I’d never visited the Southwest of the USA. How could I call myself a seasoned traveller, when San Francisco was nothing more to me than a pop-song, Los Angeles a crime series, the Grand Canyon a world wonder from my school-books and Las Vegas a backdrop for Elvis and Sinatra?
Maybe allowing just two weeks was a bit over-ambitious for a Senior Traveller to drive the fifteen hundred miles from start to finish.
In practice it turned out to be a brilliant road trip. I had enough time to get a flavour of these four iconic places, with several National and State Parks thrown in for good measure.
I’ve already given my highlights of San Francisco, including the Mt Diablo State Park, in my article on San Francisco – Top Ten City. Whilst staying in the area, I also took the opportunity to visit Napa Valley. As always, I found the wine-tasting excellent. The bonus at the top end of Napa Valley was the Old Faithful Geyser of California – spectacular! Close by, and almost equally impressive, is the Petrified Forest. Seniors get discounts on entry charges at both sites.
San Francisco to Los Angeles
This 450 mile Pacific Coast journey along Highway 1 is generally considered to be one of the world’s great drives; I include it in my Top Ten Road Journeys.
The scenery is spectacular for much of the way, but you need to keep your eyes on the road as it passes up and down steep inclines, with sharp bends and narrow bridges. Fortunately the road has relatively little traffic, so I found the driving quite relaxed.
I stopped frequently to admire the views, so took two days over the journey, staying overnight at San Luis Obispo. One of the highlights of the drive was the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on the Big Sur coast. This park contains the McWay Falls – a waterfall that drops directly into the Ocean at high tide.
The coastline and forested area inland have been very well protected from obtrusive developments. What surprised and pleased me on this drive, was the almost total absence of advertising hoardings and fast food outlets!
I was disappointed with Venice Beach, even at sunset; it was all a bit shabby. It was interesting to see all the film-stars ‘stars’ on the pavement of the Hollywood Boulevard and we were entertained in the evening by a procession along the Boulevard of bands, dancers and vintage vehicles.
Of course we had to see the iconic ‘Hollywood’ sign from the Griffiths Observatory and take in the panoramic views over central Los Angeles. We decided that wandering the streets of the city, particularly after dark, was not a good idea for these Senior Travellers.
I always seek out botanic gardens wherever I visit for the peace and tranquillity they offer. Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden didn’t let me down. This well-managed 127 acre site reflects Southern California’s distinct climate, with lakes and unusual trees nestled on a hillside of the San Gabriel Mountains. Seniors 62+ get a 30% discount on entry charges.
Joshua Tree National Park
The Joshua Tree National Park is 100 miles west of Los Angeles, but a very worthwhile deviation before we headed off to the Grand Canyon. Allow plenty of time to visit this massive park so you can follow some of the walking trails and see ancient rock artwork. From the hills in the western part of the park, the San Andreas Fault is clearly visible.
I started from the north entrance early in the morning, but by the time I left from the south entrance 25 miles away, the evening was drawing in. It costs $15 per vehicle to visit the park for a day.
I managed to leave my credit card at the entry station, but was tracked down about 5 miles into the park by one of the Rangers who returned it; that’s what I call great service!
Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon
In theory this is along Route 66, but in practice much of that route has now been realigned. I detoured off the route on some short stretches of the old Route 66, but it has now lost the glamour of the continuous road from Chicago to Los Angeles.
The scenery along the way is pleasant, but unspectacular, and this proved to be the longest slog of this touring holiday, about 500 miles in total. Note that fuel filling stations are few and far between and that police helicopters are used to check on speeding cars.
The Grand Canyon
By good luck, we arrived at the Grand Canyon National Park on December 1st, the start of the winter season. That meant we didn’t have to travel on the shuttle bus service, but could drive along the South Rim in our own car and park where we wished for as long as we wanted.
We were also very lucky with the weather. Okay, so maybe it was a few degrees below freezing with snow on the ground, but who cared when it was a clear, bright sunny day. And there were hardly any other tourists there.
The Grand Canyon is very, very impressive! But words can’t describe it, and my photo only gives a small hint of its magnificence. The park entrance fee for a car is $20 with the ticket lasting for seven days.
There is an excellent online guide to trails in the Grand Canyon with free downloadable routes.
The Grand Canyon to Las Vegas
This is a mere 250 miles, including detours to the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. As we drove along in the early evening through flat, featureless desert, the bright lights of Las Vegas suddenly appeared like a strange oasis.
It is said that you either love or hate Las Vegas. Well, I loved visiting it for a couple of days, but would hate to return! It was fascinating to see the underground world of interconnecting casinos and the ridiculously over-the-top hotel buildings. We enjoyed a show with Sinatra-Martin-Davis Junior lookalikes, with surprisingly good singing voices.
But that was about it, and I was quite relieved to get out of town to visit the impressive Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
Getting There and Getting About
I flew into San Francisco from London and then returned from Las Vegas by Virgin Atlantic; it provides full services to economy passengers, unlike many American airlines.
Car hire was organised via Auto Europe, with no additional charge for picking up the car from San Francisco and dropping it off in Las Vegas.
Most of the hotels I stayed at were in the Intercontinental Hotel Group, which offers good Senior discounts. Of particular note were the Grand Canyon Holiday Inn Express, just one mile from the South Rim entrance, and the Las Vegas Staybridge Suites, which I include in my Top Ten Favourite Hotels.
This latter hotel is a good choice for Seniors visiting Las Vegas, as it is just south of the Strip, so avoids all the noise and bustle, whilst being within easy walking distance. Maybe that is why it always features in TripAdviser’s top ten Las Vegas hotels.
12 November 2014- Amanda Holmes says:
Both in our 60s’ we’re going on a World trip starting in January and will arrive in LA on the 24th March and leave LA on 5th April. Is it feasible to do a trip to the Grand Canyon and then on to San Francisco, then take the coast road back to LA in that time and would it be better to fly or bus or train to Las Vegas and then drive ?
12 November 2014 – Steve Hanson replied:
We spent 2 nights in San Francisco, then took 2 days to drive to LA. After 2 days in LA, it took us a long day’s drive (sharing the driving between the two of us) to get to Grand Canyon Village, where we spent 2 nights before a fairly relaxed 1 day drive to LV. That comes to about 10 days. If SF is not a must, then LA to GCV to LV and then back to LA with some of the coast from San Luis Obispo back down to LA is feasible.
Another possibility would be to drive LA to GCV to LV then fly to SF and take a second hire car to drive back to LA. With careful searching via Auto Europe and/or Economy Cars (I can’t remember which) we were not charged extra in our case for picking up in SF and dropping off in LV. I’ve not driven from LV to SF but I think it can take quite some time. It would be nice to fit in the Joshua Tree National Park on way from LA to GCV, but then maybe allow 2 days for that journey.