Nothing in the world, certainly no photograph, can prepare you for the reality of the Grand Canyon. It’s a great big hole in the world and if you haven’t seen it, stick it on your bucket list. There’s a fantastic drive, if you like that sort of thing, out of Las Vegas, heading east and across to New Mexico.
When you’ve gone as far east as you want, you can loop north and back west, taking in the Canyon as the last major event. You’ll have the drive of your life in four days (minimum). Or you might plan better than I did, not chancing that you’ll find a decent bed for the night at the last minute (I always did) or a decent diner (which I also did) wherever you are come dinner time. Whether you plan or not, you will certainly have a week (or two) to remember for the rest of your life.
If you’re a purist, you can still do some of it on Route 66, but I took Route 93 and hooked up to Interstate 40 (1-40). The first thing of note you’ll see after you leave Las Vegas is the Hoover Dam. After that, you’ll pass so many landmarks your head will spin.
For instance, you’ll go through many of the towns you know from the song, Route 66 – Kingsman, Winona, Flagstaff, Gallup, Amarillo. But you’ll also see The Painted Desert (north of I-40, on Route 77 for about 40 minutes) a geological marvel with layers of sandstone of varying colours The Painted Desert
including blues, reds and greens. The
Painted Desert is part of The Petrified Forest which is practically on I-40. Here you’ll see trees from millions of years ago, once buried and slowly fossilised until they turned to stone. You can buy beautifully polished or unpolished samples to take home (I bought 701bs weight 30 years ago and everything I brought back to England is still intact).
Best of all, though, on the way back west, you’ll find the Grand Canyon. First time I saw it, I wasn’t really looking for it. To be honest, I was pretty blasé. I’ve seen the pictures, I thought. How impressive can it be?
I was driving, unknowingly, along its southern rim, with no view because of the rocky terrain to my left. I came to a hairpin bend in the road and as I steered around it, the world to my right dropped away. So profound was my awe at this first sighting, I nearly lost control of the car. “Oh my God,” I said to my passengers, “there’s a great big hole in the world”. They didn’t respond. They were too busy staring open-mouthed.
The Canyon will be the highlight of any trip, but you’ll see so much more. If you’re an ET nut, a detour at the end, before you head back into Vegas, will take you to Area 51, the infamous ‘secret’ storage facility for evidence of extraterrestrial visitation to Planet Earth.
But for sight of an actual invasion from outer space, on your way east, look for Meteor Crator. An estimated 50,000 years ago a meteor collided with earth, creating a hole nearly 600ft deep, not to mention pushing up a rim that rises a further 150ft above ground level. It’s about six miles south of the I-40, after you pass through Flagstaff going east, before you reach Winslow.
By the time you make Albuquerque (oh yes! Route 66 is not the only song reference that will come to mind), you’ll have travelled through Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. But you might be better skipping Albuquerque and turning north out of Gallup on US 491. Two hours later you’ll be in four states at the same time.
The American habit of carving up states with a scalpel – straight lines and 90º angles for the most part – means that Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona all meet at a single point called Four Corners. As you can see (above) there’s a plaque where you can place a limb in all four states at the same time.
So if Albuquerque’s just a step too far, start your return journey from Four Corners. If you take the right road – Route 160 might be best – in under an hour, you’ll be just outside of Kayenta, Arizona. About 20 miles north on the 163 is Monument Valley, and you’re back in Utah. You’ll recognise Monument Valley from a thousand Western movies. Apart from the highway itself, it’s like stepping back in time (well, most of these places are!).
Then back to the 160 till it joins Highway 89 and south till you’re just past Cameron, and turn west onto Highway 64. I can’t swear to it, but this might be the road that provides the jaw-dropping view I describe above. Last time I visited the Grand Canyon, the approach from the south was very regimented, leading you directly to the commercial entrance. If you take the 64, you may not avoid that, but you should get your first views of the Canyon before being asked for your entrance fee.
On the way back from the Grand Canyon, another detour will take you to Area 51, the infamous ‘secret’ storage facility for evidence of extraterrestrial visitation to Planet Earth.
Although, for proof of an actual invasion from outer space, go to Meteor Crator, where an estimated 50,000 years ago a meteor collided with earth, creating a mile-wide hole nearly 600ft deep, not to mention pushing up a rim that rises a further 150ft above ground level. It’s about six miles south of the I-40, after you pass through Flagstaff going east, before you reach Winslow.
Driving in America is one of life’s great pleasures – as long as like driving, and you like the idea of America. Once you’re out of the cities or a great conurbation like Los Angeles (100 miles can take five hours) the driving is easy, if you’re in the right car. Don’t skimp, and certainly don’t hire anything without air-conditioning.
And take a map. No GPS can bring you the romance of names like Tuba City, Apache National Forest, Navajo Mountain or Black Rock.