Best National Parks in the American Southwest

Best National Parks in the American Southwest

Best National Parks in the American Southwest

We present our Parks by state to help keep the geography organized.  On the page below we provide a brief overview of the parks we recommend.  Each section includes a link to the page where we provide a more thorough discussion of the park,  in case you are interested in visiting.  The detailed pages include photographs of the highlights in the parks, as well as detailed information about visiting each of these spectacular parks.

Utah

Utah, known as the “Beehive State”, is home to several  national parks and monuments.  We have chosen three of our favorites for your examination.  There are some similarities between these parks, but each is known for its unique collection of landforms, geologic setting, and beauty.

Arches National Park

Located near Moab, in southeast Utah, Arches National Park is an area of incredible chromatic beauty that serves to highlight the park’s unusually large collection of natural arches.

The park’s rock formations range from browns, through oranges and reds. When they are capped with snow, the gullies and rills are highlighted and the area takes an alternative, variegated flavor. However, the changing colors (and they seem to change by the hour) serve only to highlight the beautiful natural arches and spires preserved in this unique National Park.   Arches National Park  is small, but  packed with much to see and great hiking.  For more information and photographs, see our one-page guide to Arches National Park.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park, located at an elevation of approximately 8,000 ft (2438 m) in south central Utah, is the home of a fascinating geology that has spawned a unique, whimsical and almost startling collection of landforms.

Carved into the colorful Paunsaugunt plateau in southern Utah, the park is not a canyon but a series of horseshoe shape amphitheaters excavated by rainwater and frost action. The percolation of the rainwater slowly dissolves the area’s limestone and the process has left a series of “hoodoos”, vertical columns that have eroded into a myriad of whimsical shapes.  Some of  the landforms seem almost identifiable, while others are beguiling, humorous or sometimes, just plain eerie.  Hiking or horseback riding in Bryce Canyon National Park is a huge treat.  For more information, see our concise, one page guide to travel in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park
Zion National Park

To the southwest of Bryce Canyon National Park you will find the majestic Zion National Park surrounding Zion Canyon and the North Fork of the Virgin River.

The Park is known for its  high plateaus comprised of sandstone layers cut with a riot of narrow but deep canyons that are surrounded by soaring rock towers and elegant mesas.  Known as a showcase of geology, the area’s limited precipitation has created an arid climate whose sparse vegetation puts the park’s underlying rock formations on startling display.  If you had to use one word to describe Zion National Park, it would have to be “grandeur”.  Even the names attached to the prominent landforms suggest it, as they include aptly named “courts, cathedrals, patriarchs and sentinels”

For more information and photographs explore our guide to Zion National Park.

Arizona

Well, it isn’t called the “Grand Canyon State” just for fun. Arizona’s Grand Canyon is world famous and one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations.  Our second Arizona National Park lies to the east and has treasures of its own.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park

Located in north central Arizona, the Grand Canyon is a world icon and, some would say, one of the wonders of the world. Over millions of years, the Colorado River and its associated stream network have eroded their way down through the Colorado Plateau, a slightly tilted domain of  sedimentary rock layers that were deposited horizontally and then lifted 5,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level.  The Grand Canyon, thanks to its wandering Colorado River, reveals almost two-billion years of geologic history. The strata are colored in brown, red, oranges and pink (to mention a few hues) and some layers have been able to resist erosion better than others.  The juxtaposition of resistant and weak layers have created a series of mesa, buttes, temples, all creating just plain unforgettable views.

For more information, photographs and maps, see our Guide to Grand Canyon National Park.

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park

Located 200 miles  (322 kms) east of the Grand Canyon and near the border with New Mexico, the Petrified Forest National Park contains one of the world’s most colorful concentrations of petrified wood (wood the has been naturally transformed to stone).  Sitting amid the multi-hued scenic badlands of the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest National Park is an unusual visual treat.

The Painted Desert resembles a palette created by a  talented artist who was attempting  to imagine a uniquely colorful landscape, where the color of the landforms and not their shape is the main attraction.  Wandering the park is like exploring an imaginarium –  everywhere you turn there is something new and unexpected.

For additional photographs and information on visiting, check out our Guide to the Petrified Forest National Park.

Colorado

Although the “Centennial State” has a number of national parks, we have chosen two located in the southern section of state, as they fall more closely with our theme of National Parks of the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde means “green table” in Spanish and this national park in  Southwestern Colorado is indeed a collection of flat, green mesas (tablelands with steep cliffs).

The mesas might be of interest because of their scenic allure, but the attraction here is that they are sprinkled with a large number of archeological sites, including hundreds of cliff dwellings and some cliff apartments nested in caves and overhangs on the these steep sided mesas.

The Ancestral Pueblo people made this area their home between 600 A.D. and 1300 A.D. When they mysteriously abandoned Mesa Verde and their homes, the area  became lost to history for hundreds of years.  Many of the cliff dwellings constructed by the Pueblo Indians survived abandonment and these are the focus of our Guide to Mesa Verde National Park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park

If you want to see the tallest sand dunes in North America (750 feet) in the midst of a 30 square mile dune field surrounded by a  gloriously scenic mountains (especially when the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains are snow capped) Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is the place for you. Combined with wetlands from the Medano Creek, grasslands and scenic trails leading to extravagant vistas, Great Sand Dunes offer a variety of activities for the entire family.   For more information and photographs, click for our Guide to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

California/Nevada

With nicknames like the “Golden State” and the “Silver State” you might get the idea that these two state were centers of mining in their early years. However, we feature these two states because they share “ownership” of one of the most famous and purposefully named deserts in the world.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park

If you are looking for the hottest, driest and lowest area in the United States, this is it.  In addition, Death Valley National Park is a beautiful, primitive desert with sand dunes, snow capped mountains, colorful sedimentary rock layers and three million acres of a unique, arid landscape .

Perhaps its attraction lies in its name Death Valley.  Although the majority of the pioneers of the American West moved through here with only modest difficulty, many of them thought this area would lead to their “death”.  Good planning and water conservation served most pioneers quite well and there were only a few fatalities in Death Valley during these times.

All deserts are  dangerous environments  and Death Valley is an extremely hot and arid  location. Tourists have been known to die here (2009) due to exposure to the area’s unbelievable summer heat.   While deserts can be dangerous, they can also be extremely scenic and peaceful, if you take the advice offered by the park’s rangers.  We consider Death Valley one the premier outdoor experiences in North America, but you do have to like aridity to understand the lure of this exotic national park.  Click for our Guide to Death Valley National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeastern California where the Mojave Desert merges with the Colorado Desert.  The Park is known for its Joshua Trees, Cholla Gardens and massive jumbles of rectangular boulders.  Joshua Tree is a great place to visit from the fall through early spring if you are driving to Los Angeles, Palm Springs, or San Diego.

New Mexico

Known as the “Land of Enchantment”, New Mexico has much to offer in the way of scenery and attractions.  However, our focus is on its greatest natural treasure, which just happens to be underground.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns, the largest and most complex of the cave systems in New Mexico, was discovered by native Americans over 10,000 years ago and re-discovered by the cowboy Jim White at the end of the 19th century. In 1923 the area was established as the Carlsbad Cave National Monument and eventually became a national park.

Stalactites (dripping from the ceiling) and stalagmites (growing from the ground to the ceiling based on dripping water from above) are almost everywhere you turn, as are a number of unusual and colorful limestone formations.

Exploring the caverns is a marvelous adventure.  The majority of the viewing is in large, spacious areas accessible by elevator or you can choose to walk in the natural entrance to the caverns.  In addition, there are fee-based tours of smaller caves and more unusual scenery, although these tours may require slightly more strenuous activity.

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