Kelso Dunes live up to image of picturesque desert landscape

Most people who did not grow up in the Mojave Desert were probably surprised to learn how few sand dunes are found here. The vast flat landscapes of desert pavement and creosote were not remotely what we had envisioned.

But one place that does match the great, graceful sand piles of our imaginations lies about two hours from Boulder City, in the 45-square-mile Kelso Dune Complex. People of all ages seem to enjoy it, but it’s particularly a good outing for energetic children.

The Kelso Dunes are part of the Mojave National Preserve in California, and your route there takes you by the historic Kelso Depot. You should make it a point to stop and visit, allowing a minimum of half an hour for the visit.

Starting in 1905, this railroad station’s original function was to provide essential water for steam engines and a place to hitch on additional engines for the long, steep grade to the east. When the present depot was built in the 1920s, it was made charming in appearance because the railroad was competing fiercely with the Santa Fe, whose roughly parallel route lay a few miles to the south, for passengers.

Continuously improving diesel engine technology gradually eliminated the first two needs, and travelers’ growing preference for airlines made the third largely irrelevant. One of the last of the “whistle stop” stations operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, it closed in 1985.

Regional history buffs and preservationists managed to prevent the station’s demolition, and after the Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994, the National Park Service completed its restoration and adaptation as a visitor center for the preserve. Besides the exhibits you would expect at any visitor center, explaining the natural features of the park, here you’ll also find an old-time ticket office, baggage room and two dormitory rooms formerly used by railroad workers, with historically correct furnishings to show what life was like in one of the West’s most remote railroad towns.

Continuing 10 miles to the south, you’ll come to the Kelso Dunes themselves. At 2,610 feet in elevation in the parking area, they are easy to spot, for they rise 600 feet above their surroundings and are the third-tallest dune complex in North America.

Delicate plants grow at the base of the dunes — some rare and even some found nowhere else on Earth — so don’t trample any. But once you’ve climbed beyond the narrow belt of growing things, you can climb and cavort at will.

This is what makes it so good for children; it’s one big sand pile, capable of absorbing all the energy they wish to expend on it. They tend to eventually discover the joy of rolling down the slope like so many logs, which fills the clothes with sand but the head with treasured memories. Of course, less energetic adults may merely relax and read the interpretive signs, secure in the knowledge that even an accident-prone young ’un will have a hard time hurting himself in a big sand pile.

These are among the few dunes in the world known to “sing” or ‘boom” as the sands rearrange themselves. Some say the sound resembles a distant airplane motor or freight train; others compare it to the low note of a musical organ. How the sands make the noise is not fully understood, but it happens only when the moisture content is just right. If it happens when you’re there, you should be able to hear it, for no sand buggies or other noisy motor vehicles are allowed on these particular dunes.

No gasoline, food or other supplies are sold in park, so plan to buy what you need before entering. The closest sources are Primm, Nevada, and the California town of Baker.

The Kelso Depot visitor center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on Christmas. For more information, call 760- 252-6108 or go online to

Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled in the book “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States.” 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


From Boulder City take U.S. Highway 95 south 37 miles to Searchlight. Go right onto Nevada Route 164 and drive west, driving through Nipton, California, for 28 miles. Turn left onto Ivanpah Road and drive for 3.1 miles. Go right onto Morning Star Mine Road and travel about 15 miles to Cima. Here, at the railroad tracks, the road becomes Kelso/Cima Road. Continue 19 more miles to Kelso Depot, on your left.