Photo Essay: National Parks of the Southwest

by Christy on

The southwestern part of the United States is home to some of the most beautiful and iconic national parks in the country. While we didn’t have a chance to visit them all (you might notice that the Grand Canyon is missing… but we’ll be back!), we did manage to get a taste of the wide diversity this region offers.

This post contains a select few photos from each of the major parks we visited. If you’d like to see more, we also have a Facebook photo album entirely dedicated to the southwest!

Zion is the most popular national park in Utah, and it’s every bit as beautiful as one would expect. We found that hiking and rock climbing were especially popular here, and Zion’s many trails often lead to major waterfalls, majestic views, or other quirky attractions.

Case in point — taking the Riverside Trail from the Temple of Sinawava will reward you with a unexpected attraction: the path ends amid hundreds of rock cairns placed along the riverside by previous visitors.

It’s quite surreal to see these delicately-balanced towers rising up from the river, and the trail drops down to the sandbar where you can walk among them or, if you’re feeling creative, scavenge stones to leave your own mark in Zion.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Bryce Canyon isn’t actually a canyon so much as it is a (giant!) natural amphitheater where the interplay of wind, water, and ice erosion over the millenia has formed the thousands of hoodoos (those distinctive-looking spires) you can see below.

While it may seem a bit less accessible than some of the other parks on this list, Bryce Canyon is only two hours from Zion and it rewards those who make the journey with an entirely different sort of scenery.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National ParkBryce Canyon National ParkBryce Canyon National Park

Arches National Park, one of the best known in the United States, is famous for the more than two thousand natural sandstone arches within its borders.

There’s more to this park than just arches, though: sweeping vistas and towering sandstone formations with names like “The Three Gossips,” “Park Avenue” and “The Garden of Eden” abound, and it’s all set against the stunning backdrop of the La Sal Mountains.

Arches National Park

Park Avenue at Arches National Park

Rock Pinnacles and La Sal Mountains at Arches National Park

Canyonlands National Park is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Arches, but its unique landscape makes it a must-see destination as well.

Offering one of the most stunningly diverse panaromic views we’ve come across, Canyonlands boasts countless canyons, mesas, and buttes which have been carved into the earth by the Colorado River. Although the view of the canyons from the Island in the Sky district is amazing, more intrepid visitors can use the 4×4 Shafer Trail to explore the canyon floor as well.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park

At Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park you’ll find cliff dwellings constructed by ancient Puebloan communities over 1,400 years ago. Although many of the Puebloan dwellings were actually built on the top of the mesa itself, the most impressively elaborate stone communities were constructed in alcoves part way up Mesa Verde’s canyon walls for added protection.

Many of these cliff dwellings have been remarkably well-preserved, and during the summer months you can tour a number of distinct complexes (like the stunning Cliff Palace, shown below) scattered throughout the park.

For more photos and details, check out our post on Mesa Verde’s ancient cliff dwellings.

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

Mesa Verde Cliff DwellingsMesa Verde Cliff DwellingsMesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

There are more than 110 natural limestone caves in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but we only had time to explore the mind-bogglingly huge main cavern. Once inside, you’re able to tour the cave via a winding, paved trail lined with guardrails.

The cave is hundreds of feet below the surface, so without the dim artificial lights (which make it very difficult to photograph!) it would be completely dark.

While most people only know this as a theoretical fact, we discovered just exactly how dark it gets when, due to a series of unfortunate events, we became stranded alone in the dark in Carlsbad Cavern!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Speleothems at the Carlsbad Caverns National ParkCarlsbad Caverns National ParkSpeleothems at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park

We weren’t sure what we’d think about White Sands National Monument at first, but after spending a few hours there we were utterly infatuated with its loveliness.

There’s just something effortlessly beautiful about the mountains of soft, cascading white sand that’s hard to put into words…

Everything from watching the sun set to leaping and rolling down the slopes became somehow magical in this setting.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument

What are your favorite National Parks? If you have links to any photos you’ve taken, share them in the comments!

{ 80 comments… read them below or add one }

Christy @ Ordinary Traveler June 29, 2011 at

Great photos! I love the one with all the rocks placed on top of each other. My new favorite National Park is Yellowstone. I really love Utah parks though too!
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

We came so close to visiting Yellowstone on this trip, but ultimately decided against it because we knew we wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy it like we wanted to. I can’t wait until we visit, though! It’s been on my list for ages. :)

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Ruthtwitter: tanamatales June 29, 2011 at

Wow, incredible photos!!! I wish I can visit all those parks soon.

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Christy June 29, 2011 at

Thanks, Ruth! The neat thing is that most of these are a fairly short drive from each other (okay, short by west coast U.S. standards), so it’s fairly easy to see multiple during one trip!

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Camels & Chocolatetwitter: LunaticAtLarge June 29, 2011 at

Oh man, those photos of Bryce have me jonesing for a return visit! Such a stunning spit of land.

My favorites are also Arches:
http://www.camelsandchocolate.com/2011/06/photo-friday-arches-national-park-utah/

Canyonlands:
http://www.camelsandchocolate.com/2011/05/into-the-canyonlands/

And Jellystone!
http://www.camelsandchocolate.com/2011/06/going-gaga-for-geysers-in-yellowstone/

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Christy June 29, 2011 at

Ah, your photos are gorgeous! And I sooooo want to visit Yellowstone. Who needs London? We should just explore the U.S. more!

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Jadetwitter: vagabond3live June 29, 2011 at

White sands looks awesome- would totally want to go there!
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

Oh, you should! And bring a sled so you can slide down the awesome mountains of soft sand!

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davidtwitter: imheadingout June 29, 2011 at

I’ve been to several of these parks, but not all, and your amazing photos are tempting me to change my road trip plans from New England to the Southwest this summer. I want to go back! Beautiful photography guys.

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Christy June 29, 2011 at

Haha, you should! And then you can come a little further west and visit us. :P

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Laureltwitter: ExpatGermany June 29, 2011 at

Specatcular photos! I did a hiking trip through Utah and also loved Zion and Bryce – I had never seen anything like Bryce Canyon before, it took my breath away. I also really enjoyed Capitol Reef. The Cliff Palace is outstanding, would love to see it in person.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

We managed to visit Zion during the weekend of the “Free Entrance to all National Parks” week, so it was a little too crowded for us to stay long. We did three or four of the shorter hikes, but that’s all we managed in the two days we were there. It’s such a huge park that I’d love to go back and explore it further, though!

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jill- Jack and JIll Traveltwitter: jacknjilltravel June 29, 2011 at

Awesome photos! Definitely make me a tad homesick of the states.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

Oh no! Quite the feat when you two are off gallivanting around the Galapagos and playing with llamas and baby goats. ;)

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The Travel Chicatwitter: thetravelchica June 29, 2011 at

I haven’t been to any of these yet! Such amazing photos. One day I am doing a National Park road trip.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

That would be fun! Kali and I have also talked about trying to see at least one new national park (that we’ve never been to before) each year that we’re living in the U.S. We might need to visit more than one per year, though, if we plan to see them all in our lifetime. :)

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Kierontwitter: amzkiz June 29, 2011 at

These pictures are amazing! Really hope we can fit some of these places into our itinerary.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

You should definitely try!

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Kris Koellertwitter: kriskoeller June 29, 2011 at

These are terrific photos, and a great collection of places to visit. Living in the Southwest years ago, I think I took for granted the beautiful landscape. I now understand why photographers travel the world to see these places. Nice recap!
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

It’s so easy to take your hometown (or homestate or homecountry) for granted… and especially if you grow up in an area this beautiful, you might not even realize that its beauty is unique! :)

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Sophietwitter: SophieR June 29, 2011 at

Beautiful photos… so colourful! I see it’s time to go back to the USA for a visit. Never been to this area.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

The U.S. is just so huge, it’s hard to see it all in one trip! The southwest is definitely worth a visit, though. :)

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Reneetwitter: aviewtoathrill June 29, 2011 at

As I was looking at this photos, I was thinking about how therapeutic they seem and how they could be used in some way to encourage others that if something this beautiful exists then there is something greater and more powerful than any problems that we may think we have. It inspires hope and promises better days eventually come.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

Wow, that’s wonderfully articulated Renee. It’s true that there’s so much beauty in the world, but unfortunately what we see through so much of the media is all the tragedy. Spending time in these stunning parks – and reflecting on the photos – definitely lifts the spirit. :)

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Meg July 26, 2011 at

Renee, I love the way you think! These breathtaking images do indeed remind me that there is a powerful force that creates great beauty…and that inspires and humbles me.

Christy, so nice to find you–what spectacular shots! I travelled to the parks of Big Sur and to Yosemite earlier this summer…I think a lot of Americans are spending time in their own “backyard” this year!
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Christy July 26, 2011 at

I think you’re right, Meg – it seems like lot’s of folks are traveling around the U.S. this summer, which is really neat. There’s just so much to see and experience here; even after living in CA for seven years we still haven’t made it to Big Sur!

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Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelistatwitter: eurotravelista June 29, 2011 at

Loved all of the pictures included. Simple beautiful. I have only been to Zion and Bryce but can attest to their beauty. Of the two, Bryce is my favorite. Love the contrast of the red dirt.

This country is home to many amazing National parks. Thanks for sharing some that are in the West.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

Bryce Canyon was just so different from all the other parks – it felt like we were on another planet! Such a neat experience to see it. :)

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Dalene Heck June 29, 2011 at

Really stunning photos guys. Awesome collection.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

Thanks, Dalene. :)

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Amanda June 29, 2011 at

Wow, what amazing shots! Especially that last one! Beautiful.

This makes me so excited to see all these photos, because my sister and I will be visiting a lot of these parks in August on our big U.S. road trip. I can’t wait!
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

I can’t believe your road trip is almost here! You’ve been planning that for ages. :) I imagine the southwest is killer in late summer, so be sure to load your car with gallons of water and sunscreen.

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Jeremy Branhamtwitter: budgettravelsac June 29, 2011 at

Fantastic photos! I haven’t done any of these but definitely some of the best ones in the US!
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

It’s funny how so many of the huge and iconic national parks are on the West. We definitely got lucky in that regard!

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Cathy Sweeneytwitter: TravelingWithS June 29, 2011 at

These places are breathtaking. I’ve been to all except White Sands, I think, and I feel so lucky about that. Can’t pick a favorite out of these or others I’ve been to. They’re all so special. You’ve captured them beautifully in your photos.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

It’s definitely so hard to choose a favorite… but if I HAD to, White Sands might be at the top of the list! You should definitely check it out one of these days. :)

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IsabellesTravel June 29, 2011 at

Love your photos! Made a photo-essay just recently on parks around the world: http://www.isabellestravelguide.com/different-parks.html
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

Awesome photos, Isabelle! How fun would it be to take a trip focused on visiting all the parks in one country… let alone all the parks in the world?? It would take quite awhile, but I’m down! :P

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adventureswithben June 29, 2011 at

So… I’ve been meaning to change the theme of my site to showcase photos in a better way. A post like this makes me want to get it done even faster. Great photos.
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Christy June 29, 2011 at

It’s amazing how much better the photos look with the right theme and layout. :) Took us awhile to figure that out and find the best option! Best of luck switching yours over, Ben.

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Eileen Ludwigtwitter: eileenludwig June 29, 2011 at

Love the photos and loved everyone of these parks

for some reason the comment luv is not working for me

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Christy June 30, 2011 at

Yikes, sorry it’s not working for you! I’ll take a look at CommentLuv and see what I can find.

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Annie June 30, 2011 at

Wow these photos are amazing!! Living in the city for so long makes me forgot about what beauties we have here in the states. I have to ask though, if you guys use GPS…..does GPS work at those places? (I am pretty dependent on gps XDDD haha)

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Christy June 30, 2011 at

We use our iPhones, which have GPS… but we didn’t always get reception in the parks! Most of the time it was fine because we would always get a huge park map from the visitor center (and there’s really only a few roads in the parks), but on one or two occasions it was an issue. We’re way too dependent on our google maps, lol.

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robin June 30, 2011 at

Wow. Just wow.

Spectacular post!
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Christy June 30, 2011 at

Aww, thanks Robin. :)

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Scott - Quirky Travel Guytwitter: quirkytravelguy June 30, 2011 at

Wow, you guys take amazing pics. Zion looks especially beautiful. I need to hit all the Utah parks next summer, I think.
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Christy June 30, 2011 at

Thanks, Scott – our photography has been a work in progress. It’s neat to see how much we’ve improved in the last year!

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Faithtwitter: faithmckay June 30, 2011 at

Ahh! We’re possibly headed to the southwest in September-ish and I’ve been trying to pick national parks because they all look so great, and this post makes it even harder. I hadn’t even been looking at White Sands before, but that looks beautiful and different from the rest! While I’ve been on a road trip around Nevada, I’m from the Pacific Northwest so the lack of green is always a shock to my system, I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

These are such great photos, I really love the one with the rocks piled in front of the water!
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Christy June 30, 2011 at

I agree – the southwest is SO different from the rest of the U.S. There are so many rock formations and canyons and huge cliffs… and most of that is red rock or sandstone! Quite a change from the PNW. :)

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Grace June 30, 2011 at

As usual the photos are amazing! I want to see those hoodos for myself.
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Christy June 30, 2011 at

Not only are the hoodos cool-looking, but the name rocks. ;)

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Rease June 30, 2011 at

How did those little rock stacks get there (in Zion)? So cool! These are all such amazing photos, I bet it was even better in person!
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Christy June 30, 2011 at

I think folks have just been building them for awhile! There are tons of rocks along the river bed, so people scavenge them up (or rip apart some of the smaller structures) to build their own cairns to leave behind. Some of them are HUGE and others are in really funny places, like on top of rocks that are in the middle of the river. It’s fun. :)

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InsideJourneystwitter: InsideJourneys June 30, 2011 at

WOW, these are incredibly BE-YOO-TI-FUL!!!!
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Nina June 30, 2011 at

Great photo essay…stunning shots!! Nina
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Wendy July 1, 2011 at

I recently found your blog and totally love this post! Of the ones you posted about, I’ve only been to Bryce Canyon and absolutely LOVED it there. It’s a completely different world…so amazing what nature is capable of doing. I hope to visit all the national parks that you mentioned in this post at some point in my life!
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Christy July 2, 2011 at

Bryce Canyon made me think the same thing, Wendy – it’s incredible what nature and geological processes are capable of…. it just blows my mind! Seeing that on such a huge scale at Bryce Canyon really brings it home; I can’t believe it isn’t a more popular or well-known park.

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Lorna - the roamantics July 1, 2011 at

gorgeous! so gorgeous! okay, so now is when i feel crazy for living in an RV and going to see friends in cities and dry camping on residential streets- ha ha. think i need a separate trip for all the natural goodies in this country! :)
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Christy July 2, 2011 at

Haha, no worries Lorna – that’s how we spent the first seven months on the road! We love cities so we especially spent a lot of time in urban areas on the east coast. It wasn’t until we got to the southwest that we realized our road trip was almost over and we needed to do more hiking! :P

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Eriktwitter: eriksmithdotcom July 1, 2011 at

Great photo essay. National Parks are a bit of an obsession of mine- I’ve been working the last 8 years to try and get to all of them in the lower 48 states- I have 280 of 340 done- I should have them all done in another 3 years or so. Specifically love the ones in the Southwest- for reasons you’ve captured beautifully here!
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Christy July 2, 2011 at

WOW, you’ve been to 280 national parks?! My hat goes off to you! Do you have a favorite? I would imagine they’re all so different – the U.S. is huge and so diverse. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of all the parks I’d like to visit, so still have some work to do before catching up to you. :)

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Eriktwitter: eriksmithdotcom July 2, 2011 at

The 280 includes all of the National Monuments and smaller parks, too. In Washington DC, all the monuments and memorials are separate parks- I think I visited over 10 in one day there! Most of them are very unique, the National Park Service does a great job with the limited resources they are given.
It’s so cliche’ but my favorite park is Yellowstone. It is so unique, not just for the US, but for the world. It is an absolute must visit.
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Christy July 2, 2011 at

Yellowstone seems to be a favorite park for many folks – I’ve never been there, but I think I can understand why! We almost visited at the beginning of our RV trip, but the timing was wrong and we wouldn’t have been able to spend much time exploring the park. Sometime soon we’ll have to make a dedicated trip to Yellowstone, though. :)

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Marktwitter: markschulz July 2, 2011 at

So many great shots and good writing. Looking forward to reading about your discoveries in London.
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Christy July 3, 2011 at

We’re so excited about London – it’s like a photographer’s paradise there! Well, so is the southwest. :)

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crazy sexy fun traveler July 3, 2011 at

Yeaaaaaaaaaa, stunning shots!

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Christy July 3, 2011 at

Hahah, thanks!

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Akilatwitter: theroadforks July 3, 2011 at

Such such fantastic photos. You make me want to explore the Southwest.
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Christy July 3, 2011 at

Y’know, we do what we can. ;)

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OurTakeOnFreedom July 6, 2011 at

What an awesome collection of photos. We just left Moab for Grand Junction and had a similarly fantastic experience of Utah’s National Parks. Thanks for helping us relive those recent memories!
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Christy July 11, 2011 at

Thanks so much, guys! :)

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Dmitri July 20, 2011 at

Stunning places!!! I’m really jealous…
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Artitwitter: artisdiary August 3, 2011 at

WOW! These captures are amazing! All of this beauty has left me speechless right now..!
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Christy August 4, 2011 at

Thanks so much, Arti!

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Rose November 15, 2011 at

I just stumbled upon this post (a few months late, I know) but I just wanted to say that I LOVE the photos! I have visited Bryce and Zion, but this post definitely makes me want to go back to the region and explore further!
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Christy November 21, 2011 at

Thanks so much for the comment, Rose! What’s a few months here or there? ;)

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Robert January 13, 2012 at

Absolutely stunning photos! Beautiful work, have bookmarked your site to share with all.
Found you on ‘twitter’!
Rob
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Christy January 16, 2012 at

Hi Robert, thanks so much for the comment and kind words! This is one of my favorite posts, and whenever I look at it again it makes me want to head back to the Southwest. :)

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Harry February 9, 2013 at

WOW!!! Amazing photos, I’ve always been attracted to Zion National Park and all it’s natural beauty and historical values (petroglyphs). Now, I surprised how I did not get to notice Mesa Verde National Park and all it’s great wealth of historical values; I guess it’s that “Zion charm” that always keeps you wanting more of it. Thanks for the eye opener; Mesa Verde is definitely my next stop.

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