Deserts in Canada? A look at some of the country’s most desert-like landscapes

From the Osoyoos Desert in British Columbia to the world’s smallest “desert” in Yukon, here are five unique Canadian landscapes that will make you feel like you’re in another country

  • Published May 03, 2023
  • Updated Jun 01
  • 940 words
  • 4 minutes
Athabasca Sand Dunes in northern Saskatchewan. (Dicklyon/Wikimedia Commons)
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Defining what qualifies as a desert is complicated. With blisteringly hot days, prickly plants and scarce rainfall to consider, scientists don’t often agree on what makes an ecosystem a true desert. In Canada, there’s too much rain for anywhere to be classified as one, but the Osoyoos Desert in the South Okanagan, B.C., is the closest thing we’ve got (just don’t be fooled by the name).

One of the most diverse and fragile desert-like habitats in Canada, technically a semi-arid desert, is found in the South Okanagan. Known as the Antelope-brush shrub-steppe, it has one of the highest concentrations of unique and threatened species in the country, with 100 at-risk plant species and almost 300 rare insects. The antelope-brush ecosystem is a delicate environment that relies on the intricate patterns and habits of each species to survive. But as invasive plants, human disturbance and climate change threaten the inhabitants, conservation and restoration efforts must be made to keep this ecosystem from collapsing. On the edge of the Okanagan lies the Osoyoos Desert Centre, a 67-acre nature facility conserving and protecting a slice of this fragile habitat.

When the antelope-brush blooms in late-April, the scent of freshly baked cinnamon buns is emitted into the air. (Courtesy of Jayme Friedt)
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“Within an ecosystem, there are very complex, interdependent relationships,” says Jayme Friedt, the executive director of the Osoyoos Desert Centre. “Species coexist and depend on each other, and when you start to lose that biodiversity, the ecosystem itself can falter.”

Friedt passionately lists the abundant at-risk species that occupy Osoyoos — the most notable being the plant the ecosystem is named after: the antelope-brush. She compares the unassuming shrub to an iceberg; while it usually grows a couple of metres above ground, its roots can stretch three times as much below the surface. Many insects and animals have a symbiotic relationship with the shrub, like the endangered Behr’s Hairstreak butterfly, which relies solely on antelope-brush to reproduce.

“It’s such an extraordinary place,” says Friedt. “The light, the shadows, the textures, the ruggedness, the resilience.” 

Though the Osoyoos Desert claims the spot as Canada’s best desert-dupe, the country is spotted with seemingly desolate, though surprisingly abundant, destinations that offer unique perspectives into their delicate ecosystems. Too humid to be considered true deserts, though still quite dry atmospheres, each carries plants and animals that have adapted to survive in harsh conditions.

The Carcross Desert, Saskatchewan. (Photo: Carmela Ferro/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Carcross Desert, Yukon

Once the bottom of an ancient glacial lake in Carcross, Yukon, this collection of northern sand dunes is known as one of the smallest ‘deserts’ in the world. Spanning just 600 metres, it has become a popular tourist attraction that offers valuable terrain for quad-biking and sand-boarding. As the desert becomes blanketed in snow during the winter, tobogganers and snowshoers turn the natural phenomenon into their playground. This, over time, has damaged the vegetation and scared away wildlife, but various species still showcase their resilience — not only to human involvement but to harsh conditions as well. The Yukon Lupine, a shrub-like perennial with vibrant purple flowers, stands out against the sand and can only be found here, Alaska and B.C.

The Athabasca Sand Dunes, Saskatchewan

Trailing alongside 100 kilometres of Lake Athabasca in northern Saskatchewan, the Athabasca Sand Dunes are the largest active sand dunes in Canada and the most northerly sand dunes in the world. Incredibly remote and protected by boreal forest, these formations are only accessible by boat or float plane, leaving them largely untouched. This delicate ecosystem, formed from glacial meltage about 8,000 years ago, is home to more than 70 unique species, such as the field chickweed. This small, white flower, thriving in drought-like conditions, often grows as a matted blanket covering a large portion of dry soil, its shallow roots waiting to soak up any moisture the planet offers it.

The Cheltenham Badlands in southern Ontario. (Laslovarga/Wikimedia Commons)
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Cheltenham Badlands, Ontario

Known for its rolling red rock formations and Mars-like appearance, the Cheltenham Badlands in southern Ontario were once used for farmland. But with increased foot traffic, the topsoil quickly thinned, and the red shale coloured by oxidized iron was revealed — ready to erode under the weight of tourists. As a result, the badlands, which are part of the Niagara Escarpment, were fenced off in 2015 to preserve the natural landscape. After reopening in 2018 with an accessible boardwalk, a new hiking trail and parking lot, visitors are now able to visit one of the most prominent examples of badlands topography in Ontario through an environmentally-conscious lens. Among the rusty red, bright yellow prairie sundrops and butternut flora decorate the ground, offering pollination opportunities for the long-tongued, carpenter and leaf-cutting bees that frequent the area. 

Canadian Badlands, Alberta

Once ruled by more than 30 species of dinosaurs and now home to the largest deposit of dinosaur bones in the world, the Canadian Badlands span across southern Alberta and carry deep history within them. Desert-like animals occupy this desert-like system; the greater short-horned lizard roams the ground its ancestors once walked on, but as an endangered species — and the only lizard in the province — it is threatened with the same fate as the dinosaurs. As a popular tourist destination, drawing in thousands of annual visitors, conservation efforts to reduce rock erosion and protect lizards and wildlife alike have been put in place.

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Canadian Badlands and Rocky Mountains

For many, Alberta is all about the Great Plains; for others, the province is all about the Canadian Rockies. This itinerary provides the perfect mix of the scenic rural landscapes of the westernmost province of the prairie, as well as its aquamarine glacial lakes and majestic snow-capped mountains.


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