The Grand Canyon, USA

Visiting the Grand Canyon was a non-negotiable on this part of our holiday. It was something that we had dreamed about and factored into our road trip even after we had revised our route a trillion times. When we discovered that the Grand Canyon National Park was to be closed during the government shutdown, I cried with disappointment. It was unfair – of all the weeks that we could have been in the US and doing this roadtrip, we found ourselves having to find another route and other sights to see. While the US has no shortage of incredible sights, it was still disappointing to think that we’d miss out on the Grand Canyon.

Jez and I boarded the plane from Atlanta to Las Vegas where we were to begin the roadtrip. It was a long flight made longer by my head cold and the prospect of a shortened roadtrip. An hour or so before landing in Las Vegas, the Captain spoke out on the PA urging us all to look out the windows as we were flying over the Grand Canyon. We peered across the guy sitting in the window seat and saw the Grand Canyon from above. I thought to myself that I had at least seen it from the sky.

When the shut down ended, we were overjoyed that we would be able to visit the South Rim of the Canyon park. On the morning of October 17 we woke up, dressed for a day of walking and drove to the entrance where the Ranger was just as excited to see us as we were to see them! We’d decided to walk the South Kaibab Trail down into the canyon and while the boys were adamant they could reach the bottom of the canyon and back in a few hours, we made it to Skeleton Point before turning back. It probably took us about four hours in total.

While walking along the bright red dirt track, passing switchback after switchback and looking down at the perilous drop below, you get a sense of just how tiny you are compared to this vast natural wonder. Rocks the size of small houses were perched above the walking trail and chipmunks searching for food leaped over the bushes that clung to the cliff face. As we ate lunch overlooking the deep ravines, it was pure luck that we were able to catch a glimpse of a helicopter far off in the distance. It was tiny and you couldn’t hear it at all, so big is this Grand Canyon!

It was amazing to see one of the world’s natural wonders.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon

Road Trip USA, Part Three

By mid-October, things were really starting to cool down. We had driven through some of the highest peaks of Colorado so now it was time to start the long swing down and back around to Vegas.

We made a bee-line for Denver, where Jez and I explored the Museum of Nature and Science for the afternoon. We saw a fabulous IMAX documentary on the Rocky Mountain Express, simultaneously in awe of the feats of engineering and planning our next holiday around this train! When the museum closed we walked back into downtown Denver and wandered along the main shopping mall. The restaurants and bars were overflowing with people, while the trees in the mall had fairy lights draped around their branches. It was a cold Saturday night but there was warmth and merriment in the atmosphere!

We continued through to Colorado Springs where we took the Cog Railway to the top of Pikes Peak. The Cog Railway has been running since 1890 and scales the enormous incline to the summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet (4303 metres)! Even though the view at the top was wonderful, it took about 90 minutes to get there. The round trip took about four hours in total, including a stop for a few greasy donuts at the top. Manitou Springs, where you get on the Railway, was a beautiful town with loads of shops and places to eat. We also found what must have been one of the oldest Coca Cola vending machines in the world. Crazy times!

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

After Colorado Springs we drove quite a distance to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a very quirky and unique city with Spanish architecture and a lively art scene. We spent a morning walking down Canyon Road, an entire road of art galleries and cafes, marveling at the enormous sculptures and equally enormous price tags. I enjoyed the city and loved how friendly and welcoming everyone was. On a side note, we ate very well in Santa Fe, with incredible Mexican food in abundance!

Since we were in the vicinity, we took a detour through the city of Albuquerque. We are huge fans of the TV series Breaking Bad, which was filmed in Albuquerque, so we swung past Walter White’s house to take a few photos. The couple who own the house must be very patient – while we were there three other cars pulled up to take photos as well!

Walter White's house. Albuquerque, NM.

Walter White’s house. Albuquerque, NM.

We made a brief visit to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History which held some interesting information about nuclear power, weaponry and the impact of nuclear warfare. It also had a small collection of planes including a B-52.

Jez with a B-52.

Jez with a B-52.

We had a busy day in Albuquerque and a long drive ahead of us but our spirits were buoyed by the end of the US government shutdown. We knew exactly where we were heading next – the Grand Canyon.

Road Trip USA, Part Two

As we started to climb into the mountain ranges of Utah, we could see evidence of the seasons changing before our eyes. The trees were golden, autumnal colours and there were patches of snow on the mountain peaks surrounding Salt Lake City.

We were surprised by Salt Lake City. We saw places of immense wealth and prosperity (such as a new $4billion shopping mall) but we saw also saw poverty and homelessness. Our time in the US really opened our eyes to these world financial problems affecting everyday people. Salt Lake City is a very religious city, being home to the Church of Latter-day Saints, and the Temple seems to be the center of city life.

When we made our way out of Salt Lake, we drove higher into the mountains to walk the Brighton Lakes Trail. Armed with waterbottles and muesli bars, we hiked through ice and mud to see a few of the high mountain lakes. We continued to Park City, a quaint and colourful town nestled in the mountains that holds many of the Sundance Film Festival’s events in January. There were loads of cafes, restaurants and quirky stores and it would become a very picturesque wonderland in the wintertime.

On our way to Aspen

On our way to Aspen

The next destination was Aspen, the incredibly beautiful ski resort of the rich and famous. Even though the Ski season wasn’t due to begin until November, there was lots and lots of snow. The US government shutdown was still in place so we were not technically able to enter the National parks, but everyone we spoke to encouraged us to hike to the Maroon Bells Lake. We hiked in the snow, kitted out with beanies, thick jackets and thermal gear. Thank goodness Jez and I bought hiking boots back in Springdale! It was so beautiful walking amongst the rocks, birch trees and pine trees covered in snow, it was magical.

Aspen

Aspen

None of us thought that we’d be spending time in Apsen during our roadtrip, but we were certainly glad that we were able to visit! We had to make our way through the mountains, across Colorado to the city of Denver and we all agreed that it was an incredible drive. Leaving the mountains, the road was covered in fresh powdered snow, as were the trees and the rocks. There were so many beautiful photo opportunities that it was hard to not stop the car every few minutes!

Leaving Aspen for Denver

Leaving Aspen for Denver

Roadtrip USA – Part One

Timing is everything. We had scheduled our US roadtrip with our gallivanting traveler friends for October, the start of ‘Fall’ – otherwise know as the best time to see famous National parks. We had booked a car, mapped a route and we were so excited to hit the road.

As our luck would have it, the US Government shutdown began one day before we set out for our two and half week roadtrip, which meant that the National parks we had wanted to visit were closed. We had to rethink our route and research what we could see in the state parks. We hoped to bide our time and see if, by chance, the government shut down ended so we could see impressive places like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Zion National park.

We met in Las Vegas and picked up a trusty full-size Chevvy Impala car that was full to bursting point once we were all in. We made our way through the Nevada desert to the state of Utah. Our first few nights we spent in Springdale, a very rustic town at the entrance to Zion National Park. Even though the park was closed to tourists, the highway running through the park remained open so we were able to see some spectacularly red rocks and sheer cliff faces.

Haunted grave yard in Springdale, Utah.

Haunted grave yard in Springdale, Utah.

While we drove through the dry and dusty landscape, we thought about how strange and surreal the landscape might have been to the pioneers of America’s West. There were many times we looked out the window onto flat and desolate plains and felt lucky that we had a car and air conditioning but also the luxury of a GPS showing us the quickest way to civilisation.

We also visited some of Utah’s most stunning state parks, the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park and Red Rock Canyon. With all that driving we were bound to get hungry along the road so luckily we had great drivers who were not adverse to a coffee break and a slice of blueberry pie (or two)!

Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon

Our route took us North to a town called Provo, a few hours from Salt Lake City. We happened to be there on a Saturday night and we asked around to find the town’s hot spot. The local pub was the place to be that night with lots of dancing involved! We had read about a lovely walking trail to Stewart Falls, very close to Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort. We spent a few hours walking and admiring the change in climate – we had been in 30 degree weather in Springdale and it had dropped to about 14 degrees in Provo!

Chicago, USA.

We hopped back across the US border to Chicago, a city that has a number of our friends singing it’s praises! It is easy to fall into the trap of having an expectation of a city – more often than not you are disappointed with it once you actually experience it for yourself.

Chicago skyline from the river

Chicago skyline from the river

We were pleasantly surprised with our time in Chicago. With everything from the deep-dish pizza to the architecture, it definitely had that Chic-ahg-oh attitude: upfront and unapologetic.

It is certainly up there with America’s most impressive cities, in the sense that it has so much to offer both it’s people and the tourists! We had a fantastic time on an architectural cruise of the river where we learned about the great Chicago fire and how the city was so rapidly rebuilt. While I have always tried to appreciate buildings and their architectural style in all the cities we have visited, I found Chicago’s buildings to be not only beautiful but also striking. Each building we saw had such a clear architectural message. While this was pointed out to us in detail by the architect leading the tour, it was not difficult to be impressed by the buildings before we knew why they were built.

We also spent a day at the Museum of Science and Industry, an amazing museum just south of Chicago’s downtown. It had everything – a 747, a model of downtown Chicago complete with intricate train system, a hurricane and tsunami demonstration wing AND a chick hatchery! Believe it or not, I had never seen a chicken hatch from an egg. Have you?! I was embarrassed to find that I was more visibly alarmed by the process than the primary school kids also watching the baby chick tumble from it’s eggshell. I don’t know who was more shocked by the whole thing – the chicken or me? ANYWAY…if you are in Chicago, you MUST go to this museum.

We decided that instead of catching the bus back downtown, we would hire a bike from the stands dotted around the city. We spent about two hours cycling along the lake shore, admiring the water on our right and the city skyline on our left. I was so pleased that this bike ride passed without incident (take that Amsterdam!) and I thoroughly enjoyed taking in the view and the vibe of this grand city.

But the best part? Doing all of this with Jez.

Chicago on wheels

Chicago on wheels

Toronto, Canada.

If we were in North America, there was no way we would miss out on a trip to Toronto, where our dearest friends Soph and Andrew are living. A catch up with these lovebirds was long overdue!

Soph and I feat. Moose

Soph and I feat. Moose

We rented an apartment for our week-long stay close to Yonge Street, the main thoroughfare for the city (and apparently the longest street in the world!). We were treated to a baseball game, a trip to the CN tower overlooking the city and lots of amazing food! There are caf├ęs and restaurants galore in Toronto and we were able to try quite a cross section. One night we dined at a famous Japanese restaurant where U2’s Bono, Pierce Brosnan and Elizabeth Taylor had declared the food worthy of a signature.

Lots of food and drink. But mostly drink.

Lots of food and drink. But mostly drink.

Even though we did a lot of eating, we did a bit of sightseeing too. We took a ferry to the Toronto Islands and spent an afternoon walking along the shore of the lake, taking photos of the skyline with the clear blue sky as a backdrop.

Toronto Skyline

Toronto Skyline

Jez and I did a day trip to Niagra Falls which included a stopover in the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-lake. Our voyage to the falls on the trusty decks of ‘The Maid of the Mist’ was wonderful, even if we came away soaking wet! There is no denying the beauty and awe that the falls evoke as water tumbles over the edge.

Maid of the Mist.

Maid of the Mist.

Toronto is a lovely city, made even more wonderful by our friends. There is nothing quite like the company of loved ones!

Washington DC, USA

We left New York for Washington DC, ready to see the nation’s capital. In hindsight, we probably should have caught a bus to get there, however we did get to see some amazing things from the air. The flight path into Washington’s airport follows the famous Potomac River and we were able to see straight down the National Mall to the Capitol building from our seats.

The Capitol Building.

The Capitol Building.

There are lots of very grand buildings in Washington. Even government buildings have an impressive aura surrounding them, solidified by the guards stationed at every entrance. It was exceptionally hot and humid when we visited so we tried not to think about the huge distances between buildings that we wanted to see.

The National Mall with the obelisk undergoing some renovations after an earthquake last year.

The National Mall with the obelisk undergoing some renovations after an earthquake last year.

We saw the White House and walked (for what felt like a very long time) to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The original Wright Brother’s plane was tucked away safely inside, as were a number of items from the decades of the US space programs.

Jez amongst the planes at the Air and Space Museum.

Jez amongst the planes at the Air and Space Museum.

Our long walk down the Mall took us to the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflection Pool where we were joined by lots of other tourists. It was a very impressive sight and my understanding of US history has certainly improved from seeing these monuments in person. Afterwards, we continued to Arlington National Cemetery. I didn’t recall ever having visited a cemetery to see important historical figures but this seemed like as a good a place as any to start.

It is situated high upon a hill overlooking the District and the city of Washington, complete with a number of lush and beautifully maintained gardens. We saw the tombstones of The Kennedy Family, a memorial to those who perished in the Lockerbie Bombings and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. By pure chance, we were also lucky enough to see the changing of the guard. While we stood there silently overlooking the ceremony and the city of Washington, we saw the president’s helicopter fly past.
We saw President Obama’s address to the nation about the issue of Syria and chemical warfare. It was interesting to be in Washington during such a tense period as the debate and discussion surrounding Syria was animated to say the least.

The few days we had in Washington wasn’t enough to see all the wonderful museums and monuments that are housed there, but what we did see was definitely impressive.