Imagine stepping into shifting sands at a 45 degrees angle as the sun stares straight into your eyes.
Your foot slips back half a step for every step you take.
Look up and you see the dune’s summit so close to touch but really so far away; look down and you see the 2 miles trek you just traversed.
“Almost there,” you tell yourself each time the foot contacted the ground, “the view will be worth it.”
Indeed, the view was well worth it.
When we eventually emerged on top of the dunes after the 3 miles trek, the sun was almost near the horizon. We waited until the sun disappeared and the setting colors danced across the sky. Before long, the vast blueness got colored golden orange and purple, and the dormant sand dunes underneath in various shades of gold.
It was magical.
To my pleasant surprise there were no one else in our vicinity despite the popularity of the trail. I certainly expected a few others with whom to share the sunset’s splendor. Having the dunes all to ourselves was a fabulous experience. We were able to be as rambunctious or as quiet as we wanted; run around or sit as we pleased; all without disturbing anyone.
We stayed atop the dunes until the sun set behind the horizon, then started to make our way down. The return trip was much easier as the sand’s role changed from a hindrance into an aid, and our feet were sliding forward instead of slipping backward. While on the way down, we took a stab at recreating “the dune’s singing” – the deep rumbling sound smooth sand make while tumbling down the mountain. From what we read on the trailhead billboard, the singing could be re-created by shuffling our feet rapidly on the dune’s edge, essentially causing an avalanche. We followed the instruction and voila! The deep rumble. Since there were only two of us, we couldn’t keep the avalanche going long and the booming sound stopped almost instantly. Would love to try with more people next time to hear the song better.
The dunes looked drastically different at night. Without the sun lighting up the distant infrastructures, all we could see were the mountains and the uneven sand surfaces. The rough ground gave the dunes an otherworldly look and it was as if we were exploring a new planet. Sceneries like this are what make hiking in the dark so worth it.
Camp Under A Sky Full of Stars
We set up tent at a pre-established nearby campsite for the evening. There are several of these undeveloped campsites in the area; all first come, first served. We were glad to find plenty of empty sites upon our arrival since other lodging options were located in towns an hour to two hours drive away.
Our campsite was the first alongside the Kelso-Dunes Rd and it luckily came with a fire ring. The desert is known to freeze at night so the extra warmth is extremely beneficial. The evening temperature turned out to be warmer than usual (40+ degrees) during our visit, but the fire was still very much appreciated. We only had a bundle of firewood with us so we threw in one log at a time in hope of prolonging the warmth. It held up well through the night. Next time though, we will grab extra bundles at the grocery store before entering the National Preserve. It was easy to stay out ALL night when the sky was glistening with stars, and meteors passing by made frequent guest appearances. We laid down besides the campfire and watched the night show for 3+ hours before the bundle of firewood dwindled away, then hurried back into the tent.
How Do I Prepare For The Hike?
The Kelso Dunes trail is only 3 miles round-trip with 600 feet gain, but the sand adds to the hike’s difficulty and it could be strenuous for some. According to the National Park Service (NPS) website, most people take 2~3 hours to finish the hike.
Note: Kelso Dunes is NOT RECOMMENDED for summer hiking. Temperature could reach 120° F (49° C).
There are no water on the trailhead and no shades along the trail, so be sure to bring the following:
- Plenty of water
- Standard recommendation is half-liter for an hour of moderate activity. This can fluctuate based on temperature and intensity of the hike. In high heat, some may need one or more liters of water per hour
- REI has a good guideline on staying hydrated
- A comfortable pair of shoes
- Re-apply every few hours
- I always carry one with me just in case. Absolutely needed for a late hike, or for those planning to stay after sunset
- Windbreaker, gloves
- Desert temperature changes drastically from day to night. Always carry something to keep warmth!
- Good to have to document the memory:
- Camera + spare battery + SD card
It could be easy to get lost after wandering off the main trail after dark, so stay on trail!
Interesting Fact: The wind at Kelso Dunes comes from different directions in the Winter versus in the Summer, so the dune could change shape seasonally and even daily depending on where the wind is coming from. According to NPS, the dune crests at any day could travel back and fourth within a 30~40 feet wide zone! Reference the NPS site for more information on the area.
Direction To Kelso Dunes
Kelso Dunes is best reached by car. It is located in the Mojave National Preserve at an approximately 4 hours drive from Los Angeles, CA (Interstate 40), and 2 hours drive from Las Vegas, NV (Interstate 15). From either interstate, drive onto the Kelbaker Road then Kelso-Dunes Rd to reach the trailhead. The exact direction can be obtained from Google map. Cell service in the area could be spotty, so make sure to download an offline map before visiting!
Comment below if you have visited: what was your favorite experience? If you are planning to visit: what are you most looking towards?