Tag Archives: west


Utah is an amazing destination for people who like the outdoor fun. My trip there started actually in the urban jungle of the metropolitan Los Angeles. It is simple much cheaper to fly there than anywhere in Utah itself.

It was all great until I left the car rental company depot at the airport. The first moments of driving on the notorious LA freeway network can be intimidating, frightening but also exiting in the same time. It takes a moment or two to get used to drivers totally ignoring the road rules, indicators or speed limits. And all this on roads with 12 or more lanes of bumper to bumper traffic with cars going well over 80mph, overtaking on the inside and on the outside, changing lanes just inches in front of you and so on. The only way to survive, is to behave in the same way. Fortunately it comes easier than you might imagine. It was Friday before the long memorial weekend, when half of the Americans travel somewhere, so the situation was particularly bad. Fortunately my local friend, using highlighter pen and a road atlas of California, showed me a route which avoided the main highways and went through the local desert roads instead. Thanks to him, in just a few hours, I was able to move from the densely populated metropolis to the open desert landscapes. In one and half day I blasted through deserted parts of California, Nevada, some short stretch of Arizona and arrived to southern Utah.

And what a great state it is. I started exploring it from the Zion National Park. The main attraction there is a canyon which the river Virgin carved through the multicoloured sandstone formations. I won’t be describing all the geological details here. First because it is boring for most of the people, and second because I forgot the details of my geology classes a long time ago. But even if you can’t say the difference between the sandstone and the granite you will still be stunned by all the wonders of Zion. There are plenty of good hikes for everyone. For the lazy or not very healthy ones I recommend the Riverside Walk which is no more demanding than a stroll in the London’s famous Hyde Park but offers close contact with the narrow section of the canyon. Unfortunately it also offers close contact with the hordes of tourists. Fortunately, there are some short but steep hikes leading away from the crowd, like for example Weeping Rock Trail.

If you are fit and don’t have agoraphobia I strongly recommend the Angels Landing Trail. It is a steep and strenuous walk where you gain 1500 feet of elevation in the distance of 2.5 miles. First you fight the many switchbacks which you think will never end and then you arrive to the best part of the trail. The last few hundred feet of it are formed by chains, steps cut into the rocks, and ridges as narrow as three feet. I love this sort of trails offering extra adrenalin. Views from the top are well worth all the efforts, but remember to take plenty of water (not available anywhere on the trail), sunscreen and start early. Zion NP is quite low and can get unbearably hot during the midday.

The cheapest form of accommodation around is camping, which also allows you the closest contact with nature. Try to get your spot early. Park campgrounds fill up quickly and you might end up like me, camping somewhere on the public lands out of the park, which is OK, except for the fact there are no facilities.

Zion NP is one of the most popular parks in the National Parks system and because it is also one of the smaller ones, it can get very crowded. Fortunately it is also the only park in the US which bans individual cars (at least in the summer season) and offers public transport instead. Anyway try to avoid weekends.

The next great national park of my trip was the Bryce Canyon. It is just a short (about two hours) drive from Zion NP but the landscape there is completely different. Bryce lies at 8000-9000 feet above the sea level, which places it over 3000 feet higher than Zion, and makes it a much cooler park covered in large parts by the pine forests. Like in Zion, the main attractions of the Bryce Canyon NP are the geological formations. These are called Hoodoos, a kind of rock pinnacles formed by specific erosion processes. Again, lets skip the detailed geology classes (as you know my memory by now). They form landscapes which looks like from the fairy tales. It is all the most impressive around sunrise or sunset, when the long shades and warm sunlight form a magical atmosphere. I recommend to hike down to the formations early in the morning using the combined Navajo and Queen’s Garden loops. It brings you close to hoodoos, slot canyons (some of them just few feet wide but over 100 feet deep) and other less known wonders. Beware that even if the trail is not difficult (combined ascent and descent of just 800 feet) due to the high elevation you will get tired much quicker than you might think and hope. Morning light is the best for taking pictures. In the afternoon you can drive the rim drive, stopping at the various viewpoints to admire the whole park. Unfortunately camping in Bryce means freezing cold at night. It was one of the reasons I got up early enough to see the sunrise. It was simply too cold to sleep. Again, this is all due to the high elevation. Even if the days are warm a and sunny the nights will get very cold very quickly.

West of Bryce Canyon is located one of the best drives I have ever done, the Utah Hwy12. Designated a one of the US Scenic Byways, the road turns and twists through the amazing landscape for well over 100 miles . It is a geology wonder, continuously unfolding in front of your car. I wanted to stop every few hundred yards to take yet another picture but eventually the batteries in my camera ran flat which let me just simply to enjoy the drive. In my opinion this road is as good as the famous Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California. But getting to my next destination also involved driving some pretty boring, flat and straight roads while staring at desolated landscapes. Sometimes for hours. Thank God for the satellite radio. It was getting dark and I really wanted to get to Green River to find some cheap motel (after few days of camping, including freezing night at Bryce, I really felt I deserved a normal bed). Fortunately I could easily drive 90-100mph as the road looked like a 40 miles long runaway, completely straight, wide and empty. Did I mention I love driving?

Green River would be absolutely not worth writing about. Just another cluster of gas stations, motels and fast food restaurants with population scattered around. Community which survives thanks to the interstate highway. Somehow I like this sort of places (for a short time of course), where everyone and everything is on the way to somewhere else. It is something you can’t find in Europe, it is part of the American road culture.

But lets move on. The following day I arrived to Arches. It is another small and compact national park but also another one full of geological wonders. Main attractions there are the rock arches formed by complicated erosion processes in the Navajo sandstone. What might strike you first is how red everything is. Rocks are red, sand is red, a bit of soil you can find there is red. Even the tarmac on the park road is red. It contrasts with the few green patches of vegetation. This is a real desert park. Once I got out of the air-conditioned car I felt even my eyeballs drying, so don’t forget to carry plenty of water. The most popular hike in the Arches NP is the one to the famous and picturesque Delicate Arch. It is only 1.5 mile long with less than 500 feet elevation gain but don’t underestimate it. Most of it goes on slippery slick rock, there is no shade on the way, no water, and it gets incredibly hot, even hotter than in Zion. The arch itself is amazing. Many people seen it on pictures or on TV screen but nothing compares to the real thing. I got there about an hour or so before the sunset and many people were already waiting with anticipation, like before some important sport event. Clouds obscured the sunset itself but the changing light made the time I spent there a really magical experience. There are of course other walks in the park, a few good ones are around the Devils Garden area. It let people explore features other than the arches (rock spines, ribs, enormous boulders, in other words: the rocky labyrinth).

There is just one small campground in the park itself but there are plenty of camping opportunities on the BLM lands alongside the Utah Hwy 128 which follows the Colorado river just outside the park boundaries. Most of these sites don’t have showers but they do have the pit toilets. If someone prefers luxuries of the standard bed, town of Moab (also just a few miles outside the park) offers plenty of options. It is a small, attractive, friendly, and a bit funky community dominated by young people in a search of outdoor fun (mostly mountain biking). Not a typical small Utah town and it is a stark contrast with the Green River.

Close to Arches NP and Moab lays Canyonlands NP. This is an absolutely enormous park, made of three districts separated by canyons at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. To move from one district to the another you have to drive hundreds of miles. I visited just a small section of the park but even that involved long driving and great vistas. There are a few short trails, but this is really a destination for serious explorers, who have much more time than I had. Anyway, it is still worth visiting just to peep into the enormous labyrinth of canyons from the few viewpoints alongside the park roads. It is also much, much emptier than any of the parks I visited before.

From reading this you might think Utah is all about deserts. Nothing more wrong. Most Europeans don’t realise how big and diverse most of the states are. At the end, Utah is larger than Britain. I realised it when after few days of exploring southern Utah geological paradise I decided to go north and visit Salt Lake City (it was on the way to Wyoming anyway). It was another long but spectacular drive. Gradually the landscape got less desert-like and more alpine scenery started dominating. Just before the Salt Lake City road navigates the mountain passes, almost like in the Switzerland. One thing stays constant: the low density of population. It means that arriving to SLC feels like coming to a great metropolis, which is of course wrong. It is a mid size US city with pleasant downtown and great location at the foothills of the Wasatch Range. It is nice placde indeed (especially after a week camping in the deserts) but you can’t really call it a metropolis.

I skipped the greatest attraction in the city, the Temple Square, heart of the Mormon religion, and went to visit the state capitol instead. It is free and quite interesting. Some of the paintings and sculptures inside somehow are similar to the socrealistic art of the former eastern block. Look at some of the titles: “Immigration & Settlement” or “Science & Technology”, not exactly how Van Gogh or Monet would call their works. Fits more into the Kremlin collection doesn’t it? And how about marble and granite toilets? How cool is that? You can visit the building pretty much on your own, no one even checks your bags, or join tour led by nice retired volunteers. You can also buy a Utah fridge magnet from the capitol store. Only in America.

But it was time for me to move on. Wyoming, another state larger than life, was waiting. I’ll write about it next time.

Pacific coast road trip.

September 2004, after three months spent at a mountain camp in the wilderness of Sequoia National Forest, California, we were ready to hit the open road. Our camp was situated at 7500 ft above the sea level and required a two hours drive to get to civilization. So we were eager to get some change. The coast was our destination.

We rented a car at the Fresno International Airport. The word “International” was a bit of an exaggeration, as at the time of our visit they only had one international flight a day to somewhere in the middle of Mexico. Californians say that Fresno and surroundings is the most boring and uninspiring part of California. They are right. We left the area as soon as we made ourselves comfortable in the car. Well, as comfortable as possible for four quite big guys in the economy class car.

After three hours we were approaching San Francisco. Nothing is better than driving to SF from Oakland crossing the Bay Bridge. It is a double deck suspension bridge and towards SF you drive on the top deck. The road leads directly to the downtown San Francisco and you have the feeling that you are going to land on the roofs of the buildings. Truly impressive.

But we didn’t stop in the city. This trip was all about the coast. Just before the dusk we crossed another famous bridge, the Golden Gate, on our way north by the US Highway 101. We were heading towards the wild coast of northern California. After an hour or so we left behind all the suburban sprawl of Bay Area. The road changed from freeway to dual carriageway first and to a two lane road after. All the other cars disappeared and by 11pm we had the entire highway just for ourselves. We hadn’t booked any accommodation for that night, so we kept going and going and going. The road became curvy and narrow, crossing forests and mountains, including Redwood National Park famous because of its trees taller than sequoias. We crossed the park around 3am when it was wrapped in a dense fog. It was one of those moments when you remember the dark episodes of the X Files and start worrying.

By the 4am we reached Brookings, one of the first settlements in Oregon and decided that enough is enough. We spent a few hours half sleeping in the parking lot of a local supermarket. This is the downside of a lack of planning when on a budget trip.

Because we couldn’t really sleep the following day started early. At 6 am the local McDonalds opened. It had a really strange profile of customers, mostly retired folks, a lot of them wearing the WWII veteran pins or caps plus some youngsters talking about God. A bit heavy subject at 6am if you ask me. We were clearly a bunch of  outsiders.

The morning fog disappeared quickly and we could finally appreciate the coastal views. And what views they were. The Oregon coast is absolutely amazing. Small bays, cliffs, lighthouses, little fishing communities, forests, mountains, sand dunes and, in midweek September day, almost total lack of tourists.

In a moment of craziness we decided to explore the wild beaches and coastal dunes. In some parts they are open for cars, but we realized very quickly, (after 100 yards or so) that an economy size saloon car, with two wheals drive, is not the best option for sand driving. Fortunately most locals drive SUVs or pick-up trucks which are able to tow a tank, so one of them helped us to get out of the sand. We decided to walk the remaining stretch until the beach. The beach was wide and wild, with trunks of trees, some of them could arrive all the way from Siberia. It is the kind of coast I like. Not like beaches of Florida or Mediterranean, crowded with tourists desperately trying to get tanned on small patch of sand.

The same day part of the coastal road, (still US Hwy 101) was closed and we had to detour inland. Being a map fanatic, geographer and on-board navigator, I decided that I knew how to shorten this significant (100 miles or so) detour. It all started well but after a while we found ourselves stranded at a T-junction in the middle of Central Oregon Coast Range with signs pointing to place called Deadwood in all three directions It was too late to go back. We turned right (if I remember) and after some time, on a very steep and narrow road, with very poor surface and with no sign of civilization (apart signs mentioning shooting to strangers), we managed to get back to the main highway. It happened to be actually the highway which we were looking for. It seems I’m not so bad navigator after all.

By the end of the day we crossed Columbia River, via impressive bridge in Astoria, and entered Washington State. This night we decided to spent in a luxurious wooden cabin at one of the campgrounds. We got there well after dark crossing another forest where another dark episode of the X-Files could be set.

Our next day started from a visit to Aberdeen. One of us was a great Nirvana fan and Kurt Cobain was born and spent most of his life in this town. It is one of those small boring towns, one of thousands in America. Apparently Kurt hated it. There is no sign or shop or anything mentioning the most famous of the Aberdeen residents. A lady at the place called: “The best hot-dogs on the world” told us that the idea of erecting a plate in memory of Cobain was in the air, but the city officials said no. After a quick photo, next to the sign with the town name, we were on the move again. We drove around the Olympic Peninsula,right next to the wild beeches and temperate rain forests of the Olympic National Park.

Temperate rain forests are unique to a few places around the world. Apart from the Pacific coast of Washington State and British Columbia they also exist in New Zealand and Southern Chile. They receive almost as much rain as the tropical rain forest but the temperatures are much lower. It is a real jungle where the massive trees are covered with other plants grooving on them. It is a one fantastic green mess. We went for a short educational trail in one of the park sections, which is a great experience but you have to be always ready for rain, it rains almost daily here.

By night we were approaching Seattle. To save some time we took the ferry from Bremerton across the Puget Sound to downtown Seattle. It cost just few dollars and save more than an hour or two of driving It was dark again by the time we reached our destination. Fortunately the view of Seattle’s skyscrapers from the ferry is equally stunning by either night or day.

In Seattle we stayed two nights in Green Tortoise Hostel. It is located right in the downtown and cost 20 dollars or so for a bed in one of the dormitory rooms. It is a great city, full of cafes (that’s where first Starbucks opened), cheap eateries and nice people. One of the best places to start your visit is Pike Place Market where you can buy almost everything. But it is more about the atmosphere rather than about the products. Especially fishmongers, shouting to the potential buyers and throwing fish between themselves, are a great sight. Another great spot is Space Needle, a tower offering great views of the city, Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound, and (on clear days) magnificent Mount Rainer with eternal snows on top.

Seattle has a quite good public transport network. The main hub is the bus tunnel witch runs right underneath the downtown. It is a bit like metro but you see trolleybuses arriving at the stations instead of trains. After leaving the tunnel they switch to diesel and travel to many suburbs of Seattle including the University of Washington campus. I recommend this place for cheap good food, nice atmosphere and good bookshops.

The next stop on our journey was Portland. It is three hours south of Seattle at the confluence of Columbia and Willamette Rivers. It is much smaller than Seattle but has the same progressive feel. Both cities have good public transport, mainly because the Pacific North West residents are much more environmentally conscious than populations of the other parts of USA.

We had just one evening in Portland so we decided to visit some of the many local brewpubs. Apparently Portland is the city where brewpubs and micro breweries first became popular. At least in the US. To find them you can go to one of the many drinking establishments in the Northwest District, along the 21st and 23rd Avenues. Some of the beers we had were really strong and after a few small bottles we went back to our hostel jaywalking.

After Portland we drove straight back south to San Francisco. It was the starting point of the last part of our coastal trip, the Big Sur. Some say it is the best scenic road in the world. In San Francisco we slept in Green Tortoise Hostel located right on the Broadway between clubs, bars and restaurants. It was Saturday night, so we didn’t sleep that much. This hostel, similarly to his brother in Seattle, was a bit crappy, noisy and full of cool dudes. Generally a great option for someone looking for fun but not really good for sleep.

The next morning we drove out of SF. The beginning wasn’t too promising, one of those not so good and very busy highways (a lot of people go to the coast on Sunday). The first interesting spot was Monterey. It is an exclusive place full of expensive mansions, gardens, golf courses and iconic cypresses.

But the real fun started from there. California Highway 1 makes its winding way squeezed between the Santa Lucia Range and the Pacific on its way towards Los Angeles. It is an amazing feat of engineering. This road crosses deep river valleys and runs on a very narrow strip of land right next to the high cliffs. Views are absolutely stunning. But you better use the view points (fortunately there are lots of them) because the road is very curvy and driving requires full of your attention. The weather was perfect during our trip but this part of coast is frequently covered by fog. It might make driving really dangerous.

It is a very empty coast. It is in fact one of the emptiest coast in the lower 48 states. On the way there are only few exclusive communities, art colonies or hidden private ranches. Hwy 1 is the most scenic and wild between Carmen-by-the-Sea (an exclusive small town where Clint Eastwood was a mayor for a while) and Morro Bay. No condos, no shopping malls, no crowded beach resorts or fast food joints, not even a single traffic light. True 121 miles of driver’s heaven.

After Morro Bay things get back to normal, little towns appear, and you can buy some food or gas. Closer to LA things get very hectic. California Hwy 1 joins US 101 and then becomes one of the many LA freeway. That’s where the real madness began and our trip ended in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica is one of the nicest parts of the greater Los Angeles. It has a nice wide beach with biking and walking trails continuing all the way to the neighboring Venice Beach. Both communities are practically joined and offer the same great SoCal lifstyle. Nice weather, surfing, good beach, good food and great people watching opportunities. It was a great place to spend the last night before flying back to grey and rainy Katowice.