A Complete Guide To The Sonoran Desert

On record as the hottest desert in North America, the Sonoran Desert stretches across Arizona, California, and part of Mexico. The desert has a total area of over 280,000 square miles and is one of the most richly biodiverse deserts in North America, home to over sixty species of mammals, 350 kinds of birds, and 2,000 native species of plants. The desert also encompasses the city of Phoenix and the Coachella Valley.

Sonoran Desert Location & Sub Regions

The Sonoran Desert occupies a sizeable chunk of the southwestern North American continent. On the west, the desert is bounded by the Peninsular Ranges, and eventually changes to the Colorado Plateau, Mojave, and Great Basin deserts in the north. In the east and southeast, the desert transitions into the Sierra Madre and Arizona Mountains forests. Further to the south, the Sonoran Desert becomes the tropical dry forest of Sinaloa.

Within this region, there are various sub-regions of the Sonoran Desert, including the Yuma, the Yuha, the Tonopah, the Lechuguilla, the Gran Desierto de Altar, and the Colorado Desert. Each of these regions is home to unique plant and animal life.

Sonoran Desert Weather, Climate & Terrain

The global air patterns tend to keep the Sonoran hot and dry most of the year. The Sonoran Desert is located on what is called a "horse latitude," also known as a subtropical high, which means that cool, moist air from the equator has already dropped in heavy rains elsewhere, and only dry, cool air tends to reach the area. The Sonoran also exists in a double rain shadow, meaning that the mountain slopes bounding the desert have often drained off moisture.

The desert does have two "rain seasons," also known as a biomodal rainfall pattern; one in winter from December to March, and during July to September, which is monsoon season, bringing heavy rain and lightning storms. The driest times of the year tend to be during spring and autumn, which are ironically the coolest and most pleasant times of year for humans.

However, the high elevation of the Sonoran Desert also means that there are several "microclimates" in the area, which explains the unique biodiversity of the region. Fossil records have also shown that the Sonoran Desert's climate was much wetter and cooler ten thousand years ago.

Sonoran Desert Flora and Fauna

Because of these thriving sub-regions and microclimates, the plant and animal life of the Sonoran Desert is unique and diverse: for example, the Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world where the saguaro cactus grows naturally. Other cacti of the area include the beavertail, hedgehog, fishhook, prickly pear, and organ pipe, among many others. The desert is also home to such plants as the creosote bush, the bur sage, Mormon tea plant, and the California fan palm, as well as many species of wildflowers.

The flora of the Sonoran Desert provides sustenance for its diverse animal life, which comprises hundreds of different animal species. Among the animal denizens of the Sonoran Desert are the canyon wren, the desert box turtle, the kangaroo rat, the spotted owl, the Arizona night lizard, the ring-tailed cat, the greater roadrunner, and dozens of species of birds, from the Crissal Thrasher to the Black-throated Sparrow.

Sonoran Desert Parks, Landmarks & Other Notable Areas

The ecosystem of the Sonoran desert is prone to disturbance -- in part thanks to expanding human populations in the area -- which has led to the creation of many protected areas in the desert, including the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge, the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, Madera Canyon, White Tank Mountain Regional Park, and many more.

Several of these protected areas double as attractions, such as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden covering ninety-eight acres located west of Tucson. The museum features exhibits devoted to the study of the Sonoran Desert and its ecosystems, as well as conservation education and community outreach programs like the Desert Ark Van.

Another famous landmark of the area is the Sonoran Desert National Monument, a 400,000-acre preserve granted monument status by Presidential proclamation and home to several endangered species. There are many other facilities in the Sonoran Desert, such as the Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, which is home to over 2,600 varieties of arid plants from the region, which themselves attract birds and other fauna where visitors can see them.

Sonoran Desert Human Populations

The desert is home to much more than plants, birds and lizards. The city of Phoenix (population 4.3 million), located on the Salt River, has been slowly pushing the desert back since 2007 due to its rapidly increasing population. In California's part of the Sonoran, the Coachella Valley is home to over 300,000 people, as the popular resort cities of Palm Springs and Palm Desert attract thousands yearly. The Sonoran Desert is also home to many Native American tribes, with many settlements in Arizona, California and Mexico. Some of the tribes indigenous to the area include the Pascua Yaqui, Seri, and the Cocopah.

Sonoran Desert Facts for Kids

The Sonoran Desert is a rich and fascinating environment, with a wealth of opportunity for teaching young people about biology and natural history, as well as the importance of conservation and ecological responsibility. Many of the parks, museums and preserves of the area have dedicated resources to education and awareness, focused on kids. The Sonoran Desert is a natural resource that deserves preservation and care, and educating the next generation on its importance is vital to the continued diversity of life in the Sonoran.

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