We used whole-transcriptome microarrays to assess changes in gene expression and monitored mortality rates and epicuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) in response to desiccation stress in four natural populations of Drosophila mojavensis from Baja California and mainland Mexico. Desiccation had the greatest effect on gene expression, followed by biogeographical variation at regional and population levels. Genes involved in environmental sensing and cuticular structure were up-regulated in dry conditions, while genes involved in transcription itself were down-regulated. Flies from Baja California had higher expression of reproductive and mitochondrial genes, suggesting that these populations have greater fecundity and higher metabolic rates. Host plant differences had a surprisingly minor effect on the transcriptome. In most cases, desiccation-caused mortality was greater in flies reared on fermenting cactus tissues than that on laboratory media. Water content of adult females and males was significantly different and was lower in Baja California males. Different groups of CHCs simultaneously increased and decreased in amounts due to desiccation exposure of 9 and 18 h and were population-specific and dependent on larval rearing substrates. Overall, we observed that changes in gene expression involved a coordinated response of behavioural, cuticular and metabolic genes. Together with differential expression of cuticular hydrocarbons, this study revealed some of the mechanisms that have allowed D. mojavensis to exploit its harsh desert conditions. Certainly, for D. mojavensis that uses different host plants, population-level understanding of responses to stressors associated with future climate change in desert regions must be evaluated across geographical and local ecological scales.