Our plan for today was to explore Yosemite. We decided to start at the visitor centre at Yosemite valley, which meant driving the CA41 – possibly my new favourite road, in 30 miles there is only one straight and that is through a tunnel! When we got to the visitor centre we discovered that they were celebrating 125 years since the park opened, complete with overhung star spangled banner and “America is great” speeches – so we left to hike up to another waterfall.
The hike to Vernal falls was classed as strenuous, so we wimped out and stopped at the viewing platform lower down the valley, which proved to be a good move. After seeing Vernal falls we walked to Mirror Lake (which isn’t actually a lake nor did it give any reflections) about halfway to the “lake” the heavens opened – we were soaked through. We finished the hike and went straight to the cafe for emergency hot chocolate and cookies. By the time we had finished those the rain had stopped, and although we were still damp, we were not keen to get any wetter so we decided to resume sightseeing from the car.
We retraced our route down CA41 as far as the Glacier Point turn off, which is a 17 mile road, again with lots of corners and gradient changes, ending at Glacier Point (no glacier to be seen). Glacier Point overlooks the whole Yosemite valley, so we were able to see Vernal falls and Mirror Lake, where we had been previously, as well as a great view of Half Dome mountain, one of the most famous peaks in the park. As a bonus, standing on windy cliff top managed to dry out our clothes from the rain earlier.
Mammoth is the only place we were staying for one night, so we had to get our exploring done before lunch. I had hoped to hire mountain bikes to try out the world famous bike park at Mammoth Mountain, but it had closed for 2015 the previous weekend – annoying. Instead we took the car up the mountain, first calling in at the earthquake fault, which isn’t an earthquake fault, but just a fissure in the earth’s surface – still impressive though. At 9,000 feet above sea level we struggled with walking in the thin air. Our next stop was Devil’s Postpile, a geological formation of basalt columns, thankfully lower down in the valley as there was a half mile hike in from the car park. A further two miles down the trail is Rainbow Falls, pictured above, which we continued on to. The forest is still recovering from a fire in 1992, so there was plenty of young growth on the ground – perfect for chipmunks to scurry around in, we enjoyed watching them as we walked through the forest.
Hiking done, we returned to Mammoth for more Mexican food at the Good Life Cafe before getting in the car and driving to Yosemite. Our route took us over the Tioga Pass, at 9,945 feet above sea level, with stunning views from each corner. The beautiful scenery and great roads continued all the way to our hotel at Wawona at the south end of Yosemite national park.
This was our longest day on the road, from Las Vegas, through Death Valley to Mammoth Lakes. Before we set off we had breakfast at the Hexx restaurant at our hotel. As the terrace was in the shade we decided to sit outside, overlooking the strip – perfect for people watching. The restaurant specialises in creative combinations, so I had their carrot cake pancakes, which were good, if a little big, and Jen had their take on eggs benedict.
Suitably fuelled, both us and the car, we set off to Death Valley. Even before we got into the national park the scenery was beautiful but it got even better inside the park, with multicoloured mountains rising either side of us. At Furnace Creek we took a diversion to Badwater – at 280 feet below sea level it is the lowest place in America. It was also bloody hot – 41°c, so we only stopped briefly for a few photos and a quick walk onto the salt flat. We returned to Furnace Creek via Artists Drive, a one way scenic road showing off the multi coloured mountains.
The next part of the drive along the Death Valley Scenic Byway (CA190) was one of the best roads I’ve driven, with dips, twists and hairpins. It reminded me of the old military road in Scotland, but obviously a lot warmer! The remaining slog up to our overnight stop at Mammoth Lakes seemed to take forever – it was 8 hours in the car in total, and the sun was setting as we arrived in town.
Tired from the drive, and the after effects of a few days in Las Vegas, we just took a stroll down the road to Roberto’s Mexican Cantina for what turned out to be a lovely, but very filling Mexican meal.
Today was meant to be a chill out day in Las Vegas, but it isn’t really a place for chilling out, everything is so full on! We started our day at the breakfast buffet at the Bellagio. It was the most decadent self-service restaurant I’ve ever seen, carrying on with the Italian theme from the rest of the casino. Pretty much all food groups were covered, but my highlight were the pancakes with caramelised peaches – surprisingly my first pancakes this trip. Breakfast was followed by a quick go on the fruit machines, then a walk round the miracle mile shops and sorting out tickets for a show in the evening.
By this time we needed to relax for a bit and cool off, so we went to the pool at our hotel, it was quite surreal swimming in the pool and looking up at the Eiffel Tower, I’ll admit that I preferred the view from swimming in Santa Barbara though. Suitably cooled down we took a trip up the Eiffel Tower for a great panoramic view of Las Vegas, unfortunately we’d timed it badly as we were too early to see the Bellagio fountains, which start at three o’clock. Next we braved the heat and madness of the strip to check out the Venetian hotel, complete with canal for gondola rides and replica of St Mark’s square – I imagine that this is the only time that the original would be madder than the Las Vegas recreation. We crossed the strip to return to our hotel, but ended up getting lost in the shops under Caesar’s Palace.
When we eventually made it back to our hotel we both felt like we needed to chill out for a while before heading back out. Before long it was time to walk back up the strip for our dinner reservation at St Mark’s square, where we enjoyed pizzas sat “outside” on the terrace, being serenaded by a band and watching all the tour groups coming past. After dinner we crossed the strip to the Mirage for roulette and cocktails before the show. We saw Cirque du Soleil’s Love, which is based on the Beatles music and was easily my highlight of Las Vegas, the choreography and acrobatics were amazing. We finished off our day in Las Vegas with sore feet – we walked over 23,000 steps – but happy watching the last performance of the Bellagio fountains from our suite.
This was another long day on the road, from Santa Monica, by the Pacific Ocean to Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. After a light breakfast I drove the first stint through Los Angeles and onto the i15. Leaving Los Angeles on Sunday morning worked well, the traffic on the freeway was flowing nicely and we reached our lunch stop near Barstow in about two and a half hours.
Barstow seemed like one of these forgotten desert towns, but I’d heard that Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner was the best place to stop and it certainly lived up to its reputation. The food was good and it has also turned itself into a tourist attraction in its own right with a diner-saur park and gift shop.
After lunch Jen took over driving duties and got us across the state line to Nevada, where I resumed driving and took us on a detour to see Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam – which meant we also crossed into Arizona, so 3 states in one day!
Driving back from the dam towards Las Vegas we got more and more excited as each of the landmarks became visible on the horizon, but it was only when we turned onto the strip that we got the full effect and realised just how crazy this city is. We checked into our hotel – Paris – and decided to upgrade to a suite, it was expensive but the views over the Eiffel Tower and Bellagio fountains were worth it. I’m slightly concerned that Jen is getting a taste for hotel suites though!
One thing we learned early on is that you need to make a reservation for the popular dinner spots. We ended up doing an impromptu tour of the strip looking for somewhere to have dinner, eventually ending up at Gallagher’s in the New York New York casino. It was worth the walk – we both had huge steaks which were delicious.
Today was similar to day 4 in Santa Barbara, we had another good breakfast (at Jinky’s) then a wander around the shops. Around lunchtime we hired beach cruiser bikes an cycled the 6km to Venice Beach. We weren’t really taken by Venice beach, it seemed a bit seedier than Santa Monica, Jen compared it to Camden in London, where Santa Monica is more like Covent Garden. We finished the ride off with an ice cream by the old carousel on Santa Monica pier.
We spend the late afternoon on the beach, which was busier than in Santa Barbara, maybe because it was the weekend. Frustratingly the waves were too big for swimming, but breaking too late for surfing – another trip where we failed to go surfing! In the evening we sampled the local nightlife, avoiding the British pub and trying some local beers/ciders in a trendy bar (Misfits), before marking our last night by the beach with more seafood at the Waterfront Grill.
Our last morning in Santa Barbara started with a light breakfast and a walk along the harbour. The reason for the light breakfast was that we had planned to call at In-n-Out burger for lunch. We’d chosen the In-n-Out burger on Sunset Boulevard, but also a diversion along Mulholland Drive. After a few wrong turns we eventually got the right road, which was suitably twisty with great views from between the mansions and our first glimpse of the famous Hollywood sign.
After our Double Double burgers, which were good, but I thought didn’t quite live up to the hype, we drove via Hollywood Boulevard to the Griffith Observatory for more views over Los Angeles, including the Hollywood sign. From this vantage point you can really see just how big the city is – we couldn’t even see the ocean, yet the city stretched out all around us.
By this point it was mid afternoon, and wary of the notorious Los Angeles traffic we set off for Santa Monica and the Georgian Hotel on the sea front. En-route we passed or drove on famous streets such as Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire and Rodeo Drive. Upon checking in we were told that our room had been upgraded to a suite after I’d tweeted the hotel letting them know it is our honeymoon – I will have to try that at other hotels!
We spent the evening hanging out around the hotel, Santa Monica pier is only a couple of blocks away and felt more like the piers I’m used to from the UK with arcades and amusements. We went on the big wheel for a view down the coast to Venice Beach and beyond.
We watched the sunset from the veranda at the hotel, drinking cocktails- a great way to end the day.
Our day in Santa Barbara started the same was as the previous day in Monterey- with a walk along the beach and a breakfast burrito. We could get used to this! One difference was that Santa Barbara is a lot warmer – even just having breakfast outside my Scottish skin felt like it was crisping up.
After breakfast we hired beach cruiser bikes and cruised along the seafront, it was good to feel the breeze in our faces and allowed us to suss out the best part of the beach to spend our afternoon. We rode 7.4km along the beach, with no elevation change, or mud – very strange for me! We chose the lagoon between Stearns Wharf and the harbour, watching the boats, SUPs and wildlife toing and froing in front of us, with a naval destroyer and oil wells on the horizon. I went for a swim and lazing in the cool water looking back at the mountains towering over the city was very relaxing. As it was so hot, we went for a walk along Stearns Wharf in search of ice cream, the wharf was less tacky than similar piers I’ve visited at Brighton and Llandudno in the UK and gave a great view of the city and mountains.
We started our evening off with some wine tasting at the Santa Barbara Winery – 2 whites and 4 reds, all very nice but probably wasted on me – Jen liked them though, which is the important thing. We finished off with a walk up State Street, the main road in town and another seafood dinner – scallops for Jen and prawns for me.
Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway was going to be one of our longest days on the road, but a drive I had been looking forward to for a long time. Before we set off we took a stroll along the beach into Monterey and had breakfast on the wharf – a massive breakfast burrito set me up for the day perfectly. The first indication of just how good this road would be was the sign warning of “Hills and curves for next 75 miles” – my idea of heaven!
The first part of the Pacific Coast Highway is through Big Sur, around each of the many corners there was new new vista, with mountains running into the Pacific as far as the eye can see – photos really don’t do it justice. Fortunately there were plenty of areas to stop and enjoy the view, which we did frequently – at one stop we were able to watch a whale surfacing and jumping out of the water. Nearer to Hearst Castle there was also a colony of elephant seals just sunbathing on the beach.
About halfway between Monterey and our first main stop at Hearst Castle Jen swapped into the driving seat, for what turned out to be the best section of road, lots of hairpins and camber changes etc. I’d love to experience an early morning blast down this road in a sports car, but as it was quite busy our Challenger was perfect for cruising along in.
Hearst Castle was really interesting, a castle built as a private house almost 100 years ago, on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean and filled with centuries old European art. The art was also architectural, with some pieces such as the ceiling in the billiard room predating Christopher Columbus setting sail to discover what we now know as America!
We spent a bit longer than planned at Hearst Castle and had a lot of distance still to cover, luckily after San Luis Obispo it was mainly freeway to Santa Barbara so I was able to stretch the Challenger a bit and we made it just as darkness was falling. Our motel is only a few minutes walk from the harbour, so we went for another seafood dinner – both of us choosing fish we’d seen at the aquarium in Monterey the previous day.
Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in a muscle car with Jen next to me is one of those memories that will stay with me forever – if you like driving, wildlife or even just nice scenery you will love it.
Our first full day in California started with a walk along the seafront. Even though we were in town there was plenty of wildlife to see – black oyster catchers, albatross, Californian sea lions (some lazing on the rocks just feet away from us) and sea otters playing in the kelp.
We spent some time exploring Cannery Row – old sardine canneries which have been turned into shops, galleries, restaurants and an aquarium. We made it to the aquarium just in time to see the sea otter feeding, it was magical seeing these fluffy sea mammals up close – they are much bigger than the fresh water otters I have seen in the UK. My other highlight was the jellyfish exhibition, it looked more like a modern art installation than a conservation project, I could have watched the jellyfish for hours. The aquarium, and general Monterey Bay Area wildlife, star in BBC’s Big Blue Live, which should still be available on iPlayer if you want to see where we’ve been.
After the aquarium we went for a scenic drive around the headland to Carmel, via a picnic at Lover’s Point (had to be done) and the famous 17 mile drive route. Jen did a bit of the driving and did really well considering she’d never driven a left hand drive car, outside the UK or an automatic previously, and our Challenger is twice the size of her Fiat 500!
Carmel was an interesting little town. It didn’t feel like we were in California, it reminded me of Costa Rica, it felt very hippyish. We had a lovely time wandering around and a tasty clam chowder for dinner.