19,604 Miles of North America by Car
As submitted to the Miami Herald, September 10, 2003
My Trip. Travel for most people means going to a specific destination, or perhaps taking a short cruise, enjoying its ambiance for a few days, and then coming back, whether this is done on business or privately. I did this kind of traveling too, to see major cities of the world. But however nice the experience, even while I was there, I was always nagged by the feeling that my trip was not a journey, that a visit say to San Francisco left out the rest of California. Later, with more time under my discretion, this kind of flirtation was not enough. I expanded my trips, like taking the train from Koblenz, Germany to Istanbul, the Amtrak from Chicago to Los Angeles, a cruise here and there. But eventually these faded too, for the constraints of time and space were still with me. I could not stay longer and explore a place I liked; I felt I was experiencing the world around me from the safety and comfort of a cocoon; I was not part of it, interacting with it superficially, mostly observing it. So I graduated myself to more adventurous travel, often following an independent and dynamic itinerary I drafted myself, parts of which I made up and revised on the go. I began crisscrossing entire countries, indeed huge chunks of the world, like from Dubai to Borneo, passing through large sections of most of the countries in between. And, to me, this is really the only way to appreciate the size and beauty of the USA, of North America, to experience also the transitions in landscape, as for example from the deserts of Southern Arizona to the Rockies of Colorado, and of cultures and lifestyles as from Arabia to India to Southeast Asia. Yet, another thought began nagging at me: “how long (of stay) is long enough?” The answer came to me by a pragmatic compromise. I was here to get a feel for the place, interact with it, not to buy a property and contemplate living there, though some things about some places were attractive enough to instigate such reveries.
This tour of North America began and ended in Miami (see Map) from May 16 to July 20, 2003, covering 19,604 miles (31,994km) through Winchester, Buffalo, Toronto, Niagara Falls, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Banff, Jasper, Prince George, Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, Beaver Creek, Tok, Fairbanks, Arctic Circle, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, Seward & Kenai Peninsula, Whittier, Anchorage, Palmer, Glennallen, Valdez, Glennallen, Beaver Creek, Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Carcross, White Pass (train too), Skagway, (ferry to) Juneau, (ferry--Inside Passage--to) Prince Rupert, Prince George, Cache Creek, Whistler, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Ashland, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego, Tijuana, Ensenada, through Baja to Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, (ferry to) Los Mochis, El Fuerte, (train to) Copper Canyon, (train back to) El Fuerte, Hermosillo, through Sonora, Nogales, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Dauphin Island, (ferry to) Perdido Beach, Pensacola, Tallahassee, Lake City, Tampa, Sarasota, and Miami. For a virtual (pictorial) tour of the entire trip (273 frames containing 806 photos and post cards on 5 pages), see namerica.html
Having many miles to go, I chose the more practical options: the turnpike to north of Palm Beach, to avoid the traffic congestion on I.95 in this part, and then I.95N to Richmond, Virginia. Since I was heading for the Shenandoah Valley (for a brief visit with my sister), I used I.64W to bridge to I.81N and drove through this scenic (Appalachian) landscape to Winchester, Virginia.
I.95N too offers several exits from which one can enjoy other kinds of exquisite scenery and still reach Winchester, though not as timely. One is taking I.16E to Savannah, one of the prettier small cities. From there, Route 17N (that starts south from Brunswick, Georgia) goes up through Charleston, South Carolina--another pretty city--and Wilmington, North Carolina to New Bern, a gateway to Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras (which are somewhat similar to the Padre Island in Texas). One can easily spend a month exploring the intricate shorelines of North Carolina, using the road and ferry connections. However, to get a sample of what it is like, you can continue on Route 17N to Route 64E to the Hatteras Island. The short stretch from Whalebone through Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills—where there is a tiny spot of sand dune—and Kitty Hawk to Point Harbor will give you a taste, and there are intricate shorelines in Maryland too, if you are heading further north. The connection to Virginia Beach is a bit cumbersome but worth it, if this is the first time you are here, for next comes the 17-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge (and tunnel complex) and Route 13N into Maryland. It will connect to Route 50W, which will take you through the Bay Bridge (before Annapolis) to Washington, D.C. (where I spent more years than anywhere else). Just before the Bay Bridge, there is the village of St. Michaels; the Crab Claw restaurant there, in a picturesque setting at the water, is one of the best seafood restaurants in the nation. Route 50W cuts into the beltway around Washington and continues on the other side. Going either way on the beltway, it is a 30-minute ride to the exit for Route 66W, which joins I.81N just south of Winchester about an hour later. I was a bit late for the cottonwoods that flower in April, but in time for the crisp spring colors of other flora.
From Winchester, I continued on I.81N to Buffalo, and from there--through the Rainbow Bridge--to Toronto, to spend the night with friends. Early next morning, I backtracked to Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. (Trivia: by the volume of water flow, Niagara Falls is the most powerful in the world, Angel Falls in Venezuela the tallest, Iguazu Falls in Argentina-Brazil the largest by spread and the number of falls.)
2. To WEST. I had already done a wide circle through the Atlantic provinces of Canada--Toronto to Montreal, Quebec (city), around the St. Lawrence River, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Newfoundland, (back through) Cape Breton and Nova Scotia to New Brunswick, and down through New England--on an earlier tour, which I highly recommend. And I had crossed the parts of Canada from Alberta to Ontario (from west) more recently. So from Niagara Falls I returned to the USA side and continued on I.90W, along the shores of Lake Erie, to Cleveland. I browsed this neat and pretty city for several hours and continued to Chicago and Lake Michigan. (Trivia: the reference “Windy City” does not relate to the wind but to long-winded local politicians.) One way of measuring the pulse of a large city is to get lost in it. This is what I did, spending a whole day driving around, also back and forth along the Lakeshore Boulevard late at night, captivated by the city lights and skyline. Next morning, I circled Lake Michigan to the north and spend some time along its quaint shores in Milwaukee. Then I chose the more northerly I.94W to Minnesota, to the twin cities, St. Paul, which is about one-fourth the size of its twin Minneapolis--and more attractive. The bigger twin is also known as the “City of Lakes.” There are several of them in and around the city, like Lake Harriet and Calhoun, as part of the extensive park system which includes the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek. I drove around the downtown area, took mental snapshots of a few quaint spots here and there, also of the parks, and then continued on the more northerly (than I.94) Route 2W to North Dakota. North of Minot, I entered Canada and continued west through Regina and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Edmonton, Alberta and from there south to Calgary to mark the end of this (second) leg of my trip.
The landscape from Chicago to Edmonton was about the same, quaint countryside dotted with lakes, creeks, ponds, wetlands, small woodlands, and farm communities, typical of this region. Of course, with so much water, this area is also a mosquito heaven, as I could tell from my windshield. I should add that although Edmonton boasts world's largest shopping center in West Edmonton Mall, and others this or that about themselves, I did not find any of these cities in the league with Montreal or Quebec or Vancouver. My major complaint about North American cities and towns is that, with a few exceptions like New York, the downtowns of all them are practically dead after business hours. I suggest North American city designers and architects be required to visit the neat cities, for example, in Australia, also a “New World,” before they are entrusted with design and zoning at home. Perhaps cities should hire more artists and architects and less accountants for this purpose, and there should be inducements to people to choose to live in the city rather than in a mausoleum in the suburbia. And the mindset has to change too. While people worldwide enjoy their city in some way after work, Americans especially are attuned to commuting for hours and locking themselves behind doors. As for the landscape in these parts, although it is wholesome, it gets redundant after a while--though not as redundant as, for example, driving through endless fields and farms of Kansas along I.70, or I.80 in Iowa and Nebraska.
Adventure may include misadventure. I had a mishap in Minnesota, and later entering Canada from the Emerson checkpoint. At 5 a.m., just as I was passing a huge truck, a deer decided to cross the highway. The truck hit the animal with the left side of its bumper and threw it at my car. The next thing I saw was a deer flying at me. I hit the breaks to prevent the animal from entering the car from the windshield. It hit the (plastic) front bumper of my tiny Geo Metro. The collision took off the bumper and I ran over both the poor animal and the loose bumper and swerved in front of the truck. The truck, also in the process of breaking, hit my car from its right rear and threw me into the wide ditch next to the road. Grateful that I was unhurt, my car had not rolled over and the engine apparently still functioning, I got back on the road, collected the lose bumper, called the state police, gave my report, notified my insurance company, drove to the Wal*Mart in the town nearby, got heavy-gage wire, tied the bumper to the car, and continued to North Dakota, all before 8 a.m. This was one incident. At 1 p.m., I arrived at the Emerson checkpoint to Canada. The many stamps and visas in my passport apparently signaled to the young agent at the window that he might have a dubious character trying to cross the border, for he gave me a seemingly inconsequential red slip and told me to move on to the next window, putting everyone at the office on alert. Add two cartons of misplaced cigarettes, an hour of search and two hours of questioning, a C$302 fine, and I was denied entry. So I continued to Minot and entered Canada from the Portal checkpoint at 10:20 p.m. local time the same day. I told the two agents at this more remote location what had taken place at Emerson. One agent checked me out on the computer and asked why I had been fingerprinted in California in the 1980s. I replied that though I did not recall, it had to be as part of initial screening for the computer instructor position at the submarine base in Point Loma and Miramar Air Force base in San Diego. The two agents exchanged glances and let me in with "enjoy Canada.”
3. CANADIAN ROCKIES north to YUKON. Late May is my favorite time for traveling through the Rockies, in USA and Canada. The roads are clear, yet there is still ample snow all around for the semantic transition from "spectacular" to "awesome" in how one can describe the scenery. I had been in these parts twice before in May and knew what to expect. Banff is a world-class small town, as neat as any similar place in the Austrian, French, or Italian Alps. It has a tramway—they call gondola--that climbs up to the Sulphur Mountain nearby for magnificent views in every direction. The town also boasts some of the best restaurants in Canada, and there are amenities to cater to travelers at all levels, including neat hostels at choice locations.
The unbelievable views from the Sulphur Mountain are just an appetizer. Banff is at the center of one of the most spectacular areas in North America. The drive northwest to Jasper National Park is as spellbinding as comparable drives in USA, as along Route 20 through the North Cascades National Park in Washington, Route 2 through the Glacier National Park in Northwest Montana, or Route 36 through the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Banff National Park is actually some distance to the north of Banff town. Even closer are several other very scenic parks, lakes and mountains, such as Mt. Assiniboine to the south, Kootenay Park to Southwest, Bow Lake and Lake Louise to the north (20 minutes), all on Route 93 from Banff. Right across from Banff Park is the equally gorgeous Yoho National Park; at about halfway to Jasper is the Columbia Icefield; the Maligne River and Lake are just south of Jasper, to name the major sites.
There is no end to places in these parts where one can get lost for weeks at a time, camping, trekking, sightseeing, or just hibernating in a mesmerized state. The beauty does not end with Jasper. For Alaska, Route 93 gives way to Route 16 going west to Prince George, and from there Route 97 leads to Dawson Creek that marks Mileage Zero of the Alaska Highway. Since night visibility improved with each passing day, I rode the entire distance from Prince George to Dawson Creek in semi-dark, amazed that I could distinguish colors after 10 at night. Along the way, small groups of elk, moose, and lonely black bears, leisurely grazing along the side of the road or crossing the highway to better pastures, added to the scenery. The road from Dawson Creek is pretty but not spectacular at first, as if the landscape is preparing its next visual feast. Indeed, awesome scenes still come and go. The stretch starting with the Stone Mountain, Summit Lake then Muncho Lake, then Liard River, south of Watson Lake (the town), Yukon was eerily beautiful, also because I drove this stretch in the semi-darkness, surrounded by layers of mist enshrouding parts of everything around me, making it appear as if the mountains rose from the clouds or floating on them.
I spent the night in Whitehorse and late in the morning went to the public library to attend to my email, as I did every few days throughout the trip. I may have been also looking for an excuse to delay my entry to Alaska under the glow of the midnight sun, I hoped (and realized). It was still daylight when I passed the gorgeous Elias Mountains and Kluane National Park near Haines Junction. And so I arrived at the Beaver Creek entry to Alaska at about midnight, under partially cloudy skies. Although February is the best time for seeing the northern lights, they are visible anytime when the sky is sufficiently dark. Indeed, I was rewarded for my late-night exercise and had a glimpse of both the midnight sun and the northern lights.
4. ALASKA. (See also the Miami Herald Travel sections about Alaska dated November 26, 1995, March 12, 2000, March 4, 2001, and July 22, 2001.) Distances become Texas size—Texans might say--as you travel in the northern parts of North America. (Alaska has 1/5th of landmass of the continental U.S.; it is more than twice the size of Texas.) On many stretches, I was the only vehicle going in either direction for several hours, probably also because sensible people were at hotels at the late hours I was still on the road, now that I had daylight with me for longest hours and minimal traffic. But the drive is not all lonely. In addition to the towns and villages, there are frequent settlements with hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and amenities along the way, similar to the way settlements and rest areas must have begun along the Interstate highway system in USA decades ago. Many are rudimentary. Public baths in these parts of Canada are usually two separate cabins with no locks or running water in them. There are secluded parking areas off the road for people who want to park their cars and sleep. The roads are supposedly paved; however, these are not your regular roads. There is lots of bumping, bouncing, jerking and rocking and rolling as you drive. And in May there is lots of repair going on to fix the damage from the previous winter. So you go through long stretches of gravel and muddy roads, especially in Canada. In Alaska the roads are better, the asphalt of superior quality.
I headed for Fairbanks, as it is the gateway to the Arctic Circle, the imaginary line where the Sun never sets during the Summer Solstice (June 20-21), and never rises during the Winter Solstice (September 20-21). Fairbanks is a typical US city, with some nice spots. Gasoline prices were $1.75 - $1.92 per gallon for regular unleaded, still better than in Canada. All else was also costlier than on the mainland, including hotels. For food, people suggested Sam's Sourdough on University Avenue, adding that it was rated as one of the best mom and pop restaurants in USA by the New York Times. For smokers the news is bad: a pack costs $4.45—it was $6 in Bergen, Norway in 1999.
I had crossed the Arctic Circle on my own in Narvik, Norway, but here I decided to add a guided tour by the Northern Alaska Tour Company (Tel: 800-474-1986, 474-8600 local) for $129, starting at 6:30 a.m., back at 10:30 p.m. The Arctic Circle in Alaska passes through Latitude 66 degrees and 33 minutes, about 200 miles north of Fairbanks on a reasonably good road, including a paved section of the Dalton Highway, the gravel road that goes all the way up to Prudhoe Bay. There was a small rocky hill where we stopped. At these latitudes, the ground is frozen continuously and so the vegetation is mostly ground cover, with some dwarf hardy bushes here and there. The wind was furious, the air cold, the scenery desolate but beautiful in its own way. We did not see animals. On the way back, we stopped next to the enormous (48 inches in diameter) Alaska Pipeline and listened to some of the details of this 789-mile-long engineering marvel. The tour included picnic at the Yukon River, and we stopped at the home-shop of one of the original settlers. An official Arctic Circle Certificate—which I lost—concluded the tour.
Denali Park to Anchorage. The train ride from Fairbanks south to Anchorage (or vice versa) through the Denali National Park is one of the most popular attractions of Alaska. Since I was driving, I did not take it. The highway (Route 3) south to Anchorage is very scenic—more so than going north on the same—and passes next to the entrance to the Denali. You can drive into the park for 15 miles; only park buses are allowed further in, for a fee. Although the park is very picturesque, Mt. McKinley is not clearly visible until you are further in. As for animals, I was disappointed--as I was at the Kruger Park in South Africa. It seems there are not enough animals in the park, or in Alaska for that matter, as I encountered more of them along the highways in Canada. I saw a busload of visitors on the side of the road, captivated by a lonely caribou 150 yards away. I stopped, more curious about the tourists. Then I decided that some things are better appreciated on the National Geographic shows on TV, or at places like the Wild Animal Park north of San Diego, and left.
Anchorage is a much bigger city than Fairbanks. After browsing the city by car for several hours, I headed for the town of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. The 150 miles or so of this road is one of the most scenic in North America. The initial 50 miles is like being on the Coast Highway from Santa Monica north through Malibu. As in California, the mountains literally drop to the highway and the sea, in this case the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. But there is one more feature here that makes this route really gorgeous: snow-capped mountains about a km across the sea, on the other side of the Arm. Then, the road (Route 9) turns south and passes through the gorgeous Chugach National Forest, on both sides adorned by mountains. The road to Homer (Route 1) separates after about 50 miles. Seward itself is surrounded by water on three sides, the idyllic picture framed again by snow-capped mountains. The town is not as elegant as Banff, but the waterfront is charming with ships and boats, cafes, restaurants, gift shops, and people-friendly businesses. This is a heaven for tourists interested in deep-sea fishing, but there are additional attractions nearby: the Exit Glacier and dogsled rides. Both are reached from the Herman Leier road just as you enter the town. IdidaRide (800-478-3139 or 307-224-8607), owned by Seavey family, is less than a mile away. They charge $39 for a 1.5-hour ride on sleds on wheels. The sleds carry up to 9 people and are pulled by 12 dogs from the kennel the business maintains on site. Many of the dogs have participated in the grueling 1150-mile Ididarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and this is also a way of keeping them in shape, we were told.
The Exit Glacier is 9 miles from the town, in Kenai Fiords. There is a half-a-mile walkway from the visitor center to the glacier, lined with very nice vegetation on both sides, including Sitka alder, leather-leaf willow, Sitka fur-conifer, and black cottonwood. You can walk up to the glacier and sit on its edge if you want.
Whittier, Palmer, Glennallen, Valdez; exiting Alaska. Whittier is reached off the road from Seward to Anchorage, 13 miles from the exit to the town. Getting there is a treat, as the road passes next to the Portage Lake and Glacier. To enter Whittier, you must pay a $12 fee for the 2.5-mile single-lane tunnel, said to be the longest in North America. There is not much to Whittier, as most of the town is comprised of large deserted buildings. However, for $59 you can take half-day cruise of the Prince William Sound (of Exxon-Valdez fame) from there (by Major Marine Tours, www.majormarine.com, 800-764-7300 or 274-7300 local). And at 2:45pm every day, there is a ferry to Valdez ($68, car for $78) through Prince William Sound.
The first half of the Glenn Highway (Route 1) from Palmer (just north of Anchorage) east to Glennallen passes through the Tahneta Pass and next to the Matanuska Glacier. This part qualifies as one of the most scenic roads in North America, as the 20-mile stretch (on Route 4) through the Thompson Pass and Worthington Glacier to Valdez. The pumping station, where the Alaska Pipeline ends, is some distance from the town of Valdez, across the water. This area also marks the eastern boundary of the Chugach National Forest and Mountains—that span to Seward on the west.
5. Southeast Alaska, White Pass, Skagway and Juneau. The landscape does not care if it is part of the United States or Canada. Further east of Valdez (north of Cordova) are the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park (USA) and Mountains (USA and Canada) that stretch east to the Kluane National Park in Yukon. There are no roads in this huge area; indeed, except for the small triangle of roads between Yukon, Fairbanks, and Anchorage, there are virtually no other paved roads in Alaska. So to reach Southeast Alaska from Valdez, one must backtrack to Glennallen and retrace Route 1 east, all the way to a) Haines Junction, Yukon, if the destination is Haines (Route 3), or b) even further east to Whitehorse, if the destination is Skagway (Route 2). And although the distance between Haines and Skagway is only about 10 miles, there are no roads between them. The Alaska Marine Highway System (http://www.ferryalaska.com) links the two and the rest of Southeast Alaska to the south. (I was told there are plans to connect Alaska and Southeast Alaska by road. If so, aside from becoming a very costly engineering wonder, this road will pass through some of the most spectacular parts of this already gorgeous landscape, and it will most likely qualify as the longest most beautiful stretch of road in the world.)
Skagway. I decided for Skagway and drove all night back to Beaver Creek (Yukon Time is an hour later than Alaska) and reached Whitehorse at night the next day. Skagway is directly south from Whitehorse and just south of the border with Yukon. I wanted to drive this stretch at night, unhindered by campers and other traffic, as the visibility was quite good and I could still distinguish colors. The three-hour ride to Skagway became a treat, especially after I reached the White Pass. (I nominate the stretch of road from White Pass to Skagway as one of the most beautiful in the world.) The scenery was so incredible that at 3 a.m. I decided to park at a turnabout next to a deep ravine and waited for the daylight to brighten the picture. (Indeed, I paid $82 later that morning to see this view again from the train.)
Alaska owes its growth to the gold found in the Klondike Mountains in Northwest Yukon in 1890s, which went bust a few years later. The history of that era is now encapsulated in Dawson City, Yukon. (The highway from Dawson City west to Fairbanks is the second entry point to Alaska.) Even Skagway, so far south, served during the gold rush, where people got off ships at the harbor and then climbed the steep White Pass to move up to Yukon. They say some 3,000 horses carrying huge loads died in this effort. Skagway existed by mining the gold miners--now tourists. Beneath its casual Western look, there is substance to Skagway (winter population is 300, summer about 5,000). There were four large cruise ships at the harbor next to the docks. Even a big city would need an elaborate infrastructure to service these ships all at once and entertain the hordes of visitors who come ashore. Then there is also the narrow-gage train service, including 19 Diesel locomotives that are maintained by “magical engineers,” as they were described. The 3-hour climb to the White Pass in good weather is an awesome experience. Some trains go as far as Whitehorse, 113 miles.
Ferry to Haines and Juneau. The Alaska Marine Highway System has daily ferry service to Juneau—except on Tuesday and Thursday in June. I paid $108 to Juneau, $383 to Prince Rupert, including my car, without cabin. Haines is about 40 minutes, Juneau 3 hours, Juneau to Prince Rupert a day. Juneau is an attractive small city. As in Skagway, the downtown near the waterfront is designed to cater efficiently to tourists. Gift shops, cafes, restaurants, small parks, and people-friendly businesses line the quaint streets. There are several popular attractions, the steep tramway to Mt. Roberts and the Red Dog Saloon among them. The cruise ships dock right next to the city library in downtown; the City and State museums are a walking distance; the ferry station is 13 miles north of the city. Juneau is not only land-locked, its main artery north south is less than 50 miles long. The 34-mile very scenic road north through the Tongass temperate rain forest ends just after Echo Cove at Eagle Beach. The same road also leads to the campus of the University of Southeast Alaska, next to Auke Lake. From the campus, one can see the Mendenhall Glacier nearby, which can be reached by a separate road.
I skipped the two main attractions near Juneau, Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm. Having also visited the Chilean fiords and Argentinean Patagonia only in April, not to mention the fiords of Norway in 1999, I felt I had seen enough glaciers for now, that a separate cruise to the Glacier Bay (northwest), and/or to the ice fields of Tracy Arm (southeast), each for $99, would be superfluous. (However, I avidly perused the brochures about them, to make sure I did not miss something unique.)
And having just arrived by ferry from Skagway, which passes between the Boundary Range on the mainland and the Chilkat Range to the west, I also felt I had a taste as to what the Inside Passage would be like, the description of which is best left to pictures. I also drove the 8-mile stretch to the (less attractive) southern end of the road, and browsed on the Douglas Island across the Lynn Canal from Juneau. Unlike the towns on the Vancouver Island later, Douglas Island seemed like a haphazardly developed residential suburb of Juneau. However there are magnificent views of the Canal, Juneau and Mt. Roberts from a few spots on the island.
A suggested Tour of Alaska. Most people cannot take the time to drive to Alaska. With all sorts of places to see elsewhere, here is a practical and quicker way of doing much of what I did, say in about 2 weeks. Day 1) Fly to Anchorage; 2) rent a car there and drive to Seward; 3) enjoy Kenai Fiords for a day, including a dogsled ride; 4) return to Anchorage, taking an excursion to the Portage Lake and Glacier on the way back; 5) take the train through the Denali Park to Fairbanks; 6) join a day-tour of the Arctic Circle and Alaska Pipeline; 7) rent a car and drive back to Denali, join an afternoon tour there, continue to Anchorage; 8) fly to Skagway, enjoy the town for a day (also the bordello-like set-up in Red Onion Saloon); 9) take the morning train to White Pass, the afternoon ferry to Juneau to experience some of the Inside Passage; 10) rent a car in Juneau for a day and drive north (34 miles) to the end of the road at Echo Cove and Eagle Beach, enjoy the Tongass temperate rain forest around you, visit the very pretty campus of University of Southeast Alaska at the Auke Lake and the Mendenhall Glacier nearby; 11) return the car and join a day-tour to the Glacier Bay, or a helicopter ride to the Glacier National Park; 12) take a day-tour to Tracy Arm ($99) ice fields; 13) enjoy the charming downtown Juneau for a day, visit the City and/or the State Museums, the Red Dog Saloon, and take the tramway to Mt. Roberts, which includes a tourist-bus tour of the city, and on Day 14) fly back from Juneau. Unless you insist on flying also to Nome and Barrow ($395 each), or hiring a vessel for deep-sea fishing, or gazing endlessly at the sea, you will have covered much of Alaska.
6. WESTERN North America to Mexico. Prince Rupert in British Columbia is so far west of the rest of the North America to the south that one must first drive about 300 miles east on Route 16 to be back on the continent. (This is the same Route 16 I had taken from Jasper to Prince George to connect to the Alaskan Highway at Dawson Creek.) The first half of this road to Prince George does belong to the list of most scenic highways in North America, as do parts of Route 97 from Prince George south through Williams Lake to Cache Creek where Route 99 southwest to Vancouver starts. I rate Route 99 as even prettier than the former two.
Lilooet, Whistler, Squamish, British Columbia (BC). Route 99S begins as a mountain road with sharp curves, pretty but nothing spectacular at first. But soon, as you reach the Marble Canyon, the landscape begins to shape itself into more pronounced mountains, valleys, forests, hills, meadows, lakes, creeks, small logging settlements, and a reservoir and a dam near the village of Lilooet, a nugget of a place. The scenery is even more spectacular as you approach Whistler. Like Banff, Whistler is a carefully cultivated town designed to attract tourists in all seasons, though it is primarily a ski resort surrounded by Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, Garibaldi Park, and several picturesque lakes and glaciers, making Whistler to one of the prettiest towns in North America.
Victoria and Vancouver, BC. The drive from Whistler to Vancouver, especially the part after the town of Squamish may be the most scenic part of Route 99, as the road gradually drops to sea level, with unbelievable views of sheer rock cliffs, snow-capped mountains, twists and turns, and glimpses of the ocean, the shoreline, and the many islands and peninsulas below. Despite the slight drizzle and misty conditions in which I drove, I thought this 30-mile stretch of road was so awesome that I retraced it--and back--the next morning, to see it also in sunshine.
I left Vancouver for later and exited Route 99 just before Vancouver at the sign that said “Ferry Terminal,” to cross to Vancouver Island. There were 13 long lanes to the ferry; I was way back in lane 8. But since they had let me pass through, I knew I would be on the next ferry. The wait was about an hour, made pleasant by a few neat shops and a nice restaurant-cafe nearby. Upon arrival in Nanaimo on the island half-an-hour later, I skipped the much longer drive to north this time and headed south to Victoria (about an hour from Nanaimo), my third visit to this crown jewel of Northwestern cities. (I highly recommend Victoria and its many attractions, including the Butchart Gardens, Miniature World, Royal BC Museum, I-Hos Gallery, Chemainus Murals, and the city itself, especially the area all around the Empress Hotel. A few additional days should be reserved for Vancouver, one of the finest large cities in North America with its many attractions, including the Space Needle tower, Stanley Park, Capilano suspension bridge, and excursions on the ferry system.)
From Victoria, there are several ways of reaching Vancouver city on the mainland: back from Nanaimo, from Victoria, and from the terminal at Sydney, about a 20-minute ride north of Victoria. (The latter arrives at a terminal south of Vancouver, near the airport and closer to USA.) Since I knew Vancouver from previous visits, I wanted to browse the city briefly in the evening and be on my way to USA. Robson Street is the place to be at night, I was reminded. I drove its length several times and treated myself to a lavish dinner at one of the lively restaurants, also to say bye-bye to Canada. Then I headed for the border to USA and connected to I.5S.
A suggested 3-week tour by car: Seattle, Banff, and Vancouver. If you like driving 8 to 10 hours a day, as I do when I am on a sight-seeing tour, here is a scenic treat, with ample time for stops along the way. Day 1) Fly to Seattle--Canadians can start from Vancouver--and rent a car; 2) get on Interstate 5 North (I.5N) to Route 20E and drive through the North Cascades National Park, say to Okanogan, Washington; 3) either stay on Route 20E to Kettle Falls, then follow Route 395S to Spokane, or take Route 97S, 174E, and 2E to same; 4) continue on the more northerly Route 2E through Idaho to Whitefish, Montana; 5) drive through the Glacier National Park, enter Alberta on Route 17N, continue to Waterton Lakes Park, and end the day at Pincher Creek on Route 6N; 6) take Route 2N to Calgary, Route 1W to Banff; 7-8) enjoy the town, take the Gondola to the Sulphur Mountain, drive to Lake Louise and back; 9) take Route 1W to Lake Louise, Route 93N to Jasper; 10) enjoy the Jasper National Park; 11) take Route 16W to Prince George; 12) turn south on Route 97 and drive through Williams Lake to Clinton; 13) at Cache Creek (a few miles south), take Route 99S to Vancouver; stop in Whistler and enjoy the town for that day; 14) continue on Route 99S to Squamish; watch out for the “ferry terminal” sign just before Vancouver; take the ferry across to Nanaimo and drive to Victoria; 14-15) enjoy this wonderful city for 2 days, including a guided half-day city tour; 16-17) take the ferry to Vancouver and enjoy the city for 2 days, including a half-day guided tour; have dinner at a restaurant on Robson Street a night; 18) get on I.5S to Seattle, continue to Olympia and take a water cruise there; 19) head north on Route 101, drive into the Olympic National Park and enjoy the magnificent temperate rainforest from inside, here untouched by logging—my favorite part is the Hoh Rainforest on the western side of the park—then circle the Hood Bay and head south on Route 16 to Bremerton; 20) take the ferry across Puget Sound to Seattle and sign up for an afternoon city tour; Day 21) return the car and fly home.
A suggested tour by car: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. There is much more to American Northwest, the area from Washington and Oregon on the west to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota on the east. This region deserves a separate trip. Idaho’s landscape is equal in its rugged beauty to more popular places in the West. Starting from Coeur d’Alene, the drive south to Riggins and the Salmon River (of the movie “River of No Return” fame) passes through gorgeous country that culminates at the spectacular Hells Canyon and Snake River. Continuing south, then east on I.84 and I.86, and north on I.15, you reach the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, at where Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming meet. It will take a full day just to drive through these parks—there are north and south loops in Yellowstone. Continuing east on I.90 and along the Yellowstone River in Montana next comes the Custer National Monument. South then east on I.90, you come to the Devils Tower in Wyoming. And a short distance to the east, also on I.90, is the Black Hills of South Dakota. This area deserves several days of scouting. Stay in Deadwood and start the feast with a drive through the Custer State Park and around the Sylvan Lake to get the best views of the Black Hills. Mt. Rushmore is nearby and so is the (even larger and ongoing) Crazy Horse Monument; the Jewel Cave National Monument is a short distance to the south; the Badlands National Park is further east. Looping back, you might as well visit the town of Sturgis, the motorcycle heaven of the North. To return, take Route 85N to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Route 2W all the way back to Coeur d’Alene.
A suggested tour by car: Colorado and Utah. Mile-per-mile Colorado and Utah are among the most beautiful states in USA. Colorado should be visited in October to really appreciate the beautiful yellow and gold colors of the aspen, beech and other seasonal trees in this area. I.70W itself is like a national park after Denver, into Utah. However if you take it now, you will miss much in the Southern parts of the state. So leave I.70 for later. From Denver, follow the signs to Boulder and find your way to Route 36 into the Rocky Mountain National Park, for one of the most scenic roads in North America. Circle the park, connect by Route 40W (going south here) to I.70W, and exit at Route 91S. The first part of the road is very scenic, but gradually the landscape becomes desert-like, the Rockies distant. You are going to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southeast Colorado, an amazing place. From there, get on Route 160W to Durango and Mesa Verde National Park in Southwest Colorado. Switch to Route 666W in Cortez and enter the canyon lands of Utah. (You could have continued on Route 160W through the Four Corners, but you will see more this way.) Turn south on Route 191 to Route 95N into the White Canyon. Use Route 276E after the Cataract Canyon to circle back to Route 95, passing through Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon. Get on Route 261S to Mexican Hat and the Monument Valley. (To really appreciate this landscape, drive along the well-marked dirt roads into the Valley. There is also an Indian village there where you can rent horses for a ride around the Left Mitten, which takes about an hour.) From Mexican Hat, get on Route 163W into Arizona and connect to Route 89 (going west here) to Kanab, Utah and the Zion National Park at the Southwest tip of Utah. Route 89 turns north here; exit at Route 12 to Bryce Canyon and continue to Capitol Reef National Park. The road will eventually connect to Route 89. Continue north on the latter to where it ends and connect to I.15N to Salt Lake City, to see the Lake and the Great Salt Lake Desert off I.80W—on both sides. (You may want to skip the congestion in this area by taking Route 36 to I.80W.) Get back to here--I suggest the same way—after the Lake and the Desert and take Route 28 off I.15S at Nephi, Utah to I.70E to Colorado. At about Crescent Junction, Utah, take Route 191S to Arches National Park, then to Canyonland National Park. Return the same way to I.70E and enjoy the drive to Colorado. At Grand Junction, Colorado, you have two options: a) continue on I.70E to Denver for a very scenic drive, or b) take Route 65S after Grand Junction to be more intimate with the rocks on both sides and pass through a variety of other gorgeous landscape. In the latter case, follow the way through Delta, Montrose, and Gunnison to Salida. Turn north on Route 24 and connect to Route 91N to I.70E and Denver. (This is the route to the sand dunes described earlier.)
Seattle, Portland, Ashland to California. Having traversed these parts of USA on several previous trips (1998 and 1999), I headed directly south on I.5. Seattle is mostly a functional city with some quaint parts at the waterfront. After browsing the city briefly, I continued south to Portland, a more wholesome city. I had lunch at one of the restaurants on the 23rd Avenue, one of the nicer parts of Portland, got back on I.5S and headed for quaint Ashland, Oregon, to see a friend there. Starting at about Roseburg, Oregon, I.5S evolves into one of the most scenic mountain roads in USA, meandering through the Cascade Range. At Grants Pass, the scenery is like a combination of West Virginia and Southern California along the Coast Mountains. The gorgeous landscape continues through the Klamath and Shasta National Forests in northern California, culminating at Whiskeytown Shasta National Recreation Area, south of Redding. Then I.5S enters the Sacramento Valley and the boring part of driving through California begins. South of Sacramento, through the San Joaquin Valley all the way down south of Bakersfield, the view is bland, as the land is almost entirely flat.
Coastal Route 101 through Oregon to California. Of course, I could have chosen more interesting—but slower--routes driving south. Route 101 that circles Washington is one of the most scenic roads in USA. Going south, you can catch it by a detour from Olympia to Aberdeen, Washington and continue on it to Astoria, Oregon across the Columbia River. However, then you will miss something you should not, since you are already here. Instead, after the Willapa Hills (Southwest Washington), turn east on Route 4 and enjoy the very scenic drive to Longview, Washington. Cross the river there, turn west on Route 30, and enjoy the drive along the Columbia River Gorge, one of the premier sites in USA. But this would still bypass Mt. Hood area east of Portland, also a premier site. So if you have an extra day or two, after Longview connect to I.5S to Portland, until the exit to Route 14E. Continue on that road until you can cross the Columbia River at Hood River, Oregon on Route 35S. Continue south to Route 28W and complete the circle of Mt. Hood in Portland. Get on Route 30W, have a longer drive along the Columbia River Gorge, and connect to Route 101S at the coast. Enjoy the very scenic drive all the way to California. Another premier site awaits you on Route 101 soon after you enter California: the Redwood National Park, a gorgeous temperate forest that reaches out to the Pacific. After Eureka, Route 101 turns inland. It is still very scenic all the way to San Francisco, or you can catch the more westerly coastal Route 1S starting in Leggett, California. (Having driven on both of these roads in 1998 and 1999, I suggest Route 1, though it will be a much slower ride.) For me, these excursions would have added several days to my trip, and I was anxious to reach Baja, Mexico, a new place for me. So I stayed on I.5S.
Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego. While I was in California, Los Angeles Times reported that Santa Barbara has the highest average property prices in California. You will understand why if you stop at this gem of a city, stroll around the State Street, and take the green city bus to the pier and enjoy the leisurely activity and the view in all directions. I did just that for an afternoon and continued south to my sister in Los Angeles. Since California was my former home state, I took a day off to recapture myself at different places and ended on Hollywood Boulevard, to participate in the activity around the Mann’s Chinese Theater, this time as a visitor among many.
Palm Springs is about an hour east of Los Angeles, on I.10 (that meanders all the way to Florida). I never understood why otherwise smart people, who conceived and erected all those hundreds of windmills near Palm Springs, would want to live at artificial oases in the middle of a very hot (120F the day I was there) nowhere and waste precious water that could be used much more productively for agriculture, for example, in nearby Indio. I drove through the town and back to confirm being right in my views, and then climbed the road to the tramway, the reason I was there. It is probably true that without Palm Springs there would be no such contraption there and I would have missed the gorgeous views getting to and from the top. The climb is one of the steepest and highest in the world, and the capsule rotates slowly 360 degrees going up, offering fantastic views of sheer rock cliffs all around and the flat desert and the town below. Two hours later, I was on I.15S heading for San Diego, to visit a friend and to embark on the next leg of my trip: Baja, Mexico.
Suggested tours by car from Los Angeles. In Los Angeles you are at the right place for a circle of one of the most scenic regions of the USA, indeed the entire world: Southwest USA. Depending on how many days you can allocate to this, here are some suggestions, using Los Angeles as a base.
a) In and around Los Angeles. This is a sprawling and complex city, so get a map and study it, marking the major arteries and the suggestions here. 1) Sign up for a guided tour of the city, including the Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Westwood (home of UCLA, where I used to teach) sections, Hollywood, Sunset, and Wilshire boulevards to get a feel for the city--rather for its 92 or so municipalities looking for a city; 2) places like the Universal Studios and the Getty Museum, also scenic views from both, will likely require separate tours; 3) see the city lights from Hollywood Hills at night; 4) go to Venice Boardwalk on a sunny Sunday afternoon and enjoy the beautiful (very American) chaos and fun all around; 5) drive to Santa Monica pier, connect to the Coast Highway (off where I.10 meets the ocean), and go north through Malibu (to about 5 miles north of the Pepperdine University), where you see the sign for the Kanan Road; take the latter and enjoy one of the prettiest coastal canyon roads in this area (about 20 minutes), return via Route 101S, about a 45-minute drive. (If you like this kind of landscape, Route 33 further up the Coast Highway offers a longer--an hour--and even prettier passage, also to Route 101.) And if you have extra couple of days on hand, you might consider a short excursion to the Catalina Island. (Ferries operate from Long Beach and Irvine, about an hour south of Los Angeles.)
b) Los Angeles, south to (Del Mar, La Jolla, and) San Diego. Take I.405S to I.5S. This part of the road goes through congested areas—also to the Disney World in Anaheim--and offers nothing more than the experience of being in LA traffic. The fun part starts after you get on I.5, accompanied by fantastic glimpses of the ocean. The Wild Animal Park is off the exit to Escondido, about 40 minutes before San Diego. About 20 miles north of San Diego, a small sign says Del Mar Heights. Exit there and follow the coastal route through Del Mar to La Jolla for one of the most scenic small stretches in USA, reaching south to the Pacific Beach section of San Diego, one of the finest of American cities. La Jolla (my former hometown) deserves a few days to explore, for it may be the prettiest town in USA. The Prospect Street is the place to be. Find a parking place and walk the one-block distance to and from the exquisite La Valencia Hotel, the pink building at the corner. (Enjoy a drink and the view from its terrace.) The Cove is right below and must be explored, which might take a day, in view the adjoining cliffs, coves, and beaches. Get back in your car and drive south on the road next to the Cove to where it extends as the Mission Boulevard in San Diego, or drive up to the Soledad Mountain for the best view of San Diego, and then follow the signs for the Scenic Drive from there. (Fine restaurants await you at the intersection of Mission and Garnet Street.)
San Diego is not easy to figure out at first, so study a map and mark the following: Mission Boulevard to Mission Bay and park--there is also the larger San Diego Bay to the south--Fiesta Island, and Sea World Drive. While still in Pacific Beach, take Ingrahm Street (off Garnet) to Crown Point and drive along the point; find the Quivera Basin, then Seaforth; order seafood at the casual restaurant there (one of the best in the country), and eat it outside facing the marina; drive to the Harbor Island near the airport; the Balboa Park and the Zoo (possibly the best in the nation) are downtown, away from the ocean; the park must be seen, and there are events scheduled there at night; take the Harbor Drive off I.5S to Point Loma. Further south off I.5 is the bridge to the Coronado Island (and the 5-star Coronado Hotel; the village layout is similar to and as attractive as the St. Armand Circle in Sarasota); on Coronado, drive south along the coast to Imperial Beach and join I.5 in San Ysidro, a few miles from Tijuana; at night have dinner either in the Old Town (off I.5S, south of Pacific Beach) or the Gaslight District downtown; return via I.5N to Los Angeles. (San Clemente, President Nixon’s hometown and his library, is at about the halfway mark.)
c) By car from Los Angeles, 10 days or so. Take I.10E in Los Angeles and connect to I.15N to Las Vegas. Spend at least a full day browsing the insides of the magnificent hotels on the Las Vegas Boulevard, and allocate a night for one of the casinos. According to the Travel Channel on TV, the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, in the shape of a sail, is the most luxurious and exclusive hotel in the world, the Lake Palace in Udaipur (India) and the Regent in Hong Kong, among others, also rated tops. I have seen these and more. (My favorite is the Hilton in Istanbul. Its location and views do render it exclusive enough for me, and the lunch menu includes the best “döner kebap” (gyro) in Turkey. However go to the Divan Hotel nearby for the best “sweetened chestnuts,” a delicacy in Turkey.) By my rating, the top hotels in Las Vegas (Paris, Venetian, Luxor, etc.) are in the league with Burj Al Arab in architecture and amenities. Because the hotels in Las Vegas allow free entry to everyone, they may not seem as exclusive. (You have to sign up for the $125 dinner buffet at Burj Al Arab and Lake Palace to gain entry.) Luxor is probably the most reasonably priced, Circus Circus the cheapest of the grand hotels. Find a nice spot (on the street) and watch the show at the Treasure Island and the dancing waters at the Venetian at night. (There is also a scenic desert-canyon road leading to stratified red rock formations a short distance from the city; inquire about it at the visitor center.)
Take Rt.98W to the magnificent Death Valley, said to be the hottest place on earth. (The Sahara, the Dahne, Nafud, and uncharted Rub’l Khali in Arabia, the Namib and Kalahari in Southern Africa, and the Thar Desert in India may argue about this.) Stop at Scott’s Castle for refreshment and continue to the Sequoia National Park. Have a photo taken next to General Sherman, world’s largest tree. If time is an issue, skip the King's Canyon and continue to Yosemite. Sculpted by glaciers, the elevation in Yosemite varies from 2,000 ft to 13,000 ft. Drive down to the valley and enjoy the views from there, also of the many waterfalls and El Capitan, the largest monolith of granite in the world. (Of course there is much to do in Yosemite, also endless treks, but this is intended as a sightseeing tour.) From Yosemite you are close enough to San Francisco (say) for a 4-day visit. Exit Yosemite on Route 120W to Modesto and find your way to Hayward and Castro Valley, to reach San Francisco south from the San Mateo Bridge to Foster City, to enjoy the Bay from this angle.
San Francisco. Day 1, get a map and take a guided day-tour of the city; go to Fisherman’s Wharf and enjoy seafood in the ambiance of the wharf for dinner; 2) depending on what the tour covered, here are some suggestions for you to do on your own: follow the Geary Boulevard west to Point Lobos for a fantastic view of the Pacific from the cafe there; return the same way and drive down the winding Lombard Street; ride a street car; drive up Broadway to Pacific Heights; turn right and go down (very steep) towards the Marina, stopping for breakfast or lunch at Perry’s on Union Street two blocks down; get back to the city and circle the Nob Hill;; drive to the Japanese Gardens and the Presidio; head for the Golden Gate bridge, cross it and stop at the Golden Gate Park right after the bridge for magnificent views of the city and the bay; continue that road west to Point Bonita for the natural park there and breathtaking views of the ocean; drive back to the city and make plans for a big dinner buffet in Chinatown for the night.
Next day, cross the Golden Gate and drive north through Sausalito to Route 101N; connect to Route 1N a short distance later and drive the hairpin turns of that road say for about an hour to get a feel for the beauty of the California coastline; turn east to San Rafael and a) take the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge, or b) continue north on Route 101 from San Rafael and circle the Bay on Marine Parkway; then turn south on I.80 to Richmond. Either way, drive through Berkeley to Oakland Bridge to get back to the city. To return to Los Angeles, take either Route 101S (much faster) to San Luis Obispo, or Route 1S (more scenic) through Monterey, where you should stop and explore. The roads join at San Luis Obispo and pass through Santa Barbara. About 40 minutes south of Santa Barbara is the city of Oxnard. If you have two or three days free, you may want to inquire about a wonderful sea excursion to another premier site in USA, some distance in the Pacific: the Channel Island National Park (on San Miguel Island), also called the American Galapagos. (The separate and smaller Santa Barbara Island off Los Angeles is also part of the Channel Island National Park.)
d) By car from Los Angeles, 15 days or so. Now you can combine the previous tours into one and add the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam to your agenda. In this case, do San Diego as described earlier, then take the very scenic I.8E to Phoenix. Going east from San Diego, I.8 climbs to alpine heights, reaches the rocky hills of the Coast Mountains on top, drops steeply to Ocotillo Springs and the (southern parts of) Mojave Desert on the other side, goes through the sand dunes near Yuma, and offers gorgeous views of the harsh desert landscape all the way to Phoenix. (This is one of my favorite routes in USA.) In Phoenix, take Route 17N to Sedona. (This too is one of the most scenic roads in American Southwest.) Just before Sedona, you will see an inconspicuous sign that says Sedona and points to the left. Take it, and browse around for a day or two. Sedona is a nice small city surrounded by spectacular red rock formations. Then, follow Route 89N to Flagstaff, passing near the very scenic Oak Creek Canyon area. Follow the signs to Grand Canyon--I.40W to Route 64 to Route 180. Do the drive east through the Grand Canyon on your own, all the way until that park road intersects Route 89—at the Painted Desert. Return to the village for a helicopter ride to really appreciate the magnitude of the Canyon. Spend the night at one of the fine hotels in the village. Take I.40W to Kingman, Route 93N to Las Vegas. The road passes through Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. Spend some time at the dam, taking in the rugged scenery and imagining the work that went into building the dam. From Las Vegas proceed as described earlier. (I have tour suggestions for Southern USA later in Part 9.)
7. BAJA, Mexico. I had traveled by car through different parts of Mexico on numerous occasions, entering the country from Brownsville, Del Rio, El Paso, Nogales, Mexicali, and San Diego. However, these had been relatively short forays. The furthest one was for a catamaran race in San Felipe in Baja. This time, I had a much longer trip on mind.
First, a car permit--that you will bring back the car, not sell it in Mexico--is not needed in Baja, it is on the mainland. Second, there are frequent agricultural inspections along the way, even more frequent on the mainland. Third, unless you are involved in an accident, no one checks if you have insurance. This time I did not want to take chances. In San Ysidro, just before entering Tijuana on I.5, I stopped at the offices of an insurance company to inquire. I was quoted odd figures for the same all-inclusive policies: $121 for 10 days, $250 for 30 days, and $221 for a year, including medical treatment. I got a policy for a year, hoping I would not have to find out if and how this thing worked. I did not take any Pesos with me (US$=10.3 Pesos). Since I travel frequently and for extended periods, wherever I am, I use my bank card an ATM machine to get the sums I need directly from my checking account, without having to worry if I will be home to pay the bills on time, or what the interest charges will be. (I have had no problems using it, even in remote towns, such as in Borneo. A $1.50 is added for each ATM transaction.) I did not have a visa entering Mexico. However, after about four hours of driving on Route 1, at a checkpoint, I was given a small piece of paper as my tourist card; I was told I would have to pay $20 and have it stamped and at a bank.
La Paz, Baja is 950 miles from the border at Tijuana, all on Route 1S. Baja Peninsula is separated from the mainland by the Gulf of Baja California. Baja California is the Northern half of the peninsula, on Pacific Time; you add Sur for the Southern province, covering the area south of Guerrero Negro, on Mountain Time. The first two hours of the road from Tijuana passes through congested areas at or near the Pacific with lots of condo construction, all advertised in English and seemingly priced for Americans. The entire distance to Cabo San Lucas, two hours south of La Paz, is a desert, very similar to the distance from Nogales to Sedona in Arizona, with large saguaro cacti all around, and as oven-hot in July. South of Ensenada, the road turns away from the water and passes through very scenic and hilly canyon lands. Then it is rolling rugged countryside all the way south. Since Route 1 is the only major road in most parts of Baja, it meanders through both sides of the Baja peninsula. Car traffic is light, indeed scarce as you reach deeper south, though there is moderate traffic of trucks of all sizes. Occasionally you come very close to the water on either side and you see fantastic views of the desert meeting the ocean at quaint beaches. Until you reach La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, the most scenic beaches are on the Eastern side, south of the town of Santa Rosalia, along the distance from Mulege to south of Loreto.
La Paz, Cabo San Lucas, ferries. La Paz, Baja (population 300,000) is a quaint coastal city. Not as pretentious as Cabo San Lucas, it is more charming and sedate, and it lacks nothing on Cabo on scenery. You can have the waterfront to yourself in the afternoon, when seemingly all locals take a siesta. The town has a swinging ocean drive (Paseo Alvard Obregon) that continues 13 miles to the north, with many very scenic coves, beaches, and views along the way. (I found a deserted spot on it and for three days in early afternoon just sat in the water to cool down and contemplate life for an hour or two.) Unlike the Pacific, where the water is always cold, the water temperature of Gulf of California is even warmer than that of the Atlantic around Miami. For a hotel at perhaps the best location in La Paz consider Hotel Plaza Real (Tel: 122-93-33, Col. Centro, $35 for single or double) off the Paseo at city-center. Right next to it is a cafe with live music to relax. Hotel Perla nearby is also very nice ($78), and better situated than the pricier Hotel Los Arcos ($98) or Hotel Marina ($98) further away along the Paseo.
The ferry station, where you get tickets, is 11 miles north of the city on the Paseo, the pink building on the right with “Baja Ferries” sign on it. Before you get to that building, on the left, is the entry to a large lot with a police kiosk next to it. This is where you get car permit ($24.20 for 6 months), if you are going to the mainland. (In fact, without a permit, they will not allow you on the ferry. You need three copies each of passport, license, registration, and tourist card, which they do next door for a fee. They give you a sticker to attach to the windshield.) Where you get on the ferry is 2 km further north of the pink building. (The road to the right before the pink building is nice for sightseeing but it dead-ends at a lonely beach after about 5 miles.) If you are driving, be very careful on or near the Paseo in the city. The police will ticket you for any violation, also for not wearing seatbelt. And they want payment on the spot. I got stopped twice, each for about 15 minutes, where the cop insisted I pay then, and I insisted that I did not understand Spanish. Finally he gave up. (If he still insists, tell him to give you the ticket, that you will pay the fine at the police station, which I pantomimed the second time. He probably will not, for this is not his real purpose. (And he might be reprimanded for harassing a visitor for a minor infraction.) This said, the cops there are not as rigid as our own, and they do not indulge in cat-and-mouse games, with parked cars in hidden spots.
Cabo San Lucas is flashier than La Paz and is designed to cater to tourists who arrive on planes or cruise ships. Although the city is situated at a scenic location at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, it did not strike me as relaxing as La Paz. (Actually, a more interesting place with real Mexican aura is the town of Todos Santos, at about halfway between La Paz and Cabo. I saw many young Americans, apparently living there; someone mentioned that it is an artist colony.) Ferries to mainland operate from both La Paz (to Los Mochis or Mazatlan) and Cabo San Lucas (to Mazatlan and further south). There is also a ferry from Santa Rosalia further north, this one to Guaymas, Sonora. I paid $85 for the car and $56 for myself to Los Mochis, including dinner on board. The ferry is neat and there is live music onboard. (However, if you need to go to the bathroom, do so early, for all bathrooms get messy later.) The distance from the peninsula to mainland is about 100 miles, which the ferry does in 6 hours, La Paz to Los Mochis.
8. Copper Canyon, Chihuahua, and north through Sonora. (See also the Miami Herald Travel section about Mexico dated March 3, 1996 and about Copper Canyon dated October 27, 2002.) There are no navigable roads that reach Copper Canyon from the south—there is a road from Chihuahua, northeast from the Canyon. From south, you must take the train from Los Mochis to Chihuhua. There are two of them early in the morning--and two return trains that arrive in Los Mochis late in the afternoon. Both stop at the station in El Fuerte, before the Canyon, and in Creel, after the Canyon. To explore the Canyon intimately and see the Tarahumara Indians native to these parts, you must get off in Creel. I drove from Los Mochis to El Fuerte, also to see the Mexican countryside in these parts. (Watch out for jarring speed bumps through every town, village, and settlement, and some in the middle of nowhere.) After you enter the outskirts of El Fuerte for about a mile, you turn left to reach the city center (about a mile through the city), where the town square and the fort are; you go about 3 miles through fields in the opposite direction for the train station.
El Fuerte is a neat small town that is arranged around a quaint town square lined with people-friendly small businesses. The fort is nearby and is worth seeing. There are several homey hotels around the square and on narrow cobblestone streets around it. I arrived at 9:30 a.m. and chose Hotel La Choza, because it looked neat and had a courtyard inside for leaving my car there the next day. The owner, a man of about 60, quoted 600 Pesos ($58) for the room; I said I am looking for a cheaper hotel, would he recommend one; the price came down to 400 Pesos; I said I am willing to pay 350 Pesos. He accepted readily—which made me think he might have also accepted something less. The room was very clean, decorated with Mexican tiles, had two spotless double-beds with hard mattresses, a fan and air condition, and a walk-in bathroom with a shower that did not just sprinkle but came out in gushes. For another 30 Pesos I had my laundry done, and for 30 more I had my car washed. I walked to the Internet-café across the street for something to drink and to attend to my email.
Early next morning, someone at the hotel called a taxi for me to the station. I asked the driver how much he would charge me; he said 80 Pesos. Having driven the distance myself the day before, I told him I would pay 40. He made faces but accepted. I took the 7:20 a.m. train—the next one at 8:20 a.m. (There are no amenities at the station; you pay on the train, $52 one-way to Creel, about 4 hours.) The train is modern, clean, and (was) full of visitors. The Canyon starts about an hour into the ride and you begin to marvel at the engineering and toil that went into building tracks through such a rugged terrain. (I was reminded of the tracks from Skagway to the White Pass in Southeast Alaska only a few weeks earlier, similar ones I had ridden in Switzerland in 1999, and the equally difficult landscape on the “Train to the Clouds” from Salta, Argentina over the Andes to Chile also this year.) Soon you are overwhelmed by the views in every direction and all other thoughts vanish. Literature about the Copper Canyon claims that several of the gorges here are deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon. Be as it may, this is an awesome experience, as is the Grand Canyon.
There are busses that will take you from Creel down to La Bufa at bottom of the Canyon. I was told this is a grueling long ride, that there is rudimentary hostel in La Bufa. It would have added 2 days to my trip, so I did not go. (Unless you want to trek in the Canyon, the views from the train are awesome and intimate.) I stayed at a hostel in Creel that night and returned to El Fuerte on the train next day.
Roads and Driving in Mexico. I had planned to continue south on Route 15 from Los Mochis to Mazatlan. I gave up after about 80 miles, for several reasons. It was unbelievably hot—no air conditioning in my Geo Metro--and the landscape was flat farmlands. It dawned on me that I might have to drive long hours through bland landscape to reach a small pocket of paradise, and then repeat this process to Acapulco and beyond. Eventually what really turned me off was the exorbitant highway fees I had pay frequently, and the lengthy inspection stops in addition.
Route 15 is a fine road and I was surprised at first that there was only light traffic on the road, mostly of busses and trucks, with a few beat-up local cars. I thought I could pass the boring parts quickly. But then I understood why there were so few cars on the road. At the first tollbooth 10 miles south of Los Mochis, the fee was 17 Pesos only, and I thought this might last a while. Not so, for 15 miles later I had to pay 30 Pesos, and another 33 Pesos 20 miles later, $7.50 so far. Considering that I wanted to circle entire Mexico, it seemed I would pay more in highway fees than for gasoline, together a substantial sum. And over the same distance the traffic was stopped twice for inspections. Every vehicle had to pull over a ramp, so that one officer could check its bottom while others inspected the insides and examined the trunk. And since the tollbooths in Mexico are not at exits but directly on the road, the traffic has to stop also for these. One obvious reason why the booths are on the road is that there are all sorts of secondary and tertiary roads that cross the highway, which the locals use to avoid paying the tolls. This made sense for the locals, but I was on a long cross-country tour. It seemed the system was designed to sock it to Americans and/or Mexicans living in USA and visiting their families.
To be sure, every toll road has also a companion free road, which is easy to find sometimes, not so easy other times. I tried the free road for a 15-mile stretch and got stuck in heavy traffic and bottlenecks due to the many speed bumps. And where there was a four-way intersection, the sign to where I was heading put me back on the toll road. Finally I gave up, got back on the toll road, and turned back. Over the 200 miles or so north to Guaymas, Sonora, I paid (33+30+17+52+53+52) 237 Pesos (about $23), or nearly twice the fee on Florida turnpike from Miami to Orlando. And there are other features of Mexican roads that are hazardous: the lanes are narrower than in USA; the asphalt is often raised a foot or more above the road base, with no soft shoulder next to it. Add to this people on bicycles with no light at night and sometimes livestock on or along the road, one must be constantly vigilant, even on toll roads. After Guaymas, I continued on free roads, got lost several times, and finally made it to Nogales, Arizona at 2 a.m. I stopped at the first rest area to relax and celebrate being back safely on my turf. Then I contemplated how much I liked the rest areas in USA, in park-like settings, with drinking fountains, condiments, clean restrooms, neat parking spots and privacy which have served me so well during my frequent travels. I should also mention, on behalf of Mexico, that police cars there are always clearly visible on the side of the road, or they patrol the highways, as is the practice worldwide. It may be that hiding police cars in blind spots so the officers can write speeding tickets is tantamount to highway robbery, something the police should not do, the Mexicans have decided. (Then again, Mexicans are not as free as Americans.)
9. Southern USA. Having traveled nearly 18,000 miles so far, the remaining 2,000 miles or so from Nogales, Arizona to Miami seemed like a brief excursion. So much so that I decided to head back to California first—a mere 500 miles to San Diego then Los Angeles—to spend my birthday with family and friends in my former home state. It was 120F in Yuma as I passed through there on I.8W to San Diego.
Southern USA by car. If you live in Florida and have not driven across the country to California yet, plan such a trip, for the American West is unlike anything in the East. Allocate two to three weeks to the round trip. Here is a way to get there, and a different route to return. You can reach I.10W to Los Angeles from either I.95 or I.75 in Florida. (Or if you want a more leisurely scenic road to north, drive to Lake Okeechobee, circle it from the east, and continue on Route 441N.) Get on I.10W and enjoy the hills of Northern Florida through Tallahassee to Pensacola. The sections of I.10W through Alabama and Mississippi are relatively short. Just before Mobile, I.10 becomes a long bridge with beautiful views on both sides. The Visitor Center at the border has tons of information about everything you can do in Mobile and Alabama. For casual sightseeing, you should take the downtown exit into Mobile to browse the exquisite Victorian buildings with their elaborate gardens. Bellingrath Gardens is also worth a visit. And you might consider taking a swamp cruise, but you can do this also at various places all the way to Texas. The landscape is similar through Pascagoula, Biloxi, and Gulfport in Mississippi. As you enter Louisiana, you should take I.12W to Baton Rouge so that you can get on the 24-mile bridge—world’s longest—across Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans.
New Orleans deserves a longer visit. There are many hotels in the downtown area. Across from the French Quarters, take the bus along the Charles Street and back to get a feel for the city; walk to the Mississippi waterfront and browse that area on foot; take a river cruise and learn about the history of the city. Late afternoon is a good time to start exploring the French Quarter, especially the Bourbon and Royal Streets. Ask for a good Cajun seafood restaurant or choose a steakhouse. (For authentic Cajun home cooking, stop again in Lafayette later.) I.10W to Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Lake Charles also passes through two of the largest swamps in USA: the Atchafalaya and Henderson. There are nice views of them from the road. Somewhere along this stretch you may want to take an airboat ride into the swamp and bayous.
Texas. The landscape changes as you approach Houston. (Try not to be there at rush hour; it is one of the worst in the country.) Just before Houston, take the exit to Route 35S—closer to the shore than Route 59--to Corpus Christi and Padre Island. The waterfront in Corpus Christi is the place to stay and the Holiday Inn there is nicely situated. (Alas, Corpus Christi is a seasonal city; there are many boarded-up lifeless big mansions along the waterfront.) Drive into the South Padre Island Park; the beaches are generally taken by large campers, but you get good views of this serene landscape. If you want a quainter place with nice summer homes on stilts, drive the short distance to Rockport on the road that goes left just before you enter the park; come back the same way.
From Corpus Christi, take I.37N to San Antonio and plan at least a day to sightsee. Drive to the Alamo, walk around the site, and see the Alamo Diorama that took Tom Feely, Jr. more than 10 years to construct, all 1/72 scale. (For an equally impressive depiction of the Civil War, visit the Cyclorama in Atlanta.) Leave the River Walk for the afternoon, browse the place, and take a boat ride through the canals.
New Mexico. From San Antonio, continue on I.10W to El Paso. Before you get there, at Fort Stockton, take the exit to Route 285N to Carlsbad, New Mexico. The road runs parallel to the Pecos River and there are several places from which there are good views of the river, and the Guadalupe Mountains--and “Top of Texas,” the highest point in the state--to the west. Carlsbad Caverns is the largest in the nation and must be seen. You walk down on a barely-lit narrow and winding path for about one-and-a-half miles to reach the bottom. (Fortunately, there is an elevator that will bring you up in seconds when you are done.) The view from the Big Room at the bottom is awesome, and there are miles of walkways to explore.
You have two options after the caverns. One is Route 62/180W through the Guadalupe Mountains National Park to El Paso, where you will join I.10 and continue to Las Cruces. (If you take this road, take a short excursion from Las Cruces to the White Sands National Park nearby.) The other option is to continue north on Route 285 to Artesia and turn west on Route 82 to Cloudcroft for a very scenic drive. The road will drop to the high desert and Alamogordo below. The White Sands National Park is on Route 82, on your way back to I.10W. Stop and spend some time in this unusual desert. (I have a sand collection of about 50 specimens from deserts around the world, also from some beaches. The sand from White Sands is the whitest in my collection, including those from the “white” beaches of South Pacific. As for the “blackest,” it is from northern Bali; jet-black, it is darker than the sand from the “black” beaches of Tahiti.) You will join I.10 in Las Cruces. Stop at the first rest area after the city--one of the most scenic on I.10--and take a measure of the rugged environment around you.
Arizona to California. Continue on I.10W to the Arizona border. There, take Route 80W south and enjoy the rugged scenery. The road passes through Douglas, Arizona, perhaps the prettiest border town in the South. From there it is about 100 miles to Tombstone, where they reenact the “Ok Corral” gunfight daily. Route 80W will eventually join I.10W to Tucson. Take a break there, for you will be surrounded by several interesting places, such as the Saguaro National Monument, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and the Biosphere. Leave I.8 at Casa Grande to the return trip and continue on I.10W to Phoenix, where you may want to take another break. For example, if you want to be in real boondocks, take the Apache Trail to Salt River and Tortilla Flat, and return through Scottsdale.
In Phoenix, you have an option as to how you want to continue west: a) on I.10W directly to Los Angeles, which will pass next to the Joshua Tree National Monument just before Palm Springs, or b) on I.17N to Sedona and Flagstaff, to be near the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. In the latter case, you will continue on I.40W from Flagstaff, pass near Lake Havasu—and its London Bridge—at the border with California, continue to Needles—where they offer cheap rates to encourage you to stay on one of gambling riverboats—and join I.15S in Barstow in the middle of the Mojave Desert. (I.15S intersects I.10W just before Los Angeles.)
Return trip, Southern California to Miami. Take I.8E from San Diego. There are two exits on I.8 that might interest you. One is a short drive on Route 78 to the (very quaint) alpine village of Julian--the road continuing to the big sand dunes around Brawley, California. The other one is to Borrego Springs, a drive of about an hour with endless views of the desert below. (Casa Zorro Hotel-Restaurant is the place to stay, or for refreshments.) Back on I.8W, you may want to stop at the rest area just before Yuma and take a look at the sand dunes and the All-American Canal nearby. In Gila Bend, Arizona, take Route 85S to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Park, continue on Route 86E to I.10E in Tucson. Having already seen the major attraction in these parts, continue all the way through El Paso to Van Horn, Texas, accompanied by Rio Grande--Rio Bravo del Norte to the Mexicans. Get on Route 90E and continue to the town of Alpine. (This is a very pretty road and the Southern-most east-west highway in USA, comparable to Route 2 up North.) In Alpine, take Route 118E—goes south here—to the Big Bend National Park, one of the prettiest in the nation. (If it is May, you will see fields full of golden poppies.) There are several spots in the park from where you can get a view of Rio Grande and Mexico on the other side. Circle the park and return to Route 90E via Route 385N to Marathon. Continue on Route 90E to Del Rio and take a brief excursion into Mexico if you want.
After San Antonio, Route 90E is cumbersome to follow to New Orleans--though it is clearly marked through New Orleans. So get back on I.10E and stay on it to Mobile. Exit I.10 at where you see the sign for Dauphin Island. It is about a 30-minute drive to the ferry. (Ferries operate about every hour from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily to Fort Morgan—8:45 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. in the opposite direction.) The fee is $4 for passengers and $10 for cars for the 30-minute ride. There is a park at Fort Morgan, which you can explore for a fee. Continue on the scenic drive and enter Florida from the Perdido Key.
After Pensacola, get on Route 98E and continue on it all the way to West Palm Beach. (Routes 27, 98, and 441 are the most scenic secondary roads through Florida.) The stretch after Pensacola to Apalachee Bay is next to the Gulf. You will have ample opportunities for cooling down at a cozy spot you can call your own.
Sirman Celayir, Miami Beach, September 10, 2003