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On the Road: America’s Great Deserts and Their National Parks

Program Number: 13480RJ
Start and End Dates:
11/3/2012 - 11/12/2012; 11/7/2015 - 11/16/2015; 1/23/2016 - 2/1/2016; 2/13/2016 - 2/22/2016; 2/27/2016 - 3/7/2016;
Duration: 9 nights
Location: Tucson, Arizona
Price starting at: $1,585.00 - Price may vary based on date, departure city
Program Type: On the Road; National Parks; Natural History
Meals: 25; 9 Breakfasts, 8 Lunches, 8 Dinners    
Meal Options: Vegetarian    

Deserts are this nation's unexplored wilderness, harboring rare and endangered plants and animals and sheltering hidden oases. And deserts are landscapes changed by humans — to be made to bloom, to be mined for wealth, to tame its wild rivers. With stories of fortunes won and lost, conflict and controversy, these landscapes have been formed and reformed by nature's time and human struggle. Explore these great American deserts — the Sonoran and Mojave — cut by the life-giving Colorado River, and experience their warmth and richness in a journey of a lifetime.


• Experience these dramatically different National Parks and American deserts with in-depth exploration of Saguaro, Joshua Tree and Death Valley.
• Visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Yuma's Territorial Prison, and historic Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley.
• Ride the thrilling Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and enjoy a festive Palm Springs street fair.

Activity Particulars

Walking up to two miles on uneven terrain.

Date Specific Information


Death Valley National Park will host the annual '49ers Encampment during this program. This event pays tribute to the pioneer wagon train parties that crossed Death Valley en route to the California gold fields during the winter of 1849-50 and celebrates the uniqueness of Death Valley.

Itinerary Summary

Arrival Tucson, Ariz., 2 nights; coach to Yuma, 1 night; coach to Palm Springs, Calif., 3 nights; coach to Death Valley National Park, 3 nights; coach Las Vegas, Nev., departure.

Coordinated by Northern Arizona University.


Cactus forests, craggy mountains and rolling hills surround this temperate city, which lies in the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico. The region reflects a blending of the two cultures, along with a history of Native American settlement. The city is dotted with museums, galleries and parks that celebrate this natural and historical diversity.

Palm Springs

Originally a recreational oasis for Hollywood’s famous, Palm Springs is still an indulgent getaway a hundred years later. The desert town, surrounded by breathtaking canyons and natural hot mineral springs, offers 125 golf courses, tennis, hiking and the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies all within a two-hour drive of Los Angeles.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree comprises nearly 800,000 acres of California’s most interesting geology arranged in a stark, wind-shaped landscape that gives way to the colors of desert vegetation with the unpredictable arrival of rain and moderate weather. Two desert ecosystems meet here, including the Mojave, habitat for the strange tree for which the park is named.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley, a place of unexpected contrasts, is also one of subtle beauty. From the blush of dawn's light across its badlands to the awe-inspiring red-gold sunsets and the riot of color from spring wildflowers, this great national park covering over 3.3 million miles offers fascinating history and nature's splendor in large servings.


The otherwise wide Colorado River narrows to 1,000 feet at Yuma Crossing, giving rise to an important steamboat stop that would become the gateway between the New Mexico Territory and what is now California. Today Yuma serves the lower portion of the Sonoran Desert National Monument and is home to the famous Yuma Territorial Prison Historic Park.

Tucson and Yuma: Modern hotels. Desert Hot Springs: Resort/spa with large pool. Death Valley: Furnace Creek Ranch with mineral-spring-heated pool, 18-hole golf course.

Road Scholar Instructors
These instructors are participating on at least one date of this program. Please note that changes may occur.
Richard Stephens

Rich has been director of Northern Arizona University’s highly popular Road Scholar programs since 2001. He previously spent many years in the field as a program coordinator and group leader, where he honed his skills and learned the importance of detailed, pre-trip planning. Before making his home in Arizona’s spectacular red-rock country, Rich spent 10 years in Yosemite National Park and the Santa Cruz mountains as an environmental educator.
Matt Turner

Matt Turner has lived in the Southwest since 1982 and currently resides in Prescott, Ariz. He has traveled extensively in the region and has done work in field ecology and cartography. In addition, Matt is an ecological consultant and a professional photographer.
Meals and Lodgings
   Tucson Holiday Inn - Airport
  Tucson. AZ 2 nights
   Wingate Hotel
  Yuma, AZ 1 night
   Miracle Springs Resort & Spa
  Desert Hot Springs, CA 3 nights
   Furnace Creek Ranch
  Death Valley, CA 3 nights
 Tucson Holiday Inn - Airport
Type: Three-Star Hotel
  Description: Minutes from Tucson International Airport and central to all Tucson destinations, the Holiday Inn Tucson Airport is perfectly situated for activities on the Upper Sonoran Desert.
  Contact info: 4550 S Palo Verde
Tucson, AZ 85714 USA
phone: 520-746-1161
  Room amenities: Cable TV, individually controlled AC, in-room pay-per-view movies, ironing board, coffee maker, hair dryer, work desk
  Facility amenities: 301 guest rooms on 6 floors, on site restaurant with room service, and cocktail lounge, outdoor pool, whirlpool, ATM, gift shop and newsstand.
  Smoking allowed: Yes
  Elevators available: Yes
  Additional nights prior: Seasonal. Contact Holiday Inn - Tucson Airport for rates applicable to your stay.
  Check in time: 3:00 PM

 Wingate Hotel
Type: Hotel
  Description: Located in Yuma, AZ, one of the warmest, sunniest locations in Arizona, close to shopping, restaurants with a wide range of cuisines, golf, hiking, fishing and sightseeing.
  Contact info: 1760 Sunridge Dr
Yuma, AZ 85364 USA
phone: 928-783-1400
  Room amenities: Air conditioned, Hair dryers, coffee makers, irons and ironing boards, cordless phones, safe in room, microwave, refrigerator, cable TV and On Demand movies, 24 hour sundry shop.
  Facility amenities: 100% no smoking facility, outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, wired and wireless Internet, handicap facilities, wheel chair access, indoor corridors and elevator, fitness center, guest laundromat, gift shop, free fax and copy service, pool table.
  Smoking allowed: No
  Elevators available: Yes

 Miracle Springs Resort & Spa
Type: Resort
  Description: Eight pools are scattered around the property. The largest is kept at about 80 degrees. The smaller pools bubble and percolated at about 104 soothing degrees. All of the pools are fed directly from the mineral waters of Desert Hot Springs.
  Contact info: 10625 Palm Dr
Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240 USA
phone: 800-400-4414
  Room amenities: See web link below.
  Facility amenities: A variety of massages, facials, body therapies and spa treatments in addition to the mineral water hot springs.
  Smoking allowed: No

 Furnace Creek Ranch
Type: Resort
  Description: Furnace Creek Ranch is a complete resort fashioned on the grounds of the original working ranch and later the housing for the 20 mule team operation. Located in Death Valley National Park, the Ranch offers hiking in adjacent canyons, swimming, golf, tennis and horseback riding.
  Contact info: Hwy 190
Death Valley, AZ 92328 USA
phone: 760-786-2345
  Room amenities: A/C, TV, phone, in-room coffee maker, hair dryer, phone.
  Facility amenities: Three restaurants, a cocktail lounge, an outdoor, spring-fed, geothermal swimming pool - always at 82 degrees, lighted tennis courts, an 18 hole golf course (lowest elevation course in the world), a gift shop and a general store.
  Smoking allowed: Yes
  Additional nights after: Seasonal. Call Furnace Creek for rates applicable to your stay.
  Check out time: 11:00 AM

Travel Details
  Start of Program:
On site registration in Tucson, AZ hotel lobby between 4:30 - 5:15 pm. Program begins in Tucson and ends in Las Vegas, NV. Most airlines will book flights that arrive Tucson and depart from Las Vegas. You will be staying at Tucson Holiday Inn - Airport that night.
  End of Program:
Drop off at Las Vegas, McCarran Airport by 11:15 a.m. You will be staying at Furnace Creek Ranch the night before.
  Required documents:
The Participant Information Form is required.
  Parking availability:
Parking is free for the length of the program.
To Start of Program
  Location:  Tucson. AZ
  Nearest city or town:  Tucson, AZ
  Nearest highway: Interstate 10
  Nearest airport:  Tucson, AZ
  From End of Program
  Location:  Departures
Travel Details

Tucson Holiday Inn to/from Tucson Airport


From Airport




Hotel Shuttle
Tucson Holiday Inn
phone: 520-746-1161


Per Person/One Way:


Prices are subject to change.


Travel Time:


10 minutes 




1 mile


Call Tucson Holiday Inn once you have retrieved your luggage in the baggage claim area.

Driving Directions
  To Tucson Arpt Holiday Inn Fm I-10 wesbound Exit onto hotel drive and turn left onto Irvington St. Turn right onto Palo Verde North and the hotel will be on the left.
  Tucson Airport Holiday Inn From I-10 eastbound Take the I-10 east and exit onto Palo Verde Boulevard north. The hotel will be on the left.
Elevation Note: We will visit two locations above 3000 feet. Those with heart/lung conditions should consult doctor.

The prices listed for commercial services and facilities that are not included in the program cost, such as airport shuttles or extra nights lodging, are subject to change without notice. Since Road Scholar cannot guarantee the accuracy of these prices, we strongly suggest contacting the companies directly for the most up-to-date information.

Daily Schedule

Day 1: Registration and Check In/Orientation and Introductions
(Saturday, November 3)
 Afternoon: Northern Arizona University Road Scholar program registration in the hotel lobby between 4:30 and 5:15 pm.
 Dinner: Dinner at the hotel restaurant.
 Evening: Your Northern Arizona University Road Scholar coordinator will lead the program orientation session with questions and answers, followed by participant introductions. Please remember that this program begins in Tucson, AZ and ends in Las Vegas, NV. Most airlines will book flights that arrive in Tucson and depart from Las Vegas. If you drive your own car you may leave it at the hotel parking lot during the duration of the trip. Several airlines sell one way tickets between Tucson or Phoenix, and Las Vegas at affordable prices if booked far enough in advance.
Accommodations: Tucson Holiday Inn - Airport
Meals Included: Dinner

Day 2: Saguaro National Park West / Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
(Sunday, November 4)
 Breakfast: Hot breakfast at the hotel restaurant.
 Morning: Travel to Saguaro National Park Western District Visitor Center. Enjoy the spectacular desert video showing.This National Park is home to the world’s most recognized cactus, the majestic saguaro. Visitors of all ages are fascinated and enchanted by these desert giants, especially their many interesting and complex interrelationships with other desert life. A guided walk among the desert vegetation by your naturalist coordinator will be offered. Arrive at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum before lunch.
 Lunch: Lunch at the Ironwood Terrace at the Arizona - Sonora Desert Museum
 Afternoon: After lunch explore the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on your own. A museum map will help guide participants to the many fascinating exhibits, natural areas and trails. Special presentations, docent staffed exhibit tables and the famous "Raptor Free Flight Program" will be available. Stunning and often odd live desert flora and fauna are on display throughout the museum.
 Dinner: Dinner at a local Mexican restaurant.
 Evening: After dinner your coordinator will discuss travel plans and logistics for the next day's travel.
Accommodations: Tucson Holiday Inn - Airport
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 3: Lower Colorado River/Yuma Territorial Prison State Park/Colorado River Water Issues
(Monday, November 5)
 Breakfast: Hot breakfast at the hotel restaurant.
 Morning: After breakfast, travel with guide to Yuma, AZ. Along the way we travel through the Sonoran Desert National Monument and follow the course of the Gila River on its route to the Colorado River. Dramatic changes in the desert landscape will be experienced on this day as we travel from the relatively lush Tucson portion of the Sonoran Desert to the dry lower Colorado River portion. Various videos on appropriate subjects will be presented on board the bus.
 Lunch: Lunch at Lute's, a Yuma landmark for generations full of local color, where the locals gather to eat lunch.
 Afternoon: In Yuma enjoy a docent lead tour of the famous Yuma Territorial Prison Historic Park. Steep yourself in the history of the old west with a tour of the park museum and prison grounds. Enjoy sweeping views of the Colorado River and Yuma in the distance.
 Dinner: Dinner at a local restaurant.
 Evening: A presentation on Western Water and the Colorado River by US Bureau of Reclamation manager Jim Cherry will be offered.
Accommodations: Wingate Hotel
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 4: Algodones Dunes / Salton Sea / Desert Hot Springs
(Tuesday, November 6)
 Breakfast: Breakfast at the hotel.
 Morning: After breakfast, load bus and travel to Desert Hot Springs. The group will travel through the Imperial Valley which lies mostly below sea level and is one of the richest agricultural areas in the US. Valley features include the Algodones Sand Dune Field, the Imperial hydrothermal area, and the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when Imperial Valley irrigators broke a levee and allowed the Colorado River to overflow its banks and fill this below sea level basin. Stops for viewing these interesting features will be made at appropriate places and times.
 Lunch: Box lunch on the shore of the Salton Sea at Salton Sea State Park.
 Afternoon: Continue travel to Miracle Springs Resort and Spa in Desert Hot Springs California. Before arriving in the Palm Springs/Desert Hot Springs area, we will travel through the Coachella Valley, the “Date Palm Capital” of the world. We will stop at the Oasis Date Garden to sample some of the many variety of dates. If you are adventurous you can treat yourself to a date milk shake!
 Dinner: Dinner at the Miracle Springs Resort and Spa in Desert Hot Springs.
 Evening: Evening presentation on the human and natural history of the Cahuilla and Agua Caliente native people.
Accommodations: Miracle Springs Resort & Spa
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 5: Joshua Tree National Park
(Wednesday, November 7)
 Breakfast: A full hot breakfast will be served at the hotel.
 Morning: Depart for Joshua Tree National Park. Two deserts whose characteristics are determined primarily by elevation, come together at Joshua Tree National Park. Below 3,000 feet, the Colorado Desert encompasses the eastern part of the park and feature creosote bush, ocotillo, and cholla cactus. The higher and slightly cooler Mojave Desert is the habitat of the Joshua tree. The park also contains many fantastic geologic formations. Fan palm groves dot the park, indicating areas where water occurs naturally and wildlife abounds. We will stop at the Twenty-nine Palms Visitor Center on our way to Keys View (5185 feet above sea level). This outstanding view point overlooks the Coachella Valley which includes the Salton Sea and the San Andreas Fault Zone.
 Lunch: Picnic lunch at Hidden Valley picnic area in the park.
 Afternoon: We continue our Joshua Tree NP visit with an optional one mile hike into Hidden Valley on an uneven unpaved trail that winds between unique desert plants including Joshua trees, and spectacular granite boulders; and leads us through the legendary cattle rustlers hideout.
 Dinner: Dinner at the Miracle Hot Springs Resort.
 Evening: Free evening to relax or enjoy the pools.
Accommodations: Miracle Springs Resort & Spa
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 6: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway/ Palm Springs Street Fair
(Thursday, November 8)
 Breakfast: A full hot breakfast at the hotel.
 Morning: Depart for the the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. This is truly an engineering marvel and a breathtaking experience. Starting from an elevation of 2,643 feet at the Valley Station the tram will transport the group to the Mountain Station at an elevation of 8,516 feet. At the Mountain Station enjoy sweeping views of the Coachella Valley, the Salton Sea and Joshua Tree National Park. Trails lead into the San Jacinto Wilderness. Plenty of time for gazing and exploring will be offered.
 Lunch: Lunch will be at the Top of the Tram Cafe.
 Afternoon: Return by approximately 2:00 pm and enjoy a free afternoon at the Miracle Springs resort and Spa in Desert Hot Springs. This is a perfect time to relax by the pools or schedule a spa treatment at the resort.
 Dinner: Dinner on your own. If you choose to go to the Palm Springs Street Fair there will be numerous food and dining options.For those who decide not go to the Street Fair there is a restaurant located at the hotel.
 Evening: A trip to the Palm Springs Street Fair will be offered this evening. Arts and crafts booths, food stalls and open shops all make for a festive evening of browsing and shopping.
Accommodations: Miracle Springs Resort & Spa
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch

Day 7: Death Valley National Park Through The Mojave Desert
(Friday, November 9)
 Breakfast: Hot breakfast at the hotel.
 Morning: This will be our longest travel day but we will break up the miles by taking the scenic back roads en route to Death Valley National Park through the Mojave Desert. Our morning travels will take us past Amboy Crater Volcanic Field and then through the spectacular Mojave National Preserve to the Train Depot in the tiny outpost of Kelso. The newly renovated Kelso Train Depot is a National Park Service visitor center and museum with excellent exhibits and bookstore.
 Lunch: Lunch at historical lunch counter in the renovated rail station.
 Afternoon: Arrive in Death Valley National Park
 Dinner: Dinner at the Furnace Creek Ranch Wrangler Buffet and Steakhouse.
 Evening: Free Evening.
Accommodations: Furnace Creek Ranch
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 8: Intro to Death Valley/Zabriskie Point/Golden Canyon Trail
(Saturday, November 10)
 Breakfast: Breakfast at the Furnace Creek Ranch Wrangler Buffet and Steakhouse.
 Morning: Time to explore the park! For a unique experience we will drive to and explore "Bad Water". Bad Water (salt flat lake) encompasses the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level and is the driest place in North America with an average rainfall of only 1.96 inches a year. This first excursion into the park is a perfect introduction to Death Valley’s many and varied landscapes. Make sure that you have plenty of film (or memory) in your camera. The touring continues with a stop at Zabriskie Point. A trip to Zabriskie Point for many is the highlight of the trip. The otherworldly "naked earth" scene that is exposed here dazzles the eye and has had the ability to strike fear in the heart of the hapless traveler.
 Lunch: Lunch at the Furnace Creek Ranch Wrangler Buffet and Steakhouse.
 Afternoon: Optional Hike on the Golden Canyon Trail. This trail provides a beautiful window into the heart of Death Valley. At the entrance to Golden Canyon you have a sweeping view across Death Valley toward the Panamint Mountains. The narrow, deep shape of the side canyons of Death Valley, such as Golden Canyon, indicate that the uplift of the mountains is relatively recent, consistent with other evidence that the landscape of Death Valley is quite young.
 Dinner: Dinner at the Furnace Creek Ranch Wrangler Buffet and Steakhouse..
 Evening: A National Park evening ranger program will be offered.
Accommodations: Furnace Creek Ranch
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 9: Death Valley National Park/Ubehebe Crater/Scotty's Castle/Stovepipe Wells Sand Dunes
(Sunday, November 11)
 Breakfast: Breakfast at the Furnace Creek Ranch Wrangler Buffet and Steakhouse.
 Morning: The entire group travels to the northern part of Park. First we visit Ubehebe Crater – a colorful geologic wonder. Then it is on to Death Valley Ranch or, as it is better known, Scotty's Castle. Nestled deep in an oasis-like canyon, this historic home showcases technological innovation and unequaled craftsmanship in a remote desert location. A place full of the mystery surrounding an incomparable friendship that resulted in the creation of a $2 million dollar vacation home. Today the site is owned and operated by the National Park Service. Guided tour of one hour is included.
 Lunch: Picnic lunch on the grounds of Scotty's Castle.
 Afternoon: On the return trip to Furnace Creek, we will stop for the late afternoon majesty of Stovepipe Wells Sand Dunes. A short exploratory walk on the dunes will be offered. Perfect for photos!
 Dinner: Dinner at the Furnace Creek Ranch Wrangler Buffet and Steakhouse.
 Evening: Program wrap-up and farewells.
Accommodations: Furnace Creek Ranch
Meals Included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 10: Depart Death Valley En Route to Las Vegas
(Monday, November 12)
 Breakfast: Breakfast at the Furnace Creek Ranch Wrangler Buffet and Steakhouse.
 Morning: Depart Death Valley via Pahrump Nevada en route to Las Vegas. Program ends at McCarran Airport with participant drop off by approximately 11:15am.
Meals Included: Breakfast
Important information about your itinerary: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information featured on this website. Itineraries are based on our best information at this time. Circumstances beyond our control may require us to adjust itineraries or other details. We regret any inconvenience this may cause and appreciate your understanding. Information will be sent to you from your Program Provider approximately three weeks prior to the program start date. The prices listed for commercial services and facilities that are not included in the program cost, such as airport shuttles or extra nights lodging, are subject to change without notice. Since Road Scholar cannot guarantee the accuracy of these prices, we strongly suggest contacting the companies directly for the most up-to-date information.

Suggested Reading List

Death Valley and the Northern Mojave

Author: Tweed, William C. and Davis, Lauren

Description: Features a lively interpretive text that is complimented by maps, detailed directions and 215 color photos. It is the indispensable book to help you explore and enjoy this extraordinary place.

A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert

Author: Patricia Wentworth Comus (Editor)

Description: "Once in a generation, a guide to understanding a major North American landscape comes along. This book is such a touchstone, sure to become a classic. The emphasis here is on biodiversity, mutualism, co-evolution, and, especially, ethno-relationships—the long history of connection between desert peoples and their homeland, on both sides of the border.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Book of Answers

Author: David Wentworth Lazaroff

Description: What exactly is a desert? How can I attract hummingbirds? Are cactus spines poisonous? Is a javelina a pig? This book provides detailed answers to 42 questions that the staff at the Desert Museum are most often asked. Supplemented with nearly 100 illustrations, this 200 page book is broken down into three sections: getting to know the desert, the desert as one's backyard, and enjoying the desert. Seven useful appendixes cover a range of topics including hummingbird gardening, venomous bites and stings, climate, and additional sources of information about desert life. A fun way to learn how wild and fascinating our deserts really are! 192 pg.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Author: Reisner, Marc

Description: The story of the American West is the story of a relentless quest for a precious resource: water. It is a tale of rivers diverted and dammed, of political corruption and intrigue, of billion-dollar battles over water rights, of ecologic and economic disaster. In Cadillac Desert Marc Reisner writes of the earliest settlers, lured by the promise of paradise, and of the ruthless tactics employed by Los Angeles politicians and business interests to ensure the city's growth. Cadillac Desert is a stunning expose and a dramatic, intriguing history of the creation of an Eden--and Eden that may be only a mirage. 608pp

Desert Solitaire

Author: Edward Abbey

Description: Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, the noted author's most enduring nonfiction work, is an account of Abbey's seasons as a ranger at Arches National Park outside Moab, Utah. Abbey reflects on the nature of the Colorado Plateau desert, on the condition of our remaining wilderness, and on the future of a civilization that cannot reconcile itself to living in the natural world.

Joshua Tree National Park Geology

Author: Trent. D. D. and Hazlett, Richard W.

Description: This book explores the geology and evolution of the Joshua Tree National Park landscape. Includes sections on plate tectonics, regional geology and the seismic activity that continues to shape this remarkable desert setting. Written for visitors, climbers and students of geology. With many full-color photographs and more than fifty diagrams that clearly illustrate geologic events.

The Southwest

Author: Lavender, David

Description: A historical and cultural overview, including discussions of present-day racial, conservation, and economic problems. Easy reading, fascinating history. 364pp

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