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The American Southwest is filled with some of the country’s most impressive national parks and monuments. One of the best ways to experience them is to head out on the road, an adventure of a lifetime with many destinations within relatively easy driving distance. From the Grand Canyon to fiery red rock landscapes and beyond, putting these must-visit parks and monuments on your itinerary is sure to make for the ultimate road trip.
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The most popular attraction in the country with foreign visitors, Grand Canyon National Park is a must-experience. Head to the South Rim to take in a jaw-dropping view of one of the world’s most breathtaking natural formations. For a closer look, join a mule tour and ride down to the bottom, or get a bird’s-eye view with a helicopter flight. By traveling to the remote southwest corner of the park, you can visit Havasupai, which means “people of the blue-green waters.” This is where you’ll find one of the planet’s most spectacular waterfalls plunging into turquoise-hued pools below.
Antelope Canyon is on many travelers’ bucket lists, and probably every photographer’s. Situated in the heart of Navajo Country just outside of Page, Arizona, it may be the most photographed slot canyon on Earth. This mystifying place features bright red sandstone and rocks that seem to flow – so surreal, it will literally take your breath away. It’s actually made up of two separate canyons, the Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon, though many prefer the upper canyon as its light beams are even more dramatic, practically guaranteeing incredible images.
The vast Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument boasts a stunning blend of colorful sandstone cliffs that soar above narrow slot canyons along with seemingly endless slick rock, waterfalls, arches, abandoned old western film sets, prehistoric village sites and more. The Escalante Canyons section is the monument’s most popular, particularly among hikers, while off-roaders come to travel Cottonwood Canyon Road, which offers a unique view into the heart of the park for those with a high-clearance vehicle.
Straddling the border of Arizona and Utah, Monument Valley is a wonderland of spires, buttes and red rock creations. One of the most enduring and definitive images of the American West, it took eons of wind and rain to carve the gargantuan red-sandstone monoliths into the fascinating formations that stand today, many of which jut hundreds of feet above the desert floor in a scene that’s remained untouched for centuries. The isolated red mesas and buttes surrounded by a vast, sandy desert have served as the setting for practically a countless number of movies, with nostalgic images that will be especially familiar to John Wayne fans.
Located in southwestern Colorado near Four Corners, the point where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico all meet, Mesa Verde offers the chance to walk in the ancient footsteps of the ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi as they’re often referred to. These people once lived in the park’s remarkable cliff dwellings, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today that includes some of the most-well-preserved archaeological sites in the entire country. Over 4,500 can be found within its borders, including Cliff Palace with its 150 rooms once housing a population of about 100 inhabitants.
Located in southeastern Utah, Arches is home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the iconic Delicate Arch. Driving through the park is a great way to see these structures, and others, like stone spires, fins, towers and columns, that were created through millions of years of erosion. In addition to the dramatic rock formations, there are meandering canyons, petrified dunes and vast sandstone buttes. From the visitor center, the road climbs several switchbacks, providing awe-inspiring views of Moab Canyon and the red cliffs. Highlights along the first half of the road include Balanced Rock, Park Avenue and the Windows Section of the Park with its North and South Window Arches, Double Arch, Turret Arch, the Parade of Elephants and Cove of Caves.
Canyonlands National Park is located just a short drive from Arches, and offers views of impressive, multi-colored rock layers that were formed by millions of years of erosion in eastern Utah. Divided into four districts, The Needles, Island in the Sky, The Maze, and The Rivers, the Island in the Sky is the most accessible area, providing lots of overlooks, hiking trails, and a fantastic scenic drive. This is also a spot that’s popular with four-wheelers, with the chance to travel to the backcountry of the Needles area with its out-of-this-world vistas. You’ll see impressive formations like Paul Bunyan’s Potty and the famed Tower Ruin, a well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan home and Newspaper Rock, with its rock panel carved with one of the world’s most extensive collections of petroglyphs discovered to date.
Bryce Canyon National Park is a mountainous, densely forested park situated in southwestern Utah. Renowned for its natural amphitheater and other bizarre sandstone formations like hoodoos, the name is a bit of a misnomer as it’s really not a canyon at all. This is actually the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau which features intricately carved archways and towers of stone that glisten under the almost always present rays of the sun. One of the most unique destinations on the planet, the park hosts the largest collection of hoodoos, with thousands of them spread across the landscape, on Earth.
A magnificent land of unique rock formations and other geologic features, waterfalls, dramatic cliffs, deserts, lush greenery and sandstone canyons, Zion showcases some of the most awe-inspiring vistas and hiking opportunities in the entire Southwest. One of its highlights is The Narrows, a gorge with walls that are a thousand feet high with a river running through, depending on the year and the season, that can be up to 20 or even 30 feet wide. It’s possible to hike the easy Riverside Walk for a mile from the Temple of Sinawava to view it, or you can travel well beyond, wading through the Virgin River.