Utah Day 6 – The Golden Gate and the Submarine

After a long night it was a later start to the day than we’d planned, and whilst having breakfast a thunderstorm with hailstones had begun. I realised this meant I wouldn’t be getting to see the Golden Gate Bridge from a viewpoint as I’d hoped, but at least this wouldn’t affect seeing a second world war era submarine – the USS Pampanito.

I drove us through the rain and decided we wouldn’t be parking in the same parking lot as last time. Instead we parked further down the road in a multi-story that was a little closer to the submarine. Despite this, and running to it, we still managed to get soaked by the time we made it to the ticket office.

The entry for the submarine was only US$20 each, and we were the only ones there. Despite this apparently being their busiest day of the week normally it seems the rain had put everyone else off visiting as we were the only ones onboard. This meant it was great for taking photographs as we took the audio tour around.

The tour starts in the aft torpedo room, and proceeds from there into manoeuvring room, the engine rooms, the crew’s mess and galley, and also the control room. The tour then exits through the forward torpedo room, and out onto the deck.

During this submarine’s operation it had been part of a pack along with the USS Growler which was the submarine I’d been on previously in New York City. It’s tour of duty had been incredibly successful, and since 1975 has been a museum ship.

Whilst we’d been on the boat the sun had come out and this was drying me off quickly. The attendant for the ticket booth had also disappeared in this time and now people were walking onboard without paying.

As we had some time left over, and as the sun was shining, we decided we’d pay the toll to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge in an attempt to get the photographs I wanted of the bridge. Along the way though I noticed that there were a few places where we could see the bridge from. In both of the places we stopped, I went off and took a couple of pictures of the bridge. From the second stop I also had to cross a field and a beach in order to get close enough – but it was enough and meant we wouldn’t need to cross the bridge after all.

As we’d now finished everything we wanted to do, we headed back to the hotel to pick up or luggage and drove on to the airport. The check-in for this was relatively quick, but whilst I was checking in my friend disappeared again. Fortunately we met up on the other side of security.

By now it was past midday and we were in need of food. It wasn’t great, but we did manage to find a place to get a sandwich as we waited for our flight out of San Francisco. Whilst we were waiting my friend helped a couple out with some painkillers, and got talking to them. They’d overheard him talking about his equipment being stolen, and told us that they’re volunteers at a place up in the mountains that has a good viewpoint. They offered us free access for when we arrived in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately we wouldn’t have time immediately, but we thanked them, and let them know that we may have time when we return in a week.

The flight to Salt Lake City was an easy one, and in first class it was also a comfortable one with a choice of snacks and drinks. As I’d not had nachos in a while I decided to go for a packet of those whilst I watched some video on my laptop.

When we arrived at the airport it was raining heavily, so after baggage collection we made a dash across the road to the car rentals building where we picked up our car for the week – a Nissan Sentra. This wasn’t the one we’d booked but we decided after our San Francisco experience it was worth paying the extra to get one which would hide our luggage better. It would have cost an extra US$45, but having flown with United Airlines meant we only had to pay an extra US$15 per day.

The drive to the hotel was quick and easy, and the the hotel lobby was well furnished. This was our cheapest hotel for the two weeks, yet it was also the best one so far. Hopefully breakfast in the morning would keep up our opinion.

For the evening meal we ran across the carpark through the rain to the nearby Ramada where they have an attached restaurant, Amelia’s Grill and Bar – named after the famous aviator Amelia Earhart. I decided on the Bourbon BBQ Chicken which was chicken in a BBQ bourbon sauce, topped with cheese and bacon, and accompanied by a jacket potato, carrots, and broccoli. By the time we’d finished eating the rain had turned into sleet – hopefully not a sign of what weather we’d be experiencing over the next week.

 

4.2 miles walked

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Utah Day 5 – From the City to the Rock

Breakfast at the hotel in San Francisco was considerably better than what we’d had in Oakhurst. Though not only did we have it later than the previous days, we also left the hotel considerably later than we had in Yosemite in an attempt to avoid rush hour traffic.

Eventually we found a car park outside of pier 39 which advertised a day rate of US$37 which was actually only twelve hours. As it was 09:45 we knew that if we left Alcatraz on the last boat we’d probably have to run back to the car to meet this time.

To start with we headed up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower via quite a few steps. This tower is named after San Francisco’s first female fire fighter and was built solely as a viewpoint. To go up to the top it cost US$8 per person but from there you could see downtown, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island.

We had planned to go to the USS Pampanito in the morning, but we’d forgotten about this and instead headed further into the city to walk through Chinatown and photograph the Dragon Arch. This area did genuinely feel very Chinese and in places reminded me of Beijing and Xi’an.

As we weren’t far from Union Square we decided it’d be worth visiting this as well. As I’d got offline maps on my phone it meant this was easy to navigate to. We noticed that in Macy’s they had a Cheesecake Factory – a place we recognised from television. As we wouldn’t be eating until late we decided it would be a good idea to go there for some of their famous cheesecake before continuing on. I went for a large piece of cheesecake that included bits of Snickers bar as topping.

After this our plans weren’t that fixed, and we decided to head towards Columbus Avenue and see where we ended up. I thought it’d be good if we could make it to Fort Mason as there was potential for a good view of the Golden Gate Bridge, though my friend wasn’t feeling great so we sat inside a church for a while before heading back to the car so he could get his sunglasses.

Once my friend had his glasses we doubled back on ourselves and headed in the direction of Fort Mason, but time was now against us. It was this point that we had also realised we’d forgotten about the submarine we’d planned on visiting, so I went on ahead and found out the opening times for the next day before continuing on.

We got as far as the Historical Maritime Park when we decided we couldn’t make it the rest of the way in time so decided I’d run on ahead and attempt to get the photographs I wanted to save time. To start with I walked fast, but then when I got there I found the view of the bridge was terrible – mostly due to the fog.

As I was now running short on time I decided I’d run out to the viewing point on a pier to see if I could get a better view of the bridge. From a certain point of view I could – I could see more of it, but it was still shrouded in clouds. As I was now getting extremely low on time I ran back to the Historical Maritime Park where I’d left my friend.

It was now mid-afternoon and we’d got just over an hour until we needed to be at pier 33 for the Alcatraz tour. We hadn’t yet however had a proper lunch so we went to the Boudin Bakery which are famous for their sourdough. I decided to go for their turkey and avocado sandwich without the avocado and it tasted really good. As this was a quick lunch it then gave us more time than expected to get to the pier so we went back to the car one last time so my friend could change his shoes.

We boarded the boat for the island at 16:15, and only twelve minutes later we’d made it across to the island’s pier. We were greeted by National Park Service guides who then led our group of thirty around the island.

Our tour started in the gatehouse where we were told that Alcatraz Island was first used as a fort with a dry moat and drawbridge to defend against attackers wanting to gain access to the gold in San Francisco during the gold rush. This of course is where the Golden Gate Bridge gets its name from – it spans the gateway to the gold of San Francisco. They never experienced an attack and the island was later converted into a prison upon the orders of President Abraham Lincoln.

After the prison closed due to the amount of money that would have been required to bring it up to standard, it was briefly occupied by native Americans and some buildings knocked down by the government. It was then turned into a national monument however and is now run by the park service to maintain it for future generations to see.

On the other side of the gatehouse we went up the ramp to some destroyed buildings. From there we accessed the first area that was exclusive to the behind-the-scenes tour – the area alongside the power station. At the side of this there is an archway under the road which says to “blow your horn” so that anyone walking out the doors won’t be unexpectedly hit by cars. On the other side of this there is a tunnel that was built by labourers from the prison. At the far end of this the park service has knocked through into another building which is a workshop.

The next off-limits area was the officer’s garden which overlooks San Francisco and Angel Island. From there we headed up to what was formerly the citadel, but later became the main prison building after all but it’s cellar was levelled and rebuilt. Inside here our first stop was another off-limits area that was situated through the visitation area and up some stairs to a chapel. This chapel also doubled as a theatre on some nights, but it was evident that this was also occupied by native Americans after it’s closure.

In “A block” we were then taken to some stairs down into the cellar where the original solitude cells were located. In the later years of the prisons life these cells were closed down due to humanitarian issues and was moved into “D block”. It was said that these cells would drive prisoners insane due to the darkness and the sound of rats amongst them. The cells under the main building were in a place that would once have been the dry moat around the citadel – some of the only remains from that time. Whilst we were there they turned off the lights that the NPS had fitted to demonstrate what it would have been like down there. It was dark. Very dark. In this place there wasn’t even a feint hint of light which is what often helped to drive prisoners mad.

When we reached the barbershop area we were told about one of the murders that had taken place in the prison, and how this was a lovers quarrel. The behind-the-scenes tour then concluded in the dining hall where we were told a story about one of the prisoners and how Alcatraz had turned one prisoner from a non-violent offender into a killer.

We then started an audio tour of Alcatraz starting from the shower block where another of the murders had taken place. This audio tour took us all around the prison and told us about the history, the functions, of the rooms, and what life was like here.

Following this we then went to two talks – one which covered the prison break attempt of one prisoners, and then another that covered details about the number of people involved in another prison break attempt. We left during this one as we decided it’d be better to get the 20:40 boat and get back in early enough for food.

We got back to the parking lot at around 21:15, and went straight to top up the car parking for a couple more hours – costing us another US$15 to do so. When we got back to the car I opened the back of the car up and noticed that there was glass all over the floor – then I realised the window had been smashed. My friend’s camera bag had been left in the back, hidden by the tinted windows – but the thieves had smashed the side windows first and had obviously then seen his bag and subsequently smashed the back to get it.

My friend no longer felt like going for food, and was suggesting we should drive back to the hotel; though I was insisting we should phone the police and the car rental company first before moving anything. As we were discussing this we were approached by someone visiting from New Jersey to see if we needed help. We explained to him the situation and he quickly dialled 911. It took him several attempts to get through – so a good job it wasn’t an emergency. After he’d explained what had happened to them they said they wouldn’t be sending anyone out, and we should dial 311 to report it for the purpose of insurance.

My friend dialled the number we’d been given and they emailed him a form to fill in to report the incident. Following this we called the car rental company to tell them what had happened, and after giving us an incident number it seemed they expected us to carry on with the car having a smashed window. So I drove us back to the hotel – seemingly one of the longest twenty minute drives of the week whilst my friend, in shock, spoke to his cousin on the phone about what had happened. As I drove back glass continued to drop from the rear window both into the car and onto the road – it didn’t seem like a great idea to be driving this.

When we got back to the hotel we warned the reception that our car may spill glass out into their car park, but they didn’t seem bothered by it – nor did they want to help us. We emptied the car in the pouring rain of anything left in there of value. Over the hours that followed my friend tried to make a list of what he’d lost, and began to pack for the upcoming flight. By the time he’d done it was gone midnight and all we’d eaten was a couple of biscuits.

 

13.4 miles walked

Utah Day 4 – Yosemite to San Francisco

My original plan had been to get up and run before we returned to San Francisco, but I decided that the efforts from yesterday’s hike were the equivalent to a tough running session. Instead we had a slightly later start, though I didn’t find breakfast that appetising after having had the same for the past couple of days. Even with a slight detour to Starbucks for my friend to buy coffee, we still made it to the entrance to Yosemite just before 09:00.

Our first activity of the day was a short hike to Bridalveil Falls. This one had a car park that was a little flooded, but we made it onto the path without getting wet. As you get closer to the falls though you’re very likely to get damp from the spray being blown across the path and viewing point. Though we managed this without getting too wet.

We then continued around the park, stopping at some of the viewing points we didn’t stop at before and eventually made our way towards the exit for the last time. When we reached Wawona we pulled off down a road which said “Redwoods in Yosemite”, thinking that it was a potential hike. What we found though was that this was the name of a series of holiday cabins, but nearby there is a hike to the Chilnualna Falls.

At Chilnualna Falls there is the option of an eight mile hike that is estimated to take around five hours, or a short one mile hike to the base of a cascade. These falls are quite out of the way and not visited as much, though they’re worth the hike.

Before leaving Yosemite National Park for the last time we stopped briefly at the viewpoint for El Capitan – the first place we’d stopped at on our way in. After that we didn’t stop again until we pulled off into the Sierra National Forest to have a packed lunch.

For the hours that followed we drove ever closer to San Francisco, with one stop for fuel and then with only ninety minutes left we stopped in Gilroy for me to take over the driving. This area was incredibly familiar, and with good reason – we’d driven through this before on our way to San Jose at the end of our Big Sur roadtrip. We also saw what seemed to be a very small twister tearing across a field with some speed.

During my section of the drive it soon started to rain, and it got heavier and heavier until the visibility got bad enough to have to concentrate hard on where the lines were on the road. This felt tiring, but eventually we made it to the Comfort Inn hotel we were staying at.

We heard later that during this storm it had stranded night tours on Alcatraz island, and it wasn’t until a brief lull in the storm after midnight that they’d been able to get a boat out quickly to rescue them. We were lucky we were only driving through it.

Unfortunately, as we were in the middle of nowhere the food options were very limited. The best option we had was the Embassy Suites hotel. Sadly the service was quite poor here. After a ten minute wait my friend decided to find someone to ask them to take our order, and at the end of the meal he had to do the same to get someone to give us the bill. I was picking up the bill for this one and eventually gave up waiting and went to the bar to pay. The food however, although small, was very good.

It’d been a quiet day after a couple of heavy walking days, but it was a chance to rest after our long hike, and before a day of walking around San Francisco and Alcatraz.

 

2.67 miles walked

Utah Day 3 – Hiking the Upper Yosemite Falls

With a long hike planned for the day, our second day in Yosemite was another early start. We’d decided to set alarms for 06:30 to give that little extra time in hope we could get breakfast early and get on the road that little bit sooner. It worked out that we got on the road ten minutes earlier, and by the time we got to the start of the trail up to the Upper Yosemite Falls it was a little passed 10:00.

The start of this trail zigzags up the side of the mountain for some time before eventually straightening out a little. It eventually crosses a number of waterfalls, though even with the amount of meltwater we were encountering they weren’t too difficult to pass without getting wet. I was in shorts and t-shirt, and carrying a 10kg pack with one litre of water along with camera equipment. This made the climb harder work as it meant I was getting warmer quicker, though even though we’d had a brief stop by this point, we were making good time.

After passing these waterfalls the path then goes back down until you approach Yosemite Falls. Here, depending on the wind, you’ll get a little wet from the spray being blown around – but it wasn’t bad enough to warrant waterproofs. It was a little refreshing.

This area is a great spot for photographing the upper Yosemite Falls and is possibly the best view of them. We stopped here for a while which gave me the chance to use my tripod and capture some of the rainbow arch that appeared through the water. Once passed there the climb continued on to the top, a lot of it without shade, and eventually through streams and snow. We’d taken our time though, and reached the top in 2hr45.

The snow across the last part was quite deep, but the viewpoint area itself was clear of it. A few people were sitting around at the top, but not many were going down to the Yosemite Falls Overlook. These steps were narrow and had a handrail you could cling to in order to avoid falling to your death should you slip. My friend’s fear of heights didn’t help him there, but he made it down. The overlook however wasn’t really worth the effort as you can’t see anything.

Back up the stairs we went looking for the trail to Yosemite Point, but we decided the path was inaccessible without better equipment so we sat and ate lunch. We were after all in shorts, t-shirt, and trainers – not the ideal clothing for hiking across snow.

After lunch we found an alternative route down to the bridge across the falls, and for the most part managed to stay dry despite the snow. Once over the bridge the climb became far steeper, and was actually very difficult in trainers. My friend went on ahead, so far in fact that I eventually lost sight of him. I was slipping down in the snow frequently, and on one occasion had to backtrack to pick up my lens cap that had been knocked off my camera. Eventually he waited, and I caught up with him – though it was difficult to not show how angry I was about it. If I’d injured myself when sliding in the snow I’d have been on my own – nobody else was in sight.

From there we continued the climb at a slower place and eventually reached the top where we found a rocky outcropping that was free of snow. This was Yosemite Point and had a good view the Yosemite Valley and Half Dome.

Our route back down was much steeper, though we tried our best to keep to areas where people had left footprints in the snow previously. By this time my feet were feeling very cold from the amount of snow that had gotten inside my shoes whilst traipsing across the snow. Even though I was wearing shorts and t-shirt the rest of me wasn’t anywhere near as cold. On this descent my friend slipped on a rock, and grazed his arm – leaving a trail of blood.

Back across the bridge we then paused and looked back at where we’d been. To look at it, it was incredible just how steep it actually was and to know we’d climbed and descended it in the snow. From there we climbed back up to the path down the mountain, crossing the streams we had done previously.

The descent was slow, partly because my friend isn’t keen on heights and so looking down was not doing him much good. We paused a few times as our feet were getting sore from the dampness and the amount of walking we’d done. I also ran out of water eventually and was starting to feel dehydrated.

As we got near to the bottom I slipped on a rock and jarred my neck, though by the time we got to the bottom at 17:05 it had eased off. From there it was a short walk back to the car, from which we drove back to the Yosemite store to buy food for tomorrow’s lunch.

It took 1h20 to get from the store to the hotel, and after dropping off our cameras we headed over the the Sweetwater Steakhouse. I went for the New York steak – it wasn’t bad but there was a lot of fat in the meat which meant although it was sizeable there was quite a bit left over. This with a drink they kept refilling came to $60 with tip.

 

11.6 miles walked

Utah Day 2 – Hiking the Yosemite Valley

I slept quite well, at least better than I normally do at the start of a trip. I awoke once at 02:00 and thought it was light out. I looked at my phone, and then my laptop and it didn’t make sense that there was light coming in through the window. I then realised it was the light from the corridor, and fell asleep once more until 05:00.

This time when I woke up I decided that although it hadn’t been long since the marathon, I’d go out for a four mile run to loosen my legs. It was still dark when I left out, and a little cold, though there was still the occasional car about. To start with I ran along the pavements on the same side as the hotel, looking at what buildings there were as I passed. I’d decided it’d be a good idea to see what food places were around for later in the day.

Although none of the pavement was particularly well lit I eventually ran out of pavement so decided to turn back and go the other way passed the hotel. Going in the opposite direction I noticed that a new hotel was being built, but also that there was a nice-looking barbecue place over the road – a potential place to eat in the evening.

After a quick shower I went for breakfast, though this was incredibly basic – as American places out on the road often are. I was then able to quickly sort out my camera and what I’d need for the day and we were on the road a little after 08:00. Only twenty minutes later we joined a queue which seemed to not move forever, however in reality we were going again after about fifteen minutes. It seems the queue was something to do with single file traffic whilst they were performing some logging.

We found the park entrance was forty-five minutes from our hotel, and the permit for entering although US$30 would be good for seven days. It was then a long drive down into the Yosemite Valley, though once you’ve passed through the long tunnel the places for stopping become frequent.

One of the first stops along this drive is a great viewing point for imposing rock face of El Capitan. The backdrop to this includes other sights of note such as the iconic Half Dome, cathedral rocks, and Bridalveil Falls. El Capitan can also be seen from at least one other stop, and at this later one you can get a little closer should you wish to.

Most of the places to stop after this are either viewpoints for waterfalls, or are camping sites. Eventually we did park up and went on our first hike of the day. For this we walked along a closed road section and reached a crossroads where we could either go to Mirror Lake, or do the Misty Trail. We decided on the latter.

The Misty Trail can be considered to be a relatively tough trail, especially on legs that had been for a post-marathon recovery run. Some parts of the path are quite steep, but once you’ve crossed the bridge at the bottom of Vernal Falls the path also becomes uneven and rocky. As this trail goes on it also becomes a little damp – damp enough in fact that a coat is recommended.

Once you reach the point of the trail where the wind blows the mist across the path, you then encounter a cave as well – I found this area to be particularly cold as the water vapour cools the air considerably. The path then gets steeper and even wetter. For those that aren’t keen on heights, after this point the path does have a handrail – so this helped my friend get to the top.

Once you reach the point of the trail where the wind blows the mist across the path, you then encounter a cave as well – I found this area to be particularly cold as the water vapour cools the air considerably. The path then gets steeper and even wetter. For those that aren’t keen on heights, after this point the path does have a handrail – so this helped my friend get to the top.

At the top of the falls there is a rail around the edge to stop you going too close to the edge, and also to stop you going into the water due to it being fast flowing. We spent a few minutes there taking photographs back along the canyon, but if my friend hadn’t had tired legs there was also the option to carry on walking to Nevada Falls. This however would have added a few extra miles on to the journey, and my friend was also getting hungry.

Once we’d made it back to the car we set off looking for a place to get some food. The map suggested a couple of places as an option but detours meant we weren’t taking the most direct routes there. Eventually we decided the best option was to use the Yosemite Store and buy things for making lunch with. Rather than eat this in the car park there, we drove on to the car park to Yosemite Falls and ate there instead.

After lunch we went for a walk to the Lower Yosemite Falls, and once again got wet from the wind blowing the spray from the waterfall across the path. This was another area where there was still a considerable amount of snow about, even though it was now in the low twenty degrees Celsius. At the waterfall I was careful, and managed to keep my camera and me mostly dry – even risking some longer exposures on the shots.

We then thought we could quickly do the Upper Yosemite Falls as the map suggested it was only a couple of more miles and didn’t indicate and level of difficulty. On the way to the path though we asked a ranger how far it was and was told the trail takes about seven hours on average but can be anywhere between five to ten. We certainly didn’t have time for that, so instantly made the plan to do that as our hike for the following day.

As we still had some time left we decided to loop back around to where we’d come from and hike across to Mirror Lake. The signs though for this are completely wrong – at one point it says 1.2 miles and approximately half a mile later it said one mile. In reality it was more like two miles across uneven terrain so does take close to an hour to get to.

The Mirror Lake is a fairly scenic area, and finally gave me an opportunity to use my new lightweight tripod – proving that it was not just worth the purchase, but worthwhile me carrying it along on these hikes.

By the time we’d arrived back at the car we’d covered 12.2 miles during the course of the day, but then had almost two hours of driving to go to get back to Oakhurst. When we arrived back we filled up with fuel ready for the next day, and then went over to eat at Alice’s BBQ. I went for a BBQ chicken special with beans and fries. It wasn’t too bad, but I’ve certainly had better barbecues elsewhere.

 

12.2 miles walked, 4.2 miles run

Utah Day 1 – Birmingham to San Francisco

Due to a combination of not having much time, and also a bit of poor planning on my part. It meant that at 02:15, just fourteen hours after finishing the Greater Manchester Marathon, I needed to get a taxi to the airport. Sleep that night had been the broken sleep that you’re rewarded with following some effort in a long run. My legs didn’t ache, I’d been lucky for that to not last long, but I was tired.

The taxi ride there was quick, and it felt like the driver thought he was a reincarnation of Ayrton Senna. He was taking the roads and corners as quickly as he could. No mercy. No surrender. When I got to the airport I found that the check-in desk wasn’t opening until two hours before the flight so I had some time to sit around.

I hoped that for once I’d be able to sleep on the flight – though the first one would be too short to as I was flying to Frankfurt first. Getting through Frankfurt Airport was stressful. In addition to having to rush from one terminal to another I then had to go through security again. This time though they swabbed my camera gear and camera – and this tested positive for explosives. They called over some armed security guards, and noted down my flight number and my passport number, then got me to prove my laptop was working. They then retested my backpack and laptop – this time, thankfully, it was testing negative. That was a stressful few minutes though.

I got to the gate with time to spare and was soon boarding the flight to San Francisco. On this flight they served a snack fairly early on, and then served a warm meal. During this time I watched “Arrival”, and then after closing my eyes for a while I watched “Passengers”.

Before we landed in San Francisco they served another snack, and then eventually another warm meal. Even though we’d left Frankfurt thirty minutes late we’d been told that we would still get into San Francisco on time. We did however get stuck in a holding pattern for fifteen minutes which meant we landed late.
Immigration was relatively quick, and the baggage collection was even quicker. From there I took the AirTrain to the rental desk and met up with my friend. We upgraded the car to a Kia Sorento – something that might be more comfortable, and began our journey.

We left the car rental place a little after 15:00, but found that the traffic was awful. It wasn’t just getting across San Francisco that was the problem, but most of the way to Oakhurst. It was really hard to stay awake during this time, but I managed to until we reached a Burger King in Merced. After I’d eaten I felt more awake until we arrived at the Yosemite Sierra Inn.

Check-in took a while as my friend decided to talk to the owner about India before getting the room keys. Finally though, at around 21:15, 27 hours after I’d gotten up in Leicester, I was in the hotel room and able to go to sleep in California.

California Day 8/9 – San Jose to Leicester

It was a restless night – with so much noise around the hotel it meant it was difficult to sleep. At around 04:30 there were loud banging noises that sounded like large metal containers being moved. Eventually though it was time to get up and head to the airport, having had only 3 to 4 hours of sleep at best.

Due to how early we were leaving it meant having breakfast at the airport – fortunately unlike some airports I’ve been to there was a reasonable selection to choose from. I decided to have a “Pain au Chocolat”, or as the locals call them “Chocolate Croissant”. I also took this opportunity to buy some lunch to put in my backpack for later as with the tight connections I’d have it would mean I wouldn’t get chance to buy anything in Denver or Newark – if all went according to plan.

They began boarding the plane at 07:15, and was up in the air by 08:15. For this flight I sat and watched episodes of TV shows to pass the time. Though it was only a short flight so had to pause the second episode part way through.

When I got into Denver I said goodbye to my friend who would be going on to Chicago and then Toronto. I still had plenty of time for boarding the next flight as it turned out that the flight had been delayed 24 minutes. This meant my flight out of Newark was going to be very tight and I’d be lucky to make it. They did say though that they’d make up around 15 minutes in the air so we’d only be 10 minutes late arriving, however we still landed 25 minutes late. During the flight from Denver to Newark I finished off the episode I was watching and ate the turkey sandwich I’d bought from San Jose. Throughout the flight though I kept nervously looking at my watch – wondering if I was going to make it in time.

Upon touchdown the gate for my final flight had been open for sometime. It was slow progress getting off the plane as although the attendants asked that they let those with tight connections leave first, there wasn’t anyone allowing this to happen. As soon as I could I ran through the terminal. Luckily I had seen the gate on the way in so I knew where to go to get to it. I arrived just 5 minutes before they closed the cabin door – but that was all I needed. I’d made it to my flight home just in time.

During the flight they served drinks with cheese and crackers, and then later on they served dinner. Just like the flight out to the US, the options were chicken or pasta – I went with the chicken again and this time it was not curry, but some strips of chicken with red peppers. For the rest of the flight I put my feet up across the row of three chairs and tried to relax. I wasn’t able to sleep, but at least I was comfortable. For a while I watched more TV until eventually they served breakfast – a cold croissant with jam.

An hour later and the plane was finally preparing to land in Birmingham. My trip had come to an end and home was almost in sight. It seemed like the week in California has passed by incredibly quickly yet at the same time even events such as being in Los Angeles felt like weeks ago. It felt like it had been a good week for my first US road trip.

California Day 7 – Palm Springs to San Jose

I had originally planned to go for the run I’d missed the day before, however my foot was still a little sore so reluctantly decided to not go out. Instead, I got up at 07:00 and headed over the road to Rick’s Desert Grill (same name as the place I had an evening meal at, but not the same place) for breakfast. As part of the motel booking we’d got a voucher to get egg with hash browns, toast, and a small drink. During breakfast we could see the occasional hummingbird flit onto and passed the flowers outside the window.

Once breakfast was done we got the car loaded back up and was on the road by 08:20 for the start of what would be a very long drive. We had however decided that we’d take a short detour to Coachella Valley Preserve. The reason for this is that this park sits on the San Andreas faultline and has an example of hot springs that have formed due to the fault.

As we were short on time we went along the McCallum Trail – one which was supposed to be about 2.4 miles. This started amongst the palm trees but soon left the boardwalk and onto a dusty trail of sand. Eventually the almost barren landscape surrendered to a small oasis known as McCallum Pond where some volunteers were working on removing the invasive crayfish species from the pond so that one day they can reintroduce native species of fish.

One of these volunteers then led us around the path to another pond which was much clearer and told us that when the light is right you can see bubbles seep through the water from the porous ground beneath. This is a side effect of the sort of terrain that the San Andreas fault has produced.

The route back from this included a deliberate diversion up a sand dune to get a better view of the area, but also included an unintended diversion to where some private residences were located. I’d been trailing behind due to stopping for photographs, and I thought we were heading in the wrong direction, but wasn’t heard when I commented on this. By the time we got to a dead end it was evident that we should indeed have taken the other path but I chose not to comment.

By the time we left the car park it was 09:50 and from then on we were continuously getting closer to San Jose. As the miles ticked by the landscape changed many times from desert palms, to barren landscapes, and then back to a cityscape as we skimmed the outskirts of Los Angeles towards the Pasadena area. Eventually at 13:40 we made a stop near Bakersfield to stretch our legs and get some food. The only place other than Subway was “Jack in the Box” so we tried that.

I went for a turkey, cheese and bacon grilled sandwich which was incredibly greasy, but didn’t taste too bad. Once we’d eaten I then took over the driving for the rest of the day until we reached the hotel at 18:00. This drive was long and monotonous with me driving in a straight line at constant speed, except for during traffic and roadworks, for way over 100 miles. As the sun set the last hour of the drive became more difficult as it was a constant battle to avoid the sun glaring straight in my eyes and obscuring the now winding road in front.

Once we’d checked into the hotel we got the car unloaded and then headed out to get it dropped off. As the pick-up location was now closed we’d opted to have the drop-off point at the airport. Personally I wanted us to look for a fuel station before heading there but instead we drove to the airport only to find there wasn’t one there (as I’d suspected).

This meant to get through we had to pay $2 for the carpark, and then made another attempt at looking for fuel there before leaving the airport and finding one around the corner. Unlike other stations where they hold your card, they instead pre-charged my card for $75 and would refund anything I didn’t use. This meant the car was now ready and so we headed back to the airport.

The Avis drop-off point didn’t really make much sense. When we got there there were no signs indicating where we were supposed to drop off the car so we parked it in a bay. When we spoke to the assistant she then behaved like we were stupid and that it should be obvious where it needs dropping off. It wasn’t though – we had to park it on row G as opposed to row D.

The taxi back to the Arena hotel wasn’t too bad at only 20 USD (slightly less than at the start of the trip), and from there we wandered out into the night looking for somewhere to eat. At first it seemed like we weren’t going to find anywhere, but eventually we came across an Italian place called Pasta Pomodoro. I went for the lasagna which was actually very good, and even decided to try their New York Style Cheesecake for dessert.

By the time we were back at the hotel it was 21:00 and didn’t really have time to run – I finished packing for the flight the next day and after an hour tried to get some sleep.

California Day 6 – Endeavour

My original intention was to run this day, but with a sore foot (not sure why) and needing to be out by 07:30 it wasn’t really an option. Instead, I got up at 06:30 and was on the road an hour later driving north to Mann’s Chinese Theatre – the famous theatre where a number of premieres have taken place – including Star Wars in 1977.

Just around the corner from the theatre is some parking, but they charge $2.50 for every 12 minutes. Unfortunately we ran over into the second 12 minutes by just 4 minutes, but it wasn’t a bad stop. We got to see the impressive exterior of the building and also the stars and handprints for some well known people along the walk of fame.

One thing to note about the stars on the Hollywood walk of fame is how underneath each name is a glyph that represents what they are best known for, or rather why they got the star. So in the case of “Slash” he got his for his music, whereas the great comedic actor Robin Williams was obviously for acting. There are also images to represent the other types of career that make up Hollywood.

Back in the car we then carried on driving up onto the hill nearby to Canyon Lake Drive as I’d found this would be a good position to see the Hollywood sign relatively close-up. This did however then pose some problems trying to get a clear photograph of it due to the number of trees blocking the view – possibly intentional due to it being a residential area.

An hour later we then got to the California Science Center, arriving just before 10:00. The parking here cost $10, but the entrance to the museum itself is free. To start with we had to ask for directions for it from the Natural History Museum, but it turned out there are a couple of museums in this area.

Inside the museum we soon found that we needed to buy a $2 ticket each in order to gain access to the space shuttle Endeavour. This didn’t take long so we got back inside and tried to get to the space shuttle ahead of a school class that had arrived. Unfortunately when we got to the entrance we then found that we needed to exchange the tickets we just bought at a desk elsewhere on the floor to get a yellow admission ticket. A crazy system and one that was far from obvious.

Now having a second ticket we went back to the entrance and had a quick look at the information about the Endeavour before sitting down to watch a very short video about it’s arrival in LA and it’s transportation to the Science Center. Once this was over we finally got to head down to the hanger where it is located.

The first thing I noticed about the Endeavour is how you can see the wear and the discolouring from 19 years of service and the 25 missions it completed. This is a contrast to the Enterprise – that one was clean due to it not having any service history in space. Surrounding the space shuttle OV-105 are cards detailing each of it’s missions and a couple of videos about it’s history. The Endeavour was constructed after the destruction of the Challenger in 1986 – a disaster that resulted in a 36 month hiatus of the space shuttle program.

Leaving the hangar behind us, we then had a quick look around the air and space section, but it wasn’t that impressive. Instead of looking around any more we headed out to the car park where the map indicated a Blackbird was parked. Once we’d seen it we headed back to the science center for lunch. I went for crispy chicken and fries – and hoped for an evening meal I’d be able to avoid fries.

Our next stop of the day was the Bradbury Building, a registered historical and cultural landmark in downtown LA. Today it houses the LAPD Internal Affairs division, but it’s interest comes from both the design of the interior and it’s use in many film and TV productions including Blade Runner. The closest parking we could find for this cost $5 as a day rate near the LA Times building, but we only needed 20 minutes as once inside you can’t go above the ground floor.

What followed was then a long drive out of Los Angeles into the Mojave desert. This desert landscape takes up a good portion of this part of California but also stretches out into the states of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Driving along this part of route 62 we soon realised that we might not have enough fuel to get all the way to Palm Springs after this detour to Joshua Tree National Park, though fortunately we found a fuel stop in Yukka Valley.

At the entrance to the National Park it turned out that as it was Veterans Day we wouldn’t need to pay an entry fee – we could just continue driving. This park is so large that it’s not really an option to hike all of it unless you’ve got a lot of time there – instead you drive to what you want to see and then take the trails from there. As we’d only got a couple of hours until sunset we drove from place to place taking photographs as we went.

At each stop we spent no more than 10-15 minutes, but we got to see rock formations such as the one known as “Old Woman” which we could see climbers on. There was also an abundance of Yucca brevifolia, the Joshua Tree, for which the Park and town are named. On one of the trails I decided to climb some rocks but found their surface to be incredibly abrasive and cut my hand open when trying to climb.

The trail which led to Barker Dam was the only proper trail we took, though we found that the body of water it should be holding back had dried up to almost nothing – a strong reminder of California’s severe drought. By this point it was starting to get dark, but it was too late to find somewhere to get a sunset photograph in the park as the mountains were already hiding the sun from view. All we could do is head out of the park and back to the junction where we could then head on to Palm Springs.

By the time we got to the junction it had been dark for some time and so was driving farther out into the desert on the dark, unlit roads. Eventually though we made it to the town and to the motel that was booked for the night. Once there we walked down the road to a place called Rick’s Desert Grill for dinner. I went for their thanksgiving special – turkey with sage dressing, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and mashed potato.

California Day 5 – Lights, Camera, Action!

Today was mostly about Hollywood – our main activity for the day was the deluxe Warner Brothers Studio tour which would take at least 5 hours, but I also hoped we’d get to see the Hollywood sign, Manns Chinese Theater (now named the TCL Chinese Theater), and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

To start the day I got up at 06:00 for a short run – this was along Santa Monica Boulevard to the ocean and back again. Whilst out on this run a taxi pulling off a drive almost hit me as he didn’t look before pulling out. The breakfast that followed this short run was very basic and consisted of oats, some toast, and some apple juice.

We were on the road to Warner Bros. by 08:00 and we thought this would give us plenty of time to get there, and hopefully see some sights along the way. This was not to be the case though – traffic in LA is chaotic (though maybe erratic would be a better description) and slow. When we turned onto one road we had about an hour to spare and thought there may be the opportunity to see the Hollywood sign to kill a bit of time, but the traffic was not moving and before we knew it the estimate increased.

Eventually the ETA increased so much that it predicted we’d arrive 1 minute before we were told to arrive. The satnav though kept insisting we take a different route that was 1 minute faster and involved a U-turn – it just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

As we arrived at the security desk it had just turned 09:45. We’d made it, seemingly just in time – but when we got inside it turned out the deluxe tour wouldn’t leave until 10:15 anyway. The tour started with a brief film about the history of the studio and this was followed by being introduced to our guide for the day. At this point we got to hold one of the academy awards they had received a few decades ago for a photo opportunity in front of the Warner Bros. Studios sign. The group then boarded the cart and proper tour begun.

To start with we headed into the backlot where we were shown office buildings that get redressed to be used as exteriors for TV shows – a practical way of using space that is required for admin for productions also. This then led into the greenery area where they have real trees which include a few buildings scattered around inside. One of these was used in the TV show Tru Blood.

Next to this is a lagoon, which is currently empty to conserve water during the drought, and another house. One section of the trees around this area was hired out to Universal during the shooting of Jurassic Park to be used for the scene where a T-Rex is chasing Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). They shot this in different directions to give the impression that the road was longer than it really was, and was winding around.

Different pictures require different set dressings so they make up these areas to suit their needs, but they then have to change it back to how they found it. Except in the case of if the studio like the change it may be something they decide to keep – such as two of the buildings in the jungle section.

Fairly recently they tore down their western backlot to make way for an upper-class town area. This has been done by building actual buildings for offices for writing staff, and have then made the fronts look like an upper-class suburban area. At the time we were there this was being used by Fuller House and 2 Broke Girls.

The next backlot was originally decorated by the decorator of an old movie, Annie and is named Hennessy Street in his memory. This backlot has been used to represent New York, Chicago, and many other cities and has also featured in films such as A.I., Road to Perdition, Minority Report, and The Last Samurai. Not all of these were produced by Warner Brothers, but was space rented out by Universal, Sony, and other companies in order to meet their needs.

Again these are dressed to suit their needs and had recently been used by the TV series “Supergirl” for a very short scene in the second episode. Some of the buildings on this backlot are also practical sets so they can be filmed indoors as well. One of them also has an upstairs built and was one where we were allowed inside on the ground floor. We were being led into the sun whenever possible as it could get quite cool in the shade.

Around this area they also have the alleyway which was used for a famous scene in the first Sam Raimi-directed Spider-man movie, and was also used in Batman Returns and Batman Forever, and an episode of Friends featuring Jean Claude Van Damme. Similarly we were told about many other famous productions to use this backlog and how the set dressing and post-production effects make it unrecognisable. They’ve found though that in the days of high definition and budget savings in other cities that it is now being used less.

By the time we’d been led around this backlot it was time for dinner. We were warned that we couldn’t take pictures there as it is also used by staff and cast. The room used for this was also used as a dining area in a Looney Toons movie, though it’s one I don’t think I’ve seen.

The meal and drinks were included as part of the tour. I went for the Warner Burger which was a gourmet burger with fries, and the beef soup for starter. For the desserts they bring out a small selection of desserts (mostly cookies) on a plate which you can take what you want from. The drinks seemed to get constantly topped up as mine never dropped below half full. For those that did want alcoholic drinks though this was something they had to pay for. As we ate we were able to ask questions about Warner Brothers, and was pointed out anyone who might be recognised that walked in.

From the dining room we walked around the corner, passed their theatre, to the museum. At the time there were two exhibits – one per floor. On the ground floor they had exhibits from the 75th Batman anniversary which featured many costumes from Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, and the Christopher Nolan trilogy. In the entranceway they also had the costumes for Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman from the (at this time) upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie.

I dashed around photographing the Batman exhibit as quickly as I could – getting photographs of absolutely everything they had before going upstairs. On the second floor they’d dedicated this to the Harry Potter films. Having been to the Harry Potter Studio Tour at Leavesden I wasn’t sure there’d be much to see though as it turned out, even though there was some overlap there were also quite a few bits I hadn’t seen. For those that want to they can even be sorted into a Hogwarts House by the Sorting Hat. Amazingly the one it chose at random was the same one as what I was wearing a t-shirt for.

From the museum we got back on the cart and headed over to another backlot that is made up to look like a small town. At the time we got there a show called The Middle was using it to film a scene involving a sorority. We got to watch some of the filming but was not allowed to take photographs and had to be careful to not get in the way of the shot.

Once they’d finished their take they switched to a steady cam and for that we had to move on. The tour then took us passed the soundstage for “The Big Bang Theory”, but that one was currently filming so instead we went into the one for “2 Broke Girls”. The soundstages used for short episodes that have a live audience work by having all the sets in a row in front of some bleachers. The ones used most frequently by the production are in the middle, directly in front of the audience, whereas the lesser used ones known as swing sets are made up as necessary and are off to the sides. Again this was an area where we couldn’t use cameras.

The next stop was at what I would describe as the “Batman Garage”. In this building they have the batmobile from the 1980s Michael Keaton Batman movie, some of the bikes used in the various films, the batmobile from Batman Forever, one from Batman and Robin, as well as tumblers used in the Christopher Nolan trilogy. For the tumblers, one of them was the black one that Batman used, and the other was the camouflaged one used by Bane. In the centre of this room was the new Batmobile from the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie, the same Batmobile that Zack Snyder, the director used to surprise fans at this year’s SDCC.

A short walk from this was the props department – from here different productions, not just Warner Bros. ones, can rent out props to be used as set dressing. There is an incredible amount stored here, some of which that have tags on to say what production they’re going to next. They even have a fully fitted out Oval Office from the White House which you’re allowed to sit in for photos.

We were then driven to the soundstage that has walk-in sets built for the TV show “Pretty Little Liars”. This one differs to the sitcom style soundstage as the rooms are built in full, but with the ability to take out walls for filming if required. We walked around some of the different sets – a loft apartment, a cafe, and a school room.

As we left the soundstage we passed an actress in costume from Supergirl, taking a break outside of the soundstage she was working in. The guided tour then concluded at the entrance to a cafe that has the “Central Perk” sign from friends. The next section of the tour was self guided and didn’t take too long to do. To start with there were details about the production process for different films such as writing, casting, and preproduction. This included costumes from the Zack Snyder “Superman” film, Man of Steel.

One of the fun interactive parts of this tour is the set replica for Central Perk from Friends. It’s not 100% perfect as I noticed a few bits missing, but it was good to have my picture taken on a set I recognise from TV. I then photographed a set from “Two and a Half Men” before having my picture taken again on the “forced perspective” set from The Hobbit, and “The Living Head” example of a practical effect used in horror movies.

For the last section of the tour they’re a little pushy about you having a go on the green screens – purely because they want to sell you photographs and videos of it, but I don’t think they were particularly good. This was then followed by the “Art of Sound” where they played three different clips from Gravity containing different audio mixes: dialog, sound effects, and then music. Finally they then shown these all come together to create the final mix.

As with most American tourist attractions you then exit through the gift shop. The studio then operates carts to drive people back to the front of the studio once they’re ready. This was only a short drive, but it was starting to get dark and chilly.

My friend then took over the driving again and drove to Griffith’s Observatory up on the hill. This was busy and a lot of cars were parked up on the road – we never did find out why though, but we know they weren’t in the observatory. We got to the top of the hill and then had to descend the other side quite a way before we found parking. From there we walked back through the chilly night up to the observatory.

Inside I found the observatory to be a little boring. The majority of it was informational signs describing things I already know, and the equipment wasn’t usable during the night or when it’s cloudy. Still, we probably spent about an hour there before heading back to the car, but first standing out in the cold to get some photographs of LA at night.

The drive back to Santa Monica wasn’t too bad, but it seemed to wind all over the place despite on the map it looking like we could take a single road to get back from where we were. We parked up in a public carpark just off Wilshire before heading over for food at Milo and Olive.

This restaurant is one where you can sit at a bar and watch them cook as you eat, though it seemed the majority of what they cook is pizza. I did opt for the pepperoni pizza though and it was actually quite good. One odd thing about this place is that they add 3% onto your bill for providing health care for their staff.

Although late, it was at least then only a short drive back to the hotel.