5 of Earth's Highest Deserts

By: Sharise Cunningham  | 

Mojave desert
The Mojave Desert is a "rain-shadow" desert because the Sierra Nevada and Tehachapi mountains to its west block coastal storms. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

When you hear the word desert, you probably envision an expanse of sand and blistering high temperatures. But not all deserts have sand and they're certainly not all hot.

By definition, a desert is an ecosystem of any large, extremely dry area of land with sparse vegetation. That means deserts can exist in various polar regions where snow dunes replace sand dunes. In fact, the two largest deserts on Earth are located at the North and South poles.

But where are the highest-elevated deserts? Of the roughly 32 major deserts on Earth, there are five located above 3,000 feet (914 meters) we think are worth noting. Grab your hiking gear and let's explore.

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1. The Mojave

The Mojave is a rain-shadow desert that stretches across southeastern California and southern Nevada, with smaller portions in Utah and Arizona. Famous for having the hottest air and surface temperatures recorded on Earth, the Mojave is considered the smallest — and driest — desert in North America. It's about 50,000 square miles (129,500 square kilometers) with elevations generally between 3,000 and 6,000 feet (915 and 1,828 meters) above sea level.

Fun fact: California's Death Valley in the northern Mojave is home to both the highest (11,049 feet [3,367 meters], Telescope Peak) and lowest (282 feet [86 meters] below sea level, Badwater Basin) elevations in the U.S.

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2. The Great Basin

The Great Basin Desert is the largest desert in the U.S. It spans about 190,000 square miles (492,097 square kilometers) and is bordered by the Sierra Nevada Range on the west and the Rocky Mountains on the east, the Columbia Plateau to the north and the Mojave and Sonoran deserts to the south. The Great Basin is the only cold desert in the U.S., which means it's searing hot in the summer, and frigid cold in the winter. It gets very little rain because of the rain shadow effect caused by the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It has minimum elevations of 3,000 feet (914 feet), but more common elevation ranges of 4,000 to 6,500 feet (1,219 to 1,981 meters).

Fun fact: This really is a climate of extremes: Temperatures in the Great Basin can vary by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit (17 degrees Celsius).

Great Basin Desert
The Great Basin Desert is the largest desert in the United States. It's a "cold desert" and much of its annual precipitation (about 7 to 12 inches) falls as snow.
National Park Service

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3. The Katpana Desert

Lying within the Himalayas, the Katpana Desert — aka the Cold Desert — is located near Skardu in the northern Kashmir region of Pakistan. Its large sand dunes are often snow-covered in the winter months. At an elevation of around 7,500 feet (2,286 meters), it's one of the highest deserts in the world. While the desert technically stretches from the Khaplu Valley to Nubra in Indian-administered Ladakh, the largest desert area is found in Skardu and Shigar Valley, both within the Pakistani-administered territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Fun fact: Katpana is the highest cold desert in the world.

Katpana desert
It can get extremely cold in Pakistan's Katpana Desert during the winter. Temperatures as low as -13 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 degrees Celsius) have been recorded here.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

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4. Qaidam Basin Semidesert

The Qaidam Basin Semidesert is one of the most unique on our list. Not only does it sit at around 8,530 feet (2,600 meters) above sea level, this arid region between the Tibet Plateau, the Altun Mountains and the western Qilian Mountains in The People's Republic of China also is getting wetter. Satellite imagery shows that groundwater is increasing in the Qaidam Basin, perhaps from more rain, melting of permafrost or less evaporation — all caused by climate change.⁠

Fun fact: China also is home to one of the lowest deserts, the Turpan Depression, which is 492 feet (150 meters) below sea level.

Qaidam basin
The Qaidam Basin is the largest terrestrial basin on the Tibetan Plateau. It remains relatively uncharted and is one of the "last frontiers" for paleontological explorations.
Dr. Yang Wang, Florida State University

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5. The Atacama

Chile's Atacama is the highest nonpolar desert on Earth. It straddles a massive swath of land across the southern border of Peru from the Pacific Ocean, between the coastal Cordillera de la Costa Mountain range and into the spectacular Andes Mountains. At an average elevation of about 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), the Atacama is also the driest — and oldest — desert on the planet.

Fun fact: Soil samples from this region are very similar to samples from Mars; for this reason, NASA uses this desert for testing instruments for missions to the red planet.

Atacama Desert
About 1 million people live in the Atacama Desert herding alpacas, and growing dry-weather produce such as olives, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

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