Greg Ward dusts off his Stetson and rides into the wilds of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah
No matter how many road movies and Westerns you have seen, nothing can prepare you for the splendour of the American Southwest. Far from the in-your-face over-the-top-ness of US city life, the Southwest is a vast and timeless other world – a glorious, elemental landscape of cliffs, canyons, buttes and mesas carved from rocks of every imaginable colour, and enriched by groves of shimmering cottonwoods, aspens, cacti and agaves.
The region centres on the so-called Four Corners, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet at the heart of the Colorado Plateau. What’s said to be the world’s highest inhabited plateau bar Tibet is home to fewer people now than it was a thousand years ago when the Ancestral Puebloans built their fabulous cliff dwellings, clinging to the walls of soaring red-rock canyons.
The Southwest’s desert national parks range from the mighty fissure of the Grand Canyon to the stunning geological freakshow that is southern Utah. But wherever and however you choose to travel – be it road trip, rafting, rock-climbing, mountain-biking or wilderness hiking – it’s a great time to go. With the dollar standing at around $1.80 to the pound, the USA is more affordable than it’s been for years.
The Grand Canyon Seen from a single roadside viewpoint, this gorge seems too huge to comprehend; aim instead to spend a few days hiking down to the Colorado River, rafting on its water or touring the many overlooks along its separate rims.
Monument Valley No other landscape on earth is so utterly alien yet so instantly familiar as the butte- and mesa-strewn Monument Valley.
Zion National Park This glorious Utah canyon combines red-rock majesty with fertile lushness. Hike, climb or relax by the river.
Santa Fe New Mexico’s capital rightly prides itself on being The City Different. Its civic insistence on adobe architecture gives it a unique and appealing look, and it’s also home to a fine array of museums.
Mesa Verde National Park North America’s most remarkable archaeological treasure; tucked into high natural alcoves in the remote hills of south-west Colorado stand the all-but-intact Ancestral Puebloan settlements, constructed around 1250AD.
Bryce Canyon Truly bizarre: a lurid labyrinth of strangely eroded sandstone pinnacles, eating like a bush fire into the forested hillsides of southern Utah.
Canyonlands National Park Utah’s largest park is a bewildering tangle of canyons, plateaus, fissures, faults, buttes, monoliths, arches and caverns.
Canyon de Chelly The walls of this beautiful red-rock canyon in north-east Arizona are adorned with the elegant cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. Visitors must enter on foot, horseback or guided jeep expeditions.
Havasupai Indian Reservation A real-life Shangri-La, where turquoise waterfalls cascade through a remote offshoot of the Grand Canyon.
Las Vegas Sin City is an utterly un-natural wonder, a man-made mirage luring in unwary travellers.
The Southwest is too vast to cover in a week, or even two, so planning any short itinerary will depend on which city you fly into. As it normally costs several hundred dollars extra to return a rental car to a place other than the one you picked it up from, there’s a strong financial incentive to plan a loop trip.
One week In one week you could fly into Las Vegas and loop around the Colorado River to Grand Canyon, Zion and possibly Bryce Canyon national parks; into Phoenix to reach Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon; into Albuquerque to see Santa Fe, Taos and Acoma Pueblo; or into Salt Lake City for a lightning tour of Utah’s national parks.
Two weeks This gives you time to tour most of the Colorado Plateau, seeing the Grand Canyon, Utah’s national parks and the wonders of the Four Corners, including Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley and Mesa Verde. It’s not quite long enough, however, to get from Las Vegas to Santa Fe and back.
Three weeks Only if you have three weeks or more will you have time to cover all the major targets in satisfying detail, and also to manage some large-scale hiking – perhaps down into the stunning Havasupai Reservation or the Grand Canyon, both of which deserve three days – or to detour into southern New Mexico or southern Arizona.
The Southwest broadly corresponds to the former Spanish colony of New Mexico, founded in 1598, which covered modern New Mexico and Arizona, plus parts of Utah, Colorado, Nevada and California. Though rainfall is scarce everywhere, it’s not all desert; towering snow-capped mountains rise in all four states, while dense pine forests cloak much of northern Arizona.
The Southwest’s most dramatic landscapes are found on the arid, mile-high tableland of the Colorado Plateau. The layers of sedimentary rock atop the plateau have created a ‘Grand Staircase’ of successive cliffs and tablelands, which have been pushed steadily upwards during the past 12 million years. As it has risen, the earth has cracked and warped, and endless quantities of crumbling sandstone have been washed away by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Those titanic forces have sculpted hundreds of mighty canyons, of which the Grand Canyon is simply the most famous.
The Southwest is unique, with many Native American tribes still in situ on ancestral homelands. Some of these groups make no effort to inform visitors; some do the bare minimum to sate tourists’ curiosity; some eagerly court paying guests. If you behave with due cultural sensitivity, you will almost always be welcome.
Acoma Pueblo Plausibly claimed to be the oldest inhabited settlement in the US, the thousand-year-old mesa-top ‘Sky City’ now centres on an 18th-century Spanish mission church.
The Navajo The self-styled ‘Navajo Nation’ sprawls across three states. Despite the area’s unforgiving desert topography, many Navajo continue to live in timber-and-mud hogan dwellings.
The Havasupai The ‘people of the blue-green water’ occupy a tiny but ravishingly beautiful offshoot of the Grand Canyon. They now operate a simple lodge and campground for the few visitors.
The Hopi The remote, barren mesas of north-east Arizona are home to the Hopi, devout adherents of the kachina religion. Visitors to the tribal motel buy exquisite silver jewellery or carved figures.
Taos Pueblo In tiny Taos in New Mexico, the centuries-old, multi-tiered dwellings of Taos Pueblo remain in active use on the fringes of a town that hosts a vibrant artistic community.