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An epic road trip through the beautiful American Southwest

by Staff

Arches National Park in Utah (Sandra Salvas/iStock)

When you’re from California, it’s easy to think that some of the world’s most beautiful and wild, rugged places are right here in our lovely state. But while the Golden State has plenty of incredible scenery to offer, both back in those Wild West days as well as now, the landscapes across America’s Southwest are some of the most spectacular to be found anywhere on the planet.

A road trip is a perfect way to see our favorite special spots in the Southwest — Nevada, Utah and Arizona — where you can see ghost towns, hoodoos, natural arches, sandstone spectacles, dark-sky stars and a really huge hole in the ground.

Before you begin, consider purchasing an annual national parks pass at the first park you enter. That $80 pass gets everyone in your car into every national park for a full year. You don’t have to be an American citizen to buy an annual pass, but if you are, and you’re age 62-plus, buy your lifetime pass for $80 and never again pay to enter a U.S. national park. (Considering that Zion National Park’s entry fee is $35 per car, getting the annual pass is something of a no-brainer.)

Nevada: Ghosts, gold and Red Rock

While the lure of Sin City in Nevada is strong, there’s more to the Vegas environs than casinos and outlet malls. So sleep in Las Vegas to start your adventure, if you’d like, perhaps in the comfortable beds at the all-suite Venetian Hotel, have a world-class meal at their Estiatorio Milos restaurant, take in a show and then let the real adventure begin as you exit that glitzy place.

Start with an easy ride to Red Rock Canyon Park, where you’ll need a timed reservation to enter between October and May. It’s just 15 minutes west of the Strip, but transports you to a completely different world of massive striated red rocks, where easy walking trails lead to ancient Native American petroglyphs.

Ancient petroglyphs in Nevada's Red Rock Canyon. (Photo by Jenny Peters)
Ancient petroglyphs in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon. (Photo by Jenny Peters) 

Red Rock is lovely, but our favorite Nevada stop is Rhyolite, a gold-rush ghost town northwest of Vegas. Founded in 1904, it grew to a city of 5,000 residents – and was abandoned by 1916. Today it is a delightful mix of art installations (begun in 1981) known as the Goldwell Open Air Museum and the ghost town’s abandoned brick homes, banks, railroad depot and a house built of glass bottles. The combination is absolutely fascinating and well worth the drive into what seems to be the middle of nowhere.

Utah: Hoodoos, arches and more

Rolling north into southern Utah transports you into a world of contrasts, from vast arid deserts to densely wooded mountains, massive sandstone cliffs, amazing natural-stone arches and seriously wacky rock formations.

Begin in Zion, Utah’s first national park, where most months you’ll need to park your car and ride the free shuttle from the visitor center into the park. This park and its famous sites — Zion Canyon, Kolob Arch, the Narrows, Great White Throne and Angels Landing — are so popular that massive crowds form, especially during the spring, summer and fall seasons. Jump on and off the shuttle as often as you’d like, but don’t miss the last one, as you’ll be walking nine miles to get out of the park if you do!

Bryce Canyon National Park is probably the most eye-popping, mind-boggling place you will ever see, with its hoodoos (to call them irregular rock formations is just inadequate) of every shape and size. It’s the largest concentration of these magical forms anywhere in the world, and a true must-see. Stay in the small town of Bryce (where Best Western and Ruby’s Inn are the two no-frills main hotels) or try to snag a reservation for the rustic Lodge at Bryce Canyon. Make your way up the one-way road to see all of the incredible sights, hike down into the canyon for a closer look and don’t miss the Milky Way stargazing led by a park ranger. Much of the Southwest is toasty in summer, but you’ll need a warm coat for this park, where the night (and early morning) temps can be seriously chilly at any time of year.

Moving on to the northwest, Capitol Reef National Park is the true undiscovered gem of Utah. You’ll be gobsmacked at the huge cliffs of bright, rainbow-colored sandstone looming high above you, with peculiarly shaped hoodoos hanging at perilous angles. Find hidden arches and petroglyphs, take a horseback ride or a hike and be sure to spot the iconic white sandstone dome, shaped like the U.S. Capitol building.

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