Take to the road in Southwest USA, where you can explore incredible natural landscapes, hit the casinos in Las Vegas, then retire with your winnings to the classic glamour of Palm Springs.
Silverton, San Juan Mountains: Best for the Wild West
Fly into Denver, then drive for 6 hours through some truly epic mountain scenery
Silverton is a town with barely two paved streets to string together, hidden amid the peaks of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Dwarfed by monstrous wooded slopes, which begin their ascent to the skies mere metres from the street, this hamlet of wooden hotels and saloon bars doesn’t feel like a seething cesspit of debauchery. But it is just 60 years since little Silverton was at the forefront of the Wild West when, percentage-wise, it made today’s infamous cities of sin, Las Vegas and Bangkok, look like paragons of virtue.
The late 1800s saw scores of men arriving here to prospect for silver and gold. The earth was so abundant with mineral riches that the pass linking the new mining towns of Ouray, Silverton and Durango was nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway – not for its eye-popping views over the forested gorge, but after the subterranean jackpot every man was hoping to hit. With the miners came those who made a living by providing “entertainment” for their nights above ground.
So it was that up until the 1950s, a visitor to Silverton had a 50/50 chance the first building they wandered into would be a brothel. Literally half the town – Notorious Blair Street, as it’s still known – was dedicated to bordellos. The other half, centred around the parallel Greene Street, completed the binary of Wild West morality with long lines of churches and chapels.
The first bordello was a one-room wooden shack, split by a curtain into a “private” back room and a drinking den up front. It is now home to Professor Shutterbug’s Olde Tyme Portrait Parlour, where tourists can have sepia photos taken dressed in Wild West garb. Tommy Wipf set up the studio in 1973. He is a reserved man with a handlebar moustache to rival any in this, the capital of handlebar moustaches. “This was a good ol’ street,” he says, eyes darting towards the Shady Lady Saloon opposite. “Three blocks of whorehouses, 120 girls giving it their all. There were hangings and shootings on every corner – just a regular Western town.”
Silverton has inevitably lost its rough edges – the last brothel shut in 1953, the final mine in 1991. But the old edge-of-the-world feel can be conjured up with a drive past the ghost town ruins of former mines scattered along the pass. Rusted wheels stand silent, gap-toothed wooden houses are half-collapsed: the rotten shards of a thousand dreams of riches. The isolation here must have been overwhelming – topped only by the insatiable desire to keep digging for the next life-changing.
Where to eat
Stellar Bakery offers great pizza and friendly service (mains from £8; 00 1 970 387 9940).
Where to stay: The Teller House Hotel
The Teller House Hotel dates from 1896 and has kept its Victorian/Wild West hybrid character with period décor, wooden furniture and views across the mountains (from £55).
Visit silvertonhistoricsociety.org to learn more about the town's past.
Monument Valley: Best for the Navajo Nation
From Silverton, take a 4 1/2-hour drive along the US-160
There is a point on the drive from Colorado to Monument Valley in Utah where it becomes clear that here, the skin of modern America has been rubbed red raw. Every vestige has been stripped away with such ferocity that nothing remains but the dusty flesh of the earth. It’s as if the land itself has been turned inside out.
Colour here comes in the most primal of shades: blood red, sunburnt orange, deep purple. On either side of the road – the sole reminder that we are not deep in prehistory – gnarled rock figures disappear into the horizon. Ridges circle their bases like the rings of a tree, rising up to ragged red fingers or sandblasted outcrops silhouetted against a sky so blue it hurts.
Keep driving and the road begins to straighten up and out, until there on the horizon stands the trio of monoliths – the East and West Mittens, Merrick Butte – that are the showstopping introduction to one of the USA’s definitive landscapes. Monument Valley plays a crucial role in America’s founding myth as a pioneer nation, topographical shorthand for the peculiar bravado, bloodlust and wide-brimmed hats that conquered this immense land. Thanks to any number of Western movies, and even Forrest Gump, every director knows that a shot of the sun alighting upon these towering brutes will get the heart of any redblooded patriot beating faster.
The irony of this is, of course, that Monument Valley is at the centre of the Navajo Nation, the largest indigenous reservation in the USA. The history here isn’t exactly “God Bless America” pretty. In 1864, the US government forced the Navajo from their reservation at gunpoint, an event known as the Long Walk. They were eventually allowed to return to their land four years later.
Monument Valley is a place of sacred significance to the Navajo, but inevitably tourism is the main source of income. It’s almost impossible to walk along a trail without tripping over a Navajo offering horseback rides, turquoise-studded jewellery or jeep tours. But the best way to experience the Navajo lifestyle is by an overnight stay in a hogan, the mound-like earth huts that are their traditional home.
Visitors stay in a “female” hogan, held up by nine wooden pillars, representing the nine months of pregnancy, with a stove in the centre emitting smoke through a circular hole in the roof. Lead guide Carlos Mose (who also doubles as a drummer in a metal band – “We sing about Native issues, broken treaties, things like that,” he tells me) explains the revitalising effects of a night in a hogan: “Each morning, it’s like being reborn out of your mother’s belly – a fresh start, a new beginning.”
The meanings of different parts of the hogan are echoed in Monument Valley itself. Carlos points out the Rain God and Thunderbird Mesas, two table mountains facing the east that mimic the doorway. “And there are the Grandfather Gods, the rocks who receive our offerings,” he explains. “The lifeway – how to distinguish right and wrong – is symbolised in the hogan and Monument Valley. We are the stewards of this land, but the land is our protector and guide too.”
When morning comes, Carlos’s words have a ring of truth. Exiting a hogan really does feel like rising from the earth itself – just for a while, it’s possible to become an integral part of this primal land too.
Where to eat
Visit either the restaurant at The View or Goulding's Lodge. The latter is a good option: the steak and eggs certainly hit the spot (from £8).
Where to stay: The View Hotel
Opened in 2008, The View Hotel is the only hotel in Monument Valley. It blends in beautifully with the landscape, and the spectacle of the buttes as viewed from its rooms is incredible (from £100).
To book overnight hogan stays, see trailhandlertours.com (from £100).
Grand Canyon: Best for escape
From Monument Valley, drive 3 1/2 hours on US-60 and AZ-64
Archimedes Natkie is not only the bearer of the best name on his side of the Atlantic, he is also a man who has perfected the art of isolation. For the past two years, 25-year-old Archimedes has lived in a place so submerged, the rain evaporates before it can reach the ground – the bottom of the Grand Canyon. “Living down here is a bit like being in a monastery,” he says. “There’s so much space and time to think. You can get away from every distraction. I do struggle to remember how to drive when I go back up though!”
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.
Like Colorado’s mining ghost towns, there is something spectral about the way this city rises from the haze of the Nevada desert, a mirage of suspended morality and taste. And the architecture of the Strip is just as illusory – a planet-load of simulated landmarks jammed together within yards of each other: the Eiffel Tower bumping heads with the Statue of Liberty, the Bridge of Sighs overlooking classical pillars from the Roman Empire. Even the cavernous casinos themselves – battalions of slot machines, endless rows of felt-topped card and craps tables, high-heeled waitresses dishing out watered-down whiskey to bleary-eyed gamblers – are ephemeral. Once an ageing casino’s time is up, little time is wasted before it is lined with dynamite and imploded; this is a town obsessed only with the eternal “now”.
But Las Vegas is building up history whether it likes it or not, and the place to find it is at the Neon Museum. Not far from Fremont Street, once Vegas’s main drag and home of famous winking cowboy sign Vegas Vic, the museum was set up in 1996 to save the icons of Vegas’s past. Starting out with just eight signs, it is now piled high with gigantic words and letters of every colour and style. A huge grinning skull lies beneath a massive silver slipper, a giant leprechaun rests against a three metre-tall palm tree. The entire sign of the old Stardust casino, each jagged red letter weighing 450 kilos, leans against a wall.
Danielle Kelly is operations manager at the museum. She has seen first-hand the emotional connection many visitors have to the old signs. “This is a place of projection for people’s memories,” she explains. “Perhaps a particular sign will remind someone of a picture they have of their grandfather standing in front of that casino. These signs are cultural icons embedded with thousands of intimate memories.”
Another place loaded with recollection is the Graceland Wedding Chapel, a small, baby-blue building staffed by no fewer than five Elvises – or Multi Elvii, as they are referred to here. Vegas weddings have a reputation for being drunken, shotgun-style affairs, much regretted in the morning – but there is a real charm to these ceremonies. Elvis, aka former opera singer Jeff Stanilus, resplendent in a black sequined jumpsuit, shimmies down the aisle belting out Love Me Tender, arm in arm with the bride. He has the couple repeat some Elvis-flavoured vows (“I’ll always love you tender. I’ll never have a suspicious mind. I’ll always be a hunka-hunka burning love.”). And then it’s over. The couple are politely shepherded out – preparations have to made for the next wedding party, due in 10 minutes. “This is the most fun job,” says receptionist-cumusher Deb McGroarty as she prepares a lei for the next Blue Hawaii-themed ceremony. “Elvis is our boss – how bad can that be?”
Where to eat
The best burgers in town are to be found at Mandalay Bay – toppings include lobster and truffles (from £5).
Where to stay: Aria Hotel
Most hotels on the Strip are of a similar high standard, with staff catering to every whim and the layout always ensuring you walk through the casino. The Aria has views over the Strip, luxurious rooms, a lovely pool and Elvis-themed Cirque du Soleil shows in the evening (from £80).
Neon Museum tours cost £10 and must be booked in advance. For happy couples, weddings at the Graceland Wedding Chapel start at £125
Palm Springs: Best for architecture
From Vegas, take a 4 1/2-hour drive on the I-15 into the desert
When Elvis needed to leave the Vegas madness behind for a while, it was to Palm Springs that he escaped. Just across the Californian border, Palm Springs is another desert city, baking in the small flatland between four mountain ranges. Compared with the showmanship of Vegas, Palm Springs is more private. Rows of walled-off houses and small hotel complexes, most with a deliciously inviting pool just visible through a gate, testify to a place that takes its undisturbed leisure very seriously.
This penchant for privacy started in the 1950s, when scores of Hollywood stars and singers turned the place into a sort of Tinseltown-on-tour. Many were on studio contracts that forbade them from being further than a day’s drive from LA in case they were needed for shooting; Palm Springs was just far enough away for a real retreat, but near enough should a director call. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra made this their home at different points in their lives.
There remains a faded but tangible sense of mid-century glamour. Palm Springs’s desert location was a blank canvas for architects after WWII. It was fashionable for those moving to the city to commission boundary-smashing modernist houses with long, straight lines, jutting overhangs and sleek walkways – true machines for living. Most still look as futuristic as they must have in the 1950s, and after seeing a few blocks, it is hard not to feel like a character in a David Hockney painting. Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House gets the most plaudits, but the A-framed abode where Elvis and Priscilla spent their honeymoon is just as impressive – like a rocket about to take off.
Unlike the architecture, many characters from Palm Springs’s prime have drunk their last martini. But at Johnny Costa’s Ristorante, there is still a link to the Rat Pack era. Johnny’s a grizzled 80-year-old Italian- American who, since 1977, has provided Palm Springs with what must be the finest foccacia anywhere outside of the Old Country; in the 1980s, Sinatra used to come to the restaurant where Johnny worked.
"He was a bit of a big shot," says Johnny in his thick, Italy-via-New Jersey drawl. “Normally, I cooked for him, but one time, when I wasn’t working, he ordered his usual linguine and clams, took one bite and then threw the plate at the wall. From then on, I had to be there every time he came in.” Frank liked Johnny’s cooking so much he employed him as his personal chef at home for two years. His speciality was what is known as Steak Sinatra on today’s menu – steak with onions and peppers.
Johnny remembers when Palm Springs still had sand on the roads, the desert encroaching much more than it does today. “But then Sinatra died; the old mafia guys who came in, the Rat Pack – all dead. But you just have to meet new people, make a new family.” Things move on, even in a place as suspended in time as this.
Where to eat
See why Sinatra loved Johnny's cooking by ordering Steak Sinatra at his restaurant (from £10).
Where to stay: Orbit In
The Orbit In, together with its sister motel The Hideaway, is a slice of classic Palm Springs glamour. The rooms, which surround a pool, are kitted out with genuine 1950s equipment and the complimentary Orbitini cocktails, served at sundown, will have you thinking you are Clark Gable (from £80).
If Robert Imber's tours don't inspire a love for modernist architecture, nothing will (from £47; firstname.lastname@example.org).
The article 'The perfect trip: Southwest USA' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.