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Grand Tour of the US - in 14 days (travel planning, semi-seriously)

Grand Tour of the US - in 14 days (travel planning, semi-seriously)

Old Dec 1st, 2020, 05:27 AM
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Seeing cities is basically seeing another city
Wrong. Just wrong. The only thing New York and Charleston have in common is that they are on the east coast. Ditto Portland or San Francisco and Los Angeles on the west coast. Do you really think that Chicago and New Orleans are so alike that seeing one is seeing both? Plus, if you are getting a feel for the US, over 80% of the people live in cities.

Then cities have things that the natural sights do not, like museums, cafes and restaurants. I'm not saying that the OP should omit all natural sights, but given his description of his friend, I don't think they should take the majority of the time. Everyone has different tastes - I live a couple of hours drive from mile upon mile of golden sands, which are extremely popular, but I only visit once every few years as I prefer my coastline rocky. My elder sister doesn't care for over-large cities, when she finally visited the US she chose to go to Boston and not New York.
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Old Dec 1st, 2020, 07:12 AM
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Okay, let's rewind a bit with some of what we now know.

1. East-to-west preferred.
2. More city- than scenery-oriented, but not exclusively.
3. Time management is key; this is intended to be a sampler for more in-depth visits in the future. "...minimum time at each destination to get at least a good idea for later, more extensive visits..." (My bold.)
4. Mid-September for two weeks.
5. San Francisco for three days minimum (thus leaving 11 days for everything else.)

Things we don't know but which would be useful to learn:

1. Has the friend traveled much in Europe or beyond? How about the Middle East or North Africa? If he's a climber in the Alps, then the Rockies or Sierras might not seem quite as exotic as, say, the California redwoods might be.
2. How big a concern Is budget? It seems it is to some degree, which might work against some destinations such as small airports in the Rockies. Jackson Hole airport, which serves Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, is notoriously expensive to fly into and out of. Bozeman, Montana, north of Yellowstone, is generally cheaper, but getting there takes quite a long time, counting plane changes. One-way rental car charges have already been mentioned, but any rental for this trip is going to be very short in duration, so maybe the one-way surcharge or drop fee will be more tolerable than the case would be with a longer rental.

Zooming out on this (and yes, there's obviously more) some things seem to be inevitable.

First, for seeing "wow factor" sights, particularly in the west, the time management issues are going to be critical. Including Yellowstone, for example, becomes very difficult, because the only airports serving Yellowstone are generally expensive and/or time-consuming to reach, and travel to and from NW Wyoming is going to take a day in both directions, regardless of travel mode used. The same goes for most of the "iconic" destinations in the west - Arizona or Utah red rocks, for example.

So it would seem that they should be looking for "convenient" (oh how I hate that term) "wow" destinations - ones that can be reached relatively quickly from some city or airport with easy service to other places. How close is close enough? Well, top of the head, maybe Zion NP from Vegas, Yosemite from San Francisco, Joshua Tree from Los Angeles, One of my fave "wow" destinations - under the radar for many European visitors, is the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, both easy to visit in one or two from Portland, Oregon.

Or, reduce time in the car by paying a bit more for air access to smaller airports, then doing a day or two in the car in order to get a ground-level experience. What about something like this for a model?

Day 1 - Europe to east coast city - Boston, Philly, Washington, New York
Nights 1 - 3, in the city
Nights 4 - 5, Chicago
Nights 6 - 8, "old west" destination (see below)
Nights 9-12, San Francisco, of which one night spent on the Monterey Peninsula
Night 13 - En route to Europe

For the "old west" experience, I had a couple of thoughts. First, while Yellowstone is beyond fabulous, mid- to late September is definitely a little late; it can be great or less so. But what about the Black Hills area? A couple of days on the ground could be terrific - see Mount Rushmore, visit Badlands National Park, Deadwood and Lead, take a day trip over to Devil's Tower... It's a wonderfully compact area with huge variety, affordable and iconic.

Another possibility for those days would be Portland, Oregon. Google the places on this map - https://goo.gl/maps/TJzVM6mhDBXmA6Uz6 , This could include the marvelous painted hills in the John Day National Monument, stunning Smith Rock, Timberline Lodge on the side of Mount Hood, the glorious Hood River Valley in harvest mode (apples, pears, vineyards) and the vista points and waterfalls along the south walls of the Columbia Gorge. It could even include Rodin in the sagebrush at the Maryhill Museum and a replica of Stonehenge overlooking the great river. Like the Black Hills, this is a terrifically diverse but surprisingly compact area.

Here's a video of Smith Rock, since many people are unaware of the place.


Anyway, a schematic like this - East coast, Midwest, Mountain west, California - could give a decent snapshot and whet appetites for follow-up visits, which seems to be the aim.
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Old Dec 1st, 2020, 07:33 AM
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Good reset. However, I wouldn't rate the Badlands, and certainly not Mt. Rushmore, as premier natural sights. If they take the California Zephyr west from Chicago they could stop off in Denver for the Rocky Mountains. Or they could take the Southwest Chief, visiting the Grand Canyon from Williams, and maybe stopping in Albuquerque for Santa Fe. If they take the southerly route they can then drive up the California coast to SF. Info on US trains here: https://www.seat61.com/UnitedStates.htm
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Old Dec 1st, 2020, 03:51 PM
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I knew from the beginning that the US are just way too big and diverse to come up with the *perfect* itinerary for two weeks.

Just to answer Gardyloo 's questions:

1. My friend has traveled within Europe quite a lot. He's from Austria, so the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies or similar will not be that *exotic" for him.
And aside from the natural wonders of Yellowstone, the overall scenery will be less *exotic", too - compared with Arches, Canyonlands, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, etc. Taking into account the weather issue, I think this will shift the preferences a bit more towards the SW/ Grand Canyon than Yellowstone. Nevertheless, all the input on Yellowstone already helped ME to get a better idea how to tackle that area on a solo trip - which will be more focused on North Dakota & Wyoming/ Yellowstone.

2. At the end of the day, budget will be an issue, of course.
In the past, I usually tried to balance my budget by mitigating the impact of super-expensive destinations like San Francisco, Key West, New York City, etc. with nights in less expensive areas. At the end of the day, there will be enough flexibility for us to shave off a night here and add it elsewhere, if necessary.

I think my first learning from the discussions here is that the typical "from coast to coast approach" can be just too much.
I will start to discuss with my friend if he may feel more comfortable by taking a less demanding approach, i.e. focus on the East (urban+rural) OR the West.
For starters, I ordered a huge 800+ pages coffee table book that covers most of the USA quite extensively (also the lesser travelled parts) and which may also help in getting more input from him.


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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 04:48 AM
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Since you have decided on the southwest instead of Yellowstone, check into flying to Albuquerque from the east coast city of choice. Southwest often has very good fares from Boston with flights that get in before noon so you have a half day to head up to Arches and Canyonlands. We have stopped in i Bloomfield, NM for the night and done a quick tour of Aztec Ruin which is close by. There is a decent Best Western in Bloomfield.

You could head west to Vegas through Grand Canyon or southern Utah for Bryce and Zion. Then drop the car and fly to San Francisco.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 05:01 AM
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Maybe someone who was born in the US, rather than just living here, can explain to me this urge to send people into the countryside rather than to the cities?
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 06:36 AM
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I live between New York City and Boston and have been to many other cities like Chicago, Atlanta , Washington DCLA, San Francisco, etc. I find being in a city makes me feel tense, rushed, crowded, not clean, can not wait to leave. I do like visiting museums and other city treasures, but that is my idea of something to do as a day trip, not for a vacation.

I love exploring the natural spaces and finding out about the people who have lived there. I love seeing the different geologic wonders, and environments, as well as the life forms in different ecological areas.

For me The US National parks are a treasure. I do admit to being a science nerd although I love a good art show, butI will continue to spend my vacation time and money away from the city.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 06:48 AM
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Originally Posted by thursdaysd View Post
Maybe someone who was born in the US, rather than just living here, can explain to me this urge to send people into the countryside rather than to the cities?
The every city you tour has this museum and that historic site, this store and that shop, this monument and that tower, this restaurant and that walking tour, this cathedral and that cemetery, this this and that that. Each different yet each more of the same. Yes, New York City and London have theaters, Las Vegas has excess, each city has something unique, but all are the works of man.

The "countryside" has unique non-manmade places and sights, one Grand Canyon, one Muir Woods, one Niagara Falls, one El Capitan, one Big Sur, and so on.

So, if you want one-of-a-kind experiences, get out of the city.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 06:58 AM
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I certainly can't speak for more than myself, but I've hosted (or "curated," if you will) several "first-time" trips to the US by overseas visitors, in my case all Brits, mainly Scots. I don't know if their perceptions are outliers or "mainstream," but a principal motivation they all possessed for their first trips was to experience the "wide open spaces" they've seen on a lifetime of American movies and television. I know it's a cliché and sounds like stereotyping, but I've always found it remarkable how many of my friends (i.e., lots) have this indelible image of the convertible Mustang driving along the PCH stuck in their brains. Or - and this speaks to their ages - of the Corvette roaring down Route 66, as in the eponymous TV show. Media-founded imagery is very seductive.

I'm still trying to get a read on Cowboy's friend's priorities. Not trying to oversimplify things, but is the focus to be more on cultural and lifestyle elements or scenic, place-specific ones? For example, traveling in mid-September would put the visitors into the time of year when there are state fairs or rodeos in many parts of the country. Interesting or meh? Or sports: major league baseball is still being played, and both college and professional football (the US kind) is getting started. Worth noting or immaterial? When visiting cities, is it restaurants, theater, museums, tall buildings, artsy districts, street life...? Or American history? One could spend a few days on the east coast, then fly to Memphis, then drive south through the Mississippi Delta to Vicksburg, Natchez and ultimately New Orleans. The drive down the Great River Road (and its side roads) can be done comfortably in two or three days, and would give some experiences definitely unlike any available in central Europe, not to mention the food - barbecue, tamales, soul food - and the music - rock, blues, gospel, zydeco... This would be an atypical route for first-time visitors, but might be enormously attractive.

I think it's a good thing to take all the time needed to sort through priorities and develop alternatives. You have plenty of time.

Last edited by Gardyloo; Dec 2nd, 2020 at 07:03 AM.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 08:04 AM
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a principal motivation they all possessed for their first trips was to experience the "wide open spaces" they've seen on a lifetime of American movies and television
Interesting point. I didn't watch a lot of those movies, certainly not Westerns, so maybe that's why I don't have the same outlook.

The "countryside" has unique non-manmade places and sights, one Grand Canyon, one Muir Woods, one Niagara Falls, one El Capitan, one Big Sur, and so on.
I'll grant you the Grand Canyon, in fact that's the main place I've been suggesting for the "outdoors". Haven't been to Muir Woods, so can't comment on that, but I've been to Niagara, and to Iguazu, and as far as I'm concerned Iguazu wins easily. Same with mountains, nothing against the Rockies, but I've also seen the Himalayas, the Andes and the Alps (Switzerland, Austria and Italy), so no, not unique.

I think that Cowboy has the right idea - give that big book to his friend and await input.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 08:58 AM
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So you are looking for a 2 week trip to show a European who has never been to the US and want a mix of city/ out west nature. This is what I would do and why.

New York City - 3 days. Every European I know thinks it's the most important thing to see. Boston is great, and historic but it's not NYC. Boston's also not easier to see (you are only going to scratch the surface of either in 3 days and it's just as easy, and probably less expensive to do NY. Also there are more flight options from Europe and then onward out west from NY than there are from Boston.

Fly to Las Vegas and rent a car. Do the 'loop' - Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon North Rim. Could also include Page and Valley of Fire State Park. This southwest area is very different from anything in Europe. Also while extremely popular they will probably be less crowded than Yellowstone. The GC North Rim gets much less crowds than the south rim. Minimum would be Zion 2 nights (including the drive from LV if you got an early flight), Bryce 1, GC 2. So at least 6 days. By doing a 'loop' with the rental car you save a bundle. One way car rentals in the US are very expensive.

Fly to San Francisco for the remainder of the time. If that is only 3 days then stick to the city, if you have another day or two you could drive down the coast (another car rental, but again same pick up drop off so not terribly expensive.

My photos of all those places are here: https://andiamo.zenfolio.com/ Give him the link and see if these places look interesting to him.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 01:37 PM
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Thanks again for all that input. I had a busy day today, so I might need another day to digest.
I don't want this to be a fight of city vs. country. I'm a bit biased towards the latter, but I've enjoyed exploring the big (and not so big) cities as well.
You can consider yourself lucky that you live in a country where there is so much to see - both rural as well as urban wonders.
I agree with gardyloo that my friend's preferences are not that easy to describe. It's more exploring the cityscape than visiting museums, or at least not generic arts museums but rather something special, like the Museum of American History in DC or the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco.
But in general I think the mix of two different big cities (one on the East Coast, the other one being San Francisco) and some of the parks in the SW as isabel and others suggested should work.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 01:42 PM
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Cowboy: It all sounded so promising at the beginning but now you've ended up trite after all.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 03:26 PM
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Hope you'll come back and tell us what your friend says.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2020, 05:39 PM
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With the exception of the Grand Canyon North Rim, I disagree that the southwest will be less crowded than Yellowstone in mid-September. I also think it's a bit easier to get away from crowds in Yellowstone vs Zion/Bryce where visitors tend to stay in a compact area.
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Old Dec 3rd, 2020, 12:39 AM
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Originally Posted by thursdaysd View Post
Hope you'll come back and tell us what your friend says.
Well, here I am.
While it's still way too early and not really necessary to commit ourselves on one itinerary right now, there is some more input from my friend I can play with:

The East:
Given the choice between the big cities, he has no strong preferences against one of the big cities.
NYC is the quintessential "wow", but also a combination of NYC (for the wow) and Philadelphia (for history) sounds good for him.
Neither Boston nor DC are off the list, but get a tiny bit less approval.
From my personal point of view (as a foreigner), DC's strong points are the famous landmarks and buildings. And, of course, the plethora of amazing museums.
I haven't been to Philadelphia yet, so that would also tick another box, i.e. that I will not only see places I already know.
I think "the East" will need the most consideration when it comes to exact planning. If only because this will eat up a considerable part of the budget. But as someone mentioned before, there is so much too see that you can't get it totally wrong

The (Wild) West:
In the "fight" between Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks it looks as if the winner will be: the Grand Canyon.
My friend checked out the NPS websites of both parks, and thinks that the GC has more of an *exotic* appeal. Him being from Austria, Yellowstone does look more than what we have here (except for almost everything like geysirs and mud pools etc.) than Grand Canyon.

When talking about the possible options and combinations (Las Vegas, GC South Rim vs. North Rim, Zion, Bryce, etc.), he asked if we had to change places that often.
In addition, I think that Patty also raised a valid point, not only about the crowds at Zion and Bryce but also when it comes to the specific situation in both parks (possible waiting time for shuttle busses, isolated location with only few motels very close nearby, etc.).

Taking everything into consideration, I came up with a different idea (which I could have thought of before since I did the very same this year in January): Spend all nights in Flagstaff, and use that hub to explore as day trips.
I like the *vibe* of Flagstaff a lot, plus there is a much greater choice and availability of accomodation than elsewhere, IME. And possibly also a moderate climate.

1. Grand Canyon NP (obviously), loop drive from Flagstaff via Routes 180-64-89.
Possibly omit the Western parts to Hermits Rest (shuttle buses only). Rather spend more time "hiking" the rim trail(s) in different location along the the road to the Eastern entrance/exit.

2. Red Rock / Sedona
I know, it's a fairly small area that cannot compare to Monument Valley etc. in size or feeling of remoteness and so on. But it's easy to explore and can be spiced with bits of history on cliff dwellings or pueblos at Tuzigoot or Montezuma Castle.

3. Sunset Crater & Wupatki NP
plus some "adventure off-roading" (not really, just permitted gravel roads around Humphrey's Peak or across the Little Colorado river, depending on weather/ wildfires/ etc)

Back-up option (if 2 or 3 don't work out for whatever reason):
Meteor Crater plus Walnut Canyon NM.

I know that this is a more moderate or temperate approach compared to crossing the vast landscapes of Utah north of the Grand Canyon.
But I think it can work pretty well as an "appetizer".
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Old Dec 3rd, 2020, 05:37 AM
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I did some Grand Canyon research prior to a non-taken trip. The iconic views are from the south rim, but crowded. Sedona is south of the GC, Driving distances are long, so going from north rim to south is a trip one may not want to make. Best place for sleeping near GC is within the park at south rim, but needs booking very far in advance.
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Old Dec 3rd, 2020, 05:55 AM
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Thanks for the update. Did you decide against Chicago? I liked it a lot more than I expected, and at the risk of flogging a dead horse, the Southwest Chief stops in Flagstaff.

For a cheap sleep in NYC I stay here: https://www.thejanenyc.com/ - good location, great for a single if you don't mind the bathroom down the hall. Bunk bed room would be crowded for two, but the en-suite rooms seem cheaper than usual.
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Old Dec 3rd, 2020, 06:08 AM
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For GC south rim, to avoid large crowds, make a reservation in the park, arrive at about 3 pm when day trippers leave, visit the VC, hike a bit, see sunset, spend the night, see sunrise, hike down into the canyon a way, visit more overlooks, leave when it starts to get too busy.
Make any reservation nearby that you can cancel and when time gets close, call for in park lodging. People do make reservations way ahead then cancel as time gets close and they see that they can not make the trip.

There are often mule deer and elk on the roads in the park, so try to avoid driving after dark.
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Old Dec 3rd, 2020, 06:24 AM
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Originally Posted by thursdaysd View Post
Thanks for the update. Did you decide against Chicago?
Nope, we just put the East Coast segment of the trip on the back burner for a moment.
It will be the last piece of the puzzle, so to speak, after we have the Wild West segment sorted out.
For me, Chicago would be of great interest, if only for architecture (I know that several of the iconic houses of Wright are elsewhere but the ones in Chicago/ Oak Park would satisfy me already).
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