Know what “spring fever” is? At AJ, we don’t get it too often, because when we start to feel it, we bail to the desert for a while, our way of cutting and pasting a bit of summer right in the middle of winter. Cheating? Maybe a little. But there’s more to it than sunshine and warm temps.
We know you’ve heard of Edward Abbey. Maybe you know that when he moved to Moab, Arches was a lonely national monument with barely a road to the “visitor’s center.” A bazillion more people explore the desert nowadays, a wave that gained massive momentum with the 1968 publication of Desert Solitaire. Some things are popular because they’re just that good. Desert Solitaire is one of them. And The Monkey Wrench Gang adds a layer of mythology to many of our favorite Southwest road trip sites, too.
Millions of visitors explore the desert every year by Ed Abbey’s favorite method — on foot. The 4,400-vertical-foot descent to the bottom of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim is likely the most popular backpacking trip in the American Southwest, and the more risk-averse tackle Zion’s exposed, American via ferrata on Angel’s Landing, giving pause — and sweaty palms — to thousands of hikers who traverse the spine of it 1,200 feet above the canyon floor every year. We’ve pondered whether Canyonlands’ Chesler Park Loop is America’s best desert dayhike. Check those three off your list and you’ll barely have dipped your toe in the terrain out there.
3. Mountain Biking
Take your pick of dry, sunny fat-tire rides on the Colorado plateau — Southwest Utah’s Gooseberry Mesa, Moab’s Porcupine Rim, the Whole Enchilada (dropping 7500 feet), the 100-plus mile White Rim Trail, Fruita’s Chutes and Ladders, Grand Junction’s Free Lunch (the first freeride trail built on federal land). Oh, and that one famous trail that put Moab on the map, Slickrock — 100,000 people ride that every year.
Joshua Tree has the highest concentration of climbing routes on the planet (more than 8,000). Red Rock National Conservation Area outside Las Vegas, another several thousand boulder problems, 20-plus pitch mega-routes, hard sport and moderate trad adventure climbing for all levels. Zion National Park has America’s arguably most famous non-Yosemite big wall climb in Moonlight Buttress. And if you climb and live on earth, you’ve heard of Indian Creek, the planet’s most famous splitter crack crag. And don’t forget the famous towers of the Utah desert: Castleton, Ancient Art, the Titan, and 100 others.
6. The Rivers
The Southwest’s rivers are its arteries and its smile lines, carving out our favorite landscapes over millions of years: The Goosenecks of the San Juan, the Grand Canyon, the Virgin River through Zion and The Narrows, the Gates of Lodore and others. Would it be hyperbole to call rafting the Colorado through the Grand Canyon “the Mount Everest of commercial raft trips”?
7. Slot Canyons
From the uber-popular $30+ per person tours of the light shows in the corkscrew walls of Antelope Canyon to the free, entry-level walks and scrambles of the slot canyons in the San Rafael Swell to the technical canyons all over the Southwest requiring rappels, swims, wetsuits as much routefinding as multi-pitch rock climbs, there’s as much fun descending as ascending.
8. The Big Canyon
You’ve heard of this one, the Grand Canyon. The most famous hole in the world? Five million hikers, rafters, climbers, canyoneers, trail runners, mule riders, and casual visitors who eat ice cream cones on the South Rim can’t be wrong, can they?
The Southwest is dotted with 4,000-year-old petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, granaries, and other remnants of past residents who mysteriously disappeared about 700 years ago — making it a spread-out, open-air museum of archaeology and human history for those who want to put in the work to explore it. Much of it now lies within the protected boundaries of historic parks, but plenty is hidden in undiscovered or rarely-visited pockets all over the desert.
10. The Parks, National
Arches, Big Bend, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Chaco, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Great Basin, Joshua Tree, Zion — did we miss any?
11. The Parks, Other
Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park may have one of the best views in the desert that’s 150 feet from a parking lot — 2,000 feet all the way down to the horsehoe bend in the Colorado River cutting through the desert below. But there’s also Goosenecks of the San Juan State Park, a couple hours south, where the river makes three hairpin turns in less than a mile, all visible from the viewpoint 1,000 feet above — 50 feet from your car. And the natural water slide at Slide Rock State Park near Sedona. California’s 900-plus-square-mile Anza Borrego Desert State Park. The world-famous sandstone monoliths in Monument Valley Tribal Park, and the aforementioned slots at Antelope Canyon Tribal Park. We could go on.