Everyone loves sand dunes. Perhaps because most of us come from climates where dunes don’t occur, they seem exotic and we associate them with romance and adventure. Many travel thousands of miles to gaze upon them, but those who live in Southern Nevada can find outstanding examples relatively near. Some of the tallest in North America, Eureka Dunes, are in Death Valley National Park.
The dunes are in the extreme northern area of the park and you’ll have to make quite an effort, driving along rough gravel roads to see them, but the rewards are good. The dunes, at a base elevation of around 3,000 feet, rise up about 700 feet more, and they run about 3 miles long and about 1 mile wide.
One of the bonuses to visiting these dunes is that, unlike most in the Southwest, they are closed to off-highway vehicles, sandboarders and horses. The experience here is an immersion in nature alone.
Most people want to hike up to the highest peak, which is fun, but be aware that the sand is quite soft, which makes walking arduous. The easiest route is to start from the camping area in the dunes’ northwest corner.
These dunes are about 10,000 years old and are considered very stable. They are in Eureka Valley just west of the limestone Last Chance Mountains, which tower some 4,000 feet.
These dunes are known as singing or booming dunes, found in only 35 desert locations in the world. This means when the sand is very dry and avalanches down the steep areas, odd sounds can often be heard. Some say it sounds like a deep note on an organ, while others describe hearing what sounds like an aircraft passing over. Experts do not all agree on why the sounds can be heard, but many theorize it’s the result of friction when the sand grains slide against one another.
Five species of beetles and three plants are endemic to the Eureka Dunes, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. The plants are Eureka dunegrass, Eureka Dunes evening primrose and shining milkvetch. You might see a few black-tailed jackrabbits or a rattlesnake, or hear a coyote during the night, but otherwise there isn’t too much wildlife here.
There are about 10 park-designated campsites here, some with fire rings and picnic tables. There are no services close by, so go equipped to take care of yourself. You will need a high-clearance vehicle, preferably with four-wheel drive, with good off-road tires and two spare tires, just in case. Make sure the jack, jack handle and lug wrench are aboard. Before you head out on the back roads, be sure to fill up your gas tank. Take a first-aid kit and other emergency supplies. Also bring considerably more water and food than you expect to use, in case some complication makes the trip take longer than expected.
If has rained recently or rain threatens, postpone this trip until dry weather; the roads are rough enough even before they wash out. There is no shade, so you might want to pack a large sun umbrella. And in all seasons, use sunblock and wear a hat! Your chief memory of this trip ought to be of wonderful scenery, rather than sunburn.
Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled into books about hiking in the Southwest. She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.
From the Furnace Creek area of the park, drive north on California State Route 190 for about 17 miles and go right onto Scotty’s Castle Road. Follow for 33 miles and go left onto Ubehebe Crater Road. Follow for 2.7 miles and go right onto Pig Pine Road. Drive 34 miles and go left onto the Eureka Dunes Access road. Follow about 10 miles to sand dunes and camping area.