Millions of acres of public lands, multiple national parks, insane rock climbing, mountain biking, and unforgettable hiking make the USA’s desert Southwest a bucket list road trip adventure of a lifetime.
The desert Southwest of the United States is a geological wonder and a recreational paradise. It also makes for the perfect winter road trip, with multiple national parks and millions of acres of public lands to explore. Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado comprise the majority of this landscape and looking at the Four Corners monument on the maplends a central point to the region as a whole. Some also consider Texas, California, Nevada, and Wyoming as parts of the southwest landscape, but each of those states is a separate roadtrip in itself.
Most Epic Southwest National Parks to Road Trip
The number of National Parks and Monuments in this region is incredible. The big obvious places—like the Grand Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands—are all must visit places, but there are plenty of others that are stunning and worth exploring in the off season as well. Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef in Utah offer amazing hiking, slot canyons, desert waterfalls, and tons of recreational opportunities.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and White Sands National Park in New Mexico are wonderful stopping points on your southwest USA road trip. The accumulation of pristine sands in the middle of a hard rock landscape creates a magical contrast worth seeing in this lifetime.
The southwest USA is loaded with archaeological sites, and many parks are centered around these ancient civilizations. Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is a favorite for the well preserved cliff dwelling structures. Canyon de Chelly in Arizona is another place to find ruins in a deep and dramatic canyon landscape. The Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico shows the scale of the Anasazi society with large, well preserved structures.
Do your research because there are enough parks and monuments to consume an entire road trip. Choose your favorites and plan according to your schedule and time availability.
How to Go Wild on Public Lands
The national parks are amazing but don’t overlook the abundance of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and Forest Service lands on your southwest road trip. BLM-managed lands are more common and finding yourself a wild and secluded camping spot is not difficult. The open space and access to the landscape really makes this region special. Use strict Leave No Trace practices to minimize your impact and only use open roads to access campsites unless you plan on backpacking or biking to a campsite.
Finding public land campsites requires some simple investigative work on the map. Paper maps are reliable and handy but digital mobile apps also make it really easy to find developed and undeveloped camping. Mobile Apps like OnX show public land boundaries and roads, making it really easy to navigate online or offline.
Moab, Utah is a very popular hub for people camping in the area and it hosts both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks adjacent to the town. It’s a good supply point on your road trip and the abundance of public lands around the town make it ideal for camping. Load up your duffel with supplies while visiting town and head back to the rugged desert for camping fun you’ll remember for a lifetime.
Planning Consideration Depending on the Seasons
Although the southwest is largely desert, planning for fall and winter weather is important. Freezing nights are not uncommon and if you’re lucky, a dusting of snow will fall, creating a special contrast against the red rocks. The days are often warm so dress in layers and prepare to strip down as the sun reaches mid-day while layering back up as it sets.
A waistpack is perfect for carrying your sunscreen and water on short outings, while a wheeled duffel can house a full set of layers (handily stored in packing cubes) and more gear back at the campsite.
Ultimately, the desert southwest is a recreational paradise with endless miles of public lands to explore. Pack your bags, load up the car, and take a winter road trip that you will remember forever.
By Zach Lazzari on October 27, 2020
Zach Lazzari is a freelance writer, fly fisherman and explorer. He is currently driving the Pan American highway in an old Astro Van with his dog Shale. Follow his journey at bustedoarlock.com and @zachlazzari on Instagram.