USA, Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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The Southwest


The Southwestern desert states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada stretch from Texas to California, across an elemental landscape ranging from towering monoliths of red sandstone to snowcapped mountains, on a high desert plateau that repeatedly splits open to reveal yawning canyons. This overwhelming scenery is complemented by the emphatic presence of Native American cultures and the palpable legacy of America’s Wild West frontier.

Among the region’s earliest inhabitants were the Ancestral Puebloans. While their settlements and cliff palaces, abandoned seven centuries ago, are now evocative ruins, their descendants, the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and the Hopi in Arizona, still lead similar lifestyles. Arriving from the fourteenth century onwards and adopting local agricultural and craft techniques, the Navajo and the Apache appropriated vast tracts of territory, which they in turn were soon defending against European immigrants. The first such, in 1540, were Coronado’s Spanish explorers who spent two years fruitlessly searching for cities of gold. Sixty years later, Hispanic colonists founded New Mexico, an ill-defined province that extended into much of modern California and Colorado. Not until 1848 was the region forcibly taken over by the United States. Almost immediately, large numbers of outsiders began to pass through on their way to Gold Rush California.

Thereafter, violent confrontations increased between the US government and the Native Americans. The entire Navajo population was rounded up and forcibly removed to barren eastern New Mexico in 1864 (though they were soon allowed to return to northeastern Arizona), while the Apache, under warrior chiefs Cochise and Geronimo, fought extended battles with the US cavalry. Though the nominal intention was to open up lands to newly American settlers, few ever succeeded in extracting a living from this harsh terrain.

One exception were the Mormons, whose flight from persecution brought them by the late 1840s to the alkaline basin of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Through sheer hard work, they established what amounted to an independent country, with outlying communities all over the Southwest. They still constitute over sixty percent of Utah’s population and control the state’s government.

Each of the four Southwestern states remains distinct. New Mexico bears the most obvious traces of long-term settlement, the Native American pueblos of the north coexisting alongside former Spanish colonial towns like Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos. In Arizona, the history of the Wild West is more conspicuous, in towns such as Tombstone, site of the OK Corral. Over a third of the state belongs to Native American tribes, including the Apache, Hopi and Navajo; most live in the red-rock lands of the northeast, notably amid the splendour typified by the Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley.

The canyon country of northern Arizona – even the immense Grand Canyon – won’t prepare you for the uninhabited but compelling landscape of southern Utah, where Zion and Bryce canyons are the best known of a string of national parks and monuments. Moab, between majestic Canyonlands and surreal Arches in the east, is the top destination for outdoors enthusiasts. Nevada, on the other hand, is nothing short of desolate; gamblers are lured by the bright lights of Las Vegas, but away from the casinos there’s little to see or do.


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