A loop through natural and man-made marvels has Mark Meredith wanting more.
For months, advertisements for the USA had been urging me to "Discover this land, like never before". Giant redwoods, New Orleans, Antelope Canyon . . . the call was haunting me.
Natural wonders and culture are the perfect mix but I wondered how to accomplish this in a matter of weeks at reasonable cost? My daughters wanted culture, which meant shopping and Disneyland. I wanted to photograph America's national parks, and my wife was happy to be anywhere but Auckland in winter.
The answer was a road trip, because you can't get more flexible or American than that. We flew to San Francisco in early July, high summer, hottest temperatures, not especially sensible. Given I had left it until May to book, it was an ambitious ask but it succeeded brilliantly.
We decided on a loop that would encompass the culture of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas and take in the wilderness of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park and Yosemite.
The way to properly experience the national parks is to ensure you find accommodation inside them. Although you may pay more for doing so, location really is everything. In summer, long queues of traffic form at the park entrances — more than 5 million people visit both Yosemite and Grand Canyon each year. By staying in the park you avoid frustrating delays and can get to the best spots at sunrise or stay until dusk.
At Grand Canyon's South Rim, where more than 90 per cent of all canyon visitors stay, Xanterra Parks & Resorts manages all the accommodation. People book more than a year ahead, but with seven choices of lodging it was still possible to find a couple of nights in high summer. We stayed in the very comfortable Yavapai Lodge for two nights, then drove four hours to the quieter, cooler, more beautiful North Rim and stayed at the spectacular Grand Canyon Lodge for two nights, the only accommodation on that side of the canyon. It's only open May to October because, at 2400m, the lodge is cut off by snow in winter. It sits right on the canyon rim and is an incredible place to enjoy a sundowner.
I had never heard of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, but one look at photos of the extraordinary geological freak show three hours' north of Grand Canyon and I knew we had to go. The park sits at an altitude of 2700m and, like the Grand Canyon, it was very hot. Walking anywhere was exhausting, especially down into the canyon and back up. We stayed at the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge, a few minutes walk from the rim and the only accommodation inside the park.
Our route from Bryce to Las Vegas took us through eye-popping Zion National Park, monumental canyons, mighty cliffs and jagged peaks in sandstone and granite, in colours of orange, red and ochre.
Then it was on to the very different Las Vegas, which proved a fantastic interlude to canyons and desert scenery. It was like Disneyland for adults, but with families everywhere enjoying the resort atmosphere. Our hotel, the luxurious Hilton Grand Vacation Suites, was outstanding value at only $215 for two nights.
Getting back to nature, Yosemite was next up, via Death Valley in high summer — well, you may as well feel it when it's at its hottest. At Furnace Creek the mercury read 49C. Stepping out of the car was like climbing into your oven while roasting a chicken.
Yosemite National Park was the only place I have ever been that gives Milford Sound a run for its money in the beauty stakes. No wonder photographer Ansel Adams set up shop there. It was outstanding. We stayed two nights west of Yosemite Valley in self-catering accommodation and one night at Yosemite Falls Lodge in the heart of Yosemite Village.
Although it is relatively easy to escape people in Yosemite in summer, given its sheer size, it heaves with humanity and their vehicles, especially in the valley. Get up at dawn to experience it alone.
Our short-notice road trip was the holiday of a lifetime but if we were to do it again we would avoid the middle of summer. Too many others are doing the same thing and the heat (average 33C-41C) made any serious physical activity difficult.
We'll do autumn next time, when I'm sure we'll once again discover that land, like never before.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to San Francisco.
Car hire: A brand new Chevvy Captiva SUV for 24 days cost approx $1400 including insurances, taxes etc. Our travel insurance bought in NZ included Liability Insurance so we did not need to take it out locally.
Further information: See visittheusa.com.
PLAN YOUR ROAD TRIP
To book your USA road trip: See House of Travel.
Further information: See visittheusa.com.
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