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10 Southwest Bucket List Adventures

By Kristi Bray, Recreation.gov

 Pause a moment to take in the varied and breathtaking landscape found in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and other places in the Southwest. (Peter Dang, Share the Experience)
Pause a moment to take in the varied and breathtaking landscape found in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and other places in the Southwest. (Peter Dang, Share the Experience)

The desert Southwest is full of epic, year-round adventures. If you’re heading to the Arizona-Utah border for your next vacation, look no further than this list for inspiring geology and sweeping vistas to renew your desire to explore the outdoors! Remember, timing can be everything in climates like these where temperatures easily soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius) and flash floods can occur instantly. Time it right, and you’ll be regaling your friends with stories of breathtaking scenic adventures through blazing red rocks, narrow slot canyons and float trips through some of the world’s most renowned, secluded side canyons.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah

Lake Powell

Camping on the shores of Lake Powell. (Mariela Ilieva, Share the Experience)
Camping on the shores of Lake Powell. (Mariela Ilieva, Share the Experience)

Created in 1963 with the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell is the second largest reservoir in the United States. Colorful buttes rise from its blue waters, which provide a variety of water-based sports like boating, swimming, kayaking and fishing. Cool off during the heat of the summer with a week on Lake Powell in a houseboat or zip around on a personal watercraft - marinas are available with all of your rental needs.

Fall, winter and spring are the seasons of choice for exploring the backcountry of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Lace up your boots or clip-in to your pedals, the mesas, canyons, slickrock and hanging gardens offer escapes for mountain bikers and backcountry hikers alike. For a leg stretcher high above the Colorado River and Lake Powell, hike the easy to moderate one-mile (1.6 km) trail to the Hanging Gardens. These unique oases are spring-fed colonies of plants clinging to vertical walls and cliffs – a respite for your eyes and ears as you absorb its lush beauty and delicate sounds.

Horseshoe Bend

The sun lights-up Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River. (Philip Bronikowski, Share the Experience)
The sun lights-up Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River. (Philip Bronikowski, Share the Experience)

Did you know you can hike to the famously photographed Horseshoe Bend? That classic Southwest image of the Colorado River’s tremendous turn is accessed via Horseshoe Bend Trailhead. Over the course of 1.5-miles (2 km) round-trip, the trail traverses sand and uneven terrain with the ultimate reward – stunning views 1,000 feet (304 m) down to the river. Keep in mind, improvements at the rim of the Horseshoe Bend Overlook are underway. Visitors are advised that some of the rim viewing area may be closed to visitor access until the improvements are completed.

Glen Canyon Dam

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Glen Canyon Dam
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Glen Canyon Dam (Miles Wilhelm, Share the Experience)

Constructed between 1956 and 1966, Glen Canyon Dam is one of several dams and reservoirs along the Colorado River providing water, electricity, flood control and recreation to millions of people. This concrete arch dam is 710 feet (216 m) high, 1,560 feet (475 m) long and contains more than 4.9 million cubic yards (3,746,319 cubic meters) of concrete. At its base, the dam reaches its thickest point – 300 feet (91 m) thick. These numbers are difficult to fathom until you see the massive structure in person. Guided tours are available to learn more about the history, controversy and benefits of Glen Canyon Dam. The Glen Canyon Natural History Association in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation, provides 45-minute tours year-round.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona/Utah

Colorado River Trips from Lees Ferry

Rafts are readied for passengers at Lees Ferry. (Adam Jewell, Share the Experience)
Rafts are readied for passengers at Lees Ferry. (Adam Jewell, Share the Experience)

From the southwestern tip of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the great Colorado River, the excitement builds as the thrill of whitewater beckons and the towering walls and deep canyon offer passage to those ready for an adventure like no other. Arizona’s Lees Ferry is the start of the massive Grand Canyon and a river trip here will give you bragging rights. Commercially guided 3-18 day river trips require planning of up to one- to two-years in advance. Those visitors with the skill to guide their own watercraft down the highly technical Colorado can apply for the non-commercially guided (private) river trips organized through a weighted lottery program. However, if you're looking for a half-day or full-day motorized or paddle trip on the Colorado (at a slower pace and this year!), options are available from Glen Canyon Dam taking out at Lees Ferry.

Navajo Tribal Lands, Arizona

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon is located on Navajo Tribal Lands in Arizona. (Russell McGuire, Share the Experience)
Antelope Canyon is located on Navajo Tribal Lands in Arizona. (Russell McGuire, Share the Experience)

Known by the Navajo name Tsé bighánílíní or "the place where water runs through rocks," Antelope Canyon offers not only its exquisitely carved slot canyon but a spiritual experience as well – likened by the Navajo to a cathedral, it is easy to see why. With shafts of light reaching down through this narrow slice of earth, the warmth and glow from these rocks leaves visitors with a great appreciation and respect for the natural processes that have created this masterpiece. Accessed only by guided tours, both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon offer a journey for your mind and body.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

North Rim

Hiking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. (Jeff Dieckman, Share the Experience)
Hiking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. (Jeff Dieckman, Share the Experience)

Known for its exceptional tranquility, slower-pace and jaw-dropping scenery, Grand Canyon National Park's North Rim is worth the trip. The challenge in accessing the North Rim simply lies in driving distance and, of course, during the winter, the North Rim closes due to snow. The North Rim Visitor Center offers interpretive programs and special events throughout its open season (typically May 15 through October 15). Plan a stop at Point Imperial, the highest point on the North Rim at 8,803 feet (2,683 m) which overlooks the Painted Desert and the eastern end of Grand Canyon. Day hikes are plentiful on the North Rim or simply go along for the ride and explore the inner canyon on a North Rim Mule Trip. Use this Grand Canyon trip planner (PDF) to get you started.

Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Utah

Wirepass Trailhead to Buckskin Gulch Trailhead

A hiker takes a break to enjoy the towering walls while hiking Buckskin Gulch. (Anna Nedopekina, Share the Experience)
A hiker takes a break to enjoy the towering walls while hiking Buckskin Gulch. (Anna Nedopekina, Share the Experience)

Buckskin Gulch is not only the longest continuous slot canyon in the United States, but the effects of water and wind have carved and sculpted these towering sandstone walls into one of the most brilliant, awe-inspiring canyons to explore. Petroglyphs adorn its walls and often, mud and deep-water obstacles are present. Day permits are required and available at the trailheads. To enjoy this hike's 5.7-miles (9 km) as a thru-hike, consider shuttling a vehicle to the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead and starting your journey at Wirepass Trailhead. The hike begins in an open drainage for approximately 1.7 miles (2 km) then delves into the slot of Buckskin Gulch. Remember, flash floods can occur unexpectedly and impact the canyons from local storm cells and even inclement weather miles away. Buckskin Gulch is considered one of the more dangerous areas within the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, due to the lack of escape routes and high terraces.

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Utah

Coyote Buttes

Colorful buttes and dramatic geologic patterns unfold on a hike to Coyote Buttes North. (Praveen PN, Share the Experience)
Colorful buttes and dramatic geologic patterns unfold on a hike to Coyote Buttes North. (Praveen PN, Share the Experience)

Part of the Paria Canyon/Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Coyote Buttes South encompasses an area of dramatic sandstone formations, sculpted by the erosive forces of water and wind. Buttes resembling beehives, delicate arches, narrow slot canyons, slick rock and hoodoos all have a place here. Landing a permit to visit Coyote Buttes South is limited, although your chance to experience this area is greater than its popular sister-site, Coyote Buttes North. Both areas are undeveloped and remote – the use of topographic maps is strongly recommended for your drive and hike. Like Coyote Buttes North, this southerly locale offers ample opportunity for spectacular photography – veins of rusted sandstone, dinosaur tracks, obscure rock formations and maybe even a reptile or two.

Willis Creek Wild & Scenic River, Utah

Willis Creek

A family explores Willis Creek in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Barry Gell, Share the Experience)
A family explores Willis Creek in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Barry Gell, Share the Experience)

Although remote, Willis Creek Wild & Scenic River is an easy day hike suitable for the entire family. The perennial creek leads right into the slot canyon and you'll find yourself easily navigating the shallow, gravel creek bed as it winds through the glowing, swirling red rocks. One way, this hike traverses 2.2-miles (3 km) with tall, narrow canyon walls in places. Bring your lunch and plenty of water for a full day of exploration and don't forget your camera - this well-lit slot canyon provides ample light for photographers.

The Toadstools


The Toadstools are an intriguing landscape to explore in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Cliff LaPlant, Share the Experience)

Standing guard amid the vast desert of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a high concentration of hoodoos and balancing rock formations create an area known as The Toadstools. Find The Toadstools trailhead approximately 12 miles (19 km) west of Big Water, Utah along US Highway 89. With a moderate 1.5-mile (2 km) hike from the trailhead, accessing the area is both easy and rewarding. View these intriguing formations up-close – colorful rock caps balancing on softer sandstone, gently whittled away by wind and water over the eons. Watch your step, Cryptobiotic soils are common here. These fragile soils are delicate, often black and crusty-looking and can take decades to recover if trampled by hikers. Help protect these soils by remaining on existing tracks and trails.

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