The most spectacular deserts around the world

updated 7/26/2021
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Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter), Saudi Arabia

Part of the Arabian Desert, the Empty Quarter is made up of 650,000 square kilometres (250,000 sq miles) of sand dunes and is the world’s largest sand desert. It occupies much of the southern inland area of the Arabian Peninsular, covering over a quarter of Saudi Arabia, and there are very few settlements here – hence the name.

Aerial view of sand dunes at Rub Al Khali desert © Hany Musallam/Shutterstock

The Tabernas, Spain

The Tabernas is the closest thing Europe has to a desert – it’s classified as a semi-desert (Europe has no actual deserts). Its iconic landscape, which is typical badlands terrain that’s been extensively eroded by wind and rain, has been used to film several Westerns, such as The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and The Magnificent Seven.

© Ysbrand Cosijn/Shutterstock

The White Desert, Egypt

The White Desert’s chalk-white formations are a dramatic sight, situated just north of Farafra Oasis, Egypt. The limestone in the area, which was once a seabed, has been eroded by sandstorms and winds into all kinds of bizarre shapes. You can camp here overnight, surrounded by these gleaming mushroom-shaped formations.

White Desert at Farafra in the Sahara of Egypt. Africa © Marcelo Alex/Shutterstock

Lençóis Maranhense, Brazil

Okay, so it’s not technically a desert, but the Lençóis Maranhense National Park in northeastern Brazil, just outside the Amazon Basin, looks and seems an awful lot like one. There are sand dunes as far as the eye can see, and, due to a strange phenomenon where rainwater collects in the dune valleys, the region is dotted with beautiful turquoise lagoons.

Lençóis Maranhenses National Park - Barreirinhas, Maranhão, Brazil © Caio Pederneiras/Shutterstock

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Death Valley, USA

The site of many a Star Wars shoot, Death Valley is the lowest and driest area in North America – its lowest point is 86 metres (282ft) below sea level. This hot desert valley is home to the Timbisha tribe, who’ve lived there for at least 1000 years. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Death Valley – and on earth – was 57°C (134°F).

Death Valley, California, USA © Vezzani Photography/Shutterstock

The Great Victoria Desert, Australia

In 1875, British explorer Ernest Giles was the first European to cross the vast Great Victoria Desert in southwestern Australia, and it was he that named it after Queen Victoria. Europeans didn’t stick around in this challenging environment, however, and the 348,750 square kilometres (134,650 square miles) desert is now mostly inhabited by Indigenous Australians.

Great Victoria Desert in central Australia © N Mrtgh/Shutterstock

Dasht e-Kavir, Iran

This hot desert, where temperatures can fluctuate as much as 70°C (158°F) between day and night, is covered in a thick salty crust, formed due to the arid, virtually rain-free climate and intense evaporation of water on the ground. No one lives on the salty terrain itself, and the desert has barely been explored.

Dasht-e-Lut, Lut desert, hottest desert in the world, also known like Kalut Desert, Iran © leshiy985/Shutterstock

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The world’s largest salt flat, at 10,582 square km (4,086 sq mi), sits in southwest Bolivia at a lofty 3656m (11,885ft) above sea level. Salar de Uyuni formed when a giant prehistoric salt lake dried up, leaving behind a salty crust, in parts is up to ten metres (32ft) thick – an incredibly striking, indelible sight.

Salt lake Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia © Helen Filatova/Shutterstock

The Namib, Namibia

At 55-million-years old, the Namib, or "vast place" as it means in the language of the Khoikhoi people of southwestern Africa, is the world’s most ancient desert. Its sand dunes are exceptionally high, several exceeding over 300m (980ft), and barely any rain falls here. There are few human settlements in this almost totally barren region.

Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia © evenfh/Shutterstock

The Atacama Desert, Peru, Chile, Bolivia & Argentina

The driest desert in the world, the Atacama, contains Chile's largest salt flat. This desert sees just 15mm (0.59 inches) of rain a year, though some parts receive as little as 1mm (0.04 inches), and some have never seen rain. It’s 50 times drier than Death Valley, California, and the lack of moisture caused the accidental mummification of bodies buried thousands of years ago.

Atacama desert, Chile © SelimBT/Shutterstock

Thar desert, India & Pakistan

The Thar Desert forms the natural boundary between India and Pakistan. In Indian mythology, the great epic Ramayana refers to the Thar Desert region as the Salt-ocean, or "Lavanasagara", due its rich salt deposits and salt-water lakes. The origin of this desert is one of controversy, and scientists dispute the dates and method of its formation.

© image bird/Shutterstock

Taklamakan desert, China

The world’s second-largest shifting-sand desert is made up of about 85 per cent sand dunes, which are expanding (due to desertification caused by drought, inappropriate agriculture or deforestation) to envelop farms and villages in northwest China. Taklamakan is on the Silk Road trade route, and merchants used to stop in little oasis towns, where water is supplied by mountain rainfall, for much needed respite from the arid environment.

Panoramic view of ancient Uygur Tuyoq or Tuyugou or Tuyuk oasis-village in the Taklamakan desert near Turpan, Xinjiang, China © Munzir Rosdi/Shutterstock

Karakum desert, Turkmenistan

Karakum Desert, meaning "Black Sand" in Turkic languages, takes up seventy per cent of Turkmenistan’s land surface. In 1971, a 70-metre-deep (230ft) cavern full of natural gas was discovered by geologists who tried to burn off the gas by setting it alight. However, it has burned ever since, and "The Door to Hell" is now a popular tourist attraction.

© Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock

Chihuahuan desert, USA & Mexico

Straddling the US-Mexico border, the Chihuahuan Desert is the second-largest desert in North America, after the Great Basin. With warm summers and cool winters, it’s one of the most biologically diverse deserts in the world and contains several large mountain ranges, including the Sierra Madre and the Sacramento Mountains.

Desert landscape view of the Chisos Basin during the day in Big Bend National Park (Texas), part of the Chihuahuan desert © BlueBarronPhoto/Shutterstock

Patagonian desert, Chile & Argentina

Bound by the Andes to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Patagonian Desert sits in the southern tip of Argentina and Chile, made up of vast frosty tablelands and massifs, split by canyons and valleys. Temperatures here average just 3°C (37°F), and despite the harsh environment, local wildlife includes owls, pygmy armadillos weasels and pumas.

Grassland desert in Patagonia, Argentina © Stanislav Spurny/Shutterstock

Kalahari, southern Africa

The Kalahari occupies most of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa. Though its name means "the great thirst" or "a waterless place", it has grazing areas that can support wildlife. The San hunter-gatherer people have lived in the Kalahari for 20,000 years, and they share it with hyenas, lions, meerkats, giraffes, warthogs, jackals, baboons and antelope.

Kalahari, Sossusvlei dune, Namibia © elleon/Shutterstock

Gobi, China & Mongolia

The largest arid region in Asia, the Gobi is a cold desert, mostly made up of huge expanses of bare rock. The Gobi covers parts of the south of Mongolia and the northwest of China, and rapid desertification means the Gobi is expanding at an incredible rate (3600 square kilometres a year) into the grasslands of southern China, and is damaging the region’s agriculture.

Gobi desert snow winter Mongolia © RethaAretha/Shutterstock

Arabian, western Asia

In the Arabian Desert, which encompasses most of the Arabian Peninsular, the interior is dry and hot, but the coastal regions and highlands can get very humid, with a more tropical climate. Extremes of temperature are common – summer temperatures can reach 54°C (129°F), while the coldest recorded temperature was –12°C (10°F), when it snowed.

Arabian desert © SelimBT/Shutterstock

The Sahara, northern Africa

Almost as large as the USA, the Sahara ("The Great Desert" in Arabic) is one of the world’s hottest deserts. Though it contains shifting sand dunes that can reach up to 180m (590ft), most of this huge expanse that stretches over the north of the African continent is characterised by hard, rocky plateaus. Berber and Beja peoples have lived in the Sahara for centuries.

© CherylRamalho/Shutterstock

McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica

The Antarctic continent is all desert, and it’s the largest on earth. The Dry Valleys region is one of its driest areas – virtually no snow falls here, and it is not covered in thick ice, unlike the rest of the continent. Freezing cold, dry winds that can reach 320km per hour sweep down from mountain-tops through the valleys and evaporate all moisture.

Dry Valley McMurdo © Dale Lorna Jacobsen/Shutterstock

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updated 7/26/2021
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