The West Coast of the USA offers all travelers something special from incredible scenery and hiking in the Grand Canyon, Zion and Yosemite National Parks to the relaxing, foodie culture of San Francisco to the high life in Las Vegas. This itinerary is a little rushed but gives you a great taste of the area. If you do have some extra time up your sleeve, we definitely recommend that you add a few more days to each of the places throughout your trip.
- Hike up to the summit of Angel's Landing in Zion National Park for spectacular view of the valley.
- Wander through San Francisco's Alcatraz Prison at dusk.
- Explore the spectacular trails through Yosemite National Park.
- Drive the Pacific Highway and experience the mighty power of the Pacific Ocean.
- For sheer shock value take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon.
- A: Los Angeles
- B: Joshua Tree
- C: Grand Canyon
- D: Zion National Park
- E: Las Vegas
- F: Death Valley
- G: Yosemite National Park
- H: San Francisco
- I: Santa Barbra
- J: Los Angeles
Day 1: Joshua Tree National Park to Grand Canyon
Pick up your car from LA and head towards the Grand Canyon. Roughly two hours out of LA stop at the surprisingly beautiful Joshua Tree National Park. Unsurprisingly the National Park is named after the intriguing desert plant, the Joshua Tree, that is spread throughout the park. The main road takes you straight through the national park; it really is like a scene out of an old western movie.
Some things to do at Joshua Tree are:
- to simply pull over on the side of the road and go for a walk through the desert.
- go for a basic rock climb up on one of the many mounds of rocks to get terrific views of the entire national park.
- drive to Key Views towards the southern end of the National Park for panoramic views over the San Andreas fault line.
After visiting Joshua Tree it is about a 4-5 hour drive to the Grand Canyon. If this is too far to drive for you in one day then we suggest staying at the old western town (now feels like a bit of ghost town) of Seligman. The town really plays on the 'old route 66' and is a bit quirky because of this.
Day 2: Grand Canyon
The sheer size of the Grand Canyon will blow your mind. As you are doing now, we did our research and saw all the photos beforehand, which all looked amazing but are nothing compared to the real deal. When you're actually there, standing on the edge, staring out over the vast canyon - you feel so tiny and insignificant and you very quickly realise that no photo will do it justice. There are two main ways to view the Grand Canyon: by foot and air. We did both from the South Rim but by all reports the North Rim is just as good, if not better.
There are so many options in terms of hiking but here are our two favourites (one for the first afternoon you are there and the other for the next morning):
- South Kaibab Trail: on this trail you will find incredible views of the canyon all along the 1.5km hike to Yaki Point. The trail is a dirt track and a bit steep, but nothing excessive. We hiked for about 4km down into the Canyon before turning back (due to time restrictions) but the first section to Yaki Point is a must. To get to the trail, take the free shuttle bus to Yaki Point from the visitor centre (as there is no private parking at the trail's entrance).
- Bright Angel Trail: a relatively steep dirt trail that also provides excellent views of the canyon. The hike goes about 2.5km down into the Canyon to Bright Angel Point. The hike starts from the Bright Angel Lodge, which is in the Grand Canyon Village.
Grand Canyon by helicopter:
For an incredible experience we would highly recommend taking a scenic helicopter flight over the Canyon. It is an amazing experience skimming along just above the treeline before you suddenly fly out over the 1,800 metres deep canyon (it almost makes your stomach drop even though the helicopter has stayed the same level). We used Papillon who were terrific and provided a few different options. You can book a flight through their website below:
Where to stay: it is slightly more expensive but if you can afford it, you should definitely try to stay inside the National Park for pure convenience (you would probably spend the difference in accommodation paying for petrol as most of the accommodation is over 50km from the Canyon). The only lodge-type accommodation in the national park can be found at the website below - the cheapest accommodation was a bit more than $AUD100 which is about $US80 a night.
We hadn't heard about this place before we arrived at the Grand Canyon but you can actually hike down to the base of the Canyon and sleep at the Phantom Ranch. The Phantom Ranch is the only lodging below the rim and reservations must be made well in advance. The next time we travel to the Grand Canyon, we would definitely hike down with a backpack to stay below the rim for a night or two (and leave our luggage in our car as parking seems relatively safe). The website for this can be found here: http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/lodging/phantom-ranch/.
Day 3: Grand Canyon to Zion National Park
Wake up early for an incredible helicopter flight over the canyon (made even more amazing by the changing shadows along the Canyon as the sun rises). After the flight head back to the village and finish your visit off with another hike down into the canyon (if time permits).
After lunch make your way to the stunningly beautiful Zion National Park. It is a 4.5 hour drive to Zion with the first 50km of the journey being along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. There are many spectacular view points along the way but the two highlights are Grandview Point and Desert View Watchtower.
Where to Stay in Zion National Park:
By the time you get to Zion it will probably be too late to do any major walks so head straight to the hotel. We recommend staying at the Zion National Park Lodge, again, purely for convenience and giving you access to the park at all times. We didn't stay here as it was booked out for our times (and over our budget) but it looks amazing and isn't too badly priced at $US205 a night. You can book through their website:
We stayed at a well priced resort called Zion Ponderosa. It isn't one of the best hotels but it is good value being less than $US60 a night and relatively close to the National Park.
Day 4 - Zion National Park
As you are driving through the desert from the Grand Canyon towards Zion it is hard to believe you are about to stop at one of the most amazing national parks in the US and the world. Zion is relatively small but it is not short on awe inspiring scenery, hiking options and canyoning. It is seriously an oasis in the desert.
Today we suggest dedicating your day to an all day hike such as the Zion Narrows or do two half day hikes such as Angel's Landing (our personal favourite) and Emerald Pools Trail or Canyon Overlook Trail. We have done our best at describing these incredible hikes below.
From our experience the best hikes in Zion National Park are:
- Angel's Landing (difficult): this was the highlight of our trip but is not for the faint hearted or those who are scared of heights. Angel's Landing offers absolutely stunning views of the main canyon/gorge in the centre of the National Park. Set aside between 3-5 hours for this hike depending on your fitness levels. It took as about 4 hours round trip but we spent plenty of time taking photos throughout the hike.
The walk begins at the Grotto Trail Head (6th stop on the free Zion canyon Shuttle) and you immediately start hiking upwards before reaching a side canyon and getting a slight respite. The final part of the climb is strenuous but exhilarating as you walk along a thin ridge which has 500 metre drops either side (refer to the photo below). It looks scarier than it actually was and we never felt in danger; at the toughest and steepest points there are chains to help you up. At the end you are rewarded with incredible views of the whole valley as well as a good dose of adrenaline running through your body.
- Emerald Pools Trail (easy): an easy and beautiful hike, which will take you through small creeks that flow into little pools over-looking the canyon. The hike will take about 2 hours and you will cover a bit over 3km depending if you go all the way to the upper emerald pool. This hike is perfect for an afternoon or if you only have a few hours as it is located directly across from the Zion Lodge (car park).
- Canyon Overlook Trail (easy): this is a very easy walk that will take you less than an hour but give you amazing views of the Zion Canyon. To get here, drive to the Zion - Mount Carmel Tunnel and head up to the parking lot at the top of route 9. This is a perfect hike if it is your first time at Zion as gives you incredible views of the whole canyon.
- Zion Narrows (moderate - difficult): to do this hike you will need waterproof shoes as the majority of the walk takes you through the shallow Virginia River at the bottom of a Canyon. Don't let this put you off as this, along with Angel's Landing, is a classic of Zion and takes you through some of the most amazing canyon scenery in the world. You will need to put aside most of the day to do the Zion Narrows as it is a 6 hour round trip. Start the hike from the Temple of Sinawava which is the final stop of the Zion Canyon Shuttle bus.
Day 5: Zion National Park - Bryce Canyon
Today wake up early and drive the 1-1.5hrs to Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce Canyon is a unique experience with tens of thousand orange spires rising out the ground with a red soil backdrop. The best way to see the Canyon, which isn't actually a canyon but a plateau, is actively. There are obviously hundreds of hikes around but for a different way of seeing Bryce is on horseback and one we would highly recommend. A truly memorable experience!
- Navajo Loop Trail (easy): the hike starts from the Sunset Point car park, is clearly signed and is about a 3km round trip. The walk takes you down into the main areas of Bryce Canyon and between the most famous narrow corridors.
- Queens Garden Loop (easy - moderate): this hikes also starts from Sunset Point car park and is 3km long. The walk actually intersects the Navajo Loop and is perfect to further explore the canyons below.
We visited the canyon by horseback and it was one of the absolute highlights of our trip. This is a unique and relatively inexpensive way to have a guided tour of the Canyon. We went with Ruby's Inn Horseback Riding and they were brilliant. The guide offered plenty of information and they catered for all levels of horse riding experience. Their website is: http://www.horserides.net/
Tip: try to get to Bryce before 9am to see the sun lifting the intricate shadow from the sharp rock faces.
Day 6: Las Vegas
Today we drive from Zion to Las Vegas. On the way, stop at the Valley of Fire State Park. This is about 2 hours from Zion and is a great place to stop and stretch the legs. The Valley of fire is incredibly photogenic with the violent orange rock arches sticking out of the ground everywhere.
Vegas, need we say more... if you are traveling as a couple or family there are still plenty of things to do in Vegas. We recommend that you organise to see a show. You have so many options when it comes to shows but it could include: magic, musical, circus, comedian... you name it, Vegas will have it. Just don't see Chris Angel... that was an absolute shocker!
Where to stay: we stayed at the Aria which is right in the middle of the strip and is the newest hotel in the central Strip. It was moderately priced when we were there at about $US100 a night but keep in mind that the prices of Vegas accommodation swing a lot depending on what is happening in the area. We would definitely recommend the Aria; however, anywhere on the main section of the Strip is good. Just be careful when booking - many places are located on the strip but if you are staying at a hotel right down one end, it may take 30 mins to walk to the main area.
Day 7: Las Vegas
Vegas has some of the cheapest shopping in the USA and if you are Australian or British it is comparatively extremely so compared to prices back home. The best spot is the Las Vegas North Premium Outlet Centre. It is about 10 minutes north of the strip and there is plenty of car parking or it is only a $20 cab from the strip.
Spend the afternoon relaxing by the hotel pool with a few drinks before heading off to see another show.
Day 8: Yosemite National Park via Death Valley
Unfortunately today is a big day of driving with at least 7.5hrs on the road to get to Yosemite Village. Alternatively you can spend a night in Death Valley before getting to Yosemite.
On the way to Yosemite make sure you turn left off Highway 95 onto Route 374 which will take you through the middle of Death Valley. Death Valley is the lowest point on earth (not covered by ocean) and temperatures can reach in excess of 45 degrees. We were there in early spring and the temperatures were already in the low 40's. Stop in the Valley and walk out onto the salt lake for some great photos; just make sure you bring some water and be careful when driving to keep an eye on the engine's temperature levels. If it starts going up try turning off the air con for a while.
Take the route through Mammoth Lakes for a beautiful mountain path view on the way into Yosemite. Just make sure you check if the pass is open if you are driving that direction during winter or early spring.
Day 9: Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is exactly how we imagined it; a spectacular green paradise full of amazing waterfalls, lakes and meadows. What do to in Yosemite? Yosemite has some of the most amazing scenery in the world and offers such a vast range of activities including: hiking, bike riding, horse riding, camping, rock climbing, rafting and fishing. Get to know your way around Yosemite by taking two short hikes: Mirror Lake and the Mist Trail:
- Mirror Lake: Mirror Laake offers the classic Yosemite photo opportunity along with a beautiful, easy, and relaxing meadow stroll. The hike takes around an hour for a 3km round trip. The start of the trail begins directly from the shuttle stop with the hike clearly signed and on a paved track. The main reason to do this hike is to see the incredible reflections the lake has to offer on a clear day.
- Mist Trail: the Mist trail takes you past two of Yosemite's most famous waterfalls: Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. The hike is moderately strenuous and is around 11km round trip all the way to Nevada Falls (or 5km to Vernal Falls and back). Overall, the hike will probably take you 5 hours if you do the full 11km. The trail is a stop on the shuttle bus or you can walk from Curry Village Car Park (an extra 2.5km round trip). The mist trail has so many beautiful view points scattered through the trail. The beginning of the hike, Vernal Falls will be in and out of your view surprising you around each corner until you are walking up next to it getting sprayed (bring a water coat if this bothers you). You will then come to the end of the trail where you will have an amazing view of Nevada Falls with the back of the Half Dome as your backdrop. The best time to visit the Mist Trail is in Spring as the snow in the mountains melts and roars down the falls. Highly Recommended.
Day 10: Yosemite National Park
Today we tackle a full day's hike in the park. You have two options depending on your level of fitness and how you cope with heights. The first option (which is the one we would highly recommend to anyone who is fit and ready for an adventure of a lifetime!) is to hike Yosemite's most famous landmark: the Half Dome. The climb takes about 10-14 hours and requires a permit but is well and truly worth the effort. Refer to the following guide if you are eager to make the hike: http://www.yosemitehikes.com/yosemite-valley/half-dome/half-dome.htm
If you can't get a permit in the park's lottery system then Upper Yosemite Falls offers stunning views over the the valley and is one of the only places you can see the entirety of Yosemite Falls. The hike is about 15km round trip and will take about 6-10 hours. To get to the hike you can park pretty much anywhere in the National Park and catch the free shuttle to Yosemite Falls Tail Head.
Finally to finish your time off at Yosemite, the sunset at Glacier Point is not to be missed. At the top of Glacier Point you are exposed to panoramic views of the Half Dome (covered in orange from the sunset), the mist trail water falls, Yosemite Valley, as well as of many other mountain peaks that complete the amazing view.
To get to Glacier Point you will need to drive from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point Road (surprise, surprise) and follow the road up for 15km. There is a parking lot at the top of the road to park at and it is less than five minutes to get to the viewing areas.
Day 11: San Fransisco
The drive from Yosemite to San Francisco is slightly more than 3 hours. San Fran really has it all: sightseeing, shopping, amazing restaurants, and plenty of entertainment.
When you arrive to San Fran, head up to Twin Peaks for amazing views of San Francisco and to get your bearings of the city. Twin Peaks offers 360 degrees of the city and the bay (including the Golden Gate Bridge). It is located at the top of Twin Peaks Blvd, and will take you less than 30 minutes to get here from downtown San Fran. In the afternoon do some shopping or enjoy one of the many wine bars that are throughout the city.
Day 12: San Francisco
Spend the morning by the Golden Gate Bridge getting the classic San Fran photo (see above) before strolling through Gold Gate Park (not too dissimilar to Central Park in NYC). The best place to view the Golden Gate Bridge is from the Northern side as you get views of San Fransisco in the background. There are plenty of places to park around here so there is no rush.
In the afternoon take a guided walking tour through the city. This is a relatively inexpensive way to get to know the city (around $30). We used Wild SF and they were terrific: http://wildsftours.com/
In the evening head to Alcatraz for a night tour of the most famous (ex-)prison in the world. You will have to book the tour well in advance (depending on the time of year you'll be there) - you can book the tour here: https://www.alcatrazcruises.com/website/buy-tickets.aspx
The night tour (more like a dusk/evening tour) of Alcatraz really sets the scene on what it would have been like to be imprisoned in one the world's most notorious prisons. You will also be able to experience spectacular views at sunset of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Fransisco Bay. The tour includes an audio guide and there is also a schedule of live 'story telling' throughout the prison while you are on the tour.
Day 13: Big Sur - Carmel
Start your slow trek down the Pacific Coast Highway to LA. Head south from San Fran along Highway 1 to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is a cute little seaside town where you could easily stay for a few days and relax on the beach. There is one of the world's oldest roller coasters here if that sort of thing interests you.
Moving down the coast you will drive past the interesting towns of Monterey and Carmel. These are the best two towns to stay at when visiting Big Sur - more on these later. The Big Sur area is a vast stretch of coastline that starts just past Carmel and has some of the best coastal scenery in the world.
What to see and do:
- McWay Falls: an 80 foot waterfall that drops straight on to the beach (photographed below). The waterfall is located just off Highway 1 and is right before Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. There is a small hike down to view the falls.
- Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park: a beautiful national park with some really good hikes between some of the world's tallest trees, also known as the Californian Redwoods.
Where to Stay:
Stay in the quaint town of Carmel which is famous for its galleries, boutiques and restaurants. The restaurants here serve farm fresh food and seafood straight off the boat. A charming town that is more than a place to stop over.
Day 14: Santa Barbara
Today, continue the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway down to the ritzy town of Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara town is filled with classic Spanish/Moorish houses and the streets are lined with beautifully purple Jacarandas. The town is a great spot for a quality meal (though it is unlikely to be cheap).
Day 15: Los Angeles
It will take about one and a half hours to reach Malibu from Santa Barbara, and the first stop that will give you a taste of the LA's wealth. Los Angeles is very much just an overcrowded, touristy city to us, but there are still some cool things to do here; the highlights being:
- Enjoy the rides and atmosphere of Universal Studios; one of the worlds best theme parks.
- Relax and have a cocktail at Santa Monica Beach.
- Explore the gardens and museum of the Getty Centre home to some of the world's most famous artists works, including Van Gough and Rembrandt.