These National Parks are the Best in the Southwest

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Capital Reef National Park in the southwest

If you’re heading to the southwest, you must spend some time in the national parks. You’ll find some of the country’s most epic landscapes and remote areas in the southwest.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to get miles away from the nearest person, there’s a good chance you can find a place here.

Let’s examine some of the best national parks in the southwest that you won’t want to miss!

About the National Park Service

The National Park Service has maintained national park units since 1916. They do this through the efforts of volunteers and rangers country-wide.

The land management agency works with nonprofit organizations, local governments, tribes, businesses, and individual citizens to help preserve and celebrate local heritage and history. 

In addition, they aim to create close-to-home opportunities where adventurers of all ages can have fun while being active outside. One of the most crucial goals of NPS is to ensure that future generations can enjoy the national parks.

What Are the States in the Southwest?

Typically, the southwest consists of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, and Texas.

However, there can be some regional modifications to what states people consider to be in the southwest. Some will include Texas in the south, and others will identify California as a part of the west. 

The National Park Service doesn’t even have a southwest region. Most of the states we identify as part of the American southwest are in what they call the Intermountain Region. However, this excludes California and Nevada but includes Montana and Wyoming. 

How Many National Parks Are in the Southwest US?

While 63 national park units have national park designations, there are more than 400 total units. In the five primary southwest states (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada,  and Utah), there are more than 50 national park units.

You’ll find historic trails running through multiple states, national recreational areas creating state borders, and some of the most breathtakingly beautiful landscapes in the country.

Best National Parks In the Southwest Region

Some of the best national parks you can visit are in the southwest region. Seeing some of them can be tricky, as summer in the southwest can be brutal.

However, the triple-digit temperatures don’t stop millions of visitors from exploring the national parks in the southwest yearly.

Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Northern Arizona

About The Park: Grand Canyon National Park was the 15th location the government designated as a national park. It is 1,217,262 acres and typically welcomes over four million visitors annually.

The park is ripe for adventure, including hiking down into the canyon, which is more than a mile deep and larger than the state of Rhode Island.

The park has two rims at the north and south, but due to the north’s higher elevation, it closes for the winter. 

Why It’s Worth A Visit: Grand Canyon National Park will take your breath away, whether you enjoy the view from the safety of the paved trail and behind the guardrails or if you hike to the bottom.

There’s so much to see and do at Grand Canyon National Park that you can’t possibly experience it all in a single trip. You’ll want to plan multiple trips.

Many experience the park and the surrounding canyon through hiking, rafting, off-roading, and helicopter rides.

Petrified Forest National Park

Location: Eastern Arizona

About The Park: Petrified Forest National Park is 221,391 acres of unique landscapes. A portion of the park is the Painted Desert, which perfectly fits this area.

The landscapes look like nature painted the brightly colored rocks to create beautiful contrasting colors throughout the region. As its name implies, you can find a tremendous amount of petrified wood throughout the 346 square miles of the park. 

Why It’s Worth A Visit: With roughly 600,000 annual visitors, the park is substantially less crowded than the Grand Canyon. This is an easy stop for anyone driving along I-40 or following Route 66.

The park has several relatively short hiking trails, but guests of all ages can sit back and enjoy the scenic drive through the park.

Petrified Forest National Park in the Southwest

Saguaro National Park

Location: Southern Arizona

About The Park: Saguaro National Park is two separate areas combined for 92,000 acres. In a typical year, the park welcomes over a million visitors. The park is home to millions of giant saguaro plants that people typically only find in this small area of the country near Tucson.

If you’re looking for a beautiful place to explore the desert, the park has more than 165 miles of hiking trails. However, it does not come without dangers, with extreme temperatures, cactus spines, snakes, bears, and cougars.

Why It’s Worth A Visit: A visit to Saguaro National Park means getting up close and personal with some massive cactus plants. To fully appreciate these plants, you have to stand beside one.

Luckily, the scenic drives in the park make it very easy to find a parking space near a trail and enjoy a short hike through the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park 

Location: Southern Utah

About The Park: Bryce Canyon National Park allows guests to enjoy landscapes that look like something from another planet.

While you can find these hoodoo rock formations on every continent, Bryce Canyon National Park has the largest concentration of these unique rocks.

The rock structures combine with the brightly colored red stone to form a landscape unlike any other. This 35,835-acre national park in the southwest may not be the largest the NPS manages, but it welcomes over a million visitors yearly.

Why It’s Worth A Visit: This park has so much to see and do; you’ll need at least a full day to experience it.

Between scenic drives and popular hiking trails, the views are constantly changing. Don’t miss the sights from Rainbow Point, Natural Bridge, and Sunrise Point. 

Bryce Canyon National Park in the southwest

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Location: Southeast New Mexico

About The Park: Carlsbad Caverns National Park sits in New Mexico’s Guadalupe Mountains and welcomes approximately 400,000 visitors yearly.

The park is 46,766 acres, and much is a designated wilderness area to prevent future habitat modifications. The main attraction at this park is a trip into the limestone cave.

Many guests look forward to the massive chamber they call the Big Room. This is the largest cave chamber in the United States and the 31st largest in the world. Another popular activity at the park is the seasonal (Memorial Day through October) bat viewing.

Why It’s Worth A Visit: Carlsbad Caverns National Park is gorgeous inside the cave. It’s accessible for everyone, whether you hike into the cave or take advantage of the elevator.

The paths are easy to navigate and provide ample room for visitors to pass each other. If you get the opportunity to watch the bats exit the cave, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

White Sands National Park

Location: Southcentral New Mexico

About The Park: White Sands National Park is home to the world’s largest gypsum dune field. This 275 square miles of desert will convince you that you’ve escaped to some faraway land. The park is 156,762 acres and has massive dunes towering 60+ feet tall as far as your eyes can see.

The park typically sees 600,000 visitors enter its gates yearly to put their feet in the sand and experience this unique national park in the southwest.

Why It’s Worth A Visit: There’s nothing like flying down one of these massive dunes on a sled. This is one activity that’s fun for the whole family.

The sand is so soft and compact that you can spend all day flying down the dunes on a waxed-up saucer sled. You’ll laugh until you cry, and you’ll wake up the next morning sore from climbing up the dunes all day.

White Sands National Park in the southwest

Mesa Verde National Park 

Location: Southwest Colorado

About The Park: This 52,486 acres of land gives you a peek into what life would have been like for the people who called the southwestern Colorado territory home thousands of years ago. People know this park for its high concentration of dwellings, as there are over 5,000, including 600+ cliff dwellings.

If you’re one of the more than 500,000 annual visitors, plan ahead. Many tours providing up-close looks at the houses will require a tour reservation.

Why It’s Worth A Visit: There’s something fascinating about seeing how the people here adapted and used the land. Seeing how they established an entire city on the side of a cliff is inspiring.

This is an excellent opportunity for families to learn hands-on in an exciting environment.

Keep in Mind: If you enjoy traveling to National Parks and experiencing these stunning landscapes, then you have to learn about the National Park to Park Highway!

Sequoia National Park 

Location: Central California

About The Park: The government established this southwest Sequoia National Park in 1890 to protect the more than 400,000 acres of land in the southern portion of the Sierra Nevada.

The park neighbors Kings Canyon National Park and is home to some of the world’s most impressive giant sequoia trees. It is home to the massive General Sherman tree, the largest tree on earth by volume. It neighbors several others that make the top ten list.

Walking through the 202,400 acres of old-growth forests will make you feel tiny. Luckily, there are many trails available that make it easy to explore this park.

Why It’s Worth A Visit: There’s no way to appreciate these trees without seeing them in person. Pictures don’t do them the justice they deserve. Standing next to these massive trees is one experience we think everyone should have at least once.

Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Southern Utah

About The Park: Capitol Reef National Park is a part of the “mighty five” Utah national parks. As a result, Capitol Reef often gets overlooked by Arches and Zion, but it’s one of the best parks in the southwest. Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside these  241,000 acres of land in 1937.

Visitors can explore the canyons, cliffs, towers, domes, and arches within the park. One of the best ways to experience the park is through the scenic drive. While it’s only a few miles, visitors can spend as much time as they want to explore the hundreds of miles of trails and unpaved roads.

However, the one million annual visitors should be mindful that some areas can be remote and become dangerous if you go too far into the backcountry.

Why It’s Worth A Visit: Capitol Reef National Park is full of natural beauty. The colorful rocks contrast against the bright blue skies.

Whether you want to explore on foot or by car, Capitol Reef National Park is one of the parks in the southwest you can’t miss.

Capital Reef National Park in the southwest

Big Bend National Park

Location: South Texas

About The Park: Resting on the United States-Mexico border, Big Bend National Park and its 800,000+ acres welcome approximately 500,000 visitors yearly. The government established the park in 1935 to protect the largest portions of the Chihuahuan Desert in the United States.

At 1,252 square miles, this national park is also larger than Rhode Island. Visitors can see evidence of native people inhabiting this area for thousands of years. There are pictographs and archeological sites throughout the park.

If you’re looking to get away from everyone, this remote national park in south Texas is the place to do it.

Why It’s Worth A Visit: Big Bend National Park is an excellent place to get away from people and enjoy a bit of nature. There are plenty of hiking and camping opportunities.

At night, the skies come alive with stars, and the area provides some of the best options for stargazing. 

Keep in Mind: Camping at Big Bend National Park is in high demand! Here is Everything You Need to Know About Big Bend National Park Camping

Indigenous History and Natural Beauty: The National Parks of the Southwest 

The southwest is full of history and tremendous beauty.

Exploring the national parks in the southwest is an incredible opportunity to learn more about the people and the history of the land. The National Park Service typically does a fantastic job of creating opportunities for visitors to educate themselves.

Younger adventurers can even participate in fun and educational Junior Ranger programs. Do yourself a favor and spend some time exploring the national parks when you’re in this part of the country!

Which of these national parks in the southwest will you visit first?

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2 comments
  1. Thanks for nothing. It’s pieces like these that have brought the ‘me too’ crowds to these once pristine places. Now it’s long lines, traffic jams, trash, lotteries, and rude, entitled people looking for their Instagram pose. I know of better places and I’m headed there.

  2. Not sure what your criteria are, but on my list are also Yosemite, Zion, Arches, Canyon Lands, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree. It’s also important to note that over half of the major national parks (32) are in the continental US west. If you want to visit the highest concentration of National Parks Utah is a great place to live.

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