The American Southwest makes one of the best winter-hiking destinations in the country thanks to its combination of amenable climate, spectacular scenery, and truly vast public lands.
From the magnificent canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau to the lower deserts of southern New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas, the wintertime vistas in the Southwest often wed colorful foreground rock formations and foothills with snow-dusted mountains and tablelands as backdrop.
And while you can certainly find some severe winter weather in the high country, there are also many areas offering balmy, sun-splashed conditions ideal for hiking. Indeed, winter is the prime season to experience many of the hottest drylands of the Southwest, which can become downright inhospitable at the other end of the calendar.
Below, we’ve rounded up ten of the best winter desert hiking destinations in the southwestern U.S., with some additional recommended places tacked on for good measure!
Top 5 Winter Hiking National Parks in the American Southwest
No corner of the country boasts such a dense concentration of national parkland as the Southwest. Not only that, but this federal acreage holds its own in the drop-dead-gorgeous scenery department with any place on Earth! Wandering that scenery in its wintertime guise is, in a word, magical.
(1) Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
While not the longest or deepest canyon on the planet, Arizona’s Grand Canyon is arguably the most famous and perhaps the most all-around stunning. One of the most popular units of the National Park System, Grand Canyon National Park enjoys some wonderful peace and quiet in the depths of winter, and the well-prepared hiker can soak up the sweeping splendor of this enormous chasm in what many consider its most beautiful seasonal mode. Seeing the Grand Canyon with snow-covered rims, buttes, and spires is once-in-a-lifetime amazing.
The canyon’s fringing plateaus are set at a high elevation, and snowstorms, ice, and cold aren’t uncommon. But hiking routes, and those that hug south- or west-facing exposures, often include bare or minimally snow/ice-affected tread. Good choices include the steep and spectacular Hermit Trail, most of which is generally free of snow and ice, and the South Kaibab Trail (though its Chimney section tends to be icy). Traction devices and trekking poles—plus all the other winter outdoor essentials, including emergency supplies—are definitely recommended.
(2) Zion National Park (Utah)
Another super-popular park, Zion—set where the Colorado Plateau drops down into the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert—offers similarly rewarding wintertime experiences with more open space and a frosted wintry charm, courtesy of occasional snowfalls. Daytime highs here during the winter often approach or exceed 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and so long as you’re prepared for potentially slick trails—and watch for falling icicles when passing below cliffs and overhangs—this can be a wonderful season for dayhiking.
Some good options for winter trails include the Pa’rus Trail along the North Fork Virgin River and the Lower Emeralds Pool Trail, both in Zion Canyon. Another great choice is the Chinle Trail in Zion’s Southwest Desert, which rambles through low pinyon-juniper woodland with stellar views of West Temple, Mount Kinesava, and other landmarks. This sun-exposed route can be brutal in summer, but it's ideal amid winter’s cooler weather.
(3) Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)
Bryce Canyon is jaw-droppingly beautiful any time of year, but with a coat of winter snow whitening up the orange and red hoodoos and pinnacles, the scenery takes it to a whole other level.
Savoring that seasonal loveliness, though, demands preparation, as Bryce Canyon National Park, up on the heights of the Grand Staircase, can be quite wintry indeed, with regular bouts of blizzardy conditions and subfreezing temperatures.
Fresh snowfalls delight snowshoers on the Bristlecone Loop, Rim Trail, and other accessible routes, while hiking or mountaineering crampons are typically the most useful footwear accessories for dealing with more packed snow or ice crusts, as are often experienced on the trails dropping into the Bryce Amphitheater.
(4) Joshua Tree National Park (California)
The dreamlike boulder piles, rock gardens, and yucca woodlands of Joshua Tree National Park, located along the boundary of the Mojave and Coloradan deserts, make it one of California’s most celebrated landscapes. Given the desert climate, winter is part of the main tourism season down here, with pleasant daytime temperatures often rising into the 50s and 60s—absolutely choice for hiking. (Bear in mind that nights can still drop below freezing and that snow sometimes falls up high.)
You’re spoiled for possibilities when it comes to winter circuits, from the Arch Rock, Skull Rock, and Cap Rock trails to the West Side Loop and Fortynine Palms Oasis. Some strenuous trails (such as Fortynine Palms) aren’t recommended for the heat of summer, making this cooler stretch of the calendar perfect for giving them a try.
(5) Death Valley National Park
November through March is generally the best time to be hiking and backpacking in otherworldly Death Valley National Park. Rising from the lowest point below sea level in North America (Badwater Basin) to desert peaks taller than 11,000 feet, this is really one of the most extreme places on Earth, and much of it downright bakes in summer.
The friendlier temperatures of winter invite you to tackle such vista-rich trails as the Ubehebe Crater Loop, Little Bridge Canyon Trail, Badwater Salt Flat Trail, and the two-mile round-trip route to the extraordinary Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
5 Other Notable Desert Destinations for Winter Hiking
The above five showstopper national parks don’t exhaust your possibilities when it comes to the best winter desert hiking in the Southwest. Here are just a few other spectacular geographies to check out!
(6) Sedona, Arizona
A winter hiking getaway means you can enjoy those world-famous red rocks of Sedona, Arizona with fewer crowds. While you’ll want to bundle up and potentially outfit yourself with traction devices and poles, otherwise thronged paths such as the Cathedral Rock Trail and Bell Rock Loop can be nice and quiet—and, of course, gloriously scenic—this time of year.
(7) Tucson, Arizona
Tucson’s Sonoran Desert climate and scenery (not least those stately forests of saguaro cactus) make it another top-tier choice for winter hiking getaways, with primo, easily accessible trails awaiting from Catalina State Park to Saguaro National Park.
(8) New Mexico’s Desertlands
From the shining dune wastes of White Sands National Park and the fantastical badlands of the Bureau of Land Management-administered Bisti/De-Na-Zi Wilderness to the Chihuahuan Desert foothills of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the Land of Enchantment is also tailor-made for wintertime hiking.
(9) Mojave National Preserve, California
Enjoy mild winter temperatures in Mojave National Preserve while wandering stellar stands of Joshua trees and the sandy scarps of the celebrated Kelso Dunes.
(10) Canyons of the Ancients, Colorado
One of the best desert areas to hike in southwest Colorado is the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. This region boasts a unique landscape with deep canyons, ancient archaeological sites, and stunning desert scenery.
Essential Tips for Winter Desert Hikers
Even in the Southwest—and even in its low hot deserts—winter can pack a punch, so it’s vital that hikers pack the Ten Essentials and carefully heed weather forecasts and trail reports before setting out. As we’ve already alluded to, crampons, snowshoes, and trekking poles may be required depending on the setting and current conditions. (Many desert trails are on the rugged side of things; learn more about keeping your footing on hikes.)
Remember, too, that drinking enough water while exerting oneself in these arid realms is still essential, even though the winter sun’s not quite so fierce.
It goes without saying, meanwhile, that you should be practicing proper trail etiquette and Leave No Trace principles in these special places.
Enjoy the Southwest’s Winter Hiking Scene With Mountain House
Summiting a sand dune to savor sightlines out to snow-capped peaks, marveling at shaggy ice formations in a red rock canyon, finding solitude on trails that at other times of the year may be jampacked: The pleasures of winter hiking in the American Southwest are many. And there’s no better means of staying well-fed and happy while hoofing it around the sandy washes, slickrock canyons, and cactus-clad slopes than Mountain House meals!