National parks protect and preserve different natural landscapes and habitats, offering us all an opportunity to enjoy them during our visits. We all appreciate mountains, forests, and beaches, but few of us know much about desert environments. We think of a desert as an uninhabitable, barren landscape, with no plant or animal life.
And yet, even in the U.S., we have a few deserts, especially in the Southwest, where life can thrive with a few minor changes. Deserts sustain even immense cities, like Phoenix and Las Vegas. And since we know we can live in the deserts, we forget how special these places are and how fragile the desert environment is.
So, when it comes to desert environments, the National Park Service (NPS) plays an important role, protecting some of the most unique landscapes and most fragile ecosystems on the planet. Having national parks with established visitor centers where we can learn about these special places and appreciate how amazing it is that life can exist in these seemingly unforgiving landscapes, is a treat. While many desert environments are showcased in U.S. national parks, here we explore five of the most stunning NPS low deserts and their environments.
1. Saguaro National Park
Showcasing and protecting the giant saguaro, the universal symbol of the Southwest, Saguaro National Park covers a large area of the Sonoran Desert, known as the greenest and wettest desert on the planet. Two different districts of Saguaro National Park, East and West, on the two sides of Tucson, Arizona, display distinct elements of the same desert.
The highlight of this environment is the giant saguaro, this slow-growing columnar cactus variety that only grows in the Sonoran Desert. Understanding that they grow only about one to one-and-a-half inches in the first eight years of their lives, makes you appreciate those in the park with multiple arms that may be about a hundred years old. In fact, saguaros don’t start growing arms until they are about 50 to 70.
You’ll find older saguaros in Saguaro East, while Saguaro West showcases younger ones, though in a larger number. Besides the park’s namesake, you’ll find plenty of other cactus varieties in the park, along with desert shrubs and low-growing trees.
Both sides of the park have scenic loops with plenty of stops, picnic areas, and trailheads with miles of desert trails. If you want to stay on pavement, choose the older east side with the eight-mile paved scenic loop. The scenic loop at Saguaro West is a five-mile dirt road. Both districts have separate Visitor Centers, interpretive programs, and short, paved, accessible trails.
For the best show of the desert, visit Saguaro National Park between late April and mid-June, when the saguaros bloom. To learn more about the park, read our guide about things to know before visiting Saguaro.
2. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
In another area of the Sonoran Desert, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument protects a different environment. Though you’ll find plenty of saguaros here, too, the highlight of this area is another columnar cactus named after the musical instrument it resembles, the pipe organ.
The organ pipe cactus, the star of the park, originated in the dry tropics and started migrating north when the climate warmed after the last Ice Age, eventually making its home in the Sonoran Desert about 3,500 years ago. This unique columnar cactus lives up to 150 years and starts blooming around the age of 35. Its large, cream-colored blossoms open at night, from early May to mid-June. Though they grow in other parts of the Sonoran Desert, this park is the optimal place for the organ pipe cacti to grow, with just the right combination of heat and precipitation.
Besides being a national park, this unique area of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona is also a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, home to a thriving community of plants and animals besides the cactus it is named for.
The park offers opportunities for fantastic experiences, from easy walks and long hikes to bike rides, scenic drives, camping, and picnicking.
3. Joshua Tree National Park
You’ll find another unique desert plant, the Joshua tree, in the park named after it, Joshua Tree National Park at the conjunction of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. As the name suggests, this park focuses on the Joshua tree, a peculiar desert plant, that looks like it can’t decide if it wants to be a tree or some type of cactus.
If you visit the park, you’ll find out that the Joshua tree is actually Yucca brevifolia, part of the agave family. We owe its popular name to Mormon immigrants, who thought the plant looked like the biblical figure with outstretched arms. Before they renamed it though, the plant was already known by the natives of the area, who referred to it as hunuvat chiy’a or humwichawa, used its flower buds and seeds in their diets and its leaves for weaving baskets and sandals.
The Joshua tree is only one of the plant varieties in this national park, where two distinct ecosystems meet. You’ll find a few cholla and other low-growing cactus varieties, desert succulents, desert shrubs and bushes, and a few low-growing trees as well.
You’ll find plenty of trails to explore these plants and desert ecosystems as you drive through the park from one side to the other. And if you want to stay overnight, and enjoy dark skies, you’ll find a few campgrounds to choose from. Our guide to how to visit Joshua Tree National Park offers more information and tips on where to go and what to do when visiting.
4. Petrified Forest National Park
Arizona’s desolate Petrified Forest National Park is all about color. Protecting a large area of the Painted Desert, this park showcases a different desert environment. You won’t find towering columnar cacti here, but the otherworldly landscape showcases gorgeous pastel colors of the earth in all shades of greys, blues, greens, pinks, and reds.
Besides the pale colors of the surrounding hills, you’ll find deeper colors in the petrified wood logs laying in the park. The remains of an ancient rainforest, these logs fell into a river about 200 million years ago as living trees. Buried for centuries, over time they absorbed the minerals from the earth, turning into rocks in the process. The colors of these crystals of clear and smoky quartz, purple amethyst, and yellow citrine shine in the fossilized logs where they broke when rising from underground with the Colorado Plateau.
You’ll even find color in an ancient dwelling, the Agate House, built from petrified wood by the Ancestral Puebloans about 700 years ago.
You can explore the park by driving through it and stopping at the viewpoints, but for the best experience, take at least a hike or two. Read our guide about how to spend a day at Petrified Forest for tips on what to see and where to hike for the best experience.
5. Death Valley National Park
You can find more color in a desert landscape in Death Valley National Park. The largest national park outside Alaska showcases a few different desert environments, from colorful hills to deep gold sand dunes and white salt flats.
This otherworldly landscape in the hottest, lowest, and driest below-sea-level desert seems totally devoid of life. This is the place you think of when you hear the word desert. With its below-sea-level basin, record heat, and steady drought, Death Valley seems to deserve its name.
Yet, if you visit in spring, or after a rare desert rainstorm, you notice life here. Valleys fill with colorful wildflowers, special because they are short-lived. While no plants survive in the lowest elevations of the park, at higher elevations you’ll find desert grasses, low shrubs, and a few cactus varieties, even after the wildflowers are gone. And, you’ll even find an oasis in the park, where the hotels and Visitor Center are.
Overall, though, you visit Death Valley to see our planet’s geologic features in an area devoid of vegetation. You come here for the geologic formation and the colors showcased in the mineral-filled rocks.
You can visit Death Valley in one day, but you need more time to fully explore it. Our guide to Visiting Death Valley offers more tips and information.
From the greenest and wettest to the hottest and driest, you’ll find different desert environments showcased and protected in U.S. national parks in the Southwest. The best time to visit any of them is spring, when the rare wildflowers bloom and temperatures don’t reach summertime highs. Winters are also a great time to visit any of them for the perfect temperatures.
All these national parks in the desert showcase some of the darkest skies, so it is worth staying overnight — possibly camping — in any of them for some of the best stargazing experiences.
No matter when you go, no matter which desert park you visit, always remember to carry water when you hike, wear a hat, and apply sunscreen. And enjoy exploring some of the wildest, most unique parts of our planet.
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