Diverse Deserts of California

It may seem strange that the state of California is often depicted as having a tropical and lush landscape is actually home to three deserts. While much of the coast is full of flourishing flora, the deserts have incredible flora and fauna all their own. Also, home to a bustling tourism industry, these three deserts of California are each incredibly unique places to explore.

A Brief History of California Deserts

First inhabited by Native American hunter-gatherer tribes such as the Mohave, Chemehuevi, and the Quechan, the three deserts of California comprise much of southeastern California. The Mohave inhabited the Mojave Desert, the Chemehuevi inhabited the Great Basin Desert, and the Quechan inhabited the Colorado Desert.

Europeans began exploring the California deserts in the 18th Century and American explorers came later as American interests expanded west. The California Gold Rush is what ultimately sparked economic growth, especially in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. Mining created the need for transportation, so the railroad made its way to the area as well.

Death Valley in California.

Precipitation in California Deserts

The Mojave, Great Basin, and Colorado deserts are all considered rain shadow deserts. This means that the high mountain ranges that border much of the deserts block the rain bearing clouds that come from the ocean. 

By definition, a desert is an area that receives 10 inches or less of rainfall per year. The Mojave receives 2 to 6 inches of precipitation annually,. The Great Basin receives 6 to 12 inches of precipitation. But much of that is snow, making it a “cold desert.” And the Colorado desert receives 3 to 8 inches of annual precipitation.

Sunset at the Mojave Desert in California.

Mojave Desert

Approximately 43,750 square miles (20 million acres), the Mojave Desert is the biggest desert in California. But it is the smallest and driest desert in all of the United States. Here, you can find dangerous animals such as the Mojave Rattlesnake, the Gila Monster, Mountain Lions, and Africanized Honey Bees. Also you’ll find the most prominent native plant, the Joshua Tree.

Home to over one million people, one of the most important industries in the area is tourism. Within the Mojave resides three national parks and a myriad of other notable areas to visit.

Mojave Desert Califonia super bloom
Desert gold sunflowers super bloom near Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park, California.

Death Valley National Park  

At over 5,000 square miles, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the contiguous United States. It holds the record for hottest temperature (134 degrees). As well as the record lowest elevation (282 feet below sea level) in the nation.

Not to miss excursions within Death Valley National Park include visiting the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, Father Crowley Point, Ubehebe Crater, Rhyolite Ghost Town, and Natural Bridge. 

Joshua Tree National Park 

Located where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, Joshua Tree National Park covers just over 1,000 square miles. The clash of a high desert (Mojave) meeting a low desert (Colorado) results in some incredibly unique desert plants. These include its namesake tree, the Joshua Tree. 

Things to do here include rock climbing at Echo Cove, walking Indian Cove Nature Trail, hiking through giant boulders on Arch Rock Trail. Wander through the unique cacti in Cholla Cactus Garden. Experiencing an incredible sunset at the highest point in the park, Keys View.

Mojave National Preserve

An eclectic collection of unique landscapes and history, the Mojave National Preserve sits on 1.6 million acres. With sand dunes, canyons, mesas, mountains, a large Joshua Tree forest, and blossoming wildflowers, the opportunities to explore are practically endless.

Another place of note in the Mojave Desert in California is Manzanar National Historic Site. This is one of ten camps where the United States government held Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens during World War II. Outside of California, but still in the Mojave, be sure to visit Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and Parashant National Monument.

Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert in California
Joshua Tree National Park.

Great Basin Desert

The Great Basin Desert is the largest in the United States. It covers 190,000 square miles between the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and the Rocky Mountains. Spanning most of Nevada and reaching into Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and California. It’s the only “cold desert” in the country. Where the precipitation is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, but most of the winter precipitation falls as snow.

Standing out as part of this desert are playas. When small lakes dry out, they leave a small area of sand, silt, or clay. This becomes encrusted with salt which is called a playa. 

Not to be missed, unique vegetation in the Great Basin Desert are limber and bristlecone pines. Found at the highest elevations of the Snake Range, these are extremely hardy plants. A bristlecone pine in the area was determined to be the world’s oldest living thing at 4,950 years old!

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on the edge of the Colorado Desert.

Colorado Desert (part of the Sonoran Desert)

While the Sonoran Desert comprises 100,000 square miles, a small portion of it resides in southeastern California. The 7 million acre portion in California is called the Colorado Desert. It borders the Colorado River to the east.

Considered a low desert, the Colorado Desert is full of unique plants, bugs, and animals. Some of which only exist here and are rare or even endangered. You can see bobcats, mule deer, cactus mice, desert kangaroo rats, Gambel’s quail, black-tailed jackrabbits, and red-diamond rattlesnakes.

Great diversity in geological structures and the number and variety of plants and animals exist due to bi-annual rainfall. Most deserts, such as the neighboring Mojave Desert only experience a winter rain. The Colorado Desert has both winter and summer rains, but mostly in winter. The desert vegetation blooms seasonally throughout the rains and the spring flowers are a gorgeous sight.

Northeast of San Diego, you’ll find the largest State Park in California on the edge of the Colorado Desert. The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park boasts around 600,000 acres of desert landscape. Beautiful views of dunes, palm groves, alluvial land, cacti, and flowers are just a few of the sights.

Insider Tip: Be sure to also check out some of the best road trips in California!

The three deserts of California are bustling with all sorts of life and landscapes. The landscape is impressive and well worth a visit.

Diverse Deserts of California

Liana Moore

Liana Moore is a third-culture kid with a hangover from those days that is a severe case of wanderlust. She is more comfortable driving the cliffs of Amalfi, Italy or the dirt roads of Costa Rica or attempting to decipher the street signs of Osaka, Japan than navigating the theme parks of Disney World. But she loves it all. She doesn't believe a vacation is complete without an adventure. Her husband and kids know well that "adventure" often is code for mishap or challenge and it usually results in a good story. They seek outdoor experiences whether in the mountains, on a beach or in the jungle of a tropical country. Her favorite vacation is... all the ones she hasn't yet taken, as well as those she plans on taking again. And, that list is so, so long. But she continues to extensively explore her home state of Colorado, spends lots of time wandering Texas, California, New Mexico, Costa Rica, Mexico, Norway and has even explored Kazakhstan.

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