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20 Most Stunning Desert Escapes in the U.S.

We love lush tropical locales, but arid landscapes can be just as awe-inspiring. Check out these dramatic desert destinations.

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A view of some of the red rocks in Sedona, Arizona, USAcpaulfell/Shutterstock

Sedona, Arizona

Mystical and majestic, Sedona casts a spell with its fiery rock formulations, steep canyons, energy vortexes, and pine forests. This hallowed landscape attracts four million people each year—more than half seeking spiritual transformation. Not surprisingly, it has become a hotbed of New Age healing with many wellness-oriented outposts like crystal shops, aura readers, yoga studios, and holistic spas. In case you were curious, this Sedona road trip is as magical as everyone says it is.

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Giant saguaro cactus at Saguaro National Park, Arizona Vintage America / USA / Cactus / Wild West / New Mexico / Las Vegas / Cactus Desert Backgroundhessianmercenary/Shutterstock

Santa Fe, New Mexico

First settled in 1610, Santa Fe, the oldest capital in the country, is steeped in history and heritage developed over hundreds of years. Its unique cultural tapestry is a richly woven fabric that blends Native American, Spanish, and Anglo traditions. This UNESCO Creative City is home to a flourishing arts community, galleries galore, and shops selling everything from turquoise jewelry to indigenous pottery. Santa Fe also made our list of epic spring break spots for grown-ups.

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Landscape with joshua tree (Joshua Tree NP)agap/Shutterstock

Joshua Tree, California

Joshua Tree National Park spans 800,000 arid acres—that’s larger than Rhode Island—and includes two distinct desert ecosystems. Its surreal tableau is punctuated by massive boulders, Dr. Seuss-like yucca palms, and archaeological marvels. Hiking is the primary draw, but with 8,000 climbing routes, vertical adventure is a close second. At night, dark skies are sublime for stargazing. You can sleep under the cosmos at the nine on-site campgrounds. Or, book a room at a local hotel if camping isn’t for you. Joshua Tree also makes our list of must-see places around the country to take your kids.

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Marfa, Texas

Most people’s association with Marfa—if they have one at all—is to Prada Marfa, a sculpture installation in the west Texas desert. But there’s actually more to Marfa, starting with its seclusion. Tucked between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park, its nearest neighbor is some 20 miles away. And while the population is around 2,000, don’t let that fool you—Marfa is far from a snooze-fest. An influx of art installations, exhibitions, and cultural festivals has turned up the heat on this remote respite and it’s not cooling anytime soon. While you’re there, why not venture to one of these hot springs?

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Sunset over suburb of Tucson.Anton Foltin/Shutterstock

Tucson, Arizona

Old Pueblo, as Tucson is known, is a sun-drenched oasis surrounded by windswept mountain ranges. What you might not expect is the crazy flora: A fascinating variety of herbs, cacti, succulents, and other native plants have roots at Tucson Botanical Gardens. Take a step back in time with a visit to Mission San Xavier del Bac and Presidio San Agustín del Tucson. If that’s not enough to entice you… the soul-stirring beauty of El Conquistador Tucson certainly will. And did we mention the amenities? Five outdoor swimming pools, a state-of-the-art spa, and a championship golf course. Take a peek at these beautiful photos of parks in full bloom.

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colorful landscape from zion national park utahFotos593/Shutterstock

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is famed for its sheer sandstone cliffs. A rich diversity of wildlife thrives in this biologically rich habitat. Narrow canyons, flowing rivers, ponderosa forests, and waterfalls add to the wonder. Thrill-seekers can test their mental and physical fortitude by attempting to conquer the five-mile-long Angel’s Landing trail. Sharp switchbacks and dizzying drop-offs make it a challenging trek, but the stunning views from the summit are well worth it. Looking for a family vacation? Here are 45 mini family vacations that won’t break the bank.

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A perfect blue sky, palm trees and the San Jacinto Mountains of Palm Springs California.Andrew F. Kazmierski/Shutterstock

Palm Springs, California

In its 1960s heyday, Palm Springs was a playground for Hollywood stars. Fast forward a few decades… the seminal mid-century modern architecture, jet-set spirit, and laid-back vibe that lured the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Lucille Ball are captivating a new generation of travelers. Bolstered by a surge of exciting events, hip hotels, art galleries, alfresco bistros, interior design shops, and vintage boutiques, this dynamic destination has reclaimed its colorful crown. Want to escape with your BFFs? Palm Springs ranks among our top picks for a girlfriends getaway.

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Arizona Saguaro cactus at beautiful sunset.Lucky-photographer/Shutterstock

Scottsdale, Arizona

Those looking for a posh, desert vacation will love Scottsdale with its luxurious accommodations, award-winning dining, upscale shopping, and more spas per capita than anywhere in the United States. Sanctuary Resort boasts spectacular panoramas of Paradise Valley and proximity to Camelback Mountain trails. After hoofing it in the heat, you might require a little R&R. Luckily, this holistic haven abounds with blissful services such as lime blossom massages and divinity detox wraps. Making health a priority? Check out these awesome wellness retreats.

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Warm tone and soft light, soft edge, sunset at Delicate arch, Archesh National Park, Utah, USAWisanu Boonrawd/Shutterstock

Moab, Utah

Every adventure needs a base camp. Moab offers access to the mind-blowing red rocks of Arches National Park and gushing waters of the Colorado River, plus plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Uranium may have put this Utah town on the map in the early 1900s, but its story began in the Mesozoic Era. Aspiring paleontologists can dig for fossils and follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Moab Giants. For the over 21 crowd, there’s a brewery and Spanish Valley Vineyards hosts daily wine tastings. Brush up on these essential vino terms before you go.

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Mountains along Red Rock Canyon National Conservation west of Las Vegas, Nevada.Paul Brady Photography/Shutterstock

Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas is more than lavish casinos, big-budget shows, high-end hotels, and restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs. Explore beyond the Strip to discover the scenic side of Sin City. Head to the 197,000-acre Red Rock Canyon, Nevada’s first national conservation area, for a fun-filled day of hiking and horseback riding. Beat the heat with an aquatic activity. Did you know you can kayak from the base of the Hoover Dam? For real rush, race a custom-built dune buggy across rugged terrain at night! And don’t miss these Las Vegas attractions that have nothing to do with gambling.

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El Centro, California

For a true desert experience, head to the Imperial Sand Dunes in Southern California, just two hours west of Yuma, Arizona. Visitors can book a ride on the dunes with an ATV by purchasing a weekly permit. The drive to the dunes can also be made from San Diego or Phoenix. These dunes look like a painting just like these other desert landscapes.

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Alamosa, Colorado

This tiny city sits off the radar for most tourists but has some of the best desert views the country has to offer. Some scenic locations within driving distance include Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Alamosa is less than a five-hour drive from the Denver airport, so while there will be some significant driving to get here, Colorado is arguably the most beautiful state to be driving through. These are the 12 things you shouldn’t do at reopened national parks.

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El Paso, Texas

This desert town sits on the border of Mexico and is home to some fascinating history. There are many places to hike, climb, and submerge yourself in the rich history of the area. Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site is an incredible place to take both guided and self-guided tours of some beautiful rock sites. Don’t miss these perfectly timed nature photos that look fake, but aren’t.

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La Quinta, California

Some of the best desert views and hiking takes place in Coachella Valley, also home to the yearly music festival. The most comfortable time to go would be between March and November for prime hiking weather and moderate temperatures. The La Quinta Resort & Club, once a favorite hideaway for the iconic Katharine Hepburn, boasts 41 pools to cool down after a strenuous day.

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Kayenta, Utah

For all the creatives, this desert oasis in south Utah is home to an artist’s village with many shops and galleries with the Red Rocks as a backdrop. It is home to a vast sculpture garden making for a beautiful walk through the Desert Rose Labyrinth. See these national parks that are off the beaten path.

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Albuquerque, New Mexico

Every October, Albuquerque hosts the largest hot air balloon festival in the country. If you have ever dreamed of floating in a balloon over some beautiful desert scenery, this is the place to make that dream come true. The city also is rich in culture and history with some amazing food options.

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Bend, Oregon

Near the center of Oregon, Bend is classified in the high desert region of the state. Visitors can see the Newberry Crater, a volcano with lava, caves, and lakes, along with many other outdoor activities including skiing, rock climbing, and hiking. Don’t miss these stunning photos of national parks in full bloom.

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Ojo Caliente, New Mexico

This spa community of only 816 residents is located between Española and Taos, sitting along the Rio Grande. All-natural, sulfur-free hot springs populate several stunning resorts in the area. Even in the bitter winter months, the geothermal mineral waters pump water at 109 degrees.

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Great Basin, Nevada

Known as the “cold” desert of the United States because the perception falls as snow, it is also the largest desert in the country. Bordered by the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Range, Great Basin National Park will offer some of the most photogenic views. Don’t miss these spectacular photos of America’s national parks that will leave you awestruck.

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Antelope Valley, California

Located on the western tip of the Mojave Desert in the northern part of Los Angeles, Antelope Valley is home to many plants and animals including fields of California poppy. Next, see the best national park road trips you can take all year long.

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Lindsay Cohn
Lindsay Cohn is an avid traveler who has visited 45 countries across six continents and writes about travel for Reader’s Digest as well as USA Today, Fodor’s, Travel + Leisure, Brides and PureWow. Beyond travel, she covers a variety of lifestyle topics including beauty, wellness and design. Her work has also been published on Well+Good, Elle Decor, Martha Stewart, Domino and Mindbodygreen. Follow her on Instagram @lindsay_cohn