 8 km back to Mohave Point from where we took a bus back to the village. The bus rides are included in the park pass. The path followed the edge of the canyon and included The Abyss: 900 m drop from the edge to the bottom of the canyon.

Hike from Hermit’s Rest to Mohave Point
From Hermit’s Rest to Mohave Point

Here’s a three-minute-video of the hike (plus some footage from Mather Point).

From Hermit’s Rest to Mohave Point

One of the exciting perks of staying on the edge of the canyon was the possibility of viewing the canyon after dark. I tried to take some pictures of the stars but my lense was too wide so no milky way shots. However, you could see to the North Rim and the lights of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the other side. I could also see the campfires of the hikers of Bright Angel Trail in the bottom of the canyon.

Grand Canyon at night from South Rim

Next leg of the journey took us to Route 66. We saw some authentic towns and lots of Route 66 memorabilia on the way to Barstow. The next two days would be spend driving 1000 km to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California.

Movie scenes, slot canyons and a dead cow

We were about to start one of the most amazing rides in the world: From Cortez, CO, to Page, AZ. While still at home I went through some of the preplanned legs of the journey zooming in to the Google maps marking some of the interesting spots. For example, this is how I found the Forrest Gump Point on the map. A memorable scene in which Forrest’s ”runnin’ days was over”. Here’s a funny recreation of the scene.

Most of the area here was Native American country. The first interesting stop after we left Cortez, CO, was Four Corners National Monument. This is the only place in USA where you can have all you limbs in 4 states simultaneously. And people really want to do this, even Minna did. There is a fee to enter the site. Basically it is just a parking lot with Native American crafts for sale.

Four Corners National Monument
Four Corners timelapse video

We had booked accommodation in Page, AZ but we didn’t take the shortest route. To see the Forrest Gump Point from the right angle you would have to drive there from north. We drove to Bluff through Red Mesa and then took the US Route 163 towards Monument Valley.

Before arriving at Forrest Gump Point we took right and entered a gravel road. I don’t remember why we took the turn but we probably saw the name of the road somewhere: Valley of the Gods Road. We drove a couple of hundred meters and saw a dead cow by the road. It was very hot so I expected it might not be very pleasant to walk to a shooting distance but this we too good of an opportunity to be missed. I took some fresh air in the car and stepped out. I was a bit afraid if there would be some animal eating the corpse but I had to take a picture of the cow. The smell was bad but not unbearable. When I came back into the car Minna claimed that my clothes started to smell like a dead cow already even though I had been out for just a couple of minutes.

Valley of the Gods

Later I found out that Valley of the Gods would have been worth a visit as it had also served as a filming location. We didn’t drive any further because we had to get to Monument Valley.

We had concerns that we would miss the exact spot where Forrest stopped running as Monument Valley could be seen from many parts of the route. When we got to the right spot, we saw that it cannot be missed. The roadside was full of cars and people were taking pictures in the middle of the road. And so did we. It is one of the quintessential views of America.

Forrest Gump Point towards Monument Valley
Monument Valley ahead

And then to the place where the westerns were made. It is truly an amazing place. The best view to the valley is from the hotel parking lot but if you’d like to see a little bit more, take drive 17-mile-long Monument Valley Loop Drive with your SUV. High clearance vehicle is strongly recommended. John Ford Point is located on Loop Drive.

John Ford Point, Monument Valley, Utah
Monument Valley timelapse from the hotel parking lot
Filming timelapses is serious business and boring

We stayed in Best Western View of Lake Powell, without the view of Lake Powell. Before we checked in, we drove south from Page and managed to get to Horseshoe Bend at sunset. The cliffs were full of people taking selfies on the edge. Apparently not everyone always survives. There were no rails to prevent people from falling down but they had started to build some to save the rescue persons efforts.

Horseshoe Bend, Page, AZ

There was one more sight in the area: the slot canyons. The most famous one is the Antelope Canyon but Minna had read that it is also very crowded. Canyon X tours had very good reviews so we booked it. The tour was shorter than some of the other tours but there was plenty of time to see the whole canyon. The slot canyons are on Native American grounds and they are all run by the family who owns that particular part of the land. Canyon X had very nice service and we heard some interesting stories from the lady who drove us down to the canyon. We certainly recommend Canyon X tours.

Canyon X slot canyon tour

After seeing the slot canyon we started the next leg of the journey. Our next destination was Grand Canyon village 223 km away from Page, AZ.

Comic book heroes of my childhood

I read a lot of comic books as a child. My favorite ones were published in Zoom magazine which had comics from Belgium and France. Zoom featured the usual Tintin and Asterix but also Blueberry which was called Navaho in ”Finnish” back then. Blueberry had the most beautiful western scenery and there was one title which especially caught the attention of the 7-year-old boy: The Ghost with the Golden Bullets. It had a picture of a Native American dwelling which was on a cliff. Somehow this image was etched in my memory. And Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado would have these dwellings. It may be that the artist Jean Giraud used Canyon de Chelly National Monument as a source of inspiration but Mesa Verde was close enough for me.

Right after we left Moab we had another americana moment. We saw a huge rock which had a text Hole ’n the Rock on it. A couple of Danish origin had lived here and the husband had excavated 50 000 cubic feet of sandstone from the rock over a period of 12 years. I wonder if this featured in Sam and Max Hit the Road computer game.

Danish version of Finnish ”sisu”: Hole ’n the rock.

Our next accommodation was booked in Holiday Inn Mesa Verde Cortez, Colorado. The distance from Moab to Cortez is 183 kilometers so it was merely a 2.5 hours drive. We had burgers in J. Fargo’s, I should’ve stuck with the burger. The nacho plate starter was just too much. A junior league baseball team had placed their orders just before we arrived.

The next morning we drove to Mesa Verde National Park. The first stop was Park Point Fire Lookout. There are two sections of the park: Wetherill Mesa and Chapin Mesa. We didn’t visit Wetherill Mesa at all. Long House in Wetherill Mesa required tour tickets and all tours had been sold out already.

Park Point Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park

We were not the first Finns in Mesa Verde. Gustaf Nordenskiöld had explored Mesa Verde in the 19th century. There is even an excavation site named after the Finnish-Swedish scientist. Times were different back then and there were no laws about what can be done with the artifacts. Apparently some of his findings are still in the National Museum of Finland.

Cliff Palace is possibly the most famous site of the park. You can see it from two places without a tour ticket. You can get very close to it by driving along Cliff Palace Loop. If you drive along Mesa Top Loop you can see it directly from the front. It’s really amazing how the native people here managed to live on the cliffs considering that the water and possibly also the food was available in the bottom of the canyon. They must have spent big portion of their time climbing up and down the walls of the canyon.

Navajo Canyon View
Cliff Palace from Cliff Palace Loop
Cliff Palace from Sun Temple

On the way out of the park, very close to Morefield Campground, we saw some cars parked by the roadside. People had stepped out of their cars and were pointing to the other side of the road. We parked the car also and we were told that there were two bears 150-200 meters away from us. And yes, this became one of the highlights of this trip. We saw a cub and its mother. I started taking pictures but they were too far to really get a good picture. ”Why don’t you change the lense?” was Minna’s reaction. The situation was so exciting that I had completely forgotten the telezoom lense I had in the car and I managed to take a couple of pictures of both bears. We had never seen a bear in the wild before. I wonder if the bears came from the campground.

Highlight of Mesa Verde National Park