Photo: Victoria Ditkovsky/Shutterstock

The 7 Best Deserts in the US for a Snow-Covered Winter Visit

United States National Parks
by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Nov 12, 2020

Coming up with a mental image of the desert may evoke images of a lone cactus baking in the blistering heat of a high-noon sun. But deserts are a lot more complex than that, and many sit at high altitudes that see sub-zero temperatures come winter. In the absence of moisture in the air, even warm days can turn quickly to frigid nights once the sun dips below the horizon. Add in an overnight storm, and you may find yourself waking up to a desert landscape in a sparkling blanket of snowflakes.

From California to Arizona, New Mexico and Idaho, these are the deserts in the US that are even more beautiful once the snow falls.

Mojave Desert: Death Valley National Park, California

mojave in death valley with snow, one of the best deserts in the US to visit in winter

Photo: Richard Semik/Shuttersto

Given that Death Valley’s summertime temperatures are some of the highest on the planet, this has long been a national park to visit in the cooler months. And in winter, when the snow falls on the 11,000-foot-high Panamints, a mountain range at the northern end of the Mojave Desert within Death Valley, the scene is breathtaking. Work your way up from the valley floor at 282 feet below sea level to Zabriskie Point, one of the most famed locations in Death Valley National Park. From Zabriskie, you’ll have views of the undulating waves built from the sediment of a five-million-year-old lake, set against the valley floor and snowy peaks behind it.

Mojave Desert: Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best deserts to visit in the US

Photo: Digati Photography/Shutterstock

The highest elevations at Joshua Tree National Park top 5,500 feet above sea level. Add in ultra-dry air that doesn’t hold in the daytime warmth, and temperatures dip low enough on winter nights for it to snow — averaging an inch of snowfall annually. If you can time it right, it doesn’t get more magical than seeing freshly fallen flakes gracing the smoothly rounded boulders that seem straight out of The Flintstones. It’s also magical to see the Joshua trees, which look basically like cacti, when they’re totally covered in snow (by the way, they’re actually yucca palms).

Sonoran Desert: Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, Arizona

Coyote Buttes desert in winter

Photo: warnsweet/Shutterstock

The Coyote Buttes inside the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area are spectacular at any time of year, but catching them with a layer of snow is like looking at a multi-layered cake with vanilla icing. The most famous place is “The Wave,” which requires advanced reservations to see up-close (and they’re competitive, with only a small number of passes awarded each day).

But if you are lucky enough to see the different layers of iron-oxide-colored sandstone sprinkled with winter white, it’ll be a memory to cherish forever. Aside from The Wave itself, you’ll find brick-red sandstone formations throughout the protected area that rival those of Bryce Canyon, but attract a lot fewer visitors.

Colorado Desert: Palm Springs, California

Mount San Jacinto Wilderness area desert in the US

Photo: Luxury Fred Sherman/Shutterstock

There doesn’t need to be snow on the ground for a winter visit to be downright stunning. The area known as the Colorado Desert (part of the larger Sonoran Desert) is one of the best deserts in the US to visit in winter. In Palm Springs, which sits on the blurry border between the Sonoran and Mohave deserts, visitors can stroll through a town dotted with palm trees before looking up to see the mountains of the San Jacinto Range (many of them surpassing 10,000 feet above sea level) decked in winter white; it feels almost incongruous.

Even more unique is the experience of getting onto the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway in “shorts and T-shirt”weather before disembarking at 8,516 feet onto a mountaintop covered in snow. Hopefully you packed warm layers and good hiking boots, because the tram gives you access to over 50 miles of trails in the Mount San Jacinto Wilderness area. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can hike on snowy trails flanked by pine trees, then take a tram back down sip a poolside cocktail at your hotel or roomy Airbnb just 20 minutes later.

New Mexico High Desert: Taos, New Mexico

Taos Pueblo in New Mexico

Photo: Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock

New Mexico is one of the best winter road trip destinations, and Taos is one reason why. The picturesque desert town at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level is a vibrant artist colony at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s home to Taos Pueblo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States, as well as excellent chili rellenos and other savory cuisine. Of course, in winter, you may prefer to warm your hands around a cup of hot chocolate and savor some freshly made fry bread, served hot and drizzled with honey. Taos is home to one of the best deserts in the US to visit in winter, and nearby Taos Ski Valley is one of the best places to ski in North America.

Chihuahuan Desert: Big Bend, Texas

Chihuahuan with snow, one of the best deserts in the US to visit in winter

Photo: Pi-Lens/Shutterstock

The Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend National Park receives very little rainfall, as storm systems are blocked by the surrounding mountain ranges. But it does get enough rain in the summer to support several native species of plants and animals, and looks amazing with winter precipitation — i.e. snow, which usually falls on the higher parts of the Chisos Mountains. The leafy agave plants and prickly pear cactuses look fantastically out of place when covered in snow, but they need the moisture as they store it during the extremely dry days of spring and summer.

Owyhee Desert: Owyhee River Wilderness Area, Idaho

owyhee river wilderness, one of the best deserts in the US to visit in winter

Photo: Victoria Ditkovsky/Shutterstock

Canyons criss-cross this high desert plateau that stretches across three states, from Oregon to Idaho to the northern reaches of Nevada. This Bureau of Land Management area is some of the most remote in the country, offering likely sightings of elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. Although summer is the time for river rafting and fishing, winter brings a snowy solitude that offers a rare chance to feel truly along in a silent landscape — it’s a great spot for spot winter camping, if that’s your thing. Note that winter can see road closures and limited opportunities to visit, so if you do manage to see it with winter’s sparkling blanket, consider yourself fortunate.

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