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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.