Desert Landforms Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Jenna Conan

Jenna is a fourth grade teacher with a master's degree in instructional design and an undergraduate degree in elementary education.

In this lesson you will learn about deserts and their landforms. Desert landforms include mesas, buttes, canyons, arroyos, arches, rock pedestals, and more.

Landforms of the Desert

Deserts are areas with dry air, little rain, very hot daytime temperatures, and lots of wind. They're often 100 degrees or more during the day, then 25 degrees or less at night, and the wind speeds can sometimes reach over 180 miles per hour! Because of their climate, deserts are unique and interesting, with landforms that are very different from other places. Desert landforms take shape because of the hot sun, limited rainfall, high winds, dry soil, and limited plant growth.

Mesas & Buttes

A mesa is a hill with steep sides and a flat top. A smaller mesa is sometimes called a butte. These landforms can also be called table mountains or table hills, because the word mesa actually means table in Spanish.

Scientists believe that mesas and buttes were formed when streams or rivers weathered and eroded away the smaller, softer rocks, leaving only the strong rock of the mesa or butte behind.

Desert Mesa

Canyons & Arroyos

A canyon is a deep, narrow valley with steep sides. Canyons are usually carved out by rivers. Over time, the rushing water weathers and erodes the land, forming a deep canyon over thousands of years.

You have probably heard of the Grand Canyon, a 277 mile long canyon carved out by the Colorado River in Arizona. But did you know that the Grand Canyon is only the second-largest canyon in the world? The longest and deepest is called the Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon, and it's in Tibet.

Horseshoe Bend of the Grand Canyon
Horseshoe Bend of the Grand Canyon

A smaller version of a canyon is a landform called an arroyo. Most of these are created by streams that appear when it does occasionally rain in the desert, and are shallow and only a few yards wide.


An arch is formed when soft rock is surrounded by hard rock, the sandstone layer cracks, and the softer rock eventually gets worn away by the wind. Then rainwater soaks into the stone and dissolves the rock from the inside out. In the winter, the water in the cracks freezes, expands, and breaks pieces of rock off. These processes form the desert landforms that we know as arches. You can visit over 2,000 of these arches at Arches National Park in Utah!

Desert Arch

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