Winter Escape at the National Parks

If winter is turning out to be inhospitable, travel to one of these desert national parks where temperatures range from the 50s to 70s during winter. These National Parks are home to scenic landscapes, rich biodiversity and boundless geologic history. While you’re contemplating the timeless beauty of deserts and finding peace, don’t forget to roll down the sand dunes, and embrace your wild child nature. This is our version of a winter escape in the desert at some of the most breathtaking national parks in the country!

Joshua Tree National Park

A field of Joshua trees and Ryan Mountain in the background at one of the US's National Parks.

Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and Ryan Mountain [Image: NPS/Brad Sutton]

Imagine landscapes filled with Joshua trees, twisted and spiky, rugged mountains, sand dudes, dry lakes, and endless flat valleys. Joshua Tree National Park is abundant in scenic views, but also wildlife with 6 species of rattlesnakes, desert bighorns, desert tortoises, lizards, jackrabbits, and pacific flyway migratory birds. The park is especially popular with rock climbers with many routes and levels of difficulty. For novice hikers there are shorter trails, such as the one-mile hike through Hidden Valley, which offers a chance to view the beauty of the park without straying too far into the desert. Some look out points include: Keys View, south of the park, offering views of Coachella Vally and the Salton Sea. Longer trails include Ray Mountain, Lost Horse Mine, Warren Peak, and many more. Visit between October and April for cool, crisp weather as opposed to the heat madness of summer. To see the wildflowers visit from March to April, but always check park reports for their status. And if you want to hike at night, don’t leave out stargazing in Black Rock Campground and Pinto Basin.

Mojave National Preserve

Image: NPS Photos

Table Top Mountain. [Image: NPS Photos]

Mojave is the third largest national parks outside of Alaska with 1.6 million acres of wilderness, unique vegetation and wildlife. There are four major North American deserts running through the park: the Mojave, Great Basin, and Sonoran. Many also come to see the cactus gardens, white fir, and chaparral. The landscape is comprised of mountain ranges, dry river beds, great mesas, towering sand dunes, cinders cones, domes and lava flows. There are ancient rocks that date back to 2.5 billion years old discovered in the Clark Mountains. For creepier sights, there’s a defunct railroad depot and the ghost town of Kelsoare. The depot is now a visitor center. The park offers hiking, backpacking, camping, 4-wheel driving, wildflower viewing, and hunting. Even if you don’t have much time, you can experience the Mojave scenery by visiting the Kelso Dunes and Kelso Depot visitor center for exhibits. Other points of interest include Providence Mountains, Ivanpah Valley, and the Lava tube.

Navajo National Monument

Betatakin Ruin at Navajo National Monument

Betatakin Ruins just inside the canyons. [Image: www.jqjacobs.net]

There’s no need to travel far to see ancient ruins. Navajo National Park has three preserved cliff dwellings: Keet Seel, Betatakin, and Inscription House. This monument is high on the Shonto Plateau overlooking the Tsegi Canyon System. Built by the prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan People, the ruins were constructed within sandstone alcoves within the canyons. The villages date back to AD 1250. Visitors can also appreciate roof beams, masonry walls, and even rock art. The park has a museum, two short self-guided mesa top trails, two small campgrounds, and a picnic area. If you’re on your way to Monument Valley, this national monument is the perfect stop to learn about the early civilizations of Arizona and embrace the spiritual energy of the land. Don’t forget to check out the Sandal Trail, an accessible self-guided walk that provides spectacular views of the canyon lands and its rugged topography.

Death Valley National Park

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Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes [Image: NPS Photos]

The peak season for Death Valley runs through the cool winter and spring months into the middle of April. Here you’ll find colorful badlands, snow-covered peaks, beautiful sand dunes, rugged canyons, the driest and lowest spot in North America, and the hottest in the world. Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North American has a dreamy landscape of salt flats. After heavy rain a temporary lake may form in which case you’ll need a kayak! Death Valley is famous for its spectacular, spring wildflower displays, but they are not always around in full array. Under perfect conditions the desert fills with a sea of gold, purple, pink or white flowers depending upon rainfall. Reptiles, butterflies, desert bighorn, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, and mule deer call this place home. Other places to visit include ghost towns, ranches and mines. Take a picturesque tour at Scotty’s Castle, reminiscent of a Spanish mansion, and last occupied in the 1920s. Don’t miss Dante’s View, an overlook of more than 5,000 feet above the Death Valley floor, and Artist’s Drive, which offers magnificent vistas of the valley floor and distant peaks. During winter you can see Mars Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus in the night sky.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument during sunset.

Image: wikipedia

Considered one of the world’s great natural wonders, the White Sands National Monument is 275 square miles of desert, and the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. The field of dunes are composed of gypsum crystals. Its origins date back to more than 10,000 years ago. Though it may appear barren, White Sands is teeming with life, and enchants visitors with its endless fields and starry nights. What to do once you’ve arrived? You can start on one of five hiking trails. The park offers a variety of guided tours, including the sunset strolls where a guide takes you through the sand dunes and discusses the geology, plants, and animals of the area. Sunrise and sunset hours bring out the color of the sand dunes so be sure not to miss it. For those wanting to discover their inner astronomer, this is the place to go stargazing! Though fall is considered prime-time, White Sands has the best dark skies in the lower 48 states thanks to its moon-like landscape. Many visitors say White Sands takes them to a different time and place, where they can find a spiritual and physical connection to the land. Be sure to call the park when there’s snow or freezing temperatures in the area, since the park gates might be closed.

Stayed tuned for our newest Pocket Ranger® mobile app, America’s National Park Passport where you’ll find activities, events, and wildlife!

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