The American Southwest is an incredible expanse of land, with a diverse landscape ranging from soaring mountains and rocky canyons to sweeping deserts and vast grasslands. It is a landscape of epic proportions and beautiful backdrops, a land made for driving through and for exploring. Car is the best way to see it; car hire in America is reasonably priced and easy to arrange, and the wide, open roads are welcoming to visitors.
The term American Southwest can be taken to encompass different regions. At the core are the states of New Mexico and Arizona, two states that border Mexico to the south and have a reputation in popular culture for being refuges for outlaws and other colourful characters. Historically they held important trade routes and the broader area was home to a large population of Native Americans. The American Southwest is also often taken to include Colorado, Utah and Nevada.
If you love incredible natural landscapes, you will not be disappointed in the Southwest. Arizona is home to the Grand Canyon, a spectacular landmark that movies cannot do justice to; nothing compares with seeing it in the flesh. Within its 277 miles of rocky cliffs, you can find a huge amount to do, from hiking, mountain biking or horse-riding to rafting or canoeing on the Colorado River. There are numerous tours available, whether on foot, by boat or even in the air; airplane tours offer sweeping views of the whole area, while helicopter tours are perfect for thrill-seekers.
The Grand Canyon, of course, is not Arizona’s only park. Monument Valley, located in the Navajo Nation, is a huge expanse of desert and shrubland, characterised by its distinctive mesas and beautiful sandstone towers, its dramatic lighting and surreal atmosphere. Many Hollywood films have been shot here. There’s also the Petrified Forest National Park, with its incredible fossilised wood, created when silica from volcanic ash made its made into fallen trees, gradually replacing the organic tissues with quartz crystals. You can also drive over the Hoover Dam, or take a tour if you have longer, to be awed at this incredible feat of construction and engineering.
In New Mexico, you can visit impressive canyon scenery at Bandelier National Monument, be awed at the underground cave systems of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, investigate archaeological ruins at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and explore the desert landscape of El Malpais National Monument. The Valles Caldera National Preserve is an enormous volcanic caldera that every spring comes ablaze with alpine wildflowers, while the incredible gypsum sand dune of White Sands National Monument has almost three hundred square miles of white sand.
New Mexico also has several Native American pueblo communities, many of which welcome visitors. It’s worth checking into museums such as the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque or the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe before visiting pueblos; bear in mind that visitors are not welcome at all pueblos and that various restrictions, such as no alcohol, apply.
Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to outdoor activities in rugged Colorado. Adventure sports abound, with opportunities for everything from skiing and dog-sledding to hiking, horse-riding and hot-air ballooning. You can learn to hunt or to rock-climb or go off-roading or mountain-biking along the many miles of Rocky Mountain trails. There are hot springs to relax in and rivers to raft along.
In Utah, you can visit the iconic National Parks of Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bruce Canyon and Zion, each with their own distinctive geological formations and natural scenery. Nevada, meanwhile, is largely made of up desert and semi-arid lands, a large proportion of which lies within the Mojave Desert, though there are also lush forests in the mountain ranges. Unusual activities include sandboarding in the Sand Mountain Recreation Area and heli-skiing on the Ruby Mountain peaks.
The Southwest has some amazing cities to explore, from the multicultural UNESCO Creative City of Santa Fe and historic Carson City to sunny Denver and picturesque Salt Lake City. Here you can check out contemporary art galleries, experience authentic cuisine and learn more the region’s history and culture.