America's Great Southwest

Winter 2006 CSANews Issue 57  |  Posted date : May 25, 2007.Back to list

The American Southwest encompasses a very large area. There are stories in every corner of this region, one of Mother Nature's true wonderlands. Where does one start to go and see and experience such a vast land? I guess the answer to that would be, "almost anywhere".

We flew to San Francisco. The best way to cover this city of hills is to take a Gray Line tour. In a morning or afternoon, you will see and learn about one of America's most fascinating places. Fisherman's Wharf is a must.

After enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere of pier 49, take a Red and White Boat cruise around the bay. Be sure to include Alcatraz, the high security prison that has become one of the most visited sites in the city. The audio tour alone is worth the price.

We stayed for a couple of days in the city by the bay (far too short a time), then rented a vehicle and drove down the coast to Monterey. We walked John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row," the old buildings now full of shops and restaurants. You could spend days at the famous Monterey Aquarium learning about sea life. This is no ordinary collection of fi sh. Crowd favourites include feeding time at the shark tank, and the sea otters that playfully accept their food from staff attendants.

There are remnants of the 1849 Gold Rush to be seen in California. The town of Columbia, near Sonora, has been reserved as an historic state park. Its City Hotel still operates with 19th-century furniture and décor, but with 21st-century amenities. A local thespian group stages live theatre productions in the Opera House. Then there is Bodie, just north of Mono Lake, named for prospector Steve Bodie. You can walk around the unpaved streets and look into the shops and homes that, in the 1850s, served a population of 10,000. The Mono Lake Inn, said to be one of the fi nest spots in the High Sierras, is operated by Sarah Adams, granddaughter of Ansel Adams, who became famous as a photographer of the old west.

Between Bodie and Sonora is the breath-taking expanse of Yosemite National Park. The Merced River flows through some of the most dramatic scenery imaginable. A drive to Glacier Point gives one an almost overwhelming view of the spectacular surroundings.

Within a few hours' drive, you can be in a completely different atmosphere. Death Valley National Park is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. At Badwater, you are 290 feet below sea level. The fl at lands of the desert are caked with calcium chloride, left by an inland sea millions of years ago. Surprisingly, at Furnace Creek, an 18- hole golf course has been established – a green oasis in the centre of desolation. The Furnace Creek Resort is a fine, up-scale property within the National Park. Death Valley could be an interesting day trip if you are staying in Las Vegas.

The entertainment capital of the world, Las Vegas, has been featured in major movies and numerous TV programs and needs no further examination here, except to say that this city which grew out of the meadows of Nevada has much to off er even the non-gambler. Hoover Dam and Lake Mead are just minutes away, and Red Rock Canyon to the north is decidedly photogenic.

Go beyond the cacophony and bright neon of the Las Vegas strip and head into southern Utah. In one day, you can experience more of nature's masterpieces. Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks and the Grand Escalante Staircase prove that if you have seen one canyon, you have definitely NOT seen them all. It is incredible that time and nature could create such beauty in the eye of virtually every beholder.

Complete the circle and enter the most spectacular of them all. The Grand Canyon is one of the world's seven wonders, a mile deep, with sheer walls that change colour from sunrise to sunset. The fast-fl owing Colorado River continues to work its magic on the canyon's floor. If you are up to the challenge, you can experience the thrill of rafting while viewing the massive gorge from the bottom up. Also, you could ride a sure-footed mule along a path from the south rim to the Phantom Ranch on the canyon's fl oor. BUT, be warned! You must reserve a mule a year in advance of your planned trip!

On your way back to Phoenix from Grand Canyon National Park, make a stop in Sedona, Arizona's "Red Rock City," nestled among more of nature's sculpted masterpieces. Uptown Sedona looks like a modern-day "old west town." Tlaquepaque is full of galleries and shops, and the ladies will enjoy the atmosphere of a typical upscale Mexican shopping centre.

There is much Mexican, Spanish and Native American influence in the Southwest. Place names are only the beginning. There is also the food (try some enchiladas and chimi chongas) and drink (they make some really good authentic Margueritas here). The Navajo, Apache and Hopi Indians will be pleased to meet you and off er their own special clothing and jewellery designs at stalls along the reservation roadways. Real turquoise and less expensive turquolita are available in rings, necklaces, pendants, belt buckles and beads by the pound.

And let's not forget the old wild west. If you have ever seen a cowboys-and- Indians movie (and who hasn't), you will want to see Tombstone (where men "died with their boots on") and climb to Boot Hill. Read the epitaphs on the graves of several names which you will recognize from seeing the movies. My favourite is Les Moore's: "Here lies Les Moore. One shot, no Les no Moore." The OK Corral is located in the centre of Tombstone and every day, there is a reenactment of the infamous shoot-out between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton gang. After the excitement, you should go the Big Nose Kate's saloon.

Tucson is home to the Sonora Desert Museum, an open-air facility containing an unbelievable number of plant species (yes, in the desert!) and many species of birds, animals, insects and reptiles. At an interesting presentation during our visit, I was allowed to let a tarantula walk across my hand. You can even try rattlesnake for lunch at some restaurants.

What you do in the great American Southwest depends upon where you base yourself. You can do many of these things by day-tripping from San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix or any other city centre. Or you might want to spread your winter vacation among several communities. Whatever you decide, there will always be more to experience than you have time for.

Pic 3: Fisherman's Wharf is one of San Francisco's most popular destinations.

Pic 4: Alcatraz Island was home to the infamous maximum security prison. Along with cellhouse tours, there are spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline.

Pic 5: View from Glacier Point, Yosemite