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MONUMENTAL MEMORIES; CARL JACKSON gets all Clint Eastwood as he visits some of the planet's most spectacular landscapes.

Byline: CARL JACKSON

Carl Jackson looks out from the Needles in Monument Valley VERYTHING is bigger in America isn't it? The cars, the roads. the plate sizes.

EBut the Canyon Country of the southwest provides a whole new meaning to the word scale, enough to make even those larger-than-life characters of the US left feeling awestruck.

I'm on one of Grand American Adventures' brand-new tours and one that lives up to their name emphatically.

Monument Valley, straddling the Utah and Arizona border, delivers the first taste of spectacular scenery on this journey.

Chances are if you've watched a Western you will have seen the wonders of this place from a television screen.

But up close they are another matter altogether.

Towering buttes and spires rise out of the desert to form impossible-looking rock structures, many with suitably grand names such as King on His Throne.

Others less so like The Camel or, as our American Indian guide Wayne refers to it, the Upside Down Snoopy.

You can either see the resemblances or you can't, but you are staggered by their grandeur all the same as you rattle around the dusty roads on the back of an open-topped truck.

The valley's most iconic structures are the West and East Mittens, named as such because well, they look like a pair of mittens.

The visitor centre offers a perfect viewpoint to capture them in a camera-phone snap or obligatory selfie. Make the effort to get there for sunrise and you'll be rewarded with the dramatic sight of the morning rays glinting past the magnificent silhouettes to cast a warm glow on the ground beneath.

But the most impressive aspect of this tribal park is that it remains the home of the Navajo, one of the largest native tribes in the United States.

Wayne takes our truck off the beaten track deep into the reservation, showing us the likes of Ear of the Wind and Big Hogan - both bizarre hole-shaped openings in the rocks.

At the latter he pulls out a hand-made drum and sings a traditional song which echoes around the naturally formed sandstone alcove.

It's a spiritual moment in this historical land.

Juxtapose that with glamorous tales such as the time Clint Eastwood was hoisted on top of The Totem Pole - a precariously thinlooking rock tower in the distance - for one of his many Westerns.

Our evening is rounded off eating Navajo-made tacos in the tribe's modest community centre. From there, it's onward to Moab, where thrills and more spectacular scenery await, but not before a brief detour into historic Bluff.

There, we learn the awe-inspiring journey of the pioneering Mormons who made the 200-mile trip from Escalante to establish the town of Bluff in the late 1800s.

They famously blasted and chiselled the 'Hole in the Rock' so wagons and horses could make the treacherous 1,300-foot descent from the cliff tops to the Colorado River. More than 200 families made it, with no deaths, while two babies were born on the gruelling expedition.

The tale certainly serves as added motivation during my own challenging hikes to come.

Speaking of which, Arches is the next destination and first national park on this intrepid road trip.

A 30-minute optional video at the visitor centre explains the science behind these strange creations.

There are more than 2,000 of them across the land but, unlike Monument Valley where the main attractions are visible from the car park, you must earn the right to see the poster-boy formations.

And that means taking on significant hikes.

Our group, including two 74-year-old men, heads out on a leisurely two-hour trek up the three-mile slope to Delicate Arch - but it's so worth it.

Eager photograph-hunters look like ants standing beneath the 60-foot tall freestanding structure which sits in view of the snowcapped Le Sal Mountains. But don't be fooled by its appearance on postcards; they don't do anywhere near enough justice to the perilous drops that lie in wait either side of it.

For less walking distance, the aptly named 'Devil's Garden' trail delivers equally spectacular arches, the most impressive of which is Landscape.

At 306-foot, it is the length of a football field and looks like a bridge built to traverse a mighty chasm.

But tragically it's also one of the park's most endangered formations. A trail which once took visitors up and under it has been closed since 1991 when weathering caused the arch to shed 180 tonnes of its bulk which crashed down to the ground below.

And that is the most poetic thing about the arches. The same process that creates them is the very same which will one day destroy them. Solitary pillars are merely the haunting ghosts of broken arches.

To the right of Landscape a comparative baby arch, named Partition, can be spotted but to get up to it requires more scrambling than walking as the trail is upgraded to 'difficult'.

And to go even further beyond, to the elusively hidden Double O arch, requires nerves of steel as you shimmy over a monumentally steep stone 'fin'.

Dare to look up and the view is spectacular.

If that wasn't enough to put the adventure in Grand American Adventures, then the next day's enterprise, venturing deep into the Needles district of the Canyonlands National Park makes sure. We're taken on an extreme 4x4 ride through the landscape up and down 45-degree rock slopes.

Think of those Top Gear specials venturing into the likes of Bolivia or Africa where roads haven't graced some parts and you'll get the idea.

Our brilliantly robust Lexus creaks and whines as it wrenches itself over the craggy terrain.

It's an exhilarating feeling to look out of the window knowing one false move could send you tumbling down a cliff, but we're in capable hands.

When the rollercoaster stops, we take in the surroundings. Needles is utterly other-worldly. A setting fit for giants. It has a humbling impact on a mere human.

With house-sized rocks strewn about as if by violent explosion and tall spires named after the Devil, it is a foreboding place.

The sight of an abandoned car, spotted two days earlier by our guide, is enough to cause alarm among park rangers. Every year this area claims the lives of those who nderestimate it or do not prepare properly. But it is a place to be respected rather than feared.

Adding to the allure is the presence of incredibly wellpreserved pictographs and petroglyphs painted or carved by native Americans thousands of years ago.

The Canyonlands are not without their own splendid vistas either. The Confluence, where the Colorado and Green river become one, and the aptly titled Island in the Sky are not to be missed, especially if you have mastered the panoramic feature on your smartphone by now.

No-one should leave Moab without checking out the extra activities on offer, ranging from a serene float ride along the Colorado River to canyoneering. The Rock Shop is also a must for anyone looking to pick up an unusual souvenir, a dinosaur femur for example.

The last leg of the tour takes in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. It's enough to take your breath away, literally, given you are driving through the clouds more than 8,000 feet above sea level. It's home to the incredible cliff dwellings built in the alcoves by the Ancestral Pueblo people around 800 years ago.

The jewel in the crown is Cliff Palace which to this day remains remarkably intact. It took three quarters of a century to construct, features around 150 rooms and was once inhabited by around 100 people. Yet historians are still not quite sure why they ever left.

The six-day trip is bookended by the charming mining town of Durango. You'll likely wake up to the sound of steam trains and be greeted by the sight of locals strolling around in denim jeans, leather jackets and cowboy hats. Cradled by Perins Peak and Smelter Mountain in the background, it has plenty of boutique restaurants, galleries and sports bars where you can catch a bit of baseball or American Football.

Grand memories indeed from Canyon country.

travel file | CARL JACKSON visited Canyon Country with Grand American Adventures.

| THE small group adventure specialist for 35 to 65-yearolds offers a six-day Canyon Country In-Depth tour from PS2,659 per person.

| PRICE includes five nights' accommodation (five hotel nights), five breakfasts, three dinners, activities as detailed in itinerary, a professional tour leader and private transport throughout with free Wi-Fi (maximum five users at one time). Maximum group size 13.

| VISIT grandamericanadven tures.com or call 0333 003 8245 for information.

Clint Eastwood was hoisted on top of The Totem Pole - a precariously thin-looking rock tower in the distance - for one of his many Westerns

CAPTION(S):

A Geronimo flag flies high

The Landscape Arch in Arches National Park

Carl beneath Delicate Arch
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 9, 2018
Words:1485
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