Can’t Miss Winter Desert Destinations in the American Southwest
Snowbirds have life figured out. That is what we kept realizing as we rumbled down the backroads of Arizona in the middle of winter — under a perfect bluebird sky. Escaping to the Southwest corner of the USA during the winter months is a wonderful, exciting, adventurous idea. And you don’t even need an RV to do it properly (we did it on a motorcycle).
No matter your mode of transportation, heading south for the winter means two things: nice temperatures*, and lots of desert adventures. While there are lots of interesting, authentic places to explore we have narrowed it down to a few of our favorites. *this depends on where you go, and how high in elevation you want to venture
During the planning stage of our Southwest Motorcycle Trip we didn’t consider making a pitstop in this desert town. For us, the trip was about getting off the beaten path — meaning not hitting a lot of urban areas. While Yuma isn’t huge (population: 97,908) it has a surprisingly good amount of things to offer — especially for a history buff.
We recommend spending an hour or two checking out the historic Yuma Territorial Prison Park and the Colorado River State Historic Park. Other neat things to see are the Chocolate Mountains, which stand just to the east of the city, and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, the second biggest wildlife refuge in the state (it is approximately 547,719 acres). Kofa NWR is a great place to explore the desert, and maybe get a glimpse of some interesting wildlife. Including, Gila monsters and bighorn sheep. In fact, protecting the habitat of the bighorn sheep was the reason for establishing Kofa NRW in the first place.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Just a bit further east, and quite a bit further south (all the way to the USA-Mexico Border), sits one of the prettiest landscapes in the USA — at least in our opinion. Organ Pipe Cactus NM was one of the key spots we wanted to hit on our road trip through the Southwest. So you can say we had high expectations as we drove further and further south on Highway 85. And don’t worry, we were not underwhelmed once we arrived.
In fact, Organ Pipe Cactus NM might be one of our favorite places in the whole Western half of the USA. There is just something about the landscape, the overall feeling of the place. We aren’t really into that positive energy vortex kind of stuff, but if we were, we would say Organ Pipe Cactus NM was definitely one for us. We just felt at ease there, rejuvenated and more clear-headed on our decision to do a motorcycle road trip in the winter (we had been struggling with our decision previously). This is one of those few places that we constantly talk about and always recommend to other travelers if they have even the slightest interest in traveling through the Southwest in the winter.
The best time to visit is in January. Because, according to one of the campers who we met there (and who had been vacationing in Organ Pipe every winter for 15+ years), January is the one month where you don’t have to worry about the creepy-crawlies (aka tarantulas, rattlesnakes, and scorpions). Plus, the weather is PERFECT — sunny, warm but not too hot, and clear, meaning you can go on hikes, bike rides, and runs without having to worry about dying of heatstroke.
Saguaro National Park
Slight disclaimer on this one: we weren’t able to spend as much time in Saguaro National Park as we would have liked due to scheduling issues. But what time we did spend there was absolutely amazing.
There might not be a more emblematic symbol of the American Southwest as the Saguaro cactus. With its tall, proud stature and fun, unique arms, it is the quintessential plant of the desert — and there is no better place to see them than in Saguaro National Park.
While the park is not very big, it does have some good adventures — including hiking to the top of Wasson Peak, the tallest mountain in the Tucson Mountain District of the park. If you want expansive views, and a good opportunity to really get immersed in the desert flora, we highly recommend checking out this hike.
Chiricahua National Monument
This was another one of those places that we had no plans to explore, but were so glad we did once we got there (isn’t that the best thing about road trips??). We learned about this national monument, which is located way off in the southeast corner of Arizona, completely by happenstance.
We were invited by one of our campground neighbors (in Organ Pipe Cactus NM of all places) to spend the evening drinking some of their wine (they owned a winery in California). Fast forward a couple of hours and all of us were (slightly) toasted and trading stories on some of our favorite adventures. They kept mentioning some place in Arizona with a weird name. After sobering up and doing a bit of Google searching we realized they were talking about Chiricahua National Monument. Safe to say, we quickly spun our compass in that direction and headed off.
Now, unlike the other places on this list so far, Chiricahua NM is not necessarily at its best in the winter. It sits at just over 5,000 feet at the base and all the way up to 7,000 feet at its highest point. But don’t let that deter you (it only means you will see less people). We camped there and though it was chilly in the mornings, the days were absolutely lovely.
Spend your days hiking around the interesting rock formations, called “Islands in the Sky” due to their unique biomes, and make sure to be on the lookout for some curious wildlife: the coati, a small raccoon-like mammal with a long tail similar to a lemur. The Monument is one of the few places to find the coati in the USA (it is also the only place that has all four types of skunks).
Bandelier National Monument
This is another destination that doesn’t necessarily conjure up the idea of a warm desert adventure in the winter. In fact, similar to Chiricahua NM, Bandelier National Monument sits at a high elevation (it ranges from 5,000 at the lowest to over 10,000 feet at the highest), meaning it gets quite cold come wintertime. BUT, that does not mean the beauty and adventure is not there — it is, if not even more so.
There is just something so striking about the contrast between the red desert landscape and ghostly white snow. Plus, the colder temps mean you will probably be able to experience the Monument without a lot of people. Spend a day or two exploring the Ancient Puebloan buildings and artifacts and take a hike (short or long, or even an overnighter), the large Monument has lots of trails to choose from (in the winter you can even snowshoe or cross-country ski on a couple of them).
Similar to Bandelier NM, Monument Valley is not exactly a “warm” winter getaway. It sits at 5,564 feet, meaning it can get quite chilly in the winter months (though it rarely gets below zero). So, as long as you come prepared (lots of layers, thick wool socks, and a heaping amount of hot coffee) you should be fine.
But, interestingly, while it sits at a relatively high elevation it does not get much snow — often a light dusting that goes away within a day or two. Though there is the occasional blizzard (but those are rare). Heading to Monument Valley in the winter means less people, and more opportunity to have an adventure. Consider taking a drive along the Tribal Park Loop, a 17-mile scenic loop that gives you the picturesque views you are looking for. Or head out on your own two feet for a hike or two (just remember the wool socks!). Either way, seeing the rock formations in all their glory will make up for any temperature shortcomings.
White Sands National Park
Now, this is an interesting one. While the days are absolutely beautiful in the winter, nights can be downright freezing. Something we learned quite quickly when we drove up to the visitor center of the park and found that the expected temperature that night was going to be 14 degrees…. Yeah, we love camping, but that just does not sound that fun.
The reason, we were told by the rangers, was that the sand (which is actually very tiny particles of gypsum) is quite wet. And when the sun goes down that makes the dunes, which sit in a basin, very, very cold. Another thing we didn’t realize was that because the park is in an active military range, you cannot actually leave your campsite until 9 am — so once you are in, you are in until the next morning, no matter what happens. We left the visitor center, got a cheap motel room for the night, and promised to come back and camp when the temperatures were a bit higher.
But that does not mean White Sands NP is not worth visiting in the winter months. Like we said, the temperatures during the day were wonderful: sunny, in the 70s. The perfect conditions for exploring the sparkling white dunes. So definitely consider adding this national park (the newest one in the USA) to your Southwest road trip itinerary — we were soooo glad we did. Though it is a bit out of the way (located way in the southern half of New Mexico) it is definitely worth checking out (plus, the town of Las Cruces nearby is supposed to be quite hip).
There is something so exciting about heading to the desert in the winter. For us, two semi-desert rats, we have had our fair share of desert adventures — in all seasons. And while the fall is magical, especially in places such as Moab and Escalante, the winter brings with it its own beauty, excitement, and peace.
If you are brave enough to face some colder temperatures in places like Bandelier and Monument Valley, you will find the place mostly to yourself (if it was easy, everyone would do it right?). And if you are smart and decide to head to well-temped places like Organ Pipe Cactus NM or Saguaro NP, you will be rewarded with stunning landscapes, glorious sunny days, and best of all, no creepy-crawlies.
So instead of booking a vacation to some tropical beach, instead consider adventuring in the American Southwest. You will be surprised at how beautiful, exciting, and wonderful it truly is (though that could just be all the positive energy vortexes that are located there…).
Originally published at https://www.backroadpackers.com on November 13, 2020.