Coke Smith Photography & Travelogue

Deserts of the American Southwest

A black-tailed rattlesnake in Arizona, seconds after it tried to bite my leg! 


Perhaps my absolute favorite destination within the borders of the United States has been the desert southwest.  Any excuse at all and you will see me heading to the deserts!  If you totaled all of the days I have spent exploring this part of North America, I would put money that it would add up to nearly a year!

For over seven years I designed and led field classes down to the deserts of California.  Generally we would spend a week in Joshua Tree National Monument (it had yet to become a national park when I was teaching there), Mojave Desert Reserve (it had yet to become a national monument…) and Anza Borrego State Park.  I loved leading these trips filled with two to three vanloads of interested bio majors!  And on the way from northern California, we had at least two full days to explore the California section of the Great Basin Desert as well!

While I did spend many trips exploring these areas with my students, I did have opportunities to experience the parks with my family as well.  Som and my first US trip involved camping out in the deserts of the state.  I guess I can say Cokie was on these trips too as he was inside her pregnant belly!  We had to make a lot of pee-stops on that trip!

I am also including my explorations of Organ Pipes and Saguaro National Parks as well.  Although they are a very different desert than the Colorado/Mojave deserts of the California, the Sonoran desert ecosystem of Organ Pipes and Saguaro is absolutely outstanding.  I spent one week camping in the wilderness of Organ Pipe in 1999.  The rangers would not allow us to camp where I initially wanted due to the extreme presence of drug runners and illegal alien coyotes.  But the location they suggested was outstanding as well and allowed for spectacular views of the desert and the drug runners streaming in the US all night long!


Please take a look at our North America Image Galleries!

Desert Southwest Landscapes Image Gallery


The below images give a glimpse of some of the flora, fauna and habitats of these wonderful deserts.  Enjoy!




Can't be more cryptic than this!  This Horned Lizard was barely seen in the desert pavement of Anza Borrego State Park. 





Desert Iguanas are one of the larger lizards in the US.  This one was photographed in Joshua Tree National Monument taking advantage of the morning sun. 





The giant Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) is one of the more conspicuous cactus species in the vast desert wilderness of Organ Pipes National Park, Arizona.  While Organ Pipes is one of America's more spectacular parks with amazing desert wilderness, it is also one of the more dangerous parks in the world.  Drug runners and illegal alien coyotes make enjoying the desert risky at best.  A sad dividend of America's war on drugs...



 Organ Pipe National Park was created for the the Organ Pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) as well as the many other species found there.



A Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) woodland in Joshua Tree National Monument.   




Another glorious Joshua Tree sunset in Mojave National Monument.  Yucca brevifolia is common here as well.  The amazing desert experience of the Mojave is hard to surpass.




The Black-tailed Jack Rabbit stretching in the warm morning sun of Joshua Tree.  We have had the good fortune of seeing these critters many times in the desert southwest even as far south as Baja.  I came across this little guy while taking a leak during one of my many field courses in the desert.




Joshua Tree is in a unique transitional zone.  From the lower Colorado Desert in the south, to the higher Mojave portion to the north, weather extremes are common.  During the spring trip of 1988, we woke to find ourselves camping in an amazing winter wonderland.



Another Yucca sunset!  This one was in the Mojave.




A spectacular Saguaro cactus forest (Carnegiea gigantea) in Arizona's Saguaro National Monument.





I have driven through the Arizona's Painted Desert too many times to count.  One of these days I must get out of the car and trek the landscape for a few hours!  One of these days....




The Elephant Tree (Bursera microphylla) is a common species in the Sonoran Desert of Baja, but this one is in Anza Borrego at the northern most extension of its range.   



The "gang" during my first official field course way back in '88.




Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is one of the more interesting plants in the deserts of the southwest.  Sprouting whorls of foliage can indicate the numbers of significant rains in the region.  These forests are also a great place to search for hummingbirds! This forest was just outside Anza Borrego.





A Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia biglovii) woodland in Anza Borrego.  This patch of cactus is a spectacular and pristine part of the park.  Desert Pack Rats are common in and around the bases of the cacti.  These are great places to explore and spend some quality time in the desert.





Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris) is a common cactus species in all of the deserts in the region.  This one in Joshua Tree was in full bloom the day we passed by.




The Badlands Overlook of Anza Borrego State Park is a spectacular setting for sunsets.  Great colors are a near nightly happening.



Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia biglovii) photographed in Joshua Tree National Park.  This plant is also known as "jumping cholla" due to its propensity to "jump" on to your clothing as you pass by...


If you know where to look (and I do...) the Desert Night Shade Lizard (Xantusia vigillis) can be found easily under the Joshua Tree debris.  These are fun lizards to send kids hunting for!





Reptile gigging is another fun activity we would often do in the deserts.  This Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana) was caught near Saddleback Buttes in Riverside County during one of our expeditions.