California’s Best Sand Dunes
So Much More Than Piles of Sand
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.
IMPERIAL SAND DUNES
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.goldrockranch.us RV Resort.
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.
DEATH VALLEY SAND DUNES
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.
MESQUITE FLAT 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.deathvalleyhotels.com/our-hotel/rv-park-and-camping/
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.
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.
KELSO SAND DUNES, MOJAVE DESERT
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.
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
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes