Whether it’s California’s Joshua Tree or Arizona’s Sedona, these ten towns are the perfect combination of culture, cuisine, and desert scenery.
The great expanse of the American high desert beckons travelers with its natural wonders and otherworldly landscapes. Coupled with a sweeping arid milieu dotted with mountain ranges: Arizona, California, and New Mexico offer a surprising wealth of unique architecture and rich cultural influences. If you’re unsure of where to go on your next desert vacation, read on for ten desert towns that offer a little something for everyone.
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Beloved for its spas and golf, Scottsdale also doubles as a bastion of design and art. Start your day at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), which houses contemporary works like native artist James Turrell’s “Skyspace,” whose circular opening lets visitors gaze up to the heavens. Meanwhile, the 28-acre Cattle Track, a rambling ‘30s complex, features the work of talented artisans such as Mary Van Dusen’s pottery and Mark McDowell’s paintings. For a peek into the past, tour architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, which also has a music pavilion and two theatres.
Afterward, find succulents and wildflowers at the 150-acre Desert Botanical Garden (their café Gertrude’s, is the perfect spot to enjoy a glass of wine). The next day, rise early for the rigorous climb up Camelback Mountain or opt for a 5-mile hike at Tom’s Thumb. For horseback riding and kayaking, Saguaro Lake Ranch provides an ample spread. If you’re hungry, pop by Los Sombreros for casual tacos, or visit the dimly-lit Mission for a tasty Latin-infused spread. To rest, Andaz Scottsdale is a reimagined, mid-century gem with local artwork and a buzzy pool scene (they also have a small spa to soothe tired limbs).
Perched at 4,500-ft, cinematic Sedona has long been considered a spiritual mecca, a place where “vortexes” (concentrations of energy centers) dovetail with ancient sandstone formations. With over 400 miles of trails, immerse yourself among the famed mesas with a hike on Broken Arrow, offering a scenic outlook of Casner Canyon. Alternatively, an easy stroll along Oak Creek Canyon is surrounded by lush trees and red rocks.
For some quiet reflection, head to the slim and modernist Chapel of the Holy Cross (est. 1956), which is built into the side of a towering 1,000-ft rock wall. Soar over the enchanting Sedona valley by hot air balloon at sunset and then opt for dinner at the saloon-style Cowboy Club Grille. Tucked into Boynton Canyon, the wellness-inclined come to the 220-room Enchantment Resort for its renowned Mii Amo spa and health-focused menu.
Propped up against ponderosa pines and mountain peaks, Flagstaff offers a diverse frontier flavor. Day trip to the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert, a 28-mile loop that lets you weave through fallen trees of ancient forests and into a purple-hued, Mars-like desert landscape.
For forest views, take the short mile stroll along the Blue Mesa Trails. Meanwhile, the 286-acre Red Rock State Park offers a range of hikes with views of Sedona’s famed canyons. During the winter months, you can ski (yes, you read that correctly) at the small Arizona Snowbowl. Make time to sample the local beers at Wanderlust Brewery and Beaver Street Brewery, which both offer niche brews. For eats, the sleek Shift Kitchen and Bar highlights seasonal fare while hikers refuel with chilaquiles at the family-owned MartAnne’s Palace. At night, sky gazers flock to Lowell Observatory for some of the best views of the Milky Way thanks to the on-site Clark telescope.
Just east of Flagstaff, this former Mormon colony-turned-dusty-railroad town offers up a slice of rock ‘n’ roll history. Start at Standing on the Corner, a park with a bronze statue paying homage to Jackson Brown’s 1970s hit, “Take It Easy“ (made famous by the Eagles). Set inside a cavernous space, Snowdrift Art Space rotates contemporary exhibits and sculptor Dan Lutzick’s works.
Step into the planetary ethers at the NASA-designated Meteor Crater and Barringer Space Museum, featuring a terrain that resembles the moon’s surface (astronauts also train here). The Native American land at Rock Art Canyon Ranch, a remote 13-mile stretch, is also home to well-preserved Anasazi petroglyphs. La Posada Hotel, a restored 1920s Spanish-Colonial getaway, offers sturdy pine beds, handwoven Zapotec rugs, and a leafy garden. That’s not all: the James-Beard nominated Turquoise Room doles out elevated southwestern grub.
Palm Springs, California
Set in the San Jacinto Mountains and blessed with year-round sun, Palm Springs is home to mid-century architecture and old Hollywood lore (think Sinatra and Monroe). Start your trip with a self-guided tour featuring the likes of architects Richard Nuetra and John Lautner, and then hop over to the airy Palm Springs Art Museum showcasing classic western, Native American, and 20th-century sculpture by Henry Moore and Mark Di Suvero.
In the Caliente Indian Reservation, take an early hike to Tahquitz Falls, which dovetails with a 60-foot waterfall and native wildlife. If looking to pick up souvenirs, head to the small and curated Shops at 1345 (check out Double M pottery) and the vintage wares at Modernway and Rex Haus.
For a dip into Sinatra’s past, head for martinis and steaks at Melvyn’s. For ahi tuna tacos, nab a patio seat at the venerable Copley’s, which once housed Cary Grant’s estate. The hot table in town is at Bar Cecil, a glam affair with bistro fare and bespoke cocktails. Looking for views? The aptly-titled High Bar makes tasty margaritas. The hip King’s Highway serves up Anson grits for breakfast, while Cheeky’s has bacon flights. For a place to stay, look no further than the reopened 30-room Casa Cody, a chic hideaway with Spanish stucco, which feels like staying at a friend’s house (and is perfect for lazy poolside days).
Desert Hot Springs, California
Located in Coachella Valley, this rugged area is beloved for its healing spring waters and lithium-rich mineral pools, which are known to soften skin and soothe creaky muscles. Day-trippers should make use of the spa passes at the hippy-flared Moroccan Inn (don’t miss the stimulating Moroccan Mystical Ritual using organic Rhassoul clay and essential oils). Nearby, Two Bunch Palms offers watsu pools alongside a walking labyrinth and yoga dome. Another option is the minimalist Azure Palm Hot Springs, which showcases a healing spa menu and a small organic café.
In the Sand to Snow National Monument, outdoor enthusiasts will find creosote-strewn hillsides at Mission Creek Preserve or can opt for a hike into the diverse Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. For a slice of history, Cabot’s Pueblo Museum is made from recycled desert materials that homesteader Cabot Yerxa found and leans into the land’s Hopi-inspired pueblo artifacts.
Joshua Tree, California
Known for its namesake trees and dotted with a lunar-like landscape, Joshua Tree mixes epic wilderness with Old West sensibilities. Outdoor enthusiasts flock to this National Park for vast hiking trails, world-class rock climbing (Arch Rock and Skull Rock are the go-tos), and stargazing (check with the visitors center for the best viewing spots). For a meditative moment, the wooden-domed Integraton is used for sound baths, while the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Institute of Mentalphysics offers meditation and yoga retreats.
Take a self-guided walk through the late artist Noah Purifoy’s outdoor sculpture park, an exhibit using discarded objects like old toilets, bikes, and cafeteria trays. At night, grab some burgers and beers at the unfussy Dillions or nosh on BBQ at the western-flared Pappy and Harriet’s. Part Mexican hacienda, part inn, part artist’s retreat, rest your head at the quirky Spin and Margie’s Desert Hideaway.
Taos, New Mexico
Just 90 minutes north of Santa Fe, Taos caters to those looking to step into its fabled past and wonderous landscapes. Surrounded by the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the UNESCO-protected Taos Pueblo invites you to visit the homes and workshops of native artisans. Meanwhile, The Harwood Museum features contemporary works alongside iconic Southwestern artists like Agnes Martin. Nearby, R.C. Gorman’s Navajo Gallery offers intensely colorful works by its namesake Native American artist.
In the winter months, head to The Taos Ski Valley for over 100 slopes. Year-round, rock-climbers of all levels can visit Via Ferrata, which also has a sky bridge and double-cable catwalk. Rise early and drive to the famed Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, a solid steel feat surrounded by dramatic 650-foot cliffs. Come night, The Taos Inn is a warm spot for kiva-lit slumber. There, you’ll find buzzy margaritas inside its famed Adobe Bar and locally sourced bison at the eatery, Doc Martin’s.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Long a haven for artists, Santa Fe offers striking adobe architecture and blue skies along the dramatic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From the International Folk Art Museum (with a sublime Alexander Girard collection) and the intimate Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe is a cultural center. There are also edgier exhibits at Site Santa Fe and the mind-bending Meow Wolf, a trippy “interactive” art playhouse.
Stretch your legs at Bandelier National Monument or along the pinion-wooded Dale Ball Trails. Later, take in some low-key bird-watching at Randall Davey. The Japanese-flared Ten Thousand Waves offers hot tubs, massages, facials, and energy work. For souvenirs, Santa Fe Vintage has turquoise jewelry and denim, while Shiprock stocks pristine Navajo rugs. For grub, the cheery Pasqual’s Cafe doles out fluffy corn pancakes while La Choza serves up green and red chile dishes. Drop your bags at the newly-minted Bishops Lodge (est. 1860), boasting its own equine stables and healing arts studio.
Silver City, New Mexico
Silver City is a small and unfussy Old West-style mining town that offers a surprisingly buzzy downtown peppered with breweries and restaurants. Don’t miss the 533-acre Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a smattering of well-preserved cave dwellings built by the Mogollon people in the 13th-century. You can also find solace in the Gila National Forest, where junipers and pinons stand with stunning canyons.
Afterward, sip house-crafted local beers at Little Toad Brewery. For Silver City’s version of a night at the opera, head to Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House, which offers Americana concerts and an eatery serving steaks and burgers.
Silver City is also known for its cycling and mountain biking, as there are plenty of competitive races, and of course, festivals like Signal Peak Fat Tire Fest, which end with beer and BBQ. To sleep, Bear Mountain Lodge sits on a 178-acre private reserve, complete with ample birdwatching and nearby hiking. You can also grab breakfast at the onsite Café Oso Azul.