39.3210° N, 111.0937° W
THIS ADVENTURE GUIDE COVERS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HIKING IN THE DESERT; INCLUDING, TIPS ON WHERE TO GO, WHAT TO BRING AND HOW TO STAY SAFE WHILE EXPLORING THE BEAUTIFUL (BUT HARSH) LANDSCAPE.
Hiking in the desert can be a truly magical experience. The landscape, the weather, the harshness of it all makes it feel like you are always on the edge of either some great adventure or a terrifying death.
We have spent many months exploring the various deserts around the United States - including road tripping and hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave desert, camping in the Sonoran desert in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, soaking in various hot springs in the Great Basin desert and adventuring all over the southern desert of Utah (including canyoneering in its famous canyon country). And still, even after all of those trips and years spent in the hot, dry landscape, we still feel like we have only scratched the surface.
This is because the desert is complicated and layered. It is also massive. In fact, some scientists believe that 30% of the whole USA falls under the category of being arid or semi-arid (aka a desert). Within that space, you can find all kinds of different landscapes - from the incredibly hot and dry Mojave in California to the relatively lush and vibrant Sonoran in southern Arizona. If you have ever considered what it would be like to explore the deserts of the USA - or you have visited before but now want to head out on even more exciting desert adventures - then this adventure guide is for you.
Below you will find everything you need to know about hiking in the desert; including, the top places to go, the main safety concerns and steps you should take to recreate responsibly and the outdoor gear you will need to explore comfortably (no matter the temperature). We also outline some important tips on camping in the desert - because if you have ever wanted to see the stars, then the desert is for you.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE DESERTS OF THE USA
| There are 4 types of deserts in the USA: the Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan and the Great Basin Desert.
| The largest desert in the country is the Great Basin Desert. It covers 190,000 square miles and spreads out into such states as Nevada, Utah, California, Oregon, Arizona and Idaho. This desert is also home to the oldest known living organism in the world, the Bristlecone Pine Tree (scientists believe some of the Bristlecone's to be over 5,000 years old).
| Some of the most common animals that live in the desert are coyotes, desert bighorn sheep, cottontails, kangaroo rats, mule deer, rattlesnakes, scorpions and some spiders. Though, due to the heat, it can be tough to spot any wildlife during the day (you are more likely to see them at night).
POPULAR DESERT HIKING AREAS IN THE USA
There are many destinations around the USA that are popular for desert hiking, including numerous national parks and national monuments, state parks and reserves. Interestingly enough, all of the deserts in the USA are west of the Mississippi River in an area often referred to as the American Southwest. Similarly, while you can find some desert environments in northern states like Idaho and Oregon, many of the desert environments are found within the states of Arizona, Utah, California, New Mexico and Nevada.
Below are a few of the most popular places to hike in the desert:
NATIONAL PARKS AND MONUMENTS
Grand Canyon National Park | Arizona
Saguaro National Park | Arizona
Canyon de Chelly National Monument | Arizona
Montezuma Castle National Monument | Arizona
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument | Arizona
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument | Arizona
Death Valley National Park | California
Joshua Tree National Park | California
Mesa Verde National Park | Colorado
Great Basin National Park | Nevada
White Sands National Park | New Mexico
Arches National Park | Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park | Utah
Canyonlands National Park | Utah
Capitol Reef National Park | Utah
Zion National Park | Utah
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | California
Valley of Fire State Park | Nevada
Goblin Valley State Park | Utah
Kodachrome Basin State Park | Utah
A few other desert areas worth exploring are the Mojave desert itself - especially the Mojave National Preserve or Sheephole Valley Wilderness, the Escalante area in southern Utah and most of central Nevada (we suggest exploring it on the aptly named Loneliest Highway - read our full road trip guide here).
TIPS FOR HIKING IN THE DESERT
One of the most important things to keep in mind when hiking in the desert is your overall safety. Because of the desert's harsh environment, you need to make sure you come prepared for all manner of situations. The biggest dangers of hiking in the desert - and the ones you need to be the most aware of - are overheating, dehydration and animals (mainly snakes and scorpions). But, for the most part, as long as you come prepared and use your common sense, you should be perfectly safe hiking around the beautiful desert environments.
Below are a few important desert hiking safety tips to keep in mind:
| Come prepared with clothing that provides sun protection, including a shirt with long sleeves and a hood and full-length pants. This ensures that your skin is protected from the sun's harmful rays, which is one of the main causes of heat exhaustion (plus sunburns are no fun). You can find our full desert hiking gear list below.
| Don’t hike during the middle of the day (especially in the summer), instead hike when it is cooler like in the mornings or at dusk. Or if you really want an interesting adventure, grab a headlamp and head out at night.
💬 INSIDER TIP: the first time we visited Moab was in early July (I know, what were we thinking). We soon realized that being out in the middle of the day was absolutely miserable. So instead we would get up before the sun rose and explore instead. This not only allowed us to beat the heat, but we were also able to see some pretty stunning sunrises. Plus, once done, we still had a full day left to swim in the Colorado River or hang out in a coffee shop.
| Carry a first aid kit with you. This should be mentioned for all types of adventures but definitely when you are in the desert. A good first aid kit will have band-aids, tape, disinfectant wipes and gauze. And if it doesn't have one already, a pair of tweezers would also be a good idea just in case you run into some cacti and need to pull out some of the thorns/spines.
| Wear closed-toed shoes to protect your feet from prickly cactus, desert animals and sharp rocks. While it might be tough to convince yourself to wear full on boots when it is hot out, this is where having wicking shoes come in really handy. And if you don't feel like wearing full hiking boots, then consider a pair of closed-toed sandals (like Keens) or lighter trainers.
| When out hiking in the desert - especially at night - you need to always be aware of your surroundings, especially of where you are placing your feet. Because of the desert's often intense heat during the day, many desert-dwellers choose to come out at night (they are known as nocturnal), including animals such as coyotes, foxes, kangaroo rats, owls, mountain lions, snakes, lizards and scorpions.
If you are planning to hike at night (either because it is cooler or because you want a better chance of seeing wildlife) always remember to have a flashlight handy and to watch where you are stepping.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: in the summer many animals choose to lay out in the middle of the road to soak up that extra heat. When driving in the desert always look out for wildlife in the middle of the road - including lizards and snakes.
| You also need to always be aware of the desert's plant life; including, various cacti. When out hiking you want to always look where you are stepping just in case it is on a cactus or other barbed plant (the desert is full of highly defensive flora). Similarly, if you are hiking near some type of body of water, you need to keep an eye out for poison ivy and/or poison oak. Once again, this is why wearing longer clothing is so important in the desert.