Posted in America, Travel

My First Solo Trip With Trek America: Days 5 & 6 – The Grand Canyon

Welcome back to my Trek America series! Please do go and check out my previous post if you haven’t already, which covers the first half of my trip and some tips on what to expect on your first trip with Trek America. We’re going to pick up where we left off – The Grand Canyon!

There are links on this post but none are affliate, all views are my own and I’ve received no form of payment for this post, I just do it for fun!

Before we headed to the hotel and our Grand Canyon helicopter ride, we stopped off for another photo op at Montezuma Castle.

Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle is a national monument, there is a small museum and trail so that you can wander past and admire the structure buried in the hillside. We took the short stroll, with a guide, and were soon on our way. I have to be honest, I only took this one photo and paid much less attention than I should have! I think it was the nerves of the impending helicopter ride, but it was an interesting stop off nonetheless.

The group had all really meshed and settled together by the time we arrived at our hotel for the next couple of nights. If you’re planning a trip with Trek America and worried about making friends, take it from me that there really is nothing to worry about. Everyone bonds so quickly, plus if I can do it… anyone can!

We were due to stay in twin rooms and so I stuck with my camp mate to share a room with – everyone was so thrilled to be sleeping in a real bed again! It had only been a few nights of camping so far, but let’s all admit that sleeping on the ground isn’t all that comfortable. In fact, I’d highly recommend taking your own sleeping mat, if you’re a light sleeper like me. Trek provide them, but they’re nothing fancy and you could easily take your own if you want something a bit more comfy. I’d also recommend a decent travel pillow, I’d bought one at the airport by chance and it bought me much more comfort when it came to sleeping in the tents.

We stayed at Red Feather Lodge and had some time to unpack there before heading to Maverick Helipcopters for those of us that opted in for the ride. I was really excited but SO nervous too, as I really didn’t know what to expect. I’m also terrified of flying but didn’t want to miss out either.

There was thick snow all around, which made for a very different experience. “C” explained that we were here at a good time of year, as it’s much quieter in the winter. He mocked me, as the only Brit of the group, and said that “as the Brits would say, it’s usually heaving” in the summer.

Most of us were doing the helicopter ride and so we were split in to two groups and weighed, to determine who should sit where. I was much lighter than I am now, so I got to ride shotgun – I wasn’t sure if this would help my nerves or not, but it was really happening now. There was a quick safety briefing before we then met the pilot, and of course had a group photo. (I’ve chosen not to include any of the group photos as I know not everyone would have been comfortable with them being on here.)

We were all given a headset so that we could all communicate and then we were off!

They film each ride from below the helicopter, and include all the music that your pilot played, as well as the chatter amongst the group. You can then buy the DVD at the end for a personalised film of your experience. I enjoyed it all so much that I decided to buy it… only to get home to show my family and find I’d been given the wrong one. Our two groups went up at the same time and they gave me the other group by mistake. I was so disappointed but they did almost an identical flight so at least I could sort of show my family what it was like at least! (I’m still gutted about it to this day, at the time I didn’t really think there was anything I could do… luckily I took countless photos!)

It was an absolutely breathtaking couple of hours. Being in the air is always scary to me, but I found that it wasn’t as bad in a helicopter as it is in a plane, as it was much smoother and of course, you don’t go quite so high. There was one real stomach drop moment though, as you come over the edge of the canyon and the ground suddenly drops away beneath you. Other than that, it was actually too awe inspiring to be scary! I cannot recommend the experience enough.

From there, we went to see The Grand Canyon from the ground. The North Rim was closed, due to the weather (another good reason to do the helicopter ride, as we got to see it from above instead!), but we headed to the South Rim to catch a glimpse while the sun was setting. We didn’t stay too long, as we were coming back early in the morning to watch the sunrise and also needed some food – Pizza Hut was on the menu that night!

We had a lovely, chilled out dinner, followed by a spot of bowling. It was a lovely evening out, and that was when it really started to feel like we were all in our own bubble. You spend so much time with the same people, it becomes really odd when they’re not with you 24/7!

VERY early the next morning, we headed to Mather Point for another unforgettable experience that photos just don’t do justice (I’m sure it doesn’t help that I was taking photos on a digital camera from 2012!). It was definitely worth the super early wake up call, especially as the sunrise was then followed by glorious pancakes and gift shoping browsing.

After that, we had some more free time to explore, so “C” pointed us in the direction of a hiking trail which was supposed to be super easy. However, we managed to take a wrong turning and ended up near enough scaling the edge of the canyon – I’m possibly over exaggerating slightly but I was terrified and scrambled back up as soon as I could find an opportune moment.

Once we were back on stable land and back to the van, we took a drive and saw some elk. It might not sound too exciting but it was very novel for me!

We then headed back to the Maverick gift shop, as I’d mentioned regretting not getting a hoody and so “C” said he’d take me back to grab it. It ended up being FAR too big, but I still wore it to death for years after.

Dinner that night was McDonald’s, which I know many people will roll their eyes at me for but I really think it had to be done! We were told it was known to be one of the most expensive McDonald’s and for some reason to me, that meant I needed to see for myself. You may or may not be suprised to learn… it was incredibly disappointing! I had a strawberry milkshake, which was honestly still one of the worst I’ve ever tasted – but hey, it’s all an experience right?!

My photography skills were really not great back then…

The next morning we were Vegas bound and all absolutely buzzing!

Come back for the next installment to find out what NOT to do in Vegas…

Posted in America, Travel

My First Solo Trip With Trek America: Days 1 to 4 – LA to The Grand Canyon

Welcome back to my Trek America series! We’re going to dive back in to the first half of my trip, which covers things to know about travelling with Trek and my highlights of the West! Please do go and check out my previous post if you haven’t already, otherwise, let’s get to it.

There are links on this post but none are affliate, all views are my own and I’ve received no form of payment for this post, I just do it for fun!

If you haven’t travelled with Trek America before, then something for you to know is that there is a food kitty on the camping trips. Everyone in the group chips in $10 a day, then every day there’s stop for food shopping.

For me at 20 years old, American supermarkets were a huge novelty and to be honest, doing the food shops were just as fun as any other activity. So, the first stop once the group was introducted… Walmart! Now is the time to stock up on snacks for the road and for the group to get food ready for the next few days. There was a box of group snacks in the bus – I’ll never forget how obsessed the Korean girls in the group were with Nutrigrain bars, we got through so many!

We also stocked up on cereals, fruit and things for sandwhichs, as there’s often a picnic lunch stop – another thing that sticks with me is how everyone else pronouned Nutella. I can only assume it’s becuase they learnt English from Americans and so the accent ends up distorted, so they kept saying NOOT-ella, which (as a huge NUTella fan) really botered me, so finally one day I had to explain why they were saying it wrong, but they still didn’t get it! You can also buy anything you want for yourself of course, so it’s safe to say that no one ever has to go hungry.

Ordinarily on the camping trips with Trek, the group is split up in to teams so that cooking, washing up and cleaning the van can all be shared out. Perhaps it’s just my memory but on this trip we didn’t really do that, to my relief. I had been so nervous about needing to cook with a group of strangers as I cannot cook at all, let alone under such pressure and all with camping equipment. I also used to be really fussy about food, I guess that’s why I never really learnt to cook properly, but also it meant I was really worried about not liking any of the food. Luckily, “C” was happy to do most of the cooking and everyone just chipped in where they could and we all took turns to clean up after. It worked well doing it this way, only being a short trip – I’ve since been on a longer adventure with Trek America so I can see why being split into Teams works!

San Diego

We left LA after not seeing much at all, but knew we would do a day of sightseeing at the end of the trip so it wasn’t a big deal. If I was doing the trip now then I would want an extra day or 2 to see more of LA and hit a few bars, however I was only 20 at the time and certainly not brave enough to have tagged on any extra time alone.

Anyway, after the food shop was done, we headed to our first stop – San Diego! I sat with “S” on the bus and we also agreed to be camping buddies. I was very grateful to have met “S” prior to the trip as this was another thing that really worried me, a bit like being picked for teams at school, all I had thought before the trip was “what if no one wants to share a tent with me?!” However, everyone generally gravitates towards someone early on and it’s amazing how quickly you all bond with each other anyway.

Of course, things are slightly awkward in the group for the first part of the drive… who do you talk to? What do you say? Part of the Leader’s job though is to get you all talking and before you know it, snacks are being passed around and you’re on the way to making lifelong friends. Whoever sits in front also gets to be DJ and I find that music is another thing to get people talking. “C” was also very knowledgable and told us all about what to expect on our trip as well lots of information about our surroundings – you could definitely tell he was a seasoned traveller and we all listened intently.

After a 120 mile drive, we arrived at our first campsite of the trip – Campland on the Bay – and it was nothing like I had imagined. I’d completely expected to be dumped in a field somewhere with no toilets but I was wrong! Not only were there normal toilets, there were showers, laundry facilities and even a pool, although of course this was mid-winter and so there was no intention of using that. There were proper little areas available to set up camp and lots of RVs about – in case you can’t tell, I hadn’t had a lot of camping experience and hadn’t been to a proper campsite like this before! It turns out though, the vast majority of the camp sites on these trips have plenty of amenities available and if “wilderness” type camping isn’t for you, then you probably don’t need to worry. In fact, looking back now, I have stayed in much worse hostels and budget hotels than any of the campsites I’ve visited with Trek!

Now it was time for the fun part – putting up tents. Not pop up tents, proper tents. Another good thing to know if you’ve never travelled with Trek America before is that all the camping equipment is provided, with the exception of a sleeping bag, so I bought one especially for the trip. I had begrudgingly spent a fortune on an all weather fancy type of sleeping bag that packed up in a tiny little bag, however it was just as well as it turned out to be extremely cold at night, in a tent, in December! (Plus I’ve used it countless times since)

The tents each have a name, so you know you’ll have the same one each night. “S” and I went with Kermit and “C” gave us all a quick tutorial on putting the tents up and then the race was on. To my surprise, “S” and I were the first to get our tent up – lifetime achievement right there!

Of course… I took a photo!

After the rest of the camp was set up, we headed back out for a wander round and explore in San Diego.

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t exactly on our side as it was quite grey and drizzly. However, we took a walk down Mission Beach anyway and I distinctly remember seeing a HUGE St Bernard I’m someone’s garden, which made my day. We then went for a wander round Belmont Park when it brightened up a bit. Myself, “S” and the token male of the trip, “M”, sat and got some drinks, and food to share, and watched people on the wave machine but none of us went on any rides.

After that, the group all went to Coronado Island for a spectacular view of the bridge, i.e. photo opportunity – the first of many to come. I’ll be completely honest, all I remember was that it was a really big bridge!

All in all, it was a very sedate first day of exploring. I’m not sure if it was the weather, time of year, first day nerves, or perhaps I just don’t remember it very well, but that first day really doesn’t stick out in my mind and I actually feel like I didn’t really get to experience San Diego. I’m certain though that if we had gone later in the trip, it would have been much more eventuful. So a tip for you if you’re thinking about booking with Trek America in future: the first day really is about getting to know each other and not a lot of exploring (in my personal experience of both trips I’ve done) so in that case, I would make sure that your first stop isn’t the one place you’re desperate to explore, just in case you end up disappointed. This isn’t to say that I was actually disappointed at all, because I wasn’t! For me, it was a lot to take in with being away from home with a group of total strangers, so the slow and easy pace of day one was perfect.

We headed back to camp for our first meal together – “C” cooked us tamales, which went down a treat. I’d worried that I wouldn’t like any food with being a fussy eater at the time, as well as a lack of appetite when I was nervous! I didn’t even know what tamales were before that day but I needn’t have been concerned as I certainly didn’t go hungry during the trip.

The first evening was lovely. We all chatted and got to know each other more, whilst eating our dinner. Then everyone helped clean up together and we basically just chatted until it got too cold to stay out.

Waking up in the tent for the first time, next to a relative stranger, was surreal. Even now, I really don’t like staying at other people’s houses and much prefer my own bed. I often have restless nights and wake up early, so I don’t know what to do with myelf if I’ve stayed at someone else’s house. Luckily, “S” and I seemed very in sync from the start and we were both early risers, which meant we could just get up for breakfast and get ready for the day ahead. There’s plenty of breakfast options available in the camp but I opted for a simple bowl of cereal most mornings. You may want to know that there are plently of early starts with Trek anyway, but it’s always worth it.

Today, it was a choice of San Diego Zoo or SeaWorld. My mind was made up way before the trip had even started, it HAD to be the Zoo. My favourite animal (non-pet) is a panda and this was going to be my first chance to see them in real life so I was unbelievably excited. The vast majority of the group opted to go to SeaWorld – I feel I should mention that this was pre-Blackfish and looking at the Trek America website now, it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anymore as an optional activity.

I had been a bit worried (a common theme here, don’t you think?) about wanting to be the only one that would want to go to the Zoo and didn’t want to miss out, but luckily “S” and “M” both opted to go, so it was the 3 of us again. I actually felt like a little bit of a third wheel by this point as I had a suspicion that “M” might have like “S” a little more than she liked him! Regardless, we went off to explore the zoo and I prewarned them both that I was VERY excited to see the pandas, especially as they had just had cubs!

The Zoo itself was as you’d expect really and a good day out if that’s what you like to do. We saw Gorrillas, Giraffes, Hippos… I do generally feel quite guilty going to any zoo, looking at the beautiful animals in their enclosures. However, San Diego is also a conservation organisation and so I hope that supporting them does all the right things.

Finally it was time to see my beloved pandas, but typically we were too early to see the cubs, they wouldn’t be out for the public to see until a couple of week later. However, there was one of those funny photo things before you go through, so we got a cute group photo of us all “holding” the cubs. I bought it in a little frame and I still have it to this day.

I was utterly thrilled see the pandas in real life but you’ll be pleased to know that I did manage to contain myself and did not cry. “M” and “S” were both happy enough to sit there for a while and it wasn’t completlely overrun with tourists as I had expected it to ne – bonus!

No trip to the Zoo is complete without a visit to the gift shop and seeing as I’d saved months for this trip, I went all out with the souvenirs along the way. I bought a Christmas zoo hoody, that I still have tucked away somewhere, and a cuddly panda to accompany me for the rest of the trip.

“C” picked us up after our day of wandering and the full group was reunited. From there we went for a wander round the Gaslamp Quarter, but as a few of us were under 21 and we had another early start, we called it a night after a leisurely stroll and opted for a chilled evening again back at camp.

The following morning, we dismantled camp for the first time, cleaning up and sweeping out the tents as we went – it’s all about team work!

Sanoran Desert

Our next destination was a spot along the Colorado River, a 370 mile drive away. Along the way, we stopped off at the Imperial Sand Dunes in the Sanoran Desert, the filming location for Tattooine in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

Trek America is all about the photo ops and there was plenty to be had here. Group photos are encouraged at every stop and if you want a cool photo of yourself, it means you need to ask your new campmates, so it’s a quick way to get everyone bonding!

From there, we then arrived at the next campsite at Picacho Peak, which was honestly beautiful. We set up our tents right next to the river and it seemed like we were in for a peaceful evening… until the rain came.

It absolutely POURED it down, then thunder and lightning came too. Some of us hid in our tents, which had been plunged in to darkness at this point, “S” and I included! A few others braved the weather and stood under the shelter of the shower block in order to cook us dinner. We all ate huddled up together under said shelter, then called it another early night!

The next day was due to be an exciting one and by this point, I couldn’t believe how quick the trip was going.

Lake Pleasant

If you’ve done any research in to Trek America before now, you may have already heard about Betty and Rusty’s cowboy camp. The overnight stay here is exclusive to Trek and a firm “fan favourite”, and as soon as we arrived I could see why.

It’s set out in the middle of nowehere, and the only stop on our trip where there was no running water or electricity, but it didn’t matter. Even having to walk to the portaloo in the pitch black if you need a wee in the night is totally worth it for this completely unique stay.

We got acquainted with our hosts, who then matched us all up to a horse, ready for a 2 hour ride through the desert. I had little experience on a horse so was apprehensive about doing a long ride like this, but of course I wasn’t the only one and the guys at the camp, as well as the horses, do the trip daily and they all know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going.

The ride was pure bliss, the only exception being the moment that my horse got too close to the one in front. This caused the horse in front to buck, then mine to rear, throwing me off! Luckily, I wasn’t hurt other than a bit of a bruised bum, so I laughed it off and got back on. It was just embarrassing more than anything, but everyone else was lovely and made sure I was ok. We were then also all highly amused as we had failed to notice that the horse that had bucked had managed to throw the girl forward slightly, her name can be “MJ”, so she wasn’t actually in the saddle anymore. We were a very obvious bunch of amateurs!

When we got back to camp, my legs had totally stiffened up and I had a bit of a cowboy walk going on, if you know what I mean!

A huge camp fire was set up and our lovely hosts cooked us a steak dinner, which was actually my first and it was delicious. We gathered round the fire for the evening, with hot coals under our seats to keep us warm. There were several dogs roaming round camp to keep us all company and I had this sudden feeling that I was on a real adventure, it was one of the best days of the entire trip. We went to be with full bellies and achey cheeks from all the laughs, with a promise of a real cowboy breakfast in the morning!

If the steak dinner was delicious, then I don’t even have a word for how good the breakfast was, I still actually think of it as one of the best meals of my life. We were served traditional biscuits and gravy, with egg and potatoes. It was so simple but honestly amazing – regardless of how strange it sounds to my English ears, as it definitely wasn’t my version of biscuits and gravy!

I’d go back just for this meal!

There were no showers at the camp, so we all left a little bit stinky but we were heading towards the luxury of a hotel for our first night at the Grand Canyon. Going to the hotel also meant the first bit of WiFi on the trip, so it was a chance to catch up with friends and family – I think the Facebook status I posted speaks for itself.

Just as a little FYI if you’re thinking about booking a tour with Trek in future, there is now WiFi on the buses but there wasn’t on this trip.

By now, I realised that my life had changed. I know that sounds ridiculously cheesy but it’s honestly the truth. I already knew before then that I wanted to travel but now it seemed like an acheivable passion, rather than a silly daydream of an anxious kid.

Stay tuned for the next instalment, including what NOT to do in Vegas, Christmas day in Death Valley, and finally seeing the sights of LA.