National Parks of the Southwest: Adventure Awaits in Your Own Backyard

From Arches to Zion, Great Sand Dunes and White Sands to the breathtaking Rockies, preserved lands in the southwestern U.S. draw people from all corners of the world. Revealing colossal geological wonders; ancient history, as evidenced by petroglyphs, ruins and cave paintings; dinosaur remains embedded in rocks; and seemingly impossible gravity-defying formations stand as a reminder of nature’s impermanency, national parks of the southwest ground, challenge and amaze you at every turn. 

Think red rock is red rock and it’ll get boring? Rest assured, the variety of landscapes — from one side of the road to the next, around every turn and at different elevations — inspire endless awe. And the parks could not be more different, a fact that boggles the mind. 

Whether you’re a family with tots or an adventure-seeker with rock-climbing skills, there’s something to move you. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in the southwestern U.S.? America’s breathtaking backyards are a hop, skip and a jump from home. 

Considering a move to the southwestern United States? Already settled in? The mountains, dunes and caverns are calling — and so much more. 

Tips for Visiting National Parks 

Whether you prefer a quick weekend jaunt or a full-on vacation, it’s important to get the lay of the land before visiting national parks in the country’s southwest, as these destinations are among the remotest areas on Earth. As such, you’ll lack access to certain necessities; cell service can be spotty; and weather and road conditions can change in the blink of an eye.  

It’s often an hours-long drive through challenging — not to mention exhilarating — driving conditions when traveling from one end of most national parks to the other. Plan your routes and map out everything in advance. It’s also a good idea to purchase hard-copy maps, like National Geographic’s waterproof trail map series. They not only include topography, but also roads and routes not detailed on regular maps — or, frankly, the ones you receive at the gate.  

Then, check the parks’ official website for things like road and trail closures before you go — otherwise you could be met with a closed road, entrance or trail that can derail an otherwise well-planned adventure. This is the wilderness, and you’re at the mercy of mother nature every day.  

Because the parks are so vast, timing is everything. Yellowstone, for example, spans nearly 3,500 square miles. Group viewpoints and hikes by regions within the park; note the distance and time between destinations; and know how to reach your must-sees in advance. No one wants to end up mid-mountain and crunched for time. Account for the fact that these drives can take longer than expected — mountain, unpaved and meandering roads are that way.  

Consider, too, what time of year is right for your visit. In some parts of the country, the summer heat is oppressive, while winter brings seasonal road closures that render parts of the parks off-limits for months at a time.  By contrast, off-season visits — spring and fall — prove more peaceful and less populated, while providing a beauty of their own. However, there can also be times when certain regions receive the most rain. 

Here are some other important considerations and rules of thumb when planning national park trips: 

  • Get an annual national park pass 
  • Buy a park passport — and stamp it at each visitor’s center 
  • Book early — nearby accommodations fill up well in advance 
  • Bring proper gear — and prepare for weather changes 
  • Dress in layers and bring a daypack 
  • Drink water — and lots of it 
  • Slather on sunscreen, regardless of the weather 
  • Pack a picnic, as dining options are limited-to-non-existent 
  • Stop by the gift shop — they tend to be great 
  • Gas up the night before — hours vary and options are few and far between 
  • Combine camping with a stay in a historic lodge or Airbnb 
  • Befriend park rangers for insider information 
  • Download park, weather and GPS apps in advance 
  • Check the park website for time entry requirements 
  • Leave no trace 

Ready to get started? Let’s explore the national parks of the southwestern U.S. and delve into their biggest draws.

  1. Death Valley National Park
  2. Great Basin National Park
  3. Arches National Park
  4. Bryce Canyon National Park
  5. Canyonlands National Park
  6. Capitol Reef National Park
  7. Grand Canyon National Park 
  8. Petrified Forest National Park
  9. Saguaro National Park
  10. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  11. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
  12. Mesa Verde National Park
  13. Rocky Mountain National Park
  14. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  15. White Sands National Park
  16. Big Bend National Park
  17. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

National Parks in Nevada

Death Valley National Park

Featuring the hottest, driest and lowest area on the North American continent, Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes east of the Sierra Nevada, straddling the California–Nevada border in the northern Mojave. Situated below sea level, a series of Native American groups inhabited the area as early as 7000 BC, most recently the Timbisha around 1000 AD. Then, in 1849, a group of European Americans got trapped in the valley while seeking a fateful shortcut to California’s gold fields, giving the valley its name. 

An area shaped by geology; its oldest, extensively metamorphosed rocks are believed to date back at least 1.7 billion years. Home to a maar volcano — Ubehebe Crater — Death Valley also features shifting sand dunes, mysterious-looking salt flats, colorful badlands and snow-covered peaks, the tallest of them Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. The park’s lowest point, Badwater Basin, is 282 feet below sea level. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Despite its drought conditions, the starkly beautiful park harbors 1,000 or more plant species, including ancient bristlecone pines and an array of vibrant spring wildflowers. Standouts include desert marigolds, Eureka Dunes evening primroses, and grape soda lupines, their hue just like their name suggests. Not surprisingly, cacti and succulents are plentiful here as well. Plus, there are a few Joshua trees in the pinyon-juniper woodlands, too. 

Impressively, many wildlife species have adapted to the harsh conditions — you may glimpse desert bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, desert tortoises, jackrabbits and coyotes. Bats and butterflies inhabit the area as well, along with a variety of migrating and nesting birds.  

The Weather 

A hot desert climate, Death Valley’s temperature was once recorded at 134° F — and that’s the highest ambient air temperature ever clocked on the Earth’s surface. Let’s be real though. Typical summer temperatures aren’t that far off: they frequently top 120 °F, dropping only to the 90s F at night. And rainfall? It averages — wait for it — less than two inches per year. Naturally, higher elevations are cooler than those in the valley — albeit slightly. 

Sunny skies are the norm in Death Valley. However, winter storms and summer monsoons have the potential to usher in clouds and rain. Wind is frequent, particularly in spring, and sudden dust storms can appear when cold fronts approach. November through March are the most pleasant months here, when average highs range from 67°F to 82°F. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

A two-mile hike through the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is not to be missed — it’s a fascinating counterpoint to Darwin Falls, a lush oasis reached through a dusty canyon. 

The nine-mile Artists Drive journeys through multicolored, eroded hills, which you can stop and soak in from panoramic viewpoints.  

Then there’s the nearly six-mile trek through Golden Canyon and the Gower Gulch Loop via Zabriskie Point. It features some of Death Valley’s most unforgettable scenery — badlands; tall, dry falls; and canyon walls made of red mudstone and colorful mosaic conglomerates. 

For an easier, two-mile, out-and-back hike, the Natural Bridge Canyon Trail is a must. You’ll not only see a natural bridge, but dry falls as well. 

The most ethereal of experiences, though, is a visit to the Badwater Salt Flats in the Badwater Basin. Take the boardwalk to the edge of the salt bed; then, step out onto the hexagon-shaped crystals, taking care to avoid their breakable “borders.” 

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Great Basin National Park

Set near the Nevada–Utah border, 67 miles east of Ely, less-frequented Great Basin National Park is a land of surprising diversity, where 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak rises from the stark desert; fragile, cool Lehman Caves — a massive marble cavern — houses a staggering number of stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, popcorn, flowstone and more than 300 rare shields; and hikes reveal glacial lakes and ancient, twisty bristlecone pines. 

Home to Native Americans for thousands of years, these days it’s farmers, ranchers, sheepherders and Mormons who call the Great Basin home. Take a step back in time to view rock art and paintings in Upper Pictograph Cave and explore the excavated Fremont village at Baker Archaeological Site (Baker Village), where you can see the remains of a Fremont Indian village, occupied from about 1220 to 1295 CE.

The Flora and Fauna 

Dry desert valleys meet sky-high mountain ranges, playas, fascinating rock formations, fossils, springs, creeks, caves and a lone glacier in a land populated by the mountain lions, snakes, jackrabbits and Clark’s nutcrackers.  

More than 800 different plant species thrive in the park and South Snake Range, 13 of them considered sensitive species. Especially adapted to the challenging terrain, some — like four-winged saltbush — must contend with, and therefore excrete, high concentrations of salt in the soil. Others have developed modified leaves to avoid losing water through evapotranspiration. 

Keep watch for bighorn sheep on talus slopes, at least 10 species of bats, porcupines and yellow-bellied marmots, several of which are designated of special concern. 

The Weather 

A cold, high-elevation desert averaging less than 10 inches of rain each year, most of Great Basin’s precipitation comes from snow. Given there is nearly an 8,000-foot difference in elevation between the valley floor and pinnacle of Wheeler Peak, weather conditions vary. Late spring and summer can bring hot conditions to the valley, while snowmelt remains at higher elevations. Featuring low relative humidity and significant temperature swings from day to night, the park is prone to severe afternoon thunderstorms and snow any time of year at high elevations. 

Visit the park’s website to check weather and road conditions.

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Steep and exposed, the 8.2-mile trek along the out-and-back Wheeler Peak Trail via the Stella Lake Trail rewards you with incredible mountain views. Start this one early in the day due to the risk of afternoon storms. 

The 4.5-mile, out-and-back Bristlecone Pine and Glacier Trail is not to be missed as it journeys through the park’s ancient conifers amid a boulder-strewn streambed, past steep cliffs, amid wildflowers in open expanses, and to Nevada’s only glacier for a front-and-center view.  

The 3-mile Alpine Lakes Loop, which starts at the end of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (more on that to follow), brings you to two glassy alpine lakes, Stella and Teresa, with marvelous views of Wheeler Peak. 

The park’s star of the show is lavishly decorated, limestone Lehman Cave, an easy, .4-mile loop. Enter the cave on a ranger-led tour, which you should reserve in advance

A true mountain road, 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive weaves through the South Snake Range, ascending 4,000 feet upward or offering pristine views of the rugged, harsh and hauntingly beautiful Great Basin Desert. En route, appreciate the impressive range of ecosystems by motoring past fragrant sagebrush “oceans,” stands of pinyon pine, rough-looking Curleaf Mountain Mahogany, a collection of conifers and families of aspens, keeping watch for marmots, mule deer, jackrabbits and coyotes. 

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National Parks in Utah

Arches National Park

A red-rock story 65 million years in the making, ever-changing Arches National Park features more than 2,000 natural stone arches — the largest density of natural sandstone arches in the world — along with hundreds of faraway pinnacles, improbably balanced rocks and sheer rock fins. Perched in the high desert in southeast Utah, with elevations ranging from 4,085 to 5,653 feet above sea level, Arches is the result of millions of years of erosion, deposition and other mind-bending geologic events. 

Water continues to shape the impermanent landscape more than anything else. Rain erodes the rock, rushing sediment down washes and canyons to the Colorado River.  Streaks of orange yellow to black desert varnish appear as water cascades down cliffs. Snowmelt pools in fractures and other cavities, freezing and expanding, and breaking off chunks of sandstone. The small recesses that emerge increase with every storm. Fractured rock layers become fins and fins morph into arches. As the arches continue to widen, they eventually collapse, as evidenced by 2008’s fall of Wall Arch.  

Simply put, it’s a temporary testament to nature’s wonders that you’ll carry with you all life long. 

The Flora and Fauna 

While it seems barren upon first glance, Arches is anything but bland. Birds, lizards and some rodents are among the most spotted wildlife in the park, though coyotes, mule deer and black-tailed jackrabbits emerge at dawn and dusk; snakes slither while eagles soar above midday; and nocturnal species like kangaroo rats, skunks, foxes, mountain lions, bobcats, owls and bats rule the roost beneath pitch-black, starlit skies. 

Animal life is supported by a wide range of desert-adapted plants, including dormant species that appear only when there’s enough available water, along with spiny perennials, yuccas, cacti and mosses that green up as soon as rains offer relief. Meanwhile, shrubs like purple sage and blackbrush can be spotted in shallow, sandy soil and Mormon tea and greasewood thrive in alkaline soil. 

The Weather 

Blazing-hot summers, cold winters and minimal rainfall add up to intense conditions in the park. Part of the Colorado Plateau, the high desert environment experiences wide fluctuations in temperature. It’s most temperate — not to mention busiest — April through May and September through October, when average daytime highs are between 60ºF and 80ºF and dropped to an average 30ºF to 50ºF at night. Winters, while cold, offer a unique perspective and contrasting landscape, with highs averaging 30ºF to 50ºF and lows that can dip to 0ºF. 

Although major snowfalls are rare, small ones can lead to road closures. Check the park’s website for the latest weather, road and trail conditions

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Few come without hiking 3.2 shade-free miles to Delicate Arch, which climbs 480 feet up a steep slickrock slope. The out-and-back trail near Moab is the only way to view the formation up close. Note that the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint — found just down the road — requires nothing more than a short stroll over flat ground to see it from a mile away. Meanwhile, the Upper Viewpoint provides a less obstructed view but does require a half-mile walk with some stairs. 

A ranger-led Fiery Furnace hike is another essential trek, though you can also opt for a self-guided tour by reserving an individual permit in advance. An experience unlike any other in the park, you need to know what you’re getting into since the trail is not well-marked, it features dead ends and it requires navigating complex passages demanding a level of agility. A labyrinth of narrow passages that cut through soaring sandstone walls involves scrambling up boulders, crawling through a small arch and hopping across big cracks in the otherworldly landscape. 

Beginning at the Devils Garden trailhead, the 1.9-mile, out-and-back hike to the delicate, slender Landscape Arch is fairly flat, with no significant elevation gain beyond a few moderate hills. The effort rewards you with one of the world’s longest stone spans, stretching 306 feet and just 11 feet at its midpoint. Pieces of Landscape Arch have broken off over the last few hundred years, some the size of a car, offering a reminder of the arch’s ephemerality. 

Short and scenic, 1.2-mile Windows Primitive Loop encircles North and South Window Arches, with easy access to Turret Arch from a short spur. The Windows section of the park is a great way to while away a day, given it contains the park’s highest concentration of arches, along with jaw-dropping features that include Elephant Butte, Garden of Eden and Parade of Elephants. Double Arch — an easy, mostly flat walk — brings you to two massive, joined soaring arches, the tallest and second-longest in the park. 

The 1.9-mile, out-and-back Park Avenue Trail takes you past incredible rock formations, like Queen Nefertiti and Sausage Rock, descending steeply into a canyon to the tall, column-like Courthouse Towers Viewpoint. 

Keep your camera at the ready as you ride along exceptionally picturesque Scenic Arches Drive, a 22-mile road that passes many unforgettable natural features, including the La Sal Mountain Viewpoints, Courthouse Towers Viewpoint, Balanced Rock, the Delicate Arch Viewpoint and the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint. It’s also the gateway to the Windows District and Skyline Arch. 

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Bryce Canyon National Park

A sprawling land of pink cliffs and red-hued hoodoos — tall, spindly, irregular rock spires — Bryce Canyon National Park is a memorable reserve in southwestern Utah, close to Zion National Park. Its claim to fame, Bryce contains the greatest concentration of these sandcastle-like, geological wonders on earth. Punctuated by stands of evergreen forest, the high-altitude park sits at the eastern edge of an 18-mile plateau.  

Beyond the soft sandstone and limestone hoodoos, find jutted fins and massive amphitheaters spiked with the park’s iconic, crimson features. Part of the Grand Staircase — an astounding, colorful sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch 100 miles from the park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon — Bryce is a place of astounding beauty.  

 
The Flora and Fauna 

Featuring an arid climate, the park boasts three distinct climatic zones: spruce/fir forest, ponderosa pine forest and pinyon/juniper forest that host pronghorn, mountain lions and mule deer, as well as the Utah prairie dog, a documented 175 species of birds and reptiles — like the poisonous Great Basin rattlesnake and side-botched lizard — that are amenable to the harsh conditions.  

Surrounded by desert, it’s a surprisingly verdant locale, exposed pink cliffs, sprout with wildflowers from “breaks” in the rock. Meadows, seeps and springs further harbor grassy and deciduous plant life, including sagebrush and rabbitbrush. 

The Weather 

Given its high elevation, weather throughout the year can vary considerably. It’s not unusual for snowstorms to hit in. October, though they’re offset by sunny, temperate autumn days. From October through May, expect nighttime temperatures below freezing. The coldest, snowiest months occur December through February, though spring storms in March and April still have the potential to produce heavy snowfall. June through September are pleasant months, with frequent — but short — afternoon downpours during the park’s rainy season (July and August). 

Check the park website for park, road and trail conditions

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

The most popular hike in the park, the 2.9-mile Queen’s Garden Trail and Navajo Loop starts at Sunrise Point, navigating the winding Rim Trail down into the valley floor, through arches carved into rocks, and amid spires. As you meander along, take a quick detour to view Queen’s Garden proper before heading back up at Sunset Point, either via the Wall Street Trail or Two Bridges Trail, both featuring a set of switchbacks that bring you back upward. 

Quick, easy and a must-see is the 1.1-mile out-and-back hike from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point. Running along part of the Rim Trail, it encircles the top of the canyon, looking out over the burnt orange, spiky Bryce Canyon Amphitheater. 

A less-busy alternative to Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop, the strenuous, 5.5-mile Peek-a-Boo Trail descends into the canyon’s depths and through Bryce Canyon Amphitheater’s famed hoodoos and does contain a short, 1,500-foot elevation gain. Combined with the Figure 8 Trail, you can enjoy a more complete exploration of the geologic feature.  

Try to make it to Inspiration Point for sunrise when the hoodoos are positioned to catch the morning light. Accessed from the Rim Trail, the hike consists of three levels (lower, middle and upper), which offer varied, incredible perspectives of the main amphitheater.  

See ancient trees as old as 1,800 years on the Bristlecone Pine Trail, an easy, 1-mile loop that intersects a forest of Douglas fir, white fir and blue spruce, with splendid views over the canyon. 

Get a nice lay of the land with a drive on Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive, offering 13 viewpoints with panoramas of many key park features. Running 18 miles along Highway 63 from Highway 12, from the park entrance in the north to the end of the road at Rainbow at Yovimpa Points, it reaches over 9,110 feet. 

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Canyonlands National Park

Located in southeastern Utah just a 30-minute drive from Arches, dramatic Canyonlands National Park — a place of quietude — somehow feels worlds away. A wilderness of canyons and buttes, it has four districts: Island in the Sky, resting on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000-feet above the vast terrain; The Needles, studded with striped, colorful spires; rugged, off-the-beaten-path The Maze; and the combined Green and Colorado Rivers, which carved two large canyons into the Colorado Plateau, each with character of their own. 

Inhabited for over 10,000 years, traditions and ways of life developed and changed as cultures interacted with one other and the land itself. Nomadic hunter-gatherers roamed throughout the region from 8,000 BCE to 500 BCE. Ancestral Puebloans, who farmed and lived in Canyonlands, thrived. The group’s descendants ― modern-day Native American tribes — continue to call the eroded, kaleidoscopic landscape home.  

The Flora and Fauna 

Tucked amid the Colorado Plateau’s high desert in this land of canyons, rock formations and river corridors, desert environs protect many nocturnal species, like bobcats, mountain lions, skunks, ringtails, foxes, bobcats, small, desert-adapted rodents, bats and owls. Most active at dawn and dusk are coyotes, mule deer, desert cottontails, porcupines and black-tailed jackrabbits, while snakes and lizards sun themselves in the heat of a summer day. 

Joining them are tiny lichens that adhere to the sandstone; cottonwood trees at the canyon bottoms; and plumes of grass that punctuate the park’s open country. Wildflowers bloom in spring, maidenhair ferns spring from shaded alcoves near seeps and cacti appear from bumpy, lumpy biological soil crust. 

The Weather 

Canyonlands has a cold, semi-arid climate that sees, on average, less than 10 inches of rain annually. Summers are hot and mostly dry, while winters are cold and occasionally wet.  

Big temperature fluctuations are common in the high desert. April through May and mid-September through October are most pleasant, though summer can — and often does — hover above 100ºF and late summer, storm cells can lead to flash floods. Snowfall is typically light, though winters are cold, ranging on average between 30ºF and 50ºF and dropping between 0ºF and 20ºF.  

Be aware of trail and road closures, as well as weather events, by visiting the park’s website prior to arrival. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Among the most photographed vistas in the park, Mesa Arch — set in the park’s Islands in the Sky section — is reached by a .7-mile stroll. An amazing spot to view the sunrise, the arch rests at the edge of a sheer cliff, providing a natural window into Buck Canyon and the distant La Sal Mountains. 

Also in Islands in the Sky is the 1.8-mile, out-and-back White Rim Overlook Trail at the Gooseberry Trailhead. Head here in the afternoon, when the sun illuminates the canyon, marveling at views of the La Sal Mountains, the Colorado River, Monument Basin, the La Sal Mountains and ultra-scenic White Rim Road. 

Another Islands in the Sky stunner, the 1.8-mile, out-and-back Grand View Point Trail skirts the top of the canyon, for seemingly endless vantage points of it and the rivers that carved it below. 

For a challenging hike, hit the 10-mile Confluence Overlook Trail for an out-and-back adventure. Tracing the northern edge of the geologic fault that shaped The Needles, it brings you to the impressive viewpoint its name implies. 

For great panoramas of The Needles district, the 10.4-mile Chesler Park/Joint Trail journeys through varied, colorful terrain, from ravines to ridges and slickrock. Particularly noteworthy is a 1.5-mile section of the Chesler Park loop, which climbs .6 miles up Chesler Canyon. After crossing a broad wash and cutting through a crop of sandstone knobs, you reach the narrow, slot canyon-esque “joint.” 

Carve out time to drive the length of the awe-inspiring, 34-mile, out-and-back scenic drive through the park. Its overlooks, from 1,000 feet above, showcase the valleys and other districts in the park from above. 

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Capitol Reef National Park

Situated in the red rock country of south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National Park is a less-frequented gem replete with canyons, domes, cliffs and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic “wrinkle” on the earth that spans almost 100 miles. 

Archaic hunters-gatherers migrated through the canyons before the Fremont Culture solidified around 500 CE, shifting from food foraging groups to corn, squash and bean farmers, etching petroglyphs and painting pictographs on rock walls.  

By the 1800s, Mormon pioneers, and other explorers settled in what is now the Fruita Rural Historic District, planting and cultivating pear, apple and peach orchards. Today, you can pick the heirloom bounty provided you follow a few simple rules. 

The Flora and Fauna 

A place of wondrous geological formations, unique animals and plants and seriously dark skies (it received International Dark Sky Park designation), Capitol Reef is marked by basalt boulders, fossils and biological soil crusts, a living groundcover of soil lichens, green algae, mosses, bacteria and micro fungi.  

Nearly 10,000 feet of sedimentary strata were deposited in the Capitol Reef area, the sequence of layers recording upwards of 200 million years of geologic history. Later, the entire region was vertically uplifted by thousands on account of large-scale plate tectonic forces. Meanwhile, the monocline of Waterpocket Fold arose between 50 and 70 million years ago, when the Laramide Orogeny reactivated an ancient, buried fault at which point overlying sedimentary layers were draped above the fault. By contrast, in the Cathedral Valley, erosion shaped free-standing monoliths from soft, red Entrada sandstone. 

Shrubs, cacti and desert succulents are joined by the likes of grasses, Utah junipers, two-need pinyon trees, western bristlecone pines and ponderosa pines, accented by showy, colorful wildflowers in spring and summer. Hosting residents big and small, resident species include gray foxes, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and beavers, plus snakes, lizards, toads, frogs and more than 230 species of birds. 

Keep abreast of park and road conditions on the NPS website. 

The Weather 

An arid environment, the park averages 7.91 inches of precipitation at the visitor’s center, much of it falling during the June through September monsoon season when flash floods are a risk. The long, narrow park sees varied elevations; as a result, there can be a considerable swing in temperatures. Summers are hot, averaging between 87°F and 91°F. The coldest month of the year, December experiences average highs of 40°F, and dips to 21°F. 

Keep up on park and road conditions on the national park website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

The 1.7-mile, out-and-back trail Hickman Bridge Trail is flanked by tall, tan rock walls, ancient sand dunes, junipers and cottonwoods as you head to the natural sandstone arch, which stands 125 feet high and 133 feet long. You can opt to continue hiking another 2.4 miles, gaining 500 feet of elevation to reach Navajo Knobs for 360-degree panoramas of Capitol Reef. 

A 3.1-mile hike along the out-and-back Cassidy Arch Trail is among the park’s most thrilling. Named for bank robber Butch Cassidy, who once hid in these hills, it features a series of switchbacks that climb out of the canyon and into the multihued lands.  

Journey through the narrows on the easy, 4.5-mile, out-and-back Grand Wash Trail, which brims with small caves, honeycombed rock and rocky-sandy terrain along a wash bordered by towering walls. 

The Chimney Rock Loop is a difficult-but-rewarding, 3.3-mile trek highlighting colorful badlands, linear cliffs and the mouth of a narrow canyon, as well as the eroded pillar of Chimney Rock itself. 

Wind your way through the park along the 7.9-mile scenic drive — not a loop — for a chance to witness many of the park’s scenic formations at once, including the historic fruit orchards, Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge. 

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Zion National Park

Recognized for Zion Canyon’s sheer cream, pink and red cliffs and located in southwestern Utah, Zion National Park is the state’s first to receive the designation. Some 12,000 years ago, Zion’s residents tracked mammoths, giant sloths and camels across the region before they died out and Virgin Anasazi — the westernmost Ancestral Puebloan group in the American Southwest — took up farming traditions; and the Paiute fine-tuned their lifestyle to desert living. After the settlement of Mormon pioneers, John Wesley Powell expanded his scientific studies here. 

Protecting some of the most scenic canyon country in the United States, Zion’s 32 square miles (about the area of Manhattan) feature high plateaus; narrow, deep, sandstone canyons; the Virgin River; 2,000-foot Navajo Sandstone cliffs; slopes dotted with pines and junipers; and colorful, verdant hanging gardens fed by springs, seeps and waterfalls. 

The Flora and Fauna 

A place of volcanism; uplifted, tilted and eroded rock layers that form the colorful cliffs of the Grand Staircase; sedimentation; and lithification, which transforms sedimentary deposits into stone, Zion’s elevation ranges from 3,700 to 8,700 feet. This creates an arresting mosaic of habitats: riparian and aquatic; arid grasslands and desert shrubs; pinyon-juniper forests; ponderosa pines; and mixed conifer and aspen forests. 

From the Western rattlesnake to wild turkeys, gray foxes, mountain lions, porcupines and red-spotted toads, animal diversity abounds. A critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, the park also helped revive populations of peregrine falcons and California condors. 

The Weather 

Prone to wide-ranging weather conditions, including  temperature swings between day and night, Zion’s weather varies with elevation. Spring arrives in March and April, with temperatures that differ by 30°F or more depending on where you are and the time of day, while summers are hot with temperatures that regularly top 100°F. The park is quieter during October and November, when fall colors begin to make an appearance and cooler weather sets in. Meanwhile, the winter months — December, January and February — bring solitude, cold and the potential for snow, falling ice and road closures. 

Follow the weather, trail, wilderness, water and road conditions on the park’s website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

A permit is required to access the difficult, highly technical 5.4-mile Angel’s Landing Trail, the most spectacular in Zion and one of the most bucket list-worthy in the world. Using a chain railing in most — but not all — of the sheer drop-offs, the hike ascends roughly 1,500 vertical feet along the narrow fin of stone that tops at an elevation of 5,790 feet (about twice the height of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world). Bring nerves of steel and a deep knowledge of rock-climbing safety as you begin at the Grotto Trailhead, .6 miles beyond Zion Lodge on Zion Canyon, following a series of cunning switchbacks — called Walter’s Wiggles — before the vertical push begins. 

The 1.9-mile, out-and-back Zion Narrows Riverwalk is an essential, family-friendly park experience that starts at the Temple of Sinawava — the eighth and last shuttle stop in the park. It follows the Virgin River for discoveries of lush hanging gardens and trees offset by tall weeping walls. Arriving at where more challenging — and famous — The Narrows hike kicks off, you ascend up (and in) the Virgin River with no trail to Big Spring. Should you choose to embark on this strenuous, 10-mile round trip, an all-day adventure, consider doing it in late spring and summer when the water is warmer and the level drops. Note, however, this is also when storms can present flash floods. 

Take the 1-mile out-and-back Zion Canyon Overlook Trail, entering the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel through wondrous slickrock of the park’s Upper East Canyon. Then, take the trailhead to the great viewpoints, which overlooks the main canyon. 

For impressive views over the southern end of Zion National Park, the relatively easy, 3.1-mile, out-and-back Watchman Trail brings you to an outlook over Temples and Towers, lower Zion Canyon, Watchman Peak and Springdale. 

To reach Lower Emerald Pool, two small streams fed by the surrounding waterfalls, which you walk behind, hop on the 1.2-mile Emerald Pool Trail, which hooks up with the Kayenta, Middle and Upper Emerald Pools trails for a longer, moderate hike (2 miles to middle and 3 miles to upper). Soak up vistas of Lady Mountain, the Great White Throne, Red Arch Mountain and cliffs as far as the eye can see. 

To experience the region’s beauty by vehicle, take 54-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, seeing the Virgin River and famous park landmarks, including Angel’s Landing, the Court of the Patriarchs and Twin Brothers Mountain. 

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National Parks in Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park

Located in northwestern Arizona, skirting the Colorado River and adjacent uplands for 277 unforgettable miles, monumental Grand Canyon National Park is known for its jaw-dropping vistas, beautifully colored rock layers and fascinating geology. It’s also nearly a mile deep. 

However, this singular place holds countless stories of people who have shaped and honored it over the course of more than 10,000 years. There are 11 contemporary tribes that are culturally linked to the area, all with rich oral history and references to the great chasm carved by a relentless river.  

From the sixteenth century on, tribes familiar with the region were guides and informants for Spanish and later Euro-American explorers. From Native Americans to miners, entrepreneurs and the “Little Mexico” community that formed on the canyon’s South Rim in 1919, many have left their marks. 

Filled with structures, districts, locations and sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of seven Natural Wonders of the World. 

The Flora and Fauna 
 
Featuring horizontal strata that retraces geological history of more than two billion years. Spanning all four eras of the earth’s evolutionary history — from the Precambrian era to the Cenozoic — its Precambrian and Paleozoic portions are well noted in its canyon walls and animal remains, which extend into the Pleistocene. 

Semi-arid with raised plateaus and structural basins common in the southwestern United States, the Grand Canyon is home to 1,737 known species of vascular plants. It’s also a haven for 64 species of moss, 167 fungi species, 64 species of moss and 195 kinds of lichen. The park owes its variety to an 8,000-foot change in elevation from the river to its highest point at the North Rim.  

You’ll find rarities like sentry-milk vetch, as well as pinyon and ponderosa pines; Utah juniper; bushy rubber rabbitbrush; seep willow near streams and creek beds; pokey cacti and succulents; and a kaleidoscope of wildflowers, like the globe mallow. 

Needless to say, the wildlife population here is equally rich. Beyond 447 known species of birds, bats and bighorn sheep, you may also spot everything from mountain lions, elk, bison, lizards, snakes, six endemic fish species and an array of amphibians. 

The Weather 

Huge changes in elevation lead to large differences in temperature and precipitation. It’s coolest and wettest at the North Rim, which rests at 8,297 feet — less than eight miles from Phantom Ranch, one of the driest areas in the park at 2,460 feet. 

Deep canyons and rugged terrain significantly impact solar heating and air circulation, creating many different microclimates throughout the canyon. As a general rule, the temperatures increase 5.5°F with each 1,000 feet loss in elevation. 

Generally speaking, winters are cold, while summers tend to be mild and pleasant with moderate humidity. At the bottom of the canyon, however, summers are hot and dry, and winters are cool and damp. Summer thunderstorms and winter snowfall are occurrences to contend with, too. 

Be sure to regularly follow weather and road conditions on the park’s website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Catch a sunrise at Yavapai Point and walk along the rim of the canyon, taking in panoramas of the North Rim’s Bright Angel Canyon. Meanwhile, sunsets are especially breathtaking at Hopi Point, as well as Yaki, Yavapai, Lipan, Navajo and Desert. 

Want to walk the 13-mile paved route along the South Rim Trail? In addition to Yavapai Point, you’ll be treated to views from Mather Point and Powell Point. 

A best kept secret in the park, the unmarked, 2.1-mile out-and-back Shoshone Point Trail starts from a small parking lot on the north side of Desert View Drive, east of Yaki Point. Walk down a dirt road through a towering forest where deer and elk graze before reaching expansive canyon views and a narrow ridge that juts out from the plateau. Pro tip: It’s a great spot for a picnic, too. 

Catch the steep, switchback-laden, 2.8-mile South Kaibab Trail to the mule hitching post at Cedar Ridge, south of Yaki Point on Yaki Point Road. You’ll be rewarded with sweeping views along a dramatic ridgeline; the fastest access to the river of any of the Grand Canyon corridor trails; and a 360-degree view from a more central location between the rims. You can also opt to visit Ooh Aah Point halfway to Cedar Ridge, a 1.8-mile trek that takes you 600 feet below the Grand Cayon’s South Rim. 

Descending steeply from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, it must be said that the 8-mile Bright Angel Trail — arguably the park’s most famous — requires a painstaking, 5,000 hike back up endless switchbacks. Well worth the effort, though, as it reveals traces of the Havasupai at every turn, the oasis of Indian Garden with its lush flora along Garden Creek and Devil’s Corkscrew, which bolts through two-billion-year-old Vishnu Schist, the oldest rock in the Grand Canyon. 

For a scenic drive near Grand Canyon Village, follow the Desert View Drive portion of State Route 64, following the canyon rim for 26 glorious miles, pausing at Pipe Creek Vista, Duck on a Rock, Grandview Point, Lipan Point and Moran Point for incredible views. 

Closed to vehicles from March through November, Hermit’s Road is a must-drive from December through February en route to Hermit’s Rest. Be sure to stop at The Abyss, which dips 3,000 dramatic feet to the Tonto Platform. 

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Petrified Forest National Park

Located in the high desert in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park is a drivable geologic treasure trove that stretches between Interstate 40 and Highway 180. In its south, the Rainbow Forest brims with colorful petrified wood. To the north, the Painted Desert features vibrant badlands. Known for its fossils— particularly those from fallen trees that lived during the Mesozoic era — the park also features 11 locales on the National Register of Historic Places.  

Preserving 13,000 years of human history, culture and human occupation, nomadic groups arrived after the last Ice Age and have been present ever since. It was also here that — during the Great Depression — the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established by Congress in 1933, offering forest management, flood control and conservation jobs for young, unemployed men. 

Set along the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau — which is shared with the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce and Arches — the Petrified Forest represents ancient environments and features two fascinating geological formations: the Late Triassic highly erodible Chinle Formation — the Painted Desert, comprised of colorful badland hills, flat-topped mesas and sculptured buttes — and the Mio-Pliocene Bidahochi Formation, which consists of basalt flows that help protect the Chinle Formation.  
 
The Flora and Fauna 
 
Part of the greater Painted Desert with a large swath of semi-arid grassland, the Petrified Forest offers not just fossils, but also a wide range of plant species, including trees and shrubs; mosses, ferns and allies; cacti; grasses, reeds, rushes and sedges; lichens; and a collection of desert-adapted wildflowers. 

Creatures — which include insects; spiders, birds; reptiles; and mammals from bobcats to porcupines — make their presence known based on temperature, the season and time of day (or night). 
 
The Weather 

Featuring temperatures that range from above 100° F to well below freezing, this semi-arid grassland receives an average of 10 inches of precipitation from infrequent winter snow and potentially violent summer thunderstorms. The summer monsoon season occurs July through August. 

Needless to say, just like the plants and animals who call the park home, adapting to wildly swinging weather is necessary, so pack and plan accordingly. 

Stay on the pulse of weather conditions in Petrified Forest National Park on the park’s website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Offering the park’s most fabled viewpoint, the 1-mile Blue Mesa Trail descends into the blue-ish, layered badland hills, an otherworldly landscape set against marshmallow-cloud skies. 

Appreciate the park’s largest concentration of petrified wood on the .9-mile Crystal Forest Trail loop. Journey through an ancient forest, where some 225 million years ago, 200-foot- tall conifers presided over a tropical lowland. Time, climate and geologic forces eventually buried the trees in layers of mud and volcanic ash, leaving massive, fossilized remains. 

Marvel at the rolling hills and vibrant hues of the Painted Desert from the 1.2-mile Painted Desert Rim Trail, which takes you through the rim woodland, following the ridge of the canyon and overlooking the colorful desert. 

Take in the sights from your vehicle on 28-.6-mile Petrified Forest Scenic Drive, a point-to-point encounter that takes you from one entrance of the park to the other. Follow the edge of a high mesa overlooking the Painted Desert; cross the Puerco River to a landscape studded with sagebrush, sunflowers, saltbrush and Apache plume; past tepee-shaped buttes; over a wash; and overlooking the park’s Jasper and Crystal Forests. Be sure to stop at the Rainbow Forest Museum to stretch your legs. 

Set within the Painted Forest, the .6-mile Giant Logs Trail loop reveals massive, rainbow-like petrified logs colored bright mustard, orange, deep red, ochre and black from iron minerals and blue, purple, brown and black courtesy of manganese minerals. Keep your eyes peeled for Old Faithful, which measures nearly 10 feet across its base. 

Offering a more moderate backcountry hike, the 2.4-mile Historic Blue Logs Trail features limited signage but unforgettable beauty in the form of colorful badlands and petrified wood. It also connects with the stunning Blue Mesa Trail for a longer hike. 

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Saguaro National Park

Named for the giant, iconic saguaro (sah-wah-ro) cacti, which dots the Sonoran Desert landscape, Saguaro National Park is situated in southeastern Arizona, its two sections flanking the city of Tucson. The Tucson Mountain District (TMD) resides about 10 miles west of the city, while the Rincon Mountain District (RMD) sits approximately 10 miles east of Tucson.  

Its protected status began in 1933, when President Herbert Hoover established Saguaro National Monument in the Rincon Mountains. Then, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy added the Tucson Mountain District to the monument and renamed the original tract the Rincon Mountain District. 

Today, the desert playground remains filled with majestic, ribbed sentinels that all-but-define the American southwest, coupled with beautiful desert flora that’s particularly beautiful — and incredibly colorful — when in bloom. 
 
The Flora and Fauna 
 
The park is divided into two distinct sections. Tucson Mountain District (TMD) resides about 10 miles west of the city, while the Rincon Mountain District (RMD) sits approximately 10 miles east of Tucson. Each is quite distinct.  

Tucson Mountain District features volcanic rocks, which differ significantly from surface rocks in the uplifted, domed, and eroded Rincon Mountain District, which is significantly higher and wetter than its counterpart. The Rincons support great biodiversity, including many plants and animals that do not live in the Tucson Mountain District, with its desert scrub and desert grassland communities, as well as coyotes, Gambel’s quails and desert tortoises. 

The Tucson Mountains, by contrast, brim with desert scrub, desert grassland, mixed conifer forest, oak woodland, pine forest and pine-oak woodland, which support everything from black bears to Arizona mountain king snakes, Mexican spotted owls and white-tailed deer. 

As focal as the mighty saguaros are, the park has so much more to behold. In fact, it comes alive shortly after rainfalls, when seemingly dead sticks transform into new-leaf-laden shrubs., when seemingly dead sticks transform into new-leaf-laden shrubs. 

The Weather 

Summer here is super-hot, with daytime temperatures exceeding 110°F in the shade and nighttime lows around 72°F. Winters are generally mild and warm, ringing in at an average 65°F and comfortably cool nights around 40°F. 

Keep abreast of conditions on the park’s website. And do plan on drinking the recommended one gallon — yes, one gallon — of recommended water per person, per day.  

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

When it’s especially hot — or simply just because — meander along the paved, 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, a paved road on the east side that’s open to cars and bicycles, with plenty of turnouts and pullouts for photo ops. 

Traverse the 1-mile Freeman Homestead Trail, a 1.1-mile loop that takes you through a grove of massive saguaros and other beautiful Sonoran scenery, including mesquite, creosote, ocotillo and palo verde trees.  

In the western district, 6-mile, graded dirt Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is not to be missed. Journey through a cactus forest and pause to hike the .5-mile Signal Hill Trail to see a fascinating array of ancient petroglyphs. 

A steep, rocky, 20-mile out-and-back beast, the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail climbs to the 8,666-foot summit of Mica Mountain. Note that a backcountry camping permit is required for overnight use. 

Want to catch a sunset? The .8-mile Valley View Overlook affords awesome views of incredible views of Picacho Peak and Tucson.  

An easy .4-mile loop, the informative Desert Discovery Trail, which is wheelchair accessible, highlights Sonoran Desert ecology against a rugged backdrop of Tucson Mountain peaks. 

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National Parks in Colorado 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Set in western Colorado, the history of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park can be traced back some 60 million years to the Gunnison Uplift, when a small area of land uplifted 1.8-billion-year-old metamorphic rock, bringing it to high elevations. Then, about 30 million years ago, large volcanoes erupted on either side, covering the area in volcanic rock. The park that you see today envelops part of a deep, steep-walled gorge that was later carved through Precambrian rock by the Gunnison River. Home to some of the United States’ sheerest cliffs, oldest rock and craggiest spires, what you see is the work of two million years of weathering. 
 
The Flora and Fauna 
 
Uplift, volcanism and the erosive force of water have shaped a geologic story for the ages, creating an environment where species thrive from rim to river. In the pinyon-juniper forests, vibrant collared lizards laze away for days on sun-drenched rocks, while cottontail rabbits and mule deer rustle around in the dense berry, oak and sage brush. Meanwhile, bighorn sheep navigate steep slopes with ease as peregrine falcons soar overhead; river otters bob along the river; black bears make their way through tall grass; and mountain lions stalk prey beneath impossibly starry skies. 

The Weather 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison experiences a warm summer humid continental climate, with average lows dipping to 12°F in January, its coldest, snowiest month, and swinging from an average low of 52°F to an average 82°F high in July, the warmest month.  

Seasonal road closures impact the park’s accessibility during winter months, including at East Portal Road and North Rim Road and its ranger station. South Rim Road beyond the visitor center is typically closed to vehicles during the winter season as well. 

Be sure to plan accordingly and do confirm conditions in advance. 
 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Among the main attractions of the park are the scenic drives along US Highway 50 and Colorado Highway 92, as well as the south rim. 

Short-and-sweet, 1.5-mile Warner Point Nature Trail is an out-and-back stunner that takes you to Warner Point for sublime views of Black Canyon and distant panoramas of the San Juan Range. 

The moderate, 7-mile, out-and-back North Vista Trail reveals Gunnison River overlooks, exceptional canyon views and the satisfaction of reaching the summit of Green Mountain, starting from the North Rim ranger station. 

Of the backcountry options, the challenging Red Rock Canyon Route affords some of the most spectacular views in the park as you make your way to the inner canyon of the Gunnison River — not to mention some of the area’s best fly fishing. Remember, though, a permit is required. 

For an easy option, the Rim Rock Nature Trail is not to be missed. Beginning at the South Rim Visitor’s Center, the 2-mile, point-to-point hike offers memorable overlooks like Tomichi Point, where you can witness the majesty of the valley walls firsthand.  

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Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The hunting and gathering grounds for several Native American tribes — including the Ute and the Jicarilla Apache — human history at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve can be traced back 11,000-plus years. Having attracted explorers and goldminers, along with ranchers, farmers and homesteaders, it’s a land where sacred spots hold spiritual meaning to this day.  

Located in southern Colorado, it encompasses towering sand dunes — the tallest in North America — offset by the seasonal Medano Creek beach at the base; backcountry canyons, where a primitive road snakes toward the Sangre de Cristo mountains; and trails that traverse forests, grasslands, wetlands and alpine lakes like trout-populated Medano Lake, with its tundra wildlife. It all adds up to a confounding landscape that sparks wonderment. An International Dark Sky Park, Great Sand Dunes is a best kept secret where you can summit a 13,000-foot mountain peak, watch pronghorns graze and plunge into frigid waters in one fell swoop.  
 
The Flora and Fauna 
 
It feels as though there’s no end to the geological and climatic variation at this unique national park. Among its wildly varying environments you’ll find: 

  • Alpine tundra as high as 13,604 feet 
  • Subalpine forest with crooked trees 
  • Lakes and tarns that provide a habitat for trout and high-altitude amphibians 
  • Subalpine meadows filled with Rocky Mountain species 
  • Montane forests and woodlands swathed in pinyon-juniper and ponderosa pine 
  • A riparian ecosystem intersected by creeks 
  • A vast dune field of shifting sands, surrounded by grasslands and shrublands 
  • Sabka wetlands punctuated by inland saltgrass 
  • Wetlands that provide a haven for saltwater shrimp 

From elks to bears, raptors, mountain lions, grouses, turkeys and mule deer, there is wildlife aplenty, just waiting to be observed. 

The Weather 

The National Weather Service identifies three main locations within the park: Visitor Center/Campground/Dunefield at an elevation of 8,200 feet; Medano Pass, at an elevation of 10,000 feet; and Sand Creek Lakes, situated 11,745 feet above sea level. 

Spring can bring high winds, along with highs that may reach into the 60°F range — or only into the 30°F range, though it may feel colder due to windchills. March and April are the snowiest months of the year. When summer arrives, daytime high temperatures average 75°F to 80°F, but sunbaked sand surface temperatures can soar to 150°F. 

Fall is comfortable, with temperatures around 60°F to 70°F. With the risk of snow and icy rain, winters prove quite cold, with average highs in the teens to 30°F range, and  lows averaging between -15°F to -5°F. 
 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Whether you simply sink-hike your way through the dunes or sand sled or sandboard down them (a blast!), trekking the ambiguous, 3-mile, out-and-back trail is fun and forever in flux since wind-blow shapes and shifts the landscape. It’s also deceptively challenging given its all-sand climb. Look for the route to High Dune behind the visitor’s center at the Dune field parking lot, choosing the ridgeline you’d like to follow, based on the steepness you can tolerate. Advanced hikers should combine an ascension to Star Dune, which gains 1,309 feet in elevation as you journey from the base of the dunes to the summit. 

An easy, point-to-point hike, the unofficial Medano Creek Trail is a seasonal one that occurs when the creek bed surges with snowmelt in spring, gradually disappearing in the heat of late summer and early fall. Walk through the park along the creek when you can, appreciating a unique phenomenon — a “surge flow,” which occurs when underwater sand bridges build up and then break every 20 or so minutes, sending a wave down the creek that’s perfect for skimboarding or belly-surfing. 

Climbing 1,463 feet into the mountains, the strenuous, 7-mile, wildlife-populated Mosca Pass Trail intersects gorgeous forests of pinyon, juniper, spruce, aspen and fir before cutting through grasslands as you reach the top of the pass. 

Looking for a hike on solid terrain? The easy, .5-mile Montville Nature Trail is for you. It travels along solid terrain on a forested walk along a creek before passing through a small, old settlement. 

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Mesa Verde National Park

An anthropologist’s haven, Ancestral Pueblo people built thriving communities on the red, windblown mesas and on the cliffs of Mesa Verde National Park for over 700 years. The 600 cliff dwellings that remain are among the best-preserved — and most notable — on the North American continent. Atop the mesas, you can see everything from a ceremonial temple to a farming community and several tower sites.  

Offering a remarkable glimpse into the past, the UNESCO World Heritage-designated national park preserves the cultural heritage of 26 tribes, which you can gain further insight into at the park’s Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. 

An International Dark Sky Park, Mesa Verde is home to several species found nowhere else on earth, and over 1,000 species in total.  

The Flora and Fauna 

Situated in the Colorado Plateau Province, the high-elevation park is marked by deep canyons and an arid climate. The resulting plant communities — mixed herb grasslands, pinyon-juniper woodlands and mountain shrubland — contain 640 species of plants that support a wide array of resident and migratory wildlife. The Audubon Society’s Colorado Important Bird Area (IBA) has two Protected Activity Centers and three breeding Core Areas spanning 5,312 acres, dedicated to the threatened Mexican spotted owl. 

Likewise, The Nature Conservancy and The Colorado Natural Heritage Program have classified the entirety of the park within its Network of Conservation Areas (NCA) given the exceptional rare plant and animal species within. Beyond native amphibians and fish, it protects the rare Black Swallowtail butterfly, its larvae feeding on the park’s rare, endemic Mesa Verde wandering aletes. 

The Weather 

Like many parks out west, Mesa Verde experiences varying weather conditions that can quickly change. Although winters tend to be mild, snowstorms have occurred as late as May and as early as October. The months of June through September are warm to hot, though evenings turn pleasantly cool. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August, ushering in potentially hazardous lightning.  

Keep on top of road, trail and weather conditions on the national park website. 
 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Many of the park’s easiest loops pass by the cliff dwellings, which you can explore while observing the ancient art within. 

Get your heart pumping on the Petroglyph Point Trail, which descends 2.6 miles into Mesa Verde’s Spruce and Navajo canyons before rising back up, with scrambles, stunning viewpoints and narrow passages en route. 

Take a ranger-led tour along the Cliff Palace Loop to climb eight-to-10-foot ladders, entering Balcony House and Cliff Palace. The latter is thought to have once contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas, not to mention a population of about 100 residents.  

Short and mostly paved, the .9-mile, self-guided Step House Trail features a 100-foot descent and ascent on a winding path, culminating in an exploration of its namesake dwelling that supported the work of two occupations, basketmaking and masonry. This hike is led by rangers in the winter when other sites are closed.  

For a two-hour, ranger-led tour of Long House, head to Wetherill Mesa in the western portion of the park, reached by a steep, winding, 12-mile road beyond the Far View Lodge near mile marker 15.  

Not to be overlooked is the Far View Sites Complex, an .8-mile stroll, where 50 villages have been identified within a half square mile area. 

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Rocky Mountain National Park

Women played a significant role in shaping Rocky Mountain National Park’s long, fascinating history, among them Margaret Fuller Boos, the park’s first female ranger-naturalist at Rocky Mountain National Park, and Josie Hupp, an Estes Park businesswoman, pioneer and hotel owner.  

Stretching 265,807 acres and set in northern Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park spans the Continental Divide, covering protected forests, white-capped mountains and alpine tundra across a wide range of mountain environments. Whether it’s wildflower-peppered montane meadows, pristine subalpine lakes or the park’s soaring peaks in the alpine zone, an unforgettable adventure — and unforgettable wildlife viewing on over 300 miles of trails — awaits. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Supporting life up to 14,000 feet above sea level, the park’s wet, lush riparian ecosystems in the park’s lower reaches give way to evergreen forests and high mountain lakes and tundra, one of the earth’s harshest environments. 

Plant — or ecological — succession leads to changing microorganisms and wildlife in the park. Barren landscapes affixed with mosses, grasses and flowering plants precede the appearance of aspens in sunny, open areas, followed by lodgepole pine trees rising from open, burned areas. Next to replace them are ponderosa pines, Engelmann spruces and— depending on elevation Douglas firs or subalpine firs. This climax vegetation then stands tall until natural disturbances — be it windstorms, avalanches, floods climate change — ignite the succession anew.  

Animal species to watch for include mule deer, elk, black bears and coyotes, not to mention moose, mountain lions and long-eared, short-tailed snowshoe hares. 

The Weather 

Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its extreme, rapidly changing weather conditions, particularly in the highest elevations. Elevations before 9,400 feet often experience moderate temperatures, though higher points — like Longs Peak Bear Lake and Trail Ridge Road — can see snow into July. As is the case with mountain weather, day and nighttime temperatures swing significantly. 

Watch weather and road conditions closely on the park’s website and follow @rockynps on Twitter for current and sudden conditions so plan your wardrobe (and consider layering) carefully. 
 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Among the park’s most glorious highlights, high-alpine Trail Ridge Road winds across the vast tundra to 12,183 feet in elevation, a thrilling drive that journeys upward for a sweep of the Rockies in all directions, breathtaking wildflower displays and the point where evergreen forests cease and unforgiving tundra begins. Not surprisingly, the route is impassable, and therefore closed, during winter. 

The super-scenic, 3.2-mile Emerald Lake Trail begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead at the end of Bear Lake Road and brings you to its namesake emerald-green alpine lake, past cascading waterfalls and to jagged Hallet Peak. 
 
A demanding, 9.4-mile, out-and-back trek to Sky Pond via the Glacier Gorge Trail offers a bit of everything — rock scrambles, plummeting waterfalls, awesome mountain views, and river and stream crossings. Then there’s the pièce de résistance: Sky Pond’s clear, blue waters at 10,900 feet. For a more moderate alternative, start from the Glacier Gorge Trail, trekking 5.7-mile The Loch for views of plunging Alberta Falls and vistas of the trail’s eponymous subalpine lake. Perched at 10,190 feet, it’s set within one of the world’s most studied watersheds. 

A beautiful 3.1-mile out-and-back hike, Gem Lake Trail begins at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, with views of Estes Park, Longs Peak and the Continental Divide. 

Dream Lake Trail is a 2-mile, out-and-back hike that begins at the parking lot at Glacier Gorge, near Estes Park, affording postcard-worthy views of Hallett Peak reflecting on the glassy waters. 

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National Parks in New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Situated near the New Mexico-Texas border and featuring 30 miles of passages — including the country’s largest subterranean chamber — Carlsbad Caverns National Park stacks up to the splendor of one of the world’s most touted wonders. A labyrinth of more than 119 caves was formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone, resulting in caverns of all shapes and sizes that beg to be explored. 

The above-ground Chihuahuan Desert is no less intriguing with its sea ledges, plummeting canyons, flowering, drought-tolerant flora and desert-adapted wildlife that thrives despite stark conditions. About 2/3 of the park consists of wilderness. 

Human activities — including prehistoric and historic Native American occupations, European exploration and settlement and industrial exploitation — have shaped the park’s rich, diverse history. 

There are two historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places — Rattlesnake Springs Historic District, an oasis with permanently flowing water, homesteaded and farmed in 1880 by William Henry Harrison, and the Cavern Historic District, a complex built between the early 1920s and 1942. Originally done in the Pueblo Revival style and later in the New Mexico Territorial Revival style, it’s located near the entrance of Carlsbad Caverns. There is also a museum that preserves and protects about one million cultural artifacts. 

The Flora and Fauna 
 
Not lacking for wildlife or plant life, Carlsbad has identified 67 species of mammals, among them 17 species of bats, in addition to 357 species of birds, 55 different reptile and amphibian species.  A year-round habitat for cougars, it’s also a nesting habitat for migratory species, the most notable of which are vast colonies of cave swallows and Brazilian free-tailed bats, who raise their young in Carlsbad Cavern. 

Daily around nightfall, half a million Mexican Free-Tail Bats swarm from the Carlsbad Caverns entrance to feed. Check with a park ranger for the most up-to-date information on bat flight programs. 

Located at the intersection of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, southern Rocky Mountains and southwestern Great Plains, the park is more than half-covered in desert shrubland, while the remainder consists of grassland, arroyo riparian woodland and shrubland, a smattering of herbaceous wetlands and forested wetland at Rattlesnake Spring. There are various cliff, barren, rock and arroyo plant communities, too. 

The Weather 

Given its location in the Chihuahuan Desert in southeast New Mexico, summer temperatures usually range from 90º to the low 100sºF. And there is an average of 278 days of sunshine. 

Although it’s windy and mild in spring, late summer and fall see frequent rain and winter may mean icy conditions and occasional snow.  

Watch weather forecasts and conditions on the park’s website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Note that the park offers (when available) several ranger-led tours through its focal cave, varying in difficulty, duration and age limit. Children under the age of four are not allowed on any of the ranger-led tours.  

Sledding down the slip face of dunes is a popular, thrilling activity that’s allowed in the loop portion of Dunes Drive, where there is little or no vegetation. Most sledder’s use waxed plastic snow-saucers. Didn’t bring one? No worries — they can be purchased at the park gift shop. 

A steep 1.25-mile trail — complete with curving switchbacks, the Natural Entrance Trail descends 75 stories into Carlsbad’s network of 119 limestone caves. (There is also an elevator you can take to enter, and tickets are required.)  From formations like Devil’s Spring to the Whale’s Mouth and 200,000-ton behemoth Iceberg Rock., its scale and grandeur will leave you speechless. 

Taking you to view the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America, the .6-mile Big Room Trail was described by actor-comedian Will Rogers as the “Grand Canyon with a roof over it.” Marvel at cave formations of all shapes and sizes; witness the world’s largest stalagmite; and see the rope ladder used by explorers in 1924. 

Narrow, uneven and quite slippery, the Slaughter Canyon Cave Trail is a wild cave tour with only your headlight to guide you. Among the sights is 89-foot-high Monarch, one of the world’s tallest columns; the delicate Chinese Wall, an ankle-high rimstone dam; the glittering Christmas Tree, a crystal-adorned column.  

A picturesque, 9.5-mile gravel road that loops through Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Walnut Canyon Desert Drive affords views of the spectacular desert landscape. At the oasis of Rattlesnake Springs, pause to observe the fascinating desert wetland, which attracts reptiles. Note that low clearance vehicles, RVs and trailers are not permitted. 

The Rattlesnake Canyon Upper Loop Trail is a 6-mile from the Rattlesnake Canyon Trailhead to the Guadalupe Ridge, taking you down to the Walnut Canyon Desert Drive before ascending back up to where the trail began. 

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White Sands National Park

Surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, White Sands National Park sprawls 145,762 acres in the Tularosa Basin, encompassing a vast, 275-square-mile landscape of glistening, undulating white gypsum crystal sand dunes. Set in the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches into west Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico, the San Andres Mountains are to the west and the Sacramento Mountains are to the east. 

Attracting people for over 10,000 years, Spanish explorers and miners came to the basin in pursuit of resources like salt and gypsum and ranchers capitalized on the basin’s expansive grasslands until the World War II bombing of Pearl Harbor. 
 
The Flora and Fauna 
 
Despite harsh environmental conditions, even for a desert, 800 species of animals survive and thrive within the park. Although it can seem desolate, in reality, it’s a place of complex, interconnected ecosystems, where even the soil brims with life, thanks to tiny cyanobacterium, which layer themselves into a woven mat atop the soil’s surface in the areas between dunes. 

Here you can walk in the footsteps of giant sloths, Columbian mammoths and dire wolves, who once traversed the muddy banks of Lake Otero, leaving behind footprints made of gypsum crystals, dolomite and sand. See them preserved in the sediments of Alkali flat.  

Birders will appreciate the 220 bird species that call the park home, including wrens, mockingbirds, ravens and larks. The White Sands pupfish — the only fish in the park — is joined by frogs, toads and salamanders, as well as foxes, bobcats, coyotes, badgers and porcupines. 

From cacti and succulents to grassland, wildflowers, trees and shrubs, plant life has also adapted to the environment and constantly shifting landscape. Look for everything from thorny cane cholla to Lechuguilla, a type of agave; spiny Ocotillo; blueish-green bluish-green Little Blue Stem; and creosote bush, which becomes fragrant after it rains, wonders can be found at every turn — just take the time to look closely.  

The Weather 

During the summer months — June through August — daytime temperatures average 95ºF, though they can easily soar to 110ºF. September through November are much more moderate, averaging a high of 80ºF and a low of 65ºF. Not surprisingly winters are cool — especially at night, when temps dip to an average 23ºF — while spring is cool, comfortable and pleasant.  

White Sands also manages a network of weather stations throughout the park that monitor weather conditions. Follow weather and road conditions on the park’s website.  

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

The name of the strenuous, 4.7-mile Alkali Flat Trail is deceptive — it’s far from flat, skirting the edge of the final remnants of Lake Otero, up and down sand dunes 

Check out the 1-mile Dune Life Nature Trail loop, a hike during which you climb two steep dunes with loose sand. Since winds are constantly blowing and shifting the sand, a standard trail is impossible, so three-foot-high trail markers guide your way. Standing at any marker, you should be able to see one or more in the distance. If you don’t see markers, turn back or risk getting lost amid the endless sand. 

The lollipop-style White Sands Backcountry Trail takes you 1.8 miles through snow-white gypsum dunes. Strong winds, particularly in the spring, can reduce visibility to mere feet, in which case it’s easy to become lost in the ever-changing dune landscape. Do not proceed if you cannot see the trail marker ahead. 

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National Parks in Texas

Big Bend National Park

Located in far southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park is a geological marvel that encompasses the entirety of the Chisos mountain range and a sweeping portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. Featuring canyons carved in ancient limestone and a meandering river corridor, its history comes to light through excavated dinosaur bones, as well as sea fossils and volcanic dikes. 

Pictographs and archeological sites reveal native peoples lived and passed through here for thousands of years, from the Paleo-Indian period to the Early Archaic, Middle Archaic, Late Archaic and Late Prehistoric. Spanish explorers later established a series of forts along the Rio Grande. By the time Anglo settlers began arriving in the 1800s, Mexican families who had occupied the area since the late 1700s were farming the Rio Grande’s floodplains. From ranchers who migrated into Big Bend to raise livestock in the 1800s to miners and the Civilian Conservation Corps, many have left their mark. 

Take time to visit the park’s sites and ruins — which include old buildings and ruins of past settlements — as they illuminate the story of this amazing park.  

The Flora and Fauna 
 
The three great North American mountain-building episodes are found within park boundaries: marine sedimentary rocks, continental sedimentary rocks and volcanic rocks. Speaking of rocks, 130 million years of life are preserved in Big Bend’s. 

Fabled for its natural resources and spectacular geology — it’s one of the most biologically diverse arid regions in the world — Big Bend’s diverse habitats support more than 1,200 species of plants, 75 species of mammals, over 400 species of birds, 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish and approximately 3,600 species of insects. 

Though rare, super blooms can occur when rain blesses the park in winter. See oaks and sumacs along the Pine Canyon Trail. Hike to an Ice Age forest in the Chisos Mountains. Spot wetland plants at Rio Grande Village.  

In this unforgettable place, you may glimpse black bears, perhaps in a Texas Madrone; hoofed, pig-like collared peccaries; and slinking bobcats. While you might not expect such a diverse population of birds, Big Bed rests along a significant migration route, given its southern U.S. latitude and proximity to Mexico, as well as the fact that there are springs or oases, which support a diversity of habitats. There are even a whopping 22 kinds of lizards found here. 

The Weather 

Higher mountain elevations see temperatures that average 5–10 degrees cooler during the day and 0-5 degrees cooler at night, while the reverse is true of the lower desert and river corridor.  

The sun shines bright most of the year. Spring is the park’s busiest season, when the weather is warm and pleasant. Summers are hot, with temperatures that vary significantly along the desert floor, easily reaching 100°F. Meanwhile, the rainy season occurs from May through September, a time when heavy thunderstorms can cause flash flooding. While snow is rare and typically light, fall and winter tend to meld together, with pleasant, mild temperatures, though periods of clouds and freezing cold do occur. 

Be sure to dress for the weather and watch conditions on the park’s website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

The 4.8-mile Lost Mine Trail offers a great introduction to the flora and fauna of the Chisos Mountains. Gaining an elevation of 1,100 feet. Treck through a woodland-grassland ecosystem and take in some of the park’s most scenic views of the surrounding mountains and desert. 

Strating near Chisos Basin Lodge, the easy, staggering, 5.2-mile Windows Trail follows Oak Creek, taking you from desert to alpine forest to rock walls and Window pour-off for panoramas of the varied terrain. 

An easy option, the 1.4-mile, out-and-back Santa Elena Canyon Trail starts at Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, meandering to the mouth of stunning Santa Elena Canyon., crossing Terlingua Creek before ascending on paved steps to a vista before descending again to the water’s edge. 

Get a breathtaking, 360-degree view on the 15.2-mile, challenging-but-rewarding Emory Peak via South Rim Trail and Boot Springs Trail. Gaining 2,700 feet, it takes you to the highest point in the park at 7,825 feet. 

Another easy choice is 2-mile out-and-back Balance Rock via the Grapevine Hills Trail which passes through a small valley before climbing the steep headwall of the valley, veering southwest along a ridge to Balanced Rock, a formation that resembles stacked blocks. 

Bringing you to the Castolon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive reveals the ruins of Sam Nail Ranch, Rio Grande-carved Santa Elena Canyon with its steep limestone cliffs and Langford Hot Springs, near the Mexican border, where you can view pictographs and the remains of an old bathhouse. 

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Set in the boundless Chihuahuan Desert in western Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is recognized for its shockingly white Salt Basin Dunes, wildlife-populated grassland and the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef. With a history shaped through conflict, cooperation and survival, it is home to the four highest points in Texas — Guadalupe Peak, Bush Mountain, Shumard Peak and Bartlett Peak — its 80 miles of trails wind from woodland canyons to lush springs, deserts, dunes and fossilized mountains.  

The largest wilderness area in the state of Texas, the Guadalupe Mountains has experienced a constant stream of human history for over 10,000 years. From conflicts between Mescalero Apache and Buffalo Soldiers, stagecoach service the Butterfield Overland Mail, the arrival of ranchers and settler and, ultimately, its designation as a national park, you can learn about its past at Frijole and Williams Ranches, as well as the ruins at Pinery Station. 
 
The Flora and Fauna 
 
Among the country’s best-kept secrets, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of Earth’s best examples of an ancient, marine fossil reef. Offering outstanding biological diversity, thanks to big geographical variations within the extraordinarily rugged landscape, complete with sheer canyon walls, ridge tops in the high-country ridge tops, vast desert lowland and verdant riparian oases. 

Given the harsh conditions, it’s tough, adaptive plant life that thrives here, including thick-fleshed cacti, monsoon season wildflowers, ferns that sprout from moisture-retaining crevices and barbed agaves.  

The park features diverse life zones, spanning a Chihuahuan desert community; lush, streamside maple and oak-dotted woodlands; canyons; and forested mountaintops fragrant of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Keep an eye out for western diamondback rattlesnakes, bull snakes and coachwhip snakes. Come fall, tarantulas can be spotted seeking mates. By contrast, mountain elevations are home to elk, black bears, mountain lions, gray foxes, mule deer and so much more. 

The Weather 

Ranging in elevation from 3,000 to more than 8,000 feet, Guadalupe Mountains National Park sees significantly variable weather. Spring and summer are generally warm and mild. By contrast, fall and winter are cooler and often experience high winds that can exceed 70 miles per hour. 

Check the current weather to ensure you pack the appropriate gear and check the park webcams to see live conditions

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

A hard, 8.4-mile hike, the Guadalupe Peak Texas High Point Trail sees a 3,000-foot elevation gain that brings you to the summit of Guadalupe Peak for priceless views 8,800 feet above the sea. Standing approximately at the cruising altitude for small and military aircraft, it is not uncommon to see fighter jets from nearby Fort Bliss at eye-level. 

The challenging, 3.8-mile Devil’s Hall Trail guides hikers to a natural rock staircase toward a “hallway” of steep canyon walls. The wash portion of the route involves scrambling over large boulders. Along the way, you’ll see impressive geologic formations like towering trees and mountaintops. 

For a moderate trek consider the 2.4-mile Smith Spring Trail loop trails through a patch of oak woodland beneath Frijole Ridge, past Manzanita Spring and along open, grassy slopes with views of the Chihuahuan Desert. 

Loop up the Bear Canyon Trail and down the Tejas Trail on a hard, 8.5-mile hike to Hunter Peak at 8,368 feet, ascending 2,540 feet along the two trails to reach what many consider the best view in Texas. Hunter Peak is comprised of a fossilized coral reef and is composed of fossil rich limestone. Its south side is considerably steeper and more rugged, with a desert-like appearance, while its northern slope is blanketed in white pine, Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. 

No roads pass through the heart of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, though a series of roads lead to — and offer access within — the park

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Whether you live in the southwest already, are considering a cross-country move to the coastal U.S. or are planning a visit, our blog is filled with ideas to experience the region through a local lens.  

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