Alaska

A mid afternoon flight from Seattle arrives in Anchorage 3 and a half hours later. Having lost another hour by moving timezones (now 9 hours behind the U.K.), it was around 7.30pm before I arrived at the hotel. After checking in I decided to stretch my legs with a walk around downtown Anchorage. Not a whole lot to see to be honest, and I didn’t really expect there to be. For the most part, Anchorage is a way into the state. The most striking thing for me was the daylight. I headed back to the hotel around 9pm and it could have been the middle of the afternoon.

Trek America trips start at 7.30am in the morning (which differs to G Adventures which generally start in the evening). After meeting the group (6 other travellers plus Sam, our tour guide) we did the usual admin and introductions before heading south to Seward.

The drive down from Anchorage to Seward is a couple of hours, and is insanely scenic. It reminded me of Fiordland in New Zealand. There were lakes on one side of us and hills/mountains on the other side. We arrived in Seward around 11am and after grabbing some (very expensive) lunch from the local supermarket, we then got on board a boat for an afternoon of cruising around the Kenai Fjords. We were so, so lucky with the weather, even in summer blue sky and warm temperatures are relatively rare in these parts.

Aside from the epic scenery, we were also hoping to see lots of wildlife. We saw lots of birds (I have entirely forgotten what most of them were), as well as sealions and then eventually we saw a humpback whale. Money shot:

We stayed in a hostel in Seward where I managed to choose a bunk with a particularly saggy mattress. We went out in the evening for out first group dinner, followed by a couple of drinks in the first of many bars on the trip which had dollar bills covering the ceiling.

The next day we went to the nearby Exit Glacier. I did a guided ranger walk for a couple of hours to a viewing point at the face of the glacier, whilst some of the others did a more strenuous hike up towards the Harding Ice Field.

In the afternoon we headed back to Seward and along with a couple of the group, I did a short hike around the 2 Lakes Trail and then I went to the aquarium. In the evening we did our own thing for dinner before having a few/lots of drinks in a couple of bars, chatting to the locals and stumbling back just before 1am…and it was still light!!

I had a slightly bleary-eyed start the next day and we were up early and on the road at 7am for the long drive day to Denali – around 375 miles. The weather, however, was perfect.

This picture was taken at the lunch stop in the town of Talkeetna, pretty epic view with Mount Denali on the right (tallest mountain in North America at 20,310ft, and it has a higher vertical rise than Everest from its base, as Everest rises from a plateau). On 2 out of 3 days you can’t see Denali because of the weather. Sam also said that though this was her 3rd trip to Denali this year, it was the first time she’d seen it, so I definitely feel that we were super-lucky.

We rolled into Healy around 5.30pm, where I had booked onto a scenic flight which would also land on a glacier. It was not a cheap excursion but it was totally worth the money.

There were 8 passengers and the pilot on the plane, pretty cosy. I was right at the back but had a bonus with views out of both sides of the plane. The plane itself had skis on it so it could land on the glacier, which was an awesome experience.

After that we met with the rest of the group for a late dinner at 49th State Brewing. They definitely like their beers in this part of the world, there seemed to be quite a few local breweries around, though I had a nice glass of vino.

The next day (4th July!) we had a full day bus tour into Denali National Park. I think this is probably one of the most authentic wilderness areas I’ve been to. There is basically 1 road into Denali (at least from where we were staying), which is only paved for 20 miles, and private vehicles aren’t allowed beyond the first 20 miles. There are very few maintained trails and you are encouraged to go and wander (what the Americans term ‘backpacking’, though you’ve gotta be aware of the wildlife).

The bus took us out 66 miles to the Eielson Visitor Center and it took about 4 hours to get there. We made rest stops as well as stops for wildlife spottings. On the way out we saw caribou and some grizzlies.

This is the amazing 4th of July view from the Eielson Visitor Center

We did the Alpine View hike at the Visitor Center, where I was lucky enough to see another sow and her cubs coming down the hill. More epic views at the top:

On the bus back we saw loads of sows and cubs, we seemed to be stopping every 20 minutes for sightings, which was really amazing. In contrast to the bears I’ve previously seen in Yellowstone, we seemed to be closer to the bears in Yellowstone. I have a whole heap of photos on my camera which at first glance are just photos of green hillside, but if you zoom in the bears are there – somewhere! In Yellowstone, with a less good camera, I have clearer photos of bears. But it is still really exhilarating to see bears in the wild.

We also saw a moose right at the end of the trip back. Moose are enormous!! The next day back at the park entrance there was a moose and her baby moose casually wandering in the car park! We essentially had a free day on the second full day in Denali. I decided to do some of the shorter trail hikes near to the park entrance Visitor Center. The weather was a bit rainy in the morning and I was glad for my full wet weather gear! Some of the group went rafting instead, not really my cup of tea.

The next morning we had a sled dog demo in the park. Denali is one of the few places where huskies work in the winter, to patrol the park and carry supplies on sleds. I can hardly imagine what this place is like in winter, covered in snow and blanketed in darkness. It would certainly be a different experience to be there in the winter!

After the demo, it was time to head off to our next stop. We were heading east down the (unpaved) Denali Highway to Maclaren River Lodge in the Alaskan Range. It was another long drive, but with more great scenery. Canoeing was an option here, but I was the only one who decided against it, and instead I enjoyed a couple of glasses of vino.

Once the rest of the group made it back (not all of them dry…) we had dinner and then had a bonfire and made s’mores. S’mores are classic American campfire snacks, toasted marshmallows, and a slab of Hershey’s chocolate sandwiched between 2 Golden Graham crackers – a proper sugar hit!

The next morning we had a short hike quite near to the lodge, and then continued along the Denali Highway towards Wrangell-St-Elias National Park. This is the largest national park in North America. It’s the size of Switzerland, and the main town within the park, McCarthy, is accessed via a 60 mile dirt road. It’s quite hard to imagine the isolation of these communities, especially outside of the tourist season. We arrived at 6.30pm on a Saturday evening, and after a quick shower we headed out to sample the local nightlife. There was live music in the Saloon to enjoy, as well as some interesting people-watching.

The next day the only thing to do was to get out onto the glacier. The options were a full day glacier hike or ice climbing. I opted for the glacier hike and after being fitted out with crampons which we would wear once on the ice, we headed off on the 2 mile hike to the face of the glacier. In contrast to other glacier hikes I’ve done which have largely followed set routes, this one felt much more like we could roam free (within reason, i.e. avoiding any precipitous drops!). And by ‘roam free’, I mean that I felt that our guide wasn’t following a pre-determined path, but was taking us to look a interesting features on the glacier.

We hiked about 6 miles on the ice, and because we were constantly moving, it didn’t feel as cold as you might expect.

The blues that you see on the glacier are so intensely blue, the photos don’t really do it justice.

We returned in the late afternoon, and on the drive back to McCarthy from Kennicott, as we turned a corner in the road, a black bear was right in front of us! It looked at us for a few moments before disappearing into the bush. Really cool to see up close!

The next day was the last day of the trip, and a long drive back to Anchorage. Firstly back down the 60 mile dirt road through the park, and eventually onto the paved highways. We rolled into Anchorage at 6pm and said our goodbyes as we weren’t all staying in the same hotel.

A reasonably early night followed for me as I had a 4am alarm for the long journey back to the U.K.

So, what were my overall impressions of Alaska? First off it is beautiful. The scenery and wildlife are out-of-this-world. The locals are friendly, and in the summer there is near-constant daylight which means plenty of time (if you can hack it) for exploring. Pack for all seasons, it’s unlikely to be hot and the weather can change pretty quickly. Things to be aware of, firstly the prices – it’s expensive in Alaska, naturally because it’s pretty remote up there. On the plus side, there is no sales tax so at least you know that price you’ll pay once you get to the till. Secondly the nightlife is very low-key. You definitely don’t come to Alaska to party. And thirdly, the sheer size of Alaska – it’s huge. It’s 82 times larger than Wales. The furthest north we got was the Denali region, but there is another near-600 miles of Alaska before you hit the Arctic Ocean, and you’ll be lucky if those roads are anything more than a dirt track. It’s difficult to appreciate the remoteness of some of these places, and I can barely imagine what it’s like to be there in the constant darkness of winter. But all in all, definitely worth visiting.

Back to New York

On our way out of Nashville we went to the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, TN. They do free tours which last just over an hour. 


After that we had a long, long drive to Wytheville, Virginia. It was probably the most scenic drive in the south. It was very lush and green and we saw mountains for the first time in weeks – the Great Smoky Mountains.

We got there fairly late, and went for a Chinese before collapsing into bed.

The next day we headed to Washington DC. First off we stopped off at Foam Henge, a replica of Stonehenge built entirely from styrofoam (like you do…)


Maybe I should go to the real one when I get home to compare!

We stopped off at Arlington Cemetery on the way. We saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was an immaculately observed ritual, and I was really glad I got to see it.

After that we headed into Washington DC. In the evening some of us walked around DC and went to the White House:


The Washington Monument:


The Reflecting Pool:


And the Lincoln Memorial:


We went for dinner and then walked back past the White House when it was lit up:


The next day I went for breakfast with one of the girls to Old Ebbitt’s Grill which had been recommended by one of the guys on the first part of the US trip – I had pancakes which were really good. We then headed to the Washington Monument to get a final selection of National Park stamps:


After that I went to the National Archives to see the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

I also walked passed Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot.


I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum specifically to look at Thomas Moran’s paintings of Yellowstone which are  very impressive.


After that it was time to find a pub to watch the footy. Met up with some of the guys from the camping group to cheer on both England and Wales. At least we got out of the group this time!

In the evening we all went for dinner and then went to the Jefferson Memorial to watch the sunset. The sky was amazing.


The next day was the last day of my 6 week Trek America trip. We had a delayed start as there was a problem with the van but we eventually got going and went to Philadelphia. I had a Philly Cheesesteak for lunch and then we went to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and we ran up the ‘Rocky Steps’.


And then it was back to Newark…where it all began 6 weeks since. We have done and seen an insane amount of things in the last 6 weeks. I have had such a great time, and have made memories that will last the rest of my life.

Once back at Newark, the rest of my group headed into Manhattan to see as much of the city as possible before most of them flew home the following day. As I was staying a couple of days in Manhattan anyway, I decided to stay in Newark and hung out with the camping group for the evening.

The next day I headed to my hotel in Manhattan. I’m staying on 27th Street this time, kinda in Chelsea. Went for a wander around Chelsea Market while I waited for my room to be ready, and then I went to see a taping of Late Night With Seth Meyers in the evening (another talk show ticked off the list…). I had tried to get Jimmy Fallon tickets but they are impossible. It was a lot of fun. After that I came back to my hotel and crashed out. I do have a cool view from my hotel window though:


Today I went on a shopping spree as I have money left and it’s burning a hole in my pocket. Aeropostale in Times Square is closing down and they have a massive sale on so I may or may not have bought some stuff from there…

My bags are packed and I head home tomorrow. Can’t quite believe where the last 6 months has gone…

Music, music, music (and some gators)

New Orleans. The place I was most looking forward to on the southern part of the trip.

It was only a couple of hours’ drive from Lafayette so we arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon. Very nice hotel on Canal Street on the edge of the French Quarter. After grabbing some late lunch in a shopping mall, some of us went on the Honey Island Swamp tour, about 40 minutes outside of New Orleans. 

We saw alligators pretty much straight away. They come right up close to the boat, and I have to say they were pretty terrifying.


The ‘swamp’ itself reminded me of the Noosa Everglades in Australia.


After that we headed back to the hotel to get ready for a big night out on Bourbon Street. First up though we went for dinner. New Orleans (which I’m going to call Nola from here on) has loads of great food with creole and Cajun influences. I had a sampler which included 3 of the dishes that Nola is famous for – jambalaya, crawfish etouffee and gumbo.


The gumbo (bottom left) was my least favourite.

After dinner we hit Bourbon Street. Every bar has live music playing. We hit a few of them over the course of the evening, and I managed to spend a lot of money on drinks. Not a cheap place to go drinking at all!!

It was a pretty late night so the next day was something of a delayed start…eventually I got going and walked down Canal Street to the river. It was extremely humid while we were there and it was pretty hot work walking around. I walked along the river front to the French Market, where I spent a while looking at the stalls and listening to the jazz that was being played in the cafes and on the street.


There was a massive thunderstorm whilst I was in the French Market so I took the opportunity to shelter and have some lunch (gator bites) while listening to some jazz. A pretty nice way to enjoy lunch!

The thunderstorm didn’t really pass so I braved the weather to walk towards Jackson Square and the Cathedral.


I walked through the French Quarter, which has some amazing architecture:


I also went to the Museum of Death which was fairly grim to be honest!

We had a quieter evening on the second evening. We went for dinner with the camping group and then some of us went to Preservation Hall for a jazz concert. They do hourly shows in the evening, and it was amazing, authentic jazz. No mikes, no amps, just a bunch of guys with their voices and instruments. A lady we met at the hostel in Austin recommended it to us and it was well worth it.

The next day was a mammoth driving day to Memphis – around 400 miles. The highlight of which was the lunchtime stop at Whole Foods! I was in my element. It was so nice to get some healthy food after eating a serious amount of fried food in the south. Serious diet required in July to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress!!

We arrived in Memphis in the late afternoon to find the humidity even worse than Nola. It was actually quite hard to breathe when you first step into it, and it was extremely hard work to walk for more than 10 minutes.

We went to Blues City Cafe for dinner where I had BBQ ribs which just fell off the bone – possibly the best ribs I’ve ever had.

We sampled some more live music on Beale Street.


The next day was a jam-packed day. It started bright and early with the England v Wales football match – I did note that all my Welsh friends were suspiciously quiet on Facebook after that ­čśť. We then headed off for a tour of the Sun Studio, where Elvis (among a host of others) was discovered:


It was inspiring to be in a place were so many of music’s greats were discovered.

We then went to Graceland. I’m not a huge Elvis fan but I felt that I couldn’t come to Memphis and not see it. I enjoyed it more than I expected. It’s actually quite understated, and the self guided tour is really good. I hadn’t realised he was buried there either so it made for a poignant end of the tour.


Then we headed back to downtown and some of us went to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken place for lunch. The humidity by this point was unbearable and we were all grateful to be inside for a while. The short walk from there to the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel (the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated) was hot and sticky. The museum itself was excellent and contained a lot of information on civil rights in America. It is difficult to believe that this is recent history.


We rounded the day off by heading to the Peabody Hotel to watch the daily duck parade. These ducks come out of their rooms at 11am, come down the lift into the lobby and spend all day in the fountains in the lobby. And then at 5pm they walk back along the red carpet to the lift and go back to their rooms. Probably the weirdest thing I’ve seen in the states and I’ve been to Wall Drug.

The humidity really dehydrated me and I felt unwell in the evening so I stayed in the air-conditioned room in the evening while the others went for dinner.

The next day was onto the final stop on our live music tour – country music capital, Nashville!!

On the way into Nashville we stopped off at a lookout for a view of the city skyline.


We also stopped off at the Parthenon – an exact replica of the one in Greece. Don’t really know why it’s here, maybe I now need to go to Greece to see the real thing and compare!


We arrived at the hostel in Nashville by mid afternoon. It was thankfully not as humid here as it had been for the past few days and I think we were all grateful for that. I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which had loads of information in it. I also went to the Johnny Cash Museum which was really good.

In the evening we went to the Wild Horse Saloon for dinner and line dancing. I came to Nashville on my previous Trek America trip in 2006 and pretty much the only thing I remember clearly from that trip was coming to this bar to do some line dancing. Still lots of fun!!


We also went to the Honky Tonk Central Bar and a couple of other places. Again, everywhere had live music, mainly country this time, and as it was Friday night it was very busy. Nashville seems very popular with hen do’s and we saw lots of them whilst we were there.

We saw lots of live music over these 5 days, and while most of it isn’t music I’d generally listen to, I really enjoyed seeing so much live music.

The Grand Canyon and Monument Valley

We left Vegas the next morning and headed towards the Grand Canyon. We drove right by the Hoover Dam but did not stop to see it – a missed opportunity. We carried on towards Seligman for lunch. Seligman is on the historic Route 66 which meant a good photo opportunity:

We stopped at the Snowcap diner in Seligman for lunch – obviously a favoured location on Trek trips as there was a wall covered in old photos of Trek leaders. Good fun spotting pictures of those we know!

After lunch it was onwards to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. When we got there, Mike had us put blindfolds on so that we would get ‘the big reveal’. It did not disappoint:

After a quick stop for photos we then headed to the airport for a scenic helicopter flight. It was awesome, especially the first view of the canyon. You fly really low over the trees and then suddenly the Grand Canyon is disappearing right in front of you!

We grabbed takeaway pizza for dinner and headed back to the Grand Canyon to watch sunset. Absolutely spectacular:


The next day was a free day to explore the park. After JD had gone on so much about Junior Ranger in the northern part of this trip, I decided to jump on the bandwagon. They’re aimed mainly at (big) kids and so there is an activity book to complete. You get a cool pin badge too.


 I spent the day walking around and using the shuttle bus to get between the various look-out points on the south rim.

The next day we headed towards Monument Valley, making a couple of stops along the way at Colorado River Gorge:


And the ‘elephant’s feet’:


We also stopped off at the ‘Forrest Gump Road’ – awesome photo op:


Then we headed to the visitor centre which has some great views:


In the evening we went on a jeep tour with the Navajo through the valley before enjoying some Navajo tacos and traditional song and dance.



I really enjoyed these few days looking at iconic scenery. The views were mind-blowing and definitely lived up to expectations.

San Diego and Las Vegas

The next morning we met with the 4 new people who would be joining myself, Kath, Liv and Sarah for the southern half of the tour back to New York. The newbies are all girls – there is a lack of men on this part of the trip which makes for a different group dynamic.

We headed to Beverly Hills, and then onto Hollywood to check out Grauman’s Chinese Theater:

  
And the handprints and footprints:

  
We also walked along the walk of fame, and tried to make out the Hollywood sign but it was a little misty.

  
Then it was time to head out of LA and onto San Diego. I can’t say I was sorry to leave LA. It’s an enormous city that is very difficult to get around, there are lots of dirty-looking areas, and there was no sign of the typical Californian sunshine.

San Diego is only a couple of hours south of LA so we arrived in time for lunch. We went to a great Hawaiian cafe called Leilani’s, which was really nice.

Then we headed to Belmont Park and some of the group went on the rollercoaster there. Not being a fan of rollercoasters, I kept my feet firmly on the ground.

After that it was mid afternoon and time to head to the hostel in the Gaslamp Quarter. I really liked this area, lots of bars, cafes and restaurants, and a good vibe.

After we had eaten we went on a pub crawl organised by the hostel. The first stop was at the Shout House Rock and Roll Duelling Pianos bar. It was awesome. 2 guys, 2 pianos, taking requests from the audience. Everything from Miley Cyrus to Meat Loaf.

We then went to a karaoke bar that also had a bucking bronco….different, but fun to watch (you should know enough about me by now to know that I wouldn’t do either karaoke or get on a bucking bronco!).

We went to a third bar after that but I headed to bed soon after.

The next day was a free day in San Diego. Mike drove us to the Zoo in Balboa Park. Most of the group went to the zoo but I decided to go to the Air and Space Museum instead. Balboa Park has around 15 different museums so plenty to choose from.

As I walked to the museum, I passed a large line of smartly dressed people waiting to go into a building, and a number of TV trucks setting up on the road. Wasn’t sure what this was about, but it would become apparent later. The air and space museum was interesting. They had an exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s inventions which was great. That man was a bit of a genius.

As I walked back towards the zoo, it became apparent what the queue of people and TV trucks were for. We are in election season in the States (though to be fair election season goes on for about 2 years), and Hillary Clinton was giving a speech in one of the buildings. There was a large crowd of people outside so I joined them and listened to her speech for a while (didn’t see her, but speakers were set up outside). Kinda interesting to see the people there, including the Bernie Sanders supporters and the odd Trump supporter.

After that we went to Mission Beach for some sunshine. I fell asleep for a bit and could feel myself burning so I went for a walk down the boardwalk. Not a lot there to be honest, but it passed the time.

We went for dinner and then a few of us went to the piano bar again. Slowly everyone drifted away and I was left on my own, but I loved it so much I stayed until 1am.

The next day we headed to Las Vegas. On the way we stopped at a ghost town called Calico. I’ve been to a ghost town before on the northern edge of Death Valley called Rhyolite which was utterly abandoned. Calico, however, has been commercialised. The buildings all house gift shops, cafes and exhibits. I think I preferred Rhyolite as it felt more authentic.

We arrived in Las Vegas in the late afternoon and after driving down the Strip we headed to our hotel in the Downtown area, just off Fremont Street. This area is where Vegas originally developed.

   

After getting showered and changed we headed out in a ‘party bus’ for a tour of Vegas. We stopped at the Little White Chapel:

  
The Las Vegas sign:

   
 
And the Bellagio fountains:

  
We hopped off at the Bellagio, and myself, Kath and Maica walked through the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace and the Venetian (I might have fed a few $5 bills into some slot machines…) before heading back to check out Fremont Street at night. A few interesting sights to say the least!

  
The next day was a free day in Vegas. I headed back to the Strip to wander through some more of the hotels (and feed some more $5 bills into the slots). I went to Treasure Island, the Palazzo, the Venetian, Harrah’s, Paris, Flamingo, New York New York and Excalibur.

   
    
 
I headed back to the hotel in 42C heat, and also got my first Uber. 

In the evening a few of us went to see the Chippendales (ahem…), before heading to the Stratosphere so that some of the girls could go on the rides there. We also had a cocktail in one of the bars at the top. Then we headed back to the hotel and I had a successful spot of late night gambling.

  
The thing about Vegas is that you lose all concept of time. It was 2am when I rolled into bed (I’d only spent 30 mins on the slots) but I felt wide awake. In the casinos there are no windows, no clocks, people are there gambling 24/7. It’s really easy to see how you’d become addicted to it and lose a lot of money.

After a week or so of cities it was then time to head back to the peace and quiet of the national parks.

San Francisco to LA

We left Yosemite and drove to Sam Francisco. It’s finally starting to get warm and sunny! We approached San Francisco from the north, driving past Sausalito where I’d stayed with my folks in 2013. We walked over the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a couple of miles long and took about 40 minutes. JD dropped us at the north end and picked us up at the southern end. It was a perfect day for it – blue sky and clear. Relatively often the bridge is shrouded in mist so we were pretty fortunate to get a good day.

  
We then headed to the hostel in the Tender Nob area (make your own jokes…). We arrived mid afternoon and had an hour or so to get ready before we headed out for dinner and a sunset cruise around the bay.

We went around Alcatraz Island and under the Golden Gate Bridge.

  
The sunset cruise finished at around 8.30pm, and then we went to the Saloon Bar – which I think is the oldest bar in San Francisco, established in 1851. There was a band playing in there, we stayed for a couple of drinks before heading to the Kozy Kar bar. A pretty interesting club to say the least. I had a lot of fun though, drinking and dancing with our group and the camping group. We stumbled back to the hostel at about 2am…

The next day we went to Alcatraz. Our tickets were for 11am so instead of rushing around I had time to walk the couple of miles from the hostel to Pier 33.

I’ve been to Alcatraz before but went again as this was an included activity. The audio tour of the cell block is really good, and they also had an exhibition on current US prison inmates over the age of 50. There is an aging prison population in the US and it was interesting to learn about the issues that this causes. It was also interesting to see that some prisoners showed remorse and some didn’t.

I headed back to shore around 1.30 and had a sushi lunch. Now I’m back near the coast I will easy sushi again! I then went to Haight Ashbury in the afternoon. This involved taking the F streetcar to Castro and then walking up some of San Francisco’s many hills. Haight Ashbury is a pretty cool, hippy, alternative area and I wish I’d got there slightly earlier so I could spend more time there.

   
 
My handbag finally died a death while I was out so I *had* to go and buy another one (such a shame…!).

I then headed back to the hostel as JD was going to drive us to the Marin Headlands to watch the sunset. I’ve seen some awesome sunsets while I’ve been away and this one was definitely up there with the best of them.

  
The next day we left San Fran and headed south to Santa Cruz. As it was the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, the traffic was terrible. It took us quite a long time to get there. We grabbed lunch there and walked down the pier and the boardwalk before heading on south. We stopped off at Pebble Beach Golf Course before driving the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) through Big Sur and onto San Luis Obispo (SLO) for our final night together. We spotted some whales whilst driving down the PCH.

  
We arrived in SLO pretty late due to the Memorial Weekend traffic so we ordered in pizzas and ate around the hotel pool. The party had to move to one of our rooms though when some weird man joined us. When JD is whatsapping us and telling us to leave, you know something is up.

The next day was the last day of the northern part of the tour. We left SLO and drove to Santa Barbara. I wasn’t impressed with Santa Barbara. The beach wasn’t great and there was a lot of building work going on. For Memorial Day it was extremely quiet.

We drove a little further and I had my first In ‘n’ Out Burger for lunch – a very nice burger. We then headed to Santa Monica Pier to get our pics at the end of Route 66.

  
We had a couple of hours in Santa Monica before heading to the hotel to say bye to everyone. It was a really weird feeling, kinda anti-climactic, and sad as well. Joe had a flight to catch, Adam and Maica were staying elsewhere and JD was heading to see friends.

It must massively mess with your head being a tour guide. You’re with a bunch of people for 3 weeks and then suddenly you’re on your own again, before meeting another group of people for the next trip.

I’ve done a few trips like this now and JD is easily the best guide I’ve had. His breadth and depth of knowledge is astounding, his enthusiasm for everything is infectious and he is a stand-up guy. Man, if you are reading this – thank you.

I went for dinner with Liz and Sarah and then we met some of the camping group at the hotel (no camping in LA for them!).

The next day was a free day in LA before the southern part of the tour started the following day. Our new tour guide, Mike, drove us to Venice Beach and Manhattan Beach for a bit of beach time. The marine layer was making itself known though. Damn LA weather!

  
Time for the southern part of the tour and hopefully some warm, sunny weather.

Yosemite

Yellowstone and Yosemite were the 2 things I was most excited about for the northern part of this tour. I’d been to Yosemite before back in September 2013 when I did a Vegas/California road trip with the family. Unfortunately we were there during the Yosemite rim fire, and as we were staying in Mammoth Lakes to the east of the park, we were unable to get to Yosemite Valley. I was absolutely gutted at the time. We did get into the park on the Tioga Road from the eastern part but only as far as Tenaya Lake. The irony this time round was that Tioga Road wasn’t actually open. It is at a high elevation – over 9000ft – and still has snow on it.

We drove into the park from the western side and stopped off to check out some giant sequoia trees. These things are absolutely enormous. Kauri trees in New Zealand are big but sequoias are on a different level.

   

We then drove into the valley and had an awesome view of El Capitan and Half Dome.

  
We then drove on to see Bridal Veil Falls – the views kept getting better and better.

  
We then carried on to see Yosemite Falls – the tallest waterfall in the USA. 

  
We also stopped at the face of El Capitan and spotted people climbing up it. You have to be well equipped to climb El Capitan as it takes several days to scale it.

  
The next day was our free day in the park. There were several hikes available and I decided to do the Upper Yosemite Falls hike. It is 3.2miles to the top, with an elevation gain of 2,700ft. Yosemite Valley is already at 4,000ft so it was extra hard work because of the altitude.

It took 3 hours to hike to the top and was really tough going at certain points. I was the only person from my group hiking this route (some of the others hiked the Vernal and Nevada Falls route), but most people from the camping group did the hike. (Side note here – I am doing a lodging tour i.e. staying in hotels and hostels, but there is also another Trek group doing exactly the same route but they are camping instead).

JD, our tour leader, also did the hike and was great at keeping me going. There were some pretty awesome views on the way up:

   
   
And also from the top:

   
    
 
Yosemite Valley looked incredible. The photos really don’t do it justice.

After stopping for lunch at the top, and with some ominous weather looming, we headed back down. It only took 1 hour and 50 minutes to get back down, but it seemed to go on and on. My legs weren’t too bad afterwards but my left knee was complaining a bit! I was very proud of myself though and I’m glad I gave myself the challenge of doing this hike. It was tough but easier than the Tongariro Crossing (which I vastly underestimated) and the Inca Trail.

After grabbing a pizza dinner in Half Dome village, we went out to Tunnel View point to catch the last of the sun.

   

This couple of days definitely made up for the disappointment of not being able to see anything last time. I’m almost glad I missed everything last time because it made this experience so much better. Definitely the highlight of my USA trip so far.

Yellowstone to Yosemite 

After leaving Yellowstone we drove through the Grand Teton National Park. I had not heard of this park before arriving but it is absolutely stunning. It’s relatively young for a mountain range (about 2 million years old) so it’s peaks are jagged and striking.

   

We also stopped at the Cunningham Homestead which is what it would have been like to have a homestead in the 1920s/1930s. It also had a spectacular view of the mountains.

   

We drove through Jackson Hole, which is a fairly high-end ski resort town, to our hostel in Teton Village.

In the evening, we went back into Jackson Hole for dinner – a really nice Thai restaurant. And then we went to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, very popular on a Saturday night. The bar stools are saddles and it was full of real-life cowboys of all ages. There was a live band playing country music and I even got asked to dance by a couple of blokes. There’s a lot of twirling involved in country dancing. Slightly dizzy afterwards and that wasn’t necessarily to do with the Bud Light’s I’d been drinking! It was a really fun night.

The next day was a free day for us. Myself and Liz decided to go for a hike in the Tetons to Inspiration Point above Jenny Lake. It was a good hiking day when we set off – sunny but cool. We could see the weather further up the mountain though and as we started climbing, the snow started falling. We timed our arrival at Inspiration Point to perfection. We got an awesome view when we got there, and then 5 minutes later it was properly snowing.

   
 
We hiked back down through the snow and back to JD waiting in the van. We then went to the park visitor centre where JD got himself a junior ranger badge. Basically a fun thing for little kids (and big kids) to do. I love how excitable and enthusiastic he is about everything.

We then had a walk around Jackson Hole before getting the bus back to Teton Village for a chilled evening.

  
The next morning we drove through Idaho which was stunning. Beautiful mountains, rivers and plains which were lush and green.

We went to Craters of the Moon national park which was formed from lava flows. It is a pretty insane landscape.

  
After wandering around for an hour or so we carried on the long journey to Elko, Nevada. Slightly more here than Albert Lea, Minnesota as there are casinos in Nevada, but otherwise it’s just a stop-off on the way to somewhere else.

The next day we headed to Lake Tahoe, via Reno. The centre of Reno felt like a run-down Vegas. We stopped in midtown for lunch. There is a lot of graffiti art in the midtown area which is pretty cool.

  

We then headed to Lake Tahoe. It was pretty cold and the lake wasn’t looking it’s best.

  

 
In the evening we went to Harrah’s casino for a buffet, followed by a spot of gambling. I changed $19 into $27 on the slot machines. We then went to the Hard Rock Casino where I proceeded to lose $20 on roulette before winning that back on the slots. I think I’ll stick to the slot machines in Vegas! I had a lot of fun though. It’s easy to see how addictive it can be.

The next day we moved onto Yosemite. Possibly my favourite place so far in the States, and deserving of its own blog post…

Yellowstone

One of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip was going to Yellowstone. Yellowstone is a super-volcano, and as you’ll remember from previous blogs, I love my volcanoes and geothermal activity.

We left Cody and drove for about an hour into Yellowstone’s eastern entrance. We saw elk and baby bighorn sheep on the way.

  
It’s still pretty cold in Yellowstone and parts are covered in snow. The views are beautiful though.

   
 Because of all the geothermal activity in Yellowstone, it smells of rotten eggs, just like Rotorua. Quite a lot of what we saw reminded me of Rotorua.

We saw bison as we drove along. These are massive animals but seem largely unconcerned with the hordes of tourists photographing them.

  
We also stopped off at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which looks just like a painting.

  
The colours in the rock are really beautiful.

  
After that we headed to our overnight stop in West Yellowstone, just over the border in Montana. We stayed in some lovely cute cabins which were very cosy and had incredibly comfortable beds. I’m definitely sleeping a lot better now that I’m not always in dorms.

We went out for dinner in the town in the evening and then some of us went to a gun shop to try our hand at shooting. I am very definitely pro-gun-control but was intrigued. I shot a Luger and it was really good fun.

  
The next day was an early start (left the cabins at 6am) in order to get into the park before the masses. This was going to be our wildlife spotting day, and boy did it deliver.

First up we stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs, which was incredibly similar to the landscape around lake Rotorua in New Zealand.

  
Our first wildlife spot came on the drive from Mammoth Hot Springs. A grizzly bear in the trees by the side of the road. Sam did a great job in spotting it from the van.

  
We then went to a spot where we would be likely to see wolves. The wolves were up on the hillside and so we had to see them through a scope. We were at a viewing spot where lots of enthusiasts with very Gucci scopes were set up. They were all really friendly and let us have a look through their scopes.

I forget the order we saw everything else in, but we also saw a pack of coyotes, marmots, antelope, mountain goats, and black bears with her cubs.

  
We also saw a baby moose and its mother, which is quite rare in Yellowstone.

JD said that he’s never had a group see so much wildlife in one day before, and he’s been guiding for 9 years. Must have been birthday luck as 2 of the group had birthdays on this day.

We saw a total of 8 bears, which was really cool. I think they were my favourite animals to see. I have some better pictures of the bears on my camera, but I can’t upload the pictures until I get home.

  
In the evening we went out for a nice meal to celebrate Liz and Maica’s birthdays, followed by a couple of drinks back at the cabins.

The next day we left at 9am and drove to the main geothermal areas. We stopped off at Fountain Paint Pots first. There were some beautiful colours here.

   
 
We then drove on to the Grand Prismatic Springs. The weather was not great and so we didn’t see it at its best, but it’s still pretty awesome.

  
Then it was onto one of the main draws of Yellowstone – Old Faithful Geyser. I’ve seen geysers go off before in New Zealand. Lady Knox Geyser near Rotorua goes off every day at about 10am with a little help from the park staff. But Old Faithful goes off approximately every 90 minutes without any human intervention. It was snowing whilst we were there. It’s fair to say I was not anticipating snow when I packed in December, so I had to resort to wearing most of my clothes to keep warm!

  
We had lunch at the lodge by Old Faithful, and were then able to watch the next eruption. I decided to get a different angle this time.

  
Afterwards we headed out of Yellowstone and towards Grand Teton National Park.

Yellowstone certainly did not disappoint. I didn’t realise how exciting it is to see animals in the wild, and the scenery was stunning.

New York to Chicago

And so the final leg of my 6 month trip begins…super-excited but also slightly sad about it. I am travelling with Trek America, doing the Grand BLT trip (info here: http://www.trekamerica.co.uk/tours/gnb.html). I have previously travelled with Trek America in 2006 when I did a camping trip. It rained solidly for 2 weeks and put me off camping for life. This time I’m in hostels and hotels.

We started from the Hilton at Newark airport on Monday morning.

  
There are 10 of us plus Jay, the tour leader. 9 Brits and 1 Swiss. We had already gotten to know each other a little bit via whatsapp and Facebook so it felt like we bonded really quickly.

We left Newark in the morning and drove to Woodbury Common Outlets for a spot of cheap retail therapy. Would have bought the whole of Aeropostale if my bag wasn’t already stuffed!

We had lunch there and then drove on to Watkins Glen State Park to check out some really cool waterfalls.

   
   
Then we headed to our overnight stop on Auburn, NY, in the Finger Lakes region. We went out for dinner at Prison City Brewery – good, reasonably priced food. I headed to bed but a couple of the others went out after for a drink.

The next day was up early to head to Niagara Falls. We arrived mid morning and did the Maid of the Mist tour which was a lot of fun.

   
 
We then headed over the border to Canada for the afternoon. I had poutine for lunch – chips, gravy, cheese and pulled pork. This was a starter portion!!

  
We went on the big wheel, and walked along to the top of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side.

  
We then headed back to the border where Jay had bad news for us. He had a detached retina and needed to get it fixed ASAP so he would be leaving us the next day. We were pretty bummed out by this, but these things happen.

We headed to Buffalo to our hostel for the night, and after a quick shower and change, we went to the Anchor Inn, home of Buffalo wings. I had a few of these for dinner (when in Rome and all that…):

  
We went out for a few beverages afterwards…a good night.

The next day was a late-ish start as we were waiting for JD to fly in to take over from Jay. We went to IHOP for brunch though I was not up to eating…

JD arrived at midday and we said farewell to Jay. We headed through Pennsylvania towards Ohio. We had a brief stop in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Our overnight stop was in Sandusky, OH at a campground, though thankfully we were staying in cabins. We headed out for dinner and while we were out there was a massive thunderstorm. It rained hard for most of the night, and I had to wade through a large puddle to get from the cabin to the road.

The next day we headed to Shipshewana, Indiana. This is an example of an Amish/Mennonite town. Somewhere where a horse and cart will pull up to the gas pump.

  
After wandering around and grabbing lunch, we headed for Chicago. We were slightly delayed leaving Shipshewana when a guy who looked like Santa Claus started chatting to JD about the van. Santa kept chatting despite JD being sat in the van with the engine running. We were probably delayed for a couple of minutes. Later up the road, there was a 5 vehicle accident just ahead of us. 1 or 2 minutes earlier and we could have been involved in it. Santa was sent as our guardian angel!! The road was closed for over an hour. It was really warm so we sat on the road to catch some sun while we waited for the road to reopen.

  
When we got going again, we headed to Gary, Indiana to see Michael Jackson’s childhood home. It was a tiny house, and unbelievable to think that he lived here with all his siblings.

  
 Because we were delayed by the accident, we ended up hitting Friday rush hour traffic. Usually you’d expect the traffic to be heading out of the city in the evening rush hour but on a Friday everyone is heading into the city for the weekend. 

We arrived early evening and then went out for Chicago Deep Dish pizza.

  
Most of the group went back to the hostel, but I went out for another drink with JD and one of the other guys in the group.

The next day we got up and went to the Willis Tower Skydeck. Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) was the tallest building in the USA until the new 1 World Trade Center was completed. As we were there early, there weren’t any queues. Some really good views from the top though.

   
 
We also braved the Ledge – which is a glass-bottomed viewing platform.

  
JD then took us to see the Bean in Millennium Park.

  
And an art installation which has images of faces of people of Chicago. 

  

And also the Buckingham Fountain, before we headed out to Wrigley Field to watch a ball game (Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates). I’ve seen a couple of ball games on my previous trips and enjoyed the atmosphere and experience, and I was really excited to go to Wrigley Field as it is such an iconic venue. The temperature was about 8C though and it was absolutely freezing. I had the obligatory hot dog and beer. The game started slowly, but got going mid way through, and the Cubs hammered the Pirates 8-2.

  
After the game we headed back to the hostel, and we had a couple of hours to spare before heading out. I used the time to do laundry. Regular readers of this blog will be pleased to know I’ve found the new cheapest laundry of my trip! $1.50 for a wash and $1.25 for a dry.

In the evening JD took us on a walk up towards the Wrigley Building and the Chicago Tribune building. JD knows his architecture and has a brain full of facts which I love!

The Chicago Tribune building has stones from other famous buildings around the world in it, including Westminster Abbey and Edinburgh Castle.

  
We then walked out towards Navy Pier to admire the skyline as the sun set. After grabbing a burger on Navy Pier, it was then dark so we got an awesome view of the Chicago skyline at night.

  
We then went to find a bar, and ended up in a great, chilled bar called Streeters. A bar that sells decent cider, and played awesome music. We played a little foosball as well, and I had a great night.

I got up early on our final morning in Chicago as I’d noticed that the Terracotta Warriers were displayed in the Field Museum. They were incredible and that’s one off the bucket list that I wasn’t expecting on this trip!

We’re heading towards the national parks now, can’t wait to see them.