Knowledge about the condition of vegetation cover and composition is critical for assessing the structure and function of ecosystems. To effectively quantify the impacts of a rapidly changing environment, methods to track long-term trends of vegetation must be precise, repeatable, and time- and cost-efficient. Measuring vegetation cover and composition in arid and semiarid regions is especially challenging because vegetation is typically sparse, discontinuous, and individual plants are widely spaced. To meet the goal of long-term vegetation monitoring in the Sonoran Desert and other arid and semiarid regions, we determined how estimates of plant species, total vegetation, and soil cover obtained using a widely-implemented monitoring protocol compared to a more time- and resource-intensive plant census. We also assessed how well this protocol tracked changes in cover through 82 years compared to the plant census. Results from the monitoring protocol were comparable to those from the plant census, despite low and variable plant species cover. Importantly, this monitoring protocol could be used as a rapid, "off-the shelf" tool for assessing land degradation (or desertification) in arid and semiarid ecosystems.