The states that make up the Southwest states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. However, some define the Southwest more narrowly to only include the core of the region: Arizona, western New Mexico, western Texas, southern Colorado, and southern Utah.
Read on to learn more about the history, culture, and geology of this fascinating region. Do you know about the conspiracy theories surrounding Roswell, New Mexico?
What about the spooky history of Tombstone, Arizona–the town too tough to die?
We will tell you all this and more in the post to come.
- 1 What States Make Up the Southwest?
- 2 History of the Southwestern United States
- 3 Places to Visit in the Southwest Region
- 4 Culture of the American Southwest States
- 5 Nature and Geology of the Southwest
- 6 Southwest Lore & Mysteries
- 7 Facts about the Southwestern States
- 8 Frequently Asked Questions
What States Make Up the Southwest?
The states that always fall under the definition of the Southwest region are:
- New Mexico
Some definitions of the Southwest are broader, and these may also include:
The Southwest Region is home to numerous popular national parks and natural wonders like the Grand Canyon. It has a unique culture that draws from indigenous and Spanish influences and attracts visitors to its eerie ghost towns and historic mining districts.
History of the Southwestern United States
Original Inhabitants of the Southwest Region
The earliest indigenous inhabitants of the Southwest region belonged to several different Native American tribes in the area, including the Navajo, Apache, Hopi, and Ute tribes. In fact, the state name Utah gets its name from the Ute tribe.
The ancestral Puebloan people lived in the northern Southwest region before Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s. They are known for their early farming techniques, especially the growth of corn (maize). They generally lived in pueblos, or houses (often large, multi-room or multi-story), made from clay (called ‘adobe bricks’). Some of these can be seen today at Mesa Verde National Park.
European Colonization of the Southwest Region
In the 1500s, when Europeans began to settle colonies in North America, Spain controlled many parts of the continent, including the areas that cover modern-day Mexico and the American Southwest, a territory known as New Spain. In addition to a cultural influence left over from this period, many of the towns and cities in the Southwest have Spanish names, such as Santa Fe and El Paso.
In the early 1800s, Mexico declared independence from Spain. Simultaneously, English speakers began to settle in parts of Mexico. When they became unhappy with the Mexican government, they ceded from Mexico and named their district the Republic of Texas. This chapter of Texas history is one of the things Texas is know for.
The United States later seized control of the Republic of Texas, which started a war between the U.S. and Mexico as both countries vied for control of the Southwest. This conflict lasted from 1846-1848. The end of the war allowed the United States to negotiate control of the land now called New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.
American Expansion West
Over the 19th century, America continued to expand west, including to California during its infamous Gold Rush. Although the Southwest states were often first explored by fur trappers and traders, miners soon became a dominant part of the population. Mining operations expanded to include coal, copper, iron, oil, and gas.
While the mining activity in these areas led to great wealth for some individuals and a boom in knowledge of geography and geology, it also led to the forced displacement of many Native Americans to reservations.
The Civil War
During the American Civil War, most of the Southwest states were territories instead of true states. Texas was the only true slave state in the Southwest region, and California was a free state. A major point of contention for the United States was whether new states joining the union would become free or slave states.
The expansion west was often driven by confederate forces who envisioned a transcontinental proslavery empire through the Southwest United States. In particular, the confederates occupied Texas and wanted to seize New Mexico and Oklahoma.
The Industrial Revolution
By the 1880s, a time of industrialization nationwide, travel to the west became dominated by railroads instead of stagecoaches. A well-known railroad called the Union Pacific was finished in 1869. Developments during the industrial revolution like the Bessemer process for manufacturing steel changed the appearance of industry in the Southwest.
❓ Trivia Time: What States are Considered Part of the South? (It’s harder than you think!)
Places to Visit in the Southwest Region
Popular Southwestern Cities
- Tucson, Arizona: Food, hiking, Sonoran Desert Museum
- Flagstaff, Arizona: Route 66, gateway to the Grand Canyon, outdoors enthusiasts
- Albuquerque, New Mexico: Museums, Pueblo revival architecture, parks
- El Paso, Texas: Spanish architecture, year-round recreation, festivals
- San Antonio, Texas: The Alamo, Spanish colonial missions, historical sites
- Denver, Colorado: Cycling, nightlife, access to skiing
- Boulder, Colorado: Breweries, tech start-ups, STEM jobs
- Moab, Utah: Desert landscape, Colorado River, scenic drives
- Las Vegas, Nevada: Casinos, resorts, nightlife
- San Diego, California: Old town, beaches, zoo
- Tulsa, Oklahoma: Artsy culture, art deco, Native American heritage
National Parks in the Southwest States
- Yosemite, California: Famous for El Capitan (granite monolith), half-dome (a sheer mountain), and waterfalls
- Mesa Verde, Colorado: Ancestral Pueblo ruins, cliff-dwellings, petroglyphs (rock paintings)
- Rocky Mountain, Colorado: High-elevation hiking, evergreen forests, alpine tundra, wildflowers
- Grand Canyon, Arizona: Colorado River gorge, whitewater rafting, stargazing
- Zion, Utah: Buttes, mesas, natural arches, California condors
- Bryce Canyon, Utah: Sandstone towers (hoodoos), white firs and aspens, Utah Prairie Dog Day
- Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico: Limestone caves, Brazilian free-tailed bats, stalactites
- Big Bend, Texas: Desert, roadrunners, fossils
- Petrified Forest, Arizona: Fossilized trees, ‘painted’ forest, rock wren
- Arches, Utah: Sagebrush, jackrabbits, natural sandstone arch formations
- Great Basin, Nevada: Townsend’s big-eared bats, stargazing, caves
❓ Trivia time: Yosemite (one of many national parks in the state of California) is one of the few places you may be able to spot a lunar rainbow, or a rainbow created during a full moon due to light refracting off the mist of waterfalls.
Other Places to Visit in the Southwest
- Tombstone, Arizona: O.K. Corral, gunfight shows, Boothill graveyard
- Bisbee, Arizona: Mine tours, Victorian and art deco architecture, art galleries
- Sedona, Arizona: Red rocks, spiritual retreat centers, shopping
- Fredericksburg, Texas: German culture and dialect, pioneer museums, agritourism
- Durango, Colorado: Scenic railroad, access to Mesa Verde and Chimney Rock
- Estes Park, Colorado: Skiing, hiking, the Stanley Hotel
- Tahlequah, Oklahoma: Cherokee Nation
Culture of the American Southwest States
The cowboy tradition began in Spain and spread to the Southwest states as Mexican ‘vaqueros’ worked cattle in the region. As other European-Americans pushed west to expand the United States, they learned cowboy skills from the Mexicans. When Texas cowboys began to drive their herds north, this culture spread further across the United States and took on its own, unique character.
The modern Southwest region is highly reflective of its early inhabitants, and many descendants of these early inhabitants remain in the area today.
The Navajo Nation is located in the Four Corners region of the Southwest. The Navajo are the largest federally-recognized tribe in the United States. The Navajo Nation is still thriving today, and the traditions, culture, and customs of the Navajo tribe pervade both the reservation and the region as a whole. Distinct art–often silverwork or weaving–is often produced. Traditional dwellings called Hogans are still constructed and sometimes even lived in today.
Much of the architecture in the Southwest region draws from Spanish influence. Adobe-style homes are still being built in the region. This style is characterized by terracotta-colored roofs and white stucco walls. Inside homes, clay tiles and decorative tiles can be commonly found.
Nature and Geology of the Southwest
The Grand Canyon and the Colorado River
The Grand Canyon is a giant river valley in Arizona. The canyon was formed after the Colorado River slowly carved downward through a plateau. The canyon is over a mile deep and 18 miles wide. Today, it is a national park. Visitors from all over the world visit the park to hike around the rim or down into the canyon, or raft on the Colorado River.
❓ Trivia time: Do you know what states the Colorado River runs through?
The Rio Grande River
The Rio Grande is a significant river in the Southwest region. It flows through New Mexico. When it reaches Texas, it becomes the border between the U.S. and Mexico, adding to its cultural significance in the United States. The river is very scenic and also fertilizes land for agriculture. Because the region is so arid, and the water is used so frequently, it frequently runs dry south of El Paso, Texas.
The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico is famous for its Bosque Forest bordering the Rio Grande River. The bosque ecosystem only occurs on the banks of rivers and is dominated by the visually distinct cottonwood tree. The word “bosque” means “woods” in Spanish. Over 500 animal species live in the Bosque.
A hoodoo is also called a ‘tent rock’ or a ‘fairy chimney.’ It is a column of rock formed by erosion. Hoodoos can be found dotting the Southwest region in locations such as Bryce Canyon in Utah. There is a famous hoodoo in Bryce Canyon called “Thor’s Hammer,” named for its shape and appearance.
Animals of the Southwest
There are several noteworthy and unique species that live in the Southwestern region, including:
- Prairie Dog
- Desert Bighorn Sheep
- Gila Monster
Southwest Lore & Mysteries
Ghost towns, or abandoned towns, are common in the Southwest. They were commonly settled when ore was first discovered, then abandoned when the resource ran dry.
Tombstone, Arizona is one of the most famous ghost towns in the Southwest. It is famous for a notorious gunfight between outlaws and lawmen at the O.K. Corral in 1881. It is located about 30 miles from the Mexican border and was founded in 1879 when silver was discovered in the town. When important infrastructure burned down in 1886 and wasn’t repaired, the town became a ghost town.
The Navajo of the Southwest region played a critical– yet little-known–role in World War II. The language of the Navajo is not spoken by many people. The grammar is complex, and at the beginning of the war, it is estimated that only 30 non-Navajo people could understand the language. This made Navajo a perfect language for transmitting secret messages over radio waves. The Marine Corps utilized Navajo people to send their secret messages. The Navajo Code Talkers were not recognized for their service until 1968 when their mission was declassified.
Roswell, New Mexico
Roswell is the fifth largest city in New Mexico and is home to the Roswell Army Air Field. In 1947, debris from a destroyed weather balloon was recovered from the airfield. Decades later, in the 1970s, a retired lieutenant colonel started the rumor that the debris was actually from a UFO, and the truth had been covered up by the United States government.
Although the claims of UFO activity near Roswell have been debunked, the myths continue to persist. It is a common location for “UFOlogists” to investigate, and the town of Roswell holds an annual UFO festival and features a little green man on its town seal.
Facts about the Southwestern States
- Abbreviations of states in the Southwest US region: AZ (Arizona), CA (California), CO (Colorado), NV (Nevada), NM (New Mexico), OK (Oklahoma), TX (Texas), UT (Utah)
- Capitals in the region: Phoenix (Arizona), Sacramento (California), Denver (Colorado), Carson City (Nevada), Santa Fe (New Mexico), Oklahoma City (Oklahoma), Austin (Texas), Salt Lake City (Utah)
- Population of the Southwestern States: Arizona (7.2 M), California (39.5 M), Colorado (5.8 M), Nevada (3.1 M), New Mexico (2.1 M), Oklahoma (4.0 M), Texas (29.1 M), Utah (3.3 M), Total (94.1 M)
- Things the Southwest States are Famous For: Grand Canyon National Park, Arches National Park, arid desert climate, Petrified Forest National Park, Las Vegas, Mojave Desert, famous natural landmarks, Monument Valley, native cultures
- Climate: Arid climate, generally hot days with very cold nights
- Natural environment: Desert lands, rural areas, rolling land, great sand dunes, arid terrain, Colorado Plateau, national forests, significant mountains, natural wonders
Frequently Asked Questions
How Many States Are In The Southwest?
There are eight states in the Southwest region: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. By some narrower definitions, the region only encompasses Arizona, western New Mexico, western Texas, southern Colorado, and southern Utah.
Is Texas Considered Southwest Or South?
Texas is sometimes considered the south and sometimes considered the Southwest. Due to its large size, some even feel that eastern Texas should be grouped with the southern states, while western Texas is southwestern. The strong Spanish and Mexican influence in towns like El Paso and San Antonio are consistent with the culture and aesthetic of southwestern states like Arizona and New Mexico.
Is California Considered Southwest?
Some sources consider California to be part of the Southwest. While the culture in cities like Los Angeles differs significantly from the dominant feel of the Southwest, there are also expansive stretches of desert in California. The southern part of the state shares a border with Mexico, and it is geographically located in the southwestern part of the United States. However, other sources consider California to fall in a “west coast” or “Pacific” region.
In conclusion, “what are the Southwest states?”
The heart of this unique region is Arizona, western New Mexico, western Texas, southern Colorado, and southern Utah. By some definitions, the entirety of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah are included.
Regardless of the exact definition, one thing is clear: The American Southwest is a vibrant region with a mix of cultural and historic influences, and it’s unlike anywhere else in the United States!