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Cure the Winter Blues With These 4 Awesome Desert Adventures

It’s finally winter, which means it’s officially desert season. The desert is absolutely gorgeous year round, but visiting in the summer comes with a lot of limitations due to hotter temperatures. The winter is the best time to visit some of our most iconic desert landscapes, and allows you to fully experience their beauty. These are some of the best adventures you can go on in the desert this winter.

Go Hiking in Zion National Park

Image by Anubhav Saxena

Nothing says “adventure” like a hiking trip, and nothing says “iconic desert landscape” like Zion National Park. Located in southern Utah, Zion is easily becoming one of the most popular National Parks in the country, and despite its hot summers, winter is definitely still considered “off season” for the park. This means fewer crowds in the winter and cooler temperatures.

Zion is known for hiking and is home to two of the most iconic trails in the Southwest: Angel’s Landing and The Narrows. There are also plenty of other incredible trails in Zion Canyon, like the Emerald Pools, as well as other parts of the park to explore outside of Zion Canyon itself. Check out Kolob Canyon and the East Rim as well.

Angel’s Landing and The Narrows are the trails most people come from far and wide to hike, and winter is a good time to go to beat the crowds. Just keep in mind that Zion doesn’t just get cooler in the winter, it can get cold. If you’re able to hike Angel’s Landing, make sure you bring microspikes as the trail can get icy, and keep in mind that you do need permits to hike the chains section of this trail to the top. For The Narrows, it’s a good idea to rent waders and boots in Springdale, Zion’s gateway town. The water is very cold and this will help you have a much safer and more enjoyable experience.

Once you’re done hiking, enjoy the scenic drive through the park and the famous tunnel, or get a bite to eat in the town of Springdale. 

If you have the time, Zion is a great first stop in a road trip through Utah’s “Mighty Five,” which strings together all of Utah’s iconic parks in one epic hiking trip. Hike the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, do the scenic drive through Capitol Reef, sightsee in Canyonlands, and catch the sunrise in Arches.

Go Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree

Image by Tommy Lisbin

Joshua Tree is known for its funky “trees,” its vast desert landscape, and its incredible rock formations. Joshua Tree is one of the most iconic climbing destinations in the Southwest and there’s no better time to climb in Joshua Tree than winter.

Joshua Trees are actually part of the yucca family, and while many people come for the trees, lots of people are brought here by the rocks. The rocks in Joshua Tree are the result of erosion, volcanos, and Southern California fault lines. The park is now known for its large, round boulders, which dot the landscape with unique towers of granite.

This rock is sharp, grippy, and creates a wonderful friction slab climbing environment. With a huge assortment of climbs, from V1 boulders to long multi-pitch trad climbs, there’s a bit of everything for climbers of all levels. There is a huge climbing culture in the area, and you can get all the information you need at the local climbing shop, Nomad Ventures. If you’ve never tried climbing before, there are lots of outfitters in the area that will take you climbing in the park. Some of the most popular guide services are Vertical Adventures and Cliffhanger Guides.

If you’re not interested in rock climbing, simply scrambling up some of the rocks can give you a great adventure. Check out the Hall of Horrors and the rocks nearest to Skull Rock for a fun scrambling adventure.

Take the Scenic Road Through Valley of Fire

We’ve explored Utah and California, so let’s check out one of the most iconic spots right in the middle—Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. You’ve likely seen photos of the iconic White Domes Road on instagram before, and truly, this scenic drive does not disappoint.

Valley of Fire, with its iconic red rock formations, geologic and human history, and incredible wildlife, is a desert destination you just have to check out, but the park reaches extreme temperatures in the summer, making winter the best time to visit. This incredible desert used to be underwater, which is evidenced by unique rock formations, which you’ll see as you drive and hike through the park. Look for arches and wave-like textures in the rocks.

The White Domes Road starts near the visitor center and winds through some of the park’s most beautiful red rocks. The road is approximately 6 miles one way and ends at the trailhead for the White Domes Trail, which is a short loop that goes through a slot canyon. During your drive, keep an eye out for desert bighorn sheep, chuckwallas, and other wildlife, and if you’re open to hiking, stop and check out the Fire Wave Trail and Mouse’s Tank Trail.

The rest of the park outside the scenic drive corridor is just as worth visiting. Valley of Fire is the indigenous land of the Basketmaker and Pueblo cultures, and you can see petroglyphs preserved throughout the park. Check out the petroglyphs at AtlAtl Rock, which is located near the campground. 

Go Sand Sledding at White Sands

Image by Joe Lavigne

New Mexico is easily one of the most underrated states in the southwest and it’s home to the beautiful White Sands National Park. White Sands is known for its stunning sand dunes, located just outside of Alamogordo, NM. 

This park has an incredible geologic and human history. This is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, which is why the dunes have such a stunning white color. The park was also the site of a recent discovery of fossilized human footprints dating back to approximately 22,000 years ago–some of the oldest in the world.

While simply hiking on the dunefield can be a great time (and a dog-friendly activity if your pup is on a leash), one of the most popular things to do in the park is sand sledding. This is exactly what it sounds like: hike to the top of a dune, and sled down. It’s like a classic winter adventure without the need to bundle up. You can rent a sled from the park gift shop, or buy an inexpensive sled from a sporting goods store while passing through Alamogordo. This is an experience like no other that should definitely be on your winter bucket list.

There is so much that you can do in the desert during the winter months, but the best way to have a full experience is to road trip to all of these destinations and beyond. There is so much to see and experience in between. Explore the many other national parks in Utah, backpack in the Grand Canyon, or enjoy Death Valley’s designated dark sky zone—the options are endless.

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