Sam takes on the West Coast USA
Jetting off to the USA with my family a week after turning 21, there was plenty to celebrate (other than being of legal drinking age).
On a 17-day trip we started off in San Francisco, where we picked up a car and drove to El Portal to stay for a few days whilst we explored Yosemite National Park. After that we drove down to the beautiful Monterey County, where we enjoyed the 17 Mile Drive and a spot of Whale Watching in Monterey Bay (Seeing Orcas, Humpback Whales and even a Blue Whale!). And where else to end up but Vegas?
Apparent from your first glance, San Francisco is invitingly vibrant and diverse. I found it head-spinning to experience such entirely different landscapes within the same city. A one hour walk can lead you through Chinatown and end you up in the midst of Little Italy, with Irish bars to boot. One trick not to be missed is getting the Muni Metro train to the colourful Spanish Mission District. There’s no doubt that there is a melting pot of cultural activity to be embraced on a trip to San Francisco.
Visiting Alcatraz is a fantastic, incredibly immersive learning experience. Taking the ferry from Pier 39 on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is a fun short journey which gives you views of both the Bay Bridge and world famous Golden Gate Bridge.
The Alcatraz prison tour had me gripped from beginning to end. It’s an audio tour in which each visitor has a headset and remote of their own – meaning you can explore at entirely your own pace. The in character voice guides you through the penitentiary and directs you to specific places like the cells where guards were shot and killed in a failed escape plot, as well as the holes carved into the cell walls which were used in the only successful escape in the prisons history. Standing in front of these points of interest and hearing the events that unfurled right where you are standing is real firsthand learning.
When on the island, you realise just how relatively recent in history the stories of Alcatraz are (the prison closed in 1963), and for this reason I found it all the more interesting and easier to visualise what life was like for the inmates. An unmissable trip for students. Find out more.
Yosemite National Park
A tour of the USA’s west coast would surely be wasted without visiting one of its most famous National Parks. Yosemite is an awe-inspiring sight from whichever angle you stand. Waterfalls and raging rivers are scattered amongst the trails, which range from leisurely to gruelling – especially in the summer heat! One experience I’ll never forget is hiking the Mist Trail, which follows the massive Vernal Fall up an ever-winding set of steep rock-cut steps before reaching the top of the falls. The snow melt was at a record level when I visited the national park, so the waterfalls and rivers were flowing with incredible power - the “mist” was more of a downpour but made for an unforgettable sight! The trail ended up being a 3-hour round trip, taking the winding John Muir trail back to ground level.
An interesting thing to check out on a trip to Yosemite is getting the shuttle bus, which operates for free within the National Park, to the El Capitan viewing point where you can take a look at people climbing the sheer vertical rock through telescopes. You’ll find the climbers look absolutely minuscule scaling the 7,500ft rock, which is one of the most photographed in the world.
It’s quite spectacular to see Las Vegas, a city of lights standing tall in the middle of the desert. The strip is dominated by Hotel Casinos that have become landmarks as famous as the city itself. From Caesars Palace and The Mirage (former home of the white tiger magic duo Siegfried & Roy), to the longstanding Flamingo and the mammoth sized Palazzo, everything feels very grandiose. If you take a trip a little further down away from the crowds, you’ll leave the more modern builds and find yourself in a slight time warp in Downtown Las Vegas, which is the historic centre of the city.
Being the original gambling district before the construction of the strip, the street has been re-purposed as an undercover promenade with open faced bars and street entertainers in front of the classic casinos like Golden Nugget.
Grand Canyon and Boulder City
On a light aircraft tour over bordering state Arizona, I captured amazing views of the vast Grand Canyon and some other great historical sites and geographical features. These being the Colorado River which carves its way through the Canyons as well as Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the USA by capacity. Lake Mead was created by the damming of the Colorado River by the massive Hoover Dam. To get a perspective of the size, Hoover Dam is made of enough concrete to build a highway stretching the entire width of the USA.
You learn all of this over the audio channels on the headsets provided on the aircraft. I found it fascinating hearing about how Boulder City came to be in 1931 as one of the USA’s first planned communities in order to house the workers constructing the Hoover Dam and their families due to the sheer scale of the task at hand.
My family trip to the West Coast of the USA was at leisure and I certainly didn’t expect it to have such a profound cultural and educational takeaway.
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