A vast expanse of stunning desert scenery, the Southwest is arguably the USA’s most spectacular region. For splendour and sheer scale, the landscape consistently defies belief – a glorious panoply of cliffs and canyons, buttes and mesas, carved from rocks of every imaginable colour, and enriched here by shimmering aspens and cottonwoods, there by cactuses and agaves.
Here are a few of our highlights from the new Rough Guide to Southwest USA.
1. Canyon de Chelly
Perhaps the most beautiful canyon in the entire Southwest, Canyon de Chelly is all the more extraordinary for its magnificent Ancestral Puebloan ruins.
© Anton Foltin/Shutterstock
2. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Taking a steam train up to the old Colorado mining town of Silverton is the perfect way to spend a day in the Rockies. The trains run between May and October, making up to three daily return trips along a spectacular route through the mountains that parallels the gorgeous San Juan Skyway.
3. Acoma Pueblo
The amazing Acoma Pueblo, 50 miles west of Albuquerque, encapsulates a thousand years of Native American history. Focused around the ancient village known as “Sky City”, atop a magnificent mesa, it has adapted to repeated waves of invaders while retaining its own strong identity.
4. Toroweap Overlook
This wide, rocky hilltop is a unique Grand Canyon overlook with an immediate visceral impact. The view may lack the usual buttes and pyramids or labyrinthine spurs and mesas, but tiptoe to the southern edge of the parking lot, and the ground suddenly drops 3000ft from your feet.
5. Saguaro National Park
Flanking Tucson to either side, the two-part Saguaro National Park offers visitors a rare and enthralling opportunity to stroll through desert “forests” of monumental, multi-limbed saguaro (pronounced sa-wah-row) cactuses.
© Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
6. White Sands National Monument
These knife-edge, snow-white dunes are hidden away in lonely southern New Mexico. Though their whiteness is beyond dispute, they’re not sand but fine gypsum, deposited on an ancient seabed 250 million years ago.
7. Monument Valley
Your first real-life glimpse of the silhouetted buttes of Monument Valley is a guaranteed heart-stopping moment. This classic Wild West landscape of stark sandstone buttes and forbidding pinnacles of rock, poking from an endless expanse of drifting red sands, has become an archetypal image.
8. Mesa Verde
If you’ve never understood all the fuss about “cliff dwellings”, the ancient remains in these Colorado canyons will make their appeal abundantly clear. It’s an astonishing place, so far off the beaten track that its extensive Ancestral Puebloan ruins remained unseen by outsiders until late in the nineteenth century.
The scene of Billy the Kid’s legendary exploits remains a lonesome frontier outpost. Though not strictly speaking a ghost town, this tiny settlement, 12 miles east of Capitan on Hwy-380, is a perfectly preserved Wild West scene.
10. Bryce Canyon
Few more freakish landscapes can exist than those confined within Bryce Canyon National Park. From the safety of the park’s rim road, visitors can gaze down upon a throng of red, yellow and orange pinnacles of rock, eating like the flames of a forest fire into the thickly wooded plateau.
11. Horseshoe Canyon
Remote Horseshoe Canyon is home to the most extraordinary rock art in North America. No one now knows the meaning of the mysterious, haunting figures that line the sandstone walls of the Great Gallery and they’re only accessible via a long desert hike.
12. Delicate Arch
The trail up to Utah’s symbol, an amazing free-standing natural arch, epitomises the wonder of the state’s wilderness parks. Oddly enough, its sturdy bow-legged form is not in fact all that delicate. It was originally called “Landscape Arch”, and swapped names due to a mapmaker’s mistake.
13. Zion National Park
Carved by the Virgin River into the red-rock country of southern Utah, Zion is the state’s most conventionally beautiful park. The lush oasis of Zion Canyon is the centrepiece of its soaring cliffs, riverine forests and cascading waterfalls.
14. Slot canyons
Ethereal, almost translucent, and often downright dangerous, these delicate hidden canyons attract daredevil devotees – try to see at least one, like Antelope Canyon or Peek-A-Boo Gulch.
15. Historic hotels
Narrow gauge railroad station in Durango © John S. Sfondilias/Shutterstock