The best desert destinations |

The best desert destinations

Colleen O’Neil

As you’ve probably seen all over Facebook and Instagram, there’s snow on Mount Sopris. That thin blanket of white seems to mean that our extended Indian Summer is finally over.

And now begins the mud. Time to go to the desert.

I’m not the kind of person who enjoys the desert much in the summer. My pale Irish skin burns too easily. But when the shoulder season gets too nasty and raw, it’s always fun to escape to a place where the sun never stops shining.

Luckily, our spot in Colorado is perfect for a short getaway to places that are warmer and drier than here. From Glenwood Springs, we’re less than an hour from DeBeque, an hour from Palisade and an hour and a half from Grand Junction. Drive an extra couple hours, and you’ll end up in Moab. If you’ve got some extra vacation time to burn, head down to Sedona. If you’re feeling metropolitan, shoot down to the funky desert metropolis of Albuquerque.

I’m not ready to give up mountain biking and hiking quite yet for the year. You too? Here are some of my favorite mud-free escapes.


Don’t just drive through Palisade on your way to Fruita. Instead, check out the Palisade Rim Trail. It runs along the edge of the Little Book Cliffs east of Palisade, about 1,000 feet above the valley floor.

From the river launch site just off Interstate 70, you can access the trail, which begins next to a big gate, in about 200 yards. The first 800-foot climb is tough, but there are enough switchbacks to make it feel like you’re doing more than crawling up the side of a cliff. From that point, you can take a left to reach the upper loop and connect the trail together for an 8.5 mile hike or bike ride.

Don’t forget to check out the petroglyphs along the way, and maybe drop down into town after tackling the trail to sample some of Palisade’s local wines.


If your time is limited, don’t follow the line of cars to Arches National Park. Sure, it’s cool. But you’re looking for a world-class hike that’s short and packed full of amazing views, check out the Fisher Towers trail.

These huge sandstone monoliths are caked with a stucco of red mud, which gives them a distinct fiery color. Composed of three major rock fins running from the northeast to the southwest and into a desert valley, the fins were once part of a larger mesa. Each roughly 1,000 foot fin contains multiple towers, a number of which have been named.

The southernmost fin is best known for containing the tower with the greatest elevation and prominence, a structure named Titan Tower, the largest free-standing natural tower in the country. The Titan is a popular spire for adventure-seeking climbers to tackle, but there’s also a 2.2-mile hiking trail to a scenic ridge south of the trailhead.

With even more time, head out to the White Rim Trail. In the high season, this 100-mile, doubletrack trail is packed with ATVs, SUVs, and big groups of mountain bikers. But in late fall and winter, the road is quiet. The terrain is friendly enough to ride a bicycle without suspension (or drive a Kia Sorento), and there are some epic desert views along the route.


Even though it doesn’t get as much press as its bigger sister, Santa Fe, Albuquerque is definitely worth a weekend visit (or longer). With the lofty Sandia Mountains on the horizon and an outstanding year-round climate, it’s a terrific location for outdoor enthusiasts to visit.

On lots of hiking trails in New Mexico, you might discover fossils, petroglyphs, petrified wood or ancient ruins. It would take weeks to see all the images chiseled into Petroglyph National Monument. Try the Rinconada Canyon Trail, where 200 to 300 petroglyphs are visible amid volcanic rock and sand dunes. Chances are, you’ll see roadrunners, deer, hawks or other critters along the way.

If you’ve got another day to play, book a slot with Rainbow Ryders, one of the area’s top ballooning outfitters. Depending on the wind, you’ll soar to 3,000 feet and dip low enough to graze the Rio Grande. Breakfast and bubbly included.

Afterward, check out Bistronomy B2B, a boutique burger joint with 34 New Mexican craft beers on tap.

Even if you can’t get out of town, hiking, riding or running up the Mushroom Rock trail is always a good standby when almost everything else is wet.

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