It’s difficult to think of two more different places than Yosemite National Park and Las Vegas. The first being all about conservation and protection of natural wonder and the latter devoted to hedonistic, man-made indulgence. Yet for many, as for us, they become obvious partners as part of a well-worn road trip route.
We leapt from sleeping in a tent at Crane Flat campground in Yosemite, with nothing by way of facilities except for some dodgy toilets and a standpipe delivering drinking water, to Circus Circus hotel in Las Vegas strip, via camping at Mammoth Mountain RV Park.
Mammoth only ever made the itinerary exactly as it appears above – as a convenient stop-off to break up the journey between two iconic destinations. It turned out to be just as worthy as either of the two places it was sandwiched between.
We visited the jaw-dropping mountain and wondered at the death-defying downhill biking, feeling a little guilty on the part of more proficient friends who would have been able to exploit an opportunity to take on those epic routes. We pondered trying out a family friendly trail or two but with options to hire there due to set us back in the region of $200 for a couple of hours we decided against it.
As an afterthought we took a scenic gondola (cable car) ride to the top instead and were so glad we did. It’s not everyday you get to see the sights at 10,000ft.
Back on the ground and at the still mighty 7,500ft elevation of our campground, we hired bikes from Footloose instead and had a couple of hours of fun for a much more pocket friendly $36 each for the adult bikes for four hours.
Free trolleys (trams) can shuttle bikes and riders up to the lakes before a downhill hoot to the town. Alternatively there are a network of family-friendly well-marked trails around the town with options for some fun off-roading through the forest. We intended to do the former but the thick wheeled kids’ rental bike didn’t fit in the trolley bike racks. Regardless, the town routes proved exciting, interesting and just challenging enough.
That night our inadequately equipped camping continued as, even in six layers of clothing, we shivered through the night and lost sensation in our feet. Unlike on that first night at Yosemite though, not even then did I question what were doing. Especially as, even whilst Nigel and I were so freezing we struggled to sleep, Our Little Man woke up to tell me he was too hot and proceeded to strip off.
Mammoth RV Park felt like pure luxury compared to Crane Flat in Yosemite, offering as it did not just showers but hot and clean ones, a cool swimming pool and a jacuzzi. But however big a leap that comparison felt was nothing alongside the polar opposite Vegas offered.
We were booked in at Circus Circus on the main strip, which at the equivalent of roughly £30 per night seemed unfathomable. With a swish lobby, huge bedroom with two double beds (very clean ensuite bliss after a week of camping) and excellent water park style pool compete with massive slides and kids splash zone and Jacuzzi, it was a gift.
I had read that many Vegas hotels keep prices down to attract people to stay and spend their dollar at the on site casino and presumably that’s the case with Circus Cicus. Despite its glitzy facade – an awesome 40 odd ft high clown and lightbulb strewn giant faux big top, some elements of the hotel did betray its budget status. The array of shops and slots within its typically massive Vegas hotel precincts were trashy and a little seedy.
The free circus acts it boasts ran for 10 minutes of every hour and sat within an area of pay-per-go carnival stalls all bidding to entice you to shell out a few dollars to pass the time until the next show. The Adventuredome area of arcade games and fair rides was no more impressive than Fantasy Island at Cleethorpes in our native Lincolnshire (remarkably even a little less so in ways, in my opinion, to be honest due to Fantasy Island’s recent musical volcano centrepiece).
But regardless of its rough edges the hotel was a pure winner for us, giving us the experience of staying right within the action. Placed on one end of the main strip it was perfect for getting out to explore in the evenings and enjoy all the free (yes, free) attractions.
Of course there’s a myriad ways to spend money in the city but there’s plenty to blow your mind for nothing and we left Circus Circus with a whole itinerary of attractions to take in thanks to a helpful magazine provided in our room.
I was skeptical about what Vegas could offer a family on a budget. In truth, even had I been travelling without kids it wasn’t a natural destination of choice for me but I was partially convinced not to pass it by on the insistence of a close friend. “It’s Disney on drugs,” she said. “You have to see it.” She was right. Every turn of the head along the strip at night delivers another flashing light, another sight, more music.
It was bold and brash but high budget and glam too. We delighted in it all and were totally entertained by just being there. We stayed for two nights and I could happily have spent another couple of days just wandering through all the hotels. Strolling through the Bellagio lobby and arcade of high-end designer shops felt like a sneak peak into how the other half live. I could have spent hours just people watching.
OLM’s delight was no less than ours at its famous fountain display or The Mirage’s volcano show with enough roaring flames to sting your cheeks with their heat. The entire place has enough wow for anyone whatever the age. Even the hugely bright, flourescent lit digital advertising truck that trawls up and down the main road trailing shows and attractions was a sight in itself.
Our total gambling investment was a mighty $10, placed on the Blackjack table in two $5 hands by my gung ho husband. Fortunately, for family relations, he won and walked away with double our money.
I’m sure Vegas with a massive budget and a gang of mates is a different again experience but I didn’t feel short-changed. It’s essentially an adults theme park, but whilst we may have done the equivalent of playing on the grass outside with our faces occasionally pressed up to the fence, that was enough for me and I’m glad we did it.
**Shortly after we left Las Vegas, the devastating concert shooting took place. It’s shocking and distressing to consider what it must have like for those involved to have that mad, joyful playground of a place suddenly turned into a nightmare. Our thoughts go out to all those involved.