Expansive sapphire-blue skies, soaring red rocks, shifting white sand dunes that gleam in the sun — what better way to beat the cold than with a vacation to a desert? Forget the Sahara: You can find surreal and expansive landscapes to explore in the American Southwest and Pacific. From glamorous desert cities that buzz with excitement to solace-inspiring stretches of sand-filled national parks, there is a trip to suit every traveler.
It’s OK to get on your high horse in Scottsdale. Set in the Sonoran Desert, the city is known as “The West’s Most Western Town.” At Arizona Cowboy College, visitors can soak up the area’s cowboy lore and learn about wrangling, roping and riding. Not into roughing it? Book a weekend at the luxurious Omni Scottsdale Resort, tucked against scenic Camelback Mountain, for desert-inspired spa treatments such as the detox clay wrap that includes a desert citrus-infused scrub and homeopathic oils.
Travelers looking for an off-beat vacation will adore Marfa, known for its collection of contemporary art galleries and outdoor sculptures set against a desolate desert backdrop. The tiny Texas town (population 2,000) also is famous for accounts of unexplained light phenomena that trace back to the 19th century. Book a night at the original El Cosmico and you might just catch a glimpse; it’s a self-described 18-acre nomadic hotel and campground with plenty of opportunities for stargazing. Accommodations range from renovated vintage trailers to Sioux-style housing. Bonus: Guests can borrow bikes to traverse the town.
Snow Canyon State Park, Utah
Surrounded by the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Snow Canyon State Park connects three distinct ecosystems: the Great Basin Desert, Colorado Plateau and the Mojave Desert, and caters to active types. Adventure lovers should stay at Red Mountain Resort, located in the heart of the Utah desert. It’s just 3 miles from the park and customizes outdoor experiences depending on guests’ interests and experience level — from a Native American rock-art hike led by archeologists to bike and kayak tours through nearby sandstone canyons.
Ojo Caliente, N.M.
If you want rejuvenation and relaxation, look no further than Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa. Set on 1,100 prime desert acres amidst rust-colored cliffs, Ojo Caliente is the only hot spring in the world with four unique, sulfur-free, geothermal mineral pools (temperatures range from 80 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit), and the resort’s “whisper zone” keeps the vibe tranquil.
Mojave National Preserve, Calif.
Step out of the fast-paced present and into the vast and peaceful Mojave National Preserve. Here, silence prevails, and massive groves of Joshua trees, glittering sand dunes and blankets of colorful wildflowers mesmerize visitors. Adventurers can discover abandoned homesteads, mines and military structures in the 1.6-million-acre park.
White Sands National Monument, N.M.
One of the world’s most striking deserts, White Sands National Monument is a little-known natural wonder. Located in the heart of the Tularosa Basin, it’s comprised of 275 square miles of dazzling, shifting white sands, creating the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. It’s a photographer’s dream. Note: The monument is surrounded by military bases and occasionally closes for missile testing. But don’t let that dissuade you; excellent hiking and sledding opportunities await.
Most folks don’t come to Vegas for the surrounding desert, but just a few miles from the neon lights is another kind of play land to discover: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area beckons with spectacular formations and climbing, hiking and horseback riding trails. But that’s not all — hop in the car and head an hour northeast to the remote (and intimidating-sounding) Valley of Fire State Park, where you can kayak the mighty Colorado River.
Palm Springs, Calif.
Known to locals simply as “the desert,” Palm Springs is a celebrity magnet — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley all had homes here — and continues to attract visitors drawn to its modern architecture, 350 days a year of sunshine and dynamic desert scenery easily accessible on foot. Explore Andreas Canyon, which offers an oasis of lush greenery and waterfalls amid the sand.For a glamour experience, book a night at one of the city’s small hotels, such as The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn, where Albert Einstein once stayed, or the Colony Palms Hotel, a former speakeasy of gangster Al Wertheimer.”When in Palm Springs, stay boutique,” says Brett Stanley, hotel manager of the Colony Palms Hotel. “The independent resorts and restaurants in the area are what make it special.”
Garden of the Gods, Colo.
Set in an alpine desert near Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center is a must-see for outdoor enthusiasts. The 1,367-acre park is a designated National Natural Landmark, as well as a unique intersection of Great Plains grasslands, American Southwest pinon-juniper woodlands and Pikes Peak mountain forest. The area’s famous, near-vertical red rock formations dramatically jut into the air, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. Did we mention admission is free?
Sky City of Acoma Pueblo, N.M.
You’ll understand why New Mexico is called the “land of enchantment” after a visit to Acoma Pueblo, a Native American village built between 1100 and 1250 AD. The ancient pueblo, set atop a 367-foot-tall sandstone mesa in the midst of high-desert surroundings, seems to float in midair. No wonder locals call it Sky City.About 2½ hours by car west of Albuquerque, the drive through Acoma tribal land toward the pueblo entices visitors with spectacular rock formations and haunting desert landscapes — not to mention gorgeous photo opportunities.