Las Vegas by night

WHEN you touch down in Las Vegas, the temptations to wickedness start the second you get off the aircraft.

Every spare inch is given over to slot machines, blinking and flashing and occasionally coughing up coins. I had change in my pocket, but I looked straight ahead and I walked on by.

Twenty minutes later, at the wheel of a Ford Explorer, I was climbing out of Glitter Gulch, en route for the more tranquil charms of southern Utah.

A two-hour drive took me across the border and up onto the high desert plateau, where I spent the night, at the Best Western in St George. Southern Utah doesn’t have a lot of four and five-star properties, but there are plenty of decent three-stars by the highway, as well as the various park lodges.

First stop on my round-trip itinerary was Zion National Park. At the entrance gate, the ranger sold me a National Park Pass for $50. Since the pass is valid for 12 months and allows free entry to all national parks in the US, this seemed like good value. Even on a week-long visit, I’d be saving money.

Zion is a bit like Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, only longer, wider and about three times higher — I soon got a crick in my neck. Instead of cheese, most of the formations are named after characters from the Bible. Zion definitely inspires a sense of awe, akin to gazing up at a cathedral ceiling.

With my walking boots on I meant business, and set off to climb to Angel’s Landing. The higher I went, the steeper the steps grew. Before long I was walking a narrow path between towering cliffs.

On the final, exposed climb, I had to drag myself along with the help of chains hammered into the rock — not for vertigo-sufferers — but the view down along the canyon was worth all the palpitations. I also met some nice Mormon teenagers who asked if I was okay, and offered help getting back down.

I tried to convince myself they were just abiding by the conventions of their religion, but I couldn’t help feeling just a little old.

The open road

The Back on lower ground and with snow still blocking some of the higher routes, I took a southern loop through Arizona.

As I drove, the landscape rose into the distinctive red mesas and buttes familiar from western movies and Marlboro posters. The light was so clear that I was grateful for my sunglasses. I began to realise why cowboys have that Clint Eastwood squint.

For lunch I found a spot overlooking the turquoise waters of Lake Powell, which was made by damming the Colorado River, and later I got lost in the Navajo Nation. I’d meant to take a shortcut, and to visit something I’d noticed on my map: the Navajo National Monument.

Instead I spent three hours driving over sand roads without a single signpost. Only after a Navajo construction worker drew a map in my notebook did I find my way back across the Utah border to Monument Valley.

As natural wonders go, Monument Valley is high on the list. It’s been the setting for so many films. Wandering around it the next day, I couldn’t help pretending I was John Wayne on horseback, scanning the heights for an Indian ambush.

And even as I drove away, looking in the rear-view mirror, I had the impression I was in a road movie, on the run from the law. If only I could make it across that state line…

I did make it across the line, but only back into Utah for a final excursion to Moab, from where it’s easy to visit both Arches and Canyonlands National Park.

Arches is just outside town and has short walks to some of Utah’s landmark formations, such as Broken Arch and Double Arch. Canyonlands is more remote, an hour from Moab, but its  landscape of towers and canyons are more than worth the drive, and the hike.

The return drive to Vegas was a spectacular six-hour experience, cruising along empty highways fringed with snow. I came over the last desert ridge and rolled into Vegas just as darkness fell and the city lit up.

I still had some change in my pocket, and now I was ready for some (minor) sinning.

Hotel check – Gouldings Lodge, Arizona

Gouldings Lodge, ArizonaWhere is it? Just a stone’s throw north of the Arizona-Utah border, or a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Flagstaff (seven hours from Las Vegas), the Lodge is the closest accommodation to Monument Valley.
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What’s it like? It’s no oil painting, but the buildings are low-rise and compact and blend in well with the surrounding red rock landscape. Gouldings has 62 standard rooms and six suites.
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Sleep tight? Clean and comfortable, with a good-sized bathroom, cable TV, and DVD player. Best of all was the private balcony with its views of Monument Valley.
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Anything else? There’s a heated indoor swimming pool, which is exactly what you’ll need to ease tired calves and thighs after a day spent touring the wonders of Monument Valley. There’s a movie theatre showing Stagecoach, The Searchers, How the West Was Won, and other films shot in Monument Valley. There’s also a museum that mixes movie memorabilia with Navajo artefacts.
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Eat in or out? Out would mean a long drive (the nearest town is Kayenta, 25 miles to the south in Arizona so it’s better to eat in. The Stagecoach Dining Room has panoramic views, and serves decent American fare with the odd local twist (Navajo tacos anyone?
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Smiley service? Service was always courteous if not always with a smile. The staff includes a high proportion of local Navajo Indians, nearly all of whom were knowledgeable and informative.
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Recommend it? If you want to be close to Monument Valley, and to get into the park to beat the crowds, Gouldings Lodge is the only show in town. The place is comfortable and the food decent. If you want a little more luxury, there is a Best Western in Kayenta.

Total rating: 20/30

Sample product: For October 2006 departures, Complete North America offers a 10-night itinerary (including two nights at Gouldings Lodge) for £1,500 per person twin-share. The price includes return flights, taxes, mid-sized car rental and accommodation.

On the web:

Sample product

North American Travel Service offers a 16-day Classic West flydrive itinerary from Los Angeles to San Diego, taking in Palm Springs, the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon and Las Vegas. Prices start at £1,889 per person for October 2006 departures, including flights, car hire, and standard twin-share accommodation.

Insight Vacations has a six-night Enchanting Canyonlands package, flying into Scottsdale, Arizona and out of Las Vegas. Prices start at £1,470 per person in October, including flights, transfers, escorted coach travel, accommodation with breakfast and guided visits to the main attractions.

Complete North America’s 15-day Grand Canyon Country itinerary, including the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park and Monument Valley, leads in at £1,639 per person, including return flights to Phoenix, room-only accommodation and car hire.