The American Southwest is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Artists such as photographer Burt Harwood and painters Maxfield Parrish, Georgia O’Keeffe and Fritz Scholder spent their lives immortalizing the vistas, people and cultures of the ever inspirational Southwest. Find your inspiration among these timeless Southwest landscapes.
Easily one of the most photographed landscapes in the world, Monument Valley on the border of Arizona and Utah brings to mind spaghetti western wide shots. In fact, legendary director John Ford featured Monument Valley so frequently in his movies, critics of the time correctly posited that this stunning landscape would define how the world imagined the American West for generations. The towering red sandstone structures protrude out of the earth like natural skyscrapers. The perfectly understated Navajo name for the area, located within Navajo Nation, translates to “valley of the rocks.” Accessible via U.S. Highway 163, visitors to this sacred land should make it a point to visit the Eye of the Sun formation and the numerous petroglyphs.
Also located within the Navajo reservation, Antelope Canyon is a marvelously photogenic slot canyon formed by the flow of water through the porous sandstone. Sights at this picturesque locale are the stuff screensavers are made of. The park is broken into two sections Upper Antelope Canyon, or The Crack, and Lower Antelope Canyon, or The Corkscrew. The Navajo name for the canyon translates to “the place where water runs through rock.” The walls of this narrow canyon, as little as five feet wide at some points, mirror the force that shaped it. The flowing, undulating rock walls possess an almost liquid quality as they drift through the natural hallway. Holes in the rock above let beams of sunlight pour into the dusty space, creating a truly surreal environment. Upper Antelope Canyon is typically more crowded, but it’s Lower Antelope Canyon that draws the attention of photographers hunting for those angelic light beams.
Valley of Fire
Between Mouse’s Tank, Balancing Rock, ancient petroglyphs and petrified logs, there are plenty of things to see, trails to hike and grounds to camp at Nevada’s oldest state park, Valley of Fire. The aptly-named Natural Arches Trail affords hikers views of stunning sandstone arches and gorgeous fiery red desert landscapes. Elephant Rock Loop is an easily traversed, 1.2-mile trail that leads visitors to one of the parks more iconic rock formations, a natural arch in the shape of an elephant. It really is quite pachyderm-y. The springtime blooms of such regional favorites as the desert marigold, indigo bush and desert mallow stand in stark contrast to this other worldly environment. Approximately 50 miles outside of Las Vegas, Valley of Fire is well worth a day trip for Vegas tourists eager for a reprieve from the din of slot machines.
As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there isn’t a beholder around who wouldn’t consider the Grand Canyon to be one of the most beautiful views ever beholden. The sheer size of the brilliantly stained canyon is enough to turn your legs to Jell-O. While extremely crowded during the summer months, the South Rim is still worth a visit. Grand Canyon Village, nearby Desert View Watchtower and Hermit’s Rest all offer some of South Rim’s greatest panoramas. Intrepid hikers can trek nearly 2 miles along the banks of Havasu Creek from the village of Supai to Havasu Falls. Getting to Supai requires a three-hour drive from Grand Canyon Village and an 8-mile hike as there are no roads leading into this remote community. This Colorado River tributary boasts strikingly blue waters that culminate in stunning waterfalls, cascading over the red sandstone that makes up Havasu Canyon. However, this side trip is for the campers as it can’t be done in an afternoon. The North Rim is a great alternative to the densely packed South Rim. It’s much more isolated, offers cooler temperatures and offers just as scenic vistas. North Kaibab Trail is the area’s premier hike. The often overlooked West Rim is the perfect choice for those heading from Las Vegas. The Skywalk, a glass-bottom observation deck suspended approximately 4,000 feet directly above the canyon floor, affords a unique perspective on this national treasure. Notable sights in this corner of the canyon include Guano and Eagle points. With so much national park to explore, the best way to see it all is by helicopter.
Arches National Park
Located in eastern Utah, Arches National Park is home to the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These seemingly fragile formations are captivating. Some arches of note among the more than 2,000 in the park include Landscape Arch, its 306-foot span is the longest in North America, and Delicate Arch, which is commonly referred to as “the arch” by first time visitors. The eroded stone facades perfectly frame the sweeping vistas of this wild desert landscape and the La Sal Mountains. Another unique geologic formation worth some space on your roll of film is the park’s petrified dunes, formed millennia ago when ancient sand dunes hardened into stone below the weight of overlying material that eventually eroded away. Winter might be the best time of year to visit. If you can deal with temperatures below 50 degrees F, you’ll just about have the park to yourself.
If hoodoos is what you’re after, then it’s hoodoos you’ll get at Bryce Canyon near the southern border of Utah. The nearly 36,000-acre park’s crown jewel is Bryce Amphitheater. This “canyon” was formed not by flowing water, but a process known as frost-wedging. Frost melt seeps into the porous stone during the day and freezes overnight, expanding and prying the rock apart. What is left are hundreds of rock spires guaranteed to leave you breathless. A rim trail that circumnavigates the amphitheater offers numerous lookout points. Sunrise Point for example provides a perfect unobstructed view of Bryce Amphitheater. The proud hoodoos remain frozen in time like an ancient gathering of theater patrons with front row seats to a beautiful sunrise in perpetuity.
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon’s next door neighbor, Zion is only about a three-hour drive from Las Vegas. As Utah’s first national park, its pink cliffs are rich with history. The land was sacred to early Native American inhabitants and an inspiration to later settlers. It’s easy to see why. Natural monuments, such as The Watchman, Altar of Sacrifice, The Great White Thrown and Checkerboard Mesa, are unlike anything else on earth. The land is so lovely you’ll want to stay more than a day. Fortunately, the quaint town of Springdale at the park’s southern entrance offers modest to high-end accommodations, fantastic dining options and more gift shops selling New Age knick-knacks than you’d care to visit. While there are days’ worth of sights to admire, the must-hike trail in Zion National Park is The Narrows. This is the slot canyon hike all others are measured against. As the Virgin River flows through the park, it reaches a stretch of canyon in which the steep walls begin to close in, creating a tall and narrow stone hallway that rarely sees direct sunlight. It’s a fairly life-changing hike.
Red Rock Canyon
If you’ll be in Vegas for more than the poolside gambling, consider a morning trip to Red Rock Canyon. Filled to the brim with wild burros, world-class rock climbing routes and some of the Southwest’s most jaw-dropping panoramas, this national conservation area offers more than two dozen hiking trails that vary in difficulty, from scenic strolls to strenuous rock scrambles. For those visiting during the summer months and less inclined to hoof it in temperatures north of 110 degrees (don’t even try), Red Rock Canyon features a one-way, 13-mile scenic drive. There are plenty of pullouts along the drive. The oxidized iron in the sandstone creates a brilliant fiery red backdrop perfect for picnic lunches and photo shoots. The canyon is about a 40-minute drive west of the Las Vegas Strip.
It’s nearly impossible to nail down the most scenic view of the Southwest, but this list represents the cream of the crop. The desert may get a bad rap, but it’s certainly undeserving. Get out there and explore all the beauty America’s Southwest has to offer. You never know. It might just inspire you to become the next Georgia O’Keeffe. If you’d like to see these marvelous landscapes from a new perspective, browse Maverick Helicopters’ tour listings. Don’t forget to share some of your favorite landscapes on our Facebook page.