Sometimes, you just need a break from it all. You need a change of scene, a change of pace, a change of routine—if only for a few days. Many looking to unplug from their day-to-day lives choose to immerse themselves in the beauty of nature. And in the United States, what better place to do so than a national park? The U.S. has 62 officially designated national parks operated by the National Park Service. They preserve stretches of land from every ecosystem, protecting its native plants, animals, and historic and archaeological sites. This article is part of a five-part series about national parks in different regions of the U.S. and focuses on the southwest part of the country.
Before you leave, we recommend that you purchase travel insurance and visitors insurance to protect yourself against any travel delays or unexpected accidents or injuries that may occur during your trip.
Southwestern U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
If you’re visiting these U.S. national parks from abroad, we highly recommend that you purchase visitors insurance as you’re planning your trip. Your first question might very well be, “What is visitors insurance?” Visitors insurance is a short-term, international travel medical insurance plan intended to cover medical expenses resulting from unforeseen accidents, illnesses, or injuries that occur after the policy is purchased. It is not meant to cover a broader array of medical expenses like elective surgery, dental and vision coverage, routine check-ups, and so on. It is also not meant to cover pre-existing conditions, although some plans do cover acute onset of pre-existing conditions. If you have any questions or need help choosing the visitors insurance plan that’s right for you, please don’t hesitate to contact our office.
For more information about national parks of the U.S., see the following links:
- Northeastern U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
- Southeastern U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
- Western U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
- Midwest U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
- Southwestern U.S. National Parks Travel Insurance
Southwestern U.S. National Parks to Explore
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico)
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located in southeast New Mexico, was established as a national monument in 1923 and as a national park in 1930. The park consists of an underground network of at least 83 individual caves and covers a surface area of about 73 square miles. Also included within its boundaries is the Rattlesnake Springs Historic District, a natural oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert featuring a picnic area and wildlife habitats. The national park welcomes about half a million visitors every year.
The caverns' primary attraction is its namesake cave: Carlsbad Cavern. Visitors can enter the cave via elevator or via the Natural Entrance Trail, a steep, 1.25-mile switchback that descends 750 feet into the earth and takes about an hour to hike. Once inside, they can either explore the cavern at their own pace or take a ranger-guided tour. The Big Room Trail runs through the Big Room, the largest cave chamber by volume in North America. The flat trail runs about 1.25 miles and provides up-close views of cave formations, stalagmites, stalactites, and other deposits. Ranger-guided tours explore different areas of the park like Slaughter Canyon, the Lower Cave, the Hall of the White Giant, the King's Palace, and the Left Hand Tunnel. Guided tours have a limited number of spots per tour and are usually available by reservation only.
Beyond the caverns, the park offers surface hiking trails like Walnut Canyon Overlook, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail, Old Guano Road, Lower Rattlesnake Canyon, and the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. That last one runs a full length of about 100 miles through the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains and welcomes seasoned hikers and backpackers looking for a genuine wilderness experience. Other attractions in the park include the Bat Flight Program, which runs nightly from May to October and provides a free view of thousands of bats exiting the cavern; and Night Sky Programs, which include stargazing and meteor shower viewing activities.
Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)
Petrified Forest National Park, located in east Arizona, was established as a national monument in 1906 and gained national park status in 1962. The park is a desert area containing plant and animal fossils as well as a variety of archaeological sites. The "park proper" covers a little less than 150 square miles, but starting in 2005, additional tracts of land have been placed under park control, bringing the protected area to a total of 346 square miles. The park sees about 650,000 visitors every year.
Notable attractions in the park include collections of petrified wood, the remains of ancient tropical forests. These are clustered in areas like the Black Forest Bed, Blue Mesa, Jasper Forest, Crystal Forest, and Rainbow Forest, and consist mainly of fossilized plants, leaves, logs. Animal remains--including those of dinosaurs dating back to the Triassic Period--have also been found. Archaeological ruins include those of Anasazi pueblos and petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock.
There are a myriad of activities to enjoy during your time at Petrified Forest National Park. The park's main road runs for 28 miles with pullouts and viewpoints along the way, perfect for a scenic drive or bicycling. Hiking trails include the gorgeous Painted Desert Rim Trail; the Puerco Pueblo, which runs through the 600-year-old remains of a pueblo of the ancestral Puebloan people; Agate House, another archaeological tour; and Long Logs, one of the park's largest concentrations of petrified wood. Those looking to go backpacking or camping can obtain a free backcountry permit at the visitor center. And the Painted Desert Visitor Center, Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, and the Rainbow Forest Museum present a variety of exhibits about the history of the park and the people who once lived on its land.
If hiking is on your agenda, we suggest that you purchase hiking and mountaineering insurance as protection on the off-chance that you sprain your ankle or break a bone.
Zion National Park (Utah)
Zion National Park, located in the southwest corner of Utah, was originally established as the Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909. The area was granted more land and renamed Zion National Monument in 1918, and it became a national park the following year. In 1956, the park was enlarged again with the addition of Kolob Canyons. It currently covers about 230 square miles and welcomes more than 4 million visitors every year.
The park offers a picturesque tableau of cliffs, canyons, mesas, forested plateaus, rivers, and natural arches. One of its most prominent attractions is Zion Canyon, featuring 15 miles of reddish-brown sandstone canyon walls carved by the Virgin River. The Great White Throne is a massive white sandstone monolith towering almost 2,500 feet above the canyon floor. The Emerald Pools boasts a hiking trail leading to a scenic waterfall amid lush greenery. The Temple of Sinawava, a sandstone amphitheater unofficially marking the beginning of the canyon, stands between narrow red and brown cliffs among waterfalls, hanging gardens, and brilliant flowers (during the summer months).
Popular park activities include backpacking and bicycling, birdwatching, camping at one of three campgrounds, canyoneering, hiking, canoeing and kayaking along the Virgin River, and sunset and stargazing. There are also a number of scenic driving routes, but due to increasing traffic and parking problems, park-operated shuttle buses are the only vehicles allowed on the main park road between April and October.
Joshua Tree National Park (California)
Joshua Tree National Park, located in southern California near Palm Springs, was established as a national monument in 1936 and was designated a national park in 1994. The park consists of the merging of two desert ecosystems from the Mojave and Colorado deserts. With an area of 1,234 square miles, the park is known for its variety of desert plant life, including the Joshua trees native to the area.
The park offers an exciting array of attractions. Black Rock Canyon, south of Yucca Valley, encompasses campgrounds, hiking trails, wildlife viewing opportunities, and a Joshua tree forest. The Cottonwood Spring Oasis, formed by an earthquake, was an important spot for the indigenous Cahuilla Native American tribe as well as gold prospectors, miners, and teamsters during the gold rush.
Covington Flats present a scenic visa of Joshua trees, junipers, and pinyon pines along with a picnic area and some hiking trails. Indian Cove offers a campground surrounded by massive rock formations, a popular spot for rock climbers. Finally, for some of the best views in the park, look no further than Keys View, nestled in the crest of the Little San Bernadino Mountains. The spot overlooks Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and--on a clear day--Signal Mountain in Mexico.