Some people actually choose to visit Death Valley in summer. No, really. People, often from Europe, want to experience the hottest place on earth at the hottest time of year.
I’m not one of them.
I’m a retired National Park Service ranger, and I spent several years working in the desert southwest. I remember days working outside in temperatures above 120 degrees as unpleasant, hellaciously so, and not something I’d want to do on vacation, or work. Ever again.
Spring and fall are wonderful times to visit, but that means that things can be a bit congested in some areas. So I’m going to plan this trip for the dead of winter.
Just because a park is in the desert doesn’t mean it’s not going to get cold in winter, especially at night — so check the weather and plan your wardrobe accordingly.
Desert winters aren’t that long, so you may need to plan your trip well in advance, even around President’s Day. Many campgrounds are first come, first served, so have a backup plan if you travel in the spring and fall. The good news is that there’s often camping available in undeveloped areas — you just need to be self contained.
Let me give you a triad of larger parks in the desert Southwest that have a variety of things to see and do that might be of interest, from hiking to birding — even stuff for movie buffs who otherwise may not be fans of the great outdoors. They’re all within a few hours’ drive, and make a great loop vacation. If you need to fly in, Las Vegas will work great as a hub.
1. Death Valley National Park
Since we’re looking to escape the heat, let’s start with the place with the most heat to escape: Death Valley.
How hot does it get in practical terms?
So hot the National Park Service (NPS) in Death Valley issues permits to automakers, who bring camouflage-wrapped upcoming models to road test them in the hottest conditions they’ll ever possibly encounter. Last summer it was 130. A bit under the record of 134.
That’s why we’re going in winter, when temperatures will often be in the 60s — quite pleasant.
So what is there to do?
Hiking-wise, there are a lot of great trails. For starters, I’ll recommend the Ubehebe Crater loop, which, as you would imagine, goes in a loop around the Ubehebe Crater. It’s a big crater, so it’s a 1.5-mile loop. Figure about 2 hours.
If you’re more adventurous, hike Mosaic Canyon for a great geology tour. It’s 1.3 miles up canyon till you hit a boulder field, a good place to turn around. The access road isn’t paved, but you don’t need an SUV.
Speaking of unpaved roads, Death Valley has hundreds of miles of them. They lead you to places most visitors will never see. Many are 4×4 only, so if you don’t have a 4×4 but do have mountain bikes, consider bringing the bikes along.
A visit to Death Valley doesn’t mean roughing it. The Oasis at Death Valley operates two hotels, including the historic Inn at Death Valley (a getaway for Hollywood legends back in the day), and the golf course at Furnace Creek — proudly recognized as the golf course at the lowest elevation in the world, 214 feet below sea level. Posh accommodations for a national park.
And, of course, the park has plenty of sites with exhibits on cultural history. Sadly, the most famous — Scotty’s Castle — is closed for several months due to flood damage. Mining history exhibits include the Harmony Borax Works (yes, there were 20-mule teams), the Keane Wonder Mine, the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, and the Ashford Mill site.
Death Valley also offers a couple things to do that are a bit unconventional — they have a Star Wars theme.
First is the Star Wars film location driving tour. Download the NPS app on your phone, look at Self-Guided Tours in Death Valley, and listen to the NPS’s guided Star Wars location tour as the online map guides you. Load the audio tour when you have service, as data coverage in the park is iffy. The app will send you on a 5-hour driving tour around the park to filming locations for both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.
The second activity in the theme is a visit to a canyon commonly known as “Star Wars Canyon” frequented by military training flights. You’ll see fighter jets flying fast and low through a narrow canyon — as Luke over the Death Star in A New Hope. Schedules aren’t announced, but your odds are much better on weekdays with good weather. (The military doesn’t train much on weekends and holidays, and nobody’s flying down this canyon in bad weather.) Park at Father Crowley Overlook off of Highway 190 on the west side of the park. Make sure your battery’s charged, because you’re going to take some video.
Pro Tip: Bring water wherever you go. Even if it’s not hot, it’s dry. Very dry. Like the-driest-place-you’ve-ever-been dry. Hydrate often. And areas with water are not common, so have water with you and refill when you can.
2. Mojave National Preserve
Millions of people drive along the boundary of Mojave National Preserve each year and never get out of the car. The park is located on I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, so only a small fraction of people traveling through have a park visit on their mind, especially during summer.
But once you get off the interstate, slow down a bit, maybe even get out of the car. You’ll immediately appreciate the solitude.
The park is like a buffet for geologists, from cinder cones and volcanic ash to sand dunes. The park’s human history is also varied, from mining and railroads to petroglyphs and ancient trails.
If you’re looking for a hike to get a good overview of the park, try the Teutonia Peak Trail. Teutonia Peak will give you views of Cima Dome, you’ll pass abandoned mines, and you’ll pass through a forest of dead Joshua trees burned in a fire a couple of years ago. It’s just 3 miles round trip, not a bad climb, so figure 2–3 hours.
If you’re looking for something easy, the Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail is a half-mile long and will teach you about the common plants in the area. If half a mile is way too easy, put your new knowledge to the test on the Barber Peak Loop Trail, which starts in the same area. It’s 6 miles, so 3 hours plus.
The Kelso Dunes are the classic Mojave experience. The good news is it’s not a long hike to the top of the dunes, just three miles, and the dunes are only 650 feet high. The bad news is that they’re made of sand, so hiking becomes, well, quite inefficient. Expect to spend 2–3 hours to get to the top. But you don’t need to get to the top — just climb up a ways till you’ve had enough, then head back down and empty your boots.
One of the things most people are surprised to find in the middle of the desert is the train depot at Kelso. Steam-powered trains climbing out of Los Angeles needed to stop to refill their boilers with water, and there was water at Kelso, and it became a major railway hub. A beautiful depot was built in the 1920s and has been renovated as a visitor center (be sure to check operating hours when you plan your visit).
The park also features miles of unpaved desert roads to explore. In fact, the Mojave Road is a travel corridor used by Indigenous people for eons.
3. Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Lake Mead is a boater’s paradise, but it’s underrated for its hiking, mountain biking, and desert wildlife viewing.
Great hikes start with the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail, which runs on the route of the railroad used to construct Hoover Dam. It’s a former railroad, so it’s an easy hike, and as you’d imagine, you hike through some tunnels. It’s 2.2 miles in the park, but you’ll want to hike the extra 1.5 miles to continue on to the dam.
Winter is a good time for birds at Lake Mead, and a couple of trails are recommended for birders.
Owl Canyon is aptly named and is located in the old 33 Hole area off Northshore Road. During high-water years, the rangers named the area after the radio code for emergencies, 10-33. Now that the lake has receded, the emergencies have gone elsewhere, and owls have felt safe moving into the cliffs.
The Wetlands Trail, also on Northshore, accesses the Las Vegas Wash — water that leads into Lake Mead from Las Vegas. It’s got water and dense vegetation — a great home for birds.
And should you care to go on the water, Lake Mead Cruises operates the Desert Princess, with a variety of cruise options. Although not always necessary, it’s best to make reservations well in advance, even in winter.
Pro Tip: Christmas Tree Pass is outside the park at its very southern end — near Laughlin, Nevada. The 12-mile road isn’t paved. It can be visited in a car, but is best done in an SUV. Along the road you can see petroglyphs. And Christmas trees.
It’s called Christmas Tree Pass because of the juniper trees along the road. People thought they looked like Christmas trees and began decorating them. Yes, it’s not environmentally sound, but if you’re looking for a trip to the desert in winter, yet still want to see Christmas trees, this is the best I can do for you.