Desert Desserts – Traveling the Best American Deserts

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February 9, 2010

Far from being the desolate wastelands many imagine as they speed through them on the Interstate going to somewhere else, America’s deserts are thriving ecological communities.

Tumble weeds and blowing sand. That’s the image most often used to portray the American deserts, but the truth is these arid ecosystems offer a diverse plant and animal life, intriguing geological formations, starkly dramatic scenery, and fascinating history lessons. Best of all, the winter and spring are perfect seasons to visit.

Four distinct desert biomes, each with its own unique ecosystem, exist either entirely or partially in the United States: the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan. Because of its elevation (largely above 4000 feet) and northerly latitudes, much of the Great Basin region can be darn cold in the winter months, so for this story, we’ll stick primarily to the generally lower, more southerly and warmer climes of the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.


Three of the prominent desert ecosystems—Great Basin, Mojave and Sonoran—converge near Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Covering 2000 square miles, Lake Mead NRA offers year-round camping, but watersports is what the place is all about. Bring your boat. If you don’t have one, rent one, you’ll want one here. Eight campgrounds exist in Lake Mead NRA. Most convenient: Boulder Beach, it’s close to town (Boulder City, Nevada) for groceries, near Hoover Dam, yet on the water and far enough away to be quiet. Really want to get out there? Go to Temple Bar, it’s where Mead begins to meet the Grand Canyon. Our favorites: Valley of Fire State Park an hour north of Vegas with quiet red rock scenery and the lake 25 miles away, or Echo Bay right on the lake with full amenities and a marina.


One of our all-time favorite Mojave Desert hangouts is Death Valley National Park, because aside from taking in the remarkable scenery, you can say you have been to the lowest point—282 feet below sea level at Badwater—in the Western Hemisphere. Before the National Park Service, Death Valley was, well, deadly, with almost no water and temperatures that exceed 130 degrees F during the summer. This Mojave biome locale is less forbidding today, and can be quite nice in the cooler months.

Stay at Stove Pipe Wells, it has everything, when you want to be pampered. Check out the colorful and bizarre geology of the valley at Artists Palette and Devil’s Golf Course, see Ubehebe Crater, and visit the numerous mines and borax works. If your rig is under 25-feet long, explore Emigrant Canyon Road; then camp at Wildrose if you want to get away and weather permits. If you have a good four-wheel-drive vehicle, a full tank of gas and gallons of extra water, visit the Racetrack, a normally dry lakebed where when the conditions are just right, rocks leave trails in the mud as the wind pushes them across the lake’s wet surface during storms.


You’ll find forests of tall Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park. The ‘trees” were named so by Mormon pioneers because of the way the plant’s upward-turned branches reminded them of the biblical Joshua with upraised arms. They’re not really trees, but a type of yucca, and there are also large “gardens” of ocotillo and cholla cactus, clusters of palm trees (where water occurs), and lots of wilderness in Joshua Tree NP. Hikers, bikers and rock climbers will love this place. It’s a naturalist’s playground, too, as two ecosystems blend together at their fringes here, separated by elevation, with the Mojave above and Sonoran Desert below.

Jumbo Rocks is our favorite campground, but it fills early due to its scenic between-the-boulders campsites. Others we can recommend are the Indian Cove, Sheep Pass or Cottonwood campgrounds. The folks at the two very nice visitor centers (Cottonwood and Oasis) can answer questions and provide maps.

For a middle-of-nowhere get-away, seek out the remote Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in Mojave National Preserve—about half-way between Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks. The higher elevations are home to bighorn sheep and pinyon pine, and the site also offers Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve. The intricate limestone formations of El Pakiva and Tecopa Caverns can be visited by taking tours offered year-round. The park’s visitor center is located in the historic home of Jack and Ida Mitchell, who ran a resort here from 1934 to 1954.


Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is named for the park’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus, which is very rare in the United States. However, another even more rare plant, the Ajo Lily, is also found here, normally displaying its translucent white blooms beginning mid-March. Other park cacti include saguaro, ocotillo, prickly pear, cholla and the amazing elephant tree. Roadrunners, gila monsters, scorpions, western diamondback rattlesnakes, the collared peccary (or javelina) and about a million birds also call it home.

Organ Pipe NM is a truly special place and should be on your list, but it can be crowded in the winter, and it’s on a first-come, first-served basis. However, it has about 200 sites and there are no hook-ups, so there’s a fast turnover. Among our favored hiking trails is the one to Victoria Mine (4.5 miles round-trip), still one of the richest gold and silver properties in America. A splendid driving or biking tour is the 21-mile Ajo Mountain loop within the park.


Although Grand Canyon National Park is on the high-elevation Great Basin desert plateau of northern Arizona and nasty weather can be an issue here in winter, it is one of the Arizona giants and a must-do, if the opportunity and good weather presents itself. We suggest Mather Campground (open year-round, reservations available) right in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, but be advised, you could see a foot of snow in an average winter. Tent-campers better have darn good equipment if they attempt to stay in this place during the winter.

Clustered around Tucson is the other giant, Saguaro National Park (where the Saguaro cactus grows to 50 feet in height in some groves). There are only backcountry hike-in campgrounds in the easterly Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro NP, and none at all in the westerly Tucson Mountain District. Gilbert Ray Campground, a county-owned spot in Tucson Mountain Park adjacent to the Tucson unit of Saguaro, is a place you can RV or car camp, but is also first-come-first-serve, so be early. No matter how or where you camp, spend at least one full day walking the trails through the saguaro cactus groves—there’s nothing like it.

Two other places we can recommend in southern Arizona are Mount Lemmon, just to the north of Tucson in the Catalina Mountains, and Cochise Stronghold, about 90 miles to the southeast in the Dragoon Mountains.

Mount Lemmon is at the top of the Catalina Mountains, dominating the northern skyline of Tucson and rising to 9157 feet in elevation. The mountains form one of the largest “sky islands” of south Arizona—hills or mountains that rise far above the Sonoran Desert and harbor climate zones, plants and animals typical of lands much further north. You will likely see snow on the drive to Lemmon and the upper campgrounds are closed, but lower elevation spots such as Sabino Canyon and Molina Basin campgrounds in the Santa Catalina Ranger District of the Coronado National Forest or Catalina State Park are open during the winter months.

Situated in the Douglas Ranger District of the Coronado NF, Cochise Stronghold was used by the Apache leader Cochise as a hideout. It’s easy to see why this magnificent and rugged canyon hidden away in the depths of the Dragoon Mountains was chosen as a refuge. The canyon is shaded by oaks and includes plants of both upper Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. It only has 10 campsites and is remote; but again, be early.


Obvious choices in the Chihuahuan, often considered the harshest of the four North American desert biomes, are Carlsbad Caverns National Park (no camping in the park) in New Mexico and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas), both of which are close to the town of Carlsbad, and Big Bend (Texas) National Park, which is not near anything.

Carlsbad NP has its caverns—massive, mysteriously gorgeous, and is a must-do if you are in this region. Guadalupe NP holds the highest point in Texas (Guadalupe Peak at 8749 feet) and a scenic, green and sometimes wet rift in the desert called McKittrick Canyon. Big Bend NP has the striking Chisos Mountains and the magnificent river canyon carved by the Rio Grande; but don’t ignore its neighbor, Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Lesser known Chihuahuan notables are Rockhound State Park (where you guessed it, rockhounds will howl over the collectable flint and agate) and City of Rocks State Park (where volcanic stone stands like towers), both near Deming, New Mexico. Then there’s White Sands National Monument (where the sand dunes look like snow drifts), with camping available at the nearby and well-kept Oliver Lee Memorial State Park just 10 miles south of Alamogordo.

Whether you choose to explore the Chihuahaun, Great Basin, Sonoran or Mojave, keep in mind that even during the cooler months, these sparse environments can test your outdoor and survival skills, so be prepared with plenty of extra supplies, water and fuel before you begin any desert adventure. And be sure to check on local conditions before you go.

March and April are excellent months for a desert escape because of the resurgence of Spring and explosion in fauna and flora that it brings. However, these incredibly beautiful and captivating places can be enjoyed most anytime from December through April.

For more suggested destinations in America’s fascinating and complex desert ecosystems, go to and click on “More Desert Desserts.”

Before You Go on Your RV Trip


The Great Basin Desert covers most of Nevada and Utah, as well as northern Arizona, southern Idaho and southeastern Oregon; the Chihuahuan Desert lies mostly in Mexico, but protrudes into southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and Trans-Pecos Texas; the Mojave Desert occupies a good chunk of south-eastern California and southern Nevada; and the Sonoran Desert, also mostly in Mexico (mainland and Baja), decorates southern Arizona and some of southern California.

Most of New Mexico is actually part of the higher elevation Great Basin, Great Plains or Petran (Rocky Mountain) biotic regions and can be cold any time of year, especially in winter. A swath of central Arizona consists of higher-elevation mixed woodland or evergreens (winter snow is a real possibility), and is not considered a desert, but a unique biome titled Interior Arizonan.


Great Basin: Elevation largely higher than 3900 feet, with mountains up to 9800 feet. Basin and range topography with alkali flats or dry lakes in largely closed basins. Hard frosts common more than one week. Mean precipitation (.07 to 11.8 in.) evenly distributed throughout year. Most winter precipitation is snow. Simple vegetation, stands of low bushes. Atriplex in more alkaline, finer, soils near center of basins; Artemisia in coarser marginal soils. Few annuals. Cacti, agaves and yuccas unimportant element of flora, few can withstand long, hard frosts.

Mojave: Mainly 1900 to 3900 feet. Basin and range, but mountains lower and more numerous than in Great Basin, few supporting other than desert scrub. Winter and spring rain. More arid than Great Basin, only the margins receiving on average greater than 4.7 in.; mostly averaging 3.9 in. or less. Predominantly shrubby vegetation, about 70 percent is Larrea and Ambrosia. Few cacti. Few trees, restricted to washes and higher elevations. Prominent here is the endemic Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia. Rich winter annual flora.

 Sonoran: Mostly lower than 1900 feet; entirely lower than 3100 feet.  Plains dotted with hills and mountains; few closed basins; some permanent rivers. Rains often light and uncertain, bi-seasonal. Lower elevation mean precipitation less than 7.8 in.; higher elevations get .07 to 11.8 in. Flats dominated by shrubs, as in Mojave. Bajadas, hills and lower slopes have highly diverse life-forms, including many cacti and trees, forming up to 50 percent of cover, sometimes forming layered vegetation.  Higher slopes show Yucca, Nolina, Agave, Dasylirion.

Chihuahuan: Entirely east of Continental Divide. Over 50 percent is higher than 3900 feet. Vast plains and high mountain ranges. 5 to 10 degrees cooler than Sonoran; frosts common in northern sections. 60 to 70 percent of precipitation (mean .07 to 11.8 in.) in summer months, mostly as rain, but some snow in winter. Mostly shrubby vegetation, but some few trees mostly in rocky or riparian areas. Cacti small and insignificant. Most obvious plants are Yucca, Dasylirion, Nolina and Agave (Agave lechugilla is a marker.) Fouquieria also widespread. Of the very common and widespread species, only Larrea, Prosopis and Fouquieria in common with Sonoran.


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