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The Coolest Sand Dunes in California
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The Coolest Sand Dunes in California

You can find mesmerizing waves of sand all over the Golden State. Here are some of the coolest sand dunes in California.

Dikran Seferian

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5 min read

July 09, 2022

Imagine a sandbox but on a much larger scale. That’s what the sand dunes in California basically are. Whether it’s off-roading, desert hiking, making “sand angels”, or simply admiring their natural beauty, sand dunes are a great source of leisure for the whole family. Some dunes are meant for a range of fun activities while others are home to various plants and animals.   From coastal regions to inland national parks, these are some of the most picturesque sand dunes California has to offer.

What are the best sand dunes in California?

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

Shifting ripples atop piles of sand characterize Death Valley’s Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

You’d be surprised that sand dunes make up only 1% of Death Valley. However, movies that were filmed there (Star Wars, in particular) have allowed people to associate sand dunes with this ethereal national park. Out of the five dunes sites in Death Valley, the most famous and most accessible one is Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These are also the easiest to climb since they are only 100 feet tall at the highest. The California dunes you’ll see here include crescent-shaped as well as linear and star-shaped ones. One mesmerizing feature, however, is the ripples created by the drifting wind atop the mounds of sand.

Anytime is a good time to visit Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Whether you go at sunrise, sunset, or just about anywhere in between, the dunes are absolutely spectacular — even at night. The ever-shifting play of lights, shadows, and colors creates a dramatic experience like no other. The sinuous textures in the sand are even visible under a full moon, but make sure to beware of rattlesnakes if you’re visiting at night. While some other recreational desert parks in California offer a range of activities, hiking is the only way you can explore the Mesquite dunes.

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve

The Kelso Dunes Are Among the Oldest Desert Marvels in California.

The singing sands of Kelso Dunes are a spectacle that never fails to astonish. Located in the ghost town of Kelso, California, this 250,000-year-old dune field is the largest in the Mojave desert, spanning over 45 square miles and rising as high as 650 feet.

One setback is that the “choir” is mostly audible in the summer when temperatures are soaring. Nevertheless, it is always fun to just climb up and slide down from the beautiful, crescent-shaped dunes. Interestingly enough, it is none other than the wind that created these marvelous hills of sand, which explains why they’re called Aeolian sand deposits (According to Greek mythology, Aeolus is known as the “keeper of the winds”).

The sands are mainly composed of quartz and feldspar, which is what the winds blew off of the nearby granite mountains. Just west of Kelbaker Road which passes through the Mojave Preserve and goes from Kelso to Baker, California, Kelso Dunes make an ideal stop along your Route 66 road trip

Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes, Guadalupe

A forgotten city lies beneath the sand fields of Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Park.

Sprawling all the way from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo, Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes is the second-largest in the Golden State. The Rancho Guadalupe Dunes County Park features a paved road that takes you through the preserve down to the beach, where ripples in the fields of sand emulate the Sahara. Similar to some sand dunes in San Diego, the coastal dunes in the distance are where you’ll see shrubs hanging on to small marshes. A large part of this land is fortunately preserved, mainly to protect coastal species such as California's least tern and the endangered western snowy plover.

Unbeknownst to many visitors, a lost city of treasure is buried below the California dunes. In the early 1900s, Cecille B. Demille hired over 1,600 workers to recreate a massive Egyptian palace along with gates and statues of pharaohs and sphinxes. This site was to serve as the set for the silent, black-and-white movie “The Ten Commandments”.

After a month of production, however, Demille had the entire set covered in dunes to prevent it from being taken advantage of by low-budget filmmakers. The existence of these relics was later proven thanks to ground-mapping technology. And if they remain there, imagine the confusion of archeologists a thousand years from today as they wonder what Egyptian ruins are doing in California. 

Eureka Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

The natural orchestra of Eureka Sand Dunes is an unworldly and mind-blowing phenomenon.

Among the latest additions to the Death Valley National Park, Eureka Sand Dunes are the tallest dunes in California as they rise over 680 feet above a dry lake bed. The hills of sand sprawl across an enclosed basin at a 3000-foot elevation near the even taller Last Chance Mountains. Summiting through the loose and slippery sands can be quite a challenge, but the sweeping views from atop are definitely worthwhile. The real treat, however, is the sound of dry sands spilling down the steep dunes, almost like that of a pipe organ. Experts believe this mind-blowing phenomenon is due to friction.

The 10,000-year-old Eureka Sand Dunes enjoy more rainfall than other deserts in the region, making it an ideal habitat for the local flora and fauna. One species of plant that you’ll only find here is the Eureka Dunes evening primrose, a large type of flower that blooms at night.

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LAX Dunes Preserve/El Segundo Dunes, Playa del Rey

What does the Los Angeles International Airport have to do with sand dunes?

The western reaches of the Los Angeles International Airport are surprisingly home to a dune preserve. Being the largest coastal sand dunes Southern California has to offer, the area once stretched from Palos Verdes all the way to Santa Monica and is even believed to be 50,000 years old. As a matter of fact, it is where the remains of an extinct type of camel have been discovered.

The preserve currently spans 300 acres and provides habitat to over 900 species of native plants and animals — such as the El Segundo blue butterfly — that were once on the brink of extinction. Visitors are encouraged to join the LAX Adopt-a-Dune Program to help in removing invasive plants that are currently posing a problem to the delicate environment of the preserve. 

Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, Glamis

The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area is a hotspot for off-roading enthusiasts.

Rising high above both sides of the 8 Freeway, the Imperial Sand Dunes of California are a popular destination for OHV off-roading as well as car-camping. It is also the largest area of sand dunes in the Golden State. Home to various endemic species of insects, such as the sand wasp, the area’s ecosystem is rather delicate and valuable. An effort to preserve this habitat resulted in the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area on the northern section. 


Off-roading isn’t the only recreational activity at Glamis Sand Dunes, California. Visitors can also head over to the Hugh T. Osborne Lookout Park where the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi were filmed. Another short distance away is the town of Felicity. There, you can tour the Museum of History in Granite or witness the disembodied portion of the Eiffel Tower’s original spiral staircase.



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