Story and photos by Bibi Veth and Jasper van der Meij
Unlike other people, traveling comes to us in the spur of the moment. As it did with our trip to the Western United States earlier this year. We decided to take a road trip and explore ‘the best of the west’ and booked a flight which would leave just 5 weeks later…
Being from Holland and having never visited the west coast, we wanted to make a proper itinerary of what to see and what to do. When we are planning road trips like these, we head over to Google Search, 500px and Flickr and start looking for the best things to do, see, and experience. Every point of interest is added to a custom Google Map. Based on these points we plan on a route.
For transportation we chose a cool vans from Escape Campervans. Renting a van and not committing to hotel reservations is the best way to do a actual road trip, in our opinion. This leaves you with an enormous amount of freedom, since you can go with the flow and whichever way the wind is blowing. We rented an Escape van previously on a New Zealand road trip in 2013, so we knew what to expect. We would sleep in our cozy van on camp sites and book AirBnB’s for the big cities, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Doing this allowed us to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Our trip took us through 7 states and 10 national parks, all while adding 5.500 miles to the van. For us Dutch citizens, the distance is something we had to get used to. In our tiny nation it takes about three to four hours to drive to the other side of the country. Spending hours in our car was definitely a challenge, especially when there are a few different rules at play in traffic. Fortunately, most of the scenery was a welcome distraction.
Most tourists/travelers who visit the west coast drive a very common route which starts in San Francisco and ends in either Las Vegas or Los Angeles. We always do things the hard way, hence the 5500 miles accumulation over the course of our trip. Our trip started in the laid back surf town of Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Venice is great places to get over the jetlag. Sun, sea, beach, fresh air, and exceptional coffee shops and restaurants are found everywhere in Venice Beach. Seriously, what is not to like?
After 2 days we picked up our home on wheels for the next 4 weeks and hit the road on the famed Highway 1. We left Los Angeles and headed north to San Francisco. There is nothing more exhilarating than driving off into nature and freedom.
It took us two days, which allowed us to enjoy the scenery along the way. We stopped in a very misty, albeight beautiful Morro Bay State Park and stayed the night in the Fernwood campsite in Big Sur. Both campsites are highly recommened, in low season that is. Of course, we had a few iconic stopovers. We took a quick look at an Elephant Seal beach, perhaps not artistically photo worthy, but still a rare sight. After that we went to McWay Falls, or (Julia) Pfeiffer Falls, as the locals like to call it. The fall itself is not too impressive, but boy, the location is worth seeing.
Tip: Just watch, make a few pictures, take a really deep breath and smile! This is what you should do at this magical place.
After a couple of days spending time in nature, we always have to get used to being back in a city again. However, San Francisco was on our bucket list for a long time. So when you are finally close, it is not something you want to miss. What to do when in a city and you don’t want to hit all touristic viewpoints? Just wander through as many districts as your legs will take you with a camera in hand. Whether it is a DSLR or a smartphone, take plenty of photos, even when just drinking tea or coffee in a local hotspot. At least, this is how we like to explore a foreign and unknown city. And when we got tired, we took an Uber like all normal local residents do, to our Airbnb.
Tip: If we could do it again, we would narrow down our walk to a few districts. The districts where it is all happening is Mission, South of Market, China Town, Financial District South Beach. If you want to see the original Full House-homes, you have to head over to Alamo Square. Don’t forget to take an Uber when you get tired. This is so convenient. Again, as Dutchies we are used to walking and cycling a lot, but the distances in a city are enormous! We certainly hadn’t a clue beforehand. It is a strange phenomenon to flatlanders that most American’s do everything by car, but in hindsight knowing what we know now it isn’t all that strange. America is simply built differently than our country.
Yosemite National Park
Two days later we were en route to one of America’s famous National Parks, Yosemite. Although, the weather conditions were very fickle, at least we didn’t have any snow. So we were probably lucky and we really enjoyed our time here. Yosemite has lots of nice trails, but unfortunately we only had time for one hike. We chose the 4 mile-trail, which supposed to offer the best of Yosemite with some nice views on Glacier point. The following days we drove through the park to photograph some iconic sights of Yosemite, before we left this luscious greenery for Sequoia.
Sequoia National Park
In Sequoia National Park we were caught off guard. Due to bad weather and snow, we had to rent snow chains to be allowed in the park. We even had to put them on for a mere 200 metres. Sequoia must be quite lovely when the sun is shining and everything is alive and kicking. The Sequoia’s we visited were covered in snow, which is equally stunning. You feel indefinitely small standing next to these giants.
While driving her beautiful roads, you realize how diverse America is. It is amazing to discover the extremes. From hot to cold, from green and luscious to dessert and from flat lands to mountains. So driving from the snow to a very hot location like Death Valley was quite an experience. The ‘dust devils’ in Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes nearly broke a Ricoh cam and the Canon 5Diii needed a lot of cleaning! The next morning we got up quite early to watch the sun rise at Badwater Basin. We could taste the salt from the flats the entire day through!
If there is one thing that disappointed us, it was the Grand Canyon. Sure, it is nice. But it didn’t do it for us. And we would have gladly skipped this national treasure to have more time at other more beautiful (to us) spots. Not sure what it is exactly. Maybe it is too much of the same, too big to take it all in and certainly too big to capture its enormity photographically. If you have more time available, we think it would be quite an adventure to venture out into the canyon itself for a hike.
Tip: If you do go to the Grand Canyon, try to aim for either sunrise or sunset at Moran Point (20mins drive from Mather Point & Visitors Center) or Dessert View Point (30mins drive from the Visitors Center). You will have majestic light!
The trip to and through Monument Valley, was actually more impressive and special. America’s classic viewpoint!
Tip: You can find Monument Valley’s iconic shot on US-163. If you drive backwards like us, don’t forget to look back once in a while, this iconic view is a few miles after the actual Valley, somewhere around these coordinates: 37.08552, -110.0181.
Arches National Park
According to Moab locals, if you have to choose between Arches and Canyonlands, you should choose Canyonlands over Arches. Stubborn as we are we went to Arches, because we didn’t feel like driving a longer distance after spending a few days on the road. And Arches was only a 20 mins drive, easy choice, right? Because we wanted to shoot Arches at sunset, we only did a short morning hike to Landscape Arch and saved our energy so we could walk the Delicate Arch trail by evening. Apparently we were not the only one with this ‘brilliant’ idea. In the end we watched a seriously overcrowed sunset at Delicate Arch, but stayed there until everyone left and it was just us, some lizards and midges. It was quite scary to be honest. Night set and we had to wait even longer for the stars to show themselves. The full moon casted a beautiful circular shadow of the arch on the floor below.
Moab, Utah, just outside of Arches, is a cozy, laid back town. Although the town center contains just one main street, this little gem is full of great coffee and healthy restaurants. For good coffee (and even better soy cappucinos) go to Wicked, a drive-thru coffee shop, in a tiny red building. It is hard to miss! You can get nice smoothies and healthy hummus bagels at the Red Rock Bakery. And make sure you try the not so healthy, but to die for handcut fries, burgers and seriously delicious shakes at Milt’s Stop & Eat, where you can eat with Moab’s locals.
Tip: If you stay until nightfall make sure you bring a strong flashlight. It can get seriously dark out there. Don’t worry if you think you might get lost, just follow the cairn trail on the way down. For an iconic shot walk further down below Delicate Arch and shoot up. You will have a great view on the Arch with a nice backdrop.
Zion National Park
One of the biggest challenges of traveling is knowing which places you must skip due to time contstraints. Our downfall on every trip is that we are way to active, curious and excited to see as much as possible. Which means in our case, traveling a lot of miles, running around the country, hiking like crazy, and photographing nonstop without taking a break. We do it every time, and every time we say we will do it differently next time, but we never do. I will tell you this, prioritize and take your time.
After a 5 hour drive we ended up Zion National Park. We liked Zion National a lot. It is said that you have to experience Zion to appreciate it has to offer. I think it is true. You want to get to know this park by taking a few hikes. It is a nice change of scenery after spending time with rocks, sand and dessert. Although Zion is dessert-like itself, it also has incredible jagged mountains.
We’ve walked 3 trails in Zion National: Angels Landing, Hidden Canyon and Observation Point, from which you can see the top of Angels Landing. Hidden Canyon is nice and steep but short. That is why we walked Observation Point after we finished Hidden Canyon. Observation Point is quite strenuous, but has a nice view and scenery. However, the way back down really is a knee killer. Our favorite hike is still Angels Landing, which offers much more than just nice views. It has a great mix between a nice walk, a heavy exercise and a bit of canyoneering. The canyoneering part is the most spectacular piece of the trail. You have to work your way to the top by using chains. Quite the challenge if you are afraid of heights. The best part of climbing this 5.4 mile round trip is that you deserve a very big lunch at Oscar’s Cafe afterwards – whatever you’re having, order sweet potato fries as well!
Tip: If you have just 1 or 2 days in Zion make sure you walk Angels Landing. If you can spend a bit more time. Try to make a reservation for the Narrows. This trail leads through the river, which is supposed to be a great adventure. You can rent water shoes and suits at the outdoor shops nearby. We didn’t have time for this trail, but it is on the to-do for our next visit.
Zion National is one of those places you want to stay a bit longer. Unfortunately, we only stayed there for two days and one night – which isn’t nearly enough time (that is why we stopped there a second time on the way back to Las Vegas). But we really didn’t like the only campsite in Zion with showers. The campsite was already crawling with people and the staff was horribly unfriendly. So when we finished our last lunch, we headed to Bryce Canyon National Park
We are glad we did add it to our to-go list in the end. This NP surprised and pleased us big time. And might even add that we felt it is more beautiful than the Grand Canyon. Those weird shaped and colorful rocks are quite surreal and almost fairy tale like. It is breathtaking especially at sunrise and sunset.
The first day we arrived we walked the Queen’s Garden/Navajo combination trail. If you want to experience Bryce Canyon and the famous hoodoos at its best, this is the trail to take. Walk this combination loop, which leads you from Sunrise point to Sunset point and back. It is only a moderate 2.9 miles, but it has some steep parts and switchbacks along the trail.
Tip: One of the less crowded hikes in Bryce is the Fairyland Loop trail. It is a bit strenuous due to its distance. But if you are reasonably fit, it is very doable. We highly recommend this trail through ‘fairy’ land. Some people start this trail at Fairyland point and end at Sunrise Point. We walked to Sunrise Point first and started the Fairyland loop there, because we thought it was a bit boring to end with a 2 miles walk on from Sunrise to Fairyland and it is little bit less steep if you walk this loop backwards. You see, we do everything backwards!
Yellowstone National Park
From Bryce we drove up north to the Tetons. We’ve had planned all kinds of hikes, but due to heavy snowfall most of the roads and trails in Grand Teton were closed. Instead, we decided to drive further north to the west entrance of Yellowstone which on May 1st, was the only option to get into the park. I am glad we could still make it into Yellowstone. To me it is like a theme park for animal lovers: the perfect place to spot some wildlife. We drove for hours to spot animals and capture nice landscapes.
I’ve mentioned the extremities of America’s weather conditions, one day you can walk in shorts and the next you’re completely covered in snow. Strangely amazing though!
The second morning we got up early to try and catch more wildlife. We were surprised to find the world covered in white. It took us quite a while to get to Lamar valley because of it. Fortunately, it wasn’t a complete waste. We saw many bison. And we did spot some bears, wolves, elks and pronghorns. We were quite excited to see the bears, even without cubs in tow. But it gives us a reason to come back sometime soon.
By then it was almost time to go home, which always leaves me a bit melancholy. I never want to go back home. If I could travel all my life and capture all life has to offer, I definitely would. Our last stop brought us to Las Vegas. Not because we wanted to go there per se, but it was convenient to have a short break in between, since we had to go back to LA to catch our plane home.
We already booked a guesthouse in a nice and quiet area of Las Vegas. It was a great place to blow off some steam after the driving we did. We went to the strip one time for the heck of it to just take in all the insanity. It really is the most insane, surreal and loudest place on earth. A strange experience it was. We walked around dumbfounded and full of amazement: ‘How is this even possible? And why the hell do people like it here?’ Anyways…Viva Las Vegas!
America, you are crazy beautiful. And we didn’t even see 10% of what you have to offer. Strange in some ways to us with a lack of public places/spaces/areas where you can walk around freely without stepping on someones property. Americans don’t cycle or walk very often it seems. All those malls and the distance between the shops and things to do, driving seems to be a necessity. The distance in general is something we had to get used to. A 3-hour drive is quite normal to you whereas the Dutch are used to a mere 1.5 hours. And we are so used to walking and cycle distances. If we have to go get groceries, the city centre is just a 10 mins walk away to give you a comparison. The food in the U.S was great, but the servings were huge! One serving is enough for the both of us. Everything about America is just huge, but in a good way. We’ve enjoyed our trip immensely and we definitely will be back someday because there is so much more to experience for our inspired minds and hearts.
Photos shot on Canon 5D Mk2, 16-35mm f2.8 and Ricoh GR. Post processing in Lightroom & Photoshop. Final edits with Alien Skin Exposure 7.