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The term "Southwest" originally referred to a "major sub region" 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.
There is a wide variety of wildlife in the southwestern United States. Bighorn sheep, bobcat, coyote, bear, jackrabbit, cottontail rabbit, mule deer, white-tailed deer, gray fox, mountain lion, river otter, porcupine, pronghorn, raccoon, armadillo, Mexican wolf, and gray wolf can be found in all states across the Southwest. American bison and prairie dogs can be found in the southwestern states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Elk in the Southwest are usually only found in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. White-nosed coati and collared peccary in the Southwest are normally found in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Snakes are also found all over the southwestern United States. Rattlesnakes are found in the Southwest. Coral snakes can be found in Arizona, New Mexico & 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.
Other areas of the Southwest may also be referred to as the "High Desert" such as the Colorado Plateau. The desert lands found in Eastern Utah, Northern Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico are usually referred to as the high desert. Eastern Utah has a huge mass of desert land, which sits at a high elevation, and is sometimes referred to as the "High Desert" as well. Colorado has scattered desert lands found in southern, southwestern, western, and the northwestern parts of the state. These scattered desert lands are located in and around areas such as, the Roan Plateau, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado National Monument, Royal Gorge, Cortez, Dove Creek, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, Four Corners Monument, Montrose, Blue Mesa Reservoir, Pueblo, San Luis Valley, and the Great Sand Dunes. Besides the Chihuahuan Desert, lands in southwestern and southern New Mexico, they also have scattered desert lands in the northwestern and northern portions of their state, which is referred to as the high desert.
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
The southwestern United States contains many national monuments and parks. Some of the more famous monuments and parks in the Southwest are the Grand Canyon National Park, Navajo National Monument, Four Corners Monument, Colorado National Monument, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Arches National Park, Red Rock Canyon, Big Bend National Park, and the White Sands National Monument.
In Utah there are also many other monuments and parks such as, Nine Mile Canyon, Mexican Hat, Bryce Canyon National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Zion National Park, Arches National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument (also in Colorado), Monument Valley (also in Arizona), Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, and the Timpanogos Cave National Monument.
In Arizona there is the Agua Fria National Monument, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Chiricahua National Monument, Ironwood Forest National Monument, Montezuma Castle National Monument, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Petrified Forest National Park, Pipe Spring National Monument, Saguaro National Park, Sonoran Desert National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, Tonto National Monument, Tumacacori National Historical Park, Tuzigoot National Monument, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Walnut Canyon National Monument, and the Wupatki National Monument.
In Colorado there is the Arapaho National Recreation Area, Mesa Verde National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Dinosaur National Monument (small parts also in Utah), Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Rocky Mountain National Park, Royal Gorge, Grand Mesa, Garden of the Gods, Blue Mesa Reservoir, Glenwood Canyon, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, Yucca House National Monument, and Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site.
In New Mexico there is also the Aztec Ruins National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Capulin Volcano National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, El Malpais National Monument, El Morro National Monument, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, Pecos National Historical Park, Petroglyph National Monument, and the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.
In the western Texas part of the Southwest, there is the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, Big Bend National Park, Chamizal National Memorial, Fort Davis National Historic Site, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, and the Amistad National Recreation Area.