10 Unforgettable Desert Adventures

Visit the world's driest regions

Photo: Tracy Hunter [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Deserts are most unique landscapes on Earth. Arid ecosystems aren’t teeming with wildlife in the same way that jungles or coral reefs are, but these austere areas are captivating nonetheless. In fact, the world's driest regions are actually some of the best places to enjoy an eco-tourism adventure. From multi-day camel expeditions to 4x4 tours to raft trips through towering canyons, there are many nature-travel options in the desert.

Each desert has its own charms. The vast sands of the Sahara are compelling to some travelers, while others might enjoy a lush oasis in the Gobi or the unusual rock formations of inland Southern California. If you’re looking for something completely out of the ordinary, try one of these desert adventures.

Palm Springs, Calif.

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This desert haven in Southern California has long been a popular getaway for Hollywood celebrities. Spas, nightclubs and golf courses are certainly part of the Palm Springs experience, but this city is also one of the best places to use as a base when exploring the California desert. The canyonlands just outside the city center are crisscrossed with hiking trails. Biking and horseback riding options are also available.

There is even an aerial tram that climbs up the San Jacinto Mountains, offering easy access to stunning views and alpine trails. One of the most unique national parks in the country, Joshua Tree National Park is only a short drive from Palm Springs. If you’re looking for a convenient place to get out into the desert, Palm Springs is an ideal choice. It’s even possible indulge in a little nightlife or take a celebrity-themed history tour in between desert excursions.

Thar Desert, India

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The Thar Desert offers a diverse set of landscapes and plenty of colorful culture. This desert, which sits in the northern Indian region of Rajasthan, is one of the most heavily populated in the world. It boasts numerous small villages and desert cities. Eco-tourism is a growing industry in Rajasthan, with camel tours and dune treks among the list of possibilities.

Many tours include a cultural aspect, focusing on the timeless and colorful practices of the Thar's people as much as on the desert landscapes. Some of the cities on the edge of the desert, such as Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, date back a thousand years or more. These places are as much a part of the Thar adventure as the desert itself.

Simpson Desert, Australia

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Australia's interior regions are dominated by desert. The Simpson Desert is arguably the most accessible and unique of these lands. Much of the region is sheer wilderness, dotted by only a few small Aboriginal villages. Dunes and endless shrublands characterize this stark but beautiful place. The world's longest parallel sand dunes (well more than 100 miles in length) are located in the Simpson. Tours generally follow well-traveled but rugged driving tracks. Guides are all but required here, since getting lost or running out of fuel could have fatal consequences.

Namib Desert

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Namibia has the distinction of being one of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth. “Wide open spaces” is not a catchphrase or a tourism-industry tagline — it can be used as an actual description of the Namib Desert. This stark desert dominates the country with dunes, scrublands, low mountains and a surprising amount of wildlife.

Tour companies will take adventure seekers on days-long expeditions to see the best natural features in Namibia. The dunes areas draw many tourists, but with the right tour guide, it’s easy to get out into the desert and to experience the kind of remoteness that can only found in such unpopulated natural places.

The Atacama Desert

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The Atacama Desert is a high desert in Chile and Bolivia that is one of the driest places on Earth in terms of overall rainfall. Despite its harsh climate, this is a diverse place, with salt flats, geothermal activity, mountains, plants that survive only on dew drops and unique indigenous cultures that have changed little over the centuries.

The Atacama Desert is a worthwhile stop for eco-tourists on a circuit of South America, with tours covering all aspects of the desert. Options range from luxury desert safaris to camping and cabin treks that pass through the desert's otherworldly valleys and salt flats.

Dunhuang, China and the Gobi Desert

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Once a thriving trade center on the Silk Road, Dunhuang is now a popular destination for tourists who want to experience China's Gobi Desert. It is possible to book a multi-day camel or 4x4 trek in this city. Some tours also visit ancient caves and unique rock formations that were formed thousands of years ago.

The Mogao Caves, an important Buddhist site, is a popular stop for trekkers. Another stunning attraction is Yueyaquan (Crescent Lake), an ancient oasis just outside of Dunhuang that is surrounded by towering sand dunes. Dunhuang offers easy access to the attractions of the Gobi, giving tourists the chance to choose how in-depth they want their desert experience to be.

Abu Dhabi

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The United Arab Emirates has enjoyed a rising profile over the past decade thanks to its construction boom. While skyscrapers, indoor ski slopes, massive malls and man-made islands have stolen the headlines, much of this Arabian nation remains untouched desert, a storybook-like land of fine sands, dunes and camel caravans.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two most visitor-friendly emirates, have embraced desert tourism. While 4x4 tours are popular in Abu Dhabi, it is also possible to travel by camel, camp in the desert or even take a sightseeing flight in a hot air balloon. The landscapes of the UAE include mountains and rivers, providing those who want to experience the nature of this area in depth a diverse set of attractions to explore.

Jordan's Eastern Desert

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Sometimes history and eco-tourism go hand in hand. This is the case in Jordan, where the vast Eastern Desert, which covers most of the country, is dotted with a number of historic buildings. These castles, fortresses and vacation palaces, built at oasis points or into the sides of cliffs, date back to medieval times (some are even older, dating back to the early days of Islam).

Even if your primary focus is the stark landscapes and unusual rock formations of this potion of the Levant, the history is undeniably impressive. The Azraq and Shawmari Nature Preserves, meanwhile, feature some animal success stories, including the onyx, which was brought back from near extinction and now thrives within the parks alongside with wild donkeys and other mammals and birds.

Moroccan Sahara

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It is impossible to have a list of desert destinations without including the largest and most famous of them all: the Sahara. Because this desert dominates North Africa, there are plenty of different places to find guided tours and even book sightseeing flights over the dunes. Morocco is one of the most accessible Saharan destinations, and it has some of the most attractive options for tourists.

People in search of an authentic desert experience can head to M'Hamid, a small town that is literally the “last stop” before the Sahara begins in earnest. Here, you can book multi-day camel and 4x4 trips in to the desert. Less remote towns like Erfoud, popular because of nearby dunes, and Ouarzazate, a charming historic town that has a slightly less touristy vibe, are other options for adventure seekers looking to set foot in the world's biggest desert.

Kyzyl Kum Desert

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Uzbekistan's Kyzyl Kum Desert is certainly not as well known as the other entries on this list. It is a vast land of red sands and few inhabitants. This area is home to some interesting animal species, with the scant winter rains supporting deer, boar and antelopes, in addition to desert reptiles and birds.

The natural history of the Kyzyl Kum actually goes back to prehistoric times, and a number of dinosaur bones have been found inside the desert. It is possible to take a multi-day 4x4 or camel tour of the desert. Few tourists venture here, but that might be a plus for adventure seekers who want to get off the beaten path.