A couple of years back we stumbled upon an airport with a lot of dead passenger planes in the middle of the Mojave desert. This time we wanted to see where the war planes go to die. Pima Air & Space Museum hosts an excellent collection of war planes but they also run bus tours in the neighboring Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It is the home of 309TH Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) Facility. From the museum you can book your seat for a ”tour of the 4,000+ aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, Navy-Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard, and several federal agencies including NASA in varying degrees of storage, being regenerated or recycled.” Book early because they will run a security clearance and the tours are very popular.
It is bookings like this which make our trip planning very difficult. You have to know months in advance where you will have to be on a certain date and make sure that your trip is not delayed before you end up in there. The security clearance was so secret that we didn’t even know if we had gotten it. Unfortunately we didn’t receive the email which confirmed our security clearance so we had to call them in advance to check if we are allowed on the tour. Zoom in here to see the vastness of the boneyard.
Both the museum and the tour of the airplane boneyard were excellent. The tour bus stopped at the entrance of the airbase, our passports were taken and we had to wait in a warehouse for them to be checked. It is really amazing how many different types of planes and helicopters have been deployed in the U.S. Air Force, Navy-Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard and other federal agencies. Some of the planes even had complete production lines stored here so you could start building them again.
Minna had booked another historic landmark for us in Tucson. We stayed in Hotel Congress which is famous for its bar (Billy Gibbons’ favorite bar) and the fact that John Dillinger and the gang was arrested there. The room was very small and noisy. The hotel was right next to the railway station and there was a live music event downstairs: Bass Drum of Death at Hotel Congress. However, we had been warned.
I like blinking lights. It has been impossible for me to avoid Vegas on the last three trips to the west. What’s there to see then? Actually I don’t need to see anything more than the Strip or Fremont Street as they look awesome. I just want to follow how people look for eye candy or their fortune. There were still some must sees that we had to go to: The Volcano at Mirage and High Roller. High Roller was fun because we got the whole gondola for ourselves and once we were at the top the Fountains of Bellagio lit up.
This time we stayed two nights in The Venetian in northern part of The Strip. Now we have covered Fremont Street (Main Street Station), south (MGM Grand), middle (Planet Hollywood) and north. Venetian offers free gambling lessons so we took a craps lesson. I only learned the pass line bet which I kind of new beforehand already. We had plans to go to Boulder Highway for cheaper table games but ran out of time.
We also had dinner at Bacchanal but even seafood can be too much. Maybe next time we will spend the money for a real dinner. We spend the following two days driving to Tucson. 664 kilometers to go.
After the lunar crater we arrived at Warm Springs. This is where Nevada State Route 375 begins and leads to Area 51. That’s why it is called Extraterrestrial Highway. What was really amazing was the amount of cows along the ET Highway. We only drove 30 miles just to see if there are aliens along the road. Unfortunately we didn’t see any, but we saw lots of cows. I am not sure if the farmers knew what aliens would do to them if they really landed here. The other explanation is that the cows are decoys planted by the government in order to catch some more aliens.
Finally we arrived at Tonopah. Unfortunately we didn’t have any small children with us because there was a nice clown-themed hotel next to the Old Tonopah Cemetery.
Tintic Gold Miners B&B was in Eureka Utah. It was a very small town with a bit of a run down center. But we didn’t mind because it was just what we had come here for. There were only a couple of places to get some food from and we picked B’s Hangout because it had good reviews in Google. I had a burger which had fried cheese, melted cheese and meat in it. Minna’s Western burger didn’t have so much cheese.
We had good night sleep although the room was a bit hot. In the morning we had good American breakfast with the owners. They told us about the ghost towns in the area and with their instructions we managed to find Silver City cemetery. Apparently there was nothing left of the ”city” except the cemetery. The cemetery had a lot of children’s graves as there had been some epidemic in the beginning of 1900. I think the tombstones were not the original ones. It looked like some of them had been replaced with newer ones.
We continued driving US Route 6 to southwest and drove past Delta towards Great Basin National Park just across Nevada border. The scenery was quite dull but suddenly Minna noticed something which she said looked like a sheep which had gotten stuck to a barb wire fence. We turned back and yes, there really was an animal hanging in the fence. But it wasn’t a sheep. I’d never seen a coyote but I think this was bigger than a coyote. It looked more like a dog or a wolf to me. There are not too many wolves in Utah so I’m not 100% sure if it was a wolf.
This section of our trip was part of the Loneliest Road U.S 50. Eventually we crossed the border between Utah and Nevada, adjusted our clocks to Pacific time zone, and arrived at Baker which was home to our first national park on this trip: Great Basin National Park. It was still off-season so there was no cafeteria open in the park. In the US it is not possible to get a portion of food which is too small. Usually everything is too big. We never order any starters because they are so big that there would not be room for the main course if you had one. We thought that we had to get something for luch so we went to a local restaurant and bought one sandwich to go. This time one sandwich was a mistake because it was the smallest sandwich in the whole country.
The park has two main attractions: Lehman Cave and Wheeler Peak. Wheeler Peak was inaccessible because there was still a lot of snow on the road. Lehman Cave is open for guided tours only. Minna had pre-booked a tour for us which was necessary because even in off-season the tour was full.
When we left the park I saw blinking red and blue lights behind me. I pulled over and I was sure I’d been speeding because it was all downhill from the park and there was a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit. But I was innocent. The police had thought he had seen me without a seat belt but because I had a black shirt, the seat belt wasn’t too visible. Anyway, I forgave him and we left for Ely, Nevada.
The new side of the town looked a bit boring but the old side had some nice neon signs and small casinos. We stayed in Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall. I had mixed feelings about the hotel at first. Minna had upgraded our room by cancelling the first reservation and then booked a new one. On arrival we learned that we had two rooms booked. I told that we don’t need two rooms this early on the trip, maybe later. The reception staff was very helpful and we got the keys and vouchers for complimentary margaritas. The hotel had been built in 1929 and it showed on the outside. Also there was a lot of cigarrette smoke in the reception because downstairs was a Gambling Hall. I didn’t have high expectations about the room. But I was wrong. The room had been renovated, except for the bathroom, and it looked like some LA boutique hotel room. Clean carpet and everything. What a nice surprise. Somehow there was an old western feel to the hotel. This was the venue where Wayne Newton started his career.
We had dinner in an old jailhouse across the street. It was one of the best rib-eye steaks I have ever eaten.
Although we had missed our flights, there was no delay in our program. Originally we had planned to stay at SLC for the first night but now we just stayed at SFO. The actual trip would begin the next morning anyway. I expected to have Ford Edge waiting for me at Avis counter at SLC, instead there was GMC Yukon Denali. Fair enough, it has higher clearance and 4*4 so it was acceptable.
Minna had been an exchange student here in 1985 so we took a quick tour around city center and drove off to Park City, the home of 2002 Winter Olympics and Sundance film festival. Very cosy ski resort but I cannot even imagine how much would a ski holiday cost here. Drunken Chicken sandwich in The Spur and then towards Eureka and our second night accommodation in Tintic Gold Miners B&B.
Guess where we are: Water costs more than a soda here. We decided to come back because we didn’t even visit all national parks of the southwest a year ago.
Finnair has direct flights to LA and San Francisco. We booked return flights to SFO with 500€+90€ for the luggage. Apparently some people travel to USA without luggage as Finnair basic economy tickets do not have luggage anymore. I hate the way they charge you nowadays. In US there are airlines which charge extra for the overhead bins. However we didn’t want to start driving from San Francisco so we also bought tickets from United from SFO to Salt Lake City with 2-hour transfer. What were we thinking? Needless to say we missed our flight from SFO to Salt Lake City because half of the passengers of Finnair got SSSS on their boarding passes, including myself. So half of the passengers had extra screening at the gate and most of the people had not noticed that boarding will start 1.5 hours before departure. So the plane left from Helsinki 30 minutes late. If it had left on time, we would have made it to Salt Lake City. We had given up hope and thought that our non-transferable cheap-ass tickets would be worthless but then a miracle happened: The agent at the United counter changed our tickets for the following morning without extra charge.
So we had to stay at SFO for the night and fly to SLC the next morning. We booked the cheapest hotel we could find which had airport shuttle service. With 92€ we got a room from Travelodge which had received 97 Excellent reviews in Tripadvisor. It seemed to be very popular among Mexican construction workers. I wouldn’t like to fly the airline which sent his pilot there though. There was a pilot in the shuttle who also jumped off at our hotel.
The room was actually cleaner than we had expected and the beds were comfy as well.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.