Southwest (United States of America)
The American Southwest contains more than its fair share of natural wonders: The Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park are only three of the most famous natural attractions that draw people from all over the world.
The Navajo Nation is a reservation that overlaps areas of three of these states.
- Arches National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Monument Valley
- Saguaro National Park
- White Sands National Monument
- Zion National Park
Contrary to the Southwest's image as a sprawling desert, it is one of the most geographically diverse regions in The United States. Beginning at the high elevations of the Wasatch and Rocky Mountains the landscape descends into dramatic bluffs and mesas before emptying out on the flatlands of the Rio Grande. The dry climate and dramatic red rock landscapes help tie the region together despite the dramatic differences in elevation.
Human settlement in the Southwest dates back over 12,000 years, and is preserved today by the rock art, cliff dwellings, and other archaeological remains found throughout the region. The Pueblo (sometimes known as the Anasazi) people inhabited the area for well over one thousand years, but disappeared during the 12th or 13th century AD. The Athabascan people (Navajo and Apache) began arriving as early as 1000 AD and remain the largest indigenous group in the area to this day. In the 1500's Spanish explorers arrived and remained a dominant military force for nearly three hundred years. The area became part of Mexico in 1821 after Mexico won its independence from Spain. By the mid-1800's the expanding United States established a presence, and in 1848, after a war with Mexico, much of the area became United States territory.
The region experiences the full range of climate extremes from 100-125 °F (38-52 °C) in the summer down to sub-zero in the northernmost regions in the winter. The dry, cold conditions in the northern mountainous regions make for excellent skiing, while the desert heat is perfect for those looking to escape winter's bite.
Although English is the predominant language spoken throughout the Southwest, Spanish is also common among hispanic populations throughout the region. Most of this region was once under the rule of Spain and Mexico, and also has large immigrant populations from Mexico and Latin America. Numerous indigenous tribes throughout the region speak a myriad of languages; however, this is a trait most particularly observed within reservation boundaries. Linguistic diversity is more prevalent in larger metropolitan areas (such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Tucson, and Albuquerque). The larger national parks and museums in the region provide signage and reading materials in other common languages such as German, French and Japanese.
The region's primary airports are in:
- Albuquerque -- hub for Southwest Airlines, served by most majors, nominally an "international airport" but no nonstop international flights as of January 2006
- Las Vegas -- another Southwest Airlines and US Airways hub, some international service (on other airlines)
- Phoenix -- home base and largest hub for Southwest Airlines and US Airways; a major airport with service to a number of international destinations; Tucson also has limited international service
- Salt Lake City -- major hub for Delta Airlines, service to many international destinations
Entry from Mexico is surprisingly limited given the length of the region's Mexican border. New Mexico has border crossings at Santa Teresa, Columbus and Antelope Wells, of which the small town of Columbus is the only 24-hour port of entry; most traffic entering New Mexico from Mexico arrives via the 4 border crossings at El Paso, Texas, just outside the state. Arizona has border crossings at Douglas, Nogales and (outside) Yuma, with a few others that may or may not be open at any given time.
Major highways entering the region from other parts of the United States all have their western entries to the region from California (note that produce brought into California from Arizona is subject to inspection). East- and north-side entry points are:
- Interstate 10: from Texas at Las Cruces, New Mexico
- Interstate 15: from Idaho near Salt Lake City
- Interstate 25: from Colorado near Raton, New Mexico
- Interstate 40: from Texas in empty country in eastern New Mexico
- Interstate 70: from Colorado in eastern Utah
- Interstate 80: from Wyoming near Salt Lake City
I-25 (north end), I-70 (east end) and I-80 (east end) are all subject to occasional delays or closures in the winter owing to snowfall, as they go over mountainous country en route to (and within) the Southwest.
Amtrak has three routes running through the Southwest, all of which run east-west connecting California to cities in the east. The California Zephyr cuts across Utah and Nevada, running roughly parallel to I-70 and I-80, stopping in Salt Lake City and Reno. The Southwest Chief runs through New Mexico and Arizona, parallel to I-40 west of Albuquerque with stops near Santa Fe and in Albuquerque and Flagstaff. Finally, the Sunset Limited zips through the small southwestern corner of New Mexico and across southern Arizona, with a stop in Tucson.
The southwestern United States is the original home territory of Southwest Airlines, a "regional," low-cost (and low-frills) carrier notable for its widely distributed network of minor hubs in contrast to the hub-and-spokes approach used by most airlines in the United States. Not only as a result of Southwest's approach, but also because its competitors in the region have adopted its ways to some extent, the major cities of the region (Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas) tend to be connected very well by air, and fares are relatively low. Intra-regional air service to the lesser cities can be much more expensive, due in part to the fact that Southwest has no agreements with commuter airlines that service the smaller airports.
The imposing obstacle of the Grand Canyon limits road and rail traffic within the region. South of the Grand Canyon, Interstate highways 40 and 10 connect New Mexico and Arizona cities reasonably conveniently. I-40 basically follows the route of historic Route 66 in the region. I-15 and I-80 serve a similar function for Nevada and Utah. However, getting from north to south, or vice versa, by road is a more challenging proposition. No railroads make this connection, and the few highways connecting Arizona to Utah or eastern Nevada are minor, generally two-lane, lightly traveled, and frequently far from traveler services. If you're driving north-south in this region, pay careful attention to your fuel level, and make sure your vehicle is in good mechanical condition.
The Southwest is best known for its stunning scenery. The terrain is incredibly varied. You might find yourself driving through a desert landscape of red rock, and within a few hours you'll wind up climbing into the mountains. Some of the most striking sights are National Parks, protected from development and offering easy access to some of the most stunning attractions - Parks like Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion.
- Phoenix to Las Vegas by car — a leisurely drive with stops at Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon and more
While known for its incredible natural beauty, the Southwest also has many historical sites. Throughout Arizona and New Mexico are reminders of the Native American culture, from the ruins of great pueblos in Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona, Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, and Mesa Verde in nearby Southwestern Colorado, to the thriving culture in communities still inhabited, like Taos Pueblo in Taos, New Mexico. The Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico from Albuquerque to Taos was the site of some of the first permanent European settlements in the country, and many towns in the area hold on to their Spanish roots, with the town plan of a central plaza and an adobe church overlooking it, surrounded by small adobe homes. On the other hand, in Utah (particularly all of Northern and Central Utah and the Dixie region) most of the historical sites are based around the Mormon Pioneers who transformed what many considered to be an uninhabitable wasteland into a thriving oasis of farmland and neatly planned cities and towns.
Considering the vast deserts and red rock landscapes that the Southwest is so well known for, it may seem hard to believe that this region offers some of the best skiing in the country, gifted by the varied terrain and exquisite powder. Salt Lake City, Utah, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, is about 60 miles from nearly a dozen ski and snowboarding resorts in the Wasatch Range just to the east. Utah also has a couple of smaller but far less crowded resorts, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of North Central New Mexico offer a handful of resorts, notably Taos Ski Valley near Taos.
There are also many opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing in most of the forests of the region, scattered throughout Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona.
While you won't find any good places to surf or sail, the Colorado River and its two man-made reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, offer a chance for boating, kayaking, and white-water rafting through the canyons and expanses of red rock. Other rivers in the region give further opprotunities for rafting, like the Rio Grande near Taos.
Cycling is hugely popular in the Southwest, from touring and road cycling to mountain biking, from high mountain valleys to rugged red rock landscapes. You can find a decent bike shop in just about every decent-sized town. Just keep in mind that nearly all National Parks have strict restrictions on just where you can bike, and some National Forests have their own rules as well.
Hiking and backpacking
The majority of the Southwest is public land, and just about anywhere you go you'll find a trail. All of the National Parks offer a range of trails, from easy, paved walks to strenuous hikes. Most of the trails in the National Forests are well-marked and traverse long distances, great for overnight backpacking. Bureau of Land Management property is a bit hazier - if there isn't a well-marked trail, be cautious as you could wind up entering private land. Be sure to prepare for any hike: pack lots of water, apply sunscreen, and watch for rapidly changing conditions.
Hunting and fishing
With the exception of salt-water fishing, this region offers just about every kind of recreational fishing there is, from renting a boat and casting in the middle of a lake to fly-fishing in mountain streams. The region also offers excellent hunting opprotunities for both large and small game. Be sure to check the local laws and regulations before you do anything, though.
For the most part you can find a diner or a place selling "American Food" in any town, and in most places you should be able to find a fast food chain, be it a regional or national one. In the larger cities cuisine options tend to open up, and in the largest cities you can find just about any form of cuisine you may be looking for.
New Mexico has a distinctive cuisine of its known, characterized by chile (chile, not chili) peppers, pork, beans, blue corn, and other common ingredients. Any town anywhere in New Mexico will have a diner selling both American and New Mexican food, and specific recipes may vary. Wherever you go, you will probably be asked the question "Red or Green?". What this means is what kind of chile you want on your dish, red chile (which tends to be the hottest) or green chile.
The Native Americans in the area also have a cuisine of their own, and you may find local restaurants specializing in frybread, Navajo tacos, cornbread, or posole.
Be warned that alcoholic beverages are forbidden in the Navajo Nation and in many other American Indian pueblos and reservations. Drinking laws are also strict in Utah due to religious beliefs of the state's many Mormon residents.
Common sense should deal with any problems you may face. The desert is beautiful, but it does not suffer fools kindly. There is a tiny chance that near the US-Mexico border, you may run into one of the various militias who have taken it to themselves to patrol the area. These usually consist of bored middle-aged men, and will probably let you go after seeing your passport.
This page was last edited at 22:47, on 7 March 2009 by Ryan Holliday. Based on work by Peter Fitzgerald, David, Valtteri Päivinen, M. Hogue, Andrew Haggard and Nick Roux, Wikitravel user(s) LtPowers, DorganBot and PerryPlanet, Anonymous user(s) of Wikitravel and others.