Some of the tallest sand dunes in North America can be found in the remote and extreme northern section of Death Valley National Park, California. The Eureka Dunes, in the enclosed Eureka Valley, have a base elevation of about 3,000 feet, and from there, they rise up nearly 700 feet more. The formation is about three miles long from north to south and one mile wide.
Unlike many dunes in the Southwest, these are closed to all OHV vehicles, horseback riders and sandboarders. But you can walk, run or roll to your heart’s content.
Of course, one of the most satisfying activities is walking to the highest peak. The easiest way to do this is to park in the camping area and head up the dunes from their northwest corner. This route has a more gradual slope than other approaches, so the uphill travel is a little easier. Once you reach the first peaks, you can follow an undulating ridgeline toward the southeast, where the summit lies.
The dunes are about 10,000 years old and are very stable. They lie in the enclosed Eureka Valley; to their east, the rugged, limestone Last Chance Mountains rise some 4,000 feet. In 1984, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the dunes a National Natural Landmark.
When the sand is very dry, these dunes are known to “sing” or “boom,” meaning that strange sounds are heard when sand avalanches down the faces of steep sections. Some describe the sounds as resembling that of an airplane passing overhead or a deep note from an organ. It is not entirely clear what makes the sounds, but some theorize they result from the friction of sand grains sliding against one another.
Only about 35 desert locations around the world exhibit this phenomenon. One is the Panamint Dunes, also in Death Valley. Another is Kelso Dunes, in California’s Mojave National Preserve. In Nevada, there’s Big Dune in the Amargosa Valley, Sand Mountain near Fallon, and Crescent Dunes near Tonopah.
The Eureka Dunes are home to five endemic species of beetles and three endemic plants — Eureka dunegrass, Eureka Dunes evening primrose and shining milkvetch. You probably won’t see too much wildlife during your visit, except perhaps some black-tailed jackrabbits. You might hear a coyote or two during the night. With luck you’ll neither see nor hear a rattlesnake, but watch your step, especially at night, for they do live here.
Because of the dunes’ remote location in the park, camping is the best way to visit. There are about 10 designated dry camping spots at the northern base of the dunes, and some of the sites have fire rings and picnic tables. Be sure to bring plenty of water, have a full gas tank before you set out and bring all your own food and supplies, as there are no services close by. There are no electrical hookups there for RVs, so you can look forward to absolutely dark skies bejeweled by countless stars.
When I visited on a Saturday a few weeks ago, only three campsites were occupied. But since we are headed into Death Valley’s most popular season, and the sites are first-come, first-served, it would be best to arrive early in the day to be sure of getting a spot.
From the park’s central visitor center at Furnace Creek, it is about 97 miles to Eureka Dunes. The Big Pine/Death Valley Road travels north and then heads west over to Eureka Valley and is gravel except for the final four-mile section to the Eureka Dunes access road turn-off. The access road is a 10-mile gravel road which is fairly rough but can be done in most vehicles with high clearance, unless it rains.
Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at email@example.com.Directions
From the Furnace Creek area of the park, drive north on California 190 for about 17 miles and go right onto Scotty’s Castle Road. Follow for about 33 miles and go left onto Ubehebe Crater Road. Follow for about 2.7 miles and go right onto Pig Pine Road. Drive for about 34 miles and go left onto the Eureka Dunes Access road. Follow for about 10 miles to sand dunes and camping area.