Facts, Figures and Best Ofs

Sunday, January 23, 2011
  1. In total we drove over 8,500 miles which is enough to get from London to South East Asia.
  2. We spent under $700 on petrol to drive that distance. That was in a car which did around 25mpg. Compare that to my Yaris at home, which gets 55mpg and would have cost us over $1,200 to drive the same distance.
  3. On the drive we saw a license plate from 49 of the 50 states. The only one we didn’t see was unsurprisingly Hawaii, though Alaska seemed unlikely until we saw some near the West Coast. Each of the Alaskans was over 3,000 miles from home!
  4. We passed through 18 states and one district (the District of Columbia), and also drove over into Ontario , Canada. The only state we didn’t get out in was Delaware, which we passed through on the train from Philadelphia to Washington DC. We stayed the night in 16 of the states – Delaware and Indiana were the exceptions.
  5. The longest distance we ever went in a single day was 448 miles from Las Vegas to Bakersfield via Death Valley. The second longest was 410 from Washington DC to Niagara Falls on my first day driving in another country!

Top Five drives of the trip:

  1. US Route 14 through the Bighorn Mountains. This drive was quite literary spectacular, with views as far as the eye could see of Eastern Wyoming to begin with, followed by beautiful mountain scenery as we climbed up to over 8,000ft. After the climb came the descent, which featured winding roads through 2billion year old granite mountains, with a river running through the middle. Finally as we drove away from the range, we could see the Rockies in the distance as we entered the Bighorn basin; a barren wilderness which separates the two ranges.
  2. California State Route 198 through Sequoia National Park (aka General’s Highway). This road enters the park from the South West, and exits to the North West. It is nicknamed the General’s Highway since it is the road that must be taken to the giant sequoia grove, which is home to the world’s largest living organism: the General Sherman tree. On the way it snakes up the windiest mountain road we encountered on the whole trip (even worse than Zion Canyon’s famous Eastern entry road), and to add to the experience it was an extremely foggy day so we could barely see where we were going. Upon reaching the grove the incredible giant sequoias begin to appear, and once through it we had some great views over the whole park.
  3. California State Route 190 through Death Valley National Park. We joined this road just after the Nevada/California border, and took it all the way through Death Valley until we reached Mount McKinley to the West. Aside from the fact it passes through some of the most remarkable scenery in the whole world, the road itself is a very interesting drive. It begins in pure desert, passes through the salt flats of Death Valley at around 200ft below sea level, climbs up to over 5,000ft in a mere few miles (the climb is almost like a giant staircase going steep then flat, steep then flat etc), crosses two mountain ranges winding significantly in the process, and then finally ends at the tallest mountain in the lower 48. It would be difficult to plan a better drive if you tried. A fact which I later learned about the road is that it actually remains unfinished, with it appearing again in California’s central valley, about 50 miles West of the terminus we encountered. The 50 mile gap features mountain wilderness and the state currently has no plans to join the two parts of the road – if they had we would have avoided an approximately 150 mile detour to get between Death Valley and Sequoia parks.
  4. John D Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway from the South entrance of Yellowstone, through Grand Teton National Park to Jackson, Wyoming. This road was named after the famous philanthropist (and son of the richest man ever), who was instrumental in expanding the National Park System in the early 20th Century. It was particularly memorable due to the dramatic change in scenery along its relatively short length. It travels along Jackson Lake, where the Teton range can be seen in all its glory. Unlike the gentle rounded peaks of Yellowstone, the Tetons are sharp and jagged, and on a nice day (such as when we were there), beautiful reflections can be seen in the water.
  5. California Route 1 from Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo. This is one of the most famous scenic drives in the USA, and a common route for tourists travelling between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When passing through the Big Sur area it soon becomes obvious why – a windy road across sheer cliffs which seem to come straight out of the Pacific Ocean. Though the road itself didn’t quite compare to some of those described above, the scenery was magnificent, and it was strange driving almost on the water and knowing there was no land west of us until Asia. To top it off we saw a perfect sunset over the Ocean – something which it was worth driving west-ward all those miles for.

Other roads worth mentioning that didn’t make the top 5:

  1. The I90 past Badlands National Park
  2. East entry road to Zion National Park
  3. Any road near Monument Valley when the monoliths come into view
  4. Devil’s Hole Road leading to Ash Meadows Road, Nevada (scariest road of the trip due to its extreme isolation).
  5. Arizona Route 67 to the Grand Canyon North Rim across the Kaibab Plateau

Best Cities:

  1. Chicago (The Little New York). Don’t get me wrong, New York, Philadelphia and DC are great cities, each with their own sell points, but if we had to choose anywhere to live on the Eastern side of the USA, it would be Chicago. If you want to be pedantic and call Chicago the Mid-West then I guess DC would be our preferred East Coast city. Chicago seemed to have everything that New York had, but in a smaller environment, and set on a calm fresh-water lake with great beaches (as opposed to the cold and choppy Atlantic Ocean). We got a really good feel from our short time there, and staying out in the suburbs gave us a flavour of what commuting might be like!
  2. San Francisco (Easiest the most fun city in the USA). Or so our guidebook said. It turned out that we more or less agreed with the sentiment’s of the author, since from the minute we arrived in the Bay Area, we both thought it seemed a great place to live. The whole Bay Area is beautiful, and set right on the Pacific with a slightly milder climate than further south in Los Angeles and San Diego (which is a good thing in the middle of the Summer). The city had a great feel and was cleaner and safer than other major cities we had been in. Only problem is the earthquake risk, but I guess that’s the price to pay to live in such a nice place.

Best National Park:

  1. A significant part of our route revolved solely around incorporating Yellowstone National Park into our travels. Instead of cutting straight across the Mid-West from Chicago along the famous Route 66, we instead continued on the I90, and crossed the North States until we reached Yellowstone. Only after reaching Yellowstone did we head South through the Rockies, and onwards through Canyon Country to California (we eventually met Route 66 at its Western terminus of Santa Monica Pier).
  2. The detour turned out to be well worth it, since despite the best efforts of around a dozen other national parks, the unique geothermal features of Yellowstone made it stand out the most in our minds. There is something exceptionally exciting about knowing you are standing (and driving) on one of the largest active volcanoes in the world, and that the incredible sights being witnessed are merely the warning signs of a potentially continent-devastating explosion. Highlights included the bright oranges of the Grand Prismatic Spring, bubbling mud pots, the Old Faithful geyser, and of course the abundant and intriguing wildlife.

Biggest Surprises:

  1. The whole of South Dakota. As a state, I cannot recommend South Dakota highly enough. Before we went anyone we spoke to suggested crossing the state would be a particularly boring route across the country. It turned out none of these people had been to South Dakota themselves, which explains a lot! The state provided some great sights, including (but not limited to): Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, Badlands National Park, authentic cowboys and abandoned Wild West ghost towns, the World’s only corn palace, abundant American Indian history, beautiful views on the river Missouri, and corn, corn, corn as far as the eye can see!
  2. Canyonlands National Park. It seems this national park is somewhat overshadowed by the nearby Arches National Park, and the more famous Grand, Zion and Bryce Canyons further South. I can’t say I’m sure why. It turned out to have a bit of everything; from an arch comparable to the greatest of Arches National Park (Mesa arch), to sprawling canyons as far as the eye can see (at the Grand viewpoint). In addition it has a huge crater impact site and two additional regions which are only accessible in a 4x4. Definitely don’t write it off as just ‘more canyons’ if you are nearby!

And that’s just about it! Sorry this last part has taken so long coming, and sorry it is a long one. If you made it to the end and have read every part then thanks again and see you on our next trip!

The two travellers,

James & Lauren