Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 4, 2016

Dunes Days

I’ve always been captivated by dunes.

Col Sand Dunes Brad Nixon 9880 (640x480)

Living in the American Midwest, I had opportunities to see dunes along Lake Michigan and at Kitty Hawk on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

There are dunes the world over, and they have immense diversity in their shapes, their origins and in the ecosystems they support. Moving to California and traveling through the American west has given me new opportunities to see and hike on dunes. Some are a few steps from a highway and others are located in remote wilderness.

Here are few I’ve visited.

Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California

Although a “small” desert by world standards, covering just under 50,000 square miles in California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, the Mojave Desert could provide a lifetime of exploring. 1.6 million acres of it are protected as the Mojave National Preserve. The Mojave has a number of dune fields, the largest of which, at 45 square miles, is the Kelso Dune Field.

Kelso Dunes001 Brad Nixon (640x449)

The dunes can reach 650 feet in height and, like nearly all dune ecosystems, have a variety of flora and fauna that exist nowhere else.

Kelso Dunes005 Brad Nixon

They’re relatively easy to reach from the desert town of Baker, about halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

At the foot of a dune field, one steps from the chaparral and mesquite of the high desert into another world entirely: sliding, sifting sand, an awareness of the wind moving individual grains, leaving rippled patterns. One sees the tracks of animals and the horizon can close in, no farther away than the next steep ridge. It’s an experience worth seeking, and the Kelso Dunes are close enough to make them a worthwhile goal.

Algodones Dunes, California (also called Imperial Sand Dunes)

In the seldom-visited southeastern corner of California, not far from the Arizona border, these dunes are about 6 miles wide and stretch for 45 miles southeast into Mexico. You can catch sight of them from Interstate 8, but a better view is from Route 78, which crosses the dune field between Glamis and Brawley.

Imperial Dunes Brad Nixon 8802 (640x480)

This is a rolling, climbing, falling sea of sand. A northern portion of the dunes is protected as the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness. In other sections, you’ll see something like this:

Dune buggies Brad Nixon 8813 (640x480)

What are those black specks? These:

Dune buggies Brad Nixon 8812 (640x480)

This “recreational use” of dunes (and other desert environs) is common in many places. More on that topic later.

Oregon Dunes

The sand that constitutes dunes typically comes from water erosion, which is then piled up by either wind, water or a combination of both. Therefore, coastlines — along oceans and lakes and even rivers, where conditions are right — are common locations of dune fields.

The lovely coast of Oregon has a spectacular stretch of dunes, included in the Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area.

Oregon dunes Brad Nixon 1946 (640x480)

We explored the coast of Oregon and described what we saw, including more information about accessing the dunes, HERE.

(There are, by the way, dunes in the desert of eastern Oregon. That’s a goal for a future trip.)

Oceano Dunes State Recreational Area, California

We went to see these coastal California dunes near San Luis Obisbo a few years ago, but we made a mistake. We mistook “recreational area” for a term signifying a place where ordinary humans enjoy a large expanse of dunes at the edge of the Pacific.

Note: the proper name of the place (not noted on all maps) is “State Vehicular Recreation Area.”

There are a number of areas, not only in California, where deserts, dunes and forests are more or less dominated by mobs of yahoos driving off-road vehicles. Oceano is a big one.

The scene resembled the set of a Mad Max movie, only without so much restraint and organization.

It was the antithesis of why I go to the desert or the mountains or … anywhere. Despite their size, dune fields are fragile ecosystems. They are extreme, harsh environments, but also extremely beautiful. Enjoying them to their fullest involves standing still, listening to the wind on the sand, watching. “Sharing” the space with hundreds of off-roaders in full Road Warrior mode doesn’t match my, um, dunes aesthetic.

We couldn’t bear to get close enough to see either the sand or the ocean. We were crowded out by a horde of mammoth on-road vehicles pulling off-road vehicles, all of them making a noise that hurt to be near, the smell of gasoline and diesel fumes filling the air. Hence, I don’t have a photo of the Oceano Dunes to share with you.

White Sands, New Mexico

In south-central New Mexico is a vast expanse of dunes that, while not unique, is remarkably different than most dune fields.

NM White Sands006 Brad Nixon (640x459)

It’s “White” Sands because the desert is comprised not of quartz granules, but gypsum. This is a spectacular natural wonder, and easy to reach, immediately alongside U.S. Rt. 70 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces. The gypsum sand not only looks different, but feels and even sounds different to the touch and to walk on. HERE is the National Monument website.

Great Sand Dunes, Colorado

The most spectacular dunes I’ve seen are in the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.

IMG_9870 dunes mountain clouds Brad Nixon (640x480)

Although not located on a convenient route from anywhere to anywhere else, they are worth the drive to visit. The dunes cover 19,000 acres and rise to 750 feet. The national park is more extensive, home to a variety of flora and fauna, and has excellent hiking. Read more and see many more photos in my blog post about the dunes, HERE.

On the Dunes

Never underestimate how challenging these environments can be. Walking on sand is slow, heavy going. Conditions can be extreme in any season; it’s easy to underestimate the time you’ll need to walk back out, and how much water you need.

Some of the most enticing scenes I’ve witnessed under western skies have been on the dunes. Whether beside the ocean or in the still of the desert, they represent something essential about the reason I love to travel under western skies.

Do you have a favorite dune location? I’d love to have your comments.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017



  1. I have been to a few deserts and dunes in my time, though not so beautifully documented as shown in your blog. My favorite desert pic, by the way, is of The Counselor, sometimes known as “Venus on the Half Shell,” your 3d pic. I probably have seen more paintings of deserts in art museums than I have seen actual deserts.

    I have been to the Mohave a couple of times; but I was not looking for dunes or other natural beauty at the time. This was about 30 years ago, and I went to see the National Air Races, where vintage — but souped up — WWII era planes raced around pylons. With all the noise and exhaust fumes, it was not exactly the most ethereal of experiences.

    I can’t help it. I’m a vintage planes enthusiast. I’ve been to air museums, air shows, and airports all around the country all my life. I have many strange and seemingly irreconcilable interests.


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