Draw a cactus

If I asked you to draw a cactus you would draw a saguaro. Saguaro National Park is split into two separate areas: east and west. We didn’t have time for both so we picked west because that’s what you pick when you don’t have much time.

Saguaro National Park west entrance

To be honest we took quite a detour to spend half-a-day in Saguaro in the first place. It would have been much easier to take the old Route 66 from Kingman through Flagstaff to Petrified Forest National Park. But as this was one of the remaining National Parks of the southwest on our list, and there was the airplane boneyard on the way there, we couldn’t skip it.

Saguaro National Park panorama

So it is mostly about cacti. Lot’s of saguaros, which we hadn’t seen elsewhere, but also chollas and other types as well. The saguaro core looks very interesting. You can see a dried one in the bottom right corner of the following picture.

Saguaro cactus
Cholla cactus

We met a man with his elderly mother on the trail and they asked us if this was our first visit to the national park. They also asked where we were from. When they found out that we were from Finland the mother said that when she was young her best friend was Finnish. What a coincidence. We also found sign which had been modified by an amateur geologist.

Sign edited by amateur geologist

Saguaro was the third national park on this trip and quite simple to be honest. In the evening we took a 320 km drive to Pinetop-Lakeside. On the way there we stopped at the gate of Biosphere 2. The gate was closed already so we didn’t see the building itself. We were already a bit late so we had to hurry. At that time we didn’t know that we were about to enter a part of Arizona which would deserve more time for exploration.

Biosphere 2

Moth and the flame

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.

The Volcano, Las Vegas

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.

The Venetian, Las Vegas

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.

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


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

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.