Words and Photos by Jenn McAmis
I yearn to explore the unknown, the wild, the landscapes only found in Dr. Seuss books and space movies. The kind of places that have to be fictional because there’s no way they’d form naturally. Finally, almost 30 years into this life, I feel like I’ve finally had a taste of just that at the Kelso Sand Dunes in Southeastern California.
Not only do these dunes appear to be from another planet, but they also are believed to be a widespread phenomenon on the moon and Mars – despite their rarity down here on planet Earth (1). The Kelso Dunes are a unique style of dune that have taken over 25,000 years to become the majestic sand mountains they are today (2).
On my visit, we turned onto the trailhead road after dark when the moon was just past new. Dispersed camping sites line the BLM land past the trailhead where the road turns to dirt. Anywhere that is not on pavement and has been used for camping before is fair game to pull your van over or set up tents. The sites are pretty obvious, even at night, and most have fire rings. Using existing campsites and fire rings is essential to protecting the fragile desert to prevent overuse. The soil in the desert is living, or cryptobiotic, soil. This very delicate web of bacteria, fungi, lichens, algae, and mosses keep the land stable and provide nutrients and water for all of the native plants and animals. This fragile network of living soil requires at least five years of recovery even from a single footstep. Avoiding restoration areas and keeping our exploration on existing paths keeps our impact concentrated and preserves the beautiful desert (3).
It’s up to us to keep the magic alive and available for the enjoyment of future generations.
My first morning at the dunes, I woke up with the sun and peaked out of my camper windows. I couldn’t keep my gasp quiet. Honestly, I’m not sure what I expected, because I knew we were going to giant sand dunes, but it looked as if we were about to climb out onto a movie set from Star Wars. Right next to our camper, the land provided homes for the shrubs and cacti that you’d expect in the Mojave desert area. Towering only half a mile beyond the edge of the road, however, was an imposing, 800-foot tall mountain of sand. Pure, yellow sand. I was in awe.
The 3-mile round trip hike from the trailhead to the top of the highest dune and back is best done California beach style, barefoot! The general use trails are clear the whole way and staying on them is crucial here to protect the unique ecosystem. During the first 20,000 years or so of their existence, the Kelso Dunes were traveling and evolving into their current state. A few thousand years ago, the dunes stopped moving and the plants you see today started to grow. These plants stabilize the dunes. Without them, the dunes would erode and the many lizards and animals that call the dunes home, including 10 species of insects endemic to the dunes (2).
Though our furry four-legged friends could explore the dunes on a leash, we chose to leave them in the camper. The impact of their attempts to chase the lizards would have been next to impossible to prevent.
At the top and walking on the ridge of the dunes brought me back to my feeling of being on a movie set. Looking far in every direction, you can see where the landscape switches back to the expected Mojave desert. However, for 45 square miles, you’re surrounded entirely by sand.
The sensation that you’re in a place constructed intentionally and artificially remains strong.
To make the experience even more incredible, the Kelso Sand Dunes are booming dunes – a phenomenon that happens only in a handful of dunes around the world. When the sand slides down the slopes, it makes a reverberating “boom” that you can both hear and feel. Technically, the sensation is the result of sand simultaneously bouncing (saltation) and spinning downward (shearing) (1).
The booming makes hiking down even more fun than going up. You can slide and let yourself run free. I won’t lie – in my mind, I was on Tatooine with Luke Skywalker zipping around on his land speeder as I ran and jumped in the sand and felt the booming below me (#nerdalert). As you’re playing and sliding your way back to the car, don’t forget to keep an eye out for any trash that may fall out of unguarded pockets. A piece of garbage that might decompose in a few weeks or months in other environments can take decades in the desert (4).
It’s not every day that you get to wake up and experience a new reality in a place you once only thought existed in dreamland. We must preserve it as a possibility for all to explore. Pack up your lifelong wanderlust and new desert adventure ethics and add Kelso Sand Dunes as a stop on your next California road trip.
Check out the Kelso Sand Dunes: