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All You Need To Know About The Deserts In California

Dec 28th, 2022

Southern California is a nature-lover’s dream.

There are smooth, sandy beaches, dense forests, blue lagoons and snowy peaks. And, of course, some pretty amazing deserts!

There are four different deserts in Southern California, each of which has their own unique landscape, foliage, topography and animal life. There’s the burning hot Mojave, with some of the highest temperatures in the world. There’s the scenic Colorado Desert, housing the fertile Coachella Valley. There’s the Sonoran Desert, with the widest variety of desert foliage in the world! And there’s the Great Basin Desert, with its salt flats, wide valleys and endless mountain ranges. 

Here’s a little bit about each of the deserts that call California home!

The 4 major deserts in Southern California

Mojave Desert

Type of desert: dry desert

Area: 19.84 million acres

Elevation: 2,000-4,000 feet above sea level

States: California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah

Features: Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Red Rock Canyon State Park

The Mojave Desert is mostly contained by California, though a decent portion spreads into Nevada and, though only slightly, into Utah and Arizona. It’s bordered by the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and the Sonoran Desert to the south, and it’s home to some of the hottest summer temperatures in the world.

The Mojave Desert is considered a dry desert because of the lack of precipitation. The Sierra Nevada Mountains create a rain shadow over the desert, so there is very little rain over the summers and only around 2-6 inches of rain annually during the winter. The desert also has an average elevation between 2,000 and 4,000 feet — making the Mojave a high desert biome, too.

Species like the Joshua Tree, the desert tortoise, the desert iguana and the Mojave rattlesnake are common in the Mojave Desert, and there’s even a species of fish that is only found in one hot spring near Death Valley!

Colorado Desert

Type of desert: subtropical desert 

Area: 7 million acres

Elevation: 275–1,000 feet above sea level

States: California

Features: San Andreas Fault, Coachella Valley, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The Colorado Desert is really just a subdivision of the Sonoran Desert, but it’s still unique enough to garner its own name. It covers a region that stretches from the San Gorgonio Pass in California to the Gulf of California in Mexico, with a decent amount of shoreline along the Baja Californian peninsula. 

The low elevation and proximity to the sea means that this desert is classified as a subtropical desert. It has rain both in the late summer and throughout winter, but it also has soaring temperatures in the summer months that leave the region extremely arid.

The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is located within the Colorado Desert and displays many of the flora and fauna found throughout the desert. Like, for example, bighorn sheep, desert fan palms and cholla cactus.  

Sonoran Desert

Type of desert: subtropical desert

Area: 55.1 million acres

States: Arizona and California (United States), Baja California, Baja California Sur and Sonora (Mexico)

Features: Coachella, Palm Springs, Palm Desert 

The Sonoran Desert is on the southern end of the Mojave Desert and stretches east into south west Arizona and south all the way to the tip of Baja California. It contains the Colorado Desert and is also considered a subtropical desert, due to its relatively low elevation and proximity to the ocean.

The desert is typically divided into two portions: the Arizona uplands, which are pretty warm all year long, and the lower oceanside portions, which receive less rain and are, therefore, a little hotter and drier. 

The Sonoran Desert is the only place where you will be able to find the iconic saguaro cactus growing naturally, as well as a host of other endemic cactus species. In fact, the bi-seasonal rainfall pattern around most of the desert means that there’s a wide variety of flora that call the dusty landscape home. The Sonoran Desert actually has the most variety of vegetative species growing in it out of all the deserts in the world!

Great Basin Desert

Type of desert: cold desert

Area: 121.6 million acres

Elevation: 3,900-9,800 feet above sea level

States: Nevada, California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah

Features: Sierra Nevada mountains, Mono Lake 

The Great Basin Desert lies entirely within the United States, taking up most of Nevada, western Utah and a small portion of central California east of the Sierra Nevada mountains. 

The interesting thing about this desert is that it is classified as a cold desert, meaning the only precipitation it gets is in the form of snow! This is partly due to the high elevation, which averages over 3,900 feet above sea level, but also because of the many mountains that run north-south throughout the desert. There is little to no moisture in the desert because the Sierra Nevada creates a rain shadow from the west, and the Rocky Mountains create a rain shadow from the east. 

The desert topography is characterized by large, flat valleys bordered by ranges of mountains that catch snow and run snowmelt to the lower elevations. Different valleys feature different biomes depending on wind, snowmelt and proximity to rivers, so you can expect a diverse range of flora and fauna depending on where you are in the desert! 

No two deserts are alike, and the four different deserts in Southern California are prime examples! Knowing more about how each of them are different makes visiting them all the more special! If you live anywhere near our Southern California apartments, definitely go check them out!

Have fun!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/nightowl

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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