San Francisco is usually on everyone’s list when it comes to visiting the West Coast. And it should be. For many reasons. But the question is often what comes next. And how to find the best places to visit in the USA.
Do you go north and try to make it all the way to Seattle and even Canada? Or south along the scenic Pacific Road and through the famous Wine Country to make the famous trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles? But if you are looking for breathtaking landscapes and a break from city life? Then head east, where National Forests, Canyons and deserts just wait for you to explore. Which is what we chose to do. Our goal was now to travel to Las Vegas and make the journey our destination.
So in order to get to Vegas you have several options. You can fly which will take you around 1.5 hrs. Flights are often already available from 50$ per person. You can take the bus for around 20$, but that is going to take you almost 15 hours and it will also miss out on the most amazing sights along the way.
Which is why we chose the car. A nice Convertible to enjoy the ride even more can be rented for 40$ per day, try Alamo and www.rentalcars.com for the best deals. Note that car rentals from California with drop off in Nevada wont charge you a one way fee as it is a popular road trip for many.
A scenic drive of 12 hours was ahead of us. And since that was too much for a relaxed vacation day, we took a one night stopover at halfway. But more about that later.
The drive starts out very easy going. You are getting used to the American Freeways where 65 mph is often the limit, that transfers to around 110 km/h. On fenced off roads you will be allowed to go 75 mph and much faster you don’t even want to go. The landscapes around you are just too beautiful.
Stanislaus National Forest
It will take you around 2.5 hrs to finally get to the Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada.
Established in 1897 and covering an area of 3600 square kilometers it is one of the largest national forests in the country. With 78 lakes and close proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area it is a popular weekend destination. 1100 Miles of non-motorized trails and 800 miles of rivers and streams have a lot to offer. Hike through the wilderness or go for a whitewater rafting trip. And in the Winter visit one of the two ski resorts Dodge Ridge and Bear Valley which operate under a special permit.
We opened the roof and took in this serene and peaceful nature, fresh air and the sight of many birds and flowers. Occasionally we even saw a deer. After we visited New York and San Francisco in the last 10 days this was such a stark and welcome contrast of exploring America. A well needed break from the city hustle. I highly recommend you to also stop somewhere and go hiking for a bit. Or longer if you like. There are many lodges where you can just show up to get a room for the night. We had arranged something in Bridgeport, just east of the Forest. So we only stopped for a few hours and hiked up a little hill, goofed around on big rocks and took pictures. Nevertheless while hiking take into consideration that you will be at an altitude of more than 6000ft (2000m) most of the times, so everything will be a bit more exhausting.
It was late when we arrived in Bridgeport. The hills and forests end and give way to vast fields with huge herds of cattle. You have arrived in Cowboy Land. Bridgeport is more like a small village, with only 520 residents as of 2010. But it is also a place that attracts many vacationers. Throughout the summer Trout Fishing in the nearby lakes and streams is one of the best in the country. During winter 500 miles of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dogsledding, snowmobiling and multiple-use trails are found around the town.
Our accommodation for the night was the Virginia Creek Settlement. For 40$ a night you will get a tented cabin with shared but very clean bathrooms. Since we were still at 2000m altitude it got very cold at night but the provided thick blankets will do their job.
Ghost Town Bodie
Just 14 miles from the Virginia Creek Settlement lies this old Gold Mining town that was once known as the most sinful city in the West and is now a ghost town. Named after W.S. Bodey already in 1856 little gold was found until the Standard Company in 1876 found a more profitable line of gold. This pulled in thousands of new residents and Bodie transformed into a boom town. More gold discoveries were made and by 1879 Bodie had a population of roughly 6000 and around 2000 buildings.
Over the years gold worth around 34 Million $ was shipped to the Mints in Carson City and San Francisco. Bodie had an infamous red light district and even a China Town, with its own Taoist temple and many opium dens.
First described as a ghost town in 1910, many miners had moved away to more prosperous cities. The last mine in Bodie closed during WW2 in 1942 and never reopened.
Today many of the old buildings are still standing and a visit for just 8$ is a must when you are in the area. There is also a small museum and a gift shop.
Essence of a Road Trip
Onward we went. The drive takes you south to Lee Vining and to The Scenic June Lake Drive, which will bring you past 3 different lakes, including the stunning Silver Lake.
If you want to see the Yosemite National Park take a right in Lee Vining and head west. You have the chance to enter the park for a fee of 35$ per vehicle.
Endless straight highways are part of the road trip experience. Make sure to not wait to the last minute with filling up gas but find a cheap station and just do it there. We learned the hard way that there can be a 2$ difference in prices per gallon. It should not be more than 4$ as of 2018. Also stick to the speed limit. There are numerous radar cameras and even airplanes flying overhead which will enforce the speed limit. I am not sure though how they will do that. Just pretend it is a fighter jet and stick to the limit. I found myself once cruising at 100 mph without thinking about it. The straight long roads with a fast car is just too much of a temptation. But suddenly on the opposite lane a police car started flashing and speeding up over the dividing grass zone to our lane. It quickly caught up behind me. Just minutes earlier I had said to my fiancée how cool it would be to be stopped by a police car like in the movies. Well, here we went. The officer asked for my license and saw that I am from Germany. The talk quickly came to our Autobahns where there is usually no speed limit. What a friendly guy. With a warning and strong advice to stick to the speed limit, he let us go and therefore saved us a ticket of 900$. There is no guarantee though that a cop will let you off with just a warning so drive responsibly. I learned my lesson.
The Death Valley
We soon entered the death valley, named so after its harsh environment where next to no people or animals survive in temperatures often reaching 50 degrees Celsius during the day and rain falling almost never. It reminded me of pictures from the moon. Bare land and many mountains and canyons. There will be many vista spots where you should stop and take in the scenery. Clear signs will lead you the way. Make sure to have a full gas tank and enough water when want to drive through the death valley.
As you head east from the Californian Mountain Ridge you will also see many Indian Reservations. In the Death Valley the Timbisha Shoshone call this their homeland. They have lived there for more than a thousand years. In the last century efforts have been made to give them an official status in the Death Valley but more often than that the wrong people had their hands in the business and even tried to push them out of this National Monument Area. Today close to 2000 Timbisha Natives live near Furnace Creek. There is a visitor center in their settlement and if you stop by ask for a tour and give a donation. They don’t like trespassers but are very welcoming if you come with good intentions. Due to the troubled past since the early settlers a healthy amount of scepticism to foreigners is very understandable.
Also the naming of the park as Death Valley has been a long irritation to the elders. Thousands of tourists flock to this place with a sense of visiting the end of the world where civilization ends, where all things die. One or two people actually perish each year from exploring this land unprepared. At the same time the Timbisha Shoshona live and strive there, find their food and bring up their children. It is not a place out of a Star Wars Movie and the dark side of the moon, but is home to the people that lived there before any Europeans ever traveled west.
Nevertheless I urge you to go there and admire the nature. Zane Grey exclaimed in “Wanderer of the Wasteland,” a 1923 tale of a Death Valley adventure. “How desolate and grand! The far-away, lonely and terrible places of the earth were the most beautiful and elevating.”
High lights are the Race Track Playa where stones seem to move across flat earth on their own and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Actually those made me feel like I am in Abu Dhabi. What a small world. Then there is Furnace Creek and the Devil’s Gold course and Ubehebe Crater. All are worth your time even though some are further away from the main road traversing the Death Valley.
Finally in Las Vegas
After a total of 8 hours including various stops for picture taking and a nice picnic somewhere in the Valley we arrived in Las Vegas. From far away coming down a hill you will see the huge ocean of lights. As you get closer the famous strip with the Eiffel Tower and the huge MGM Hotel complex come into view. What a journey. Breathtaking and full of views we won’t soon forget. It is a long drive and it does get hot on the way, especially in summer, but I would do the same trip all over again.
Just arrived in Las Vegas, and after some good old gambling, the next road trip was on my mind. Take a look here on how I explored two of the most stunning canyons in the world.
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