American Southwest: When is the best time to visit?

Tentless camping is possible under the right conditions

Given the fact that the region is primarily desert, there will be extreme temperatures (both hot and cold) and active thunderstorms. But even given such extremes, there are favorable seasons for visiting the deserts as well as waterfalling. If it's waterfalls you're after, realize that the major waterfalls come from springs so the watercourses are mostly sheltered from the evaporative heat of the desert sun. This means that such falls are good year-round (such as
Havasu Falls and Lower Calf Creek Falls). Most of the precipitation falls as monsoonal thundershowers, which build up and explode during hot summer afternoons (resulting in flash floods and frequent lightning strikes). Given the porous nature of sandstone and other underlying bedrock, water readily seeps into the ground where aquifers not visible to most people occur (hence the springs that give rise to waterfalls deep in the canyons). In winter, there might also be the odd Pacific storm or Arctic storm that makes their way past the mountain ranges in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and hit the desert southwest. There may be some snow accumulation as well as rain.

Given the above climatic tendencies, hiking is most comfortable during the spring (March through early May) and autumn (September through mid November) as day temperatures are comfortably in the 70s and 80s though night temperatures can be in the 50s or even down to freezing. That way, you can avoid ice (for the most part) in winter (though it's not necessarily a bad time of year to go outdooring at this time) and definitely avoid the dangerous desert heat of the summer (where there's also flash floods and lightning from afternoon thunderstorms to contend with). They're also good times to go waterfalling.

If hiking in the deserts, sometimes they're best done in late afternoon or early morning to avoid desert heatTo give you an idea of what extremes to expect, day time temperatures usually reach and exceed 100 degrees F. Under such conditions, heat stroke is a very real danger and strenuous activity should be avoided. On the flip side, night temperatures are cold enough even to freeze water. If you're not prepared to endure such extremes, hypothermia becomes a problem.

Flash flooding is also a danger in the deserts. Thunderstorms occur usually in the summer (when there are hot temperatures), but sometimes Pacific storms can cause problems. In August of 1999, flash flooding killed a dozen hikers and flooded the town of Supai. Such floods were also strong enough to transform the look of Havasu Falls (as about 25ft of its height was knocked out due to the power of the rushing floods).

Our first experiences in the deserts were in the Grand Canyon in late August of 2000 and in the Grand Circle in late June 2001. Temperatures were consistently above 95 degrees F (I recalled how difficult hiking just 5 miles was in Arches NP) and afternoon thunderstorms were common. Other times, we were wise to hike late in the afternoon or early in the morning.

Since then, we generally explored the deserts in the shoulder seasons (March, April, September, November [cool but did encounter brief winter rain], May [though some summer weather shows up at this time], and even late June [to do the Zion Narrows]). As you can see, we purposely avoid coming in summer unless it's a cool hike like the Narrows.

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