Visit: 3rd January 2019
I went all the way to America and all I got was this one World Heritage Site. We had intended also to visit Yosemite, but it tuns out it is closed for the entirety of winter. Nevertheless, the one we did end up at is a good one: the world-famous Grand Canyon.
It was the final stop on a road trip that Natalie and I took over the New Year holidays in December/January 2018/19. We started in San Francisco, drove to Los Angeles and then Las Vegas before ending at Tusayan, Arizona. First, though, a quick run-down of the non-WHS bits.
We really liked San Francisco, which was not surprising given the good things one hears about it. It is a walkable city full of foodies and has a climate quite like England’s, though maybe a little milder. After a soul-sapping government shutdown-related queue at passport control we rode Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) into the city centre, where were staying for two nights. Day one we walked from downtown to the Mission district via a soul food restaurant in the sketchy Tenderloin district for breakfast. This was good, but the salted caramel ice cream at the Bi-Rite creamery next to Mission Dolores park was even better. Highly recommended.
We took in a bit of history at the city’s oldest building. The San Francisco Mission is one of 21 churches that Spanish missionaries built when exploring the area in the late 18th century. It has featured in Hitchcock films and been visited by the Pope. We went on to visit a couple of other missions in California, which I feel should collectively have their own place on UNESCO’s list. At this one there were stained glass windows depicting the others, which gave us a taste of what we would see over the next few days.
We then took a train up to the Embarcadero, which is the waterfront are that still features the many warehouses which formerly made up the city’s bustling port. Nowadays there are food halls and museums here, as well as the rather overtouristified Pier 39. We did have a pleasant surprise on the pier, though, as there was a colony of sea lions chilling out within spitting distance.
The next morning I ran the Crissy Field parkrun, which is set on the Presidio with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge (which must have inspired me as I managed a PB). The wildlife surprised us again, with appearances this time from dolphins and pelicans in the bay.
By this time we had acquired a car, and after the run we pointed it south and began the long, winding journey down Highway 1, the Pacific Highway. On and on it went, taking us along the coastline of Big Sur national park as day turned to dusk, which soon became night. We had stopped for a Mexican brunch in Half Moon Bay and for a stretch of legs in leafy Carmel-by-the-Sea, but when we finally reached our destination for the night in San Luis Obispo it was a relief to be out of the car!
SLO, as the locals call it, has a mission of its own, above. We had an all-American breakfast of an enormous stack of pancakes and then drove through the tamer landscapes of Southern California to Santa Barbara, where we visited our third mission. We also visited the art gallery in this affluent town, and had a lunch of Poke (Hawaiian salad). It’s not too far from LA, where we were heading, and we made it there before sundown.
LA didn’t really impress us, in the main. A vast, sprawling concrete jungle, it developed most of its expanse in the age of the motor car – and it shows. Unless you are wealthy enough to live in Beverly Hills or some other high-end neighbourhood, LA seems like a pretty bland, unhealthy place to reside. However, we had a decent hike in the Hollywood Hills and enjoyed the low-cost local obsession of an In ‘N’ Out Burger.
After two nights in LA (including New Year’s Eve, which we spent in a bar near the hotel) we left the metropolis, traversed the rugged mountains to its northeast and soon found ourselves in a very different landscape on Interstate 15. This is the desert, which was unlike anywhere I’ve been before. The scale of the country I think hits you out there, as you can drive for hours and seemingly pass nothing. Jackknifed lorries and road signs with warnings like “uphill for next 16 miles, turn off A/C to save engine” gave it bit of an ominous atmosphere. However, the small towns and diners off the side of roads like this are pure Americana, which I thought was great.
Eventually we reached Nevada (you can tell because there’s a casino resort literally on the border), and soon we were in Las Vegas. We stayed one night at the MGM Grand, which is a mega-hotel with 6,000 rooms and myriad casinos on the ground floor. Although the room was cheap, they are not afraid to price gouge in America – Starbucks coffees there were all over $7 and yet it was still rammed. I couldn’t bring myself to be ripped off for a lousy dinner in the casinos so we drove out to the city’s Chinatown where (thanks to a tip on Andy Hayler’s blog) we ate the best meal of the trip, at essentially the lowest cost.
The casinos allow gamblers to smoke inside, and the gaming floors are ringed with fast-food joints. The combination of smoke and grease in the air didn’t leave a great impression, so I’m afraid to say we were not fans of Vegas.
The next morning we high-tailed it out of there, passing (and completely missing) the Hoover Dam as we drove southeast toward Arizona. The altitude continued to rise, ending up about 6,000 ft above sea level. Desert scrub was replaced by trees and a covering of snow carpeted the ground. We had arrived in Tusayan, 5 miles from the Grand Canyon’s south rim, where the temperature was a cool minus 16 degrees Celsius!
I’m going to surprise you and include here a thank you to President Trump, as because of the shutdown there was nobody manning the ticket booths at the entrance to the national park, saving us c.$30. However it did mean there was probably nobody to rescue us if something bad happened, so we began by gingerly walking along the flat and level south rim of the canyon, which is also where you get the best views.
The canyon is a mile deep and 275 miles long, formed by the erosion of the rock by the Colorado River. This river, mighty enough to have such an effect on the landscape, nowadays does not even reach the sea as it is fully consumed by humans before it gets there.
The reason canyons have been carved here is because of the hardness of the rock. When water flows over softer land it leaves wide, shallow valleys that can be imperceptible, but when it flows over hard rock its most efficient route is just to cut downward. It is not, by the way, the water itself that erodes, but the small stones and silt it carries along wherever it flows. This is a work in progress, so you can sort of see geology in action (if you squint).
Given that we had brought walking boots we did end up descending one of the snow-covered trails that snakes down into the canyon, getting 1.5 miles along it before turning around to come back up. The view does not change very much unless you walk for many miles along the trail, but it was nice to have a slightly more natural experience than the paved footpaths at the top of the rim. Unfortunately we saw no basically no wildlife at all on our visit. Maybe the animals were all hibernating or perhaps just feeling lazy that day?
Following our two nights in Arizona we dumped the car at Flagstaff Airport and flew back to San Francisco’s Oakland Airport, via Phoenix. Back in SF we had dinner with a friend, Eunice, I re-ran the parkrun the following morning (for it was a Saturday, and I must!) and then we ended up on an earlier-than-planned flight home courtesy of weather conditions in Europe necessitating a re-routing.
It was a great trip, the weather was really fine despite it being mid-winter, and we got a nice mix of man-made and natural. We plan to be back in the natural parks of North America this summer, when we head for Alberta and Wyoming on a two-week extravaganza.