Desert showcase: A look at America's desert wilderness areas

 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. What better time to honor our desert wilderness areas? 

Unbearably hot. Dry. Lifeless. Those are a few terms that the word "desert" all too often conjures up.

While deserts are loved by many wilderness enthusiasts, it's far too easy for the general public to overlook these areas when thinking about wilderness. No doubt, deserts can be hot and dry, but look a little closer and the life within them is amazingly diverse.

Deserts are defined not by temperature, but by their precipitation--less than ten inches precipitation per year.  American deserts range from the Sonoran Desert, the only wild place where the famous saguaro cactus grows; the extreme Mojave Desert, which neighbors several major cities; the Chihuahuan Desert on the New Mexico-Mexico border; and the cooler and moister Great Basin Desert, known as one of the best places to view starry night skies. 

Known for their delicate ecosystems, deserts are abundant with wildflowers and succulent plants. Some are home to giant saguaros while others give rise to plains of Joshua trees. They thrive with creatures big and small from tarantulas to desert tortoises to bighorn sheep.

Desert Wilderness Areas in the U.S. 

Since the historic Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, some 200 desert wilderness areas have been added to our National Wilderness Preservation System. These desert areas enjoy the highest level of land protection afforded by the federal government, meaning they are protected from road building, energy, off-roading and development of any kind.

Desert wilderness areas include diverse desert landscapes from Superstition Wilderness in Arizona's Sonoran Desert to Oregon Badlands in Oregon's high desert. They have been protected not only because of their diversity of wildlife but also because of the wide range of unique characteristics they exhibit such as distinct geological formations, colorful rocks and sands, and wonderfully spacious skies that are great for stargazing.

Deserts at risk

But many precious desert lands are still unprotected. While their vistas may appear limitless, deserts are threatened by a number of uses including off road vehicles, drought and climate change and development. Because of their vast, bright landscapes, desert areas in particular have become increasingly sought for renewable energy development, which, if not sited carefully, could harm habitats for wildlife and leave a large footprint on the land. 

How you can help protect desert areas

One way The Wilderness Society works to protect deserts is by guiding wind and solar projects away from the most sensitive desert lands and into more appropriate lands, including those that have been previously disturbed and rooftops to reduce demand for our public lands. The wilderness areas featured below - and the dozens of others - represent a fraction of wild desert areas, many of which still have yet to be protected. Join our WildAlert action network for opportunities to send messages to decisions makers to project deserts and other wildlands. Also check out our story on 11 California desert treasures that we’re working to preserve for all Americans to enjoy.


Photos: 11 stunning America's desert wilderness areas 


1. Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico

“De-Na-Zin” comes from the Navajo words for "cranes", petroglyphs of which can be found near this area, along with fossils and petrified wood. In this Wilderness, gray, black, red and purple sands are splashed with grey, black and red rocks. Visitors will be delighted by labyrinths of strange rock formations, including hoodoos that cast shadows by day and night. 

photo credit: flickr, mypubliclands (Bob Wick, BLM California)


2. Eagletail Mountains, Arizona

The Eagletail Mountains are striped with several distinct rock strata, enhanced by jagged ridges, high spires and natural arches. The granite monolith known as Courthouse Rock in particular draws excited rock climbers. Vast plains filled with cactus and other desert plants are inhabited by stealthy coyotes and soaring great horned owls.

photo credit: flickr, mypubliclands


3. Superstition Wilderness, Arizona

This area in the Sonoran Desert is so magical it was named a "wilderness" 24 years before the Wilderness Act passed. And with nearly endless canyons and immense desolate mountains, it’s no wonder it has such a spooky name. Arid grasslands and dense brushland are decorated with unique landmarks like Weaver's Needle, a dramatic volcanic neck. Despite the harsh climate here, Peralta Trail is one of the most heavily used in the state, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

photo credit: flickr, HockeyholicAZ


4. North Santa Teresa Wilderness, Arizona

The canyons and washes of the towering Jackson Mountain are surprisingly not the greatest attraction here. Rising over the desert is the mystical Black Rock, a mile-long volcanic plug surrounded by cliffs several hundred feet high. This geological formation holds special spiritual significance to natives and allure for all.

photo credit: flickr, mypubliclands


5. Joshua Tree Wilderness, California

At Joshua Tree Wilderness, you can witness the convergence of the low, dry Colorado Desert with the cooler, wetter Mojave Desert. A mosaic of monumental, twirling, painted stones beckon ambitious rock climbers. Inside this wilderness are living legends: oases where palms serve as testament to unlikely springs. Eagles soar overhead during sweltering days and at night the sands come alive with tarantulas, rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats and burrowing owls. 

photo credit: flickr, javi.velazquez


6. Piper Mountain Wilderness, California

This Wilderness hosts the gathering of Piper, Sylvania and Inyo Mountain ranges but much of the landscape is wide open - perfect for stargazing. The climate and topography of deserts make them ideal for seeing some of the most spectacular sights in the skies. This terrain also has numerous alluvial fans - cone-shaped deposits from streams.

photo credit: flickr, mypubliclands (Bob Wick, BLM California)


7. Death Valley Wilderness, California

Although this area is surrounded by 10 other wilderness areas, Death Valley remains truly distinct. Not only is it the hottest, driest, lowest place on the continent but its dramatic salt flats, windswept sand dunes and multi-colored rocks make it an unforgettable landscape. Winter and spring rains invite even more surprises - blooming, delicate wildflowers of all varieties.

photo credit: NPS


8. Paiute Wilderness, Utah

The virtually undisturbed Virgin Mountains, a rocky blend of granite, gneiss and limestone, form the spine of Paiute. Deep within canyons visitors may discover remarkable pools of water. Paiute completely dispels the myth of deserts as lifeless lands - over 250 animal species call this place home, including mountain lions, desert tortoises and Gila monsters.

photo credit: flickr, mypubliclands (Bob Wick, BLM California)


9. Mojave Wilderness, California

A little less than half of the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve is designated as Wilderness, a place where the Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin deserts all converge in their grandeur. It is here that visitors will find the largest Joshua tree forest in the world, as well as classic sand dunes and flat mesas. Awe-inspiring rugged mountain ranges are overshadowed by the tantalizing strangeness of lava beds and cinder cones (pictured below).

photo credit: NPS


10. High Rock Canyon Wilderness Area, Nevada

This area is in the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, where exquisite scenery, fragile ecosystems and opportunities for both adventure and solitude are all protected. Its remarkable history is also preserved in wagon trails once used during westward migration. The beauty of natural hot springs and an ancient dried lake bed that shows the curvature of the earth are just a couple reasons why it is visited. This is also where every year thousands gather to create Black Rock City for a week, leaving no trace of their celebration of community and self-expression.

photo credit: flickr, mypubliclands (Bob Wick, BLM California)

11. Oregon Badlands Wilderness, Oregon

Badlands volcano and the Horse Ridge volcanoes are the main attractions in this wilderness area in the high deserts of Oregon. Yellow-bellied marmots, bobcats, mule deer, elk and antelope roam over earth formed from ash that came from the volcanic mountain known as Crater Lake today. Overhead visitors may spot prairie falcons or golden eagles, as well as gorgeous skies, as pictured below.

photo credit: flickr, BLMOregon

Visiting the desert

Because deserts are often less popular than other wild areas, they are ideal locations for those seeking peaceful, solitary experiences. If you choose to visit any of the locations below, be aware that you will need to take extra precautions. These places are far from the beaten track, where water and fuel is not easy to come by. For visitors, packing extra water and having plenty of gas in the car is an absolute must. Spring, fall and winter are the best times to visit, but be sure to do your research beforehand! 

Photo at right: Lost Palms Oasis in Joshua Tree Wilderness. credit: flickr, MiguelVieira.

Top photo: Mojave Wilderness. credit: Peter Druschke.

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