From the spiky but beautiful cacti of Joshua Tree National Park to the barren and haunting landscape of Death Valley, you simply cannot travel to California and not visit these spectacular deserts.
California is a state of many landscapes from the rugged coastline of Southern California and its many vibrant, multicultural cities to the mountain ranges of the Sierra Nevada. While every bit of scenery is captivating and beautiful, California’s stark and expansively impressive deserts just might top the list of must-visit landscapes.
To help you decide which California deserts to visit, we’ve put together a guide to the 8 incredible deserts worth visiting. Whether you fancy strolling past ancient volcanoes in the Mojave National Preserve or enjoying the vast pile of golden sand that makes up the Algodones Dunes, these desert landscapes are sure to take your breath away.
Known as the largest state park in California, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park attracts visitors in every season, but is especially popular in the spring when wildflowers bloom. Full of palm trees, cactus plants, slot canyons and the park’s native bighorn sheep, this desert has more than enough fascinating vantage points to keep you hooked (and filling up your phone’s storage space).
Rugged and wild, this park is still being shaped by wind and rainfall, with small springs and interesting rock formations that change little over the years. To make the most of your time here, there are various camping facilities on site to ensure you get the chance to see as much natural beauty as you possibly can.
Arguably one of California’s most popular and well-known deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is home to as many cactus plants as the night sky above this quiet and stunning landscape has stars. Not only is this desert full of Joshua Trees (who would have thought right?!), it’s also packed with numerous hiking trails, each one more impressive and breathtaking than the next.
But that’s not all this national park has to offer. You can also take part in several other activities such as rock climbing, cycling, horse riding and bird watching, ensuring that this desert has something to offer everyone. Whether you want to enjoy the towering boulders and rock formations or feel like walking among the beautiful desert flowers, the “J-Tree” should be high on your priority list.
The great outdoors is waiting for you to explore in the Mojave National Preserve. From towering golden sand dunes and dense Joshua Tree forests to dormant volcanoes and vast wildflower fields, this Mojave Desert park truly has it all. Boasting a massive 1.6 million acres, this national park not only offers some of the state’s best hiking trails, but also some of the most breathtaking views to match.
Whether you’re just a hiking novice or consider yourself more advanced, Mojave National Preserve has a hike for everyone, from backcountry routes to established trails. Enjoy stunning desert views from atop mountain peaks or look out over barrel and cholla cacti in what is guaranteed to be the hike of a lifetime (or at least your vacation).
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Death Valley is nothing more than a barren landscape thanks to its name, but this magnificent desert is truly alive. Almost unmanageable in size, Death Valley National Park is one of the most popular parks in California (perhaps even in all of North America) and is truly the hottest. With temperatures reaching a sweat-inducing 110°F (43°C), a trip to this park in the summer is not for the faint of heart.
But what the park lacks in cool weather, it makes up for in breathtaking beauty. Why not head over to Badwater Basin, the park’s lowest point at 282 feet below sea level? Or head out on one of the many hiking trails available? Home to a myriad of natural phenomena, including salt flats, towering sand dunes and deep canyons, Death Valley promises to deliver spectacular desert views wherever you look.
You get two guesses about what to see when you explore Red Rock Canyon State Park (jokes, we know you only need one). That’s right, this desert landscape is filled with hugely impressive Red Rock cliffs. These rocks, which are visible on one of the many hiking trails you can get through, were formed from both white and red layers of sediment millions of years ago and uplifted by several faults, including the Garlock and Sierra Frontal Faults.
Although this national park may be small in size, it is big where it counts. With a beautiful scenic one-way drive, plenty of wildlife and plants to observe, and other geological highlights, Red Rock Canyon State Park is truly unique. From sprawling clusters full of Joshua trees to impressively shaped canyons, this California desert park is well worth a visit.
If you’re looking for a more intimate desert experience, then Whitewater Preserve is the landscape for you. Largely overlooked in favor of greater California deserts, this stunning piece of scenery nestled between the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains is a peaceful yet impactful place to enjoy Mother Nature’s beauty.
The Whitewater Preserve is not only home to an abundance of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, bears, deer and over 200 species of birds, but also features the great Whitewater River. With only a handful of trails to explore, this desert park feels quiet and peaceful, allowing you to fully appreciate the chirping of birds and the bubbling water flowing through the river.
Located just outside of Palm Springs, Indian Canyons is the ultimate desert oasis. Not only does it have sparkling waterfalls, uniquely shaped canyons, and California’s own lush palm trees, but Indian Canyons also has numerous hikes to choose from so you can enjoy as much natural beauty as this place has to offer.
Not only a place for hiking and other outdoor activities, Indian Canyons is also the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. These canyons, especially sacred to the Cahuilla Indians today, tell a story of life in the making for thousands of years with rock art, house burials and irrigation ditches still on display.
The Algodones Dunes may be a barren, extremely hot landscape almost completely devoid of any plant life, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of natural beauty. These dunes have accumulated over the years to form the shapes they are today with nothing but pure, golden sand as far as the eye can see.
While there may not be beautiful trees to look at or cascading waterfalls to cascade over, this desert location still presents a singularly magnificent scene, with only two colors intervening: the blue of the sky and the gold of the sand. These dunes are quite magical to look at and they can also change colors a bit with the sand dunes giving a bluish tint thanks to the sun’s rays and shifting sand.
With tons of desert scenery to choose from, you can’t go wrong on your California adventure. Did you love exploring these California deserts? Go one step further and find your way through some of them America’s most popular national parks.