Mojave Desert

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Mojave Desert
Hayyikwiir Mat'aar  (Mohave) [1]
Calico basin red rock cumulus mediocris.jpg
Mojave Desert map.svg
Location in North America
Realm Nearctic
Biome Deserts and xeric shrublands
Country United States
States Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah
Coordinates 35°N116°W / 35°N 116°W / 35; -116 Coordinates: 35°N116°W / 35°N 116°W / 35; -116
Rivers Colorado River, Mojave River
Conservation status Relatively Stable/Intact [2]

The Mojave Desert ( /mˈhɑːvi,mə-/ moh-HAH-vee, mə-; [3] [4] [5] Mohave : Hayikwiir Mat'aar) is a xeric desert in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the Southwestern United States. [6] [7] It is the smallest and driest desert of the four American deserts. It is named for the indigenous Mojave people. It is located primarily in southeastern California and southwestern Nevada, with small portions extending into Arizona and Utah. [8] [7]


The Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is endemic and exclusive to the Mojave Desert. Joshua Tree NP - Joshua Tree 2.jpg
The Joshua tree ( Yucca brevifolia ) is endemic and exclusive to the Mojave Desert.

Along with the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Great Basin deserts, a larger North American Desert is formed. The Mojave Desert is bordered to the west by the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the California Montane Scrub, to the South and East by the Sonoran Desert, although the boundaries to the east of the Mojave desert are less distinctive than the other boundaries as there is no distinctive presence of an indicator species, such as the Joshua Tree (Yucca Brevifolia), [10] which is endemic to the Mojave desert. The Mojave Desert is distinguished from the Sonoran Desert and other deserts adjacent to it by its warm temperate climate, as well as flora and fauna such as ironwood, (Olneyatesota), blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia Florida), chuparosa (Justicia californica), spiny menodora (Menodora spinescens), desert senna (Cassia armata), California dalea (Psorothamnus arborescens), and goldenhead (Acamptopappus shockleyi) As such, the extent of these plants generally serve as a boundary between the nearby Sonoran desert. [7] The Mojave Desert displays typical basin and range topography, that is, generally having a pattern of a series of parallel mountain ranges and valleys. The Mojave Desert is also the site of various silver, tungsten, iron and gold deposits. [11] The Mojave Desert is also the site of Death Valley, which is the lowest elevation in North America. The Mojave desert is often colloquially called the "high desert" as most of the desert lies between 610 and 1,220 m.

The spelling Mojave originates from the Spanish language while the spelling Mohave comes from modern English. Both are used today, although the Mojave Tribal Nation officially uses the spelling Mojave; the word is a shortened form of Hamakhaave, their endonym in their native language, which means "beside the water". [12]

Conservation status

The Mojave Desert has a relatively stable and intact conservation status. In fact, the Mojave Desert is one of the best protected distinct ecoregions in the United States, [7] as a result of the California Desert Protection Act, which established the Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park s and the Mojave National Preserve. [13] However, the Southwest and central East portions of the Mojave desert are particularly threatened as a result of off-road vehicles, human development, and agricultural grazing. [7] The World Wildlife Fund lists the Mojave desert as relatively "stable/intact." [7]

Human development

In recent years, human development in the Mojave desert has become increasingly present. Human development at the major urban and suburban centers of Las Vegas and Los Angeles has had an increasingly damaging effect on the wildlife of the Mojave desert. [7] An added demand for landfill space as a result of the large metropolitan centers of Las Vegas and Los Angeles also has the real potential to drastically affect the flora and fauna of the Mojave desert. Agricultural development along the Colorado river, which is close to the Eastern boundary of the Mojave desert also causes habitat loss and degradation. [8] [7] Areas that are particularly affected by human development include Ward Valley and Riverside country. The United States military also maintains installations in the Mojave Desert. Thus, the Mojave desert is a critical training location for the United States Department of Defense. [14]

Geology and physical features

The Mojave Desert is bordered by the San Andreas and the Garlock faults to the Southwest and to the North. The mountains elevated along the length of the San Andreas fault provide a clear border between the Mojave desert and the coastal regions to the West. [15] The Garlock fault separates the Mojave Desert from the Sierra Nevada and Tehachapi mountains, which also provides a natural border to the Mojave desert. There are also abundant alluvial fans, which are called bajadas, which form around the mountains within the Mojave desert and extend down toward the low altitude basins, [10] which contain dried lake beds called playas, where water generally collects and evaporates, leaving large volumes of salt. These playas include Rogers Dry Lake, and China Lake. Dry lakes are a noted feature of the Mojave desert landscape. [7] The Mojave Desert is also home to the Devils Playground, about 40 miles (64 km) of dunes and salt flats going in a northwest-southeasterly direction. The Devil's Playground is a part of the Mojave National Preserve and is between the town of Baker, California and Providence Mountains. The Cronese Mountains are within the Devil's Playground.

Relatively, there is not much riverine activity within the Mojave desert. The intermittent Mojave River, which begins on the San Bernardino mountains and disappears deeper into the Mojave Desert flows through the Mojave generally underground. The Amargosa River also flows partly through the Mojave desert along a southward path. The Manix, Mojave, and the Little Mojave lakes, are all large but shallow. [16] Soda Lake is the principal saline basine of the Mojave desert. Natural springs are typically rare throughout the Mojave desert, [17] however, there are two notable springs, Ash Meadows, and Oasis Valley. Ash Meadows is formed from several other springs, which all draw from deep underground. Oasis Valley draws from the nearby Amargosa river.

The Mojave Desert is also a source of various minerals and metallic materials. The deposits of gold, tungsten, and silver have been mined frequently prior to the Second World War. [11] Additionally, there have been deposits of copper, tin, lead-zinc, manganese, iron, and various radioactive substances but they have not been mined for commercial use. [11]


The climate of the Mojave Desert is characterized by extremes in temperatures throughout the seasons. Freezing temperatures as well as strong winds are not uncommon in the winter, as well as precipitation such as rain and snow in the mountains. In contrast, temperatures above 100 Fahrenheit are not uncommon during the summer months. [18] There is an annual average precipitation of 2 to 6 inches, although regions at high altitudes such as the portion of the Mojave desert in the San Gabriel mountains. [15] [8] Most of the precipitation in the Mojave comes from the Pacific Cyclonic storms that are generally present passing Eastward in November to April. [15] Such storms generally bring rain and snow only in the mountainous regions, as a result of the effect of the Sierra Nevada mountains, which creates a drying effect on its leeward slopes. [15]

During the late summer months, there is also the possibility of strong thunderstorms which bring heavy showers or cloudbursts. These storms can result in flash flooding.

The Mojave Desert has not historically supported a fire regime because of low fuel loads and connectivity. However, in the last few decades, invasive annual plants such as some within the genera Bromus , Schismus and Brassica have facilitated fires by serving as a fuel bed for fires. This has significantly altered many areas of the desert. At higher elevations, fire regimes are regular but infrequent. [19]

Climate data for Furnace Creek, Death Valley (Elevation −190 ft (−58 m))
Record high °F (°C)88
Average high °F (°C)66.9
Average low °F (°C)40.0
Record low °F (°C)15
Average precipitation inches (mm)0.39
Mean monthly sunshine hours 2172262793303723904033723303102101863,625
Source: NOAA 1981–2010 US Climate Normals [20]
Climate data for Searchlight, Nevada. (Elevation 3,550 ft (1,080 m))
Record high °F (°C)77
Average high °F (°C)53.7
Average low °F (°C)35.6
Record low °F (°C)7
Average precipitation inches (mm)0.92
Source: The Western Regional Climate Center [21]
Climate data for Mount Charleston Lodge, Nevada. (Elevation 7,420 ft (2,260 m))
Record high °F (°C)70
Average high °F (°C)44.0
Average low °F (°C)19.2
Record low °F (°C)−11
Average precipitation inches (mm)2.83
Average snowfall inches (cm)18.2
Source: The Western Regional Climate Center [22]

Prehistoric formation

The Mojave Desert was likely under shallow water for most of the time of its formation. [23] [24] Under this shallow coat of water, a large volume of sedimentary processes were likely taking place, causing in large deposits of limestones, silicates, and dolomites. During the Paleozoic Era, the area that is now the Mojave was again likely submerged under a greater sea. [25] During the Mesozoic era, major tectonic activities such as thrust faulting and folding resulted in distinctive shaping as well as intrusion. [10] [25] During the Cenozoic, more tectonic deformation occurred whilst the Mojave was partly submerged. Major volcanic activity is thought to have occurred during the oligocene. Large downpours during the Miocene likely significantly eroded the rock in the Mojave and accelerated deposition. [25]


The Mojave Desert is one of the most popular spots for tourism in North America, primarily because of the gambling destination of Las Vegas. The Mojave is also known for its scenery, playing host to Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Mojave National Preserve. Lakes Mead, Mohave, and Havasu provide water sports recreation, and vast off-road areas entice off-road enthusiasts. The Mojave Desert also includes three California State Parks, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, in Lancaster, Saddleback Butte State Park, in Hi Vista and Red Rock Canyon State Park.

Several attractions and natural features are in the Calico Mountains. Calico Ghost Town, in Yermo, is administered by San Bernardino County. The ghost town has several shops and attractions, and inspired Walter Knott to build Knott's Berry Farm. The Bureau of Land Management also administers Rainbow Basin and Owl Canyon. The Calico Early Man Site, in the Calico Hills east of Yermo, is believed by some archaeologists, including the late Louis Leakey, to show the earliest evidence with lithic stone tools found here of human activity in North America.


The flora of the Mojave desert are helpful in determining the extents of the Mojave desert where there may not be distinctive geophysical boundaries, [7] the Mojave desert consists of various endemic plant species, notably the Joshua Tree, which is a particularly notable endemic and indicator species of the desert. There are more endemic flora of the Mojave desert than almost anywhere in the world. [7] Mojave Desert flora is not a vegetation type, although the plants in the area have evolved in isolation because of the physical barriers of the Sierra Nevadas and the Colorado Plateau. Predominant plants of the Mojave desert include all-scale (Atriplex polycarpa), creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra), white burrobush (Hymenoclea salsola), and most notably, the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). Additionally, the Mojave desert is also home to various species of cacti, such as silver cholla (Cylindropuntia echinocarpa), Mojave prickly pear (O. erinacea), beavertail cactus (O. basilaris), and many-headed barrel cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus). Less common but distinctive plants of the Mojave desert include ironwood, (Olneyatesota), blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia Florida), chuparosa (Justicia californica), spiny menodora (Menodora spinescens), desert senna (Cassia armata), California dalea (Psorothamnus arborescens), and goldenhead (Acamptopappus shockleyi). The Mojave desert is generally abundant in winter annuals. [26] The plants of the Mojave desert each generally correspond to an individual geographic feature. As such, the Mojave desert has distinctive flora communities within the desert.


A good portion of the fauna of the Mojave desert extends into the neighboring Sonoran and Great Basin deserts. The animal species of the Mojave desert have generally less endemics than the flora of the Mojave desert. However, endemic fauna of the Mojave desert include Kelso Dunes jerusalem cricket (Ammopelmatus kelsoensis), the Kelso Dunes shieldback katydid (Eremopedes kelsoensis), the Mohave ground squirrel (Spermophilus Mohavensis) and Amargosa vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis). [27] The Mojave fringe-toed lizard (Uma Scoparia) is not endemic, but almost completely limited to the Mojave desert. Notable species of the Mojave desert include the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), which has adapted considerably to he conditions of the Mojave desert and deserts in general. [7] There are various other species that are particularly common in the Mojave desert, such as the LeConte's thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei), banded gecko (Coleonyx variegatus), desert iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis), chuckwalla (Sauromalus obesus), and regal horned lizard (Phrynosoma solare). Species of snake include the desert rosy boa (Lichanura trivirgata gracia), Mojave patchnose snake (Salvadora hexalepis mojavensis), and Mojave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus).

A desert tortoise, which can be found in the Mojave desert. Desert tortoise (G. agassizii) - Flickr - smashtonlee05.jpg
A desert tortoise, which can be found in the Mojave desert.

Protected areas and parks

Various habitats and regions of the Mojave Desert have been protected by statute. Notably, Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, and the Mojave National Preserve by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. (Pub.L. 103–433). Additionally, various other national parks and state parks have regions within the Mojave desert. These include Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, which protects the fields of California poppies Desert Tortoise Natural Area, Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park, Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Red Rock Canyon State Park, Saddleback Butte State Park, Snow Canyon State Park and Valley of Fire State Park.

2009 litigation

In 2009, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled against the Bureau's proposed designation of additional off-road vehicle use allowance in the western Mojave Desert. According to the ruling, the Bureau of Land Management violated its own regulations when it designated approximately 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of off-roading routes in 2006. According to Judge Illston, the Bureau's designation was significantly "flawed because it does not contain a reasonable range of alternatives" to limit damage to sensitive habitat. Judge Illston found the bureau had inadequately analyzed the routes' impacts on air quality, soils, plant communities, riparian habitats, and sensitive species such as the endangered Mojave fringe-toed lizard, pointing out that the desert and its resources are "extremely fragile, easily scarred, and slowly healed." [28]

Cities and regions

A typical Mojave desert valley and city: Indian Wells Valley and Ridgecrest, California RidgecrestCA.JPG
A typical Mojave desert valley and city: Indian Wells Valley and Ridgecrest, California
A typical desert scene near the Searles, California area, January 2019 Searles, CA Mojave Desert.jpg
A typical desert scene near the Searles, California area, January 2019
A Mojave desert nautical twilight, in Johnson Valley, California Desert Rim Sunset.jpg
A Mojave desert nautical twilight, in Johnson Valley, California

While the Mojave Desert itself is generally sparsely populated, it has increasingly become urbanized in recent years. [8] [7] The metropolitan areas include Las Vegas, the largest city in the Mojave and the largest city in Nevada with a population of about 651 thousand. [29] St. George is the northeasternmost metropolitan area in the Mojave, with a population of around 185,000 in 2020, and is located at the convergence of the Mojave, Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. Lancaster is the largest California city in the desert. [8] Smaller cities or micropolitan areas in the Mojave Desert include Helendale, Lake Havasu City, Kingman, Laughlin, Bullhead City and Pahrump. All have experienced rapid population growth since 1990. The California portion of the desert also contains Edwards Air Force Base and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, noted for experimental aviation and weapons projects.

The Mojave Desert has several ghost towns; the most significant are the gold-mining town of Oatman, Arizona, the silver and copper-mining town of Calico, California, and the old railroad depot of Kelso. Some of the other ghost towns are more modern, created when U.S. Route 66 (and the lesser-known U.S. Route 91) were abandoned in favor of the construction of Interstates.

Related Research Articles

Geography of California Overview of the geography of California

California is a U.S. state on the western coast of North America. Covering an area of 163,696 sq mi (423,970 km2), California is among the most geographically diverse states. The Sierra Nevada, the fertile farmlands of the Central Valley, and the arid Mojave Desert of the south are some of the major geographic features of this U.S. state. It is home to some of the world's most exceptional trees: the tallest, most massive, and oldest. It is also home to both the highest and lowest points in the 48 contiguous states. The state is generally divided into Northern and Southern California, although the boundary between the two is not well defined. San Francisco is decidedly a Northern California city and Los Angeles likewise a Southern California one, but areas in between do not often share their confidence in geographic identity. The US Geological Survey defines the geographic center of the state at a point near North Fork, California.

Great Basin Large depression in western North America

The Great Basin is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds in North America. It spans nearly all of Nevada, much of Oregon and Utah, and portions of California, Idaho, Wyoming, and Baja California, Mexico. It is noted for both its arid climate and the basin and range topography that varies from the North American low point at Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the highest point of the contiguous United States, less than 100 miles (160 km) away at the summit of Mount Whitney. The region spans several physiographic divisions, biomes, ecoregions, and deserts.

Sonoran Desert Desert in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States

The Sonoran Desert is a North American desert and ecoregion which covers large parts of the Southwestern United States in Arizona and California as well as Northwestern Mexico in Sonora, Baja California, and Baja California Sur. It is the hottest desert in Mexico. It has an area of 260,000 square kilometers (100,000 sq mi).

Ecology of California

The ecology of California can be understood by dividing the state into a number of ecoregions, which contain distinct ecological communities of plants and animals in a contiguous region. The ecoregions of California can be grouped into four major groups: desert ecoregions, Mediterranean ecoregions, forested mountains, and coastal forests.

Colorado Desert Subdivision of the larger Sonoran Desert, California

California's Colorado Desert is a part of the larger Sonoran Desert. It encompasses approximately 7 million acres, including the heavily irrigated Coachella and Imperial valleys. It is home to many unique flora and fauna.

Amargosa Valley

The Amargosa Valley is the valley through which the Amargosa River flows south, in Nye County, southwestern Nevada and Inyo County in the state of California. The south end is alternately called the "Amargosa River Valley'" or the "Tecopa Valley." Its northernmost point is around Beatty, Nevada and southernmost is Tecopa, California, where the Amargosa River enters into the Amargosa Canyon.

Mohave Valley

The Mohave Valley is a valley located mostly on the east shore of the south-flowing Colorado River in northwest Arizona. The valley extends into California's San Bernardino County; the northern side of the valley extends into extreme southeast Clark County, Nevada. The main part of the valley lies in southwest Mohave County, Arizona and is at the intersection of the southeast Mojave and northwest Sonoran deserts.

Providence Mountains

The Providence Mountains are found in the eastern Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County, California, U.S. The range reaches an elevation of 7,162 feet (2,183 m) at Edgar Peak and is home to the Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, and the Mojave National Preserve.

Lower Colorado River Valley

The Lower Colorado River Valley (LCRV) is the river region of the lower Colorado River of the southwestern United States in North America that rises in the Rocky Mountains and has its outlet at the Colorado River Delta in the northern Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico, between the states of Baja California and Sonora. This north–south stretch of the Colorado River forms the border between the U.S. states of California/Arizona and Nevada/Arizona, and between the Mexican states of Baja California/Sonora.

Deserts of California

The Deserts of California have unique ecosystems and habitats, a sociocultural and historical "Old West" collection of legends, districts, and communities, and they also form a popular tourism region of dramatic natural features and recreational development. All of the deserts are located in eastern Southern California, in the Western United States.

Cleghorn Lakes Wilderness

The Cleghorn Lakes Wilderness is a 33,475-acre (135.47 km2) wilderness area in the southern Mojave Desert. It is located 16 miles (26 km) northeast of Twentynine Palms, California, and 20 miles (32 km) north of Joshua Tree National Park. It is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Sacramento Wash

The Sacramento Wash is a major drainage of northwest Arizona in Mohave County. The wash is east of the Black Canyon of the Colorado and drains into the south-flowing Colorado River 45 mi south of Lake Mohave, and 90 mi south of Hoover Dam at Lake Mead. The wash outfall is in the center-south of the Havasu-Mohave Lakes Watershed. An equivalent wash drains to the west of the Colorado River and the Black Canyon, draining southeast Nevada and a small part of California, the Piute Wash of the Piute Valley. The Piute Wash outfall is upstream of the Sacramento's outfall by about 15 miles.

<i>Psorothamnus arborescens</i> Species of legume

Psorothamnus arborescens is a species of flowering plant in the legume family known by the common name Mojave indigo bush.

<i>Acamptopappus sphaerocephalus</i> Species of flowering plant

Acamptopappus spaerocephalus is a species of flowering plant in the aster family known by the common name rayless goldenhead. It is native to the southwestern United States, where it occurs in southern California, southern Nevada, southern Utah, and Arizona.

<i>Lycium pallidum</i> Species of flowering plant

Lycium pallidum is a species of flowering plant in the nightshade family known by the common names pale wolfberry and pale desert-thorn. It is native to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. In Mexico it can be found in Sonora, Chihuahua, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosi. In the United States it occurs from California to Texas and as far north as Utah and Colorado.

Fauna of California Flora and fauna of the US state of California

The fauna of the State of California may be the most diverse in the United States of America. Of the Lower 48 conterminous states, California has the greatest diversity in climate, terrain and geology in general. The state's six life zones are the lower Sonoran (desert); upper Sonoran ; transition ; and the Canadian, Hudsonian, and Arctic zones, comprising California's highest elevations. California’s diverse geography gives rise to dozens of different ecosystems, each of which has its own unique native plants and animals. California is a huge state, the 3rd largest in the U.S., and can range broadly in habitat type.

Sand to Snow National Monument

Sand to Snow National Monument is a U.S. National Monument located in San Bernardino County and into northern Riverside County, Southern California.


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