Deserts are some of the harshest environments on Earth but also some of the most stunningly beautiful. Covering almost a third of the Earth’s surface, many people haven’t visited a desert, but there’s so much to see and experience across these vast deserts in the world. From the rolling sand dunes of the Sahara Desert to the rugged, red rock formations of the Southwest, deserts offer breathtaking landscapes unique to this type of terrain. So, whether you’re an avid adventurer or simply looking for a new, stunning destination, these deserts will captivate and inspire you, and are most certainly worth traveling for.
Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert may be the best place to see stars. Among the awe-inspiring array of thermal pools, salt flats, volcanoes, and desert land, it’s here where visitors can take in breathtaking views of space through unpolluted skies. It’s so clear, the desert hosts ALMA, the largest ground telescope in the world. Studies by NASA have determined that Atacama is also the driest place in the world and has soil that is very similar to that of Mars.
Located from southern Peru to northern Chile, you’ll get to experience one of the rarest destinations on Earth. For those visiting Chile, this is one of the top attractions with visitors hoping to glimpse the few animals that call this home, but also tour salt flats, thermal pools and geysers, and of course an incredibly clear night sky.
The Sahara Desert, North Africa
There is so much to see in this vast desert. Located in North Africa, the world’s largest desert spans a third of the African continent. While many people think that the Sahara is the hottest desert on Earth, it is actually the second hottest with the Lut Desert in Iran taking first place. It is home to bedouin nomads riding camelback, ancient city ruins (Timbuktu resides on the southern tip of the desert), and traditional Berber villages. In fact, roughly 2 million people live across the Sahara Desert.
Among the expansive desert are giant sand dunes, the Emi Koussi Volcano (the highest peak of the Sahara), and over 20 lakes. There’s also a collection of wildlife that call the Sahara Desert home, like cheetahs, gazelles, and foxes. With its rich history, expansive scale, awe-inspiring sunsets, and sunrises that leave visitors with a greater appreciation for the majestic beauty of Earth. One of our writers said that the best way to experience the Sahara Desert is on this four-day camel ride.
Mojave Desert, Nevada
This natural wonder that stretches from California to Utah and is infamously home to Death Valley National Park, Badwater Basin, and Joshua Tree National Park. The Mojave Desert is one of the most beautiful deserts in the world because it’s the only place visitors can find Joshua Trees on Earth. Visitors will also experience hundreds of native species of animals, and a stunning display of spring blooms which literally carpet the desert floor. There are some spectacular Airbnbs that can enhance your experience, too, but we love this Mojave Moon Ranch.
In Joshua Tree National Park, visitors can explore abandoned gold mines, granite rocks, and exceptional spots to stargaze. Death Valley National Park is home to the Artist’s Palette, where metals create pastel-colored shades of mountains in the rock. Visitors can also explore the lowest elevation in the United States Badwater Basin.
Pinnacles Desert, Australia
The Pinnacles Desert in Western Australia is filled with towering formations of spiraling rocks called “pinnacles” emerging from the ancient desert ground. The rocky formations are composed of limestone and are absolutely a sight to behold, making the Pinnacles Desert a worthwhile trip. Furthermore, the desert earned its spot on our list for its magical red sand dunes, where visitors can go sandboarding.
Pinnacles Desert is also home to numerous endangered species like the marsupial, the bilby, the Black-Flanked Rock-Wallaby, and the Western Ground Parrot. Of course, we can’t talk about the Pinnacles Desert and not mention its astonishing night sky views. Light pollution is so low that visitors can see the entire milky way with the naked eye.
White Desert, Farafra, Egypt
The White Desert, located in Farafra, Egypt, is filled with otherworldly landscapes, making it feel like you’re visiting a distant, strange planet of ancient, enigmatic beauty. Its most striking features include the massive white chalk formations scattered on the desert floor. Sculpted by mother nature, these visually mesmerizing sights may appear to be patches of snow, but they’re an accumulation of calcium carbonate deposits.
The White Desert is also filled with large mushroom-shaped rock structures and chimney formations that add to the White Desert’s captivating aura. Camels and desert foxes can be seen traveling throughout the land, perhaps to the Bahariya Oasis. And budding historians will appreciate exploring its number of archaeological sites, such as the Temple of Alexander the Great and the Tomb of Bannentiu located in the Bahariya oasis in Western Desert, Egypt.
Painted Desert, Arizona
The Painted Desert, located in northern Arizona, is so beautiful you’d think it was a mirage. Stretching from the eastern part of the Grand Canyon and into Petrified Forest National Park, the landscape is the perfect palette of blue, red, orange, and green collide, creating a kaleidoscopic viewing experience. But the magnificence doesn’t stop there. The park is also home to Petrified Forest National Park. Witness the Badlands and natural arches alongside a colorful tapestry of ancient petrified wood. The most mysterious part of the park is that all of these colors change with the changing light of the day, so no one moment is the same.
There are plenty of ways to cross this desert off your must-visit list. Our two favorite depending on the time you have is to drive a loop from the Visitor’s Center and back out, but you can also hike the Tawa and Painted Desert Rim trails for wondrous views of the colorful landscape. Keep watch for desert animals including coyotes, jackrabbits, and deer, and in spring you’ll be greeted by the incredible view of wildflowers, too.
Namib Desert, Africa
Located in Southern Africa, the Namib Desert holds a spot on our coveted list because of the unique beauty of its Skeleton Coast. Shipwrecks and seal colonies (the largest settlement in the world) lay scattered upon this Cape Cross beach. Ethereal red sand dunes can be seen on one side, with the roar of the Atlantic’s waves crashing down on the other. The dunes can reach up to 1,280 feet high, making them some of the largest in the world, and the supernatural sands are constantly shifting shape and color in this impermanent landscape.
The Namib Desert is a mystical destination, unlike any place on Earth. The Namib Sand Sea is a registered UNESCO Heritage Site and is the largest coastal fog desert in the world. It also just happens to be the oldest desert in the world, too. Spend time exploring Sossusvlei located in Namib-Nakluft National Park where visitors can see ancient Acacia trees. Be sure to carve out time to climb Dune 45, hike to Deadvlei for an otherworldly experience, and spend time in NamibRand where you’ll often spot ostrich, oryx, and zebra.