When we decided to take our US road trip, we were well aware that the route we’d chosen was a well trodden path. Luckily for us, some of the feet that had recently trodden it happened to be sat at the same bank of desks I was, and were more than happy to tell me what was a must see and what could be missed.
When we had three weeks to fit in New York, Vegas, Death Valley, Yosemite and the drive from San Francisco to San Diego – it’s quite important to prioritise. It was holiday maximisation in it’s purest form!
With the help of colleagues and our pal Neil at Trailfinders – we decided on 1 night in Death Valley and 2 nights in Yosemite (to allow for one full day hike).
Driving from Vegas to Death Valley (2 hours)
The drive is relatively short and easy and most people do it without stopping. The only added complication for us was that we were racing against a storm in the desert which would ultimately (although we didn’t know this at the time) close all roads in and out of the park!
We chose a Dodge Challenger for our car but any car would cope perfectly fine with the terrain. Some people think you might need a 4×4 to take through the National Parks, but from what we saw a scooter would have coped, so don’t be up-sold on your hire car through fear of not getting up some small hills (unless they are expecting snow or something where you need chains,in which case you should listen).
Staying in Death Valley:
We chose the Ranch at Furnace Creek as it was right in the middle of everything and directly on route.
It has it’s own diner, restaurant, pool and even a museum! It’s a stones throw from Death Valley visitor’s centre too, which is good because that’s as far as we could go once the roads were closed – and where the rangers are based.
The freak weather:
Death Valley is one of the driest place in the world, but obviously my ability to attract non-afro hair friendly weather isn’t unique to the UK.
The storm we raced past on the way to Furnace creek caught us up after lunch having caused flash floods which washed away significant portions of the park’s roadways. Everyone in the creek was grounded whilst the grey skies blocked most of the sun!
What we missed in Death Valley:
We had planned to go and see Dante’s view and Scotty’s Castle – both a 20 minute drive from the ranch, but both were closed off due to flood damage to the roads!
A Foodie’s Highlight!
We stayed in the ranch for our evening meal – partly because there are few other options. Being a captive audience, my expectations for the evening meal were relatively low!
As it happens, The restaurant at the Ranch is home to possibly the best steak in the world ever (that I have tasted, at least – I’m happy to be proven wrong should someone fancy feeding me even better steak)!
This steak comes on a plate the size of a Christmas turkey plate, still on the bone! Although our waiter advised it would serve two (much to Spence’s scepticism), it could easily have gone three ways! It was cooked to perfection – medium/rare, obviously – and was seasoned beautifully!
Driving to Yosemite (5-6 hours)
If it’s open, take the Tioga pass for some epic scenery and amazing views. The drive itself is pretty easy going, with a bit of a winding climb and some steep drops by the side of the road which might cause some vertigo sufferers’s to throw a wobbly.
The road is wide though and well maintained – if you’ve driven over the snake pass in the UK or around the mountain roads in New Zealand then this will be a walk in the park!
Arriving in Yosemite
If you come in from Death Valley side, you’ll know you’ve properly arrived when you pass through the archway in the rocks – be prepared with your cash or park pass at this point so you don’t hold up the queue!
There are plenty of car parks in the park itself which was handy given we had chosen to stay outside of the main park. Expect to walk 5-10 minutes from the car to the visitor’s centre.
Yosemite is a hikers dream! Much like the Lake District in the UK, there are several popular and well trodden paths you can choose to walk with little to no hiking equipment or experience. We chose the badly-named “4 mile trail” which is actually over 5 miles long and very much a ‘climb’ rather than a wander!
One of my colleagues said he had been up and down this path in around 3 hours, but when it took us 4 hours to reach the summit, we decided to take the tour bus back down to the car. We decided this was useful (rather than lazy) as the tour guide explained some of the traditions of the area and talked about the local wildlife, including mountain lions and bears!
It turns out that ascending the 4 mile trail was the equivalent of climbing over 350 flights of stairs – no wonder my glutes were on fire! The reward at the top is the amazing view of Half Dome and the valley from Glacier Point, which is well worth every step!
If you fancy a more leisurely stroll, try getting the bus to the top and walking down like most of the people we passed were doing!
If you’re feeling brave, you could try the 12-hour-round Half Dome hike, but be sure to check accessibility before you travel as the availability and safety of the route changes drastically with the seasons.
Novice Hikers Tips
Yosemite is a National Park and a place for wildlife so you need to be mindful of that fact. If you see a bear, quietly retreat if possible and drop your bag if it contains smelly food. It shouldn’t, because you shouldn’t have any smelly food on you!!! If you see a mountain lion, again retreat if possible but if it approaches the advice is to make yourself as big as possible so as to make yourself look scary. Think Scully from ‘Monster’s Inc.’.
If you’re not sure about anything – ask at the visitor’s centre before you set off for your hike!
Do not feed the squirrels, despite the fact that they brazenly court any human with any type of food. There are signs everywhere explaining why we shouldn’t feed them, but a surprising amount of people ignore them!
Yosemite Food and Drink
There are plenty of food outlets in the park, including a shop and cafe at the top of the 4 mile trail – near Glacier Point. There’s also the ‘Curry Village’ where you can find further food outlets. We didn’t eat there though so I can’t comment on the food!
Where to Stay
Staying within the park is significantly more expensive than staying slightly outside the park, hence why we chose the latter. We were not interested in camping so there was little benefit to being in the park itself for us.
Instead we chose to stay in nearby El Portal, a 15-20 minute drive from the middle of the park and very peaceful! We chose the Yosemite View Lodge which has two restaurants, large rooms, an on-site convenience store, several pools and great balcony views over a stream at the back of the lodges. Whilst not modern or particularly luxurious, the rooms were clean and well-equipped and the staff were great – all in all, pretty good value!
Other Top Tips:
Buy a park pass- either separate or multiple-multiple usually better value if you’re doing more than 2 parks. We didn’t realise this until we had been to 3 parks and the guy selling us the third pass thought that it was a good time to highlight the fact we had essentially overpaid.
Had we done our homework, we could have bought the multiple park pass and used it for Yosemite, Death Valley and Muir Woods)
Make sure you check the status of the Tioga pass on the internet or by asking at your hotel (who will receive road information from the park rangers). If the weather is so bad that there is a risk of road closure, they might advise an alternative (but quite a bit longer) route!
Over and out.
That’s a quick round up of what we did, but there’s loads of options when it comes to spending time in the national parks.
Here’s some of the best resources I found when planning our visit: