Imagine a wide, vast open stretch of land stretching out to as far as the eye can see – and beyond the horizon too. Deserts are a defining geographical phenomenon on earth and utterly gorgeous ones at that. Whether it’s the sandy deserts of Africa, the barren ones of Central Asia, or the cold deserts of South America, they never cease to fascinate. Some of the biggest deserts in the world, notwithstanding their nature, are spread across all continents of the world. But, the size and the nature of these deserts vary greatly. Also, since they’re usually associated with difficult living conditions, they’re also often some of the most sparsely populated regions in the world. On the other hand, they’re also home to some of the most unique plant and animal species on the planet.
With such great diversity, it’s only natural to wonder which are the largest. To that end, here’s presenting 11 of the biggest deserts in the world.
Table of contents
Straddling the United States-Mexico border, the Chihuahuan Desert is one of the biggest deserts in the world. In fact, it’s bigger than the state of California! While some parts of it are in New Mexico, others are in the states of Arizona and Texas. In fact, some of the Best Places To Visit in Texas, such as Big Bend National Park, lie in the Chihuahuan Desert. Plus, the famed Sonoran Desert lies right on its western fringes. What’s more, the desert receives less than 9 inches (228 mm) of rainfall every year. With a size of nearly 200,000 square miles, this is perhaps one of the smallest deserts on this list. But, it’s the largest desert in North America!
Great Basin Desert
Measuring 190,000 square miles, the Great Basin Desert lies in the central-west USA in the states of Nevada and Utah. Sprawled between the Wasatch and Sierra Nevada Mountains, this desert is famed for being home to the Great Basin National Park. Besides spanning multiple states, the Great Basin is also one of the “big four” deserts in North America, the other three being Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and the Mojave Deserts. In fact, the Mojave Desert sits on its northern borders. This desert is a dry expanse of sand, silt, and clay but is semiarid, so it receives a lot of snow during winter.
One unique travel tidbit is that a local Bristlecone Pine tree in the desert is almost 4,950 years old and is said to be the oldest “living thing” in the world! It lies in the ancient Bristlecone Pine forest, which itself is part of Inyo Forest, one of the 8 Most Unique Forests Around The World.
The Syrian Desert, a.k.a. the Jordanian Steppe, is one of the biggest deserts in the world. In fact, the southern portion of the desert merges with the much larger Arabian Desert. Measuring more than 200,000 square miles, the desert spans multiple Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, this subtropical desert covers more of Jordan than of Syria and is a barren landscape of gravel and rock. However, the wildlife that’s able to thrive in such an environment is currently under threat from hunting, overgrazing, and drought. However, the desert’s gorgeous surface is rocky and bare and contains dry riverbeds or scattered wadis.
One of the world’s largest deserts is also the largest desert in South America – the Patagonian Desert, a.k.a. the Patagonian Steppe. This Argentinian desert measures around 260,000 square miles and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east. In the west lies the magnificent Andes, the longest mountain range in the world. Since it’s a semiarid desert, it’s similar in character to the Gobi desert. During winter, frost covers the ground, but snow is generally unusual since the region is quite dry. However, since it’s a cold desert scrub steppe, frost, and the constant wind is a likelihood round the year. It’s most famous for being home to the Los Glaciares National Park, one of the Most Amazing National Parks On Earth. The national park itself houses the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the World’s Most Stunning Glaciers.
Measuring almost 350,000 square miles, the Kalahari Desert is one of the biggest deserts in the world. In fact, it’s also one of the Best Luxury Escapes for an Adventure Getaway. The subtropical desert spans multiple countries in southern Africa, including South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. The semi-desert might look like it doesn’t receive much rainfall, but it does receive decent rainfall, thus resulting in lush vegetation. What’s more, the desert is famous for its flora and fauna, such as wildebeest, kudu, hyena, and meerkat, which call this region home. An interesting tidbit is that this desert gets its name from the Tswana word “Kgala,” which means “the great thirst.” In simple terms, the name reflects the natural aspect of the region.
Measuring just over a million square miles in area is the Australian Desert, which encompasses within its boundaries the famous Great Victoria Desert. The Australian Desert is one of the harshest environments on earth, with grassland, hard-packed earth, rocks, and sand. During summers, it’s particularly harsh as temperatures tend to rise up to as much as 40 degrees Celsius. Just like other subtropical deserts, it’s cooler during the winter but still fairly hot and utterly dry. It contains two of the most famous parks in Australia, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and the Rudall River National Park. In fact, the Uluru-Kata park is home to the Uluru-Ayers Rock, one of the World’s Most Breathtaking Monoliths.
Measuring around 500,000 square miles, the Gobi Desert is one of the biggest deserts in the world. Sitting on the borders of China and Mongolia, the desert is historically important since it houses many important cities along the ancient Silk Road. What’s more, it’s a rainshadow desert, which means that’s it’s been forced to turn into a desert since the mountains around block all plant-growing, rainy climates. Despite being a desert, the Gobi isn’t inhospitable and is famed for rare fauna such as Bactrian camels, snow leopards, Gobi ibexes and bears, and the black-tailed gazelle. Among florae, the commonest plant is the Saxaul tree, which retains moisture within the bark and is present throughout the desert.
The Arabian Desert
The Arabian Desert is one of the most fascinating and mesmerizing deserts in the world. The largest desert in Asia, it lies in the Arabian peninsula and measures more than 1 million square miles in area. What’s more, it’s one of the world’s largest continuous bodies of sand, complete with picture-perfect sand dunes. In fact, it’s called the “Ar-Rub Al-Khali” or “The Empty Quarter.” The desert lies majorly in Saudi Arabia but also extends into northeastern Yemen, western Oman, most of the Abu Dhabi emirate, central Qatar, southern Jordan, and Iraq! Although it has a generally hostile environment, the Arabian Desert does have species such as the red fox, caracal, striped hyena, Nubian ibex, sand gazelles, and the Arabian wolves and camels. Plus, it’s also the perfect environment for reptiles such as geckos, snakes, and lizards.
There’s no doubt that the Sahara Desert is the most famous desert in the world. What’s more, it’s one of the biggest deserts in the world and also the world’s largest hot desert. Moreover, the desert extends across 12 countries, comprising most of North Africa; think Tunisia, Sudan, Western Sahara, Niger, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Libya, Egypt, Chad, and Algeria. The Sahara is a subtropical desert, but it actually alternates between being a desert and a savanna grassland every 20,000 years. In fact, in 15,000 years, the Sahara could very well be a grassland. The Sahara is also home to some of the World’s Most Captivating Sand Dunes and one of the World’s Most Stunning Salt Flats. Measuring more than 3.6 million square miles, the desert is famously home to camels. What’s more, it also houses the African wild dog, red-necked ostrich, Addax antelope, Dorcas gazelle, Fennex fox, and cheetah.
Arctic Polar Desert
Measuring a whopping 5.4 million square miles, the Arctic Polar Desert is one of the world’s only two polar deserts. The Arctic Desert is all about ice sheets, lack of rainfall, and cold temperatures and is one hostile environment for animals and plants. Despite that, it’s home to diverse fauna such as the moose, snowy owl, caribou, polar bear, Arctic wolf, and the Arctic Fox. In fact, some animals even migrate between the Arctic Desert and Tundra, which has more vegetation. This desert stretches 1,000 km from north to south and 2,000 km from east to west. Finally, it covers many island groups of the north coast of Russia and Norway while also stretching to Finland, Sweden, Greenland, Iceland, and Canada.
The white expanse that is the Antarctic Desert is the biggest desert in the world. Measuring more than 5.5 million square miles, the Antarctic covers the entire continent, making it, unlike other global deserts. In fact, a whopping 98 percent of the desert is permanently covered by a sheet of ice! Most parts of the desert receive less than 10 mm of rainfall annually, with certain remote inland parts having not seen rain for the last 14 million years! The arid environs of this southern desert combine with its extremely high wind speeds that tend to form hypersaline lakes. What’s more, the Antarctic Desert has seen many expeditions, the most famous of them all being the famed 1911 Roald Amundsen expedition that had humans reaching the south pole for the first time.