Tag Archives: desert

Fort Davis National Historic Site

Overview

The base of the Davis Mountains is the wonderfully scenic setting for Fort Davis National Historic Site, originally active from 1854 to 1891.  It was manned by U.S. troops except after Texas seceded during the Civil War, which is ironic given that it was named for Jefferson Davis.  Confederate forces obviously saw this as enough reason to occupy the remote frontier fort for a year.  The park preserves its 1867 layout, when the fort was rebuilt following five years of abandonment.

Highlights

Museum, film, historic buildings, Davis Mountains State Park

Must-Do Activity

After the Civil War, Fort Davis became famous for posting African-American “Buffalo Soldiers.”  Maybe this is why they chose to cast 7-foot-2-inch tall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the cowboy hat-wearing narrator of the park’s introductory film.  That in-and-of-itself is worth the price of admission.  The dry Chihuahuan Desert air has preserved the 21 remaining buildings well.  Throughout the day, bugle calls on the loudspeaker will hearken you back to frontier days. 

Best Trail

A self-guided trail leads around the 523-acre property and enters six buildings: the commanding officer’s quarters, lieutenants’ quarters, barracks, commissary, hospital, and officers’ servants’ quarters.  There are other trails here and in neighboring Davis Mountains State Park, but be aware that the fort sits at 4,900 feet of elevation.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The morning we visited, mule deer were feeding on the lawn in front of the restored buildings.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/foda/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$10 per person or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Access roads paved

Camping

If you enjoy spending time at this beautiful spot, consider camping in adjacent Davis Mountains State Park, which offers good stargazing.

Related Sites

Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas)

Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico)

Big Bend National Park (Texas)

Explore More – Who was the first black graduate of West Point military academy briefly stationed here (before a controversial court-martial later overturned in 1976)?

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Overview

The ruins of this four-story pueblo in Coolidge, Arizona were originally protected as Casa Grande Reservation in 1892, the first time an archaeological site was given this designation by the federal government.  The National Park Service (NPS) took over management in 1918 when it was named a National Monument and in 1932 a protective cover was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted to prevent further erosion.  It is hard to believe when looking around the desert today, but the Hohokom farmed the Gila River Valley for over a thousand years until abandoning the area in the mid-1400s.  To accomplish this feat, they dug nearly a thousand miles of irrigation canals measuring 10 feet wide and 10 feet in depth.

Highlights

Museum, film, ruins

Must-Do Activity

Its name means “Big House” in Spanish and you will see why when you take the short, flat walk (handicap accessible) around the multi-story ruin and ballcourts.  Built in the early 1300s, the pueblo was only inhabited for about a century.  The NPS runs an excellent museum at the site that shows an introductory film.  The nearby Hohokam Pima National Monument shows up on NPS maps (and is counted in the 420+ units in the NPS system), but the O’odham do not allow access to the site on their reservation.

Best Trail

None

Instagram-worthy Photo

There are pigeons instead of ravens at this NPS site.

Peak Season

Winter

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/cagr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

No camping at the NPS site, but options are available nearby in Tonto National Forest and Picacho Peak State Park (right off Interstate 10).

Related Sites

Tonto National Monument (Arizona)

Tuzigoot National Monument (Arizona)

Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

Explore More – In 1694, who was the famous Jesuit priest that became the first European to see Casa Grande?

Joshua Tree National Park

Overview

This National Park in southern California is named for a tall yucca plant that grows there in large numbers, but it also contains many other interesting desert life forms and neat rock formations.  In the less-developed southern portion of the park, be sure to stop at the palm trees at Cottonwood Spring, Cholla Cactus Garden, and Ocotillo Patch to learn more about how these unique plants have adapted to survive the harsh desert conditions. 

Learn more in our guidebook to the 62 National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Jumbo Rocks, Keys View, Arch Rock, Cottonwood Spring, rock climbing

Must-Do Activity

Due to its proximity to Los Angeles, the park gets very busy on Easter weekend (in addition to Thanksgiving weekend).  Campgrounds, like scenic Jumbo Rocks, fill up early.  Other than rock climbing opportunities, the biggest attraction is the myriad of colorful wildflowers that bloom in the spring (including the Joshua trees).

Best Trail

There are many fun hiking options located throughout the park (which are detailed in our guidebook).  At White Tank Campground you can pick up the Arch Rock Nature Trail, which forms a short loop that passes an interesting arch.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Chuckwallas are huge lizards that can grow up to 18 inches long and are related to iguanas.  Chuckwallas can inflate themselves as a defense mechanism so that predators cannot remove them from narrow cracks in the rock. 

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$30 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All major roads are paved, but there are many dirt roads to explore with the right vehicle.

Camping

There are numerous NPS campgrounds located throughout the park, and some take reservations.  The scenic Jumbo Rocks Campground is popular with rock climbers.

Related Sites

Death Valley National Park (California)

Mojave National Preserve (California)

Castle Mountains National Monument (California)

This design we created to celebrate Joshua Tree National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – How tall can Joshua trees grow?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Top 10 Desert NPS Sites

Many National Park Service (NPS) sites are closed during the winter months, but that is often the best time to visit the places that are too hot to enjoy in the summer.  North America has four named deserts: the Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin, and Chihuahuan (all are represented in the list below).  When you think of these deserts do not picture sand dunes and desolation.  American deserts have a surprisingly diverse array of vegetation and wildlife adapted to their tough conditions, as you will see if you follow the links for our articles on each NPS site.  Click here to see all our Top 10 Lists.

10. Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

There are many interesting cacti to learn about here other than its fantastic namesake saguaro

9. Mojave National Preserve (California)

More than 1,000 miles of roads access 1.6-million acres of Joshua tree forests, sand dunes, and mountain ranges

8. White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

The newest National Park (established December 2019) is a fun place to go sledding year round

7. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Arizona-Utah)

Explore slot canyons and Rainbow Bridge National Monument by boat on Lake Powell

6. Arches National Park (Utah)

Home to 2,500 wind-carved holes (minimum size of three feet) in its famed orange sandstone

5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Nevada-Arizona)

More than just the Hoover Dam; hot springs and canyons invite exploration

4. Big Bend National Park (Texas)

Named for a curve in the Rio Grande, the landscape dries out quickly farther from the river

3. Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Four distinct units will inspire you to return multiple times to this unique park

2. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (Arizona)

28 species of cacti are found in this beautiful Sonoran Desert expanse

…and finally our #1 desert NPS site:

1. Death Valley National Park (California-Nevada)

Its large size and wide elevation range (-282 to 11,049 feet) make this the most distinctive park on this list

Honorable Mentions

Great Basin National Park (Nevada)

Named for a desert, but much of this park is actually in high-elevation forests

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

Unfortunately its namesake yucca may go extinct within its boundaries due to climate change

Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas)

A great place to spend the night since there is no camping at neighboring Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Mojave National Preserve

Overview

Mojave National Preserve is a massive 1.6-million acres of desert bounded by Interstate 15 to the north and Interstate 40 to the south.  Passed by millions of commuters every year, it does not take many miles of driving to leave behind the bustling freeways for a quiet landscape.  Species diversity is high here given its elevation range from 800 to 7,929 feet and its place at the intersection of three deserts: the Mojave, Great Basin, and Sonoran.  Watch for desert tortoises, Mojave rattlesnakes, roadrunners, ravens, kangaroo rats, mountain lions, mule deer, and some of the 1,000 bighorn sheep that reside in the preserve.

Highlights

Kelso Depot, film, Kelso Dunes, Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail, Rings Loop Trail

Must-Do Activity

If you are driving on I-15 between California and Nevada consider entering the preserve via the Cima Road exit, with a first stop at its gas station’s interesting waterfall urinal in the men’s restroom.   From there drive south on a paved road into a dense Joshua tree forest on the gently sloping flanks of the enormous Cima Dome (an extinct volcano) and then stop at Kelso Depot where the National Park Service (NPS) operates a visitor center and museum.  From there you can continue south to the beautiful Kelso Dunes or take the paved Kelbaker Road back to Interstate 15 at Baker, home of the world’s tallest thermometer.

Best Trail

The one-mile Rings Loop Trail has metal rings cemented into its canyon walls in some places to help you ascend and descend steep portions.  Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail and the six-mile Barber Peak Loop Trail are also found in this area near the NPS campgrounds.

Instagram-worthy Photo

We love sand dunes (see our Top 10 list) and one of our favorites is the nearly 700-foot tall Kelso Dunes, which create a booming sound when the sand shifts and moisture conditions are right.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/moja/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The main roads are paved, however, most of the 1,000 miles of roads are unpaved and some of them require a high-clearance vehicle, especially if you want to access neighboring Castle Mountains National Monument.

Camping

Dispersed camping is allowed throughout most of the preserve, but there are also NPS campgrounds around the Hole-in-the-Wall Ranger Station.

Related Sites

Castle Mountains National Monument (California)

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

Death Valley National Park (California)

Explore More – How many acres of Wilderness are designated within Mojave National Preserve?