The surreal scenery of the southwest US makes for a great Hollywood hit but also, as Andrew Lucero found, a hiker's dream destination
I’ve seen that butte before! On a cold Sunday afternoon, watching the umpteenth television rerun of The Searchers, it was becoming apparent why John Wayne was taking so long to find his niece – he couldn’t find his way out of Monument Valley. There’s clearly something weird about the American Southwest that disorientates the senses.
Indiana Jones, Thelma & Louise and, of course, the hyperactive Roadrunner have all strutted their stuff amidst the canyons, buttes and plains of the American Southwest. In fact it’s such a favourite of the movie world that you could almost believe that this surreal scenery is just packed away at the end of every shoot and taken back to a Hollywood warehouse. But the fantasy backdrops are real enough, with their natural wonders carved out of the desert rock. More fantastic than any film director’s dream, their scale is unimaginable, their shapes quite unworldly, and their hues and colours seem to change with every passing cloud.
Who could blame John Wayne for wandering around in circles?
It’s a part of the world known as the Four Corners, where the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet. But it’s a name that tells you nothing about the countryside and a whole lot about the arrogance of an invading culture, with its alien attitude to the land. The state borders, set at right-angles to each other, bear no relation to any physical phenomenon. The real boundaries, such as the Colorado River, are more enduring. It is these, not some notional line on a map, that truly defines this landscape to the people that have lived here for centuries.
For anyone with even a modest understanding of the truths about the ‘Wild West’, the appalling treatment of its native people sours the taste of cowboy myth. The Four Corners is the place to come to learn some of the realities about the ‘Indian’ people, and the rich and varied cultures.
Two thousand years ago a people we call the Anasazi settled in the region. They developed a sophisticated civilisation that farmed crops and built multi-storey stone villages, complete with ventilation and sewer systems. Then almost overnight, some 700 years ago, they mysteriously disappeared, leaving just a few tantalising insights to their world. Near an entrance to Canyonlands, in south-eastern Utah, lies a great slab of rock that has been used for centuries as a graffiti board. Anasazi etchings, plus those of later arrivals, depict the animals and people of the region. A rider on horseback shoots a deer with a bow and arrow, near a man wearing horns on his head in what I can only presume is a dance. There are footprints and buffalo and all manner of other creatures, and a cartwheel – perhaps an ominous symbol of the deadly newcomers. Newspaper Rock is as puzzling as it is fascinating.
Anasazi archeological sites can be seen throughout the region. At Mesa Verde, in Colorado, a magnificent Cliff Palace built into the rock face, defies the conventional image of all Indians living in tepees. Equally fascinating are the still living settlements of the Native Americans who may well be the descendants of the Anasazi. The Pueblo Indians settled along the Rio Grande in independent pueblos, and two of these in particular are well worth a visit.
Taos and Acoma Pueblos contain the oldest continually inhabited buildings in the USA, and the residents see tourism as a means of bridging that important gap in understanding. Local guides can take you around the adobe houses with their turquoise doors and bunches of deep-red chilli peppers hanging outside in the sun, and reveal something of their history and lives. Taos boasts a scenic mountain backdrop, but Acoma – the ‘Sky City’– has the most spectacular setting, perched atop a great tower of rock rising over 350 ft above the surrounding plains.
Today the Four Corners remains a stronghold for the Native Americans, particularly Navajo, Hopi and Ute. Their presence pervades the region – indeed much of the land is tribally owned – and I find it hard to separate the images of these people from the striking visions of this spiritually charged country. The bizarre rock formations at Arches and Bryce Canyon were as much a part of Indian culture as the landmarks of the outback were to Australian aboriginals, although, as with their antipodean counterparts, much knowledge has been lost. Indeed, I get the distinct impression that the USA government has a greater respect for the extinct native civilisations than their modern-day descendants.
The political issues in the Four Corners are just one of many dimensions of interest - there is something for everyone here. Archeologists and historians ponder a past that culminated in the clash of cultures as Native people, the ‘new’ Americans and the old world Spanish fought for supremacy – New Mexico and Arizona were part of Mexico until 1848. The strangeness of its landscape makes budding geologists out of all its visitors – you simply can’t look at the stone formations in Arches National Park and not ask, “How?”. The great volcanic plug that is Shiprock, the towering mesas of Monument Valley, the bizarre pinnacles in Bryce Canyon – geological conundrums all of them.
Hardly surprising, too, that the Southwest has been an inspiration for artists ever since the Anasazi, like the Navajo designers whose superb rugs I crave to afford, and the artist community of Santa Fe once spearheaded by Georgia O’Keefe.
Its a haunting land to be savoured, a country to be visited in its own right. You may plan a swift visit on your USA holiday, but once you get there I suggest you take a leaf out the John Wayne school of navigation – with luck you’ll be wandering around for years. PM
Utah’s southeast corner is virtually all public land, incorporating National Park and Forest, Bureau of Land Management, State Park, Navajo Tribal Lands and small ranches. Canyonlands National Park encompasses the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers and covers more that 240,000 acres. The park is comprised of three distinct regions; The Needles, The Maze, and Island in the Sky. The challenging Westwater and Cataract Canyons are popular with serious river runners, with a variety of companies offering 1-5 day trips. Mountain biking outfitters organise wilderness excursions through the slickrock trails and old mining roads, with summer and autumn descents of the Manti-La Sal Mountains for those who want only downhill riding. Wildlife is abundant.
Bryce Canyon National Park displays a remarkable array of hoodoos – fantastic column-formations of rock, believed by Native Peoples to have the power to cast a spell on the unaware. The Paiute Indians explain the colourful hoodoos as “Legend People who were turned to stone by Coyote”. As with most small tribes, the Paiute were driven off this land by settlers and now inhabit another, less desirable part of Utah.
Arches National Park features a selection of massive natural arches and windows cut in red sandstone. More than 700 graceful arches have been created by combined erosive forces of wind, water and the extreme temperature fluctuations. Backcountry enthusiasts must carry ample water as it is very difficult to find.
Severe mining operations have permanently scarred the surrounding area, but recreation, particularly mountain biking and white- water rafting, has taken over as the primary employer.
Monument Valley is a Tribal Park, spanning the Utah-Arizona border, within the Navajo Nation. It offers limited access to passers-by. Many families continue to live the old way in the isolated back country of the Park. There is an ongoing argument whether or not to build a resort hotel complex, but visitors can still explore the area with Navajo guides on horses, in four wheel drives, or on hiking tours. Sunrise and/or sunset is the ideal viewing time.
The San Juan River cuts through Cedar Mesa and has carved the deepest set of entrenched ‘goosenecks’ (where the river almost bends back on itself) in North America. There is an excellent opportunity to hike into the lower reaches of the Grand Gulch to view rarely seen Anasazi ruins.
Colorado is the home of Mesa Verde National Park, where Anasazi flourished in the Four Corners area for over 700 years. This high plateau country was the ideal location in terms of wildlife, water, safety, and spiritual development. They were basically a stone age people without metals of any kind. Their skill at tool making, basketry, pottery and agriculture was overshadowed only by their trading prowess. Feathers, shells, animal skins and other ornaments from afar attest to the economic complexity of the Anasazi. Visitors should anticipate crowds during most of the summer, but it is almost empty during the winter months.
Excellent whitewater rafting between May and August is available on the Dolores and Animas Rivers, but one of the best times to visit is September to November when the colours are out and the trails empty. Durango is the nightlife capital of the Four Corners region, as it is the largest town. A lively university town, Durango was founded on the strength of the silver boom and is now mining tourists. The railway built to haul silver from the mines now carries tourists between Durango and Silverton on a spectacular route.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument, although not the longest, steepest, or sheerest canyon in North America, is one of the most unique. It is a magnificent gorge just 1200 feet at its widest point, but over 2400 feet deep. The Gunnison River initially established its course over soft volcanic rock, then cutting through to the harder and older crystalline rock. Once committed to its course, the stream continued to cut into the hard inner core, taking about two million years. As it remains relatively inaccessible, visitors can often encounter wildlife on the trails and dirt roads
Several deserted pueblos can be seen along the Colorado/Utah border in and around the Ute Indian Tribal Lands, among them Hovenweep; Ute for ‘Deserted Valley’. The most striking aspect of this part of the Four Corners is the contrast of landscapes within just a few miles.
Further east, across Wolf Creek Pass, is the expansive Great Sand Dunes National Monument north of Alamosa. These spectacular and incongruous sand dunes, which reach heights of over 700 feet, are not, as you might suspect, evidence of an ancient lake or sea, but a vast collection of wind blown grains.
The entire northeastern part of Arizona is made up of Navajo and Hopi Lands, an area they refer to as the ‘Land of Room and Time Enough’.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, near Chinle, is accessible on foot or with local guides in jeeps or on horses. This was one of the final strongholds of the Navajo in their batte against the US Army in the late 1800’s. The waterways which form the canyons originate in the Chuska Mountains, rising to elevations of 9500 feet to the east.
Old Oraibi is the center of the Hopi Indian Nation, most likely direct descendents of the Anasazi culture. Unlike the traditionally semi-nomadic Navajo, the Hopi have lived in their clifftop villages for over 1200 years. Famous for their pottery and kachina dolls, on display at the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa, these proud people share only a glimpse of their spiritual celebrations when they open their dances and religious ceremonies to visitors.
The most impressive village is on First Mesa, but all visitors should take care to inquire locally as to the restrictions on photography and general access. A huge increase in tourists and a longer peak season has forced the Hopi and Navajo to establish tighter controls, so all visitors should respect slight inconveniences should they arise. The scenery is breathtaking, particularly in Autumn and Winter months, when it seems you have it all to yourself.
Glen Canyon National Recreation area is mostly in Utah, but the easiest access is from the Arizona corner at Wahweap. Speedboats and houseboats can be rented to explore the thousands of hidden canyons along the 1800 miles of shoreline.
Rainbow Bridge National Monument – a very sacred place among the Navajo – is at the base of Navajo Mountain (10,388ft), and has an incredible optical illusion when viewed from underneath.
Navajo National Monument offers half-day and full-day guided journeys, on a first come first serve basis, to three significant cliff dwellings of the Anasazi people – the ‘ancient ones’.
New Mexico has an atmosphere of antiquity about it. The Indians have had a flourishing civilisation for the better part of 2000 years, and contribute greatly to the lure of the region. The Navajo (or Diné) Nation, and smaller outlying enclaves are home to the most populous Native people in North America. They migrated into the Southwest about 600 years ago. Ancient dances and ceremonials are still performed, but visitors must obtain permission to attend.
Chaco Canyon National Historical Park is a World Heritage Site, sharing this legacy with over 300 of the world’s most significant cultural and natural resources. Visitors have access to the numerous Anasazi ruins, and should take the time to hike the the mesa tops on both sides of the canyon. Because of the road conditions (not recommended in wet weather) leading into Chaco Canyon, and the lack of nearby accommodation (camping is available), visitors are advised to prepare accordingly.
Bisti Badlands, directly south of Farmington, offers dramatic geological formations of sandstone and clay. As with most of the Four Corners area, visitors should utilise early morning and evening light to capture the real essence of the Bisti. Dinosaur fossils, petrified logs, and all plant and animal life are protected in two federally managed wilderness areas.
El Malpais National Monument, near Grants, has been preserved to protect remnants of recent volcanic activity, and important archaeological, biological, recreational and historical resources.
Shiprock, which is Tse-Bida’hi (the Rock with Wings) in Navajo, rises 1450 feet out of the desolate high desert landscape in the far northwest of the state.
Anyone taken by the ancient settlements at Mesa Verde or Canyon de Chelly may be interested in visiting the still living settlement of Taos Pueblo. Though younger than these ancient monuments, Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited for some seven centuries, and offers a living example of Native American lifestyles. Visitors are welcome to this picturesque and fascinating site, though it it should be remembered that these are people’s homes. Can be crowded in summer. AL
Getting around: Public transportation is almost non-existent, and a car is a must. Hitch-hiking is not advisable, although common within National Park boundaries.
When to go : Spring and autumn months are ideal, winter is very cold but empty trails are nice, and summer is hot, dry, crowded and just the way Europeans love it. Hiking and mountain biking are best from March to May and October to December. Optimum conditions exist between May and August for challenging white-water rafting opportunities. Native ceremonials and public events occur throughout the year, although the Spring and Harvest celebrations are key events.
Sign up today for free and be the first to get notified of new articles, new competitions, new events and more!