GET SET FOR SUN, SAND, AND SIGHTSEEING
As the days get shorter, the nights get cooler, and the leaves begin to fall, people start hankering for the sun. And where better to find it than the nation's many deserts? Here are 15 great desert locales — and some deals and tips for getting and staying there. Note that many of the cities in and around the desert are a few hours' drive from one another, so the best strategy may be to fly to the city where you find the best deal on a plane ticket, and then rent a car and drive to the others nearby.
It's not all big-name shows, gambling, and glitz in Vegas. For those willing to drive an hour or more, desert hiking awaits at Red Rock Canyon, the Mojave Desert National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, and the Grand Canyon. And with a little travel booking finesse, getting there can be cheap. For example, a round-trip ticket to Las Vegas from New York on Delta Air Lines could be had for as little as $218. A similar round-trip ticket from Seattle was $160 on Alaska Airlines. Consider a package that bundles hotel and car rental with the flight to save more.
Phoenix is about an hour's drive from the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, where visitors can learn about the ancient peoples that once inhabited the land. But there's also a lot to do in Phoenix itself, including numerous golf courses and hiking trails to enjoy in the desert sun. Getting there isn't as cheap as flying to Las Vegas, but it is competitive. A round-trip ticket to Phoenix from Boston was as low as $384 on Frontier Airlines, while a round-trip ticket from Portland, Oregon, on American Airlines cost $359.
PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA
This resort town in the middle of the California desert was an iconic "home away from home" for many early Hollywood stars and now provides an eclectic mix of movie nostalgia tours, midcentury modern home design, and desert landscapes for hiking and exploring. Joshua Tree National Park is a 45-minute drive away and Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel is even closer (the hotel sells passes for non-guests to take a dip in the natural springs for $5 to $10 depending on the day of the week). To get to Palm Springs, fly into Los Angeles and drive two hours east, or fly into the open-air Palm Springs airport. A search for a round-trip flight from San Francisco yielded a price of $102 on Alaska Airlines.
This vibrant coastal town may not come first to mind when thinking about places for a desert getaway, but it's only an 80-mile drive to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (free) and about 20 miles to the Mexico border. For an antidote to the desert, with no less sun, visit the nearby San Diego National Wildlife Refuge (also free) on the south end of San Diego Bay. A round-trip flight from Phoenix was $366 on Alaska Airlines.
For those who want a true desert experience, there's no better place to go than the Imperial Sand Dunes, two hours west of Yuma in El Centro, California. Those looking to "ride" the dunes on an ATV need a weekly permit, which can be purchased in advance online for $35 to $50, depending on locale. The best bet for getting to Yuma is to drive from Phoenix (about three hours), Palm Springs (also about three hours), or San Diego (slightly less than three hours).
This small city is a little off the standard tourist map, but it puts visitors close to some incredible scenery, including the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge (free), Great Sands Dunes National Park, and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge (free). The biggest challenge might be getting there. The cheapest option is to fly into Denver and drive four and a half hours (taking in some great scenery).
Flagstaff itself isn't known so much as a tourist spot, but there are a few noteworthy destinations nearby. One is enormous Meteor Crater, nearly a mile across and more than 550 feet deep, halfway between Flagstaff and Winslow. Another noteworthy attraction nearby is Walnut Canyon National Monument with its remarkable geological formations. It's possible to fly to Flagstaff from Phoenix (for $400 or more), but it's cheaper to fly to Phoenix and drive two and a half hours north.
Famously referenced in the Eagles song "Take It Easy" (there's now a public square called Standin' on the Corner Park), Winslow is probably the best base for exploring Petrified Forest National Park. There, visitors can see vestiges of more than 13,000 years of human history and culture — from prehistoric peoples to Route 66 motorists. The best bet for getting to Winslow is via Flagstaff, about an hour's drive west.
Sedona is known as a place of desert tranquility, about two hours north of the airport in Phoenix. The region is home to Red Rock State Park, which hosts one of the largest hot-air-balloon rallies in North America (Nov. 30 - Dec. 2 this year), and Slide Rock State Park, named for a popular natural water chute where swimmers are welcome.
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO
Albuquerque has an even bigger balloon festival (Oct. 1-9) and a strong sense of natural and cultural history. Visitors heap praise on Petroglyph National Monument (free, with a $1 to $2 charge for parking), the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, or Rio Grande Nature Center State Park. Fans of "Breaking Bad" can see the show's desert backdrop, along with other locations. Round-trip flights from Seattle start at $253 on Delta.
This is one of the southernmost desert cities in the United States, about 80 miles from the Mexico border. It has some great desert attractions, including the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the movie-set "town" of Old Tucson (where several classic Western movies and many episodes of TV shows, including "Bonanza" and "Death Valley Days," were filmed). Searches for a round-trip ticket to Tucson from Chicago showed a best price of $347 on United Airlines.
Tombstone is about as classic as an Old West desert town gets. It's where notorious gunslingers such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Johnny Ringo roamed the streets. It's free to walk around Tombstone, but the visit can be made better with a guided tour, such as the 90-minute tour offered by Dr. Jay's Tombstone History Walking Tours ($20). The easiest way to get to Tombstone is to fly to Tucson and drive southeast for about 90 minutes.
EL PASO, TEXAS
El Paso is a historic desert town that shares a border with Mexico and offers many places to climb, hike, watch birds, picnic, or immerse yourself in history. One place to do all those things is Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site, which features guided and self-guided tours of rock imagery fashioned by ancient peoples. Sample round-trip airfares into El Paso International Airport include $297 from Chicago (on United).
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO
From the unique architecture to its rich history, no place is quite like Santa Fe. That's perhaps most evident at Puye Cliff Dwellings, a National Historic Landmark, where travelers can see the ruins of an ancient, abandoned pueblo that was in use from the 10th to the 16th centuries. A variety of tours are available, including a one-hour Cliff Side Tour ($20) that takes visitors along a steep paved trail for a thrilling dose of history. Sante Fe is about an hour's drive north of Albuquerque.
ZION NATIONAL PARK, UTAH
Zion National Park is iconic and vast. Its pink, red, and gray canyons and rock formations are legendary. Prices for a one-week pass are $35 for a car and passengers, $30 for a motorcycle, and $20 for hikers, pedestrians, and cyclists. The best bet for accommodation is camping (at the South or Watchman campgrounds within the park or Lava Point Campground, about an 80-minute drive). The best option for getting to Zion is flying into Las Vegas and renting a car.