Five Things You Should Know When Planning a Trip to the American Southwest

Whether you are planning your trip to the desert from across a couple state lines or from across the world, here are a few things to take into account before actually spending any money on your travel plans. 

These tips are coming directly from me to you. I have been a Utah resident for over 15 years and have spent the majority of that time living in Southern Utah and exploring the surrounding areas of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. The following pieces of advice come primarily from observations made both as a local resident and as a part-time tour guide of the areas. I would hope that most of the following would be common sense, but I have been thoroughly surprised at some of the things I have seen tourists do out here in the desert, which means common sense might not be as common as you or I would expect.

1. Consider a Tour Company

Even though I do work part-time in the industry as a guide, I really couldn't care less whether you spend money for a guided tour or choose to venture out on your own. I spend my fair share of time exploring other states and other countries, and I do a lot of that without the help of a tour or a guide, so it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that a guide or tour is the only way to go. However, I do a lot of research, I mean a lot of research into the areas I visit; this research includes looking up the local laws, weather patterns, local travel options, and more. I never go explore an area on my own without knowing it and having a backup option in case things don't go as planned. The benefit of hiring a guide or participating in a tour is simply the fact that you (theoretically) don't have to worry about doing all that homework beforehand. I say theoretically because it's still up to you to research your guides and tour companies to make sure you're not being ripped off. But paying someone who knows the area and knows the landscapes is a very efficient way to get where you want to go and capture what you would like to capture.

2. Plan Your Travel Appropriately

Again, this may seem like common sense to you, but there are plenty of people who don't think this one through very well. One of my favorite things about the southwest desert is how much is openly accessible for exploration. There are literally thousands upon thousands of miles of dirt roads that lead to an innumerable amount of various destinations just waiting for you to show up and have an adventure. You could skip all the national and state parks and still have an insanely epic adventure filled with all sorts of incredible views. But this means you should research these roads beforehand to ensure that you take the right vehicle. You've probably seen pictures of places made popular, thanks to social media, that exist outside the regulated parks systems. Many such places, like the popular view in Arizona shown in the cover image for this article, require visitors to travel down miles upon miles of dirt roads just to get to the trailhead.

These dirt roads can occasionally be graded recently, allowing for travel in most vehicles. But more often than not, there will be deep ruts and long stretches of deep sand, and with rain or snow, the roads may turn into long stretches of deep mud. Particularly if you intend on renting a car, don't rent anything with two-wheel-drive, ever. You will need at least an all-wheel-drive vehicle with decent clearance or better yet, a vehicle with four-wheel-drive, high clearance, and good all-terrain tires. So far, I have helped several groups of tourists get themselves out of a bad situation because they didn't plan ahead and took the wrong vehicle into these parts of the desert. The most memorable was a couple of nice people from Japan who took a brand new Chevy Camaro (rental) on one of these roads during a very wet time of year and had buried themselves in a muddy road up to the frame of the car. We literally had to help dig them out. Don't be them; it'll save you a lot of time and even more money.

3. Take the Right Gear

No, I'm not talking about camera gear. The landscapes out here are cool enough that you'd be fine with a cell phone or a GoPro. I'm talking about your outdoors gear. Make sure you research the hikes you want to do and plan for the appropriate footwear; otherwise, you might be going home with a broken ankle or worse. Always have some emergency supplies with you. You don't have to be a certified medic to stop at the store and pick up some basic emergency items such as bandages, antiseptic ointment, and a couple of wraps for splints or bleeding. You never expect to be the person who needs such equipment, but it's even worse if you're the person who needs it and doesn't have any. The southwest desert can be just as dangerous as it is beautiful. In summer, people find themselves burned and dehydrated; in the winter, they can freeze and suffer from hypothermia and frostbite, and there are all sorts of animals, insects, and plants that can harm you if you don't pay attention. Having the right clothing, some emergency items, and the appropriate knowledge of the area can mean life or death in a sticky situation. People can and do die out here, and sadly, such deaths are typically preventable.

4. Do Your Location Scouting Beforehand

I'm serious, have all the spots you want to visit mapped out before you ever get on that airplane. Personally, I use Google Maps and Instagram quite heavily for both finding and researching the locations I want to explore. Most people like myself won't tag the specific locations they share in their posts, but I have found that many people are willing to privately disclose the locations to me and therefore avoid contributing to the social media-fueled pollution of such locations. There are a lot of popular views out here that are found within national parks, national monuments, and state parks. Each of these locations requires entrance fees, but there are also plenty of other locations that require permits or other similar fees even though not located in a regulated park system. Know before you go, because some of these spots that require permits also come with very hefty fees if you get caught in the area without the appropriate permit.

5. Stay Current on Weather Conditions

The weather here in the desert is often fairly predictable during certain seasons, but even seemingly predictable conditions can change dramatically depending on what the weather is doing miles away from your location. Many locations in the desert that make for fantastic photo opportunities can also double as death traps. There are countless rock features out here that have been formed by thousands of years of water flow, but not all the water flow is constant. The southwest desert is home to one of the largest collections of stream beds, gulches, and river beds, which stay shallow or dry most of the year, but can fill in an instant during a flash flood. Some trails require hikers to literally hike up narrow canyons or stream beds to complete the hike, and if you aren't cognizant of the weather conditions, you could end up in the middle of a dangerous flash flood. Even a fancy off-road vehicle can't save you if you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong conditions. There are numerous videos out there that show the dramatic power of these flash floods, such as many of the videos captured by David Rankin. I strongly recommend taking a look at some of them to give you an idea of the power that can flow through these canyons with little to no notice. Even in a national park, there are hikes that can become deadly in an instant. Be educated, be aware, and be safe when exploring.

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Travis Pinney's picture

#6. Obey Leave No Trace principals, pack in pack out.

I grew up in Las Vegas and still live here, there are many areas to explore but most people head towards Jean Dry Lake, Red Rock or Valley of Fire. It pisses me off to no end when I go back to places I hiked weekly as a kid and see the rock formations defaced, trash left on trails, hieroglyphs covered in graffiti and so on.

Stephen Angulo's picture

I live in Henderson and I agree. My children don't get to enjoy the petroglyphs made by the ancients, and I have to explain why people carve penises into the rocks.

Deleted Account's picture

Thorough and well-supported information.

I've seen those nuts in "all-wheel drive" low-clearance sedans out on roads I sometimes get out and walk first to be sure I won't high center my 4x4 truck. It's inexplicable. People die every year due to not following the "7P's." Prior proper planning prevents p*ss-poor performance.