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The United States counts 63 national parks, of which 9 are located in the state of California – more than in any other state. The initial plan was to make a loop starting from San Francisco, driving east towards the Grand Canyon, heading south west to San Diego and then to drive up along the west coast back to San Francisco. Unfortunately, the Tioga Pass was closed in winter (which caused a 6 hour detour crossing the north of Sierra Nevada) and Antelope National Park (famous for light beams illuminating curvy rock faces inside cave like canyons) was booked out.

San Francisco

I had previously only learned about San Francisco’s steep streets, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge through TV shows and video games (GTA). So it was quite fun to see what it was actually like in reality. Although upon entering “the city”, a barrage of stories hurled towards my ears from taxi drivers and other residents around the diminishing safety and increase of homelessness, especially since COVID. The homelessness was self-evident and made quite a contrast against my first sighting of a Waymo car picking up a customer without a human driver.

The car rental company had handed over a van that had a built-in kitchen and a living room (that had also functioned as a bed), which also made it pretty big and difficult to see from. This, in combination with night time, heavy rain, driving on the other side of the road, no phone holder, highly dynamic traffic and 4 lanes turning 6 lanes turning 3 lanes turning 7 lanes made it a pretty stressful first encounter with the American road system.

So, the first thing to do was to find a place to stay the night. After having been further scared to death by locals about what could happen while parked in the city, Google found a parking lot at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge where it would be free to stay. It had free toilets (subject of a local graffiti art project) and an ongoing rotation of cars stopping by all eager to contribute to a complementary party atmosphere.

Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate bridge at night in San Francisco, USA.

In the morning, a conveniently located hotdog stand cleverly made $10 USD a piece out of any chump who hadn’t prepared breakfast for themselves. However, Yosemite National Park was calling, rain or no rain (spoiler alert: rain).

Yosemite National Park

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, Yosemite knows how to impress. Vertical granite walls reaching more than 2500 m lean over lush valleys filled with streams and waterfalls.

Pine trees covered in clouds on granite domes in Yosemite National Park, USA.

A lone tree looks out over granite rock formations in Yosemite National Park, USA.

Clouds move over granite hills covered with pine trees in Yosemite National Park, USA.

Top of the Nevada Fall inside Yosemite National Park, USA.

A crow at the John Muir Trail inside Yosemite National Park, USA.

Liberty Cap taken from the John Muir Trail inside Yosemite National Park, USA.

Tioga Pass turned out to be closed, which meant a 6 hour detour to get to the other side. Not long after, I heard a snap when I tried to shift the gear from parking into reverse while parked in front of a tiny supermarket in the small town of Mokelumni Hill. Some plastic garment had broken off and it had to be towed to the mechanic the next day. Luckily the supermarket had a bathroom. Next, crossing the Nevada Sierra went first from snow and frozen lakes to enormously wide grass plains.

Frozen Caples Lake near route 88 in the Sierra Nevada, USA.

Some of the mountains alongside road 89 inside the Sierra Nevada nearby Topaz Lake, USA.

A lone tree in front of the Sierra Nevada, taken from road 395 in California, USA.

Peaks of the Sierra Nevada in California, USA.

Hills and snow covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada, taken from road 395 in California, USA.

Death Valley

Temperatures as high as 54 °C (129.2 °F) make Death Valley the hottest place on earth during summer times. The cracked soil, colourful mountains and endless salt flats make it also one of the most visually striking.

Fog approaches fast in Death Valley, USA.

Cracked soil covered by fog in Death Valley, USA.

A full fogbow, the cousin of a rainbow, is visible in Death Valley, USA.

The path towards Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley, USA.

The colours at Artist Palette come from the oxidation of different minerals.

“Mesquite flat” sand dunes in Death Valley, USA.

At 86m (282 feet) below sea level, endless salt planes at the Badwater Basin are at the lowest point of elevation in North America.

Mountain reflection at Badwater Basin, USA.

Salsberry Pass

The scenic views from Death Valley don’t recede driving through the Salsberry pass between Badwater and Shoshone, on the way to Las Vegas.

The sun sets behind the hills at Salsberry Pass, USA.

Salsberry Pass sunset from above, USA.

The final sun rays of the day illuminate hills near the Salsberry Pass, USA.

Sunset at Salsberry Pass, USA.

Zion National Park

Located in the state of Utah, Zion National Park sounds like it has been named after a planet in a galaxy far, far away. However, its original name, Mukuntuweap, was apparently too difficult to pronounce. Arguably, Angels Landing is the best view of the park however a permit is required to make it to the final stretch. Ensure to get one in advance because there is a high chance that when you finally get to the foot of this final stretch, you will regret not getting one (yes, speaking from experience).

A young tree against a dark backdrop along the Virgin River in Zion National Park, USA.

The view along the way up to Angels Landing in Zion National Park, USA.

Angels Landing pictured in the centre along the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park, USA.

The Watchman mountain behind the Virgin River in Zion National Park, USA.

A male mule deer in Zion National Park, USA.

The Grand Canyon

For about the last 5-6 million years the Colorado River in Arizona has been carrying sand, gravel and rocks carving a nice little canyon, exposing rocks that are close to 1840 million years old.

The Colorado River river makes a rather photogenic curve at the Horseshoe bend in Arizona, USA.

Driving down Road 89 on the Antelope Pass, the first cracks of the Grand Canyon start to become visible.

The Skaibab Trail down the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA.

A tree in front of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA.

A tree in front of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA.

Los Angeles

A short stopover in America’s film and television industry’s centre reminded me of some of the classics of another time (such as Full House and Baywatch).

Santa Monica State Beach, next to Will Rogers State Beach, the primary filming location of Baywatch.

Coastal San Diego

Located a bit further south from Los Angeles, San Diego feels more laid back compared to LA and has some unique and active wildlife along its coast.

A brown pelican is about to land in Sand Diego, USA.

A brown pelican soars of the ocean, often in perfect formation with other pelicans.

A brown pelican is about to land in Sand Diego, USA.

Sea lions at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, USA.

A sleepy sea lion at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, USA.

Waves break at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, USA.

Morro Rock at night at Morro Bay along the West Coast getting closer to San Francisco again.

New York

With a population of over 8.3 million, New York is composed of five boroughs: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. The city that “never sleeps” is as dynamic and iconic as it gets.

The New York skyline taken from The Waterfront opposite of the Hudson River, New York, USA.

The Brooklyn Bridge taken from Front St in Dumbo, New York, USA.

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, USA.

The Brooklyn Bridge from below, New York, USA.

It’s not just the sights in the national parks. The food, cities, ambitions, distances, everything is grand. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned after nearly three weeks on the road in the USA, is that I have barely scratched the surface of this massive and diverse country. Until we meet again, and I’m sure we will, USA.

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