Last Updated on February 9, 2024
Canada is well-known for having a cold climate, so you may be surprised to find out that there are deserts in Canada, albeit slighly “unconventional”.
As a matter of fact, many of the desert-like regions you’ll find in the country are not dry enough to qualify as “true” deserts, but you will still be able to find characteristics sand dunes and iconic cacti.
The Okanagan / Osoyoos desert, Carcross desert and Great Saskatchewan Sand Hills fall into this category of “pseudo-deserts“.
The only true desert in Canada is the Arctic tundra, a cold polar desert, which actually covers a large part of the country and is always covered in thick layers of ice rather than sand.
Below, a list of (pseudo) deserts in Canada and all you need to know about them.
Deserts of Canada
Okanagan Desert – Osoyoos, British Columbia
Sometimes referred to as “Canada’s only desert”, the Okanagan Desert is really a shrub-steppe area located in the Okanagan Valley in southern British Columbia.
The area is also known as Nk’mip Desert or Osoyoos Desert, or “BC desert” for short. Parts of the area is located near the city of Kamloops and is also named Kamloops Desert.
The climate is semi-arid and characterized by very hot, dry weather in the summer and mild winters.
Because precipitation is not as rare is in traditional deserts, its sand dunes are filled with bushes, cacti and wildlife.
Recommended Okanagan Valley Tours
Carcross Desert – Yukon
The Carcross Desert is known for being the smallest desert in the world, although it does not qualify as a true desert: it is really what remains of an ancient glacial lake, which left sand dunes behind upon drying up.
It has an area of only 2.6 square kilometers (1 square miles) with dunes that are suitable for sandboarding.
“Affectionately known as the smallest desert in the world, this area was originally covered by a large glacial lake. As the glaciers retreated, causing lower water levels, sandy lake bottom material was left behind. Strong prevailing winds from Lake Bennett have constantly worked this sand, making it difficult for vegetation to become established. Species of plants that have survived include lodgepole pine and kinnikinnick.”
Recommended Yukon Desert Tours
Great Saskatchewan Sand Hills – Saskatchewan
The Great Saskatchewan Sand Hills are a unique set of desert-like sand dunes covering an area of 1,900 square kilometers in southwestern Saskatchewan near the remote village of Sceptre.
As with the Carcross desert, the Great Sandhills are leftovers from ancient glaciers that existed more than 12,000 years ago.
The dunes were formed by glacial meltwater and wind erosion, and are home to a variety of desert-adapted plants and animals.
Recommended Saskatchewan Tours
Canadian Arctic Tundra
There actually is one true desert in Canada, although it is not a hot desert.
The Arctic polar desert in fact comprises a large part of northern Canada where temperatures rarely go above freezing.
The Canadian Arctic Tundra is located across the country’s northern mainland and the islands of the Arctic Archipelago such as Baffin Island. It is characterized by a harsh, cold climate, with temperatures that can drop to -40 degrees Celsius in the winter.
The short growing season and permafrost (permanently frozen ground) make it difficult for trees to grow in this region. Instead, the tundra is home to a variety of low-lying plants such as mosses, lichens, and small shrubs.
The tundra is also home to a variety of animals, including polar bears, caribou, muskoxen, arctic hares, and arctic foxes. These animals are adapted to survive in the cold, with thick fur coats and other physical adaptations that help them withstand the harsh climate.
Recommended Canadian Arctic Tundra Tours
Canada Desert FAQs
Are there deserts in British Columbia?
The Okanagan / Osoyoos Desert is a pseudo-desert located in British Columbia. A pseudo-desert is an area that has some characteristics of a desert, but does not meet the technical criteria to be classified as a true desert.
The Okanagan Valley in British Columbia experiences hot, dry summers and cold, snowy winters. While the region can be quite dry at times, it receives too much precipitation to qualify as a desert. Instead, it is classified as a semi-arid region, meaning that it receives less precipitation than a humid area, but more than a true desert.
Is Kelowna a desert?
No, Kelowna is not a desert, for the reasons stated above: it receives too much precipitation, especially during winter. According to data from Environment Canada, Kelowna receives an average of 358.9 millimeters (14.13 inches) of precipitation per year.
Are there true deserts in Canada?
Yes, the only true desert in Canada is the Arctic tundra, which is a cold polar desert.
The Arctic tundra covers a large part of the country, including much of the territories of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. It is characterized by long, cold winters and short, cool summers, and is always covered in thick layers of ice rather than sand.
How many deserts are in Canada?
Canada has one true desert and three pseudo-deserts. The Arctic Tundra is the only true desert, whereas the Okanagan/Osoyoos Desert, Carcross Desert, and Great Saskatchewan Sand Hills are the three pseudo-deserts of Canada. There are also some smaller areas which are improperly called a desert, like the Manitoba Desert.
What is the Manitoba Desert?
The Carberry Desert in Manitoba is a small sand dune ecosystem officially known as Carberry Sand Dunes or Spirit Sands. This is not a true desert, but yet another leftover dune field resulting from an ancient glacier that dried up over the course of several thousands years.
Is there a desert in Ontario?
While Ontario is not known for traditional deserts, there are some desert-like regions in the province. Sandbanks Provincial Park in Picton and Cheltenham Badlands near Toronto offer unique desert vibes with sand dunes and arid characteristics. However, they are considered pseudo-deserts and not true deserts due to the presence of vegetation and higher precipitation.
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