“We forgot to do our highlights of the trip,” said my husband right after we crossed the border.
“Well, good thing we still have another four hours of driving ahead of us.”
We love road trips. Every summer we pick a destination, map out stops along the way, pile into our car and go. Sure, long driving stretches can sometimes be tiring but they provide a nice transition from the structured busyness of everyday life. A drive back works in reverse offering an opportunity to leave our vacation behind. That’s when we reminisce about everything we’ve seen and done and try to narrow all the experiences down to ten best. Not an easy task.
This year’s trip took us from 282 feet below the sea level in Death Valley
to almost 10,000-foot altitudes of High Sierra.
From the scorching heat of Utah’s desert to cool waters of the Pacific
From barren Martian-looking expanses to towering sequoias
From the bustling streets of San Francisco to the wilderness of Grand Escalante
Turns out four hours isn’t that much time to go through four weeks of memories but here is our attempt.
Half Dome hike
This 22-kilometre trail in Yosemite required careful planning, applying for a lottery, and waking up before 6 am. It took us 12 hours to complete and featured endless sets of stairs and a final climb up the sleek granite surface of the Dome holding onto steel cables. But it was so worth it.
Half Dome offers beautiful views from every angle
The Half Dome trail features lots of stairs
Lots and lots of stairs
Are we there yet?
The final stretch was the most exciting
Tired and happy at the top of Half Dome
This was our second trip to Zion. After hiking the Angel’s Landing trail two years ago, we decided to tackle The Narrows this time. As the name suggests, this trail follows Virgin River into the narrowest part of the canyon. I am using the word “trail” loosely because for the most part we were wading through water, sometimes chest deep. One downside is that it is a popular destination. Luckily, most people turn back after an hour or so. We walked all the way to Big Creek (about 6 miles or 10 kilometers one way) and by then had the canyon mostly to ourselves.
The Narrows is a popular hike but only at the beginning
Hanging gardens in The Narrows
The further we went, the fewer people we encountered
The Narrows is one of the most beautiful trails we’ve ever hiked
Hard to believe water broke through all these layers of rock
Big Creek – our final destination
Recently, after reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and The Overstory by Richard Powers I have been mesmerized by trees. Not that trees didn’t fascinate me before but my appreciation increased tenfold. So, of course, I couldn’t forgo a visit to Sequoia National Park, home to some of the largest (General Sherman is in fact the largest tree by volume) and oldest (close to 3,000 years old) trees on the planet. Standing under these giants definitely puts your life in perspective.
General Sherman is the largest tree by volume, its footprint large enough to fit a small swimming pool
A mandatory tree-hugging picture
Arches and bridges
Utah with its arches, bridges and whimsical land formations is where nature puts its sculpting genius on display. Most of the arches are concentrated in Arches National Park (over 2,000 in fact), but there are a few outside the park as well. The Natural Bridges National Monument showcases some great examples of bridges. And if you want to know the difference between the two, arches are formed through erosion with the help of wind and ice, while bridges are the work of flowing water.
Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands
Pine Tree Arch and Skyline Arch
Broken Arch doesn’t look very broken
Sand Dune Arch and Tapestry Arch
Landscape Arch, the longest arch in North America
Sipapu Natural Bridge
Our campsite at Dead Horse Point
My husband maintains that it was the best campsite of all times. I wouldn’t go that far but the site definitely had a lot going for it. The farthest walk-in site at the Wingate campground, it offered lots of privacy and was incredibly quiet, too quiet sometimes. Thanks to Utah’s warm temperatures we could leave the fly off and fall asleep counting shooting stars. The shelter provided protection from the sun, a big bonus in Utah where shade is hard to come by. And it didn’t hurt that Dead Horse Point State Park came with majestic views.
One of our all-time favourite campsites
The shelter was a great bonus in Utah’s heat
The view of Colorado River from Dead Horse Point
The views at Dead Horse Point are incredible, especially in the morning
Sea lions and elephant seals
I wanted to see sea lions for a long time. Who would have thought our first close-up encounter will be in San Francisco. Pier 39 is a famous gathering spot for these sea mammals where they are known as “sea-lebrities” and their loud barking is mixed with laughter and squeals of delight. Huge crowds gather to watch them huddle or fight over a spot on a wooden platform even though there are plenty more available further away.
Sea-lebrities at Pier 39
Who wants a hug?
Elephant seals were an unexpected discovery of the trip. I didn’t even know they existed until we followed the sign along Pacific Coast Highway 1 that took us to the viewing area. They lined up along the shore like huge logs. Some tried to get away moving slowly in a break dance fashion. They would then cover themselves in sand using their flippers and short trunks before falling sleep.
Those trunks is where elephant seals get their name
Rolling in the sand is so much fun
Cities don’t usually excite me as much as nature but I definitely left my heart in San Francisco. As we discussed the trip highlights, lots of suggestions were thrown around – everyone seemed to have their own favorite memory of the city: Golden Gate Bridge, a display of engineering genius that our older son, future civil engineer, couldn’t forgo; Fisherman’s Wharf with lots of yummy seafood; a cable car ride with the most delightful conductor who recounted all the attractions we were passing in a singsong voice; dim sum in North America’s largest and oldest Chinatown; murals in the Mission District – a perfect display of street art and activism; the city itself with its hilly streets, mountain views and the smell of the ocean.
Golden Gate Bridge, an engineering miracle
Yummy food at Fisherman’s Wharf: oh, that clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, I still think of you
Alcatraz Island always looming in the distance
A cable car ride is a must in San Francisco
Listening to the Wave Organ
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest and oldest in North America
Murals in the Mission District: at the intersection of art and activism
Maritime Museum and Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
This was one of our older son’s favourites. And while I prefer wilder beaches with cliffs, caves and sea stacks, like Point Dume and Sand Dollar Beach, the energy of Venice Beach was electrifying. Definitely, my favourite of all the developed beaches we’ve visited so far.
Venice Beach was one of our older son’s top highlights
Venice Beach featured graffiti and funky shops…
…skateboarders, fishermen and one fisher bird
Plus beautiful sunsets
And lots of swimming
While Venice Beach was fun, I prefer secluded beaches like this cove at Point Dume…
…or Sand Dollar Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway
Balcony House at Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde in Colorado was a big discovery of our last trip west. We even changed our route to visit the park. A couple of hours wasn’t nearly enough so this year we made Mesa Verde one of the stops to learn more about Ancestral Pueblo people. Speaking of engineering genius, building whole villages into the side of a cliff with whatever little tools were available hundreds of years ago and the fact that these structures have withstood the test of time and weather is quite incredible. The highlight of our visit to the park was a tour of the Balcony House that required climbing ten-foot ladders, squeezing through narrow tunnels and walking up stone steps.
Balcony House, one of the many cliff dwellings of Ancestral Pueblo people at
Mesa Verde National Park
The trail featured ladders, stairs…
…more ladders and a tight tunnel
Sandboarding in Colorado
Who said sleds and boards were for winter only? In Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, sandboarding and sledding is a favourite activity for many visitors. So, of course, we had to try it. And even if we didn’t always go as fast as we wished to, the dunes themselves against a mountain backdrop were a magnificent sight.
Sand dunes in Colorado, quite a surprise
Who said sleds and boards are for winter only?
And who said sledding is a children’s activity?
There was, of course, a highlight too big for any lists – spending time with my brother and his family and getting to know my niece and nephew.