The lowest point of my life

It was particularly cool day for Death Valley. The temperature didn’t even reach 100˚F. We entered Death Valley National Park through Hell’s Gate.

View from Hell’s Gate, Death Valley

The next stop was Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Then we took a short and easy hike along Salt Creek where the small pupfish must swim upstream all their lives not to end up to the salt plains below.

Third stop was Zabrieskie Point which I remembered from the movie.

Zabriskie Point

Then we headed off to the most spectacular view of the valley: Dante’s View. They recommend to come here early in the morning but then you would need to stay overnight in the park.

Dante’s View

We drove back to the bottom of the valley and took Artist’s Drive loop. The first stop which looked a bit like the famous Artist’s Palette wasn’t really the right one. So we kept on driving and finally found the colourful formation which really looks like a palette. Possibly even more at sunset. We were there in the afternoon so I have used a lot of Photoshop here to emphasize the colours.

Artist’s Palette

The final stop of our Death Valley tour was Badwater Basin, the lowest point in USA: 86 meters below sea level. We had never been so deep before. If you turn your back to the valley you can see the sea level 86 meters above you on the rock wall. The hike to the place where the salt has created interesting figures in the bottom of the valley is about 1,6 km long.

Badwater Basin


Shady ladies and prostidudes

It is 421 kilometers from Ely to Beatty which was our Death Valley destination. After Tonopah we stopped in Goldfield. Goldfield was very eccentric. We had a chat with Mike at Goldfield Art Car Park Gallery. He talked about the history of the town. It had been once swept away by a flood which was hard to believe as the town was in the middle of the desert. Mike had some mildly decorated cars in the car park and some of them had even been to Burning Man.

Art Car Park Gallery, Goldfield

Our main reason to stop at Goldfield was The International Car Forest. It was similar to Cadillac Ranch in Texas but the arrangement of the cars was not as organized as in Texas.

The International Car Forest, Goldfield, Nevada

We still had time to visit Rhyolite which was one of the ghost towns nearby. It was right next to Beatty and it was hard to believe that once it had a population of 4000 people with 50 saloons and 16 restaurants. Now it was mainly rubble but worth a visit if you go to Death Valley.

Rhyolite, Nevada

Then it was time to turn back. We had already driven past the most exotic accommodation we had booked for this trip: The Shady Lady Ranch. Minna found it on Airbnb and it had excellent reviews. I’m glad we booked it on time as it has only 3 themed rooms. The rest of the rooms are regular rooms which had served as personal rooms of the employees. The themed rooms where the rooms where they worked. The picture of the Asian room at the website didn’t do it justice. It was nicely decorated and it we had our own bathroom.

Panoramic view of the Asian room

We checked in and had some pizza which we had bought from Beatty. It had been a long day but Jennifer, the lady of the house, was so social that we stayed up until 23:00 and discussed the differences of American baseball and Finnish pesäpallo with her and a couple from San Francisco. We gave Jennifer one of our precious cans of Lonkero. The ranch had 6 dogs and 24 peacocks.

Shady Lady Ranch, Beatty, Nevada

Higher clearance

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.

Grains of salt

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.

Long time no see

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.

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