Gunfire and cowboys don't stop Shandelle Battersby reaching the canyon carved by the Colorado River.

There's no forgetting that the tiny Arizona town of Williams, one of the gateways to the Grand Canyon, lies on Historic Route 66 because it reminds you at every turn — and this little American battler has every right to.

Williams was the last town on the "Mother Road" to be bypassed by the mega Interstate 40 highway after putting up a decent fight against it back in the 1980s. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the famous road that became a path for many migrating to California from the Midwestern states, particularly during the 1930s.

Williams is one of the settlements along the former route, keeping its memory front and centre of the American consciousness.

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Williams has plenty of cowboy-themed action. Photo / dconvertini
Williams has plenty of cowboy-themed action. Photo / dconvertini

We were here for the night en route to the Grand Canyon a few days into a 10-day road trip out of Los Angeles in the Champ, our brand-new Jucy mini RV. We'd spent a couple of days in Las Vegas, Nevada, before turning southeast to Arizona via the incredible feat of human engineering that is the Hoover Dam.

Williams was our pit stop of choice because of its proximity to the GC (one hour) though it was a close call between a cheap motel there and the Flintstones-themed campground at Valle up the road. We were itching to try out the Champ's two double beds (one inside, one in a "Penthouse" attachment on the roof) and fully equipped kitchen (in the boot). At 40C+ though, an air-conditioned motel room won out.

Arizona was slightly greener than Nevada and we soon found out why when a spectacular electrical storm followed by monsoon-like rain unfolded on the saguaro cactus-clad plains in front of us. We were firmly in UFO country, and the day's dark clouds felt a little menacing, not helped by place names such as Devil Dog Rd and Skull Valley. During a quick stop in Amboy we had to quickly slam the van doors shut as a dust storm barrelled towards us. A sign at a rest stop warned of dangerous snakes and scorpions. Large birds of prey scanned the road before us for carrion and a coyote appeared briefly before running quickly back into the scrub.

Williams turned out to be great fun, with plenty of cowboy-themed action. After shopping for some Route 66 tat we went to 1950s-style diner Cruisers for lunch, where we were serenaded by a guitar-plucking cowboy while breathing in the delicious smells coming from the iron barbecue smoking away outside.

Later we went to a "shoot-out" on the main street put on daily by the Cataract Creek Gang for free. Tucker, Slim, Timber and Cutter gathered the crowd in a large square, teased the children, flirted with the ladies ("well, ain't you a taaaallll glass of water?", etc.), and pretended to fight each other over some missing loot.

Grand Canyon Day demanded an early start, so we were at the entrance by 8am, parking inside (US$30 per car) with no trouble. Our early arrival paid big dividends: the crowds were small, the free shuttle buses that circuit the South Rim pretty empty, and the sun still working its way up to full blast.

If you do just one thing in America, this should be it. The vastness and scale of this six-million-year-old natural wonder has to be seen to be believed. The mighty Colorado River is a mere speck on the canyon floor with red, yellow and ochre tones of ancient strata towering impossibly high above it. The top layers are covered by sparse alpine forest.

The Colorado River stretches around Horseshoe Bend. Photo / Getty Images
The Colorado River stretches around Horseshoe Bend. Photo / Getty Images

Squirrels scampered and small lizards scuttled on the tree-lined paths as we wandered about before heading west in the shuttle to visit Hermits Rest, a rest area for tourists. The gateway to the Hermit Trail, Hermits Rest is a remarkable building designed by architect Mary Colter in 1914 to look like a natural stone formation.

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The US National Parks Service marked its 100th birthday in 2016 and has perfected its facilities, with plenty of information, maps, water stations and friendly rangers to help you.

We were up for more cowboy shenanigans the next day at Prescott, a city about 80 minutes' south of Williams that has real cowboys walking its streets. There were a lot of fake ones hanging around though, for the National Day of the Cowboy and the city's 11th Annual Shootout on Whiskey Row. This year's event will be held on July 28 and 29.

Whiskey Row earned its nickname during the goldrush days of the late 1800s when it was filled with saloons and gambling dens. Though everything had to be rebuilt after a fire wiped out the area in 1900, there are a couple of historic pubs still standing. The oldest of these is The Palace, where you can have a drink at the original carved bar that was carried to safety by patrons when the fire broke out.

Everyone was really getting into the swing of things at the shoot-out, most dressed up in elaborate period costumes in a bid to win the prize for best-dressed, despite the heat.

There were re-enactments, gunfight competitions, stunt shows, food and market stalls and carnival games, all taken very seriously.

After testosterone-fuelled Arizona, pastel-clad Palm Springs was a much quieter and gentle proposition. This pretty desert resort town, famous for its mid-century modern architecture, movie star affiliations, and gay-friendliness (it's home to at least 20 clothing-optional resorts for men) is a great place to relax — it's too hot to do much more than lounge by the pool, shop in air-conditioned malls, and eat and drink the great food you can find on every corner.

We decided to get out of the desert and head for the hills to Big Bear Lake, a picturesque alpine settlement two hours from Los Angeles that is often used as a film and TV location. A year-round tourist town, the area is known for its skiing in winter and its watersports and fishing in summer on what is Southern California's largest recreational lake. To get there requires scaling a mountain pass clad with forest and dozens of hairy hairpin turns; it's a spectacular drive best taken at your own pace.

We pottered around for a couple of days enjoying all the bear-related merchandise in the many gift shops, saw some live bears at the excellent Big Bear Alpine Zoo — a rescue and rehabilitation facility that also has foxes, mountain lions, birds, badgers, racoons, deer and much more — and swam in the cool, refreshing lake.

Then it was time to turn our trusty campervan back towards Los Angeles and say goodbye. Apart from readjusting our driving times to make each day a little shorter and less tiring, it had proved all too easy to visit three states in 10 days. Though one thing it makes you realise is just how enormous this country is. We'd barely scratched the surface. As ever in America, there was so much more to explore.

By the pool in Palm Springs. Photo / Getty Images
By the pool in Palm Springs. Photo / Getty Images

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand

flies non-stop from Los Angeles to Auckland, with one-way Economy Class fares starting from $1600.

DETAILS
For information on vehicle rentals in the US, go to jucy.co.nz.

ONLINE
bigbearzoo.org