Texas Desert: The Chihuahuan Desert

Updated December 6, 2022 | Infoplease Staff
Ocotillos in the desert
Source: iStock

The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest in North America, covering around 200,000 square miles of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. 

Texas is the largest state on the US mainland (only Alaska is bigger) and borders Mexico to the southwest. 

Is Texas a Desert?

Texas is so vast that it encompasses a huge range of natural environments. Plains occupy the Texas Panhandle to the north, while pine forests and temperate prairies can be found in east Texas. Marshes stretch along the Gulf Coast, while the South Texas Plains occupy the southern point of Texas. 

The far west of Texas is the Trans-Pecos, an area of land west of the Pecos river reaching as far as the Rio Grande, the river that forms the Mexico border.

How Much of Texas is Desert?

The Trans-Pecos is the only desert region of Texas. It is in the eastern part of the Chihuahuan Desert. Less than 10% of Texas’s land area is desert. 

What Deserts Are in Texas?

The Chihuahuan Desert is the only desert in Texas. It extends well beyond the borders of the state, covering a portion of New Mexico and an additional six states in Mexico.

Chihuahuan Desert: Texas Landscape

Texas desert sunset
Source: iStock

Let's take a closer look at this magnificent and vast stretch of the major biome that makes up the primary desert in southwest America.

Where Is the Chihuahuan Desert?

The sprawling Chihuahuan Desert occupies a tract of land spanning three US states and several Mexican states. In addition to west Texas, it occupies southern New Mexico and a small section of southeastern Arizona

However, most of the Chihuahuan Desert is in Mexico. The Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila contain the majority of the desert. Its southern edge also extends into Durango, Zacatecas, and Nuevo Leon, though only small portions of the desert are within these states.

The Chihuahuan Desert 

The Chihuahuan Desert is relatively young, only becoming arid around 9,000 years ago. Before that, the area was wetter and more heavily forested, particularly on the mountain slopes where the climate is more temperate. 

The area was not heavily populated by humans in prehistoric times, though it was roamed by nomadic hunters. 

The majority of the desert soil is calcium-rich due to the limestone bedrock. This indicates that it was once an ancient seabed. 

The unique geography of the Chihuahuan Desert has enabled it to become one of the most diverse desert ecoregions in the world. It is isolated from even drier regions on both sides by parallel mountain ranges - the Sierra Madre Occidental to the west, and the Sierra Madre Oriental to the east. 

The Chihuahuan Desert receives more rain than the nearby Sonoran and Mojave Deserts. This, combined with its isolation, has enabled an unusually rich array of flora and fauna to develop.

The presence of several other mountain ranges also contributes to the desert’s greater natural variety. These isolated ranges that arise from the flat desert expanse are known as sky islands. Their higher elevation creates cooler, wetter climates that support plants and animals that wouldn’t survive on the desert floor. 

The highest point in the Chihuahuan Desert is Cerro San Rafael, the peak of the Cero de la Viga mountain which is in the Sierra Madre Oriental range. It reaches an elevation of 12,178 feet (3,712m).

Other mountain ranges include the Organ Mountains in New Mexico, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, home to Texas’s highest peaks, and the Chisos Mountains found in Texas’s Big Bend National Park.

The Rio Grande cuts through the heart of the desert and provides a precious water source for abundant wildlife, as well as the millions of people who live in the Chihuahuan Desert. Other significant rivers in the desert include the Rio Conchos, which joins the Rio Grande after beginning in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. Also, the Pecos in Texas, which is at the eastern edge of the desert and also joins the Rio Grande near Big Bend National Park. 

Several significant human settlements exist within the desert. The largest of these is the Mexican City of Ciudad Juarez, with a population of around 1.5 million people. It sits in the northern part of the desert on the Rio Grande, with the Texan city of El-Paso on the opposite bank. The two cities have very close ties and form a major transportation route between Mexico and the US.

Other significant urban areas in the Chihuahuan Desert include Chihuahua, Saltillo, and Torreon in Mexico and Albuquerque in the US state of New Mexico. 

Both of Texas’s National Parks, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Big Bend National Park, are within the Chihuahuan Desert. Other natural attractions include the Carlsbad Caverns National Park and the White Sands National Monument, the largest area of gypsum dunes in the world. Both of these are found in New Mexico.

Chihuahuan Desert: Animals

Coyote in desert
Source: iStock

The varied landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert provides incredible biological diversity. The range of habitats supports a wonderful array of animals, many of which are rare and endemic to the region. 

Over 130 species of mammal range across the desert. Mule deer and pronghorn are common sights, and the javelina is widespread. These small peccaries resemble pigs but are not related to them. Grey foxes and kit foxes also scout the grasslands.

Larger predators include mountain lions and even jaguars, while black bears can be found at higher elevations in mountain forests. 

The desert also contains North America’s largest colony of black-tailed prairie dogs, while the area of desert in Coahuila is the only place where the Mexican prairie dog can be found. 

The Mexican wolf, once abundant in the region, is now on the brink of extinction, and efforts to restore the population are underway.

The Chihuahuan Desert supports over 400 species of bird. Many species of the Great Plains use the desert’s grasslands as wintering grounds, while the vegetated lands along the river valleys are important corridors for migratory birds. 

The sight of the iconic greater roadrunner scurrying after small reptiles and insects is a common one. You may also see golden eagles swooping down for jackrabbits and other rodents among the grasslands.

Over 170 species of amphibians and reptiles live in the desert, with several endemic species including the Texas banded gecko, the Trans-Pecos rat snake, and the Texas black-headed snake. 

The waters of the desert are home to over 110 species of fish, over half of which are endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert. Many of these are found in isolated springs and basins. 

Unfortunately, many of the unique and endemic animal species are under threat from invasive species and changes to their habitat, with many species expected to be completely replaced by 2050 as the environment continues to change.

Desert Plants in Texas

Agave plants
Source: iStock

The differing soil types and varying elevations throughout the Chihuahuan Desert support a vast range of vegetation including grasses, shrubs, and cacti on the desert floor, and trees on the mountain slopes. 

Over 3,500 plant species are found here, with over 1,000 of them endemic to the ecoregion. Almost a quarter of the world’s cactus species are found here.

The creosote bush is one of the most dominant plants in the Chihuahuan Desert thanks to its hardiness and the way it inhibits the water intake of nearby plants.

Several species of yucca are abundant at higher elevations, while mesquite trees use their extremely long roots to survive in lower desert areas. 

Many species of succulent plants thrive in the Chihuahuan Desert. These plants have thick, fleshy structures that enable them to retain water. This includes several species of agave, one of which is the lechuguilla, found only in the Chihuahuan Desert.

The prickly pear is one of the most widespread types of cactus and provides a source of food and water to animals such as the javelina. 

The ocotillo is another native plant found throughout the region. Its long, thin stems are covered with unforgiving thorns. 

Many endemic species of plants are under threat from environmental changes, many of which are brought about by human development. Overgrazing by livestock is eliminating many of the native grass species, while invasive species pose a threat to several of the plants endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert. 

The expansion of urban settlements has led to increased water extraction that has further affected the desert's plant life. 

Conservation efforts are focusing on increasing the amount of protected land in the desert and managing the impact of invasive species.

Chihuahua Desert Exploration

The corner of Texas that is part of the Chihuahuan Desert is a beautiful, fascinating yet fragile place. We hope the natural wonders of the area will be protected for many years to come. 

Did you know that all of Texas’s Highest Peaks are found in this area? Why not find out about them next!

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