Where should I hike in the American Southwest?
July 11, 2016 7:59 AM   Subscribe

I want to hike for 3-4 days in a desert in the American Southwest - where should I go, where can I see the most beauty, and is early September a bad time for this?

I have never visited the American Southwest, but have always been fascinated and inspired seeing photos of deserts, canyons and rugged/bleak natural beauty. But I don't really know where to go. I would like to invite a couple friends and rough it a bit, get far away from my city (I like in New York), experience silence, see some really beautiful sights, and sleep in a tent.

But being a first-timer, I don't want to do anything dangerous and don't know if September (when I have free time) is a safe time for this. We are not hardcode hikers either, but in decent shape.

People with desert experience - what would you recommend for a 3-4 day trip?
posted by deern the headlice to Travel & Transportation around Southwest Harbor, ME (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend Sedona, Arizona. It's jaw-droppingly beautiful. Day time temps will be 90-95, with low humidity. In September, you'll get afternoon rain (sometimes torrential downpours) so be careful to watch the weather reports, especially in wash (dry creekbed) or canyon areas. If you are feeling particularly anxious, you might want to do a jeep tour (you'll see more than you can see on foot alone) or hire a guide for hiking. I can recommend Pink Jeep Tours for either/both.

Also, depending on where you are coming from, drink more water than you are used to. At least 2x as much as you normally drink. When the humidity is low, you don't feel yourself sweat, so you don't realize you are getting dehydrated. If you get a headache (especially if you don't normally get them), it probably means you are dehydrated and you should drink some water. Basically, drink water while you are there.
posted by OrangeDisk at 8:09 AM on July 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

You kind of can't go wrong in that part of the world, but I would recommend Zion National Park and/or Canyonlands National Park (which are, unfortunately, not super near each other) as stellar options.
posted by spindrifter at 8:41 AM on July 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Check out Arches National Park.
posted by salvia at 8:54 AM on July 11, 2016

For my money, Southern Utah. If you go to Moab you can hit Canyonlands and Arches, along with a virtually unlimited amount of stunning non-national park hiking on BLM and other local lands. Breathtaking landscapes, incredible rock formations, petroglyphs, beautiful swimming holes.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:55 AM on July 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I haven't hiked much in the Southwest except for some hiking on the border between Texas and New Mexico. I recommend the Franklin Mountains as well as Carlsbad Caverns! The latter are especially fun, albeit a shorter 'hike.'
posted by Drowsy Philosopher at 9:00 AM on July 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bryce Canyon is stunning
posted by supermedusa at 9:46 AM on July 11, 2016

Zion and Bryce are beautiful, but if you really value solitude, get out in Canyonlands
posted by benbenson at 9:52 AM on July 11, 2016

Another option is the north rim of the Grand Canyon, which is still the Grand Canyon but only gets something like 10% of the visitors to the park. At this point you would probably be unable to get a campground reservation in the park and would have to try your luck in the national forest north of the park.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:19 AM on July 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I didn't specifically hike, but from a weather perspective, northern New Mexico and southern Colorado were glorious last September over Labor Day weekend. Mesa Verde was actually cold in the morning due to the altitude, as was Taos.
Bandelier, Kasha Katuwe were at lower altitudes and hotter, but manageable for day walks. Recommend the area highly, and it's jaw dropping to this east coaster. Some photos (self link, Flickr) here.
posted by TravellingCari at 10:26 AM on July 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Get a good Southwest guidebook, like Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. It will not only help you decide when and where to go, but it will have history and nature guides, safety advice, ideas for hikes, and so on. Really the best $5-$15 investment you can make for your $1000 or so trip.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:57 AM on July 11, 2016

Seconding the North Rim of the Grand Canyon - and don't give up on a camping spot. We've been able to snag one day of by showing up early and hanging around the ranger station - folks do cancel at the last minute, and if you're persistent, you can get a spot! The last time we did that, we were entertained by a wild turkey strutting around the laundromat.
posted by dbmcd at 11:24 AM on July 11, 2016

Havasupai Falls at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip.

You will have to hike 10 miles in and out. It's not a very steep of a hike, but you definitely need to be in shape for it.

And you can't get much farther away from the city than the bottom of the Canyon. The Havasupai tribe has a small village down there and provides a very basic campground.

September's the perfect time to go as well -- you'll be just safely outside of monsoon season and the weather will be warm but not miserably hot.
posted by Alexandra Michelle at 11:27 AM on July 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Chaco Canyon is amazing.
The land is stark and sere.
It's an International Dark Sky Park.
It is in the middle of nowhere
There is hiking and camping but no backpacking.
You can see some of the amazing cultural heritage of the Ancestral Puebloans, hear the silence of the desert and see the Milky Way at night.
Within a 2 to 4 hour drive are mountains; pinyon/juniper or aspen/fir depending upon your preference, if you need to break it up, do some backpacking or just see a different side of the West.
posted by Seamus at 12:12 PM on July 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding Canyonlands over Zion and Arches if you don't like crowds. Southern Utah (Antelope Canyon, Moab, Buckskin Gulch) is also a great option. If you're going to Sedona, check out the Hike House trailfinder for trail recommendations. If you're going to Arizona in general, check out hikearizona.com for specific trail recommendations. Weather-wise, early September might be a bit hot, but just start early and bring lots of water as per usual!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 12:49 PM on July 11, 2016

I can't tell from your profile where you're from, but in case you're not based in North America it might help to know that in the USA the first Monday in September is a widely celebrated holiday (Labor Day) which mostly marks the end of summer vacation season for families, as public schools usually resume just before or (increasingly rarely) just after Labor Day. Universities vary a bit more, but academic periods often start in early or mid September.

The reason I mention this is that getting reservations and finding solitude is considerably easier after the first week or two of September, so if you have the flexibility to move your trip just a little bit later you might find it makes a difference in your arrangements.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:12 PM on July 11, 2016

Oh, and while many people are mentioning the justly-famous national parks in the state of Utah (Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and (unmentioned so far..) Capitol Reef) pay attention as well to the people who are mentioning lesser-known areas in national forest or national monument areas -- the parks are spectacular but they are far from holding a monopoly on amazing scenery in the southwest.

To help narrow it down some it might help to say more about what would make a vacation really special for you.

Awesome scenery?
Archaeological interest and/or native culture?
Resort options, restaurants, and entertainment?

There are lots of ways to experience the southwestern USA and while you don't have to target any way in particular people might be able to give you more specific advice if you have more of an agenda than "beautiful desert."
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:19 PM on July 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I love love love love Organ Pipe National Monument. It's got an incredible diversity of cacti, stunning landscapes, and is pretty off the beaten track.

Sedona is indeed very pretty, but no prettier than many other parts of the Southwest IMO, while having a tourist density not otherwise seen outside of Times Square or Disneyland.

You really can't go wrong, though. You are soooooo lucky to have a chance to do this. Have fun!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:58 PM on July 11, 2016

Don't overlook Capital Reef NP, it's got hoodoos, petroglyphs, slot canyons, a great arch, the Capital Dome and even knobs. Plus lots of backcountry. Its 3 campgrounds are ok, but 5 years ago backcountry camping permits were free. No open fires in the backcountry so buy your fuel at home or pay the 'desert camping tax'. Most of the land west of the park is Federal, so camping and hiking in real isolation is near by.
posted by ridgerunner at 11:00 PM on July 11, 2016

AND, if you're going to rent a car, seriously look into a high-clearance 4x4 to maximize the number of trailheads you can get to.
posted by ridgerunner at 11:06 PM on July 11, 2016

You'll get the most bang for your buck going to Zion/Bryce/North Rim of the Grand Canyon with a stop in Page, AZ at Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. Each of those locations is two to two and a half hours from the others, so it's all doable in four days. You can also fly into Vegas and rent a car there, which makes things easy. You won't escape crowds there, however.

If you really want to escape crowds, I'd go with Arches/Canyonlands, making sure to see Newspaper Rock on the way to the Needles in Canyonlands. Canyonlands is really like two parks - Islands in the Sky is like a little park of its own, and the Needles is completely different. Arches will be busy, but is *so* worthwhile. You can do an overnight backpack to Chesler Park in the Needles, and that will be incredible and not crowded. If you do go, consider doing a hot air balloon ride over Canyonlands as well. It's AMAZING.

Agree that Capitol Reef is incredible and the couple times I've been there, there has basically been no one in the park. The other parks are probably more spectacular (and popular) in a lot of ways, but if you dropped Capitol Reef into a few dozen other states, it would be a top three tourist attraction.
posted by cnc at 12:51 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

These are all good suggestions, and September is generally a good time to go, depending on where you end up (for instance there are parts of the southwest, especially at certain elevations, where big cold snaps in September are totally a thing).

However. Based on the information in your question, I would not recommend starting with a 3-4 day hike. That is not an inconsequential amount of time on the Appalachian trail, which has plenty of water, much lower elevation, and is never particularly far from civilization. None of these things apply in a lot of the SW.

The Southwest covers a huge amount of territory, much of it big, weird, and potentially dangerous. If you aren't used to the scale, the terrain, and the elevation, you are asking for trouble.

This is not to say you shouldn't go; you definitely should. But you can see amazing stuff all over the place on day hikes. I'm from the high desert, have done a lot of big hikes, and I'd be reluctant to take inexperienced hikers on a hike that long without doing a little more assessment of their skills.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:02 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I realize September has come and gone, but the question is still open, so I'll provide some more suggestions.

Are you talking about car camping + hiking (driving somewhere in your car with your gear, sleeping in a tent, and then hiking from the "home base"), or backpacking? If you're new to this kind of thing and want to get away without getting really worn out, car camping is a great middle place. You can find campsites that have low use but are well maintained. Also, you don't need to buy new gear - any backpack or comfortable tote bag will suffice to carry all the water, food, first aid and other essentials you'll need for a comfortable and safe trek. Just don't over-pack and distribute the load between everyone who is traveling together.

As for more specific recommendations, I'll pitch my now-native New Mexico - generally lesser-known than many of the locations listed by others here so fewer people in general, but similarly stunning, if for different reasons. Depending on what scenery and weather you want, New Mexico has it all.

If you want to stay in a central place and go from there, Albuquerque is convenient, and there's plenty of hiking around ABQ, with more in New Mexico at large. Many of the ABQ trails are up and around Sandia Mountain, which is stunning.

Here's a list of 15 nice locations with "developed camp sites". Browse some yourself and check out the New Mexico State Parks, eight more National Forests and Grasslands where you can generally camp, and National Parks in New Mexico to visit for the day, if you can't camp over night.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:33 AM on December 22, 2016

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