America's Southwest: A Grand Circle Road Trip
Experience America's Genuine Southwest via Road Trip in the Four Corners Region of the USA, the Grand Circle
The area of the United States that includes northern Arizona, northwest New Mexico, southern Utah, and southwest Colorado is often known as the "Grand Circle" of the southwest. The Four Corners region of these states provide a concentration of some of the world's best National Parks, ancient ruins of civilizations gone by, deep canyons, wildlife, and wind weathered sandstone formations. The best way to get around this area is by car. A road trip through the Grand Circle will bring you to spectacular sites Arizona's wonderous Grand Canyon, the famous Cliff Palace dwellings, the spikey hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, and even the undeground caves of Great Basin National Park.
The Sections of the Grand Circle
Jump to any one these by clicking a link to the area of this page!
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As seen on the map:
A. Grand Canyon
B. Sunset Crater National Monument
C. Petrified Forest National Park
D. Canyon de Chelly
E. Chaco Culture National Historic Park
F. Mesa Verde National Park
G. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
H. Arches National Park
I. Canyonlands National Park
J. Capitol Reef National Park
K. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
L. Bryce Canyon
M. Cedar Breaks National Monument
N. Zion National Park
O. Great Basin National Park
Arches National Park
Thousands of natural sandstone arches in the eastern Utah desert
Near the Colorado - Utah border lies Arches National Park. Thousand of sandstone arches have been created via a long process of erosion. A large salt bed just underneath Arches pushed up the rock sandstone layer thousands of years ago, causing the layer to become exposed to the windy, dry elements of the Utah desert. Over time, wind and water carved strange formations like famous Delicate Arch, or the world's longest arch, Landscape Arch.
Arches is adjacent to the town of Moab. This small town is the ideal stopping point on your road trip to see both Arches and Canyonlands. Like most of the southwest, this area can be extremely hot in the peak summer months, so plan light early morning and late afternoon hikes during that time of year.
Learn More About Arches:
Arches National ParkYour curiosity will be aroused as you explore the elusive arch formations of Utah. Bring your camera and lots of water, there are many long, memorable hikes here.
Picture Right: Famous Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Explore the hoodoos and rock formations of Bryce
As your journey around the circle continues, you'll enter the region of southeast Utah, and the Bryce-Zion region. These two parks are almost always coupled together in trip booking because of their proximity. Bryce Canyon is a large ampitheatre, a product of water and wind erosion, that has resulted in thousands of red-orange rock spires called hoodoos.
The rocks of Bryce are best seen during dawn or dusk, as the colors best compliment the rocks. This park can get very busy during the peak summer months as kids get out of school, so plan your trip before mid June or after Labor Day if possible.
Learn more about Bryce Canyon:
Hike the nature trails around the rim of the hoodoos of Bryce to get a glimpse of the canyon from all angles, or find out where to stay near the park.
Photo right: The amazing ancient hoodoos in the amphitheatre area of Bryce Canyon.
DK Eyewitness Southwest USA and Las Vegas - The perfect guide for the Grand Circle
If you've read any of my other travel lenses on Squidoo, you know that I'm a fan of DK Eyewitness' travel guides. They're small, convenient, illustrated, perfect for road trips, and they have an easy flip through format that highlights everything worth visiting.
This guide will go into the Four Corners and Grand Circle region, but also Las Vegas and southern Arizona and New Mexico. You may want to include places like Salt Lake City, Tucson, Phoenix, Saguaro NP, and Sedona into your trip, which this guide will detail. Where to stay, when to go, and travel tips for the region are invaluable for planning and during the trip.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The deep canyon of Colorado's Gunnison River
Black Canyon of the Gunnison was just made a National Park in 1999, so it's a rather recent addition to the National Park system. A giant slice in th earth can be found at Black Canyon, with the Gunnison River a massive 2700 feet below. The deep, black marbled walls look very different than other canyons in the area. The top of the canyon is surrounded by grass and trees, and the width of the canyon almost makes it hidden from a distance.
Black Canyon is nearest to the towns of Aspen and Grand Junction in southeast Colorado, tourist attractions in their own right. Wineries and skiing resorts keep those areas bustling with activity all year, and would make an enjoyable side trip on your Grand Circle route.
More about Black Canyon of the Gunnison:
Black Canyon of the GunnisonDeep, black canyons leave a lasting impression as the dark granite walls plunge into the Gunnison River 1/2 mile below.
Photo right: The near vertical walls of the Black Canyon, dramatic especially at dawn and dusk.
Canyonlands National Park
Vast, wide canyons and incredible hiking in Moab's Canyonlands
The scenery goes on for an eternity into the horizon, and it almost seems imaginary. You can't help but be reminded of prehistoric times in this vast, deserted land that's been carved over millions of years by the Colorado River into four distinct areas. The regions are Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the rivers regions. Some of the best mountain biking and hiking in the country can be found here, as well as photography.
Canyonlands is located in southern Utah, near Arches National Park, and just outside of Moab. Plan to spend a day at Canyonlands itself, and also a day at Arches. The parks are too big to glance over in just an hour or two, and are best experienced through hiking.
Learn more about Canyonlands:
Canyonlands National ParkIf you've ever wondered how the Grand Canyon was created, you can get a good idea at Canyonlands. The Colorado River is in progress of creating another masterpiece of nature in southern Utah.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park
The protected Puebloan Four Corners area of New Mexico
New Mexico's Chaco Culture Historic Park preserves the rich Puebloan people's culture. The area has thousands of historical buildings built by this culture, impressively aligned to astrological cycles of the sun and moon. Tour the ruins of the massive Pueblo Bonita, or view over a millions Chaco artifacts at the Chaco Culture Museum Collection in Albuquerque.
The Chaco canyon area was inhabited until the land experienced a drought, and the people migrated to different areas. This was between 1150-1400 AD, before Spanish explorers came to the continent.
The most famous attraction within the Grand Circle
The beautiful Grand Canyon is one of the wonders of the world, and the perfect destination on your Grand Circle road trip. The National Park contains the majority of the gorge, but the northern rim affords even more dramatic panoramic views. The southern rim is largely viewable via major roads that run near the rim, with pulloffs and scenic roads to explore, hike and camp.
The Northern rim is a remote destination, and at least 1/2 day drive from the southern rim. Hooking around the canyon, you will see some of the great views of Marble Canyon and skirt close to Lake Powell along the way.
Learn more about the Grand Canyon:
The Grand CanyonThe Grand Canyon is one of the wonders of the world, with an unforgettable hiking, photography, and road trip experience.
Photo bottom, right: Grand Canyon from South Rim Near Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Great Basin National Park
A land of big extremes in southwest Nevada
Great Basin National Park is located on the Utah border in Nevada, and is an area of great extremes. The massive Mount Wheeler sits over 2.5 miles above sea level, and is capped with snow much of the year. At the base of the mountain, the land turns into arid desert. Beneath the ground, an eleborate system of caves of stalagmites and stalactites grow from the ceilings and floor of Lehman Caves.
Learn more about Great Basin:
Great Basin National ParkGreat Basin National Park contains the beautiful underground Lehman's Cave, and the mammoth peak of Mount Wheeler. Hike the area from its 13,000 feet peak, to beneath the earth's surface.
Photo bottom right: The underground Lehman caves in Great Basin NP.
Desert Travel Tips
Tips for traveling in the desert extremes of the southwest
Driving in the desert is usually easy driving, but there are a few precautions you should take.
1. Always have enough water for yourself with you at all times. Long stretches of desert often have no water in the area of hundreds of miles. Stock up!
2. You can get burned even in the car. Lather up on the sunscreen if you're driving for a long time!
3. Tell someone where you're headed if you are traveling into a deserted area.
4. Use the pulloffs to let other people by if they want to pass you.
5. Don't take anything with you from your environment -- just photos.
6. Check your brakes before mountain driving.
7. Carry a cellphone. The wide open desert usually has good reception in most areas.
8. Make sure your car is properly maintained, especially in hot weather. If your car is an antique, you might want to consider getting a rental for your trip.
Mesa Verde National Park
View the ancient ruins of Cliff Palace in Colorado
Near the southwest corner of Colorado's border, the Mesa Verde National Park area was preserved to protect the ruins of Cliff Palace, and the other surrounding Puebloan ruins of the area. Sitting high atop a mesa, the area is remote, and was not protected until the early 1900s. Before that time, the ruins were prone to much pillage and vandalism. Today, the ruins have been partially restored and cleaned to resemble the way they looked prior.
Learn more about Mesa Verde National Park:
Mesa Verde National ParkRemnants of a long lost culture can be found in the Colorado ruins of Mesa Verde National Park. Visit to gaze upon the incredible Puebloan Cliff Palace and ancient petroglyphs.
Photo bottom left: The ancient Cliff Palace dwellings of Mesa Verde.
Zion National Park
Southern Utah's enclosed canyon carved by the Virgin River
The Virgin River has done some spectacular work, leaving us with the giant canyon of Zion, in southern Utah. The canyon extends deep within the mountain range surrounding the river, as it gets slimmer and slimmer as it heads into the section known as "The Narrows." This section is one of the ultimate challenges for hikers, as parts of it may require swimming.
The canyon extends outside of the park boundaries into nearby Springdale Utah, which has extraordinary views of the canyon walls and red rocks. Directly before or after your trip to Zion, you will most likely want to head to Bryce Canyon, which is only around 72 miles away.
Learn more about Zion National Park:
Zion National ParkThe majestic Zion region has been eroded over time by the Virgin River, which slims down to the challenging hiking area of the Narrows.
Southwestern Travel Guides - Some of the best guides to traveling the southwest states of the USA
The Southwest is a huge, wide expanse of America. To make the most of your trip, it's a good idea to get a guide or two to plan your journey, and to take with your on your trip.
Deep in the heart of Utah lies Capitol Reef National Park, a 100 mile long wrinkle in the earth's crust. This elevated plateau-like area is recognizable from quite some distance, as the flat desert rises from the ground abruptly. Canyons, domes and buttes can be found in this undisturbed southwestern gem. Few roads lead through the actual park, except State route 24. This makes the park a true representation of what Utah looked like long ago, and remains. You won't find crowds making your stay uncomfortable, since the majority of the park is accessible only by hiking.
Learn more about Capitol Reef:
Capitol Reef National ParkA 70 mile wrinkle in the earth's crust resulted in the massive Capitol Reef area and National Park. Giant sandstone domes line the tops of this beautiful Utah plateau.
Whether you've been there or not, it's most likely that you've seen Monument Valley on television advertisements or in magazines. The gigantic "mitten" buttes lie in the desert expanse known as Monument Valley (which actually isn't really a valley). The tall sandstone buttes have been carved by wind erosion over thousands of years to their current towering shapes.
Getting to Monument Valley is an easy straight ride, but a long one. On Highway 163 in Arizona, the area is northeast of the Grand Canyon, and south of Canyonlands.
Learn more about Monument Valley:
Monument ValleyAn iconic image of the southwest, Monument Valley is now under Navajo rule. The park has extraordinary views of the awe inspiring Mittens and surrounding desert.
Right: The famous long, desolate road leading to Monument Valley.
The Four Corners, A Guide by Moon Books - Because the Four Corners region NEEDS its own book
There are far too many attractions in the Four Corners area to cover in-depth along with other southwestern attractions, and that's why this book is a helpful if you're headed to the Grand Circle. Monument Valley, Chaco Culture, Mesa Verde, and other Four Corners landmarks are gone over in detail in this book, from where to stay, where to camp, the best routes to take, and interesting smaller destinations worth checking out.
Glen Canyon Recreation Area
The man made lake derived from the Colorado River
Glen Canyon Recreation Area is an artificially created damned up section of the Colorado River that has formed the giant Lake Powell. With little to no vegetation, the area is unique in appearance for its crystal clear blue water and contrasting bright red rocks. The area is a huge attraction for Arizona and Utah residents for boating, with marinas directly on the lake. The artificial lake is evaporating, with the shoreline receding. North of Grand Canyon and south of many of Utah's National Parks, the area is definitely worth the visit for its beautiful appearance and boating.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Utah's 1.7 million acre wilderness
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was just declared in 1996 as a National Monument. The area is 1.7 million acres of fossil rich territory, with high cliffs, low canyons, and desert wildlife. The monument can be seen on a drive to Bryce Canyon along the backroads, and explored by foot. The area is well known for its multicolor sandstone walls, which have stripes of red, purple, brown, yellow and white, indicating different periods of time in the earth's history.
Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah
Arguably, Antelope Canyon is one of the most photogenic areas of the southwest. These narrow corkscrew slot canyons are part of the Navajo nation, and are divided into two sections, Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon. Beams of light shine down into the canyon during the middle of the day during the summer months, as the walls display beautiful red and brown earth tones.
The Upper Canyon is where you can witness these beams of light, while the Lower Canyon is less visited and a more strenuous hike. Flash floods are a threat in this canyon, so precautions must be taken to avoid rainy days, even when rain has fallen recently in the area.
Photo left: A stream of light penetrates upper Antelope Canyon.
Canyon de Chelly is an area of Navajo Nation of Arizona, including Canyon de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument canyons. The area is part of the NPS, however, the Canyon de Chelly floor is only accessible through guided ranger hike. The main attraction of the park is towering Spider Rock, a huge rock tower in the middle of Canyon de Chelly.
The Colorado River's gateway to the Grand Canyon
Marble Canyon is part of Grand Canyon National Park, and is famous for its Navajo bridge, which spans the gap of the Colorado River, allowing Route 89A to pass over it. The Grand Canyon starts just down the river. The walls of the canyon looks like stacked bricks, with a near vertical wall that heads down to the canyon.
Sunset Crater National Monument
A rich volcanic history at the Arizona cinder cone of Sunset Crater
If you hadn't known better, you would think that the cinder cone of Sunset Crater National Monument had just erupted last year. The last known eruption occurred around 1064 AD, making the rock very young at only 950 years! Located north of Flagstaff, Sunset Crater National Monument is located close to the Petrified Forest National Park, and Grand Canyon.
In the northeast of Arizona, you won't find any living trees in the Painted Desert badlands of Petrified Forest National Park. Millions of pieces of petrified wood line the desert floor, some large, some small. This area was once a lush tropical region, and also a bed of volcanic activity. The logs from some of these trees (which are extinct in the northern hemisphere) over time were washed into ravines and buried under volcanic ash and gravel. Other volcanic rock replaced the buried wood, and over millions of years, became the petrified wood (which is actually now rock) that you can see in the park. Remarkable brightly "painted" hills line the outside of the desert area. Also in the park is the Agate House, a Native American house made of petrified wood, and petroglyph panels dating back to approximately between 1000 A.D. and 1300 A.D.
Looking for a true, rustic southwest experience off the beaten path? You can't get much more rugged or rough than the Valley of the Gods. Small canyons, buttes, cliffs, and sandstone mesas can be found in this deserted area which can only be accessed via a 17 mile long dirt road north of Bluff, Utah.
Valley Of The Gods by pspechtenhauser
Havasu Falls is a set of waterfalls found near the Grand Canyon. The colorful brownish orange rocks contrast beautifully with the crystal clear blue-green water, which is tinted by algae. The area can be accessed via a long hike to the remote area, but is well worth the strain!
The headquarters of Navajo nation
Window Rock is the the headquarters of present day Navajo Nation, and the scenic landmark of the giant sandstone rock seen below. The sandstone has a giant window in the middle of it, and has the town of Window Rock named after it. It can be found on the Arizona - New Mexico border, northeast of Flagstaff, and northwest of Albuquerque.
Like Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks, Goblin Valley is comprised of thousands of rock formations called hoodoos. In this case, the hoodoos are small in comparison to Bryce and Cedar Breaks, but make for an impressive hike and interesting experience. Goblin Valley is a state park in central Utah, near Capitol Reef National Park and the Green River. The sandstone "goblins" make for excellent photography and a moderate hike.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in southern Utah may rival the dunes of Death Valley. These pink sand hills were formed from the eroded cliffs that surround the valley, and are a popular attraction for ATV riders. The warm reddish pink tones are best photographed later or earlier in the day, when the sun will warm the colors even further.
The Four Corners Monument, where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona converge.
Cedar Breaks National Monument is an easy drive from Cedar City. The colors of the amphitheater are remarkable, and it's another easy stop on your trip throughout the Grand Circle. The hoodoos and rock spire formations are similar to Bryce Canyon, but often not as crowded. Cedar City has many accommodations and hotels to choose from as you plan your trip to Bryce and Zion.
Only miles east of Bryce Canyon you will find the impressive sandstone chimneys of Kodachrome Basin State Park. This is an easy stop on your Grand Circle road trip that won't take a lot of time to complete. These chimneys are thought to be the result of geysers that solidified with hard rock, as the soft sandstone around it withered away, leaving the chimney.