Blog Post Jennifer Errick May 18, 2022

The Country’s Largest Desert Is Not Where You Think — and It’s Cold

The U.S. is home to four major desert systems, and the largest encompasses a national park of the same name. But it might not be where you expect.

Deserts are places with low humidity and little precipitation — but they aren’t all hot. At least not all the time.

In places such as the Chihuahuan, Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, hardy plants and animals have adapted to live with persistent and often extreme heat. In Nevada, however, winter nights can get down below zero, snow falls year-round, and the area’s famous ancient bristlecone pines are worn and gnarled from centuries of harsh, blustery weather.

Yet, most of the state is covered by the Great Basin Desert, a 200,000-square-mile landscape that includes Great Basin National Park and extends into parts of California, Idaho, Oregon and Utah.

Here, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Rocky Mountains block rain and moisture from the west and east respectively, creating the arid conditions that define it as a desert. And although summer temperatures reach into the 90s, the overall climate is much frostier than, say, Death Valley, earning Great Basin the distinction of being a “cold desert.”

Great Basin Desert and its namesake national park do have similarities to warm-weather deserts. Mountains eroded over centuries into the area’s fine soils. Many scrubby, tenacious plants take root in them, including species you would find farther south, such as sagebrush, juniper, pinyon pine trees and prickly pear cacti (though very few cacti live here overall). And the dry, mostly cloudless air contributes to remarkably clear night skies; in 2016, Great Basin was recognized as an International Dark-Sky Park, joining Big Bend, Bryce Canyon, Hovenweep, Joshua Tree and many other Southwestern desert parks in this coveted distinction.

Extreme changes in elevation add to the varied terrain at Great Basin National Park, which is home to numerous plant communities among its mountains, glaciers, caves and “playas,” the salt pans in the park’s valleys. Taking the 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is one way to see some of the different desert ecosystems in the park, starting in the sagebrush flats on the valley floor and climbing 4,000 feet through conifer and aspen forests up the park’s best-known mountain. The drive ends at a trailhead where visitors can climb another 2,900 feet on foot to Wheeler’s summit (weather permitting).

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Great Basin is not the only U.S. national park where visitors can experience a cold desert. Alaska has regions of “polar desert” with little snowfall, and Kobuk Valley National Park includes a desert above the Arctic Circle with remarkable shifting sand dunes. The park’s three dune fields are the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic, together comprising 30 square miles of rippling sand. The dunes were formed some 14,000 years ago from retreating glaciers, and vegetation has been slowly advancing on these sands ever since, stabilizing and seeding them with new life.

Learn more about Great Basin National Park’s unusual desert and Kobuk Valley National Park’s rare Arctic dune fields.

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.