This article will show you 40 (stunning) places to see in the Western United States.
These are pretty stunning destinations perfect for vacations, road trips, and for anybody interested in discovering these landmarks and points of interest.
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Table of Contents
1. Moaning Cave – Moaning Cavern Park (California)
Moaning Cave sounds like the title to an Indie film you’d probably want to avoid, but don’t be deceived. Discovered (modernly) during the Gold Rush, this cavern earned its name from the moaning sound that echoes throughout the cave. You can’t deny the intrigue of caverns, especially ones that emit moaning echoes. If you’re in the Gold Country area then try to stop by.
2. Paint Mines – Paint Mines Interpretative Park (Colorado)
Most people think about the Rocky Mountains when they think of Colorado. Here’s a lesser known spot worth your time called “Paint Mines.” This park is a cluster of hoodoos and sand-capped spires of all colors.
There’s an array of wildlife here, too. Everything from horned toads, mule deers, falcons, and coyotes call this place home. Definitely look into visiting.
3. Horsetail Fall in February – Yosemite National Park (California)
Ever seen a “fire fall?”
Better yet, have you ever even heard of a fire fall?
You’ll only be able to catch a glimpse of this elusive wonder at Yosemite National Park two weeks out of the year in February when the sun shines on the fall just right at sunset. But if you’ve ever wondered what a waterfall looks like when lit on fire, now you know.
4. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)
Everybody knows about the Grand Canyon. And everybody knows about Yellowstone. But not everyone knows that there’s a “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” and that it is one of the most stunning places in the country.
5. Kanarra Creek – Zion National Park (Utah)
Now that Antelope Canyon is growing in fame and rightfully so, I felt the need to showcase another stunning slot canyon, Kanarra Creek. Unlike Antelope Canyon, you’ll actually have to do some hiking through the Zion backcountry to get to this picturesque location.
6. Hidden Lake – Glacier National Park (Montana)
Really, the entire national park of Glacier could be put on this list because so few people know about the many peaks, lakes, and (you guessed it) glaciers that make up this spectacular park. I figured Hidden Lake exemplified the unknown beauty of Glacier, in both its name and its scenery.
7. Rialto Beach – Olympic National Park (Washington)
Standing tall and shaped like the Pacific’s version of the “Burj Al Arab” (the sailboat skyscraper) in Dubai, this iconic beach is a photographer’s paradise. And as the caption below suggests, Rialto Beach may be the best “Kelped” secret of the Pacific Northwest coastline.
8. Painted Hills – John Day Fossil Bed National Monument (Oregon)
Here’s a scene right out of a Dr. Seuss book except it’s real life. I’ve seen a similar sight in Asia but who knew we had this here in the United States? The painted hills are a part of a larger area of the John Day Fossil Bed where you can find fossils of horses, camels, and even rhinoceroses. And by “you” I mean skilled paleontologists, of course.
9. The Subway – Zion National Park (Utah)
Going to or from the Subway, you’ll dive through emerald waters, rappel through multiple slot canyons, scramble over boulders the size of houses, and pass dinosaur tracks. Oh yeah, and you’ll catch a glimpse of this wonder.
10. Black Canyon of the Gunnison – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado)
Black Canyon of the Gunnison sounds like a place straight out of a fantasy novel and it looks like one, too. It’s one of the steepest mountain descents in the world and the photos here will leave you with no doubt of that fact.
11. Zabriskie Point – Death Valley National Park (California)
Here’s yet another location you’ll have to see with your own eyes to believe it’s actually earth you’re looking at. See the tiny black things on the left that look like penguins? They’re actually humans — that’s how vast this unique landscape is.
12. White Pocket – Arizona
White Pocket’s not really white but actually full of brilliant, vibrant color… and dragons, too.
13. Palouse Falls – Palouse Falls State Park (Washington)
Not quite a hidden gem if you live in the Pacific Northwest, but Palouse Falls is a destination many outside of the photography and hiking world have not heard about. Not to mention most people can’t believe to find out this spot is in Washington state and not somewhere in the Southwest.
14. Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Dakota
For those who always ask what there is to do in North Dakota, well now you have an answer. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is full of badlands just waiting to be explored. The park is also known for its abundant wildlife, which include feral horses, golden eagles, and elk among many others.
15. Hidden Lake – North Cascades National Park (Washington)
Another hidden lake makes the list. This one will take a few miles of hiking to get to capture the view but as you can see it would be worth it.
16. Cathedral Lake – Yosemite National Park (California)
While this point may be known to frequent hikers to Yosemite, it’s still a destination constantly overlooked by many for other destinations inside Yosemite Valley that are easier to access. If you’re planning on making it here be sure you to apply for a permit early or take your chances with first come, first serve.
17. Tent Rocks – Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument (New Mexico)
I know what you’re thinking. These cones look like they were shaped by volcanic eruptions that likely occurred 6 to 7 million years ago. Well, you’re right. Stop by Tent Rocks to witness the artistic side of mother nature if you’re ever in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area.
Related: 18 Best National Parks in New Mexico
18. McWay Falls – Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park/Big Sur (California)
Can it get more beautiful than a waterfall (or “tidefall”) pouring into turquoise waters on a California beach at dusk? I don’t think it can. I really don’t think it can….
Okay, so maybe it can….
19. Goosenecks – Goosenecks State Park (Utah)
A quick stop allows you to see this triple entrenched meander located close to Mexican Hat and not far from Monument Valley. Just be aware that your GPS on your cell phone will sometimes do some funky things in this region of the country. Make sure you’re actually headed to Goosenecks State Park and not an abandoned gas station 50 miles out of the way (not that it ever happened to me).
20. Garden of the Gods – Colorado
Visit the Garden of the Gods National Landmark and you will be blown away by the stark contrast between the Garden’s bright orange and the surrounding terrain. There are tons of photo ops around this place and it is easily accessible by car. Don’t miss it if you’re in the Colorado Springs area; it’s a perfect road trip pit-stop.
21. Mono Lake – California
In 2010, scientists thought they’d discovered a new “alien” DNA here, and can anyone really blame them? Just look at the formations happening here. Now, I’m pretty sure that “discovery” has been debunked, but I’m still holding out hope for aliens.
22. Bisti Badlands – New Mexico
Badlands never get old, especially when they look like giant petrified mushrooms. Here’s some badlands in New Mexico, not known to many.
23. The Window – Big Bend National Park (Texas)
Big Bend is one of the least visited national parks due to its location just west of middle-of-nowhere, Texas. But what it lacks in visitors it makes up in breathtaking views like this one.
The Window is one of those places where you have to just put life on hold, get comfortable on a bench and watch the vast Texas sky transform into a real-life painting at sunset. It’s one of my favorite national parks in Texas.
And after you get your sunset fix, head to nearby Marfa,Texas to see the sky get real freaky when the Marfa lights come out.
24. Green River Overlook – Canyonlands National Park (Utah)
A lot of people have seen images of the Canyonlands, but I still think Canyonlands National Park is overlooked so I included it. You’ll catch some of the most amazing sunrises and sunsets you’ve ever seen at this park. And if you’re a movie buff, try heading to Blue John Canyon where you can see the site where the actual accident occurred in the movie, 127 hours.
25. Blue Mesa/Painted Desert – Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona)
Now it’s back to Dr. Seuss land with more absurdly colored desert land. And what makes this place even weirder is that the brown stuff you’ll assume is dirt is actually little bits of petrified trees that are reallllly old. It’s one of my favorite national parks sites in Arizona (read more about others here).
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26. Valley of Fire – Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada)
Don’t think you’ll ever be able to make your way to Mars? Well, luckily you can catch a glimpse of Mars at this state park in Nevada where Hollywood has also gone looking for the Martian terrain. There are ton of formations to check out here but the Fire Wave (seen below) is one of my favorites.
This place is only about 60 miles out from Las Vegas, so if you don’t want to drive all the way to the Grand Canyon this is the place you want to stop. If you visit this place in the summer, be sure to bring extra water because it gets HOT. Dry heat or not, it’s still the Valley of Fire.
27. Antelope Canyon – Arizona
While Antelope Canyon is becoming more known it still deserves a place on this list, because I meet tons of people who still don’t know about this sacred place. Witnessing the light beams in this canyon should be on everyone’s bucket list. Check out my write-up on Antelope Canyon for more info.
28. Inspiration and Bryce Point – Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)
Well known to photographers, the average vacationer is probably more interested in seeing sites like the Grand Canyon when in the area but this sight is not to be missed, especially at sunrise.
29. Smith Rock – Oregon (Smith Rock State Park)
Smith Rock, located in central Oregon, is a frequent rock-climbing destination for professional climbers and known as the birth place of “sport climbing.” The best of the best are consistently developing the latest routes and climbing techniques out here. Even if you’re not a climber it’s a beautiful setting to watch the sunrise as it illuminates this huge rock, resembling a castle towering over a surrounding moat.
30. Bodega Head – Bodega Bay (California)
When bringing up California beaches, the names usually mentioned first are those like Malibu and Big Sur. But here’s one you probably haven’t heard: Bodega Bay. At Bodega, massive cliffs suited for whale-watching overlook rocky beaches, and trails will lead you all around scenic terrain and even down to secluded beaches where you’ll be the only human being walking on the sand.
Say hello to the seals at Seal Rock and then visit the tide pools that are among the most diverse in the world and have attracted the likes of National Geographic. Just watch out for the birds when visiting the nearby town of Bodega.
31. Paradise Valley – Mt Rainer National Park (Washington)
Paradise valley. The name really says it all…
32. The Racetrack – Death Valley National Park (California)
Just how did these rocks get there? Aliens? The prankster of the century? God? Nobody really knows. The Race Track is a true natural wonder because if you visit it you will inevitably spend all day wondering who really moved these rocks?
33. Horseshoe Bend – Page, Arizona
Horseshoe Bend is another spot growing with popularity but still often times confused with the Grand Canyon National Park. From a nearby parking lot, it’s a short hike to the overlook but be careful about getting too close to the edge — it’s a long 1,000 feet down to the Colorado River below.
34. Badlands – Badlands National Park (South Dakota)
Badlands National Park is the place to see badlands. It’s also a perfect place to find unique wildlife, such as bighorn sheep, the swift fox, bison, and the most endangered mammal in North America: the elusive black-footed ferret. Try to catch the sunset or sunrise here and if you’re lucky you may even catch a sight of the Northern Lights.
35. Fiery Furnace – Arches National Park (Utah)
So everyone goes to Arches National Park just to see the arches, right? Not exactly. Here’s one “non-arch” spot worth checking out. Enter the furnace at your own risk, however. Inside, there are no signs, trails, or cairns and due to the height of the sandstone walls your GPS is likely to fail as well.
36. Spider Rock – Canyon De Chelly National Monument (Arizona)
Recently used as a backdrop in last summer’s record-setting flop, The Lone Ranger, Canyon De Chelly is another destination worth a visit. The taller of the two spires is said to be home of the “Spider Grandmother” who according to folklore is responsible for all of creation. There’s more breathtaking views like the one below to checkout so make sure you see them all. Also, be sure to bring some cash with you to purchase some local art that makes for great souvenirs.
37. Giant Sequoias – Sequoia National Park (California)
So trees are kind of boring to most people including myself, but giant sequoias are definitely an exception. Sometimes growing higher than 300 feet, many of these trees are over 2,000 years old and have up to three-feet thick of squishy bark.
Head to Sequoia National Park to see them as well as the largest tree in the world, The General Sherman Tree.
38. Rio Grande Gorge – New Mexico
The Rio Grande gets a bad wrap sometimes but this view should change your mind. If you’re ever making the cross country road trip through southern New Mexico then check out the “Gorge Bridge” where you’ll be awestruck with views like this.
39. Hospital Reef Potholes – San Diego, California
Hospital Reef Potholes, near San Diego, is known for its potholes that kind of resemble the surface of the moon. Speaking of the moon, all you national park junkies may want to start gearing up because you may have one hell of a hike to get to one of the upcoming National Park sites, soon.
40. Mammoth Springs – Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)
We end the list with another Yellowstone site that many wouldn’t be able to recognize and constantly overlook, leaving it ranked as low as the 23rd attraction for Yellowstone according to TripAdvisor. On your way to the hot springs and in nearby areas, you may run into some real wildlife.
I’m talking about grizzly bears, moose, bison, elk, that kind of stuff so watch out. But everyone seems to be blown away by these hot springs, which make a worthwhile destination in the summer or in the -20 degree winter.
Remember to tread lightly and do your best to preserve these wonderful locations by using common sense and having respect for the land, the locals, and other visitors when you visit.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.