This was a (just over) three week trip that I took in September 2015. The trip can only really be taken from May-October due to a pass though the Sierra Nevada being closed in the winter. However, could be modified with a flight to Vegas.
Also, I would say it is best to have a car. When planning this I did look at other options but for the freedom and to reduce travel time having a car is the way forward. Another issue is that many supermarkets and such are inaccessible without a car. I did see a hop on hop off bus that included these routes along with the greyhound bus that stops in many of these definitions. Finally, you could go with a tour? I am sure they exist.
Anyway, this was an incredible trip that I enjoyed so much so I wanted to share it with you all to give you some ideas for your next adventure.
For this trip I recommend you by a pass park for the car at the beginning is is 80USD and can be bought online or at the first park you get to- have a look here. When I did this trip I picked up a cheap tent at the beginning and camped my way around but when I did stay in a real bed I used booking.com which has a range of accommodation from apartments to hostels to hotels. But I would also take a look on airbnb.
Day 1-5 San Francisco
Although it was not necessary to spend 5 days in the city I am glad we did as I loved it just walking around was great and we got to see all the major sites. The architecture was amazing. And we chose a good time (September) to go as there was little fog so we had nice views of golden gate bridge. My biggest tip for the city is to book Alcatraz (if you want to go) way ahead of time!!! A more in depth post of what to get up to in San Francisco to follow.
Day 6 Berkley then overnight in Merced
Berkley is the home to California University and is an incredible campus. I had never dreamed that the visions you see in the films depicting American collage life are true. But low and behold as we were walking around there were frat parties and students drinking out of red cups
We decided to include this trip as there was a collage football game on, so perhaps this is why there was such an incredible atmosphere around that day. I would recommend to everyone to go and see a collage football game if you have the chance- I knew none of the rules but just the marching band made my day. Information about the sports going on at the uni can be found here.
Also, this was a great chance to get speaking to people where we were told to go up to Grizzly point. I will include a picture although it does not do the place justice. From up hear you can see the whole of San Francisco Bay; an incredible place to picnic and enjoy the view.
Do an overnight in Merced (or perhaps a little closer to Yosemite) to break up the drive, it is a pretty big town with a fair amount going on. There is a huge Wallmart here, which is a good place to pick up camping supplies for the rest of the holiday, and if you have a bit of time you can go and see the Merced county court house or Yosemite lake with its a big fishing culture. The place has a huge range of motels to choose from and they all have parking. We stayed here it was about 40USD for the night and was clean tidy and had marking.
Hours of driving: 0.5 + 2
Day 7-8 Yosemite National Park
Get up super early from Merced to make your way to Yosemite. Be warned, camping gets booked up really fast (like as soon as the go on sale) especially in the popular campsites so book in advance- that being said there are some first come first serve available book here for camping we paid between 12 and 24USD for our sites. There is the option to not camp, but the limited spaces in the hotels this sells out even quicker.
So, I know I have just rambled about the place filling up fast BUT we did not book and still managed to get a space- and it was Labour Day weekend. We were staying in Tuolumne Meadows which is not in the thick of camping life; none the less it was a nice spot. The preferred places are on the valley floor like the North or Upper Pines camp grounds. Watch out for the bears and remember to always use the bear boxes provided (for food and toiletries) for your safety and the bears.
I would also recommend that if timing is not too much of an issue on your trip or if you are willing to compromise in other areas it would be well worth staying another day in Yosemite as it is stunning and there are so many trails!
Hours of driving: 2 (depending on where you camp- there is a free bus in the park to take you around)
Day 9 Yosemite to Lone Pine
The drive out of Yosemite only from the valley floor only takes about two hours but I would recommend allowing at least double this to allow the time to stop along the way and take photos. There are a few lakes worth stopping at along the way (I thought Tioga was the prettiest).
After coming out of Yosemite go to Mono lake, a shallow saline lake with tufa growing out of it. It is quite a sight. You can see first-hand the drastic effects That the redirection of water is having in certain areas- the water level here has fallen to a critical low since the water began to be diverted to Los Angeles.
Drive on from Mono lake as far as you can to make the drive to Death Valley- for us this was to a Portagee Joe camp ground in Lone Pine, which was 10USD a night but I think they have put their prices up since then. The views of the mountains on this road are beautiful and some of the small towns we drove through made us feel as though we were in the wild west.
Hours of driving: 4 hours (big day but frequent stops)
Day 10 Death Valley ending in Las Vegas
Another early start to drive on to Death Valley (using the Panamint spring entrance) – named as it is so so hot!! It has the highest average temperature than anywhere on earth. We didn’t manage to get out of the car much for this reason, but the place is arranged so you can drive straight up to most viewpoints. When you enter the national park, you can get a map but some of the places I recommend are the borax works, the artistic drive (some amazing rock colours here) and the devils golf course. I also went to Badwater basin but found it a little underwhelming. There are several other stops that could be included.
Leave via the Death Valley junction and continue to Las Vegas. We stayed here it was a little out of the way but had a free shuttle to the strip and a pool and our rooms were really nice for 60USD.
Hours driving: 4 (another big day but again frequent stops through death valley for sight seeing)
Day 11 Las Vegas
I don’t want to say any specifics of that to do in Vegas, because people go for a variety of reasons. Gambling being a big one but there is so many other things to do so I think you should explore the options before your trip and see what you would like to do- also consider if you have time to spend a little more time here. I would obviously suggest to take a walk down the strip and see the overly frivolous buildings, and even if you’re not going to gamble I would definitely walk into some of the casinos (notably the Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Venetian and the mirage). You could also go and see one of the many shows- but be warned they are not cheaper last minute so it is probably better to book in advance so you can at lease go and see one you like. You could see the dancing fountains at the Bellagio that do off every half an hour in the day and ever 15 minutes in the evening. Also, conceder going up the stratosphere tower for dinner for views over the city.
Be prepared if you are a get to pay loads more than women to get into parties and clubs. Also, be aware that the minimum bets on the tables are high and get higher as the night goes on- but if you are sat at the tables you will often get “free” drinks.
Hours driving: 2.5 (Vegas to Zion)
Day 12-13 Zion National Park
Get up early and travel on to Zion national park– camping inside the park can be tough here but in the town of Springdale we found there was plenty- and there is a free bus from Springdale into the park in order to reduce the traffic flow. This park was beautiful I recommend to do the narrows walk and if you are fit enough Angels landing (this was amazing). We also walked the emerald pools but- didn’t find them too emerald or with much water perhaps because it was September. We stayed here which was expensive as a camp site at 45USD but it did have a pool. On the evening of the second day drive to Bryce. Also, make sure you do the big walks early in the morning as it heats up fast.
Hours driving: 1.5 (Zion to Bryce)
Day 14 Bryce Canyon National Park
Wake up early and go in to Bryce Canyon National Park and see the sunrise at sunrise point and see the natural amphitheatre light up. There are a number of other viewing points and loads of hikes see here We stayed at this camp ground and it was really nice and even had cabins at tepees set up if you don’t want to pitch your own tent- out bitch was 35USD. In the evening drive on to Page.
Hours driving: 3 (Bryce to Page)
Day 15 Page
Page is the town situated next to Lake Powell and there is a wealth of activities to do here. Most of them including the water. The lake is actually a reservoir and you can drive over and stop at the huge dam that has created it. I went kayaking around but many other hired boats and you can also go on boat tours of the place. Close by in Antelope Canyon where the local Navajo people will show you around these beautiful rock formations. However, not in the heavy rain due to risk of flash flooding. In Page itself there aren’t too many camping options but we stayed here which was a modest 19USD a night,
In the evening drive on to The grand Canyon stopping in Tusayan.
Hours driving: 2.5 (Page to Tusayan)
Day 16 Grand Canyon National Park
When here we stayed at dessert view campground which was only 12USD per night but was fist come first serve. Grand Canyon is spectacular, but many people choose to do a helicopter ride from Vegas and see the north rim but the south rim is much prettier. I got a helicopter ride from Tusayan which I loved but I warn you it was a bumpy ride- but the weather had been bad the day before- which made it an unsavoury event for other people in the helicopter.
Although I thought the helicopter ride was great after when I was back on land and started walking around the park I found that that was incredible too and there was a free bus system so it was easy to get around. You can do the rim walk around or you can actually do a walk from the south rim all the way to the north rim but this obviously takes some fitness and I believe a few days as well. In the evening drive on to flagstaff.
Hours driving: 1.5 (Tusayan to Flagstaff)
Day 17 Flagstaff
This Is a university town so it is worth going out here in the evening as there are plenty of bars and cheap eateries. But in the day time you will walk around and notice how quirky the place is. It also may be worth a visit to nearby Wupaki or Kaibab national parks. There are plenty of motels to stay in around here but I will specifically not recommend the Kings Inn because of their poor service.
In the evening drive on to Lake Havasu.
Hours driving: 3 (Flagstaff to Lake Havasu City)
Day 18 Lake Havasu City
This stop is primarily to break up the long drive. So, in the morning you could just set off again. However, Lake Havasu City does have a lot to offer. For one you can see London Bridge which was moved brick by brick from London when it began to sink by an oil tycoon. There are also plenty of water sports to do here and a number of bars and restaurants. Again many motels for a fair price- we stayed a little further out for a cheaper price. In the evening drive on to your next destination (Joshua Tree or Calico).
Hours driving: 3 (Lake Havasu to Joshua Tree or Calico)
Day 19 Ghost Town or Joshua Tree National Park
I put two options in here as you may just be national parked out by this point.
So, first Calico- this is one of Americas ghost towns and it is classic tacky American with people dressed up and everything. The place has been rebuilt as many of the buildings were ruins. It is a tourist trap but arguabley a fun one. With loads of weird knickknacks to buy in the shop. Also, nearby is Peggy Sue’s American dinner which is unarguably tackier than the ghost town done up in 50s style serving all American food. An experience to say the least- I recommend the root beer float. Stay here as this campsite has so many free activities and games as well as a pool and a giant inflatable- priced at 33USD/night.
If you can handle another national park the head to Joshua tree to see the trees which have stunted growth that give the park its name. There are a number of walks you can do that will take just the morning. There are plenty of campsites inside the park that cost between 15-20USD. In the evening drive on to LA.
Hours driving: 2 (for the final trip to LA)
Day 20-23 Los Angles
I was expecting good things from LA but ultimately it was probably my least favourite place on the trip. I can’t put my finger on exactly why; perhaps the hordes of people, the traffic, the drastic differences between wealth?
But anyway, it is the easiest place to fly out of and a natural end point to the trip. I will do another post in more detail about how to spend a weekend in LA. But my top things were- taking a tour around Beverly hills, although you can very easily (and cheaply) by a map and do it youself, cycling from Santa Monica to Venice (and taking all day to do it), the stars on Hollywood Boulevard and seeing the Hollywood sign.
We kept the rental car in LA as we heard that it was tough to get around- but we hardly used it. Partially because parking was so tight around us but we also made use of the free transport put on by the hostel we stayed at, ubers and public transport.
Note that to get into the USA you will need to apply for an ESTA which you can do here.
We booked out car through Avis and did opt to pay for the insurance. We had a really good experience with them and we had to have a call out.
Get a US sim card from T-Mobile for 30USD fro 3 weeks here– super helpful for maps and booking places along the way.
This trip cost me £1200 plus flights but a car hire and rooms/pitches were split 2 (or 3 past Las Vegas) ways. I think you could do this trip a lot more frivolously and spend a lot more. But I don’t think you could do it too much cheaper?