A southwestern desert hiking experience I can have without a car...?
November 3, 2019 11:57 AM   Subscribe

I would like to have a peaceful soul-cleansing desert hiking experience somewhere in the American southwest during the first 10 days of December. I would be flying in from New York and without a car. Does any particular destination come to mind for this?

I could rent a car but would rather stay in a hotel that has a shuttle to the entrance of a park where I could hike during the day and quickly leave in late afternoon before it's cold.

Note: I have never hiked in a desert and have no idea if what I'm describing makes sense. It's mainly a desire to get out of New York, be in an extremely quiet warm place and read books in my hotel (or AirBNB) at night.

In terms of weather, transportation and practicality — does this make sense as a vacation? I thought about Joshua Tree but every AirBNB required you have a car to get deeper into the park to hike and it seemed to add up to a lot of Uber expenses.
posted by critzer to Travel & Transportation around Keene, TX (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe the South Rim of the Grand Canyon? You can take a train from Williams ( http://www.thetrain.com/) and the are shuttles to viewpoints in the park, some of which also have trailheads.
posted by dbmcd at 12:18 PM on November 3, 2019

Zion has a trailhead shuttle that runs into the nearby town of Springdale. If you could get an airport shuttle into town, you could pick the park shuttle up from there.

Bryce has a trailhead shuttle that also runs to a couple of nearby lodging places, so if you could arrange transport to those from the airport you'd be set.

Arches also has a shuttle, but when I was in Moab without a car recently, I wasn't able to make use of it because it started from the park entrance which was far from town in an area without cell service.

Be careful about relying on Uber in these areas - Moab had literally one rideshare driver when I was there last year, despite being a largeish tourist town, and it's pretty common for cell service to be spotty or nonexistent in the parks.
posted by introcosm at 12:49 PM on November 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sounds like fun. There are good suggestions above. Palm Springs / Desert Hot Springs is also with considering. There's no big park, but there are plenty of fantastic nearby hiking trails, local cabs, and city conveniences to fill your evenings.

It's probably obvious, but do spend a few minutes thinking about safety before you head out. Bringing more water than you think you could possibly need, shade (an umbrella), and warm clothes or a sleeping bag is always a good idea.
posted by eotvos at 1:32 PM on November 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sedona, AZ has a number of hiking trails that start right in town and is quite pedestrian / Uber friendly in general.

Keep in mind that some of the places mentioned above are not going to be very warm in December. High desert gets snow pretty often and December is probably the coldest month. It could be 50 degrees in Zion or in the 30s. Elevation is the big factor you need to look at.
posted by fshgrl at 1:55 PM on November 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

Bryce Lodge is directly connected to a lot of trails. However it is high, 8000-9000 feet, and December is going to be winter. Maybe or maybe not snow, but definitely cold, well in the 30s. My family often visits for their winter festival in February and they love it. But it is cross-country skiing, not hiking. Not sure if winter is what you want.

Grand Canyon South Rim is another good idea, but again 6800 feet elevation and it's going to be winter there. (North Rim is even higher). Zion Natl Park ranges from about 3500-9000 feet.

Moab in December generally ranges from 22-45 fahrenheit throughout the day.

All these are certainly doable in winter, and enjoyable depending on your expectations. And way less crowded than in perfect weather!

Personally if I were looking for a mild-moderate weather December hiking vacation I'd be looking more southerly and/or lower elevation. Sedona is a very good possibility. St George UT is another thought.

Also if you're really car-free then it might be worth considering renting a bicycle for the week? Just for example in Moab there are tons of amazing trails within easy biking distance of anywhere in Moab. Moab has tons of places you could rent a bike for the week, but most other places probably do, too (just look up bike shops in the area and call them).

From anywhere in Moab you could bike to the Arches visitor center & take the shuttle from there, as well (maybe 5 miles each way & pretty flat). Or you can bike to one of maybe a dozen or more trails in & around town. Bike to the trailhead, maybe 20-30 minutes, then hike, then bike home. Lots of access that way. But walking to that same trail head would be well nigh 2 hours each way which personally is beyond my patience limit, especially since the walk itself is generally not all that interesting (lots of it through town, neighborhoods, they all kind of look the same).

Lots of places open up like that, though, if you can think about expanding your radius from the hotel/lodge by a 10-40 minute bike ride vs how far you might be willing to walk through a city.

Southwestern cities, even small touristy ones, tend to be pretty sprawled. Bicycle is a good and fun way to cover that distance.
posted by flug at 2:19 PM on November 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

That time of year, I'd think about heading to southern Arizona. The temperature there will be nicer than places like Utah or the Grand Canyon. There are some B&B type places that are within walking distance of hiking areas, like this random one next to Saguaro National Park or this other random one near the Coronado National Forest. There are a lot of hiking opportunities right on the outskirts of Tucson. An inexpensive hotel somewhere in Tucson plus the cost of an economy rental car might be around the same cost as staying in a nice B&B right by a park and you'd have a pretty short drive to hiking, plus the freedom to check out several different parks.
posted by Redstart at 3:22 PM on November 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

You may want to research how you’re going to get from the airport to the park you’re looking to visit. You’ll be there during off season so options will be limited. And whilst the parks are open all year round the shuttles in the parks don’t tend to run in winter, Bryce stops in October, Zion at the end of November. I didn’t check Arches.

Moab indeed offers trails outside the NPs that are accessible by bike but why would you go to the trouble of visiting such a remote town and then pass on the main attractions? Even if you could get into Arches without car, a car would allow you to visit two sectors of Canyonlands NP from Moab. But the nearest park entrance is something like 40 miles from town. So all these places are best explored by car that time of year. Some of the other suggested towns may be more suitable.

Why would you prefer to avoid driving? The roads will be empty, you can stop at the park entrance and ask about ice. If it snows wait that out in your hotel reading a book.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:50 PM on November 3, 2019

I managed Tucson without a car for almost two weeks in March. Great public transit (including buses that stop near trailheads in far-flung areas of town), bike shares all over the place, and airport shuttle to/from Phoenix. Downtown is really lively if you want live music, bars, etc. If you must rent a car, it's doable, and ZipCar was there when I stayed too.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:58 PM on November 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'd look for hikes within a cheap enough Lyft from the airport outside Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, and maybe Albuquerque. I personally wouldn't deal with the ground transportation of like, flying into SLC, taking a bus or something to Springdale... Honestly, I'd rent a car. In my early 20s, I tried to get around that part of the country without a car, and I ended up catching rides with people all the time because the bus systems weren't all that great.
posted by salvia at 6:36 PM on November 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Consider flying into Phoenix or Tucson and staying at a local resort or Airbnb that backs up to a desert preserve. While the weather will likely be mild in December, it will be dryer and warmer than your used to and, as you said, you don’t have experience hiking in the desert. Bring an insulated water bottle with you and stay hydrated!

If your budget is generous, consider Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch in the Catalina Foothills of Tucson or the Phoenician in Scottsdale.

Otherwise, an Airbnb might be better, especially since your looking at staying for 10 days. I found many that are located near hiking trails but with easy access to the airport, restaurants, etc.. Here are a few 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (more that a few, I had fun looking!)
posted by kbar1 at 11:40 PM on November 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah I think Zion is the ticket. Fly into St. George or Vegas. Once you get to Springdale it is very easy to get around without a car. Lots of different hikes.
posted by trbrts at 6:49 AM on November 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't count on Uber picking you up from trailheads as cell coverage is pretty spotty in the SW in the canyons. Decent chance you won't have coverage away from towns ans highways
posted by fshgrl at 3:54 PM on November 4, 2019

I got snowed on in Zion more than once in December. The average high in December (high) is 48 degrees. Once I hiked to a scenic overlook and saw a wall of white.

I'd stick with So Cal (Anza Borrego, Palm Springs area, Death Valley) or Southern Arizona (Phoenix, Tucson) -- wherever you can find lodging close enough to hiking trails. I think kbar1 and Redstart have some good links. I also think there's some potential to the Palm Springs (Palm Desert, Indio) area. You could find everything from a cheap Air BnB and then Uber to somewhere for day hikes to a four-star resort where you can lie undisturbed on pool deck chairs looking at the palm trees and mountains all day. Apologies if I'm misreading your question, but you sound more interested in lying and reading somewhere warm and soaking in the atmosphere than in strenuous hiking. Palm Springs is a very easy place to soak in the desert atmosphere as long as you don't mind a slightly suburban built environment. If you want to feel more like you're in the empty dessert, look into Anza Borrego. There's some resort that's right by the park -- maybe La Casa del Zorro? Google is also suggesting that there are some resorts inside Death Valley, so that might be worth looking at as well. I'm thinking that ground transportation to either Anza Borrego or Death Valley might be tricky, but maybe the resorts have it figured out.
posted by salvia at 10:11 PM on November 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've gotten snowed on at Zion in early November plus the park shuttle won't be running in December. Then, there is a question of can you get a shuttle from the Las Vegas airport to Zion. They definitely do exist from St George, Utah to Zion (I happened to take that shuttle on the day Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was caught). Still getting from St. George to Zion NP won't be an easy trick.
posted by mmascolino at 8:44 AM on November 5, 2019

Death Valley kinda sucks without a car. Joshua Tree the town might be worth checking out though. And you can stay in Pioneertown which is as olde desert as it gets. Its a pretty neat place and has a good music venue if you want to socialize. You can hike anywhere in the desert out there, its all open ground.
posted by fshgrl at 11:21 PM on November 5, 2019

« Older And all the horrible no good very bad EVERYTHING   |   Vegetarian dinner ideas for large groups, with... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.