Vast. Breathtaking. Mysterious. Diverse. Hostile. Welcoming. Words alone cannot describe the wild beauty of the great American West. So heading to the USA and travelling these lands of natural wonders is a trip to do at least once in a lifetime…
Nevada, this vast rocky desert dotted with yuccas, hostile as a no man’s land, always surprises. And then, out of nowhere, appears the fest of neon, glitter and luxury that is Las Vegas, city of lights and extravagance.
Mesmerising region, Arizona is a kaleidoscope of people, arrived here in successful waves to try themselves in the vast lands, so harsh and yet so promising. It’s like the ghosts of the first pioneers still roam. A land of myths and adventure, Arizona is enchanting. Thick pinewood forests carved by deep ravines around Flagstaff, solitude of the Painted Desert, majesty of Lake Powell, almost supernatural dizzying cliffs of the Grand Canyon; a few of the bewitching images that await on the roads of Arizona.
In Utah, long roads cross the infinite desert. Large glowing plains carved with steep canyons; high mountains covered in forests where deer roam and skiers whizz on snowy slopes in the winter; the huge Powell Lake in the south, perfect for nautical sports, and the Great Salt Lake in the north… Then there’s the wonderful national parks (Bryce, Zion, Arches, Capital Reef, Canyonlands…) – a multitude of protected areas covering a good third of the state’s total surface.
Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming, was the first to bear the name of national park. It is unlike any other, and is a world marvel to see at least once in a lifetime. Its hundreds of geysers and crystal-clear lakes are breathtakingly beautiful. Stuck on its south slope, the Grand Teton park offers spectacular landscapes of mountains and snow-capped glaciers. Both host a unique wild fauna – heaven on earth for nature enthusiasts.
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDSCAPES
The parks of the American West stretch over a complex geographical area, mostly on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, integral part of the wide North American Cordillera which runs from Alaska to Mexico. It is the fruit of the collision started dozens of millions of years ago, between the Pacific tectonic plate and the North-American plate. The first slides under the second, which folds and rises, creating mountainous ranges.
Secondary phenomenon of lifting and collapsing have formed an interplay of chains, depressions and pools along a north-south axis. Enter then the forces of wind and water in a long erosion process.
From East to West, we come across:
The Rocky Mountains
They loom mainly in Wyoming (Absaroka Range) and Colorado (Front Range). Made of several more or less parallel chains, they are dotted with numerous snow-capped peaks overlooking torrents, lakes and valleys covered in conifers and prairies. The state of Colorado alone boasts over fifty peaks over 4000 meters (13 123 feet)!
The Rockies make their way through to New Mexico with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but become less imposing. They also occupy part of Utah (Wasatch Range).
Needless to say they constitute a colossal water reservoir and spawn numerous rivers that are essential for the ecology and economy of the country.
Inland plateaus and desert stretches
In the South West, the landscape radically changes. It is the land of plateaus and large, arid desert stretches. The Great Basin covers Nevada and the West of Utah. It is made of various depressions, including the famous Great Salt Lake and the Death Valley, who’s altitude descends to 86 meters under sea level.
The Colorado Plateau, stretched between Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, is undoubtedly the most famous. There lie numerous parks including Monument Valley, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, the Grand Canyon… Rivers have carved deep canyons in the plateau, revealing walls of red sandstone with surprising colour variations. Further south, from California to New Mexico, is a belt of deserts: Mojave, Sonora, Chihuahua, with its cactus “forests” near the Mexican border.
Finally, in the eastern part of California, from north to south, rises the Sierra Nevada, which constitutes a real barrier for precipitations coming from the Pacific; it peaks at 4 421 meters (14 504 feet) with Mount Whitney. Its very wet western slope irrigates the Central Valley; it is one of the richest agricultural areas of the country.
Travelling the American West
You’ll ideally want to plan at least 10 to 15 days to get a good glimpse of the American West, especially if you want to see all the classics! The best thing to do is fly into San Francisco and return from Los Angeles, renting a car in between. For good deals on flights book in advance or out of season (you don’t want to be in California in the July heat anyways!), and grab an Expedia Discount Code in the process.
As a general guideline, you can plan your trip this way: Arrive in San Francisco and visit for 2-3 days, then Yosemite (2 days), Death Valley (cross and night stay), Las Vegas (1 day), Zion (1 day), Bryce Canyon (2 days), Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon (2 days), Monument Valley (1 day), Grand Canyon (2 days), and of course to finish, spend 2-3 days in Los Angeles…