5 Weird Facts About the Smallest Desert in the World
Cruising along the Klondike Highway in Canada’s Yukon territory, the scenery morphs from craggy mountains with snow-fed waterfalls and long, winding lakes dotted with rocky islands to...a desert?
Yes, here in northwestern Canada, where temps hover below zero in winter and reindeer frolic and play, a small pocket of dunes make up what’s called the smallest desert in the world.
Curious about this little sandy wonderland? Keep reading for five odd tidbits about the Carcross Desert, plus info on how to get there and what else you can see in the area (hint...there might be an emerald green lake or two nearby).
Carcross, the Smallest Desert in the World
It’s located in Canada’s Yukon
When you think of the world’s coolest deserts, places like Northern Africa’s Sahara, the Gobi dunes of China and Mongolia, or the Southwestern US’s Sonoran and Mojave might come to mind, along with images of swirling sand, prickly cacti and wandering camels.
That’s why it comes as a bit of a shocker to find a patch of desert in northern Canada’s Yukon territory. Yes, the same place where mountains soar, lakes sparkle in shades of green and blue, and caribou and bears roam free.
So how did this random little desert patch come to be? The short answer — science. (And things like glacial ice-carved lakes and valleys drying up and feisty winds blowing in sand that collects on the dunes. This BBC article explains it pretty well.)
The Carcross Desert sits just outside a teeny town placed at the convergence of Bennett and Nares lakes near the southern border of the Yukon. Caribou used to wander frequently through here, so the community became known as Caribou Crossing, now shortened to Carcross. Only a few hundred people call the former gold-rush village home today, but it serves as a charming little hub of touristy enticements for those passing through on a Klondike road trip or cruise excursion.
The desert is impossible to miss as you scoot along the Klondike Highway, a route that traces the path taken by prospectors after gold was discovered in the Yukon’s Klondike River region in the late 1890s. Carcross is about 45 miles south of Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, and 65 miles north of Skagway, Alaska, where the highway begins.
It’s only 1 square mile
The pocket-sized desert is publicized as the world’s smallest, at just about 1 square mile. Is it technically a desert? Well, not exactly, as the moisture level is a tad too high. But the dunes are naturally formed, and the dry and windy air blowing grit into your hair and teeth certainly makes it akin to its arid cousins.
Despite the miniature footprint, the dunes feel quite expansive and remote, especially when standing in the middle where you see nothing but the sand and surrounding hills.
The small and unique geologic feature makes for an intriguing roadside stop along the Klondike Highway, especially considering the sudden change of scenery it interjects among the neighboring mountains, lakes and waterfalls. Plus, the manageable size means you can explore every corner on foot, though bouncing along the ridges on an ATV or sliding down them on a sandboard sounds like way more fun (and you can do both of these activities).
You can get there on an Alaskan cruise
A popular road trip destination in the Yukon, the Klondike Highway runs right by the desert and continues on down past the Canada-US border to the coastal town of Skagway, a frequent stop on Alaskan cruise itineraries.
Many travelers to this port city hop on one of the bus or train excursions to the White Pass Summit, but fewer continue far enough into Yukon territory to encounter the Carcross Desert and its namesake town.
You can do so by booking a tour to Carcross, or by renting a car from downtown Skagway for the day and driving about two hours each way, which is feasible given that most ships dock here for at least eight hours. There’s plenty else to see on the journey, too, including the town of Carcross, with its historic timber storefronts and churches, a picturesque retail center featuring a few cafes and handcrafting shops, and two big lakes that converge at a sandy beachfront. If you choose a DIY road trip, you can continue on 6 miles past the desert to Emerald Lake, which looks exactly how it sounds.
It’s surrounded by lakes
The Carcross Desert is only semi-arid, so it’s not the absolute driest of the dry, but standing in the midst of all the sand, you still might not expect huge lakes to be just a few paces away. It’s these very bodies of water that help form the desert though, as sand blows in from the shores of nearby Bennett Lake to settle on the dunes.
On the lakeside of Bennett by downtown Carcross, another sizable patch of sand makes for a sweeping beachfront, though the water is a bit chilly for a dip, even in summer.
It still snows here
Desert doesn’t always equal hot, a fact proved if you travel here in winter to find the sand buried underneath layers of snow.
Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon about an hour north of Carcross, sees average lows below zero in winter, so you can bet the desert feels quite the chill, too.