RV Travel in the Desert

The Incredible Southwest: Four Deserts, Four Months of RV Travel

youtubeWhen we were kids, our parents often drove us through the desert while on the way to “somewhere else,” somewhere beautiful or somewhere fun.  They considered the desert to be a barren wasteland that we must endure in order to get anywhere interesting.  Now, as adults and full-time RVers, the desert is the destination.  After spending 4 months in 4 different desert ecosystems, we are officially hooked on these surprising and stunning places!

The word “desert” often conjures up negative images for many people -- dry, hot, sandy, barren, even dangerous.  To be fair, there are times of the year that aren’t as appealing as others, but our experiences in the winter of 2019 contradicted nearly all of these assumptions.  We experienced one of the snowiest winters as well as one of the wettest weekends on record.  We snuggled up on chilly nights, got lost wandering among Saguaro forests, watched super blooms appear almost overnight, and marveled at the migrating and resident birds we’d never experienced anywhere else.  The diversity of the desert, as well as the stark differences among our four North American desert ecosystems, which stretch nearly 730K square miles across 8 western states, and large swaths of Mexico.  Even after four months of hiking, mountain biking, paddling, and exploring, we feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of the beauty, intrigue, and allure of these amazing landscapes. 

Alabama Hills near Death Valley

For anyone who RVs, no matter what make, model, or size of rig, the western deserts offer opportunities for camping that few other parts of the world can.  No other region in this country can beat the concentration and acreage of accessible public land.  It is a boondockers paradise, at least from October through April.

We rolled into Quartzsite, Arizona, in the Sonoran desert in late January and discovered suddenly that we weren’t the only ones with the idea of spending some time here.  Quartzite draws nearly 2 million RVers each winter, but with millions of acres of BLM land within 25 miles of this tiny hamlet of less than 4,000 year-round residents, we were still able to find a quiet corner to call our own.  Nearly every kind of RV, motorhome, 5th wheel, van, toy hauler, and travel trailer could be found scattered across the landscape.  Within the La Posa Long-Term Visitor Area, run by the BLM near Quartzite, folks can stay for up to 7 months for less than $200 and have all the services they need within a short drive.

Near Quartzite

We wandered into canyons, valleys and hilltops, where we were the only humans in sight.  We hiked into areas that most reach by ATV, but no matter how you get in, the wonders are the same.  The evidence of pre-history human development abounding throughout the region proves that our millenia isn’t the only to hear the desert’s call.  From pictographs and grain pounding holes, to cave dwellings perched high up a sandstone wall, what remains of those who came before can be a constant companion as you explore these regions.  

Nature also teaches valuable lessons in respect.  We drove up a winding dirt road which crossed several washes up to Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, of southern Arizona, for a night of camping and a forecast of a light rain.  We awoke to 3.5 inches, and a wall of water rushing across the washes keeping everyone in place for the next few days.  Fortunately, we had plenty of food, enough to share with the campers next to us, who had only brought enough for the night.  A good camaraderie emerged among the other stranded campers as we simply accepted what we could not change and enjoyed every last minute of it.

Sonoran Desert near Cochise Stronghold

Cochise Stronghold

If your timing is right, you might be rewarded with nature's abundant beauty.  Last winter, desert superblooms stole the headlines -- and we were right in the middle of it all.  Rolling into a camping space at dusk gives little indication of what flowers might be pushing up all around you.  In the morning, our curiosity was rewarded by little solar panels of yellow and orange blanketing the landscape, California Poppies as far as we could see.  Last year, the conditions were perfect for this little wild flower, and many others, to capture the world’s attention.  

Superblooms in the Chihuahuan Desert

Because we boondock with solar as our main source of power, living in the desert is a no-brainer in the winter.  We have a small 100W Renogy folding solar suitcase, a portable solar panel that we set up on about 20 feet of extension cord.  We can set the camper in an ideal position, perhaps some shade (where available), and place the panel out in the sun.  With the abundance of sunshine, at all altitudes, our battery was always back up to 100% charge by 10am.  Frankly, we never ran out of energy, nor worried about it.  Going solar frees us up to enjoy these areas right up to our stay limit.  All we need is an occasional resupply of water and groceries...and a laundromat.  Interested in going solar?  Here’s more information about our system.

Solar Energy is Great in the Desert

Tips for enjoying the desert in the winter:

  • Drink lots of water and always carry plenty of extra water with you, even if you are just driving an hour to your next destination. The dryness can dehydrate you very quickly even in cooler weather. If you get a headache, you are probably already dehydrated.

  • While mountain biking, bring extra inner tubes as well as a patch kit. We went through 2 inner tubes per week, even with Slime protection in our tires.

  • Be aware, but not afraid of snakes. We didn’t see a single one in 4 months as they are cold blooded and don’t like being outside in the cooler months.

  • Go solar! The options for campgrounds and boondocking are limitless.  You won’t need to stay in RV parks or expensive “hook up” campgrounds, or even make reservations.

  • Even if you are not a morning person, try to get up and watch the sunrise a few times. It will set your day right.  The sunrises and sunsets are the best light of the day.

  • Be aware of where you put your feet and hands while climbing around on rocks. Everything in the desert pokes, stings, scratches, and bites.

  • Cholla cacti are like painful velcro and they stick to absolutely everything. Bring a hair pick or long-toothed comb with you when hiking or mountain biking to remove this unwanted friend from your shoe, leg, etc.

  • Bring your boats, there’s plenty of water everywhere, just be sure to stop at each Boat Inspection Station to get checked and cleared of invasive species.

  • Creeks and washes can rise quickly with just a bit of rain. Never cross water unless you know how deep it is and can assess its flow.  Turn around, don’t drown.

  • While there may not appear to be life in the desert soil, it is very fragile. Cryptobiotic soil can take hundreds of years to regrow if accidentally stepped on.  Watch where you step!

  • When the weather is warm, dip your hat in cold water before putting it on your head. It’ll keep you cooler than just putting it on dry.

Cacti-Saguaro National Park

Can you name the four deserts in North America?  We’ve found that most people struggle to name even one, so we thought we’d start with a bit of natural history and geography before diving into some highlights in each region (Note: Some of these phenomenons sit on the edge of the region, but are definitely worth a visit!). 

Map of Southwest Deserts

Great Basin Desert:  Classified as a cold mid-latitude desert, It covers an arid expanse of about 190,000 square miles, making it the largest of the North American deserts. It is bordered by the Sierra Nevada range on the west, the Wasatch Mountains on the east, the Columbia Plateau on the north, and the Mojave Desert on the south. Its distinctive natural feature is rugged north–south-trending mountain ranges interspersed with broad sweeping valleys.  Due to its remoteness, this desert does not draw many visitors.  This region is home to one of the most intriguing roads -- Hwy 50, known as the “Loneliest Road in America.” One of the Earth’s oldest trees, the Bristlecone Pine, finds its home at an elevation of 10,000 feet in Great Basin National Park. 

A Few of Our Favorites:

City of Rocks National Reserve

Great Basin National Park

The Great Salt Lake

Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest

I.B. Perrine Bridge Visitor Center (BASE Jumping)

Ruby Mountains

Shoshone Falls Park

Snake River

Wild Horse Reservoir State Recreation Area

Highway 50 - Lonliest Highway in America

Sonoran Desert:  Covering 120,000 square miles in southwestern Arizona and southeastern California, U.S., and including much of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, part of Baja California state, and the western half of the state of Sonora, the Sonoran Desert has a subtropical climate and receives 3 to 15 inches of rain per year. Most of the precipitation comes during monsoon season (July–September), when strong, brief thunderstorms bring heavy rain.  Typically, lighter winter rainfall also occurs.  A distinctive feature of the Sonoran Desert is the majestic Saguaro cacti, many of which are hundreds of years old.  The mountain ranges dotted amongst this desert create a diversity of ecosystems rising above the desert floor, creating wetter and cooler “Islands in the Sky.”

A Few of Our Favorites:

Arizona National Scenic Trail

Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum

Cochise Stronghold

Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

Quartzite & The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous

Saguaro National Park

Superstition Mountains

Tonto National Monument

Tonto National Forest

Sonoran Desert Museum

Mojave Desert:
Named for the Mojave people, the Mojave Desert occupies more than 25,000 square miles -- extending from the Sierra Nevada range to the Colorado Plateau and merges with the Great Basin to the north and the Sonoran Desert to the south and southeast.  The fascinating Joshua Tree is unique to the Mojave area, as it’s the only place it thrives.

A Few of Our Favorites:

Alabama Hills

Death Valley National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Manzanar National Historic Site

Red Rocks Canyon National Conservation Area

Valley of Fire State Park

Mojave Desert

Chihuahuan Desert: To the east of the Sonoran Desert lies the huge Chihuahuan Desert. With an area of about 140,000 square miles, it is the second largest desert in North America.  It occupies much of West Texas, parts of the middle and lower Rio Grande Valley and the lower Pecos Valley in New Mexico, and a portion of southeastern Arizona, as well as the central and northern portions of the Mexican Plateau.  Lechuguilla is one of the indicator plants, as it is found only in this desert.  This Agave flowers just once in its lifetime, then promptly dies.

A Few of Our Favorites:

Big Bend National Park

Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute

Chiricahua National Monument

Hot Wells Dunes Recreation Area

McDonald Observatory

White Sands National Park

Agave Plant

Whether camping just outside of Tucson, or a hundred miles from anywhere in Nevada, the motto for visiting the desert is “be prepared.”  With a little planning and an ounce of adventurous spirit, you too can answer the desert’s calling.  If you want more inspiration for your next roadtrip, join us in living large by living small!  Learn more about our solar-powered adventures on our website and follow us on the road via social media at Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube!

Shari and Hutch
Author: Shari and HutchEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
In 2012, Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named "Hamlet." What began as a short break from careers and responsibility quickly turned into a love affair with roadlife. They have parlayed their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking gigs from coast to coast. Known to their friends as simply Shari & Hutch, you can learn more about their full-time, solar-powered adventures on their website at freedominacan.com.

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