Across the U.S. there are a variety of must-see desert destinations that are made all the more appealing by their endlessly warm and typically sunny weather. From Palm Springs to Sonoma and even a few national parks, these are a few of our favorite desert getaways. While the desert likely elicits thoughts of oppressively hot, arid and barren destinations, this week’s Bucket List is here to change your mind. When staying true to the definition, there are a handful of deserts within the U.S., but a number of additional areas contain similar climatic characteristics and this week’s list isn’t one to discriminate.
Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.
1 of 7
Famous for its red rocks, canyons and pinnacles, the natural scenery in Sedona is reason enough to visit. Add to that the fact that it's home to a charming downtown with a thriving art scene and you'll find it hard not to move this desert destination to the top of your bucket list. For some of the best views, hit the road and head out on one of the area's picturesque drives like the Red Rock Scenic Byway, Red Rocks/Sycamore Canyon Scenic Loop or Desert Canyon Scenic Loop. If you don't feel like sitting behind the wheel, two popular passenger options include the Pink Jeep or Sedona Trolley tours. Sedona is also a mecca among those practicing New Age spirituality. Many flock to the area to be near its five vortexes, or areas of high-energy where it's believed Earth's magnetism is especially strong and offers positive benefits to those who visit. They can be found at Schnebly Hill, Cathedral Rock, Boynton Canyon, Bell Rock and Airport Mesa. For more mainstream spirituality, there's the architecturally-impressive Chapel of the Holy Cross. This must-see church is built directly into Sedona's red rocks.
Photo by Michael Wilson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
2 of 7
The Chihuahuan Desert spans parts of the U.S. and Mexico and at 200,000 square miles, it's officially the largest desert in North America. Within the Texas-portion, you'll find Big Bend National Park. It's one of the biggest national parks and the country's largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert, covering more than 800,000 acres and housing over 1,000 plant and animal species, as well as Cretaceous and Cenozoic fossils dating back 9,000 years. Big Bend is also home to a variety of landscapes and geological features from valleys and canyons to peaks. The southern border of the park, along the Mexico border, runs a 118-mile stretch of the Rio Grande River. The park and portions of the river are open for exploring via foot or float. River outfitters can be booked for boating trips and hiking trails are aplenty.
Photo by Robert Hensley, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
3 of 7
No list of desert getaways would be complete without Las Vegas. However, this Mojave Desert destination offers few attractions true to its locale. People flock to this oasis of entertainment for its high-end casino resorts, celebrity chef-run and Michelin-starred restaurants and impressive roster of shows. Nearly everything is concentrated in and around Las Vegas Boulevard, or simply the Strip. You won't have a hard time finding a place to sleep, eat or play, but you might struggle to choose between the overwhelming abundance and variety of options. World famous hotel and casinos include Caesars Palace, Paris Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, the Bellagio, Venetian and MGM Grand to name only a few. In a city that prides itself on indulgence, gluttony can be easily achieved. A few favorite spots to grab a meal include Nobu at the Hard Rock Hotel, Top of the World at Stratosphere, Peppermill, Craftsteak and Tao at the Venetian. There are shows of every variety from magic, hypnosis and comedy to adults-only and full-blown productions. Don't miss one of the many Cirque du Soleil performances or one of the A-list concerts from resident performers like Celine Dion, Elton John, Britney Spears, Cher and Jennifer Lopez. A few other iconic Las Vegas attractions you should be sure to catch include the Bellagio's famous fountain show and the The Neon Museum, a graveyard or sorts for retired Las Vegas neon signs.
Photo by Matthew Paulson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
4 of 7
Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America. Covering 19,000 acres in the San Luis Valley, the dunes tower at 750 feet at their tallest points. This sandy state park includes high desert to tundra landscapes and is also home to a handful of impressive peaks, as well as alpine lakes. Hiking, sledding and building sand castles along Medano Creek are a few of the most popular activities for visitors, just be sure to wear appropriate footwear. The sand can reach temperatures of 140 degree Fahrenheit.
Photo by Brandon Satterwhite, CC BY 2.0
5 of 7
Moab is a small town with a huge list of offerings. It's conveniently located along the Colorado River between two of the country's best national parks, making it a favorite among adventure travelers. From skydiving and rafting to hiking and biking, you won't be bored during your visit. Don't miss Arches National Park, where you'll find the largest concentration of sandstone arches in the world. Among the more than 2,000 arches in the park are Delicate Arch (depicted on the Utah license plate) and Double Arch. Then there's Canyonlands National Park, one of the country's best displays of geological forces at work where the Green and Colorado rivers have carved dual canyons into the red rocks of the Colorado Plateau. The park is divided into three unique districts. Island in the Sky is defined by its mesas, the Needles District is where you'll find rock pinnacles, and the Maze is the 'wild west' of the park and home to the Great Gallery at Horseshoe Canyon and its large petroglyphs and pictographs. Then, when you're ready for a little break from the sun, stop by the Museum of Moab for exhibits on the area's history, geology, anthropology and more.
Photo by The Shared Experience, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
6 of 7
There's little not to love about Palm Springs, California. Once a favorite getaway spot of Hollywood stars, today this Sonoran Desert destination is famous for its sunny weather, beautiful scenery, art and architecture, to name just a few. Don't miss a trip on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for postcard-worthy views and plenty of Instagram photo opportunities. Indian Canyons is great for local hiking and the Palm Springs Art Museum is a must-see for art lovers. Noteworthy attractions nearby include Joshua Tree National Park, which is less than an hour drive from Palm Springs. The city also makes a great basecamp if you're heading to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The wildly popular music and arts festival is held annually at the Empire Polo Club in nearby Indio, California. This year's festival is taking place April 14-16 and 21-23 and boasts a lineup featuring Radiohead, Father John Misty, Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, Bon Iver, Phantogram and Lady Gaga, among many others. A favorite Palm Springs accommodation during Coachella or any other time of the year is The Saguaro. This fabulously fun and vibrant hotel comes complete with private balconies or patios with mountain views, a lively pool, gardens, courtyard, organic bath products, in-house spa, and adorable cruiser bikes on hand for exploring the surrounding area.
Photo by Chris Goldberg, CC BY-NC 2.0
7 of 7
With a higher elevation and slightly more forgiving temperatures, Tucson is an easy-to-digest desert destination. Located in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, the state's second-largest city has plenty to offer. Start with a trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which despite its name is more of a zoo and botanical garden. Not only will you gain perspective on the history and geology of the surrounding desert, but also see a variety of wildlife like scorpions and coyotes before setting out to see them, perhaps, in their natural habitat. Next head to nearby Saguaro National Park, which boasts the largest concentration of saguaro cacti in the world. Kartchner Caverns State Park is also worth a visit. This relatively new attraction opened in 1999 and features one of the world's best limestone cave systems. Tucson Botanical Gardens will give you a taste of the desert beauty without having to leave the city's downtown area. Then head to Barrio Viejo for a walking tour of one of Tucson's oldest neighborhoods packed with boutique shops and art galleries housed in colorful adobe.
Photo by Dave Bezaire, CC BY-SA 2.0