Travel: No Sea, Plenty Of Sand

To escape New England's cold and cloudy autumn weather, Dale and Bill Marcy of Chelmsford, Mass., packed up their cowboy boots and headed for the desert. "It's absolutely beautiful here," says Dale, pausing between horseback-riding trips at the Double E Ranch in Gila, N.M. "We're not looking forward to going back home."

The American desert may be forbidding in summer, when temperatures soar past 100 degrees. But in the fall and winter, when the mercury drops into the 70s and 80s, travelers can explore its unique landscape in comfort. Visitors can pose with 12-foot cactuses, view exotic wildlife, explore the region's famous rock formations and camp out under the stars.

One of the hottest places on earth, Death Valley, becomes positively balmy in the fall. Visitors can set off on long excursions in the park, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Stunning geological formations, mountain vistas and the ruts of pioneer wagon trains await those who venture off the main roads. A favorite hike is the four-mile loop up Mosaic Canyon, a narrow slot featuring smooth marble walls that tower overhead (entrance fee: $10 per vehicle; for more info). For $87, visitors can get a hotel room in Stovepipe Wells, which has a restaurant, general store and saloon.

Joshua Tree National Park in southern California is another favorite with hikers. The higher Mojave region offers cooler temperatures for strolling amid the park's namesake trees--spiny, multilimbed plants that resemble something out of Dr. Seuss. Camping at night far from city lights, visitors can enjoy the night sky as they have never seen it (entrance fee: $10 per vehicle; ).

For a glimpse of stunning plant life, head for southern Arizona's Organ Pipe National Monument. It boasts the nation's largest concentration of aptly named organ-pipe cactuses--multi-armed, 12-foot-tall behemoths. Visitors drive the Ajo Mountain and Puerto Blanco routes to snap pictures of Arch Canyon and the lush Quitobaquito oasis. The monument also features an array of seldom-seen wildlife--javelinas (hairy, piglike mammals), Gila monsters (venomous lizards) and endangered, antelopelike Sonoran pronghorns (entrance fee: $8 per vehicle, $12 to camp; ).

For Yankees, visiting the Southwest is an ideal time to indulge their inner cowboy. The Double E Ranch ($185 per night; ), where the Marcys stayed, is located near Gila National Forest ( ) and offers rides that look out across landscapes untouched by modern civilization. "As far as the eye can see, there is nothing man-made," says Dale. "It's a humbling sight that most Americans never experience." Winter is the perfect time to try.