Having booked a dream trip to Japan in Easter 2020 we finally got around to using up our British Airways vouchers to do a West Coast road trip.
The journey would take us from San Francisco > Monterey > Yosemite National Park > Sequoia National Park > Death Valley National Park before finishing our trip in Las Vegas. We had high hopes for the trip and throughout our journey were faced with hurdles, inconveniences and disappointments but also lots of cool experiences.
Alongside the travel difficulties, I also experienced a number of technical issues with some of my camera equipment and less than ideal conditions for photography. Maybe I’m out of practice, maybe I lacked motivation to shoot… I took a fair few of these photos on my iPhone.
Our first stop was San Francisco. In previous visits to the states San Francisco had been highly recommended by everyone I met so we decided to start our trip there. Reminiscent of Lisbon, with its very hilly streets, trams and familiar looking bridge… we were met with comfortable temperatures and fog. Lots of fog! The first difficulty for my well planned photo locations – this is totally typical of this time of year due to the bay’s microclimate.
Down in the popular Pier39 area, famed for its sea lions we found an unlikely treat – a mechanical arcade museum. This was a highlight of our trip. We filled up on ‘quarters’ and played on skill games, oddities, pinball, music makers, palm readers and Wurlitzer built from the 1900s up until the 90s with some nostalgic arcade games such as ‘Tekken 3’ and ‘Time Crisis’. This was great value entertainment.
We took a walk out to Golden Gate Park and the Haight St. area of the city. I really loved the vibe of this place – A bit like Camden in London. Small shops, hippy run thrift stores oh, and Amoeba music – A huge record store… How could I resist!?
We took a bus trip over the bay to Marin County and the Sausalito area for a fancy meal. We really liked the vibe of this town and kind of wish we had afforded it more time. Than just having a few drinks and a meal.
We travelled down the west coast of California towards Monterey to take part in a whale watching tour. This would be our 3rd in two years (Wales and Iceland) which were both unsuccessful. Again, Monterey was somewhere we would have liked to spend a bit more time. On this trip we spotted sea lions, dolphins, sea otters and a pod of 5 humpback whales who were cooperatively feeding and demonstrating a variety of behaviours. They are surprisingly fast and difficult to predict where and when they will surface – I did my best to counteract the focusing issues I was having with my zoom lens and get some snaps of them.
Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks
After our exciting whale watching trip we drove about 4 hours north east towards Yosemite National Park. This is a bucket list location for me in terms of photography. Everything in the park is on an enormous scale. We hired bikes to get around and did a couple of easy hikes around the park. Again, although surrounded by beauty, motivation for photos didn’t really arrive – I mainly just took it all in. On entering the park we were lucky enough to spot 3 bears walking across the meadow whilst driving, such is the attraction of these animals any side of the road ‘pull ups’ to grab a shot of them were taken by other cars so we continued rolling through.
In recent weeks California has been shrouded in clouds of smoke and ash from a number of wildfires in close proximity to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. Luckily when we were there, the two main fires affecting the parks had somewhat subsided with a new enormous fire to the north having just started. There was still visible smoke and haze which made landscape photos more challenging.
We had a one night stop in Sequoia National Park which was just enough time to see its main attraction – General Sherman, the worlds largest living thing.
Death Valley National Park
I had built high hopes for our trip to Death Valley. Having never really visited the desert before, I had scouted out locations for photos and we had prepared ourselves for the extreme and oftentimes lethal heat of the area. As we would soon find out, heat wasn’t to be our main obstacle in this leg of the journey.
On our way through Death Valley we could see the pure isolation of the place and how local towns had fallen into disrepair.
Luckily we had stopped at the Mesquite flats sand dunes on our way through the park as we were to shortly find out a freak weather system would prevent us from leaving the hotel we were supposed to stay at for one short night.
Cloud had covered the desert with small rain showers causing steam to rise from the desert basin floor. The heat was a starling 44*C and humid. I was already pissed off that this would mean I would miss out on some of the astrophotography I had planned but considered getting out of the hotel in the middle of the night to snap some photos – luckily for us both, I cancelled this plan.
We woke up in the morning to heavy rain and in the hope of getting out and seeing some sights with rain due to stop by 10am I carried our bags through the hotel toward the carpark… Hmmm the lift wasn’t working… So I carried our bags down the stairs where, at the bottom of the staircase I was met with a muddy river. So I carried the bags back up the stairs, around the front of the hotel towards the carpark…to be met with this…
The grey Honda is our hire car. It was parked about 30m up from where it lay and was parked perpendicular to the rest of the cars, I think it took the brunt of the huge mud, rock and water landslide that wiped out the carpark of the hotel. AVIS car hire and The Death Valley Inn were utterly useless in their response with little to no help from either party – highlighting the problems of the suing culture in the US. We ended up having to stay at the hotel for an extra night, unable to go anywhere due to our totalled car and closed roads. I was on hold to AVIS probably for a total of about 15hours before we finally received a replacement car at 7pm the following day. This lost us 2 days of our trip. Many people worked all day to dig their cars out of the mud and water so they could continue their journey – but our was worst hit. The heat would have made me extremely ill and besides, even if I could get the car out – there is no way I was risking becoming subsequently stranded in Death Valley, away from the hotel. I had started the car and it was sounding ropey – either the sump had been destroyed or there was water ingress into the cylinders.
When we finally received a replacement car via 2 way tow we gave a French couple a lift through to Las Vegas as they were given zero support for recovery by their hire car company. This is probably the worst travel experience I have had.
Stranded at the hotel, I did my best to salvage some photos from where I was situated in the resort.
The final stop on our trip was to Las Vegas where we were supposed to be for 3 nights and 4 days but due to our experience in Death Valley we were cut short… Maybe a blessing in disguise. We arrived at about 9pm and headed straight out onto ‘The Strip’ The whole place is like a massive theme park. We visited some of the main casinos although they’re all more or less the same.
It was a bit underwhelming to be honest. impressive to see initially but thereafter, pretty depressing and boring.
The following day we walked around between air-conditioned Casinos and shopping malls again and planned to go to Fremont St. – The ‘Downtown’ part of Las Vegas with older, more seedy casinos. We found this much more fun, offering loads of free street entertainment, an electric atmosphere, impressive lights and lower bet limits. Not being a big gambler this allowed us to get involved a bit more and was fun.
We also had one of our favourite eating experiences here at ‘Dick’s Last Resort’. A restaurant where servers and staff verbally abuse their customers. From start to finish Nadine and I were crying with laughter. No holds were barred and even kids were not immune from the insults. Food was great and service was also amazing. In between abuse our server was a really nice guy!
We finished our Las Vegas visit with a trip to the Neon Boneyard. A museum of vintage and redundant Neon signs from Las Vegas. An interesting tour. Vegas, now I have seen it I can say is not really for me. Good for a couple of days but wouldn’t come back. That said, the US trip on the whole was conflicting for me. Since I last visited the states things have gone downhill. Horrendous homelessness, poverty and drug use; in places poor hospitality and support for guests; very expensive for UK visitors but still some amazing sights and great people. I’m not sure I will be returning to the USA in a hurry.