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    America's Coolest Desert Towns

    By By Nicholas DeRenzo
    May 10, 2014, 4:45:37 AM EDT

    The little desert town of Marfa makes no logical sense. How did this dusty outpost in the barrens of far West Texas, nearly 200 miles from the closest major airport, go from a water stop for the railway into one of the country’s most buzzworthy contemporary art centers?

    Two words: pioneering spirit. It took folks with enough grit and vision and can-do attitude to invent a new life among the red rocks, sagebrush, and sand of the American West.

    In Marfa’s case, New York artist Donald Judd was drawn to its sweeping high desert vistas in the 1970s, and his followers steadily put the tiny town on the international art map. But its psychic roots go back even further to the “Westward Ho!” homesteaders and dusty cowboy types who sought their fortunes in boomtown bonanzas all across the region, only to see them go ghost-town bust after the railroad was no longer king, after the mines dried up, and a highway bypassed the local state roads.

    The result? Entire towns ripe for reinvention: rustic digs, cheap land, and endless possibilities.

    That’s why you’ll find a James Beard Award–nominated restaurant in a formerly derelict rail hotel in northern Arizona, a luxe resort among the wildflowers of a southern California state park, and wineries in the high desert plains of Western Washington.

    For other top desert towns, like St. George and Moab, both in Utah, hikers and bikers have replaced the prospectors of the past, turning the surrounding natural landscape—sandstone arches, majestic canyons—into its richest natural resource.

    From the national parks of Texas to the microbreweries of Oregon and artisans of New Mexico,

    America’s deserts are a fertile landscape for creativity, culture, and no small amount of quirk. Pack the sunscreen and consider this your compass to the coolest desert towns now.

    Related Links:
    Best Spring Drives
    America’s Coolest City Parks
    America’s Most Scenic Roads

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    Virginia City, NevadaIn 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.

    Stay: The handsomely restored 1876 Cobb Mansion Bed & Breakfast includes elegant period touches like Carrara marble floors, mahogany balustrades, and stained-glass lamps. Rates from $99.


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    Bend, Oregon

    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.

    Stay: Opened by a Portland-based microbrewery chain in the shell of a 1936 Catholic schoolhouse, McMenamins Old St. Francis Hotel offers an on-site pub, movie theater, and soaking pool, plus four cottages and 19 guest rooms in the former classrooms. Rates from $125.


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    Winslow, Arizona

    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”).

    Stay: The revitalized La Posada Hotel & Gardens, a 1929 railway motel, was reopened by artists in 1997 and now includes a James Beard Award–nominated restaurant that pays homage to both Fred Harvey’s sophisticated continental fare and local native recipes. Rates from $119.

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