If your desktop files disappeared on your Mac, don’t worry – it’s fixable. It’s also pretty common, thanks to macOS’ many customization settings. In fact, there are a lot of reasons why files disappeared from the desktop on a Mac… and this article explores them all.
Where Did All My Desktop Files and Folders Go?
To better put the problem into perspective, files and folders that disappear from the desktop on Mac usually fall under 2 scenarios: (1) only certain files/folders are missing, or (2) all files/folders are missing from the desktop. The first step of restoring these files is to figure out which scenario applies to you. Let’s quickly explore both of them:
Certain Desktop Files/Folders Are Missing
If only certain desktop files and folders are missing, there are 4 possible causes. Expand the tabs below for a quick explanation and jump links to the corresponding solutions:
✂️ Accidental deletion
Fortunately, the process is super easy – even for beginners. Jump here to learn the details. If you have Time Machine activated, you may be able to restore a previous instance before the file was deleted from your desktop. Jump to Method #3.
🗂 Stacks is enabled
❌ Disconnected/unmounted drive
❓ Misplaced files
All the Files/Folders on My Desktop Disappeared
Scenario 2 is “everything on my desktop disappeared on my Mac”. If all of your files and folders on your desktop are missing, there are likely 2 possible causes. Just like the last section, expand each tab for a short summary of the problem and jump links to the corresponding solution:
⚙️ Desktop files are set to hidden in Finder/Terminal
☁️ iCloud drive deleted local desktop files
How to Find Disappeared Desktop Files & Folders on a Mac
Depending on what caused the data loss, there are different methods we can use to restore your desktop on your Mac. You can go back to the last section if you want to jump to specific methods that you think suit your situation – but you can also go through every method on the list if you want to cover all your bases.
Use Spotlight Search to Find the File
Spotlight is Mac’s super intuitive search tool that uses parameters called “queries” to help users find their files quickly. You can even display previews of your files inside Spotlight itself by clicking on it (see example below). To launch Spotlight Search, hit (CMD + Space). You can then use the following queries to set parameters that will narrow down your search:
|Query||What does it do?||How to use it|
|name:||Filter search by name.||name:samplepdf.pdf|
|date:||Filter search by last known interaction.||date:yesterday|
|kind:||Filter search by file type.||kind:pdf|
|author:||Filter search by author.||author:lex|
Restore Desktop Files Using the Trash Folder
Deleted files always go to your Trash folder, which you can find in your dock (if it’s not there, go to Finder > “Finder” on the Apple menu bar > Go > Go to folder… and enter “.~/Trash” without the quotes). Unless you emptied your Trash folder, there’s a good chance you’ll find your missing files there. To recover deleted files from your Trash folder, simply right-click your file and select “Put Back”.
Recover Lost and Deleted Desktop Files and Folders Using Time Machine
Time Machine is a powerful backup tool that comes installed on your Mac by default. This section assumes that you enabled Time Machine in the past. To restore your data from a Time Machine backup, do the following:
- Open System Preferences > Time Machine.
- Enable “Show Time Machine in menu bar” by ticking the box beside it, then close the window.
- Open Finder and navigate to your desktop folder. Then on your Apple menu bar, click the Time Machine button > Enter Time Machine.
- Use the arrows on the right side of the window to browse through the timeline of your desktop folder. Select the files you want to recover, then click “Recover”.
Show Hidden Desktop Files Using Finder
Finder lets you toggle the display of components connected to your Mac (such as external drives, etc.). These are usually displayed on your desktop, but may be hidden thanks to these settings. To unhide them, do the following:
- Open Finder.
- On the Apple menu bar, click Finder > Preferences…
- In the General tab, tick the boxes beside the items you want displayed on your desktop.
Disable iCloud Drive Sync to Restore Desktop Folders on Mac
Once you’ve used up a certain amount of storage, iCloud deletes local copies of files and folders in pre-specified locations on your Mac – including your Desktop folder. This behavior is Mac’s way to help you save space on your drive. To disable this behavior and restore the files and folders on your desktop, do the following:
- Open System Preferences > Internet Accounts.
- On the left sidebar, click iCloud. Then, click the “Options…” button beside “iCloud Drive” in the right pane.
- Untick the box beside “Desktop & Documents Folders”.
Find Disappeared Mac Folder Through Stack
If you can’t find your files and folders on your desktop but you see a pile of icons grouped together, you’re probably using Stacks. Think of Stacks like invisible folders that only exist on your desktop to group similar files together. To disable this feature, right-click on your desktop make sure “Use Stacks” is unticked.
Unhide Desktop Files Through Terminal
The following command causes all desktop items to completely disappear:
defaults write com.apple.finder CreateDesktop false; killall Finder
It’s unlikely that you did this “accidentally”, but it’s worth a shot to disable this setting. Launch Terminal (Finder > Applications > Utilities > Terminal), then type the following command and hit return:
defaults write com.apple.finder CreateDesktop true; killall Finder
How to Recover Desktop Files & Folders On a Mac?
If all the methods we tried above don’t work, then your desktop files may be stored so deep in the file system that you can’t access them using Finder. The next step is to use trustworthy data recovery software to extract (and rebuild) that data.
- Download and install Disk Drill.
- Launch Disk Drill by opening Finder > Applications and double-clicking Disk Drill’s icon.
- Select the drive that contained your missing desktop files – this is usually your system drive, called “Apple SSD”. Then, click “Search for lost data”.
- Let Disk Drill run its scan. Once it’s complete, click “Review found items”.
- You’ll be greeted by a list of files Disk Drill found. Your files may be named differently, so use the preview button (hover your mouse beside each file to make an “eye” appear) to make sure you got the right ones.
- Select your missing desktop files by ticking the checkboxes in the left-most column. Then, click “Recover”.
- On the dialogue box that appears, use the dropdown menu to select a location where Disk Drill will save your recovered files. As you’ll see from the warning below, it’s advised that you save recovered files in a different drive (like a USB) – but if you only want to recover this one file, you should be fine. Finally, click “OK”.
macOS has some quirky behaviors that could make you question spending multiple paychecks on a Mac machine. However, once you get used to moving around the environment using the tools in this article, you’ll never lose another file again. You’ll also find that Mac is really good at making sure users can quickly find their data, no matter where it is in the file system. Just make sure to back up your files with iCloud and Time Machine in case something really goes wrong.