The American Southwest, often known to the rest of the world more for its Old West history than its incredible natural sights, is a sprawling region from Arizona to Oklahoma that’s home to lakes, caves, meteor sites, canyons and one-of-a-kind rock formations unlike those found anywhere else on the planet.
The Grand Canyon alone boasts nearly five million visitors from across the globe every year, but there are several other notable sites yet to be discovered by ambitious travelers. From the avid adventurers to the casual explorers, most southwest destinations offer something for everyone – from strenuous hikes and gravity defying bridges to million-year-old histories.
Here are just a few of the top destinations the region has to offer.
The cliff above Horseshoe Bend near the northern border of Arizona offers a look at one of the most iconic views of the southwest where the Colorado River bends around a massive rock formation. It is accessible by a short, yet steep, hike. While most visitors hike up to view the thousand-foot drop, it is also possible to view the natural wonder with a 30-minute scenic flight or Colorado River rafting trip.
The Grand Canyon, housed in Arizona, is one of the most visited attractions in the United States. The canyon was formed by The Colorado River over the course of millions of years, creating a formation that is 277 miles long, and in some places up to 18 miles wide. The canyon offers tours for every interest and activity level, from helicopter tours, bus tours, and bike tours to raft trips and hikes. The Grand Canyon Skywalk is another extremely popular way to discover the canyon, offering a thrilling way to look down into the canyon through a glass walkway.
Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border is home to some of the best-known rock formations in the Southwest, including the Mitten Buttes. The most popular way to experience the views is with the Valley Drive, a 17-mile dirt and gravel driving loop that can be self-driven without four-wheel drive. The other self-guided option is the Wildcat Trail hike, which is a 3.2-mile loop circling some of Monument Valley’s most popular buttes. There are also guided driving tours and hiking tours that explore less-traveled areas within Monument Valley.
Meteor Crater is the world’s best-preserved meteorite impact site, giving visitors an up-close look at the 550-foot deep and nearly mile-wide hole left by a meteor crash approximately 50,000 years ago. Guests visiting the Arizona attraction can explore the crater on their own or learn the extensive history of the unique attraction through an interactive guided tour.
Cathedral Rock is a 5,000-foot red rock formation in Sedona, Arizona, that has become one of the nation’s most photographed sites thanks to its majestic view and vibrant red coloring. The best way to experience the rock formation is by taking the short, moderately difficult 1.2-mile Cathedral Rock Trail hike.
Turner Falls is Oklahoma’s largest waterfall offering stunning views, hiking trails, swimming areas, and even camping. While it’s most popular for summer recreation trips, it’s open during the winter months as well. You don’t need a tour of the falls to enjoy the incredible views, however there is a per-person, per-day cost to enter.
The Royal Gorge in central Colorado is a stunning, 1,200-foot deep and 10-mile long canyon naturally formed by the Arkansas River, that in recent years has been turned into a family-friendly amusement park. Visitors can immerse themselves in the gorge’s natural splendor thanks to a nearly 100-year-old bridge, as well as the peaceful aerial gondolas, a rollercoaster dubbed the “World’s Scariest Skycoaster,” and the thrilling Cloud Scraper Zipline positioned 1,200 feet above ground.
Hanging Lake within Glenwood Canyon is one of Colorado’s many natural wonders, known for its picturesque waterfalls flowing into an astonishingly clear lake formed by travertine to create a beautiful and geologically rare sight. Due to the fragility of the lake’s ecosystem, a permit is required to hike. The hike is short at about a mile, but not particularly easy due to the canyon’s steep and rocky terrain.
Caddo Lake on the eastern border of Texas is known for its unique and majestic views, amplified by its surrounding bald cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. Visitors can come for the day, set up camp, or rent a historic cabin to enjoy the variety of activities offered by the 26-thousand-acre lake. From easy hikes, to fishing and boat tours, there’s a lot to do around Caddo Lake, which is also known for its extensive wildlife.
The Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico comprise more than 119 underground caves naturally formed by dissolved limestone. The awe-inspiring caves feature several areas to explore, with one of the most memorable being dubbed ‘Big Room’ which is 4,000 feet long and more than 600 feet wide. It is currently known as the fifth largest chamber in North America. To explore the 46,000 plus acres of caves, visitors can opt for self-guided access, audio guides or ranger-guided tours.
Jacob’s Well is an approximately 13-foot-wide and 140-foot-deep underground cave in Hays County Texas, known for its dangerous diving conditions and breathtaking beauty. The almost perfectly circular natural well serves as a great place for tourists and native Texans alike to cool off in the 68-degree water and enjoy the outdoors during the summer. Entrance to the 81-acre natural area is free but expect to pay a swimming fee to fully enjoy the well during peak season. During the winter months, morning guided tours are available.
Valles Caldera in northern New Mexico is a 13-mile wide, circular depression caused by a volcanic eruption more than a million years ago. Today, it’s known for its seemingly endless meadows, winding streams and extensive wildlife. The area offers several hikes as well as biking, camping, fishing, horseback riding, and hunting. To learn more about the history of Valles Caldera, visitors can enjoy park ranger-led tours, or opt for a tour offered by one of the area’s outside agencies.
Antelope Canyon on the border of Utah and Arizona is one of the world’s most photographed natural wonders, known for its wave-like rock formations created by millions of years of water erosion. It is only possible to visit Antelope Canyon with a guided tour from one of the several authorized tour operators. Visitors can opt for the upper or lower canyon tours, either regular guided tours or photography tours. The lower canyon tours are generally less popular, as they are longer and provide fewer light beams. For the best views at either canyon, it’s recommended to visit during the summer months.