Monumental battle of the Titans

Soaring spires, plunging canyons, backdrops straight from a John Wayne western — Utah and Arizona have it all, writes Ute Junker.

If you like Big Stuff, there's no better place to get your fix than the south-western US, where over the millennia, natural forces have sculpted a range of magnificent landscapes across Utah and Arizona. From narrow slot canyons and canyons filled with spiky, needle-like formations, to solid mesas and buttes sprouting from otherwise featureless plains, the area is filled with landscapes that look like they belong on another planet. But is the biggest really the best? We test-drive five must-visit monuments to see how they measure up.

Big red: Zion National Park, Utah

Love it for Soaring red rocks, hanging gardens and ancient rain showers.

What's big about it Plenty of pilgrims visit this park named after the Hebrews' promised land: 3 million a year, making this Utah's most popular national park.

The biggest attraction in the 590 square kilometre park is Zion Canyon, 24 kilometres long and up to 800 metres deep in places. Running through the centre of the canyon is the tranquil Virgin River. It's hard to believe this small stream has shaped this landscape, but when the Virgin floods, it really floods. Driven by the river's steep descent - it drops more than 20 metres in height for every 1.5 kilometres it travels - 300,000 tonnes of water a second rush through, carrying more than a million tonnes of sediment a year and scouring the surrounding areas.

How to explore it A large array of short walks let you explore the park's varied landscapes, from the white peaks of Navajo sandstone to the darker layer of Kayenta mudstone in which dinosaur tracks can be found.

For great views without too much exertion, try the Kayenta Trail. After taking a footbridge across the Virgin River, you follow a dirt path that slopes gently uphill, giving you glorious views of the river's lazy curves, the dense stands of trees and the soaring canyon walls. The trail culminates at the Upper Emerald Pool, a less thrilling sight than the name suggests.

An even easier option is the Riverside Walk, a 3.5-kilometre round trip on a cement path that follows the Virgin River along the bottom of the canyon. If you're fit, you can continue on to the Narrows, one of the park's signature hikes. This spectacular hike takes you through a narrow gorge with soaring walls. Be aware that most of the time you'll be walking in the river itself, so you'll need appropriate footwear - the rocks on the river bottom can be slippery.

Wow factor For bang for your buck, you can't beat the walk to the Weeping Wall, also known as Weeping Rock. It's a short but steep paved path to a cliff with water pouring through it. The water raining down on you is actual rain that has pooled on top of sandstone cliffs and slowly sunk through until it reaches a layer of non-porous rock, which forces it out. It's awe-inspiring to think that you're being showered by water that fell from the sky 1200 years ago - that's the estimated length of time it takes for water to pass through the rock. The constant moisture has also created pretty hanging gardens on the cliff face.

Rock star: Bryce Canyon, Utah

Love it for An utterly surreal landscape.

What's big about it Its impact. For sheer spectacle, nothing compares to your first glimpse of Bryce Canyon and the army of hoodoos it contains - skinny spires of rock that jut up from a series of natural amphitheatres. There are thousands of them right throughout the park, ranging in size from two metres to 45 metres - that's higher than a 10-storey building. The hoodoos vary in colour from brown, pink and red to yellow and even purple, depending on the mineral content in the stone. Even after the sun sets, Bryce Canyon is worth a visit.

It has one of the darkest skies in North America, making it a great place for stargazing. In large cities, only a few dozen stars are usually visible; even further afield, you'll rarely see more than 2000 stars. In Bryce Canyon, they say about 7500 stars can be seen with the naked eye. We're taking that on trust.

How to explore it The most popular viewpoints in the park are from the rim of the 19-kilometre-long Bryce Amphitheatre. The park runs a shuttle bus to the main viewpoints, including Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce points, or you can follow the rim trail, an easy paved path that connects the overlooks. The entire rim trail covers 17 kilometres, but you can hike until you get tired, then hop on a shuttle bus.

While many visitors begin and end their visit at Bryce Amphitheatre, there's a lot more to see. Hop in your car to explore the park's 29-kilometre scenic drive, which has 14 viewpoints, all offering magnificent views of hoodoos, natural bridges and other formations. On clear days, you can see more than 160 kilometres.

Wow factor A hike into Bryce Amphitheatre is an entirely surreal experience - it feels like you're exploring a different planet. You walk on sandy red soil, past twisted rocks, through holes carved in mammoth rocks soaring above you, past Ponderosa pines, an improbable green amid the still red landscape. Follow the Queen's Garden trail down, then join the Navajo Loop coming back up. You'll descend 900 metres into the canyon, before heading back up, but the trails are gradual and can be done by anyone of moderate fitness. Allow between two and three hours for the hike.

Spiritual retreat: Monument Valley, Arizona

Love it for Its quiet spirituality.

What's big about it The phrase "bigger than Texas" was coined for the sort of views you find in Monument Valley: an endless valley stretching to the horizon, studded with vast rock monoliths. The panoramic views have made it a favourite with movie directors, with more westerns shot here than anywhere else in the US. Director John Ford shot classics such as Stagecoach and The Searchers here, and it continues to be a popular backdrop for movies and video clips.

The monoliths - some of which stretch up to 300 metres above the valley floor - come in two types. The buttes are the tall vertical columns of sandstone, while the mesas are broader, flatter shapes that take their name from the Spanish words for table.

How to explore it The valley is part of the Navajo Tribal Park and access is strictly controlled. A 27-kilometre scenic trail is open to cars, taking you past many of the most famous formations, including the Mittens, the Three Sisters, Elephant Butte and Rain God Mesa.

The trail is unpaved and difficult going unless you have a four-wheel-drive. If you want to explore beyond the scenic trail, you'll need to sign up with one of the companies authorised to run a jeep tour.

Wow factor The best time to visit the valley is in the evening, when the golden light has the sandstone formations glowing with colour. Simpson's Trailhandler Tours, run by locals who were born and grew up in the valley, offer an evening tour that also includes an introduction to Navajo culture.

The tour not only takes in some gorgeous parts of the valley, but also helps you see how people have lived in this harsh landscape - the caves in which they sheltered and the springs from which they drew their water. You'll see petroglyphs carved by ancient peoples, and the magnificent eagle's cave. Add traditional Navajo stories and the valley becomes a living landscape, rather than a collection of dramatic monuments.

Wet and wild: Lake Powell, Arizona

Love it for A cool change.

What's big about it Lake Powell is different from the south-west's other great sights, in that it is man-made - a vast lake created by flooding Glen Canyon and 96 side canyons. To some, Lake Powell is a marvel of modern engineering; to others, it's an environmental tragedy.

There's no denying that, in the middle of the desert, this vast body of water is an impressive sight. Its shoreline is more than 3000 kilometres - longer than the entire coastline of the western US, and it took the lake 17 years to fill.

How to explore it If you are interested in engineering, you will find the tour at the Glen Canyon Dam Visitor Centre fascinating. For most other visitors, the first priority will be having a swim in the lake. The best place to take the plunge is the small, sandy Wahweap Beach, in the national recreation area, opposite the Wahweap campground.

Exploring the lake by boat is also a popular option. All kinds of craft are available for rent. Be aware that hiring anything with a motor is going to be expensive; a cheaper option is to take a canyon boat tour. The best tours take in both Navajo Canyon and Antelope Canyon. Navajo Canyon's walls soar almost 200 metres above the water, and are marked with the intricate patterns known as "desert varnish". Antelope Canyon offers a different experience, with the boat travelling about six kilometres into the canyon before it becomes too narrow to pass.

Wow factor If you're pushed for time, skip the boat tour of Antelope Canyon and take a walking tour of the canyon's far side instead - it's the area's must-see. This slot canyon is on Navajo land, so you can get there only on an organised tour. Not quite a hike - you're walking on level sand the whole way - this is more like walking through a stone sculpture; amazing curvaceous forms sculpted by water and wind make this a highlight. Make sure your camera battery is fully charged: you'll use every ounce of juice capturing the endless array of swirling forms.

The champ: Grand Canyon, Arizona

Love it for Its sheer size.

What's big about it Pretty much everything. Your first glimpse of the canyon is guaranteed to impress. The canyon itself is 445 kilometres long, 1.5 kilometres deep and up to 29 kilometres across at its widest point. This giant hole lets you peer into the earth's history. The different rock strata are clearly visible, from the young rocks at the surface - only 225 million years old - through to the rocks at the bottom that date back an astonishing two billion years.

How to explore it Head for the canyon's south rim, which offers more trails and more facilities than the northern rim. The first thing to do is head for a viewpoint and marvel at the size. After that, it's time to explore. Several different shuttle routes make their way along the canyon rim, and you can get excellent views simply by sitting on the bus. The canyon rim walks are somewhat disappointing: the canyon is so large, you have to walk a long way before the scenery starts to change. Make sure to catch a sunset at one of the popular points such as Maricopa Point and Mohave Point.

Wow factor The single best thing you can do at the Grand Canyon is hike down into it. There are three trails to choose from, but Bright Angel is by far the most popular. It's 1.5 kilometres straight down, but if that's too daunting, you don't need to go all the way. Just figure that, no matter how far you go, it'll take you twice as long to get back up. So if you're going to walk down half an hour, allow 1.5 hours for your whole trip.

The writer travelled courtesy of Intrepid Travel

And the winners are ...

Best for photographers: Antelope Canyon at Lake Powell.

Best for hardcore hikers: The Grand Canyon. The hike to the canyon floor is amazing.

Best for jaw-dropping beauty: Bryce Canyon.

Best for cultural insights: A Navajo-led tour of Monument Valley.

Best for variety of hikes: Zion National Park.

Trip notes

Getting there

The easiest way to access these monuments is to fly into Las Vegas and hire a car. Virgin Australia offers 14 weekly services from Sydney via Los Angeles to Las Vegas with its partner Delta Air Lines, and three from Melbourne. Return fares start from $1350.

Getting around

Intrepid Travel offers a nine-day Southwest Loop Self Drive Adventure ex Las Vegas, taking in Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon. Prices start at $846 a person, including car hire, accommodation, itinerary and detailed trip notes.