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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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