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Travel topics > Natural attractions > Biomes and ecosystems > High-elevation deserts

High-elevation deserts

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High-elevation deserts are found in some parts of the world, like Tibet and Nevada, and are typically on the dry side of mountain ranges.


A typical scene in the Great Basin

If you travel over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you typically begin in the Central Valley, a large, flat agricultural region in California. As you travel east from this valley, you go into the forests of the Sierra Mountains, reach heights of 7,000 ft (2,100 m)—10,000 ft (3,000 m), and then descend a couple of thousand feet into a region that is completely different. While some plants grow, the region you have reached is quite dry, despite its elevation. You then go over one mountain range after another, and one valley after another, and as you cross the state of Nevada, the mountain ranges become a home for juniper trees and large grasslands. The valleys are often drier than the mountains.

You are in a high-elevation desert. These deserts are not like the Sahara, which is low-lying; high-elevation deserts are instead a long way inland, at high elevations. The picture of the Great Basin on this page shows a typical scene, with the exception of the horses, and often the mountain ranges are not as dry and rugged as the mountain range in the background of that image.

Due to low cloud cover and the high elevation, those areas tend to be good places for stargazing and professional astronomy. The fact that light pollution tends to be lower helps.


Map of High-elevation deserts
  • 1 Great Basin (East of the Sierra Nevada). The Great Basin is (relatively) easy to access from northern California. You can drive over the Sierra Nevada, and you're soon into a series of mountain ranges and valleys. Population densities in the Great Basin are very low, although there are some city areas scattered around the edges here and there. You can fly to Salt Lake City if you want to more quickly get into the region. There is a national park in the Great Basin, which is named simply "Great Basin National Park". Great Basin (Q966943) on Wikidata Great Basin on Wikipedia
    • The Grand Circle of United States National Parks includes a lot of land in the high-elevation deserts of the Western United States. These parks showcase some of the most dramatic scenery not only in these kinds of deserts, but in the whole world. Due to the elevation changes in these parks, they often include higher, wetter sections and lower, drier sections, making them not the most obvious examples of high-elevation desert but still definitely worth visiting to understand these kinds of deserts better.
  • 2 Tibet (southwestern China). A large, dry region in southwestern China. It is near the Himalayas, the highest mountain range on earth. It's about as far as you could get from the Great Basin, physically, culturally, and politically. Tibet (Q17252) on Wikidata Tibet on Wikipedia


These deserts have a lot of open space with few people, and it can be quite enjoyable to drive across the Great Basin, for example.

  • The Loneliest Road in America (a section of U.S. Route 50) crosses the Great Basin, and therefore is a good way to see high-elevation desert. It goes through remote wilderness for many miles across the state of Nevada.
  • The Pony Express Pony Express on Wikipedia crossed the Great Basin region. In fact, there's a stop on Route 50 that mentions the route.

Stay safe[edit]

High-elevation deserts tend to have low populations because their climates are not the friendliest. While some people may love the remoteness of these regions, that does not make them any safer by a long shot; in fact, it makes them only more dangerous. If something goes wrong, you can't expect help so quickly — very similar to the concerns you would have in a typical desert.

However, in a high-elevation desert, cold weather is a greater concern because the elevation brings down the temperature of these regions, meaning that they can get colder than some lower-elevation deserts.

See also[edit]

  • Deserts are the driest regions of the earth. High-elevation deserts are a kind of desert.
  • Mountain ranges can be found in or around high-elevation deserts; there is a reason that high-elevation deserts have their name.
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