6 Reasons to Plan a Desert Vacation in the US This Year

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As the summer travel season swiftly approaches yet again (seriously, how has this happened??), you might already be thinking about planning a getaway for later in the year.

After the year that was 2020, I can't blame you! But 2021 is still shaping up to look a little different than a “normal” travel year, and I'm predicting that domestic travel within the US is going to be the trip of choice for the majority of Americans.

If you fall into that category, you might be looking to plan a different sort of summer or fall vacation this year. Amusement parks, beach towns, and crowded national parks may not hold the same appeal as usual – so what are your other options?

Well you all know I'm a huge proponent of road trips, and I also love quirky small towns and cities that may otherwise go overlooked as travel destinations. But I also have another trip idea for you this year that others may not consider: how about planning a trip to the desert?

McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona
McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona
The desert… or a Star Wars set? (It's Cosanti, a unique gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona)

Desert travel is popular in other countries (I'm thinking of places like Morocco or Chile or Mongolia where you might plan a trip just to visit some of the great deserts of the world), but not many people think of the United States as a desert vacation destination.

But guess what? You can absolutely plan an awesome desert vacation in the US!

Note: This post is brought to you as part of a paid partnership with Experience Scottsdale. But, as always, all opinions are 100% my own and based on my personal experiences!

Sunset at CIVANA Wellness Resort and Spa
Who wouldn't want to relax here at CIVANA Wellness Resort and Spa?

Where can you plan a desert vacation in the US?

North America has four major desert areas: the Great Basin, Mohave, Chihuahuan and Sonoran, with large chunks of each being located within the US. These deserts cover parts of states out west like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, California, Nevada, Idaho, and even parts of Oregon and Wyoming.

  • Great Basin Desert – The northernmost desert in North America, this desert sits at higher elevation in states like Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah, and can actually have snow almost year-round.
  • Mohave Desert – Straddling the southern California-Nevada border, the Mohave desert is where you'll find joshua trees and Death Valley.
  • Chihuahuan Desert – This desert lies mostly in Mexico, but also can be found in southern parts of New Mexico and Texas.
  • Sonoran Desert – Covering parts of Arizona and California and stretching south into Mexico, this is the only desert in the US that doesn't experience cold winters! This is also where you'll find giant saguaro cacti, as they only grow in parts of this desert.
Saguaro cactus
You can only find the incredible saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert!

And while you might initially think I'm crazy for suggesting you travel to the desert in the summer or fall months, hear me out first!

We have a lot of misconceptions about deserts and desert travel in general. I've visited several of the desert areas in North America during all different times of year, and I can tell you that a trip to the desert isn't just about sunburns and sand in your shoes.

Kayaking the Lower Salt River in Arizona
Kayaking the Lower Salt River – did you know you can do THIS in the desert?

6 reasons to plan a desert vacation

Using a couple of my past trips as examples (and especially my past trips to Scottsdale in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona), I'm going to share with you all the reasons why you might actually want to book that desert vacation after all!

1. You can visit any time of year

The great thing about planning a desert trip is that you aren't confined to certain seasons; you can visit the desert any time of year – yes, even in the summer!

The very first time I visited the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, it was on a trip to Scottsdale in the month of June. Now, I'll be entirely honest with you here: I initially assumed that trip would be hot and miserable when I saw weather forecasts with temperatures in the triple digits.

But on that summer trip to the desert, I went (early morning) hiking, kayaking, and enjoyed meals outdoors on patios equipped with cooling misters.

Patio misters in Scottsdale
Outdoor dining in Scottsdale
Amanda at the Andaz Scottsdale pool
Every good desert hotel will have a pool, too!

It's usually true what they say: desert heat tends to be a DRY heat, and can actually be pretty bearable. Yes, of course you need to stock up on sun protection and drink plenty of water no matter what you're doing, but a summer trip to the desert is totally do-able if you plan it right.

Or, of course, you can plan a desert trip during a different season, too. Each season in the desert is always different, with different things to see and do.

In the Scottsdale area, for example, spring is also a beautiful season because the Sonoran Desert comes alive with cactus blooms and even wildflowers (yes, there are wildflowers in the desert!).

Flowering cactus in the desert
Flowering cactus in the desert

2. The desert is not always hot

But speaking of those hot desert temperatures… most deserts in the US aren't actually hot year-round! They tend to cool off in the evenings (which is why you can go hiking even in the summer, as long as you start early in the morning), and in the winter can actually get downright chilly.

I've visited the Sonoran Desert in the winter months, too. And even though this desert doesn't really experience “winter,” it was still cool enough at night and in the mornings to need a jacket in Scottsdale!

Amanda at Scottsdale's Museum of the West
I needed a sweater at the Museum of the West in winter…
Hiking in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona
… and we also needed layers for a morning desert hike!

3. It's not always desolate and barren

When most people picture “the desert,” they picture an endless expanse of sand and nothingness. Which makes sense, considering that the dictionary definition of a desert is “arid land with usually sparse vegetation” and “an area apparently devoid of life.”

But in the United States, deserts aren't necessarily all empty and forbidding.

If you want to visit those traditionally “desert-y” areas, they do exist, of course. But people also live in our deserts! In fact, there are some large and very well-known cities within deserts in the US, like Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Scottsdale, too, is smack dab in the middle of a desert, but the city is anything but devoid of life. Scottsdale is filled with public art, interesting architecture, lots of unique restaurants, an urban wine trail, and lots of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors.

Public art in Old Town Scottsdale
Scottsdale has a whole public art trail you can follow!
Postino in Scottsdale
Postino restaurant in Scottsdale

But don't worry – the landscape filled with cacti and red rocks will remind you that you are, in fact, still in the desert.

4. Desert trips don't have to be extreme

I've taken some “extreme” desert trips in other countries – like the time I rode a camel into the Sahara Desert in Morocco and camped there overnight. But desert trips in the US don't have to be extreme like that!

Desert trips here *can* be extreme if you visit one of the more remote desert areas or maybe a national park like Death Valley or White Sands. But you could also plan a desert trip filled with wine tasting and spa days (yes, I'm looking at you, Scottsdale).

In Scottsdale, you could plan a chilled-out, art-focused getaway with a stay at a wellness resort, or you could plan an adventurous trip filled with hot air ballooning, mountain biking, driving an ATV, kayaking alongside wild horses, and going to raucous rodeos at night.

CIVANA Wellness Resort spa
You could spend a day relaxing at the spa…
Hot air balloon in Phoenix, Arizona
… or you could go on a sunrise hot air balloon ride!

And this is true across the US deserts; there really is something for everyone.

5. Desert travel can be affordable

The deserts in the United States are all located out West and away from the coasts. What this generally means for your vacation budget is that prices for everything – from hotels to food to even flights – tend to be lower than if you were planning a trip to the beach or a city break.

This also makes desert trips fairly family-friendly.

And if you want a further budget tip from me? Summertime is often one of the more affordable times to visit the desert areas in the US. Higher temps usually mean lower prices, and in Scottsdale they tell it like it is with their “It's That Hot” summer campaign every year.

It's That Hot mural in Scottsdale

RELATED: Is Summer the Best Time to Visit Scottsdale?

6. Desert sunsets are some of the best

Okay, so this last one is more of a personal opinion than a fact, but desert sunsets are seriously some of my favorite sunsets.

The pinks and oranges can be unreal, due to the drier air that makes those colors pop. And since the southern “hot” deserts tend to see a lot of sunny days (Arizona is one of the sunniest states in the US!), there are more chances to see those vibrant sunsets.

If it's postcard-perfect sunset photos you're after, you can't go wrong in the desert.

Sunset at CIVANA Wellness Resort and Spa
Sunset at CIVANA Wellness Resort and Spa

There are lots of options when it comes to planning a vacation. But if you're looking for an alternative to laying on the beach or navigating crowded national parks this year, then a desert vacation might be a good fit for you!

And if you'd like to read more about some of my own desert travel in the US, here are some blog posts for you to check out:

Have you ever spent time in the American desert? Would you ever want to plan a desert vacation?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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6 Comments on “6 Reasons to Plan a Desert Vacation in the US This Year

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  1. Never have I considered a summer vacation with the desert being a destination.
    Thanks for this post, it has given me a new perspective l.

    So here in Scottsdale, each year we deal with tourists dying on the hiking trails in the summer heat (or tourists’ PETS, which is horrible also). While I don’t think you truly mean to live up to your name of “dangerous”, I honestly wouldn’t mention hiking in the Scottsdale area as a viable activity in the hot summer months. You mentioned fluids and sunscreen, and time of day, but it’s so much more than that, staying safe on our trails in the hot weather. Speaking with local hikers and hiking only on trails with a true, staffed trailhead (where a ranger knows they are tourists and are out on the trail in the heat) are important recommendations. There are a fair amount of smaller, lesser-known trails without a ranger station and it’s just so easy to get into trouble. We want everyone to be safe!

      This is a good point, and I definitely agree that it’s important to practice safe hiking practices ANY time of year if you’re hiking trails you’re unfamiliar with.

    Yikes! You’ve dished all the secrets about how great desert trips are. Now I fully expect to be vying for spots this year. This article says it all, and it’s true. I love the desert. Thanks for sharing all the great photos too.
    Next, the Australian outback! Once travel’s back on, that’ll be the next desert destination for me.

      Haha, I’m sure the high temps will still keep the hordes away! 😉 Glad you agree about how great desert travel can be, though! I was supposed to take a big trip to Australia in 2020 that obviously didn’t happen; hope to maybe be able to re-plan that one for next year!

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