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Visiting the Deserts of the American Southwest

Southwestern Desert Parks - Four Environments, Four Vacation Opportunities


Desert Cliffs Hide Ancient Ruins

Desert Cliffs Hide Ancient Ruins

Elizabeth R. Mitchell
Making Memories in the Desert

You don’t have to be a “desert rat” to want to enjoy the history, beauty and glory of the Southwestern deserts. Anyone that has grown up watching TV or movie “Westerns” has at least a small spot in their heart for blue skies, red rock mesas and cowboys galloping along rocky desert trails. This yearning for a visit to the desert can lead to a dream vacation. It’s an experience everyone should have at least once a lifetime.

So where can the visitor in search of a true desert experience plan to go? North America has four desert regions, each with their own character and opportunities for a memorable foray into the desert.


The Mojave desert, home of the great American West and cowboy and American Indian culture, is the smallest of the North American deserts. The Mojave desert circles northern Arizona, southern Nevada and parts of Southern California. Visitors to the Mojave desert will find great information on the National Parks Service Mojave preserve website. There are amazing Joshua trees in the Mojave and, in the spring, fantastic displays of wildflowers. Mojave desert parks include:

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Death Valley National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Mojave National Preserve

Great Basin High Desert

The Great Basin, located in the state of Nevada, is located between the Sierra Mountains on the east and the Rocky Mountains on the east. The Great Basin desert is known as high desert. You will find more rain and, possibly, snow in the Great Basin than in other desert environments.

Great Basin National Park includes 5 ecological zones. You can see streams and lakes, mountain plants and pine forests. I particularly enjoy the twisted, weathered Bristlecone Pines. Visitors will enjoy Lehman Caves, a marble-limestone cavern which extends deep into Wheeler Peak. This is a mountain park and would be an ideal place to visit in the summer.

Great Basin National Park
Address: Baker, NV 89311-9702
Phone: 775/234-7331, (Ext. 242 for advance cave ticket sales, summer only)
Lehman Caves


The Sonoran desert, home to the majestic Saguaro cactus, stretches from southern Arizona into Mexico. One of the most popular spots in the Sonoran desert is Saguaro National Park just outside Tucson, Arizona. You can drive through the park, enjoy a well-stocked bookstore and visitors center or take a hike through the myriad of cacti. If you are in the Phoenix area, you can enjoy the Desert Botanical Garden, with winding short trails, specimens of Sonoran cacti and, when scheduled, music and special events.


The Chihuahuan desert stretches into Mexico with Agave plants and high elevations of up to 6,000 feet. A beautiful National Park, Big Bend National Park, Texas, is treasure off the beaten path.

Big Bend National Park
Big Bend includes massive canyons, vast desert expanses, and the entire Chisos Mountain range. Here, you can explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States. The Park is accessible from several west Texas highways. Big Bend National Park headquarters is located 70 miles south of Marathon, TX and 108 miles from Alpine, TX via Hwy. 118. A fantastic side trip, during your visit to Big Bend is to the interesting town of Marfa, home of the Marfa Mystery Lights and, believe it or not, a thriving arts scene.

So, Pick Your Desert

Each of these desert environments will give you a different perspective on the plant life, history and beauty of the desert Southwest. If you love wide open spaces, geologic wonders, unusual plants and great photo opportunities, include a desert excursion on your next trip. I guarantee your thoughts will transport you back to a time of adventure and intrigue. And, if you stay very long, you may just understand those who live in the desert, thrive on the lifestyle and are lovingly called “desert rats.”

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