There’s something pretty spectacular about road-tripping through America’s Southwest. Whether you’re driving down dusty desert roads that seem to go on forever, precariously peeking over incredible cliff faces, or standing dwarfed by unbelievable rock formations, prepare for your jaw to be permanently on the ground in awe of all the insanely beautiful sights the region has to offer.
Here are a few places you should definitely add to your Southwest road trip bucket list – and, if you go at the right time, you might also be able to catch some awesome action sports events along the way!
This little treasure trove of ancient history is home to around 600 prehistoric cliff dwellings and artefacts of the ancestral Pueblo Native Americans. The Puebloans built the sturdy structures into the cliff faces around 1200 A.D., and thanks to the National Park’s preservation efforts, they are still in pretty schmick condition today. Mesa Verde is at its most impressive at night when the rooms and passages are illuminated within the cliff, making for one very pretty history lesson.
If you’re an avid mountain-biker, make sure you plan your trip to Colorado in June to catch the annual Ride The Rockies Bike Tour. The 6-7 day ride has a different route mapped out each year, but always delivers incredible scenery and some tough mountain passes to conquer.
When you think of the Southwest, the image of Monument Valley is often what comes to mind – an isolated natural wonderland of red rock spires, mesas and buttes surrounded by endless desert. This place definitely feels like the real deal Wild West.
For the famous road view, drive south down U.S. Route 163. You’ll be cruising down what seems like a never-ending desert road, when up from the horizon rises this amazing sight. I guarantee you’ll never be more mesmerised by a stretch of road than when you’re driving into the heart of Monument Valley.
As you walk up to the edge of this beauty, your breath will be literally taken away. The sheer size and splendour of this natural wonder is completely overwhelming. If you didn’t feel extremely insignificant and small in the world before, you definitely will after visiting Horseshoe Bend.
The most thrilling thing (or the most terrifying for those with a fear of heights) is that there is absolutely nothing between you and the 1,000ft drop down to the Colorado River below. If you’re game and very careful, perch yourself on the edge, let your feet dangle over the cliff, and just take in the view. It’s certainly one of those pinch-yourself moments.
Only 15 minutes down the road from Horseshoe Bend is the incredible Lower Antelope Canyon. A little more off-the-beaten-track and only accessible by an authorized guided tour, Lower Antelope Canyon is well worth the extra effort it takes to get there.
As you descend the steep stairs into this otherworldly cavernous slot canyon, you’ll feel like you’ve walked into a Dali painting. The walls twist and bend haphazardly, changing the colour of the rock as they corkscrew around. Go mid-morning for the best natural light and chance of sunbeams.
Arizona sure has some good-lookin’ rocks, and no Southwest road trip is complete without making a stop at the most famous rocks of all – the Grand Canyon. Not only is the canyon inconceivably beautiful, it is also inconceivably huge. To give you some perspective on its size, if you took the whole world’s population and piled them into the Grand Canyon, they still wouldn’t fill a fraction of it. IT. IS. MASSIVE.
There are a few different ways of viewing the big ol’ Canyon, but the South Rim is the most accessible and gives you the most classic view. Further West is the Skywalk, a glass-bottomed viewing platform which gives you the chance to walk out over the edge of the cliffs for a heart-stopping view from above.
Road-tripping through the Southwest will definitely make you want to soak up all the cowboy country vibes, and what better way to embrace it than at the Prescott Frontier Days. The festival is considered to be the world’s oldest rodeo event, and if you plan your trip through Arizona during the weeks leading up to 4th of July and you’ll be able to check it out.
Get your hiking boots on and spend a few days exploring this extraordinary park by foot, bike or raft. The greener, more forest-y, less desert-y surrounds will probably come as a welcome change on your Southwest road trip. Hike up to Tunnel View for the most famous overlook of the Yosemite Valley, framed by El Capitan and the cascading Brideveil Fall, with Half Dome in the distance. For a closer look at Half Dome and another killer view of the valley, check out Glacier Point.
Hot tip: Watch the documentary ‘Valley Uprising’ before you go. The film tells the history of rock-climbing in Yosemite from the 60s to now, and will open your eyes to a whole new level of appreciation for the park. Even if you’re not a rock-climbing enthusiast, this doco will have you rapt. 10/10 would recommend.
From California, head southeast into Nevada for your chance to drive through one of the hottest places in the world – Death Valley.
In Summer, temperatures can soar up to 134°F/56.7°C. We’re talking some serious heat here, guys. They don’t call it Death Valley for nothin’. Despite its relentless heat, Death Valley is actually a very cool place to visit.
It is home to the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, and an area called ‘The Racetrack’ where a mysterious phenomenon occurs involving boulders which seemingly slide across a dry lake bed of their own accord, leaving a trail in the dust behind them – but, get this, no one has ever actually witnessed the rocks move. Creeeepy!
Once you make it out of Death Valley alive, keep heading south to Las Vegas to celebrate. If you haven’t exceeded your quota of awesome desert landscapes for the day, you could take a slight detour through the amazing Red Rock Canyon along the way.
After a trip through Red Rock Canyon, you’d be forgiven for feeling extremely tempted to get out there and climb a few walls. Well, if you’re there in March, you actually can! The annual Red Rock Rendezvous event runs a series of climbing clinics, from big wall to bouldering, so you can satisfy all your raging rock-climbing desires.
While a few of the Southwest’s natural wonders are totally free to check out (woo!), many are situated in National Parks or require an entrance fee. If you’re headed out on the road for a few weeks and want to see a bunch of these places along the way, I recommend purchasing an Annual National Parks Pass. It works out to be a bit cheaper than paying the entry to every park you visit AND it’s super easy:
Step 1: Buy pass at the entrance of your first National Park.
Step 2: Success.
Now, hit the road and get exploring!
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