We were always going to come to LA- just as a stepping stone to Central America if nothing else. Then our friends decided to emigrate here and offered us a lovely house with pool for the month, we had to do it really, didn't we?
The first thing we did was book a car and loosely plan a road trip up the coast to Santa Cruz. The Big Sur was shut due to a landslide so we took the inland road and decided our first foray into driving on the right hand side should start at 4am.
We roused the kids who grumped and stomped into the car whilst Mike whimpered that it's too dark and there are sirens!
We set off with equal amounts of coffee and reminders about driving on the right.
Some how- we made it to Santa Cruz for Whale watching without a scratch. The boat and crew were awesome, but after our disappointing tiger trek, I thought we had run of wildlife luck. Apparently I was wrong- and we sighted many Humpback Whales. After a while, I thought we were heading back to the harbour to see the sea otters playing- but the Wildlife Gods were smiling on us. We saw several Great White sharks who showed absolutely NO FEAR of our huge chugging boat, and came right up to us. It was breathtaking and much more exciting than the whales to be honest. Just no-one fall in, ok?
With a feeling of weird, spaced out otherness you only get from a 4am start and gallons of coffee, we made our way to San Fransisco. A while ago, I put a shout out on a Facebook page of Worldschoolers and someone I didn't know got in touch to say her friends' husband wanted to have us to stay. Hell, yeah!
Ognen gave us some baked sweet potatoes and an itinerary to suit our short amount of time there. He even took us to Bakers Beach on the solstice evening to watch the sunset against the silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge and drink red wine. He knew we'd usually be at Glastonbury so invited his friends along too, to make a party of it. What a complete star.
We did as we were told. First the Warming hut to have breakfast, drink coffee and see the Golden Gate Bridge. Then to the Palace of Fine Arts to walk around admiring the neo-classical architecture. The next stop took us to Fisherman's Wharf to see the iconic trams. It was expensive so we didn't bother to actually ride them, but it was nice to see and the tourist area was quaint. Alcatraz was visible from here but unfortunately for us, you need to book ahead.
We then drove around Embarcadero and took in the glamour of Downtown. We were lucky enough to witness the police take down a very beefy looking man on a motorbike. There was pointing of guns, shouty swearing and families running screaming from the area.
It was like we were in a film. In fact we were so curious as to what was going on, we forgot that we might actually be quite vulnerable in our front row seats in the car but, you know. It was so interesting...! The beefcake wasn't shot or anything in the end, just dragged into the court house. Phew.
Ognen bunked off work and took us to Twin Peaks then it was Haight & Ashbury to have brunch. We rummaged in some thrift stores and and were interested to see if the hippy heritage credentials checked out. They did.
We said goodbye to our generous new friend, loaded with tips about what to see and headed to Yosemite. Well actually we headed to Merced, a town 3 hours away from Yosemite, but booking at the last minute, affordable options were limited. What's three hours each way between friends, eh? The motel was JUST LIKE THE ONE from Thelma and Louise, with the metal wire fence around the pool and shifty people drinking out of plastic cups by the pool.
Outside, there were many homeless people pushing around shopping trollies and others cycling to and from their minimum wage jobs in 40 degree heat. Patriotic flags flapped and shutters banged against derelict-looking houses. You could tell this was the 'real' America, away from the privilege of the California coast. Life here looked like it was struggle.
Yosemite, however was a dream. As we wound our way around the roads in the orange glow of the early morning, the granite rocks got bigger, the booming river got more dramatic. Eventually we ambled past a huge waterfall that was framed by a wildflower meadow, and couldn't believe our eyes.
We parked up and walked to Yosemite Falls.
The falls were so strong that you could feel the force of the water push against you and got drenched just walking near it. It was spectacular and we stopped to eat breakfast and set a battle plan of how to conquer this huge park.
In one day we wanted to see as much as we could but also see a bit of the less touristy bits. It is also achingly clear how differently we approached the park, compared to other people who have been planning this trip for years... our ethos of turning up and hoping for the best has served us well so far though.
Walking to Mirror Lake seemed completely manageable- it was an hour trek, apparently. We did Nepal, right? We had misplaced faith in the National Park Service's signs however, and one hour in the heat of summer was actually more like two.. especially as one sign took us in the wrong direction, dammit.
There was much moaning and stomping of feet and the trek was declared 'disastrous' by the youngest. We made it though, to the Mirror Lake where we could FINALLY OPEN THE CRISPS. The glacial lake that was sandwiched between a valley of granite outcrops. Stopping to look at take it all in was incredible- looking up made you feel dizzy, the rocks were so high. And was that snow on the top?
The children were relieved to have a sit down and played with the tame squirrels whilst I took stock of our water situation. Due to the extreme heat, despite frequently filling our bottles up we were running out of water.
After wading into the river and regrouping, I did consider just drinking it, it's glacial right? Apparently though there is a risk of Giardia, so some friendly Americans passing by, gave us a couple of bottles of water as they felt sorry for us. Thank goodness.
It was only twenty minutes to the bus stop- the National Parks have shuttle buses that circulate the parks. Brilliant for accessibility, so it was straight to the supermarket to get ice cold drinks before checking out the museum.
There was a model of a Native America village and a museum of artefacts used by the people indigenous to Yosemite. There was even someone carving spearheads and showing us how the bear skins would be prepared- the boys found this fascinating and now want to hunt for their own food when we get back to the UK.
I have a feeling I won't have to worry about too much success after just ten minutes talking with a tribal member, but I might be underestimating my boys as they've talked constantly about setting traps ever since.
Our tired legs took us back to the car, crawling in a traffic snake out of the park as everyone chose to leave at the same time. It was no chore though, to take it all in for the last time and make our way past El Capitain. The whole park looked just like it does in the pictures
The next morning we woke up in Merced, and headed to the Hoover Dam where we would take a look before making our way towards Vegas. I was so excited about going to Las Vegas, the carnival atmosphere and the kitsch bling were right up my street. I had made a playlist and yes, 'Viva Las Vegas' was on repeat.
We were surprised that our Motel 6 had a pool and was right next to a 24 hr liquor store. This meant that there was always lots of interesting people hanging out and we heard people coming and going all night, sometimes police were called when the fights broke out. It felt right that if we were staying out of trouble we could at least feast vicariously on their chaotic Vegas experience, whoever they are.
The first night, we walked to 'The Strip' where we popped in to whichever casino hotel took our fancy. Each had amazing decor and free shows- we took full advantage and didn't pay for a thing.
Las Vegas is one of the few places in the US that you can drink outside- so everyone was taking full advantage and it had a real festival atmosphere. We did the obligatory 'Bellagio fountains' and wound our way through the hubbub of people drinking, watching the street performers and watching people dressed in amazing costumes posing for photos with tourists.
At 7pm it was still 41 degrees, so heading into the air conditioning at Caesar's Palace was sweet relief. I was at odds with wanting to wander around to explore the place and equally not being able to stand the oppressive heat of the outside. Then I realised that there would be nothing like an organic experience here as it is the land of fake things, so we gave in and succumbed to the joy of Air Con.
It took so long to find the entrance to the hotel, but when we got into Caesar's Palace we immediately got told off for letting the boys watch the roulette table. Trying to explain what was going on without actually showing them seemed a bit silly... but at least children are allowed on the casino floor i suppose, even if you are not allowed to stop moving.
Being a bit beaten by the desert heat, we found ourselves using Uber to get to the hotels instead of doing the twenty minute walk that we would normally manage. Trip Advisor and Facebook groups instructed us where to go and we hit the big guns without having to walk too much- Circus Circus. M & Ms factory. Rainforest cafe. Done. Each trip though was burning hot and two days of the sensory onslaught was enough. It was Grand Canyon time with a stop at the Hoover Dam.
As we drove the landscape changed from arid desert to... spikey. The colours were intense- burning red, yellow and bright blue of the sky. Incredible, uninhabited landscape apart from the odd trailer parked up which housed someone who clearly manages to survive with the bare minimum. Made of tougher stuff than me, that's for sure. Maybe they were cooking Crystal Meth like in 'Breaking Bad'? It was easy to see how it would be possible in the middle of this desert with nothing for miles around but shooting ranges and other eccentric folk.
Ashfork Inn welcomed us, with a reception area full of 'Route 66' and Elvis memorabilia. The lady who ran the joint told us that route 66 was the first road to go from East to West and her family worked on building the road. She wasn't too keen on children touching anything much in there, so when she said that we'd have to sit in her lounge with her to use the wifi, we gratefully declined.
Grand Canyon was a beast! We drove the 2 hours there in a flash, opting to walk along the rim as opposed to going down into the canyon which would be way too hot this time of year- for us, anyway. The National Park had shuttle buses so we didn't have to worry about logistics of finding a circular walk or motivating tired, hot children.
After staring open-mouthed at the canyon for a while, we skipped along the rim, marvelling at the birds of prey circling below us. The walk took in a geology museum and afterwards The Grand Canyon village had a cinema room where it showed a documentary about geology and wildlife of the canyon. It was welcome respite after our dusty, sweaty walk along the rim.
We lapped up the epic sights on this road trip- gawping at each cactus, each burning sunset and run down settlement that we passed.
Stopping at a depressing Casino hotel on the way back to LA seemed a cultural necessity. Smoking, drinking and gambling happened here in abundance all day and all night, but the decadence and flair was missing outside of Vegas. Here as people saw in the new day by feeding the slots in their mobility scooters, it reeked of regret and lost hope.
Getting back 'home' to LA was welcome after our whirlwind tour but it totally kicked ass. America sure knows how to do an iconic road trip and we'd do it all again in a heartbeat.
What we did
Santa Cruz Whale Watching - £140 for family of 4. We saw Humpback whales and got very close to Great White Sharks- see film below!
Palace of Fine Arts, San Fransisco- free park with tree climbing and turtles in the pond. Take a picnic!
Warming Hut- Book shop and cafe under the Golden Gate Bridge, San Fransisco.
Fishermans Wharf- you can see Alcatraz from here and walk along to get delicious ice cream. Very touristy but quaint. Be advised though that a tram ride at £10.50 each return was too much for us to go up a hill and back again so we didn't bother.
Bakers Beach- See the sun set against the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge.
Haight & Ashbury- walk about and soak up the vibe, meet some hippies and look through a thrift store.
Twin Peaks- see the city stretched out before you at this windy viewpoint.
Yosemite National Park, iconic, spectacular. £23 per vehicle, passes last for a week. Or £61 for an annual pass that covers all National Parks.
Las Vegas- the strip. We just walked about.
Hoover Dam- Free parking if you drive through it and park by the side of the road, free to look at but tours cost. See link for info.
Grand Canyon- Use your annual Pass if you have one (see above) or £23 per vehicle for a week.
Where we stayed
America's Best Value Inn, Merced. £50 per night. 3 hour drive to Yosemite but was the cheapest by far.
Motel 6 Tropicana Avenue, Las Vegas. £89 per night for a family room.
Ashfork Inn, Ashfork, Arizona. £38 per night for a family room and OLD SCHOOL.
Edgwater Casino Resort, Laughlin Nevada. £28 per night for a family room.
How we got around:
Car Hire: Thrifty Car rental was £250 for 11 days hire.
We also used Budget rental at Studio City, Los Angeles at £115 for 5 days mid week hire.