California & Southwest

Did you know that in Italy one couple out of three chooses the United States of America for their honeymoon?
Even if C and I, we were one of the other two couples, still we felt the fascination of the USA and so, to properly celebrate our first anniversary, in 2006 we planned a trip to California and the Southwest.

MV_Wildcat trail
After a 3-stop flight, we landed very late in San Francisco and took a cab to our hotel, which was very peculiar and romantic, with stained glass windows and antique furniture, and was also conveniently located on Alamo Sq, just across the street from the famous Painted ladies. And I’m sorry to say it is closed.
We spent 3 days in SAN FRANCISCO. First thing, we got ourselves a 3-days pass for the MUNI, the public transport and we immediately used it to jump on the cable car from Market Street to the beaches. Cable cars are used mainly from tourists these days, and our first ride was level with our expectations: the gripman (the driver) was very funny and we stood on the running boards, gripping desperately to the pole in front of us, which was also quite funny, especially in the steepest parts!
When we got to the beaches, we passed through Fisherman’s Wharf, headed towards Pier 41 to book the trip to Alcatraz for the following day. We made our way through the tourist crap and saw the sea lions at Pier 39, then tasted the local snack at the stalls on Pier 45: boiled crab.
Every movie freak has watched a certain number of movies set in Alcatraz, most set in the years the prison was in operation (until 1963). Now the prison is almost a ruin, as portrayed in “The rock”. There’s nothing on the island: no tourist crap and not even tourist info, except a couple of leaflets; there is no food or refreshments, and after a couple of hours there’s nothing else to do but come back to San Francisco.
We went to North Beach, the neighbourhood that historically was home to a large Italian community and we went to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store (566 Columbus Ave @ Union Street) hoping for a real espresso coffee. Espresso was just decent, instead the sandwiches were very good, and I was almost moved by the pictures on the wall, so Italian and so ’60s, with Mario in his black barista uniform, with immaculate white shirt and black tie….
From Little Italy to Chinatown, looking for Jack Burton’s stolen lorry cab: from the bus, it looked a lot like Hong Kong, with chicken hanging from the butcher shops and dried plants and animals for chinese medicine. Very different from the touristic part of Chinatown further on, immediately behind the Dragon’s gate.
Last mandatory tour for cinema lovers, the Presidio and the Golden Gate, passing through the lovely Russian Hill neighbourhood, where we drove very slowly down the one-way block of Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth, famous as the crookedest street in the world.
San Francisco food scene is renown, so I’ll just say that I really liked Hayes Street Grill (320 Hayes St, Civic Center) and the avocado and Morro Bay shrimp salad that they made back in 2006.

On our brand new rental car, we took State Route 1, aka Pacific Coast Highway, and drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
There are many points of interest along Highway 1, but we had scheduled only 3 days to get to L.A. so we had to make choices.
We stopped in MONTEREY for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, not at all disappointing, and then in CARMEL for the mission, a couple of times along BIG SUR’s rugged coast.
We stayed one night in SAN LUIS OBISPO, to sleep at the Best Western on Madonna Road that was quite new and good, and also very close to a decent steakhouse, Tahoe Joe’s (485 Madonna Rd). The following morning, visited the mission.
What in San Francisco was haze, along the coast turned into fog, as often happens in September, so we didn’t spend much time on the beaches, but all the way from SANTA BARBARA (where there is another Mission, the biggest) to L.A. is a long sequence of beautiful, big, ocean beaches : Zuma is my favourite. Also, the rich mansions along Shoreline Dr. in Santa Barbara, Pacific Palisades, Malibu are amazing!
Finally, we got to the City of Angels, where we stayed 3 days.
Compared to San Francisco, LOS ANGELES is rather plain. The good news is that they know it: so L.A. is home to every kind of theme parks: we visited Dysneyland and the Universal Studios.
We also went to Hollywood, along Sunset Blvd to the Kodak Theatre and the Grauman Chinese Theatre, where we visited the studio of Paramount Pictures: a very technical tour. And we also visited the cemetery where many movie stars are buried… the grave of Johnny Ramone is a must-see.
Our hotel was in Santa Monica, so at night we could walk to restaurants, without worrying about parking.
Even if I’ve last been there many years ago, I can safely recommend The Lobster (1602 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica) because in all this time I sent there every friend of mine who happened to be in L.A., and never had any negative feedback. Surely not cheap, but worth it; better reserve or expect a long queue for dinner. Amazing view.

Finally, we hit the road for 10 days of parks and recreation.
First of all, we bought an annual National Park Pass. The pass is valid for 1 vehicle, and generally up to 4 occupants. It saves you money if you plan to visit more than two parks, and we had plans to visit six.
As a lifelong U2 fan, I wanted to go to JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, which is very beautiful, and I’d like to thank U2 for making it famous, otherwise I would have never known anything about it. I loved Hidden Valley trail (very easy and short, less than 1 hour).
GRAND CANYON, where I learnt a couple of basic facts. First, at dinner it’s useless to ask the waiter if we could have a table by the window, because obviously the canyon is not lit up at night, so you basically end up seating by a dark window, plus you constantly get this feeling that the waiter is smirking whenever he passes by the table… Second, canyon trails are very different hikes from mountain trail. In the mountains you go up when you’re fresh, and down on the way back. In a canyon trail, you go down when you’re fresh and then you have to climb back when you’re already tired. As we did not plan to sleep down the canyon, we hiked just 4 hour on Bright Angel Trail.
MONUMENT VALLEY NAVAJO TRIBE LAND is not included in the National Park Pass. We planned to stay at the famous Gouldings Lodge, but it was fully booked, so we opted for the Holiday Inn in Kayenta. Kayenta is in the middle of nowhere, so not much choice for food, and nothing to do after dinner. We took the opportunity to do some washing machine at the hotel. Also, Monument Valley is in Navajo land, so no alcohol.
From Monument Valley we moved towards Page, along US-160 W AZ-98 W. AZ-98 is one of the most panoramic route I have ever drove: multicolour buttes, paradise valleys… every view surpasses the previous.
Before entering Page, we went to Horseshoe bend, where the Colorado river has wounded a U-turn in the rock. My advice: go there in the morning, at sunset light is not good for pictures.
Close to Page, we also meant to visit Antelope Canyons, an obsession amid photographers, but discovered that the Navajos who run the site are quite greedy, so we gave up.
From Page, we drove by the shores of Lake Powell along US-89 into Utah, with the red of the Vermilion Cliffs on our side. I strongly suspect that every road is extremely panoramic in this part of the US.
In Utah we visited Bryce Canyon and Zion.
For BRYCE CANYON NP allow at least one day, and an early start. There are many viewpoints in the southern part of the park, and many trails in the northern part: we hiked the Rim trail from Sunrise Point to Inspiration Point, encompassing all the Amphitheater. Then we trailed back to Sunset Point, whence we took the Navajo Trail that led us down into the canyon and to the junction with Queen Garden Trail and back up to Sunrise Point. To celebrate the day, buy a beer at the general store and go drink it at the Fairyland viewpoint.
ZION NP is not as easy to visit. First of all it’s huge, and there are very few roads, that don’t go really near the remotest areas. So we stayed in the most popular areas, to the south east of the park. If you can chose, enter from the east gate, by the Checkerboard Mesa and through the tunnel on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway… the views are unbeatable. All the trails are short and not very rewarding, but weeping rock is interesting.
Then on our way back to California we made an overnight stop in LAS VEGAS, Nevada. We stayed just one night and we were staying at the Bellagio, “Oceans’eleven” style. In general, to get a decent rate for a luxury room, be there midweek or sunday. If you wish to see one of the Cirque du Soleil shows, book ahead. To eat, the best option are the casinos’ buffet, pricey but worth it.
One night is enough to walk the Strip, trying to decide which casino is the most boorish, and Las Vegas by day is a very dull place, so you will want to head to Hoover Dam, at the border between Nevada and Arizona. The dam (the one of the Superman movie back in the ‘80s) is impressive, to say the least. In 2006, Nevada used to charge $6 for the parking, while the Arizona side had huge, empty and free parking lots.
From Vegas we got back to California passing through DEATH VALLEY NP, my favourite park, so scary it’s beautiful. Temperatures can easily pass the 100F mark (38°C) from the beginning of May to the end of September, and the world’s record high of 134F (56,7°C) has been recorded in 1913 in what is now called Furnace Creek. So if you choose to go in the summer, keep in mind it’s going to be as hot as hell. This is probably why the places in the park have so cheering names such as Devil’s Golf Course, Devils Cornfield, Funeral Peak, Coffin Peak, Deadman pass, Desolation Canyon…
Furnace Creek is now the place where many tourist facilities are and before, where the Pacific Coast Borax Company had its headquarters: the company used to mine borax and to move it through the Mojave desert using carts moved by 20 mules.
We entered from the east, at Death Valley Junction, and immediately took a 13 km detour to Dante’s View over the Badwater Basin below. Badwater basin lays 85,5 mt below sea level and it is a spring pool of “bad water”, bad because of the accumulated salt that gives it the characteristic lunar white colour. Resuming the road, Zabriskie Point is amazing.
Leaving the park on CA-190, we stopped in Lone Pine for the night. Lone Pine is an unremarkable town that surprised us with a remarkable restaurant: Seasons (206 S Main St). We had a perfect modern American/French-inspired dinner.
The following morning we headed north, and we stopped after 180 km to see the DEVIL POSTPILE NM, an impressive rock formation, with octagonal basalt columns, like those of Ireland’s Giants’ Causeway, set in a lovely mountain scenery.
120 km later, we entered YOSEMITE NP from the Tioga Pass in the east and drove the 39 mi of the Tioga Road to the west entrance, for we were staying in in Groveland, some 20 mi further on on Hwy 120 (Hotel Charlotte 18736 Main Street, the owners are real enthusiasts and very helpful; plus there’s a good Mexican restaurant just next door).
To do the park any justice, minimum 2 days are required, considering that one will be entirely spent in Yosemite Valley, trying to decide which looks best between El Capitan and Half Dome… We also spent some time in Tuolumne Grove, on the Big Oak Flat Road to see the sequoias. Before you go, make sure you check out Ansel Adams incredible photographs of Yosemite.