The typical image that people have of deserts is one of a barren landscape with very little to offer. Well, buckle up: Iranian deserts shatter that perception!
For all their so-called emptiness, deserts are replete with unique wildlife, remarkable natural formations, vistas rivaling the best of them, and human settlements rife with rich culture and outstanding architecture—simple in their complexity.
Located in one of the most arid regions in the world, Iran’s home to some of the world’s most well-known deserts; from Lut Desert—a world heritage site—to Shahdad Desert, peppered with kalouts -yardangs.
Spanning 18 provinces, deserts account for about a quarter of Iran’s area and are popular with both domestic and foreign tourists, with many travel agencies, particularly those close to desert cities, offering various desert tour packages.
Tourists generally visit the deserts in fall and winter because the temperatures are more tolerable; however, temperatures plummet at night in winter, so keep that in mind.
What follows is a list of four deserts that could offer you something really worth traveling for.
Affectionately called “the jewel of eastern Isfahan”, Varzaneh Desert in Isfahan Province is a popular tourism destination in south-central Iran, thanks to its relatively stable sand dunes and proximity to the city of Isfahan.
It is a frequent destination for stargazers thanks to its clear skies, but beware of strong winds that may cause a little sand storm!
Varzaneh, also called Khara Desert, is close to one of Iran’s most famous lagoons, Gavkhouni Wetland which is home to the only remaining village-fortress in the country, Qourtan Citadel.
Make sure to visit the religious town of Varzaneh, where women are famous for having ditched black chadors for white ones.
The town’s ancient water well, called Gavchah (literally: cow well) is a popular attraction. Before water pumps were brought here, cows were used to pull on a windlass to drag heavy water skins up from the well. An old villager has kept the tradition alive, so don’t miss it!
It is highly recommended to travel to Varzaneh in late spring or summer, as temperatures fall drastically in fall and winter, hovering between 10 degrees Celsius above and below zero.
It is highly recommended to employ the expertise of a local tour guide to visit Varzaneh, no matter how adventurous you feel. Travel agencies in Isfahan offer frequent tours. Also, a bus route to Varzanaeh operates about once an hour from Isfahan from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Learn more about Varzaneh Desert.
No list of Iranian deserts is complete without Shahdad; home to mesmerizing natural formations known as yardangs (Persian: Kalout). There are so many, in fact, that some label Shahdad “the megacity of yardangs”.
An oasis on the western edge of Lut Desert in Kerman Province, Shahdad is a favorite among desert trekkers.
One of the more astounding features of Shahdad is its location near the mountainous region of Sirch, an area in southern Iran known for its unusually cold climate. Experienced desert trekkers say snow-capped mountains are visible from Shahdad in winter.
From Kerman, get on the road known as “Jad-e Dolati” (state road) to Mahan. Ten kilometers out of Kerman you reach a fork in the road; take the left route and exit on the Nahbandan road. Around 50 kilometers down the road you’ll see the yardangs – can’t miss them!
Learn more about Shahdad Desert.
Maranjab in Isfahan Province is the top destination for desert trekkers living in Tehran; as such, a number of travel agencies offer daily tours to the desert.
The desert has no shortage of attractions: Daryach-e Namak (Persian: Salt Lake), Karshahi Citadel, Maranjab Caravansary, and vast sand dunes favored by adventured trekkers.
Those who want to spend the night in the desert but aren’t too keen on camping can stay at the caravansary, a renovated Saffavid-era inn on the Garmsar-Kashan road.
It would be a shame to drive all the way to Maranjab and not see Noushabad’s ancient underground city in Aran-va-Bidgol County. So make sure you check it out!
Going to Maranjab is pretty straight forward. Take the road to Aran-va-Bidgol from Kashan and follow the signs for Maranjab and the Salt Lake.
Learn more about Maranjab Desert.
You know you expected to see Lut Desert on this list; after all, it is a world heritage site for good reason.
Locally called Dasht-e Lut, the salt desert in northeastern Kerman Province is the 25th largest desert in the world and is Iran’s only natural heritage site on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is a vast desert shared between the provinces of Kerman, South Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchestan.
Lut is gradually becoming a hot geotourism destination: It is home to some of the largest sand pyramids in the world (as tall as 480 meters, even!) boasts huge nebkhas, which are a type of sand dune that forms around vegetation. For stargazers, Lut is the ultimate spot to gaze up to the heavens and, if they’re lucky, get a glimpse of the of the Milky Way in all its glory.
A small area known as Gandom Beryanak is said to be one of the hottest spot on Earth. According to NASA, it had the highest-ever temperature recorded on the planet’s surface in 2005: 70.7°C.
For the past two years, the desert has hosted an international “ultramarathon” with experienced and amateur runners from across the globe participating.
Given the vastness of the desert and the fact that it’s a popular spot for stargazing, it is highly advised that you sign up for a tour or at least hire a tour guide. Local travel agencies in the aforementioned provinces organize regular tours.
Learn more about Lut Desert.
So that’s it: a short list of Iran’s top desert tourism destinations. If you’ve been to any of destinations – or better yet, have been to other deserts – please share your experience with us below in the comments section.