The World’s Highest Deserts

When the term “desert” reaches your ears, you might instinctively picture vast expanses of sand and scorching temperatures. However, it’s worth noting that not all deserts are sandy, and not all of them boast sweltering climates. In its essence, a desert encompasses any extensive, exceedingly arid land area characterized by scarce vegetation. Diverse polar regions host deserts where snow-clad hills replace conventional sand dunes. Remarkably, the planet’s largest deserts are found at the North and South Poles. So, where can you find the loftiest deserts? Among the approximately 32 prominent deserts on Earth, five of them are elevated beyond 900 meters (2950+ feets). Ready your hiking gear as we embark on a captivating journey of exploration.

Mojave Desert

Barber Peak Loop Trail in Mojave National Preserve, California.
Barber Peak Loop Trail in Mojave National Preserve, California. Image: Flickr.

Extending across southeastern California and southern Nevada, with minor extensions into Utah and Arizona, the Mojave Desert emerges. Functioning as a rain-shadow desert, it holds fame for registering the most sweltering air and surface temperatures documented on our planet. Notably, the Mojave Desert is the most diminutive and parched desert in North America, encompassing an approximate expanse of 50,000 square miles (130,000 square kilometers). Its elevation spans from 3,000 and 6,000 feet (900+ and 1,800+ meters)above sea level.

Within the realm of the Mojave Desert, one finds California’s Death Valley, a region situated in its northern sector. Remarkably, Death Valley claims both the zenith (11,049 feet [3,367 meters], Telescope Pea) and nadir ((282 feet [86 meters], Badwater Basin) points within the United States.

Great Basin Desert

Great Basin Desert picture showing vegetation and mountains
Great Basin Desert picture showing vegetation and mountains. Image: Wikimedia.

The Great Basin Desert claims the title of the United States’ largest desert, sprawling across approximately 190,000 square miles (490,000+ square kilometers). This vast expanse finds itself ensconced by geographical neighbors: the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west, the Rocky Mountains to the east, the Columbia Plateau to the north, and the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts to the south.

Distinctively, the Great Basin Desert stands as the solitary cold desert within the United States, characterized by scorching summers and bone-chilling winters. Scarce rainfall is a defining feature, attributed to the rain shadow effect engendered by the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Great Basin’s altitude paints a diverse picture, spanning from a minimal elevation of 3,000 feet (900+ feet) to primarily resting between 4,000 to 6,500 feet (1,200 to 2,000 meters).

However, the climate within the Great Basin is far from forgiving. Temperatures experience dramatic fluctuations, varying by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit (17 degrees Celsius).

Katpana Desert

A view of sand dunes in Skardu’s Katpana Desert
A view of sand dunes in Skardu’s Katpana Desert. Image: Pixabay.

Nestled amidst the grandeur of the Himalayas, specifically within the northern reaches of Pakistan’s Kashmir region near Skardu, lies the Katpana Desert, renowned as the Cold Desert. The expansive sand dunes of this desert undergo a transformation, donning a blanket of snow during the winter months. Standing at a lofty elevation of 7,500 feet (2,300 meters), it claims its position as one of the world’s highest deserts. This desert unfurls its expanse from the Khaplu Valley to Nubra in India’s Ladakh region, traversing through the domain of Gilgit-Baltistan, an area under the jurisdiction of Pakistan. Notably, the lion’s share of this desert is ensconced within Skardu and the Shigar Valley, both falling within the purview of Pakistan’s administration.

Katpana is the world’s coldest desert.

Qaidam Basin

Qaidam Basin Semi-Desert
Qaidam Basin Semi-Desert. Image: One Earth.

The Qaidam Basin Semi-Desert stands out as one of the most distinctive deserts on our roster. Positioned between the Tibetan Plateau, the Altun Mountains, and the western Qilian Mountains within the People’s Republic of China, this parched expanse is perched at an elevation of approximately 8,530 feet (2,600 meters) above the sea’s embrace. What truly distinguishes it, however, is its ongoing transformation toward diminished aridity. Satellite observations unveil a noteworthy trend of increased groundwater within the Qaidam Basin. This shift is attributed to a medley of factors, including heightened precipitation, thawing permafrost, and reduced evaporation—all significant markers of the evolving climate change scenario.

Furthermore, China boasts a residence in one of the planet’s lowest deserts, recognized as the Turpan Depression. This unique locale is nestled about 492 feet (150 meters) below the sea’s surface, further enhancing the remarkable diversity of deserts within China’s expansive terrain.

Atacama Desert

Piedras Rojas in the Atacama Desert, Chile.
Piedras Rojas in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Image: Wikimedia.

Chile’s Atacama Desert proudly claims the title of being the highest non-polar desert across the globe. Its expansive reach commences at the Pacific Ocean, tracing along the southern periphery of Peru, traversing the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range, and culminating amidst the breathtaking grandeur of the Andes Mountains. This formidable expanse of land is perched at an average elevation of 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). Remarkably, the Atacama Desert stands as both the driest and most ancient desert on our planet.

Curiously, the soil samples extracted from this region bear an uncanny resemblance to those procured from the Martian surface. In light of this unique likeness, NASA has harnessed the Atacama Desert to conduct rigorous testing of instruments intended for employment in missions to the enigmatic red planet.