Winter in the US deserts
Winter is the ideal time to explore the dramatic, beautiful landscapes of Death Valley. (Witold Skrypczak/LPI)
To some travellers, spending the winter months in a desert region sounds like an unhappy marriage of frigid weather and bleak landscapes – certainly not your typical antidote to the winter blues.
But visit the southwestern United States as the air cools and you will quickly see why this is one of the best-kept secrets in travel. In the winter light, these desert regions border on magical, are endlessly fascinating and best of all, they are blissfully empty. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of a winter trip to the American Southwest.
Crowds? What crowds?
Winter is high season in Phoenix, Tucson and other parts of southern Arizona, as well as in Palm Springs and the California desert oases, as visitors from the north come in search of warmer temperatures. But venture away from these busier spots and the crowds dwindle instantly. For nature lovers, winter is the ideal time to explore the dramatic, beautiful landscapes of Big Bend National Park, Death Valley or Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
In the height of summer, Grand Canyon National Park sees five times more visitors than in the winter months, and for good reason: it can get very cold in the winter, the north rim closes (it never gets many visitors, even at busy times of the year) and there is a good chance of seeing snow. But if you can brave the chilly weather (sub-freezing temperatures are common in higher elevation areas and even in some warmer areas, temperatures can drop by as much as 30 degrees) winter shows the Canyon at its most striking.
The lower angle of winter light can create photographic difficulties – such as an increased glare – but it can also produce beautifully long shadows and sunrises and sunsets that you will not find in the summer. The serenity of winter means it is easier to snap people-free shots at natural wonders like Havasu Falls, chase lonesome shadows on the hills of the Kelso Dunes and get car-free shots of desert roads disappearing into infinity. Bryce Canyon is famously beautiful in the winter, with snow highlighting the otherworldly hoodoos (tall, thin spires of rock). Or capture what winter life was like for some of the southwestern tribes at the shadowy cliff dwellings of Canyon de Chelly and Navajo National Monument, where free tours to the Betatakin cliff dwelling are offered on weekends.
Get in early for spring delights
The end of winter fading into early spring brings the annual delight of desert blooms, eliminating the image of a vast, lifeless plain of sand. Every five to 10 years, the deserts experience the perfect combination of temperature and rainfall to produce a spring bloom of breathtaking scope, but even off years are impressive. Carpets of pink sand verbena mixed with deep purple phacelias, neon cactus flowers and fiery red ocotillo start emerging before much of the US is done shovelling snow. Top spots to catch a desert bloom include Anza-Borrego Desert State Park east of San Diego or Saguaro National Park near Tucson, where you can enjoy the wildflowers mixed in among the towering stands of giant saguaro cacti.