Leaving Las Vegas: Road-tripping through America’s original Wild West

If you’re in sin city and looking for something closer to nature, do a freewheeling road trip into the sunset.

‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’. We’ve all heard that one but what you’ve probably not heard is that the best adventures happen outside Las Vegas, especially if you’re a restless wanderer. Get behind the wheel and you can drive in many directions from Vegas to arrive at some of America’s most stunning landscapes. The last time I did a solo road trip from Vegas, I kept improvising my travel itinerary on the go, almost like a lone ranger from the Wild West.

Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
John Wayne Point in Monument Valley is a popular stop. Image: Unsplash/Westwind Air Service.

Sunsets at Sedona

In August 1987, 5,000 people participated in Harmonic Convergence billed as the world’s first synchronised peace meditation event in Sedona. This Arizona town gained global prominence in the late 1960s for its vortexes believed to be ideal for meditation and healing. If esoteric healing is your scene, you’re likely to find plenty of energy here. Sedona has been a sacred site for America’s indigenous peoples for centuries.  My quest was simpler — a splendid Sedona sunset and I didn’t go home disappointed.

Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
The quality of light is everything. Image: Unsplash/aramgrigoryan.

I headed straight to the Airport Mesa Overlook Trail for ringside views. I’d also recommend making a trip further up to the upper parking lot that gives you an extra 30-metre elevation for even better views of Sedona’s stunning red sandstone formations as the sun goes down. Be prepared to meet the occasional spiritual seeker who is keen to get their quick download of Indian spiritual wisdom when they run into you on one of the trails. Make time to visit some of Sedona’s art galleries and hipster cafes.

Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
Sedona under the stars. Image: Unsplash/darrylbrian.

Plan: Sedona is 450 km (about 4.5 hours) away from Las Vegas. I timed my exit directly from the Las Vegas Airport car rental area for noon, it’s the perfect time to reach Sedona well before sunset. 

Create your own desktop backgrounds

Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
You can’t stop shooting pictures inside the amazing Antelope Canyon. Image: Aswin Rajagopalan.
Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
Lower Antelope Canyon is a dramatic backdrop. Image: Unsplash/Dani Garcia.

If you experience a sense of déjà vu when you’re in Antelope Canyon, it’s because you’ve seen these breath-taking light patterns on your Mac or Windows desktop. Also known by its Navajo name, Tse’bighanilini, which refers to the ‘place where water runs through rocks’, Antelope Canyon was formed over the course of hundreds of years of water running through Navajo sandstone. This destination has only been accessible via recognised tour operators who run tours fronted by Navajo guides since the late 1990s.

I set out around sunrise to reach Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon with two distinct sections — Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon. Late morning or noon is the ideal time for a one-hour tour that goes through the underground canyon sections that create breath-taking light patterns as the sun reflects off the canyon walls. One of the toughest decisions, especially when you’re on a tight schedule is to pick between Upper and Lower Canyon for your tour. I chose Lower Antelope Canyon (it’s not as busy as the climbs can be a tad steep for people with mobility limitations) and the images from my frenetic photography session continue to be my preferred desktop wallpapers.

Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
The fluid lines of sandstone carved out by water at Antelope Canyon. Image: Unsplash/heemin.

Plan: There are only two companies that do tours at Lower Antelope Canyon. I picked Dixie Tours. Get there an hour before your scheduled tour. The Light beams are better in Upper Antelope Canyon and only occur between May and October. It took me about two hours and 45 minutes to cover the 255 kms distance from Sedona. If you’re driving directly from Vegas, reserve 4.5 hours and leave Vegas by five am. I also managed a quick photo stop at Horseshoe Bend (15 minutes away from Lower Antelope Canyon) before reaching my final destination, Monument Valley, by lunch time. This is a unique horseshoe-shaped meander where the Colorado river encircles a rock formation.

Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
Horseshoe Bend is a mind-boggling sight! Image: Unsplash/jessicatuttle.

The money shot

Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
Monument Valley looks Photoshopped even without a single filter. Image: Unsplash/Marc Phillips.

You’re likely to experience multiple wow moments during a road trip that takes you through America’s original Wild West and yet there’s one image that defined my drive. In 1939 legendary Hollywood Director John Ford used Monument Valley as a filming location for Stagecoach that also became the launchpad for John Wayne, the most popular Western hero across generations.

The Navajo name for Monument Valley translates to ‘valley of the rocks’ and it’s essentially a cluster of numerous sandstone buttes (isolated hills with vertical sides and flat tops). The Valley is in the heart of Navajo Nation, the largest area (about 71,000 sq km) retained by a Native American tribe that cuts across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
The money shot is on Route 163. Image: Ashwin Rajagopalan.

I headed straight for the Visitors’ Centre and then paid the single access fee (USD 20) to hit the 27 km-long trail with 11 stops along a dusty road. I covered this in about three hours. You could do it at a more leisurely pace if you opt to stay the night at Monument Valley. The trail includes popular stops like the imposing Elephant Butte — one of the larger rock formations, the Three Sisters and John Ford Point, a sweeping view of this destination. But nothing beats the Monument Valley money shot. A 30-minute drive took me to the 13-mile marker along US 163. You will remember this Monument Valley panorama shot from Forrest Gump where Tom Hanks utters the film’s most famous lines: ‘I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now’.

Plan: It took me two hours to drive from Lower Antelope Canyon to Monument Valley. If you’re driving directly from Vegas, it’s about 6.5 hours (630 km). It’s five hours from the Phoenix airport. The View Hotel is the best address at Monument Valley with gorgeous views from the rooms.

First time in Vegas? Try and squeeze in a day trip

If you can’t make time for the drive to Monument Valley, you can still make time for a day trip to visit Zion National Park in Utah. The vast and never-ending landscapes along the Interstate-15 can be distracting if you’re behind the wheel. Zion is Utah’s oldest State Park and offers multiple hiking trails for the truly outdoorsy — the Subway hike, Angel’s Landing trail and Weeping Rock are among the most popular.

Usa, wild west, beyond vegas, usa travel
Zion National Park is perfect for a day’s getaway. Image: Ashwin Rajagopalan.

I opted to drive through and headed straight to the Floor of Valley Road a.k.a. the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. This nine-mile drive made my day, offering sweeping views of the park and numerous photo-ops. During the summer months (April-October), this drive is not open for private vehicles, visitors to the park have to jump on to shuttles. Many tour operators also include Bryce Canyon National Park, in Southern Utah, that is best known for its crimson-coloured hoodoos (spire-shaped rock formations) as part of a one-day trip. I packed both Zion and Bryce into a single day but wouldn’t recommend it for travellers who like to trek and take in the outdoors more leisurely.

Plan: Operators like Viator offer a full day small-group bus tour (about Rs 21,000) that combines Zion and Bryce. The bus departs from Vegas at 5.30 am and brings you back to your hotel around 10 pm.

Read more.

Luxury hotel designer Lenahan creates new concept for Wynn Las Vegas 

Planning a weekend getaway? These Google Maps tips ensure a smooth road trip!