The perfect trip: Southwest USA
It is a delicious paradox that perhaps the best place to get away from the omnipresent stimulation of modern America is at the heart of one of its most popular tourist attractions. Like Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon is a totemic American landscape, a preposterously huge chasm that seems to open up from nowhere. It is a sight that needs to be unwrapped piece by piece. The view from the rim is sensational – chiselled cliffs of red- and orange-streaked rock rising out of the abyss like pyramids – but it is only after leaving the brink behind and descending one of the canyon trails that the true majesty of this place emerges.
There are two ways of getting down. One is by hitching a ride on the packs of mules bringing supplies to those, like Archimedes, who work at Phantom Ranch, a collection of wooden chalets at the base of the canyon. The other is to hike – a more tiring but ultimately much more satisfying option that is likely to be less painful on the backside.
Walking down into the canyon is like becoming a character in a “platformer” video game, working from level to level with different backgrounds for each one. First up is the switchback level, the red earth tracks zigzagging steeply through the clifftops. Next, the Indian Garden, an intensely green oasis of bright flowers and cacti lining a stream – this is the “bottom” of the canyon to those watching from above.
For those trekking, next come the secretive lower sections. First, the rock creases up into long slabs of concertinaed cliff before opening out into a huge granite-grey gorge, which takes any sound and echoes it into a feedback loop: shouts fade and return seconds later in irregular jumps. Keep on walking – knees aching now – and the rocks take on a Cubist quality, the sun highlighting multiple angles at once.
Finally, the roar of the Colorado River comes into earshot and a tempestuous rush of mint-green water races through the nadir of the canyon. An encounter with the river would be a powerful experience at the best of times; that it is available only to those who have sacrificed their knees for it elevates it to a higher plane – even when you know that you have to do it all again, in reverse, tomorrow.
Where to eat
The breakfast burritos at El Tovar Dining Room are superb and its evening menu offers good steaks (mains from £12; grandcanyonlodges.com).
Where to stay: Phantom Ranch
Phantom Ranch, located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, gets booked up months in advance. Its beds are bunks in simple wooden chalets. In the evening, there are two sittings for the “hiker’s stew”, wherein you will take a seat and eat alongside fellow hikers, family-style (from £26).
The best introductory route is the Bright Angel Trail (7 hours each way). Overnight mule rides start at £300.
Las Vegas: Best for bright lights
Drive for 5 hours from the Grand Canyon on I-40 and US-93
Las Vegas is barely 250 miles from Phantom Ranch – a blink of an eye in US road trip terms. But pluck someone from the isolated reaches of the Grand Canyon and drop them off in the eye of the Vegas storm at 11pm on a Saturday night, and the idea that this is even the same planet, let alone country, would seem far-fetched. Las Vegas Strip is nothing so much as Times Square squared – a hallucination of LCD screens, blaring speakers, skyscraping fountains and paid street teams known as “porn slappers” thwacking packs of prostitutes’ callingcards against their palms in an effort to hand them out to passers-by.