Ecotourism in America: Spectacular Locations in the Southwest
The southwestern United States contains a unique collection of desert landscapes, craggy mountain ranges, and abundant wildlife. From the Native Americans who dwelt there long before European settlers arrived, to the first frontiersmen who braved the journey to the west, to today’s tourists ogling at sites like the Grand Canyon, the southwestern states have long been revered for their sheer beauty and abundant natural resources. If you love nature, this region is a must-see. Below is a list of sites that are sure to awe you.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
No doubt one of the most recognized and beloved natural wonders in the southwestern United States, the Grand Canyon winds its way through the northwestern corner of Arizona. The National Park bearing its name spans well over one million acres, and the Canyon itself snakes along for nearly 300 miles. Formed over time by the Colorado River, the Canyon’s average depth is one mile. At its widest the Canyon stretches 18 miles, while at its narrowest it is a mere 600 feet.
Not only is the geology and scenery breathtaking, the National Park also provides ample opportunity to view wildlife: it is home to nearly 400 species of birds, nearly 100 species of mammals, over 8,000 species of invertebrates, and 7 endangered species, among many others. Activities range from easily accessible to more remote activities. Options include hiking, biking, camping, floating down the river, and of course taking in the incredible scenery at the Park’s many lookout points.
The grandeur of Yosemite is unmatched in California, and many believe across the nation as well. Over 95% of the Park is formally designated as wilderness. Yosemite’s mountains and granite cliffs were formed by ancient glaciers, and today some glaciers remain on the park’s highest peaks. Additionally, the park is well-known for its waterfalls, streams, lakes, giant sequoia forests, and open meadows. It is truly the crown jewel in California’s magnificent collection of natural wonders.
This vast array of habitats provides a place for biological diversity to thrive. The Park supports over 400 species of animals including black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, owls, and seemingly endless others. Outdoor activities are also boundless at Yosemite. Guests can hike, backpack, camp, rock climb, boat, fish, take photographs and watch birds and other wildlife.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
This larger-than-life geologic park has awed visitors for ages. Though it became a National Natural Landmark in 1971, there is evidence of human activity in the area dating back to 1330 BC. The park’s impressive red rock formations were formed during a major geologic upheaval along a fault line in ancient times, and the region has ties to many Native American tribes, and early European explorers alike.
One unique aspect of the park is its incredible Visitor & Nature Center, which boasts many educational opportunities, as well as a collection of fossils, including those of dinosaurs! The park has ample opportunities for visitors to observe wildlife, hike, rock climb, bike, and segway throughout the park. The park hosts guided jeep and trolley tours, as well as weekly 5k fun-runs.
The mountainous Great Basin, which spans much of Nevada and several surrounding states, spans the entire region from the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Mountains. Great Basin National Park is located in east Nevada, spanning over 77,000 acres of the larger region. The park’s Wheeler Peak (over 13,000 feet) and Wheeler Peak Glacier, desert region, various watersheds, and Lehman Caves provide diverse and beautifully wild places for visitors to explore.
Visitors can watch for wildlife such as beavers, porcupines, and bighorn sheep, or walk among the park’s forest of Bristlecone Pines, the oldest living tree species in the world. From touring the caves, hiking, fishing, and taking scenic drives, visitors will have no shortage of recreational opportunities.
Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico
Comprised of gypsum crystals and calcium sulfate, the White Sands region is incredibly unique in the Southwestern landscape. Most sand dunes are made of quartz, absorbing the sunshine and making the ground hot to walk on. However, gypsum reflects the sun, cooling the surface of White Sands, making it perfect for exploration. Situated in Tularosa Basin and surrounded by mountains, the gypsum sand dunes are reminiscent of snow-covered plains.
From dune sledding, to horseback riding, to hiking, to backcountry camping, White Sands provides plenty of opportunities for visitors to traverse the awe-inspiring landscape. Wildlife living in the region includes road runners, bobcats, badgers, porcupines, and of course a variety of snakes, turtles, and lizards. There are also several species that display a white or very light color that are unique to the White Sands area.
Made up of nearly 60,000 acres, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge provides a sizable environment for a number of endangered and threatened species. The Refuge was established in 1901, designed specifically to prevent the extinction of endangered species and to reestablish species which had been eradicated from the region. Today, it contains American bison, Rocky Mountain elk, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, prairie dogs, river otters, burrowing owls, and even Texas longhorn cattle, which are considered a cultural and historical legacy.
The land itself contains a large remnant of mixed grass prairie, having escaped the plowing and planting of settlers because of its rocky soil. Today, visitors can explore the trails in search of wildlife, take an educational tour, go rock climbing, or enjoy camping.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Located in western Texas, this National Park proves that everything is bigger in Texas… or, at least, the Park is the biggest protected region of Chihuahuan Desert in the country. The Park’s more than 800,000 acres protects more than 1,200 plants, 450 birds, 56 reptiles, and 75 mammals. In addition, sea fossils, dinosaur bones, 10,000 year old archeological digs, and volcanic dikes can be found within the Park.
The climate of Big Bend National Park is characterized by extreme heat in the low elevations, with many spring and summer days easily surpassing 100 degrees, and cooler temperatures in the higher-altitude mountain ranges year-round. While the lower elevations tend to be dryer, the Rio Grande runs through the park for about 120 miles, along the border with Mexico. Still very remote, the park is the perfect destination for visitors seeking a true wilderness experience. Hiking and backpacking are the most popular activities, as visitors can explore the varied terrain containing scenic peaks and canyons. Wildlife includes various lizards, snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas, as well as black bears, javelinas, mule deer, badger, kangaroo rats, and more.
Arches National Park is truly breathtaking, containing over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, which is the highest concentration of these in the world. Over 76,000 acres, the Park is located on the Colorado Plateau and maintains a desert climate, receiving less than 10 inches of rain each year! The secret to the arches’ formation actually lies below the ground. The erosion of the topsoil and deposited sediments gradually revealed the salt bed beneath, and as faulting liquified regions of the salt bed foundation, and water in the cracks of the earth turned to ice, the rock fractured and left arches, spires, and eroded rock structures scattered about.
Climbing is a popular activity, though due to the fragility of the rock structures, a number of regulations are in place which visitors must abide by. Backpacking, biking, camping and hiking are excellent ways to see the awe-inspiring landscape. Star-gazing is another popular attraction, as the location has very little light pollution from surrounding towns. A variety of desert wildlife, including snakes, lizards, small rodents, cougars, bighorn sheep, red foxes, and mule deer live within the Park.
The southwest’s splendid beauty speaks for itself. Conservation is key to preserving this region’s natural beauty and resources, and the abundance of National Parks in the region underscores the area’s significance to all Americans. With its wide open spaces, abundant natural resources, and magnificent scenery, the southwest is an ideal destination for all nature lovers.