If you've never been to the desert, be sure to prepare yourself for this harsh environment. No matter what time of year it is, the desert sun is strong and bright. Use sunscreen when outdoors -- particularly if you're up in the mountains, where the altitude makes sunburn more likely. The bright sun also makes sunglasses a necessity. Also, in the desert, even when you don't feel hot, the dry air steals moisture from your body, so drink plenty of fluids. You may want to use a body lotion as well; skin dries out quickly in the desert.
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- It's not only the sun that makes the desert a harsh environment. Poisonous creatures are out there, too, but with a little common sense and some precautions, you can avoid them. Rattlesnakes are common, but your chances of meeting one are slight -- they tend not to come out in the heat of the day. Still, you should never stick your hand into holes among the rocks in the desert, and always look to see where you're going to step before putting your foot down. Arizona is also home to a large poisonous lizard called the Gila monster. These black-and-orange lizards are far less common than rattlesnakes, and your chances of meeting one are very slight. Although the tarantula has developed a nasty reputation, the tiny black widow is more likely to cause illness. Scorpions are another danger of the desert. Be extra careful when turning over rocks or logs that might harbor either black widows or scorpions.
Respiratory & Desert Illnesses -- Valley fever, a fungal infection of the lungs, is common in the desert Southwest, although it generally affects only long-term residents of the desert. The fungus is carried on dust particles, which are carried by dust storms and winds blowing across farms and construction sites. Symptoms include fever, chest pain, fatigue, headaches, and rashes. By the way, if you happen to be atop a mountain in Phoenix and can't see across the Valley, blame it on the smog, which is as bad as that in Los Angeles.
If you plan to do any camping or backcountry travel in the Four Corners region, which is where the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations are located, you should be aware of hantavirus. This virus is spread by mice and is often fatal. Symptoms include fatigue, fever, and muscle aches; should you come down with any such symptoms within 1 to 5 weeks of traveling through the Four Corners area, see a doctor and mention that you have been in an area where hantavirus is known to occur.
High-Altitude Hazards -- Both the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and the canyon gateway city of Flagstaff are at around 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) in elevation and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is at 8,000 feet (2,438 meters). While these elevations are generally not high enough to cause altitude sickness even in the most sensitive, they are high enough to cause shortness of breath after even moderate exercise if you are from lower elevations. Take it slow, and remember that if you hike down into the Grand Canyon, you'll really feel the elevation when you turn around and start hiking back out.
Sun/Elements/Extreme Weather Exposure -- "It's a dry heat" is a mantra in the lowland deserts of Arizona. What this means is that, in the absence of humidity, the air always seems quite a bit cooler than it does on a hot day in, say, Atlanta, Houston, or Miami. Trust me. When it's hot here, it's hot. Drink lots of fluids, and wear plenty of sunscreen. In fact, it is so sunny in Arizona most of the time (even in the winter), that you should be sure to wear sunscreen whenever you're outdoors here. If you should happen to be visiting during the late summer monsoon season, be alert for flash floods. Do not ignore signs on roadways warning motorists not to enter flooded areas. The monsoon season also brings impressive thunderstorms, and should you encounter a thunderstorm at the Grand Canyon, seek cover immediately (cars are among the safest places to be).
Over the past few years, problems along Arizona's border with Mexico have repeatedly garnered national media attention. If you believed everything you heard, you probably now assume that Arizona is a war zone as dangerous as Afghanistan or Iraq. Well, it's not. Arizona is as safe for travelers as any other state. However, you can expect to encounter U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints in the southern part of the state, and, if driving after dark close to the border, you might even encounter illegal immigrants walking along the road. Do not stop for them.
Far more important to remember is that when driving long distances, always carry plenty of drinking water and, if you're heading off onto dirt roads, extra water for your car's radiator as well. When hiking or walking in the desert, keep an eye out for rattlesnakes; these poisonous snakes are not normally aggressive unless provoked, so give them a wide berth. Also be sure to give cactus a wide berth, especially cholla cactus, which has particularly painful spines that often break off in your skin and must be removed with tweezers.
Don't leave valuables, especially purses, wallets, or cameras, in view in your car when going for a hike or wandering off to take pictures at a scenic overlook in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, or anywhere for that matter.
For information on traveler's insurance, trip cancellation insurance, and medical insurance while traveling, please visit www.frommers.com/planning.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.