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The Best Microadventures In Each Of The Southwestern States

For the next month, Uproxx GPS is zeroing in on “microadventures” — day trips, quick jaunts, and small-scale explorations that will notch neatly into your busy life. As part of this initiative, we’re counting off the best day trips in five different regions of the country. Today we’re in the Southwest, where red rocks and deep canyons abound!

Last week we launched this series with a post about the best microadventures in each of the western states. Today, we continue our trek across the United States with stops in each state in the Southwestern region. If you missed last week’s entry and the interview with the man who coined the term microadventure,” let us catch you up: A microadventure is a small trip that allows you to be in nature. Maybe that means a campout in your yard, but it could also be a five-hour drive to get to the perfect campground. Think simple and cheap, but also exciting and enriching. The important thing is that you are outside, experiencing the world fully.

Since we are still in the West, the states can be giant (hello, Texas!), making picking a single locale a true challenge. And though we’re certain some of you would argue that we picked wrong, not a single one of you can say these trips don’t look like a damn good time.

Texas: Big Thicket National Preserve

Known previously by names like the Bear Hunter’s Happy Hunting Ground and the Biological Crossroads of North America, Big Thicket National Preserve is a thickly forested area in Southeast Texas. It’s over 100,000 acres and features 40 miles of dope hiking trails.

This is one of the most biodiverse areas outside of the tropics. The preserve was actually established in 1974 to protect the area’s plant and animal species. It later became one of the first national preserves in the United States National Park System. It’s also designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Serious pedigree, serious adventure.

Now, there isn’t a single developed campground or designated campsite in the preserve, which we think is exciting. This is your chance to do some serious Alastair Humphrey OG microadventuring. Grab a permit, hit the backcountry and throw down a tent (or simply a bedroll if you roll hard). You have to stay 200 feet from the roads and trails, other than that, game on!

Yes, the hiking in Big Thicket is first-rate, but the ultimate microadventure should include paddling. the preserve is lousy with water. You have bayous, creeks, and a river, which means it’s kayaking and canoeing time! If you’re nervous about exploring independently, there are two official Texas Paddling Trails: Village Creek Paddling Trail and Cooks Lake to Scatterman Paddling Trail. They are each clearly marked and easy to follow. Think of moving smoothly through the water while surrounded by bald cypress, river birches, and other shade trees along the bank. Take a break and stop for a snack on one of the beautiful white-sand beaches. Check with local outfitters if you need a kayak or canoe.

Oklahoma: Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area

We’re gonna keep the backcountry vibe going with our pick for Oklahoma. Southwest Oklahoma is home to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, which was designated the nation’s first “Game Preserve” to save dwindling American bison populations. Now, it helps species facing extinction and restores species that formerly lived in the area. Animals reintroduced include wild turkey, elk, bison, prairie dog, river otter, and burrowing owls. The refuge is nearly 60,000 acres and has 50 mammal species, as well as 64 reptile and amphibian, 240 bird, 806 plant, and 36 fish. You will encounter wildlife here.

The reserve as a whole is rad af, but our pick for microadventuring is Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area, a 5,000-acre area reserved for day hiking and limited backcountry camping. If you want to truly rough it, a permit will allow you to camp from Friday to Sunday or Monday through Wednesday. The interesting thing is that they only release ten permits for any three-day span, so you likely will not see another person once you set up camp. If the refuge sounds good, but you aren’t down with this primitive shit, there are other campgrounds, so don’t cross this one off your list.

Charon’s Garden is mountainous, covered in granite formations that can be traced back over 500 million years to lava flows that covered most of the area. But, there are also pockets of post oak tree thickets and low-lying areas with grassy, marshy areas with small, seasonal streams. If you visit in spring, you can expect a riot of colorful wildflowers as well as wildlife. Specifically, visitors in this part of the refuge see white-tailed deer, prairie dogs, elk, bison, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and white eagles. Be prepared.

When you go hiking, be ready for trails to climb up and down over the mountains. It is strenuous, but doable if you take your time. Signage on trails can be less than satisfactory, meaning you should keep track of where you are going and how to get back.

Colorado: Angel of Shavano

If you live in or near Colorado and have never spent some time on The Colorado Trail, now is the time to get your ass on the famed 486-mile single track that crosses the state. For this microadventure, we chose a location smack dab on the trail. Nestled between two precipitous ridges in upper Arkansas Valley near the town of Salida, Angel of Shavano campground is the ideal home base from which to explore the Salida Ranger District, part of the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. It’s 440,000 acres of public land with hiking, mountain biking, 4-wheeling, and horseback riding. Plus, the Arkansas River cuts through this valley, making it stellar for whitewater rafting.

Between May and late September, Angel of Shavano Campground is open to visitors. There are only 20 sites available, which may be why this is considered one of the best-kept secrets in the area. The campground is named for the image of an angel that manifests on Shavano Mountain when snow falls. The site is set at 9,200 feet and is thick with pine and aspen trees. There are also beaver ponds that punctuate the landscape at the base of the mountain. You can choose a site along the river or opt for one in a nearby open, grassy meadow. It’s $18 to camp overnight.

You can totally kick it at your camp for your entire adventure if you want. No one is gonna hate on you for chilling with a beer by the fire. But, the area does have a lot of recreational activities. If you fish, hit the river for rainbow and brook trout. You can also fish the beaver ponds. Or, take a chest-constricting hike up Mount Shavano or Mount Tabegauche. This area is known as the “Banana Belt of Colorado,” so you can expect generally mild temps and sunny days.

Utah: Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky)

Located near Moab, Canyonlands National Park has been shaped by the Colorado River and the Green River (as well as their tributaries). The water worked with gravity to sculpt layers of rock into mesas, canyons, fins, buttes, spires, and arches. The rivers also serve as dividers within the park. Canyonlands is split into quadrants: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon Unit. Traveling between them can take hours because there aren’t a lot of places to traverse the rivers, so you need to pick one for your microadventure. We recommend Island in the Sky as it is the most accessible, has a ton of awesome views from overlooks along the scenic drive and includes a variety of hikes. And, that’s where the best campsite is.

Most of the people that hit up Island in the Sky do some day hiking or four-wheeling and hit the road for Moab and beyond when the sun goes down. But, you, our intrepid adventurer, will be sleeping under the stars at Willow Flat — the only drive-in campsite in the area. Don’t worry that this is some overcrowded nightmare, there are only 12 spaces and they are first come, first served. You do need to bring your own water, and it’s $15 a night.

Island in the Sky is well named, as it is a mesa that sits atop sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the landscape that surrounds it. On your way in, take time to pull in to the scenic overlooks and appreciate the sheer beauty around you. Once you’re settled into your camp, get out on the park’s trails. There are some short hikes that stick to the top of the mesa and have little if any elevation increase. Or, you can get a bit more strenuous and climb a sandstone feature or head part way down a canyon. Some of the trails descend via switchbacks to the White Rim beach or farther to one of the rivers.

The joy here is the variation: you can spend a half an hour, or you can really get your hike on and do a strenuous 8-hour trek.

New Mexico: Blue Hole of Santa Rosa

New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment for a reason; it’s fucking gorgeous. And every one of their natural wonders was on our list at one point. But, we finally decided on the Blue Hole of Santa Rosa, kinda because that is just the finest name ever but mostly because the idea that some of the best scuba diving in the nation is happening in arid New Mexico makes us so happy.

The Blue Hole is an 80-foot wide artesian spring, fed from an underwater aquifer that lived a former life as a fish hatchery (back in 1932) but is now open to swimmers and divers. In the seventies, the lake became the Blue Hole Recreation Area and recently expanded into the Blue Hole Dive and Conference Center. The stunning water is, in fact, bright blue and has a constant temperature of 64 degrees, making it refreshing on hot days.

After some time swimming or sitting in the sun watching divers, you will want to move on (and maybe set up camp) but you can’t do it at the Blue Hole. You are going to have to drive a few miles to Santa Rosa Lake State Park, where you can choose more traditional campsites with water and showers or the more primitive backcountry ones.

If you scuba, then this is your chance to strap on the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (yes, scuba is an acronym) and do your thing. There’s a dive shop, where you can get gear, as well as changing rooms and showers. But, if you aren’t trained and you aren’t taking classes, you have the option of splashing about like a deranged seal. You can dive into the water from a nearby rock platform or perfect your backflip from atop a cement ledge. Regardless of the activity, you will be blown away by the clear, clean water. Visibility is really good here, making it a perfect place for free diving.

Arizona: Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area (The Wave)

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Nature’s wonders 😱 (📷: @travisburkephotography)

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You were thinking Grand Canyon, right? Or Sedona? Or Havasu Falls? There are a lot of great places to get adventurous in Arizona, but we opted for a locale that considerably fewer people know about. This way, you get both microadventure and hipster cred. Located on the Utah border, the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area is known for being some of the most beautiful landscape ever. We want to qualify the statement is some way, but literally, there are parts of the wilderness area whose beauty overwhelms viewers. If you are looking to make your Instagram followers jealous, bring a camera and grab shots of the Paria Canyon walls, which are splashed with desert lacquer. Or, go with hanging gardens, sandstone arches, red rock amphitheaters, and wooded terraces.

This is another one of those locations that is going to require some true roughing it. You can get a $5 overnight permit for the Paris Canyon area and set up camp in designated overnight areas. These permits are limited to 20 people per night, so you need to plan ahead for this trip. Sadly, no campfires are allowed so visit in temperate months or bring a metric ass ton of cold weather gear. While camping, you have to use provided human waste bags, so make sure you can get down like that before heading out for adventure.

Yes, the entire wilderness area is stunning, but one attraction dwarfs the others. The Wave can be found in Coyote Buttes North, and it is profoundly beautiful, like life-changingly so. Vast sandstone structures undulate through the canyon, making them look like nature’s taffy or a Dali painting. Sandstone dunes calcified both horizontally and vertically and hardened into the rocks that sit there now. Now, we said this was a bit of a hidden gem, but that doesn’t mean no one knows about it. It’s a renowned hiking destination among those in the know, so the Wilderness Area uses a lottery for permits. You can apply four months out for up to three possible dates, pay $5, and wait to receive an email on the first of the month indicating whether your number was drawn.

Nevada: Great Basin National Park (Lehman Caves)

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Lehman caves! 😱 This place was crazy looking.

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Nevada is full of genuine natural wonders, most of which are aboveground. But, for this microadventure, you will be heading miles underground to appreciate startling chambers that make you feel like you are in a cathedral. First seen by Europeans in the late 1880s, Lehman Caves show evidence of having previously been used as a burial location by Native Americans in the area. For a period, the caves were quite the popular locale for parties and weddings, and graffiti from the fetes remains. A space known as the Inscription Room is full of signatures and messages scrawled in charcoal and carved into the stone walls. Now, the caves are protected as part of the National Park and open for guided tours.

When it comes to where you lie your sleeping bag, you have choices. If you are a seasoned adventurer, go for the primitive digs. You have to put your tent within 30 feet of the area’s picnic tables and fire ring, but otherwise, set up where you please. If you want something a bit more regulated, you have your pick of seven sites with a first-come policy and a $12 fee per night. We recommend the Grey Cliffs Campground because there are only 16 sites (two of which are wheelchair accessible) and it is only 1.5 miles from the visitor center; you can walk there when you need to.

Within Great Basin National Park, there are more than 40 known caves. They fall into four distinct groups” Lehman Hill Caves, Baker Creek Caves, Snake Creek Caves, and Alpine Caves. You get to tour the Lehman Caves. You can choose from among three tours: the Grand Palace, the Lodge Room, and the Gothic Palace (which is wheelchair accessible). Provided your mobility is not an issue, we suggest paying $10 and enjoying the hour and a half long Grand Palace tour. You get to see more than on any other tour, and that’s what you are there for, right? When you aren’t spelunking like a GD champ, hike around and be sure to appreciate the sky at night. Great Basin is a designated International Dark Sky Park, so you can see stars and planets you couldn’t think to view elsewhere.

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