The Chihuahuan Desert extends deeply into Mexico. Only about 1/3 of it is in the United States. New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas claim parts of it. It’s largest city, Ciudad Juarez, is in Mexico just across the border from El Paso, Texas. Their combined population is about 2.2 million.
Chihuahua is a just 8,000 year old. Its size, ranging from 140,000 to over 200,000 square miles, depends on the source of the information. The National Park Service calls its boundaries ‘imprecise”. What is not so much in dispute is that it’s the second largest desert among the 4 and the most biologically diverse. It has, for example, more species of cacti than any desert in the world but none predominate. Its indicator species is the lowly creosote bush.
Some of its inhabitants like the kangaroo rat can live without water. Most are nocturnal. A commonly seen bird is the roadrunner. The cartoons don’t deal with the unseemly side of this 20 mph runner. They love to eat lizards and baby rattlesnakes which they peck to death with purposeful blows.
Due to an elevation range from roughly 2,000 to 12,000 feet, Chihuahua has cool winters and about 7 mountain systems. It also has more rain than the others even though it is too far from the Pacific Ocean to benefit from its storms. Rain comes mostly during one season, July to October.
There are 3 National Parks clearly in the Chihuahuan Desert–Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, and Big Bend. To learn about this Desert, Big Bend is probably the best of the 3 to visit and it has a couple of singular attractions. A river runs through it–the less than mighty Rio Grande, which has carved some scenic canyons. Secondly, Big Bend National Park is the only one in the system with a complete mountain range in it, the Chisos. Big Bend is very remote but very wonderful.
I wrote extensively about the 4th and largest U.S. desert on January 25, 2014, under the title “America’s Deserts–Chihuahua, Sonora, Mojave and ?”. That blog is available in the archives, so I’ll just add just a few bits of info not covered. If the Great Basin Desert has an indicator species, it might be the fascinating bristlecone pine tree. The hardier ones are mostly found between 9,500 and 11,000 feet, an elevation range that is fairly rare in this vast expanse of desert. The ones you’re likely to see crossing it grow faster and larger but die younger. They only live about 400 years. The oldest bristlecones are way up near treeline where survival is far more difficult. They often look dead but are not because their tough resin prevents rot. The hardiest ones can live for more than 3,000 years.
The Great Basin Desert is a place of sagebrush-covered valleys interrupted by unspectacular north-south mountain ranges. There’s very little water because mountain run-off has no outlet, collects in shallow salty lakes, and disappears in the heat of summer. The vast inland sea on the east side of this Desert has mostly disappeared and is now the Bonneville Salt Flats of racing fame. All that’s left of this once huge body of water is the Great Salt Lake.
There’s only one National Park in the entire Desert–Great Basin. It includes much of the Snake Range that contains the tallest mountain in Nevada, Wheeler Peak. A summer visit to Great Basin National Park usually involves a drive almost to its top, some hiking, and Lehman Caves.