Winter Backpacking in the Sonoran Desert

Dec 2019

Warm weather awaits even during the winter in the Southwest, so it’s the perfect time for a desert backpacking trip. Phoenix is surrounded on all sides by desert and has many options for backpacking close to the city. A short drive outside of Phoenix there are many options for incredible winter backpacking routes in the desert. There are so many reasons to get out and explore on a backpacking trip this winter, we’ve laid out a few of our best arguments for you to consider.

Winter Temperatures May be the Best Part

A landscape of the desert surrounded by a yellow sunlit sky.

In Arizona, we are lucky enough to have four seasons of hiking. Out-of-towners find this to be quite the treat in the winter because they are able to use the same gear they’ve been using all summer in any other part of the country. The days are full of sunshine, the sunsets and sunrises out of this world, and the nights are just cold enough for a cozy fire.

If you’re a native, you appreciate these cool winter nights and mornings just as much as the visitors who may think these same nights and mornings are cozy and warm compared to back home. Added bonus, backpacking in the desert during the winter months is a great way to stay in shape and spend time outdoors when you might otherwise be hibernating back home.

Find Solitude Close to Home

A pond in the Superstition Mountains.
Hiking in the Superstition Mountains

Phoenix may be the 6th largest city in the United States, but it has a lot more wide open space than people often expect. It is easy to get out of the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan area and into the quiet stillness of the desert. In the winter, you will find the trails are not as busy as in the popular spring and fall seasons. On a backpacking trip into the nearby Superstition Mountains Wilderness, you’ll find the silence is surprisingly pleasant, with only the sound of the wind behind you, the dirt beneath you, and calls of a coyote in the distance.

If you’re looking for a quick escape and not as concerned about backpacking. You can find a similar solitude while winter camping in McDowell Mountain Regional Park or Tonto National Forest, where you’ll feel hundreds of miles away from it all even though the drive was only 30 minutes. 


Pick Your Trail, There’s No Wrong Answer

Are you looking for clean trails and great signage, rocky rewarding climbs, desert canyons or more of a bushwhacking experience? There are endless options for backpacking in Arizona and each area offers a different experience.

For higher desert and varying terrain, head to the Santa Ritas or Santa Catalina Mountains in Coronado National Forest, both close to Tucson.

For more a more rugged, incredibly remote backpacking destination with few water sources, check out the Estrella Mountain range located within the Gila River Indian Reservation just southwest of Phoenix.

The Salt River Canyon Wilderness is bisected by the wild flowing Salt River along the entire length of this wilderness which makes for beautiful rock formations and overlooks. One of the most notable hikes in this area is to Cibecue Falls. It is more of a canyoneering-style hike as the trail crosses from bank to bank of the creek that cuts through the canyon, so come prepared with your chacos (or other hiking water shoes). After a monsoon, the falls are sometimes referred to as ‘Chocolate Falls’ because the water turns to a milk-chocolate brown.

The Arizona Trail is another great option for winter backpacking routes. The lower elevation parts of the trail trek through some of the most wild and remote desert regions of the state. Start out with a fun through hike from Picket Post to the Gila River for incredible 360 views of desert. Be prepared for rugged trail surface and intense solitude.


There is So Much to See 

Wildflowers and cacti in the desert.The desert is full of wildlife, blooming flowers, and lush vegetation during the winter, and don’t worry the infamous rattlesnakes are sure to be hiding in the winter. After a winter rain, grass crops up in unexpected locations, creeks run full, and wildflowers abound, this is the definition of winter in the Sonoran Desert. While backpacking through the Sonoran Desert, you will have the chance to see everything up close and personal, with Mexican Gold Poppies in full bloom, the aroma of the Creosote Bush leftover from a recent rain, and birds, mule deer, and cottontail rabbit celebrating the abundance of lush greenery and shade.


Know Before You Go

A woman eating food while camping.1. Water: Remember that while you may not have to worry about a heavy chance of rain in this dry desert, you should always be prepared with at least three liters of water before you head out, and more if you’re camping where a fresh water source is rare like in the Superstition Wilderness area. And, as always, know where to go. Bring a map or a friend who has been exploring in the area before.

2. Equipment: Most standard backpacking needs hold true when backpacking in the Sonoran Desert. Check the weather before you go to determine whether it will be warm enough for summer gear. Hammock camping has become incredibly popular over the last few years, but it is not recommended in the desert as sturdy trees aren’t always easy to find.


If you’re about done with being cooped up indoors, start planning a winter backpacking trip to Arizona. There is plenty of beautiful and diverse terrain to explore.