Is there a place on Earth with more natural wonders than the South-West of the United States? I can hardly think of anywhere else with a bigger concentration of treasures: dry and deadly deserts, extraordinary canyons, huge waterfalls, stunning rock formations and even the biggest trees in the world! It was a great challenge for me to rank all these beautiful places as I enjoyed them a lot, but I tried anyway and here’s the result, with my 17 favourite State or National Parks in the South-West of the United States. This is the first part, from rank 17 to 13.
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Precision before beginning this article: in the US, you must pay to visit all the parks, whether it is a State or a National Park. But for 80$ per vehicle you can buy a pass called “America The Beautiful” which gives you unlimited access to all the National Parks. I strongly encourage you to buy it as it’s very quickly profitable… even though you can’t use it in the State Parks.
17. Kodachrome Basin
Kodachrome Basin is a small State Park in the South of Utah (entrance price 6$), very close to the much more famous Bryce Canyon. Anywhere else in the world, it would probably be a popular destination but here, surrounded by so many other wonderful places, Kodachrome Basin goes a bit unnoticed. To be honest, even if it’s beautiful, I’d only recommend the detour to this park to people spending plenty of time in the South-West of the United States.
Kodachrome Basin takes its name from a group of National Geographic journalists who took pictures of the area in 1948 with the brand-new Kodachrome film popularised by Kodak. The park features many high chimneys that you can find along the scenic road or explore via different hiking trails. There’s also one natural arch (Shakespeare Arch) and the very impressive Chimney Rock: a 50m/164 feet high monolith in the middle of the plain! In total half a day should be enough to explore the park, unless you’d like to hike along all the trails.
16. Snow Canyon
Located next to St George in the South-West corner of Utah, Snow Canyon State Park isn’t on the bucket list of many international tourists and suffers the same problem as Kodachrome Basin: St George is way more popular for being the gateway to Zion National Park nearby, which is ranked much higher on this list… But Snow Canyon is very easily accessible and worth spending a couple of hours in if you’re in the area.
The particularity of this State Park (the entrance costs 10$ per vehicle) is its wide range of colours: the red so characteristic from the South-West of the United States, the less common white on top of the cliffs that gave its name to the park and the much rarer black due to ancient solidified lava flows. There are various trail options to explore Snow Canyon: my personal favourite were the Hidden Pinyon Trail with great views over the park, and the Lava Flow Trail which allows you to see a couple of caves below the black magma rocks and to climb to a fantastic lookout at its end.
15. Red Rock Canyon
For more pictures have a look at my gallery about Las Vegas and Red Rock Canyon.
Las Vegas is famous for its dozens of luxurious casinos but what is less known is that there is a beautiful natural site just outside the city called Red Rock Canyon. And good news if you lost all your savings gambling at the Bellagio or the Venetian: the entry is free with the “America The Beautiful” pass (15$ per vehicle otherwise).
Red Rock Canyon isn’t the most impressive place in the South West of the United States but it’s a good alternative for a few hours outside the city if you’re staying in Vegas for a couple of days, as “Sin City” is more interesting after dusk. And it probably has the best visitor centre of the country! Modern, interactive and very well documented, it was almost more interesting to visit it than to explore the park. It also shelters a very ancient species that hasn’t changed much in millions of years: the desert tortoise. It’s usually very rare to observe these strange animals (who knew tortoises could live in the desert?) but one can be seen at the visitor centre.
There’s a 21km/13 miles scenic drive circling the park, leading to some beautiful lookouts such as the High Point Overlook. For hikers, numerous tracks can also be explored in Red Rock Canyon. I recommend the Calico Tanks Trail, a very nice and relatively easy 4km/2.5 miles return walk leading to a small natural pool, with a view over Las Vegas at the end. I would have loved to stay there for sunset but unfortunately the park closed at 7pm which was a little too early!
14. Anza Borrego
For more pictures have a look at my gallery about Southern California.
Very close to the Mexican border in the South of California, Anza Borrego was my first experience of canyons, Badlands and desert in this part of the United States. Combined to a visit of Salvation Mountain, Slab City and the Salton Sea nearby, it was a very interesting trip and I would highly recommend this slight detour to any visitors spending enough time in the area. Have a look at the article I wrote about my experience: From Anza-Borrego to Salton Sea: meet the desert and its inhabitants.
13. Death Valley
For more pictures have a look at my gallery about the Death Valley.
You might have never heard about the State Parks ranked from 17 to 14, but you’ve probably heard about the Death Valley before. Considered as one of the hottest and most hostile places on Earth, it is located a few hours North-West of Las Vegas but on the Californian side of the State border. I think the reason why I decided to put it only at rank 13 in this list is because the weather conditions weren’t exactly what I expected: it was relatively cold and I even experienced rain in one of the driest places in the world! Of course, temperatures in the low 20°C/70°F make it easier to explore, but I guess it loses a bit of its charm and I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed.
The most famous spot in the Death Valley National Park (free entrance with the pass “America The Beautiful”, 30$ per vehicle for a maximum of 7 days otherwise) is Zabriskie Point (picture above). Made popular by the eponym movie released in 1970, it offers a gorgeous sight, especially at sunrise when the first rays of sun enlighten the hills. Other highlights of the park: the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes further North, Artists Drive where nature created an incredible range of colours (especially at Artists Palette), the salt field of Devils Golf Course and the plain of Badwater, 86m/282 feet below Sea Level. During summer the temperatures at this spot often climb above 50°C/123°F with a record of 57°C/134°F! Be extra careful during your visit and carry plenty of water.
That’s it for the first part of this list, have a look at the second part to see which parks are ranked from 12 to 8!
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