The 11 Best National Parks of the Southwest, USA
The American Southwest is renowned for its breathtaking natural landscapes, and one of the best ways to experience its beauty is by visiting its national parks. From the iconic grandeur of the Grand Canyon to the otherworldly formations of Arches National Park, the region is a treasure trove of unique and awe-inspiring sights. Here, we have compiled a list of the 11 best national parks in the Southwest, each offering its own distinct attractions and adventures.
1. Grand Canyon National Park: As one of the most famous natural wonders in the world, the Grand Canyon is a must-visit destination. Its vast expanse of colorful rock formations carved by the mighty Colorado River is a sight that will leave you in awe.
2. Zion National Park: Nestled in Utah, Zion National Park is characterized by its towering red cliffs, lush canyons, and breathtaking hikes. The most popular trail, Angel’s Landing, offers a thrilling adventure with stunning panoramas.
3. Bryce Canyon National Park: Known for its otherworldly hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park is a photographer’s dream. The intricate formations spark with vibrant colors during sunrise and sunset, creating a surreal atmosphere.
4. Arches National Park: Featuring over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, this park in Utah is a testament to the power of erosion. The Delicate Arch, the park’s most famous symbol, is a must-see for visitors.
5. Canyonlands National Park: Encompassing a vast expanse of canyons, mesas, and buttes, Canyonlands National Park offers visitors a chance to explore the rugged beauty of the Southwest. Hike to the Island in the Sky or venture into the maze-like canyons of the Needles District.
6. Capitol Reef National Park: With its diverse geology, Capitol Reef showcases stunning cliffs, domes, and canyons. Take a scenic drive along the Waterpocket Fold or wander through the historic Fruita orchards.
Grand Canyon National Park
Located in Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park is an iconic destination that draws millions of visitors each year. Spanning over 1.2 million acres, the park is home to one of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders – the Grand Canyon. Carved over millions of years by the Colorado River, this immense chasm stretches 277 miles long, reaches depths of over a mile, and boasts captivating layers of colorful rock formations.
Visiting the Grand Canyon offers a variety of experiences for adventurers and nature enthusiasts alike. One of the most popular activities is hiking along the rim trails, which provide breathtaking panoramic views of the canyon. The South Rim offers several routes, including the Rim Trail, which stretches for 13 miles and presents awe-inspiring vistas at every turn.
For a more challenging adventure, consider hiking into the canyon itself. Trails such as the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail offer the opportunity to explore the different geological layers and experience the grandeur up close. It’s important to be prepared and aware of the steep and strenuous nature of these hikes.
If hiking isn’t your preference, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the park. Taking a scenic helicopter or airplane tour provides a bird’s-eye view of the canyon’s vastness and allows you to appreciate its immensity from a different perspective.
In addition to the breathtaking views, the Grand Canyon is also rich in biodiversity. The park is home to an impressive array of plant and animal species, including the California condor, one of the most endangered birds in the world. Nature lovers will appreciate the opportunity to spot a variety of wildlife while exploring the trails.
For those seeking a unique and unforgettable experience, consider rafting along the Colorado River that flows through the heart of the canyon. Multi-day rafting trips offer an immersive adventure, allowing you to witness the grandeur of the canyon from a completely different vantage point.
Finally, don’t miss the opportunity to witness the incredible sunrises and sunsets. The changing hues and shadows cast upon the canyon walls create a truly magical and unforgettable spectacle.
Grand Canyon National Park is a testament to the power and beauty of nature. Whether you’re a hiker, photographer, or simply seeking inspiration, this magnificent park is sure to leave a lasting impression.
Zion National Park
Nestled in the southwestern corner of Utah, Zion National Park is a true gem of the American Southwest. Its towering red cliffs, verdant canyons, and diverse wildlife make it a paradise for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.
One of the highlights of Zion National Park is the Zion Canyon, a dramatic gorge carved by the Virgin River. The sheer magnitude of the canyon walls, reaching up to 2,000 feet in height, creates a sense of awe and wonder. The best way to experience the grandeur of the park is by hiking one of the many breathtaking trails.
The most famous hike in Zion is the Angels Landing Trail. This strenuous but rewarding hike takes you along a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides. As you gain elevation, the panoramic views of the surrounding cliffs, canyons, and the Virgin River are absolutely breathtaking. The final stretch, known as the Hogsback, is both thrilling and exhilarating.
Another popular trail is The Narrows, where you can hike through the Virgin River, surrounded by towering canyon walls. Wading through the water, navigating through narrow passages, and marveling at the unique rock formations make this an unforgettable adventure.
Zion National Park is also known for its diverse wildlife. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, mule deer, and numerous bird species as you explore the park. Spring and fall are the best times to spot wildlife in their natural habitat.
If you prefer a more leisurely experience, consider driving along Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, a stunning scenic drive offering breathtaking views of the park’s red cliffs and rock formations. Don’t forget to stop at the famous Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, carved into the imposing cliffs.
For a truly unique and memorable adventure, try canyoneering in Zion National Park. Guided tours allow you to explore slot canyons, rappel down waterfalls, and navigate through narrow passageways. It’s an exhilarating way to experience the park’s rugged beauty up close.
Whether you’re seeking thrilling hikes, scenic drives, or peaceful moments in nature, Zion National Park offers something for everyone. Its awe-inspiring landscapes and captivating beauty will leave you with memories that last a lifetime.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Nestled in the high plateau of southern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is a geological wonderland renowned for its unique rock formations known as hoodoos. These towering spires and pinnacles, carved by the forces of erosion, create a mesmerizing landscape that is unlike anything else on Earth.
The main attraction of Bryce Canyon National Park is the Bryce Amphitheater, a collection of horseshoe-shaped, natural amphitheaters filled with an incredible display of colorful hoodoos. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to witness the stunning interplay of light and shadow that brings these formations to life.
The park offers a variety of trails that allow you to explore the otherworldly beauty up close. The Navajo Loop Trail and the Queen’s Garden Trail are popular options, taking you down into the heart of the amphitheater. Walking amidst the towering hoodoos and feeling the ancient energy of the rock formations is an unforgettable experience.
For a different perspective, take a scenic drive along the park’s main road, stopping at viewpoints such as Sunset Point and Bryce Point. From these overlooks, you can marvel at the vastness of the canyon and appreciate the intricate details of the hoodoos.
Bryce Canyon National Park is also a prime spot for stargazing. With its remote location and dark skies, it has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park. On a clear night, you can witness a celestial spectacle, with countless stars twinkling above the dramatic silhouettes of the hoodoos.
During the winter months, the park transforms into a winter wonderland as snow blankets the landscape. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing allow you to explore the park’s trails in a whole new way, surrounded by the serenity of the snow-covered hoodoos.
Wildlife enthusiasts will also find delight in Bryce Canyon National Park. From mule deer and elk to various bird species, there is a chance to spot diverse wildlife amidst the stunning natural backdrop.
Whether you choose to hike amidst the hoodoos, revel in the beauty of the night sky, or explore the park’s winter wonderland, Bryce Canyon National Park offers a captivating and otherworldly experience that will leave you in awe of the forces of nature.
Arches National Park
Nestled in the heart of Utah, Arches National Park is a geological masterpiece featuring over 2,000 natural sandstone arches. Spanning across 76,679 acres of red rock desert, the park showcases a surreal landscape of unique stone formations and natural wonders.
One of the most famous arches in the park is the Delicate Arch, an iconic symbol of Utah. The 65-foot freestanding arch sits atop a sandstone fin and offers a stunning panorama of the surrounding desert. Hiking to Delicate Arch is a must-do experience, especially at sunset when the golden light bathes the arch in a breathtaking glow.
Aside from Delicate Arch, there are numerous other arches waiting to be discovered. The Windows Section offers a collection of grand arches, including the North Window, South Window, and Turret Arch. The Double Arch, with its unique double-opening structure, is another magnificent sight worth exploring.
For those in search of adventure, Arches National Park offers a variety of hiking trails suitable for all skill levels. The Devil’s Garden Trail is a popular choice, leading you through a trail dotted with arches, including the Landscape Arch, one of the longest natural arches in the world.
To experience the park’s surreal landscape from a different perspective, take a scenic drive along the main road. The 36-mile paved route offers breathtaking vistas and opportunities to pull over and explore various viewpoints. Balanced Rock, a massive boulder precariously perched on a slender pedestal, is one of the highlights along the road.
Stargazing is another popular activity in Arches National Park, thanks to its remote location and minimal light pollution. On a clear night, the dark skies reveal a dazzling display of stars, offering a magical experience for astronomy enthusiasts.
As with any desert environment, it’s important to come prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen, and appropriate hiking gear. The desert heat can be intense, especially during the summer months, so it’s essential to stay hydrated and protect yourself from the sun.
Arches National Park is a place of wonder and natural beauty, where the forces of erosion have sculpted an extraordinary landscape. Whether you’re hiking to iconic arches, taking in the breathtaking views, or marveling at the star-filled night sky, this unique park will leave you in awe of nature’s creativity and power.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park, located in southeastern Utah, is a vast and rugged landscape known for its dramatic canyons, towering mesas, and panoramic vistas. Spanning over 337,598 acres, this diverse and expansive park is divided into four distinct districts, each with its own unique features.
The Island in the Sky district, the most accessible area of the park, offers breathtaking views from its mesa-top perch. Visitors can marvel at the vastness of the canyons and the Green and Colorado Rivers as they wind through the expansive canyonlands.
For those seeking a remote adventure, the Needles district is a hidden gem within Canyonlands. This area is characterized by its towering sandstone spires, known as “needles,” which create a mesmerizing and surreal landscape. Hiking through the maze-like canyons and exploring the intricate rock formations is an experience like no other.
The Maze district, located in the westernmost part of the park, is a true wilderness area that offers a backcountry experience for seasoned adventurers. With its challenging terrain and isolated nature, this region attracts those seeking solitude and an exhilarating outdoor experience.
The fourth district, known as the rivers, encompasses the spectacular canyons carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers. Rafting or kayaking along these rivers offers a unique way to explore the rugged beauty of the park, with opportunities to camp along the riverbanks and witness stunning vistas along the way.
Canyonlands National Park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking trails ranging from easy strolls to multi-day backpacking adventures allow visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty of the desert landscape. Popular hikes include the Mesa Arch Trail, which offers stunning sunrise views, and the Chesler Park Loop Trail, which winds through the dramatic Needles district.
Photographers will find endless opportunities to capture the striking beauty of Canyonlands. The changing light throughout the day creates dramatic shadows and highlights, enhancing the already breathtaking scenery.
As with any desert environment, it’s important to come prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen, and appropriate hiking gear. The desert heat can be intense, and the rugged terrain requires good footwear and navigation skills.
Whether you’re exploring the dramatic cliffs of the Island in the Sky, navigating the labyrinthine canyons of the Needles, or embarking on a river adventure, Canyonlands National Park offers a true escape into the raw and captivating beauty of the American Southwest.
Capitol Reef National Park
Nestled in south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden gem that showcases the stunning geology and rich history of the region. This lesser-known park offers a unique and captivating experience for visitors, with its dramatic cliffs, colorful canyons, and remnants of ancient civilizations.
The park gets its name from a white sandstone formation that resembles the dome of the U.S. Capitol and the rocky cliffs that served as barriers for pioneers, creating a “reef” that was difficult to traverse.
One of the highlights of Capitol Reef is the Waterpocket Fold, a geological feature that stretches for nearly 100 miles. This massive wrinkle in the Earth’s crust showcases layers of rock that have been uplifted and exposed over millions of years, providing a stunning display of colorful sandstone and unique formations.
Scenic drives, such as the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, offer opportunities to marvel at the park’s striking landscapes, with viewpoints and pullouts that provide incredible views of the towering cliffs, canyons, and the Waterpocket Fold.
Hiking is a popular activity in Capitol Reef, with trails that range from easy strolls to challenging treks. The Hickman Bridge Trail takes you to a natural rock bridge, while the Cohab Canyon Trail offers a panoramic view of the park from the Cohab Canyon Overlook.
For those interested in history, explore the Fruita Historic District, which preserves the remnants of a pioneer settlement in the early 1900s. Visit the Gifford House, a historic home turned gift shop and bakery, where you can enjoy freshly baked pies and learn about the pioneering lifestyle.
The park is also known for its dark night skies, making it an excellent spot for stargazing. On a clear night, the sky comes alive with countless stars, offering a serene and awe-inspiring experience.
Capitol Reef National Park is a haven for photographers, with its vibrant colors, unique rock formations, and striking landscapes. The changing light throughout the day creates a dynamic canvas for capturing stunning images.
As you explore Capitol Reef, be mindful of the fragile desert ecosystem and the importance of leaving no trace. Carry plenty of water, especially during the hot summer months, and wear appropriate sun protection.
With its stunning geological features, rich history, and opportunities for outdoor adventures, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered and appreciated by those seeking a unique and immersive experience.
Petrified Forest National Park
Located in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park is a captivating desert landscape rich in geological wonders and ancient petrified wood. Spanning over 146 square miles, the park offers visitors a glimpse into a prehistoric world that existed over 200 million years ago.
The park gets its name from the vast amounts of petrified wood scattered throughout its desert floor. These ancient trees were fossilized over eons, turning into vibrant and colorful stone. Walking amongst the petrified logs is like stepping back in time and witnessing the remnants of a once-lush forest.
While admiring the petrified wood is a highlight of the park, there is much more to explore. The Painted Desert, a mesmerizing expanse of layered rocks in various hues, delights visitors with its stunning and vibrant landscapes. The rolling hills seem to be painted with shades of red, orange, pink, and purple, creating a surreal and otherworldly atmosphere.
The park offers a variety of hiking trails that allow visitors to immerse themselves in the unique environment. The Blue Mesa Trail winds through badlands filled with colorful formations, while the Crystal Forest Trail takes you through an area dense with vibrant petrified wood.
The ancient Puebloan people once inhabited this area, leaving behind fascinating archaeological sites. The park features ancient petroglyphs and remnants of stone structures, providing a glimpse into the lives of these ancient civilizations.
For a truly immersive experience, take a drive along the park’s scenic road, which provides breathtaking views of the painted desert landscape and takes you to various points of interest. Don’t miss the historic Painted Desert Inn and the visitor center, where you can learn more about the park’s geology and history.
Wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate the diverse range of animals that call Petrified Forest National Park home. From birds and mammals to reptiles and amphibians, there is always a chance to spot unique and fascinating wildlife.
As with any desert environment, be prepared with plenty of water, sun protection, and sturdy shoes. The park can get hot during the summer months, so it’s essential to take precautions and stay hydrated.
Petrified Forest National Park offers a unique opportunity to explore a mesmerizing landscape and step back in time to a prehistoric era. Whether you’re marveling at the petrified wood, hiking through the colorful badlands, or discovering ancient archaeological sites, this park has something truly special to offer.
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park, located in southern Arizona, is a desert oasis that celebrates the iconic saguaro cactus and the unique ecosystems it supports. Spanning over 91,000 acres between the cities of Tucson and Marana, this national park is divided into two districts, each offering its own distinct beauty.
The park is named after the saguaro cactus, a symbol of the American Southwest. These majestic cacti can reach heights of up to 50 feet and live for over 150 years, providing shelter and sustenance for a variety of wildlife. The park showcases countless saguaro cacti, creating a truly mesmerizing desert landscape.
The east district, known as the Rincon Mountain District, is characterized by its rugged mountain ranges and breathtaking vistas. Hiking trails like the Freeman Homestead Trail and the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail offer opportunities to explore the diverse terrain and witness the beauty of the saguaro forests up close.
The west district, known as the Tucson Mountain District, showcases a different side of Saguaro National Park. The Bajada Loop Drive offers a scenic route through the desert, while trails like the Valley View Overlook Trail and the Signal Hill Trail provide panoramic views of the saguaro-studded landscape.
Visiting Saguaro National Park provides a chance to immerse yourself in the unique flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. Keep an eye out for a variety of wildlife, including javelinas, coyotes, and a wide array of bird species. Birdwatchers will be particularly delighted by the park’s abundant birdlife.
The park also holds great cultural significance, as it is home to several ancient petroglyph sites. These rock art panels provide a glimpse into the history and heritage of the Native American tribes that have called this area their home for centuries.
To make the most of your visit, plan to explore the park during the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the desert’s intense midday heat. Be sure to bring plenty of water, wear sun protection, and stay on designated trails to preserve the delicate desert ecosystem.
Whether you’re hiking along trails surrounded by towering saguaro cacti, gazing at the stunning desert sunsets, or immersing yourself in the rich cultural and natural history of the region, Saguaro National Park offers a unique and memorable experience in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park, located in Southern California, is a unique desert landscape that showcases the striking beauty of the Joshua Tree and a diverse array of desert ecosystems. This national park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers, offering an unforgettable and immersive experience.
The park gets its name from the iconic Joshua Trees that dot the landscape. These peculiar-looking trees, with their twisted branches and spiky leaves, are a signature feature of the park and provide a surreal and otherworldly atmosphere.
Exploring Joshua Tree National Park means venturing into a desert wonderland. The stark beauty of the Joshua Tree forests is complemented by the rugged rock formations, vast desert vistas, and abundant wildlife.
Hiking is a popular activity in the park, with trails of varying lengths and difficulties to suit all levels of adventurers. Hidden Valley offers a short and scenic loop through towering rocks and Joshua Trees, while Ryan Mountain Trail rewards hikers with panoramic views of the park from its summit.
For rock climbers, Joshua Tree National Park is a paradise. The unique granite rock formations and boulder piles provide endless opportunities for climbers of all skill levels. The park is world-renowned for its challenging routes and breathtaking views from atop the rocks.
The park is a fantastic location for stargazing due to its remote location and lack of light pollution. On a clear night, the sky comes alive with a blanket of stars, offering a magical and awe-inspiring experience.
Exploring the park during sunrise or sunset is a must-do activity. The golden light cast upon the desert landscape creates a picturesque and ethereal ambiance, making for stunning photo opportunities.
In addition to its natural beauty, Joshua Tree National Park is also rich in cultural history. Ancient Native American petroglyphs can be found scattered throughout the park, providing a glimpse into the lives of the region’s early inhabitants.
As with any desert environment, it’s important to come prepared with plenty of water, sun protection, and appropriate clothing. The desert can be harsh, especially during the summer months, so it’s essential to take necessary precautions to stay safe and hydrated.
Whether you’re exploring the unique Joshua Tree forests, conquering the rock formations, stargazing under the desert sky, or immersing yourself in the rich cultural history of the region, Joshua Tree National Park offers a truly unforgettable desert experience.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park, located in southwestern Colorado, is a captivating destination that offers a glimpse into the ancient civilizations of the Pueblo people. This UNESCO World Heritage Site showcases well-preserved cliff dwellings and mesa-top villages, providing an extraordinary window into the past.
The park gets its name from the Spanish term meaning “green table,” referring to the park’s expansive mesas covered in vegetation. Mesa Verde is renowned for its impressive alcove dwellings, built within the cliffs by the Ancestral Puebloans over 700 years ago.
Exploring Mesa Verde allows visitors to step back in time and envision the daily lives of the Pueblo people. Guided tours take you into the famous cliff dwellings, such as Cliff Palace, which is the largest and most iconic dwelling in the park. Walking through these architectural marvels and seeing the remnants of ancient rooms and kivas is a truly fascinating experience.
For those interested in hiking, the park offers several trails that lead to viewpoints overlooking the cliff dwellings. The Mesa Top Loop Road is a scenic drive that takes you to various mesa-top sites, including Square Tower House and Sun Point Overlook.
In addition to the cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park is also home to numerous archaeological sites. The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum provides insights into the ancestral Puebloan culture and showcases thousands of artifacts discovered in the park.
As you explore the park, keep an eye out for the abundant wildlife that calls Mesa Verde home. Mule deer, elk, and a variety of bird species can often be spotted amidst the stunning natural backdrop.
Visiting Mesa Verde also offers an opportunity to appreciate the park’s natural beauty. The diverse landscapes encompass lush forests, deep canyons, and panoramic vistas that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Preservation of the delicate archaeological sites is of utmost importance in Mesa Verde National Park. It’s imperative to follow park guidelines and stay on designated trails to help protect the centuries-old cultural heritage.
Whether you’re exploring the ancient cliff dwellings, learning about the Puebloan culture, or taking in the stunning landscapes, Mesa Verde National Park provides a captivating and enriching experience that connects visitors to the remarkable history of the Pueblo people.
Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park, located in eastern Nevada, is a hidden gem in the American Southwest that showcases a unique and diverse range of ecosystems. From towering peaks to ancient bristlecone pine groves and impressive limestone caves, this national park offers stunning natural beauty and a wealth of outdoor adventures to enjoy.
The park is named after the Great Basin, a vast region characterized by its lack of outlet to the sea. The centerpiece of Great Basin National Park is Wheeler Peak, the second-highest peak in Nevada, which offers breathtaking views from its summit and challenging hiking trails for outdoor enthusiasts.
Exploring the park’s alpine environment allows you to witness the stark contrast between the lush meadows and the rugged mountain peaks. The Bristlecone Pine Trail takes you through ancient forests of bristlecone pines, some of the oldest living trees on Earth, offering a glimpse into the resilience and beauty of these ancient giants.
For those seeking an underground adventure, Lehman Caves is a must-visit. Guided tours take you through intricate limestone formations and chambers, showcasing the stunning geological wonders hidden beneath the surface.
Great Basin National Park is also a prime stargazing destination. With its remote location and minimal light pollution, the night sky comes alive with a tapestry of stars. The park holds special stargazing programs and events, offering visitors a chance to witness the wonders of the universe.
Hiking in the park allows you to explore the diverse landscapes and encounter unique flora and fauna. Trails like the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail take you to pristine mountain lakes, while the Bristlecone Glacier Trail offers a challenging journey to the only glacier in Nevada.
Wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate the opportunity to spot a variety of animals, including mule deer, bighorn sheep, and numerous bird species. Keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready as you explore the park’s diverse ecosystems.
When visiting Great Basin National Park, be prepared for the high elevation and fluctuating weather conditions. With the changing landscapes and extreme temperatures, be sure to pack layered clothing, ample water, and sun protection.
Whether you’re hiking to mountain peaks, exploring ancient forests, admiring the wonders of Lehman Caves, or stargazing under the vast night sky, Great Basin National Park offers a unique and immersive experience in the heart of the American Southwest.