In late July/early August 2016, my travel companion and I embarked on a two week coach tour of the West Coast of the US along with twenty or so other people from around the UK. We toured with American Sky, who are a truly sensational company. We had an inspiring and informative tour guide and a good-humoured driver, both of whom took care of our every need. Each day we would drive for a few hours, making frequent stops for souvenir shopping, lunch and of course ‘potty stops’. Below are some of my true highlights from the trip, which I would highly recommend any traveller to the West Coast include in their itinerary if possible. As I have so much I want to share, this is Part 1.
1. Bryce Canyon
I can’t stress enough how “fantastic” (our tour guide’s favourite word in the world) this day was. After dropping off our luggage at the fabulous Ruby’s Inn, which was straight out of the movies with its motel-like rooms and ridiculous food portions, we hopped back onto the coach to leave for the canyon (which isn’t actually a canyon because it was not carved out by water). I had never heard of Bryce, as it is certainly one of America’s lesser-known spots. It is in fact now my favourite place I think I have visited. The tall, thin pillars of rock, called ‘Hoodoos’, are composed of many different layers, and thus appear multicoloured with the orange and reds standing out the most. The viewing platforms had remarkable views.
We split into groups and decided to hike into the canyon and then back out. My group happened to be one of the slowest, but the most hilarious, naturally. The hike itself produced stunning views, just like a maze of rock. The walking was not difficult, anyone with average fitness could do it in a couple of hours, although the altitude can be a little problematic at times, slowing you down. We made it out of the canyon only 5 minutes late. But there was a problem. Where was the coach? They had abandoned us! As it turns out, they had all left to go and pick up the only other group still walking. However, as we were not aware of this, we panicked and tried to find a way of returning to the hotel on our own. After completely losing our sense of direction, we stumbled upon the employee lodge, obviously not open to the public. A kind soul, Tim, came out and took pity on us, seeing as we were absolutely sodden (it started to rain torrentially as soon as the hike was over). He suggested driving us to the hotel, so naturally we all jumped in. We squeezed 5 people into 4 particularly small seats, and off we went. My dream of hitchhiking had (mostly) come true!
Upon our arrival at the hotel, we thanked Tim profusely, paid him a handsome tip, and checked in to see if the coach was there. As it turns out though, we had beaten the coach back. After numerous phone calls, the coach finally arrived, giving everyone a chance to explain their side of the story. It became evident, though, that they were all mostly jealous of our experience! It really had been a hilarious day, even if a tad unconventional.
2. Grand Canyon
I wasn’t sure how I would react to this part of the journey. There is an incredible amount of hype surrounding the Grand Canyon, and yet on this trip, people were not particularly enthusiastic leading up to it. They could not have been more wrong! As we parked up and walked up the narrow path towards the canyon, the trees suddenly opened up, and there it was. As the cliché goes, it took my breath away. It was like looking at a painting, it just didn’t seem real due to the enormity of it. We were effectively staring into one big hole, where in many places you couldn’t see the bottom. We walked around the rim for a good while, bumping into all sorts of people — even British honeymooners doing Route 66. If your budget so allows, you can even take a helicopter ride over the canyon away from the visitor sites and experience the views from above. Some of our group members did this, and their reviews were all highly positive. However, strolling around on foot was just as incredible, I feel. Many a photograph and selfie were taken, but photos don’t do it justice. Some brave souls climbed down to remote ledges, but I enjoyed watching in a meditative state with my companion. This place has a wonderful sense of peace about it despite the number of visitors. I would go back in a heartbeat.
3. Monument valley
Of all the sights were had been promised on this road trip, this was the one I was looking forward to most, and it did not disappoint. Our guide for the day, a Navajo Native American, made the experience all the better. His calm but detailed descriptions of each individual rock, coupled by the landscape itself made for an unforgettable drive. We were able to stop off at different points to take the perfect tourist shot, and also buy gifts from more Navajo peoples. To top it all off, there was even a little boy dressed as a cowboy, posed on top of a beautifully well-behaved horse on the edge of a cliff. It was an epic sight to behold. This is a must-visit; just like being in the movies. Big John’s BBQ made the evening even more surreal. They had beef brisket, bbq ribs, line dancing and even a live country band in the back of a wagon. When ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ came on, we knew we were in for a good night.
4. Mammoth Mountain
After enduring the scorching temperatures in Death Valley and Las Vegas for the past three days, our arrival to Mammoth Lakes ski resort felt like we had driven all the way up to Alaska! Of course, as it was not yet winter, the resort was shut for skiing as there was no snow, but the hills were perfect for hiking. We woke up early to have breakfast at the peak of one of the mountains, taking a gondola up with our guide. The view from the top was of course fantastic. We could even see the wild fires that had been stalking our journey out in the distance. With 360 degree views, I would highly recommend this short trip up the mountain. The only downside to this short stay were the prices of the local — or should I say half-an-hour-away — shops. Seeing as the food items were so expensive at said shops and in the hotel, our surrogate family for the week invited my companion and I over to their fully-fledged apartment, complete with a kitchenette (as we were the youngest members of the group travelling on our own, we were taken under the wing of a wonderful Welsh family who made our experience all the more exceptional). Cooking pizzas twice the size of your average 9.5” pizza was no easy task in the cute little microwave provided, but it felt like a feast of champions once around the dinner table. A few beers and games of cards later, and we were all ready for bed. It was a cracking day.
After leaving Mammoth Lakes, we continued to climb in altitude until we reached Yosemite. We stopped off at a number of lakes whilst in the park, showcasing how massive it is as a reserve. I had been fantasising about this part of our journey, and was terribly excited. ‘Half Dome’ (literally half a dome of rock) stuck out in the distance from miles away. It was a truly beautiful sight to behold. After admiring many a view, we set out on a climb up to ‘Columbia Rock’. We were assured that this wasn’t a hard climb…famous last words.
It started off very well, our group of 10 having a jolly good chatter and meeting lots of interesting people along the way. However, it became more and more apparent to me that I was struggling with my breathing. After a good few minutes, I started to panic. We were hardly equipped for a trek, wearing simple trainers and denim shorts and t-shirts (I hold that we were misinformed on the day’s activities), which didn’t help. However, sure enough I really could not find my breath, and started to feel quite ill. Unable to get any words out, I pointed downwards and made a bit of a run for it to a lower altitude. Within minutes I felt so much better, but not before being ‘rescued’ by Brandon, one of the kindest strangers I have ever met. A seasoned climber himself, he escorted me all the way to the bottom with a couple of my companions. I shall never forget his first words to me, “Don’t worry, I’m a doctor.” Naturally, most people would feel comforted by such words, so I put my trust in him as we walked down (later on he admitted he was actually a dentist). As we reached the bottom, I reflected on the thrilling experience I had just shared. A celebratory selfie was taken with Brandon, and then we parted ways. Whilst I can’t promise that everyone else’s experience of Yosemite will be the same as mine, I would still highly advocate that anyone who comes here soaks in its beauty.
I hope these words will inspire the intrepid explorers among you to visit the West Coast, as I am certain you would be hooked as much as I am. It was difficult to narrow down my highlights, as there were so many to choose from, and no doubt your journeys would differ to mine in their own positive ways. Part 2 of many more incredible highlights will follow shortly!