Bright Lights Trumped by Natural World; ClaireWalkergoes Onawhirlwindtour ofAmerica''smost Famouscanyons, Indianlandsand Nevada''s Las Vegas

Article excerpt

IHAD seen this neon wonderland in countless movies and TV shows, but my dazed expression was still all it took for the taxi driver to know this was my first encounter with Las Vegas in the flesh, as it were.

I was beginning and ending my grand American adventure in Sin City, taking in Route 66 and the mighty Grand Canyon; but before that, I'd be hiking my way through two other national parks and Monument Valley, Arizona, home to the Navajo people and location of countless Westerns.

Our first stop was Zion National Park, with its famous Angel's Landing peak 1,500ft above the valley floor. Popular it may be, but after one look at people scrambling up and down an almost vertical cliff face with nothing more than a single chain rope to guide them I wimped out, walking the West Rim route to a sun-soaked plateau and the perfect picnic spot.

The next morning we left Zion, climbing the Colorado Plateau in our coach to Bryce Canyon National Park - one of the most remarkable landscapes on earth.

Bryce is famed for its hoodoos - surreal rock spires in a kaleidoscope of colours that create forests made of stone, like something out of a George Lucas fantasy.

The walk around the rim gave plenty of photo opportunities, but getting in among the spires is the best way to appreciate the true scale, and fragility, of this bizarre landscape.

Each of the National Parks on the tour produces a free newspaper full of essential info, great maps - and some terrifying statistics.

There are mountain lions and black bears at Bryce, although your chances of seeing them are slim; no, here you're much more likely to be killed, or seriously injured, by falling off a cliff or being hit by lightning.

Back on the road we made a brief stop to admire Lake Powell and Glen Canyon, before arriving at Monument Valley.

Local guides offer jeep tours, providing a fascinating insight into Native American culture and the valley's colourful history.

We were also introduced to ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings), beautiful natural arches, traditional cedar flute music, and given some useful survival tips: "If your friend gets bitten by a rattle snake, don't try and suck the poison out like they do in the movies - you just end up with two dead bodies instead of one," said our guide jovially.

Then it was time to get our first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. At 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and over a mile deep, it really is impossible to comprehend the true scale of this wonder of the world. …