Grand Canyon National Park
Experience the many moods of Big Ditch hiking by cruising the classic 28-mile Hermit/Tonto/Bright Angel route. Nearly half of this loop is on the relatively flat Tonto Plateau, which offers stunning views of North Rim stone "temples" and the Colorado River, plus premier desert hiking, easy off-trail exploration, and even a few cottonwood-studded oases. Go in March or April, when water is most reliable, but request your permit well in advance.
Contact: Grand Canyon National Park, (520) 638-7875; www.nps.gov/grca.
You'll encounter everything from sycamore trees to saguaro cactus in this rugged Sonoran Desert and Superstition Mountains area just outside Phoenix. Connect the Reavis Ranch and Rogers Canyon Trails for a 15-mile loop through an abandoned apple orchard, an old homestead, and a mountaintop pine forest, not to mention plenty of cactus-filled desert.
Contact: Mesa Ranger District, Tonto National Forest, (480) 610-3300; www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Forest may not be the first word that comes to mind when describing desert vegetation, but that's the ecologically correct term for the clusters of saguaro and organ pipe cacti covering the hillsides of this trail-less southern Arizona preserve. For the best scenery, wildlife, and cross-country hiking, head for Sweetwater Pass or the Bates Mountains.
Contact: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, (520) 387-6849; www.nps.gov/orpi.