Dunes of the California Desert

By Jaffe, Matthew | Sunset, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Dunes of the California Desert


Jaffe, Matthew, Sunset


Dawn is the time to venture into the dunes. The air still carries the chill of the retreating darkness, and the dunes feel as pure as the young day. Etched with the ripples of the previous afternoon's winds, tinted by the morning light, and crossed by the fresh tracks of the creatures of the night, they provide an ephemeral record of the everchanging desert world.

The dunes of California are both vast and intimate. On maps, they look like an archipelago, a chain of islands stretching nearly 400 miles from the Mexican border into the Great Basin. The Imperial Sand Dunes east of San Diego spread for 50 miles; the tallest of the systemsat Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve and at Eureka Valley in Death Valley National Park-rise 500 to 700 feet above the surrounding desert. This is epic terrain, a cinematic dreamscape, part Lawrence of Arabia, part Star Wars.

Yet, as you hike the dunes, you become aware of details: the shades of the individual grains, the scythelike edge of a ridge, and the perfect circle cut into the sand by the tip of a twig rotating with the shifting breeze.

There is another irony about desert sand dunes: They are a product of both aridity and water. …

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