If you like the great wide-open, natural wonders, buzzing cities and perhaps the essence of ‘real’ America, the US West, particularly the California/Nevada/Arizona/Utah south-western corner, is touring heaven.
From the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean to the awesome majesty of the Grand Canyon; from the towering peaks of Yosemite to the high, dry plains of the Mojave Desert; from quaint old historic mining towns to the 24-hour excesses of Las Vegas and LA – it’s almost impossible for a vacationer NOT to find what they’re after.
But, for those travellers looking to find something a little out of the ordinary, California and its neighbouring states also offer some of the most unusual, unexpected and quite simply bizarre sights and attractions you could ever imagine. So let’s get on with getting off the beaten track . . .
San Francisco is probably one of the coolest cities on the planet, so why not spend some of your hard-earned vacation time . . . in prison? Apart from being arguably the most famous prison in the world – despite being closed fifty years ago – Alcatraz is a living monument to a time when a jail sentence meant proper hard time. And a sentence on ‘The Rock’ added the caveat “with no escape.” Such luminaries of infamy as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert ‘Bird Man’ Stroud all testified that they took on the Rock – and the Rock won!
The boat trip to the island from San Francisco is about 20 minutes and then it’s a Ranger-guided walk up to the prison itself, where you immediately follow in the footsteps of what real convicts experienced, passing first through the shower (now dry!) and registration block. And here’s where Alcatraz has got it absolutely right – you are given your own headphones and allowed to take a stop-start audio tour in your own time. Better still, it’s narrated by former guards and inmates, who do a terrific job in giving you a feel for what it was really like serving time here. If you hang back for ten minutes and let the main crowd surge ahead, then take your time to really listen and look, the tour is, in a word, remarkable.
With the tiny cells, claustrophobic corridors and ‘that’ location – with the tantalising view of San Francisco just a mile across the water – anyone who was a ‘guest’ here would have had their spirit broken in weeks, let alone the average stay of over five years. Most poignant is the description of New Year at Alcatraz, where the inmates would be able to hear the parties taking place across the water from their cells!
Top tip: Pre-book online to avoid the queues, and go over on an afternoon boat, which means you’ll be getting the return boat after nightfall, with spectacular views of San Francisco by night as you do so. Just don’t miss the last boat!
Want to test your head for heights in an easy and (almost) totally safe way? Want to be a mountaineer without bothering with any of that rock-climbing nonsense? Then head for Sequoia National Park, in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, just east of Visalia, California.
Now, 99% of people who do that are there for the astonishing groves of Giant Sequoia trees, including the General Sherman tree, the largest living thing on earth. And you should be too – although if you are a tree-hugger, you’ll need arms 50ft long to get around The General!
However, there’s a second treasure for those who always fancied the idea of standing atop a high peak, but didn’t really fancy the idea of climbing one! Moro Rock is a granite dome rock formation that juts up 1,000ft from the National Park, topping out at 6,725ft above sea level – that’s pretty much twice as high as Mt. Snowdon.
But, because this is America, there’s a car park less than 400ft below the summit!
Still sounds like too much? Well, in the 1930s, the Park Ranger Service decided to make it even easier, and cut a stairway into the rock itself. So now, on a decent day, you really can climb a mountain in your flip-flops (I’d recommend something a little sturdier though!). Despite the steps and hand rail, you’ll still need your head for heights – on the way up, the rock drops away at an alarmingly sheer gradient in places, while at the top, you’ll be on a summit promontory which is at best 10ft wide, and drops away 1,000ft on all sides! Fortunately, there are more sturdy railings to wrap your white knuckles around until you get consumed by the view.
And what a view it is. On a clear day you can see up to 30 miles down the Great Western Divide, the valley that divides Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and some of the highest peaks in America. Yes, many of you will be appalled by the idea of climbing a few stairs to get to the top of a mountain, but put your egos to one side for a moment and simply enjoy. Those who want to ‘earn it’ a little more can park in a lower car-park and hike a 3-mile trail to the base of the rock if they wish. I did – it’s well worth it.
Top Tip: Ensure you lock your vehicle and remove food and scented items as this is an area frequented by people and bears alike! Check online about what to do if you encounter a bear.
Bodie Ghost Town
State Highway 395 is one of the longest in America, traversing north-south in the eastern lee of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. About 75 miles south-east of Lake Tahoe, you enter Mono County and you might easily miss a small, nondescript brown sign that says ‘Bodie State Historic Park.’ Don’t!
Bodie began as a mining camp of little note following the discovery of gold in 1859 by a group of prospectors, including WS Bodey who, unfortunately for him, died in a blizzard the following November while making a supply trip. In 1876, the Standard Company discovered a profitable deposit of gold-bearing ore, which, along with subsequent discoveries in the locality, transformed Bodie from an isolated mining camp comprising a few prospectors into a bona fide ‘Wild West’ boomtown.
By 1879, Bodie had a population of around 6,000 and had all the amenities of larger towns, including banks, a railroad, miners and mechanics unions, several newspapers, and a jail. It also had a red light district, a Chinatown and opium dens, and, at its peak, 65 saloons lined up along Main Street!
But, as quickly as it sprang up, Bodie declined. In 1913, the Standard mine closed as the ore ran out. In 1917, the railway was abandoned. By 1920, Bodie’s population was recorded by the US Federal Census at 120 people. Still, Bodie had permanent residents for a good few years, but when the last small mine closed in 1942, Bodie became a genuine ghost town.
Today, only a small part of the town survives, but it is now preserved in a state of ‘arrested decay’ as a National Historic Landmark. If you’re ready for the dusty, bumpy, 13-mile approach drive, you can walk the deserted streets of a town that once was a bustling area of activity. Interiors remain as they were left and stocked with goods dating from anywhere from the early 1900s through to the late 1940s.
It’s a fascinating – and true to life – exposition of another age. Everything you thought was true from the ‘Westerns’ could have been totally true in Bodie.
Top tip: Make a day of it and combine your trip to Bodie with a trip to the nearby Mono Lake, a huge ‘terminal lake’ basin which has no outlet to the ocean, and is probably close to a million years old. It’s home to enormous ‘tufas’ – pillars of salty deposits – and a huge wildlife haven. And if that’s not enough, it’s where Clint Eastwood filmed ‘Pale Rider’ – how can you ignore that?
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
If you do visit Sequoia National Park to see the largest living thing in the world (se Moro Rock, above), why not do the double, and find the oldest living thing in the world? No, it’s not me . . . it’s another tree, which can be found in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (ABPF). But it’s so much more than just a tree.
Once again, you’ll need to be on State Highway 395, this time around the town of Big Pine. You then need to get on Highway 168, and head into the White Mountains, where you’ll start climbing . . . and climbing . . . and climbing! This is the first great part of this adventure – you’ll be driving up one of those classic twisting mountain roads, so be ready for some strenuous steering wheel action. And, if you’re like me, have the camera ready – at every turn there’s another viewpoint offering even more stunning than the one before, back west across to the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Finally, you’ll reach the parking lot at Schulman Grove, named after the scientist who first discovered the area and realised what he’d found. Look around at the gnarled, stunted Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva). Dead trees, right? Wrong. They’re simply incredibly old, and exist in a sort of splendid isolation in the cool, high mountain air.
A short one-mile hike around the ‘Discovery Trail’ will be ample if you want to witness the majesty of these ancients, but the real treat comes if you can summon up the energy to hike the 4.5 mile ‘Methuselah Trail’. The name gives the clue – somewhere along this trail is the Methuselah Tree, so named because it was, until recently, recognised as the oldest living thing on the planet. How old? How does 4,850 years (give or take) grab you?
However, only a few months ago, a new record holder was found. A sample of a tree taken in the late 1950s was re-examined and found to be still alive – at the age of 5,062 years. That’s almost a 1,000 years older than the oldest Pyramids. Because of their age, fragility and proximity to the trail, neither tree is actually marked, so you can only guess which ones they are – but simply being in their presence is a rare honour.
Top tip: The ABPF is over 10,000ft above sea level. The moment you step out of the car you’ll realise the air is noticeably thinner at that elevation, so take reasonable precautions. Wear sun-screen (no matter how cool it is), take it easy when walking around, drink plenty of water, and have a fleece at the ready. And remember when starting your hikes that you will definitely tire out quicker at this elevation – for some people, this elevation is enough to bring on proper altitude sickness, which can be very dangerous. If you start feeling dizzy, nauseous or disorientated, it’s time to stop and head down – immediately.
Scotty’s Castle and the Rhyolite Ghost Town
Death Valley. The very name brings up images of scorched earth, bleached skeletons, lonesome riders and circling vultures. But actually, Death Valley is so enormous it provides a myriad of terrains and conditions, sights, sounds and scenery – all of it majestic and awe-inspiring. From Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, to the majestic viewpoints of Dante’s Peak, tackling the long driving distances of Death Valley will reward the adventurous with enough wonders to entertain for days.
However, for those willing to really put in the miles, head for Scotty’s Castle, near the northern end of Death Valley. It’s not really a castle, but a two-story Mission Revival-style villa with a rather chequered history.
In 1922, prospector, performer – and accomplished con man – Walter Scott (also known as “Death Valley Scotty”) convinced gullible Chicago millionaire Albert Mussey Johnson to invest in his ‘gold mine’ in Death Valley. By 1937, Johnson had sunk a vast sum of money into the mine and spent around $2.5m on the ranch, mostly at the urging of Scotty – and Mrs. Johnson, who wanted somewhere comfortable to live for their visits to the area.
Unknown to the Johnsons, the mine survey was false, and the land they built the ranch on was government land. Before construction could be re-started the stock market crashed in 1929, and after Mrs Johnson lost interest, Albert pretty much abandoned the place, leaving it to Scotty to manage by renting out rooms. Scotty had other ideas though, and lived there himself in grand style until his death in 1954!
Scotty’s Castle is open year-round, and the Johnsons’ original furnishings, clothing and decoration can still be seen today. The ranch is located about 45 miles north of Stovepipe Wells, California, on Highway 267.
Top tip: If you’ve driven this far . . . a few miles from Scotty’s Castle is Rhyolite, another ghost town in the Bullfrog Hills. It began in early 1905 as one of several mining camps that sprang up after a prospecting discovery in the surrounding hills and, like Bodie, it rose and fell in double-quick time.
Rhyolite and its ruins became a tourist attraction and a setting for motion pictures, but eventually most of its buildings crumbled, although the railway depot and a house made chiefly of empty bottles (!) were repaired and preserved. Much less preserved than Bodie, Rhyolite is a ‘real’ ghost town . . . with its own little secret.
Just south of the town lies the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an outdoor sculpture park that was established in 2000 after the death of Albert Szukalski, the Belgian artist who created the site’s first sculptures in 1984. The most striking sculpture, The Last Supper, consists of ghostly life-sized forms arranged as in the painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Szukalski molded his shapes by draping plaster-soaked burlap over live models until the plaster dried enough to stand on its own. Between then and 2007, other artists added new works to the project, resulting in the weirdest art gallery you’ll ever find . . . and in the middle of absolutely nowhere!
So there you go – five attractions in California that many Californians wouldn’t even know about. Check ‘em out.
And don’t forget, California is big. Really big! Add in the surrounding states and it’s huge! You simply cannot ‘do’ this area without a car, so if you’re planning a trip, make sure you include car hire costs in your budget.
And when you’re hiring that car, don’t forget that in the US, liability cover can be pretty low, so check out Protect your bubble’s Car Hire Insurance and Travel Insurance before you book.
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