A travel guide to the best national parks in Southwest USA

A travel guide to the best national parks in Southwest USA

It’s a sheer 1000 ft drop on either side to the canyon floor. One wrong move and it’s game over. Even the condors don’t venture this high but swoop gracefully below, distracting us from the task at hand. On either side the valley stretches into the distance, it’s rich red craggy walls splashed with white like a giant has kicked over the paint tin. Far below us the Virgin River, so tiny from up here, curls like a discarded blue ribbon, dropped and forgotten in the grass. It’s a miracle that anyone keeps their footing on this path with such breathtaking scenery!

We’re walking the Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park, one of the USA’s most beautiful national parks, and the south western corner of America is positively brimming with them! Within a few hundred miles you can travel to world wonders, quirky towns and iconic landscapes. You can start your morning horse riding on a ranch in the Grand Canyon, run like Forest Gump through Monument Valley in the afternoon and watch sunset through one of 2000 natural sandstone arches in Arches National Park.

There are dozens of national parks scattered across southwest USA, all completely unique from one another and packed full of adventure potential.

Here’s our guide to the best in the west!

The Grand Canyon National Park

For jaw-dropping views and bragging rights visit The Grand Canyon. Lets face it, this world wonder had to top the ‘must-see’ list. No matter how many photographs you’ve seen of this extraordinary place, it won’t prepare you for the first moment you lay eyes on its vast other-worldly interior, dancing with light and shadow as the sun moves across the sky, finding its way into crumbling red cracks and crevices.

Travellers on the edge of the Grand Canyon National Park, USA
Feeling tiny on the edge of the Grand Canyon

What to do there

To fully appreciate its beauty visit at different times of the day. Start with sunrise over the canyon – a magical experience not to be missed. As the sky turns orange and the sun creeps above the horizon, the canyon is drenched in golden light and a kaleidoscope of colour which changes from moment to moment. Most people flock to Grand View Point or Mather Point to watch the show but for a more serene experience catch the shuttle bus to Yaki Point and find your own private viewing spot away from the main lookout. The shuttle is free and starts running at 5am during the summer.

Sunrise over the Grand Canyon National Park, USA
Sunrise over the Grand Canyon from Yaki Point
Traveller looking out over the Grand Canyon National Park, USA
Amazing view over the Grand Canyon just after sunrise

Once the sun’s up take a morning hike into the canyon itself along the pretty South Kaibab Trail. This 3 mile round trip takes you into the belly of the Grand Canyon providing spectacular 360 degree views with every step. A series of switchbacks and steep, rocky steps will lead you to Cedar Ridge which is the turn around point. It’s a tough walk in the summer heat so an early start is crucial and take plenty of water.

Walkers follow the South Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon National Park, USA
The South Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon

To fully appreciate the Grand Canyon from every angle take a stroll along the South Rim Trail. Well serviced with water fountains, visitor centres and shuttle buses, this is a walk every man and his dog, baby and grandma can manage. Spend the day hopping on and off the shuttle buses or walk the whole route, the choice is yours. We walked from the main visitor centre to Maricopa Point, one of the prettiest and quieter sections of the route, then caught the shuttle bus to Hermits Rest.

Where to stay

Accommodation in the Grand Canyon National Park is pricey and gets booked up months in advance in the summer. We stayed in Williams, a charming little town with cheap accommodation and a huge personality to boot just 45 minutes drive from the Grand Canyon. Fully embracing its wild west roots, you can shop for a cowboy hat, see a Rodeo, chew on ribs in an all American diner and listen to live music until your heart’s content. It’s even located on the famous Route 66! What more could you want?

More information on visiting the Grand Canyon National Park

Zion National Park

For hikers looking for a little ‘Je ne sais quoi’ head to Zion National Park. It has some of the best – and most intersting – hikes in the south west. You can defy gravity on the Angels Landing Trail or wade through ‘The Narrows’, visit emerald pools or just languish beside the cool Virgin River. What’s certain is you’ll fall in love with Zion’s technicolour cliffs and aromatic pine trees and probably find yourself staying longer than planned!

Walkers on Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park, USA
Don’t look down! Walking the vertigo inducing Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park

What to do there

The strenuous 5.4 mile Angels Landing Trail is not for the faint hearted or vertigo-prone walker. But for those with a head for heights, it delivers some of the most breath-taking views in the park. The trail starts with a series of switchbacks through the towering red rocks before the path falls away on either side to leave a narrow sliver of rock which protrudes out into the canyon. Chains attached to the cliffs provide a hand hold as you clamber precariously over the rocks and the path narrows to just a few feet with a sheer drop on either side. It’s an exhilerating and dizzying walk that will bring you as close to the birds as possible on terra firma!

If walking amongst the birds isn’t for you, the watery trail through ‘The Narrows’ is equally spectacular. The path is a river bed which slices through a towering canyon, narrowing to just 6 feet wide in places. Tread carefully as the path dips and rises with waist deep water in places and look out for those heavenly beams of light which sneak through gaps in the rock and illuminate the tumbling steel blue water.

Man walks through a river in Zion National Park, USA
Negotiating ‘The Narrows’ in Zion National Park
Towering canyon walls in Zion National Park, USA
Towering canyon walls in Zion National Park

Where to stay

There is limited accommodation in the park itself so we stayed in Springdale, which sits at the main south entrance. With a backdrop of towering cliffs, plenty of accommodation, bars and restaurants and excellent transport links into the park (it only takes 10 minutes) this pretty little town is the perfect base for your park visit.

Find more walks in Zion National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

If quirky rock formations are your thing, then Bryce Canyon National Park is for you. Hundreds of stripy needle-like rock pinnacles or ‘hoodoos’ rise dramatically from the earth like an army of stone men. In fact the story goes that the hoodoos are ancient ‘Legend People’ who were turned into stone as punishment for bad deeds. If you look closely you can even make out faces in the rock.

Hundreds of towering 'hoodoos' in Bryce Canyon National Park, USA
Hundreds of towering ‘hoodoos’ in Bryce Canyon National Park

What to do there

Bryce is best viewed at sunset when the orange sky turns the colourful rocks an even more vibrant red. Aptly named ‘sunset point’ is the perfect viewing spot and provides a grand overview of the park. Let your imagination run wild with stories of the ‘Legend People’ then take one if the rusty red paths down into the canyon to walk among them.

Where to stay

Bryce is only an hour’s drive from Zion so can easily be included in a road trip. We stopped off for a couple of hours en route to our accommodation in Springdale giving us plenty of time to see the park which is relatively small compared to some of the others. However if you are planning a longer stay the small town of Tropic has lodging.

More information on visiting Bryce Canyon National Park

Monument Valley

Okay so technically Monument Valley isn’t a national park but there’s no way we couldn’t include it in our list as one of the most iconic and spectacular landscapes in America’s southwest. Popularized by countless Hollywood Westerns and later by Robert Zemeckis’ oscar-winning fable Forest Gump, Monument Valley contains some of the most recognisable rocks in the world!

Long empty road stretching into the distance in Monument Valley, USA
One of many iconic Hollywood scenes in Monument Valley

What to do there

Just drive! Monument Valley is classic road trip territory. Long isolated roads stretch endlessly into the flat desert, punctuated by dramatic red rocks. There’s nothing better than winding down the windows, turning up the volume and imagining your Hollywood heroes following the same route on horseback! Make sure you stop off for the obligatory ‘Forest Gump’ running photo op!

Where to stay

To really immerse yourself in Navajo Indian culture stay in a tipi! Monument Valley Tipi Village is located right on the edge of the Navajo Tribal Park and costs £90 for 4 people. Just try to avoid visiting during a storm! The top of our tipi blew off in gale-force winds so we had to decamp to a wooden lodge!

Tipis in Monument Valley, USA
Not a bad place to spend the night! Monument Valley Tipi Village

Yosemite National Park

If you’ve had your fill of red rocks and canyons take a trip to refreshing Yosemite. This is the park furthest north on our list so benefits from a slightly cooler climate. Think tumbling waterfalls and lush, green wild-flower meadows. This place will supercharge you with so much zest for life, you’ll be singing and twirling through the valley like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. And if you’re not, well quite frankly there’s something wrong with you!

View of Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park, USA
View of Yosemite Falls in lush, green Yosemite Valley

What to do there

A stroll through Yosemite Valley is an absolute must. Yes it’s busy and full of tourists wielding selfie sticks, but this picture-perfect natural wonderland is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Within 2 miles it packs cascading waterfalls, dramatic granite rocks, grazing deer and meadows so lush you’ll be expecting Snow White herself to come skipping around the corner.

Once you’re done in the valley it’s time to stretch your legs and do what us Yorkshire lasses call a ‘proper walk’! There are dozens of spectacular walks in Yosemite, but if you only have one day, spend it ascending Clouds Rest. This 15 mile round trip is a toughie but you’ll be rewarded with awesome views of half dome and the surrounding valleys. It will literally take your breath away!

View from the top of Clouds Rest, Yosemite National Park, USA
Catching our breath at the top of Clouds Rest, Yosemite National Park
Lake and trees landscape in Yosemite National Park, USA
Pretty lake en route to Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park

Where to stay

Surprise surprise, like every other National park on this list, Yosemite is a popular destination so accommodation fills quickly during peak holiday period. There are ‘first come first served’ campsites within the park which do not accept advance bookings so give the less organised amongst us a chance, but they’re usually full by midday. We stayed half an hour outside the valley at a hostel in Midpines. Yosemite Bug Mountain Resort has something for every budget with private rooms and dorms. It even has an on site spa! A dorm bed cost £25 each which is an absolute bargain in this part of the world.

More information on visiting Yosemite National Park

Arches National Park

With the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches, Arches National Park is a travel photographer’s dream! Visit at both ends of the day to take full advantage of this stunning landscape dotted with more than 2000 arches ranging from 3ft to 300ft wide. It’s also a great park to visit for its proximity to the Colorado river which is easily accessible on a rafting trip from nearby Moab.

A natural sandstone arch in Arches National Park, USA
‘Double Arch’, one of the 2000 natural sandstone arches, in Arches National Park

What to do there

Pack a picnic and your camera and visit the park at sunset to see these fascinating rocks change colour and cast ghostly shadows over the landscape. A paved road links the noteworthy arches, many of which can be seen en route or via a short hiking trail. Access to some of the most famous arches was closed due to maintenance when we were there so check ahead to avoid disappointment.

Where to stay

Moab, billed as Utah’s adventure capital, is just 5 miles from the entrance to Arches National Park. It has plenty of accommodation, bars and restaurants along with a multitude of tour operators offering every activity imaginable. You can arrange mountain biking, horse riding, river rafting and even swing dancing from this little town!

So that’s our guide to the best national parks in soutwest USA! We love hearing from other travellers, so feel free to post a comment or drop us an email. And don’t forget to check out our FacebookInstagram and Twitter pages for more photos and travel tips!

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5 thoughts on “A travel guide to the best national parks in Southwest USA

  1. Unfortunately I think the Angel’s Landing hike is out of my comfort zone with heights at the moment, but the wading Narrows trail seems so much fun! I’m definitely adding it to the list!!! 🙂 Great post with some amazing tips, very helpful! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your colourful descriptions and stunning photography of the different rock formations in the parks. I can visualise you singing and twirling like Julie Andrews in the wild-flower meadows of Yosemite and Rich doing a Forrest Gump run in Monument Valley. There also seems to be a soundtrack playing in the background as you drive along Route 66!

    Like

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