America's Coolest Desert Towns
The little desert town of Marfa makes no logical sense. How did this dusty outpost in the barrens of far West Texas, nearly 200 miles from the closest major airport, go from a water stop for the railway into one of the country’s most buzzworthy contemporary art centers?
Two words: pioneering spirit. It took folks with enough grit and vision and can-do attitude to invent a new life among the red rocks, sagebrush, and sand of the American West.
Related: America’s Coolest Ghost Towns
In Marfa’s case, New York artist Donald Judd was drawn to its sweeping high desert vistas in the 1970s, and his followers steadily put the tiny town on the international art map. But its psychic roots go back even further to the “Westward Ho!” homesteaders and dusty cowboy types who sought their fortunes in boomtown bonanzas all across the region, only to see them go ghost-town bust after the railroad was no longer king, after the mines dried up, and a highway bypassed the local state roads.
The result? Entire towns ripe for reinvention: rustic digs, cheap land, and endless possibilities.
That’s why you’ll find a James Beard Award–nominated restaurant in a formerly derelict rail hotel in northern Arizona, a luxe resort among the wildflowers of a southern California state park, and wineries in the high desert plains of Western Washington.
For other top desert towns, like St. George and Moab, both in Utah, hikers and bikers have replaced the prospectors of the past, turning the surrounding natural landscape—sandstone arches, majestic canyons—into its richest natural resource.
From the national parks of Texas to the microbreweries of Oregon and artisans of New Mexico,
America’s deserts are a fertile landscape for creativity, culture, and no small amount of quirk. Pack the sunscreen and consider this your compass to the coolest desert towns now.
The country’s top desert towns are reshaping the American West with cutting-edge art and great outdoor adventures.
Virginia City, Nevada
In its heyday, this Victorian mining town 25 miles south of Reno, NV, attracted nearly 15,000 residents—including a young newspaper reporter from Missouri, better known as Mark Twain—thanks to the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode and subsequent bonanza (billions in gold and silver). These days, the well-preserved downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to its wooden boardwalks, dusty graveyards, classic saloons, and buildings like Piper’s Opera House. After panning for gold, riding on a stagecoach, or exploring an old mine, grab a front-seat view of the surrounding high desert landscape with a leisurely trip on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Or time your trip to fall and catch the kooky camel and ostrich races.
Stay: The handsomely restored 1876 Cobb Mansion Bed & Breakfast includes elegant period touches like Carrara marble floors, mahogany balustrades, and stained-glass lamps. Rates from $99.
Oregon’s happy-go-lucky (and romantic) inland alternative to Portland—and not just for its incredible craft beer scene, 11-microbrewery-strong—trades in the drizzly Pacific Northwest climate for nearly 300 sunny days a year and a dramatic desert landscape of sagebrush plains, ponderosa pine forests, and steep basalt canyon walls. Set on the Deschutes River to the east of the Cascades, Bend appeals, of course, to outdoorsy types: there are 51 miles of hiking trails within the city limits. For a taste of the town’s entrepreneurial spirit, head to the Old Mill District, an urban renewal project that has brought shops, galleries, and an amphitheater to a formerly unused stretch of lumber mills.
Stay: Opened by a Portland-based microbrewery chain in the shell of a 1936 Catholic schoolhouse, McMenamins Old St. Francis Hotel offers an on-site pub, movie theater, and soaking pool, plus four cottages and 19 guest rooms in the former classrooms. Rates from $125.
Sixty miles east of Flagstaff near both the Hopi and Navajo reservations and Meteor Crater, Winslow has always been defined by the people passing through it, from an 1876 Mormon colony to Route 66, famously bringing scores of road trippers to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert—until I-40 was built, bypassing the town completely. Years of tourist neglect allowed the town to relax, regroup, and rededicate itself to art, with unique attractions like the Snowdrift Art Space, a 7,000-square-foot contemporary gallery in an old mercantile shop, a renovated Art Deco movie house, and the trompe l’oeil mural in Standin’ on the Corner Park (from The Eagles song “Take It Easy”).
Stay: The revitalized La Posada Hotel & Gardens, a 1929 railway motel, was reopened by artists in 1997 and now includes a James Beard Award–nominated restaurant that pays homage to both Fred Harvey’s sophisticated continental fare and local native recipes. Rates from $119.
Marfa has been renowned as a surprising art hub since minimalist sculptor Donald Judd arrived to far west Texas in 1971 and started peppering the highland desert landscape with his massive concrete works. Nowadays, the Chinati Foundation keeps up his vision in a disused army base turned contemporary art museum. But this city—which also served as the filming location for classics like Giant, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood—has always had creative blood coursing through its veins: it’s reportedly named after a character in a novel either by Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Jules Verne. Tourists of the weird can try to glimpse the Marfa Ghost Lights, mysterious glowing orbs that have appeared here since the 1880s and that many still attribute to paranormal causes.
Stay: El Cosmico offers a hip and rugged collection of vintage trailers, tepees, and safari and scout tents, with wood-fired hot tubs and a shaded grove of hammocks. Rates from $40.
Grand Junction, Colorado
In the West, town names often speak volumes about the kind of place in which you’re about to step foot. Originally settled by homesteaders and ranchers in the 1880s, Grand Junction sits at the crossroads of some of the West’s most grandiose natural sites: the Colorado River’s whitewater rapids; the wild horses of nearby Little Book Cliffs; vineyards and peach orchards in neighboring Fruita and Palisade; Colorado National Monument’s red-rock canyons filled with bighorn sheep; and, finally, Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain, which attracts hikers and campers in the summer and skiers in the winter. Revitalized in 2011, the Main Street area houses more than 100 public art pieces—keep an eye out for the massive buffalo, crafted from chrome car bumpers.
Stay: The Chateau at Two Rivers Winery sits on a 15-acre, family-owned vineyard with views of the surrounding red-rock countryside. Rates from $79.
Silver City, New Mexico
Unlike other Old West mining towns, the 1870s Silver City made it through the bust times by going on to discover copper in its hills, and it continues to be an active mining community (and weekend getaway road trip) today. A thriving downtown scene has since followed, offering galleries, concert venues, and inventive restaurants that are gaining popularity with visitors but still remain scrappy and unpretentious. Outside of town—located at 6,000 feet in the foothills of southwestern New Mexico’s Pinos Altos Mountains—explore the more than 3 million acres of Gila National Forest, which comprises agave-studded canyons and thickets of junipers, ponderosas, and piñons. Don’t miss the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a spectacular collection of cavelike houses built by the Mogollon people in the 1280s.
Stay: The 1938 Murray Hotel was renovated and reopened in 2013, retaining much of its Streamline Moderne style inside and out. Rates from $109.
Crowds don’t come to the eastern Utah town of Moab for cosmopolitan amenities, they come for the outdoors, specifically Arches National Park and Canyonlands, both known for their spectacular red-rock canyons and out-of-this-world formations. Hikers and bikers are particularly attracted to the smooth, eroded sandstone known as slickrock (once treacherous for the horses of early settlers, which couldn’t get a foothold on its undulating surfaces). Nonetheless, despite all its natural blessings, Moab has indeed worked to transform itself into a world-class base camp, with wineries, microbreweries, and creative restaurants serving locally sourced food.
Stay: Moab Under Canvas’s safari tents and tepees offer uninterrupted views of the desert skyline of plateaus and canyons on 40 acres seven miles north of town. Rates from $89.
Taos, New Mexico
Postcard-perfect Taos has always been a muse for artists, who began arriving at this historic desert town, a 56-mile drive north of Santa Fe, as early as the 1890s. Luminaries like Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams immortalized the city’s colorful citizens, striking adobe architecture, and surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains in their works. Icons like the 18th-century San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church and especially Taos Pueblo remain favorite spots for visitors today—unlike other UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this millennium-old adobe apartment block of sorts is still a living, breathing community, where you can visit the galleries and workshops of native artisans.
Stay: Marked by an iconic neon thunderbird sign, the 1936 Taos Inn is spread over several 19th-century adobe houses equipped with kiva-inspired fireplaces and timber ceilings—and more than a dozen varieties of margaritas in its restaurant. Rates from $75.
Looking at the sun-drenched town of Yakima, two hours southeast of Seattle past the Cascade Range, you might find it hard to believe this place is a desert. The surrounding agricultural areas are renowned for crisp apples and a whopping three-quarter of all hops grown in the country. But it wasn’t always this way: 19th-century pioneers faced an inhospitable sagebrush desert, since tamed through a series of ingenious irrigation canals using fresh mountain runoff that brought the fertile volcanic soil roaring to verdant life. Nowadays, Yakima serves as the hub of a thriving wine country, where you can visit more than 100 unique wineries, producing everything from Rieslings and Chardonnays to Merlots and Syrahs and even sweet ice wines.
Stay: Built on a former sheep farm, Birchfield Manor Country Inn is every bit as pastoral as that image evokes, thanks to the fields and ponds surrounding the elegant 1910 house and six–guest room cottage. Rates from $119.
Borrego Springs, California
Borrego Springs sits squarely in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park—the only community in America surrounded on all sides by state park land—and is forever linked with the local flora and fauna such as kit foxes, golden eagles, rattlesnakes, and, of course, its namesake sheep (borrego being Spanish for “bighorn sheep”). California’s largest state park is perhaps most beloved for its massive variety of desert wildflowers, which burst into colorful life each spring—and for stargazing. The local government even enacted legislation to reduce light pollution, garnering the world’s second designation as an International Dark Sky Community while maintaining its spectacularly clear nights.
Stay: Taking its name from another area animal, the fox, La Casa del Zorro is a classic 1937 desert retreat, which reopened last year after a total overhaul to its 67 rooms, 19 private casitas, and 46-acre grounds. Rates from $134.
Tucked into the southwesternmost corner of Texas, Big Bend National Park is massive (bigger than Rhode Island), remote (almost 300 miles from El Paso), and wildly diverse (encompassing a stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert along the Rio Grande that contains canyons, stark deserts, and the Chisos Mountains). The only sign of human life for seemingly hundreds of miles is quirky Terlingua, which started life in the 1890s as a mercury-mining town, before becoming a classic post-boom ghost town. In place of the long-gone miners, you’ll now find your fair share of hippies and thrill-seekers, who come for whitewater rafting in Santa Elena Canyon and two major festivals in November: a Dia de los Muertos celebration in the town cemetery and an international chili cook-off, founded in 1967.
Stay: Two miles west of town, the four-room adobe Terlingua House includes a telescope for stargazing (there’s almost a complete lack of light pollution). Rates from $245.
St. George, Utah
Mormon settlers seeking a warm climate to grow cotton founded St. George in Utah’s southwesternmost corner in the 1860s, quickly earning it the nickname Utah’s Dixie. Though the cotton scheme ultimately proved a failure, the community began to flourish and today ranks as one of the fastest growing cities in the country (about 120 miles from Las Vegas). The Mormon settlers also had a hand in naming one of the area’s top attractions, Zion National Park, which takes its name from a biblical place of peace and refuge. These days, it’s a favorite of rock climbers, horseback riders, hikers, and mountain bikers (and families), attracted to Zion’s diverse landscape of sandstone cliffs, arches, and slot canyons.
Stay: The adobe-style Inn at Entrada sits on a challenging desert golf course near Snow Canyon State Park, with views of the nearby red-rock cliffs. Rates from $179.
Palm Springs, California
Palm Springs may as well be the quintessential American desert town: palm-lined pools, Midcentury Modernist architecture, ruddy San Jacinto Mountains framing a distant view. The city first came roaring to national prominence during the Hollywood Golden Age, when stars like Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra built their sleek vacation mansions out in these hills. The low-slung profiles and clean lines of these so-called Desert Modernist structures evoke the expansive vistas you’ll find in the surrounding landscape, which you can explore by horseback, on a dune buggy, or from above on the two-and-a-half-mile Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
Stay: Opened last fall in the former El Rancho Lodge, the 20-room Sparrows Hotel—on this year’s T+L It List—exudes a different aesthetic: a rustic-chic ranch setting with lots of wood paneling and a poolside bar inside a refurbished barn. Rates from $175.
Forty-five miles south of Tucson among the cottonwoods and mesquites on the Santa Cruz River, Tubac’s peaceful present (an art enclave since the 1940s) belies its tumultuous past, built in 1752 as a fortified presidio to protect the nearby Tumacácori mission after a bloody revolt by the native Pima people. Today, the presidio is part of a 12-acre state park that also encompasses a museum, an 1885 schoolhouse, adobe vernacular row houses, and an archaeological excavation site. It’s also the start of a nearly five-mile hike that leads to Tumacácori National Historical Park, centered around the original 1691 adobe mission, and near plenty of excellent mountain biking trails too. Cool down and culture up afterward at Tubac Center of the Arts, which shows local works.
Stay: Enjoy a sunny courtyard, pool deck, and plenty of history at the Poston House Inn, an adobe B&B that was once the old presidio commandant house. Rates from $165.