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Highlights of the southwest USA’s National Parks

Highlights of the southwest USA’s National Parks

The USA’s National Parks are some of the country’s greatest assets and today the National Park Service celebrates its birthday – when entry to every park across the country is free for the day. Each National Park has so much to see that you’d ideally want to spend at least a couple of days there – and hikers could easily spend a week in each. But what if you’ve only got a day to spare, or even less? My visits to five of the southwest’s National Parks earlier this year were all on a fairly tight timescale, with a day or sometimes only half a day to spend in each. I had to balance what I wanted to see with the time I had available, and it was tough to know what to choose. So afterwards I put together this list of my must-sees for each park I visited for anyone else in a hurry who’s looking to see the highlights.

Bryce Canyon National Park

In half a day… From Bryce Canyon‘s visitors centre, follow the 18-mile-long scenic driving route, starting off in the Bryce Amphitheater area. Park up at Sunset Point first and follow the Rim Trail for a mile along to Sunrise Point. Drive on around the amphitheatre to the viewpoints at Inspiration Point, Bryce Point and Paria View. Then leave Bryce Amphitheater and head out along the road to the furthest point at Rainbow Point. There are plenty of viewpoints on the way, my favourites were the arch at Natural Bridge, the two towering hoodoos at Agua Canyon and the wide views from Rainbow Point.

In a full day… Get down into the canyon amongst the hoodoos on one of the hiking trails – there’s the Queen’s Garden Trail from Sunrise Point, which is the easiest at just under two miles, or the steeper one-and-a-half-mile Navajo Loop Trail from Sunset Point. Or you can combine the two into a longer route.

Sunrise Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

At Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon

Zion National Park

In half a day… For most of the year you have to park at Zion‘s visitors centre and take the shuttle around the park. Get some background information at the Visitor’s Centre and Human History Museum first before catching the bus out to the Emerald Pools Trail for the hour-long walk to the lower pool. Head back to Zion Lodge, where there’s a cafe and picnic area if you want to stop for lunch before catching the next shuttle. Stop off at Weeping Rock for a short walk to the cascades, then get the shuttle to the end of the road where the two-mile-long Riverside Walk takes you to the entrance of The Narrows.

In a full day… Continue your Emerald Pools walk by another hour to visit the upper pool. If you’re heading to or from the east, spend some time following the 25-mile-long Zion–Mount Carmel Tunnel scenic drive which follows a tunnel cut through the rock and winds down to the park.

Zion National Park, Utah

The red rocks of Zion National Park

Arches National Park

In half a day… Start off your Arches exploration at Park Avenue Viewpoint, then drive on to Balanced Rock, where there’s a short circular path around the precariously perched rock. Take the turn off just after it towards the Windows Section of the park and do the short walks out to Double Arch (half a mile) and around the loop passing the North and South Windows and Turret Arch (one mile). Drive back to the main road then take the turn off to the right towards Delicate Arch. There’s not really time to do the walk out to the park’s most famous arch in half a day, but you can follow the lower path to Delicate Arch Viewpoint (one mile), where you get a great view of it across the canyon.

In a full day… Do the hike out to Delicate Arch (three miles, with some steep sections) – best done in the early morning or late afternoon as there’s not a lot of shade en route. Also add on the drive to the park’s furthest point, Devil’s Garden, stopping off at the Fiery Furnace lookout on the way, and do the one-and-a-half-mile walk out to Landscape Arch.

Arches National Park, Utah, USA

The view of Delicate Arch from the viewpoint

Canyonlands National Park

In half a day… Canyonlands is divided into three sections – if you want good views concentrate on the Islands in the Sky district, which is the most accessible. Stop off at the visitors centre first where there’s a short walk out to the Shafer Canyon Overlook. Drive on to Mesa Arch where there’s another short half-mile walk out to an arch on the edge of a cliff. The road then splits – take the right fork to Upheaval Dome, where there is a viewpoint a mile’s walk out onto the dome. Then backtrack to the junction and take the left fork and follow the road out to the end at Grand View Point for some of the park’s most spectacular views.

In a full day… Extend your walk at Upheaval Dome out to the second viewpoint (an extra mile) and add in stops at the Green River and Buck Canyon overlooks on your way to Grand View Point. You can also take a side trip to Dead Horse Point State Park, which is on the way back to Moab.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

At Grand View Point Overlook in Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Verde National Park

In half a day… Drive the 20-mile winding road up up to Mesa Verde’s plateau, stopping off at a couple of the overlooks on the way to take in the view. The biggest concentration of sights is in the Chaplin Mesa area. Learn about the Ancestral Puebloans at the Chaplin Mesa Museum (where there’s a picnic area if you want to stop for lunch) then take the self-guided tour to Spruce Tree house – the best-preserved cliff house and one of the few you can visit without a guide (takes around 45 minutes). Then drive the six-mile Mesa Top Loop where there are stops at short walkways where you can see pit houses, the Sun temple and get great views of the cliff houses across the valley.

In a full day… Add on a drive around the six-mile Cliff Palace Loop and take a ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff house, or the more adventurous tour of Balcony House where you climb through tunnels and up ladders (each takes an hour and you need to book in advance at the visitor’s centre).

Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA

The ruins of Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde

So those are my highlights from each park – do you disagree with any or did I miss out something? And do you have any tips on the must-sees at other National Parks in the southwest USA?

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Highlights of the southwest USA’s National Parks – On the Luce travel blog

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Anarette.com
    August 26, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Over a decade ago I spent 3 weeks visiting the parks in the southwest and I just love their vastness and panoramic views.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      August 26, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      It’s such a spectacular part of the world, I’m already planning to go back and spend more time there.

  • Reply
    Ardun
    August 26, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Thanks for the memories Lucy. My wife and I loved our month travelling through Utah’s awesome parks. Did you get a chance to do the “Subway” hike in Zion?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      August 26, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      Glad to bring back some good memories! We only had just over a half day in Zion so didn’t have chance to do any of the longer hikes, the Subway looks great though.

  • Reply
    peterpreus
    August 26, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    First, I wonder why Grand Canyon is not included. Second, in my opinion Petrified Forest could be included. Another highlight is no national park, but a must-see when traveling in this region: Monument Valley.

  • Reply
    Suzanne Courtney
    August 26, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    A nice little tease here Lucy – I can only dream 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      August 27, 2013 at 2:19 pm

      I got distracted writing it by the list of other US National Parks – such an amazing mix of landscapes, enough there to keep me in trip ideas for the next few years!

  • Reply
    Ben
    August 27, 2013 at 9:45 am

    Great post Lucy – really useful information for people travelling to the region, myself included! After visiting Death Valley I’ve had a bit of a bug to get back out to the US desert and explore more of the spectacular national parks. I’ve been planning a road trip for a while but haven’t got around to the finer details. This will be an invaluable resource, thanks!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      August 27, 2013 at 2:20 pm

      Thanks Ben, I’d love to go and visit Death Valley next time, it looks like such a unique landscape – my national park wish list just gets longer!

      • Reply
        Ben
        August 27, 2013 at 2:32 pm

        I think visiting Death Valley is one of my favourite travel memories, an incredibly desolate and unique place. I’ve never felt so far away from civilization. There are so many amazing national parks in the US alone – I know the feeling!

  • Reply
    Michelle
    August 27, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    hey lucy, here you go tempting me with the southwest again! i love your posts.
    do you know if it is good to travel there in december? the only time we have this year to travel together (with my husband) is in december…

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      August 29, 2013 at 11:19 am

      Hi Michelle, you might be taking chances with the weather in December as there can be a lot of snow as a lot of the parks are at high altitude.

  • Reply
    Amelie
    August 28, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Great post, this brings back a lot of good memories. In Zion next time go and hike the Narrows, we had a blast!
    In Arches, try fiery furnace ranger walk, it’s often fully booked but totally worth it….

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      August 29, 2013 at 11:20 am

      We saw people setting off on the Fiery Furnace walk and the rocks there looked spectacular, and a friend did The Narrows this spring too – lots more to come back and see!

  • Reply
    Ziggy
    August 28, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    Beautiful Luce. But you need to come back to see Page (sorry if I already mentioned it – losing track ;))

    I would say overall December is a bit risky there. Snow can cause difficulties with the hiking and driving, but there wont be many or any tourists which is a plus

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      August 29, 2013 at 11:21 am

      We did briefly come through Page but bad weather meant Antelope Canyon was off – I’ll definitely be coming back for that sometime!

  • Reply
    My US National Park wishlist | On the Luce
    August 29, 2013 at 10:01 am

    […] writing about my highlights from the US National Parks I visited in the southwest this year, it got me thinking about the other […]

  • Reply
    Madhu
    September 3, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    Stunning seems inadequate Lucy! Shall scour your US posts when I decide to get there 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 4, 2013 at 11:54 am

      I’m already planning next year’s US trip so should have a lot for you to choose from!

  • Reply
    dojo
    September 5, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Wonderful pictures and places. We’ve been lucky to see some of the US, but it’s huge and filled with many great locations. Wished we were able to visit all these …

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 6, 2013 at 8:44 pm

      There is so much of the US to see that it would take years to get around it all! I really enjoyed this trip though and can’t wait to see some more.

  • Reply
    nylonliving
    September 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Reblogged this on Just Go Places and commented:
    The Southwest USA is simply amazing with beautiful national parks.

  • Reply
    escapingthedistrict
    September 7, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Did a very similar trip this summer. Your pictures brought back great memories!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 9, 2013 at 10:52 am

      Great part of the world isn’t it? Glad to bring back some good memories.

  • Reply
    lucinda032
    September 19, 2013 at 2:49 am

    I did these parks (except Mesa Verde) in May this year, and they blew my mind, Way better than I expected! My only recommendation is to definitely do the Navajo Loop walk at Bryce Canyon – it is one of the greatest short walks in the world. I think it only took us an hour, maybe two, it wasn’t difficult (climbing out is a bit steep, but not that hard, just take your time). Worth every step!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 20, 2013 at 11:03 am

      We did a bit of the Navajo Loop but part was closed as there had been a rockfall so we had to backtrack about halfway round – such a shame as it sounds like the full walk is amazing, but at least we got to see a part of it!

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