Is there a place on Earth with more natural wonders than the American West? 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! I always dreamt to travel there, and the road trip I did during spring 2018 remains an unforgettable memory. But still, some places marked more than others, which gave me the opportunity to establish this very subjective top 16!
16. Kodachrome Basin (Utah)
Kodachrome Basin is a small State Park in the South of Utah, very close to the much more famous Bryce Canyon. It 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. 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 and it didn’t impress me much. A nice scenic road, a stroll in the middle of the many naturels chimneys and a detour to admire Chimney Rock (an impressive 50m/164ft-high monolith) and a couple of hours later I was already gone.
15. Snow Canyon (Utah)
Located next to St George in the South-West corner of Utah, Snow Canyon State Park 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… I still spent a nice afternoon there, admiring the contrast of colours between the red characteristic of the rocks in the American West, the white on top of the cliffs that gave its name to the Park, and the black from ancient solidified lava flows. Really beautiful, but nothing compared to its amazing neighbour!
14. Red Rock Canyon (Nevada)
I spent two days in Las Vegas, the world capital of gambling, enough to find this city of all excesses both fascinating and repulsive. Its display of kitsch and its billions of neon lights quickly exhausted me, to the point of already wanting to leave it on the second day and return to nature! What I eventually did by exploring Red Rock Canyon, directly out of Las Vegas. Like the other two parks above it in this list, it’s not the most spectacular place in the area, but I spent a pleasant afternoon here driving along the tourist route circling around it, and stopping for a few walks along the way. Only regret, the park closed too early and I couldn’t stay to watch the sunset over the plain of Las Vegas!
13. Anza Borrego (California)
Close to the Mexican border in the south of California, the State Park of Anza Borrego was the first I visited during my trip in the American West. The few days I had spent in Los Angeles before beginning my road trip went horribly wrong, and being finally able to hit the road was a huge relief! I described this day at Anza Borrego combined to a visit of Salvation Mountain, Slab City and the Salton Sea a little further east in a different article: In the heart of the Californian desert.
12. Death Valley (California)
You might have never heard about the State Parks ranked from 16 to 13, 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. The reason why I only ranked it 11th is very subjective: it owes a lot to the weather conditions. During my visit, it was almost chilly and I even had a little shower, in one of the driest places on earth! It may seem odd, but I would have preferred to visit the Death Valley under its usual relentless sun, to find out what earned it such a disturbing name…
To try to be a little more objective, Death Valley is still home to several quite extraordinary places: the famous viewpoint of Zabriskie Point, the sand dunes of Mesquite Flat or even the plains cracked by drought and covered with salt of Badwater Basin, 86m below sea level. Record temperature at this location: 57°C/135°F! It sends chivers down your spine, if I dare say…
11. Monument Valley (Arizona-Utah)
Monument Valley is one of the most famous images of the South-West of the United States. Who never saw pictures of these extraordinary rock formations in the middle of the desert?
The reason why I decided to rank it only 11th despite such an incredible sight is mostly because of its touristic exploitation that I really disliked. First, the entry price is quite expensive considering that you probably won’t spend more than a few hours in the park: 20$ per vehicle (in 2018, it might have changed since), and as Monument Valley is located in an Indian reserve, the pass “America The Beautiful” that gives free access to all National Parks can’t be used. Then the so famous picture just above was taken from the visitor centre… surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. It definitely loses a lot of its charm when you have to share this spectacular view with so many other people around you… Finally, the only way to explore the park is by driving on a track (the Valley Drive) circling around the “Buttes” (the name of these amazing rock formations); I would rather have preferred this natural site to be accessible only by foot. In short, my trip to Monument Valley wasn’t the unforgettable moment that I expected.
10. Sequoia & Kings Canyon (California)
As the crow flies, barely a hundred kilometers separate these two National Parks in the heart of the Sierra Nevada from Death Valley, and yet they could hardly be more different. No desert here, but trees, and not just any trees: the biggest in the world! The most impressive of them is called General Sherman: it is neither the tallest (still a solid 84m/276ft) nor the widest (31m/102ft in circumference), but no other tree on the planet can compete with its volume of 1500m3/53000ft3! Not to mention that it is over 2200 years old…
I loved walking around this beautiful forest with my nose in the air, giving me stiff necks, but the highlight of the day I spent in Sequoia and Kings Canyon was not due to a tree: it’s my unexpected encounter with a female black bear and her cub, who crossed the hiking trail on which I was walking ahead of me…
9. Joshua Tree (California)
For me as well as for many other music lovers, The Joshua Tree was the name of a U2 album before being a National Park… but it’s still a really beautiful place that deserves a visit. I described my musical journey in a very special article that you can read by following this link.
8. Grand Canyon (Arizona)
The Grand Canyon, icon of the American West, one of the most famous places in the world, only ranked 8th in this list? Wait to see what comes at the 7 first ranks… That being said, I must admit that my first reaction when I stared at it was a touch of disappointment: I probably had too many expectations, I had imagined something even more spectacular… and yet this Grand Canyon is quite spectacular! It has a maximum depth of 2,000m/6,500ft, and at its widest 29km/18 miles separate its north and south shores. Advantage of such a gigantic site: even if there are a lot of visitors, you can easily get away from other tourists and find yourself alone to enjoy the view. The bravest can also take one of the trails down to the Colorado River, at the bottom of the canyon… I was not brave enough!
7. Arches (Utah)
Rarely has a National Park been so aptly named: located near the city of Moab in Utah, Arches is home to the largest concentration of natural arches on Earth, of all shapes and sizes. It is said that there are more than 2000 in the Park! Among the most famous are Double Arch, The Windows, Delicate Arch the symbol of Utah, or also Landscape Arch: with its 89m/292ft long and 32m/105ft high, it is simply the biggest in the world!
Ironically, the natural arch that I found the most impressive in the region is not in the National Park, but a few kilometers west of Moab: Corona Arch, accessible with its neighbor Bowtie Arch via a nice trail that starts from the Colorado River.
6. Canyonlands (Utah)
The city of Moab is definitely perfectly located: in addition to Arches National Park, it is also close to Canyonlands. And this one is a real wonder: the Grand Viewpoint Overlook probably offers the most exceptional panorama of the American West!
It’s the erosion of the Colorado River (it again) and the Green River that has shaped this extraordinary landscape. I was unfortunately a little sick and very tired the day I visited Canyonlands, and I just drove from one viewpoint to another without embarking on any of the many possible hikes (otherwise it would have perhaps been even better ranked), but I still have an unforgettable memory of this National Park!
5. Antelope Canyon (Arizona)
Another famous image of the American West: Microsoft even used a picture of this fabulous red slot canyon polished by erosion for an official wallpaper. There are actually two different canyons: the Lower and the Upper Antelope Canyon. If I had visited only the Upper Canyon, I probably would have ranked Antelope on my personal podium, but because of the Lower Canyon I decided to downgrade it to rank 5. Here’s why.
Both canyons can only be visited with a guided tour. They are located in a Navajo reserve, and booking is highly recommended, at least a week in advance during the peak season (spring and summer). I visited the Upper Canyon with the company called “Antelope Slot Canyon Tours by Chief Tsotsie” and it was really awesome. We were a dozen people and our old indigenous guide was highly interesting, friendly and funny. The tour begun at their office in Page from where we were carried in the back of a truck on a bumpy track until the entrance of the canyon. Then we slowly walked all the way through it, with many stops for explanations and pictures. Once we reached the end of it, our guide played music for us on a traditional instrument and talked for a few minutes about how erosion created this place, and then we walked back through the canyon but without stopping this time. An unforgettable moment.
The Lower Canyon is longer and deeper, which makes it even more impressive than its neighbour. The problem wasn’t the canyon itself but the tour. There were so many groups were visiting at the same time that the entire canyon was packed with people following each other. It was noisy, very difficult to take pictures, we sometimes had to wait for another group to move on and sometimes had to suddenly hurry up, while our guide, a young man in his 20’s with a robotic tone was constantly shouting “Come on! Let’s go! We have to move!”. These really appalling conditions of visit somewhat ruined my pleasure, even if in the end my photos are more beautiful…
4. Bryce Canyon & Red Canyon (Utah)
There are many places in the American West where I had the impression of being on a different planet, but Bryce Canyon is probably where that feeling was at its greatest. The view over the hundreds of hoodoos (columns of soft rocks topped by a much harder and less easily eroded stone, also called fairy chimneys) in the Bryce Amphitheatre is one of the most fantastic sights I ever witnessed, especially at sunrise.
But if contemplating this panorama from the viewpoints overlooking this natural amphitheater has already filled me with happiness, I loved even more going down into the valley for a long hike, admiring the hoodoos from a completely different perspective. The climb back at the end of the day was difficult, but it was clearly worth it…
Right next to Bryce Canyon, Red Canyon is a miniature version of it: it features the same sky-pointing hoodoos, and it is a nice introduction to its more famous neighbour.
3. Valley of Fire (Nevada)
This small State Park east of Las Vegas is neither the most famous nor the most visited of the American West, but that’s actually one of the reasons why I ranked it at the third place of this list. I didn’t expect much of it but I was amazed with everything I saw and the day I spent there was one of the best of my entire road trip.
What makes the Valley of Fire so beautiful? There are plenty of reasons. First, the many surprising rock formations. Can you see the elephant, the piano, the rabbit and the dog on the pictures below?
Second reason, the landscape. In the northernmost section of the Park, I followed two relatively short hiking paths to explore two extraodinary places: on one side, Fire Wave, a rock streaked with white, orange, ocher and red parallel waves that give the impression of having been painted by the hand of man; on the other, Crazy Hill, a little harder to find and which looks like a rainbow turned into rocks. Breathtaking!
Last but not least: the roads. Going up and down in the middle of such a beautiful environment, winding around huge blocks of red sandstones, admiring the panorama: it was a great pleasure for me to drive in this State Park. Icing on the cake, these roads are also highly picturesque!
2. Yosemite (California)
Ranked at the 5th place in this list, Antelope Canyon owns part of its celebrity to Microsoft, that used pictures of this fabulous canyon for its wallpapers. Its rival Apple did the same thing, but with another National Park: Yosemite, with this picture from the lookout of Tunnel View that you might recognised.
Yosemite is the Park of all superlatives: one of the tallest waterfalls in the world (the Yosemite Falls, 739m/2424ft in total, divided mostly into two main falls of 440m/1444ft and 98m/321ft), a 900m/2950ft high vertical rock wall (El Capitan), or even the Half Dome, a summit rounded on one side and vertical on the other which dominates the valley from its 2693m/8835ft… It is impossible to remain indifferent to such natural wonders.
More subjective, Yosemite is also the only Park that I haven’t visited alone. I did a long hike (23km/14 miles in total with 1200m/3940ft of elevation gain, via the paths of Four Mile Trail, Panorama Trail and Mist Trail) with three other travelers I met in the youth hostel where I was staying: Christy an American girl, and Dave and Mevan, two Australian guys. It was nice for once to have some company!
1. Zion (Utah)
And the winner is… Zion National Park, located in the south-west of Utah! I only spent a day and a half there, which was too short to explore it entirely but more than enough to fall in love with its incredible landscape, and make it the favourite part of my road trip.
Zion is a real paradise for hikers, with dozens of trails criss-crossing it. The most famous is called Angel’s Landing… but I can’t tell you more about it because I didn’t risk it: the last part of this hike is on the crest of a cliff, with 400m/1300ft of emptiness on both sides! Not something anyone afraid of height (including me) would want to try… Instead I chose to go to Observation Point, via a 13km/8 miles round trip path with a drop of 660m/2200ft, but with the reward of a breathtaking and unforgettable view over the gorge below.
But my favourite viewpoint remains Canyon Overlook, in the eastern section of the Park. The panorama there is simply fabulous…
Finally, icing on the cake, I also came across many bighorn sheep walking very close to the side of the cliff close to the viewpoint of Canyon Overlook, with an exceptional sense of balance, or directly at the side of the road, even creating traffic jams! No doubt, Zion deserves its number 1 spot for me.
Bonus: the Highway One
It is not a natural Park strictly speaking and I could not include it in this ranking, but I still wanted to mention the Highway One here, the fabulous road that runs along the Pacific coast in California. The landscapes there are also exceptional, as you can see yoursefl!
If you ever travelled around the American West, what do you think about this top 16 and which Parks would you have ranked on the podium? Let me know in the comments!