By Anita Maksimiuk, Contributing Blogger
If you’ve been craving a desert getaway but have been waiting for the weather to cool down, you’re on the right track. As temperatures decrease, the desert takes on a whole new life- and becomes much more inviting to hikers, campers, and other explorers. The American Southwest is one of the country’s most stunning (and underrated) hiking destinations. Soaring peaks, starry skies and expansive vistas define the landscape, with unique flora and fauna everywhere you turn.
Desert regions are also home to a precious cultural heritage that you can learn about as you discover on foot. Consider the destinations below as you plan your next autumn hiking getaway.
Tucson is known for its extreme temperatures and saguaro cacti, but it’s also home to a thriving outdoor culture. The following destinations are hiking favorites- be sure to hit the trails early and bring plenty of water, as temperatures can rise quickly.
Saguaro National Park
Tucson sits in the middle of Saguaro National Park, which protects the region’s mesmerizing saguaro forests. There is an east and west section of the park- if it’s your first time visiting, consider heading to the east side first, as it is home to the iconic Cactus Forest Loop drive. As for hiking, the east side of the park has both gentle nature walks and more intense trails.
Most trails, like the Coyote Wash, Hope Camp, and Mica View trails range from 1-2 miles. These are great morning hikes, as they’ll get you out in the desert and back before the heat sets in. if you’re looking for more of a challenge, consider West Saguaro’s Hugh Norris Trail. At nearly 5 miles one way, this trail is steep and rewarding, with unforgettable desert views.
While not as well-known as the national park, Sabino Canyon is not to be missed when in Tucson. Counting 8 miles round trip, the area’s Seven Falls trail is popular throughout the year, as it leads to a swimming hole and cascading cliffside waterfall. There can be quite a lot of water depending on rains and monsoon season, while other times of the year may be drier. This trail is moderate but may require multiple water crossings.
If water levels are not too high, hikers can wade or simply walk through the streams, which can actually be quite refreshing on a hot morning. After enjoying plenty of Sonoran Desert vibrance, you’ll come upon the waterfall, where you can cool down, enjoy lunch and dip your feet in the water. On the walk back, enjoy boundless saguaro vistas.
Bandelier National Monument
For an adventure that celebrates New Mexico’s rich cultural past as well as its natural landscape, consider Bandelier National Monument. Located just northwest of Santa Fe, the monument has a visitor’s center and miles of hiking trails, many of which feature historic cliff dwellings. It’s easy to make this all-day outing, and you may even be able to tackle two shorter hikes in one visit.
The Alcove House trail is a highly popular 2.6-mile loop path that includes staircases and ladders. Hikers will be able to see the site of a former kiva and cliff dwellings once inhabited by the Pueblo people. For a more challenging option, consider the 4.2 mile out and back Cerro Grande trail, which offers a steady climb and plenty of native flora.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
If you plan to visit Southern Utah, the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is must-see. The region’s red rock formations are both iconic and photogenic. As always, pay close attention to rising temperatures and carry plenty of water. The monument is home to popular hikes, though you likely won’t encounter national park-sized crowds here.
Many hikes within the monument are challenging endeavors that may require a permit, special gear or an overnight stay. Peek-a-boo Canyon is a shorter, more accessible hike that you can do in one day, especially if you’re only crossing over into Utah briefly. Known as one of the most beautiful destinations in the area, this slot canyon is also known as Red Canyon. The hike can be from 3 to 6 miles long, depending on the route you take and whether you add neighboring canyons. Expect narrow passageways and rock scrambles.
This area is accessible via a bumpy, unpaved road, so a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. It’s highly recommended that you contact one of the monument’s four visitor’s centers before heading out, as conditions can change rapidly. You’ll want to make sure the terrain is safe for driving and hiking before you embark on your trip.