The Unrelenting Beauty of the American Southwest

Will McGough eats world travel, with a side of wide-ranging adventure, for breakfast.

Editor’s Note: Will McGough eats world travel, with a side of wide-ranging adventure, for breakfast. But one of his favorite spots is in the American West’s backyard.

Six months ago, a group of friends asked me to rattle off some of my favorite hiking regions in the States. I told them I had a lot of good memories from Hawaii, and that California and Colorado had amazed me on more than one occasion. But if I had to pick one place that has surprised me the most, it would definitely be the Southwest, specifically central and northern Arizona.

They all looked at me. Arizona — a.k.a. the desert — was not the answer they were expecting.

I was not surprised by their skepticism. I took a while to come around on Arizona myself. The first time I saw the state was during a cross-country drive from New Jersey to California. I stopped in Tucson for the night, and I remember it being over 100 degrees at midnight. I continued west the next day, driving for hours across barren landscape, hanging T-shirts from the windows to block the relentless sun. I didn’t think much about it: just “Good riddance Arizona, hello California.”

Then, about a year later, my friends and I took a trip to the Grand Canyon, and that was all she wrote. My impressions, expectations, and assumptions of the past year were all changed the minute I walked up and peered down over the South Rim. I had to see more.

The landscape of the entire Colorado Plateau is so unique that only one place in the world, Central Australia, comes even close to comparing.

I have become somewhat of a Southwest fanatic ever since. I’ve camped in the Grand Canyon, hiked Sedona, walked beneath the towering buttes of Monument Valley, trekked through Snow Canyon, and explored the hills around Santa Fe, our country’s highest-elevated state capital. I can’t get over the landscapes; they are simply unlike anything I have ever experienced anywhere else.

But whenever I told anyone about this who had never been, they rolled their eyes. Perhaps the ultimate reason behind people’s lack of appreciation for the Southwest is because there is truth to the stereotypes (it’s hot, water is scarce); perhaps it’s because so few people grow up with the region’s unique features. For 99 percent of the population in the States, hiking and camping are associated with “mountains” covered with trees, flowing rivers, and alpine lakes, be they in Appalachia or the Rockies or the Upper Peninsula. The first thing that comes to mind when you say “Arizona” isn’t canyons, buttes, and cacti. Hell, they don’t even think of the Grand Canyon. They think hot, dry, lifeless. They don’t realize that they are missing out on one of the most unique places our planet has to offer.

And that’s not my own personal bias. The northern half of Arizona — which includes Sedona (just barely), the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley — makes up a significant portion of the Colorado Plateau, an area that geologists consider to be one of a kind. Sprawling a total of 130,000 square miles, it covers the “four corners” area of Southern Utah, Western Colorado, Northern Arizona and Northeast New Mexico and contains an unbelievable 10 national parks within its borders. Many of these parks, especially the five found in Southern Utah, share common features with Northern Arizona, like natural bridges, slot canyons and domes.

Dr. Stephen J. Reynolds, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, said that while the “red rocks” that make up the terrain of Northern Arizona and Southern Utah exist all over the world, they are not nearly as visible or dramatic as they are on the Plateau because they are usually covered by the earth, and it is this distinction that sets it apart. Arizona and Utah’s dry climate — usually thought of as a downside — is actually what allows the red rock terrain to take center stage.

“The main reason [the Colorado Plateau is so unique] is the region’s dryness, which lets the rocks be so well exposed without being covered by soil and vegetation”, Reynolds said. “Another important aspect is that the region has been fairly recently uplifted [over the last 60 million years], and that has allowed rivers to cut down into the landscape and expose a wide range and number of layers.”

The landscape of the entire Colorado Plateau is so unique that only one place in the world, Central Australia, comes even close to comparing, Reynolds said.

“Central Australia has some components [of the Colorado Plateau]”, he said. “There’s a lot of a familiar stuff. It has sparse vegetation, and it is sparsely populated and dry, but it doesn’t have as many of the flatline layers, buttes, and cliffs. The Colorado Plateau is a unique place, period.”

One day, more people will realize just how lucky we are to have the Plateau within our country’s borders, and the perceptions of Arizona and Utah will change as they begin to appreciate the unique landscapes and ecosystems, when they get around to seeing firsthand the color of the Havasu River, when they walk the sliderock surrounding Mitten Ridge, when they stand in the shadow of Monument Valley. When I’m in the Southwest today, I am fully aware that I am exploring a place like no other on Earth, that the natural features I’m seeing aren’t being experienced by anyone anywhere else. That’s something that you simply have to comprehend in the moment to understand how special it feels. The recognition also brings up an ironic aspect of today’s travel industry, which often touts traveling into remote regions for one-of-a-kind experiences. Funny, then, that so few realize the most unique outdoor environment sits right here in our own backyard, and all it takes is a short flight to Phoenix.

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