Desert Camping: Brave the Summer or Wait ’til Winter?

Travel Tips & Products
Mojave

With summer vacation at our doorstep, the time for booking travel is now. The American Southwest, as a treasure trove of natural wonders and awe-inspiring landscapes, is always a popular travel destination for adventurous spirits. Stumbling around the Mojave Desert may be a little more demanding than a trip to Disneyland (then again, maybe not), but participating in the breathtaking scenery and sublime isolation of the Southwest can be tremendously rewarding. If you’re worried about enduring the extreme heat of the summer months, congratulations, you’re thinking logically. Here we weigh the pros and cons of traversing the desert during the summer versus the winter.

Why suffer the summer heat?

The desert is hot. I mean, really hot. Visiting during the summer is a little masochistic. Most people, given the choice between spending July in Death Valley or the temperate hills of Big Sur, will choose the less painful option. Use that to your advantage! Desert destinations are far less popular during warmer weather, meaning parks and facilities will be less crowded. For many desert travelers, isolation is part of the allure. You’ll have the best odds of discovering profound quietude when the sun is at its hottest.

Less traffic also means lower rates. When demand is low, so are the prices at hotels, resorts and restaurants. By avoiding the crowds, you’ll avoid paying peak-season prices.

Remember, the heat won’t kill you. Well. It could. But if you’re smart, you’ll be a-okay. While not as developed as more populated parts of the country, the desert is equipped with enough modern conveniences to keep you reasonably comfortable. If you’re staying at a hotel, you can expect pools, air conditioning, ice machines and the like. Desert folk are well-practiced in the art of keeping cool.

The trick to surviving the heat is to avoid strenuous activity during the hottest part of the day. Schedule hikes and excursions for the mornings and evenings. Use the afternoon to lounge, sleep, swim and hydrate. Following this schedule will greatly reduce the effects of the excruciating heat.

The final reason to go ahead and book that summer trip is purely philosophical. When’s the last time you were humbled by nature? To experience the desert in all its terrifying beauty, you need to place yourself in its most extreme conditions. Hiking the canyons and dunes of Death Valley in mid-July will give you a taste of the desert’s true power. It’s a good way to suffer a heat stroke, sure, but it’s also a good way to respect and comprehend the land in all its raw majesty.

Why wait ’til winter?

Simple. Cool weather. Some parts of the desert get downright cold, but many areas become newly habitable. Travelers from the north come seeking warmer weather, crowding popular attractions and driving up prices. But hey, some people prefer being part of a community of travelers to the sometimes stifling pressure of deep isolation.

The winter weather naturally allows travelers to be more active. Without the summer sun beating down and sapping your energy, more recreational activities open up. Hiking, biking and ATV riding become much more feasible when you’re not battling 110° heat. You should still keep well-hydrated, but the threat of dehydration is significantly lower in cooler weather.

Some of the top desert locations to visit in the winter include Death Valley, Big Bend and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. If you’d like to see some snow, head to higher elevation. The Grand Canyon, for example, usually gets a good powdering.

The verdict

What time of year you visit the desert depends on your motivations for traveling. If you’re looking for a vacation characterized by comfort and relaxation, clearly the cooler months are for you. On the other hand, travelers seeking a more profound or even spiritual communion with nature may appreciate the extreme conditions that drive away the tourists. So in deciding when to explore the desert, simply ask yourself, “What kind of traveler am I?”