It used to be that only the lonely European tourist or two and my family inhabited the vast open spaces of Death Valley roads, Joshua Tree trails, and the shimmering Southern Arizona desert near Organ Pipe National Monument.
Today, it seems more people are craving the raw beauty and stillness of the desert in summer. Fewer crowds, lower room rates, and the lack of humidity in the desert frankly makes summer a prime time to visit: If you like it hot.
It’s worth noting that as long as you stay hydrated, keep mid-day walks short–under 15 minutes–and wear a hat and sunscreen you will not feel particularly uncomfortable even with thermometer readings over 100 degrees. The dryness of the climate keeps discomfort low; in fact, you won’t find yourself perspiring until you’re back inside your air-conditioned car or hotel room. Drinking plenty of water is key. Never step out of your car or leave your hotel room without a few liters of water on you. A tip: Keep one flat of water–that’s 24 bottles–in your car per day for two passengers. We tend to travel light on the luggage, and fill our trunk with water. Just save the empties for recycling or refilling.
Death Valley National Park is five hours from Los Angeles. Although summer isn’t the season to traverse the salt flats of Badwater, the lowest and hottest spot in the contiguous U.S., it’s the perfect time of year to visit the Telescope Peak area, with an elevation of 11,000-feet. The altitude lowers temperatures from say 114 degrees on the valley floor to a temperate mid-80s. Here you can explore 25-foot high, beehive-shaped kilns, once used to supply charcoal for silver and lead smelters, or take a shady path to the sweeping views atop Wildrose Peak.
Driving down into Death Valley, photo stops abound from the Mesquite Dunes to Devil’s Cornfield. Further south, take the 2.7-mile one-way loop road of Twenty Mule Team Canyon and the colorful loop road through Artist’s Palette, where the dusty hills are multi-colored red, green, and lavender due to mineral deposits. Both roads are dirt, but easily accessible by passenger car. Or park by the under-five-minute short, steep trail to Zabriskie Point and make the effort to take in the view. The rim of Ubehebe crater at the park’s northern end is also a fascinating lookout.
Afternoon is the perfect time to check into the park’s Furnace Creek Ranch. The ranch pool is deliciously temperate, filled with mineral water that’s spring fed from the mountains. With minimal chlorine added, the pool is frequently refreshed, drained, and reloaded to keep the water pristine. It’s open ’til 11 p.m. and with water temperatures at 82 degrees and the night air hovering around 90 in the summer, the pool is appealing after dark, too. Watch for tiny bats circling the illuminated pool deck.
At dusk, revisit the Mesquite dunes. Undulating like waves, they reflect the soft light and make a beautiful sunset photo stop. They’re also stunning at first light, when the footprints of desert mice and rabbits–and the slithery path of a snake–are still imprinted in the night-cool sand.
There is a wonderful intimacy about summer in Death Valley. Think of the experience of an infrared sauna–the intense dry heat of the day, taken in small doses, feels cleansing and healing. And you’ll want to experience, albeit briefly, the buzzing quiet of the desert at high noon–a time of infinite peace, when just about all living things take shelter in the shade or burrowed beneath the sand.
A 6-hour drive from L.A., Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is another of our favorite hot summer stays. There are no hotel swimming pools in the former copper mining community of Ajo near the monument, but the sleepy community has much to recommend it all the same. Enjoy views of the stunning red hills–the town is named for the Native American Tohono O’odham tribe’s word for the color. Although the desert is abloom with flowers in the spring, it’s summer, when the heavy, honey-gold light falls across the desert and the hills glow like rubies, that the region really shines with color. The only people visiting are those who love it–the sense of solitude, the vastness of the desert, the tough beauty of the landscape. It’s a special, private experience.
In town, take a late afternoon stroll around the Spanish-colonial style plaza. Or check out the ever-growing Artist’s Alley, with over 80 impressive murals spilling from alley to main street. There is also the well-curated Under the Arches art gallery, featuring works by emerging contemporary artists, many local. The plaza is owned by the non-profit International Sonoran Desert Alliance, the group which is also behind the rehabilitation of the town’s former Curley School, now the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center. Originally built between 1919 and 1948, the now industrial-chic hotel rooms were once classrooms; the campus also includes a community garden, a courtyard with fire pit, and renovated artist’s lofts. At dusk, wild javalinas may roam outside the windows, and the hills deepen to ochre. Later, you’ll hear the howl of coyotes in the distance. Like them, with the night warm and fragrant, you’ll want to stay out in the stillness and stare up at the moon. It may be the warm, quiet nights that make summer desert trips here so compelling.
Early morning, before the heat sets in, bike or hike the lovely scenic loop road around town just a few blocks from the hotel. Then, as things heat up, explore the town’s mining museum and small historical museum; from the mining museum, you’ll be able view the mile and a half mine, 1200-feet-deep, and formerly one of the largest copper mines in the world.
Organ Pipe National Monument is just 25 minutes away. Pick up a map from the visitor’s center and take an easy-to-drive dirt loop road into the heart of the park, past a red rock arch and many unique cacti. At the visitor’s center, a short, paved path leads visitors close to local flora and fauna. The Organ Pipe cactus itself needs plenty of sun and can’t tolerate cold weather–something the cactus and I agree upon.
As in Death Valley, sunsets are spectacular here, and the area also offers unparalleled star gazing. Ninety minutes away is the Kitt Peak National Observatory, with night sky tours and day programs open to the public, allowing access to the observatory’s powerful telescopes.
So–is there any wonder some like it hot? Like all desert creatures you’ll want to seek some shade–or a pool–during the hottest part of the day. But the serenity of early morning, when the desert’s natural beauty seems as if it is only yours to enjoy, and the delicious warmth of clear nights perfect for star gazing, makes a little shade-seeking more than tolerable. We’ve always emerged from our summer desert stays feeling as if the heat has baked in its own sense of bliss, carrying the quiet, the colors, and the sound of solitary summer winds with us through all our busy city days.
Summer in the Desert: Where to Stay
The family-friendly Furnace Creek Ranch has plenty of green space, a vast pool, and charming, comfortable rocking chairs on the porches or patios of its large, modern, well-appointed rooms. A well-stocked general store and several dining options, including the Wrangler Steakhouse and the Forty Niner Café are on the property. BBQs and wagon rides are offered in season. Open year round. http://www.furnacecreekresort.com/lodging/reservations/
Organ Pipe National Monument/Ajo
The beautifully renovated Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center features over-sized individual rooms and even a dorm-style room for family and other groups. Outside the sleek, modern rooms is a charming community garden; the town plaza is just a few short blocks away. Dine at the Agave Grill, which features a surprising menu of Asian-fusion dishes freshly prepared, or grab a brew and sandwich at 100 Estrella, just off the plaza.
This article is a part of the June / July 2017 issue of Whole Life Times.