Adventuring in a desert is the ultimate escape. With nothing but the rugged wilderness as far as the eye can see, everyday problems fall away and you can find an intimate connection with nature. Paradoxically, the more time you spend in the barren landscapes of North American deserts, the more you notice how dynamic and full of life they are.
Here’s our list of the five must-visit desert destinations on the continent.
Location #1: Colorado Plateau
States: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona
Must see: Arches National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
The vast area of the Colorado Plateau offers endless opportunities for adventure and draws visitors not only from the nearby states, but from all over the world. One of the most famous sites is Castleton Tower, a 400 foot striking rock formation beloved by climbers. A mere half-hour drive from Moab, Utah, Castleton Tower lies in the valley between Arches National Park and the La Sal Mountains.
Apart from boasting some of the most iconic landscapes in the country, Colorado Plateau is also the canyoneering capital of the world. The slot canyons of Utah hide plenty otherworldly, non-technical hikes, as well as challenging adventures for the seasoned pro.
Location #2: Mojave Desert
States: California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona
Must see: Joshua trees in the Joshua Tree National Park, Kelso Dunes
The Mojave Desert, some 150 miles northeast of Palm Springs, is best seen from the heights of the Kelso Dunes. This is also the most popular sunset and sunrise viewing spot where, in spring, scores of wildflowers adorn the sand.
The Mitchell Caverns are a pair of breathtaking limestone caves that first became a tourist attraction nearly a century ago. Recently reopened, the Caverns can be viewed only with a guided tour, which is a great family adventure.
If you yearn for a more solitary experience, roadside camping in Mojave is the simplest way to enjoy this beautiful desert.
Location #3: Sonoran Desert | Desierto de Sonora
States: Arizona (US), California (US), Sonora (MX), Baja California (MX), Baja California Sur (MX)
Must see: El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve
Like most North American deserts, the Sonora has enough natural attractions to fill a lifetime. It is the hottest desert of the continent so visiting it requires careful planning (think water, first aid kit, sunscreen, etc.).
El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar, listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2013, is probably the closest you can get to the Moon’s landscape on Earth. Other beautiful Sonoran destinations include the Saguaro National Park and The Sabino Canyon. With its waterfalls and lush vegetation, the latter hardly resembles a desert!
Location #4: Chihuahuan Desert | Desierto de Chihuahua
States: Texas (US), New Mexico (US), Arizona (US), Sonora (MX), Chihuahua (MX), Coahuila (MX)
Must see: Big Bend National Park
The majority of this largest North American desert lies south of the Mexican border but its most beautiful section can be found in southwest Texas. Rio Grande carves a deep gorge across The Big Bend National Park, creating one of the world’s true natural wonders. The Big Bend is a wonderland for all outdoor sports, and when you tire of hiking, canoeing or climbing, you can soak in hot springs.
Location #5: Baja California Desert | Desierto de Baja California
States: Baja California Sur (MX), Baja California (MX)
Must see: Coastal Sand Dunes of Guerrero Negro
Unlike most deserts, the Baja California Desert enjoys relatively high humidity brought by winds from the Pacific Ocean. Temperatures are lower than the neighbouring Sonora, and Baja is home to a great variety of flora, including many endemic species, like the creeping devil.
Most visitors to Baja California go for the beaches (or whale watching), but further inland the desert’s tranquil beauty can be appreciated far from the vacation crowds.