Great Outdoors U.S.A

How to Learn a Lot About Yourself During a Seven Day Desert Road Trip Through the States

A girl stands on rock at Yosemite National Park with Half Dome in the background.

There’s something very humbling about the grandiose size of Mother Nature. Wherever you go, she sweeps you in, takes away your very last breath and always leaves you feeling refreshed and grounded. She decides to grow and adapt in her own way, and she changes identities wherever you look. I’m not just referring to the varied landscapes of Planet Earth but specifically the way in which nature in the States leaves me breathless every time.

I’ve prepared a seven-day road trip itinerary for you through the deserts of the USA, including some very notable and sizeable national parks in California, Nevada and Arizona.

A girl sits in the desert on top of hundreds of huge boulders

It’s day one of a seven-day van adventure with Geckos throughout four of the biggest and most famous parks in the U.S. Is it my first visit? No, in fact, it’s my third. I rarely give any country the partiality of visiting more than once, for the reason that the world has a lot to offer. But something about the U.S keeps me coming back.

A girl stands next to a silver van parked on the side of a lonely and empty desert road.

We begin at Joshua Tree National Park, not only famous because of U2’s fifth album, but also for its innate ability to impress the eye with smooth prehistoric boulders, torn mountain ranges and desert flats of absolute nothingness as far as your eyes may take you. At 3,200 km² she is to be taken seriously, especially given it’s usually 37 degrees Celsius in summer.

A girl in a black jumpsuit and cap is walking along some rocks in the desert. The rocks are ten times bigger than she is.

Word on the street is that two young men recently went hiking and got disoriented and thirsty, never to be seen again. Note to self: pack water, bring hats and don’t stray far from the car. Unless you’re visiting in winter that is… then you can expect temperatures of about 7 degrees Celsius.

Lonesome Joshua Trees stand in the desert.

The strange and lonesome Joshua Trees.

Three people stand on top of a huge layer of boulders at Joshua Tree National Park and smile at the camera.

Things to do: Arch Rock, Skull Rock and pull over on the side of the road and get up close and personal with the Joshua Trees. They aren’t exactly trees nor are they a type of cactus – but strangely they look like both.

A group of excited people standing inside a big rock which looks like a giant skull.

Having fun at Skull Rock

In the middle of the desert are some individual Joshua Trees just trying to survive.

SO HOT – Don’t forget your cream, hats and long sleeved shirts!

Three people standing under a huge arched rock in the desert and wave at the camera.

Honestly, at this point, I feel like I can go home happy. I’ve had my yearly dose of vitamin D and I’ve explored previously unseen landscape. But we press on for one of the most famous sites the U.S has to offer.

At 4,926 km² the Grand Canyon National Park is nothing to sneeze at. I overheard it compared to the size of Switzerland and although that could seem a modest comparison, Switzerland still wins that prize.


A girl standing at a lookout point at the Grand Canyon you can see the entire valley with strange rock formations and variations of red rock as far as the eye can see.

Don’t want to get a helicopter over the G.C? You can see this view from many different lookout points.


An aerial shot of the Grand Canyon from a helicopter. Strange red rock formations go as far as the eye can see.

I decide to ride in a helicopter for the first time. I figure that if I’m going to do it, it may as well be over one of the often-named wonders of the world. I strap myself in and begin to listen to our Irish pilot Patrick. I make a mental note that he is probably the 70th Irish Patrick I’ve met in my life and then I remind myself of what’s to come. It’s a poignant moment really, taking off in a helicopter. Unlike a plane, which edges forward at great velocity, a helicopter gracefully leaves the ground with you almost unaware.

A helicopter is preparing to take off for a journey over the Grand Canyon

I was put on the backseat to help ‘balance the weight’ – ha!

An aerial shot of the Grand Canyon from a helicopter. Strange red rock formations go as far as the eye can see.

You won’t ever see anything like this again…. do a helicopter trip!

An aerial shot of the Grand Canyon from a helicopter. Strange red rock formations go as far as the eye can see.

We make haste, over the pine trees and to the very edge of the canyon. I feel overwhelmed and rather consumed by the size but in every good way. My Australian eyeballs haven’t seen anything like it. It’s HUGE. I try to focus my eyes on one point to get a sense of scale. I decide to look at the Colorado River and I mention to Patrick that it looks like a tiny stream. He laughs and remarks that the Colorado River is rather mighty.

The ride lasts for 45 minutes in total and I savour every moment. At the end, I have the feeling that it lasted much longer.

An aerial view of the Grand Canyon with the colorado river down the bottom. The rock is red and jagged and the sky is blue.

Onwards and ‘downwards’, we lock our Grand Canyon experience in the memory bank and head for something deadly.

Death Valley awaits us and at a size of 13,628 km², I have the feeling we’re going to need some extra time. We begin at Badwater Basin, which happens to be the point of lowest elevation in North America. (86 metres below sea level to be precise.)

A boy walks on the salt flats in Death Valley

I feast my eyes on what looks like an endless field of flat salt. Tourists walking on it in the distance look like tiny, dotted ants. I tell our group that this looks like a killer for my Irish skin, so I take the opportunity to lather myself in a thick coat of factor 50 sun cream. Looking concerned, they ask me for some. I happily oblige and just like that, my bottle is empty.

A girl stands on white salt flats

After surviving about seven minutes on the salt and having a tiny taste to make sure it’s not an optical illusion, the group makes the unanimous decision to get back to the van. None of us is cut out for this heat but we sure can appreciate its beauty.

A girl leans against an old opera house with a blue door in the desert.

Our bearded Texan tour guide Seth begins our journey to another Death Valley favourite called Zabriskie Point. At first, I see a multi-coloured mountain range, fairly similar to the famous rainbow mountain in Peru. I check my geological knowledge by asking him if those colours represent magnesium, sulphur and copper – he nods his head and the bus is impressed.

When we make our way in the 47-degree heat to the top of Zabriskie Point, I decide this is one of my favourite places on earth. If I ever go to Mars one day, it’ll look just like this, I’m sure. A comment about the Moon landing actually being filmed here is made. We all have a giggle and Seth is concerned we’re serious.

A girl stands on hot rock in Death Valley - the sky is blue and she's surrounded by red rocky formations.

Finally edging towards the end of our national park adventure, we arrive at Yosemite. While checking in and receiving our permit, I take note that the National Park Service attendants look like they’re out of the Yogi Bear show, complete with the same hats. It makes me remember my childhood and I realise that everything I know has some kind of connection to American pop culture.

A national park with pine trees at the bottom and a tall rocky cliff above.

Yosemite was a welcomed cool change from the last three deserts.

Yosemite (3,027 km²) has lots to offer: lakes, pine trees, mountains, hiking trails and a surprisingly cooler climate. Wearing my full winter kit from back home in Germany, Seth drops us off at Half Dome, one of the park’s most legendary spots. He casually remarks that he will drive down and wait for us at the bottom.

A view at one of Yosemite National Park's most famous valleys on a day of bad bushfires. Smoke creeps through the valley and the trees and rocks are almost covered in a grey haze.

The famous Macbook screensaver photo at Yosemite.

A girl in a red beanie and hiking boots stands on rock at Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

Like these boots? Helly Hansen makes great hiking gear. 

In a jesting manner, he tells us the hike will take an hour. I don’t it yet, but with time my leg, thigh and butt muscles will be destroyed for days to come. Three and half hours later, we find Seth. Enthusiastically he asks us how it was. No one replies.

A boy jumps into freezing water at a lake inside Yosemite Park.

Of course, the Swiss guy in our group jumps into that death-defyingly cold water. I couldn’t even put in a single toe!

Our Geckos group was boutique-sized, open-minded and we all shared many laughs together during our seven-day voyage. I should point out that it was only made possible because our guide & driver Seth, was the facilitator of human interaction.

A group of excited peple jump simultaneously over the Route 66 sign on an American highway.

We all made it to Route 66!

A stop at a famous gas stop on Route 66. Lots of old wooden chairs and refueling stations.

The Hackberry General Store on Route 66 – quite a famous little pitstop.

He knew how to listen, to inspire, to educate and most of all how to include varied personalities in a group dynamic. I now know that these are components of a great group tour and for that reason, I am a Geckos convert.

To book exactly this trip, click here.

*Disclaimer* As a travel writer and photographer, I’m often sent to pretty cool locations as part of my job. I always make sure that the photos you see genuinely reflect the locations and I would never recommend something which isn’t ACE, you have my word.

Looking for more articles from these parts of the U.S.A? I’ve got more to offer you:

The U.S Road Trip You Need To Do

Getting Off the Beaten Track: L.A to Joshua Tree National Park

I Visited Three Hotspots in LA For You

The Painted Ladies in San Francisco

Hey you! Thanks for reading this far. Right now I’d love to know what you thought of this piece. Leave me a comment at the bottom 🙂

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San Francisco on a clear, blue day and a clear shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

This is exactly where our 7-day road trip ended – in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Bridge.

The sun is going down on a quiet street in San Francisco and a bird is flying by against the backdrop of a lightened evening cloud.

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  • Reply
    January 2, 2018 at 10:27 am

    Wow!! Awesome post!! I loved all ur tips and the pictures you took!! Grand canyon on helicopter must be really impressive!!! 😀

    • Reply
      January 2, 2018 at 6:27 pm

      I’m so glad you loved it – that helicopter ride was honestly so so so impressive, couldn’t believe it!

  • Reply
    January 2, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    Loved the post! These are some of my all-time favorite places! Great photos. Will check out the tour!

    • Reply
      January 2, 2018 at 6:28 pm

      Hey Dhara! Thanks SO much for reading and for leaving me a comment. These places are iconic, but because they are all huge and very unique from one another – it was an amazing 7 days

  • Reply
    January 2, 2018 at 6:26 pm

    You definitely saw some good areas! I hope you’ll be visiting the US again at some point. There are so many extraordinary places and such diverse climates…It’s impossible to see it all in one trip.

    • Reply
      January 2, 2018 at 6:29 pm

      I know! I can’t believe it – I’ve been to the US now 3 times and each time I see crazily unique landscape always different to the previous locations. I have so many things still on my list, more spots in Arizona, Utah as a state, Yellowstone – I mean the list goes on.

  • Reply
    Nerida O'Keefe
    January 3, 2018 at 2:38 am

    That was fantastic to read and great to be able to share your experiences … great pics too. Well done Kaptain Kenny!!

    • Reply
      January 3, 2018 at 11:41 am

      Hello Nerida! Nice to see you around here 🙂 Thaks for leaving that wonderful comment, so glad you like my work. Have a wonderful day! Phoebe

  • Reply
    January 3, 2018 at 5:08 pm

    Loved reading this post Phoebe and all your photos are beautiful. Joshua Tree is on my list of places to visit! Grand Canyon was a place that really took my breath away, except we learnt the hard way that it really isn’t suitable for a day trip from Vegas if you want to stay for sunset haha. Yosemite was beautiful too and I loved hiking there 🙂

    • Reply
      January 3, 2018 at 5:41 pm

      How far was the trip from GC to Vegas? Did you get back really late? Gosh, it’s such a great part of the earth, isn’t it? I would happily go back at day 🙂

  • Reply
    The Novaturient Redhead
    January 17, 2018 at 11:02 am

    Absolutely beautiful photos and a wonderful article Phoebe! I loved the helicopter into the canyon years ago! What an adventure 😊

    • Reply
      January 17, 2018 at 11:46 am

      Hey lovely! So glad you enjoyed this one 🙂 It was CERTAINLY quite the trip. I will never ever forget that feeling of being in a helicopter for the first time, just starting to make my way over the edge of the canyon. Wow!

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