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  You are here: Home > Travel Stories > North America

Travel Story by Kyle Sterry

  Notes from a 12,000-miles solo US road trip

Mount Rushmore

My epic journey began and ended at Los Angeles taking me through 26 States in two months, through deserts, mountains, farmland, swamps, forests and cities. I simply purchased a cheap transatlantic return flight and booked 2 months car hire through an UK agency called MasterCars Direct. I discovered then, and still applicable today, that it is generally cheaper to book in the UK despite the very good exchange rate. This is because if booked direct with an American car hire company, you then have to pay a daily insurance charge on top of that which can work out quite expensive. Alternatively, there are schemes where you can drive someone's car across the states, the downside being that you might not end up where you want or take the route you wish, and there are time limitations.

I set off without a plan with just the Rough Guide to the USA and a US roadmap. I pointed my car south and soon found myself in Sedona via San Diego and Phoenix. The route was spectacular taking you through a desert landscape and eventually through the red rocks of Sedona surrounded by lush green trees. From there, the Grand Canyon can be reached in a day, and is worth a stay. The scenery is second-to-none and a helicopter ride is recommended. Audio is provided through the onboard headphones, which were no good to me so I missed out on what was being said. If flying is not your thing, you can get close and personal by climbing down into the Canyon and camp at the base - be mindful that it can be extremely hot in the summer.

I visited the Hoover Dam, south of the bright lights of Las Vegas. To go inside the dam you need to go on one of the organised tours. If you ask nicely they can give you a transcript as part of it is pre-recorded. It is a very popular attraction so allow plenty of time if you choose to visit. Again helicopter tours are available but after the Grand Canyon I don't think there's too much more to see from the air!

North of Las Vegas is Death Valley. Motel prices are sky high in the lowest region of the USA, and I would recommend a simple motel at Beatty in Nevada. Death Valley is bounded by snow-capped mountains to the west; you will be looking at the lowest point and one of the highest points in mainland USA simultaneously from the valley. Make sure you have plenty of water! Winds can be sudden and strong causing temporary driving problems as salt dust is whipped up into a frenzy. The drive from Death Valley towards the mountains takes you up a precarious cliff-hugging road leaving you with stunning views.

Yosemite is a full day's driving away from Death Valley but be aware that there may be road closures even in May or September due to snow/ice. Motels are pricey in the region and in high demand especially in Yosemite National Park. I stayed in Bishop before going to Yosemite and it was expensive compared to rest of the road trip but still cheaper than Yosemite. Away from the tourist honey trap of Yosemite, take the Mecred River route through this part of California for that ‘get away’ feeling.

San Francisco is not one of my favourite cities but the trip to Alcatraz is well worth it, despite a lack of a transcript for the self-tours (using some kind of walkman). It only takes up a morning or afternoon of your stay. I stayed in one of the poshest hotels in the city with two queen-sized beds, a bar, stunning views and a Jacuzzi bathroom at just $85 for the night! This was nearly half the price I paid for staying inside Yosemite National Park!

From San Francisco, I took a marathon drive to Philadelphia via ‘Route 66’ but avoided Chicago. The farm belt of the Mid West could be described as boring by most people but I enjoyed the idyllic red and white farms and quirky things that make America famous.

Arrived in Philadelphia on a day when the remnants of a hurricane struck the region. Hollywood-style downpours were relentless leaving freeways flooded, and a tornado struck downtown Philadelphia. A good 3 hours were spent on the outskirts trying to find a route to downtown where the hostel was located! I jumped at the opportunity to go to a baseball match in a huge stadium between two local rivals - the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was nothing like watching football in the UK – there was a friendly light-hearted atmosphere, and the sort of place you would take your kids or your grandma to. Don't forget to check out the famous Philly Cheese steak here!

From here I drove to upstate New York via New Jersey, through the Catskills to Bolton's Landing, but there is very little to see unless you are a tree surgeon or an angler. City people flee up this way at weekends and during the holiday season so motel prices can skyrocket in the summer.

New York City is an expensive city to stay in but is well worth it, with Central Park, museums of all sizes and tastes, the various sights and just experiencing the culture. This city is perhaps the only city I've visited in the world where I was overwhelmed with choices of where to eat out.

From New York, I drove through the states of New England to Calais on the US border with Canada. Towns up this way are very quaint and close-knit, surrounded by trees upon trees and the occasional lake. At Calais you can observe thrifty Canadians popping over the border to buy fuel and pop back again resulting in a permanently busy gas station. From here I headed for Saint John in New Brunswick to meet a friend of mine. This part of Canada has a very rural feel, and the landscape can be bleak and neutral leaving you feeling very isolated. The land is frequently dotted with bays and lakes. Winters here can be harsh but people are friendly.

I forgot to carry Canadian coins when I crossed the border and found myself being the cause of a traffic jam at the first toll bridge with an automatic coin machine. Fortunately, it accepted US Dollar coins as I was down to my last one!

It was time to make the biggest U-turn in my life and head back for the sunnier climes of Los Angeles via the White Mountains of New Hampshire to Niagara Falls, then to the windy city of Chicago. A restaurant in the city claimed to have invented the first deep pan pizza. Naturally I tried it out and it was the most revolting pizza I've ever had!

From Chicago it was a fast drive through the empty Corn Belt states to a wee town called Wall Drug. There is a cheap but clean motel here, a perfect base to explore the Badlands National Park – with its breathtaking landscapes and amazing geological formations it is unlike anything you have seen before!

A half-day's drive from Wall Drug westward takes you to Mt. Rushmore, a tourist trap, and to get up close you are required to pay what seems like too much money for views that are not much better than from a distance. I thought the best view was a profile view just around the corner. A huge lay-by is built for this purpose, and is you are better off stopping here instead. Continue westwards to the vast and dry wilderness of Wyoming, towards the most famous national park in the world - Yellowstone National Park. Unfortunately I left it too late in the year to visit; it was the end of October and the park was already snowbound. I took a detour around Yellowstone via Montana and admired the mountain scenery. In this vast landscape the people and the locals are very friendly.

Time was running out. With just two days left to reach Los Angeles I sped through Idaho, Utah, and Nevada and into California with just an overnight stay in southern Utah. If I had more time, a visit to Zion National Park would have been worthwhile and also to Bryce Canyon. I'm told it is nearly as beautiful as Grand Canyon but without so many tourists. An overnight stay at Beaver due to tiredness meant that I was nearly snowbound at the site, as a huge dump of snow fell overnight leaving motorists stranded. It left me very surprised and glad I hired a 4x4 and not a car. However, the snow melted almost as quickly as it had arrived.

Within a day I reached the city of Los Angeles. The next day was spent relaxing on Venice Beach, watching the artists, surveying the weird and wacky shops and reading the funny t-shirts, mostly slagging President George Bush off.

If you do a road trip don't make rigid plans but have a good idea of some of the top features you want to see. Be prepared that you might not be able to see them all due to motels being full, the weather, freaks of nature and other attractions.

If you hire a car and visit a large city where you plan to stay for a few nights there are huge savings to be made by parking it at the city's airport and taking the subway into the city, rather than paying a downtown overnight parking garage. There are savings of up to 80% off in New York alone over the course of a week!

Fuel prices are more expensive than you might think. You will be driving a car that is twice as thirsty as European cars and you will cover vastly greater distances - it is very easy to do 600 miles in a day. This can negate the comparative cheapness of American fuel compared to Europe.

It is somewhat more expensive booking direct with a car hire company than through an agency when you begin to take into account of insurance, mileage charges and other surcharges.

Click on photo to enlarge

Baseball  Grand Canyon  Yosemite

Date Submitted: 02 Apr 2007

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