Neon to nature: the USA's spectacular southwestern states

by Nick.Boulos

Not far from the glitz of Las Vegas are wild landscapes and dramatic natural wonders waiting to be explored

The south-western states of Utah and Arizona are home to some of the most jaw-dropping national parks in America. The Grand Canyon often hogs the headlines and, being so close to Vegas, basks in all the attention from daytrippers. Travelling a little further afield, however, reveals natural wonders that are often only appreciated by domestic visitors. With each offering different scenery and experiences, it’s difficult to know where to start - so let me take the burden off your shoulders…

Bryce Canyon National Park

It may be Utah’s smallest national park, but what Bryce lacks in size it makes up for with a stunning backdrop of pastel-coloured rock formations and hundreds of green pine trees. The vast collection of carved stone pinnacles – known as hoodoos – all come in wonderful shades of orange, pink and gold, and create a spectacle unrivalled by other scenic areas nearby.
The canyon itself became a national monument in 1923 and has been attracting crowds ever since. Popular with hikers, Bryce is best explored on foot, and the extensive range trails available mean there’s one to suit everybody. The free guided ranger walks add an educational twist to the proceedings and are a good way to learn more about the fascinating geology and history for the park. Alternatively, ride the free shuttle that stops at the many points of interest and lookouts along the way, including Sunset and Fairview Points.
Be warned, Bryce isn’t known for its nightlife. With the nearest cinema 90 minutes away and a major shortage of bars in the area, this is a place to visit for a little quiet time. Having said that, there’s not a celebrity-endorsed club in Vegas that can compete with the starry sky of Utah. Special astronomy programs are available and with officials claiming you can see 7,500 twinkling stars on a moonless night at Bryce, there’s little chance of an early night.
Where to stay
Best Western Ruby’s Inn is the most popular motel in town; its car park is often bursting with RVs belong to holidaying American families.

Zion National Park

Less than a two-hour drive from Las Vegas is Zion, a sanctuary of rugged sandstone peaks, narrow gorges and nearly 800 native plant species that would leave Mr Titchmarsh lost for words. There’s even the possibility of glimpsing the elusive mountain lions that stalk the 147,000 acres here. Located on the Colorado Plateau, the park was founded in 1909, making it Utah’s very first, and nowadays attracts around three million visitors a year.
The Virgin River meanders through Zion’s impressive cliffs - many of which reach heights of over half a mile. The geology of the canyon here dates back 200 millions years.  Like Bryce, there is a scenic drive option. Ninety-minute shuttle rides, operating between April and October, take in all the highlights along the way, including the Weeping Rock and the Temple of Sinawava, a colossal amphitheatre located at the very end of the drive.
Those who are fighting fit can take on the Angels Landing Trail that climbs 1,488feet. The five-mile hike, which takes around four hours to complete, passes by Scout Lookout, one of the best places for views of the canyon.
Where to stay
The Majestic View Lodge in the nearby town of Springdale. The outdoor pool, which overlooks the Zion’s cliffs, is the perfect place for an evening swim before the stars come out in force.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Ah, Monument Valley. There is no place that screams ‘Wild West’ quite as loud as this bold, red and unforgiving patch that straddles the Arizona and Utah border. The famous buttes and mesas – standing up to 1,000ft - dominate this otherwise desolate desert scene, just as they did in many a John Ford movie. Driving along the ruler-straight highway 163 is perhaps the best introduction to this iconic destination. Watching the dusty towers rise with every metre travelled, until they dwarf you on both sides, is a humbling experience.
It’s possible to explore the park at your own pace by driving the 17-mile dirt road track. This takes you to panoramic lookouts – stand at the edge, if you dare – and on to the valley floor for an altogether different perspective. Guided tours are, however, worth considering. Many areas of the valley are only permitted to official vehicles and the educated guides take great pleasure in showing off the area’s wildlife and tribal rock art. But for real wannabe cowboys, nothing but a horse riding adventure will do.
Where to stay
Don’t expect lavish comforts at Goulding’s Lodge Monument Valley, but what you will get is arguably one of the world’s greatest views from your bedroom window. Stephen Fry certainly thought so. He checked himself in and was left in awe at his surroundings.
Getting there
Virgin Atlantic flies direct from London Gatwick to Las Vegas.


A keen traveller from a young age, Nick first stepped on foreign soil aged four during a trip to Egypt: a few days that left a lasting impression. Now a freelance travel journalist based in London, his work has taken him across the world from the deserts of Namibia to the world's most active volcano and North America's only ice hotel. Among others, Nick has written for The Independent, Wanderlust, Sunday Times Travel magazine, Independent on Sunday, Daily Express and The Observer. His favourite places include: Bagan, Burma; Rio de Janeiro; New York City; Sonoma Valley, California and Wanaka, New Zealand