The US, like Australia, is a country best explored by car. We were keen to experience some desert landscapes to match those forever etched in Nick's imagination after watching old westerns as a teenager so we planned a route that would include Monument Valley on the Arizona / Utah border.
Like Australia, the distances are big but that's where the similarities end. We have driven across the middle of Australia from Steep Point in WA to Byron Bay, a trip that apart from a few major landmarks is made extraordinary by enormous flat expanses of desert. Its understated beauty lies in this wide open emptiness.
Taking a car trip in Arizona and Utah, on the Colorado Plateau, is the complete opposite. The scenery is grand with dramatic elevations in various shapes and every day we saw something new and different. There are more 'sights' than you can shake a stick at and we were often just as blown away by the striking scenery along the way, as by the places we visited.
The geology of the Colorado Plateau, nicknamed Red Rock Country, features amazing natural formations that require a whole new vocabulary; we learnt about hoodoos, mesas, buttes and spires. There is nothing subtle about the way the earth cracked along fault lines or how landmasses eroded or rose up around rivers turning them into canyons. It gets you thinking about how the earth was formed! But even if you don't care how these formations came to be, it's breathtaking.
For some of the way we followed the historic Route 66 used by early settlers and looking at the rugged scenery you can't help but imagine how tough it must have been. I have no idea how they made much progress travelling with horse and wagons or how desperate they would have felt when arriving at some ravine, river or canyon that would have been totally impassable without today's road network and bridges.
We got our first look at coloured rocks in Red Rock State Park in Sedona, Arizona. The town is located at the southern end of the plateau and driving south from Flagstaff the road descends 2600 ft via some tight hairpin bends with expansive views. Sedona is considered by some to be sacred due to a number of energy vortexes around town and walking along the river for a full view of Cathedral Rock the path is decorated with small stacks of balancing rocks. We also climbed Doe Mesa where you can walk around the top for a 360 view of the surrounding mountains.
Heading north from Sedona a few days later we stopped to see Sunset Crater with black lava fields and old "Pueblo" cliff dwellings. Later we took a break at Lake Powell on the enormous Colorado River. Arriving in Kanab, at the end of the day, we had seen such an abundance of sights that we felt sated, yet we still hadn't arrived at the two places we set out to see.
First up was Bryce Canyon which is an all-day outing, if not more. The hoodoos (sandstone columns) are some of the most photogenic rocks, especially against the blue desert sky. The park has several walking tracks and we hiked down below the rim where you walk through quiet and serene 'forests' of towering stone columns. From Kanab you can also explore a host of other national parks including Zion, the Pink Sand dunes or Grand Canyon's North Rim.
Next day we finally made our way to Navajo Country, home to Monument Valley. We stayed in Mexican Hat on the San Juan river and saved the actual Monument Valley drive until the next day. Approaching from the north you get the classic view - the straight road with the mountains in the background - seen in so many movies and photos. The massive monoliths are scattered over a huge area and driving amongst them we felt humbled and very small. The mesas (table tops) are the largest formations and as they weather and erode they become buttes and eventually spires. We drove for 3 hours, close enough to almost touch them. Their sheer size and majestic splendour more than lived up to expectations!