The 10 Best Desert Towns in the U.S. That Should Be on Your Bucket List
Are you looking for a vacation with peaceful vibes, gorgeous weather, and spectacular views?
City lights have their appeal and towering forests can feel downright spiritual, but the desert boasts unparalleled beauty that elicits a unique and deep sort of awe. It can't help but invite you to contemplate how so much loveliness can thrive in such trying conditions. Its dusty scapes are dotted with prickly cacti that yield a host of surprisingly colorful blooms in the spring, and the sunsets are so vivid they almost seem unreal. Think swirls of purple, orange, and red that light up the earth below in a glow only the desert could know.
Along with natural wildlife, the desert is home to established towns and cities that give visitors a chance to enjoy the scenery and culture. If you're in the mood for a desert getaway, you must add at least a few of these best desert towns in the U.S. to your travel bucket list.
The Best U.S. Desert Towns
1. Albuquerque, New Mexico
New Mexico is dubbed the "Land of the Enchantment" for good reason. It's home to numerous desert towns, each unique in its own way and rich in natural beauty. Albuquerque is New Mexico's largest city and is an excellent base for visitors who want to explore other areas in the state, as well, including Taos and Santa Fe.
Perhaps one of Albuquerque's biggest draws is its hot air balloons. "Each Fall, Albuquerque hosts the largest hot air balloon festival in the world, but ballooning can be enjoyed year-round," notes Jewels Rhode, lifestyle and travel expert.
She also recommends visiting Old Town to marvel at the Adobe-style architecture, taking the Sandia Peak Tramway to enjoy panoramic views of the city, and hiking in Petroglyph National Park, which is one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America.
2. Kanab, Utah
Calling all hikers! The most surprising and highly -rated desert town in the Southwestern United States is a charming little town in Southwestern Utah called Kanab.
"Hike up to the mysterious sand caves, down into awe-inspiring Bryce Canyon, see petrified dinosaur prints on one of the many rocky buttes, or maybe trek out for a big day at Zion National Park," says Whitney Brielle Martin, CMO of JET Hospitality. "Kanab has enough flavor to keep you entertained, great views, and far better price and pace than some of the busier hubs in that area; you will not be disappointed."
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3. Moab, Utah
Travel about five hours west from Kanab and you'll find yourself in another Utah desert town that attracts adventure seekers far and wide.
Like its eastern brother, Moab serves as a central base for exploring several of the state's stunning national parks, including the aptly named Arches (prioritize Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, and Fiery Furnace trails), and Canyonlands, which offers scenic hikes and overlooks like Grand View Point, Green River Overlook, and Shafer Canyon & Shafer Trail Viewpoint.
4. Rock Springs, Wyoming
Rock Springs is a tiny town located in Southern Wyoming named after a once flowing spring that's no longer there. While the town itself is quite small, it's considered the preferred base for explorers who want to check out the state's impressive Red Desert.
"The Red Desert offers stunning views of a remarkable, colorful landscape of badlands, canyons, sand dunes, and wildlife including the rare desert elk, pronghorn, migratory birds, and wild horses," notes Anna Kayfitz, founder and CEO of the Visited app.
Some of the most popular hikes include Continental Peak, the Oregon Buttes, Boar's Tusk, and Steamboat Mountain. "The Killpecker Sand Dunes north of Rock Springs are the largest dune system in the U.S. and offer off-roading, hiking, and wildlife watching over 11,000 acres of vast wilderness," Kayfitz adds.
5. Palm Springs, California
A quick jaunt from Los Angeles, Palm Springs rose to fame in the 1920s when Hollywood elite made the desert oasis their choice getaway. It still serves as such, attracting everyone from movie stars to everyday folks for a glamorous desert reprieve.
"Sandwiched between Coachella Valley Preserve, the Sonoran Desert, and Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs is a southern California oasis with attractions for every traveler," says Alex Johnson, travel expert at Vacasa. "Taking a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway—the world's largest rotating tram car, is a must-do! This 2.5-mile ride up the Chico Canyon offers unparalleled views. [Also take time to] explore the Tahquitz Canyon Trails to see gorgeous waterfalls or horseback ride the Indian Canyons to see Native American drawings."
6. Taos, New Mexico
With its thriving art scene, iconic landmarks, and stunning vistas against the Rockies, Taos is a must-visit desert town that's perfect for groups, couples, families, or individual soul-seekers. It's home to the world's only Native American community that's been designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. Here you'll also find the 250-year-old St. Francisco de Asis, which is one of the most photographed churches in the world.
"Taos has a remote desert feel that is unlike anywhere else in the country," says Jesse Baker, CEO of JET Hospitality. "Around Taos is access to ski country, and walking out on the Rio Grande Bridge over the gorge with an IPA is as good a feeling as any. Finishing off your trip with a day pass at Ojo Caliente Springs is a nice way to wind-down after a banger weekend in Taos."
7. Scottsdale, Arizona
Scottsdale, Arizona is considered part of the Phoenix metro, though it certainly has its own flair. Its Old Town, which still gives vibes of the Wild Wild West, is a major draw, as are its many resorts, eateries, bars, and shopping stalls.
"This desert city serves as a central location for exploring all that Arizona has to offer, such as the Grand Canyon and the red-rocks of Sedona," says Johnson. "Head to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve for multiple popular hiking opportunities, including the Gateway Loop Trail, Tom's Thumb or the Lost Dog Wash trail. Or take a ride on the Old Town trolley or take a day trip to the nearby Phoenix to check out the Desert Botanical Garden or hike Camelback Mountain."
8. Sedona, Arizona
Drive just a couple hours north and you'll find yourself surrounded by Sedona's towering red rock formations. This high-altitude desert town is unique not just because of its stunning vistas, but also because of the town itself. It's considered a mystical hub of sorts with card readers, aura specialists, and meditative hikes around every corner, and boasts a thriving art scene, as well. (The Tlaquepaque shopping center is an easy place to spend an entire afternoon.)
Kayfitz notes that Sedona is also a great base for people who want to explore Arizona's majestic Painted Desert, which includes badlands in a rainbow of hues along its canyons, buttes, and hills. "You can drive or hike through the badlands and see fossilized ancient trees and geological formations, as well as check out the Rainbow Forest in the south of the Petrified Forest, which is brimming with colorful petrified wood," she says.
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9. Joshua Tree, California
Named after the other-wordly Joshua Tree, which is native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of Southern California, this hip desert town has quickly risen to fame for its combination of quirky culture, boulder hiking, stargazing, and wow-worthy vistas. Definitely spend a day or two exploring Joshua Tree National Park, explore the Glass Outhouse Art Gallery, and drop by the World Famous Crochet Museum.
Oh, and located just an hour away is Slab City, an off-grid, alternative lifestyle desert town located in the Sonoran Desert. While the small city is home to locals, wanderlusts also flock here to explore the atypical lifestyle, eccentric art, and local community that prides itself on being home to "the last free place." Joshua Tree is also a quick trip from Palm Springs and Coachella Valley, which makes it easy to see a lot in a short period of time.
10. Santa Fe, New Mexico
Believe it or not, New Mexico's capital city is the United States' second-oldest city, boasting a melting pot of American Indian and Spanish culture and 315 days of annual sunshine a year.
"In the winter, hit the slopes of Ski Santa Fe or take a dip in the Spence Hot Springs. Or embrace the rich history and culture of the area by stopping at the Georgia O'Keefe Museum and Museum of Indian Arts and Culture," Johnson suggests. Come summer, she suggests taking a day trip to hike through Bandelier National Monument, which features rock cavities and a swimmable waterfall. Ranger-led tours are a great way to learn about the area's history.