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A vacation in a desert can rival the exotic nature of an African safari, a float down the Amazon or an expedition to the Arctic. Believe it or not, North America has four desert regions, all different in characteristics and elevation.

  • The Mojave, a staple of the great American West and cowboy and American Indian culture, is the smallest of the North American deserts. It makes up a circle encompassing northern Arizona, southern Nevada and parts of Southern California.
  • The Great Basin, basically circling the entire state of Nevada, is located between the Sierra Mountains on the east and the Rocky Mountains on the east.
  • The Sonoran, rich in resources with a monsoon season making some of its sands water drenched, pushes down from southern Arizona into Mexico.
  • Lastly, the Chihuahuan lies deep into Mexico with Agave plants and high elevations of up to 6,000 feet making desert travel cool at night.

For specific travel to the Mojave Desert, the National Parks Service has a Web page at www.nps.gov/moja/home.htm providing educational details and other important ecological, geological and historical data. It also lists travel information on campgrounds in the area and recreational facilities. For campgrounds in the Mojave, the Black Canyon Equestrian and Group Campground (tel. 760/928-2572) costs about $25 per night. Be advised, this campground does not have running water. The nearby Hole-in-the-Wall Campground has water that you can easily transport back to the Black Canyon in your own containers. Backcountry camping is an option as well. Just tell people when you're going and make sure you stay within a quarter mile of a water source and a half-mile from any day use area. There are plenty of four wheel drive opportunities in the Mojave to test that SUV and see if it can do what it does in the television commercials. Contact the Mojave National Preserve Desert Information Center (tel. 760/733-4040) for details on available roads. One thing you need to know about desert travel -- all plants, objects, animals, or structures are protected by national and disturbing them or taking them is a federal crime.

The Saguaro National Park (tel. 520/733-5100; www.nps.gov/sagu) in southern Arizona is located within the Sonoran Desert. Named for the "most recognizable cactus in the world," the national park is full of wildlife attracted to and living off of the distinctive saguaro cactus. Desert hawks and woodpeckers flock to this giant that can live to up to 150 years old, grow to 50 feet high and weigh up to 10 tons. This park is known for leisurely drives but also for long, extended hikes, and the nearby Rincon Mountains also provide hiking -- as well as shade to some of the desert plains. Fees for the park start at $10 for seven days for a private car. Tucson, home to the University of Arizona, is the nearest big town affiliated with the park. Backcountry camping is available all year round for a fee of $6 annually. You can contain the permit through the mail by contacting the park services telephone number listed above. No lodging or organized campsites are available in the park, so most travelers stay in nearby Tucson, opting to visit the park on a daily basis while in the area.

Great Basin National Park (tel. 775/234-7331; www.nps.gov/grba) has a wealth of caves, a top elevation of more than 13,000 feet and several campgrounds to visit open at different times of the year. For a rundown of campgrounds and when they're operational, go to www.great.basin.national-park.com/camping.htm. The site lists elevations, opening times, water availability and the number of camp sites available at each campground. At the more popular Grey Cliffs Campground (tel. 775/234-7331, ext. 213), open from May to November, camping is $25 per night for up to 25 people. One way into or across the Great Basin is across Route 50. Deemed the "Loneliest Road" in America, Route 50 is just that. Don't be sleepy-eyed when making the trip, and pay attention to distances between towns. The chicken fried steak at the Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall (tel. 888/406-3055; www.hotelnevada.com) is almost as good as the people watching. Ask for a room under the big neon sign out front. Deluxe rooms start at $39.95. Who needs sleep in Nevada, anyway?

The Chihuahuan Desert (www.cdri.org/Desert/index.html) is home to grizzlies, gigantic craters, a section of the Rio Grande and Big Bend National Park (tel. 432/477-2251; www.nps.gov/bibe), one of the least visited but largest of America's national parks. Researcher and writer Carlos Castaneda (www.castaneda.com) traveled through the Chihuahuan writing such books such as The Teachings of Don Juan, exposing the world to dream traveling and the intimacy shared between desert life and Mexican and American Indian culture. If you're into something a little more prosaic, the park is also home to many species of birds. The Chisos Mountains Lodge (tel. 432-477-2291; www.chisosmountainslodge.com) is the only lodging in the park, and rates start around $79 per night. Not a bad price to get close to ancient mystics, even if you have to dream about them.