American Southwest Road Trip

The American Southwest road trip explores the surreal landscapes of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. You’ll visit each national park in all three states to uncover rocky canyons, rugged mountains, sweeping dunes, and more!

Where to Go

Big Bend National Park

Your road trip starts at Big Bend National Park. Situated on the border of West Texas and Mexico, Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains. The Rio Grande cuts sharp canyons through rugged limestone, and steep cliffs peer over the vast desert grasslands. Soaring rock walls engulf its rivers and streams for adventurous rafting trips. Hikers have over 150 miles of trails that either follow the waterways or climb the highest peaks of the Chisos Mountains. At 7,832-ft, the trek to Emory Peak gives you a heart-racing panoramic view of the wild terrain. Your journey from the Rio Grande to the mountaintops reveals one of the country’s most diverse ecosystems. Discover dozens of cacti species, hundreds of bird species, thousands of insect species, and one of America’s best places to find bats.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The next stop along your road trip, the Guadalupe Mountains are a hiker’s paradise featuring the highest peaks of Texas and thrilling backcountry trips. From brisk strolls through beautiful desert grasslands to challenging treks along immense canyons, there are trails for every skill level. The 2.3-mile Smith Spring Loop is a fantastic warm-up that climbs from desert lowlands to verdant woodlands. Seasoned hikers can summit the roof of Texas by venturing through coniferous forests to reach Guadalupe Peak. With 10 campsites scattered around the park, serious backpackers can find solace after a challenging day’s hiking along scenic ridge lines. McKittrick Canyon enchants visitors with its colorful fall foliage that deeply contrasts with the harsh desert. Tackle the nearby Permian Reef Geology Trail to discover hundreds of prehistoric fossil species.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Your road trip continues at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Stay in the Chihuahuan Desert a little longer to plunge into the hundreds of caves beneath the arid landscape. Just past the Texas-New Mexico border, the Carlsbad Caverns stands out for its mesmerizing stalactites clinging to cave roofs. There are over 100 caves and the trail at Carlsbad Cavern provides entry into the immense cave network. The Big Room Trail is the network’s greatest spectacle that astonishes visitors with calcite formations of all sizes. At nearly 4,000 ft long and 255 ft high, the limestone chamber is the largest cave in America. Above ground, spend time wandering the desert to gaze at rocky canyons, desert scrub, and diverse wildlife.

Grand Canyon National Park

Your next stop is the magnificent Grand Canyon, one of the world’s geological masterpieces that has inspired visitors for generations. Standing at the South Rim gives you breathtaking vistas of the mile-deep and 18-mile wide canyon. The colorful red rock canyons and sandstone cliffs reveal eons of erosion that have shaped the landscape. Some of the miraculous viewpoints include Mather Point and Shoshone Point. Grand Canyon Village is the ideal starting point for your adventure if you choose to venture into the canyon. Bright Angel Trail takes you from the South Rim to the mighty Colorado River, and Rim Trail accommodates most hikers. You’ll need a prior reservation, but visiting the Havasupai Indian Reservation gives you access to the canyon’s plunging waterfalls and turquoise pools.

Petrified Forest National Park

Moving on to Petrified Forest National Park, this remote section of the Arizona desert provides the best opportunity to find colorful pieces of petrified wood. Wander the Black Forest to find enormous chunks of wood upwards of 50 feet in length. The logs split apart long ago, and areas such as Onyx Bridge have formed natural bridges along backcountry trails. Other treks reveal multi-colored hues of Badlands that show the effects of erosion over millions of years. The Painted Desert Rim Trail gives you remarkable views of the ancient fossils and desert wildlife. Native Americans established settlements here thousands of years ago, and the park maintains ruins of pueblos and petroglyphs.

Saguaro National Park

Continue driving just outside of Tucson to reach Saguaro National Park, which preserves one of the timeless symbols of the American West. Saguaro cacti grow upwards of 40 ft tall in the Sonoran Desert, and nowhere else in America produces dense forests of the desert plants like this. Located west of Tucson, the Tucson Mountain District lies at a lower elevation but has a higher density of cacti. The eastern Rincon Mountains boast hills soaring to heights over 8,000 ft and offer more hiking expeditions. Cacti within the Rincon Mountain District are similar in size compared to the Tucson Mountain District and are more sparsely populated with greater biodiversity in the region. Whichever district you prefer, don’t leave without experiencing a dreamy desert sunset with cacti dotting the landscape. 

White Sands National Park

The final stop along your journey is White Sands National Park. The sparkling white dunes of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin received the upgrade from national monument to national park in 2019. Encompassing 275 square miles, the wavy dunes create the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The region is home to hardened plants and animals who’ve adapted to the unforgiving landscape. Hiking trails crisscross the sea of sand and let you feel the isolation of wandering the desert. The Interdune Boardwalk is an ideal place for novice hikers to gaze at the white, sandy hills and colorful skies along the horizon. Search for signs of wildlife on the Dune Life Nature Trail and look for gypsum deposits in Lake Lucero. White Sands National Park finds itself surrounded by military bases, and the park faces routine closures due to missile tests.

When to Go

Summer in the American Southwest is brutally hot and temperatures soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Lots of safety precautions are required to protect yourself, but the intense heat is too much for many visitors. Despite the high temperatures, crowds at the Grand Canyon are busiest during the summer. Winters are frigid in the desert regions, and it’s possible to encounter snow or adverse driving conditions. The spring and fall shoulder seasons provide the ideal combination of fewer crowds and comfortable temperatures. You’ll find blooming wildflowers during spring, and some areas boast colorful foliage in the fall.

Points of Interest at Petrified Forest National Park

Located in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park encompasses a beautiful ancient forest filled with petrified wood. The colorful Painted Desert is home to 225 million-year-old fossils, making the region a fascinating archeological site. There is plenty to see and explore at Petrified Forest National Park, and you certainly won’t want to miss the main points of interest. 

Painted Desert 

A vast area of wild badlands painted naturally in red and purple hues, Petrified Forest National Park’s Painted Desert is definitely worth a visit. Stroll along the 1-mile round trip Painted Desert Rim Trail for spectacular views of the gorgeous desert. 

Route 66

Route 66 is another of Petrified Forest National Park’s significant points of interest, as this historic highway used to cut right through the park. Head here to view the remains of the Old Studebaker against the backdrop of the vast and endless desert. 

Puerco Pueblo 

Rife with Native American history, Puerco Pueblo is home to Ancestral Puebloan dwellings that are worth exploring. Located near the Puerco River, these ancient homes comprised more than 100 rooms and were home to upwards of 200 people in their prime.

Blue Mesa

An absolutely striking desert landscape, Blue Mesa is defined by vibrant hues of blue, red, pink, yellow, and purple that paint its rocky scenery. Enjoy breathtaking views of rock formations and petrified wood when you hike along the Blue Mesa Trail, a challenging 1-mile round trip loop. 

Crystal Forest

An ancient rock forest consisting of colorful petrified logs, Crystal Forest is where you’ll find the most petrified wood in the park so you won’t want to miss checking it out. Trees that have been turned to stone have been “petrified,” and are millions of years old. 

Giant Logs Trail

A quick 0.4-mile loop, Giant Logs Trail will lead you to some impressive massive petrified logs. The main attraction here is “Old Faithful”, a giant petrified tree whose base measures 10 feet across. 

Places to Visit After Petrified Forest National Park

An ancient national park situated in northeastern Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park is characterized by forests of colorful petrified wood. A fascinating feat of nature, you will no doubt be intrigued by this unique national park! When you’ve had your fill of Petrified Forest, continue on your journey to these nearby destinations.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument – Just 2 hours outside of Petrified Forest National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a massive park situated on lands that belong to the Navajo tribe. Rife with prehistoric petroglyphs and gorgeous sandstone landscapes, this monument makes for the perfect next stop along your way.

Grand Canyon – About a 3-hour drive from Petrified Forest National Park, the Grand Canyon needs no introduction. One of the 7 natural wonders of the world, this massive landmark offers breathtaking views of the carved out canyon and the Colorado River.

Phoenix, Arizona – The capital of Arizona, Phoenix is under 4 hours outside of Petrified Forest National Park, making it an excellent choice to stop at either before or after your visit to the park. A bustling metropolis known for golf courses, high-end spas, and nightclubs, you’re sure to fall in love with Phoenix.

Sedona, Arizona – A beautiful desert city, Sedona, Arizona is located about 2.5 hours outside of Petrified Forest National Park. Brimming with red rock landscapes and geological marvels, Sedona makes for a unique pitstop during your trip.

Hopi Reservation – A vast Native American reservation situated just north of Petrified Forest National Park, the Hopi Reservation is home to a variety of historic and geographical wonders worth exploring. Some of the noteworthy things to see here include ancient dinosaur tracks, Blue Canyon, and Antelope Mesa.

Monument Valley – Just over 3 hours from Petrified Forest National Park lies Monument Valley at the Arizona-Utah border. Known for stunning sandstone buttes, this area is popular for filming Western movies.

Staying Safe at Petrified Forest National Park

A unique national park located in Arizona, Petrified Forest National Park is home to a vast colorful forest of petrified wood. Brimming with ancient fossils and breathtaking landscape, Petrified Forest National Park draws visitors from around the country. Be sure to take the necessary safety precautions to ensure a safe visit! 

Weather 

The greatest safety threat in Petrified Forest National Park is weather. Storms can occur rapidly and without warning, especially in the summer months, and lightning, flash floods, and high winds can be dangerous to park visitors. Be prepared with rain gear and if you see a storm rolling in, be sure to take shelter and avoid wide open spaces and tall trees. From October to April, the park can experience bitterly cold, windy temperatures and occasional snow. Make sure to dress in layers and bring plenty of warm clothing if you plan to visit during those months. 

The weather at the park can get very hot and dehydration is a serious concern. Make sure to bring plenty of water, more than you think you’ll need, and bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat. 

Wildlife 

You will likely encounter your share of wildlife at Petrified Forest National Park. It is important never to touch, feed, or approach wildlife, both for their safety and yours. Animals like rodents, mule deer, bobcats, coyotes, and more call this park home, so always make sure to keep a safe distance and properly store your food and scented items to avoid attracting them.


Other Concerns 

Avoid cliff edges and steep slopes at all costs when in the park, as these areas can be unstable and cause accidents.

Be wary of your altitude and take time to let your body properly acclimate if necessary. Remember to keep hydrated and bring altitude sickness medication with you just in case.

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Safety- Petrified Forest National Park

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Watching Wildlife in Petrified Forest National Park

Nestled into the Northeastern portion of Arizona, the Petrified Forest National Park is named for the deposits of petrified wood that cover about 230 square miles of the park. Encompassing semi-desert shrub and colorful badlands that make it look like you’re on another planet, Petrified Forest National Park is also situated near the famed Route 66.

Known for a dry, windy climate and situated abut 5,400 feet above sea level, visitors can expect hot summer temperatures and freezing temperatures in the wintertime. It’s also home to fossils that can be traced to nearly 225 million years ago, containing sediments that are part of the Chinle Formation. Leftover from the residency of Native Americans, there are also plenty of petroglyphs that can be discovered throughout the park.

With the arrival of Europeans and the gold rush movement, roads and railways brought tourism to the park. Plenty of fossils were taken from the park before it was protected. Unfortunately, theft of petrified wood remains a real problem in the 21st century.

The Petrified Forest National Park is home to plenty of large animals, like pronghorns, coyotes, bobcats, deer mice, snakes, lizards, and frogs. It is also a layover spot for many migratory birds. Other animals that can be enjoyed in the park include prairie dogs, foxes, and golden eagles. Due to its desert climate, most of these animals will be hidden by day. According to park websites, the one animal you are guaranteed to see while hiking there is the raven.

Lastly, the park is home to more than 400 species of plants, dominated by bunchgrass, sacaton, and blue grama.

The Petrified Forest National Park’s Animals

  • Pronghorns
  • Coyotes
  • Bobcats
  • Deer mice
  • Ravens
  • Snakes
  • Lizards
  • Frogs
  • Bullsnakes
    • This large, nonvenomous snake is one of the longest snakes in North America, with lengths up to 8-feet. It can be found in and around the park.
  • Praying mantises
  • Scorpions
  • Red-spotted toads
    • Most active in the rainy season, which extends from July through September, these toads can be found around rocky areas, near streams, and in the canyons.

Viewing Locations

Pintado Point: This is a great spot for wildlife viewing at dawn or dusk. Since the park is in the desert, many of these animals will be asleep during the day.
Agate House: This unique point is a great spot to add to your trip.
Blue Mesa Badlands: Stare out onto the badlands and into the sky to catch birds and ravens floating above your head on wind streams.

When Should You Go?

This is one of those parks that is great to visit throughout the year. Even in the winter months when it can snow, the temperatures will still be moderate in the afternoon. As for the summer, the strong winds make the park more tolerable when it gets hot during the day. Springtime blossoms and blooming plants make Petrified Forest a colorful experience which is great for photography. As for rain, the wet season starts in July and ends in October. Since this park is in the desert, there’s still never too much rainfall.

Fun fact: You are more likely to see animal life in the park if you come as early as the park hours allow you to and stay as late as you are allowed to. These are also the best times to capture photos as the sun enhances the colors of the Painted Desert.

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