The Best Deserts In The World For Your Travel Bucket List

Life Writer
06.13.18
best deserts in the world

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Deserts tend to be foreboding places. By definition, they’re the harshest corners of the globe where water is the scarcest. You kind of need a plan if you’re going to one. Otherwise, well, your thirst will be the least of your worries. That being said, deserts are also deeply beautiful and unique. They are vast seas of sand filled with amazing canyons, diverse wildlife, and vistas that stretch beyond the horizon — all of which make for great travel destinations where you can collect amazing memories.

With all of that in mind, we thought we’d cobble together a list of the 16 deserts around the world that are “must-stops” for the wary vagabond. These are the deserts that we all have to see at least once in our lives. They’re far-flung, intrepid, and engrossing spots to visit on this planet. And they’ll leave you in awe. Just don’t forget the water and sunscreen.

THE EMPTY QUARTER — ABU DHABI, UAE

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Right outside of the megalopolis of Abu Dhabi, you’ll find one of the largest empty spaces on the planet — The Empty Quarter (called the Rub’ al Khali locally). This seemingly endless sandy desert stretches far into Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen from the UAE. It’s quite literally the largest sand desert in the world and covers an area the size of Texas. It’s so big that the high winds create 1,000-foot high sand dunes. The Empty Quarter is immense in every way.

How to get there: Fly into Abu Dhabi and find yourself a jeep tour into the wilds.

Where to stay: Treat yourself to a little Emirati luxury and stay at the Qasr Al Sarab Resort.

WADI RUM — JORDAN

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The Wadi Rum is as close as most of us will get to a Martian landscape. The ruddy sand desert gives way to almost mythically eroded mountains that feel like ancient domes from Dune.

There’s a lot of beauty in this desert that’s worth exploring! There’s also a deep bedouin culture out there that you can legit camp with, eat with, and truly experience the desert life with. Enjoy the Martian views!

How to get there: Fly into Aqaba or Ramm (usually via Amman) and find a local guide.

Where to stay: Live the real desert life with the nomadic locals and stay at the Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp.

KALAHARI DESERT — BOTSWANA

The Kalahari in southern Africa is another vast desert. So vast that you can fit California in it twice. But, unlike, say, The Empty Quarter, this place is teaming with wildlife.

The Kalahari is the ultimate destination for anyone looking to check “rad safari” off their bucket list. This desert is one of the most ecologically diverse corners of the planet and it’s still amazingly wild, making it worth every cent you have to spend to get there.

How to get there: You’ll likely have to fly via South Africa (Jo’burg), take a local flight into Muan or Gaborone, and then jump on a bush flight into the desert. You can do all of this solo, but it’ll cost. So a packaged safari might be the play here.

Where to stay: Kalahari Plains Camp is a great bet to enjoy the beauty of the plains, desert, and wilds.

THE NAMIB — NAMIBIA

Namibia is one of those places that feels very far away. If we’re being honest, there’s not a lot of cultural connectivity between the west and Namibia. And that’s kind of what makes this corner of the world so alluring. It’s a place that has words like “skeleton” in the name of things which conjures the images of pirates, Mad Max, and extreme adventure.

The Namib is a massive red sand desert that stretches almost the entire length of Namibia. Little towns are peppered here and there, but otherwise, it’s very empty and very surreal. The sands of the desert go right up to the Atlantic Ocean, offering gorgeous vistas. Generally, you’ll need to hire a jeep to get around and you’d be smart to hire a guide too as the empty expanses of this place are a matter of life and death.

How to get there: You’ll need to fly into Windhoek or Walvis Bay (usually via Cape Town, South Africa). From there, you’ll need a jeep.

Where to stay: Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is a bucket list spot. The camp is surrounded by five millions acres of wild sandy desert that’s teaming with desert-adapted elephants, lions, giraffes, and more. This is a once-in-a-lifetime expense that’s 100 percent worth it.

BLUE DESERT — EGYPT

The coast along the Red Sea in Egypt has been a modern tourist destination since the days of Hemingway. Dahab is ground zero for all your hippy needs with seaside hookah joints next to row after row of beach huts where the Red Sea stretches out before you and the vast Blue Desert stretches out behind you.

The Egyptian Blue Desert is a magical place that’s technically part of the Sinai Desert. What makes this one stand out are the blue rocks that dot the wilderness. The rocks were painted blue to celebrate peace between Egypt and Israel back in 1980. While a lot of the rocks have faded over the last four decades, there’s still a slice of something truly special to be found out in this desert.

How to get there: Fly into Sharm el-Sheik and catch a shared bus up to Dahab.

Where to stay: Your best and cheapest bet is to snag an Airbnb Beach House. The cost is minimal, between $10 and $20 per night, and will put you right in the middle of the Dahab action.

KARAKUM DESERT — TURKMENISTAN

Central Asia is a corner of the world that’s left off a lot of people’s travel lists. As such, Turkmenistan is a wholly unique culture that feels untouched by the 20th century, much less the 21st. The country is out there in the wilds of the former Soviet Union tucked between Iran, Afghanistan, and Russia.

The Karakum is a very unique spot. There are ancient archaeological sites like Merv and Mary in the east which date back 5,000 years. As you move west, vast sandy expanses fill the landscape until you hit the Caspian Sea. To the north, you’ll find the biggest draw to the region: The Door to Hell, or the Darvaza gas crater. There are few places as special, enticing, or unique on the planet.

How to get there: Fly into Ashgabat (make sure you get a visa ahead of time). From there, the trains are one way to get around, but they’re old. Shared buses and travel guides with jeeps are also available and advised.

Where to stay: Camp at the Door To Hell with a travel guide.

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GOBI DESERT — MONGOLIA

The Gobi in Mongolia is always a hot destination. The desert and grasslands that make the bulk of the country are an other-worldly experience. The small bands of people who call this place home comprise a devoted horse culture that’ll transport you someplace new, old, and unique.

Traversing the Gobi is no small task. Generally, people dip in and out from Ulaan Baatar on guided tours. You can do it yourself though. Hit up UB, buy yourself a motorcycle, stock up on supplies and a GPS, and set out for adventure. You’ll meet amazing people, eat bizarrely delicious food, and have the experience of a lifetime.

How to get there: Fly into Ulaan Baatar or, alternatively, take the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian train from Moscow or Beijing.

Where to stay: Three Camel Lodge offers isolated stays in yurts out in the desert where horses and camels roam the landscape. It’s a wild, fun place to really detox from all the trappings of modern life.

CANARY ISLANDS — SPAIN

Just off the coast of northwest Africa, you’ll find a small collection of sandy, volcanic islands. Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote are the four main destinations with three smaller islands further west. Each island has their own vibe and draws different crowds from all over Europe for package holidays, party weekends, or isolated disconnects from the bustle.

The Canary Islands are the perfect escape. You can spend the morning hiking a volcano, eat a long lunch, have a siesta, and then spend the evening partying on the beach.

How to get there: You can catch a flight to the islands from pretty much every major European capital. Package holidays will usually include a charter flight. Or, sail there and island hop.

Where to stay: Airbnb Villa is the way to go. Or, book a package and stay at a resort if you don’t want to worry about a single thing.

POBITI KAMANI — BULGARIA

The “Stone Desert” or Pobiti Kamani is a rarely traveled corner of the world and that makes it a very enticing place. Hell, Bulgaria isn’t exactly a top ten destination on anyone’s lists these days. That means two things: It’s wicked cheap and there isn’t a glut of gawky tourists getting in your way with their selfie sticks.

The sandy desert is peppered with “forests” of naturally occurring stone columns about five to seven meters (16 to 24 feet) high. It sort of looks like the ruins of some ancient civilization that lost a battle to the elements, but it’s all natural and wonderous. This is also a pretty small spot and you can easily spend a day here exploring and get the gist. That just leaves more time for lounging on Black Sea beaches in Varna.

How to get there: Fly into Varna, jump on a bus or rent a car.

Where to stay: Varna is a very old-school seaside tourist destination. So there are tons of hotels, resorts, and home-shares.

HIGH DESERT — OREGON

Oregon is known for a lot of things these days: A brilliant craft beer scene, idyllic wineries, beautiful coastlines, hipper-than-thou cities, cults, and the High Desert. The latter is one of the biggest attractions of the state with a wilderness that’ll draw you into a world in the Pacific Northwest that you may never want to leave.

The High Desert isn’t so much sandy as it’s full of junipers, arid pine forests, drastic volcanic slopes, and vast stretches of the open range. Oh, and there’s usually great food and on-point beer in between. Overall, this is a great spot to grab a quick weekend away or a two-week vacay right in our own backyard.

How to get there: Fly into PDX, or, if you’re already in the region, you can catch an Alaska Air flight to Redmond, Oregon.

Where to stay: There are few spots in America as beautiful as the Brasada Ranch. It’s worth every penny you’ll spend there.

MOAB — UTAH

There’s a lot of love about Utah’s natural beauty. The state is full of national parks and monuments that are worth your time. You can spend years exploring the place and only scratch the surface of the mountains, deserts, and all that’s in between.

Moab has a feel to it like an old John Ford movie that’s impossibly widescreen and overwhelmingly technicolor. White Rim Road, Fish Towers, the Colorado River rapids, and nearby Canyonlands and Arches parks offer every vagabonding adventurer a chance at adrenaline high jinks or laid-back outdoor meditation. Your pick.

How to get there: Regionally, you can fly into Moab from Denver. Otherwise, you’ll need to fly into Salt Lake City or Grand Junction, CO, and drive it.

Where to stay: Under Canvas is the glamping destination of your dreams. Each tent has a king size bed, fully equipped bathroom, and a nice fireplace so you can stay warm during those cold desert nights.

DEATH VALLEY — CALIFORNIA

There’s a desert between California and Nevada that’s as mystical as it’s dangerous. Death Valley kills people every year. So much so that the National Park Services had to start issuing warnings for the place. That shouldn’t stop you from seeing it at least once in your life. But, be smart and be prepared. Death Valley is an unforgiving place. Still, it’s so vast, empty, and colorful that you have to go at least once.

How to get there: Hitting Death Valley is a pretty easy road trip between L.A. and Vegas. It’s the perfect mid-day pit stop. Or, fly into Vegas and drive out for the day.

Where to stay: The Ranch at Death Valley is a great spot with a big swimming pool. Otherwise, maybe get a rad hotel room in Vegas.

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Death Valley 💀

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ATACAMA DESERT — CHILE

The northern 1,600 miles of Chile is home to one of the biggest and driest deserts in the world. This is a vast, vast place where two mountain ranges create a sort of double rainshadow and, therefore, a place that rarely, if ever, gets rain.

The Atacama is huge. There’s a lot to explore from Valleys of Death (not to be confused with Death Valley), volcanoes, massive plateaus, sandy beaches, cacti forests, and abundant wild nature. You can get lost here. So plan well.

How to get there: Generally, you should fly into Antofagasta in northern Chile and hire a jeep and maybe even guide (for safety reasons).

Where to stay: A stay at Alto Atacama will make you feel like you’re in a Bond movie or in a colony on some far off planet in another star system. It’s also the perfect base for exploring the wonders of the desert day or night.

THAR DESERT — INDIA

India is a place of contrasts. Rainforest jungles, Himalayas, great plains, high deserts, and arid low-laying deserts are all in the mix. The Thar Desert takes up ten percent of all of India and reaches well into Pakistan. The dry climate is home to millions of people and varying cultures.

There’s a lot to see and do here. You can stay in temples surrounded by sand, hop from village to village, or simply find a spot in Rajasthan to chill and connect to nature. No matter where you find yourself, the food is always going to be amazing.

How to get there: Fly into Jaipur and jump on a westward train to explore the region.

Where to stay: At the western reaches of Rajasthan near the Pakistani border you’ll find a Jaisalmer and the Damadora Desert Camp. Rack up here, enjoy the chilled out atmosphere, and eat good food. It’s the perfect base for exploring the rest of the desert.

SIMPSON DESERT — AUSTRALIA

Australia’s Northern Territory is a huge swath of land that stretches from tropical jungles in the north teaming with croc-choked waters to arid and ruddy sandy deserts throughout the interior. It’s a magical place that’s damn near empty save a few bands of ancient aborigines and plenty of opportunity for adventure.

The Simpson Desert is only the fourth largest desert in Australia. But its location is what makes it a must. It’s located in the southeast corner of the Northern Territory (reaching into both Queensland and South Australia) which basically puts in smack dab in the middle of the country. It’s home to teams of kangaroos, packs of emus, and reddish sand dunes that stretch to the horizon. It’s also right next to Uluru, which is always worth the trek.

How to get there: Fly to Alice Springs and go from there. Just prepare. There’s very little out there.

Where to stay: Longitude 131 at Uluru is outside the Simpson Desert, but 100 percent worth the side trip. This is lux camping at its most “lux.”

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HOT • CONTENDER Best pool view in Australia 🔝

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ANTARCTICA

Antarctica isn’t your classic sandy, dry desert. It’s an icy, dry desert. It’s one of the driest places on earth. It’s also, by far, the most remote and mythical place on this list.

Antarctica isn’t for the light of heart. This is a massive investment of time and money to take on. It’s also one of the most rewarding trips you can take. Antarctica is the Earth at its most extreme and isolated and we can say, without hyperbole, that there’s really nowhere else like it. Go. But, please, respect the place.

How to get there: You’ll have to take a cruise or get a job at McMurdo.

Where to stay: Your boat.

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