Algodones Dunes: Also Known as the Imperial Sand Dunes, They Are Southern California's Favorite Sandbox

By Jaffe, Matthew | Sunset, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Algodones Dunes: Also Known as the Imperial Sand Dunes, They Are Southern California's Favorite Sandbox


Jaffe, Matthew, Sunset


Down State Highway 111 by the shores of the Salton Sea, people have long tried to conjure an aura of the exotic. There are groves of date palms, the Fountain of Youth Spa & RV Park, a town called Mecca, and a beach named Bombay.

But eventually, as if finally accepting the spare, sere realities of the Colorado Desert setting, the place names become purely descriptive. Driving south, you pass Salt Wash, Gravel Wash, Cat %il Wash, and Bug Wash before reaching the green fields of the Imperial Valley, flecked white by flocks of egrets.

Green as it is, the valley doesn't feel very oasis-like. There's nothing exotic about places like Niland and Brawley, no-nonsense ag towns straight out of East of Eden, not Arabian Nights.

Go east of Brawley on State 78, past the cultivated fields and desert scrub, and you reach a genuine desert dreamscape, a Sahara-like expanse of sand on an immense scale. These are the Algodones, or Imperial, sand dunes, a 1,000-square-mile sea of shifting sand stretching to the Mexican border.

The dunes were formed from the sands of Lake Cahuilla, which covered much of the area as recently as 500 years ago. Algodones is one of the largest such landscapes in North America.

North of State 78, about 32,200 acres are administered by the BLM as the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness, a little-known creation of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. South of the highway, the sands are open for off-road vehicle recreation - they are, in fact, one of the busiest of these sites in the country, thanks to easy access from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix.

From the Osborne Overlook, the differences between the two sides appear minor, although tire tracks crisscross the southern sands.

For hikers, the northern dunes certainly have more appeal. Vast and enveloping, they feel like a separate realm with valleys and even broad, flat plains - a continent in miniature. Shoes are of little value here, and removing them at the start of a hike adds to the sensation of embarking on a kind of pilgrimage. …

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