Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert (Spanish: Desierto de Sonora) is a North American desert which covers large parts of the Southwestern United States in Arizona and California and of 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). The western portion of the United States–Mexico border passes through the Sonoran Desert.

In phytogeography, the Sonoran Desert is within the Sonoran Floristic Province of the Madrean Region in southwestern North America, part of the Holarctic Kingdom of the northern Western Hemisphere. The desert contains a variety of unique and endemic plants and animals, such as the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) and organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi).

Sonoran Desert
Desierto de Sonora
Saguaro National Park - Flickr - Joe Parks
Sonoran Desert map
Sonoran Desert
CountriesUnited States and Mexico
Borders onMojave Desert (north)
Colorado Plateau (north and east)
Peninsular Ranges (west)
Coordinates32°15′36″N 112°55′34″W / 32.26°N 112.92611111111°W


The Sonoran desert wraps around the northern end of the Gulf of California, from Baja California Sur (El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve in central and Pacific west coast, Central Gulf Coast subregion on east to southern tip), north through much of Baja California, excluding the central northwest mountains and Pacific west coast, through southeastern California and southwestern and southern Arizona to western and central parts of Sonora.[1]

It is bounded on the west by the Peninsular Ranges, which separate it from the California chaparral and woodlands (northwest) and Baja California Desert (Vizcaino subregion, central and southeast) ecoregions of the Pacific slope. To the north in California and northwest Arizona, the Sonoran Desert transitions to the colder-winter, higher-elevation Mojave, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau deserts.

To the east and southeast, the deserts transition to the coniferous Arizona Mountains forests and Sierra Madre and Sierra Madre Occidental pine–oak forests at higher elevations. To the south the Sonoran–Sinaloan transition subtropical dry forest is the transition zone from the Sonoran Desert to the tropical dry forests of the Mexican state of Sinaloa.[1]

Sub-region deserts

The desert's sub-regions include the Colorado Desert of southeastern California; and the Yuma Desert east of the north-to-south section of the Colorado River in southwest Arizona. In the 1957 publication Vegetation of the Sonoran Desert, Forrest Shreve divided the Sonoran Desert into seven regions according to characteristic vegetation: Lower Colorado Valley, Arizona Upland, Plains of Sonora, Foothills of Sonora, Central Gulf Coast, Vizcaíno Region, and Magdalena Region.[2] Many ecologists now consider Shreve's Vizcaíno and Magdalena regions, which lie on the western side of the Baja California Peninsula, to be a separate ecoregion, the Baja California Desert.

Within the southern Sonoran Desert in Mexico is found the Gran Desierto de Altar, with the Reserva de la Biosfera el Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar ('Pinacate National Park' in Mexico), extending 2,000 square kilometers (770 sq mi) of desert and mountainous regions.[3] The Pinacate National Park includes the only active erg dune region in North America. The nearest city to the Reserva de la Biosfera el Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is Puerto Peñasco ('Rocky Point') in the state of Sonora, Mexico.


Sonoran Desert sub-regions include:


The Sonoran Desert includes 60 mammal species, 350 bird species, 20 amphibian species, over 100 reptile species, 30 native fish species, over 1000 native bee species, and more than 2,000 native plant species.[4] The Sonoran Desert area southeast of Tucson and near the Mexican border is vital habitat for the only population of jaguars living within the United States.[5] The Colorado River Delta was once an ecological hotspot within the Sonoran desert, fueled by the flow of fresh water through the Colorado river in this otherwise dry area, but the delta has been greatly reduced in extent due to the damming and use of the river upstream.


Sonoradesert 1
The Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona during winter.

Many plants not only survive, but thrive in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert. Many have evolved to have specialized adaptations to the desert climate. The Sonoran Desert's biseasonal rainfall pattern results in more plant species than any other desert in the world.[6] The Sonoran Desert includes plant genera and species from the agave family, palm family, cactus family, legume family, and numerous others.

The Sonoran is the only place in the world where the famous saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) grows in the wild.[7] Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), fishhook (Ferocactus wislizeni), prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), nightblooming cereus (Peniocereus spp.), and organ pipe (Stenocereus thurberi) are other taxa of cacti found here. Cactus provides food and homes to many desert mammals and birds, with showy flowers in reds, pinks, yellows, and whites, blooming most commonly from late March through June, depending on the species and seasonal temperatures.

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and bur sage (Ambrosia dumosa) dominate valley floors. Indigo bush (Psorothamnus fremontii) and Mormon tea are other shrubs that may be found. Wildflowers of the Sonoran Desert include desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa), desert sunflower (Geraea canescens), and evening primroses.

Prosopis velutina Anza-Borrego
Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina)

Ascending from the valley up bajadas, various subtrees such as velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), palo verde (Parkinsonia florida), desert ironwood (Olneya tesota), desert willow (Chilopsis linearis ssp. arcuata), and crucifixion thorn (Canotia holacantha) are common, as well as multi-stemmed ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). Shrubs found at higher elevations include whitethorn acacia (Acacia constricta), fairy duster, and jojoba. In the desert subdivisions found on Baja California, cardon cactus, elephant tree, and boojum tree occur.[8]

The California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) is found in the Colorado Desert section of the Sonoran Desert, the only native palm in California, among many other introduced Arecaceae genera and species. It is found at spring-fed oases, such as in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.[9]


Human population

The Sonoran Desert is home to the cultures of over seventeen contemporary Native American tribes, with settlements at American Indian reservations in California and Arizona, as well as populations in Mexico.

The largest city in the Sonoran Desert is Phoenix, Arizona, with a 2017 metropolitan population of about 4.7 million.[10][11] Located on the Salt River in central Arizona, it is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States. In 2007 in the Phoenix area, desert was losing ground to urban sprawl at a rate of approximately 4,000 square meters (1 acre) per hour.[12]

The next largest cities are Tucson, in southern Arizona, with a metro area population of just over 1 million,[13] and Mexicali, Baja California, whose municipality also has a population of around 900,000. The municipality of Hermosillo, Sonora, has a population of around 700,000. Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, in the southern part of the desert, has a population of 375,800.[14][15]


The Coachella Valley, located in the Colorado Desert section of the Sonoran Desert, has a population of 365,000. Many famous Southern California desert resort cities such as Palm Springs and Palm Desert are located here.

During the winter months, from November to April, the daytime temperatures in the Coachella Valley range from 70 °F (21 °C) to 90 °F (32 °C) and corresponding nighttime lows range from 46 °F (8 °C) to 68 °F (20 °C) making it a popular winter resort destination. Due to its warm year-round climate citrus and subtropical fruits such as mangoes, figs, and dates are grown in the Coachella Valley and adjacent Imperial Valley. Imperial Valley has a total population of about 188,000 and has a similar climate to that of the Coachella Valley. Other cities include Indio, Coachella, Calexico, El Centro, Imperial, Palm Desert and Blythe.

Undocumented border crossing

Straddling as it does the US-Mexican border, with low levels of human-installed security, the Sonoran desert is a popular route to attempt unauthorized entry across the border. The harsh conditions mean that the 3-5-day march, usually moving at night to minimize exposure to the heat, often ends in death.[16]

Parks, conservation centers and research facilities

There are many National Parks and Monuments; federal and state nature reserves and wildlife refuges; state, county, and city parks; and government or nonprofit group operated natural history museums, science research institutes, and botanical gardens and desert landscape gardens.

  • Index: Protected areas of the Sonoran Desert
  • Index: Protected areas of the Colorado Desert
Sonoran Desert protected areas include


Sonoran Desert 33.081359 n112.431507

Sonoran Desert near Maricopa, Arizona

Sonora desert of altar

Sand dunes in the Gran Desierto de Altar

Sonoran desert mountains

The Santa Catalina Mountains in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona

El Camino del Diablo, border patrol

A US Border Patrol helicopter along El Camino Del Diablo, a historic 250-mile trail in the Sonoran Desert

20091211 - Puerto Penasco -63

Sand dunes at El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve in northwestern Sonora, Mexico

Saguaro forest

A saguaro forest in the Tucson Mountains of Arizona

Sonoran Desert Santa Rita Experimental Range 2013

A mesquite forest with the Santa Rita Mountains in the background

Imperial sand dunes

The Algodones Dunes in southeastern California

See also


  1. ^ a b "Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ - Zoo, Botanical Garden and Art Gallery". Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  2. ^ "Sonoran Desert: An Overview of the Sonoran Desert by William G. McGinnies". 21 January 2003. Archived from the original on 21 January 2003. Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Surviving the Sonoran Archived 2010-04-30 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ The Jaguar in the Borderlands of Arizona, New Mexico and Northern Mexico: Conservation—Threats & Strategies Archived 2009-03-30 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "Sonoran desert". Terrestrial Ecoregions. World Wildlife Fund.
  7. ^ "The Saguaro Cactus" (PDF). Retrieved 15 April 2018.
  8. ^ MacMahon, J. A. Deserts. 1986, 638 pages
  9. ^ Hogan, C. M. 2009. California Fan Palm: Washingtonia filifera,, ed. N. Stromberg Archived 2009-09-30 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Make No Small Plans, Adelheid Fischer, ASU Research magazine. Accessed on line October 15, 2007
  13. ^ Table 1: Annual Estimates of the Population of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2006 (CBSA-EST2006-01) Archived July 10, 2007, at WebCite, United States Census Bureau, 2007-04-05. Accessed 2007-09-11
  14. ^ Principales resultados por localidad 2005 Archived 2007-03-16 at the Wayback Machine, Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (Mexico). Accessed on line October 15, 2007
  15. ^ Population Projections Archived 2007-12-22 at the Wayback Machine, state government of Baja California, Mexico. Accessed on line October 15, 2007
  16. ^ Arizona: Naming the dead from the desert, BBC News, 17 January 2013
  17. ^ The Sonoran Desert National Monument was created in 2001 in Arizona, to enhance protection of the unique resources of the Sonoran Desert, with 2,008 square kilometers (496,000 acres).
    :Reference: Sonoran Desert National Monument Archived 2009-01-26 at the Wayback Machine, Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Department of the Interior. Accessed on line June 17, 2009.

External links

Parks and recreation areas

Coordinates: 32°15′36″N 112°55′34″W / 32.26000°N 112.92611°W

Black Dome (Arizona)

Black Dome is the second highest point on the west end of the Tank Mountains, located in the northwestern Sonoran Desert in northeastern Yuma County, Arizona and 57 miles (92 km) east northeast of the city of Yuma.The western two thirds of the Tank Mountains, including Black Dome, are located in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The east-west trending Tank Mountains lie next to the Kofa Mountains to the northwest.

Black Hills (Greenlee County)

The Black Hills of Greenlee County are a 20 mi (32 km) long mountain range of the extreme northeast Sonoran Desert bordering the south of the White Mountains of eastern Arizona's transition zone.

The mountain range is bordered by the Gila River, and the range is a large block that forces the Gila to flow northwest, west, southwest; at the west, the Gila River begins an excursion northwest at the start of the Gila Valley, where Safford and Thatcher lie in the valley.

The southwest quarter of the mountain range lies in the southeast of Graham County.

Cabeza Prieta Mountains

The Cabeza Prieta Mountains are a mountain range in the northwestern Sonoran Desert of southwest Arizona. It is located in southern Yuma County, Arizona.

The mountain range is amongst an eleven-mountain sequence of north-trending ranges and valleys in the hottest region of the Sonoran Desert. This southwestern Arizona region is on the northern perimeter of the Gran Desierto de Altar. It includes the northern part of the Pinacate volcanic field.

The Cabeza Prieta Mountains extend northwest–southeast about 24 miles. The highest peak is unnamed at 2,832 feet (863 m); other peaks include: Cabeza Prieta Peak at 2,559 feet (780 m); Buck Peak-(in north) at 2,629 feet (801 m); and Sierra Arida in the south, at 1,736 feet (529 m). A separate mountain outlier lies southwesterly, Tordillo Mountain at 2,170 feet (661 m), adjacent to a primitive road paralleling the US-Mexico Border, called El Camino del Diablo. The range is about 36 miles southeast of the Mohawk Valley (Arizona), and Interstate 8 and is in the west-central Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. The Cabeza Prieta Mountains comprise the entire western region of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge -- about twenty percent of its total area.

Colorado Desert

California's Colorado Desert is a part of the larger Sonoran Desert. It encompasses approximately 7 million acres (28,000 km2), including the heavily irrigated Coachella and Imperial valleys. It is home to many unique flora and fauna.

Colorado River toad

The Colorado River toad (Incilius alvarius), also known as the Sonoran Desert toad, is found in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Its toxin, as an exudate of glands within the skin, contains 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenin.

Cowlic, Arizona

Cowlic is a census-designated place (CDP) in Pima County, Arizona, in the United States.

Growler Mountains

The Growler Mountains is a 23-mile, (37-km) long north-south trending mountain range of far western Pima County, Arizona that lies 12 miles (19 km) west of Ajo, Arizona. This desert region of southern Arizona lies in the north and central Sonoran Desert, and is one of the drier desert areas of North America.

The highest peak of the Granite Mountains is Unnamed at 3,294 feet (1,004 m) and is located in the south; Growler Peak is located at the north end of the range at 3,029 feet (923 m).The Growler Range has the distinction of being on a water divide between two northwest-draining washes to the Gila River. The Growler's are at the headwaters of Growler Valley west of the range which is the southeast drainage to the San Cristobal Wash. The north end of the range is south and southwest of Childs Valley which is part of the Tenmile Wash Drainage. The two drainages are at the beginning of the Gila River's turn from going south-to-west and exiting southwest Arizona with its confluence with the Colorado River at Yuma, Arizona-Winterhaven, California.

Kitt Peak National Observatory

The Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) is a United States astronomical observatory located on Kitt Peak of the Quinlan Mountains in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert on the Tohono O'odham Nation, 88 kilometers (55 mi) west-southwest of Tucson, Arizona. With 22 optical and two radio telescopes, it is the largest, most diverse gathering of astronomical instruments in the northern hemisphere. The observatory is administered by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO).

Lechuguilla Desert

The Lechuguilla Desert is a small desert located in southwestern Arizona near the U.S.-Mexico border. It is considered to be part of the Lower Colorado Valley region of the Sonoran Desert. It lies in a north-south direction between the Gila Mountains and the Cabeza Prieta Mountains, and almost entirely in the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. The desert is named after the Lechuguilla plant, known scientifically as Agave lecheguilla which according to the Wikipedia entry for that occurs exclusively in the Chihuahuan desert many hundreds of miles to the east. The desert is also on the north border of the Gran Desierto de Altar of Sonora, Mexico.

The Lechuguilla Desert lies to the east-northeast of the connected ranges, Gila Mountains, and north of the Tinajas Altas Mountains, which extend southeast into north Sonora. To the west and southwest of the two ranges lies the Yuma Desert. The Tule Desert (Arizona) lies east of the Lechuguilla, and the Cabeza Prieta Mountains; all three deserts are at the northwest perimeter of the great desert, the Gran Desierto de Altar, and the Pinacate Peaks volcanic field region.

List of birds of the Sonoran Desert

This list of birds of the Sonoran Desert includes all bird species endemic to the Sonoran Desert, and related areas; (a few species listed are only "native" and have a larger continental range). They are retrieved from the List of birds of Yuma County, Arizona, though not exclusively.

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.

It is commonly defined as the region from below Hoover Dam and Lake Mead to its outlet at the northern Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez); it includes the Colorado River proper, canyons, the valley, mountain ranges with wilderness areas, and the floodplain and associated riparian environments. It is home to recreation activities from the river, the lakes created by dams, agriculture, and the home of various cities, communities, and towns along the river, or associated with the valley region. Five Indian reservations are located in the LCRV: the Chemehuevi, Fort Mojave and Colorado River Indian Reservations; at Yuma are the Quechan and Cocopah reservations.

Quinlan Mountains

The Quinlan Mountains is a mountain range in the U.S. state of Arizona. Its highest point is Kitt Peak at 6,883 feet (2,098 m), which is also the second-highest peak on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, after Baboquivari Peak. The range lies on the eastern end of the reservation about 55 miles (89 km) southwest of Tucson.The Quinlan Mountains are north of the Baboquivari Mountains, the two ranges separated by the pass at the head of the Pavo Kug Wash. The Quinlan range also sits southwest of the Coyote Mountains, separated from them by the Pan Tak Pass. When George J. Roskruge created the official map of Pima County in 1893, he named the range after James Quinlin, who had opened a stagecoach station in the nearby town of Quinlin in 1884. Although the range had also been known as the Quinlin or Quinuin mountains at different points in history, Quinlan became the official name as a result of a decision by the Board on Geographic Names on April 16, 1941.

Rillito, Arizona

Rillito is a census-designated place (CDP) as well as a populated place in Pima County, Arizona, United States, completely surrounded by the town of Marana. The largest business in the community is Arizona Portland Cement and the community has had a post office since the 1920s. There is a regional park and recreation center (Rillito Vista Community Center) in the middle of the community. Rillito has the ZIP Code of 85654; in 2000, the population of the 85654 ZCTA was 148.

Sonoran Desert National Monument

Sonoran Desert National Monument is south of Goodyear and Buckeye and east of Gila Bend, Arizona. Created by Presidential proclamation on January 17, 2001, the 496,400 acres (200,886 ha) monument is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as part of the National Landscape Conservation System. The BLM already managed the lands, however under monument status, the level of protection and preservation of resources is enhanced. Sonoran Desert National Monument protects but a small portion of the Sonoran Desert, which is 120,000 square miles (311,000 km2), and extends well into California and the country of Mexico. The North Maricopa Mountains, South Maricopa Mountains and the Table Top Wildernesses protect the richest regions of desert habitat from development.

Sonoran Solar Project

The 300 MW Sonoran Solar Project is a proposed solar energy project in the Sonoran Desert, within Maricopa County, Arizona. It is a photovoltaic solar power plant, planned by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar of the Obama administration granted approval for the project in December 2011. It would be the first solar project in Arizona to be built on federally owned land.

Spanish missions in the Sonoran Desert

The Spanish missions in the Sonoran Desert are a series of Jesuit Catholic religious outposts established by the Spanish Catholic Jesuits and other orders for religious conversions of the Pima and Tohono O'odham indigenous peoples residing in the Sonoran Desert. An added goal was giving Spain a colonial presence in their frontier territory of the Sonora y Sinaloa Province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and relocating by Indian Reductions (Reducciones de Indios) settlements and encomiendas for agricultural, ranching, and mining labor.

Tule Desert (Arizona)

The Tule Desert is a small desert located in southwestern Arizona near the U.S.-Mexico border. It is considered to be part of the Lower Colorado Valley region of the Sonoran Desert. It lies in a north-south direction to the east of the Cabeza Prieta Mountains and almost entirely in the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. The Tule Desert also lies on the northern border of the Gran Desierto de Altar of Sonora, Mexico.

West Silver Bell Mountains

The West Silver Bell Mountains are a small 10 mile (16 km) long mountain range of south-central Arizona, United States. The range lies in the north-central arid Sonoran Desert; the Madrean Sky Islands region of southeast Arizona, around Tucson is adjacent to the southeast.

The range lies mostly in Pima County with only the northernmost end extending into southern Pinal County

The range lies 25 mi west of Marana, and 25 mi south of Eloy–Casa Grande, all cities on Interstate 10 in Arizona. Casa Grande also begins the west route of Interstate 8 to Yuma and San Diego.

Yuma Desert

The Yuma Desert is a lower-elevation section of the Sonoran Desert in the southwestern United States and the northwest of Mexico. It lies in the Salton basin. The desert contains areas of sparse vegetation and has notable areas of sand dunes. With an average rainfall less than 8 inches (200 mm) each year, this is among the harshest deserts in North America. Human presence is sparse throughout, the largest city being Yuma, Arizona, on the Colorado River and the border of California.

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