Deserts In California: The Guide

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The deserts in California are home to many natural features. The three distinctive deserts in California – the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Desert and the Great Basin Desert – have unique features that set them apart from other deserts in the world.

In California’s deserts, you’ll find the hottest place on the earth, the lowest point in North America, endemic plants and animals, ghost towns and several desert cities. Here’s a guide to visiting the deserts of California.

Deserts In California

Top 3 California Desert Tours

Mojave Desert

famous deserts in california Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is a stunning area in one of the famous deserts in California.

The Mojave Desert is nearly 50,000 square miles (124,000 km²) of dry terrain covering much of southeastern California and extending into Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

It stretches from the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the Colorado plateau, with the Sonoran desert in the east and the Great Basin to the north.

Named after the Mojave Native American tribe, this desert presents a diverse range of flora and wildlife, as well as hiking trails and national parks to its visitors.

The Mojave Desert gets quite hot in the summer, reaching temperatures of over (48°C) 120°F, while the winters are known for being cold.

There is relatively little rain here, with only about five inches (13 cm) annually.

The desert has a general elevation of 3,000 to 6,000 feet (910 to 1828 m) and a topography alternating between mountain ranges and basins.

Although deserts are known for their tough weather conditions, which make survival difficult, the Mojave desert is home to a variety of animals, including mammals, birds and reptiles.

Common species found here are the desert tortoise, mountain lion, kangaroo rat, desert iguana, chuckwalla, regal horned lizard, desert rosy boa and Mojave rattlesnake.

Hawks, vultures and quails can also be spotted here, as well as roadrunners and eagles.

Most plant species found in this region are endemic, including the well-known Joshua tree while other common plant species include all-scale, creosote bush, brittlebush, desert holly, white burro bush and cactus.

1- Joshua Tree National Park

what are the main deserts in california Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is a desert landscape in south-eastern California.

This park is a natural wonderland with breathtaking views, challenging hiking trails and unique rock formations.

Visitors can experience the beauty of the Mojave desert and engage in activities such as hiking, cycling, equestrian riding and rock climbing.

Explore Joshua Tree National Park in the cool comfort of an air-conditioned van.

2- Mojave National Preserve

how many deserts are there in california Mojave Desert mountains
The last light hitting the mountains in the Mojave Desert is a sight to see.

Mojave National Preserve is a vast area with canyons and mountains, former military mines and outposts, volcanic formations and vast sand dunes, offering visitors year-round exploring opportunities.

3- Death Valley National Park

major deserts in california Mesquite Dunes
Mesquite Dunes is one of the Death Valley National Park attractions in the California desert.

This park is the largest in California and is famous for being the driest and hottest spot in North America.

Located here is the Badwater Basin, which is the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level.

4- Mitchell Caverns

Mitchell Caverns are a collection of three limestone caves that are located at a height of 4300 feet (1310 m).

The intricate limestone formations such as stalagmite, stalactite and helictite located here provide stunning views and experiences for visitors.

5- The Trona Pinnacles

This remarkable landscape is made up of over 500 spires that range in size and shape, with some reaching heights of over 140 feet (43 m).

The Trona Pinnacles have appeared in a variety of television shows, films, commercials and photography sessions.

6- Castle Mountains National Monument

deserts in california Joshua Tree Silhouette in California National Park at Sunset
An iconic tree in the deserts of California is the Joshua Tree.

This is a biologically diversified area with unrivalled landscape vistas for visitors.

The 21,000 acres (8500 ha) of this national monument are home to Joshua trees, mountains, desert grasslands, and wildlife, among other desert features.

7- Mojave Trails National Monument

what are the deserts in california road to Death Valley California
The road to Death Valley in the desert in California on a sunny day.

This monument includes mountain ranges, stunning sand dunes and old lava flows.

Also located here is the popular Amboy Crater, as well as some of the best-preserved sites from the World War II-era Desert Training Center.

8- Red Rock Canyon State Park

how many deserts are in california Red Rock Canyon State Park
Red Rock Canyon State Park is a highlight of one of the deserts in California.

Desert cliffs, buttes and beautiful rock formations can be seen in this scenic Red Rock Canyon State Park.

The unique beauty of the park is intensified by the rock formations and their vibrant colours, making it a dream destination for photographers.

For more California ideas, see:

Colorado Desert

are there deserts in california a palm springs villa, pool, golf course and palm trees
Enjoy luxury in the deserts of California. Pictured here is a villa in Palm Springs.

The Colorado Desert is a vast sandy desert in southeast California, with parts of it extending south and east into Mexico and Arizona.

This desert is vast, approximately 7 million acres (2.8 million ha) and includes the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, as well as the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the Salton Sea.

The Colorado Desert lies below 1,000 feet (304 m) in elevation, with most of its peaks no higher than 3,000 feet (914 m).

It has a subtropical desert environment with almost no freezing temperatures due to its latitude, low elevation and closeness to the sea.

Summer in this desert is hotter than in other deserts at higher elevations, and it receives more rainfall than the average desert.

This desert is home to a wide variety of plants and animals.

The terrain is made up of creosote bush scrub, yucca and cholla cactus and desert saltbush.

Pinyon pine and California juniper can also be found on higher ground.

Some of the desert animals that roam this region include bobcat, cactus mouse, mule deer, desert kangaroo rat, black-tailed jackrabbit, Yuma antelope and red-diamond rattlesnake.

9- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

cool deserts in california coloured hues of the mountains
Hellhole Canyon is a stunning natural feature of the Anza-Borrego Desert in California.

One of Southern California’s most diverse desert environments can be found in this park and it’s an excellent location for stargazing.

The state park has over 100 miles (160 km) of hiking and horse trails in the park, as well as several campgrounds.

10- Coachella Valley Museum

deserts in california near me Coachella Valley
The Coachella Valley and scenic mountains at sunset is a striking landscape in the California desert.

The aim of Coachella Valley Museum is to preserve and showcase the unique history of Coachella Valley.

Smiley-Tyler House is a 1926 adobe home where the main exhibits are housed.

There’s also a fully restored 1909 two-room schoolhouse, a 1926 Water Tower and several desert gardens.

11- Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

deserts in northern california Aerial Tramway
Catch a view of Palm Springs from the Aerial Tramway in the desert in California.

This tramway is the world’s largest revolving aerial tramway, transporting passengers across a distance of over two miles (3.2 km).

Riding the tramway provides amazing views of the valley and the stunning cliffs of Chino Canyon.

You may like this Palm Springs legends and icons tour.

12- Fan Palm Oasis

The Colorado Desert is the only desert where a fan palm oasis can be found.

The fan palm is the largest in North America and the only native palm in the western United States.

It can survive for 80 to 90 years, reaching heights of over 75 feet (23 m) and a trunk width of over 40 inches (1 m).

13- Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

West of Joshua Tree National Park is the 31,000-acre (12,500 ha) Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.

It’s one of the best birdwatching spots in California, with over 247 bird species spotted and at least 72 species known to nest here.

14- Salton Sea

deserts in southern california Salton Sea
The Salton Sea is an incredible natural attraction in one of the main deserts in California.

With a length of 45 miles (72 km) and a width of 25 miles (40 km), the Salton Sea is an inland sea that is one of the largest in the world.

It has a surface elevation of 227 feet below sea level, making it one of the lowest elevations in the world.

This is the only place in the United States where the Yellow-footed Gull can be found.

An incredible way to see the Salton Sea is to join this downhill bicycle adventure through the Coachella Valley in the zone between the Colorado and Mojave deserts.

15- The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

The Palm Desert Zoo and Botanical Garden is a unique zoo and botanical garden dedicated to desert conservation.

It has a variety of fascinating creatures in their natural habitats.

16- Palm Springs Air Museum

This museum is a living history museum with permanent and temporary displays, artifacts, artwork and library resources committed to educating visitors about American history.

It has one of the most impressive collections of flyable WWII planes in the world and offers aircraft tours and flight simulations.

Great Basin Desert

what deserts are in california silhouette of couple sitting and watching the sunset
One of the joys of visiting the deserts in California is watching the sunset.

The Great Basin Desert is the largest desert in the USA, stretching through parts of Nevada, Utah, California, Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming.

The Columbia Plateau lies to the north, the Mojave Desert to the south, the Wasatch Mountains to the east and the Sierra Nevada Range to the west.

The lowlands of this region are relatively high, with most areas exceeding 3,900 feet (1188 m) and the desert contains over 30 peaks with summits higher than 9,800 feet (3000 m).

The Great Basin desert has extreme temperatures, ranging from dry, scorching hot summers to frigidly freezing winters.

It is the only one of its kind in the country, with snowfall accounting for the most of precipitation.

This desert has a basin and range topography with stretches of desert lowlands surrounded on both sides by parallel mountain ranges.

The extreme isolation between valleys and peaks in this region has resulted in a diversified environment and numerous small populations of unique plant and animal species.

Despite the harsh living conditions of this desert, plants have adapted to the soil in order to survive.

It is mainly a shrub desert, with black brush, shad scale, Mormon-tea, creosote bushes, sagebrush, saltbush and greasewood as predominant plant species.

Rarely, a few varieties of cactus and yuccas can be seen growing here.

Limber pines, juniper, pinyon trees and bristlecone pines are among the other trees found in this desert.

The mammals found in this desert include weasels, shrews, bats, mountain lions, bobcats, black-tailed jackrabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, kangaroo rats, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and mules.

The desert is also home to reptiles and birds such as the western fence lizard, longnose leopard lizard, horned toad, rattlesnakes and gopher snakes, bald eagles, western meadowlarks and red-tailed hawks.

17- Lehman Caves

Stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, shield formations, and cave bacon can be found in the Lehman Caves.

Visitors are fascinated by the history and unusual rocks, as they go on guided tours of the magnificent cave system led by a park ranger.

18- Alpine Lakes Loop

3 main deserts in california Great Basin National Park
Winter landscape in Great Basin National Park, which is one of the places to visit in the deserts of California.

The 2.7-mile (4.3 km) Alpine Lakes Loop winds through an alpine forest and past picturesque streams, showcasing life in the shadow of Wheeler Peak.

This round-trip journey into the high alpine grandeur of the Great Basin rewards hikers with views of two beautiful lakes, Stella and Teresa Lakes, as well as the occasional sighting of wildlife.

19- Bristlecone Pine Trail

three main deserts in california Bristlecone Pine
The Bristlecone Pine is a tree found in the deserts of California.

The Bristlecone Pine Trail winds through a forest of bristlecone pines, offering stunning close-up views of some ancient Bristlecone pines, the surrounding valley and Zion National Park in the distance.

Bristlecone pines count among the oldest trees in the world and some are thousands of years old.

20- Great Basin National Park Astronomy Program

The Great Basin National Park in the Great Basin desert has some of the darkest skies in California, due to its remote location, high elevation and low humidity.

Visitors from around the world usually come here to marvel at the amazing night sky.

As many as five planets, thousands of stars, meteors, and galaxies, as well as man-made satellites, can be seen without a telescope on a clear, moonless night.

21- Mountain View Nature Trail

Mountain View Nature Trail is a 1.1-mile (1.8 km) trail that runs through a pinyon-juniper forest.

The trail is generally used for hiking, nature trips, and bird watching, and it offers breathtaking views of nature.

Hiking along this trail is also an informative experience that will teach you about the diverse flora of the Great Basin desert.

22- Baker Creek Trail

The Baker Creek Trail follows Baker Creek through lush meadows and beautiful pine and fir forests. The path is open all year, providing a variety of opportunities for hikers, cyclists, and equestrians. Visitors to Baker Creek Campground or those looking for a shorter hike with spectacular views will enjoy the beautiful setting of this trail.

23- Lexington Arch

Lexington Arch is a massive limestone arch that rises high above the floor of Lexington Canyon.

This imposing natural arch is distinctive in that it is made of limestone, as opposed to the sandstone that most natural arches in the western United States are made of.

24- Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive

The Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is a mountain route that climbs to high elevations around the base of the 13,000-foot (3962 m) Wheeler Peak.

From this point, views reach the horizon, and visitors are met by a breathtaking perspective of the Great Basin Desert.

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Christina Pfeiffer Travel Writer
Christina Pfeiffer is a writer, photographer and video blogger based in Queensland, Australia. She has lived in three continents and her career as a travel journalist has taken her to all seven continents. Since 2003, she has contributed travel stories and photographs to mainstream media in Australia and around the world such as the Sydney Morning Herald, CNN Traveller, The Australian and the South China Morning Post. She has won many travel writing awards and is a full member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers.