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The first thing to know about Western USA is that everything is big. The canyons are massive, the portion sizes are colossal and the adventure options are limitless. From cruising down classic highways and camping underneath the Northern Hemisphere milky way to hiking Yosemite’s pine-dusted trails, there is so much more to the wild, wild west than just haystacks and tumbleweeds.

A glacial lake surrounded by snow capped mountains in King's Canyon, California
The scale of Western USA's natural beauty is staggering © Robert_Ford/Getty Images

Before this trip, I’d only ever explored the States as a solo traveller and I found the experience to be a little overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing quite like getting lost on a Greyhound route between New York and New Orleans, but sometimes in life (and in travel) it’s nice to be pointed in the right direction. Whether that’s to the best campsite, the best sunrise spot or the best bar in town. And trust me, it’s especially nice when a friendly local guide is doing the pointing as part of a Lonely Planet Experience's tour powered by Intrepid Travel.

Here’s what Rick, our certified Californian and very wise guide, led us to experience:

Joshua trees and rock terrain in California
The otherwordly beauty of Joshua Tree National Park is unique and well worth a visit © Dennis Silvas/Shutterstock

Going geological at Joshua Tree

If you’re not into geology, one trip to the alien terrain of Joshua Tree National Park is guaranteed to change that. Known for its shady oases, unique yucca trees and ancient rock formations, Joshua Tree is an otherworldly outdoor experience. Sitting snug between the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, this crazy landscape has inspired everyone from U2 and Alex Honnold to an entire Mormon community (yep, apparently the famed Joshua Trees are literally pointing to the promised land). While we spent a good deal of time hiking, biking and climbing our way through the desert, the best part was undoubtedly cooling off in the Colorado River. Highly recommend.

The logo of route 66 painted on a black road
Route 66 is one of the most iconic American experiences © JarekGDA/Shutterstock

En route 66

We’ve all seen Thelma and Louise drive it and we’ve definitely watched Forrest Gump run it, but cruising the famed Route 66 for yourself is a whole other experience. I suggest stocking up on snacks (the more Americana the better – hello Hershey’s Kisses!), winding the bus windows down and cranking Willie Nelson for full roadtrip effect. En route ask your driver to stop at a bona fide highway stand for fry bread. What is fry bread you ask? Imagine a pancake crossed with a scone that’s been deep fried and lathered in honey. Thank me later.

El Capitan rock formation during sunset at Yosemite National Park.
The sheer scale of Yosemite National Park is breathtaking © Andy Kennelly/Getty Images

New perspectives in Yosemite

It’s impossible not to be blown away by the scale of Yosemite. Everything, and I mean everything, is massive. Not only does El Capitan, the towering granite monolith, take your breath away but the pine forests reach the horizon, the rock faces have been carved over millennia and the portion sizes at the local diners are out of control. As a group we steered clear of the tourist tracks and hotfooted it up the lesser-known Hetch Hetchy, a ridiculously beautiful hiking trail packed with cascades and wildflowers in the northwest corner of the park. Downtime involved cruising the valley floor on mountain bikes, playing cards back at camp and talking bears with Rick who can tell a survival story that rivals The Revenant.

An arial view of the the Grand Canyon Nation Park at sunset
The history of our planet is evident all over the Grand Canyon © SumikoPhoto/Getty Images

Feeling grand in the… Grand Canyon

One of the joys of group travel is the people you share the journey with. And we were lucky enough to be joined by Matthias, a travelling astrophysicist from Oxford University. Now, standing on the south rim of the Grand Canyon is epic on any given day. But standing on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, listening to an astrophysicist tell you the six million year-old canyon history is close to mind blowing. After we’d attempted to comprehend the vastness, we hiked down to Plateau Point for views to winding chasms and soaring eagles. And in the evening we ate pizza and watched the sunset over one of the world’s natural wonders. Not a bad day in the wild west.

A view of constellations in the night sky over the Sierra Nevada, California
The absence of light pollution makes the views in the Sierra Nevada worth staying up for © lovemushroom/Shutterstock

Stargazing in the Sierra Nevadas

Sure, Hollywood has its stars but have you ever been stargazing in the eastern Sierra Nevada ranges? Now that’s what we call a milky way. After a few days on the road we soon pulled into the tiny town of Bishop. If it’s quaintness you’re after, Bishop has it in spades. While there we ate our collective group bodyweight in ‘bear claw’ cookies from the iconic Eric Schat’s German bakery, drank several Sierra Nevada pale ales (when in Rome…) and slid into a remote, natural hot spring. The best bit? The Bishop hot springs are a local secret and we had the pools all to ourselves. Well, apart from the handful of shooting stars we had for company.

Trams and tacos in San Francisco

Our final destination was San Francisco, the ‘City by the Bay’. San Fran is one of the most vibrant and multicultural cities in the States – whatever you want, you can find here. Personally, I was craving tacos so I caught the tram down to Mission District for carne asada served with a side of world-class graffiti. Later that day I met back up with the group for a thrifting adventure down Haight Street before tucking into dim sum in San Fran’s famed Chinatown district (most known for the film Big Trouble in Little China). Sure, the Golden Gate Bridge is a beauty but nothing beats eating your way through a new city while searching for Mrs Doubtfire’s house. Now that’s what I call travelling with a purpose.

Lonely Planet Experiences, in partnership with Intrepid Travel & Urban Adventures, are a new range of mutli-day, day and half-day tours offering amazing experiences in the world’s best-loved destinations. 

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