Although a long time off from now, do you ever wish you could go hiking more during the winter months? Do all of your favorite places become inaccessible with snow and other unpredictable weather? Dream of going on an epic backpacking adventure during the cold months to avoid the crowds? Consider a backcountry adventure in the American Southwest!
Winter is a great time to visit the desert for a multitude of reasons. You'll find plenty of sunshine and not a lot of rain to worry about. Average temperatures are perfect for hiking, many things are in bloom, and, again, you avoid the crowds of spring and fall.
Plus, no matter what time of year you visit, the desert has a beauty all its own with unique plant life, rock formations you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the world, and amazing animals that have adapted to the harsh desert climate. You may even discover some things you might not expect in the desert, such as hidden hot springs and waterfalls! And you can't beat the picturesque sunsets over the distant mountains.
But don't take our word for it. Check out some of the best desert hikes the U.S. has to offer and get started planning your next great adventure!
FYI, many of the hikes that are touched upon below are covered in a lot more detail as part of our Hike of the Week series. Simply click through your favorite to learn more about it and get help planning your trip.
White Rock Springs in the Superstition Mountains
This 23-mile figure-eight loop trail takes you through one of the most scenic areas of the Superstition Wilderness Area of Tonto National Forest in Arizona. Rated as moderate, for the most part, with some trickier areas of loose rock up steep inclines, you'll enjoy plenty of species of cacti along the way, including jumping cholla and towering 100-year old Saguaros, and interesting rock formations, such as Weaver's Needle, Bluff Saddle, and Black Mesa. One of the best parts of the trail? Leave your gear at camp the second day and take a day pack to explore one of the loops of the figure-eight at your leisure. Bonus: A reliable water source is located a short distance from your camp. For all the details on this amazing hike, read our dedicated Hike of the Week article.
Gila Middle Fork Loop
Our next hike takes us to the very first designated wilderness area in the world: The Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. The area boasts a wide range of landscapes, from pure desert terrain to near alpine tundra as the famous Continental Divide National Scenic Trail runs through the area. The Middle Fork Loop trail takes you 18.5 miles ascending a ridgeline before finding yourself at the 6,300ft high point of the trail, before dropping down into Little Bear Canyon. You'll experience towering canyon walls within these rolling mountains with some great views of the taller mountains in the distance. You can find some hot springs along the way too on this popular easy to moderate trail.
Outer Mountain Loop
If you're ready for a challenge, head to Big Bend National Park in Texas to tackle the Outer Mountain Loop. You'll gain 5,700 feet of elevation over the entirety of the trail and caching water is a must for this 3-day trip. Although the Outer Mountain Loop gives you a taste of just how relentless the desert can be, especially on your second day, you'll also get to experience much of the biodiversity of the area, including the Chihuahuan Desert, desert grasslands, juniper woodlands, and deep canyons.
Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim
For another challenging desert hike, you can't beat the epic Rim-to-Rim Trail in Grand Canyon National Park. This 24-mile trail takes you 6,000ft down from the North Rim only to climb 4,500ft back up to the South Rim. Enjoy a much-needed break at the bottom, surrounded by the awe-inspiring and dizzying cliffs and rocks faces all around, at the Bright Angel Campground. (It's worth noting that there is a lottery for camping spots, so be sure to look into this well in advance of your trip.) The second day, although you'll be gaining plenty of elevation, may not be as bad as you expect with plenty of switchbacks and shade along the way.
Buckskin Gulch/Paria Canyon
How does a 4-day hike through the “longest and deepest slot canyon in the southwest” sound? You can do just that in the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness in southern Utah. This 38-mile trail takes you through some of the most unique and colorful sandstone formations around, with hues of orange, purple, and yellow. The trail is rated as moderate to difficult and permits are required, which can be difficult to obtain due to the area's popularity. To read more about this hike, head over to our detailed Hike of the Week article.
For a more leisurely hike where you can spend more time exploring and less time worrying about getting to specific campsites by a certain time, head to another great national park in the southwest: Canyonlands in Utah. There are a multitude of trail options in this area, but we have a 32-mile route you can check out by clicking the name above. If you're into cool rock formations, you won't be disappointed with pillars, free-standing arches, and red and orange canyons galore!
Halls Creek Narrows
Located directly west of Canyonlands lies another popular desert park: Capitol Reef NP. There are plenty of day-hike and backpacking trails in the park, but if you're looking for some true remoteness, check out the 22-mile Halls Creek Narrows Trail at the southern end. The shade of the towering Grand Gulch will be much welcomed after walking several miles in the scorching sun of the open desert. Good navigation/way-finding skills are a must for this 3-4 day backcountry adventure!
California Hiking and Riding Trail in Joshua Tree National Park
Despite being home to Death Valley NP, California often gets overlooked when it comes to great desert hikes. No hiking bucket list would be complete without a visit to Joshua Tree NP, though. Known for its unique yuccas, these bizarre trees can only be found in southern California and Nevada and western Arizona...Out of the entire world! A great way to see these rare wonders is on the 36-mile California Hiking and Riding Trail. The trail is well-marked, campsites are numerous, and it is the least strenuous hike you'll find on this list with very little elevation gain.
You can't go wrong with any of the trails in the Glen Canyon Rec Area, but the Reflection Canyon hike is particularly amazing. To see just one picture of the main attraction and you'll see why! Relaxing after a strenuous day of hiking, watching the sunset over stunning, multi-layered rock formations jutting up and around the river is a once in a lifetime experience. (Make sure you're up in time the next day for the sunrise that's just as amazing!) This is about a 20-mile hike and is recommended for experienced hikers due to its difficult nature.
What can we say? Utah has some pretty spectacular desert hikes! If you're ready to experience the best of Zion NP over the course of 3-5 days and don't mind a challenge, the Trans-Zion Trek is waiting for you. Although permits are required for camping, you'll find this area very remote. You'll want to make sure you have a good map as well since you will be “piecing” trails together. Be sure to visit our write-up which has a complete map. This hike will give you a little bit of everything, from forested valleys to narrow canyons to amazing lookout points.
No matter which southwestern state or trail you visit, you're sure to have an incredible time! Have you been on any of these hikes? What other inspiring desert hikes would you add to our list? Let us know in the comments section below!
If you're looking for more hike ideas, read some of our other guides filled to the brim with amazing hikes throughout the country.
Best Backpacking Trips in the Eastern U.S.
Best Backpacking Trips in the Midwest
Best Backpacking Trips in the Rocky Mountains
Best West Coast Mountain Backpacking Trips
Best Backpacking Trips on the West Coast
Best Spring Break Backpacking Trips
Best Winter Backpacking Trips
Top 8 Family-Friendly Backpacking Trips in the U.S.
Top 10 Long Weekend Backpacking Trips
For even more amazing backpacking trips visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed writeup that contains everything you need to know.
Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.
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