Some of the most interesting landscapes in the world are in the most desolate, dry regions of the world. From magnificent sand dune fields and vast expanses of sun-reflecting salt to gargantuan rock formations. As deserts cover almost one third of the Earth’s land surface this list features only a tiny selection of these amazing desert landscapes.
1. Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni, amid the Andes in southwest Bolivia, is the world’s largest salt flat. It’s the legacy of a prehistoric lake that went dry, leaving behind a desertlike, nearly 11,000-sq.-km. landscape of bright-white salt, rock formations and cacti-studded islands. Its otherworldly expanse can be observed from central Incahuasi Island. Though wildlife is rare in this unique ecosystem, it harbors many pink flamingos. Formed as a result of thousands of years of transformations among several prehistoric lakes, the flat is remarkably — well, flat, with an altitude that varies by no more than a few feet across the entire 4,086 square-mile (10,583 square-kilometer) expanse. Because of this, when nearby lakes overflow onto the flats during the rainy season (typically December to April), the flat transforms into a shallow “lake” up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) deep. This thin layer of water transforms the area into a stunning reflection of the sky. Salar de Uyuni isn’t just a tourist destination: it also contains more than 9 million tons of lithium. During the more popular dry season (May to November), the hardened ground allows travelers to drive across the landscape to places that aren’t accessible in the rainy season. If you want to see the mirror effect, then you’re better off traveling during the wet season, but excessive rains may cause tour cancellations or make certain areas inaccessible.
2. Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum is a protected desert wilderness in southern Jordan. It features dramatic sandstone mountains like the many-domed Jebel Um Ishrin, and natural arches such as Burdah Rock Bridge. Many prehistoric inscriptions and carvings line rocky caverns and steep chasms, such as Khazali Canyon. Wadi Rum lies in the far south of Jordan, and east of the Rift Valley. It is about 60km (35mi) northeast of Aqaba, 100km (60mi) south of Petra and 300km (185mi) south of Amman. The blood red sands and the unworldly sandstone mountains create an uncanny Mars-like landscape and environment, making you truly feel like you are stepping foot on another planet, though you are right here on Earth. With reddish sand and mountains looking like the arid and red surface of Mars, Wadi Rum is a Hollywood favorite for films set on the red planet. So far it has served as the backdrop for many Hollywood films like The Martian (2015), The Last Days on Mars (2013), Red Planet (2000), Mission to Mars (2000), etc. Besides stunning desert landscape, Wadi Rum also boasts astounding cultural landscape. 25,000 petroglyphs (rock carvings), 20,000 inscriptions, and 154 archaeological sites have been discovered within this place, tracing the evolution of human thought and the early development of the alphabet. Widespread petroglyphs, inscriptions and archaeological remains illustrate that many humans of different cultures inhabited Wadi Rum as early as 12,000 years ago since prehistoric times and interacted with the natural environment there.
3. Nazca Desert
Address: South America
The Nazca Lines are a group of geoglyphs made in the soil of the Nazca Desert in southern Peru. They were created between 500 BC and AD 500 by people making depressions or shallow incisions in the desert floor, removing pebbles and leaving differently colored dirt exposed. Scientists believe the geoglyphs were created by the ancient Nazca culture around 2,000 years ago. The Nazca Lines include a variety of shapes. There are over 800 straight lines, some of which are about 30 miles long. There are also more than 300 geometric designs. This includes rectangles, trapezoids, spirals, arrows, wavy lines, etc. Finally, the lines include about 70 plants and animals, called biomorphs. There are etchings of a dog, lizard, duck, spider, hummingbird, monkey, whale, llama, cactus, flower, and tree. How were the Nazca Lines made? Experts think the people who created the lines did so by carefully removing the top 12-15 inches of rust-colored pebbles that line the desert floor. This allowed the layers of lighter-colored sand below to be seen. Considering the scale of the Nazca Lines, this was a monumental feat.
4. Sahara, Africa
The Sahara is a desert on the African continent. With an area of 9,200,000 square kilometres, it is the largest hot desert in the world and the third largest desert overall, smaller only than the deserts of Antarctica and the northern Arctic. The Sahara is the hottest desert in the world – with one of the harshest climates. The average annual temperature is 30°C, whilst the hottest temperature ever recorded was 58°C. The area receives little rainfall, in fact, half of the Sahara Desert receives less than 1 inch of rain every year. The Sahara Desert is the largest hot desert in the world, and the third largest overall after the Antarctica and the Arctic. The Sahara Desert covers an incredible 9.2 million km², which is almost the same size as China, and a total of 8% of the earth’s land area. Impressive! The rivers and streams found in the Sahara are all seasonal, apart from the River Nile. There are over 20 lakes in the Sahara, most of which are saltwater lakes. Lake Chad is the only freshwater lake in the desert. The highest peak in the Sahara is Emi Koussi (3,415m), a volcano located in Tibesti Mountains, Chad. Other mountain ranges in the area include the Aïr Mountains, Saharan Atlas, Adrar des Iforas, Hoggar Mountains, Tibesti Mountains, and the Red Sea hills. In east-central Algeria lies the Isaouane-n-Tifernine Sand Sea, with sand dunes as high as 450m – some of the tallest in the world! The largest dunes in Morocco are the Erg Chigaga – with some dunes reaching a massive 300m. The Chigaga dunes are hard to reach, with access only permitted by 4×4, camel or foot.
The Wave, Arizona
Address: United State
The Wave is a sandstone rock formation located in Arizona, United States, near its northern border with Utah. The formation is situated on the slopes of the Coyote Buttes in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness of the Colorado Plateau. The Wave is best photographed from mid-morning to early afternoon so as to minimize the extensive shadows; the other areas listed above are best photographed mid-late afternoon. A permit issued by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is required to see The Wave. Only 64 people per day (48 on-line and 16 walk-in) are allowed in the area and demand far exceeds supply. During the most popular months (April, May, September, October) there can be over 300 people applying for the sixteen walk-in daily permits. In the other months you usually have much less than a 50% chance of getting one at the daily lottery. Your chances are better if you’re going alone, or in December – February. A six mile round trip hike in required to get to The Wave. Since there is no trail to The Wave you should be able to use a map and compass or GPS to help with navigation. The BLM provides a map with your permit and instructions on getting to The Wave, and there are a small number of cairns on the way. Over the past five years five people have died on the way to/from The Wave. If you are not sure about your navigation skills I strongly suggest you hike in with a guide or a friend with these skills. Do not go alone. If you use a GPS be sure to mark the Wirepass trailhead and other key points along the route. Stay with your party.