While, spring and fall (a.k.a. “shoulder seasons”) are prime desert time in America’s Mountain West, if you don’t mind a little heat, the desert adventure is a must. This Desert Season 101 guide will send you to two of the best spots with field-tested ideas. I’ve also included some less common destinations where the real reward is plotting an adventure no one else could take.
As with our “Where You’re Meant to Ski” guide, I’ve categorized these desert destinations by how you think about a vacation:
“I want serious adventure, but I’ll take a burger and local craft beer afterward”
Then you better head to Moab, Utah. This iconic desert town sits on the Colorado River, northeast of where it meets the Green River. It’s home to two National Parks (NPs): Arches and Canyonlands.
Once a hotspot for uranium miners, Moab now caters to all types of outdoor recreation: world-famous mountain biking, rock climbing, canyoneering, river rafting, hiking, off-roading, camping, backpacking, and of course, gluttonous s’more eating (Pro tip: try Rollo’s instead of Hershey’s).
Asking “What can I do in Moab?” is kind of like asking “What can I do in New York City?” Even after 10+ weekend trips to Moab, I find new adventures every time. For a few activities, I’ll offer one popular crowded option (PCO) and one relatively rugged option (RRO):
PCO: Delicate Arch (3 miles roundtrip) is the flagship sight of Arches NP. You’ll see it on many Utah license plates.
PCO: Slickrock Trail (10.6 miles rt), the most famous ride in Moab, is known for quick ups and downs and sticky sandstone that lets you pedal at gravity-defying angles. Rated advanced, it’s more strenuous than dangerous.
RRO: The Magnificent 7 (26 miles point-to-point) is a shuttle ride that connects seven distinct trails. The “Mag” 7 is for experts only – if the thought of riding (or walking) alongside a 200+ foot death plunge makes you queasy, pass. Try ringing Coyote Shuttle for the drop-off.
PCO: Westwater Canyon (Class III and IV rapids) is, hands down, my favorite single-day float. I saw a golden eagle steal a perch from a bald eagle in this canyon.
RRO: Cataract Canyon (up to Class V) is the big daddy of Moab river rafting. Trips range from 2 to 6 days on average. Longer trip = more hikes along the way.
Where do I sleep? Splurge on Red Cliffs Lodge or ‘glamp’ in Moab Under Canvas. The rest of the hotels are neck-in-neck in terms of quality and location. Camping here is outstanding, but the established sites fill up quickly. Be prepared to search and maybe go with ‘dispersed camping’ (i.e. no toilets).
“I like my outdoors with a heavy dose of Namaste”
On a mountain bike ride in Sedona, I crashed into a cactus (free acupuncture). As I was limping off the trail, loaded with needles, I got this question: “Hey man, do you know where, like, the Energy Vortex is?”
If Moab ever had a hippie phase – and got bombarded by wealthy retirees – it might resemble Sedona. Again, you’ve got amazing hiking, mountain biking, climbing, off-roading, camping, and so forth. But you’ll also find nicer hotels and rentals, upscale dining, golf, and Whole Foods.
Sedona’s spiritual community is pretty out there. A sister of a friend of a friend went there planning to “dematerialize” into pure energy. Sources tell me she’s still bound in physical form. Lucky for her, she can still enjoy these great adventures:
PCO: Devil’s Bridge (1.8 miles rt) offers big views for little effort. It’ll be crowded, but that means someone can take your picture while you’re on the natural rock bridge.
RRO: Brin’s Mesa + Soldier Pass (8 miles rt as described), approached from the west trailhead off Dry Creek Rd., had a fun off-road drive, classic Sedona views, and no people. A pack of javelinas (a.k.a. skunk pigs), however, scared the shit out of me. So there’s no confusion, here’s the full route in Google Maps.
PCO: Cathedral Rock Big Loop: I could ride this again and again and again. Flow and tech, rolls and drops, speed and finesse, this is an all-time favorite.
RRO: Twin Buttes Loop: I rarely saw anyone on this loop. The first descent down Broken Arrow Trail is one of the best in Sedona, in my opinion. The brief pavement section is worth the great singletrack.
Ego Check: Triple H is the hardest set of trails I’ve ridden (or walked, in quite a few areas). Experts only.
There are all flavors of yoga in Sedona, and recommending one studio would be like suggesting a brand of toilet paper. The choice is pretty personal. That said, I had great experiences at Sedona Hot Yoga – classes are athletic and fun with a ‘spiritual’ level midway between CorePower and dematerializing.
Eat: Café Paleo Brio. I’m obsessed with this little restaurant. To the owners: please expand. Soon. Pretty please.
Sleep: With Airbnb. The rates and variety of options is excellent. Be aware that some Airbnbs forbid – or at least shun – meat eating on the premises. I can’t speak to the hotels, but TripAdvisor can.
“Been there, done that. Send me somewhere unusual. I’ll figure it out myself.”
Fair enough. Parts of the desert are ideal for people who like adventures with unpredictability, flash flood risks, minimal signage, etc. I’ll point you in the right direction – the rest is up to you.
Vermillion Cliffs National Monument (Utah/Arizona). Apply for permits. Show up with 4x4 vehicle. If you don’t get a permit for the Wave or Buckskin Gulch, don’t be fooled – there’s still plenty to see. [Note: the Bureau of Land Management website seems to be semi-broken for a makeover. Try Googling later for permits].
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (Utah). Unless you have a plan already, the rangers will keep zipped about where to go and what to do. Roads may be impassable, especially after rain. Hit Coyote Gulch before they institute a permit system.
Bears Ears National Monument. America’s newest national monument delivers the goods. Don’t miss the view off Mulley Point. Consider camping a night in Valley of the Gods before you adventure into Grand Gulch or Dark Canyon.
I could go on for a while. The desert is the place to find adrenaline, peace, expansive views – and people trying to dematerialize. It just might become your new favorite playground.