Epic Martian landscapes, pristine nature and an endless horizon that simply takes your breath away – the Southwest carries its own special charm and definitely lives up to its “wild west” heritage. My love for the American Southwest runs deep. Here are my favorite five must-visit National Parks in the Southwest to add to your bucket list.
1. Grand Canyon National Park
There’s a reason why Arizona is proudly carrying the nickname “Grand Canyon State”. The two-billion-year-old rip across the landscape blows you away by it’s pure magnitude. While it is not the deepest Canyon it sure is the largest. The area to explore is endless and it is up to you if you simply take a hike, hop on a boat that runs down the Colorado River or join a mule ride through the Canyon.
Fun Fact: The pretty cute and innocent looking Rock Squirrels are considered to be the most dangerous animals in the Grand Canyon. Each year many visitors end up in the emergency room because of Squirrel attacks. So keep your distance but don’t worry: Not all of these highly active creatures are actually aggressive!
2. Saguaro National Park
The Saguaro Cactus is the icon of the American Southwest. As its name might suggest, the Saguaro National Park is home to thousands of these stunning desert plants. The park is located in the east and west of Tucson, as part of the Sonoran Desert. Aside from the majestic Saguaros, there’s plenty of other desert plants and wildlife to discover.
Fun Fact: Did you know that Saguaro Cacti, despite their giant height, are growing super slowly? They reach 40-60 feet, but are growing only one to two inches during the first eight years of their life.
3. Joshua Tree National Park
There’s no way to list my top five must-visit National Parks in the Southwest without paying tribute to Joshua Tree National Park. The Park owes its name to the majestic Joshua Tree, the Yucca brevifolia, native to the Mojave Desert in Southern California. There’s something magical to Joshua Tree National Park with it’s impressive flora and curiously shaped rock formations, especially while visiting the desert in spring. If you got the time, don’t forget to visit Joshua Tree, the cute desert town right across from the National Park. For some helpful tips on what to see and do in the area check out my Conscious Travel Guide to Joshua Tree.
Fun Fact: The Park actually contains two entirely different eco-systems, the Mojave and the Colorado desert. Distinguished mostly by elevation, the high and slightly cooler Mojave desert features the famous Joshua Trees, whereas the low Colorado Desert is dominated by arid land as habitat of ocotillos and cholla cacti.
4. White Sands National Monument
Alabaster dunes and azure skies – White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico is the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Pure white sand stretches as far as the eye can see. I never experienced a place more serene and calming. Take in the magnificent views and enjoy the complete silence that will surround you. White Sands is simply magical.
Fun Fact: The “sand” in the dunes actually isn’t sand in the typical sense. It’s almost pure gypsum and therefore isn’t composed of silica, like most regular inland sand. Gypsum is soluble which means that it dissolves in water, when rain falls. Since the dunes are entirely enclosed, the gypsum stays in the monument.
5. Valley of Fire State Park
First things first: The Valley of Fire technically is not a National but a State Park. Since it is Nevada’s oldest and biggest State Park and displays one of the most peculiar landscapes, it had to make my “top 5 must-visit National Parks in the Southwest”- list. If you have a choice, you might not want to visit around august, cause the Valley of Fire National Park does live up to its name. The bright red Aztec sandstone rock formations appear to be from another planet and are one of the most stunning landscapes in America.
Fun Fact: With approximately 250.000 annual visitors, the Valley of Fire State Park isn’t as busy as the Grand Canyon, millions visit each year. Exploring the epic landscapes is way more relaxed and you can simply enjoy this tranquil atmosphere.