Marfa has been renowned as a surprising art hub since minimalist sculptor Donald Judd arrived to far west Texas in 1971 and started peppering the highland desert landscape with his massive concrete works. Nowadays, the Chinati Foundation keeps up his vision in a disused army base turned contemporary art museum. But this city—which also served as the filming location for classics like Giant, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood—has always had creative blood coursing through its veins: it’s reportedly named after a character in a novel either by Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Jules Verne. Tourists of the weird can try to glimpse the Marfa Ghost Lights, mysterious glowing orbs that have appeared here since the 1880s and that many still attribute to paranormal causes.
Virginia City, Nevada
In its heyday, this Victorian mining town 25 miles south of Reno, NV, attracted nearly 15,000 residents—including a young newspaper reporter from Missouri, better known as Mark Twain—thanks to the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode and subsequent bonanza (billions in gold and silver). These days, the well-preserved downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to its wooden boardwalks, dusty graveyards, classic saloons, and buildings like Piper’s Opera House. After panning for gold, riding on a stagecoach, or exploring an old mine, grab a front-seat view of the surrounding high desert landscape with a leisurely trip on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Or time your trip to fall and catch the kooky camel and ostrich races.
Oregon’s happy-go-lucky (and romantic) inland alternative to Portland—and not just for its incredible craft beer scene, 11-microbrewery-strong—trades in the drizzly Pacific Northwest climate for nearly 300 sunny days a year and a dramatic desert landscape of sagebrush plains, ponderosa pine forests, and steep basalt canyon walls. Set on the Deschutes River to the east of the Cascades, Bend appeals, of course, to outdoorsy types: there are 51 miles of hiking trails within the city limits. For a taste of the town’s entrepreneurial spirit, head to the Old Mill District, an urban renewal project that has brought shops, galleries, and an amphitheater to a formerly unused stretch of lumber mills.
Sixty miles east of Flagstaff near both the Hopi and Navajo reservations and Meteor Crater, Winslow has always been defined by the people passing through it, from an 1876 Mormon colony to Route 66, famously bringing scores of road trippers to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert—until I-40 was built, bypassing the town completely. Years of tourist neglect allowed the town to relax, regroup, and rededicate itself to art, with unique attractions like the Snowdrift Art Space, a 7,000-square-foot contemporary gallery in an old mercantile shop, a renovated Art Deco movie house, and the trompe l’oeil mural in Standin’ on the Corner Park (from The Eagles song “Take It Easy”).
Grand Junction, Colorado
In the West, town names often speak volumes about the kind of place in which you’re about to step foot. Originally settled by homesteaders and ranchers in the 1880s, Grand Junction sits at the crossroads of some of the West’s most grandiose natural sites: the Colorado River’s whitewater rapids; the wild horses of nearby Little Book Cliffs; vineyards and peach orchards in neighboring Fruita and Palisade; Colorado National Monument’s red-rock canyons filled with bighorn sheep; and, finally, Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain, which attracts hikers and campers in the summer and skiers in the winter. Revitalized in 2011, the Main Street area houses more than 100 public art pieces—keep an eye out for the massive buffalo, crafted from chrome car bumpers.
Silver City, New Mexico
Unlike other Old West mining towns, the 1870s Silver City made it through the bust times by going on to discover copper in its hills, and it continues to be an active mining community (and weekend getaway road trip) today. A thriving downtown scene has since followed, offering galleries, concert venues, and inventive restaurants that are gaining popularity with visitors but still remain scrappy and unpretentious. Outside of town—located at 6,000 feet in the foothills of southwestern New Mexico’s Pinos Altos Mountains—explore the more than 3 million acres of Gila National Forest, which comprises agave-studded canyons and thickets of junipers, ponderosas, and piñons. Don’t miss the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a spectacular collection of cavelike houses built by the Mogollon people in the 1280s.
Crowds don’t come to the eastern Utah town of Moab for cosmopolitan amenities, they come for the outdoors, specifically Arches National Park and Canyonlands, both known for their spectacular red-rock canyons and out-of-this-world formations. Hikers and bikers are particularly attracted to the smooth, eroded sandstone known as slickrock (once treacherous for the horses of early settlers, which couldn’t get a foothold on its undulating surfaces). Nonetheless, despite all its natural blessings, Moab has indeed worked to transform itself into a world-class base camp, with wineries, microbreweries, and creative restaurants serving locally sourced food.
Taos, New Mexico
Postcard-perfect Taos has always been a muse for artists, who began arriving at this historic desert town, a 56-mile drive north of Santa Fe, as early as the 1890s. Luminaries like Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams immortalized the city’s colorful citizens, striking adobe architecture, and surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains in their works. Icons like the 18th-century San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church and especially Taos Pueblo remain favorite spots for visitors today—unlike other UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this millennium-old adobe apartment block of sorts is still a living, breathing community, where you can visit the galleries and workshops of native artisans.
Looking at the sun-drenched town of Yakima, two hours southeast of Seattle past the Cascade Range, you might find it hard to believe this place is a desert. The surrounding agricultural areas are renowned for crisp apples and a whopping three-quarter of all hops grown in the country. But it wasn’t always this way: 19th-century pioneers faced an inhospitable sagebrush desert, since tamed through a series of ingenious irrigation canals using fresh mountain runoff that brought the fertile volcanic soil roaring to verdant life. Nowadays, Yakima serves as the hub of a thriving wine country, where you can visit more than 100 unique wineries, producing everything from Rieslings and Chardonnays to Merlots and Syrahs and even sweet ice wines.
Borrego Springs, California
Borrego Springs sits squarely in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park—the only community in America surrounded on all sides by state park land—and is forever linked with the local flora and fauna such as kit foxes, golden eagles, rattlesnakes, and, of course, its namesake sheep (borrego being Spanish for “bighorn sheep”). California’s largest state park is perhaps most beloved for its massive variety of desert wildflowers, which burst into colorful life each spring—and for stargazing. The local government even enacted legislation to reduce light pollution, garnering the world’s second designation as an International Dark Sky Community while maintaining its spectacularly clear nights.