They say one trip to the Southwest is never quite enough. For most travelers, the region is a sort of love affair that never really ends. With such a varied landscape to boast about, Southwest USA is home to so many seriously gorgeous destinations that an entire life wouldn’t really be enough to see everything it has to offer.
The Southwest covers some vast distances, so planning to “see it all” in one trip is a tall challenge; it’s the type of family vacation that needs some careful planning between driving distances, booking accommodation far enough in advance (even campgrounds!) and finding suitable activities for kids.
Whenever someone tells me they’re planning a first-timers trip to this fabulous region, I always recommend they start with the main southwest landmarks to get a taste of the area and, then, start plotting their return to a particular state or park as soon as they get home to give each the attention it deserves.
This post is part of our series discover the USA
8 Places You Need to Visit in Southwest USA
We’re going to take you through the American Southwest highlights, but realistically you could spend weeks exploring each region and state. Get your maps ready and plot your way around Southwest USA with these unmissable nature highlights!
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Don’t let its small size fool you: Bryce Canyon is one of the tiniest national parks in Utah and the United States, but it’s got so many amazing things to see and do that a day is barely enough to cover its highlights!
Hoodoos are the icons of Bryce Canyon and one of the most famous landmarks of Utah. The best way to see them is by hiking down the emblematic Queen’s Garden to the Navajo Loop trail. This glorious trail will have you threading your way through narrow rock tunnels, and pine forests, and catching sights of amphitheaters of hoodoos, making every step of the way feel as though you’re walking on a different planet.
If you aren’t exactly into breaking a sweat, though, there are plenty of things to do in Bryce Canyon that don’t involve long hikes. You can see the best of Bryce Canyon by driving down its scenic road, which cuts right through the park and provides viewpoints of the most photogenic vistas in the area. It is also an official International Dark Sky Park making it the ideal spot for star gazing.
A trip to Moab will transport you into a sea of red rock canyons stretching into the horizon, sandstone spires piercing the sky, and whacky-looking rock formations towering over the landscape. Put in simple words, a visit to this gem of a region in Utah will make you feel as though you somehow wandered into a Mars-like terrain.
Set in eastern Utah, Moab brims with wonderful things to do and dozens of places for a scenic drive. From going in search of natural arches at Arches National Park to backpacking the remote Needles District at Canyonlands National Park or going on a rock climbing adventure at Dead Horse Point State Park, you could easily spend an entire month in this stunning region of Utah and never have to do the same thing twice.
Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park offers something for every type of traveler – and just quietly is one of our all-time favorites! From multi-colored sandstone cliffs to spectacular desert wildlife and unequalled jaw-dropping views, it’s absolutely not to be missed off next to its other, perhaps more famous, Utah “Mighty 5” cousins.
Zion National Park has it all when it comes to outdoor adventures, from hiking to mountain biking, or rock climbing – but be warned, queues can be long in the busy season. It is possible to hire a bus from Las Vegas and see this national park on a day trip, but we’d thoroughly recommend allowing a few nights and staying in nearby
It’s a great park to explore for early risers, and for those willing to camp, we strongly recommend booking your Zion campsites early, or why not try a Zion National Park glamping option?
Want to explore all of the “Mighty 5” national parks of southern Utah? You need to check out this Utah National Parks Road trip guide for families which will help you fit them all – plus many fabulous state parks – into a 1 week Southwest itinerary.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Picture red Aztec sandstone lining the terrain, ancient petroglyphs, an ocean of petrified trees, and a landscape colored in hues of reds, pinks, and oranges and you’ll get a pretty good image of what visiting Valley of Fire is all about.
Valley of Fire’s name comes from the fact that the sunlight hitting the rocks in the park makes them look like they’re on fire. Seeing this natural wonder should be reason enough to visit this gem of a park.
However, if you’re still not convinced, another fantastic reason to visit is that the trails here are pretty short and easy to follow, making Valley of Fire an excellent spot to get a taste of what hiking in the desert is like if you’er beginners just learning to hike with kids.
If you’re not up for walking in the heat, though, a great way to get the most out of a day at Valley of Fire is by seeing its best viewpoints from the comfort of your car or chartering a bus from Las Vegas and driving your way through scenic Mouse’s Tank Road.
Millions of years ago, the Colorado Plateau was crashed by natural forces, and Sedona’s otherworldly-looking landscape was formed. Sedona’s majestic landscape is a sight you’re not bound to forget anytime soon, boasting gorgeous river canyons, red rock formations that look straight out of Mars, and sandstone spires lining the scenery.
One of the best ways to explore Sedona is by hitting one of its dozens of trails (there are more than a hundred of them on the menu!). Another must is to explore downtown to learn about the history of the area at the many museums and cultural centers on offer (don’t miss out on visiting the Sedona Heritage Museum!).
If you’re up for a real desert adventure, camping out here is a real treat, with skies so dark you’re very likely to catch glimpses of the Milky Way on a clear night!
Grand Canyon, Arizona
It’s hard to talk about America’s Southwest and not mention the Grand Canyon! Be warned, this can mean you are sharing the experience with throngs of crowds, especially in peak season, but there are plenty of places you can explore within Grand Canyon National Park to make it your own.
A popular option for families and groups coming from Las Vegas is to charter a bus to the Grand Canyon West, just 125 miles by road. This section of the Grand Canyon is Hualapai Reservation, rather than national park, and is home to the famous Skywalk. At just 2.5 hours drive from Las Vegas, you can see why it makes a popular day trip.
As part of a greater Southwest road trip, we prefer to tackle the less-visited North Rim section of the park, which is open only in the summer months. The Bright Angel Point Trail is an easy paved, self-guided 30-minute round trip, or more confident hikers can take the 5-mile Uncle Jim Trail.
You can enjoy a huge range of Grand Canyon glamping experiences on both the North and South Rim sides; think dome tents to wagons and eco-conscious tents! If you’re looking for a unique overnight experience in the Southwest, this is the place!
There are so many more national parks and monuments in Arizona if you have longer to spend in the southwest.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
If you’re keen to get deep and personal with the native history of the Southwest, a wonderful place to do just that is Mesa Verde National Park. Lesser-known than some of the other Southwest USA highlights but an incredible history lesson with kids.
Tucked away amid rocky cliffs, Mesa Verde is made up of ruins of ancient structures and dwellings where Ancestral Puebloans once lived. Even though the collapse of this complex society remains a mystery, walking through the ruins of the place they once called home will transport you back in time and provide a pretty good insight into the lives they lead.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
White Sands may be smaller than most national parks in the Southwest, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for with incredible sights and things to do.
While visiting, make sure you walk along the Interdune Boardwalk, which will get you wandering past samples of the area’s unique flora. Another must is witnessing sunset in the desert and renting a sled to slide down the ocean of sand dunes that give the park its name!
I hope this list of the top places to visit in the Southwest USA gave you some ideas to start planning your itinerary. Even though there’s so much to do here that you could virtually spend an entire year traveling here and still not get to see everything, these destinations are wonderful starting points to explore the best the region has to offer!
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The US family adventures don’t end there! Check out these family guides to the USA for inspiration in planning your next vacation:
- 14 Unmissable Stops on a West Coast Road Trip – San Diego to Seattle and everything in between; get your planner ready for these incredible West Coast & PNW highlights
- Best Beach Vacations on the Gulf Coast – from Florida to Texas, the best beach towns you may not have thought of
- Incredible Winter Vacations in the USA – winter wonderlands to sunny escapes we have you covered across the country & US Territories
- Family-Friendly Things to do in Reno – more to the world’s Biggest Little City than just casinos
And before you hit the road, make sure you pop over to our extensive guide to Family Road Trip Essentials – absolutely everything you might need when you hit the road with kids, along with a handy PDF printout so you’ll never miss a thing again!
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