Cool Destinations for a Southwestern Summer Road Trip

The Southwest in summertime can be brutally hot. With temperatures often exceeding the 100-degree mark in parts of Arizona, Nevada and southern California, summer may not seem like the ideal time to take a road trip in search of the great outdoors. But whether you’re just itching to get away for a day or you want to spend the weekend exploring a new destination, there are plenty of places where you can stay cool. Here are just a few great southwestern hotspots – some better known than others – that’ll actually keep you cool through the dog days of summer.

Up, Up and Away: Escape to the Mountains

Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, Nevada – An easy 45-minute drive from the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas, the Spring Mountains rise up from the Mojave Desert just west of Las Vegas. Known as a “sky island” – an oasis where cooler weather makes it ideal for species that can’t thrive in the desert – temperatures can be as much as 30 degrees cooler than on the Strip.

More than 60 miles of maintained trails provide a range of hiking options for every ability level. If you’re an experienced hiker, you may want the challenge of climbing the 8.5-mile Mt. Charleston Recreation Trail/South Loop, which rewards you with a view from the 11,916-foot summit of Mt. Charleston Peak. Even if you’re not the hiking type, a variety of scenic byways makes the journey its own reward. You’ll want to stop and take photos of the great views and changing vegetation, but you can easily tour the area by car in one afternoon and be back at your Las Vegas hotel in time for happy hour.

Mt. Pinos, California – Located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles in Ventura County, Mt. Pinos was viewed as the center of the world by the Chumash Indians. At 8,831 feet, the peak is an easy 1.4-mile hike from the parking area, and summer temperatures generally remain about 25 degrees cooler than the hottest parts of L.A.

Look up, and you’re likely to spot some birds of prey, such as California Condors, Northern Goshawks and any of the 5 species of owls that like to call Mt. Pinos home. Or enjoy the abundance of stars after nightfall. Clear skies and low light pollution make this a favorite viewing spot for weekend astronomers. You’ll find them setting up their telescopes in the Chula Vista parking lot.

Mt. Lemmon, Arizona – Just when it seems there’s no escaping the scorching heat of Tucson and Phoenix, Mt. Lemmon to the rescue. Standing at 9000 feet, this desert oasis is the tallest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains and stays about 30 degrees cooler than nearby Tucson. The winding 25-mile drive to the top via Catalina Highway (also known as the Scenic Byway – for good reason) begins among Saguaro cacti and ends in an alpine forest. Take advantage of the many places to pull over, and admire the spectacular views of the city, canyons and eerie rock formations known as hoodoos. Be sure to stop for photos at the Windy Point Vista, an especially beautiful site at sunset.

At the top, you’ll be greeted by a sign welcoming you to the community of Summerhaven. With its chalets, eateries and quaint shops, it’s a nice place to relax after a hike. Don’t miss the giant homemade cookies at the Pizza and Cookie Cabin, or enjoy a meal at the Iron Door Restaurant in nearby Ski Valley. (Save room for a mini pie for dessert!) Yes, there’s really a ski area this close to the desert. Chairlifts run through the summer, so consider taking a ride for a slightly different view. One word of caution before you start your way up: Be sure you have plenty of gas. Despite the access to civilization, there are no gas stations on the mountain.

Splish, Splash: Take a Refreshing Dip

Slide Rock State Park, Arizona – This not-so-secret swimming hole located just outside of Sedona has made the Travel Channel’s list of 10 Top Swimming Holes in the United States more than once. Slide Rock State Park is named for the 80-foot red rock incline located in Oak Creek. The algae-covered sandstone acts as a water slide, but you’ll probably want to wear shorts to avoid ruining your finest swimsuit.

Farther downstream, swimmers can relax in calmer pools. Or find a shady spot along the banks for a picnic. (No glass containers allowed.) Because of the slippery conditions and lack of a lifeguard, it’s probably not a good idea to bring young children. Also, the park can get crowded during summer weekends, so arrive early. From Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day, the entrance fee is $30 per vehicle on weekends for up to 4 adults; $20 on weekends.

Lake Tahoe, Nevada/California border – As one of the largest lakes in the United States, Lake Tahoe provides a wide variety of options for Californians and Nevadans alike. Sand Harbor Beach on the north side of the lake in Nevada takes less than an hour to reach from Reno and about 30 minutes from Carson City. Consider parking in Incline Village and taking the inexpensive shuttle bus to avoid parking hassles. Farther south on the Nevada side is Cave Rock, also about 30 minutes from Carson City.

On the south side of the Lake in California, check out Pope Beach or Baldwin Beach, located at the Tallac Historic Site. You can also tour the estate grounds and mansions while you’re there. From Sacramento, you’ll be at the beach in just over 2 hours. However, if you live in southern California, plan to stay a few days – it’ll take you close to 8 hours to get there from Los Angeles. You’ll also find several state parks on the California side near Emerald Bay.

All of these beaches, as well as many others along the lake, have areas where you can scuba dive and snorkel. Keep in mind that at over 6,200 feet in elevation, Lake Tahoe requires that you adjust for altitude when scuba diving. In addition, Nevada law requires that all snorkelers and divers remain within 100 feet of a dive flag.

Lake Havasu, Arizona – A reservoir that borders Arizona and California, Lake Havasu is known as Arizona’s “West Coast” and extends for 30 miles along the Colorado River. The air temperature here can get well above 100, but unlike some mountain lakes, you won’t have any trouble jumping in this water, which ranges in temperature between the mid-70s to mid-80s in the summer.

You’ll find many beaches around Lake Havasu City. Rotary Community Park with its central location, shady picnic spots and buoyed swimming area is popular with both locals and visitors. London Bridge Beach is closest to London Bridge (yes, one of the real London Bridges!). The beaches at Lake Havasu State Park are clean and white and can be accessed by car or boat. If you choose to stay for the weekend, there’s plenty of camping, as well as lodging and activities in town.

Southern California swimming – Sure, the Pacific Ocean is an obvious place to cool down if you live close to one of southern California’s many beaches. But there’s nothing like a fresh-water swimming hole or waterfall for a change of pace. Here are some of our picks:

  • Silverwood Lake, located about 81 miles east of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino National Forest, has two beaches for swimming: Silverwood Lake Swim Beach and Cleghorn Swim Beach.
  • About 10 miles from Malibu, you can take advantage of the scenic pools in Malibu Creek State Park, including Malibu Creek Rock Pool, a popular site due to its easy access.
  • If you love waterfalls and don’t mind the hike, check out Cooper Canyon Falls in the Angeles National Forest, about 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles, or Eaton Falls near Pasadena, which is easier to access but also more populated.

No need to stay in your air-conditioned home or hotel for the summer, even if you do live in the Southwest. So get out there and enjoy some mountain air or a “cool” desert swimming hole. And don’t forget your sunblock!