There are a lot of deserts in the Southwest U.S., each with a distinct allure and magic. Some are filled with forests of saguaro cacti and palo verde trees, while others comprise vast landscapes of petrified sand dunes. Here are our favorite state parks worthy of a detour in the Southwest.
1. Goblin Valley State Park, Utah
Rock pinnacles resembling creatures frozen in stone stand sentinel over Goblin Valley State Park. And while it’s easy to view these wind and water-sculpted “hoodoos” from the road, it’s even more rewarding to get up close to them on the park’s many hiking and mountain biking trails.
Other adventures in this remote corner of Utah’s iconic San Rafael Swell include a disc golf course, guided rappelling into slot canyons, and seasonal astronomical programs thanks to intensely dark skies. Before hiking any slot canyon, make sure to check the flash flood forecast. Nearby attractions include Little Wild Horse Canyon and the small town of Hanksville, Utah.
Where to Camp
There are 14 primitive RV spaces with picnic tables, metal fire rings, and shade shelters, plus 10 walk-in tent pads and a group site at the Goblin Valley Campground. There are also two yurts, which have heat and A/C. The park is dog friendly and open year round, except for the showers, which shut down for the winter. Reservations are recommended, especially in the fall and spring.
2. Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona
Legends of the Lost Dutchman gold mine have inspired generations of fortune seekers to visit this area. While the mine’s location remains a mystery, its namesake state park holds many natural treasures of the Sonoran Desert.
Within the park are hiking and mountain biking trails of all difficulty levels, plus scenic views of the rugged, volcanic Superstition Mountains. It’s a great place to see saguaro cacti, desert wildflowers, and wildlife such as javelina and jackrabbits. There are also cliff dwellings and caves, which were likely inhabited by the Salado and Hohokam people before becoming home to Pimas, Apaches, and Yavapais. Nearby attractions include the metropolis of Phoenix and the vast Tonto National Forest.
Where to Camp
There are 135 sites in the park, half of which have 50-amp electric and water. There are no RV size restrictions. Other amenities include cabins, a visitor center, a gift store, nature exhibits, showers, a dump station, and a picnic area. The park is pet friendly and open year round. Because of its proximity to Phoenix, Arizona, reservations are highly recommended and can be made online.
3. Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Swirling red sandstone dunes, petrified trees, and layers of ancient seabed limestone offer clues to the complex natural history that’s shaped Valley of Fire State Park. Nevada’s largest and oldest state park serves up more than 40,000 acres of the Mojave Desert, which can be explored via an easy drive with short hikes to some of its most unusual formations. Of course, there are plenty of longer hikes as well.
Browse the exhibits on geology, ecology, and history in the visitor center so you can fully appreciate what you’ll see in the park. Beyond rocks, highlights here include petroglyphs, natural arches, roadrunners, desert iguanas, tortoises, and bighorn sheep. Nearby attractions include Las Vegas, which is about 60 miles away, and Lake Mead.
Where to Camp
There are two campgrounds in the park: Atlatl Rock is best for RVs, with 22 electric-hookup sites that can accommodate up to 35-foot vehicles, and 22 primitive sites. Other amenities include showers, flush toilets, water, a dump station, shaded tables, and grills. Arch Rock is the other campground, with 29 primitive sites, mostly for tent camping. Other amenities include grills, water spigots, and vault toilets.
Both campgrounds are open year round and are pet friendly. All sites are currently first come, first served, but the park will start a reservation system in 2023.
4. Fremont Indian State Park and Museum, Utah
When the Fremont people lived in parts of Utah, Colorado, and Nevada, one of their largest known communities was in Clear Creek Canyon, part of present-day Fremont Indian State Park. The traces of their settlement located in the park have given archaeologists valuable insight into their culture.
Today, 12 interpretive trails wind along petroglyph and pictograph rock panels. There’s also a comprehensive museum with artifacts found nearby, including baskets and pottery, a history film, and several other exhibits. Since it’s located just off of Interstate 70, it’s a nice place to stop to stretch your legs or have a picnic. If you stay longer, you can also visit the park’s 15 miles of hiking and biking trails. Nearby attractions include Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Kimberly Ghost Town.
Where to Camp
There are two campgrounds in the park. Sam Stowe has seven sites with 30/50-amp electric, water, and sewer hookups, plus a shower. Some sites are pull-through, and the longest ones can accommodate vehicles up to 45 feet. Castle Rock has 29 primitive sites, a flush toilet, and water stations. Other amenities include two cabins and two tipis. Reservations are recommended, especially for Sam Stowe, and can be made online. The pet-friendly campground is open year round.
5. Rockhound State Park, New Mexico
It’s easy to guess the main attraction at Rockhound State Park: Bring your rock hammer and spade, and leave with perlite, quartz crystals, rhyolite, jasper, geodes, and thunder eggs. But dig beyond the obvious, and you’ll also find some great hiking. The park has trails for all energy levels. It’s also home to Persian ibex, imported in the 1970s.
The park is located in the Little Florida Mountains, which come ablaze with poppies in the late spring and bring remote dark skies at night. There’s a visitor center with exhibits, interpretive trails, and a native plant garden. The best time to find rocks is after a big rain, when a new batch is exposed by erosion. Nearby attractions include the Basin Range Geolapidary Museum and the town of Deming, New Mexico.
Where to Camp
The park has 29 sites, 23 of which have electricity, and some of which are pull-through. Other amenities include water stations, showers, a dump station, a playground, and a gift shop. Reservations are necessary during snowbird season, from October through April, and can be made online. The campground is open year round and is pet friendly.