The 7 wonders of the American West
A vast region abounding in beautiful natural attractions, each more impressive than the last, a road trip in Western USA is a veritable treasure trove for visitors.
Whether in the heart of the desert, on top of a mountain, while hiking in a national park, or before a canyon tinged with red and orange, this part of the United States leaves no one indifferent.
It was not easy to choose, but I have put together for you my list of the 7 Wonders of the American West.
#1. Grand Canyon National Park
From the air as well as on the ground, Grand Canyon National Park is a true wonder. It is a unique geological phenomenon whose story began more than 2 billion years ago.
Carved by the Colorado River over 7 million years, the Grand Canyon is 450 kilometres long, between 5.5 and 30 kilometres wide, and up to 1.6 kilometres deep. Grand Canyon National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
The site receives more than 5 million visitors a year. The southern section (South Rim) is by far the most visited due to its accessibility, its endless possibilities for hiking and the wide range of services available.
It's no surprise that it tops our top 5 parks of the West list.
On foot, walk along the Rim Trail, which runs directly along the Grand Canyon and is easy to access. By car, take a drive along Desert View Drive, a scenic route where you can stop and enjoy several spectacular viewpoints.
For the ultimate Grand Canyon experience, I strongly recommend the helicopter tour. It is rather expensive, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you won't want to miss.
#2. Yellowstone National Park
Known the world over for its colourful hot springs and its powerful geysers, Yellowstone National Park is in the northwestern part of Wyoming.
Often excluded from a classic road trip because of its more out-of-the-way location, it is the second-largest national park in the U.S. outside of Alaska with an area of almost 9,000 km2.
More than 66% of the world's geysers can be found here. The most famous of these is without a doubt Old Faithful, which shoots columns of hot water 50 metres into the air every 90 minutes. To be sure not to miss it, ask at the Visitor Center for approximate eruption times.
The other must-see in the park is the incredibly colourful Grand Prismatic Spring. With a diameter of 112 metres, it is the largest hot spring in the U.S. For a stunning view from above, go to the top of the hill behind the Grand Prismatic, which can be reached from the Fairy Falls Trail parking lot.
Yellowstone National Park is also an important wildlife refuge, and the best place for wildlife viewing is Hayden Valley, where you may come across bison and moose on the road. Grizzly bears are most frequently seen in spring and early summer.
To make the most of your visit to this giant park that straddles 3 states (Montana, Idaho and Wyoming), plan to stay at least 3 nights.
#3. Sunset over Monument Valley
Cowboys at heart will revel in the vast and mythical Far West landscapes of Monument Valley, worthy of the greatest American westerns.
Whenever one thinks of driving in the U.S., the panoramas of Monument Valley come to mind.
The sandstone formations and their bright colours, the product of millions of years of erosion, make this an exceptional natural site and a jewel of Arizona.
Monument Valley is sacred territory belonging to the Navajo Nation. The families who live there make a living mainly through sheep farming, tourism and the sale of arts and crafts.
Magnificent at any time of the day, the valley takes on its most beautiful hues in the evening when the reddish colour of its buttes is naturally enhanced by the setting sun.
You can enjoy a splendid view of the sunset over the valley from the Visitor Center. The Visitor Centre is also the place to book a guided tour with a Navajo guide, by jeep (don't hesitate to negotiate the price) or on horseback, for an even more authentic experience.
#4. Highway 1 in California
Also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, Highway 1 is often referred to as the most beautiful scenic route in the world.
The stretch between Carmel and San Simeon is the most spectacular. With its dizzying mountains, ocean landscapes and rugged coastline, you will have plenty to see!
Just a few minutes south of Carmel, make a stop at Point Lobos State Reserve, which boasts a rich underwater habitat and is home to seals, sea lions, sea otters and thousands of birds. You may even be lucky enough to see a whale!
Take a break in Big Sur, at the legendary Nepenthe Cafe. In operation since 1949, it is perched on a cliffside overlooking the coast, allowing you to take in breathtaking scenery while enjoying a delicious meal.
While in Big Sur, be sure to visit magnificent Pfeiffer beach. This wild, remote beach is popular with the locals and has very few tourists, as it is hard to find and there is no road sign indicating its presence.
The best time to drive Highway 1 is in the afternoon. The coastline is often cloaked in fog in the morning, especially between June and August.
#5. Bryce Canyon Amphitheater
Bryce Canyon National Park, located in southern Utah, is completely unique!
The most impressive section of the park is Bryce Amphitheater, just after the entrance. The amphitheater is filled with hundreds of irregularly-eroded rocky spires and pillars topped by a rock "cap", called Hoodoos.
These strange sandstone formations are magnificent at any time of day, but are especially spectacular at sunrise when the first rays of the rising sun bathe the landscape in hues of orange. Sunrise Point is a good place from which to enjoy this spectacle of nature.
A not to be missed experience for families is Queen’s Garden trail. This short 3-kilometre round-trip hike will lead you straight to the heart of the amphitheatre. Along the way, you will pass through arches carved into the rocky walls.
#6. The colours of Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon, Arizona is one of the most photographed canyons in the United States.
Divided into two sections, Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon, this icon of the American Southwest is the spectacular result of 10 million years of erosion of Navajo sandstone.
What makes this place magical are the swirling colours of its walls that evoke the different layers of sand deposited over all those years by water and wind. The light inside the canyon varies throughout the day as sunlight makes its way in through cracks in the sandstone walls, making for a truly unique experience.
The only way to visit the canyon is by guided tour. Like Monument Valley, this gem lies on Navajo land, and only members of the Navajo Tribe are authorized to offer tours. This means you will be accompanied by a professional guide who will explain the geology and history of the site.
As it is a staple of Western USA vacations, make sure to book your tour in advance, especially if you will be there in the summer. The light and colours in the canyon are at their most impressive around midday.
Amateur and professional photographers, it's time to get your cameras out!
#7. The legendary Death Valley
A "Wonder" with such a morbid name, really?
This mysterious place in the Mojave Desert is quite fascinating with its mountains, sand dunes and canyons. It is also one of the largest national parks in the U.S.
Despite summer temperatures that often exceed 50 degrees Celsius, it is home to over 1000 species of plants.
Soaring more than 1670 meters above sea level, Dante's View offers some of the best breathtaking panoramic views of the park.
Early birds will appreciate Zabriskie Point, located to the east of Furnace Creek, in the centre of the park. It is one of the best spots to watch the sunrise. For the not-so-early-birds, it also offers beautiful sunsets.
In any case, plan your activities early in the morning or at the end of the day and wear lightweight, light-coloured clothing because the heat can be overwhelming. Also, stay hydrated and bring much more water than you usually drink in one day.
Locate the 7 Wonders of the American West
And there you go!
What other places deserve to be on the list of the 7 Wonders of the American West?
Don't hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below!