The Southwestern desert states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada stretch from Texas to California, across an elemental landscape ranging from towering monoliths of red sandstone to snowcapped mountains, on a high desert plateau that repeatedly splits open to reveal yawning canyons. This overwhelming scenery is complemented by the emphatic presence of Native American cultures and the palpable legacy of America’s Wild West frontier.

Each of the four Southwestern states remains distinct. New Mexico bears the most obvious traces of long-term settlement, the Native American pueblos of the north coexisting alongside former Spanish colonial towns like Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Taos. In Arizona, the history of the Wild West is more conspicuous, in towns such as Tombstone, site of the OK Corral. More than a third of the state belongs to Native American tribes, including the Apache, Hopi and Navajo; most live in the red-rock lands of the northeast, notably amid the splendour typified by the Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley.

The canyon country of northern Arizona – even the immense Grand Canyon – won’t prepare you for the compelling desertscape of southern Utah, where Zion and Bryce canyons are the best known of a string of national parks and monuments. Moab, between majestic Canyonlands and surreal Arches in the east, is the top destination for outdoors enthusiasts. Nevada, on the other hand, is nothing short of desolate, though gamblers are lured by the bright lights of Las Vegas.

You can count on warm sunshine anywhere in the Southwest for nine months of the year, with incredible sunsets most evenings. Although “snowbirds” flock to southern Arizona in winter, elsewhere summer is the peak tourist season, despite air temperatures topping 100°F, and the awesome thunderstorms that sweep through in late summer, causing flash floods and forest fires. By October, perhaps the best time to come, the crowds are gone and in the mountains and canyons the leaves turn red and gold. Winter brings snow to higher elevations, while spring sees wild flowers bloom in the desert.

The Southwest’s backcountry wildernesses are ideal for camping and backpacking expeditions. It’s vital to be prepared for the harshness of the desert: always carry water and if you venture off the beaten track let someone know your plans.

Unless you have your own vehicle, many of the most fascinating corners of the region are utterly inaccessible. Scheduled public transport runs almost exclusively between the big cities – which are not at all the point of visiting the region.

Brief history

Among the earliest inhabitants of the Southwest were the Ancestral Puebloans. While their settlements and cliff palaces, abandoned More than seven centuries ago, are now evocative ruins, their descendants, the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and the Hopi in Arizona, still lead similar lifestyles. From the fourteenth century onwards, the incoming Navajo and Apache appropriated vast tracts of territory, which they in turn were soon defending against European immigrants. The first such, in 1540, were Coronado’s Spanish explorers, fruitlessly searching for cities of gold. Sixty years later, Hispanic colonists founded New Mexico, an ill-defined province that extended into much of modern California and Colorado. Not until 1848 was the region taken over by the United States. Almost immediately, outsiders began to flock through on their way to Gold Rush California.

Thereafter, violent confrontations increased between the US government and the Native Americans. The entire Navajo population was rounded up and forcibly removed to barren eastern New Mexico in 1864 (though they were soon allowed to return to northeastern Arizona), while the Apache, under warrior chiefs Cochise and Geronimo, fought extended battles with the US cavalry. Though the nominal intention was to open up lands to newly American settlers, few ever succeeded in extracting a living from this harsh terrain.

One exception were the Mormons, whose flight from persecution brought them by the late 1840s to the alkaline basin of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Through sheer hard work, they established what amounted to an independent country, with outlying communities all over the Southwest. They still constitute more than sixty percent of Utah’s population and dominate the state’s government.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

USA features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

The best aerial views in the world

The best aerial views in the world

Got a head for heights? If you're craving a new perspective on your travels, the best thing to do is get up high. From mountain-top panoramas to cityscapes, her…

17 Oct 2017 • Olivia Rawes camera_alt Gallery
American beauty: the southwest USA in pictures

American beauty: the southwest USA in pictures

After two months road tripping through the southwest USA, Rough Guides photographer Tim Draper captured the region's stunning natural beauty through his lens. H…

16 Oct 2017 • Tim Draper insert_drive_file Article
Budget trips: 20 of the cheapest places to travel

Budget trips: 20 of the cheapest places to travel

That ever-growing travel wish list might be putting some pressure on your pocket – but there are plenty of destinations where you'll get more bang for your b…

11 Oct 2017 • Emma Gibbs camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook