The most popular American National Parks are filled with cars and crowds for good reason: the sights are majestic, unique and renowned. Plus, places like the Grand Canyon rocket to the top of most bucket lists. But you can experience spectacular beauty and avoid the crowds if you plan your national park road trip in places tourists bypass. We introduce a few western parks that are often overlooked in this three week tour of the southwest.
Visit These Must See Sites on This National Park Road Trip
You will drive through a slice of New Mexico, but otherwise this national parks road trip touches three states: Utah, Arizona, and Texas. The best time to begin is in late September, when school is back in session and the deserts cool down.
1. Canyonlands National Park (UT)
Southern Utah boasts more national parks than any region of the US. Hiking trails showcase the red canyons and arches of this area. Canyonlands can be viewed not only on foot, but also by water. The Green River runs through this national park, meeting up with the Colorado River. A guided kayak tour will float you through the park, with the chance to hike in canyons—or tour this large area on foot through an endless maze of red and ivory sandstone. Give yourself four to five days to explore here.
2. Bryce Canyon National Park (UT)
Bryce is a stone’s throw from Zion but smaller and dryer, and easily gets overshadowed by its larger, more crowded neighbor. Bryce boasts stunning overlooks from 7,000-8000 feet. The heart of this wilderness is its otherworldly canyon filled with sharp spires and vermillion sands, through which visitors can wander at will. This park is snowy in winter and can be cold even during spring break. In fall, the days are pleasantly warm. A one to two day trip can include a couple of hikes and plenty of overlooks.
3. Organ Pipe National Monument (AZ)
From Bryce, it’s two days of travel to reach the park near the Mexico border, known for a unique flora (including the rare Organ Pipe giant cactus) and intense summer weather. We recommend staying away during June-August, but no matter when you visit, take plenty of water. Organ Pipe is a lovely desert setting to see native plant life since it’s in a wetter, more elevated desert. Plan on at least two days to hike and camp here.
4. Saguaro National Monument (AZ)
From Organ Pipe, it’s a half day’s trip to southern Arizona and Saguaro National Park near Tucson. Once known as the Giant Cactus, the iconic saguaro cacti grows only in this region, due to a combination of elevation, moisture and magic. Saguaro west has dark skies and multitudes of cactus, while the eastern side is somewhat less dry and includes a paved loop drive. Both are excellent camping and hiking spots. Both locations are close enough to big city dining and lodging. We suggest at least three days in this area.
5. Guadalupe Mountains (TX)
A six hour drive will take you to Guadalupe Peak, at nearly 8800 feet, it is the highest mountain in Texas. Guadalupe Mountains National park covers the dry and rugged country not far north of Mexico and the border town of El Paso, and is one of the lesser known National Parks since its beauty is subtle and its location remote. El Paso brings a taste of Old Mexico and is a great place to stay while touring Guadalupe. Unlike Organ Pipe and Saguaro, this region tends to stay cool even in summer due to its high elevation. You’ll find few other tourists here and can explore the history of early west Texas settlers uninterrupted. Plan on at least three days here, with some time to explore El Paso.
6. Big Bend National Park (TX)
Big Bend is huge, in the spirit of its home state of Texas, but it isn’t easy to reach. Even the northern borders are located far south of any major city. Big Bend always has room for plenty of visitors at more than 1250 square miles, and should be added to your national park road trip as the premier Texas park. The night skies make for some of the best stargazing in the US. Prime hiking can be found along the Rio Grande River, where kayak and raft trips are also available. This park may look desolate, but the mountains and rivers bring 1200 species of plants, 450 species of birds, and 75 mammal species. You’ll have three or four days of in-park exploration before your national road park trip runs out of time.