The Most Spectacular Deserts in the World

© John Sirlin / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Marcelina Morfin
9 February 2017

People may often think of deserts as hot places; however, some deserts are quite cold. We have put together a list of some of the most incredible deserts in the world, proving that they can be diverse places.

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Namib Desert – Africa

Stretching for 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers), the Namib Desert happens to be one of the oldest on the planet – at least 55 million years. It is situated along the Atlantic coast of Africa in the countries of Namibia, Angola, and South Africa. Although a desert, the land is inhabited by an impressive array of flora and fauna, including ‘desert’ elephants that can go days without water.

© John Dambik / Alamy Stock Photo

Atacama Desert – South America

Situated west of the Andes along the Pacific coast in Peru and Chile, the Atacama Desert is known as the ‘driest place on Earth’. Parts of the desert have never seen a drop of rain since records have been kept. This fact might lead you to believe that this area is devoid of life, but that’s not true. More than a million people call this desert home. Due to its location along the coast, the Atacama is cooler than most deserts and is frequently covered with fog.

Sahara Desert – Africa

Covering most of Northern Africa – 3.6 million square miles – the Sahara Desert is the third largest desert on the planet and the largest hot desert. While many people often think of the gorgeous sand dunes that are found in the Sahara, they only comprise a small portion. The landscape is primarily made of rocky hamada, or barren land with rocky plateaus. You’ll also find small patches of grassland (albeit sparse), shrubs of the desert variety, mountains, and salt flats. The Sahara is also home to an impressive array of flora and fauna, including several species of foxes.

Want to experience the Sahara for yourself? Our 11-day Morocco trip includes a night in a desert camp and a sunrise camel ride.

© Elena Odareeva / Alamy

Gobi Desert – China/Mongolia

The Gobi Desert is a beast of a desert spread across parts of southern Mongolia and northwestern China. It is famous for its role in the Mongol Empire and important stops along the Silk Road. The Gobi is also known for its extreme temperatures from as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) in the summer and extremely low temperatures in the winter. The area is also rich in fossils, including dinosaur eggs, and animals like Bactrian camels, Siberian ibex, and Gobi brown bears.

Mojave Desert – Nevada/California

The Mojave Desert covers portions of southeastern California and southern Nevada, along with small sections of northwestern Arizona and southwestern Utah. This desert is identifiable by the protected Joshua trees and is considered a ‘high desert.’ However, the incredible Death Valley, which is within the Mojave, is actually 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level. The Mojave is also home to the stunning Valley of Fire State Park plus many towns and museums, making it a very popular tourist destination.

Interested in exploring more of California? Highlights of our seven-day getaway to northern California include hiking in Yosemite and road-tripping the Pacific Coast.

© Planetpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Antarctic Desert – Antarctica

Winter darkness, cold, ice – these might be some of the words used to describe the continent of Antarctica. But, did you know you can add desert to that list? That’s right – Antarctica does not see enough precipitation to qualify as anything other than a desert. What little snow it does receive never melts and turns into ice. You won’t find any flora except for moss and algae. As for animals, you will see whales, seals and, of course, penguins.

Sonoran Desert – USA/Mexico

Spread over portions of Arizona, California, and Mexico, the Sonoran Desert is a beautiful landscape brimming with endemic fauna and flora, including the Saguaro and Organ Pipe cacti. The area is also rich in culture with many Native American tribes calling the area home, plus cities such Phoenix and Tucson. Attractions include many national parks, such as the Joshua Tree National Park, and wildlife refuges such as the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, which protects desert bighorn sheep.

© Juliana Swenson / Alamy Stock Photo

Thar Desert – India/Pakistan

Also known as the Great Indian Desert, the Thar Desert is located in northwestern India and part of eastern Pakistan. The most populated desert on the planet, the Thar Desert is home to 83 people per square kilometer. The landscape is identifiable by large shifting sand dunes, which cover most of the desert, along with alluvial plains and salt lakes that appear during monsoon season. The biodiversity is impressive with more than 140 species of birds, 23 species of lizards, 25 snake species, plus the chinkara, or Indian gazelle, to name but a few.

Rub’ al Khali – Saudi Arabia

Known as the Empty Quarter in English, the Rub’ al Khali is the largest sand desert in the world that covers 225,000 square miles (583,000 square kilometers) throughout portions of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. The name ‘Empty Quarter’ is appropriate given its harsh environment, which does not allow much of anything to thrive there. However, that does not take away from its beauty.

Rub Al Khali desert is the largest area of sand on earth | © Grzegorz Gajewski / Alamy Stock Photo

Tabernas Desert – Spain

The Tabernas Desert is known as ‘mainland Europe’s only desert’ and is located in southeastern Spain, north of Almería. Serving as a locale for many popular movies over the years, especially spaghetti westerns, visitors will find Western-style towns dotting the landscape. As with many deserts, the area is home to many reptiles, amphibians, and birds. While there are not a lot of mammals, you might see an Algerian hedgehog.

See more of southern Spain on our four-day Mini Trip to Andalucia – you can visit the Alhambra in Granada and see the Alcazaba in Málaga.

Taklamakan Desert – Central Asia

The second-largest shifting-sand desert in the world, China’s Taklamakan Desert covers an area of 130,000 square miles (337,000 square kilometers). The desert is an incredibly harsh environment with lows going well below zero degrees in the winter, and water sources are almost nonexistent, making the area almost devoid of flora and fauna. Even those on the Silk Road tried to avoid the area by traveling on the fringes of the desert.

Pinnacles Desert – Australia

Interested in seeing nature-made art? Then be sure to visit the Pinnacles Desert in Australia where Mother Nature created incredible ancient sculptures, decorating the western coastline. Located in the Namburg National Park, the limestone pillars, of which there are thousands, rise several feet above the ground. The area is also home to wildlife such as wild emus and galahs. Since it is set along the coast, you’ll also find white sandy beaches nearby.

Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia

Once a pre-historic lake known as Lago Minchín, it covered southwest Bolivia, and when it dried up, it left behind the world’s largest salt flats, measuring 4,633 square miles (12,000 square kilometers). Located at the high altitude of 11,985 feet, or 3,653 meters, the Salar de Uyuni is a gorgeous and dazzling site of what time and Mother Nature can produce. The best way to see this beauty is to take a guided 4×4 tour.

© Chris Pancewicz / Alamy Stock Photo

Dasht-e Kavir – Iran

Situated in the middle of the Iranian plateau, the Dasht-e Kavir, also known at the Great Salt Desert, features salt marshes (kavirs), of course, and mud. Featuring a landscape of salt mounds, which were created when the underground salt layers forced their way through the mud and rocks to the top, the land is dangerous as the mud is difficult to get out of if you were to fall in. Because of this, the area is uninhabited except for the mountainous areas.

Chihuahuan Desert – New Mexico

One of the largest deserts in North America – spread over 175,000 square miles, or 282,000 square kilometers – the Chihuahuan Desert has some incredible flora and fauna. This includes the Arizona rainbow cactus and gray fox. There are also some breathtaking sights, making this desert quite diverse. One must-see is the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, which is a stunning display of white gypsum sand dunes.

© John Sirlin / Alamy Stock Photo

White Desert, Farafra – Egypt

Located north of Farafra, Egypt lies the White Desert National Park, a picturesque display of what nature can do. The area displays sand of varying shades of white, from bright white to creamy white, along with chalk rock formations – some of which look like large mushrooms – carved out by the wind over the years. When exploring this land, there are specific routes that one must take as the area is protected, and rightfully so.

Thinking of a trip to Egypt? Our premium 10-day trip is the perfect way to explore the country with a Local Insider – highlights include exploring Luxor Temple by candlelight and cruising on the Nile in a luxury ship.

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