National Parks in the Southwestern United States
United States National Parks of the Southwest present some of the most unique natural sites on earth. Rock formations in every color of the rainbow jut out from mighty rivers and hang over green spring valleys. Hot sands by day become cold-weather destinations by night. A seemingly uninhabitable environment for animals, wildlife actually thrives in this desert atmosphere thanks to adapting for millions of years to the harsh conditions. A southwestern national park vacation is full of adventure!
President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the very first elected officials to take action to preserve America's most beautiful natural resources. Of the Grand Canyon he said, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American should see.”(
Since then Grand Canyon National Park has become a World Heritage Site. Encompassing more than a million acres on the Colorado Plateau in northwestern Arizona, the Grand Canyon is famous for three out of four eras of geological time, diverse fossils, geologic rock formations, and multiple caves. The Canyon has been carved by the Colorado River and averages 4,000 feet deep, and at its deepest point is a massive 6,000 feet deep. At its widest the Grand Canyon is fifteen miles! The Grand Canyon is home to nearly 2,000 types of plants, almost 400 kinds of birds, nearly 100 mammals, 47 reptiles, 9 amphibian species, and 17 species of fish.
Due to its massive size, one of the best ways to see the Grand Canyon is by air, and both fixed-wing and helicopter daily tours of the Grand Canyon are available. Bus tours and ranger-guided hikes are also available to families within the park. Daily tours can include desert-view, sunrise, and sunset tours among many others. The Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce maintains the latest listings of air, bus, and guided tour operators. (
The Grand Canyon Field Institute offers guided educational tours. Expert instructors from the Grand Canyon Field Institute lead tours that cover the geology, ecology, history, and archaeology of the park. Guests can take these tours by mule, on horseback, and even by wagon.
The Grand Canyon Field Institute and Xanterra South Rim offer “Learning and Lodging” programs that allow families to combine guided trips into the Canyon with an expert instructor, lodging, and meals. For families who enjoy traveling by train, all aboard the Grand Canyon Railway. The Railway leaves from Williams, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon carrying more than 200,000 people annually. (
The Red Rocks of Sedona, Arizona
Though not a designated national park, the red rocks of Sedona are one of world's most breathtaking natural wonders. Canyons that look as if they were painted red, hence their nickname “painted rocks,” are nestled against giant rocks that create a startling contrast to the bluest sky.
Sedona is at the opening of spectacular Oak Creek Canyon and was named by Theodore Carl Schnebly for his wife, Sedona. Sedona has much for families to do, from Jeep Tours to hiking to UFO stores and art centers. (
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
On the northeastern side of Colorado is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. These sand dunes are taller than any other sand dunes in North America. There are nearly forty square miles of sand dunes that jut upwards nearly 800 feet above the valley. The Great Sand Dunes are quite a sight to behold, born from wind and rain erosion of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains that circle the San Luis Valley. The Great Sand Dunes are like sculptures that are constantly changing, although they sustain an amazingly firm structure thanks to the moisture they receive from rain and snow. It's the surface layers of dry sand that change patterns with the blowing wind.
Great Sand Dunes National Monument has only been a National Park and Preserve since 2004.
Park visitors can enjoy nature walks and lectures on topics like geology, plant life, animals, and the history of the Great Sand Dunes. Besides the dunes themselves, there are other things to see in the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The elevation is too high in the dunes for poisonous snakes, but as the elevation begins to decrease rattlesnakes can be found south of the boundary of the park. Visitors may see graceful deer and elk both in the park boundaries and on park roads, along with pronghorn antelope. It's important to drive carefully (and slowly) to avoid a collision with any of the animals.
Guests should be aware of weather, lightning specifically. Barren dunes are prone to lightning strikes and summer is the most common season for thunderstorms. Always wear shoes in the Great Sand Dunes, as the surface of the dunes can exceed more than 100°F. It's also important to watch out for holes, as falling into a hole in these deep sands can make it impossible to extract yourself. Kids can dig, but not more than a little over a foot in a downward direction. Visitors should bring plenty of water to avoid dehydration, and wear clothing that prevents wind burn from the sand; blown sand can be painful and dangerous. Plan to hike the dunes in morning or evening hours when it's more likely to be calm and cool, and check the forecast if you are heading into the backcountry. Afternoons, especially in spring, are sometimes windy and can be uncomfortable on the sand. Shade is a scarcity, so people with pets need to make their visit to the Great Sand Dunes a short one.
The Great Sand Dunes formed in this spot because winds blowing in opposite directions meet causing sand to fall. Water from the Sangre de Cristo River held the sand in place over many thousands of years, forming the dunes you see here today. Every day they change because this process continues all the time.
Nearby is Medano Creek, which, depending on precipitation, flows at the dunes' base. When the creek is wet, kids love playing in the wet sand. It's the perfect place for a sandcastle building contest or for sliding downward on the dunes. There is a footwash near the restroom.
It's a good idea to bring plenty of food and water for a picnic while you're visiting the Great Sand Dunes, as the park is off the beaten path. Just remember not to feed any animals.
The Montville Nature Trail is a hike that is less than a mile at the start of the Mosca Pass Trailhead Parking Area. Some visitors climb the high dune, which isn't the tallest dune in the park. There aren't any trails to the summit, so hikers are advised to take a zigzag approach to the ridge lines. One of the star attractions at the Great Sand Dunes is the “Star Dune” jutting nearly 800 feet, with three arms, thanks to compound wind patterns — star dunes make great photo subjects. Sunset and sunrise at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, like most of America's national parks, are a sight to behold.