Road trip: Joel Sternfeld's Arizona

Drive past grand dams and the Grand Canyon – in the tyre tracks of a king of colour photography.

It's impossible to take a bad picture in Arizona: not with those huge, clear skies that fill with orange light at the end of the day; breathtaking creases of rock which form mountains and incredible canyons; three-pronged Saguaro cacti, sometimes four metres tall, which look like they've been lifted straight from a Wile E Coyote cartoon.

But there are more than great views of dramatic landscapes in this classic southwestern American destination. The amateur photographer in Arizona often finds that an absurd detail creeps into the viewfinder – a sign to the Flintstones Theme Park in the middle of the mountains, say, or an ostrich petting zoo next to a four-lane highway. Perhaps it was the frequency of these visual surprises that drew a modern master of colour photography, Joel Sternfeld, from his home in New York to Arizona in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Like the big names of street photography before him – from Robert Frank to William Eggleston – Sternfeld travelled across the US to capture something of the contemporary American experience in his art. Setting out in 1978, with sponsorship from a Guggenheim fellowship, he zig-zagged the country in a VW campervan. The result was a body of work called American Prospects (Steidl), first published as a book in 1987.

Most of the 50 states are represented in American Prospects, but Arizona has a particularly high representation, and it's easy to see why. Using an 8x10 camera, Sternfeld found rich material both in the sun-bleached southern desert cities of Tucson and Phoenix, and the moody rockscapes of Flagstaff, Kayenta and Tuba City.

One of the most remarkable works in the book is Glen Canyon Dam, Page, Arizona, August 1983. It includes the classic Sternfeld elements: the photographer is positioned at some distance from his subject, giving the image a dispassionate air. The colour palette is limited to restrained, pastel hues, and there is striking, formal beauty in the sweeping curve of the dam. The contrast between nature and man's efforts to tame it are present in the stripe of rust-coloured rock, peeping out over the concrete cliff. Finally, and crucially, there is the jarring, humorous detail – as tourists peer down from the 220m dam, a baby sits behind them in a playpen, happily looking right at the camera.

Visit the Glen Canyon Dam almost 30 years later, and little has changed. The dam – completed in 1966 and controversial ever since – still attracts a handful of visitors, year-round. And more than a few of them are taking a break from road trips around Arizona. Sternfeld drove across the state in pursuit of artistic inspiration, and a tourist can do worse than follow in his tyre tracks.

Sternfeld aside, why take a holiday driving around Arizona when you could do California or Florida? Those better-known destinations have long been favoured by Brits. In Arizona, you won't hear a European accent even in the big cities, despite the obvious appeal of year-round sunshine, scenery made famous by westerns and pretty reasonable prices (a good dinner for two can be had for £30). It remains pleasingly wild, and authentic. In Arizona, Disney parks and overpriced winery tours are replaced by hair-raising sights like the 2,000m drop of the Grand Canyon.

A copy of American Prospects tucked into our suitcase, we completed our own Sternfeld tribute trip in just over a week, and saw more of what felt like 'real' America than I've seen on any other previous visit. All journeys to Arizona begin in Phoenix, and from the minute you arrive at the wishfully named Phoenix Sky Harbour airport (Arizona is landlocked) the friendliness hits you, even at the immigration desk. Hiring a car is mandatory, and cheap – skip the sportier makes for an SUV that will take you over the rougher desert trails.

We made for the north first. Our first drive was the most gruelling: a six-hour stretch of interstate up to the north-east corner bordering with Utah. However, roads across Arizona are almost empty outside of Phoenix, arrow-straight and always offering a stunning view. By the time we arrived in Monument Valley, I was ready for a career change as a long-distance lorry driver. The sight of the Mittens – as the famous hand-shaped rock formations are called – reaching into the sky from the flat desert beguiled filmmaker John Ford and plenty after him; the 17-mile drive around the jutting sandstone 'buttes' (some 300m high) is unforgettable. To really savour it, stay at The View, a hotel positioned front-row for cinematic sunsets.

After the long road north, our tour of the major sights only required drives of around two hours. The best of northern Arizona includes Glen Canyon Dam, the New-Age enclave of Sedona and Flagstaff, a relaxed town elevated at 2,100m. The latter is particularly worth a visit, offering some of the best restaurant options (book in at Brix; brixflagstaff.com), cosy B&Bs (try the Inn at 410, where rooms are decorated in a lovely mix of native-Indian and traditional southwestern style), historic buildings and the excellent Museum of Northern Arizona (musnaz.org), which explains in detail the cultural evolution of the state's Native American tribes.

Of course, Arizona's main event is the Grand Canyon. Pay $25 per car to enter the national park, and stop at viewpoints along the north rim to gaze down at the Colorado River thousands of metres below. Sternfeld didn't photograph this, nor Monument Valley, preferring to train his lens on the offbeat and the everyday, but it makes pretty good snapshots for the amateur snapper.

Eventually the road called us south and we found sun and relaxation in Scottsdale, a town adjoining Phoenix that, for its bright-green manicured lawns, palm trees and ritzy shopping, is nicknamed 'the Beverly Hills of Arizona'. It's certainly the best place to go for a (good-value) pampering, not least for its climate: the year-round warmth and low humidity made it a destination for those recovering from tuberculosis. Today, 100-year-old Scottsdale feels like a fancy suburb. Encircled by golfing greens, the main reason for a tourist to come here is to check in at one of the resorts. Newest on the block is The Saguaro, a boutique take on 1950s kitsch, with a dash of Mexican colour. But to shake off the last vestiges of your jet lag, park up at the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, a hillside hotel where guests stay in casitas landscaped around a beautiful infinity pool; if you don't sleep over here, at least eat at its outstanding, buzzy Japanese-southwestern fusion restaurant.

The sun is high overhead as you drive down the Interstate 10 to Tucson, the second-biggest city in Arizona, just 20 miles from the Mexican border. This easygoing place is the location for two of Sternfeld's American Prospects works, one showing a Saguaro cactus standing proud in the desert, another recording a rudimentary version of solar panels heating a swimming pool. There are plenty of strange sights along the way that might have caught Sternfeld's eye, not least a vista of hundreds of aeroplanes parked in the desert (Pima Air Museum; visit pimaair.org), but today the fan of fine photography travels to Tucson for one reason: it is home to the world-renowned Centre for Creative Photography, which holds extensive collections of work by US artists.

On the way out of Tucson, we stopped for a morning at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (desertmuseum.org), a beautifully landscaped botanical garden where coyotes and Mexican wolves snooze between the towering cacti while family groups look on – a fine example of rugged American nature and man's impact upon it, and one that Sternfeld might have paused to photograph.

Americaasyoulikeit.com offers eight nights in Arizona from £1,335 per person based on two sharing and travel in March. Flight includes direct BA flights to Phoenix, car hire, two nights at The View, one night at the Inn at 410 B&B, two nights at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, two nights at the Lodge on the Desert in Tucson, and one night at The Boulders. For more information on Arizona call 020-7367 0938

The Arizona way

Distrito

Real Mexican doesn't mean melted cheese and dollops of sour cream. For modern, authentic cooking try this bright new Scottsdale cantina. Perfect guacamole ($10) precedes small places of street food (order the subtly-flavoured tacos de pollo) and lip-smacking barbecue dishes (black Angus beef brisket is a standout, $9). Distrito's dozens of tequila choices promise a lively evening ahead. Distritorestaurant.com

Golden Door at The Boulders

Every Arizonan hotel worth its Tripadvisor rating offers some sort of pampering service, from a bathroom jacuzzi to pricey all-in packages. For a day of indulgence, book into the spa at recently refurbed Boulders resort, just outside Phoenix. Treatments range from the signature Turquoise wrap, which uses local clay ($205) to 'meditation journeys' led by a shamanic ceremonialist (from $30). TheBoulders.com

Native Trails

Understanding Arizona's native American tribes isn't easy for the new visitor; there are several tribes, and their traditions and ways of living vary enormously. Most now live in towns like any other Arizonan. So the twice-weekly performances by Native Trails, held in a pleasant green square in downtown Scottsdale, are a great chance to see native-American ceremonial dance, and find out more about these proud peoples. Free, every Thursday and Saturday lunchtime. Scottsdalenativetrails.com

Taliesin West

Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, Taliesin West was founded by Frank Lloyd Wright as the winter campus of his architecture school, and it remains a working college today. Take a 90-minute guided tour of the beautiful buildings, situated on the edge of Scottsdale, which were conceived and built by Wright back in the 1930s and still look like the cutting edge of design today.

Franklloydwright.org

MAIN IMAGE COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK

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