The Deserts of California

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Naturalist Michael Ellis takes a brief tour of the three kinds of desert found in California.

A desert is an area that receives less than 10” of annual rain; we have three distinct deserts in California. The smallest is the Colorado Desert, which is a subset of the largest desert in North America – the Sonoran Desert.

The Sonoran is low- elevation from 0 to 2000 feet, has blisteringly hot summers, mild winters, mostly monsoon-type summer rains, a large diversity of trees and columnar cactus. Our portion of this desert lies in eastern San Diego County and in Imperial County, along the Colorado River hence the name. This desert is exceptional to the rest of the Sonoran in that it does not have the saguaro cactus and most of the rainfall occurs in the winter, rather than the summer. Two characteristic plants are the ocotillo and creosote. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is our most protected example of this habitat.

East of the Sierra Nevada beginning in the Owens Valley and stretching all the way to the Oregon border lies the Great Basin Desert. This desert is high - 5 to 7000 feet, has brutal winters, precipitation mostly as snow, few tall trees or cactus, and the dominant shrub is the Great Basin sagebrush. This desert is by far the largest in the U.S., covering nearly all of Nevada and large parts of adjacent states.

The biggest desert in California is the smallest one in the US -- the Mojave Desert. This desert is transitional between the two previous deserts. With an elevation of 2 to 5000 feet, the winters can be cold but not as cold as the Great Basin and the summers hot but not as hot as the Coloradan. The plant that outlines the Mojave Desert is the Joshua tree. Many parts of this desert are actually below 2000 (Death Valley) and many mountains rise high out of the Mojave and are more like the Great Basin.


All three of these deserts are rain shadow deserts - high mountain ranges block the moisture bearing clouds from the ocean. California has some of the greatest biodiversity in all of North America. Much of this remarkable assemblage of life is due to the three deserts that exist in our fine state.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who conducts tours worldwide.