The abounding beauty in the American west is quite staggering. Everywhere you drive, you’re inundated with a jaw-dropping, breath-taking scene. With all the allure, it’s difficult to choose what to explore and what to forgo. I’m a huge advocate of “seeing it all”. However, rarely is that feasible. Thus, I’ve created a list of what I believe to be the 20 most surreal and must-see destinations in the U.S. West (excluding the PNW because that is a list all on its own). In this post, destinations in the following states are included:
20) Sylvan Lake, Black Hills, SD
Never in my wildest dreams could I construct a lake as astounding as Sylvan, hidden among South Dakota’s Black Hills amid Custer State Park. She’s one of the prettiest lakes I’ve ever laid eyes on. People are always raving about Mount Rushmore, but what they don’t tell you… this lake is located next door to the national landmark and is MUCH more impressive. Spend a day swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding or even cliff diving in this immaculate paradise. Not a water person? Have an adventurous day on dry land hiking all the woodland trails that encircle this gem. Opt to go rock climbing or shore fishing (you are bound to catch some pike, muskie or bass). The adventures are endless and the views are stunning.
19) Artist Palette & Artist Drive, Death Valley National Park
The sites along Artist Drive are so unique and unlike any other in the country. Heard of the Painted Mountains in Peru? Well, did you know the USA offers a taste of her own natural + colorful artwork? Artist Palette can be found about 5 miles into your drive along Artist Drive (turn off of Badwater Road, North of Devil’s Golf Course and South of Furnace Creek). At Artist Palette you can see all the colors of the mountain shining brightly due to the oxidation of the metals + elements found in the ground here. The colors range from pink to green and even from purple to blue. Even more, you’re able to walk about these painted mountains and see the impressive array of colors up-close. Nature truly is a work of art – a masterpiece.
18) Garden of the Gods, CO
Absolutely worthy of the name, Garden of the Gods sits at the base of the Rocky Mountains with Pike’s Peak in your sights. Stay nearby in the cute, touristy town of Manitou Springs and spend a full day wandering the grounds of this divine rock garden. As you hike over and under the illimitable red rock monoliths, you’re able to breathe in a little piece of heaven. I had a total blast rock climbing and mountain-gazing in this stellar park. Something about the way the red stands out amongst the greenery gives full life to the coined nickname “Colorful Colorado”. Not to mention, the varying rock formations are mind-blowing – Balanced Rock, for example, is a puzzle to comprehend. Once finished discovering and playing in the Garden of Gods, take a hike up the challenging “Incline” or drive the scenic mountain route to the summit of Pike’s Peak (or hike to the summit, if time permits).
17) Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
The United States’ first national monument (est. 1906), Devil’s Tower in northeastern Wyoming rises 867 feet above its forest + prairie surroundings – 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourth River. This dramatic butte is a mystery to many and compels countless visitors to marvel in awe and speculation. Scientists aren’t even positive on how the tower came into existence, debating over multiple theories. The Native American legends surrounding Devil’s Tower (or Bear Lodge Butte as they call it) are fascinating as well. In short, they call her Bear Lodge Butte because, as a Lakota + Kiowa legend goes, a giant bear tried to climb over the tower butte (hence the claw-like marks that run up and down) as he chased two tribal girls one day. The Sioux have a legend of their own, too, as do others. To read more about them, check out this site: Native American Legends Surrounding Devil’s Tower. Furthermore, to this day, tourists and locals report of strange and unfamiliar lights coming from the sky above Devil’s Tower. After all, how DID this giant rock jet up from the earth!? It’s certainly surreal and I, for one, am a sucker for all things folklore, mysterious and legendary.
16) Alabama Hills
Ever heard of them? If you’re not familiar with California or the West, chances are you haven’t. Which is fantastic! Why? Because that’s part of this beauty’s charm: the Alabama Hills are remote, fascinating, original and you can enjoy her all to yourself! This vast range of hills and rock formations line the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. As you hike amidst giant boulders and roam through natural rock arches, the largest mountain in the lower 48 (Mt. Whitney) looks majestically down on you. She reminds you of nature’s grandeur as you breathe in unearthly surroundings.
15) The Needles at Canyonlands National Park
My personal favorite part of the vast Canyonlands National Park is located in the lower region and is known as the Needles. At Needles, we did most of our hiking and hardcore exploring – including our overnight hike in the backcountry.
To begin with, head to the Visitor’s Center to acquire a backcountry permit. Hiking backcountry is the BEST way to fully discover the surrealism of this phenomenal area. Once you have your permit, I totally recommend beginning your hike at Elephant Hill Trailhead. Words of wisdom: be sure to study the map carefully and bring a compass – this network of trails is called “The Maze” for good reason. We begun our hike here, journeying through a network of trails including Joint Trail where we encountered a crazy cool slot canyon (highly recommend Joint Trail). We set up our camp for the night in the backcountry area known as the “Butler Flats”.
(If you don’t wish to overnight camp, you can still make a day hike out of the trails – such as hiking to Druid Arch then back, etc).
Despite the heat and the added distance, our trek throughout the Needles in Canyonlands National Park and backcountry was the best – one of my most memorable! We experienced a beautiful sunset at camp during dinner, admired the stars from our uncovered tent at night, heard coyotes roaming nearby, woke up before dawn to hike out, witnessed a stunning sunrise at an extraordinary overlook, climbed and wiggled through slot canyons, came across a herd of mule deer grazing and a few snakes – overall, it was a blast and a total highlight of my western adventures! There’s something so wild to me about carrying everything you need on your back and letting your two feet carry you throughout the wilderness – connecting with nature and soaking in your surroundings to the fullest. To me, it’s of the utmost soul fulfillments. And what better place to do so than surrounded by endless red needled-monoliths, buttes and winding canyons? Every turn creates a new and jaw-dropping scene, each one more mesmerizing than the latter.
14) General Sherman and the Giants in Sequoia National Park
Honey! I’ve shrunk myself! Or, did I just enter a land of GIANT trees? The impressive and imposing sequoias of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are entirely in a league of their own. Sequoia National Park even boasts the world’s largest tree, General Sherman, who demands visitors’ admiration. The Giant Sequoias ONLY grow along a 260-mile stretch on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There’s no denying the splendor of this forest. Spend a winter afternoon walking among, beneath and even INSIDE these sequoias and you’ll be transported into a miraculous wonderland. A magnetic pull will beckon you to explore deeper and deeper into her immense kingdom.
13) Grand Canyon National Park
Of course The Grand Canyon made the list – she’s renowned all over the world for her grandeur. However, she places at #13 because of her popularity and over-crowdedness. Call me crazy, which I am, but as much as I am wow’ed and mesmerized by her beauty, the lack of remoteness kills my vibes + cuts the surrealism (just a smidgeon) upon my explorations. With that being said, I’m sure I’ll change my mind once I hike the isolated and wild Rim-to-Rim trail :-).
Regardless, The Grand Canyon is an American west staple and undoubtedly deserves a visit, or MANY (I’ve seen her 3 times and it’s still not even close to being enough). People always describe feeling small when standing beside the ocean, but I’ve never felt more small than when standing on the edge of this immense beast. Even more than sheer size, her copious colors are glorious + brilliant. Upon staring into the her depths, a strong visceral urge to let the canyon devour you will overwhelm your spirit – calling you forth to explore her deepest + darkest corners. I still want more. And once receiving more, perhaps she’ll skyrocket up my list.
12) Twin Lakes + The Continental Divide, Colorado
11) Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon set on Navajo land east of Page, Arizona, is a captivating attraction that draws many people every year. Gaining in popularity due to her alluring wonder and ever-changing colors, photographers flock in hordes to this gem. It’s no wonder the most expensive photograph ever sold was snapped here, taken by Peter Lik and titled “Phantom” – Phantom photograph by Peter Lik. The light dancing throughout the canyon’s openings delivers an enchanting (and surreal) experience for each go-er. The light never graces the walls the same way twice. Every walk through the canyon varies. Every photograph differing. Each person’s experience unique to their own journey. It’s mind-boggling that nature can create so many shapes and colors all within the boundaries of a single slot canyon. The smoothness of the walls are a delight to feel, as well. Everything about this place is magic!
10) Delicate Arch, Arches National Park
Arches National Park is FULL of, well, Arches duh! You’ll find a multitude of massive, natural rock arches in this beautiful park right beside Moab, Utah. Moab is a hub for adventure – at Moab Adventure Center you can rent a Jeep to do some backcountry off-roading, you can take Hummer Land Tours or Air tours over Arches National Park, you can go rafting down the Colorado River or opt to Stand-Up Paddleboard, there’s plenty of climbing and canyoneering tours along with hot air balloons, horseback riding and biking. There’s ENDLESS adventures here so, if you’re anything like me, you will be in your GLORY in Moab and her surrounding National Parks.
With that being said, be positively sure to hike to the unbelievable Delicate Arch (as photo’d above) in Arches National Park (my personal favorite). I highly recommend beginning this hike before sunrise so that you arrive at the arch when the sun crests the horizon. This adds dramatic coloring to the already dramatic landscape and also helps evade the drastic, desert heat. The hike is approximately 3 miles, out and back, and is accessible year-round. It only gains about 600 feet in elevation and is rated moderate. Be sure to bring along plenty of water and a headlight since the better portion of your hike on the way in will be completed in the dark, early morning sky.
The fact that such a perfect and GIANT arch, made completely by nature’s hand, exists is utter surrealism at its finest. The smooth rock bowl at its base and the mountain views between the archway only add to the myriad of reasons why this place/hike is out of this world! GO see it!
9) Badlands National Park
For starters, I wrote an ENTIRE blog post on why everyone MUST go explore Badlands National Park: 10 Reasons Why You Should Visit Badlands National Park. That, alone, should tell you just how AMAZING this place is and just how special it is to me.
I think Badlands, SD is a highly underrated natural beauty in the U.S. and I feel everyone should start planning a trip there ASAP! The scenery is remarkably unearthly. Badlands National Park looks like a completely different planet – that is the best way to describe it in one sentence. That is probably why Hollywood decided to film scenes in the movie “Armageddon” there (the badlands act as the surface of the asteroid where their shuttles crash-land). Its dramatic landscape spans countless, sharply eroded buttes, steep canyons and sprawling grasslands. There are many lookouts in the park and each one has an original and mesmerizing view of this incredible place. Furthermore, there are a million perfect places for the best photo-ops – you can’t go wrong no matter where you point your camera. Your jaw will be sure to hit the floor when you make your initial drive/hike into this park – I know mine did (and still does every time I go)!
Want to walk alongside a herd of American Bison (aka Buffalo)? Want to watch these beastly beauties graze among the prairies and roll around in the dirt? THIS is the place to go! Every single time I’ve been to Badlands National Park I’ve seen these fascinating creatures up close and personal. The park is also full of big horn sheep which, never fails, I happen to see around sunset almost every evening in the park. There’s also, oftentimes, baby big horns running amok along the buttes, just playing and having a grand ol’ time as their mommas and papas relax and watch. Furthermore, you can be sure to spot prairie dogs (which are hilarious and make such cute noises), mule deer, pronghorn and a variety of birds! At nighttime, you’ll even be serenaded by the sounds of coyotes howling. Visiting Badlands National Park means visiting so many beautiful creatures – you’ll be sure to spend a full day doing just this!
8) White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Guys, this place is AH-MAZING! Never in my life had I known such a place existed within our own country’s borders, let alone is the largest of its kind on Earth (largest gypsum dunefield). These expansive sand dunes are PURE WHITE – they sparkle underneath the crystal clear blue skies as the circling mountains provide the most picturesque backdrop. Uniquely, the sand is composed of gypsum crystals which do not get hot in the sun. Yes, you read that right… you can freely walk barefoot on these dunes without melting the flesh on your poor soles. Rather, it’s incredibly cool between your toes.
My husband, best friend and I played like children all day long among the wave-like sands. We hiked up and over countless dunes, getting lost in the white abyss. Running and jumping off the dune cliffs and rolling down the gypsum hills without a care in the world, truly living in the moment and enjoying every second. Adding to the excitement, you can even rent sleds and sand boards at the park’s visitor center (or bring your own) – you must do this! It looks like snow and you’re on a sled, however… you’re in the middle of giant sand dunes in the desert of New Mexico… talk about mind bending + surreal! Check out this link to read more about sledding in White Sands National Monument > Plan Your Visit: Sledding on the Dunes. Your child-like wonder is sure to pique among this pristine, glistening white expanse.
Furthermore, every ounce of this place is a photo-op – it’s so gorgeous that our friends opted to get married here during our second visit. The white gypsum acts as a natural bounce, creating phenomenal lighting in photos. Think that’s rad? Wait until you experience the magic of a sunset here – all the dunes turn various shades of pink and purple. There’s backcountry camping on the dunes, as well, so after sunset you can set up camp and hunker down under the starry sky for the night. It’s an adventurer’s paradise. It’s so different from every other place in the country, you can’t miss the chance to experience White Sands National Monument for yourself. I promise you, it’s a dream.
7) Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park
To this day, I still can’t believe what my eyes saw upon visiting Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park’s Midway Geyser Basin. Not only is she the largest hot spring in the U.S. but she’s also the third largest in the world. Even more, the most impressive feature she boasts is her crazy vivid + dazzling colors – orange, yellow, green and blue. JUST LOOK AT THEM! And YES, they’re that intense and bold in person, if not more! In reminding me of the inside of a large jawbreaker I use to eat as a kid, I stood and gazed over her wonder for a while. Grand Prismatic Spring is entrancing and, in my humble opinion, should be considered a world wonder. This was one of the greatest highlights upon my time spent in this enormously grand park. Dare I say, I enjoyed this site more than that of Old Faithful.
Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon and innumerable wildlife are another HUGE bonus of this never-ending beauty. This park is world famous for a reason and everyone should venture here at least once in their lifetime. Home to hundreds of animal species (including bears, wolves, bison, elk + more), an enormous volcanic hot spot and full of dramatic canyons, alpine rivers, dense forests and boiling hot springs + geysers, Yellowstone is a top surreal destination in our nation.
6) Redwood National + State Parks, CA
Enchanted. Enchanted is the BEST word to describe Redwood National and State Parks. Sauntering through these forests, I felt as if I had been transported to an ethereal, fairy world where all things magic + mystical were alive and possible. One HAS to experience this fairytale land at least once in their lifetime – no other forest is comparable.
Not only do the colossal redwoods and lush ferns delight, but these parks encompass a tree-lined coast, forested mountains and wildlife aplenty. One can enjoy a picnic along the coast, a hike through the tall trees, creature spotting in the meadows, a good book in the groves and countless photo-ops at the many scenic overlooks. Or, one can prance about these lands like the fairy it deserves (I may have done this). Regardless of how you spend your time here, you will leave with a love story of your own.
5) Grand Teton, Wyoming
Known as the “three beasts”, South, Middle and Grand Teton are incredibly majestic and rugged peaks among the Teton Mountain Range and part of Grand Teton National Park (just south of Yellowstone). As far as staggering, imposing and dramatic are concerned, these three peaks take the top spot in the United States. As much as I completely adore Rocky Mountain National Park (and she still beats Grand Tetons overall), these peaks overrule hers. Their uninviting sharpness is challenging and a force to be reckoned with – and, to me, there’s something magnificent in the way her mountain tops seem unobtainable.
For breathtaking views at sunset/sunrise, head to T.A. Moulton Barn among the Mormon Row Historic District in Teton County (photo’d above). My husband and I were fortunate enough to have this place (for the better part of our time) to ourselves and enjoyed one of the most stellar evenings just watching mother nature’s grand show at the base of such grandiose mountains.
4) Horseshoe Bend, Arizona
Does this place need an explanation? Probably not. However, I will try my best to put to words the total surrealism of Horseshoe Bend. Located near the town of Page, AZ and nearby Antelope Canyon, this horseshoe-shaped bend in the Colorado River runs at the base of encompassing thousand-foot cliffs. I felt more in awe of Horseshoe Bend than of the Grand Canyon (insanity, I know)! Yes, the arrant mass of the Grand Canyon is more staggering, but the surreal + perfect horseshoe that the river cuts through the canyon here creates a more simplistically stunning site. And sometimes, simplicity is clutch. Though the Grand Canyon forces one to realize their scale upon this earth, Horseshoe Bend enables you to appreciate and marvel at her simple creativity – you’re able to appreciate one work of art at a time. Where the Grand Canyon is concerned, I have difficulty focusing on just one river bend or just one crevice because she’s SO VAST. However here, I can take her ALL in from great heights. OR, I can opt to explore her depths via boating, kayaking, paddling etc among the Colorado River below with the immense cliffs hugging me from all sides. Horseshoe Bend is a true treasure and is considered by many the “intimate grand canyon experience”. After all, it’s also considered the “beginning of the Grand Canyon” for it’s a mere 5 miles from the start of the park.
3) Emerald Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
In all honesty, ALL of Rocky Mountain National Park should be included on this list because she’s undoubtedly in my top 3 favorite national parks in the country. Rocky Mountain National Park has IT ALL – everything a nature-loving explorer + enthusiast could ever dream of. She has high mountains peaks of varying shapes and sizes, countless wildlife (I’ve seen more wildlife here than I have encountered anywhere else in the nation – tied with Yellowstone), turquoise alpine lakes a plenty, fun and thrilling mountain hikes, gushing waters and streams, pristine meadows and BEYOND.
However, with that being said, one of my favorite and easily accessible sites amidst the park is Emerald Lake – named for her surreal emerald coloring! Not only is this gem-colored lake a splendor to ogle, her surrounding mountain walls are divinely formidable and add to this otherworldly scene.
Here, on the rock photo’d above, I have sat many times just thinking about the limitless awe and magic of nature and this earth we inhabit. Places like Emerald Lake make me breathe peace and tranquility – make me say to myself “this is exactly where I’m meant to be and everything is right among this slice of heaven”. The outside world ceases to exist. Harmony exudes.
The hike up to Emerald Lake is a wonder in itself – with MANY beautiful sites to stumble upon. The trailhead begins at Bear Lake, at the end of Bear Lake Road, and is a rather elementary 3.5 mile round-trip trek. Don’t miss it!
Feeling even more adventurous? After your visit to Emerald Lake, hike above her (on top the cliffs you see photo’d) via Flat Top Mountain trail (which has crazy awesome views on your whole climb to the summit and can be completed, easily, within half a day).
2) Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park
Zion National Park holds a special place in my heart because of her unbelievable, magical hikes and her magnetic pull she possesses over my entire being. I felt a remarkable connection to this park, especially while journeying up to Angel’s Landing and wandering through The Narrows (both among my favorite hikes of all time). There’s just something sensational about these steep, red canyon walls encompassing the abundant river valley.
Angel’s Landing begins at Grotto Trailhead: (37.259392, -112.950038) and is rated a Class 3 difficulty with ~1,500 elevation gain. Angel’s Landing is a rather short, half-day hike (a little over 5 miles roundtrip). However, don’t let the length fool you – the trail is full of seemingly endless switchbacks (Walter’s Wiggles) and steep inclines. The dramatic, awe-inducing views that you see while hanging onto a chain bolted into the cliffs are worth every ounce of energy expended. The adrenaline you gain from walking on a two-foot wide path with literally thousand foot, sheer vertical drops on both sides is utterly thrilling. Thus, if you’re a risk taking, thrill seeker such as myself – this hike is SO FOR YOU. Even if you’re not, this hike is still a MUST do – just hold on to the chain, be mindful of your steps and keep in mind the “3 points of contact” rule. If you do this, you’ll be fine and dandy. This trek is none other than heavenward and worth facing your fears, shall you have any.
Once at the top of Angel’s Landing, you’ll see the most beautiful, panoramic views of steep, red, rocky cliffs dating back to the triassic era and the Virgin River and valley far below (cars look like tiny black ants, thats how high you are). The landing upon which you sit (once at the top) is like an island in the sky, floating in the middle of Zion Canyon. Up there, you feel like an angel floating on heaven’s cloud. Everything is right in the world and ultimate beauty encompasses you. Frederick Fisher once said, “Only an angel could land on it”, because from below – that is exactly how it appears.
1) Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park
My number one is undeniable. The Sierra Nevada Mountains provide some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in all of the U.S., including Yosemite National Park. Yosemite’s landscape is so dramatic that it brought literal tears to my eyes upon first meeting her. Prior to this experience, I had never actually cried from over-whelming beauty. I believe this to be testimony to how GORGEOUS Yosemite National Park really is and, indeed, a big reason why she is bestowed the coveted number one spot. I love her something fierce. Standing at Tunnel View in utter awe, I thought to myself “this is what heaven looks like”. Honestly, the feeling that consumed by entire being while falling in love with her was none other than perfection – total peace (hence, my tears). An overwhelming gratitude and disbelief that such magic could exist ultimately resulted in tears of pure bliss. I believe in heaven on earth AND I believe in magic and miracles because of this view. Every doubt I ever had was banished with this site alone. Some people even claim a vortex lies within her bounds, and I wouldn’t doubt it. After all, the unexplainable emotions and feelings that occurred to me here are, no doubt, the work of something greater than our comprehension. This place is the ultimate surreal destination of the U.S. West (and all the U.S. if I’m to be honest).
Well, there you have it folks – my list of the top 20 most surreal destinations in the U.S. West (including South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and California). Have I missed a site you deem worthy of a top 20 spot? Let me know in the comments below! OR, do you believe another destination deserves the top spot? I’m all ears and look forward to hearing your thoughts! After all, beauty and surrealism + are subjective.
Much love and happy travels!
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