America’s Wild West is still a wilderness – and it’s packed with natural wonders

As BBC2's Wild West: America's Great Frontier reveals, there's much more to this fabled region than cowboys and cactuses

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Anyone who tunes into BBC2’s Wild West expecting to see gun-toting cowboys will be disappointed – but not for long. The Natural History Unit’s latest series makes up in jaw-dropping footage what it lacks in quick-draw shoot outs. The first episode focused on the desert lands so familiar from westerns; the second and this week’s final instalment reveal there’s so much more to this fabled frontier.

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“When we looked into this region, what stood out was its three radically different worlds: the classic deserts, giant mountain ranges, and the dramatic coastline from the Pacific coast of California down to the Sea of Cortez,” explains series producer Patrick Morris. “We thought that if you were going to focus on one region of the Americas to show the diversity of landscapes and wildlife, there was nowhere better to do it.”

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Delicate Arch is a 65-foot-tall free-standing natural arch located in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah; above: Saguaro cacti are the largest cacti in the United States, standing up to 50 feet tall

The Wild West is usually defined as the region west of the Mississippi River, but the series encompasses eight US states, from Oregon down to Arizona, as well as Mexico’s California Baja Peninsula. It might no longer be lawless, but vast tracts still feel as untamed as when the first fur-trappers and hunters ventured westward in the early 19th century.

“It more than lived up to my expectations,” says Morris. “I think what really stood out for me was the scale of everything – the distances and the size. Everything is giant there. To say it’s a truly dramatic landscape is an understatement. And the way the light can change the landscape is astonishing – and nowhere more than in Monument Valley. Standing looking at those giant red rock stacks glowing in the last of the evening light was quite surreal.”


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Morris was also blown away by just how diverse the landscape is – even the deserts… “There are so many different types of desert: California’s Mojave Desert, which is baking hot, flat and parched; the Arizona-Sonora desert with its giant cactuses; and the high, snowy desert of Nevada.”

As those intrepid early explorers soon discovered, whichever corner you choose to explore, it’s crucial to time your visit carefully. Up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, many of the national parks are locked down for much of the year because of heavy snowfall, while the deserts are best avoided in June and July when it’s scorching. But if you arrive in Arizona at the same time as the spring rains in February or March, you’ll see the cactuses bloom: “The cactus forest comes alive with lots of little insects and birds nesting. It’s extraordinary. But then come May and June, as it heats up, it goes really, really quiet again.”

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A ghost town in the Bodie Hills, California

Morris also recommends seeking out one of the dozens of eerie ghost towns, many of which are carefully preserved. “We’ve tried to show how wildlife has adapted to these different worlds and also how people have made a living there. It’s a very iconic land, but it’s also a tough place to live. You need a certain resilience to live in that sort of world. It’s demanding. So in each episode we also include a ghost town because
we found them very evocative.”

Of course, along with drinking in the striking scenery, there are plenty of opportunities to channel your inner John Wayne. The first guest ranches – known as “dude” ranches – opened their doors to “tenderfoots” in the late 1800s, and it’s still big business today. Budding cowboys can try their hand at horseriding, cattle-sorting, target shooting and hayrides, as well as less traditional activities such as white-water rafting and zip-lining.

Morris’s next series will explore more of Mexico’s flora and fauna, but he’s not finished with the Wild West just yet. After editing the mountains episode, he’s eager to explore California’s greener pastures for himself. “The giant redwood forests and the falls at Yosemite look extraordinary. I’d love to go to Yosemite and travel up the west coast.”

Wild West: America’s Great Frontier is on Sundays 9pm BBC2

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