Lovers of Sand Dunes will find in Death Valley National Park (DVNP) five different dune fields: Eureka, Ibex, Mesquite Flat, Panamint, and Saline Valley. The Eureka Dunes are the highest. Ibex Dunes and Panamint Dunes are the most remote because roads (unpaved) come within sight of them but do not actually reach them (the Saline Valley Dunes are quite remote, too, accessed only by long, rocky roads). The dunes at Mesquite Flat are the easiest to reach and see, and they are consequently the best-known. That does not, however, diminish their beauty.
Rising and sprawling north of CA 190 a few miles east of Stovepipe Wells in DVNP, the Mesquite Flat Dunes irresistibly draw the traveler’s eye. The highest of the dunes here rises only about 100’, but the curves and colors of these dunes are as graceful as those in any other range of sand dunes, and the beautiful photographs on the small world of SP and in the wider world beyond it is testament to that. If you see a calendar photograph of rippled, golden or reddish dunes with barren desert peaks in the distance, chances are the photograph is of the Mesquite Flat Dunes. It is both delightful and fun to explore and climb these dunes, and unless you head into them during a sandstorm or at midday during the summer, it is almost impossible to have a disappointing experience among these waves of sand.
There is not a whole lot to this page, which may make it fall short of many people’s expectations of a good Area/Range page, but I think it says what it needs to say, and I think this area deserves inclusion on the larger Death Valley page, which is the main reason I made it. Rather than fill this page with superfluous details for the sake of making the page appear more impressive, though, I elected to keep it more focused on the essentials, limited though they may be. Any constructive suggestions for improvements, however, are most welcome.
Also, I welcome photo attachments. If your photo is well-focused and does not have people or footprints in it (things I prefer not to see in scenic photos), I will try to make a place for it on the main page here, with due credit given.
Getting ThereThere are two convenient ways to access the dunes. The first is to drive east of Stovepipe Wells on CA 190 and park in a lot built primarily for dunes visitors. Previously, most folks would drive on the road, spy a section of the dunes (they are north of the road) that intrigued them, park at the side of the road, and head out (expect about a mile of hiking to reach the heart of the dunes). Perhaps because too many people were partially parked on the pavement and creating a traffic hazard, the Park Service had the lot put in.
The second convenient means of access is to park off the sandy, unpaved road about 7 miles east of Stovepipe Wells and head out from there. There are picnic sites along the road, and the road is passable for most regular vehicles. The dunes in this section are low, sometimes hardly worthy of being called dunes, and they support more vegetation than the higher dunes do, but they have plenty of curves, shadows, and color at the right times of day. To reach the highest dunes from here, it takes more walking than it does from CA 190.
A third way is to depart Stovepipe Wells on the unpaved road to Cottonwood and Marble Canyons and follow it a short distance before parking and walking out to the dunes from there. This road is easy (at first) on most cars, but it can be sandy. This way involves the longest approach to the highest of the dunes, but it may provide the most solitude (I have never seen it crowded out here early or late in the day, though, when photography and views are the best).
As you head out to the dunes, don’t be surprised if the ripples and shadows you come across pull you in a different direction than you intended to go. In three trips out there so far, I have still not reached the highest dune because I have always been drawn to something else, where each time I have spent the cooler parts of the morning, which are also when the dunes are their most photogenic, and subsequently the bulk of my film.
In summary, the highest and barest of the dunes (many of the lower and gentler dunes have mesquite trees and other desert plants growing from and anchoring them) are best reached by parking along CA 190 and walking from there. The dunes are farther away than they appear to be (1-2 miles away), so carry plenty of water, especially in summer, when this is no place for a “quick trip” from the car.
Red TapePlease stop at the first ranger station or visitor center to pay the $20 entrance fee.
Don’t go in summer unless you go at dawn or at night. Daytime temperatures in summer frequently exceed 120 F. The dunes themselves, which radiate the heat, get much hotter than that. Think of asphalt or leather seats under a hot sun, and you have a picture of what the sands can feel like. In such conditions, avoid contacting the sands with your bare skin.
Carry at least twice as much water as you think you’ll need.
Driving off established roads, paved and unpaved, is against the law.
Camping and LodgingThere is a fee campground at Stovepipe Wells and another one at Furnace Creek, 28 miles east of Stovepipe Wells. Running water, showers, and flush toilets are available at each.
Camping in DVNP during the summer can be miserable. There are air-conditioned lodge rooms at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. Do yourself a favor and stay at one of those places. Visit Xanterra or escapetodeathvalley.com for more information.
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