Regional definitions vary from source to source. New Mexico and Arizona (in dark red) are almost always considered the core, modern-day Southwest. The striped states may or may not be considered part of the same region. With the exception of Texas and Oklahoma (offset in blue)—which count as part of the South—the southwestern states are also classified as West by the US Census Bureau.
The Southwestern United States (also known as the American Southwest or simply the Southwest) is a region of the United States defined in different ways by different sources. Broad definitions include nearly a quarter of the United States, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. Narrowly defined, the "core" Southwest is centered around the Four Corner states, with parts of the other states making up the beginnings and endings of the Southwest. The five main southwestern states, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada, are also all considered part of the Mountain West as well as the Southwest. The total population of these states is roughly 19 million people. The top 5 biggest cities in the Southwest (in order) are: Phoenix, El Paso, Denver, Las Vegas, and Albuquerque.
"Central Arizona" is a vast metropolitan area spread across one contiguous sprawling oasis, essentially equivalent to the Phoenix metropolitan area. The city of Phoenix is the largest urban center, and located in the approximate center of the area that includes Tempe, Mesa, and many others.
Meinig calls the third subregion "El Paso, Tucson, and the Southern Borderlands". While El Paso and Tucson are distinctly different cities they share a similar and somewhat overlapping hinterland between them. Tucson occupies a large oasis at the western end of the El Paso-Tucson corridor. The region between the two cities is a major transportation trunk with settlements servicing both highway and railway needs. There are also large mining operations, ranches, and agricultural oases. Both El Paso and Tucson have large military installations nearby; Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range north of El Paso in New Mexico, and, near Tucson, the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Albuquerque has Sandia National Laboratories and Kirtland Air Force Base. About 70 miles (110 km) to the southeast are the research facilities at Fort Huachuca. These military installations form a kind of hinterland around the El Paso-Tucson region, and are served by scientific and residential communities such as Sierra Vista, Las Cruces, and Alamogordo. El Paso's influence extends north into the Mesilla Valley, and southeast along the Rio Grande into the Trans-Pecos region of Texas.
The fourth subregion Meinig calls the "Northern Corridor and Navaholands". A major highway and railway trunk connects Albuquerque and Flagstaff. Just north of the transportation trunk are large blocks of American Indian land.
Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas dominate the westernmost metropolitan areas in the southwestern region, while Albuquerque, Denver, Colorado Springs, and El Paso dominate the easternmost metropolitan areas of the Southwest, not including Northern, Central, and Eastern Texas or Oklahoma because they are not always considered part of the Southwest. Reno and Salt Lake City also dominate the northernmost metropolitan areas of the Southwest. Thus the basic spatial structure of the Southwest can be seen as focused on the largest metropolitan areas in each state such as Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and El Paso. Also, the Four Corners of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico is often considered the center, or heart, of the American Southwest.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the southwestern United States was inhabited by a very large population of American Indian tribes. Some of the larger and more popular tribes of American Indians in the Southwest were the Ute, Navajo, Apache, Comanche, Paiute, Hopi, and Anasazi. The Ute formally ruled over most of modern day Utah and Colorado, as well as small parts of northern New Mexico. The Navajo had ruled over much of Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah at one point as well. Apache tribes had once ruled over many lands in the Southwest such as most of New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and parts of southwestern Texas. The Jicarilla tribe of Apache also ruled well into southern and southeastern Colorado as well. The Comanche ruled many lands in the Southwest as well. Their historic range consisted of present day eastern New Mexico, southern and southeastern Colorado, northeastern Arizona, and most all of west and northwest Texas. The Paiute people were another very large American Indian civilization. They controlled most all of present day Nevada, western Utah, and northern Arizona. Some of the oldest evidence of American Indians in the Southwest are the Hopi and the Anasazi people. The Hopi controlled most all of what is modern day Arizona at one point. On the other hand, the Anasazi (Ancient Pueblo peoples) controlled much of the Southwest as well. Their ancient territory consisted of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, southeastern Utah, and all of southern Colorado. Some of the more known evidence of the ancient pueblo peoples can be found at Chaco National Park in New Mexico, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
Origins of the term and historical/cultural variations
The term "Southwest" originally referred to a "major subregion" of the American South, literally being the western frontier of the larger region. This "Old Southwest" of the 19th century included, at varying points in time, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana. After its revolution and statehood, Texas became considered part of this designation. However, as territories and eventual states to the west were added after the Mexican–American War, the geographical "Southwest" expanded, and the relationship of these new acquisitions to the South itself became "increasingly unclear."
Texas has long been the focal point of this dichotomy, and is often considered, as such, the core area of "the South's Southwest." While the Trans-Pecos area is generally acknowledged as part of the desert Southwest, most of Texas and large parts of Oklahoma are often placed into a sub-region of the South, which some consider southwestern in the general framework of the original application, meaning the "Western South". This is an area containing the basic elements of Southern history, culture, politics, religion, and linguistic and settlement patterns, yet blended with traits of the frontier West. While this particular Southwest is notably different in many ways from the classic "Old South" or Southeast, these features are strong enough to give it a separate southwestern identity quite different in nature from that of the interior southwestern states to the west.
One of these distinguishing characteristics in Texas—in addition to being a Confederate state during the Civil War—is that Indigenous and Spanish American culture never played a central role in the development of this area in relative comparison to the others, as the vast majority of settlers were Anglo and blacks from the South. Although the present day state of Oklahoma was Indian Territory until the early 20th century, many of these American Indians were from the southeastern United States and became culturally assimilated early on. The majority of members of these tribes also allied themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Combined with that, once the territory was open for settlement, southeastern pioneers made up a disproportionate number of these newcomers. All this contributed to the new state having a character that differed from other parts of the Southwest with large American Indian populations.
The fact that a majority of residents of Texas and Oklahoma—unlike those in other "southwestern" states—self-identify as living in the South and consider themselves southerners rather than the West and westerners—also lends to treating these two states as a somewhat distinct and separate entity in terms of regional classification.
Vegetation of the Southwest generally includes various types of yucca, along with saguaro cactus, barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus, desert spoon, creosote bush, sagebrush, and greasewood. Although, cacti is thought to only grow in Arizona and New Mexico, many native cacti grow throughout Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and West Texas. Also, small cacti grow in Utah and Colorado. These examples (except the saguaro), can be seen growing natively and in large numbers more east throughout the Texas Hill Country and South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. However, none of the vegetation discussed grows natively the further east than the eastern outskirts of Fort Worth. Dallas and Houston, for example, share a similar terrain with states further east and are often considered more of the American South. In the far eastern parts of the Southwest, prairies and grasslands are found all over. These prairies and grasslands are usually located in Eastern Colorado, Eastern New Mexico, and large areas in West Texas. Steppe is also located all over the high plains areas in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. The mountains of the southwestern states have large alpine trees.
Landscape features of the core southwestern areas usually include mountains, mesas, high broad basins, plateaus, desert lands, and some plains. The High Plains region of the Great Plains is also located in the American Southwest. Eastern Colorado, Eastern New Mexico, and West Texas all have high plains, and rolling land. The entire southwestern region features semi-arid to arid terrain. The far eastern part of southwestern Texas, for example the Texas Hill Country, consists of dry, tall, and rugged rocky hills of limestone and granite. South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley is mostly flat with many places consisting of scrub and bare topsoil, much like the deserts further west. Buttes are also located all over the southwestern states. Utah tends to have the most natural buttes, but they do form as far east as some parts of Central Texas.
The southwestern United States features a semi-arid to arid climate, depending on the location. Much of the Southwest is an arid desert climate, but higher elevations in the mountains in each state, with the exception of West Texas, feature alpine climates with very large amounts of snow. The metropolitan areas of Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, and El Paso hardly ever receive any snow at all, as they are strictly desert lands with mountains. However, the metro areas of Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Colorado Springs can receive significant snowfalls. Albuquerque falls in between, receiving less snow than other cities, but still receive significant snowfalls in the winter time. Although it snows in this region, the snow in this part of the United States melts rapidly, often before nightfall. This is due mainly to the higher altitude and abundant sunshine in these states.
Nevada and Arizona are both generally arid with desert lands and mountains, and receive large amounts of snow in the higher elevations in and near the mountains. New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado are generally arid, with desert lands and mountains as well. Colorado and New Mexico do have high plains in the far eastern portions of their state. They all receive decent amounts of snow and large amounts of snow in the high elevations in the mountains, although some areas in far southwestern and southern New Mexico do not receive much snow at all. West Texas is generally arid as well but does not receive the same amount of snow that the other southwestern states receive at their high elevations. The terrain of western Texas in the Southwest is the flat, rolling land of the plains, which eventually turns into a desert with some hills, and there are significant mountains as well once you reach the Trans-Pecos area.
The term "High Desert" is also synonymous with this region. The High Desert is generally defined as the Mojave Desert, which extends from inland southern California into southern Nevada and southwestern Utah. The Great Basin Desert is defined as the desert lands in Nevada, Western Utah, as well as Southeastern Oregon and Southern Idaho. The High Desert also extends into other parts of the Northwest, such as the Red Desert in southwestern Wyoming. The High Desert is very different from the general desert lands found in Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert. This area of the desert land generally sits at a very high elevation, much higher than the normal desert land, and can receive very cold temperatures at night in the winter (with the exception of California, southern Nevada and southwestern Utah), sometimes near zero degrees on very cold nights. The High Desert also receives a decent amount of snowfall in the winter (with the exception of California, southern Nevada and southwestern Utah) but melts very quickly.
Monument Canyon, some of the high desert lands found in Colorado
During El Niño, winters and springs are generally colder and wetter across southern portions of the region, while the northern portion stays warmer and drier due to a southern jet stream. Under La Niña, the opposite happens, meaning the cool and wet weather tends to stay further north.
Hispanic Americans (mostly Mexican Americans, with large populations of Spanish Americans) can be found in large numbers in every major city in the Southwest such as El Paso (80%), San Antonio (61%), Albuquerque (47%), Phoenix (43%), Tucson (41%), Austin (35%), Denver (32%), Las Vegas (32%), Reno (22%), Salt Lake City (22%), Colorado Springs (16%), and Provo (15.2%). Houston (44%), Dallas (43%), and Fort Worth (34%) have large Latino populations as well but are not always considered part of the Southwest and are often grouped more with the South.
The area also contains many of the nation's largest cities and metropolitan areas, despite relatively low population density in rural areas. Phoenix is among the top ten most populous cities in the country, and Reno, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, and Salt Lake City are some of the fastest-growing cities in America. Also, the region as a whole has witnessed some of the highest population growth in the United States; and according to the US Census Bureau, in 2008–2009, Utah was the fastest growing state in America. As of the 2010 Census, Nevada was the fastest growing state in the United States, with an increase of 35.1% in the last ten years. Additionally, Arizona (24.6%), Utah (23.8%), Texas (20.6%), and Colorado (16.9%) were all in the top ten fastest growing states as well.
Reno city, Nevada – Population Finder – American FactFinder. Factfinder.census.gov. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
Denver city, Colorado – Population Finder – American FactFinder. Factfinder.census.gov. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
Las Vegas city, Nevada – Population Finder – American FactFinder. Factfinder.census.gov. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
Albuquerque city, New Mexico – Population Finder – American FactFinder. Factfinder.census.gov. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
Tucson city, Arizona – Population Finder – American FactFinder. Factfinder.census.gov. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
Mesa, Arizona – Population Finder – American FactFinder. Factfinder.census.gov. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
Colorado Springs city, Colorado – Population Finder – American FactFinder. Factfinder.census.gov. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
Aurora, Colorado – Population Finder – American FactFinder. Factfinder.census.gov. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
Henderson, Nevada – Population Finder – American FactFinder. Factfinder.census.gov. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
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American Southwest, a National Park Service Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary