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National Parks in the Southwest of the United States runs through Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. The terrain is otherworldly, with deserts and seemingly extraterrestrial rock formations dotting the way. Classic cacti, rainbows of geological colors and iconic canyons define this territory, and the scenery makes for one heck of a road trip. Our guide will take you from Nevada’s Great Basin, all the way to distinct landscapes of Saguaro in Arizona, on a nearly 32-hour adventure.
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One of the best lesser-known U.S. National Parks, Great Basin presents far differently than much of the Southwest terrain. Rather than red rock and traditional desert foliage, travelers will find mountains, tall trees, caves and lakes. While booking in advance a tour through the caves is highly recommended, the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive provides a solid overview. But hiking and camping are also common ways to explore the lush park.
About 3.5 hours from Great Basin, Zion National Park is often referred to as a sanctuary—while still housing the red cliffs, more lush features like waterfalls and rivers can be discovered. Trails can range from easy to challenging, so research before heading out. Spring is a popular time to visit this national park, while Autumn offers access to scenic landscapes thanks to its fiery foliage.
Drive two hours from Zion and you’ll reach Bryce Canyon National Park, which was formed by winds and elements other than a river. Strange shapes and rock formations make up the signature look of the land. Many Native American tales further enrich the experience of spending time hiking to the park’s most famous point, Bryce Amphitheater, via the Rim Trail. This is most certainly a place where you’ll want to take a full day on foot.
Another two hours and you’ll land in Capitol Reef, which was traversed by Mormon pioneers in the early days. One of the most beautiful parks in Utah, it is adorned with the classic Utah red rock, showcased in a variety of scenic canyons and structures. Utah 24 is a simple paved road winding through the heart of Capitol Reef, where striking photo ops await. Short trails lead to interesting natural sites and native foliage such as Piñon pines. However, there is much driving terrain for those who want to stay on the road.
Canyonlands is around 2.5 hours from Capitol Reef and is an overwhelmingly large park divided into three portions—The Maze, Island in the Sky and The Needles. National Geographic’s Guide to National Parks of the United States suggests taking on the car friendly terrain of Island in the Sky, if there’s not much time to explore. The Needles, followed by the in depth Maze require days devoted to their terrain. Like Arches National Park, Canyonlands is close to Moab.
You won’t have to go far to reach the next destination, as Arches National Park is only about 30 minutes away. The name speaks for itself, as this golden and glorious desert wonderland boasts ancient sandstone arches that are some of the most remarkable aspects of the area. Short and long hikes are available to various notable sites, like the 1.5 mile “march” to Delicate Arch. But a paved park loop offers many pull-offs for drivers to see so much as well. Keep in mind that the arches are very fragile, and some rules need to be followed to protect the land. Located near Moab, many good lodging options are close.
Black Canyon is three hours away from Arches, and is of the Gunnison is another appropriately named park, as volcanic rock gives the dramatic walls their darker hues. Over the ages, the Gunnison River has been molding this masterpiece. The park can be explored most easily by venturing to the South Rim. Trails are a bit more friendly, while you’ll still often spot wildlife. A visitor center provides details on the terrain. According to National Geographic’s Guide to National Parks of the United States, the North Rim is far more inhospitable but so worth it for expert hikers.
History enthusiasts will want to make the three-hour trip to nearby
Mesa Verde, which was once inhabited by an ancient culture. Discover countless archeological sites strewn through the park and see unreal artifacts such as cliff dwellings (you might have seen them in an Indiana Jones film). These old buildings still remain engraved in the rock and are remarkably intact. Venture far into Mesa Verde with a ranger, while immersing in facts at the Visitor and Research Center.
The Grand Canyon’s South Rim is about six hours away—and there’s not much we can write about this destination that many don’t already know. It’s one of the most noteworthy sites in America. Travelers can go with the flow and head to South Rim, where there’s a visitors center and plenty of overlooks. But venturing further beyond, to the North Rim, will reward with more solitude, and overall different experience than you might have had along a family road trip in the 90s.
Petrified Forest National Park is a natural and geological spectacle around 3.5 hours from the Grand Canyon. Colors from every aspect of the rainbow fill visitor’s sights with just one glance. This is a great park for families, as the trails offer a deep glimpse while being fairly easy to tackle. The Park Road will glide by many trailheads for easy access. Be sure to learn a bit about the park at the Painted Desert Visitors Center—the sites will be more appreciated.
Saguaro is all about protecting the Saguaro cactus, which is that iconic form depicted in western drawings, big and green with arms pointing toward the sky. Located about five hours from the Petrified Forest, Saguaro can be taken on in a day, even if going for some of the various hikes that could display former petroglyphs and culture. But yes, there’s a park loop with wonderful sweeping views for a more chill wind down to the trip.