Road trip in the American West (1/3)

We are in Phoenix, Arizona, on our way back to California after more than 4 weeks of road trip in the American West. As we have visited a lot of different places and seen a lot of different things, we decided to talk about them one by one and to separate this post in 3 parts. But before we come to that, a few general things that marked this trip :

  • The car: We rented an ‘Economy’ car in San Francisco, and we ended up with a magnificent Mitsubishi G4 Mirage, without any option. And when we say without option, we really mean it: no adjustment of the driver’s seat, no rear ??, plastic caps where the anti-fog lights should be, etc…
    This car has a few non-negligible advantages though : it burns very little fuel (5.3L/100km!), it was surprisingly able to deal with unpaved 4WD roads and most of all, we didn’t have to pedal to make it go forward.
  • BLM/National Forest camping: In the US, it is allowed to camp for free inside National Forests as well as along BLM roads (i.e. owned by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency). It’s called “dispersed camping”, and in practice you look for the fire pits made of stone which indicate the allowed camping spots. They usually consist of enough space for an RV or a car + tent and as long as you bring enough water with you, you are good to go ! 🙂
    For those interested, the website lists most of the free camping options in the US.
  • The presidential election: There is no point pretending we don’t know who won the election and that it didn’t kill our mood for the past 2 weeks. As it is beside the point of this blog, we won’t talk about it any further.
  • Walmart: We were advised by Barb (who hosted us in Victoria, Canada) to go to Walmart to get a 100% American experience. It is now done ! This enormous chain of supermarkets is everywhere in the states, and offers absolutely everything you might think of (from prescription glasses to car parts going through gallons of soy sauce). There is even the possibility to take an electric mini-car with a basket at the front to be able to shop without walking (something we were not used to seeing). The truck-like “bip-bip” sound of these tiny cars when they are used in reverse still makes us laugh.

After a few hours of driving from San Francisco and a wonderful night inside the car (understand 4 hours of sleep while being cold), we arrived in Yosemite National Park, our first stop.

Yosemite National Park

We started the day by walking among giant sequoias, massive thousands of years old trees that look like they come straight from a fairy tale. The trail even goes through one of these impressive trees, whose trunk was carved out in a tunnel for the entertainment of visitors in the 1920s, a remnant of how preserving the natural riches was thought of at the time. As we didn’t have much time inside the park, we could only do short hikes. Fortunately, this didn’t prevent us from admiring the view of the very famous “half-dome” from Glacier Point (if you owned a Mac in recent years, the half-dome was the default wallpaper in OSX Yosemite). To leave the park, we took the “Tioga Road”, which crosses the north of the park and is about 60km long. The scenery was great, and because of the numerous picture taking stops we did, it took us several hours to drive it. The road ended with a pass more than 3000m high, so we even got to play in the snow !

Mono Lake

In order to try to cope with the expansion of the city of Los Angeles and its water needs, it was decided in 1941 to build an aqueduct between Mono Lake and L.A. (500km). The relatively small water intake of the lake from neighbouring springs was not enough to compensate and the water level started to go down rapidly (13m in 50 years, which corresponds to half of its volume). This revealed the impressive limestone formations called tufa that were at the bottom of the lake. In 1994, the lake became protected and an agreement was reached with the city of Los Angeles. As a result, the water started to rise again in Mono Lake (more than 2m already), and the millions of migratory birds that use it as a rest area each year will still be able to enjoy it !

Death Valley National Park

Although we were walking in the snow in the morning, we slept in the desert inside Death Valley national park at night. The campground turned out to be full of French travellers (which is actually not that surprising considering it was free). With no artificial lighting in sight, the night sky appeared as we had never seen it before. We did get a bit worried that night though, when we heard small noises around the tent (interesting fact about the desert, rattlesnakes, scorpions and other venomous spiders live there…). In the morning, we double-checked our shoes before putting them on, and enjoyed the view while having breakfast.

Even at the end of October, the sun was shining pretty hard and we wondered how visitors could handle the heat in the summer time. We walked and ran in the sand dunes and went 86m below sea level to Badwater Basin, a very big salt flat. We also thoroughly enjoyed the different points on the way to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas

We stayed less than 24h in Las Vegas, but it was more than enough to get a sense of the eccentricity, debauchery and excessiveness of this city that knows no limits.

We did not camp that night, and got ourselves a treat by staying at the Bally’s ! This hotel/casino is way less luxurious and interesting than its neighbours, but it is located in the middle of the strip and offers a direct view on the 1/2 replica of the Eiffel tower and on half of the Bellagio fountains. We spent the evening going from casino to casino to admire their over-the-top themes. We were particularly impressed by the “Paris” and the “Venitian” casinos with their super cliché and excessive replicas (there is even a canal with leisure gondolas on the first level of the “Venitian”…). It’s at the “New-York New-York” that we decided on betting some money at the slot machines : we played 1 dollar, and came out with 2 dollars, woohoo ! 🙂 When we got out of the casino, we saw the other side of the city: it was getting late, people were getting more and more drunk, and the extravagant atmosphere was becoming degrading. As we weren’t big fans, we decided to get back to the hotel to drink some “champagne” (a bottle of Australian sparkling wine bought at the nearby CVS for 5$) and watch the fountain show of the Bellagio from our room.

That’s the end of part 1. The next part will follow in a few days 🙂

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