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Southwestern US Christmas 2020?

Hello, all! My husband and I (thirty-somethings, artists, musician, engineer, outdoorsy) are contemplating a trip to the Southwestern US over the winter holidays. Both our families have high-risk-for-Covid family members, so we can't see any of them in person. We'd like a trip where we can keep to ourselves/minimize contact: art museums that allow time reservations, hiking, scenic drives/overlooks, window shopping. We prefer contemporary art to southwestern art, though we're not opposed to some of the latter. We're very respectful of Covid, wearing masks, using hand sani, keeping our distance regardless of local edicts, but are starting to feel like we could safely do a trip with proper planning.

We will likely have to bring our old dog with us so recommendations for short hikes (1-2 miles) or dog-friendly places would be great. We'd prefer airbnbs to hotels, but I'm open if you have something good. We're open to a little camping if it's above freezing. There are lots of threads that have restaurant recommendations, so I'm mostly looking for destinations.

We live in Missouri, would drive southwest through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, perhaps Utah or Las Vegas, to LA and back. This would be in late December/early January, maybe 3-4 weeks. I'll check state and destination Covid requirements frequently. What are your winter-in-the-southwest-during-covid recommendations?

Posted by
19217 posts

It has been ages since I spent much time in the Southwest, and I've never lived there, but here are a few thoughts:

The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is very nice. It's a pay-to-enter sight and I have no idea whether you could take your dog in.

I don't believe I've ever been to the Tuscon Botanical Garden, but outside town is the large Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It has considerable outdoor area. There are also multiple larger desert parks, monuments and canyons accessible from Tucson. Check altitudes, though, because they will affect temperature and risk of snow on the ground. The Mission San Javier del Bac is very striking; it's also outside Tucson.

Santa Fe is the past was said to be the third-largest art market in the country. It's a great place for wandering into galleries. However, winter is very much off-season there (except for skiers), I think, because of the altitude. I found it rather chilly even in September. Check historical weather data to figure out what warm layers to pack. Albuquerque is warmer but has very little remaining historic architecture. It's a good place for trying New Mexican cuisine, though.

I really enjoyed a drive I took north from Santa Fe on the High Road to Taos. The villages along the way had a sort of back-of-beyond feeling that felt foreign. I give this a very high recommendation if the road conditions are OK. I remember some shopping opportunities, but primarily Southwestern-style stuff. A tip: There's a small NM town called "Madrid". The accent is on the first syllable.

Zion and Bryce are stunning, but I don't know anything about winter weather there. If you do the Grand Canyon, I think it will need to be the South Rim rather than the North Rim.

There's upscale shopping in Palm Springs. Probably also in Palm Desert. I'd assume that includes art.

Posted by
8456 posts

I'll just add to make sure you either check the official National Park Service websites for your target parks and also take a look at the Trip Advisor forums for each park. The Destination Experts are pretty good at keeping up with current regulations.

For instance, Zion NP introduced a reservations system for it's shuttle in July. The NP website indicates it may continue to December and will be reevaluated then. The shuttle system was sold out a lot during summer, not sure what the status is now but you'd want to know so you can get tickets ahead of time if you include this on your visit.

(BTW, all National Parks are at the website with a suffix to take you to the individual park websites. Often you can guess at the suffix which will be a backslash and a 4 letter indicator. The 4 letters are either the first 4 letters of a park if it's a one-name park (Yellowstone is yell) OR the 1st 2 letters of the 1st and 2nd names of the park (Grand Canyon is grca). The only outlier I think is Carlsbad Caverns which is cave instead of caca, lolol!!)

I've been to Tucson a few times in winter and enjoyed the Saguaro NP units as well as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Botanical Gardens. I've not been since Covid and I've not been with a dog.

I've not been but Big Bend NP in Texas is excellent in winter.

Posted by
6082 posts

I'd consider Taos - Santa Fe for art and scenery, but its ski season. The Frank Lloyd Wright home in Phoenix is worth a visit. No idea on restrictions. Note that there are some tribal government restrictions in areas that you might be expecting to drive through.

Posted by
2920 posts

We are originally from Illinois, now living in California, and have driven from Missouri through the SW to California only a couple of times at Christmas and based on our experiences I’d say don’t. We ran into major weather problems and ice the years we tried to drive. What I’d suggest is to try to board your dog and fly to either New Mexico or California for some sun, luminaries, palm trees wrapped in lights, seasonally decorated missions, outdoor dining Christmas experience. We’ve had bad winter weather related driving experiences on both I-40 and I -10 and stopped driving across the SW at Christmas.

I encourage you to head deep into the southwest for a fun Christmas experience and can provide some specific California experiences for artsy, outdoor fun if you do decide go.

Posted by
8456 posts

Good point about Tribal lands restrictions. This affects Grand Canyon and Monument Valley which is a Tribal Park, not a National or State Park.

From the website:

"Because of the lockdowns and curfews on the Navajo Nation, the East Entrance to the park at Desert View, the Desert View Watchtower area and campground are CLOSED. Grand Canyon National Park is open - however - you must use the South Entrance near the town of Tusayan to enter and exit the park."

Posted by
1240 posts

You may want to check the New Mexico travel restrictions. The last I heard NM required quarantine for out of state visitors. You were allowed to "pass through", including an overnight stop, but no visiting sites.

Posted by
686 posts

Yes, New Mexico is still mandating 14 day quarantine for anyone traveling from a high risk state - which is pretty much all of them except Wash, California, and about 6 northeast states. The only out is a recent negative covid test. Here is a link to the current orders

In spite of this we've had plenty of visitors who ignore this and come anyway. Not exactly endearing them to the locals.

Posted by
126 posts

I hope your winter vacation works out. We have been all over the southwest on numerous road trips from our home in southern Calif., and were it not for the Covid restrictions, i would tell you to definitely spend time in NM. In October 2018 we had a fantastic visit there, seeing Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Gallup and White Sands and Chaco Canyon.

Since that isn't possible right now, Phoenix/Tucson offers a lot, as mentioned by others here. The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is a gem, as is the art scene in Tucson and the Mission south of there. If there is not much snow this winter, I would recommend driving by way of Flagstaff, a charming town that would serve as a good base for day trips to Sedona, Tuzigoot, Montezuma's Castle, the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert. From there you could head south to Phoenix and Tucson (with a stop in Bisbee on the way). Or you could go straight to the Grand Canyon from Flagstaff. From the Grand Canyon you could stop in at Meteor Crater as you head to California. The early astronauts trained there in preparation for landing on the moon.

Joshua Tree NP in Calif. is truly unique, and there is so much to do and see here, I can only mention a few...Death Valley, the coastal cities, mountain communities, many of which have trails that are often dog-friendly. SoCal's Temecula area has lots of wineries to visit. Palm Springs has canyons to hike and explore, and it is a good winter destination, with a top-notch small aviation museum and good quality art museum. San Diego is chock full water-related activities and a variety of museums, from the bay to Balboa Park to La Jolla, besides being a really pretty city and home to the first of the California missions. (Between San Diego and Santa Barbara there are seven of the 21 missions.) Dog-friendly beaches exist in several cities here, and many hiking trails allow dogs on a leash. You would have to check out the various locations re the hiking trails.
Re. Utah, the beautiful N.P.s there look gorgeous in the winter, especially if the red-toned rock formations are dusted with snow. The colors! If accessible, Zion, Bryce, Arches, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands are worth following the route from Arches to Zion, From there to the Grand Canyon is a good drive. You could go from GC to Flagstaff, do the day trips, then head south to Phoenix and Tucson. Interstate 8 takes about 7 hours to drive from Phoenix to San Diego, if you wanted to finish your trip in SoCal. I won't take the time to tell about all there is to do in SoCal.

These are random thoughts, but 3-4 weeks would give you lots of time to explore and linger. Of course, Covid has upended and restricted access to many of these places, but these destinations are well worth looking into. You could have a truly memorable trip. The southwest/SoCal have SO MUCH to offer!

Posted by
12612 posts

Hi aemeek -
My husband and I love the Southwest too and have done quite a bit of hiking in the National + some of the state and local parks. We have not done so in winter, however, and I'd personally be hesitant to do so due to potentially extreme winter driving conditions at altitude, although they're well used to plowing out big snows and keeping main roads clear. In your case, I'd think twice about a trip which includes the national parks if you're bringing your 4-footed pal along. Most have pretty strict limitations on where they can and cannot go - dogs on unpaved trails are almost universally banned - and you are not allowed to leave them unattended in a vehicle. For instance, the Utah parks:

As well, keep in mind that not all services in the parks are open, and could become even more limited during the winter months.

Santa Fe is a HUGE favorite of ours, and we love cruising the art galleries. Yes, the lion's share of creative works are Southwestern themed but, well, they reflect the surroundings so you might find that you enjoy it more than you think you will. As already stated, however, New Mexico is still under 14-day quarantine for visitors from all but a few states. As the COVID numbers change, so can the list of visitors who are or are not allowed in without holing up for a couple of weeks OR a very recent negative test. It would also be cold in winter.

Spend some time browsing the New Mexico forum on Trip Advisor and it soon becomes clear that visitors who try to circumvent the restrictions are definitely not welcome. Shoot, they are generally not wild about tourists at all right now and I completely understand why. While Arizona and Utah are more open, aside from restrictions within the Navajo Nation, weather and potential closures of even more businesses than are currently shut, should rising COVID numbers require it, could throw some wrenches in the machinery.

Someone mentioned Joshua Tree and Death Valley? I haven't looked at either for rules about pets but given their brutal temps during much of the rest of the year, winter would be a good time for traveling both. Editing to add: Tucson would be another good destination.

The Heard Museum of indian art in Phoenix is great, and we enjoyed the aforementioned Frank Lloyd Frank Lloyd Wright's lab/home, Taliesan West, very much as well. Sedona is a popular base - there is some fun red rock hiking there - but from what I read, the town itself has become a bit TOO popular, especially on weekends. I'd guess it might be very busy over the holiday season.

Posted by
6763 posts

We have a home in Tucson and winters there are enjoyable. I do not know what is open or closed as far as attractions right now. There is much less traffic than Phoenix/ Scottsdale area and has much larger mountains. Tucson is at a higher altitude than Phoenix so temperatures will be cooler. The warmest clothing I wear that time of year would be jeans and a fleece jacket though. Restaurants will have heaters outside.
If open, visit the Arizona -Sonora Desert Museum( a mixture of botanical gardens and zoo), Sabino Canyon( a treasure) Mission San Xavier Del Bac ( a must see!) , Tohono Chul Park( botanical garden), town of Summerhaven at the top of Mr. Lemmon, Tucson Museum of Art, Fourth Avenue, U of A campus.
Outside of town, Kitt Peak and it’s observatories.
One of my favorite events is the Christmas Concert at Mission San Xavier Del Bac ( second week of December)on the TohonoO’odham reservation just south of Tucson, right off the highway., online ticket sales, six performances.

Posted by
1275 posts

Since y'all live in Missouri, I know you can sort out potential winter driving risks and certainly the wardrobe. Pre covid Arizona would have big upticks of snow birds from the upper midwest at that time of year. Hard to know if that will be true this year.

Posted by
4524 posts

Spend some time browsing the New Mexico forum on Trip Advisor and it
soon becomes clear that visitors who try to circumvent the
restrictions are definitely not welcome. Shoot, they are generally not
wild about tourists at all right now and I completely understand why.

This really isn't true in reality. While I won't encourage people to flaunt the travel restrictions, they are essentially guidelines and people are quite welcome in New Mexico by the tourist industry. No one is out checking papers. If you follow local mandates on mask wearing, which can be far more strict than in most other states (ie, even walking out in public) and don't flaunt that you are a tourist, you'll be fine. I have encountered some business that require a NM ID to enter, but those are very rare. And while many businesses have reduced hours and sites are closed, there is still plenty to do and see. All pueblos are closed to outsiders.

Northern NM gets quite cold at night due to the high elevations, but winter days are usually sunny and mild.

In NM, I highly recommend visiting Taos and seeing/hiking the gorge and visiting the church at Rancho de Taos (famous for inspiring artists). Drive the High Road route to Santa Fe for more adobe churches and scenic vistas. The Sanctuary Chimayo is worth a stop even if the interior is closed (and nearby Ranchos Chimayo Restaurant is some of the best NM food you'll find with great semi-outdoor seating). Check to see if the Museum at Los Alamos is open - if so it is a great 1-2 hour stop to learn about the Manhattan Project and nuclear science. Santa Fe has plenty to see and do and has lots of hiking trails in the foothills. Drive the Turquoise Trail from Santa Fe to Albuquerque for a scenic drive and quirky art galleries in Madrid. In ABQ, Central Avenue has lots of quirky galleries and shops and of course there is the more touristy trinkety Old Town. If you drive west from ABQ into Arizona, the drive gets very beautiful with red stone mesas and long vistas. There is a rest area at Laguna Pueblo where you can pull off and at least see the historic adobe pueblo from the distance.

Posted by
12612 posts

The "they" I referenced in my post above was in reference to New Mexicans who provide local advice on travel forums, most specifically TA. Just one thread that has been active for awhile:

Sure, not every single New Mexican is going to advise staying away unless intending to/able to comply with the quarantine/testing mandate but it sure has been the majority on that N.M. forum. Just sayin'. But if those mandates are still in place over the holidays and the OP can comply, then have at it. I'll also agree that all of the places you listed are well worth visiting, Douglas, as long as they're accessible around Christmastime, although Rover may not be allowed at all of them, such as galleries. They closed the rest stop at Laguna a few years ago and I can't find anything on it being re-opened. Maybe someone who has been through there more recently can update the status.

Posted by
203 posts

I live in Tucson and have two dogs. The Saguaro National Park here in Tucson is divided in to two areas, one on the east side of town and the other on the west side of town (very close to the excellent Arizona Sonora Desert Museum). Dogs are only allowed at the picnic area and along the road at Saguaro National Park, not on any of the hiking trails. Dogs aren't allowed at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, either. There are a lot of really interesting murals located in the downtown/central part of Tucson that are worth looking at, so I suppose you could take the dog with you for that.

The Petrified Forest National Park (located in northeast Arizona) is dog-friendly. I haven't been yet, but according to their website, dogs are allowed on any paved road or trail, as well as all official wilderness areas within the park.

Posted by
14415 posts

I'm pretty sure Death Valley is pet-friendly, because I spent 5 days there with my cat some years back between Xmas and New Year. I highly recommend spending at least several days there. While I was bundled up in layers for sunrise, by mid-morning I was down to cut-offs and short sleeves. There are several short, easy hikes and lots of interesting sights. Book rooms in advance.

As others have said, the Colorado Plateau/Grand Circle has some of the most spectacular scenery in the US, but it's pretty much all at elevations of 5000' or more, making it quite cold and liable to have much snow by the end of December. So I would take a southerly route where there are still lots of fine sights. I haven't been to Texas but if I were driving through, I'd think about San Antonio and the up to El Paso. Alamogordo NM has the Museum of Space History, worth a visit. It's a convenient place to overnight for a visit to stunning White Sands NP, a great place to hike (leave the dog in your room or car - even if dogs are allowed in, hiking there would likely be too much for it). Depending on weather conditions, Albuquerque could be a "northern detour". Otherwise, I'd keep heading west to Tucson, then Phoenix, Joshua Tree NP and Death Valley. That's one-way, so you'd want to make some stops westward and the others eastward.

Posted by
3254 posts

I don't have any covid-specific recommendations, just a repeat that much of this area is cold at Christmastime. I was in Santa Fe mid-December once and it was very much a midwestern winter day, several inches of snow on the ground and highs about 25 F. All of this area will have chilly nights in the winter, even Phoenix and Tucson, but it should be at least 60 in the daytime. I stayed once at a Phoenix resort in mid-November and the hotel breakfast was served outdoors on frost-covered tables at about 30 F. They did have patio heaters though.

Posted by
12612 posts

To update a previous post:

I'd mentioned in that post that one could avoid the New Mexican 14-day quarantine if coming from a higher-risk state with a negative COVID test 72 hours prior to arrival. The governor has since modified the entry mandate: as of Oct 16th, everyone coming from a state on the higher-risk list ( must self isolate/ quarantine, no exemptions for negative tests.

With infection numbers rising, I wouldn't think the mandate would ease by Christmastime but just my guess.

Posted by
6763 posts

And today I-25 in Albuquerque is closed due
to ice and snow. A reminder that winter is a reality. And Santa Fe and Taos are even farther north.

Posted by
12612 posts

....a visit to stunning White Sands NP, a great place to hike (leave
the dog in your room or car - even if dogs are allowed in, hiking
there would likely be too much for it)

As an additional note here for anyone interested in this park, leaving a pet unattended in a car or elsewhere in the park is not allowed. That's pretty much a standard rule at all NPS parks and monuments, whether temps are dangerously high or not. On a brighter note, this park encourages bringing (leashed) furry friends along on outdoor adventures. :O)