USA – 9500 mile Road trip (part 2/2)

Camping in the USA: National Parks vs National Forest vs ‘BLM’ land

We quickly learned some of the ins and outs of camping in national parks and other types of parks. As a summary types of camping options fall under in 4 categories:

– National Parks – are beautiful to camp in, but often you need to pay around $20 to $30 per night to use a campground, on top of the Park Entrance fee usually another $20 to $30), and they can fill up very quickly. Some popular campgrounds that take advance reservations (like in Zion NP) are filled up a good 6 months in advance! However, it never hurts to ask the local caretaker if there are any backup or overfill spots. We found some great places in places that had a ‘fully booked’ sign out the front.

– National Forests – provide a lot of flexibility and freedom with camping options. It is worthwhile downloading a good map of all the National Forrest in the area you are traveling too. Overall on my 2 months road trip, I spent most of my nights in National Forests.

– BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land – is easily the most flexible, and cheapest place to camp. Often you can camp where ever you want and for free. There is actually a lot of BLM land across the US, especially in the arid parts of the western states. One of the truly great things that the USA has done is carve out a good chunk of land to be kept public.

– Paid commercial camping chains (e.g. KOA – Camping Across America) – there a couple of extensive national networks of camping sites which are probably more appropriate for RV owners, or those traveling with children who need some more predictability and comfort with their travel destinations. I only used this as a backup when other options weren’t easy to find.

Las Vegas, Lake Mono and Yosemite

After dropping my friend off at Las Vegas Airport, it was back into solo travel mode, I decided to camp nearby. I found a great campsite in Red Rock Canyon, although only a 10 minute drive from the edge of Las Vegas, it felt like a world away from the crazy glowing hustle bustle of LV. It was very late at night when I arrived, so I didn’t really the beauty of the valley until the next morning when the sun came up.. another wow moment! I decided to spent another day there, and there were some great hikes in the local area and even more exotic rock formations.

I then got on the road, blazed my way through the very dry, flat and roads through Nevada, taking some back roads along the way to see some quaint and interesting little towns. As the sun started to set over the Sierra Nevada ranges, I saw one of the most spectacular sites I’ve ever seen in my life. The setting sun, was visible through an intense localized snow storm on the Sierra Nevada. It was a great big red glow, surrounded by blue sky, and a darkening deserted valley. Wow! I stayed the night on top of a hill, overseeing lake Mono. A beautiful night under the stars, a full moon, and far far away from any main cities or towns, or busy roads. Lake Mono changes in summer when more of the roads through the Sierra Nevada are opened up, but while those roads are closed, this is a special place to visit.

Before getting to the West Coast, I spend a few days in Yosemite knocking over a few more hikes that I didn’t have time to do last time I visited in 2008. It was loaded up with fly in-fly out tourists, and although very nice and picturesque, couldn’t really compare what what I’d seen during the previous few weeks.

Reach the West Coast, then turn back

In California, heading into San Francisco I got a flat tyre, and for the first time I forced to change a tyre myself on the side of the road. It turned out to be much easier than I had feared. But then I had a ‘donut’ – the crappy temporary tyre that rental companies put on cars to save a little $$. You can’t go far or fast with this on your car. My car rental company looked after me, in that they basically gave me a brand new replacement (it hadn’t even done 1000 miles – I was quickly going to change that!), but I had to wait overnight to wait for the office to open, and this put me on the back foot as I was due to meet up with another friend I’d be doing some hiking / camping with in Southern Colorado. I had a 24 hours to complete a 16 hr drive from San Francisco CA, to Grand Junction. I ended up making it, and the fresh, new clean car was a welcome bonus.

Blaze back across the south, with a pitstop in North Carolina

After a solid 3 nights of exploring deep into mountain ranges in Southern Colorado (another really beautiful area of the US) I dropped my camping buddy off in New Mexico and spent a night camping in Santa Fe State Forrest. I was actually the 4th time I’ve visited Santa Fe, it is right up there with my favourite places in the US.

Then the next approx 8 days was a quick drive through the South back towards the East Coast, stopping over to catchup with a couple of friends in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. That bought back many memories from my 5 months at Duke University 5 years ago. Then I completed the final dash up the infamous I-85 which was its usually vehicle clogged, crash laden self.

When returning the car it certainly felt like an accomplishment. This is the second time I’ve completed a coast to coast back to coast trip in the USA (the first one was in 2008 mostly by buses) – even longer, it was 15,000 miles rather than the 9,500 miles of this trip. I think I can safely now say I’ve been lucky enough to see more of the USA then most people have!


Yosemite – half way up the half dome hike.


Utah Bonneville Salt Flats – practicing my flying meditation moves.


California – one of the most beautiful scenes I can remember… Really was special. Snow storm on the Sierra Nevada, over the sunset and a deserted valley (near lake Mono).


Sedona Arizona – the locals say there are energy vortexes here…


Memphis, site where MLK was assassinated. Now the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is well put together, I ended up spending more time there then I had planned too.


Golden Gate Bridge – this is the scene from where I slept (no kidding). Decent view! I was at this same spot in 2008.


Yellowstone NP – one of the many colorful geysers. This would be an awesome place for anyone into rocks..


Edge of Arches NP – Southern Utah. One of the first sites that we saw hitting Southern Utah. Had to stop the car frequently to try and capture the beauty! After a while I just gave in and tried to soak it up myself. This is really a beautiful part of the country and the world. It is my favorite place in the USA.


One of the many hundreds of photos from Southern Utah showing the striking rock formations.

USA – 9500 mile Road trip (part 1/2)

This was the second massive trip I’ve done around North America – in 2008 I completed a 15,000 mile ‘loop’ challenge finishing and starting in San Francisco mostly via buses, this was a 9,500 mile trip with me behind the wheel.

Contiguous states challenge & who is not complaining about gas prices

When initially planning this road trip, the main focus was seeing the Colorado/Utah states and also Yellowstone NP – areas I haven’t really covered in the approx 8 years of visiting and living in the USA. When mapping this out, I realized that I only had a small geographic block of states left to finish the ‘contiguous USA states’ challenge (all states on the mainland directly connected to each other). I quickly made that a side challenge of this trip – the block of states remaining were approximately in the middle of the USA, starting from Tennessee and going up to North Dakota. After some google searches I quickly realize this would be easily achievable on this trip – the USA has a extensive, well laid out national highway infrastructure that is perfect for road tripping.

In additional the price of gas / petrol was extremely low at this time which made a massive road trip even easier, the price for a gallon was hovering around the $2 mark! That is well less than a dollar a litre! (around 60c).

Coast to coast (and back) challenge behind the wheel

To complement finishing this challenge, I set myself another challenge to drive back and forth in a big loop between probably my two favourite spots on each of the costs, Astoria, NYC on the East coast, to San Francisco on the West Coast (and back). I was going to be putting in some serious hours behind the wheel!

Detroit and North Michigan

I started the trip blazing my way up to Detroit, a city that makes a strong impression on what can happen when booming city goes bust in a big way. Detroit recently declared bankruptcy, the once mighty car industry only has a shell remaining, and the city is filled with empty housing lots and massive abandoned buildings. It felt a bit like a post apocalyptic world.

Out of the great plains into the mountains

After stops in Northern Michigan (a beautiful remote part of the USA), and Minneapolis, I made quick time to get to North Dakota (just in the border, a chilled College town Fargo), then I dipped down to Omaha, Nebraska, and Ohio, before steaming my way across South Dakota and into a whole region that is incredibly beautiful, starting with the Badlands NP. Hitting this area I was out of the ‘great plains’ of the USA an expansive flat farming area, and into the beautiful mountain ranges which include the Rockies. I then headed down into Boulder, and Denver in Colorado and drove through the Rockies towards Salt Lake City where I picked up a friend who I’d be traveling with for the next couple of weeks.

On the way through the Rockies I ran into intense snow storm, quickly most of the roads in and out of the Rockies were being shut down, I managed to squeeze my way north from Silverton, and get out just before the last road was closed! Phew! It was a little crazy, it was Friday night, and many people were gambling on if they’d make it through, I saw around 10 minor crashes in the space of around 90 minutes as cars brakes turned out to be close to completely useless on the icy road.

National Parks Week! Bonus!

Just before arriving at Yellowstone NP, we discovered that it was National Parks week in the US – this basically meant that all National Parks were free to enter during that week. Bonus!! This was a great co-incidence, we ended up saving around $200 as we covering a lot of National Parks (including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Arches, National Bridges Monument, Zion and others).

Incredible Utah / Arizona / Colorado / Arizona area + Yellowstone and Grand Teton

Wow – this was really a special two weeks. This part of the USA is my favourite and I think the most beautiful. We quickly traveled our way through a lot of terrain, trying to strike a balance between staying long enough to get a feel for each site, and keeping on the move. The main highlight from Yellowstone where the colourful and hot geysers, were were lucky enough to see one particular geyser that only goes off once every 5 days. Grand Teton I feel was more physically attractive, and I can see why Jackson Hole is such a popular ski town (even though we didn’t do any skiing). We then took the more scenic, back roads down south towards Arches NP in southern Colorado.

I’ll just pause here to say, I’d strongly advise anyone planning a road trip in the USA to budget additional time to take the back roads, I did this on most parts of my trips, and in every case I the scenery was far more interesting, the locals at the stops were much more curious and happy to see you. It really is a different experience to just sitting on a major highway where every stop across the country is the same!

So we continued down to Arches NP, and were hit with some awesome scenery to start with, driving alongside the Colorado River, in a deep dark red canyon, with snow capped peaks of southern Colorado off in the distance. I started pulling over every 5 minutes to try and capture a pic of it, but the sites just kept coming. They would keep coming pretty much the next full week. I was completely shocked at beautiful it really was. I think this is the most beautiful part of the USA, and easily one of the most beautiful places (I’ve seen at least) in the world. WOW. I put more compact camera through its paces that week, but this is one place it would be worthwhile to bring a more serious camera.


Sudden snow storm driving through the Colorado Rockies, I saw a whole bunch of crashes in the space of just a few minutes. Brakes were close to useless! I managed to squeeze my out before all the roads were shut down.


Mt Rushmore. Bucket list item. It is a pretty impressive effort! There is another ambitious project nearby of an Indian Warrior Chief, but it is still a long way from completion.


Omaha Nebrasca, I enjoyed my brief time here, the locals were extremely friendly. I walked past Warren Buffets house and had to do a double take I had the right place, it doesn’t stick out or look lavish at all.


Minneapolis, a very brief pitstop here but spent about 4 hours walking around the river which has some impressive damns and bridges, and the history of Minneapolis is tied to these.


Detroit – one of the many completely abandoned factories. I saw three on the day, including the massive former Packard Plant. It is pretty confronting and shocking to see how much of the City is boarded up or in a state of disrepair. It reminded me of parts of New Orleans. It is scary to see what can happen to Cities in a 1st world Country.