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The varied and breathtaking National Parks of the American Southwest

Secondary Categories: SouthwestGuide

With its striking red cliffs, precipitous river canyons, and stunning stone mesas, The Four Corners region of the American Southwest is home to the greatest concentration of National Parks in our nation. Read on to find out what each of these five special National Parks has to offer.

The deserts of the American Southwest are home to some of the most unique and impressive landscapes in the country. And SA Expeditions has you covered with full-service, guided experiences that let you make the most of your time. But with so many excellent options to choose from, how do you decide which of these desert gems is best for you? We’re here to break it down, one park at a time.

Moab: The Gateway to Canyonlands and Arches

Arches National Park is delicate, striking, and awe-inspiring. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

Located in Eastern Utah, and accessible from Salt Lake City (233.5 miles away) or Las Vegas (460 miles away), the small and charming town of Moab is a short drive from two of the primary National Park draws of the Southwest: Arches and Canyonlands. Moab has an array of excellent dining, drinking (the Moab Brewery is great) and accommodation options, including the Hoodoo Moab a modern oasis surrounded by ochre cliffs that features a full spa and a splendid outdoor pool.

With their striking red rock scenery and windswept rock formations, both parks offer a wide array of activities for visitors ranging from family-friendly vehicle tours to high adventure treks through the desert. Arches features some of the area’s most well-known vistas such as Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, and the Fiery Furnace. The best part? Reaching these breathtaking landmarks never requires more than three miles round-trip on foot. At only 120 square miles, Arches is proof that dynamite comes in small packages. What’s more, when you visit Arches with SA Expeditions, you can skip the search for a parking spot. Our expert guides know how to time your visit to avoid the biggest crowds and focus all your energy on taking in the natural beauty you came to see.

Arches is only five miles from Moab and 10 miles from the wilds of Canyonlands National Park. At 527 square miles, Canyonlands offers far more to explore off the beaten path. It also receives almost half the yearly visitors of the smaller Arches, making it a great place to escape the crowds and play some Desert Solitaire. Here you can take a page out of Edward Abbey’s famous yarn and “Let the people walk,” enjoying one of the many hiking trails that wind among hidden places in the cliffs (with a little help from your SA Expeditions guide). Alternatively, you can explore the miles of backroads in the park on a 4x4 tour that will take you to the deepest reaches of this massive sprawling desert playground. Whatever your flavor of desert exploration, Moab is where the adventure begins.

Zion and Bryce Canyon: Southern Utah’s Dynamic Duo

Heaven on earth - or maybe Mars - at Bryce Canyon. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

Heading south toward the border with Arizona, we find two more of the Southwest’s most famous National Parks: Zion and Bryce Canyon. Named by the Mormon pioneers who settled the area in the 19th century, both of these parks are sure to inspire quasi-religious experiences with their stunning natural formations and heavenly vistas. Zion is the larger and more famous of the two, weighing in at just over 229 square miles of surprisingly lush and green desert landscapes. For millennia, the Virgin River has carved its way through ochre-red sandstone cliffs, leaving behind sheer walls that tower over the valley floor below, evoking an open-air cathedral. For many visitors, a guided drive along the scenic road will hit the spot, but for the active and adventurous, Zion holds nearly no end of possibilities. You can warm up by hiking a fairly short and manageable loop to the Emerald Pools, a series of green oases among the red rock cliffs that will have you believing you’ve stepped into an Albert Bierstadt painting. If that isn’t enough adventure, you can get your feet wet (literally) hiking the famous slot canyons of the Narrows. This semi-aquatic hike will see you waist deep in the Virgin River as you traverse upstream into the increasingly high and tapered canyon walls above. And if hiking through a river hasn’t satisfied your need for adventure, you can brave the steep climb and knife-edge clifftops of Angels Landing, perhaps the most famous hike in all of America’s National Parks. If you’re lucky, you may even be graced by the presence of a California condor flying overhead, as the newly reintroduced species finds a foothold in the rocky outcroppings of Zion’s high places.

They call it "Angels Landing" for good reason. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

About one hour east of Zion by car, you’ll find a land that looks pulled from the pages of a fantasy novel – or the fevered imagination of Salvador Dali. Bryce Canyon’s candy-corn-striped hoodoo formations nearly defy belief… But thanks to some of the best and most convenient infrastructure in any National Park, you’ll have plenty of time to convince yourself that, yes, they are in fact real and not a desert mirage. At just under 56 square miles, Bryce Canyon is the smallest of the Southwestern National Parks. But don’t let that fool you: there’s plenty to do and see along the canyon’s many trails and viewpoints. A well maintained road takes you from the nearby town and its boutique lodgings (we can’t get enough of the chic but quirky East Zion Resort) to any of the easy-to-locate trailheads or vista points, which all feature stunning views of this unique and otherworldly landscape. Explore the dramatic formations that surround the Queen’s Garden Trail (bring your own tea and biscuits) or take a short walk down the Navajo Loop Trail to Thor’s Hammer. Be sure to check the weather, as Bryce Canyon sits at roughly 9,000 feet above sea level, making the nights brisk and leaving open the possibility of a dusting of snow – a sight you wouldn’t soon forget. As always, our expert guides will help you navigate the canyon to maximize your comfort and enjoyment, regardless of the season.

The Grand Canyon: The Crown Jewel of the American Southwest

While all of the Southwest’s National Parks offer unforgettable experiences, few would argue that a trip to the region is complete without a visit to the granddaddy of them all: The Grand Canyon. At a whopping 1,902 square miles, it’s by far the largest park in the region. But unless you’re planning to raft down the Colorado River or hike from Rim to Rim you will most likely visit either the North or South Rim, where accommodations and services are concentrated.

Grand Canyon lookout
The canyon is so grand, it simply must be experienced in person.

The Grand Canyon South Rim is the most popular destination within the park, owing to its wealth of services and accessibility (it’s only about five hours from Las Vegas or Phoenix). The South Rim is home to over two dozen striking viewpoints, many of which allow you to take in not only the vast expanse of the canyon as it stretches northward, but the mighty Colorado River below, as it continues its epochal mission to carve out the deepest and widest canyon in the Americas. Easily accessible hotels (the historic El Tovar Hotel boasts truly epic views) and restaurants make the South Rim a favorite for families or those looking for a more convenient and classic experience of the canyon. Add a wealth of local tour options including 4x4 off-road explorations and helicopter or hot air balloon rides over the canyon, and it’s easy to see why the South Rim attracts 90% of the park’s six million annual visitors.

For those looking to escape the madding crowds for a more solitary experience of the Grand Canyon, the North Rim has what you’re seeking. With only 10% of the Grand Canyon’s annual visitors exploring this quieter and more remote end of the park, it’s easier to find a place to escape and take in the solitude of the desert. A small visitors’ center anchors the North Rim and offers basic services, while a scenic drive with several available hiking trails allows you to immerse yourself in the majesty of the Grand Canyon with a bit more elbow room. Best of all, the North Rim is an easy two-hour drive from both Zion and nearby Page, Arizona (read more about this luxurious gateway to Lake Powell here, making it a convenient addition to any Southwest itinerary!

No Wrong Way to Explore

Unforgettable hiking trails on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

With its wealth of amazing parks and stupefying landscapes, the American Southwest is a destination you won’t soon forget. Whatever your preferred style of travel, our team of Destination Experts can help you decide how best to structure your time, and, as always, our expert local guides will make sure you get exactly the experience you desire.

Whether you long to bounce down rugged 4x4 trails leaving plumes of dust in your wake, or to find a quiet corner of the Southwest in which to rest and reflect, reach out now to begin planning your perfect desert escape. Alternatively, check out our ever-popular 6-Day Grand Canyon Adventure Tour itinerary or our 7-Day Southwest National Parks Tour which take in many of the region’s biggest hits.

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