Some of the greatest sights of the American Southwest states of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico are Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Zion National Park and Salt Lake City in Utah, and the Native American pueblos and Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico.
The region is characterized by astoundingly beautiful desert and mountain landscapes, Native American culture, Spanish and Mexican influences, the spirit of the Old West, a laid-back tempo, and fascinating geological features. It is one of the best places in the country to enjoy an American road trip.
New Mexico is termed the ‘land of enchantment,’ and deservedly so. This is where artist Georgia O’ Keefe found her deepest inspiration and lived during the latter part of her life. Many of her paintings reflect the multi-colored desert landscape of New Mexico and the American Southwest. A museum in Santa Fe is dedicated to her life and artwork.
The land is enchanting for its natural beauty as well as for its cultural heritage. Native American culture is strong in New Mexico, as are Spanish influences, all set against a backdrop of stark desert, majestic sandstone formations, mountains, mesas, rivers, and unexpected sand dunes in the southeast (White Sands National Park).
Santa Fe in New Mexico is the USA’s oldest state capital, and the pueblo (village) of Taos, home to the Taos Indians, is possibly the oldest continuously inhabited community in the US.
The deserts of Arizona are equally as beautiful as the landscapes of New Mexico. Arizona’s most popular attraction is the epic Grand Canyon, a deep gorge carved out over millennia by the Colorado River and extending nearly three hundred miles in length.
Monument Valley is a Navajo Nation Park and is shared by Utah and Arizona. The buttes (mesas) and incredible sandstone structures of the park are unforgettable, evoking a sense timelessness and raw beauty that characterizes the natural landscape of much of the Southwest.
Utah is home to a large Mormon population and is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. The state has some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the country and five incredible national parks bursting with breathtaking natural monuments, deep canyons, challenging trails, and unforgettable sights.
- When to Go
- Top 5 Sites
- Top 5 Things to Do
The American Southwest is home to many Native American tribes, as well as a diverse mix of Americans. Utah is home to a large Mormon population.
The Navajo Nation Reservation extends across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. It is home to the Navajo people, and it contains museums, nature parks, and old trading posts. Visiting some of the Navajo lands requires a permit or accompaniment by a local Navajo guide. All local laws must be respected when visiting Navajo lands, as the land on the reserves is sacred to the Navajo people and tribal customs are still practiced.
In Taos, New Mexico, the resident Taos Indians have inhabited the area for nearly a thousand years, and continue to practice regular tribal ceremonies and celebrate feast days. It is possible to visit the Taos Pueblo, and in some cases to attend a Native American ceremony or witness tribal dances and celebrations. It is very important to respect local customs when visiting the pueblo, such as not taking photos without permission. The Taos Indians speak their native Tiwa language.
Across New Mexico and in many parts of the Southwest, Spanish is also spoken by many in addition to the official language of English.
Many of Utah’s inhabitants are Mormon, with many of its residents living in and around the state capital Salt Lake City. Because of the Mormon influence visitors may find Utah to be more conservative than elsewhere in the US. In some places in Utah the selling of alcohol is limited, carefully regulated, or prohibited.
The cuisine of New Mexico blends Spanish and Native American influences with local ingredients. New Mexicans have a special affinity for chilies (green and red), which are harvested in the late summer or fall and are eaten fresh or dried. Mexican inspired dishes such as enchiladas, tacos, and burritos are common.
Typical foods across New Mexico and Arizona include salsa-slathered enchiladas, grilled meats with sautéed vegetables such as chili peppers and onions, and endless variations of tacos. There are plenty of good breweries and wineries, particularly in New Mexico.
Every year in August in Hatch, New Mexico, thousands of chile fanatics eagerly converge for a festival celebrating the spicy seasoning agent at the Hatch Chile Festival.
The cuisine of the American Southwest also features traditional American dishes such as apple pie, cheeseburgers, hand-crafted barbeque sauce and grilled meats, often with a local flair. In New Mexico you can find the green-chile cheeseburger on many a diner menu, and there is even a quaint little place called Pie Town, where you can sample American pie at its best – prepared with seasonal ingredients, crafted with pride, and featuring some interesting variations such as green-chile-peach in addition to the classics.
New Mexico – Approximately 2 million
Arizona – Approximately 6.4 million
Utah – Approximately 2.9 million
US dollar ($)
When to Go
A good time to visit New Mexico is late summer to early October. The weather is usually beautiful during this time, there are plenty of festivals, and it is the height of chile season. Summer is also a popular time to go though it may be unpredictably rainy.
For those seeking winter sports and snow-covered beauty, winter is a fine time to visit the Southwest. There are snow and ski resorts across the Southwest, some of the best ones being Taos Ski Valley (New Mexico) and Park City, Brian Head, and Deer Valley (Utah). During the summer many of these popular ski resorts offer hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities.
May through September is the busiest time of year in the Grand Canyon and in many of the region’s national parks. This is generally the hottest time of year, particularly in the dry desert regions. Prices (especially in the Grand Canyon) may be higher during the summer than during the shoulder seasons (spring and fall). Making prior reservations may be a good idea for some activities and for lodging arrangements if traveling during the height of summer in July and August.
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed during the winter (the South Rim remains open, and there is usually snow). During spring and fall in the Grand Canyon crowds are generally less than during the peak summer months, the weather is milder, and many trails remain open for hiking.
Dress is casual across the region. Much of the American southwest is characterized by dry desert landscape, but even though daytime summer temperatures can be extremely hot, be aware that temperatures can drop considerably at night. Some areas, including Santa Fe, Taos, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northern New Mexico are situated at high elevations, receiving snow and blizzards in the winter.
Usually dressing in layers is a good idea as it can be very hot and dry during the day and cold at night. A lightweight wind and waterproof jacket is recommended. Sudden thunderstorms can occur any time of year.
Dress will depend on where you are going and what time of year, though in most places during the warmer months (May through September), visitors can get by in jeans or shorts and a t-shirt for everyday activities. For hiking you will need sturdy shoes and appropriate clothing.
Hiking in the Grand Canyon can be quite rigorous. Many people attempt the challenge unprepared. Bring appropriate clothing, good hiking boots, insect repellent, a change of clothes to keep dry, and plenty of sun protection.
A popular way to travel around the picturesque American Southwest is by car. This allows visitors to see some of the out of the way attractions and to take in the majestic landscape at an appropriately slow pace.
Visitors can fly into airports such as Las Vegas (Nevada) – from there they can drive to the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and other national parks. There are also airports in Phoenix and Tucson (Arizona), Albuquerque and Santa Fe (New Mexico), and Salt Lake City (Utah).
There are also some scenic train routes that traverse the region as well as some convenient bus routes, particularly connecting main cities.
Driving is usually considered the best way to get around, allowing visitors to get to out of the way places and to explore the regions’ bounty of national parks.
Travel insurance is recommended when traveling in the US, as health care or emergency procedures can be very costly for non-residents.
In Arizona and the Grand Canyon watch out for scorpions and rattlesnakes when hiking or if shoes are left out of doors, and be aware of the risks of heat exhaustion, dehydration, getting lost, and falling over ledges where there are no guard rails (Grand Canyon). Some of these risks are minimal for travelers who are not attempting rigorous hikes, and there are many well marked trails. Still, it is wise to be aware of potential risks and to stay safe.
Liquor laws in Utah are generally stricter than elsewhere in the US. Travelers should also note that when visiting an Indian Reservation (including the Navajo Nation) no alcohol is allowed on the premises, and certain rules must be followed while on the reservation.
Many of New Mexico’s attractions, including the city of Santa Fe, are situated at high elevations. Some visitors may need to take a day or so to acclimatize before ascending to higher elevations.
Weather across the region can be unpredictable, with sudden rains and the possibility of flash floods and lightning storms.
Most likely if traveling during the summer the travelers’ main concern will be to avoid heat exhaustion, dehydration, and sunburn – especially if hiking or participating in other rigorous outdoor activities. Visitors should drink plenty of water, try to utilize the cooler morning and early evening hours for activities, and apply sunblock regularly.
Most citizens of the UK, Canada, Australia, and many European countries can visit the US without a visa if staying for no more than 90 days and if visiting as a tourist. Entry regulations can change without notice, so it is best to check up to date policies before your trip. All visitors are required to present a valid passport upon entry into the country.
Top 5 Sites
1. Grand Canyon (Arizona)
2. Taos Pueblo (New Mexico)
3. Zion National Park (Utah)
4. Arches of Utah (Arches National Park, Utah)
5. The Navajo Nation (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah)
Top 5 Things to Do
1. Attend a Taos Indian ceremony at Taos Pueblo or the annual Taos Pueblo Pow Wow – a celebration of Taos music, dance and culture (mid-July, New Mexico)
2. Set your taste-buds on fire at the Hatch Chile Festival (August, Hatch, New Mexico)
3. Descend into and explore the Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico)
4. Go skiing or snowboarding in Park City, Utah (or one of many other excellent winter resorts)
5. Visit Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (Arizona/Utah)
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