The top 8 California deserts worth visiting

written by Kate Gazzard October 6, 2021
Chollas cactus in the Joshua Tree National Park at sunset in California.

From the spiky yet beautiful cacti in Joshua Tree National Park to the barren and haunting landscape of Death Valley, you simply can’t 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 Sierra Nevada. While each piece of scenery is captivating and beautiful, California’s stark and expansively impressive deserts might just top the list of must-visit landscapes.

To help you out with your decision of which California deserts you should make a trip to, we’ve put together a guide on the 8 incredible deserts worth visiting. Whether you fancy strolling past ancient volcanoes in the Mojave National Preserve or taking in the vast pile of golden sand that make up the Algodones Dunes, these desert landscapes are sure to take your breath away.

1.     Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

A metal dragon sculpture at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California.

Known as the largest state park in California, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park attracts visitors in every season but is particularly popular in Spring when the wildflowers bloom. Full of palm trees, cacti plants, slot canyons, and the park’s native bighorn sheep, this desert has more than enough fascinating viewpoints to keep you transfixed (and to fill up your phone’s storage).

Rugged and wild, this park is still being shaped by wind and rainfall, with small springs and interesting rock formations changing slightly 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.

2.     Joshua Tree National Park

A woman walking up a rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Arguably one of California’s most popular and well-known deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is home to as many cacti plants as the night sky over this still and stunning landscape has stars. Not only is this desert full of Joshua Trees (who would’ve thought right?!), it’s also packed with several 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 participate in several other activities such as rock climbing, biking, horseback riding, and birdwatching, ensuring this desert has a little something to offer everyone. Whether you want to take in the towering boulders and rock formations or fancy walking among the beautiful desert wildflowers, “J-Tree” should be high on your priority list.


3.     Mojave National Preserve

The golden sand dunes at Mojave National Preserve, California.

The great outdoors is waiting for you to explore it in the Mojave National Preserve. From towering, golden sand dunes and dense Joshua Tree forests to dormant volcanoes and expansive wildflower fields, this Mojave desert park really does have 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 beginner or consider yourself more advanced, the Mojave National Preserve has a hike for everyone from backcountry routes to established trails. Take in the 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).

4.     Death Valley National Park

Death Valley in California.

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 well and truly alive. Almost unfathomable in size, Death Valley National Park is one of the most popular parks in California (maybe even in the whole of North America) and is well and truly the hottest. With temperatures reaching up to a sweat-inducing 110°F (43°C), a trip to this park in the summer isn’t 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 spot at 282 feet below sea level? Or embark on one of the many hiking trails available? Home to a myriad of natural phenomena including saltwater flats, towering sand dunes, and deep canyons, Death Valley promises to deliver on spectacular desert views everywhere you look.


5.     Red Rock Canyon State Park

The towering red rock cliffs at Red Rock Canyon State Park.

You get two guesses as to what you’ll see upon exploring Red Rock Canyon State Park (jokes, we know you only need one). That’s right, this desert landscape is full of enormously impressive Red Rock cliffs. Visible on one of the many hiking trails you can make your way through, these cliffs were formed by both white and red layers of sediment millions of years ago and lifted by several faults including the Garlock and Sierra Frontal Faults.

While this national park may be small in size, it’s big where it counts. Featuring a beautifully scenic, one-way drive, plenty of wildlife and plants to observe, and other geology highlights, Red Rock Canyon State Park is truly unique. From sprawling clusters full of Joshua Trees to impressively formed canyons, this California desert park is well worth a visit.

6.     Whitewater Preserve

Whitewater River at Whitewater Preserve in California.

If you’re after a more intimate desert experience, then Whitewater Preserve is the landscape for you. Largely overlooked in favor of larger California deserts, this stunning piece of scenery is nestled in between the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains and is a peaceful yet impactful spot to take in 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 small handful of trails to explore, this desert park feels quiet and serene, allowing you to fully appreciate the birds chirping and the bubbling water flowing through the river.  

7.     Indian Canyons

A lush collection of palm trees at Indian Canyons, California.

Indian Canyons, located just outside of Palm Springs, is the ultimate desert oasis. Not only does it feature sparkling waterfalls, uniquely formed canyons, and California’s own lush palm trees, but Indian Canyons also has several hikes for you to choose from so you can take in as much natural beauty as this spot has to offer.

Not just a place for hiking and other outdoor activities, Indian Canyons is also the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Particularly sacred to the Cahuilla Indians today, these canyons tell of a story of life thousands of years in the making with rock art, house pits, and irrigation ditches still on display.

8.     Algodones Dunes

The impressive sand dunes at Algodones Dunes in California at sunset.

The Algodones Dunes may be a barren, extremely hot landscape that’s almost completely devoid of any plant life but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of natural beauty. These sand dunes have accumulated over the years to form the shapes they are today with nothing but pure, golden sand for as far as the eye can see.

While there might not be pretty trees to look at or gushing waterfalls to gush over, this desert spot still presents a uniquely magnificent scene, with only two colors meshing: the blue of the sky and the gold of the sand. Pretty magical to look at, these dunes can also change colors slightly with the sandy mounds giving off a bluish tint thanks to the sun’s rays and shifting sand.

With a heap of desert landscapes to choose from, you can’t go wrong on your adventure in California. Loved exploring these California deserts? Go one step further and make your way through some of the United State’s most popular national parks.


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