Whether it’s hiking to the top of them and trying to make them “sing” as we slide down, or flopping down upon their ripples and making “angels” in the sand, for many, the dunes of SoCal are Mother Nature’s sandbox — a playground for all ages.
But these geological features of our unique topography are, by their nature, fragile and even somewhat transient. They’re loose, and they’re often on the move. And while they might not blow away in one fell swoop, the ravages of time and recreational use can wear away at them and their unique ecosystems.
Over time, some of our dunes have been built upon, driven across, and even bulldozed — but the ones that remain are vibrant, intriguing areas for viewing wildlife and taking in the landscape that’s been thousands of years in the making.
Here are the five best places to enjoy the various types of dunes that the region has to offer, both inland and by the sea — some of which give us a little taste of the Sahara right here in southern California.
1. Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, Guadalupe
These dunes — the second largest in California — sprawl up and down the Central Coast, from Santa Barbara County all the way up to Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County. At the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes County Park area, a paved access road leads you through the Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve and down to the beach, where you can see the ripples in the sand fields that evoked the Sahara (at least, if you’re a location scout). Beyond there, at the coastal dunes, low-growing plants cling to small hummocks, weathering the harsh wind and salty sea air. Thankfully, much of this landscape is preserved — not only for the benefit of the dunes themselves, but also for sensitive dune and coastal species, like the endangered western snowy plover and California least tern. But beyond this access road, there’s something else: a lost city of buried treasure.
You see, Cecil B. DeMille recreated ancient Egypt upon these dunes for "The Ten Commandments" (the silent, black and white predecessor to the better-known, 1956 color version starring Charlton Heston). In an endeavor nearly as mighty as building the pyramids themselves, DeMille hired 1,600 workers to build a giant Egyptian palace, gate, and statues of sphinxes and pharaohs. But after a month of production in 1923 — at a time when there was still a lot of excitement over the discovery of King Tut's tomb — DeMille ordered the entire set be buried in the dunes, never to be discovered and reused by low-budget filmmakers looking to piggyback on his expenditure. And that has made it the last remaining film set from the early era of Hollywood moviemaking. Its buried existence was actually confirmed by some movie buff historians with ground-mapping technology. But considering the fact that the main movie set alone was 720 feet wide, there are literally tons of relics still out there. And if we don't find them all, a thousand years from now archaeologists will be scratching their heads trying to figure out how Egyptian ruins ended up in California.
2. Kelso Dunes, Mojave National PreserveIf singing sands are your thing, head to the ghost town of Kelso, California, where you’ll find an old railroad depot but no railroad and where, at 45 square miles, the largest dune field in the Mojave Desert features peaks that rise as high as 650 feet. Unfortunately, the “song” is easiest to hear when the dunes are the driest — which means visiting in the middle of summer while temperatures are often too hot for most visitors to handle. Even without the “boom,” though — or the murmur, or even just the low vibration that you can feel even if you can’t hear it — these shifting, crescent-shaped dunes are just begging to be climbed up and slid down.
Take a moment to contemplate what created these dunes, which was nothing more complicated than just the wind — hence, their designation as Aeolian sand deposits (Aeolus being Greek mythology’s “keeper of the winds”). And then, take a closer look at a handful of that sand, composed primarily of minerals quartz and feldspar — because that’s what blew off of the granite mountains nearby. Located just west of Kelbaker Road (the main thoroughfare through the Mojave Preserve that leads from Kelso to Baker, CA), the 25,000-year-old Kelso Dunes make an epic pit stop on your way to or from Vegas or along a Route 66 road trip.
3. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National ParkOnly about 1 percent of Death Valley is covered in sand dunes, but thanks to the films and TV shows that have filmed there (namely, "Star Wars" and "Star Trek"), that’s the image that most people associate with this desert national park. Here, there are actually five different dune sites, but the best known and most accessible is the one at Mesquite Flat. Because the highest one is only about 100 feet tall, these are much easier to climb than the seemingly impossible slog up Kelso Dunes, though these share the same mineral composition of quartz and feldspar. And here, you’ll get crescent-shaped dunes as well as linear and star-shaped ones. Among the mesquite trees, you’ll also find some signs that this area was once underwater, with a dry, cracked, ancient lakebed peering out from underneath the sand — a sight you might expect to more likely see at Badwater than near Stovepipe Wells. Atop the shape-shifting piles of sand, the wind-drift ripples can be mesmerizing, especially when the tracks of your predecessors have entirely disappeared, thanks to the elements. And there’s really nothing like creating a new set of tracks in sand… and feeling like you’re the first one to ever blaze a trail there.
The best time of day to visit the dunes is actually all the time, whether it’s sunrise, sunset, or anywhere in between. The ever-changing light, shadows, and colors make this a spectacular destination no matter what time of day — or even night — it is. You can even view the sinuous textures in sand under the light of a full moon (when summer temperatures are more bearable), but beware of rattlesnakes that emerge to bask in the cool night air as soon as the sun sets. There’s no official trail, so climb responsibly. Unlike some other dune recreation areas, you can only explore these on foot.
Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, GlamisYou can’t miss them if you’re driving east or west on the 8 Freeway between the Imperial Valley and Arizona, just north of the Mexican border — because the Imperial Sand Dunes (part of the Algodones dune system) rise high off both sides of it. Formed by windblown sands of ancient Lake Cahuilla (which covered more than 2,000 square miles during the Holocene period more than 11,000 years ago), the site in the southeast corner of California is now managed by the BLM, which allows a number of recreational opportunities on-site by permit only, from car camping to OHV off-roading. In fact, this is the largest OHV recreation area for sand dunes in the entire country — and the largest sand dune area in the state of California, period.
It’s a significant and somewhat delicate ecosystem with several endemic species of insects — everything from scarab beetles to weevils, bees, and sand wasps — so it’s not hard to understand why environmentalists have pushed the government to preserve as much of the dunes as possible, resulting in the designation of the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area to the north. If you’d like to view the dunes outside of an ATV or dune buggy, and if you’d like to spend a bit more time gazing at them than what rubbernecking from behind the wheel will allow, visit the Hugh T. Osborne Lookout Park, just east of the Imperial Sand Dunes Cahuilla Ranger Station along Highway 78. Imagine epic scenes from "Return of the Jedi" or even "Lawrence of Arabia" being shot here. And then, don’t miss the opportunity to witness man’s attempt to conquer and traverse the dunes — in the form of an old, wooden plank road. A few landmarked remnants of the plank road are visible just off of Grays Wells Road, past the Midway Campground.
And as long as you’re out there, you might as well swing by the town of Felicity (Population: 0) to examine the Museum of History in Granite, stand at the Official Center of the World, and gawk at a disembodied section of the original spiral staircase from the Eiffel Tower.
5. LAX Dunes Preserve/ El Segundo Dunes, Playa del Rey
What’s a coastal dune system that provides habitat for a nearly extinct, endemic species of butterfly doing under the ownership of an international airport?
Well, in the wake of the “jet age,” the Los Angeles Municipal Airport had big plans for the dune community above Dockweiler State Beach, which, at the time, was known as Surfridge Estates at Palisades del Rey (now Playa Del Rey). In fact, with expansion of the airport in the mid-20th century and its transformation into LAX, those dunes – which had been stabilized by covering the ground with iceplant (Carpobrotus edulis), an unfortunately invasive species — were meant to become runways for the growing demand of commercial air travel. Residents were evicted… their homes were razed… and then… nothing. Fortunately, that’s allowed the El Segundo blue butterfly to thrive there – and being under the stewardship of Los Angeles World Airports means that no other development has happened there (besides the creepy abandoned streets of Surfridge and the street lights that still turn on at night).
Now, these 43 acres of native dunes -- the largest remaining fragment of the El Segundo Dunes complex — are actually part of a conservation program spearheaded by The Bay Foundation and furthered by the Friends of the LAX Dunes (FOLD), an organization formed in 2014 to help promote Los Angeles World Airport’s LAX Adopt-a-Dune program. Ever wanted to get inside that fenced off area? FOLD needs help removing that iceplant and other invasive species, so it sponsors monthly restoration events — and it needs volunteers. If it’s the right time of year (particularly mid-June to early September) and you keep your eyes peeled, you might even spot one of those thumbnail-sized butterflies that are making a major comeback, thanks to this dune habitat and its supply of their sole food source, sea cliff buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium). Removing the invasive species will allow other native ones — like beach evening primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia), California croton (Croton californicus), and pink sand verbena (Abronia umbellata) — to thrive as well. And so will the native critters that feed upon those plants!
Bonus: You can’t see many traces of them now, but when the city of Manhattan Beach was founded in 1912, it was atop a number of coastal sand dunes — though most of them were leveled starting in the 1920s. Access to the one remaining dune at Sand Dune Park is limited, and by reservation only.