Top 12 Desert Escapes

Soak, sun, relax—do all of this and more on a trip to these top-notch desert destinations

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For adventurous trekkers: La Quinta, CA

Coachella Valley is home to the Santa Rosa Mountains, where granite, desert flora, and sweeping views surround primo hiking. And La Quinta, 25 miles southeast of Palm Springs, is a great entryway for hikers: Take the Cove to Lake Trail, a 2.5-mile one-way trek. Or, for serious burn, consider the strenuous 7.5-mile Boo Hoff Trail. Download a map at la-quinta.org Best time to go: March and November, when moderate temperatures make for supreme hiking weather. Stay: La Quinta Resort & Club—once a favorite hideaway for Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo—has cozy casitas, 41 pools, and a James Beard award–winning chef at its Morgan’s restaurant. From $249; laquintaresort.com
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For design enthusiasts: Palm Springs, CA

This town is the capital of midcentury mod style, and the Sunnylands Center & Gardens (pictured) is a mega-shrine to modernism. The former winter home of publisher and diplomat Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, is an architectural vision, with the bonus of a powerhouse art collection, including works by Rodin and Giacometti. Garden and gallery free, house tour $35; sunnylands.org

Best time to go: June, for fewer crowds and killer deals—if you can take the heat.

Stay: The recently renovated Saguaro, complete with large pool and mountain vistas, adds a contemporary pop of color inspired by desert wildflowers. From $105; thesaguaro.com

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For spa goers: Desert Hot Springs, CA

With natural-hot-spring spas all around, Desert Hot Springs beckons with sun, dry air, warmth, and pure relaxation. Bonus: This low-key neighbor to Palm Springs and gateway to Joshua Tree National Park has budget-friendly pampering options. At the delightfully minimalist Miracle Manor Retreat (pictured), soak in the hot pool with views of snowcapped San Jacinto peaks, then recharge with a spa treatment. Day use from $135, including treatment; miraclemanor.com

Best time to go: March, when the average high is a comfy 80°.

Stay: The luxe Hotel Lautner is a splurge, but it’s a hot spot for midcentury modern design—with a saltwater dipping pool. From $270; 2-night min.; hotellautner.com

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For night owls: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Dark skies and bright constellations make this San Diego County park one of the best places for planetary spotting in the West. Low light pollution means crazy-clear views of the Milky Way, Saturn, and Jupiter. For a dark-sky sleepover, try a camping trip with California Overland, where starlit dunes are paired with campfire stories about the area’s history, and gooey s’mores come after dinner. From $225, including dinner and breakfast; californiaoverland.com

Best time to go: October, for spectacular star shows and clearest, balmiest weather.

Stay: Borrego Valley Inn has a small, sand-swept courtyard perfect for galaxy gazing. Plus, there are kiva-style fireplaces and a 4 p.m. homemade-cookie hour. From $205; 2-night min.; borregovalleyinn.com

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For road trippers: Route 66, NM, AZ, and CA

Take the ultimate Western road trip! From the desert to the surf, these three stretches of Route 66 have outdoor adventure, high culture, and some of the West’s best road food. Along the way, you'll take in Native American archeological wonders, kitschy motels, and some of the Southwest's most stunning landscapes.

More: Ultimate Western road trip: Route 66

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For day hikers: Superior, AZ

An epic backpacking trip is one way to see the Arizona Trail. But a chill hiking weekend in the throwback town of Superior will do just fine, where you'll find frontier ruggedness mixed with a Mayberry-in-the-desert vibe. The Arizona Trail, the Southwest's answer to the Appalachian Trail, stretches from the state’s Mexican border to Utah. While it would take months to hike its entire length, less ambitious hikers rejoice: The trail is conveniently broken into 43 sections. Head south from Superior on the Alamo Canyon section, and rest peacefully in town where comfy lodgings and good dining await.

More: Desert getaway: the Arizona Trail

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For art fiends: Kayenta, UT

Eye candy abounds in this southern Utah desert oasis. An artists' village boasts a cluster of galleries, shops, and a cafe with a backdrop of red rock mountains and desert gardens. You can try your hand at pottery, or browse local wares. The ultimate local experience? A peaceful sunset stroll through the Desert Rose Labyrinth (pictured) and its adjoining sculpture garden dotted with works by the area's masters.

More: Have an artful encounter in Kayenta

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For nature & neon lovers: Las Vegas, NV

You love Vegas and all it has to offer. But did you also know there's a stunning adventureland not far from the Strip? Nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (pictured) is a climbers' heaven, with hiking and horseback trails galore. The relatively untracked Valley of Fire State Park is only an hour away. You can kayak down the Colorado River from the base of Hoover Dam. Vegas, baby, indeed.

More: Las Vegas, beyond the Strip

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For foodies: Moab, UT

Hard-core. That’s been the rap on Moab, Utah, ever since the boom-to-bust mining town became a colossal outdoor playground for hikers, bikers, climbers, and paddlers who shred, tear, rip, roar, scale, summit, and conquer. With a landscape this dramatic, adrenaline seekers will always come here in search of the gnarly. But lately Moab has sprouted more mellow pursuits that you don’t have to catch air or defy gravity to enjoy. Don’t mistake mellow for monotonous, though. We’re talking wineries tucked among sandstone canyons, locally sourced eats, a craft brewery, and suites along the Colorado River. It’s the same great outdoor playground, with a new sophisticated side.

More: Explore the finer side of Moab

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For greenery seekers: Tucson, AZ

For all its desert heat, Tucson is a wonderland of plants. It's home to the world's largest regional cactus and succulent society. Tucson Botanical Gardens (pictured) holds a dazzling array of succulents and other Southwestern plants. Tohono Chul Park located 10 worth-it miles north of downtown, is a 47-acre botanical oasis. And in springtime, desert wildflowers amaze.

More: One perfect day at the Tucson Botanical Garden

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For would-be cowboys: Scottsdale, AZ

Scottsdale’s become synonymous with swank, but the town’s Western, outdoorsy roots are still alive and kicking. Looking to dip your toe in the cowboy lifestyle? Go on a horseback ride along the trails near town, splash through the Verde River and take in the views of craggy mountains, plus glimpses of desert wildlife. Afterwards, unwind at one of several cowboy bars in town. Just a spectator? You can at least dress the part. Boots and cowboy hats are de rigueur at late winter's monthlong Western-palooza that ends with a rodeo. Want to check out the real thing? Attend cowboy college for courses on roping, riding, and branding.

More: One perfect day in Scottsdale

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For life-list adventurers: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Paddling through the Grand Canyon is one of the great adventures you can have in your lifetime. The raft floats beneath towering rock walls apparently colored using the largest box of crayons in the universe. You trail your arm in the cool river, and the water is heaven. The current speeds up and your guide shouts, “Hold on!” because you’re approaching one of the rapids that would make the World River Rapids Hall of Fame if there were such a thing. The raft spins, buckles, cold water floods in on you, but amazingly the raft doesn’t flip over and you don’t fall out and you realize that every adventure you ever had in your life was just preparation for this one. Plus the fun continues beyond the river with some of the world's most epic hiking.

More: Grand Canyon National Park guide