When John Steinbeck first loaded up his camper back in 1960 and set off on a cross-country trip with his black French poodle, Charley, recreational vehicles were an unusual sight. As he traversed America engaging the bemused people he encountered along the way, Steinbeck found a kinship. “I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here,” he later wrote in Travels with Charley.
“They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.”
That deep yearning would ultimately make RVs nearly as common as 18-wheelers on US highways. In recent years, however, these rolling embodiments of American wanderlust had developed a reputation as a bit passé. Who can forget the image of Cousin Eddie in his dilapidated RV to get Clark Griswold the perfect present in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?
That may not have been the look everybody was going for at the start of 2020. But cabin fever–stricken folks across the country having spent months in public-health quarantine became desperate for ways to get out of the house while staying safe from COVID-19—and they found an outlet in recreational vehicles. The trend has continued as we have all struggled to find ways to handle life—and vacations—in the midst of a pandemic. And it makes sense.
That’s right: the RV is back with families piling into camper vans, trailers, and motor coaches “to look for America,” as Paul Simon has aptly described it.
And, one of the best place in the country to do just that is the American Southwest with its vast expanses of canyons, mountains, forests, lakes, and rivers that are unrivaled in their majesty and variety.
If you’re itching to get on board yourself we offer this RV guide to some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the Southwest. In it we’ve got you covered with all the places to go and the attractions that you simply must see along the way. The most beautiful places in America include some little-known yet bucket-list-worthy natural wonders that include lush forests and towering mountains—and are sure to inspire your travels.
You don’t need to go very far to find stunning natural beauty in the United States but some places are just magical. The country is approximately 3.8 million square miles in size, so it should come as no surprise that its home to some spectacular scenery but sights like the Grand Canyon, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, and the soaring peaks of Zion and Capitol Reef never fail to meet even the highest expectations.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Few landscapes warp the mind quite like Joshua Tree National Park, a lumpy, Seussian dreamscape that beguiles the imagination. There are a couple of ways to best explore the park and both take place on foot: hiking to points of interest and climbing.
Zion National Park, Utah
Located in southwest Utah, Zion National Park is full of chasms, canyons, waterfalls, and red cliffs. What better way to cool off after a long day of hiking than dipping your feet at the base of a three-tier waterfall?
Red Rock State Park, Arizona
Red Rock State Park offers a classic Southwestern outdoor experience for visitors to Sedona and Red Rock Country. The beautiful red rocks and local wildlife can be viewed and enjoyed as you hike the 5-mile trail network around this 286-acre park.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Gypsum is rarely seen as sand since it dissolves in water but New Mexico’s dry climate has preserved the dunes. The pure white sand mounds stretch for 275 square miles near Alamogordo.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create an outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, photographers, and rock climbers.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, Arizona
See just how lush the desert can be at this oasis of more than 3,000 types of Sonoran Desert vegetation. At 392 acres, Boyce Thompson is Arizona’s largest and oldest botanical garden founded in the 1920s. There are 3 miles of trails and the most popular is the 1.5-mile main loop that offers a perfect overview.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Bosque del Apache stands out as one of the country’s most accessible and popular national wildlife preserves—for wildlife and human visitors alike—providing a seasonal home, November through March, for up to 12,000 sandhill cranes, 32,000 snow geese, and nearly 40,000 ducks.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Meandering streams cut through pinyon and juniper covered mesas forming three large multi-colored natural bridges with Hopi Indian names—Sipapu (the place of emergence), Kachina (dancer), and Owachomu (rock mounds). A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three natural bridges.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Canyon de Chelly has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. From the mesa east of Chinle, Canyon de Chelly is invisible. Then as one approaches, suddenly the world falls away—1,000 feet down a series of vertical red walls.
Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah
Providing a dramatic craggy backdrop for many a cinematic Western movie, Monument Valley runs along the border of Utah and Arizona within the 26,000-square miles of the Navajo Tribal Park. U.S. Highway 163 scenic byway barrels through red rock buttes and spires.
Madera Canyon, Arizona
Madera Canyon is nestled in the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains 30 miles southeast of Tucson. A three mile paved road winds up the lower reaches of the canyon beside Madera Creek ending at a fork in the stream just before the land rises much more steeply. Along the way are three picnic areas, a side road to a campground, and five trailheads.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Eroded by wind and water over millions of years, the thousand-foot limestone and sandstone columns at Bryce Canyon are striped with orange, pink, red, and white layers. Rather than being an actual canyon, the odd-shaped spires are a geologic formation called hoodoos.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.
A word to the wise, though: Pandemic safety precautions shift as the virus numbers go up and down in specific regions; check the frequently changing schedules and policies at parks, restaurants, and campgrounds before setting out. From there, just remember, once you’re on the open road, where it leads is entirely up to you. Yes, there will be surprises once you set out, but, as 2020 has continually reminded us, that’s life—so get out and enjoy it.
In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.