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Underrated Natural Wonders in the American Southwest

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The Southwest states have no shortage of dramatic natural scenery and interesting attractions, and visitors rightly flock to the gargantuan Grand Canyon, the legendary cliffs of Moab, and the bluebonnet-choked fields of Texas’ Hill Country. But there is always more to explore, whether you’re in Utah’s most remote corner or only an hour from a capitol’s statehouse. Here are 15 unexpected locales to seek out on your next adventure in the American Southwest.

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Royal Peacock Opal Mine, Nevada

Group of large colorful opal rocks.
Credit: Vicki Smith/ Moment via Getty Images

Rockhounds rejoice: This remote gem in Northern Nevada’s Virgin Valley contains actual gems — the extremely rare black fire opal. Found only in a few locations on the planet, black fire opals are also the state’s official gemstone. At this privately owned pay-to-dig mine, visitors can scour on the remains of an ancient lake bed for these kaleidoscopic semi-precious jewels that were formed around 14 million years ago. Other opals are also scattered throughout the valley, but the scarcity of the black fires — some reaching more than a hundred pounds in size — make this site a treasure-hunter’s dream.

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Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

A beautiful view of the Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.
Credit: Benyapha soomhirun/ iStock

Nine miles upstream from where the Grand Canyon begins, the mighty Colorado River meanders into a majestic curve around a 1,000-foot-deep sandstone escarpment. Part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the bend’s trail and overlook are under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation, but the (paid) parking lot is operated by the city of Page. The 1.5-mile hike to the stunning overlook is also ADA-accessible. But much of the rim is unprotected by barriers — bring your camera and watch your step!

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Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah

View from US 163 Scenic road to Monument Valley Park in Utah.
Credit: LUNAMARINA/ iStock

You can see it and still not believe it: Monument Valley’s otherworldly landscape seems more suited to another planet (it actually stood in for an alien planet in 2001: A Space Odyssey) or a dream. Sacred to the Navajo Nation, the park’s stunning sandstone monuments can be admired from the 17-mile road that loops among the 1,000-foot-tall spires and imposing buttes. The filming location for many classic Westerns, this iconic landscape is most authentically explored on a horseback tour, where tribal members guide you into areas that are otherwise off-limits.

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Meteor Crater National Landmark, Arizona

View of the Meteor Cater Natural Landmark in Arizona.
Credit: FajarPangestu/ Shutterstock

Talk about making an impression — the asteroid that slammed into the desert of the Colorado Plateau 50,000 years ago left a crater three-quarters of a mile wide and nearly 600 feet deep, its impact excavating nearly 200 million tons of rock. One of the best-preserved meteor craters on the planet, the landmark lies between Winslow and Flagstaff in Arizona’s northern desert. Hike along the crater’s rim and don’t skip a visit to the Space Museum, which includes a space capsule just like the one the Apollo 11 astronauts used on their historic journey to the moon.

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

View of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in the fall.
Credit: LHBLLC/ Shutterstock

Mysterious and remote, this national park in western Colorado sees far fewer visitors than it deserves — but that only increases its lonely and dramatic appeal. For 2 million years, the Gunnison River has carved its way through Precambrian rock, leaving a dark and narrow gorge that simultaneously enchants and induces vertigo. At 2,250 feet tall, Painted Wall is the highest cliff in the state, while the walls narrow to only 40 wide at the base of the river. Drive (carefully!) around the scenic rim or challenge your fitness and courage by hiking into the depths of the unmaintained trails.

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Superstition Mountains, Arizona

The Superstition Mountains and Sonoran desert landscape at sunset.
Credit: John D Sirlin/ Shutterstock

Stately saguaro cactus and the ghosts of old prospectors haunt the landscapes of the Superstition Mountains outside Mesa, Arizona. Hike the Apache Trail that passes into the foothills of the Tonto National Forest — the fifth-largest forest in the United States — and passes through Lost Dutchman State Park, where one of the Old West’s most famous “lost mines” remains shrouded in mystery. Don’t miss the photo op after a short but strenuous hike to Wave Cave, where the rock formation resembles a giant wave that hikers can stand on and “surf” silhouetted against desert views.

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Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

View of the Bonneville salt flats in Utah.
Credit: Berzina/ Shutterstock

Were the ground of this northwestern Utah playa red instead of white, you might mistake it for Mars. Only an hour and a half west of Salt Lake City, this remote basin certainly looks like it could belong in another world. It consists of approximately 30,000 austere and blindingly white acres of densely packed salts, with some areas reaching up to 5 feet deep. Internationally known for the land speed records that have been set (and shattered) here, the flats are crowded during racing events but otherwise serene.

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Carlsbad Cavern, New Mexico

Pathway through the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns.
Credit: Doug Meek/ Shutterstock

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the more than 119 caves comprising Carlsbad Caverns National Park are the remains of a Permian reef along the edge of a 250 million-year-old sea in what’s now southern New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. The namesake cave is the showstopper, and its aptly named Big Room (also called the Hall of the Giants) is the largest known cave chamber in North America. Visitors to the Carlsbad Caverns can hike in using the natural entrance or take an elevator from the visitors center, where they’ll be whisked down to a paved and electrified wonderland of colorful stalactites and rock formations. The cavern is home to 17 species of bats, which emerge at sunset and fill the sky for up to three hours.

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Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

The Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona.
Credit: AZCat/ iStock

Towering formations known as hoodoos oversee the rocky wonderland of this 12,000-acre national monument, where an isolated mountain range rises from the intersection of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. Explore this unique landscape during a leisurely drive along the eight-mile paved scenic route or by hiking 17 miles of trails. This corner of southeastern Arizona is home to a large variety of wildlife, including rattlesnakes. raccoon-related coatimundis, black bears, and tiger salamanders — one of the largest terrestrial salamanders in North America.

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Peek-a-Boo Slot Canyon, Utah

Southern Utah Slot Canyon in Peekaboo Canyon.
Credit: Megan Betteridge/ Shutterstock

It’s possible that no one will see you at Peek-a-Boo (also known as Red Canyon), a remote but relatively easy-to-access slot canyon outside Kanab. This slot canyon boasts the same surreal wavy walls as world-famous Antelope, but in contrast to its more famous cousin, it remains relatively untrammeled — so you can take your time while framing the perfect Instagram shot. While there’s no cost and no requirement to hire a guide, you will need the right vehicle. The road from the trailhead to the canyon is treacherous and requires a high-clearance four-wheel drive.

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Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

Petroglyphs in Petroglyph National Monument.
Credit: JacobH/ iStock

Stretching along 17 miles of Albuquerque’s West Mesa — and only minutes from the city’s amazing green chili — is one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America. Ancient Puebloans and other nations carved more than 24,000 images into rock formed by lava more than 130,000 years ago. The sacred carvings represent birds, animals, peoples and abstract symbols, with the oldest dating back at least 2,000 years. A short walk to Boca Negra Canyon reveals around 100 of the stories told in stone, while easy to moderate hikes to Rinconada (2.2 miles) and Piedras Marcadas (1.5 miles) boast 300 and 400 petroglyphs, respectively.

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Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Ocelot crossing sign against a blue sky at Laguna Atacosa Wildlife Refuge near Brownsville, Texas.
Credit: kzubrycki/ iStock

The Lone Star State is a land of contrasts, where you can find 98,000 acres of pristine wildlife refuge not far from the tourist crowds of South Padre Island. The largest protected habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Laguna is an oasis for elusive ocelots, 130 species of butterflies, nilgai antelope, and — along with Mexico’s Rancho Rincón de Anacahuitas — at least 100,000 shorebirds each year. Visitors can ride bikes, stroll trails, fish, or hunt — just keep an eye out for the alligators who may be hunting, too!

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Lamoille Canyon, Nevada

View of the colorful Aspens on Lamoille Canyon.
Credit: Gerald Corsi/ iStock

Glaciers sculpted this rugged valley in northern Nevada’s Ruby Mountains. Often referred to as the state’s Grand Canyon, Lamoille is a lush landscape amidst lofty peaks, thick forests, and bone-chilling, trout-laden alpine lakes. When it’s open (generally from May to October), take the short but spectacular Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway and admire the overlooks along the twisty, 12-mile road. There are plenty of trailheads to stop at and hike along the way, and if you’re lucky, you may spot one of the area’s enormous elk (for whom the nearby city and county of Elko are named).

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Pyramid Lake, Nevada

Pyramid Rock in Pyramid Lake near Reno, Nevada.
Credit: Terry W Ryder/ Shutterstock

Another unexpected and unspoiled Nevada treasure is Pyramid Lake, located about 40 miles northeast of Reno. Enclosed on the Paiute Native American reservation, Pyramid Lake is the last remnant of Lake Lahontan, a massive inland sea that once covered much of the state. Pyramid-shaped limestone formations jut out above the brackish waves, which have one-sixth the salinity of seawater. Anglers flock from around the world in hopes of catching (another) record-breaking trout from the emerald waters, and the area also offers swimming, boating, and camping.

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Caddo Lake, Texas

View of the cypress trees at Caddo Lake in Texas.
Credit: amadeustx/ Shutterstock

Inky waters and spooky moss-draped stands of bald cypress are the hallmarks of this rustic state park on the border between Texas and Louisiana. A nature lover’s paradise, the park’s diverse habitats of bayous, wetlands, and slow-moving backwaters cover more than 26,000 acres of marshes and swamps. Recognized as an internationally important wetland, the largest natural lake in the state shelters 71 species of fish, along with armadillos, alligators, deer, ducks, minks, and beavers.

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