Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- West Coast

This is part three of my compilation of itineraries for first-timers coming to the United States. You can find part one here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- East Coast and part two here, Itinerary Ideas for First-Timers to the United States- Midwest. As a bit of background, I consider myself a pretty well-traveled American who has been to all but 8 of the states in the US, in addition to travel outside the US.

I have to add that I absolutely love the west coast in general, which includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska. I should also say that this is probably one of the more difficult itineraries of the east coast, midwest, and west coast itineraries to put together, just because the choices of amazing places to go to are over the top, but I’ll try my best to not list a crazy number of places.

1) For the city-lover and partier:  Start in Los Angeles, California where you can spend a few days taking in the sun and sight-seeing. Los Angeles is filled with museums, amusement parks, tours, and cultural centers like Getty Center, LACMA and Walt Disney Hall. There’s also the Space Shuttle Endeavour and Dinosaur Hall. You can also take a touristy Hollywood tour if you want to get a glimpse of some homes of the rich and famous and see the Hollywood Walk of Fame (I won’t input my own opinion here but leave it at that).

Your next stop will be Las Vegas, Nevada, a place where I feel like everyone should go just for the experience. Las Vegas is like no other place in the United States and even if you’re not a gambler, it’s entertaining just to take in all of the sights. You can take a shuttle from Los Angeles for about $100 and roughly 6 hours of your time, you can fly in about 3 hours 20 minutes, or you can drive in about 4 1/2 hours. For me, a couple of nights in Las Vegas is plenty but if you’re into gambling, partying, and/or going to the myriad of shows, you might want to stay longer.

IMG_20170222_182802015
Las Vegas at night

You could also go to one of my favorite places in the United States, San Diego, California. From Los Angeles, you can drive in about 2 hours or take a bus in about the same time if you don’t drive or can’t rent a car. San Diego is full of so many things to do you could spend a month here and not run out of things to do, but I recommend spending at least 5 or 6 days if possible. You could even skip Los Angeles entirely and fly directly into San Diego instead, but it seems like a lot of people have L.A. on their bucket list, and if so, check it off by all means but don’t miss San Diego and Las Vegas.

2) For a desert experience, first choice:  Arizona. Fly into Phoenix, Arizona and hang out in this fun city for a couple of days before heading to Sedona, Arizona. You can take a shuttle or bus which will take about 3 hours or drive to Sedona in about 2 hours. I recommend renting a car if at all possible, because it will allow you to add on more sights, like Flagstaff, Arizona, which is about 50 minutes from Sedona by car. You can spend a day in Flagstaff or just stop along the way if you’d rather drive on through to the Grand Canyon National Park, which is about 1 1/2 hours from Flagstaff. The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I only allotted one night with two days here and it wasn’t nearly enough. The next time I went, I allotted two nights with three full days and it was better but three nights would have been about perfect for my family.

Desert experience, with national parks:  Utah/Arizona/Nevada. By no means am I ranking Utah behind Arizona here; I’m just listing choices. They are both amazing places and both highly recommended, with neither place being more recommended than the other. For Utah, you have some options. You can do like I did last year and fly into Las Vegas (Nevada) then drive to southern Utah to explore that area starting in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Antelope Canyon (Arizona), Glen Canyon National Recreational Area (Arizona), Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), and back to Las Vegas to fly back home. It’s a nice loop where you get to see a variety of national parks but you’re not spending your whole time on the road. I’d love to go back to Utah to explore some of the parks I didn’t get to see like Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks. For that trip, I’d fly into Salt Lake City airport and drive from there.

IMG_0174
Antelope Canyon was even better than I expected

3) To see mountains, first choice:  Colorado. Fly into Denver and spend a day or two here before going to one of the ski areas, like Vail, Breckenridge, or Aspen. The first two places are a bit closer to Denver but Aspen can be reached by car in about 4 hours or 5 hours by shuttle. If you’re coming here to ski during the winter you should probably just take the shuttle so you don’t have to worry about driving on snowy or icy roads unless you’re used to those conditions. Colorado is also beautiful during the summer months as well, though, and I actually prefer going there during the warmer months to go hiking since I don’t ski (I have been during the winter a couple of times, though and it is beautiful). Another area I love in Colorado is Boulder, which is only about 45 minutes by car or shuttle from Denver. You can take a day trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park from Boulder or spend a couple of days at Rocky Mountain National Park. Ft. Collins would be another fun day trip from Boulder, which is about an hour from Boulder. I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the southern parts of Colorado but I hear Colorado Springs is a great place, as well as Great Sand Dunes National Park.

IMG_20160607_132607921_HDR
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

Mountains, second choice:  Montana and Wyoming. Fly into Bozeman, Montana if you want to explore the southern part of the state. If you’re headed to Yellowstone National Park, it’s about a 2 hour drive from Bozeman Airport and a bit further south to Grand Teton National Park. If you want to explore the northern part of Montana, fly into Missoula and spend a day or two here. It’s about an hour drive to Seely Lake from Missoula and another hour and 20 minutes to Flathead Lake. From Flathead Lake, it’s about another hour north to Glacier National Park. If you want to go further north into Canada, I highly recommend driving another 4 1/2 hours to reach Banff. This area is filled with natural beauty such as Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, just to name a few places.

IMG_7226
Glacier National Park in Montana

4) San Francisco, wine country, and nature:  fly into San Francisco, California and spend 2-3 days here. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in California and it’s filled with fun things to do, from the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf to tours around Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. You can also take day trips to Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument, Redwood National Park, and Sausalito.

Napa Valley is only about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. You can either drive here yourself and spend a couple of nights or take one of many shuttles from San Francisco. There are also numerous wine tours in Napa Valley; follow this link for detailed information. You can also tour the Sonoma County including Santa Rosa, the largest city in the county. No matter what you choose, I recommend one of the tours rather than driving yourself so you can actually taste some wine and not have to worry about drinking and driving.

5) Alaska– although I’ve not yet been to Alaska, I’m going next month! I’m not going the ever-popular cruise route but rather am doing my own itinerary, starting in Anchorage and going to some national parks and making a loop around that part of Alaska. The state of Alaska is enormous, though, so I do see the draw behind cruises in that you could see several parts of the state in one week. I’ll have some posts on Alaska in the upcoming months.

6) Hawaii- you really can’t go wrong with Hawaii as far as choosing which island(s) to visit nor what time of year you go because the weather is great year-round and of the islands I’ve been to both times I’ve been to Hawaii, they’ve all been absolutely stunning. So far, I’ve been to ‘the big island’, which is called Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. I hope to go back in the next year but we’ll see! If you can manage to go to a couple of islands spread out over a couple of weeks, that’s ideal but don’t try to cram in two or more islands in only a week.

Hawaii 2007 086
All of the Hawaiian islands are beautiful!

There’s also Oregon and Washington that both have a ton of beautiful places, but I think I should end here otherwise this post will be entirely too long! As I said earlier, I love the west coast!

Those are my top west-coast destinations for first-timers to the United States. What places have I missed? Any others that you would recommend?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

Las Vegas Layover, the Anti-Bourdain Version

Anthony Bourdain’s TV show The Layover covers short stays in cities. Usually in the shows, Mr. Bourdain focuses on places to eat and drink in a day or two, with the idea being these are things you could do if you’re in these places for an airplane layover or a stopover to another place. En route to Utah, my family and I stopped for a night in Las Vegas, Nevada but this was the polar opposite of what you might see on The Layover. Neither my husband nor I gamble, we didn’t have much time for a show, and we had our middle-school daughter with us so we were somewhat limited with our options. We wouldn’t be partying in clubs, in other words (which honestly, was fine with us).

Basically, we had an afternoon, that evening, and until around early afternoon the next day to kill in Vegas. After a cross-country flight, we were tired and hungry so after checking into the Stratosphere Hotel (simple, no-frills, but clean and relatively close to most things), we decided to just walk around and take in the scenery. My husband and I had been to Las Vegas before, once with our even younger (at the time) daughter, so we had at least an idea of what Vegas was like. My husband had also been there prior to meeting me and had done the whole party in Vegas scene.

We decided to keep this visit simple and just check out some of the other casino/hotels, but first we stopped at Bobby’s Burger Palace. I ordered the Crunchburger, a cheeseburger with potato chips piled high on the top. It was fresh and crunchy and exactly what I expected, which is a good thing. My husband said his burger was too well-done even though that’s not what he had asked for and he wasn’t impressed. I’ve been a fan of Bobby Flay’s ever since I used to watch the TV show Brunch with Bobby, and had wanted to visit one of his restaurants but this was my first opportunity to do so (I know I’m a bit behind the times on this one). I’d like to try his other restaurants as well.

IMG_0004

Next stop was the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, or rather in front of the Bellagio, where we waited for the fountain show. Then we waited some more, until finally an announcement was made that the show would not occur that evening due to the weather. So much for freezing in the arctic winds that had moved into Vegas for the evening in the hopes of catching the fountain display. Disappointed that our fountain-loving daughter wouldn’t be able to watch the spectacular show, we headed inside the Venetian and admired the scenery and reminisced about our vacation to Italy several years ago. We also took a short stop inside Caesar’s Palace but didn’t stay there long. Our next stop was Paris, where we promptly found a bakery and ordered three pastries and longed to visit the real Paris and France someday. By then, we were all utterly exhausted and ready to get back to our hotel room and call it a night.

IMG_0007

IMG_0008

IMG_0009

IMG_0010

IMG_20170222_182802015

The next morning, we wanted to go back to the Bellagio for the fountain show but we were told the first one of the day wouldn’t be until noon since it was off-season there. So we used our credit as Stratosphere guests to go up the tower and enjoy the views from the top at 1,149 feet. While we were there, we saw a young woman jump from the top, from SkyJump, which costs $119.99 ($99.99 for Stratosphere guests) and lasts less than 30 seconds. I’m sure it’s something you would never forget, though. There are three other thrill rides at the top of the tower, Big Shot, X Scream, and Insanity.

IMG_0021

IMG_0024

IMG_0028

Finally, having had our fair share of Vegas, we went to pick up our rental car and were handed the keys to this:

IMG_20170225_160252422 (2)Not exactly what I had in mind for driving to the national parks we would be visiting in Utah and later the Grand Canyon, and for a second I thought about asking if maybe we could get an SUV instead. I wasn’t sure how appropriate a convertible sports car would be driving around the mountains in Utah and Arizona, but I could see my husband’s inner 16-year-old coming out so I didn’t say anything. The car was every bit as cramped and uncomfortable as I thought it would be, but on the bright side, my husband had a blast driving it.

So we took off in our bright yellow Camaro and found a spot for lunch away from the main strip at a place called Nozomi. It was quite possibly the best Japanese teriyaki I’ve ever had. My husband said his sushi was average, but “average sushi is still really good.” If you’re ever in Las Vegas and want a delicious Japanese meal, I suggest you try their teriyaki.

With full bellies, we were off for further adventures in Utah and our brief stint in Las Vegas was over. Proof that you don’t have to spend a single dime gambling to have a good time in “Sin City.”

 

 

Laughlin Half Marathon, Nevada-11th state

A death march through the desert.  That’s how I would describe the Laughlin Half Marathon in Nevada.  I ran the Laughlin Half Marathon in March 2008.  I had thought about running another half marathon in Nevada- the Six Tunnels to Hoover Dam Half Marathon, but wasn’t sure about running through all of the tunnels.  I thought it could go either way- either it would be terrible because the runners get bottle-necked around the tunnels or it would be novel and fun.

Ultimately I chose the Laughlin Half Marathon, and I have to say this race was one that was pure torture from start to finish.  They really should have started it much sooner than 8 am because the sun was out in full force beating on us runners and by the end, I was simply exhausted from the heat.

The description of the race from their website includes comments such as “Enjoy the river as you run along the Colorado River… enjoy panoramic views of the Arizona and Nevada mountains,” but honestly I didn’t think the view was that nice when I was running. But then again, all I could think about was the stifling heat and the wind beating down on us on the way back.

The course was also on what they called packed dirt with a gravel overlay but I really had problems getting my footing on the gravel.  In some places the gravel was so thick and uneven I had to slow down so I wouldn’t fall or twist an ankle.  I see they now have a 7 am start time, which is a good move.  An hour earlier would have made a big difference when I ran it.

At the finish, there were bananas, oranges, and bagels.  This was definitely one of the smaller post-race spreads I’ve seen.  The medals were small (not much bigger than a silver dollar) but cute.  We also got white short-sleeve cotton t-shirts with the race logo.

As it was when I ran the race, the Avi Resort and Casino is the official host hotel for the race.  The best part about staying there is the proximity to the race start/finish.  Just about the only thing I really liked about the Avi Resort and Casino other than location to the race is they do at least have a pool, which my daughter loved.  Not being gamblers, my husband and I didn’t visit the casino but it’s definitely low-scale compared to most of the mega casinos in Las Vegas.  To drive from Las Vegas to Laughlin is a little over an hour and a half.

100_2921

From my post-race notes: “8 am start meant very hot conditions for most of course.  Ran out and back on dirt course, with loose gravel in places, which made proper footing difficult.  Very windy and hot on way back.  Not fun at all.  Was just glad to finish this one. Volunteers and crowds sparse. Finish time was 2:07:06.8.”

Laughlin Half Marathon