Death Valley National Park
|Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park (Alan Van Valkenburg/courtesy, National Park Service)|
Many first-time visitors to Death Valley are surprised it is not covered with an endless sea of sand. Less than one percent of the desert is covered with dunes, yet the shadowed ripples and stark, graceful curves define "desert" in our imaginations. For dunes to exist there must be a source of sand, prevailing winds to move the sand, and a place for the sand to collect. The eroded canyons and washes provide plenty of sand, the wind seems to always blow (especially in the spring), but there are only a few areas in the park where the sand is "trapped." The sand dunes of Death Valley National Park are excellent places for nature study and recreation.
A pale mountain of sand appears to hover over the flat valley floor. Rugged cliffs loom high above, boldly striped with pink, gray, and black. The distant yipping of a coyote is interrupted by a mysterious rumbling sound emitting from the dune itself.
The Eureka Dunes lie in the remote Eureka Valley, an enclosed basin at a 3,000-foot elevation located northwest of Death Valley. The dunes cover an area only three miles long and one mile wide, yet they are the tallest sand dunes in California, possibly the tallest in all of North America. They rise suddenly more than 680 feet above the dry lakebed at their western base. As tall as these dunes are, they are dwarfed by the impressive limestone wall of the Last Chance Mountains, which rise another 4,000 feet above the valley floor.
The climb to the summit of the dunes is not an easy walk. All the slopes are steep and the loose sand gives way beneath your feet. At the top, the sweeping view seems reward enough for your efforts, yet if the sand is completely dry, you may experience one of the strangest phenomena to be found in the desert, singing sand. When the sand avalanches down the steepest face of the highest dune, a sound like a bass note of a pipe organ or the distant drone of an airplane can be heard emanating from the sand. If the dune is at all damp (even though it may not feel so to the touch), no sound will be made. Why this occurs is not fully understood, but it may have something to do with the smooth texture of the sand grains and the friction of those grains sliding against each other.
At first glance the Eureka Dunes appear desolate. What could possibly survive the hardships of this area? Plants and animals must endure the shifting sands; a windstorm could bury them alive or expose them to the drying sun. These are some of the plants and animals that can endure the harsh environment.
Eureka Dune Grass (Swallenia alexandrae) is often the only plant found on the higher slopes of the dunes. Their dense root system catches and holds drifting sand, forming stable hummocks. Stiff, spiny leaftips protect the plant from being disturbed by herbivores and careless hikers. Federally listed as an endangered species.
Eureka Evening Primrose (Oenothera avita eurekensis) has large, white night-blooming flowers to take advantage of pollenators such as moths that avoid the heat of day. When the leafy flower shoot is covered by windblown sand, roots sprout from the sides and a new rosette of leaves forms at the tip. Federally listed as an endangered species.
Shining Locoweed (Astragalus lentiginosus micans) reflects excess light and heat with a covering of silvery hairs to conserve moisture. This is a hummock-forming plant like dune grass. Nodules on the roots gather nitrogen from the air, an important nutrient not available in the sand. Candidate for the Endangered Species List.
Eureka Dunes are accessible by most standard vehicles via the Death Valley/Big Pine Road. From the Ubehebe Crater Road you must travel 44 miles of graded dirt to the dunes. From the town of Big Pine there are 28 miles of paved road and 21 miles of graded dirt to the dunes. The final ten miles of both routes are on the narrow South Eureka Road. During inclement weather, all access to Eureka Dunes can be closed or limited. No water or services are available along this route.
Eureka Dunes are clearly a special place. Please have respect when you visit. Life forms here may not be able to survive our carelessness. Try to choose activities that have the least impact on the land. Camp away from the base of the dunes where most of the endemic plants and animals live.
Most importantly, off-road-vehicle travel is not permitted on the dunes, or anywhere else in Death Valley National Park. Please keep your vehicle on established roadways.
Other Dunes in Death Valley
Saline Valley Dunes
Gently rippling up from the edge of salt flats, these low dunes cover a large area, yet go unnoticed by most visitors to this remote valley. The Inyo Mountains tower nearly 10,000 feet above. The long, rough drive into Saline Valley limits casual visits, so come prepared. Winter snows and flashfloods can temporarily limit access.
Travelers crossing Panamint Valley on Hwy. 190 may view these dunes as a distant, pale smudge to the north. Those wanting a closer look must drive the unmarked, dirt road leading to the Big Four Mine, then hike cross-country three miles. The other dunes of Death Valley are all situated on flat valley floors, but these are perched on a slope. The view from the ridge is a good spot for viewing wildlife.
Visitors to Saratoga Springs may notice these dunes, but they are shielded from paved roads by rocky desert hills. Hike about one mile from the Saratoga Springs Road for access. An old talc mine at the base of the Saddle Peak Hills overlooks the dunes from the east. The Mojave fringe-toed lizard lives on these dunes.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication