Erupting volcanoes and the Devil’s Golf Course
Technically our road trip began in Nevada, as we overcame our jet lag with a few days in Las Vegas. Sing along now, “…give ’em the old razzle dazzle, razzle dazzle ’em, give ’em an act with lots of flash in it…”. Whilst the words might come from the musical Chicago, the description pretty much defines Sin City (as Las Vegas is often known).
Yes, it’s brash and sometimes outrageous, but there’s plenty to admire and so much that is exceptionally well done. Caesars Palace has much to marvel at and we took our time to take in its treasures, particularly its Roman Forum streetscape (with a magnificent sky ceiling which mimics the sky outside), the great hall, spiral escalator, aquarium, and the animatronic Fall of Atlantis show. The Bellagio Hotel treated us to a show of 1,200 dancing fountains, whilst the Mirage hosts an erupting volcano each evening. There are an astonishing number of shows to entertain visitors and we took in KA by Cirque de Soleil at the MGM Grand. It was a marvellous combination of acrobatics, special effects and stage manipulation that is all alleged to have cost $165 million to stage. Worth every penny in our opinion and hats off to the skill and strength of the performers.
No human creation can match nature’s own though and our helicopter ride and landing in the Grand Canyon was wow moments heaped upon wow moments. It’s an extraordinary experience to get up close and personal with even a relatively small section of a canyon that is 277 river miles long and measures a staggering 18 miles at its widest point.
AVIS conveniently delivered our hire car to the MGM Grand hotel (to save us travelling out to the airport pick up depot) and whilst it didn’t quite have the power of the helicopter the previous day, the Chrysler 300 packs a decent punch. Its 3.6 litre V6 would give us plenty of pulling power for the mountainous roads ahead, whilst the boot (I know they call it a trunk) could accommodate our 3 medium/large holdalls. Inside we were cosseted in leather seated luxury, with a built-in satnav to help guide our way. We’d gone for the full package, zero excess insurance, breakdown cover etc. Preferring to know that whatever happened AVIS had us covered and no unexpected bills awaited us on return.
So, the road trip began and where better to test out the efficiency of the car’s air conditioning than the driest desert and hottest place in the world, Death Valley. This truly had to be one of the best drives of our life. From the heights of Dante’s View at 5475ft we could see Mt Whitney & Badwater with spectacular views over the whole basin. This location was used in Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope for the view looking down on Mos Eisley (may the force be with you). Driving down to the basin, we marvelled at the moonscape scenery of the devil’s golf course. Here we could literally hear the salt crystals popping in the heat (bit like a bowl of Rice Krispies – snap crackle pop). At the salt flats of Badwater (the lowest point in North America at 282ft below sea level) it is eerily beautiful, but a hike out into the basin at 43.4C/110F to see the salt formations (which take the shape of large polygons), left me gasping to get back to the car’s air conditioned coolness. Perhaps the best aspect of the valley (from a drivers perspective) is Artists Drive, a one way scenic route which shows off some of the best geological aspects of the park and had us gawping around every turn. We spent the night at Stovepipe Wells, within the boundary of the Death Valley National Park, relishing our day. Our accommodation was close to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (also used in Star Wars as the sand dunes of Tatooine) but otherwise in the middle of absolutely nowhere!
Could our next stop have been a greater contrast? I think not! We stayed alongside June Lake, which has a scenic loop we drove around. Along the way we saw cascading waterfalls and stopped at some some truly tranquil spots alongside the various lakes (Silver, Grants) where fishermen bob about the lakes in small boats hoping to catch one THIS BIG! From there an interesting and scenic drive (with views of snow-capped mountains) took us to the south side of Mono Lake. Here the underground streams have bubbled up from below the surface for centuries and created calcium deposits called Tufas. These deposits create strange other worldly towers, some in the water and some on land due to the reducing level of the lake. It’s quite a site to behold and well worth the trip out here. Already we’ve seen some magnificent and varied aspects of the USA and there’s more to come. Next stop Yosemite National Park.
Some quick driving tips for USA
At crossroads (without lights) you proceed in the strict order of arrival. Takes a little getting used to but locals are very disciplined, so it works well.
Petrol (gas) stations mostly require pre-payment prior to filling. Double check that they will give you change/refund if the car takes less than you think, particularly if you use a credit card.
Gas prices vary greatly, the more remote your fill up, the higher (rule of thumb). Google Maps often gives you gas prices in the reviews section of the app.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Avis.