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Space odyssey: A road trip through USA's best National Parks

NZ Herald
By Lauren Jarvis

A road trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas leads through some of the USA's iconic national parks, writes Lauren Jarvis

"Please step back people!" shouts the ranger, as a group of mesmerised, camera-wielding tourists abandon their cars, and hurry towards the hirsute hulk swaggering out of the forest. In a few bounds he could be on them, but the spell has been cast, and with reason and rhyme forgotten in still-running vehicles, they push on, before the warning snaps them out of their trance.

Enthralled, but now respectfully distant, the crowd watches in awe as one of the world's most enigmatic animals disappears behind a curtain of Ponderosa pine; cameras still clicking long after he's gone.

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A unique encounter with an American black bear is one of many magical experiences offered up by Yosemite National Park, which ranks among Earth's greatest remaining wildernesses. With more than four million visitors a year, managing people can be more challenging for the park rangers than managing the bears, especially in summer when Yosemite becomes a hotspot for holidaymakers and day trippers.

I visit in spring, when snow still lies on the higher passes, lush meadows are alive with grazing mule deer, and traffic is lighter on the roads and trails.

In Yosemite, an easy three hours' drive east of San Francisco's urban sprawl, skyscrapers are of the giant sequoia tree kind and San Fran's "Painted Ladies" – brightly hued Victorian houses across from Alamo Square – fade to grey, as ancient rocks are graffiti-sprayed by rainbows, rising from waterfalls rumbling from mountain tops above.

The scene that greets me from the park's Tunnel View lookout is elysian: a haze of pine forests framed by titanic granite peaks; rivers and streaming cascades shimmering silver in the sun; an infinity of heavenly blue overhead – nature at its most epic, rugged and raw.

The park protects 3100 square kms of central California, but Yosemite Valley is the big draw, with the stunning rock formations of Half Dome and El Capitan looming large, plus hiking trails to Yosemite Falls, North America's tallest at 740m. This was the playground of American photographer and environmentalist, Ansel Adams, whose monumental black-and-white images are on display in the eponymously named gallery in the heart of the glacier-carved Valley.

Early morning, I walk the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail around Mariposa Grove, where more than 500 dizzyingly tall and stupefyingly ancient sequoias rise hundreds of metres to the sky, and chickarees, or Douglas squirrels, search for seeds among super-sized sugar pine cones. The air is crisp and fresh here in the wonderland of the High Sierra, but just hours to the south-east lies the hottest place on Earth: Death Valley National Park.

Into the Valley

Badwater Basin in California's Death Valley is the lowest point in North America with a depth of 86 m below sea level. Photo / 123RF
Badwater Basin in California's Death Valley is the lowest point in North America with a depth of 86 m below sea level. Photo / 123RF

The lowest and driest place in North America, Death Valley holds the largest area of designated national park wilderness in the contiguous United States – 1.365 million hectares of rugged canyons and mountains, arid deserts and dunes, ancient lake beds and dazzling salt flats. Entering the Death zone is not a journey to be taken lightly, and as I reach the park's boundary late in the afternoon, I do a mental check list: water, gas, map, snacks.

In April, temperatures average a high of 32C, but in August the mercury regularly soars to 46C, while the hottest air temperature ever recorded was a scorching 57C on July 10, 1913. Early and late are the times to explore, with afternoons best spent submerged in your hotel pool, or wandering the air-conned Furnace Creek Visitor Centre, with its films, exhibits and talks.

At dawn, look for tracks in the rippled sand at Mesquite Flat Dunes, where desert kit foxes, coyotes and kangaroo rats roam, or watch the sunrise from Zabriskie Point as the vast sky blushes pink and purple. Spring mornings are lit up by wildflowers such as desert mariposa, brittle brush and rose sage, while rare "superblooms" carpet seemingly barren lands after just the right measures of rain, wind and sun. At night, this certified International Dark Sky Park shines bright with stars, and moonshine makes icebergs of mountains, silently suspended below the Milky Way.

Though harsh, the desert landscapes are beautiful, serene, other-worldly. Doubling for the planet Tatooine, Death Valley was a filming location for Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Hoping The Force is with me, I head for Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 86m below sea level. Here, fragile white honeycombs of salt stretch into the distance like a roughly hewn quilt, while at nearby Artist's Drive, volcanic formations and valleys are dyed with vibrant blues, yellows and greens. At moments on the road I'm alone: a sole survivor scoping a desolate planet; a scientist terraforming Mars; Leia hunting for Han and Luke.

With no landspeeder to hand, I drive across to the state of Nevada and through the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas.

Vegas keeps me up all night

The desert's starshine fades under the blinding brilliance of glittering resorts, golden fountains, neon billboards and flashing thrill rides. Like E.T. caught in his spaceship's landing lights, I know that I'm almost home: home here being the Wynn resort, a luxurious pleasure palace where the bedrooms could host the Met Ball and the bathrooms are bigger than my house.

Vegas keeps me up all night, wines and dines me, seduces me with spectacular shows, flashes the cash in casinos and, come morning, spills me, still spinning, on to The Strip. Later, revived by brunch and a swim, I drive out to the Grand Canyon, over the border in Arizona.

The Grand Canyon bruises to purple under the sinking sun. Photo / NPS
The Grand Canyon bruises to purple under the sinking sun. Photo / NPS

Standing on the edge of the Canyon's South Rim, I look out over the vast Colorado plateau, bruising to purple under the sinking sun. Ancient and immense, the gorge is almost too big to comprehend: 365km long, up to 29km wide and almost 1.5km deep, carved by the Colorado River, rolling for millennia through the red and pink rock.

America's man-made metropolises may be spellbinding, but true magic lies in the untamed spaces between.

Air New Zealand and United Airlines fly direct from Auckland to San Francisco.