Desert life is harsh and unforgiving, and extended stays are typically only for acclimatized locals or the most adaptable of plant and animal life. But with more and more destinations being overrun by tourists, inhospitable and crowd-free spots like the Atacama desert and Antarctica are on the rise.
There are notable and unusual deserts on each of the world’s seven continents, so travelers in search of some serious peace and quiet won’t have trouble finding what they need. Here are nine lesser-known deserts out there for travelers who like to venture off the overly trodden dunes.
1. Dasht-e Lut, Iran
Iran’s Dasht-e Lut, also known as the Lut Desert, is regarded as one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. The surface temperature in the desert can reach as high as 159 degrees Fahrenheit, and although this puts its name in some obscure record books, it also means that it’s one of the least-visited places in the world.
That’s not to say it’s a place for extreme travelers to avoid altogether. In winter, temperatures drop to below zero, ironically making it slightly more manageable. The barren landscape is dotted with fascinating rock formations, salt plains, massive dunes, abandoned caravanserais, and hardy plant and wildlife, which makes it a remarkable place to check out.
2. Rangipo Desert, New Zealand
The Rangipo Desert in New Zealand receives a reasonable amount of rainfall each year, but the area’s poor soil quality owing to violent volcanic eruptions 20,000 years ago and persistent dry winds make it an anomaly in the generally lush country.
Most of Rangipo is uninhabited, given the infertile land and extreme climate, and there’s also only a single sealed road that runs through it known as Desert Road. The scenery was impressive enough to serve as the backdrop for certain scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies, and the heavy snowfalls produce snow-capped peaks that contrast perfectly with the landscape below.
3. White Desert, Egypt
Though just a few hours away from the Egyptian capital of Cairo, the White Desert feels like it’s located on another planet. That’s because it’s home to bizarre weathered chalk rock formations that look almost curated in their appearance.
Many of the formations have been given names referring to their appearance — often items of food like “ice cream cone” and “mushroom.” The desert is largely devoid of vegetation, adding to its feeling of otherworldliness, but it’s surprisingly accessible to visitors. The nearest town of Farafra is just 28 miles away, and it’s possible to camp overnight to witness the changing colors of the landscape during dusk and dawn.
4.Tankwa Karoo, South Africa
South Africa’s Tankwa Karoo has been preserved as a national park since 1986, owing to its stark natural beauty and fragile ecosystem. Despite being the home of the annual Afrika Burn Festival every April, unique farmhouse accommodations dotting the desert, and a reasonably good road network, the region remains largely off the tourist radar.
The area receives fewer than four inches of rain each year due to the towering Cederberg mountains that block moisture-bearing clouds. Much of the land bordering the desert was once used for sheep farming, but in recent years, the protected area has expanded from 100 square miles to more than 550.
5. Kyzylkum Desert, Uzbekistan
The region receives just four to eight inches of rainfall each year and is mostly sandy, with ridges that support some desert plant life. These plants serve as pasture for domestic animals — mainly horses, sheep, and camels — belonging to nomadic tribes who move through the desert. There are several small settlements established around oases.
In the north of the country at Ayaz-Kala, overlooking the desert, are the ruins of an ancient Khorezm fortress, and there are petroglyphs at Sarmysh dating back thousands of years. The ruins of Djanpik Qala Fortress, situated in the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan, are also a fascinating sight.
6. Taklamakan Desert, China
China’s Taklamakan Desert is one of the world’s largest sandy deserts. It covers more than 123,550 square miles across the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the west of the country. The large mountain ranges of Tien Shan, Kunlun Mountains, and the Pamirs surround the desert while smaller peaks with unique arcs dot its western reaches.
As far as deserts go, Taklamakan is somewhat moderate — it has a maximum annual temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But rainfall is markedly low — the desert sees just one and a half inches per year in the west and 0.4 in the east — which combined with the prevailing winds often leads to hurricane-force dust storms.
Unsurprisingly, there is no permanent population living in the desert, and there is also little plant and animal life to speak of in its center, but thanks to its position along the Silk Road, there is an ancient oasis in the desert in the Turpan Basin. Visitors can reach the oasis by catching a train to Turpan and then hiring a local guide.
Wildlife also increases towards the fringes of Taklamakan, where it’s possible to spot wolves, foxes, gazelles, and the rare Siberian roe deer.
7. Tabernas Desert, Spain
The Tabernas desert is often called mainland Europe’s only desert as it is dryer and arider than anywhere else on the continent’s mainland. Just 20 miles north of the Andalusian coast, the nearby low sierras block most of the approaching rain, and in summer, the temperatures soar, reaching highs of 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Dry season rainfall seldom registers higher than three inches, but when the rains do arrive, they are often torrential, a phenomenon that has lead to the desert’s dramatic natural mesas and ravines.
Tabernas has served as the location for several spaghetti westerns since the 1950s, thanks to its remarkable similarity to the American West. Some of the towns used in the movies have been repurposed as western theme parks where tourists can relive some of their favorite movies.
8. Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil
Lençois Maranhenses National Park is a vast, sandy desert home to undulating dunes home to aquamarine rainwater lakes.
The national park runs along a remote stretch of Brazil’s Atlantic coastline and is often overlooked by tourists seeking out the country’s better-marketed attractions. In spite of this, it’s possible to reach the city of São Luís by plane, and then travel by tour bus or 4×4 to the desert.
In spite of the park’s natural beauty, and an average annual rainfall of 50 inches, it still produces some of Brazil’s harshest weather conditions. As a result, most visitors travel to Lençóis Maranhenses between the months of June and September when the weather is milder, and the famous rainwater lakes are full.
9. Carcross Desert, Canada
At just one square mile, Yukon’s Carcross Desert is pretty small. Although South Africa’s Red Desert Nature Reserve holds the title of the smallest desert in the world with a diameter of just 650 feet, the Carcross Desert is perhaps one of the world’s most unusual desert destinations to visit.
Just outside the town of Carcross, this desert owes its characteristics to a Pleistocene glacial lake of which it was once the bed. The area has remained an arid desert for thousands of years due to the harsh conditions and the nearby mountains that block incoming rains, but it’s home to a surprising amount of plant life.
To experience the Carcross desert in the best way possible, head there in the summer with your sandboard to slide down the desert dunes.