Last Updated on September 27, 2023

Around 30% of the USA territory comprises desert or semi-desert environments, mainly located in the south-western area.

There are four main deserts in the US, ranging all the way from the southern border with Mexico to the states of Oregon and Idaho in the north: the Mojave Desert, the Sonoran Desert, the Chihuahua Desert and the Great Basin Desert.

The former three are classified as hot deserts, whereas the Great Basin is considered a cold desert.

In addition, there is one “extra” desert area, located in Alaska, which is part of the Arctic polar desert.

USA Deserts Map
Map of the deserts in the US.

The Four Major Deserts of USA

Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert stretches between Nevada, Arizona and California, covering 47,877 square kilometers.

It receives under 2 inches of precipitation each year, which makes this desert the driest in North America.

The highest temperature recorded here is 134 ° fahrenheit.

Through its vast expanse, the Mojave Desert experiences a significant change in elevation.

The highest point located here is the Telescope at 11,049 feet above sea level. In contrast, the lowest point is Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level.

One of the most famous landmarks of this desert is Joshua Tree, which is native to the Mojave and is located along its borders.

This tree is considered an indicator species that is believed to provide life to about 1,750 and 2,000 other plant species.

Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave Desert

National parks in the Mojave desert:

Mojave Desert Map:

Mojave Desert Map
Mojave Desert Map

Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert stretches from Mexico through Arizona and into southern California.

It covers an area of about 100,000 square miles, bordering the Mojave Desert, peninsular ranges, and the Colorado Plateau.

The lowest point in the Sonoran Desert is the Salton Sea, which is 226 feet below sea level and has a higher salinity level than the Pacific Ocean.

Other sources of water for this desert include the Colorado and Gila Rivers.

One of the most famous features of this desert is the Saguaro Cactus, which grows only here.

It can reach 60 feet in height and grow branches from its main trunk, similar to human arms.

Its flowers are pollinated by bats, bees and white-winged doves.

> Sonoran Desert Travel Guide <

Sonoran Desert

Chihuahan Desert

The Chihuahuan Desert runs between the United States and Mexico and consists of an area of 139,769 square miles.

Most of this desert is located in Mexico. On the US side, it can be found in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

The Chihuahuan Desert has a unique and ever-changing landscape.

Its highest point is measured at 12,139 feet above sea level, while its lowest point is at 1,969 feet above sea level.

Although it is an arid desert, it is home to several animal and plant species, including: prickly pear, agave, creosote bush and yucca.

Approximately 800,000 acres of this desert are protected by Big Bend National Park.

The Rio Grande runs through the Chihuahua Desert, providing a much-needed water source before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

Great Basin Desert

The Great Basin Desert is the largest major desert in the United States, covering an area of about 190,000 square miles.

It is considered a temperate desert that experiences hot, dry summers with cold, snowy winters.

This effect is partly due to its above-average elevation: its area includes the States of Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho.

During most of the year, the Great Basin desert is dry because the Sierra Nevada Mountains block moisture from the Pacific Ocean.

This desert is home to the oldest known living organism in the world, the Bristlecone pine. It is estimated that some of these trees are more than 5,000 years old.

> Great Basin Desert Travel Guide <

Alaska Desert

Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

The Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska is home to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, which are the biggest active sand dunes in the Arctic.

Even though it is sometimes overlooked as a desert, the Arctic receives little to no precipitation and is in fact the second-largest desert in the planet, after Antarctica.

Kobuk Valley National Park is one of the most remote locations in the USA, located around 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle and accessible via air taxi depending on weather.

The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are the main attraction of the park, an unusual expanse of golden sand in an otherwise frozen land.

> Alaska Desert Travel Guide <

Great Kobuk Sand Dunes - Alaska

North American Deserts Facts

The largest desert

The Great Basin is the largest desert in the US which covers an area of about 190,000 square miles, although the Chihuahuan desert is technically bigger – but much of its territory is located in Mexico.

While the Great Basin is the largest cold desert, the largest hot desert is the Sonoran desert with a size of about 120,000 square miles.

The largest desert in the world is the Sahara desert in Northern Africa.

The hottest desert

Despite being smaller than its neighbors, the Mojave desert is the hottest desert in the US and North America. The hottest area is the appropiately named Furnace Creek in Death Valley, which often reaches temperatures above 115 °F (46 °C) in the summer, with a record high of 134 °F (57 °C).

The hottest desert in the world is the Dasht-e Lut desert in Iran.

The tallest sand dunes

The highest dunes in North America are the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado. The Star Dune is the tallest with a height of 750 feet (230 m) from base to top.

What percent of US is a desert?

Currently, 30% of the US consists of land with arid or semi-arid climates – about 1/4th of the country.

This percentage is posed to increase due to the effect of global warming, around 40% of the US territory is at risk of diversification.

Are there deserts in Canada?

Canada does not have any true deserts, but a few areas exhibit desert-like features such as low precipitation and the presence of sand dunes.

The Carcross desert in Yukon is sometimes (inappropriately) called the smallest desert of the world.

Are there deserts in Alaska?

Yes, there are deserts in Alaska. The state is home to the Arctic polar desert, which covers much of the northern and western regions and is characterized by extremely cold temperatures and limited vegetation.

In addition, Alaska also has sand dunes, specifically the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes located in the Kobuk Valley National Park.

These dunes were formed some 14,000 years ago from retreating glaciers and have been slowly advancing with new life and vegetation ever since.

Are there deserts in Hawaii?

There is a desert in Hawaii called Kaʻū Desert located on the Big Island. It is not a true desert, as annual precipitation is higher than 1,000 millimeters (39 inches), but due to volcanic activity, the rain combines with sulfur dioxide and other gases, becoming acid rain, which makes it uninhabitable for most forms of life.

Kaʻū Desert is not a popular tourist destination but offers a unique hiking experience.

US Desert Tours

Mojave Desert Tours

Sonoran Desert Tours

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