Pick your poison – California, Nevada, Utah or good ol’ Arizona – with this seasonal showcase of five highly doable desert adventures.
Death Valley’s Greatest Hits
If ever there was an inaptly named American landmark, it’s Death Valley National Park (760-786-3200, nps.gov/deva, $30/vehicle). The moniker connotes a vast emptiness where nothing grows and nothing survives. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Within the remote reaches of this California park’s 3.4 million acres, winter explorers will discover canyon creeks, secret waterfalls, pristine sand dunes and late-season wildflowers, as well as, of course, Death Valley’s more famous sights: rainbow-hued badlands and below-sea-level basins smothered by heat – yes, even in January.
While Death Valley is not a land barren of life, we concede that the name packs a dramatic punch. And there’s plenty of nature’s drama on full display here. To appreciate the park’s strange sights, we compiled a list of must-sees.
In Death Valley’s isolated north, Eureka Dunes spans 3 miles wide and 1 mile long, and rises more than 680 feet from the earth. Sculpted and sweeping, these are the tallest sand dunes in California. Crest their ridgeline on a 2.5-mile hike that affords valley views of delicate wildflower blooms in late winter.
Splashed over boulders and painted down cliffsides, the naturally occurring colors of Artists Palette astound in their vibrancy. Caused by the oxidizing of metals on volcanic rock, the shades of rose and yellow (from iron compounds), purples (from manganese) and mint greens (mica) tie-dye the rock formations on the west face of the Black Mountains. See it during a leisurely putter on Artists Drive, a 9-mile loop.
On the east side of the Black Mountains, another colorful playground awaits. You might recognize Zabriskie Point from the cover of U2’s album The Joshua Tree. These badlands composed of sediments from Furnace Creek Lake – gone dry some 5 million years ago – have eroded into undulating hills and gentle gullies. Visitors climb and crawl over Zabriskie’s rounded shapes, searching for new angles at which to photograph its iconic color spectrum of pinks and corals, ivories and tans, bronzes and coppers.
A spring-fed, year-round 18-foot waterfall – one of a few in Death Valley – isn’t the only surprise in this hidden oasis. There’s a serene pool shrouded in trees and lined with cattails, for one. A creek gurgling by, creating a watery home for small fish and amphibians. And bighorn sheep, who skirt the lush canyon and depend on the falls’ life-giving water. Soak it all up on an easy 1-mile hike from the trailhead.
Dante’s View and Badwater Basin
These spots embody Death Valley’s extremes, from the 5,476-foot-high Dante’s View on Coffin Peak to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. Navigate the hairpin turns on the road to Dante’s viewing terrace for an expansive panorama of the entire park, then drive down, down, down – 282 feet below sea level, to be exact – to the blazing heat of Badwater’s salt flats.
Where to Stay
Death Valley is the largest national park in the Lower 48. It’s huge. That’s why we recommend staying inside the park. You have four lodging options, but Panamint Springs (40440 CA-190, 775-482-7680, panamintsprings.com, from $80/night) captures Death Valley’s weird desert vibe the best. It’s part campground, part RV resort, with a few glampsites and cabins thrown in for good measure. It sits at a higher elevation, so winter evenings get cold; dress warmly and bring blankets. Panamint Springs offers a gas station with a market selling retro-style postcards, fun souvenirs, grocery staples and perfect breakfast burritos, and a restaurant where the beers are good and the burgers juicy. Snag a table on the patio for people-watching and stargazing.
Two options here: You can fly into Las Vegas, rent a car and drive 2 hours west to CA-190 to access the park’s east entrance (total travel: approx. 5 hours); or you can make the 6.5-hour drive from Phoenix, which also goes through Vegas.
Flagstaff Backcountry Retreat
Swoosh. Swoosh. Glide. Swoosh. Swoosh. Glide.
You’re breathing slow and steady, in and out. You can see your breath in the frigid air and feel your heart pumping, pushing warmth to gloved hands and booted toes. As you slide your cross-country skis along the trail, you take in the winter wonderland of ice-clad pines and snowcapped peaks. You slow for a bend in the trail and then suddenly you see it: a yurt, tucked in the trees. Smoke rises from a stovepipe, promising a cozy respite from the cold outside, a hot meal. At last. You’re home.
If this wintry vignette speaks to you, then consider a sojourn to Flagstaff’s Arizona Nordic Village (16848 US-180, 928-220-0550, arizonanordicvillage.com). Sprawling among the dense firs, aspens and ponderosa pines of Coconino National Forest, the Village maintains a network of well-groomed trails for Nordic sports and offers accommodations (from $65/night) by way of eight yurts – five of them a 2- to 3-mile trek into the backcountry – and four cabins.
The trail system connects more than 30 miles of 16-foot-wide paths for cross-country skiing as well as dozens of multi-use trails packed via snowmobile for snowshoeing and snow biking. The trails wind through the mountains just west of the San Francisco Peaks, drawing adventurers from all over the state, both expert skiers and snowshoers and those new to the activities.
Don’t fret, Phoenicians. Nordic skiing is surprisingly intuitive. There are two techniques: skating and classic. Skating involves a lateral pushing-off motion, like ice skating. In the classic technique, the skis move forward in parallel lines. You can ski as far or for as long as you like, but the idea is to ease into a flow – peaceful, meditative, a movement of body that quiets the brain.
Arizona Nordic Village rents gear, too, so there’s no reason not to give the sport a try. A ski package (skis, boots, poles) runs $25/day and a snowshoe package costs $15/day. Though staying overnight in one of the cabins or yurts – each equipped with mattress pads and simple amenities but no electricity or running water – completes the experience, you can also purchase a day pass ($20-$30) or a season pass (from $280/person).
The allure of the place? Partly, it’s the sheer mileage of available trails to traverse, but even more compelling: The landscape never stops gifting views. A stark-white aspen forest here. A snow-blanketed meadow there. Gentle downhill slopes lit by a bright winter sun. Two deer up ahead on the ridge, elegant and watchful.
As far as winter sports go, cross-country skiing might not be as sexy as zooming downhill on a snowboard. And cooking a messy feast over a wood-burning stove, then journaling by lantern light, might not appeal to those who like a rowdier après scene. But there’s something seductive about succumbing to the rhythmic glide of the skis, something rejuvenating about listening to the silence of snow. Something restorative about a snug house in the middle of the woods waiting to welcome you.
If You Go
16848 US-180, 928-220-0550, arizonanordicvillage.com
Everything You Want, Everything You Need
Whether you’re spending the night or enjoying the trails for the day, your Arizona Nordic Village excursion starts at the main lodge. This is basecamp for all your necessities. Rent skis and snowshoes, pick up detailed trail maps, get info on yurts and cabins, grab firewood, purchase sundries and take advantage of Wi-Fi, restrooms and showers. The lodge stocks a decent selection of analog entertainment, too: books, playing cards and board games. This is also where you can sign up for a gear shuttle ($40/roundtrip) if you don’t want to haul your stuff to the backcountry yurts.
An Old West Tour in Nevada
For a dusty little town caught somewhere between Las Vegas and Reno, Tonopah sure racks up the accolades. Such as: No. 1 Stargazing Destination in the United States by USA Today; one of the Top 10 True Western Towns by True West Magazine; and home of the Most Haunted Hotel in America, according to USA Today’s Readers’ Choice Awards.
Tonopah also boasts a silver mining history so robust that the town earned the informal moniker “Queen of the Silver Camps.” And did we mention it anchors the third leg of a road trip along Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway, where landmarks include Area 51, the Alien Research Center and UFO-themed bars?
Brisk winter temperatures cool Nevada’s desert heat, making it an ideal season to explore all things Tonopah, from the town’s underground mines to its crisp nighttime skies. So, the question becomes: Where to begin a Tonopah tour?
Start at the Tonopah Historic Mining Park (110 Burro Ave., 775-482-9274, tonopahminingpark.com, $5/person). The 113-acre visitor center sits on the town’s original mining claims and features a guided Polaris ATV tour, an underground mine walk over the 1,000-foot-deep Mizpah Mine Shaft, restored buildings, preserved mining equipment, video presentations and a black-light mineral display.
You’ll explore more mining history at the Central Nevada Museum (1900 Logan Field Rd., 775-482-9676, centralnevadamuseum.com, free), but you’ll also dig into the region’s ranching past, discover the culture and heritage of the Western Shoshone people and learn about the Tonopah Air Force Base – the largest World War II training center in the United States.
Next, catch the 1 p.m. Otteson Brothers Turquoise Mining Tour (departs from Giggle Springs Gas Station, 182 N. Main St., ottesonbrothersturquoise.com, $200/person or $125/person for two or more), a half-day rockhounding excursion into the Royston Turquoise Mine. You’ll be digging for your very own turquoise baubles. Finders keepers! (Or whatever you can fit into the bag they give you.)
Then raise a toast to your treasures with a cocktail in the gilded lobby of the Mizpah Hotel (100 N. Main St., 775-482-3030, themizpahhotel.com, $155-$275/night). Here, the perks are plenty: plush décor reminiscent of the hotel’s 1907 origins; a legendary reputation that includes being the site of Howard Hughes’ 1950s nuptials to his second wife, actress Jean Peters; pet-friendly amenities; a great restaurant (order the French dip for dinner); and paranormal activity the likes of which garnered the aforementioned “most haunted hotel” superlative. Spend the night – if you dare.
If you’re too spooked to overnight with ghostly spirits, you may have to choose the lesser of two fears. One of the other lodging options in Tonopah is The Clown Motel (521 N. Main St., 775-624-9098, theclownmotelusa.com, $85-$135/night). Every room sports no fewer than three clown paintings, and the lobby is chock-full of clowns – thousands, in all sizes and manner of frightening faces.
Once the sun sets, head to the Tonopah Stargazing Park (Ray Tennant Way, 775-482-6336, free) to see what makes Tonopah’s dark skies so special. The park is outfitted with concrete pads for setting up long-exposure cameras and telescopes, though you won’t need the latter. Millions of stars and planets, galaxies and constellations, even the Milky Way, are visible to the naked eye.
Go Off Grid
A silver-mining boomtown, Belmont (46 miles north of Tonopah on NV-376 and NV-82) was abandoned after the mines shut down. Today, it’s a ghost town of 150-year-old ruins, from old homes to a school, bank and assay office. Belmont is worth the trip, if only for the chance to visit Dirty Dick’s Belmont Saloon, a favorite watering hole operating solely on generator power – enough to keep the beer cold and the conversation flowing. The saloon doesn’t have a website, phone or regular hours. But rumor has it your chances are good Thurs.-Sun. starting at 2 p.m.
Road to Zion
Under Canvas has quickly made a name for itself in the “glamping resort” sector. Since 2012, the company has erected 11 one-of-a-kind luxury compounds near national parks – and incorporated singular features from each into its programming. To wit: Under Canvas Acadia in Maine offers community seafood boils and front-row seats to rugged coastlines. Arizona’s own Under Canvas Grand Canyon highlights its Dark Sky designation via stargazing experiences.
Under Canvas Zion set up camp in 2017 on a secluded swath of desert 20 miles outside of Zion National Park in the rural town of Virgin, Utah. Getting to this remote “glampsite” requires a one-hour flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to St. George Regional Airport, where you can rent a car and drive about 40 miles to arrive at the 196-acre encampment of spacious, safari-style tents – illuminated by solar-powered lanterns and heated by wood-burning stoves, but also handsomely appointed with king-size beds, luxe linens and West Elm furnishings, for a seamless blend of creature comforts (like an ensuite bathroom) and “roughing it” (you may wake up to a bug on your bedside table).
Meals at Under Canvas Zion are also far from rustic. Utilizing seasonal and thoughtfully sourced ingredients, on-site restaurant Embers prepares gourmet fireside goodies like spiced trout with farro, skirt steak with mint chimichurri and cashew pesto linguine. Also on offer: a robust wine list and light noshes like a grazing board and bruschetta.
As the day wanes, strangers become friends as they exchange tales of recent adventures over crackling campfires. The property even provides complimentary s’mores kits that can be customized with vegan marshmallows and various types of chocolate.
Zion National Park itself is a surreal tapestry of towering sandstone cliffs, rugged slot canyons and rich riparian areas. Winter imparts these natural wonders with a sense of serene enchantment that stands in stark contrast to the park’s bustling peak seasons. Daytime temps range from 30 to 50 degrees, and the absence of foliage allows for better visibility of the area’s rock formations and wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mule deer and more than 200 bird species.
Complimentary programming at Under Canvas Zion, such as desert plant bouquet-making and sunrise yoga, aim to connect guests to the singular facets of the surrounding area. Paid activities (see sidebar below) can be booked through the Under Canvas Adventure Concierge.
If You Go
3955 Kolob Terrace Rd., Virgin, Utah, 888-496-1148, undercanvas.com/camps/zion
Three experiential “extras” you might want to do at Under Canvas Zion.
Expert wranglers guide guests along the edge of Zion National Park – and will happily take pictures of you atop your trusty steed.
Learn how to skillfully scale cliffs, rappel into caves and squeeze through slot canyons during half- and full-day excursions at legendary climbing spots like Kolob Terrace and Water Canyon.
Instead of touring Zion’s 200-plus square miles on foot, rent an e-bike to cruise through the park at up to 20 miles per hour.
Arizona Powder Play
While mention of the Grand Canyon State may not immediately evoke snow-kissed summits and pristine pine groves, Arizona’s trio of ski resorts – Ski Valley, Sunrise and Snowbowl – sufficiently satisfy one’s thirst for alpine adventure. The snow-studded San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona salute incoming motorists on the I-17 like attentive sentinels, while the White Mountains to the east and the Santa Catalinas to the south vaunt ethereal ivory-hued veils each winter. Though these mountainous regions may not boast the meticulously groomed trails or high-powered chairlifts of their counterparts in Utah and Colorado, Arizona still provides tranquil, snow-laden landscapes and thrilling terrain for snowboarders and downhill skiers.
Here’s a primer on the state’s alpine playgrounds.
Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley
A system of sinuous ski slopes – ranging from mild beginner runs to exhilarating expert trails – cascade across Mt. Lemmon, the tallest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains about 150 miles south of Phoenix. Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley doesn’t supplement its ski runs with artificial snow, so it relies on Mother Nature to dictate when it opens its slopes. This unpredictability means Ski Valley’s season could last several months or a few weeks (the 2023 season ran from January 5 to March 12), and thus doesn’t offer season passes. All-day adult lift tickets ($73) can be purchased on-site only.
Winter storms at the summit are common – averaging 180 inches of snow annually – but temperatures on the mountain are typically mild enough to comfortably ski in a light sweater. With only 200 skiable acres, 22 runs and three chairlifts, Ski Valley is quaint in comparison to most ski resorts. For reference, Mammoth Mountain in California has 25 lifts and 175 runs, while Park City in Utah boasts 42 lifts and 324 runs. Ski Valley can claim one superlative, though – it is the southernmost skiing destination in the country.
The small ski village at the base of the mountain – contrarily named Summerhaven – is home to several lodging and dining options, including the cozy Sawmill Run gastropub (12976 N. Sabino Canyon Pkwy., 520-576-9147, sawmillrun.com) and Mt. Lemmon Hotel (12925 N. Sabino Canyon Pkwy., 520-277-2478, mtlemmonhotel.com, $144.99/night), a cluster of private, family- and pet-friendly cabins.
If You Go
10300 E. Ski Run Rd., 520-576-1321, skithelemmon.com
Sunrise Park Resort
Cradled between the White Mountains and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Sunrise is a scenic, three-and-a-half-hour drive from the Valley. Owned and operated by the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the 1,200-acre ski area consists of three summits – Sunrise Peak, Apache Peak and Cyclone Circle – which offer a combined network of 67 trails suitable for skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels, including a terrain park, cross-country skiing area and “bunny hill” for beginners.
Accessible by eight chairlifts, many of the trails are rated easy and pay homage to the area’s Native proprietorship via monikers like Arrowhead and Apache Pass. Full-day adult passes are $73, and season passes (valid through early April) are available for $689. Passholder perks include 10 percent off food, drinks and retail items, deals on demo equipment and discounted passes for friends and family. Night skiing tickets are offered during select evenings throughout the season.
The nearby town of Greer is host to a number of dining destinations, including Molly Butler Lodge (109 Main St., 928-735-7226, mollybutlerlodge1910.com), which has been serving its famous prime rib and mud pie for 114 years. Greer Lodge Resort & Cabins (80 Main St., 928-735-2304, greerlodgeaz.com, $59-$149/night) is a 20-minute drive from the mountain and offers a small colony of standalone cabins that can sleep up to 12 people. Lastly, if you found our profile of Edelweiss Biergarten in our Dine Around the World feature appetizing (pg. 118), know that the owners also run the nine-unit, pet-friendly Edelweiss Resort (edelweiss-resort.com). Same hospitality, same insanely delicious schnitzel.
If You Go
200 Highway 273, 928-735-7669, sunrise.ski
During the winter months, Snowbowl’s crisp mountain air is filled with the mechanical hum of chairlifts ferrying eager skiers to the summit and the rhythmic swish of skis sculpting fresh snow. This frozen utopia is just 160 miles north of Phoenix, and snowmaking technology allows it to consistently welcome guests December through April.
Snowbowl’s demand-based pricing means lift tickets can range from $29 to $110 depending on the day of the week or point in the season. A 2024 Power Pass (starting at $849) grants unlimited access to Snowbowl and 10 neighboring ski resorts, including Purgatory in Colorado, Brian Head in Utah and Sandia Peak in New Mexico. Offering 55 trails across more than 700 skiable acres serviced by eight lifts, Snowbowl’s terrain is a mix of well-maintained trails, challenging glades and steep slopes. The mountain’s gentler runs can be found via the Hart Prairie lift on the resort’s western side, while the more difficult trails are accessed by the Agassiz and Grand Canyon Express lifts, which transport guests to Humphreys Peak. At 12,637 feet, Snowbowl’s summit is the highest point in Arizona.
As the sun dips below the horizon and the wintry spectacle of alpenglow begins to blanket the surrounding area, visitors commence their après-ski rituals at watering holes like Fremont Restaurant and Bar and Hart Prairie Lodge. The recently opened High Country Motor Lodge (1000 W. Rte. 66, 866-928-4265, highcountrymotorlodge.com, $86-$224) in Flagstaff has a buzzy bar and restaurant, 123 well-appointed rooms to rest weary heads, and hot and cold plunge pools to soothe sore muscles.
If You Go
9300 N. Snowbowl Rd., 928-447-9928, snowbowl.ski