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18th June 2019 update: We completed our May/June 2019 USA Trip – click here for all the USA trip reviews.

We’re planning a Western USA Road trip. I’ve already found plenty of information and thought I’d share it here.

The route: Las Vegas – Yosemite – San Francisco – US Highway 101 – Los Angeles.

We plan to visit at least three National Parks; Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Muir Woods. Each of these has an admission fee, but you can save on that by purchasing an America the Beautiful annual pass.

The pass costs US$80 plus shipping from this site: https://store.usgs.gov/pass

Shipping to Europe was US$20. It may be that you could purchase one of these at the first point of entry – but I wanted the pass in my hand. And it’s an actual piece of plastic, like a credit card and also comes with a thing you can use to display the pass in the vehicle windshield.

The pass provides free entry for the vehicle and passengers to a huge range of US National Parks. Things like parking fees, which you have to purchase for Muir Woods, aren’t included, but the pass still saves plenty, even for the three parks we’re looking at visiting.

First stop Las Vegas for three nights. If you haven’t been to Vegas before, you could easily spend more time there – that is unless you are looking for peace and quiet. Las Vegas is a perfect place to start or end a Western Road trip – plenty of airlines fly there, airport really close to the centre and it’s close to the Grand Canyon. When I say close, it’s actually a four hour drive to Grand Canyon South Rim.

There are bus tours from Vegas to the Grand Canyon and there are small aircraft flights, often coupled with a helicopter flight to the canyon floor. You can also stay in the Grand Canyon village lodges.

I first drove from Vegas and stayed in a Grand Canyon lodge back in 1982 – I remember it being really comfortable and quiet there and not expensive. It looks like that has all changed, the lodges are all expensive, booked well in advance and the reviews aren’t good.

I’ve also taken the flight and helicopter tour twice, once with, ahem, name drop, Sir Richard Branson. The problem with that tour is that you don’t get that classic South Rim Canyon view and it’s difficult to gauge the height and scale when at the base of the canyon. Driving also has the added bonus that you can stop at the Hoover Dam on the way – you can even visit Lake Mead National Park with your annual park pass!

Here’s a video of the helicopter flight to the Grand Canyon floor (taken 20 years ago so quality reflects that time).

And here’s Richard showing off with the helicopter door open.

This time we’ll drive, take in the view from the South Rim and drive back to Vegas!

The next place we want to visit is the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Here’s a link to the National Parks website: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/mg.htm

My original plan was to drive from Vegas to Mammoth Lakes, stay one night and then drive the Tioga Pass across to Mariposa. However, the Tioga Pass is blocked with snow until May/June each  year and this year there was especially heavy snow. You can check the plowing status here: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tioga.htm. The only alternative, until at least mid June, is a 6.5 hour drive from Vegas to somewhere near Mariposa Grove.

Just like the Grand Canyon, I found that Yosemite lodges are all expensive, booked well in advance and the reviews aren’t good. If your dream is cook s’mores* in front of a campfire, then go ahead and book a lodge or campground. If you’re looking for a comfortable bed in a reasonably-priced hotel, you may want to try this place: Chukchansi Gold Resort Casino https://chukchansigold.com/ – I’ll let you know what it’s like.

It’s a one hour drive from the Chukchansi Gold Resort to Mariposa Grove. Visitors need to park nearby and take a National Park Service shuttle bus to Mariposa Grove. It isn’t possible to pre-book and so we’ll see what happens when we arrive – hopefully those keen early-morning hikers will have parked, hiked and moved on before we arrive!

* What the Hell are s’mores? I had no idea until I started reading reviews of the Yosemite lodges. A s’more is a traditional night-time campfire treat popular in the United States and Canada, consisting of a marshmallow and a layer of chocolate placed between two pieces of graham cracker. National S’mores Day is celebrated annually on August 10. The word s’more is a portmanteau made from the words ‘some’ and ‘more’.