Salt of the Earth: Striking beauty of desert salt flats (or pans)

Guadalupe Mountains Salt Flat, Texas

If you haven’t had the opportunity to see a salt flat (or pan), they are one of the most strikingly beautiful natural features on the planet. The remoteness, the otherworldly feel, the arid environment, and the rugged visual contrasts are hard to satisfactorily describe to those who have not seen a salt flat (or pan) in person. Fortunately, there are a few places here in the United States where major highways cross or abut impressive salt flats where one can become acquainted with them. These locations include, but are not limited to:

  • I-80 in western Utah between Salt Lake City and the Nevada border
  • I-10 west of Lordsburg, New Mexico
  • US 60 near Estancia, New Mexico (see photo below)
  • US 62 in west Texas between El Paso and Guadalupe Mountains National Park
  • I-40 in Southern California through the Mojave Desert
  • Along the entrance road into White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Estancia Basin Salt Flats of New Mexico – Source:

Salt flat and salt pan tend to be terms that are used used interchangeably. They are defined as:

“Natural salt pans or salt flats are flat expanses of ground covered with salt and other minerals, usually shining white under the sun. They are found in deserts and are natural formations. A salt pan [or flat] forms by evaporation of a water pool such as a lake or pond.”


Other related terms that amateur geologists will encounter when studying salt flats (or pans) are dry lake, solar/salar (Latin America), playa, alkali flat, and even lake (though most, if not all of the body, is dry). There are even seasonal salt flats (or pans), four (4) of which are listed near the end of this post – while all salt flats will get occasional rain, these four (4) tend to have dramatic seasonal variations between dry and wet conditions on the flat (pan).

The following list identifies the largest desert salt flats (or pans) around the Earth:

  1. Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia = 4,086 square miles
  2. Ntwetwe Pan – Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana = 3,927 square miles
  3. Lake Eyre (dry) – Australia = 3,668 square miles
  4. Chat el Djerid – Tunisia = 2,700 square miles
  5. Salinas Grandes – Argentina = 2,300 square miles
  6. Sue (Sowa) Pan – Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana = 1,900 square miles
  7. Etosha Pan – Namibia = 1,850 square miles
  8. Solar de Atacama – Chile = 1,200 square miles
  9. Namak Dry Lake – Iran = 700 square miles
  10. Devil’s Golf Course – Death Valley National Park, California, USA = 620 square miles
  11. Solar de Arizaro – Argentina = 617 square miles
  12. Guadalupe Mountains Salt Flat – Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas, USA = 600 square miles 

In addition to those listed above, the following are other significant desert salt flats (or pans). Those shown in bold italics on either list are salt flats (or pans) seen by the author.

  • Badwater Basin – Death Valley National Park, California, USA = 200 square miles
  • Pilot Valley Playa – Utah/Nevada border, USA = 200 square miles +/-
  • Black Rock Desert Playa – Empire, Nevada, USA = 156 square miles 
  • Alvord Desert Playa, Oregon, USA = 140 square miles
  • Soda Dry Lake – California, USA = 90 square miles +/-
  • Laguna de Sayula Basin – Jalisco, Mexico = 65 square miles (entire lake)
  • Bristol Dry Lake/Amboy Salt Flat, Amboy, California, USA – been mined since the early 1900s = 59.85 square miles
  • Bonneville Salt Flats – Utah, USA = 47 square miles
  • Rogers Dry Lake – Edwards Air Force Base, California, USA = 43 square miles
  • Danby Dry Lake – Chubbuck, California, USA – been mined since early 1900s = 30 square miles 
  • Cadiz Dry Lake – Chubbuck, California, USA – been mined since early 1900s = 30 square miles 
  • Searles Dry Lake, Trona, California, USA – being mined = 21.3 square miles
  • Rosamond Dry Lake – Edwards Air Force Base, California, USA = 21 square miles
  • Great Salt Plains – Great Salt Plains State Park/NWR, Oklahoma = 18.5 square miles
  • Lower (South) Animas Playa Salt Flat – Grant County, New Mexico, USA = 16.25 square miles
  • Nxai Pan – Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana = 15.4 square miles
  • Lordsburg Playa – Lordsburg, New Mexico, USA = 9.65 square miles or 12.5 square miles
  • Koehn Dry Lake – California, USA = 11.4 square miles – has been mined in the past
  • Groom Dry Lake – Nellis AFB, Nevada, USA = 11.1 square miles
  • Lake Lucero Playa – White Sands National Park, New Mexico, USA = 10 square miles
  • Playas Salt Flat, Playas, New Mexico, USA = 8 square miles
  • Laguna del Perro Salt Flat – Estancia Basin, New Mexico, USA = 7 square miles
  • Lucerne Dry Lake – California, USA = 7 square miles
  • El Mirage Dry Lake – California, USA = 5.1 square miles
  • Willcox Playa – Willcox, Arizona, USA = 3.7 square miles
  • Upper (North) Animas Playa Salt Flats – Grant County, New Mexico, USA = 5.75 square miles
  • Salina Playa Salt Flat – Estancia Basin, Willard, New Mexico, USA = 1.60 square miles
  • Four Mile Flat – Carson Sink, Nevada, USA = 1.51 square miles
  • Salt Flats – Valencia County, New Mexico, USA = ?
  • Papoose Dry Lake – Nellis AFB, Nevada, USA


Image above – Small salt flat (or pan) in White Sands National Park, New Mexico


  • Rann of Kutch, India = 10,600 square miles
  • Owens Salt Lake, California, USA – being mined = 200 square miles
  • Zuni Crater Salt Flat – Catron County, New Mexico, USA
  • Deep Springs Dry Lake – Inyo County, California, USA

As can be seen in the listings above, a number of these striking salt flans have been or are being mined. Needless to say, such activities can have catastrophic effects on these unique ecosystems, particularly if the delicate balance of salt to other mineral or water ratios are altered. Another growing threat to the ecology of salt flats (or pans) arises from many of these locations being prime locations for the mining of lithium for batteries. 

Lastly, due to their level surface, a number of these beautiful natural features are used for speed racing and testing (Bonneville Salt Flats and Alvord Desert) or aircraft/spacecraft landings (Groom, Rogers, and Rosamond Dry Lakes). While not as detrimental as mining, they still impact the fragile ecosystem of the salt flat (or pan).


Image above – another view of the Guadalupe Mountains Salt Flat in Texas

Fortunately, as the general public becomes more aware of the striking beauty and environmental significance of salt flats (or pans), more are being preserved as parks, preserves, or wildlife refuges. 

As always, any additions, corrections, or suggestions to improve this post are most welcome. Enjoy!


If you find the study of salt and its geological/geographical aspects, then these books available through* might be of interest.

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