Ah, winter! A time when snow may have covered the ground, all of your winter coats are out, and you are trying to fill your off-days with some kind of outdoor activity amongst the freezing temperatures and ice crystals forming in your nostrils. All the while, your mind and body may be craving the warm sun and dusty trails below your hiking boots.
Unless you are a lover of winter sport activities, winter can be a time to invest in yourself by getting those hiking boots out to some warmer weather and drier trails to help ward off those winter hiking blues!
I, myself, am pretty lucky because I live in the desert Southwest. I generally dislike cold temperatures and snow, so I suffer through our regular crazy hot summers in the desert to then really relish in the fair winter temperatures. In fact, winter is my favorite time to tackle some of my more regional, bucket-list hikes.
General pro tip for warmer weather hiking in winter:
Seek lower elevation, desert destinations! The chances of prolonged hiking in the winter are increased when considering travel to the environments of the low, dry desert lands. The lack of annual precipitation, general cloudless blue skies, and warmer day time temperatures can be major contributing factors to getting in some quality winter hiking.
For an example of this, the desert valleys of southern Arizona are an extension of Mexico’s Sonora Desert with elevations in the very southern tip of the state that are as low as 100 feet above sea level. These regions in the southern part of the state can average as low as 3-4 inches of annual precipitation, which can make for a great winter with dry trails and sunny days.
With a focus on some warm weather hiking destinations for winter and early spring (December-early May), let me take you through some of the hiking destinations I visited this winter and some of my on-going favorites for those winter months.
First on the list, Death Valley! Death Valley, famous for having the hottest recorded air temperature on earth at 134°F (57°C) in 1913 and for also being the driest place in North America, is an amazing winter hiking destination with lovely daytime temperatures in the 60-70°s. The park is located in the northern Mojave Desert bordering the Great Basin Desert. The elevation in Death Valley ranges from below sea level to over 11,000 feet. This makes for an unimaginable amount of diversity, but enough low elevation hiking to make it ideal for winter temps.
Best times to hike are January—early March and then again in October—December. With a range of hiking options for every type of hiker, here are some named hikes and sights in the area: Darwin Falls, Golden Canyon-Gower Gulch, Badwater Salt Flats, Desolation Canyon, Sidewinder Canyon, Mesquite Sand Dunes.
Second, Joshua Tree! The western part of the park lies in the Mojave Desert, while the eastern and southern portions are in the Colorado Desert. The highest elevation in the park is around 5,800 feet and the lowest around 500 feet. The park is unique for its signature Joshua Trees which spread out across the savannah-like basins framed by mazes of granite boulders and monoliths—truly an otherworldly landscape! Visiting Joshua Tree in the winter months means relative seclusion and calm trails in comparison to the busier times in spring and early summer in what has been becoming one of America’s top national parks. Ideal time for hiking Joshua Tree in the winter is the shoulder season, October to February, where the day time temperatures range from 50-80°s, depending on what month you are there. Some named hikes and sights in the area: Teddy Bear Cholla Garden, Arch Rock, Skull Rock, Ryan Mountain, Barker Dam, Hidden Valley.
Third, Sedona, Arizona and Grand Canyon! Sedona is a part of the Upper Sonoran Desert, with an average elevation of 4,500 feet. While the Sedona area, a higher elevation desert, does receive some of the winter side effects (rain and snow), it rarely reaches daytime temperatures below the 50s. This environment makes for a long winter hiking season, with ideal hiking from November all the way until early May. Most of the snowfall in Sedona does happen in January and February, coating the red rocks with a layer of white, but the snow rarely hangs out for long on the trails. To top it off, Sedona has been adding miles and miles of new and exciting trails woven amongst the unique red rock formations that are a winter delight with smaller crowds. Sedona is also a very accessible location for a jumping off point to visit Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend and Vermillion Cliffs which are located in some of the more northern reaches of the state (close to the Utah border) that are also amazing winter hiking spots. Some hikes and sights in Sedona: Bear Mountain, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Oak Creek Canyon, Mitten Ridge, Adobe Jack trails.
Grand Canyon National Park, split in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, is an amazing winter hiking destination November—early May. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed in the winter and early spring months, but the South Rim is a great location in winter. You start by leaving the higher elevation of the South Rim, which is at an average of 7,000 feet, to drop into the canyon to the river level at an average of 2,200 feet above sea level. In the winter, the rim may have snow, ice and cold temperatures, but the bottom of the inner canyon exhibits fair temperatures. Winter in the Grand Canyon is a great time to get some solitude and a below-the-rim backpacking or Phantom Ranch tour in!