Desertification, the process whereby once-fertile lands become unsuitable for growing crops and raising livestock, is a truly global phenomenon. It has raised the ire of many environmentalists who believe that continued loss of productive land will produce a burden on remaining farmland. In spite of the misconception of deserts as desolate wastelands seemingly devoid of life, they offer a variety of attractions for intrepid tourists. These five deserts have the distinct natural formations and rare flora and fauna to tickle any traveler’s fancy.
1. Gobi Desert, China and Mongolia
Situated on the border between China and Mongolia, the Gobi Desert is not only one of the largest in Asia, but in the world. Wildlife enthusiasts can enjoy catching glimpses of such rare fauna as snow leopards and Bactrian camels. The Gobi’s Flaming Cliffs are renowned not only for their fiery red-orange hue, but also for their role in paleontological history. Indeed, it was there that Roy Chapman Andrews first discovered fossilized dinosaur eggs in 1923. Visiting the Gobi Desert is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
© Einar Fredriksen
2. Sahara Desert, 11 countries in northern Africa
Africa’s best-known desert spans eleven different countries and has expanded by some 250,000 mi² since the early 1960s. Despite its desolate appearance in most parts, the Sahara is home to an array of delightful tourist diversions. Hiking the massive sand dunes, such as Grand Erg Oriental, is a popular activity. Visitors to the Sahara, however, can also experience local culture and traditions. Perhaps the best example of this is the International Sahara Festival in Douz, Tunisia. This lively four-day event features folk music performances, poetry reading contests, and even camel wrestling, making it a true must-see.
© Paul Barker Hemings
3. Atacama Desert, Chile
Chile’s expanding Atacama Desert is the world’s driest, but what it lacks in rainfall it makes up for in stunning scenery. Valle de la Luna, a scenic valley whose landscape evokes that of the moon, is especially breathtaking at sunset. For travelers who crave adrenaline, sandboarding down the 100-meter-high dunes in Valle de la Muerte, “Death Valley”, is certainly a thrill. Weary tourists seeking to wash off the desert dust and sand can leisurely float around the Cejar Lagoon, an icy saltwater pool providing views of the Salar de Atacama salt flats.
© Danielle Pereira
4. Odadahraun Desert, Iceland
Although it may sound strange for the subarctic island nation of Iceland to have a desert, one-third of the country is just that. The seemingly endless Odadahraun lava field, at 6,000 km² – slightly smaller than the state of Delaware, is a marvelous attraction for tourists to behold. Visitors can admire the Hrossaborg crater, once used to corral horses, and the volcanic caldera of Askja, where they can enjoy a leisurely swim in a lake at the top of the mountain. With that being said, the Odadahraun Desert offers up natural beauty at every turn.
© Luca Temporelli
5. Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico, USA
Not to be overlooked, desertification has made inroads in North America, especially in the case of the burgeoning Chihuahuan Desert. However, visitors to Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park near Las Cruces, New Mexico come to admire the majestic mountains and stunning foliage. This region is also home to the famous Carlsbad Caverns, a subterranean fantasyland renowned for its stellar rock formations and prodigious bat colonies. With that being said, a trip across the Chihuahuan desert evokes the epitome of the old Southwest.
© Bureau of Land Management