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9 warm winter stopovers in the southwestern USA

Are you dreaming of some winter warmth?

Take a road trip through this South West region of the United States and feel the sun on your skin. In this article, you can read about nine stunning stopovers on your route to escape the cold this winter.

Drive south along the Pacific Coast Highway, the legendary Highway 1, and let the warm sea breezes blow through your hair. Take your time on the California coast and then head inland to explore these winding routes through Arizona.

Californian cities offer mild winters and palm lined boulevards
© Lala miklos
Take to road and explore the Californian countryside
© TravelEssence

1. San Francisco

San Francisco saw the birthplace of the counterculture movement in the 1960s and today it is still a haven for the free spirit. There is so much to do here - you will need some time to take in all the iconic sites.

Take a ferry to Alcatraz Island, once home to some of the most dangerous criminals in the US. Admire the flower gardens of Lombard Street. Stroll along Fisherman's Wharf, with its restaurants and attractions. Or have a picnic in Alamo Square Park, opposite the colourful Victorian houses known as the 'Painted Ladies'.

It’s a must to cross the famous Golden Gate Bridge. You can do this on foot, by car, or by bike, but you can also see this masterpiece of engineering from the water on a sailing trip through the bay. The best way to get around San Francisco's various neighbourhoods is by taking the old-fashioned trams.

The winding streets of San Francisco
© Braden Collum, Unsplash
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge has great views across San Francisco Bay
© TravelEssence

2. Big Sur

As you continue driving south on the California coast, you’ll pass by the stunning Monterrey Bay, famous for its marine life and great kayaking. A little further south lies a nature reserve called Big Sur with steep mountains, sheer cliffs and stunning ocean views. Highway 1 winds through it and is one of the most famous routes in the US. Between the towns of San Simeon and Carmel, there are no traffic lights or shopping centres.

On the route, you’ll see some beautiful sights, like the spectacular Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the largest arch bridges in the world. Big Sur is the setting of the 1962 book by Jack Kerouac, written while staying in a cabin under the bridge.

The area has many excellent hiking trails in the mountains and forests. In the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you can walk between rock formations and towering age-old trees. We recommend the hiking route to Pfeiffer Falls, a hidden waterfall that suddenly comes into view.

The dramatic cliffs of Big Sur reaching down to the Pacific Ocean
© TravelEssence
Big Sur is a great place for whale watching
© Mike Doherty, unsplash

3. Santa Barbara

Most Californian cities combine different architectural styles and influences, but Santa Barbara is different. In 1925, the historic centre of the city was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake.

As a nod to Santa Barbara's Spanish past, the city council decided that the reconstruction should be done in Mediterranean style. The fact that the Spaniards once ruled here can also be seen in the famous mission posts. Santa Barbara is especially popular with beach lovers and surfers.

The area is also ideal for whale spotting. Humpback whales and the colossal blue whale use the waters of Santa Barbara as a kind of stopover during their journey toward Mexico. Visit one of the excellent fish restaurants at Stearns Wharf or the wine tasting rooms. On Sundays, it is fun to visit the Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show with over 200 stalls selling homemade art.

The charming streets of Santa Barbara
The Spanish Mission influence is very visible in Santa Barbara
© TravelEssence

4. San Diego

San Diego is located in Southern California near the border with Mexico and has a pleasant, sunny climate. The relaxed city is known for its beaches such as Coronado Beach or Mission Beach.

The spacious Balboa Park is home to the renowned San Diego Zoo as well as numerous art galleries, art studios, museums and gardens. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, a living history museum, is certainly worth a visit. In addition to the historic architecture, this district also features shops and restaurants.

Visitors can enjoy a variety of street performers as well as several annual cultural festivals. San Diego is known as America's Finest City for its great beaches, expansive parks and culinary highlights.

The city and San Diego Bay from the air
San Diego's beaches are famous for surfing

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5. Joshua Tree National Park

Located in southern California, Joshua Tree National Park makes an ideal stopover in winter as it's still sunny and warm with clear skies in the daytime. This is a good time to visit as you escape the summer heat and the crowds. This stunning desert landscape is home to a fascinating variety of plants and animals, all of which thrive in the rugged mountains and exposed granite that characterise the area.

Many visitors come to admire the twisted Joshua Trees, made famous by the U2 album cover, or just to walk in this unusual landscape where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge.

On your visit, a 540-metre climb up Quail Mountain will offer breathtaking views. Or, the rocky gorge of Keys Ranch will show how the early settlers once lived. You can explore the park on foot or by mountain bike, either with a guide or on your own.

The stunning Joshua trees
Take your time to explore this national park

6. Sedona

Travelling through Arizona in the winter months is very pleasant. The daytime climate is mild but do remember that the temperatures can drop considerably at night, ranging from zero to five degrees. Make a stop in the desert town of Sedona and marvel at the famous red rock landscape. Red Rock State Park is noted for its steep canyon walls, red-rock buttes, and pine forests.

The town is known for its vibrant arts community, many alternative shops, spas, and art galleries in the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village. On the edge of town, numerous trailheads access Red Rock State Park, which offers bird-watching, hiking and picnicking spots.

There are also 4WD tours that lead to some fantastic views for those who don’t wish to go hiking. Learn about how the original inhabitants of the area lived by visiting the Tuzigoot National Monument and the 6000-year-old Palatki Ruin, an ancient cliff dwelling built by the Southern Sinagua tribe.

The desert town of Sedona has mild winter daytime temperatures
© TravelEssence
The red rock landscape of Sedona

7. Canyon de Chelly

This stunning canyon has long served as a home to the Navajo people and it is entirely owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust. Located in northeastern Arizona, this beautiful canyon is perfect for hiking and exploring. The only way to travel along the canyon floor is with a Navajo guide and this means it is never too busy. In winter there may be light snowfall which makes the landscape even more picturesque.

Canyon de Chelly offers a spectacular panorama, rock paintings and remains of former dwellings of the Navajo, some of whom still live here traditionally like their ancestors. The walls of the canyon are about 300 metres high and there are dry valleys with sandstone formations.

While the morning hours are best for taking pictures along the 29 kilometres long North Rim Drive, the 25 kilometres long South Rim Drive is particularly impressive in the evening sunlight. The stunning circular White House Trail leads to the White House Ruin, which is about 800 years old, where the remains of the buildings are nestled in the cliff. Take time to explore this amazing national monument and take a horseback tour of the famous Mummy Cave.

Exploring the valley floor of Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly is preserved as a National Monument

8. Scottsdale

Scottsdale is a charming desert city located in the southwest of the US. It is the ideal starting point to explore the different landscapes of Arizona. This charming town, with its 1920’s architecture and 19th-century olive trees, is surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, the greenest and most diverse desert in North America.

The mountains, rivers and lush, cactus-covered landscape are ideal areas for any kind of outdoor adventure. Take a guided jeep tour through the pristine valleys and canyon to marvel at the unusual rock formations. Or explore the Wild West and go horseback riding on special trails through the McDowell Mountains.

Scottsdale also offers a good trail network for hikers and mountain bikers, including the Pinnacle Peak Park and Camelback Mountain. In addition, you can rock climb, kayak or take a hot air balloon trip to see the beauty of the desert from above.

The trails around Scottsdale are great for hiking
Scottsdale, Arizona is an interesting desert city
© TravelEssence

9. Tucson

Tucson is the second-largest city in Arizona and is famous for its year-round sunshine. The city was founded in 1775 as a military fort by the Spanish and traces of the Old West roots are still visible today. Take a historic bike tour to visit the early Spanish missions or, if you prefer, a street art and taco bike tour.

There is also a thriving visual and performing art scene with respected galleries and museums; the city’s multicultural heritage is visible everywhere. Tucson lies in the Sonoran desert, famous for its dramatic beauty and spectacular cacti. Take a guided hiking trip out to the desert to see the giant saguaro, the symbol of the American Southwest.

If you are feeling adventurous, you can also drive up to Mount Lemmon and enjoy a day’s skiing on the high slopes. Tucson has a lot to offer from spa hotels and championship golf courses to horseback riding and quality restaurants.

Explore the area around Tucson, Arizona
Tucson is famous for its year-round sunshine

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