It’s a feeling we mountain dwellers are familiar with. The snow is finally gone. The days are getting longer. The weather is warm enough to get by with a light jacket. You’re itching to dig out your tent, mountain bike, or hiking shoes, but you know full well all your favorite forest getaways are still buried under six inches of snow.
Now’s the perfect time to head out into the high desert. If you’re lucky enough to have one nearby, this veritable sea of sagebrush and sand has plenty to offer almost every terrestrially inclined outdoor enthusiast. Its comparatively lower elevations, scant precipitation, and rapidly draining soils help it thaw and dry out months before the mountains. Best of all, the desert’s public access points attract fewer people, and they don’t often require a trail pass, so you can get a taste of rugged solitude without having to spend anything except the gas to get there.
Layers of beauty and intrigue
If you’re of the philosophy that a place with so few trees isn’t worth visiting, consider this: when the trees step aside, there’s a lot more to see. It’s not uncommon to find yourself in the middle of a 360-degree panorama that’s nothing but horizon. Wildlife is easier to spot, weather systems look larger than life, and sunsets explode and spill out of the western skyline. With fewer trees there’s less biomass buildup, so you’re also able to see further into the past, right beneath your feet. Every seasoned geology buff knows the desert is a lithic time machine, where rock formations from thousands, sometimes millions of years ago are largely untouched by the destructive force of moving water.
The living desert, itself, offers plenty to see as well. All manner of plants and wildlife make their home in this largely inhospitable landscape. Set upon this stage of silver brush, golden grasses, and olive juniper are familiar species found in other habitats—animals such as elk, deer, and falcons, to name a few.
But the real treat are the unique standouts of the desert, animals you’d be hard-pressed to encounter elsewhere. During the day you’ll find lizards and skinks basking in the sun, darting away at the first sign of an approaching shadow. In the early evening watch for jackrabbits, with their absurdly large ears, loping through the brush in search of dinner. Those ears are evolution’s take on radiators, helping the hare shed body heat during the hottest part of the day. After sunset you’ll be treated to night hawks roaming the skies in search of insects. Just look for the wide-winged birds with a telltale white stripe under each wing. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear the male’s mating dive, a guttural, sometimes-startling growl that seems better suited coming from a medium-sized mammal than any bird.
Planning your first visit to the high desert
Hiking: Unless you decide to venture out in middle of July, a high desert hike is a casual affair. Most trails aren’t too challenging, and they’re the perfect excuse for a short daytrip. Don’t let the flatness of the land fool you into wearing flimsy shoes, though. Many trails have sections that weave through ancient lava flows, and you may get the urge to explore an off-trail feature that catches your eye. Make sure you’ve got sturdy soles and ample ankle support. You’ll also want to wear one or two sheddable layers of clothing, especially if you’re planning on staying out longer than a few hours. Even during the mildest of weather, desert temperatures can fluctuate quite a bit throughout the day.
Biking: High desert trails are a great way to start mountain-biking season, and early to mid spring is the perfect time to go. The cooler temperatures will let you ride harder without overheating, and a tighter trail substrate will give you plenty of traction to do so. Surface conditions can vary, so pay close attention to how your bike handles when you first hit the trail. Harder track with a bit of moisture will grip your tires like Velcro, but as the sand loosens and dries you’ll find yourself sliding more and more at every turn. As the season progresses, the trails deteriorate from sticky to slippy, but by the time desert biking becomes a technical pain-in-the-pedals, the forest and mountain trails have opened up for the year.
Camping: Yes, you’re allowed to camp in the desert, and yes, it’s totally worth it—if not for that unforgettable nighttime sky, alone. However, keep a few considerations in mind. For one, you’ll want to pack clothes suited for two seasons. Even on the warmest days, desert temperatures drop substantially in the evening, and nights can be downright cold.
If you plan to keep warm by the fire, know this: campfires in the desert can be a hit or miss affair. They’re typically prohibited much earlier in the year than in the forests, even in campgrounds that have designated fire pits. If fires are allowed, you’ll want to bring any wood you need, because you’re simply not going to find any long-lasting fuel amongst the juniper. If you’ll be indulging in some dispersed camping—camping outside of proper campgrounds—you’ll likely be required by law to use a fire pan to avoid scarring the fragile soils. It’s a good idea to check the official rules and regulations. A better idea might be to forgo the fire altogether, and rough it just a little bit rougher.
Take care of the desert—and yourself
You need to be on top of your Leave No Trace game when you head out into the high desert. The flora is fragile and slow-growing, and damage can take years to heal. Watch where you step (or ride) and leave nothing behind. There’s little in the way of microbes and bacteria in this arid environment, so even the most biodegradable materials will take months or possibly years to disappear. If you try to bury your food scraps and personal waste (yes, I’m talking about poo), it’s probably going to be dug up and scattered by some hungry critter, creating an eyesore for future visitors. So plan on bagging everything up and hauling it back to civilization with you.
When it comes to water and sun protection, pack like you would in July. The desert may not always be hot, at least in the spring, but it is always sunny. There’s little shade to be found, and the sun can burn just as readily in the cold air as it can in the heat. Bring a wide-brimmed hat and pack sunscreen. Extra water wouldn’t hurt on the cooler days. It’s downright essential when the weather begins to warm up.
Finally, make sure your destination is open to the public before you go. We aren't the only animals that turn to the desert for an escape, but with wildlife it can be for life-or-death reasons that involve food, migration, and reproduction. Thankfully, our local land-use agencies give native animals first dibs on the high desert, closing certain areas down a few months a year to let Nature do her thing. If you’re unsure whether humans have the green light to enter an area, contact the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service.
Once you discover the magic of a few high desert getaways, you’ll likely find yourself returning to them each spring while waiting for the rest of the world to thaw out. Or you might just get hooked by the landscape on its own merits. After you’ve ridden past ten-thousand-year-old lava beds, witnessed hidden caches of wildlife awaken with the setting sun, or spent a night under the largest and fullest sky of stars you’ve ever seen, it’s quite possible you’ll sneak out once or twice in the fall to get another taste of this unique and tranquil experience.