Snow-capped mountains, timbered plateaus, rugged canyons, deep lakes and cactus-covered deserts at every turn
Jump in a modern day covered wagon and explore the majesty of America’s Southwest states says Andrew Marshall
The Southwest of the United States is a land for the imagination. For what else can help you comprehend the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, the soaring mesas and buttes of Monument Valley, the spiritual reverence of Canyon de Chelly, and the vibrancy of Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo cultures? The variety and magnitude of the landscapes of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah is unparalleled, and this trio of Southwest states boast the highest concentration of national parks in the nation.
The early settlers had done it the hard way with their canvas-covered wagons, but my partner and I were exploring this Wild West region the easy way, seated comfortably behind the wheel of an all American RV. Recreational vehicles (as motorhomes are known here) are as American as the stars and stripes, and their popularity is evident by the sheer number of facilities available, making ‘on the road’ travel an experience of pure freedom.
It took two days driving from San Francisco before we cleared California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. As the RV pulled back on the hot desert air, the miles fell behind in a spectacle of rock-strewn plains, windblown sand dunes and highways stretching into infinity. With some cool sounds on the stereo and the RV in cruise control, we move on effortlessly into Death Valley – one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on Planet Earth.
Temperatures in Death Valley once hit 57°C in July 1913, and evocative names like Desolation Canyon, Starvation Point, Hell’s Gate and Furnace Creek reflect the region’s mining and pioneering history. Some of the park’s attractions include Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America at 282 ft below sea level), Zabriskie Point, the Devil’s Golf Course and Dante’s View. From an elevation of 5,476 ft we take in the panorama of dazzling white salt-pans, rock-strewn plains and sweeping sand dunes hemmed in by the bare bones of the Amargosa Mountain Range.
Skipping across the bottom of Nevada, it was twilight along Highway 160 when the infamous Las Vegas Strip loomed into view – four miles of pulsating neon signs and a surreal skyline made up of the Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian pyramid, a Sphinx, the Statue of Liberty and an exploding volcano. Love it, loathe it, or both, Vegas is artificial and completely over the top, and you couldn’t get a greater contrast to the large scale natural attractions to follow.
Somewhere across the north-western Arizona state line, down Route 66 was the mother of all canyons – the Grand Canyon. Around 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and attaining a depth of over a mile, it took us two days hiking along the west rim, taking in the postcard views, and a strenuous descent into the canyon, past millions of years of glowing sedimentary rock, before we could even begin to comprehend it’s immensity.
Situated 230 miles east of the Grand Canyon and located within the Navajo Indian Reservation Lands, is Canyon de Chelly National Park, where we had our first glimpse into the world of the prehistoric pueblo people. The Navajo who now live here call them ‘the Anasazi – the ancient ones’. An easy hike leads down to the floor of the picturesque canyon and the Whitehouse pueblo ruins. Built against an overhang of canyon walls and surrounded by Navajo fields of maze, the Anasazi ruins are simply stunning. Why the Anasazi left their canyon homes long ago nobody knows, so the mystery still lingers today.
The days that followed epitomised the amazing diversity of experiences you can have on a RV tour of America’s Southwest. We examined dinosaur footprints alongside the highway, witnessed trees frozen to stone in the Petrified Forest National Park, and across the border in New Mexico, we visited the Indian pueblo village of Taos where adobe homes date back to the 1400s.
If there’s one place in America’s Southwest where there’s a tangible feeling of the past, then Chaco Culture National Historical Park in north-western New Mexico is it. Between roughly AD 900 and 1150, remote Chaco Canyon was a major centre of culture for the Ancient Pueblo Peoples. Today, dozens of ruins dot the windswept plains of this UNESCO World Heritage site, testifying to the centuries that the Chacoans lived here. Most impressive are the huge house complexes like D-shaped Pueblo Bonito, with its distinctive round ceremonial chambers called kivas.
From Chaco we headed the RV back into Arizona and hit Hwy 163 towards Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park – some of the most scenic driving of our entire journey. This most iconic and recognisable landscape of America’s ‘Wild West’ is home to the native Navajo Indians, and is also known for its red desert crowned with distinctive mesas and towering sandstone buttes. A 16-mile graded dirt road leads from the visitor centre and incorporates the key points of interest such as The Mittens, Three Sisters, John Ford’s Point, Totem Pole and Teardrop Arch.
Crossing over into Utah, our three-week RV trip was nearing an end, and Utah isn’t a state to run short of time in, with snow-capped mountains, timbered plateaus, rugged canyons, deep lakes and cactus-covered deserts at every turn. With heavy hearts we by-passed Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon to spend our last days in and around Arches National Park.
The gravity-defying wonders of rock formations have always sparked the human imagination, and Arches National Park with its 2,000 natural stone arches – the greatest density on earth – is the place to be if you want to be awed by simply amazing landscapes. Parking up the RV, we head off on the park’s signature three-mile return trail that leads to its main drawcard – spectacular Delicate Arch. Straddling a ridge of glowing red sandstone between an ancient pothole and a sheer cliff face, with panoramic views to the east over the snow-capped La Sal Mountains, Delicate Arch framed in the sweeping span of Frame Arch literally has the power of presence to stop us in your tracks. Its a superb grand finale to a simply amazing journey.