Casinos, Canyons and Forest Giants – National Parks of USA

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To some it is a modern-day Gomorrah, but whatever your view, Las Vegas is a fascinating experience, if only to marvel at the brash vulgarity and total unreality of it all. For us it was the starting point of a three week, 2500 mile self-drive tour, which took us to some of the most beautiful and spectacular scenery In North America.

After a day in Las Vegas recovering from the flight (and adjusting to the culture shock!) we picked up our rented Ford Taurus GL and set off into the desert. Our first night was spent at the Grand Canyon, a comfortable first day’s drive. One reads a lot about the Grand Canyon and although our expectations were high, they were surpassed by the sheer size and scale of the landscape which awaited us on the South Rim.

Our next stop was at a little settlement called Mexican Hat, not far from Monument Valley. We had booked all our hotels and motels in advance from the UK and we were glad that we did. At Mexican Hat we witnessed several hopeful travellers turned away while also being given discouraging news that they would be unlikely to find a bed within a radius of 150 miles! Monument Valley, the location for innumerable commercials and John Wayne Westerns, seemed rather familiar, although once again we were not prepared for the size of the monoliths of rock which project from the desert floor. The Valley is inside the Navajo reservation and all the tours are conducted by Navajo Indian (or rather Native American) guides. Apart from the dramatic scenery it was quite an education to see the Navajo still living in very primitive conditions, scratching a living from tourism and their small flocks of sheep, from whose wool they weave some beautiful, brightly coloured rugs.

From Mexican Hat we continued eastward to Durango, Colorado. Durango, situated at 6000ft among the foothills of the American Rockies, was formerly a silver mining town. Nowadays it is predominantly a tourist centre – hiking, camping, horse riding etc. in the summer and skiing in the winter. The scenery here is dramatically different – no more harsh deserts and scrubland but snow-capped mountains, rivers, forests and meadows. The principle attraction is the Durango and Silverton narrow gauge railroad which follows the Animas River some 45 miles up to Silverton, an old mining settlement 9500ft up in the mountains. Another attraction, not far from Durango, is the Mesa Verde National Park which has the greatest concentration of ancient cliff dwellings in North America.

From Durango we travelled to Moab in Utah which is close to Arches National Park with its impressive collection of natural rock arches. Then it was on to Bryce Canyon with its fins and pinnacles of red, pink and yellow sandstone, looking like rows of giant terracotta warriors, which were quite stunning in the evening sunlight.

From Bryce we headed back for a one-night stop at Las Vegas, travelling through the very lovely Zion National Park, with its massive cliffs and the lush Virgin River valley. After the beauty and serenity of the mountains and canyons, the flashing neon, the unending clatter of coins and the raucous babble of humanity in Las Vegas seemed almost blasphemous! The next morning, having declined the opportunity of playing electronic bingo during breakfast, we got out of town as quickly as possible!

Our destination was Death Valley – hardly an improvement on Las Vegas one might think. In fact it was a far more interesting place than we ever imagined. Far from being totally lifeless, there are in fact over 1000 species of plants and animals in the valley as well as a number of other surprises. Can you believe an opera house with two performances a week at Death Valley Junction, a date palm planation at the Furnace Creek oasis or a Moorish mansion with a huge pipe organ? In order to get the best view of the Valley we drove up to Dante’s View, from where 5000ft up, we could see the vast Salt Lake below, the mountains either side and in the distance, the small patch of green which is Furnace Creek. Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth but fortunately the temperature was only a trifling 105 degrees Fahrenheit!

After an overnight stay at Furnace Creek Ranch we set off for Sequoia National Park. This was one of our longest single day’s drives, but it turned out to be rather longer than anticipated as a result some poor map reading and a puncture!

The next day these little irritations were soon forgotten as we walked through the magnificent pine forest, gazing in almost religious awe at the giant sequoias. These trees are the largest living things on earth, up to 3000 years old, some 300ft high and measuring up to 36ft in diameter.

From here it was an easy day’s drive to Yosemite, perhaps the best known of America’s National Parks. Much has been written of the beauty of this place with its huge granite domes, waterfalls, forest and meadows and it is certainly breath-taking. We spent three days in and around Yosemite largely relaxing at the excellent Tenaya Lodge Hotel and recovering from our fairly active trip. Then it was back to San Francisco with its fine residences and restaurants, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and all other attractions which make this such an interesting city. Regrettably there is never enough time to do everything and we had to leave on our British Airways flight back to London!

It's a country of superlatives - I know!

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No, I'm not a Travel Guru, but I have loved travelling since I was five years old, and more than love travel... I love to share my experiences... and show you our Wonderful World through my eyes!

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