WHEN A LIFELONG EAST COASTER like myself goes out to the American Southwest, we find ourselves thinking, “Is this even America?” The land in the Southwest is so utterly different and strange to the East Coast of small hills, cities, and humid summers that it can feel like an entirely separate country at times.
It’s also probably one of the most consistently beautiful places in the country. Over a third of the nation’s national parks are in the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California, and some of the most unique cities in the country are west of the Rockies as well.
While the stereotype of the area is that it’s all barren desert — which isn’t entirely inaccurate — there’s a lot more variation and personality in the Southwest than the backdrops of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons would suggest. Next time you decide to hop in your car for a trip around the country, here’s why you should hang out in the Southwest.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is in California on the edge of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. It’s known for its eponymous yucca trees, which were named by the Mormons for their resemblance to the Biblical character Joshua reaching his arms up in prayer.
The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon sits along the Colorado River in northwestern Arizona and is possibly one of the best-known natural wonders of the world. No trip to the Southwest is complete without it. If I may make a suggestion: If you go to Boulder City, Nevada, there are a number of helicopter companies who will take you and your friends on helicopter tours out over the canyon. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience…unless you’re a helicopter pilot, in which case it could be a pretty frequent experience.
A large portion of “The Mother Road” runs through the American Southwest. Route 66 starts in Chicago and runs all the way to Los Angeles, cutting through New Mexico and Arizona, all Americana and old-school kitsch. Though the route has technically been defunct for years now, many hardier road trippers will drive portions of it and visit the old towns along its path.
The Taos Art Colony has made the New Mexico mountain town an artistic hub. To the north is the Taos Pueblo, a 1,000-year-old community believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States. This picture is of the San Geronimo Chapel in the Taos Pueblo.
The Colorado and Green Rivers managed to carve one hell of a landscape out of southeastern Utah, and they managed to do it in a relatively accessible place. Canyonlands is near Moab, by the Colorado border, and is well positioned to be part of a much larger trip.
Those of us who live in East Coast cities don’t get to spend much time looking up at the stars. There’s too much light pollution, and anyway, our views are often blocked by trees or buildings. The middle of the American desert, though, is one of the best places in the country to go stargazing. There’s virtually no light pollution, and there isn’t much that can block your view.
One of the most impressive feats of modern engineering also happens to be pretty cool to look. The Hoover Dam was built in the ’30s during the Depression, and now supplies vast swaths of the Southwest with hydroelectric energy. It’s also responsible for giving us Lake Mead, which is basically just an overflowed portion of the Colorado River.
One of the country’s oldest national parks is also one of its most beautiful. Though Yosemite is a little further to the north than most of the items on this list, it’s perhaps one of the most worthwhile detours on your trip.
Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada sits on the edge of Lake Mead to the north of Las Vegas. It gets its name from the red sandstone formations that give the area spectacular coloring in the right sunlight.
It seems almost unfair to group all of LA under a single category (and to not include San Diego on this list at all), but there’s just too much to cover in America’s second largest city. There are the beaches, there are the college towns, there are the movie studios, there are the ghettos, there are the mega-rich suburbs—LA has virtually everything.
This is a great stop for your trip if you’re coming on a southern route from Texas. Carlsbad Caverns is in southern New Mexico and is truly spectacular. The caves were actually discovered and promoted by a young boy by the name of Jim White, who was younger than 16 when he started exploring the caves on his own.
The Mojave Desert
The Mojave Desert spreads across southeast California, southern Nevada, and northwest Arizona. On the whole, it makes up a relatively small portion of the Southwest, but it also includes some of its most fantastic places: Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and the rim of the Grand Canyon. One of the countries most infamous cities lies in the desert as well: Las Vegas.
Moab is one of the best cities in the country for outdoors types. It’s in eastern Utah near the Colorado border; just a few hours east are the Rocky Mountains, and it’s next to two of the most spectacular national parks in the country: Canyonlands and Arches. It’s known for its mountain biking, extreme sports, and hiking.
White Sands is a set of white sand dunes in the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico. It sits next to the White Sands Missle Range, a rocket testing facility that has kept the site from becoming a World Heritage Site, but the area is beautiful regardless and is designated a US National Monument.
Sedona is a great city to wrap into a trip to Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. It sits in the center of the state of Arizona and is known for its incredible rock formations and a vibrant arts community. Like pretty much all of the places on this list, it has incredible hiking.
Arches National Park is named (obviously) after its many eroded sandstone arches. The park is one of the best places in the world for landscape photographers, and is also known for its great rock climbing and astronomy.
Las Vegas is both famous and notorious for its excesses: the casinos, the partying, the lax marriage laws, the hotels, the shows. All of this excess makes it one hell of a fun place to visit.
The lowest elevation and the highest recorded temperatures in the United States can be found in the same place: Death Valley. This national park, which straddles the California/Nevada border, is also fairly close to Mount Whitney, the highest point of elevation in the continental United States.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Monument Valley, as shown in this timelapse movie by Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinovich, is a truly staggering sight.
Empty roads and gorgeous views: Route 163 and Route 50
Monument Valley, viewed here from US Route 163, is considered one of the most iconic areas of the American West, being a popular place for shooting Westerns back in Hollywood’s heyday. Another famous road is US Route 50 in Nevada, which is known as “The Loneliest Road in America.”
Salt Lake City
The headquarters of the Mormon community is in Salt Lake City, and that makes it not quite like any other in the United States. It’s a fairly culturally conservative place, but it also contains some serious punk, hip-hop, and metal scenes when it comes to music. Oh, and it’s surrounded by an absolutely beautiful landscape.
Pacific Coast Highway
One of the best drives in the country is along the California Pacific Coast. The Pacific Coast Highway (aka State Route 1) runs between Mendocino in NorCal and Orange County. Some of the best views are between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah is known for its hoodoos, strange geological structures that form within this natural amphitheater. It’s one of the most remote national parks, and as a result, is significantly less crowded than a lot of the other parks on this list.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park in Montezuma County, Colorado, is best known for its ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings, pictured here, and is absolutely worth a visit, especially if you’re road tripping across the Rockies.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
One of the lesser-known (and newer) national parks in America, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison sits in western Colorado. It’s a great spot to visit if you’re a climber or a bird watcher.