Top Ten Adventures in the American Southwest

The American Southwest may be light on population, but it’s heavy on adventure. With mountain ranges, deserts, rivers, and canyons in four states—Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado—there’s something for every stripe of adventurer.
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Pool in Subway Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah
Exploring The Subway in Utah’s Zion National Park is a must-do Southwest adventure.  (iStockphoto)

It figures that the American Southwest had some of the last-mapped and last-explored lands in the continental United States. The region is riddled with rugged landscapes, from 14,000-foot peaks and tumbling Class V rivers to deserts and mile-deep canyons. Together, they offer a lifetime of adventure. Start with these ten classic trips. 

10. Raft the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Nearly five million people clog the rim of the Grand Canyon each year, but fewer than 1 percent see it from the bottom up—by river, that is. On the 226-mile stretch of the Colorado River between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek, rafters bounce through boat-flipping rapids beneath cliffs that stretch more than 2,500 feet into the sky. Come evening, they camp on sandy beaches, hike to turquoise waterfalls, and explore slot canyons, but perhaps the most memorable part of the trip is the humbling experience of wilderness: There are no roads or signs of modern civilization for up to 25 days. 

Planning: Experienced rafters and kayakers can procure an up-to-25-day river permit through Grand Canyon National Park’s weighted lottery. But if you want to save yourself the hassle of leafing through the 21-page FAQ on the lottery system, book with an outfitter. Companies such as O.A.R.S. and Western River Expeditions guide three- to 18-day raft and dory trips.

9. Climb Cochise Stronghold, Arizona
Once a hideout for Apaches, Cochise Stronghold is now a refuge for a different sort: rock climbers. This remote and rugged enclave of 1,000-foot-high granite cliffs in southeastern Arizona is known for bold, exposed routes. But there are also more moderate options for a wide variety of climbers. Try Ewephoria, a five-pitch 5.8 face climb on Sheepshead Dome, one of the area’s crown jewels. It requires a steep 45-minute hike, but climbers are rewarded with a stunning backcountry experience. Sightings of hawks and turkey vultures are common, and the top offers views over the desert, the town of Tombstone, and the Dragoon Mountains.

Planning: Tucson-based Rocks and Ropes Outdoor Climbing School and Guide Service offers group trips and private guiding in Cochise Stronghold, located in Coronado National Forest.

8. Ski Silverton Mountain, Colorado
At first glance, Silverton Mountain’s base yurt, double chairlift, and utter lack of grooming equipment may not seem like a recipe for world-class skiing. But think of Silverton as the rowdy antidote to the modern ski resort. Here, it’s all about the skiing. Most days, fewer than 80 skiers compete for the 400-plus inches of annual snowfall. The terrain is uncontrolled, with steep couloirs, cliffs, bowls, and ridgelines, and from the top of the lift, skiers and snowboarders hike as high as the 13,487-foot peak for fresh tracks through virgin powder. This is skiing for the passionate. When the lift closes, riders gather at the base yurt for PBRs or migrate into Silverton to Montanya Distillers for locally made rum cocktails that go down easy. 

Planning: Silverton Mountain allows unguided skiing in December, early January, and April. Between mid-January and the end of March, guides are required.

7. Backpack the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado
Southwest Colorado’s is the largest in the state, and it has a novelty other wilderness areas don’t: a train line. The historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which once carried ore from remote mining towns, skirts the western edge of the wilderness. Hikers ask the conductor to stop at Needleton, then backpack seven miles into Chicago Basin. Many lounge in those high-alpine meadows, but some aim higher—to three 14,000-foot peaks called Eolus, Sunlight, and Windom. There are also other notable hikes in the wilderness that don’t require a train trip, such as the ten-mile route to Emerald Lake, one of the state’s largest alpine lakes, from the Pine River Trailhead. Camp in a meadow, fish for trout, or stake out a spot on the lakeshore to watch the clouds pass by.

Planning: The San Juan Public Lands Center (970-247-4874) in Durango, Colorado, sells trail maps and provides information to hikers. Purchase tickets ahead of time for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

6. Canyoneer Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park’s collection of natural rock cathedrals is the desert’s answer to St. Peter’s. And traveling into the canyons’ deepest corners inspires the most awe and reverence. Some canyons are accessible on foot with no technical experience necessary, like the Zion Narrows, a 16-mile chasm with cliffs up to 2,000 feet tall that narrow to as little as 20 feet wide. Others, like Mystery Canyon and The Subway, require rappelling, swimming, and shimmying through rocky tunnels barely the width of your shoulders. Either way, venturing into these canyons offers a glimpse of an otherworldly landscape sculpted by powers much larger than humans.

Planning: Zion National Park has information on canyoneering and hiking. Zion Rock Guides runs canyoneering courses and guided canyoneering excursions near the park.

Published: 13 Apr 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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