Through the Viewfinder
And What Alice Found There
Our drive from the Grand Canyon to Vegas was about 4.5 hours but we stopped on the way at the Hoover Dam. Despite the fact it cost us $10 to park, it was well worth stopping just to see the huge scale of the dam with our own eyes! It was amazing to think how much time and effort had gone into building such a huge structure! We didn’t stay too long at the dam as it was boiling hot and we wanted to get to our motel for a shower, and we didn’t look properly in the visitor center either as they had huge security queues like you’d get in an airport! Anyway, we got some photos and walked along the dam before continuing on to Vegas.
In Vegas we stayed on the North end of the strip, away from the main casino’s and bars, just further up from the Stratosphere hotel. We booked a Super 8 Motel which was actually really nice and a fraction of the price of some of the big hotels! We showered and changed then hopped on the bus just across the road, which took us straight down into the centre of Vegas. The buses were great – it cost us $8 each for a 24 hour pass on the Deuce service and we could use the ticket as many times as we liked within that time. The buses ran from outside our motel, all the way along the strip to the other end where the Welcome To Las Vegas sign is, with stops at each main casino along the way – extremely handy for getting about on our night out! We had a nice meal at a place called Lavo and then went out to explore. After spending the previous night in the Grand Canyon and a lot of time recently camping in the desert, coming to Vegas and seeing the big city lights and bustling streets was a huge contrast! It was fun walking along the strip and just watching how the place comes alive at night! It’s a strange place – so lively and bright and man-made, but set in the gorgeous landscape of Nevada with the infamous Sierra Nevada mountain range surrounding the city and beautiful deserts stretching out to the horizons.
The next day we took the Deuce into town again and had a wander around to see all the big hotels in daylight. We also spent a few hours looking around Madame Tussaud’s as neither of us had ever been to one before, and being the first ones in that morning meant we pretty much had the place to ourselves! After a fun morning taking selfies with the stars we continued exploring, visiting all the famous places – Little Italy, Paris, New York New York, Luxor and the Welcome to Vegas Sign (of course)! As we wandered back into town we soon found ourselves inside a casino. We hadn’t been in one the night before so decided to give some of the machines a go! After a bit of confusion on my part as to how to actually use the machines we eventually got the hang of it, with Greg winning about $25 and me winning $59! Some might have called it beginners luck, but I like to call it skill…
That evening we had a quieter night, with a quick trip back to the casino (where we lost all our winnings from earlier on) and had a nice wander through the town. We also watched the Mirage Volcano show and the Bellagio Fountains – these are outdoor shows put on by some of the hotels that run at certain times of the night. If you want a decent view then you have to get there early though as the streets become packed very quickly with spectators!
After a fun filled few nights in Vegas it was time to leave and head back to the desert to do what we do best – hiking and camping! Our next destination was Death Valley, which has been recorded as being the hottest place on the whole planet (I can see how it gets its name). However, before entering the crazy heat of the Valley we decided to stop at a small town called Beatty for some lunch. On the journey towards Death Valley we didn’t really see anything – it was just barren desert landscape on either side of the road with no towns or villages in sight. So when we entered Beatty (the first form of civilisation for what felt like 1000 miles) we got excited to be seeing people and buildings again, until we realised Beatty is an extremely quiet place almost like a ghost town with abandoned buildings and fallen down houses. However, the main attraction in the town seemed to be a hotel casino which luckily for us also had a Denny’s inside (a typical American diner) so we stopped there for some food before getting back on the road. Just outside Beatty we discovered a real ghost town called Rhyolite so we decided to have another stop off to explore the ruins. It was really interesting and quite eerie walking around the forgotten old mining town. It was hard to imagine that once upon a time there was a bustling community living there, with people working the mines and earning a small fortune! Now the place is completely deserted with only a few buildings remaining. We walked along a footpath which takes you through the centre of the town and round the edge, passing by the old school, bank, railway station, a jail and even a brothel. We also found a grave for someone named Isabella Haskins, adorned with a white cross and everything from beads, a single flip flop and bottles of beer. Looking into who Isabella was, we found out she was also known as Mona Belle and there are many myths about her being a prostitute in the town, murdered by one of her lovers. Legend says she was buried out of the town as she was not worthy enough to be buried in the cemetery alongside good Christian people. However, it turns out this is just a myth and Isabella Haskins was actually a young woman born in 1886 who married after leaving school, but soon eloped with another man and they eventually settled in the town of Rhyolite. After a blazing row one evening Isabella was shot dead by her partner, who was eventually tried and sentenced to 50 years in jail. Isabella’s body was flown back to Washington where her parents lived and she was laid to rest there. So whoever is buried in the grave in Rhyolite is not actually Isabella Haskins – if there is anybody buried there at all! Even so, visitors still leave gifts at the grave for Isabella, hence the beads, beer and flip flops!
Eventually we decided to move on and finally made our way into the infamous Death Valley. The roads were winding and beautiful, stretching out as far as the eye could see before suddenly rising up into the mountains, to then drop back down into the valley again. The journey was amazing and we saw no other cars along the way. The heat slowly crept up too, but luckily we had bought hand held fans in a supermarket a few days beforehand! We made one more stop before making it to our campsite, and got out for a short hike along the Mesquite Sand Dunes. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the place to ourselves but although there were quite a few cars parked up, we didn’t bump into anyone out on the dunes. They were so massive it was easy to get lost and feel like the only people around! The walk was just stunning but we soon discovered it’s ten times harder hiking in sand than on normal terrain! It really tired us out, scrambling up steep dunes and then sliding and sinking into the sand on the way down. It was an amazing experience and one I would definitely recommend!
After a long and very hot day we were finally making the last push along the road to our campsite, spotting a wild coyote on the way! One thing to note about America is that you have to pay for entry to their National Parks, unlike here in the UK where you can explore for free. Death Valley is classed as a National Park and we had investigated where to pay our fees and apparently we could do so at the ranger station in Stovepipe Wells (a small community in the valley). However, on our arrival there the station was closed so we tried to use the self service machine outside. The machine didn’t take our type of card and didn’t accept cash, so we left and thought maybe they would ask us to pay at the campground. We stopped the night at Panamint Springs campground which was only $10 for the night and was surrounded by beautiful desert landscape. There was a small shop and restaurant, a very expensive gas station (because it was the only one for miles around) and maybe the worst campsite shower block ever, but despite this I enjoyed the experience of camping in such a famous and remote part of America. We had a lovely evening by the campfire, once again making s’mores and toasting marshmallows while watching the stars come out above us.
The next morning we packed up early and headed back out of the Valley with no mention of the park entry fee – so we successfully managed to visit for free! Top tip for anyone visiting – don’t bother paying the fee as nobody will ever know if you’ve paid or not! Our destination for the next few days was Los Angeles – somewhere I have dreamt of visiting for so many years! My love of LA and Beverly Hills came from watching the TV show 90210 as a teenager. At the time I envied their fabulous lifestyle with beaches and fancy shops right on their doorstep. As I’ve got older I’ve realised I love where I live and wouldn’t be able to cope living in a busy and expensive city, but my desire to visit Beverly Hills has never gone away. So you can imagine my excitement as we entered LA and I spotted the Hollywood sign sitting up in the hills, just like in the movies! We drove up to the Griffith Observatory to a great viewpoint of the Hollywood sign, and also climbed to the roof of the observatory for stunning views of the rest of LA. We then checked in at our motel, left the car there and walked along to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I have to say I was slightly disappointed by this. It’s such a famous landmark and I expected so much more, but in reality it’s just another network of streets, some of which appear to be in quite scruffy areas, and I actually hadn’t even heard of most of the people whose stars we saw! Nevertheless, we had a good walk around before hopping on the bus to take us into Beverly Hills. Here we saw the famous sign in Beverly Gardens Park and also had a stroll along Rodeo Drive where the rich and famous do their shopping. It was so much fun to wander around where 90210 was filmed and I felt like all my teenage dreams were coming true! That evening we had a gorgeous meal at Il Fornaio (a beautiful Italian restaurant) then headed back to our motel on the bus.
The next day we got up early and drove across town to Santa Monica Pier. Normally, to get to the other side of town you might expect up to a half an hour journey in traffic, but in LA it took us over an hour to get to the coast! When we finally arrived we headed down onto the beach first but it was quite a windy morning so we took shelter from the mini sandstorm up on the pier. The main reason for visiting Santa Monica was that it’s the official finish line of Route 66, so we took some obligatory photos with the famous sign and looked back at our journey to that point. It was only now that I began to realise our trip was nearly over and I started to get quite upset at the thought of going home, but soon those thoughts were gone as we discovered a mini theme park on the pier! Before Greg even knew what was happening I’d bought us some wristbands for the park and told him we could each choose a ride to go on. Greg (being someone who doesn’t enjoy rollercoasters or thrill rides) chose the Ferris Wheel – a great choice which gave us unbeatable views of Santa Monica beach and the beautiful coastline of LA. However, it was then my turn to choose a ride, and being someone who loves scary stuff I chose a ride called Gyro Loop – a two seater ride that swings and spins you in all directions but is actually controlled by us riding it! There were buttons on the seats to make it go forwards, backwards, or to stop it so you could create the ride you wanted and stay on it for as long as you liked! It was so much fun!! We spent a bit of time going on some other rides and wandering around and then decided to head along the coast to Venice Beach. The walk felt like it took forever and it was really busy along the boardwalk so eventually we turned back to get some lunch back on Santa Monica Pier. That afternoon we managed to sit on the beach as the wind had died down, and took a well deserved break from rushing around everywhere! Our days had been so jam packed with seeing things that we’d barely had time for a rest so it was nice to have some time on the beach at last. Before heading back to the motel we had one last drive down the coast to Redondo beach, mainly because it’s one of the filming locations for 90210! They have a really nice pier there with some cute places to eat and some nice shops, so we had a short wander around and got some churros then headed back across town, picking up a Chinese takeaway on our way back!
After two nights in LA our next stop on the trip was Yosemite National Park – another place I had been dreaming of for years! Throughout my time studying photography at uni, I developed a huge interest in landscape photography especially the exploration of the American West. I wrote all my uni essays on landscape photography and my dissertation heavily focused on Ansel Adams and his work in Yosemite, so I was very excited to finally be visiting there for myself! Once again we had a gorgeous drive inside the park. Entry was $30 per car but that gave you access for up to 7 days so it wasn’t too bad really. On the way to our campground we stopped off at Tunnel View, made famous by Ansel Adams and his amazing photos from here looking down into Yosemite Valley. It was absolutely packed so I hopped out the car, took some photos then jumped back in – it was too stressful trying to navigate through the crowds! The drive into the Valley to find our campsite was quite stressful too – I was on the lookout for bears out the car window but I soon needed to help direct us, as there were some diversions in place that week. After a painfully slow drive through the centre of the valley, a wrong turn, and another slow drive back round the one way system, we finally tracked down our campsite. One problem with places as famous as Yosemite is the number of tourists that visit there. Obviously we were contributing to the tourism by visiting there, but just the sheer volume of people can make it so difficult to do anything and sometimes you think what a shame it is that these places aren’t really natural anymore – instead they’re covered in roads, footpaths, visitor centers and hotels. Despite this, we did really enjoy our time there and would probably like to go back someday as there’s so much to explore that we couldn’t possibly fit it all into just 2 days. We camped in Lower Pines Campground which was really good – the sites were massive so you had loads of room for your tent, and each site also had a picnic table and a fire pit like in the Grand Canyon. The location was great too, in a lovely wooded area with huge mountains peeking out above the trees. As I previously mentioned I had been on the lookout for bears on arrival in Yosemite, as it was the first place we were visiting where they actually lived. Each campsite therefore had a bear locker next to the picnic table, so anything you had that was scented (food, drinks, perfume, toiletries) had to be kept in the locker at all times as bears have been known to rip open tents and destroy cars looking for food! Although quite a scary thought, it was also exciting to think that bears really lived around there and there was maybe a chance of seeing one!
Our first afternoon in Yosemite was spent putting the tent up as quickly as possible then heading out on a short walk to Mirror Lake. It was so beautiful and was our first real taste of what the Yosemite landscape was like up close. The huge granite peaks towered above us and beautiful blue waters flowed down from waterfalls into lakes and rivers. It was just amazing. After our walk we headed back to the campsite for a relaxed evening by the fire and making the most out of our last few nights in the tent.
The next day we decided to get up early to try and get hiking before all the crowds were up and about. Our plan worked and we left the campsite around 7.30am and the place was so silent it was unbelievable! We saw 2 or 3 other walkers heading the same way as us but we soon lost them and had the majority of the trail to ourselves at first. I’d wanted to hike up to Glacier Point and Taft Point but the roads were still closed for snow ploughing and the footpaths were also closed due to potential ice hazards. This was hard to imagine as down on the valley floor the temperature was really warm and we were happy walking around in shorts and t-shirts, but up on the tops there was still some snow, so they must have had a heavy winter if Glacier Point Road still wasn’t open in May! Instead, we chose to hike along the John Muir Trail and the Mist Trail up to Nevada Fall, passing Vernal Fall on the way. It was a gorgeous hike! It was sunny but as we started to gain height it became a bit chilly and we did actually see a few patches of snow still lying around right at the top!
Our first stop on the hike was Vernal Fall. Walking on the footpath past this huge waterfall it was easy to see why it’s called the Mist Trail – the spray from the waterfall is so powerful that it absolutely soaks you as you walk past! For about 5-10 minutes we climbed up the rocks alongside the fall and by the time we got to the top we looked like we’d just been stood under the shower fully clothed! It was ridiculous and so cold, but all part of the fun so we didn’t really mind!
We carried on hiking further up the mountain (with me constantly on the lookout for bears) until we eventually reached Nevada Fall. Standing at 5,907 feet high, under the shadow of the even higher summit of Liberty Cap, the falls offer a spectacular view of Yosemite park from the very top of the waterfall. I couldn’t stop looking around me wondering if I was dreaming or not – it was just so beautiful! After spending some time at the top appreciating how lucky we were to be in such a fantastic place, we decided to start the descent with the hope of being back at camp for lunchtime. The route down was mainly fine, but we did hit one major obstacle not long after setting off – a huge waterfall coming down the cliff and landing right on the footpath, turning the trail into a river! By this point we had fully dried out from our walk past Vernal Fall but we had no choice but to go straight through this fall and get soaked again! I went first, filming on my GoPro (the footage will feature in my short film coming soon) – it was freezing! I was drenched within seconds but once through the main part of the fall I then had to navigate the river of a footpath! I didn’t fancy getting my feet soaked as it would make the rest of the walk back so uncomfortable, so instead we braved it and precariously walked along the wall instead. I couldn’t help but look down at the cliff to the side of me – one trip and we’d be over the edge but luckily we managed to crawl far enough to avoid the worst of the flooded path and quickly got back down onto the ground again.
After that exciting ordeal we made our way back down into the valley, stopping at Clark Point on the way and then joining back up with the John Muir trail back to camp. After a quick lunch we headed back out, this time in the direction of Yosemite Falls. On the way we stopped off at the Ansel Adams Gallery next to the Visitor Center which was fantastic! As I’ve mentioned, his work was a huge inspiration throughout my time at uni, and it continues to amaze me to this day! I loved looking around the gallery and saw so many of his prints that I’d quite happily put up in my own home (if I was rich – some of them were on sale for over $30,000)! There was also a good gift shop where I bought some smaller prints of his and a book as well. I could have spent ages in there but there was too much to do and so Greg finally dragged me away to head to Yosemite Falls as planned. We were going to do the hike to the Lower Falls but there was a park ranger on the path telling us it was unfortunately closed due to a fallen tree taking out one of the bridges further up! This was quite disappointing but instead we headed to a good viewpoint of both the lower and upper falls, and then decided to have a walk through Cooks Meadow to the old Chapel. That evening we sat around the campfire one last time, used up our Hersheys chocolate in another round of S’mores and had one last lookout for any bears.
The next day it was time to leave which I was quite upset about, not only because there was still so much of the park to see, but I STILL hadn’t seen any bears – typical! Although it would have been amazing to see one, it’s quite good that we didn’t because it means the bears are staying away from humans and keeping wild. Our drive out of the valley was once again stunning, heading along the Big Oak Flat Road with a lovely stop off along the way to view the Merced River winding through the valley below us. For the second time on the trip I began to feel sad that we were now very close to the end, and I couldn’t quite believe that we only had one destination left! Anyway, onwards and upwards we headed to San Fransisco for our last few days of exploring.
Arriving in San Fransisco we headed straight for the Golden Gate Bridge, and drove across it towards the Marin Headlands. The Bridge itself is beautiful – it’s such an iconic landmark and on a sunny day the red of the bridge just looks so pretty against the blue skies and turquoise sea. We luckily managed to get the last spot in a small car park and then headed up the road towards Battery Spencer (an old concrete battery from the 19th Century). From there we had amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city of San Francisco! We then walked along a footpath that took us down the cliff and through a beautiful wooded area, eventually reaching Kirby Cove Campground. I had wanted to camp there for one night but when I tried to book online it said they were fully booked – however, walking through the campground there was nobody there! I wonder if it was closed seasonally maybe? Either way I was quite disappointed because it looked like such an amazing place to camp! There was only about 7 sites, again each with it’s own a picnic table and they were literally about 100 feet from the beach! And what a gorgeous beach it is! It’s called Kirkby Cove and is so cute and small, tucked away between the cliffs, looking over to the Golden Gate Bridge and the skyline of the city. There’s also a wooden swing on the beach which was just like heaven! Swinging in the sunshine, with the sand beneath me, looking out onto the bright blue ocean with the Golden Gate Bridge to my left – it felt like a dream! We had quite a bit of fun playing on the swing feeling like children again and then had a paddle in the sea, chasing the waves and laughing at each other as we got soaked when a big one came unexpectedly! It was so much fun – I could have spent a whole day there in this secret little cove and I so wish we could have camped there but never mind! That evening we headed back over into the city and checked into our last motel of the trip, watched the sunset over the bridge, and had a meal at an iHop restaurant (one of our new favourite American places).
The next day (our last full day in the USA) was a busy one! First of all we walked to Fishermans Wharf and found Pier 33 where we got on the ferry to Alcatraz Island. We originally booked online for the 9am tour but we arrived at 8am and they let us go on the earlier one for no extra cost which was good! Alcatraz was brilliant – it’s such a famous place, mainly known for it’s days as a high security prison housing the likes of Al Capone and Robert Stroud. When we arrived, we watched a short intro film then had a wander around the island looking at all the old buildings and reading about the history of each one. It was very interesting and there was even a photography exhibition in one of the buildings which I really enjoyed. The exhibition was Alcatraz: The Last Day, photos taken by Leigh Wiener. The images document the day that Alcatraz closed its doors for the last time as a prison, and showed the inmates leaving the island to be transported elsewhere. It was fantastic and really gave you an idea what the buildings had been like at that time.
While on the island we also took an audio tour of the cellhouse which was fantastic! We were each given some headphones and a small controller so you could stop and start the audio tour as and when you wanted to. It featured voices and stories from real inmates and officers in the prison and gave loads of amazing information about the places you were standing right in front of! We heard stories of various escape attempts and murders within the prison, and even got to stand inside some of the old cells! We both thought it was really good and would highly recommend a visit to Alcatraz for anyone in the San Francisco area!
After a fun morning exploring the island we took the ferry back to the city and had a walk along the piers. Eventually we made it to Pier 39 where I had been told by my grandparents that there used to be a load of wild sea lions living there, which they had seen years ago when they travelled to America. I wasn’t sure if the sea lions were still there, or if it had been a one time thing for my grandparents as I had never actually heard about them myself. However, as we walked along pier 39 we could soon hear a huge chorus of barking and grunting, and when we turned the corner there they were! There was maybe up to 100 sea lions all stretched out across the piers, sunbathing, swimming, or fighting with each other for the best spot! It was so amazing and not something I expected to see in such a busy city! Apparently the sea lions come back every year and have claimed those piers as their own, so they’ve become quite a big tourist attraction now!
We spent the afternoon having a look around the shops on Pier 39 before making our way through town to the famous Lombard Street. I saw a photo of this street ages ago on Instagram and ever since I saw it I have wanted to visit, so I knew I had to fit it into our trip somewhere! It’s a street that has become famous for its unusual design, involving 8 hairpin turns to create a beautiful zig-zag road. It was hard to get a good photo of the street without having a high vantage point, but it was fun to see it all the same. We then had another walk through town, which anybody who has been to San Francisco will know is not an easy task! The city is built on a huge hill with extremely steep streets, so walking anywhere was very tiring - even going downhill was hard because it was so steep! We finally found ourselves wandering through Chinatown which was really cool, with beautiful lanterns hanging in the streets and cute little shops and market stalls selling all sorts of random things. For a moment, it actually felt like we could have been in China!
We walked all the way through Chinatown and by this time we were shattered, so we decided to have a ride on one of San Francisco’s famous cable cars. These are basically wooden trams that are the world’s only remaining manually operated cable cars, and they are so fun to ride! We got on at the end of the line so we watched and they pulled the cable car onto a turntable and manually turned it around to go back the other way. We hopped on with no seatbelts and the option of standing on the outside with just a pole to cling to (although we sat inside) and then off we went, up and down the steep streets of the city, flying around all over the place! We had to request when we wanted to get off, so we just guessed where we were and then walked the rest of the way back to our motel, but we loved the experience and it was well worth the $7 each that it cost us. That evening we had our final meal out in a lovely restaurant called Maybeck's, which was absolutely delicious and went down well with a bottle of wine.
The next day we woke early, sadly packed our bags and hopped in our trusty Hyundai Sonata for the final time. Heading for the airport I couldn’t believe it was over - after so many months of planning beforehand it was now time to go home and that was something I couldn’t bear to think about! Although I had missed my family and friends and I was excited to tell them all about my adventures, I had forgotten how much I love the travelling life. It’s not like going on holiday where you stay in a 4* hotel in a tourist resort, and you either go to the pool or go to the beach everyday. Trips like this one are so much better than that – every single day is different and being on the road was tiring at times but it’s all part of the adventure. Waking up in a new place almost every day is so exciting, and learning to live with only the basic things is surprisingly easy. It puts everything into perspective and makes you realise what’s important and what isn’t, and this has reminded me how important travelling is to me. It’s more than just getting away for a bit – it’s about seeing the world and experiencing life in so many different ways, making memories, and doing new things that you maybe thought you’d never do (like camping in the middle of the desert, or watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon).
Those who have read all my blog posts about this trip, you’ve probably realised by now that I loved every second of it! There were good and bad parts, like there will be with any trip, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently and there’s nothing I would change – even our horrible night in Gallup is now a funny experience to look back on! All in all, both me and Greg had the time of our lives and I miss it every day. I’m now planning many more trips because there’s just so much of the world that needs exploring!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures and seeing some of the photos I took whilst out there. For more photos please see my Facebook page and my Instagram account, and also watch this space for my short film about the trip which I am currently working on!
Until next time…keep on travelling!