Published March 21, 2018
Soak, sun, relax--do all of this and more on a trip to these top-notch desert destinations.
An epic backpacking trip is one way to see the Arizona Trail. But a chill hiking weekend in the throwback town of Superior will do just fine, where you'll find frontier ruggedness mixed with a Mayberry-in-the-desert vibe. The Arizona Trail, the Southwest's answer to the Appalachian Trail, stretches from the state’s Mexican border to Utah. While it would take months to hike its entire length, less ambitious hikers rejoice: The trail is conveniently broken into 43 sections. Head south from Superior on the Alamo Canyon section, and rest peacefully in town where comfy lodgings and good dining await.
Coachella Valley is home to the Santa Rosa Mountains, where granite, desert flora, and sweeping views surround primo hiking. And La Quinta, 25 miles southeast of Palm Springs, is a great entryway for hikers: Take the Cove to Lake Trail, a 2.5-mile one-way trek. Or, for serious burn, consider the strenuous 7.5-mile Boo Hoff Trail. Download a map at la-quinta.org.
Best time to go: March and November, when moderate temperatures make for supreme hiking weather.
Stay: La Quinta Resort & Club—once a favorite hideaway for Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo—has cozy casitas, 41 pools, and a James Beard award–winning chef at its Morgan’s restaurant. From $249.
This town is the capital of midcentury mod style, and the Sunnylands Center & Gardens (pictured) is a mega-shrine to modernism. The former winter home of publisher and diplomat Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, is an architectural vision, with the bonus of a powerhouse art collection, including works by Rodin and Giacometti. Garden and gallery free, house tour $35.
Best time to go: June, for fewer crowds and killer deals—if you can take the heat.
Stay: The recently renovated Saguaro, complete with large pool and mountain vistas, adds a contemporary pop of color inspired by desert wildflowers. From $105.
With natural-hot-spring spas all around, Desert Hot Springs beckons with sun, dry air, warmth, and pure relaxation. Bonus: This low-key neighbor to Palm Springs and gateway to Joshua Tree National Park has budget-friendly pampering options. At the delightfully minimalist Miracle Manor Retreat (pictured), soak in the hot pool with views of snowcapped San Jacinto peaks, then recharge with a spa treatment. Day use from $135, including treatment.
Best time to go: March, when the average high is a comfy 80 degrees.
Stay: The luxe Hotel Lautner is a splurge, but it’s a hot spot for midcentury modern design—with a saltwater dipping pool. From $270; 2-night min.
Dark skies and bright constellations make this San Diego County park one of the best places for planetary spotting in the West. Low light pollution means crazy-clear views of the Milky Way, Saturn, and Jupiter. For a dark-sky sleepover, try a camping trip with California Overland, where starlit dunes are paired with campfire stories about the area’s history, and gooey s’mores come after dinner. From $225, including dinner and breakfast.
Best time to go: October, for spectacular star shows and clearest, balmiest weather.
Stay: Borrego Valley Inn has a small, sand-swept courtyard perfect for galaxy gazing. Plus, there are kiva-style fireplaces and a 4 p.m. homemade-cookie hour. From $205; 2-night min.
Take the ultimate Western road trip! From the desert to the surf, these three stretches of Route 66 have outdoor adventure, high culture, and some of the West’s best road food. Along the way, you'll take in Native American archeological wonders, kitschy motels, and some of the Southwest's most stunning landscapes.