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Miss Hiking During Mud Season? These Colorado Desert Destinations are Perfect for Spring

Can’t make it to Moab? McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area boasts the second-largest concentration of arches in the U.S.

Spring in Colorado is colloquially known as shoulder season (or mud season), as folks come off the slopes and wait for the snow to melt and alpine wildflowers to bloom. When it comes to hiking, however, we’re making the case that this time of year should be rebranded as desert season.

For some, it likely already is. Tourists flock to enjoy the stunning desert scapes in Moab, Utah, this time of year before temperatures rise to nearly 100 degrees in the summer months. But if you can’t make it that far, Colorado also offers locations where you can hit the trails, enjoy the rock formations and (mostly) avoid trekking through mud.

When it comes to desert hiking, prepare for prolonged exposure to the sun with sunscreen, hats, sunglasses and lots of water since the terrain doesn’t typically offer much shade. Some canyons have flowing water, though others don’t, so if you’re bringing a dog make sure to pack enough for everyone to stay hydrated.

Here are four desert destinations to check out this spring. Keep these in mind for fall, too, when the weather turns slightly chillier.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Nestled up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Alamosa lies the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, home to the tallest dunes in North America. Hidden Dune and Star Dune share the accolade, each measuring 741 feet from base to summit. Both are hikeable, too, but you’ll need some grit. There are no designated trails that take hikers to the top and hiking in sand can be more difficult than on a compacted trail. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve also has hiking trails around the park’s edges, where the dunes meet the mountains, as well as some forested trails.

Spring is one of the most popular (and crowded) times to explore as snowmelt fills Medano Creek, which runs alongside the dunes, and offers visitors a cool respite for swimming and fishing. Sand temperatures heat up in the afternoons, so mornings are optimal for hiking. And park officials warn that snow and high wind are possible this time of year, so be prepared for various weather conditions.

Experts like outdoor enthusiast and activist Parker McMullen Bushman, a.k.a. Kween Werk, recommend bringing a buff, goggles, a good-coverage hat and, of course, sunscreen for protection against the elements. They also wear gaiters to keep sand from getting in their shoes.

Grand Junction

The state’s western edge is largely high desert terrain, thanks to the Colorado Plateau that extends from the Rocky Mountains south and west to Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Its most famous geological attraction is the Grand Canyon, but for those looking to stay closer to home, there are numerous canyons, gorges, plateaus and mesas within Colorado state lines.

With more than 20,000 acres of desert scape, the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction is a great place to start your desert adventure. It offers a variety of short and long hikes, as well as a canyon rim drive. Some of the most popular trails include Devils Kitchen at the south end of the park, which boasts a couple of seasonal waterfalls, and Serpents Trail, an out-and-back so named for its plethora of switchbacks. (Fun fact: It was the park’s original automobile road until 1952.)

Mesa County’s most recognizable landmark is Mount Garfield, which overlooks the town of Palisade. Hikers can reach the top if they’re willing to walk up about 2,000 feet in elevation. According to the Bureau of Land Management, there are two trails that lead to the top: The 2-mile Mount Garfield Trail is shorter but more strenuous, while Gearhart Mine Trail is 2.5 miles.

Rainbow Arch (aka Cedar Tree Arch) at Rattlesnake Canyon in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area near Grand Junction. (Dan Leeth, Special to The Denver Post)
The Denver Post

McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area

The McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, northwest of Grand Junction, encompasses more than 120,000 acres of high desert canyon country. One of its most distinctive areas is the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, which includes the second-largest concentration of natural arches in North America, per the BLM. Expect a trek, though, as most are located deep within what’s known as Rattlesnake Canyon, which is only accessible by foot (15 miles round trip) or a rough 4×4 road.

Many of the trailheads start near Fruita and Loma before extending west through the vast desert into Utah, making this area a destination for backpackers. In fact, the 142-mile Kokopelli trail goes all the way to Moab. There are plenty of day-use areas, too, and other entry points and campgrounds along the conservation area’s north boundary west of Mack, Colo.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park recently reopened its South Rim Road for visitors, following a winter closure. But if you’re looking to explore an area less traveled, consider the nearby Gunnison Gorge National Conservation area near Delta.

This 62,000-plus-acre stretch of terrain, which includes adobe badlands and slopes lines with juniper and pine trees, features several canyon hikes and OHV routes. The roads are rugged and some might require 4×4 capabilities. Several trails will take you all the way down to the Gunnison River where the shore is dotted with campsites. Some are for hikers and some are designed for boaters, as the area is also a rafting and kayaking locale.

Source: The Denver Post