After Claire and the boys left, we had one more week in the USA. Our plan was to visit three national parks – Sequoia, King’s Canyon and Death Valley – before ending up in Las Vegas. The first two parks are contiguous, and the third not far away, so we thought we would have plenty of time to explore them all. However, when we acquired and studied a large-scale map of California, we realised that it was not that simple. For a start, the roads inside the first two parks are narrow, steep and twisting, making travel slow, especially with the summer traffic. Second, there are no roads from Sequoia/King’s Canyon across to Death Valley – the Sierra Nevada mountains are in the way! – so you have to do a major detour to get from one park to the other. As a result, we ended up visiting four national parks instead of three, and one national monument as a bonus.
Sequoia National Park
Although we had never visited this park before, we had seen huge sequoia trees on previous visits to California. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable experience to wander again among these giants, including the General Sherman tree, supposedly the largest in the world. We were particularly impressed by the trees that were fire-damaged, and had acquired a Tolkienesque appearance.
But Sequoia National Park is not just trees. The scenery is stunning, and we had amazing views when we climbed the 400 or so steps to the top of Moro Rock. Our greatest excitement was seeing a couple of bears fairly close to one of the trails. They were rather mangy looking, perhaps because they had not had enough food over the winter. They were also small, and probably young; we were quite glad that an enormous mother bear did not come rushing up to defend her cubs!
King’s Canyon National Park
King’s Canyon, adjacent to Sequoia, also has some large trees, including the General Grant, a rival for General Sherman. But the canyon itself is picturesque, with granite cliffs towering above the canyon floor. The highlight of the visit for us was a 4-mile walk that started at the Roaring River Falls and took us along the river (at the bottom of the canyon) to the Zumwalt Meadow, where we did a loop trail before returning to the car. The scenery was very picturesque, and we had more opportunities for wildlife spotting: another bear on the way out, and a woodpecker feeding its young on the return.
Yosemite National Park
We’d visited Yosemite twice before, in 1976 and 1993, and had not planned to visit it again this time. It is a great park, of course, but we wanted to focus on places we had not already seen. However, although Death Valley (next on our target list) is due east of Sequoia/King’s Canyon, there is no road leading directly there. You have to drive a long way north or south to find a road across. We decided to take the northern route, and that meant we had to drive through Yosemite.
The intention was just to drive east-west through Yosemite on the Tioga Road, but it was impossible for two photography addicts to refrain from photo stops. And since we were going through Yosemite anyway, we thought we might as well detour into the valley. This has changed a lot since we were last there 20 years ago: there is now a one-way traffic system, and parking is no longer allowed in the village (just as well, given the crowds there on a summer Sunday). Instead, visitors are directed to a massive car park, from which they can walk or take a shuttle bus to the village. We walked, had coffee on the way and did the short trail to the lower Yosemite Falls. On the way back to the car park, we had great views of the famous Half Dome Mountain, as well as the upper and lower falls.
The Tioga Road passes through the Tuolumne Meadows, and we were disappointed to find there were not many wildflowers this year. We were also amazed by how cold it was – we were now up to 10,000 feet above sea level, and shivered in the summer clothes that had been appropriate just hours earlier.
Devil’s Postpile National Monument
After leaving Yosemite, we headed south towards Death Valley. Looking at the map, we discovered that the Devil’s Postpile National Monument was only just off our route, so that was another place to visit. We arrived in the town of Mammoth Lakes just too late to take the compulsory shuttle to the monument, so our visit had to be postponed till the next morning. Meanwhile, we did a brief tour of the eponymous lakes, which are very picturesque.
Next morning the weather was very cold, with a strong wind and light rain. Waiting for the bus, which left from the ski resort, was not fun. However, the Postpile is down in a valley, so it was not quite so cold there. We saw this amazing collection of hexagonal rock pillars from the bottom and the top. It was in some ways similar to the Devil’s Tower, which we saw in Wyoming, all those weeks ago.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley, which we reached later that day, was quite a contrast. In just a few hours, the altitude changed from about 8,000 feet above sea level to 200 feet below. And the temperature (according to our car) changed from 45°F (7°C) to 105°F (40°C)!
Death Valley has interesting scenery, and over the next 24 hours we took photos from several different viewpoints, and did a couple of short walks in the park. One walk took us through the accurately-named Golden Canyon, to a collection of rocks known as the Red Cathedral.
The highlight however was walking around an area known as Artist’s Palette, where mineral deposits have stained the rocks an amazing variety of colours. We stayed at a motel close to the Mesquite Dunes, and were able to see them at sunset and later by the light of the moon.
We ended our road trip in Las Vegas, a city we’d visited first in 1993, when we camped nearby with our children. We thought it would be fun to stay this time on the Strip, and see the changes which we knew had taken place over the past 20 years.
The hotel we chose was called the Luxor, and is a giant glass pyramid. Hotel rooms are around the edge, and accessed by what they call the ‘inclinators’: lifts in the corners that go up at an angle.
All of the big resorts are themed, and some of the most recent are designed to represent whole cities. One of the most impressive is ‘New York, New York’, which has a Manhattan skyline and a massive roller coaster running round the outside. Each resort includes several shops and restaurants, as well as a casino and hundreds of hotel rooms. While most are fairly brash and noisy, others are relatively quiet and elegant, with beautiful displays and even art galleries.
Las Vegas is famous for its shows, of which there are a vast number. We went to just one – Jubilee! at Bally’s. We chose this because it’s typical of what we imagined a Las Vegas show to be – singing, dancing and acrobatics, and dozens of showgirls wearing lots of feathers and not much else.
It was extremely hot in Las Vegas (temperatures well over 40°C). Walking along the Strip was quite a challenge, given the crowds and the heavy traffic; crossing roads often involved detours and/or going up and over walkways. All in all, we found Las Vegas fun, but tiring. We’re glad we went, but found two days there enough for us.