40 Places to See in The Western United States (Vacations, Landmarks)

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.

If you’re looking for detailed information on must-see places in the western half of the United States then you need to get your hands on the eBook Hidden Gems of the Western United States.

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.

Moaning Cave California
Hidden Gem by Ellie Stone

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.

Paint Mines
Paint Mines by Jabon Eagar
Paint Mines
Paint Mines by Curtis (CCBImages)

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.

horestail fall
Photo by Don Vilfer

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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.

Grand Canyon Of Yellowstone
Grand Canyon Of the Yellowstone by Mike Jones
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone HDR
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Brandon Kopp

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.

Kanarra Creek Utah
Under Your Spell by Eddie Lluisma
Kanarra Creek Utah
Daydream by Eddie Lluisma

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.

Hidden Lake
Hidden Lake by Tony Hochstetler

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.

Rialto Beach
Best Kelped Secret by Ryan Manuel

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.

Painted Hills
Photo by Stuart Gordon
Painted Hills
Photo by Stuart Gordon
Painted Hills Sunset Colors
Painted Hills Sunset Colors by Ryan Manuel

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.

The Subway Zion
Lured By The Light by Eddie Lluisma
Dino Prints
Dino Prints by Daniel Gillaspia

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.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
The Painted Wall by Daniel Cummins
Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP by Patrick Huber

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.

Zabriskie Point
Collect Moments Not Things by Eddie Lluisma
Zabriskie Point
This Light Between Us by Eddie Lluisma

12. White Pocket – Arizona

White Pocket’s not really white but actually full of brilliant, vibrant color… and dragons, too.

White Pocket - Arizona The Dragon
The Dragon by Naphat Chantaravisoot

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.

Palouse Falls
Palouse Falls by Naphat Chantaravisoot

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.

Wild Horses at TRNP
Wild Horses at TRNP by John Hamilton

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.

Hidden Lake
Hidden Lake by Ryan Mallady

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.

Cathedral Lake Yosemite
Cathedral Lake by Sean Goebel

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.

Tent Rocks National Monument
Tent Rocks National Monument by Daniel Cummins

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….

A stormy day @ Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park
A stormy day @ Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park by LeighAnne Langman (Flickr: swazileigh)

Okay, so maybe it can….

McWay Cove Under the Milky Way
McWay Cove Under the Milky Way by Bill Shupp

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).

Goosenecks State Park
Goosenecks by Daniel Gillaspia

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.

Inversion at Garden of the Gods
Inversion at Garden of the Gods by Dave Soldano

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.

Mono Lake Sunset [Explored 03/24/13]
Mono Lake Sunset by Eddie Lluisma
Mono Lake
Mono Lake by Eddie Lluisma

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.

Bisti Badlands
Bisti Badlands by Naphat Chantaravisoot
Bisti Badlands
Bisti Badlands by Daniel Cummins

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.

The Window
The Window by Daniel Gillaspia
The Window
The Window Sunset by Daniel Gillaspia

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.

Same but different
Same but different by Daniel Cummins

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).

Petrified Forest National Park----Petrified Forest
Petrified Forest National Park by Wenhao
Painted Desert
Photo by katsrcool
Painted Desert View in Petrified Forest NP JN036947
Petrified Forest NP by Janice and Nolan Braud
Blue Mesa
Blue Mesa by Daniel Cummins

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.

Fire Wave
Fire Wave by Eddie Lluisma
Atalatl Rock
Atalatl Rock by George Grossman
Pastel Slot
Pastel Slot by George Grossman

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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.

Upper Antelope Canyon
Sands of Antelope by Daniel Gillaspia
Antelope Canyon light beam
Double Beam by Eddie Lluisma

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.

Bryce Point
Bryce Point by Eddie Lluisma
Stuart L Gordon Photography: Bryce Canyon National Park &emdash; BryceCanyon_0005_06_07_08
Photo by Stuart Gordon

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.

Smith Rock
Photo by Stuart Gordon

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.

Bodega Bay
Photo by Daniel Gillaspia
Bodega Bay
Bodega Cliffs by Daniel Gillaspia

31. Paradise Valley – Mt Rainer National Park (Washington)

Paradise valley. The name really says it all…

Edith Gone Wild!
Photo by Ryan Manuel

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?

The Racetrack Death Valley
The Playa by Eddie Lluisma
The Racetrack death valley
Breaking Dawn Pt. II by Eddie Lluisma

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.

Horseshoe Bend [Explored 01/17/13]
Horseshoe Bend by Eddie Lluisma

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.

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park by Geof Wilson
Badlands National Park Sunrise HDR
Badlands National Park Sunrise HDR by Brandon Kopp

35. Fiery Furnace – Arches National Park (Utah)

So everyone goes to Arches National Park just to see the arches, right? No. 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.

Fiery Furnace
Fiery Furnace by Daniel Gillaspia

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.

Canyon De Chelly
Canyon De Chelly by Daniel Gillaspia

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. See my write-up for more on this park.

The Biggest Tree in the World
The Biggest Tree in the World by Daniel Gillaspia
Giants
Photo by Bradley Darnell

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.

Rio Grande Gorge
Rio Grande Gorge by Tony Hochstetler

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.

Potholes!
Potholes! by Eddie Lluisma

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.

Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs by George Grossman
Mammoth Colors
Mammoth Colors by Walt

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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.

21 comments

  1. Fantastic article! I’m humbled to have one of my images included. I’ve been to a few of these places, but now I definitely have a few more destinations in my “bucket”.

  2. Great stuff. Thanks for assembling. On you next update, consider adding Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain Nat Park to the list. Pretty much everyone around here is familiar with some of the more accessible lakes, but this one is special. There are several photos of it on the web. I have one I am fairly partial to, which I would gladly share.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I looked into that location and it certainly looks special. I’ll consider that in future projects.

  3. Hi Daniel,

    Your Hidden Gems book looks amazing and I downloaded it from Amazon but I’m going to buy a hard copy as well……since you used my Inspiration Point photo from the Channel Islands, I am proud to have my photo in your book. Your own photography is awesome too. Actually, I love all the photos you put together from all the great photographers out there exploring the Western USA. I like the writing style as well, and I think people will find it a quick and easy reference to choose what to explore. I wish you the best of luck with the book, outstanding work!

    I’m off to the Grand Canyon next week, so I’ll be referencing the book on my iPhone and telling others about it.

    Tom DeRentiis

    1. Thanks a lot, Tom!That was a great photo of Channel Islands NP and I was proud to feature the photo in the book. I’m glad that you’ve found it helpful and hope that you get a lot out of it. Have a great time in the Grand Canyon!

  4. I came across this link while trying to plan my travels through the west for a month, and i am trying my best to include as many of the gems shown below as possible. Thanks for the article.

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