With a wealth of sweeping natural beauty, the Western United States is blessed with breathtaking mountain vistas, towering sequoias and thriving lakes and rivers. Many of the country’s most famous national parks can be found in this region, drawing countless numbers of visitors annually from across the globe. While there are far too many wilderness areas, monuments, historical sites and great cities to list, here are five of the best spots in the West to behold. Visitors should bring enough drinking water and other liquids to ensure the safest trip possible, regardless of the time of year.
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
The spectacular Grand Canyon in northern Arizona is a deep chasm formed by the rushing waters of the Colorado River over millions of years. Established as a national park in 1919, it is 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide, one mile deep and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. With an estimated five million visitors each year, the Grand Canyon is unquestionably one of the most widely-visited tourist destinations in the U.S. Not unexpectedly, the summer months draw the biggest crowds, particularly to the park’s South Rim and Grand Canyon Village. However, the South Rim is open year round and even in the off season, temperatures are in the 60s during early spring and fall, making an off-season trip worthy of consideration to enjoy the area’s diverse collection of plants and wildlife.
Monument Valley, UT 84536
The stunning backdrop of Monument Valley has been the scene of several popular American movies from “Easy Rider” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Forrest Gump” and “Mission Impossible II.” One of the true iconic symbols of the American West, Monument Valley is also one of the most instantly recognizable and photographed sites on Earth. Located within a Navaho Indian reservation, near the Arizona-Utah border and not far from where four states intersect at Four Corners, the enormous valley is dotted with by earth-colored sandstone mesas and buttes, some up to 1,000 feet high. From the visitor center, visitors can take guided or self-guided tours to many of the park’s most familiar monuments, including The Mittens, Three Sisters and John Ford’s Point.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is the oldest national park in the country and the world. Close to 3.5 million annual visitors come to explore this park that’s larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Yellowstone has the world’s largest collection of geysers, including the instantly recognizable Old Faithful, erupting with bursts of water and steam approximately every 91 minutes. The park also features thousands of species of plants and animals, the largest high-altitude lake in North America and the continent’s largest supervolcano.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Village, CA 95389
Famed American photographer Ansel Adams once said “Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonders in a vast edifice of stone and space.” Easily one of the most scenic and beautiful locations on the planet, Yosemite National Park should be experienced at least once in a lifetime. Approximately 3.7 million annual visitors flock to this breathtaking World Heritage Site within California’s Sierra Mountains. While there are several portions of the park worth visiting, the picturesque Yosemite Valley, the majestic Half Dome and Yosemite Falls should not be missed.
Zion National Park
Springdale, UT 84767
Although not nearly as popular as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, Zion National Park is just one location illustrating the wondrous natural beauties of Utah. Known for its sandstone canyons of varying hues of brown and orange, stunning vistas and the enormous gorge known as The Narrows, Zion is the oldest and most popular national park in the state. Located near Utah’s southern border at the junction of the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau and the Mojave Desert, the park is a quiet haven for camping, hiking, bicycling and photography. The summer months can be particularly hot, with temperatures averaging over 90 degrees, thus making a trip during early spring or fall worthwhile.
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com.