This post follows the route I took. There are two parts. The first two weeks I was travelling alone by train from Chicago to LA, stopping off in a number of places along the route. The second part is a four week roadtrip up Route 1 with Elena. We hired a car and drove up from LA to Seattle.
Before I get into the trip, I have discussed:
- Things to do before you leave.
- Money related advice
We then get into my AMTRAK route and some car hiring advice, as I also hired a car for a mini roadtrip from Phoenix to Flagstaff.
The first decision you're going to have to make is about what kind of bag to take. It sounds stupid, but it's important. After much discussion I ended up going for the classic rucksack approach - both because they are super useful if you've got to walk any distance, and just because it makes you feel like a bit of an explorer... As someone who is a tad disorganised at times, and who had booked places to stay without necessarily thinking about how far I'd have to walk to get there, I did not regret this choice at all.
This is the big one. I had been working in a restaurant for about 5 months before I was due to leave and so had accrued a pot of dosh for the trip. I ended up transferring most of it to my family so that if I lost my wallet or something then the whole pot was not at risk; this is especially important in the US as they haven't quite evolved to use chip and pin yet. I'm sure they'll get there though.
I got the Lloyds Avios Rewards Credit Card. This is great for two reasons: firstly, although it costs £24 a year, it has no transaction fees when you're spending abroad. They do offer a free card but this has fees and so by the time you've put about £800 on it, you might as well have spent the money on the Avios card. Secondly, you get loads of Avios points. I've become a little bit addicted to collecting them. You probs will too.
The other card I would suggest you get is the Caxton Card. Full credit must go to Jack for suggesting this. It's basically a pre-paid card which you can load up with money and use like a debit card, only there are no transaction fees, nor are there any fees for withdrawing cash from an ATM (you can't do that with a credit card). There's an app which lets you load it up with money on the go; it's not a thing of beauty, but it does the job.
You can load the card up with lots of different currencies, or if you are not that fussed about the currency and it does not look like there is a Brexit-style event coming up to hamper your particular currency, you can just load it with your local currency and it converts at the point of sale.
I took some cash too and split it up so that if I lost my main wallet I would not be without some cash.
Other suggestions -
- Photocopy both sides of your cards and leave a copy at home so you can cancel them if they are stolen/lost.
- Put the card support numbers in your contacts and in an email as back up.
I flew out to Chicago and this is where I got my first train. Before I discuss the train, I shall quickly offer some ideas about the so-called 'windy city'.
Chicago (3 nights)
Accommodation: I was staying with some family friends in Chicago in an area called Forest Park. This is quite a long way out from the centre of town and it took about 40 minutes to get in. However, the area felt safe and a nice street with some great little eateries. If you are not sure about somewhere, TripAdvisor it. By and large, it does not get it wrong.
Transport: Buy a Ventra pass. They have machines for dispensing them. Not something we have in the UK so caught me a bit by surprise.
Things to do:
- The Hancock Building. It's a big building with great views. There is a bar at the top called "The Signature Lounge" and if you go up and have a drink you get all the views without having to pay for the 360 Chicago Observation Deck.
- Chicago Cultural Institute - near the bean thing. Cool building and free. Not one to spend hours at though.
- Chicago Art Institute - completely enormous. Historically I have not been a massive fan of art galleries but I genuinely enjoyed this one. It takes a while to go around and costs a bit but I thought it was great.
- The Navy Pier - lots of people make a lot of noise about this pier but I honestly did not think it was that great. It's a pier with some shops on it. That's about it. The best bit is at the end where you can look back over the city and out to sea. Free to walk on.
- Jazz Showcase - evening thing. Great! Very friendly people and great jazz. I bought a ticket on the door but you may be able to do it in advance. Prices depend on who you are seeing. There is a Lou Malnati's around the corner; these guys do a pretty funky deep dish pizza. Not going to lie, I think I'm more of a standard pizza kind of guy but you've got to try it.
- The Science Institute - this is a bit harder to get to but it is possible. Check the transport maps to find the route. I enjoyed this one. It is very big and had a good exhibition on space.
Places to eat:
- Francesca's Fiore in Forest Park - I really enjoyed this place. Good food, nice waiters. Go if you are there. Better than Scratch Kitchen (below).
- Intelligentsia Coffee - an edgy cafe near the bean.
- Scratch Kitchen and Lounge, Forest Park - edgy. Good burgers. Film nights too.
This is totally brilliant. The journey took 25 hours and it was spectacular. I booked myself into a Sleeper Cabin, which cost a bit more but I would definitely advise it if you are doing a journey this long. The price of the ticket includes all your meals, you get wifi (although patchy) and you have your own space on the train.
The train has a rather spectacular observation carriage with windows all around it and it has a dining car for the food. The meal times are a fab time to meet people because they sit everyone together. I was travelling alone and so I ended up sitting with all sorts of people.
Accommodation: I stayed in an Airbnb near to the Old Town bit of the city. This is a bit of a walk from the train station but I would say the Old Town is the most interesting bit of Albuquerque.
Transport: walk most places. There isn't really any public transport.
Things to do:
- Sandia Peak - this is a huge gondola thing up a mountain. About 10,000 feet tall. It provided great views all around. It was much colder and windier at the top than at ground level (should have probably realised this before I went up in flip flops and a T-shirt. Hey ho.) The only issue you'll have is getting there - it is definitely NOT a walk from Old Town. I booked an Uber there and that worked great. However, when I tried to come back I discovered that there was no wifi in the building so could not hail one back. As such I started walking back. This was a terrible idea. It's a big place and quite hot. Eventually I found a McDonald's (all about that free wifi) and got an Uber from there. If you were doing this, I would look up where the nearest place with wifi is before you go.
- Old Town - this is the 'hub' (but be warned it is small). There is a nice gallery called Weem's Gallery which a lovely lady called Susie told me about on the train. The gallery is run by a lady called Mary Anne; I did not get to meet her, but that could be a challenge..!
- There is also a pretty church and square in Old Town.
- Just on the outskirts of the Old Town bit there is the Albuquerque Museum. This was great and to be honest was far more interesting and informative that I thought it would be.
Places to eat:
- High Noon - in Old Town. Looks a bit dodgy from the outside but inside is cool with a big dining area that you would never know about just looking at the building. Met some lovely locals in there. Enjoyed the Marble Brewery beer.
- The Golden Crown Panaderia - was right at the end of the street I was staying on and is basically a bakery. They have a "blue corn crust pizza" which is apparently their speciality. Was pretty solid. Worth a try. Also they do Oatmeal Stout which I enjoyed. They also give you a free biscuit thing with your order. It's quite crumbly but free sooooo.....
- Gold Street Cafe - this was probably my favourite find in Albuquerque. The waiter, Jose, had been in Breaking Bad and was so much fun. They did a mean Southwest Eggs Benedict. A bit spicy and completely delish.
For this leg of the journey I was in an ordinary seat on the train. I'm fairly tall and still had plenty of leg room. The journey is a few hours; it is not worth doing a sleeper seat for this distance.
When I booked my train to Gallup I was certain that a good friend had said he had been there with his family. So I kind of assumed there was lots to do. How wrong I was. It's a tiny town along Route 66 and I was there on a Sunday and as such pretty much everything was closed.
Having said this, I was staying in an Airbnb run by Jenny and her husband, Chuck. They were both completely lovely and super kind and helpful. This is their place: here. I recommend it, especially the top floor apartment.
Transport: a car would be great here but if you are doing the train, as I was, there is not much point getting a car for such a short period. It's small so you can definitely walk everywhere.
Things to do:
- There is a mural trail around town. There is a bit about the Navajo Code Talkers. This is actually very interesting; the Navajo language was used in WW2 as a code incredibly successfully.
- El Morro Theatre - when I was there they had a cuban band called the Septeto Nacional playing! They were fantastic.
- For some reason the Flea Market is rated highly on TripAdvisor but in reality it is terrible. Poke your head in if desperate for things to do.
- Church Rock - this is actually outside of Gallup but you can see it on the way in on the train coming from the east.
Places to eat:
- Jerry's Cafe - traditional mexican fare. Very much dominated by locals, which is great. Don't serve any booze but do nice iced teas. Had a great "Sopapilla" - like a fried bread donut thing with honey!
- Sammy C's Rock N' Sports Pub & Grille - went here for a drink and watched some sports with some chaps at the bar. Not great, but about as good as Gallup has in the evenings.
- Angela's Cafe at the station - Chuck suggested this and they did a mean pastrami sandwich. Would recommend!
I absolutely loved Flagstaff. It's small but still feels like there is stuff to do. I was staying in another Airbnb and was with a rad lady called Iris!
After arriving late on the first night I went to the Grand Canyon the following day. I was on a small guided tour (three of us in total, excluding one guide, Matt. I was on this tour and paid £112 for the whole day. It included everything, including food (only extra is a tip for your guide - they're great though, you won't mind at all). The tour info: here.
Places to eat:
- Mother Road Brewing Company - this is an absolute must; had such a fantastic evening here. I'd first heard about it from my Uber driver in Albuquerque; he had taken Michael Marquess, the founder and CEO, on a trip and Michael had given his business card to my driver. I duly went along. They have teamed up with the restaurant next door and offer nice pizzas as well as fab beers. I then met Erik at the bar and he invited me over to chat with Cindy and Adam. They were just the most amazing people. We talked music, the reservation and life in general. One of my favourite evenings of the whole trip!
- After Mother Road closed we headed over to Altitudes Bar and Grill where we tried a local beer, 928. Fab.
After two nights in Flagstaff, I got the Greyhound down to see an old school friend, Tommy, who is studying in Tempe, Phoenix. Tommy has the most awesome Dodge Ram, which is more like a small bus than a car...!
I had heard terrible things about the Greyhound. It's super cheap and there is a reason for this. To be honest, unless you are really scraping by on a budget, I would avoid it in general. Having said this, if you were doing it in the middle of the day from one fairly obscure place to another then it was absolutely fine. Not sure what it would be like coming out of somewhere like Chicago though.
Things to do in Tempe:
- Papago Park - there is a rock with a hole in it.
- Was not hugely cultural... It is a student town. Fab bars.
Places to eat/drink:
- El Hefe - solid chicken wings and pitchers.
- Postino - beers
I used RentalCars.com to hire a car. This worked brilliantly. They have a great app and everything. Plus, you can compare prices and different pick up locations.
- If you are under 25 then they will try and charge you an extra young driver fee. This can be as much as $25 a day. When Elena and I booked our car from LA to Seattle we found a deal with Alamo that did not have this charge. For this rental I could not find one without the charge but since I was only hiring the car for a few days it did not really matter too much.
- Check the car for scratches/dents/computer faults when you pick it up. The first car I selected in the garage had a maintenance warning when you turned it on. I am not about that so changed cars.
- Photograph any dents on the car at the pick up so you can prove you did not cause them! Also photograph how many miles it starts off with on the clock.
- Check the fuel policy - I went for a full-to-full policy both times. Just make sure you fill it up before you drop it off. They may end up offering you a pay in advance full to full policy where you lock in the petrol price at the pick up. I did not go for this in Phoenix as petrol is dirt cheap, however, if you were dropping it off on the west coast and could pay Phoenix prices then that might be worth it... you'd have to have a bit of a think.
- Do you need GPS with the car? No! I discovered that Google Maps can track your GPS even when offline. So the trick is to search for your route on the app over wifi before you leave. Then keep the app and route open and you can map read/follow the blue dot on your journey. This will save you a daily fee for sat nav.
Wickenburg (1 night)
I personally did not rate Wickenburg. The only reason I had gone there was because my Lonely Planet guide said that there was a great road trip between Wickenburg and Sedona. This was absolutely true. However, it was a bit of a dead town to be honest - felt like it was a set off a western. But frankly, I'd rather just watch the western.
Having said this, to try and drive from Phoenix, along the roadtrip route to Sedona in one day would have been a bit of a nightmare, especially if you are new to driving on the right (read, wrong) side of the road.
This was a completely fantastic drive. I got up early to avoid the traffic, get out of Wickenburg and enjoy a bit of morning sunshine.
The route follows Highway 89A and takes you through some amazing mountainous areas. You should definitely stop off in Jerome; this is a small town clinging to the side of the hill. It's a bit of a tourist trap but there's plenty of parking. I went to Mile High Grill and Inn for a spot of breakfast and a coffee. They did a really great granola with plenty of fresh fruit. Thoroughly recommend.
You should also drop in to Zen Mountain Gallery which is run by Christopher Mull. He takes close up photographs of all sorts of different things and they become abstract art in and of themselves. He was great to chat to and the photography was superb.
Sedona (1 night)
When you research Sedona you will see that it is split into two areas. There is accommodation to the East and to the West. As a general rule it seems that the eastern side is more touristy and the western side is where the locals live. I stayed somewhere called the Andante Inn. This is in the west side. It was a perfectly nice, clean hotel. The lady on the reception was very nice and suggested some good places to eat.
Things to do:
- Chapel of the Holy Cross - this is something that turns up on lots of review sites and so I thought I better head along. It was unbelievably busy. Like. Totally nuts. Parking was a nightmare. However, it is free to go in. To be brutally honest it is just a bit of a weirdly designed church right in the rock.
- Helicopter Ride - I was very lucky to have this as a present. Absolutely amazing! Booked it for sunset to get the red rocks. Cannot recommend highly enough. Went with Guidance Air. They were great. The only thing you have to be aware of is that they have to have a minimum of two passengers to fly so if you are on your own they must find another guest to do the trip. Fortunately they had enough bookings for my trip.
- The Barking Frog - it sounds bonkers but it was a place suggested to me by the lady on reception at my hotel, The Andante Inn. I had a very enjoyable meal there; the food was fine but the service was excellent. It is not haute cuisine but perfectly good.
Back up to Flagstaff
I was only in Sedona for one night (and to be honest that was enough for me to see everything I wanted to given my budget). I then drove back up to Flagstaff Airport, which is just outside of town.
If you are driving that way, you should stop off for a look over Oak Creek Vista. There's a pretty good view up there.
I dropped the car off and got a taxi in to the station. There is a taxi company called "A Friendly Cab" and I had a great driver called Warren, who was great to chat to. You can google their number or they tend to have someone outside the airport I think.
A bonus night in Flagstaff...
I was supposed to be leaving Flagstaff that evening on the train but there was a snowstorm somewhere to the east and it kept on getting delayed. In the end it was 17 hours late and I had to spend an extra night in Flagstaff. I would really recommend downloading the Amtrak app for this kind of thing as you can check the status of the train in there and it was updated regularly.
As such, I ended up staying somewhere called the "Grand Canyon International Hostel". It was wonderful. The chap on the front desk was awesome, the rooms were cheap, the showers are powerful and the whole place was clean. Stay there.
LA to Seattle - The Roadtrip
We were staying with an old friend, Maisie, who is completely fab. She lives in Burbank and is an actress!
Things to do in LA (3 nights, two full days)
First off, it is important to say LA is NOT as terrible as everyone makes it out to be. It is a sprawling mass of city. But there is lots to do. I think the trick we found was to not try to do too much and to ditch the car asap. We did do one day of driving around and it was great to do but we found it quite difficult with the weird traffic light rules and the hunt for (cheap) parking. As such on our second day there, we used the metro. This was great as it meant we had a bit less to worry about. Having said this, it does not go everywhere you want and feels a bit dodgier than something like the tube in London.
- Griffith Observatory - OK, we'd both seen La La Land and thought this place would be huge. It's not. It's actually quite small. But it is a good spot for a picture of the Hollywood sign and there is a museum inside which was pretty interesting. There are slightly weird opening times though so you should check that before you go.
- LACMA - good but felt a bit soulless to be honest. We were not massive fans. But may have been hungry as lots of others really like it. Not terrible, not the best. Meh. There were some cool lamps.
- The Getty - beautiful. This was really good! You get to go on a private monorail up to it. Feels quite exciting.
- California Science Centre - the space shuttle!! I had a strange desire to see this, much to Elena's chagrin. However, it was superb; love to think that it's been up there. Funky stuff.
- Santa Monica Pier - just to note, we did the Space Shuttle on the way to the pier. The pier is free to walk on but you can pay to go on one of the rides, which is not expensive and great fun.
- Little Tokyo - there are lots of "little .....'s" all over LA so just have a look around and find something that interests you. We ended up perching in a sushi bar with one of those conveyor belts with all the food in it (think Johnny English, and if that reference is lost on you, stop reading this and go watch the film). Other than that, not an enormous amount to see there.
- Grand Central Market - super edgy foodie place. Saw, but did not stand in, the queue for "Eggslut"... no idea if it's good but there was a line about a mile long for whatever they had.
Places to eat:
- Bob's Big Boy - sounds vaguely rude but actually a great little diner which Maisie took us to. Was a top shout.
- Jinya Ramen Bar, Burbank - good food and you can sit outside.
- Kula Revolving Sushi Bar, Little Tokyo - really good for a snack or go completely wild. Might end up being expensive but would be worth it.
- The Trails Cafe, by the Griffith Observatory - edgy little outside cafe with good sandwiches and coffee.
So this was our first day of Highway 1. Very exciting. It takes you basically the whole way to Seattle (so even we could not get too lost). I had heard that the cafe on Malibu Pier was meant to be great so we stopped there for lunch. Have to say was a bit disappointed with it; still I think I might have chosen badly (went for a veggie sandwich as was yearning something green) so would not discount it totally. You can get a seat out on the pier itself but if it is windy you'll get a face-full of breeze.
Things to do:
- Borrow bikes and cycle down the bike path on the beach and head along the pier (not a lot there but fun to go over to).
- Cycle over to the main bit of town away from the beach. Lots of nice looking cafes there.
- We went to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum which had a load of saddles in it... not the best museum ever, but free and gave good background to the area. Elena lost her phone here for half an hour. Terribly exciting.
- Santa Barbara Courthouse - has a tower you can climb. Enjoyed this one, although was a bit touristy.
Places to eat:
- You absolutely HAVE to eat at "Toma Restaurant". We had a fantastic evening here. Probs one of my favourite meals of the whole trip.
We left Santa Barbara after visiting the courthouse and drove up to Morro Bay, where we were camping in the Morro Bay State Park. We took some of the back roads around the area before Pismo Beach and saw this beauty (below). Come on America, sort yourself out.
What to do in Morro Bay (1 night):
- There's not an awful lot to do.
- There is a rock you can drive around to and it is very pretty. You can't miss the rock. It's huge.
- Look at the wildlife (see pics below). We saw the otters by the rock.
- Have an epic picnic (see the food section below).
- We had a completely epic picnic in Morro Bay. There's a restaurant in the town called Giovanni's Fish Market where you can get take out food, including some rather splendid garlic fries. We did not know what to get so we just asked them for whatever they did best. It worked. We then drove around the corner towards the campsite, stopped in a lay-by right on the sea and ate our grub sitting in the boot of the car. Absolutely fab.
- Bayside Cafe - we were camping in Morro Bay State Park and this place was opposite the entrance. We got pretty cold that first night due to poor preparation but this place saved us with tea and a rather splendid mud pie.
Driving up to King City: Hearst Castle and a detour...
So this year there was bad weather and Hwy 1 had collapsed/been washed away along the bit between San Simeon and Carmel. This is the classic "Big Sur" part of the route and it was a bit of shame. However, having discovered this little problem some time before we left we were able to plan a slightly different route.
Our alternate route took us inland to a place called King City and to another place called Carmel Valley (note, this is different to Carmel).
Before we discuss King City's virtues (or lack thereof), I'll quickly pass on our route along the coast from Morro Bay. We left fairly early and stopped in Cambria for a coffee at the aptly named Cambria Coffee Roasting Company. They do fab cinnamon rolls too. Cambria is basically a good stopping spot and is a little way off Route 1; keep your eyes peeled for signs. You can drive through the village and get back on the highway a little further in (so it is a loop).
We stopped at Hearst Castle. You have to do a tour here and they only leave at certain times so it would definitely be worth looking up what time they start and getting there just before it starts as we turned up and discovered we had to wait for about 45 mins for it. Not a disaster but a bit of organisation would not go amiss.
It's a pretty cool place; a kind of cross between a castle and a palatial house perched on the top of the rolling hills by the coast. You are driven up an amazing hair-pin drive all the way to the top. Not going to lie, was not a massive fan of the designs inside - felt more like a castle (dark) than a funky house but pretty cool. Feel like you could definitely have Gatsby style party up there.
After doing the tour we drove up Route 1 as far as we could as we were determined to do as much of it as we possible could. The road is literally closed so don't think you can get around it. You cannot. However, there is a coffee shop at the end (Ragged Point) so you can get your caffeine fix.
There is also a place to get out and look at Sea Lions (see exhibit A below).
We were heading for Carmel Valley, which I was quite excited about as I had heard there are good wines up there. This turned out to be true! We turned off the 101 and cut through along some lovely little roads.
We really liked Carmel Valley; the drive to it was great too (the photos above). It is quite small and there is basically nothing to actually see or do except wine tastings. However, that is no bad thing sometimes. We were staying somewhere called the Contenta Inn. This was very good indeed. The room was huge, clean and there was a pool. Winning. We were there on a Sunday and so it was nice and quiet - the chap on the desk said that lots of people come out to Carmel Valley on Friday/Saturdays so if you fancy having the place to yourself, go on Sunday or mid week.
Things to do:
- Boekenoogen Wine Tasting - there are lots of places to do tastings in town but this is the one we did. It was not expensive and there was a very helpful lady who talked us through everything.
- Swim at Contenta Inn
Places to eat:
- Cafe Rustica - this was pretty solid. You get huge portions and great service. They also do a good salad for lunch.
Carmel (1 night)
It takes about 30 mins to get to Carmel from Carmel Valley. Carmel is right on the sea and is very nice, if a bit chi chi. We got there before our room was ready so we drove south along the coast as far as we could before the road closed.
There was a lay-by (marked on map below) where we parked and then climbed down to have a picnic by the river. It was fantastic. This was just before the end of the open road.
Things to do:
- Walk around town. Elena took me to find the Forest Theatre.
- Marvel at the weird houses which all look like something out of a fairy tale.
- Look along Ocean Avenue; shops and at the bottom of the road there is a nice beach you can sit on.
Places to eat:
- Anton and Michel - great restaurant; top food. One for a special meal.
- Check here for discounts around town.
We left Carmel and drove along the 17 Mile Drive around to Monterey - this costs I think $10 but it's a great little drive and there are some amazing houses to look at. Quite inspiring really.
As mentioned above, we were staying with Elena's relations. This was great! To be perfectly honest San Jose is not famed for its tourist scene but we still went to explore. We got there fairly late in the afternoon so we were essentially in San Jose for one full day. It was great to see Elena's family but if you do not have this advantage it might be worth investigating somewhere else to stay.
Things to do:
- Santana Row - lots of shopping. There is a Tesla car shop! Very exciting!
- I had a hair cut at some slightly dubious place Elena found online....
- History of San Jose in Kelley Park - very quiet place with some old houses. You can park for free on Phelan Drive. Wouldn't pay for it. There was quite an interesting museum about the Vietnam War. It's very small.
Places to eat:
- Smitten Ice Cream near Santana Row
Driving to Yosemite (3 nights)
Full credit to Elena for suggesting Yosemite as a place to visit. It's a bit of a drive in from San Jose and San Francisco but it is absolutely totally worth the drive. Just the most amazing place.
We were staying in an unheated pre-assembled tent in Half Dome Village. This had a number of benefits and a few disadvantages. The tent was definitely cold. And this was in the second week of May. You can, however, get free extra blankets. Do this. Bring a wooly hat, it will enhance your life. Having said this, Half Dome Village was a great place to be staying as it is right in the centre of things and there are a few places to get food at reasonable prices; other places in the valley are further away and you'd need to get a (free) bus into the village for your supper. Not about that. When I'm hungry, I'm hungry.
The major disadvantage to the camping situation in Half Dome Village are the showers. They are pretty nasty; I don't think they've been redone for about 20 years. This is frustrating because the tents are not cheap so you do wonder where the money is going... sort it out Yosemite.
HOWEVER, the slightly dodgy showers should in no way detract from how brilliant Yosemite actually is. There are a number of walks (or as Americans call them, hikes) you can do and you can google the routes (or click here). They have ratings and difficulty levels.
Things to do: walk
We arrived late afternoon on our first day and walked up to Mirror Lake which was a nice easy route. You can walk all the way around but that is quite far so we ended up walking up and back down.
The second day we walked up Yosemite Falls. There is a very easy hike called Lower Yosemite Falls which takes you to the bottom of the whole thing and there is one called Upper Yosemite Falls, which, you've guessed it, take you to the top. We did both!
This is something of a monster walk and should probably only be attempted if you are really quite keen. It's the highest waterfall (counting all three drops) in North America and the fifth highest one in the world. Funky. Now, to be completely honest we were probably a bit underprepared for this. You should really having hiking shoes etc but I just had trainers. This was fine but you should be careful. There are a few things you should definitely carry on a long walk like this:
- Water. Lots of it. I think I was carrying about 2.5 litres but carry as much as you can comfortably (wrap bottles in jumpers in your backpack so it does not poke into your back)
- A zip up coat so you can undo it a bit to let some air in as you'll get hot
- A jumper
- A hat (ideally, wooly and sun)
- A spare pair of socks
- Wear long trousers, it's cold at the top
- Carry a back pack with some snacks in it
- Bring a phone
The view at the top was amazing though! You can actually walk all the way over to the top of the waterfall; it's insane!
Where to eat and avoiding bears:
The very nature of Yosemite means that there really are not very many places to eat. There is a pizza place, a buffet style canteen and a burger place. There is also a small grocery store which also sells walking gear.
I think the pizzas were pretty good and not too outrageously expensive. The canteen was also good and to be honest we did not go to the burger place as it seemed to close early.
Now. The elephant, or rather, bear, in the room.
When you arrive to sign in you are greeted by a reception desk with a TV playing videos of bears breaking into cars on repeat. When I say breaking in, I mean ripping the doors off and bundling in. Understandably, as a bloke who is more used to a fat black cat than a hungry black bear, this initially put me off somewhat. I became Bear-proof Grylls and set about emptying the car of anything that a bear might think of as food.
This includes toothpaste, deodorant, food (even if it is in wrappers). Anything overtly colourful. You name it, it came out. You then have to put this in the special containers provided. You'll want a padlock to lock it up (keeps people out).
This worked out well and I can confirm that all parties survived the trip. Just be bear aware. Elena thinks I went a bit overboard on it all...but hey ho. Better to be save than sorry.
So after nailing Yosemite, we drove over to San Francisco. We went out using the 120 as this was different to the way we had come in. It's very beautiful up that way and you can see the whole of the valley.
We then came into San Francisco over the Oakland Bay Bridge - be aware this is a toll bridge so make sure you have some dosh around to pay. Also be patient, the traffic is slow but it moves.
A note about accommodation: we had initially planned on staying in a highly rated, but cheap hostel in the Tenderloin area. However, we were advised that there is a serious homelessness problem in that part of town and one review even suggested that they would not leave after 4pm unless in a large group for fear of being mugged. Also, the hostel did not have parking, which was a bit of an issue for us. As such we changed to the Nob Hill Motor Inn. This was pretty good; in a good position with FREE PARKING included, close to the bay and on a good street with nice cafes. The major problem with it is that they had a terrible breakfast. Most of the places we were staying had things like cereal, fruit, yoghurt, and even waffles (shout out to the Contenta Inn, Carmel Valley). The Nob Hill Motor Inn, however, had donuts. And that was basically it.
Now I am not normally a man to shun a good donut (and they were good donuts), but it really is not what I would think of as a good start to the day. It does not fill you up. It really cannot be cheaper to do donuts than a bit of cereal. Please. Sort it out. Other than that, it's a great place to stay.
Things to do:
- Buy a MUNI Passport. This gives you travel. It activates when you scratch the day out, so you can buy it in the whenever and not use it until you need it, then the day limit starts.
- Cycle around the bay and across the Golden Gate Bridge. We went to Sausalito and then all the way around to Tiburon. Tiburon was quite a bit further. The company we used was called Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals. They were good. When you come to pay may sure you get their most basic one as they might try to upgrade you to the one up, which you will not have asked for. The lady tried this with us. Not having that. The bikes come with maps etc. A must do. You can get the ferry back too; Blazing Saddles give you tickets and if you don't use them, you do not pay for them.
- Alcatraz - we did NOT do this. We did see the island from the ferry but we were not that fussed about seeing a prison. I aim to avoid them in general.
- Coit Tower - lots of paintings and can climb it (for a fee). We had a bit of a foggy day which was not ideal.
- Pier 39. I thought this was a real dive but Elena liked it. It's like a shopping centre on a pier. That's it. Yay. Skip.
- Lombard Street - an oasis of curves in an otherwise unending chocolate bar of blocks.
- Go to a baseball game at the AT&T park - we saw the LA Dodgers v The Giants. Superb! Beers expensive. Hot dogs great! Try a Corn Dog - it's a sausage on a stick but somehow more.
- Missi0n District
- Golden Gate Park and the De Young Museum - had a hippie exhibition when were there.
- Go on a Cable Car.
- Cable Car Museum - I thought this was really interesting. It is free. You have no excuse.
- Balmy Street - for street art.
- Painted Ladies - completely overrated. I'll put a picture below to save you the trouble.
- Amelie, Nob Hill - an absolute must if you like wine. They do some food but we just drank there.
- Bob's Donuts - probably the best donuts ever. Looks dodgy but the donuts are just amazing. Have the maple bar one (fresh from the oven). Insane and cheap.
- Fish and Chips of Sausalito - that's what it's called. 817 Bridgeway. Great and you can park your bikes nearby for free.
- Mission Beach Cafe - great coffee and Eggs Benedict.
- Glaze Teriyaki, Fillmore - this is small, edgy and not really a proper sit down restaurant but was one of my favourite eats in San Francisco. You should definitely try it.
After our stay in San Francisco we drove up to Napa Valley. We drove across the Golden Gate and then on up to Sonoma and then Napa itself. I had heard big things about Sonoma but to be honest it seemed a bit dead when we got there. We stopped and wandered around the town but the highlight was the cheese shop where we sampled lots of funky cheeses. I think that there may have been more vineyards further north but we did not see them so cannot form a judgement.
Sonoma town is worth dropping into as it is en-route but Napa has more going for it.
The weather was seriously hot here. Caught me by surprise after the cool of the sea in San Francisco. Makes walking around a bit dodgy if you are english and completely useless in anything other than cold rain.
A few misconceptions...
Napa is one of those places we have all heard of. Napa Valley. The home of wine, right? Well it is, but there is a difference between Napa Valley and Napa itself. I had booked an Airbnb on the outskirts of Napa itself and thought this would be kind of surrounded by vineyards. However, you do have to be careful because Napa Valley is, unsurprisingly, a valley. And Napa (town) is right at the south end of the valley. So if you stay there, you are in a town and not in amongst the vines. A bit of research would have made this clear but I just went for it. It is not a disaster as Napa is great but if you are expecting vines, you'll be disappointed if you are actually staying in Napa itself. Just sayin'.
We were staying with Valerina in her Airbnb. She was absolutely lovely, only thing against the place is that it is a bit of a walk into town. Still, if budget conscious this is definitely worth a look.
Things to do and Places to Eat:
- Wine. As mentioned above, we were staying on the outskirts of town and so we could not drive up to the vineyards and do some wine tastings (not about drinking and driving). However, fear not! Back Room Wines on the bridge heading to the Oxbow Market did a nice little flight to try with a lovely gentleman who told us all about it. Apparently Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon is the stuff to go for.
- Uncorked at Oxbow - this place was fantastic. They do live music and a range of wines. They do open mic nights on Thursdays; brilliant! Don't do food so a place to go after dinner.
- Oxbow Market - this is a covered market with all sorts of edgy places in it. Can get food here.
- Drive up and around the vineyards. You can drop in and have a look around without having a drink. V Sattui had a cool shop to drop in on. If you were organised and have the funds, you can get a cab to take you around and you can book yourself onto a tasting. In terms of driving around, the trick is to just choose one and go in as they are all just off the main road and you do not get a second shot at them - once you drive by, it's gone. You can also do a nice loop up the St Helena Hwy and back down along the (prettier, but emptier) Silverado Trail.
- Allegria - a great italian place.
- Zuzu Tapas - the food was good here but there was not a lot of it and it was quite expensive to be honest. Good service though. We preferred Allegria.
- Gott's Roadside - an upmarket diner, not too expensive and was always busy.
Instead of driving along the coast we went slightly inland along Interstate 5 up to Mount Shasta. We stopped at the Sundial Bridge in Redding. This is pretty cool but just a quick stop. Was insanely hot here too.
Things to do:
By the time we had driven all the way from Napa (about 250 miles) we did not really have too much time. There is not an awful lot to do though, so was fine.
- Lake Siskiyou - we swam! It was utterly utterly freezing but completely awesome.
The entrance is marked on the map below:
- We were only here for one night and we ate at the mexican place next to the hotel because they had a deal with the hotel and so it was cheaper. We had a great evening there but the following day we both felt a bit dodge... Not sure I can recommend despite a fun night.
Heceta Beach is right on the coast and further north of Shasta. It was simply beautiful. The hotel was right on the beach and every room has a sea view. The hotel is called Driftwood Shores. It must be said that there really is nothing to do in Florence (the nearest town) and the hotel is a bit tired but the view makes up for everything.
We drove up from Shasta in the morning, stopping for a coffee in Ashland at a place called Stone Ridge Coffee; it does not really appear on google but if you search for The Growler Guys they share the same place.
It was incredibly windy at Heceta Beach:
- There are not really any places to eat.
- Having said that, we had a completely fantastic picnic on the balcony in our room. We got some food from a local supermarket and I ordered room service and then we just sat and watched a fab sunset. Hard to beat.
The stretch of coast up to Portland from Florence is spectacular. Arguably better than the Big Sur bit. We stopped off at the Sea Lion Caves. We had a bit of a debate over whether it was worth the money but I think it was. You go down an elevator into 'America's largest sea cave'. Pretty cool.
We got to Portland in late afternoon and immediately we were hit by just how edgy the city is. If you are male and without a finely sculpted beard and a fixie bike then I am not sure you fully qualify as a resident. There are an abundance of cafes serving every type of coffee under the sun. You should stop off at Stumptown Coffee for a taste of mainstream-hipster coffee. Nitro coffee is a big thing (but you know that already). I tried something called Cascara which is 'coffee cherry tea' - it is horrible. Try at your peril.
Accommodation: we were staying in the Northwest Portland HI Hostel. It was wonderful. Definitely a good place to stay. They had a cafe and bar onsite, as well as cheap parking permits. One night they were doing $2 beers in big jam jars. Cannot complain.
Things to do:
- Living Room Theatres, Luxury Cinema - we thought we would have a nice evening at the cinema and so tried going here. It has a great bar and plenty of food to order; they bring the food to your seat! We were unlucky to have a powercut just as the film was starting! Tragic! It was cancelled and they refunded our tickets. Would 100% go back though.
- Portland Aerial Tram - this is basically for the ride as it actually goes up to a hospital (so somewhere to ideally avoid). However, there are good views at the top.
- Wander around the Tom McCall Waterfront Park - it is a nice walk around.
- International Rose Test Garden - was not in bloom so not that great in my humble opinion. Elena enjoyed it though I think.
Places to eat:
- Elephant Deli near the Aerial Tram - loved this place; really cool deli.
- Stumptown Coffee
- Everyone raves about Voodoo Donuts so we went and found it but to be honest it did not look that great so we skipped it.
- Ruby Jewel Ice Cream - serious ice cream sandwiches; I fell in love (see below).
- We ate at the hostel too. Was simple but fine.
Cannon Beach is one of those places which people hype up a lot. It is a great town right on the coast. There is a lovely beach and the town is pretty. We were staying in a place called The Waves Cannon Beach which was right on the front. We did not have a view so if you want one just check when you book. It was good, would stay again; had free DVD rentals which was nice.
Again, there is not that much to do but it was very peaceful and a good place to chill for a bit.
Things to do:
- Walk up and down the beach, look at the rocks.
- Walk through town and look at the shops.
- Castaways Restaurant and Tiki Bar - had a great supper here; small but very nice. Met some lovely people here.
- Bill's Tavern and Brewhouse - had a nice sandwich and friendly service here.
- Local Grill and Scoop - had great breakfast here. We had tried to get into the Lazy Susan Cafe but it was too busy.
It's a long way! But the drive is fab. Very cut off (the beach, above, was down a little track off the road somewhere just after Quinault but before Ruby Beach). We got to Ruby Beach but decided it wasn't as good as our beach so left it. #brutal.
Accommodation: Camping at Lake Crescent in the "Log Cabin Resort". I was very sceptical about this place but to be fair to Elena, it was absolutely great; it is not, however, what you think of as a "resort". But it is fantastic as a camp site. We were camping in our $24 Walmart tent and it was absolutely great. Not sure how good the cabins would be - think it looked like you could walk in front of them so perhaps not so great for a bit of privacy. But can't really comment as we did not use them.
One advantage the site has over the south side of the lake is that it is south facing so got loads of sun! One thing to note is it really fills up at the weekend so if you want to have a quiet (children free) time, best to plan for mid-week.
The reception bit has a nice little restaurant and you can do take out food - we had a picnic by our tent the first night; the waiter was amazingly friendly.
Things to do:
- There is a small water sports thing; we hired SUP boards - great fun! 1 hour was $20, 2 hours $35.
- Walk at Marymere Falls near Lake Crescent Lodge. Also walk along the 'Memories in Time' trail - sounds a bit deep and meaningful but it's just a lovely walk by the lake.
- Read by the lake
- Swim in the lake. Freezing but worth it!
- Play catch.
Places to eat:
- You've only really got the Log Cabin Resort cafe. It's good solid grub and the staff were wonderful.
What a great city. We really liked Seattle. We were staying with Molly, the friendliest, most lovely Airbnb host you could possibly ask for (stay with her). She also has completely fantastic feline friends. It was a serious walk up to her place but once you are there it is great. We were on 8th Avenue and this seemed to be on the right contour so it was not too beastly walking around the city.
Things to do:
- Pike Place - mad busy but quite cool. Elena queued for the Pike Place Chowder. I ate Ellenos yoghurt; thought it was frozen, turns out it’s just good greek yog. Nice though.
- Olympic Sculpture Park (there’s a cool face)
- We were there for the Folk Life Festival - pretty cool.
- We looked at the Space Needle but you have to book/queue and we could not be bothered. Plus **IT’S NOT THAT TALL**.
- We did, however, do the Chihuly Museum. Dale Chihuly is a glass blower. And boy does he do it well. This is worth every penny. There are also live demonstrations of how to blow glass. Fantastic.
- Mercer Street Bookshop - quaint book shop.
- Kerry Park for some nice houses and a good view over the city. Walk along to Betty Bowen Viewpoint for, no surprise, a view.
- Union Lake is a bit grotty, probably give it a miss.
- Take a cable car (not that exciting, but hey).
- Vito's Jazz Club. Great food. Great music.
- We did a Cheesecake Factory one night. More selection than you can possibly imagine.
- The Hideout - it's a bar and if you ask for an Andy Warhol they give you a polaroid picture (of you)! It's a small bar with lots of cool art on the walls.
- Jimmy John's - like subway but the guy in the one on Madison Street was super nice!
So, to conclude...
Elena and I then continued on to Vancouver (by train from Seattle), Whistler, Singapore and Hong Kong but I think I will keep those for another post.
Do let me know if this is helpful or if there are any other places you would suggest.