By Rhiannon Jones (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA)
Our time at Illinois had finished. Finals were done with, emotional goodbyes were had and we had a month left on our visas before we got deported from the country. We were heading to the West Coast.
The initial planning wasn’t the laid-back ‘Cali’ lifestyle that the trip itself promised. With seven of us to book flights, hostels, car hire, coaches and entrance tickets for, a month to remember started out more as an exercise in herding cats. Thankfully someone more organised than me was fluent in Google Docs and the phrase “check the spreadsheet’ became a mantra, chanted back at you if you wasted precious planning time with stupid questions. Yelp, Hostel World and AirBnB became our new best friends. The driving spotify playlists were curated months in advance and in our 1am revision session, procrastination came in the form of looking at restaurants four states away.
Our first stop was San Francisco. I’ve never been to California before so stepping off the plane into pleasantly dry heat and palm tree-lined streets was incredible. It had felt like this trip was such a long time coming. Even before I’d left for study abroad I knew I wasn’t just there to study but to explore the States. This was the last big adventure and admittedly the end of my savings. My highlight of our couple of days in San Fran was cycling along the waterfront to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was immensely satisfying to see our seven-man bike convoy roll up to the base of one of the most famous landmarks in the US knowing that we’d worked against gravel and a significant head wind to get there. We also stopped at the Palace of Fine Arts on the way. Not actually a palace but an imagining of a crumbling Roman ruin, and favourite for wedding photographers, meaning that I got some great Instagram material. My main tip for San Francisco (or SF to the cool kids) is to bring a good pair of shoes. As students who were looking at another three weeks of travelling, we walked a lot (maybe too much) in the city famous for its hills. A contrast to the boringly flat Midwest, some roads even had a 40° incline. It meant walking around the corner from our hostel could give glimpses of the most amazing views over the city below but you basically had do leg day to do so.
SF from the top of a hill, Alcatraz watch tower and a stroll around the Palace of Fine Arts.
We picked up the cars on our last day in in SF and made our way over to the first proper stop on our road trip, Yosemite National Park. ‘Only’ 3 hours away from the city but nestled in mountains higher than anything in the UK, it’s understandably popular with Californians. This gave me a problem though; I might have forgotten during my desperate panic to ship stuff home that I would actually need warm clothes to go hiking in. An issue especially considering we saw snow on our second day. Cobbling together something from the overweight bag I dragged around the country with me, we prepared to hike the ‘strenuous’ climb to Nevada falls. The hike started at 3000ft and climbed another 2000 meaning the view from the top was literally breath taking and looking back at the photos we also got incredibly lucky with the weather. It’s fair to say we’re not exactly gym rats but we still managed the climb in 4 hours. A brief moment was had for the poor pair of sunglasses that got taken back down the hike via a torrent of water hurtling off the side of the cliff face. I would absolutely recommend Yosemite to everyone, regardless of you hiking ability (there’s more gentle ones too!) but go during the week. The weekends get very busy and the paths a little slower to navigate.
Sunset by the roadside, the spectacular Yosemite falls and the climb to the top.
Coming back down to sea level and warmer weather, we travelled most of the journey south along the Pacific Coast Highway. Unusually for US highways this road actually has bends in it as it follows the coastline and gives continuously beautiful views of the ocean the whole way. We made smaller overnight stops at Monterey and Santa Barbara, to break the two-day journey down, and serve as an opportunity to have some amazing seafood. This lead to our next major stop, Los Angeles, which I would describe it as amazing and weird at the same time. Around the corner from our house was a hipster ice cream shop that allowed us to try flavours like rose water, lavender and olive. In the end I opted for the classic salted caramel. Everything there is incredibly spread out so your only travel option is to take a car and unfortunately they all drive like assholes. Thankfully we had decided to not return our rental cars and so got to see sunset over the city from the Griffith observatory, people working out on Venice Beach and a quick tour around UCLA. I also had a major nerd moment when I realised that we’d driven through the Back to the Future tunnel (smaller in real life than it looks).
The Pacific Coast Highway, between the Walt Disney concert hall and having a look around UCLA.
The final stop of our road trip was a straight drive from LA into the desert. On our way there we watched the temperature rise and rise as we got closer to the unmistakeable Las Vegas, to handily coincide with Angus’ 21st birthday. We said goodbye to the cars (a more emotional event for some more than others) and took to the strip by foot. The city is ridiculous. Every building is draped with lights and is a monument to ridiculous extravagance. In recovering from the night before we went to an all-you-can-eat sushi place. I actually felt disgusted by how much food we ate, to the point the waitress actually commented on it. It was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten but in hindsight, maybe eating that much fish in the middle of a dessert wasn’t the smartest move. We had an amazing weekend and I like to think we celebrated our friend’s particular milestone in memorable fashion, but don’t think I’m ready to go back again anytime soon.
P.S. To save this blog being longer than it already is (and this was only the first half), some things didn’t make the cut. These photos are the best of the rest
Chicago theatre during a packed graduation, the Berkeley bear and the Grand Canyon.