Top Ten Adventures in the American Southwest - Page 2

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Yucca Plants dot White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument in New Mexico looks like a coastal scene, rather than a piece of the Southwest.  (iStockphoto)

5. Mountain Bike Moab, Utah
Blessed with nests of singletrack, rugged dirt roads, and stunning desert scenery, Moab is a mountain biker’s paradise. And the consummate Moab experience is undoubtedly biking the Whole Enchilada. A series of linked trails, the 25-mile-plus route climbs 1,000 feet through the La Sal Mountains, then descends an adrenaline-spiking 7,000 vertical feet. Pedal rocky technical sections and buffed singletrack through conifer forests, high-alpine meadows, and piñon-dotted desert on your way to a shimmering reward: the sparkling Colorado River far below.

Planning: Poison Spider Bicycles offers shuttle service to the top of the Whole Enchilada. The Moab Area Travel Council has information on lodging, food, and other activities.

4. Kayak Lake Powell, Utah
In the middle of the desert, Lake Powell offers an improbable oasis with some 2,000 miles of shoreline. Many visitors cruise in houseboats, but the best way to see the intricate little slot canyons and hidden corners of the lake is by kayak. Rent a boat in Page, Arizona, then paddle to canyons like Labyrinth and Face or to Rainbow Bridge, a natural stone arch that was once reachable only by an arduous horseback ride. Much of the quiet magnificence of the canyons is best experienced while stationary, however. After an afternoon hike to see views of the lake, float in the water or fall asleep in silence on sun-warmed shores.

Planning: Page, Arizona-based Kayak Powell rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. The outfitter also offers guided half-day and multi-day tours.

3. Hike to Ancient Ruins in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Dry, wind-scoured Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, seems like a downright impractical spot for a metropolis. But between the years 850 and 1250, Native Americans built a center of trade and ceremony that was the ancient equivalent of New York City. The reasons why the Chacoans chose this spot remain mysterious, but hiking to some of the ruins of their elaborate stone-and-mortar buildings, such as Pueblo Alto, invites pleasant debate—and awe. Another mystery? Many of the Chacoan buildings had uncanny astrological alignments. Now, rangers offer talks on archaeoastronomy and viewings in the park’s observatory several times each week.

Planning: Chaco Culture National Historical Park is located 13 miles down a rugged dirt road unfriendly to buses and RVs. A campground is available for visitors who wish to spend the night.  

2. Camp in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Visiting White Sands National Monument is almost like stepping into a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Standing in the middle of this 275-square-mile field of white gypsum sand—the largest in the world—the landscape turns gorgeously simple, with nothing but sand, sky, and distant mountains. By day, buy a sled at the park gift shop to race down the dunes and hike the 4.6-mile Alkali Flat Trail. (If you’re lucky, you just might spot one of the park’s rare indigenous white animals, like the Apache pocket mouse or the bleached earless lizard.) Come evening, camp at a backcountry site and watch as the sky turns violet and the stars blink into view.

Planning: White Sands National Monument sells backcountry camping permits on a first-come, first-served basis.

1. Road Bike the Enchanted Circle, Taos
Circling New Mexico’s highest peak, the 84-mile Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway is a mouthwatering buffet of the state’s most impressive scenery. Starting in Taos a nest of tiny alleys lined with adobe houses, pedal a counter-clockwise loop on highways 64, 38, and 522. Along the way, cyclists stop in Red River, a recreation hub; the artist community of Arroyo Seco; and an Old West ghost town called Elizabethtown. But the draw is mainly the scenery itself: Along the way, there are forests of ponderosa, spruce, and aspen, wildflower meadows, sweeping high desert, and vistas of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Planning: The Federal Highway Administration publishes information about scenic byways through the National Scenic Byways program. The Enchanted Circle Marketing Coop also offers directions and information on the byway.

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