By Andrzej Gibasiewicz
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.
The highest dune is easy to see from the road, and it takes about a mile of walking to reach it. You'll have to go up and down other dunes and sand ridges first, so it's more tiring a "climb" than you think it will be, but it still isn't what anyone in good shape would call strenuous.
Another 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 a much longer approach to the highest of the dunes, but it will provide the more solitude.
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 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 from the parking area along CA 190. 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.
Please stop at a ranger station, visitor center, or self-pay kiosk 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 Lodging
There 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
escapetodeathvalley.com for more information.