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Winter riding season in the Southwest desert: What to know and where to go

Sep 05, 2022

It is finally here, the start of the winter desert riding season in the Southwest! While most of the nation will be getting ready to winterize their bikes for hibernation, the brutal summer temperatures of the desert climate are cooling down for a winter of fun in the sand. 

If you are new to desert riding, consider this a beginner’s guide to places you might want to ride, things to expect in the desert, and the basics on getting your bike ready for some desert action.

A high vista view of a desert riding area full of campers and RVs
Off-road enthusiasts congregate at a popular riding destination in Southern California. Photo by Jen Dunstan.

Basic desert stuff you should know

Are you just day-tripping it in the desert, or planning a long weekend of riding and camping? Depending on the length of your trip, there are a lot of factors to consider. Doing your preparation and research before hitting the road will save you a lot of headaches on your trip. Here are some things I recommend you consider.

Maintenance: Do not wait until you are already stuck out in the desert, lying in the sand, trying to figure out what exactly is going on with your machine, to think about maintenance. You might be far away from help of any kind, or the parts you need, for that matter. Make sure to hit the basics (oil change, air filter change, check your tire wear, check your brakes) and take a short trip to a nearby riding area or MX track and give your bike a good shakedown before heading out on a long trip. Also, make sure to properly lubricate the chain on your dirt bike and bring that chain lube to apply daily when riding off-road.

Two dirt bike riders wait in the campsite before heading out on a ride
It’s best to have a riding pal for all your desert adventures. Photo by Jen Dunstan.

Bring everything you might need: Desert riding means remote locations, so forgetting a little of this or a little of that can make the experience less than ideal. There normally isn’t a convenience store right around the corner, so pack everything you might need and plus some. Drinking water, snacks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper (just because the OHV park has toilets doesn’t mean they're well kept or stocked), first aid kit, a riding pack, and so on. Same applies to your camping situation. Whether it's in a tent or an RV, make sure you are loaded up with everything you might possibly need. Don’t forget what your bike needs, too. Bring spare parts and extra gas, because you never know what the trail might bring!

a long parked bike in a wide open desert vista view
The desert is desolate, so make sure you are prepared. Photo by Ryan Williams.

It’s a harsh, remote climate: Do not underestimate the desert. It may be sunny and in the 80s during the day, but as soon as that sun starts to set freezing temperatures are possible. The desert is a land of extremes and so you must be prepared for both sides of the spectrum. Cell service will be as rare as rain out there, so you may want to consider a GPS safety beacon and always ride with a friend in the desert.

Beware holiday weekends: I know it’s tempting, but just be aware that long holiday weekends will mean an excess of other off-roaders who had the same great idea as you to hit the desert for the extra day off from work. If you like the excitement of the crowded atmosphere, by all means enjoy, but just know that some of these riding areas can get real rowdy with the partying and the riding, so be extra cautious. If you prefer solitude, mid-week trips are ideal but even the random non-holiday weekend can offer up some great riding with far fewer folks to worry about.

A quick guide for preparing your bike for desert riding

Because every riding area has its own unique terrain, and because every bike has its own specifics, it's hard to jot down what the best bike setup might be for your riding situation. With that said, here are some basics to help wrap your head around some general tips.

A group of dirt bike riders gather in their campsite and prep their motorcycles
Is your bike ready for an off-road adventure? Take out your pre-ride checklist and check it twice. Photo by Jen Dunstan.

Legal requirements: This is a tricky one, as each state or federally managed riding area may have different requirements. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to have a spark arrestor installed on your bike regardless of mandate. Also, always make sure your vehicle has the correct decals and registration so you don’t land in hot water with park rangers or other enforcement agencies.

Tire choices: Will you be riding in deep sand washes most of the time? Or crawling up huge rock features where you need all the grip you can get? What about that infamous sand dune paddle tire? Having some awareness of what terrain you are headed into will give you more insight into what type of tire you should have mounted up. If you are going to a new location, do your research and try to find local rider forums or groups and ask about proper tire choice and recommended pressure.

Armor up: Off-roading can take a toll on your machine, and some are better outfitted than others to take the beating. Depending on whether you have a dedicated enduro model versus a motocross model, you may want to invest in some protective pieces for vulnerable parts of your motorcycle.

My recommended must-haves for hitting the desert are: 

  • Handguards (you might not be hitting trees, but if your bike crashes hard into a rock these guards will save your levers and more).
  • Skid plate (if you are traversing any rocky areas, this skid plate will protect very important and vulnerable parts of your bike's undercarriage).
  • Radiator guards (last thing you want is to be stranded because you bashed in your radiators and are afraid of overheating the engine trying to get back to camp).

Two dirtbikes are parked on a big sand dune with paddle tire and tall buggie whip
Soft dune sand like Oceano Dunes pictured here will make paddle tires and a dune whip a necessity. Photo by Jen Dunstan.

Special prep for dune riding: Dunes are a very unique terrain requiring some special setup mods to your machine. Be aware that dune riding is extremely tough on your motorcycle. The deep sand will frequently put your bike to the rev limiter and the sand itself poses many mechanical risks if allowed to creep into critical areas. Also understand that dune riding requires technique different from what you are accustomed to in other terrain. The deep sand creates a fluid dynamic that makes steering more akin to jet skiing or snowboarding (at least that is how it equates in my mind). I recommend watching some videos and getting acquainted with how dune riding might differ from your usual riding before taking the plunge.

Some basics on how to set up your bike for dune riding:

  • Paddle tire (your rear tire will need to be mounted with a dedicated paddle tire designed specifically for this deep sand environment).
  • Dune whip (this whip will help make you visible to other off-roaders in the dunes and is an important safety measure).
  • Air filter covers (because the sand is so fine and extremely detrimental to your engine’s health, these additional air covers over your filter are an extra layer of protection).
  • Shock cover (to help avoid getting sand blasted into your rear shock, you can opt to buy a shock cover or create your own; some riders use a repurposed inner tube stretched over the spring and I have crafted my own guard out of an old MX sock, as well).
  • Deep clean and after-ride maintenance (after riding the dunes, it is important to thoroughly go through your machine and remove as much of the sand as possible; also do an oil change and air filter change, as this kind of riding is very strenuous on your motor).

A dirtbike is parked in a sand dune with a mountain range in background
Kickstands are optional in this deep desert sand. Photo by Jen Dunstan.

Where to go desert riding

In the Southwest region of the United States, there’s a lot of big open spaces, and luckily we get plenty of riding opportunities in these areas. Public lands are usually managed by either the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for federally owned land, or a state agency for state-managed land. Some of this public land will have dedicated riding areas, called OHV parks (off-road highway vehicle) or SVRA (state vehicular recreation area). I have highlighted some popular riding destinations below to get you started, but know that this is just a light scratching of the surface of what is available.

A solo rider is kicking up dust on their dirtbike in Ocotillo wells
Ocotillo Wells is practically a staple of desert riding in Southern California. Photo by Alex Dunstan.

Popular desert riding spots in Southern California

Remember, all California off-road vehicles must be registered and display a red or a green sticker. Learn more on these rules and recent updates in our article here and visit the California State Parks site for more information.

Ocotillo Wells

  • No fees to ride on this state-managed land.
  • 85,000-acre SVRA with BLM open riding next door, and plated vehicle access in nearby Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

Imperial Sand Dunes, aka Glamis

  • BLM Permits are required from October 1 through April 15 each year. Permits are $35 per week in advance and $50 per week if purchased onsite. Season permits are $150.
  • Dune set-up and paddle tires strongly recommended, and dune visibility whip is required.

Hungry Valley, aka Gorman

  • No fees to ride on this state-managed land.
  • 19,000-acre SVRA. Be warned, below freezing temperatures are possible at this elevation.

Want to find more Southern California desert riding options? Check out this map of all OHV and SVRA parks in the state.

A yamaha dirtbike is parked on a dune in the Apex Dunes OHV park in Nevada
Apex Nellis Dunes OHV in Nevada has a little bit of everything when it comes to classic desert terrain. Photo by Ryan Williams.

Popular desert riding spots in Nevada

Keep in mind that all Nevada off-road vehicles need to be registered. At the time of writing this article it is a $20 annual registration fee.

Apex Nellis Dunes OHV

  • No fees to ride on this state-managed land.
  • 10,035 total acres, with over 900 acres allocated to Clark County for the OHV Park. Famous for hosting races like the Mint 400.

Cold Creek OHV

  • No fees to ride on this state-managed land.
  • Trail network that crosses across several land management agencies. Be mindful of posted rules and regulations.

Gold Point OHV

  • No fees to ride on this state-managed land.
  • 115 miles of trails that are primarily double-track and have some historical points of interest.

Want to find more Nevada desert riding options? Check out this map of riding opportunities in the state.

A large group of off road riders gather at a trailhead in arizona
A big riding crew gathers up in the Boulders OHV area in Arizona. Photo by Jen Dunstan.

Popular desert riding spots in Arizona

An OHV registration and decal are required to ride in Arizona riding areas. Please check the Arizona Game and Fish site for the latest information. 

Boulders OHV area

  • No fees to ride this federally managed land.
  • Over 200 miles of single-track close to Phoenix.

Bulldog Canyon OHV area

  • $6 Tonto National Forest Off-Highway Vehicle Permit required, good for a six-month period; visit to reserve.
  • 34,000 acres and 20 miles of open routes.

Desert Vista OHV Area, aka Wildcat

  • No fee required on this federally managed land.
  • 33,500 acres and 100 miles of open routes.

Want to find more Arizona desert riding options? Check out this map of riding opportunities in the state.

A dirt bike rider hits a small jump while friends cheer him on
Winter desert riding is all about the fun! Photo by Jen Dunstan.

Go out and ride!

There is so much to share and write about riding in the desert, so much more than can be distilled into a single article like this one. However, this beginner’s guide will hopefully put you on the path of discovering and researching all you want to know about desert riding — where to go, what to expect, and how to get your bike prepped. May all your winter desert riding adventures be memorable ones. Keep it on two!