Cal­i­for­nia’s Best Sand Dunes

So Much More Than Piles of Sand

Snowbirds & RV Travelers - - Contents - BY CAS­SAN­DRA RED­DING

If you’ve never taken the time to visit some of Cal­i­for­nia’s sand dunes, you are miss­ing out. Th­ese dunes are much more than small piles of sand on the beach – they are some of the most mag­i­cal places on the planet. Windswept and full of sandy waves, th­ese ma­jes­tic moun­tains are ever-chang­ing into en­tirely dif­fer­ent land­scapes from one day to the next. Here are my top picks for the most mys­te­ri­ous and beau­ti­ful sand dunes of Cal­i­for­nia.


The Im­pe­rial Sand Dunes, also known as the Al­go­dones Dunes, are lo­cated in the south­east­ern por­tion of Cal­i­for­nia, near the bor­der with Ari­zona and the Mex­i­can state of Baja Cal­i­for­nia, and make up the most ex­ten­sive dune sys­tem in the state. The sys­tem runs ap­prox­i­mately 72 km (45 miles) long, 10 km (6 miles) wide and rises to over 90 me­tres (300 ft) high. If you feel a sense of déjà vu when you ar­rive, it may be be­cause film­ing for parts of Star Wars Episode VI: Re­turn of the Jedi took place here.

You’ll feel like you are in an­other world as the dunes get higher on both sides of the high­way as you drive through, and you won’t be able to re­sist pulling over to climb th­ese dunes, es­pe­cially at sun­set.

You will want to con­tem­plate the tim­ing of your visit - sum­mer tem­per­a­tures of­ten rise above 43°C (110°F) and an­nual rain­fall av­er­ages less than two inches. The mild cli­mate be­tween Oc­to­ber and May might be more com­fort­able, just be aware that the area at­tracts tens of thou­sands of off-road en­thu­si­asts.

Where to Stay

Im­pe­rial Sand Dune Re­cre­ation Area (ISDRA) is com­monly known as Glamis for the store, restau­rant and pizza par­lor at the north­east end of the ISDRA and ven­dor row, where you can rent ATVs and UTVs and get most any­thing you need for dun­ing and camp­ing. The his­tor­i­cal Gold Rock Ranch is a full-service www.gol­drock­ RV Re­sort.

Get­ting There

The dunes are south­east of the Sal­ton Sea, and if you are trav­el­ing along Hwy 8, there is a great spot to stop for a nice hike. Just east of the public rest stop, take exit 156, and you will find your­self on the frontage road called Grays Well Rd which runs par­al­lel to Hwy 8 on its south. The trail comes to a dead end, but you can usu­ally park next to the RV hosts.


The dunes of Death Val­ley Na­tional Park are great places to en­joy both na­ture and re­cre­ation and in­clude the Sa­line Val­ley Dunes, Panamint Dunes and the Ibex Sand Dunes – but the best ar­eas are the Mesquite Flat and the Eureka Sand Dunes.


Th­ese dunes are the best-known and most ac­ces­si­ble dunes in the na­tional park. A walk along th­ese rip­pled dunes will have you con­vinced you are walk­ing where no one has been be­fore. There is no marked trail be­cause the desert sands are con­stantly shift­ing, but the ac­cess is easy from Hwy 190 or from the un­paved Sand Dunes Road so make your own path and travel for as long as you want. For an ex­tra spe­cial show of colour and light, make your way there be­fore sun­rise or just be­fore sun­set (be­ware at night of rat­tlesnakes, es­pe­cially in the sum­mer). Your pho­tos will be fan­tas­tic.

Where to Stay

If you’re look­ing for an ideal camp­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the Na­tional Park Service op­er­ates a rus­tic camp­ground at Stovepipe Wells Vil­lage. The 190 sites are avail­able on a first-come-first-serve ba­sis from Oc­to­ber through April for $12 a night. No hookups are avail­able. http://www.death­val­ley­ho­­tel/rv-park-and-camp­ing/

Get­ting There

Lo­cated in cen­tral Death Val­ley near Stovepipe Wells, ac­cess is from ei­ther Hwy 190 or the un­paved Sand Dunes Road.


Th­ese dunes are lo­cated in the north­ern sec­tion of Death Val­ley, in the re­mote Eureka Val­ley and although they only cover an area of 4.8 km (3 miles) long and 1.6 km (1 mile) wide, they are the tallest dunes in Cal­i­for­nia (some say in North Amer­ica). The dunes are more than 183 me­tres (600 ft) above the val­ley with the even higher Last Chance Moun­tains, which rise 1220 me­tres (4000 ft) in the back­drop. You re­ally will feel like you are on an­other planet.

Even though you will be at the hottest and dri­est place in North Amer­ica, you will be sur­prised at the amount of plant life here. Some species are so rare you won’t find them any­where else.

Get­ting to Eureka Sand Dunes is no small feat how­ever, and it re­quires a 64 km (40 mile) drive down a dirt road. But you will be more than re­warded at the end with in­com­pa­ra­ble camp­ing, hik­ing, and stargaz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Get­ting There

Travel 4.3 km (2.7 miles) north of the Grapevine En­trance Sta­tion on Ube­hebe Crater Road to the marked turnoff for the Eureka Dunes. Here pave­ment ends and a well-main­tained graded dirt road be­gins. You’ll reach Crank­shaft Junc­tion in ap­prox­i­mately 34 km (21 miles) and be­gin a wind­ing climb through the Last Chance Moun­tains and down Wind­ing Rock Canyon (the lat­ter por­tion is par­tially paved). At 53.7 km (33.4 miles) from the ini­tial turnoff you will find the turnoff for the dunes - stay left an­other 15.7 km (9.7 miles) down a graded dirt road to the dune park­ing area.


Half­way be­tween Las Ve­gas and LA, in the Mojave Desert, you will find the Kelso Dunes, which cover over 72 sq km (45 square miles). This is the largest sin­gle area of wind-blown dunes in the Mojave Desert. The high­est dune rises to more than 183 me­tres (600 feet) above ground level. You get to the dunes by fol­low­ing a few kilo­me­tres of straight gravel road to the park­ing area. You could just view the dunes from here, but to get to larger dunes, you have to hike about two kilo­me­tres on a sandy trail. When you get to the base of the mas­sive dunes, you can then make the steep climb up to con­quer the sum­mit. Many peo­ple run or sled down th­ese dunes – su­per fun but a lit­tle dan­ger­ous. If you want to hear the sand “sing”, kick a bit of sand over top of the dune on the lee side. There are var­i­ous the­o­ries as to why the sand sings – it may be caused by wind pass­ing over the dunes or by just walk­ing on the sand.

Get­ting There

Lo­cated be­tween I-40 and I-15, close to the old junc­tion town of Kelso and not far from Baker, Cal­i­for­nia. For Kelso De­pot Vis­i­tor Cen­ter, take Kel­baker Road exit from I–15 (head south 34 miles) or I–40 (head north 22 miles), Mojave Na­tional Pre­serve, Cal­i­for­nia.


Of­fi­cially known as the Oceano Dunes State Ve­hic­u­lar Re­cre­ation Area, the Pismo Dunes are out­side the town of Oceano, a few min­utes from San Luis Obispo and is a favourite week­end des­ti­na­tion for many. Th­ese beach dunes are much dif­fer­ent than the desert dunes but are still a fun ad­ven­ture. This area is unique be­cause you can drive right on the beach. Pismo Beach and Oceano beach are one of the last re­main­ing coastal dunes that al­low off-high­way ve­hi­cles (OHV).

Where to Stay

Camp­ing is al­lowed right on the beach, in the area that is about two kilo­me­tres (1.2 mi) south from Pier Ave, which marks the be­gin­ning of the OHV area and is marked Post 2. Reser­va­tions are strongly rec­om­mended – call 1-800-444-7275.

Im­pe­rial Sand Dunes

Eureka Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Pismo Dunes

Pismo Dunes

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