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Eureka Dunes - Majestic Mysteries - Blog

Written By Ray Ford on Tue Mar 24, 2015 View Comments


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Tucked away in the upper north corner of Death Valley National Park is a complex of beautiful sand dunes that stretch for a mile and rise to an elevation of 800 feet. Surrounding the dunes are a rugged set of vertical ridges that separate this area from the larger Saline Valley area. In the early moring and evening the dunes come alive, their color tuning a golden shade of almost pure light that is irresistable.

Discovering Eureka Dunes

Sometimes the best places are those you discover accidentally.

On my first trip well off the beaten path at Death Valley, I did most everything they tell you not to: on the way in from the Lone PIne area, I decided to head off on the Saline Valley Road on the spur of the moment. The Saline Valley Road a rough dirt road that leads into an almost desolate northern section of the park. I also headed in without a good map, any idea of the road conditions and no way to call out if a problem arose. Not exactly a prescription for success.

But the adventurous side of me prevailed over the more prudent one. The idea of coming in to Death Valley, and specifically a spot called the Race Track I'd always wanted to visit, via a route akin to what the pioneer miners might have used. I couldn't resist the urge to head off into the unknown to see what I could find. 

At a crucial turn, instead of continuing ahead on the road that would have taken me to the Race Track, I took what I thought was a shorter route down into what looked like a beautiful, open valley area from high above. A few hours of bumpy road that turned into bone-jarring washboard at times, I realized I'd missed the Race Track but found another area that was just as incredible.

Saline Valley by Mistake
The Saline Valley is a beautiful valley that stretches for about 30 miles along the edge of one of the area's many ancient lake beds. Usually bone dry, on this trip the lake was filled with water, though more-than-likely not much over a foot or two deep. The color was an intense red, scary actually, because the mineral content and possibly some type of algae growth made the lake almost unreal. The trip through the valley took almost two hours and the closest I came to seeing another soul turned out to be two China Lake jets screaming by me not more than 100 feet off the lake bed. Pretty exciting but at the same time I came to the realization that I didn't have a clue where I really was.

I knew I needed to make a choice. Turning back meant admitting I'd made a big mistake. Continuing ahead could be disastrous but there was the lure of discovering something even more incredible over the next ridge. Before long I began to gain elevation, finding myself in the midst of a thick pine forest and on what appeared to be a more well-used section of road. Then around a bend I found myself staring at an incredibly welcome sight. Asphalt! After 78 miles of dirt road I couldn't be happier to get to a place where I actually knew where I was.

The highway sign pointing left noted that is was 25 miles to Big PIne. Along that route was the turnoff to Westguard Pass and the Bristlecone Pines, where I'd been many times before. To the right the sign pointed the way to Death Valley. It wasn't the way I'd planned on getting there, but a way in nevertheless. To my dispmay, the ten miles of the smooth asphalt highway ended abruptly. No gradual transition from pavement to dirt. One moment I was crusing along at 60mph on new asphalt and the next I was on washboard again, bumping my way along at 20mph.

Discovering Eureka Dunes
As I got to the low point in a narrow valley I spotted a side road on the right leading into a set of sand dunes that looked worth exploring. Eureka Dunes, the sign said, ten miles to the south of me.  I'd never heard of the dunes but they looked really cool from the distance. The road in, however wasn't — ten miles of some of the worst washboard I'd ever driven but the closer I got the more incredible the dunes seemed to be.

After the interminable drive to them I found myself at a small circular parking area with enough camping spots and tables for 5-6 parties and an outhouse not too far away. And also a gigantic set of sand dunes looming almost 800' overhead and stretching halfway across the valley that I couldn't wait to explore.

With only a little more than an hour of sun left, I quickly made my way for a few hundred yards to the first of the dunes. The wind was blowing lightly and there were no footprints, which was perfect. From the parking area you can follow several intersecting ridgelines that lead up to the crest of the dunes — very beautiful with ripples in the sand and the sharp edges of the dunes leading the way up, but ever so difficult to climb given the softness of the sand. What a perfect way to end an adventure that I never could have planned, walking the edge of the upper dune as the sun set over the mountains.

Visiting the Dunes
I try to stop by the dunes any time I visit Death Valley now. The easiest way in is to follow Highway 395 to Big Pine and then head east on Hy 168 for several miles where the road splits. Westguard Pass is to the left. Veer right onto the Death Valley/Big Pine Road and continue east for 40 miles to the turnoff to Eureka Dunes. The spur road leading to the dunes is one of the roughest washboard roads I've driven but the rerward at the end is well worth it. For those that would like to continue on into the park, it is 35 miles on much better dirt road to the Scotty's Castle area.

Light on the dunes is incredible during the last hour before the sun goes over the rim and the first hour in the morning light. Whether out for a walk or for serious photography, the north side of the dunes light up in the afternoon. While the temptation is to head straight up towards the highest part of the dunes, you'll find both the walking and the picture taking best if you head out along the edge of the dunes about 2 hours before sunset and enjoy the beautiful 1.5 mile walk to the far end — or as far as you want to go. There are plenty of places to meander into the lower part of the dunes and tons of places to find the perfect picture. On the way back to your camping spot the angled light is perfect for photography and you'll find a half mile of rolling dunes along the lower slopes of the highest ridge.

Or for those who just love walking, a trip around the base of the entire dunes may be the perfect hike. You'll need a half day and at least four miles of hiking to make it around but it is a beautiful hike, especially in the cooler months when the midday heat isn't out.

Morning Light
Getting the right picts in the morning is far more challenging because you really need to get up at the 6am hour and head east around the upper end of the dunes to make sure you get to the best spots before the golden light fades away. The best spot for morning photography is about 3-4 miles along the road leading to Steele Pass. The DV backcountry map warns drivers that deep sand can be found along the road but more often than not a high clearance vehicle is all you'll need.

Continue on the road to the point where it finally turns sharply to the left, uphill and away from the dunes. While the highest part of the dunes is off to your right, the best spots for picture taking are to the left where the dunes are lower in height and there are hundreds of smaller rolling dunes that create amazing patterns in the sand. That's the good news; the bad is that to reach them you'll need to hike in about a half mile across a wide expanse of dry lake bottom type hard pan, which is why getting up early and on the go is a must. You might even consider setting up camp on this side of the dunes to make it easy to start out at first light.

Once you reach the first of the low dunes and began working your way in and out of the lower ones you'll be amazed at how quickly time flies by and how difficult it will be to peel yourself away.

 

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Details


Managing Agency: Death Valley National Park

Entry Fee: No entry fees for access to this part of Death Valley National Park.

Keywords: California,Death Valley,Sand Dunes,Camping

Location: Death Valley National Park

State: California


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Additional Resources

NPS Dunes Information • Death Valley Backcountry Map
Wikipedia
Josh's Blog - Hear them Sing

View Galleries from the Death Valley Collection, including others from Eureka Valley 

Fine Cuisine

Not Available! Primitive camping area. BYO food, water, fuel and drink.

Background


Notes from the NPS .....

The Eureka Dunes lie in the remote Eureka Valley, an enclosed basin at 3000 foot elevation located northwest of Death Valley. The dunes cover an area only 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, yet they are the tallest sand dunes in California, possibly the tallest in all of North America. They rise suddenly more than 680 feet above the dry lakebed at their western base. As tall as these dunes are, they are dwarfed by the impressive limestone wall of the Last Chance Mountains which rises another 4000 feet above the valley floor.

Singing Sand
The climb to the summit of the dunes is not an easy walk. All the slopes are steep and the loose sand gives way beneath your feet. At the top, the sweeping view seems reward enough for your efforts, yet if the sand is completely dry you may experience one of the strangest phenomena to be found in the desert: singing sand. When the sand avalanches down the steepest face of the highest dune, a sound like a bass note of a pipe organ or the distant drone of an airplane can be heard eminating from the sand. If the dune is at all damp (even though it may not feel so to the touch) no sound will be made. Why this occurs is not fully understood, but may have something to do with the smooth texture of the sand grains and the friction of those grains sliding against each other.

Island in the Desert
At first glance the Eureka Dunes appear desolate. What could possibly survive the hardships of this area? Plants and animals must endure the shifting sands, as a windstorm could bury them alive or expose them to the drying sun. The dry surface is deceptive, for dunes can hold water like a sponge. The Eureka Dunes receive more rainfall than others in the Death Valley area because their location at the western base of a mountain range that captures precipitation from passing storms. For perhaps 10,000 years these dunes have existed, providing a unique habitat for specialized lifeforms to evolve. The isolation of Eureka Dunes from other dune fields has led to the development of endemic species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. Besides 5 species of endemic beetles, 3 special plants have their entire range limited to this island of sand.

  • Eureka Dunegrass Swallenia alexandrae
    is often the only plant found on the higher slopes of the dunes. Its dense root system catches and holds drifting sand, forming stable hummocks. Stiff, spiny leaftips protect the plant from being disturbed by herbivores and careless hikers. Federally listed as an endangered species.
  • Eureka Dunes Evening Primrose Oenothera avita eurekensis
    has large, white, night-blooming flowers to take advantage of pollenators such as moths that avoid the heat of day. When the leafy flower shoot is covered by windblown sand, roots sprout from the sides and a new rosette of leaves forms at the tip. Federally listed as an endangered species.
  • Shining Milkvetch Astragalus lentiginosus micans
    reflects excess light and heat with a covering of silvery hairs to conserve moisture. This is a hummock -forming plant like the dune grass. Nodules on the roots gather nitrogen from the air, an important nutrient not available in the sand. Candidate for the Endangered Species List.

A Special Place
Eureka Dunes are clearly a special place. Please have respect when you visit. Lifeforms here may not be able to survive our carelessness. Try to choose activities that have the least impact on the land. Recreational activities such as sandboarding are not allowed on these delicate dunes. Camp away from the base of the dunes where most of the endemic plants and animals live. Most importantly, OFF ROAD VEHICLE TRAVEL IS NOT PERMITTED ON THE DUNES, or any where else in Death Valley National Park for that matter. Please keep your vehicle on established roadways.

Things to Know


If you are considering going out via Steele Pass you should know that while most of the road is passable in a high clearance vehicle, there are several tough sections you will need to negotiate, including one very narrow spot in one of the canyon sections not too far from Eureka Dunes. When you reach the first of a series of short climbs you should walk all of them to see if you are comfortable continuing on. Once you begin you can't turn around.

 

 

 

 

 

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Last Updated: Tuesday, July 28, 2015