The US Southwest: Colorful Canyons, Red Rocks, and Spicy Salsa

They call it “the pearl of the southwest” (the city of Santa Fe), in “the land of enchantment” (the state of New Mexico). Both, in my opinion, are still an understatement.

As a graduate student I lived many happy years in Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico. Even now, many years later, it still feels very much like home to me. And feeling a little “homesick”, last spring I decided to go back and spend a month there again. I still have several friends in Santa Fe, one of whom always tells me “mi casa es su casa“. So I took him up on that and installed myself in his comfortable guest room with a view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains.

A view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Santa Fe.

The first few days I took it easy, to recover from the jet-lag and get used to the thin air, as Santa Fe is situated at 7000ft/2100m altitude. I simply enjoyed walking around in the city center, which still retains its traditional adobe-style architecture and has an ever-present mix of both native indian and hispanic history. It certainly brought back many memories from when I lived here.

My good friend and host Charles Tichenor, a professional musician and accomplished writer, was just finishing up his semester of teaching at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. And as soon as his last classes were over, we took off on a week-long road trip through the US southwest. Our first stop was the Grand Canyon, in the state of Arizona.

Charles had never been there yet, and was utterly impressed. I have been here many times already, but still was equally impressed. Its sheer size (in all three dimensions), the ever changing colors, the out-of-this-world feeling it evokes, it’s hard to even really describe it. We just stood there, on the rim, and watched, without saying a word.

The Grand Canyon from the south rim.

The next day, while Charles went for a walk along the rim trail, I hiked down into the canyon along the Bright Angel trail. I went all the way to Plateau Point (6mi/10km, with 3000ft/950m elevation difference), from where you can see the Colorado River snaking its way through the canyon. Just imagine, it is the river that actually created this big ditch, over millions of years. But soon after this brief moment of contemplation I returned to the here & now, and prepared myself for the long walk back up to the rim.

A view of the Colorado River from Plateau Point.
A view of the Colorado River from Plateau Point.

[You can see more pictures from this hike with impressions of the Grand Canyon.]

After a good night sleep we got into the car again and drove to our next destination: Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah state border. Probably best known for its appearances in numerous commercials and wild-west movies, this is another place that simply defies words when trying to describe it. You just have to experience it for yourself. The red color of the rocks, which comes from oxidized iron (or, in other words, rust), almost gives the impression of being on the planet Mars.

A view of Monument Valley.
A view of Monument Valley.

The following day we drove the scenic route from Durango to Silverton, in the state of Colorado. Quite a dramatic change, from the red rocks of Monument Valley to the white snow (still abundantly present in spring) of the Colorado Rockies. Silverton, as its name suggests, is a former silver mining camp. With a population of just over 500, it is now a popular tourist attraction, especially because of the narrow gauge rail road that links it with Durango. Wandering around Silverton’s main street certainly makes you think you’ve gone a couple of centuries back in time.

From Colorado we headed back south into New Mexico for the final stop on our trip, Chama Canyon. Not comparable to the Grand Canyon in terms of size, but very impressive in its own way due to its colorful rock formations and remoteness. In fact, at the end of the road into this canyon there is a Benedictine monastery, appropriately called “Christ in the Desert”. Its location is so serene and perfect, if I would ever decide to become a monk, this is where I’d go. But regardless of the monks’ presence, I felt blessed anyway after such an enjoyable trip through the colorful US southwest.

Colorful rocks in Chama Canyon.
Colorful Chama Canyon.

Upon arrival back in Santa Fe, we went for a typical southwestern dinner, with the customary corn chips and spicy salsa as appetizer. And whereas most states in the US have their state bird and state flower, New Mexico also has a state question: “Red or green?” This refers to the kind of chili you want on your enchiladas: red, green, or both. Indeed, southwestern cuisine is just as colorful and delicious as its scenery. I’ll have green please…