16 Must See Parks in the Southwestern United States
The southwestern region of the United States features massive canyons, stunning red rock formations, arid deserts, wild rivers, and deep lakes full of fish. The state and national parks of the southwest are some of the most beautiful in the country and some cases cover large areas in the remote corners of their state. Traveling the southwest region of the United States can be a daunting task but one that is filled with rewards of incredible beauty and countless opportunities for hiking, camping, boating, and mountain biking. Next time you are planning a weekend camping and hiking getaway to the southwestern United States, consider one of these parks as your next outdoor adventure destination.
Best National Parks in the Southwestern United States
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Steep mountains and cliffs, rocky terrain, the Rio Grande, and vistas that span as far as the eye can see, Big Bend National Park is the highlight attraction of the Far West Texas. The 800,000-acre national park contains three basic habitats: river, desert, and mountains. Hiking trails extend for miles over a variety of terrains, including the moderate 4.8-mile (7.7 kilometers) Chimney Trail or the challenging 14-mile (22 kilometers) South Rim trail. There are more than 100 miles of paved roads within the park offering a variety of scenic drives, such as the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, to take in the park’s landscape and marvel at the geologic splendor. Four developed campgrounds are located within the park and multiple backcountry campsites that require a permit for camping. The park is also one of only 13 parks in the world to have received a gold-tier certification from the International Dark Sky Association.
Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Oklahoma
This national park is a beautiful oasis of water, foliage, and wildlife offering year-round outdoor activities such as boating, skiing, sailing, fishing, swimming, hiking, and camping. The park provides over 30 miles (48 kilometers) of hiking trails with several of these serving as multi-use trails open for biking and horseback riding. The Lake of Arbuckles consists of 36 miles (58 kilometers) of shoreline. The lake’s crystal clear water and deep rock cliffs make it one of the most popular lakes for scuba diving and fishing in Oklahoma. Travertine Creek has several small cascades and plenty of swimming holes including little Niagara Falls which is a great place to cool off after hiking. There are six public campgrounds within the recreation area offering a variety of facilities.
New to camping? Check out our Camping Tips: A Beginner’s Guide to Their First Trip
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
This underground playground consisting of 119 known caves features thousands of unique cave formations, gigantic rooms of stalactites, spectacular crystals, and even a few underground lakes. Guide yourself along a 1.5 mile (2.4 kilometer) pathway through The Big Room or test your spelunking skills on a ranger-led tour through the Lower Cave or Slaughter Canyon Cave. Above ground, hikers can explore the deep rocky canyons and ancient sea ledges of the Guadalupe Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. From late April through October Carlsbad Caverns is home to migrating Brazilian free-tailed bats. These bats leave the caves each evening in search of food putting on a phenomenal show as you witness thousands of bats swoop above your head. There are no overnight lodging or camping options within the park’s boundaries though primitive backcountry camping is allowed but requires a permit.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
One of America’s most distinguishable landmarks, the Grand Canyon is a natural wonder you must see to believe. Stretching 277 miles (455 kilometers) from end to end, its rocky walls descend more than a mile to the canyon’s floor, where the wild Colorado River traces a swift course southwest. Layered bands of colorful rock reveal millions of years of geologic history. The South Rim is the more popular area of the park as it is open year-round and offers most amenities and attractions. The North Rim tends to be quieter and more remote, offering activities for the rugged outdoorsy adventure. The North Rim section of the park is only open from mid-May to mid-October due to heavy snowfall in the winter months. Take in the sunrise from Yaki Point, descend into the canyon by hiking the Bright Angel Trail, enjoy the scenery along Desert View Drive, and be sure to watch the sunset at Mather Point Overlook.
Interested in joining other like-minded individuals on a camping and hiking trip to one of the United States National Parks, check out our hiking trips at Under30Experiences.
Best State Parks in Arizona
Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Arizona
Offering a unique ecosystem along the Verde River, this state park offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors including hiking, biking, fishing, and paddling. Over 20 miles (32 kilometers) of hiking and biking trails connect the state park to the adjacent Coconino National Forest. The Verde River Greenway trail weaves through some of the best nesting habitats in the area, making it a bird watchers' paradise while the nearby lagoons offer a great place for fishermen to catch rainbow trout and channel catfish. Launch a canoe or kayak and spend your day floating down the river taking in the peaceful scenery along the way. Several campgrounds provide over 100 campsites offering full amenities and primitive backcountry sites.
Red Rock State Park, Arizona
Red Rock State Park is a 286-acre nature preserve and education center showcasing stunning red rock formations outside of Sedona. The Oak Creek meanders through the park, creating a diverse riparian habitat abounding with plants and wildlife while also offering views of the famous Cathedral Rock. Visitors can join a daily guided nature walk to learn more about the park or a bird walk every Wednesday and Saturday. A 5-mile (8 kilometers) network of trails is open to hikers only with trails following the creek and into the woodlands of juniper and pinyon trees. Camping is prohibited in the park thus making it a great day trip from Sedona or Cottonwood.
Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona
Located outside of Phoenix at the base of Superstition Mountain, Lost Dutchman State Park is home to a legend about an elusive gold mine that has never been found. When not searching for the lost gold, visitors can enjoy miles of hiking trails through the rugged wilderness and the beautiful Sonoran Desert landscape. To learn more about the variety of plants within the park hike The Native Plant Trail located near the visitor center. During the spring is the best time to view native wildflowers that carpet the desert floor. The campground provides 138 campsites for RV and tent use, plus fully furnished cabins are available by reservation.
Best State Parks in New Mexico
City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico
Hike or bike along trails that intersect volcanic rock formations and sculpted rock pinnacles, some that rise up to 40 feet (12 meters) off the ground. This unique landscape of monolithic blocks was created by a volcanic eruption over 30 million years ago. Climbing has also become very popular in the park offering up routes for beginners and experienced climbers. The desert botanical garden is home to a variety of cacti and wildlife such as deer, antelope, and jackrabbits can be seen. The park includes a 14-inch telescope in a solar-powered observatory, with a retractable roof that's open to visitors for star parties several nights a week. 52 campsites with full RV hookups and tent camping are available year-round.
Hyde Memorial State Park, New Mexico
Set in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains amongst a forest of pines along Little Tesuque Creek, this park serves as a great base camp for excursions into the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest. Hikers will enjoy the well-maintained trails that lead to stunning vistas, including the 5-mile (8 kilometer) Borrego Trail that meanders through meadows and crosses tiny streams offering plenty of stops for a picnic. During the winter the trails are open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, and a few hills in the park are great for sledding. The park’s campground features multiple sites to pitch a tent or hook up an RV with restrooms and potable water available.
Manzano Mountains State Park, New Mexico
Nestled in the foothills of the Manzano mountain range at an elevation of over 7,000 feet (2,100 meters), this park is an excellent destination for hiking and camping. Hiking trails lead through pine, oak, and juniper forests as they wind through the park’s mountain landscape. The park is home to a variety of bird species making it a fantastic site for birdwatching enthusiasts. The park is rather remote and gives visitors more of a rustic experience providing a great retreat in nature. There are 23 developed campsites with restrooms but no showers. Each campsite is equipped with a grill, a picnic table, and a fire ring.
Before you head out on your next camping adventure, make sure you have the Essential Camping Gear.
Best State Parks in Oklahoma
Keystone State Park, Oklahoma
A short drive from the city of Tulsa is one of Oklahoma’s most scenic state parks located on the shores of the picturesque Lake Keystone. Boating, water sports, and fishing are among the popular activities at this park with a marina offering boat and equipment rentals. Lake-side trails offer hikers plenty of opportunities to observe wildlife and do some bird watching. Three campgrounds within the park provide a variety of campsites for tents and RVs all equipped with picnic tables and grills.
Natural Falls State Park, Oklahoma
Located in the scenic Ozark Highlands region of northeast Oklahoma, Natural Falls State Park features a stunning 77-foot (23 meters) waterfall cascading through rock formations and creating a hidden, serene atmosphere at the bottom of a narrow V-shaped valley. Hiking trails meander through the dense forest surrounding the falls and a wide variety of mosses, ferns, and liverworts thrive in the moist conditions of this park. Picnic tables and grills can be found throughout the park making it a great place to organize a picnic. The park’s campground provides over 50 tent and RV sites as well as fully furnished yurts available for rent.
Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma
The 8,000 acres of this park include a network of caves that are perfect for spelunking, rappelling, and climbing. Be sure to check out the alleged hideout of infamous criminals Jesse James and Belle Starr. Miles of hiking and equestrian trails lead visitors through the picturesque scenery of the Sans Bois Mountains. The park also includes 3 lakes that are perfect for swimming, boating, and fishing. Paddle-boat and canoe rentals are available at the park’s office. The campground has 80 RV and tent sites with full facilities and there are also 86 primitive tent sites located on the secluded trails throughout the park.
Looking for a camping destination in other regions of the United States?
- Top 20 USA Camping Destinations For Your First Trip
- 22 Must See Parks in the Northeastern United States
- 24 Must See Park in the Southeastern United States
Best State Parks in Texas
South Llano River State Park, Texas
This small campground offers a range of sites with full electricity to primitive backcountry sites located more than a mile from the trailhead. The main sites have restrooms and showers, potable water, picnic tables, and fire rings. The main attraction at this park is to swim, float, paddle, and fish the South Llano River. However, there are over 20 miles of hiking and biking trails ranging from easy to challenging. But, the best of all is stargazing as this park is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park.
Colorado Bend State Park, Texas
With over 5,300 acres of unspoiled wilderness, Colorado Bend State Park is the outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Visitors can hike or bike on 35 miles (56 kilometers) of trails, kayak along the Colorado River, or explore an underground network of caves. The 3-mile (4.8 kilometer) Gorman Falls trail brings hikers to a beautiful, 70-foot (21 meters) waterfall. Break up your adventures by cooling off in the spring-fed swimming holes of Spicewood Springs. A variety of camping options are available inside the park from drive up sites suitable for RVs to backcountry wilderness sites accessible only by hiking in. Being only 2 hours from Austin, the park often reaches capacity by midday so be sure to make reservations before visiting.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
Known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas”, Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States. Visitors can explore the 120-mile (193 kilometers) long canyon by foot, mountain bike, horse, or car. The park has over 30 miles (48 kilometers) of multi-use trails through horseback riding is known to be the best option with 1,500 acres set aside for equestrian travel only. Watch performances of the stories, struggles, and triumphs of early settlers at the Pioneer Amphitheater during the summer while enjoying a barbeque dinner. Multiple campsites with electricity and water hookups are available as well as backcountry sites.
Further reading: The Top Solo Travel Destinations in the United States
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