The best time to visit these “hot” destinations is when temperatures cool down.
By Lowell and Kaye Christie, F47246
Most years, as winter approaches, we focus our travels toward the lowlands, with only short excursions into higher country. Here are 13 of our favorite national parks or monuments in the West and Southwest where we can be sure of relatively mild winter weather, clear roads, and lots of natural history.
1. Death Valley National Park, California
With Death Valley being the hottest (134 degrees in 1913), driest (less than 2 inches of average annual rainfall), and lowest (282 feet below sea level) of the U.S. national parks, winter and spring are definitely the times to visit. Is it possible for anything to live in this environment? The answer is yes; more than 1,000 species of plants, 51 species of mammals, more than 300 types of birds, and even some fish call this area home. And with the darkest nights of any national park, it’s perfect for sky gazing.
2. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Massive boulders bring in rock climbers from around the country, but Joshua Tree was named by the Mormon pioneers for the prickly trees scattered throughout the park. Although this is desert territory, there are five palm oases where water approaches the surface. They act as magnets for local wildlife and migrating birds. If you’re not a rock climber, Joshua Tree has many hiking trails to keep you busy.
3. Big Bend National Park, Texas
It’s a long drive to Big Bend, located in the southwestern corner of Texas, but you’ll have a lot to do once you get there. Our favorite attraction is birding during migration (450 species recorded), but this park also offers desert and rivers and mountains for every type of activity you can imagine. Hiking, backpacking, and boating along the Rio Grande are Big Bend specialties.
4. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Encompassing 275 square miles of glistening white sand, this park ranks as the world’s largest gypsum dune field. An 8-mile scenic drive gets you right into the heart of the dunes, or you can take one of the four marked trails and explore your sandy surroundings close up. Most of the animals stay out of sight during the day, but their tracks are visible all over the dunes.
5. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Although activities can be enjoyed above ground, the park may be best known for its more than 100 caves, where sulfuric acid has dissolved the surrounding limestone. Both self-guided and ranger-led tours venture into the 56-degree underground environment. The main cavern is more than 1,000 feet deep and offers massive displays of stalagmites, stalactites, columns, flowstone, and all the other wonders of this subterranean world.
6. Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico
This park contains five volcanic cones and hundreds of archaeological sites, but the main attraction is the collection of more than 20,000 petroglyphs (rock carvings) left by American Indians and early Spanish settlers. In desert areas stones often are covered with desert varnish, a thin coating deposited on the rocks for hundreds or thousands of years. Artists chipped away this colorful dark layer to expose the lighter rock underneath, leaving behind images of animals, people, and other designs that existed only in the minds of these early artists.
7. Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona
Nicknamed “Wonderland of Rocks,” the formations found at Chiricahua started when the Turkey Creek Volcano erupted more than 27 million years ago and laid down 2,000 feet of ash. Erosion from wind and water created rock pinnacles rising hundreds of feet into the air. You can enjoy an 8-mile scenic drive, plus 18 miles of hiking trails that wind through this stone labyrinth.
8. Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona
Built high on a limestone cliff face, this is one of the best-preserved Indian cliff dwellings in the United States. The overhanging rock has protected the 20-room structure for centuries. The building was last occupied by the Sinagua Indians around 1425, but no one knows why they abandoned the area. Approximately 11 miles from the castle is Montezuma Well. More than 1 million gallons of water flow into this well each day, and nearby is a 1,000-year-old irrigation ditch built by the Indians that is still in use.
9. Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona
Indian pueblo ruins are somewhat numerous in this part of the country, but Tuzigoot is the largest and best preserved. It consists of 110 rooms, and some of the buildings have two or three stories. The earliest buildings in the pueblo were constructed more than 1,000 years ago. The monument has in excess of 22,000 artifacts, with many of them on display at its excellent visitors center.
10. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified wood is composed almost entirely of solid quartz, with the sparkling colors produced by impurities of iron, carbon, and manganese. These minerals were absorbed by porous wood and then crystallized, replacing the organic material. The park is actually composed of two sections: the north section is a colorful badlands called the Painted Desert, and the southern section contains most of the petrified wood.
11. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Saguaro National Park also has two sections, which are separated by the city of Tucson. The giant saguaro cactus, for which the park is named, grows only in the Sonoran Desert and is protected here. Saguaro cacti are slow-growing plants, reaching only 1 to 1½ inches in height during their first eight years of life. But after approximately 125 years, they may be 50 feet tall and weigh as much as six tons. There are more than 165 miles of hiking trails in the park, and the Sonoran Desert is the greenest desert in North America. In spring, this is the place to come to see desert wildflowers.
12. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
This is the only spot in the United States where the organ pipe cactus grows in the wild. Of course, it has company: 25 other cactus species also make this park their home. Ninety-five percent of the monument is designated as wilderness area, which makes this one of the best places to view the undisturbed Sonoran Desert.
13. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
What’s a park located at 7,000 feet doing in our winter travels? When we get to Arizona, we just can’t pass up a visit to the Grand Canyon. Snow can usually be expected in winter, but park personnel keep the roads and the campground open (30-foot vehicle length limit). And most of the park’s 5 million annual visitors don’t come in the winter. Seeing this 22-mile-long, 18-mile-wide, 1-mile-deep canyon covered in white is worth putting up with a little cold. Thirty miles of the south rim are accessible by road, where you can keep the motorhome heater running on high.