Posted by: bkivey | 12 August 2010

Holiday Roads Pt. 1

So it’s getting on toward the middle of August, maybe you or the kids will be back in school soon, and you still haven’t done that American rite of summer; the road trip. Well, if you can’t quite swing that trip to Spain, I’ve got some suggestions for you.

Because I live in close proximity to a major city my preference on vacation is for the non-urban experience, and this list reflects that. There are some cities I’ll spend vacation time in and I’ve included a few. So load up the Family Truckster and check out to one of these  places that are worth the trip. Some of the destinations are at their best in seasons other than Summer, but all are worth a week or so.


 The main attraction here is, as the state’s nickname suggests, the Grand Canyon, but there are many other things to see and do here.

Flagstaff is a good base; it’s at 7000 feet so if you go in the summer it’s cooler than the flatlands. You’ll want to pay attention to where your hotel is because there’s a railroad that runs right through the middle of town and it sees a fair amount of traffic.

About 45 minutes east on I-40 is Meteor Crater, well marked from the highway. Another hour and a half eastward takes you to the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park. You can easily spend a day here, and no, you can’t take any of the petrified wood with you. Along the way you’ll pass through the famous Winslow, AZ, where you may want to stand on a corner; maybe you’ll see a girl in a black buckboard.

About an hour and a half north of the city is the South Rim overlook of Grand Canyon National Park. It’s worth spending some time here. If you want to drive through the desert you can visit Page about two hours north where you’ll find the whopping big Glen Canyon Dam and a very impressive lake. When I was there Page had a neat little museum where you could try your hand at stone grinding corn and watch a video on how the First Nations people create the black glaze on their pottery.

Flagstaff is also home to Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered, and Sunset Crater National Monument, which is worth a look. Even if you live on the East Coast it’s an easy day’s travel to Flagstaff and in three or four days you can see most of what Arizona has to offer without feeling rushed.


California is such a large state that you really have to choose the northern or southern half and stick to it. Unless you really like to spend hours behind the wheel or have the budget for intrastate air travel it’s probably better just to spend a week in one place.

The South

Los Angeles isn’t my cup of tea, so I’ve avoided going there unless I had to. Still, if you’re going to vacation in southern California it’s probably a good place to stay, because most of the things to see in this part of the state are accessible from there. I would recommend staying in one of the suburbs, such as Ontario, because the airports aren’t as crowded and the hotel rates are cheaper.

After you’ve seen and done what you liked in L.A. you can drive a couple hours south to San Diego, a city I do like. Balboa Park downtown and a world-class zoo along with easy access to Tijuana if you’re so inclined. Be aware that there are big noisy birds flying around as the airport is smack in the middle of downtown. If you’re spending the night you’ll be relieved to know the airport shuts down at 10 PM.

If you want to get out of town you can take I-15 north to US 395 and head for Death Valley. This is more of a two day side trip than a one day excursion unless you’re planning on a really long day, and that sort of defeats the purpose of a vacation. There is a road that heads NE off of 395 about two hours out of Ontario that will take you into the Valley, but I recommend continuing north on 395. The drive turns more scenic and you can see Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US, and there is an opportunity to head off into the Sequoia National Forest to the west.

If you’re really ambitious you can bypass the Hwy. 190 turnoff which is the scenic route into Death Valley and keep heading north another hour or so to Big Pine. The attraction here is the bristlecone pine, which lives above 10,000 feet and many of which are nearly 5,000 years old. There is still another 30 -40 minutes of driving past Big Pine to the actual trees, and about half of that is dirt road. Be warned, these are not the towering majestic trees of the giant redwoods; these trees are stunted and gnarled and quite unimpressive. But I’d never seen anything that old, especially anything that was alive. You’re opinion on the effort versus satisfaction ratio may vary.

There are a surprising amount of things to see in Death Valley. It is very easy to spend a day here and still not see everything. You will want to make sure that you don’t have to buy gas in the confines of the park as it’s very expensive. I do recommend that you get out of the car and walk around and see some of the rock formations, although some of the most interesting ones are a fair distance from the road and up slopes. It’s about four hours back to LA from Death Valley.

The North

The two major areas of interest in northern California are San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. If you are spending a week in this area I would recommend staying in a central location like Modesto, which is about halfway between the two. From there it’s about two hours to either location. There isn’t a lot to recommend Modesto as a destination but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than San Francisco.

You can easily spend an entire vacation in San Francisco, and a lot of people do. I lived there for a couple of years and was always finding something new. If you have kids the Exploratorium is a must. The weather is best in August and September but when the fog rolls in in the afternoon the temperature will drop considerably. The public transit is excellent but please remember that the cable cars are transportation, not an amusement ride. If you have a car take the opportunity to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to see the city from the Marin Headlands.

Yosemite National Park simply has to be seen to be believed. It is stunningly beautiful. If you spend less than a full day here you’re cheating yourself. There are a lot of people in the summer, so many that some may find the crowds off-putting. There are also a lot of people driving slowly while the admire the scenery.

Just to the east of the park is Mono Lake, notable for it’s tufa rock formations, and about 45 minutes south of the lake is the Devils Postpile National Monument, which is an impressive example of hexagonal basalt columns. If you go here you will have to park your car  ride the shuttle bus to the actual postpile. There is a fee.

If you’re driving back to your base from the east side of the Sierras and don’t want to drive back through Yosemite you can drive north on 395 for about an hour and cross the mountains on the scenic and somewhat scary Hwy. 108.

That’s about all you can reasonably see in a week in northern California. You may want to drive a bit on Hwy. 1 along the coast; Monterey is a couple of hours south of San Francisco. If you want to see the giant redwoods it’s a six hour drive north from San Francisco. Redwoods National Park is easier to access if you’re staying in southern Oregon, but that’s another post.


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