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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.