California Road Trip – Reflections and Lessons Learnt

“I wonder what memories and stories we’ll create over the next two weeks,” I said to Sarah on our flight to San Francisco. Each road trip begins as a blank piece of paper, waiting to be written on, drawn over and coloured in. Each one ends with a catalogue of memories and albums, providing us with entertainment for years after. They have become more than just holidays. Each one becomes its very own complete short story that has unfolded in front of our own eyes. Each one has become a learning experience that enables us to improve upon our journey next time.


San Francisco 

By sharing what we’ve learned, if other people want to do similar trips, they can take on board the information to use if they wish. So here is a list of things that we have learned from our 2017 California Road Trip and other trips. Some of it will relate just to our own personal preferences. Other bits will be genuine, sound advice that will help everyone embarking on our type of holiday.

1. The Tioga Pass. If you are doing a road trip around California taking in Yosemite National Park, do not underestimate the importance of the Tioga Pass. If you intend to approach Yosemite from the east and the Tioga Pass is closed, you will have a journey of at least five hours to get around to the nearest other entrance. Due to snow, the Tioga Pass is closed EVERY winter. There is no fixed annual date for when it reopens. Some years it reopens in the spring. This year, after one of the heaviest snowfalls on record, it didn’t open until June 29th. As we were staying at Mammoth Lakes to the east of Yosemite, if we had done our road trip at the beginning of June, we would’ve had serious problems.

2. If you are from a small island like the UK (as we are), no matter how much you think you have mastered the scale of the distances involved in getting from place to place in the USA, you will STILL underestimate it and leave yourself with more driving to do than you thought. It is a mathematical rule that can control you and make you constantly play “catch up” if you’re not wise to it. Except on the odd occasion, you don’t really want to be exceeding 200 miles per day. I usually find that 150 miles per day is a good enough distance which allow you to make progress while. giving you time to see places.

3. If you are road-tripping, NEVER let your petrol/diesel tank go UNDER half-full, and NEVER let your bladder go OVER half-full. You will not be able to achieve this all of the time, but if you set this as a target, it will help you enormously.

4. Yosemite Valley and Yosemite National Park are not the same thing. Our accommodation at Mammoth Lakes was only an hour’s drive from Yosemite National Park. It took a further hour and a half to get to Yosemite Valley itself which is deep within the national park. This was a miscalculation on our part, but not a problem as the scenery throughout was breathtaking. Yosemite Valley is crowded, and most places worth seeing involve some kind of hike. If you take children for a day trip, there will be tears. It is probably better to book a hotel in the valley for a few days at least. They get fully-booked very early and they are expensive so be warned and plan ahead. Staying in one of these, however, will save on the hours of travel to get there.

5. Death Valley is similar to Yosemite in that hotels in or nearby are expensive and get fully-booked early. If you stay at a hotel IN the valley during the summer months, you can expect temperatures to be +50C in the day time. If you book somewhere outside the valley and travel in, it is only likely to be around 40C. We love heat, and wouldn’t be deterred by 50C as long as we weren’t in it for too long, and if we go again we’ll try to stay at The Furnace Creek Hotel in the valley itself.

6. The Shady Lady Bed and Breakfast, Nevada. This where we stayed as a base for our Death Valley trip. Although it is over the border of California into Nevada, it is only just. People are put off going there for two reasons. Firstly it used to be a brothel and has retained its original name, decor and fittings. This is no more than a gimmick. Secondly, it comprises of a few mobile homes a bit like static caravans, isolated and miles from anywhere in the Nevada Desert. Don’t let this deter you. It is actually a FANTASTIC place to stay. If we are ever around the area again we will make a point of trying to book it. The owner, Paul, is an extremely pleasant and helpful fella who deserves the best reviews. It’s a MUST place to stay.


The Shady Lady Bed and Breakfast 

7. Personally, I didn’t find Yosemite Valley as enjoyable as the surrounding Yosemite National Park. Outside the valley there are no crowds and the scenery is beautiful. If I ever went to the valley again I would insist on staying in a hotel inside, to make the days worthwhile, as I didn’t feel it was worth the combination of travel time and the crowds.

8. San Francisco can be cold in the summer. It wasn’t until a month or so before our holiday that we realised just how cold San Francisco is at summertime. While surrounding areas bake in the 30s/40s Celsius, the city doesn’t seem to get much above 20C and at night time a drop to 10C combined with the windchill factor means that most people require some warm clothing.

9. To us, San Francisco was not the city of love that we’d expected. It was no better than any other city. Maybe we missed something.

10. Alcatraz Island. Sarah loved it. She’s always wanted to go there and it was a holiday highlight for her. For me, it has never called me. If it doesn’t call you, like me, it probably won’t be a highlight. I’d rather have been doing other things. If you want to go there, you need to book tickets well in advance.

11. Sequoia National Park is a very nice place, but not good for a day trip. Again the distances involved to get there and travel within it, for us, were not justified.

12. We journeyed from Death Valley to Baker as a way of avoiding harder routes in order to make quick progress. We don’t know if it was quicker or not, but by sheer accident it took us through the breathtaking Mojave Desert. It was a real treat – the surprise of the holiday.


The Mojave Desert

13. Mono Lake and Mammoth Mountain were real highlights for both of us. We went to the top of the mountain in a gondola (like a cable car). Mono Lake is such a calm and peaceful place with very unusual features. Visit them if you can.


Mono Lake

14. On reflection, it would have been a better plan to have flown in to Las Vegas and made it a one-way trip to San Francisco, flying back from there. One-way trips do incur extra car hire charges for the return of the vehicle. It would probably have added $200 to $300 to the car hire bill, but we would have done fewer miles. Las Vegas isn’t far from Death Valley, so that would have been our first place to visit.

15. If you are from the UK and used to driving a car with a manual gearbox, the transition to both driving on the right and driving an automatic will handicap you as a driver initially. You need to be aware of this and make allowances. If you can, practise for some time in the car rental parking area. If you pick your car up from an airport, the chances are that you will be thrust into high-speed and busy traffic conditions almost immediately. It’s not as easy as some people might say and you’ll really need to concentrate. You wouldn’t want to ruin your holiday before it’s even started.

16. When you pick up your car, you will have the option of hiring a SatNav (they call it GPS in the USA). Get one and use it. Trust me.


This was our third US road trip. It’s only because we have both been seriously ill that we have decided to live for the moment when we can. Each one gets better because they take practice and confidence to gain full benefit. There is so much more that we would love to share, but this is just a blog – not a book. Despite the hours of planning we put into our road trips, there are some things that can’t be controlled. I told Sarah before this holiday that I wouldn’t be coming home until I’d seen a bear. I didn’t see one. As I am writing this, we are somewhere over Canada on the flight home.


Please visit our website for details of our book, I’M NEVER ILL (A journey through brain surgery and beyond…).

California Road Trip Day 13 – The Bridges around the Bay and the Return of the Car.

Handing the car back at the rental drop off point at the airport is never a disappointment. There are always question marks hanging over your head when you do a road trip. There is always something that could go wrong even at the last moment. On the contrary, it’s a “high five” moment of victory, a sense of achievement, having came, seen and conquered.

It was 3.30pm when we handed the keys over, but not before one last throw of the dice, with a mini road trip clockwise over the bridges around San Francisco Bay, beginning with the Golden Gate and ending with the Bay Bridge. It was a perfect end to our amazing holiday. A brief visit to Twin Peaks for a view of the city we’ll leave behind and a walk around Golden Gate Park sealed the deal.


Approaching the Bay Bridge ftom the east

Road trip over. We didn’t find San Francisco as magical a place as people say. We didn’t feel the love. It, to us, was just like any other city, and not as enjoyable as some. We preferred Miami at the end of last year’s Florida road trip. Maybe we missed something.


One last look at San Francisco from Twin Peaks

Maybe we’re just road trippers at heart, and to be in a city after experiencing some exquisite scenery in the deserts and forests will mean that a stay in the city at the end of a road trip will always be a bit of an anti-climax.

We’ve just checked in to the Bay Landing Hotel at San Francisco airport. Time for a late afternoon sleep before heading out for one last evening meal.


Time to go home

If you’ve enjoyed reading about our California road trip, why not read our book, I’M NEVER ILL (A journey through brain surgery and beyond…), which tells the story of the events that made us become US road trippers three years ago. Details can be found on our website



California Road Trip Day 12 – Alcatraz and a Whale

“Could you take us to Pier 33, please?” I asked the cabbie parked at the kerbside. He gestured with his head to the back seat, saying nothing. As we got in and were putting on our seat belts I asked, “How are you this morning?” Again he said nothing. We certainly weren’t feeling any Summer of Love vibes here. The only tip he deserved was on anticipation and awareness of other road users. We arrived at 9.40am, in plenty of time for our 10.30am ferry departure for Alcatraz Island.

It was a very well organised trip, with an audio tour talking us through grim tales of escape attempts and bloodshed. There was free wifi throughout the island, so I suppose it couldn’t have been TOO bad for the inmates.


A cell at Alcatraz 

In the afternoon we made our way by Muni back to the Golden Gate Bridge. We’d originally planned to cycle over it, but settled for doing it on foot. It gives great views of the city and of Alcatraz Island. Although my long distance eyesight is much better than Sarah’s, it was her, typically, who spotted a whale in the distance about to swim under the bridge. We were unable to get a photo, but it added to the thrill of the walk.


San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge 

For the last two days, our car has been in a car park close to the hotel. It’s costing us $45 (about £35) per night. It’s expensive I suppose, but we have had little option. Tomorrow, we have to return the car by 8pm at the airport, close to the hotel we’ll be staying at on our last night before flying back to Manchester on Sunday. We took the car out this evening and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge to look at San Francisco at night from the other side at a place called Sausalito. We ate in a restaurant here with good views over the bay towards to illuminated city skyline.

Tomorrow I have one more mini road trip lined up for us on the way to the airport. It’s what our holiday is all about.

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California Road Trip Day 11 – Golden Gate Bridge and West Coast Swing

“This breakfast is far more civilised than yesterday,” Sarah said.
“Where were we yesterday?” I asked.

That’s how confusing it can be on road trips sometimes.

After breakfast we spent a couple of hours on foot, visiting some famous local sights, such as Lombard Street, The Painted Ladies and Mrs Doubtfire’s house.


Lombard Street

Later in the day we caused an argument on the bus. “I’ll tell you when to get off to catch the no. 28 for The Golden Gate Bridge,” said the bus driver.
“Thank you,” I said as I sat down. A woman who looked like Yoko Ono sitting opposite said, “I’LL tell you when to get off. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t explain it properly.”
“Oh ok,” I said.
The lady next to me said, “The driver will tell you.”
“No you listen to ME!” said Yoko, “You need to get off at Chestnut.”
“You need to get off at Lombard,” said the driver, “HERE!”
He was becoming angry with Yoko. As we were obediently (or disobediently in Yoko’s eyes) gerting off the bus, he yelled, “You only EVER listen to the bus driver. No one else!”
“Ok, thank you,” I said. “Have a nice day.”
“You too,” said the driver.
Yoko muttered something but I didn’t quite catch it. I think it was something like, “… got a ticket to ride.”

Today was warm and sunny, about 75C with a light wind. Perfect for viewing and taking pictures of the bridge. We began to make sense of the transport system, known as the Muni. San Francisco seemed, on the first day, a complicated and confusing network. But just like most things it became very easy.


Golden Gate Bridge

At 4pm we arrived back at the hotel. We’ve holidayed hard over the last eleven days and it’s beginning to take its toll on us. We needed an afternoon sleep for an hour before setting out for an evening’s swing dancing at the 920 Special just a short distance away from our hotel. They hold a dance every Thursday evening, and Sarah (she’s on clothes) has packed our dancing shoes in anticipation of a little bit of lindy hop. We saw some wonderful, talented dancers at the 9.20 Special, staying until 11pm, throwing a few shapes ourselves. It’s good to meet lindy hoppers from around the world. It’s a great community and we all dance the same language, albeit with a few dialectic differences.


Lindy hop dancing at the 9.20 Special 

Tomorrow, we have tickets to take a boat to Alcatraz Island. There really is no escape now (have I said that before?).

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California Road Trip Day 10 – San Francisco, Sea Lions and Tender Nob

At 10am we left Monterey behind us at a cloudy 65F, getting our first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge 12.45pm. The temperature had risen to a very comfortable 75F, but it was 2.15pm before we were able to get out of the car to make the most of it. It was then that we arrived at the Marine’s Memorial Hotel, a short walk from Union Square, at an area called Tender Nob (“I wouldn’t like to live THERE!” says Sarah). It took us a whole hour and a half to decipher which of our SatNav’s directions to believe and which to dismiss because of one-way systems and road closures that it didn’t recognise. This, plus a complete gridlock in the city for a full 20 minutes.


Approaching San Francisco

After checking in and handing the car keys in to a car park attendant who parked the car for us in a nearby car park, we wandered through Union Square to an information centre where we bought three-day city transport passes. Sarah has always wanted to ride up Powell Street on one of those cable cars that you’d see on TV’s The Streets of San Francisco. The bottom of Powell Street is close the hotel. It was worth the 50 minute wait for it to take us up over the hill, to the background noise of car horns and emergency sirens – just like on the TV, to Fisherman’s Wharf. It was here that we had our first glimpse of Alcatraz (we have tickets booked for the tour on Friday, so there’s no escape), and at the famous Pier 39 we watched the hilarious sea lions barking and fighting for space. In the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge faded in and out of sight as the fog drifted.


Sea Lions at Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf

At Pier 39, we dined at a restaurant with a lovely view over the Bay towards The Bay Bridge before taking the cable car back to the hotel.

We now have to get our maps out and plan the next two days.

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California Road Trip Day 9 – The Pacific Coast Highway and a Drop in Temperature

We left our hotel at Fresno at 10am and made our way west towards the coast. We passed the usual mountains and fruit farms (selling things at crazy prices such as six avocados for a dollar), watching the temperature slowly drop from somewhere in the 80s to a relatively chilly and cloudy 65F by the time we reached Monterey at 12.45pm.

Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, we were unable to go beyond Big Sur because of landslides and damage to the road as a result of storms earlier in the year. The roads have been carved into the cliffs, winding sharply and overlooking sheer drops into the sea below, just like in the movies. We stopped for a coffee at Big Sur before swapping seats for Sarah to drive back up the coast road to Carmel.


The Pacific Coast Highway 

We would have loved to explore Carmel further, but today was the day of a big car show. There was simply nowhere to park in the town. However, after giving up on the notion of getting a glimpse of resident Clint Eastwood (does he still live there?), we went to the beach and for the first time paddled in the Pacific Ocean. It was a good feeling.

There is a stretch of coast road between Carmel and Monterey called “17-mile Drive”. It’s a kind of national park that requires an entrance fee of $10.25. We drove to Monterey via this route, enjoying some great coastal views. One of the many places to see was an island called Bird Rock. Hundreds, possibly thousands of birds were gathered there about a quarter of a mile from the shore, close enough also to make out and hear the seals playing amongst them. Still without a proper camera, the zoom facility on my iPhone was insufficient to get a decent seal picture. Hopefully, that’ll change tomorrow when we reach San Francisco for the final leg of our holiday. Civilisation at last. Surely I’ll be able to find a camera shop there!


The Pacific Ocean from 17-mile Drive

Using the SatNav (GPS if you’re from the USA), Sarah is now becoming an expert. In fact, she is becoming more than an expert. On one occasion, when the SatNav asserted, “TURN RIGHT NOW!” Sarah replied with, “Don’t listen to her. She’s confused. Go left here, then you’ll be right.” I LOVE clear directions.

Today was a much more enjoyable day than yesterday; a proper “road tripper’s” day. One thing that often irks us in America is that it can be difficult to find a restaurant other than a fast-food chain. Here, in Monterey, just a couple of hundred yards from our hotel we found a perfect Italian restaurant. So far, all of our evening meals have been either self-catered or fast-food places or similar. A very welcome change. Hopefully, in San Francisco for the last four days of this wonderful road trip, that will continue.

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California Road Trip Day 8 – Sequoia National Park and the World’s Largest Tree.

Road trips are like boxes of chocolates. Each day is different, and some are more enjoyable than others. I said to Sarah, “Today was like one of those coffee creams.” She said, “Oh, I like those. It was a bit more like the chewy toffee ones.”

So far, up until today, we have had the bonus of each day being either remarkably good, or better. After eating out last night at fast food restaurant – that’s all we could find in the sprawling city of Bakersfield – we set out from our hotel at 10am. Destination: Sequoia National Park. Although it was a pleasant place to visit and drive around, it wasn’t worth the two and a half hours’ drive to get there. The only thing that was really worth the two and a half hours’ drive was the two and a half hours’ drive. There was, as usual, plenty of beautiful scenery as we drove through California. It began with more agricultural or horticultural surroundings such as corn fields, grape vines, lemon groves etc., until we reached the mountains that home the redwoods at Sequoia.


The journey to Sequoia National Park 

After climbing to about 6,000 feet along the winding mountain roads, we eventually found the trail to General Sherman – the world’s biggest tree (by volume). It has to be said, there were some mighty trees there, but General Sherman didn’t really seem to stand out amongst the others – at least, not to the extent that you would expect. I suppose it was all down to perspective from the viewing points and the general slope of the area. Nonetheless, it is what it is, and we had a pleasant walk through the forest trail to see it.


General Sherman 

We didn’t have enough time to go deeper into the forest to Kings Canyon, where the views of the mountains are said to be spectacular, but I suppose we’ve had our fair share of spectacular scenery over the last week.

So we made our way to our hotel for the night at Fresno, bringing us a little closer to the Pacific coast. The last time we saw the Pacific coast was at Santa Monica Pier, Los Angeles, at the end of our Route 66 adventure three years ago. We saw it, but we never touched it. That may change tomorrow, as we travel to Monterey on the coast to sample the Pacific Coast Highway – or, at least, what’s left of it after storms and landslides earlier this year.

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California Road Trip Day 7 – Desert Suprise, Route 66 and the Bagdad Café.

9.18am departing the Shady Lady:

Wife: Google Maps says it’ll take us four and a half hours to get to Bakersfield. Assuming we stop at Barstow for half an hour we should get there about 7.30pm, yeah?

Sounds confusing? Well that’s how it is. I wonder what time the camera shop closes.

Driving down the US 395 to Larthropp Wells, Sarah suggested a detour. Just off to our right was an enormous Sahara-style sand dune. It was imaginatively signposted “Big Dune”. The road was a little more off-road than we’d anticipated. The smoothest part of it was when we drove over a cattle grid. As we approached the dune to within a couple of hundred metres, we decided to abandon the adventure as there became a greater and greater chance of becoming dangerously stuck, isolated in a remote part of the California desert. When we got back onto the US 395, I said, “Is that 8pm for Bakersfield?

A little detour seed was beginning to germinate in my own mind by now. Coincidentally, a place that we thought we’d never see again was becoming ever closer to us.

What we figured would be an uninteresting drive, but one that would enable to help us make good progress by avoiding mountain passes, turned out to be one that offered us magical, unearthly desert scenery. As I write this, I don’t know what the place is called, but the road from Death Valley to Baker is well worth a trip.


Between Death Valley and Baker

It was along this stretch that I asked Sarah how this road trip compared to Route 66. Her response was that it’s the best road trip we’ve done – and that’s only half way through it! I said, “It gets better every day, doesn’t it?” She said, “No. It’s just been amazing EVERY day.” It was three years ago to the day that we were finishing our Route 66 holiday, and we were now approaching Barstow which is actually on Route 66. But it gets better. Our detour from Las Vegas three years ago brought us down this very same road, the I 15 (Interstate 15). It was here that, three years ago we turned off towards Newberry Springs to rejoin Route 66 before Barstow. We took exactly that same turning towards Newberry Springs. It was on THIS stretch of road three years ago that one of the photographs I took would (unknowingly at the time) become the front cover of our book, I’M NEVER ILL.


Route 66 at Newberry Springs 

Today, at Newberry Springs we turned left onto Route 66, to the Bagdad Cafe, made famous by the film of the same name, as we did three years ago. Here we had a coffee. We relived a ten mile stretch of Route 66 that Sarah drove three years ago. It was the only stretch of driving she did on that trip. Until this road trip, it had been the ONLY time she’d ever driven in the USA. She’s certainly made up for it this time around.


The Bagdad Café

We then headed backwards through Barstow, onto Mojave and to our ultimate destination for the day, Bakersfield. After delays on the interstate following a lorry fire, we finally arrived at 6.45pm, later than expected – or was it earlier?

Tomorrow will be a trip that we hadn’t planned until two days ago – Sequoia National Park. That’s the beauty of the freedom of road trips. I hear they’ve got some rather large trees there.


You’ll find the picture on the front cover of our book, plus much more, on our website


California Road Trip Day 6 – Death Valley, the Hottest Place in the World

“We’ll need our jackets,” I told Sarah as we were about the set out from the Shady Lady.
“But we’re going to Death Valley,” she said, “It’ll be hot!”
“I know that, “I reminded her, but we’ll be eating at Denny’s on the way back!”

Denny’s is a chain of American diners. We often laugh about the last time we ate there. It was last year in Florida, with outside temperatures of 40C, the air conditioning inside must have made the temperature no more than about 6C. We hate the cold. We had to run back to the car to get our hoodies.

Some of Death Valley is below sea level. Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level. At Furnace Creek , just a short distance around the bend, it was 122F (50C). The wind was, with no exaggeration, like a hairdryer.


Furnace Creek (aptly named)

After breakfast at The Shady Lady, Sarah drove 62 miles to Larthrop Wells, where there’s an Area 51 Alien Visitor Center. From there, after filling up with petrol (there are no petrol stations in Death Valley and exposure to the heat for any prolonged period could kill you), I drove to Death Valley Junction and into the valley itself.

We visited all the places of interest at the southern end of the valley – Dantes Peak, Zabriskie Point, The Artist’s Palette, Furnace Creek and so many other places. My expectations were high and they were exceeded. Around every corner was something to stare at in wonder. Our iPhones overheated while we were taking picture after picture in the baking heat. We drank litres of water to save dehydration. We are lucky that we both love the heat and that neither of us sweat much. It would take us (especially me) a lot longer than most to die of thirst. But we still can’t take chances.


Zabriskie Point

After eating at Denny’s in Beatty on the way back (the temperature inside was far more civilised on this occasion), we went back to our accommodation and sat outside watching the shooting stars.

Tomorrow we leave The Shady Lady for the first leg of our journey back across to the west coast. There is a huge land mass between us and the Pacific Ocean. We can’t go through it, we can’t go over it, so we’ll have to go UNDER it, in a southerly direction. Our destination is Bakersfield. Last night, Sarah went online and booked hotels for the next three nights- one at Bakersfield, one at Fresno and one at Monterrey. These are the only nights that we hadn’t booked before our road trip.

The journey to Bakersfield field will be one of those long, hard driving days. However, we may go via Barstow which is on Route 66. It will excite us to bring back memories of three years ago.

We are now half way through our California road trip. So far, it has more than met our expectations. We have done so much. Our first day driving through Yosemite National Park seems such a long time ago. We have so much yet to come.

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