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The Sonoran Desert is the hottest desert in the United States. BUT that doesn’t mean its a barren wasteland.

You may be surprised to learn that key to the Sonoran Desert’s uniqueness is something very scarce here: water.

You see, the Sonoran is quite “lush” compared to most deserts, especially in the areas where it gets 10+ inches of rainfall per year. This has created a unique “desert” environment with a surprisingly diverse ecosystem home to more than 2,000 plant species and over 350 animal species.

Keep reading to find out the most unique facts about the Sonoran Desert that will give you no choice but to appreciate its wonders.

The Sonoran Desert has two rainy seasons!

sonoran desert facts - two rainy seasons

Monsoon storms during sunset at the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, Arizona. Photo: Eric Mischke

The Sonoran Desert’s unique location allows it to have two rainy seasons: one in winter and one in summer. Most deserts have one rainy season — typically in winter — like the neighboring Mojave Desert. However, the Sonoran Desert also has summer rains — known as the monsoons — which are isolated but intense. The monsoons are caused by a seasonal wind that brings moist air from the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico.

The monsoon can produce spectacular thunderstorms, lightning, flash floods, and dust storms. The rainfall varies greatly across the desert, from less than 3 inches per year near the Colorado River to more than 15 inches per year in some mountainous areas, such as the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

The Sonoran Desert’s dual rainy seasons are the most important fact on this list — that extra few inches of rain allows much of the desert’s life to thrive.

Haboobs happen frequently during the Monsoons.

sonoran desert haboob

A massive haboob engulfs a mountain range in southern Arizona. Photo: Kyle Benne

A haboob is a type of dust storm that occurs in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Haboobs are huge clouds of dust and sand lifted into air by strong winds from thunderstorms. Haboobs can reduce visibility, damage property, and affect air quality.

They are also a spectacular sight to behold, as they create a massive wall of dust that can reach up to 10,000 feet high. One of the largest Haboobs in Phoenix history happened on July 5, 2011. The dust cloud measured stretched for about 100 miles, and was famously captured by stormchaser Mike Olbinski as it engulfed downtown Phoenix:

This particular dust storm infested my in-laws’ yard with ticks, which wreaked havoc on their pet dogs for weeks.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, about 100 haboobs were recorded in Arizona from 2002 to 2012. That’s an average of 10 haboobs each summer!

It is home to the giant Saguaro.

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Giant Saguaros on the foothills on the Mazatzal Mountains near Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Jake Case

The Sonoran Desert’s two rainy seasons make it possible for extraordinarily large cactus to grow. And one of the most iconic and recognizable plants of the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), which can grow up to 50 feet tall and live for over 200 years. It is the largest cactus in the United States and the Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world where it grows naturally.

The saguaro has a remarkable adaptation to survive in the harsh desert conditions: it can store up to 200 gallons of water in its stem, which balloons when it rains to take on more h2O. The saguaro cactus also provides food and shelter for many animals, such as birds, bats, insects, and rodents.

The Organ Pipe Cactus lives here.

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Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona. Photo: Melissa Kopka

Another large species exclusive to the Sonoran Desert is the stunning organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi). This cactus has multiple stems that grow from its base and look like the pipes of an organ.

These large succulents can reach up to 25 feet in height and produce white and pink flowers that bloom at night. Organ pipes are often pollinated by bats and moths that are attracted by its sweet nectar. The fruits of the organ pipe cactus are edible but have a sour taste. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is the very best place to see its namesake cactus.

It is home to a diverse collection of wildlife.

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Gila monster seen in the Tonto National Forest. Photo: Eric Mischke

The Sonoran Desert two rainy seasons and varied topography make it a great habitat for a wide range of animals. According to the National Park Service, the region is home to at least 60 species of mammals, over 350 species of birds, 20 amphibian species, over 100 reptile species, and about 30 species of native fish. Among the most notable Sonoran Desert species is the gila monster (Heloderma suspectum, pictured above), which is one of only two venomous lizards in the world.

Fans of classic cartoons (Looney Toons, anyone??) know about the roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) and the coyote (Canis latrans), both of which live in the Sonoran Desert for real. While coyotes do actually eat roadrunners, they also feed on rodents, rabbits, reptiles, and fruits — and they definitely do not use anvils to stun their prey. Roadrunners, on the other hand, are indeed as fast as the Looney Toons character — reaching speeds up to 20 miles per hour.

One last noteworthy Sonoran beast is the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), which feel most at home on rocky slopes and canyon walls. The animal’s large horns can weigh as much as 30 pounds, which it uses to fight off both predators and rival bighorn sheep.

It has been the ancestral land of Indigenous Peoples for thousands of years.

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Hohokam petroglyphs north of Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Jake Case

The Sonoran Desert has been inhabited by humans for at least two thousand years. The earliest known inhabitants were the Hohokam people, skilled farmerswho developed an advanced irrigation system to grow crops such as corn, beans, squash, and cotton. While they disappeared around 1450 CE for unknown reasons, they are considered the ancestors of the O’odham people, who still live in the Sonoran Desert today.

Later, other indigenous peoples settled in the desert, such as the Pima, Papago, Apache, Yaqui, Seri, and Cocopah. In particular, the Nde (Apache) who migrated from Canada to the Sonoran Desert about 800 years ago. The Nde were hunter-gatherers and raiders who lived in small bands and moved around nomadically. They also had a matrilineal society, where women played important roles in economics, religion, and social organization. The Nde resisted invasion and domination by Europeans for centuries, until they were forced onto reservations in the late 1800s by the American government.

The Spanish Influence is immense.

Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, Arizona. Photo: Gerald Cosby

The Sonoran Desert was also explored by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. They established missions, forts, mines, ranches, and towns throughout the region. They also introduced diseases, livestock, crops, and religion that changed the lives of the native people for better and for worse.

In 1821, the Sonoran Desert became part of Mexico after it declared its independence from Spain. The Sonoran was later divided between Mexico and the United States after several wars and treaties, including the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The Mission San Xavier del Bac (pictured above) is one of the most famous examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the region. Founded by Spanish missionaries in 1692, the original structures were razed during an Apache raid in 1770. The mission as it stands today was built between 1783 and 1797, making it Arizona’s oldest European structure.

It Spans the Border Between the U.S. and Mexico.

map illustrating the sonoran desert in arizona, california, and mexico

Credit: Rainer Lesniewski

About 120,000 square miles in size, the Sonoran Desert covers a vast expanse in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. Approximately 38% (or 45,000 square miles) of the desert is in the U.S., while about 62% (or 75,000 square miles) are in Mexico.

Rivers run through it, like the mighty Colorado.

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The Colorado River flows through the Sonoran Desert near Blythe, California. Photo: Greg Lara

Like the monsoon rains, rivers are a major source of water to this arid region. Unlike the monsoons, rivers don’t provide widespread moisture across the region. For millenia the rivers have provided water to plants and animals living nearby, and since the invention of irrigation and other technology, have provided resources for both ancient and modern people.

By far the largest river in the Sonoran Desert is the Colorado River. When the Colorado first enters the Sonoran Desert near Needles, California, the water has already traveled over 1,000 miles from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains. This makes the Colorado an “exotic river”, similar to the infamous Nile River in Africa.

Today, dams along the lower Colorado River (like the Parker Dam) create lakes (like Lake Havasu), providing hydroelectric power to nearby cities. The Colorado River is also heavily irrigated, with 2.8 million acre-feet of its water used by Arizona each year, and 3.5 million acre-feet going to California’s Imperial Valley. A substantial amount of this water is used for crops, but cities like Phoenix also use Colorado for their municipal water supplies.

The Salt River is also a major water and power source for the Sonoran Desert. Historically, the Salt was used by the Hohokam people for irrigation of farmlands. More recently, the Phoenix metropolitan area sprung up along the banks of the Salt, and would not have been able to grow to the size of 5 million people without it.

Deciduous tree grow along the Sonoran Desert’s waterways.

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Deciduous trees on the banks of the Lower Salt River below the Stuart Mountain Dam. Photo: Jake Case

We talked about the Sonoran Desert’s rivers as water sources for people, but they also provide water for trees you would not expect to find in an arid climate. Known as “riparian zones”, the areas near rivers and creeks are often home to sycamore, cottonwood, and many other deciduous trees often associated with wetter climates.

The Sonoran Desert’s most famous riparian tree is the Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii), of which the largest specimens have grown to be 90 feet tall. Cottonwood trees are heavy drinkers, requiring as much as 200 gallons of water per day.

Learn More About the Sonoran Desert!

Jake Case

Jake is a naturalist, writer, and landscape photographer from Arizona. A geographer by education, he’s worked as a park ranger with the National Park Service, a tour guide at the Grand Canyon South Rim, and a docent at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. Jake has seriously practiced landscape photography since 2009. You can learn more about Jake on the About page.

2 Comments

  • Sandy Graham says:

    Jake loved this piece and love you for reminding everyone to love our United states of America and PROTECT IT….Jake I will never forget my time there with you and family. You made an impression that will last with me for forever. Thank you

    • Jake Case says:

      Thanks so much, Aunt Sandy! We have a photo from that trip of the whole family with you at the Grand Canyon, it is hanging in our living room. Hopefully we can make it out to your neck of the woods before to long

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