Winter Wandering

The West
By Eileen Gunn

If you've just gotta have sun and balmy breezes, head west. You'll find great hiking, biking, scenic driving, and horseback riding that will lift your spirits and gladden your heart.

Extending from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, New Mexico's Turquoise Trai wends 52 miles through a range of climates, from the high country to the desert, past ghost towns, artists' haunts, and ancient turquoise mines. The mines of the Cerrillos hills, south of Santa Fe, have been mined for lead/silver ore and copper since pre-Spanish times, and are believed to be the source of turquoise found in Aztec and Mayan ruins far to the south. Warm, sunny days and cool nights make this a pleasant winter bicycle tour, but be prepared for chilly winds in the high country around Santa Fe. A side trip along the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway, north of Albuquerque, offers a 3,700-foot climb into the winter-sports ecosystem, home to skiing, snowshoeing, and other cold-weather pleasures.

In summer and early fall, daytime temperatures in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, the southernmost part of that hot, dry state, frequently top 100-120 degrees F. Winter and early spring are more amenable to drives and hikes that will give you a chance to see close up the area's monumental organpipe cacti and the wildlife that thrive in the most forgiving parts of this arid land. Spots like Quitobaquito Spring and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and Empire-Cienega Resource Conservation Area, narrow fertile strips that line streams and canyon floors, give even the casual visitor a chance to see desert pupfish, Sonoran box turtles, and spadefoot toads. These riparian areas, as they are called, are easily disrupted, and only a small number of them remain.

December and January are the off season at Joshua Tree National Park, in the California desert, northeast of Palm Springs. You can expect some rain, and even snow at the higher elevations. But "off season" means that the flow of climbers and hikers to this internationally known park has temporarily diminished, and given its 1-to-7-inch annual rainfall, you shouldn't plan to see much rain. In the eastern half of the park, which is low-elevation Colorado desert, the winter brings chilly nights and warmer days, with temperatures up into the 70s on a nice day. The higher-elevation Mojave-desert portions of the park will be cold (often below freezing) in the winter, and that's where you'll find extensive stands of the spiky Joshua tree, a variety of yucca with the appearance of a demented pine. Crisscrossed with biking, hiking, and equestrian trails and dotted with well-climbed rocks of all levels of difficulty, the park also contains interpreted nature and botanical trails that describe the area's geology and natural history. Keep your eyes open—you may see bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, mule deer, blacktailed jackrabbits, and other desert fauna, as well as resident and visiting birds. During stormy weather, parts of the park are surprising stopovers for migratory waterfowl, such as egrets, loons, grebes, and herons. Joshua Tree is very much a desert, even in the winter, and you'll need to carry in all your water. You'll carry away a lasting impression of an austere and demanding land of surreal beauty.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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