National parks offer a virtual playground for those seeking outdoor adventure and stunning scenery. That’s especially true in the American Southwest, home to towering red mesas, deep canyons, and desert landscapes. Here are five national parks in the Southwest to add to your summer vacation plans.
Ruins at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Julia Reed/iStock.com
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
Tucked in a quiet corner of Southwest Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve archeological sites built by the Ancestral Puebloans. From 550 A.D. to 1,300 A.D., the Ancestral Puebloans lived and worked in the region. They farmed the mesa top and built intricate cliff dwellings under the protected alcoves of the canyon walls.
Sunset in the Arches national park. Photo courtesy of Jose19832/iStock.com
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
One of the most photographed locations in the country, Arches National Park has more than 2,000 documented arches, with some spanning up to 300 feet.
Another popular hike is the trail to the stunning Double Arch, located in “The Windows” section of the park. The rock can be slippery during your trek; make sure you wear shoes with good tread.
An especially good hike for children is the short trail that leads to Sand Dune Arch. Kids can play in the soft sand, and the rock walls provide cool shade during the hot summer days.
Just 10 miles from Arches is Canyonlands, the largest national park in Utah. The dramatic landscape at Canyonlands was carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. The park has four distinct districts: the Needles, the Maze, Island in the Sky, and the Rivers.
Under Corona arch for a hike. Photo courtesy of Piola666/istock.com
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
There are more than 80 arches in Canyonlands National Park, the most popular of which is the Mesa Arch. It overlooks a deep canyon filled with unique, red rock formations.
Hiking trails in the park are plentiful, and four-wheel-drive roads crisscross the backcountry.
Ancient petroglyphs and saguaro cactus forest at Signal Hill. Photo courtesy of Benedek/iStock.com
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
Saguaro National Park in Arizona is aptly named for the giant saguaro cactus that cover this desert landscape.
There are two districts of the park on either side of Tucson. Both are worth visiting, but the Tucson Mountain District is best if you’re hoping to see a spectacular desert sunset.
Due to the extreme desert heat, many visit earlier in the day. The best time to visit this park is from November to March, when the temperatures are cooler. Visitors often start their visit by driving the 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop, a road with many wide vistas and trailheads. Stop at the visitor center for hiking maps and recommendations.
CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK
This fascinating national park in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico has more than 100 caves filled with limestone formations. You can visit several caves, including Carlsbad Cavern, which has electric lights, paved trails, and elevators, as well as Slaughter Canyon Cave and Spider Cave, which are undeveloped, but have designated paths. Cave paths can be wet and slippery, so wear closed-toed shoes with good traction when visiting.
Be sure to visit the park museum, which has more than a million cultural artifacts, including ancient fossils.
Travel Tips: Reservations are required at some national park locations, so check current requirements before your visit. Summer in the Southwest is hot and dry. Take care when visiting the parks. Be sure to bring along plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat. Many parks have limited food options, so it’s always good to bring along snacks or a picnic.