The name alone conjures images of sweltering heat, barren desert, and rapid dehydration for all who dare venture within the boundaries of California's largest national park. Although the record shattering temperatures of the Furnace Creek area of the park draw headlines and thousands of visitors, the park as a whole is home to a variety of micro climates and unique ecosystems, including the Eureka Sand Dunes. Nestled in the northern reaches of the parks boundaries, the Eureka Dunes are a sight to behold. Rising nearly 700 ft from the valley floor they are some of the tallest dunes in north america, flanked by sheer walls of stone on one side and an empty expanse of dry lake bed on the other. A must see for any traveler in the park, they are also quite remote and getting there is an adventure in itself.
We started our trip in the wee hours of the morning, with over 400 miles between us and the entrance to the park, determined to get to our first camp location before nightfall. It is possible to get to the Eureka Dunes in one day from most locations in California, but we were meeting friends there Sunday morning and wanted plenty of time to explore beforehand so we left Friday. Our first destination was the Saline Valley Warm Springs campground, which from the entrance of the park was 50 miles on rutted dirt roads requiring a high clearance or 4 Wheel Drive vehicle.
After a few miles on the dirt, we had our first taste of some of the sights to come, turning into an expansive valley dotted with a forest of Joshua Trees! There is a surprising amount of life in the desert, and many highland valleys are more populated than you would think. After driving through a twisting mountain pass, we descended into Saline Valley. Due to the size of the surrounding mountains and visibility through the valley, distances are deceiving. When we could finally see the springs, what we thought was only a few miles took us over an hour to get across!
The Saline Valley Warm Springs are a veritable oasis, with four different soaking pools nestled in a grove of palm trees. The soaking pools are maintained by a friendly group of volunteers and are clothing optional. After steaming in the 100 degree pools the crisp night air is refreshing and the local humidity keeps the chill at bay for just long enough to get back to camp. We awoke in the morning to a startling noise, and looked out the window to see that a wild burro had come to visit us! A pair more were getting "herded" by a little terrier during breakfast, although it was unclear which was more afraid of the other. After a quick soak in the springs we hit the road again, with another 7,000 ft pass between us and the dunes.
Travel on the road can be slow at times, especially if you are on normal tires, but the views are worth soaking up for a while. On our way up the pass we drove by an abandoned mine which offered a peak into the past, and the difficulties faced by early settlers. At the top of the pass we reached a great vista, with spectacular views of the chocolate mountains. It was a fairly quick descent down into Eureka Valley, and before we knew it we could see the Dunes looming in the distance. We arrived with enough time to do a quick exploration of the campsite and catch up with our friends before it got dark.
As some may know, when the sun goes down in the desert in winter, it gets cold. But at the dunes it gets a special kind of cold, where any semblance of warmth is sucked out the surroundings, so that not even the corners of your sleeping bag are free from the chill. In the morning we got up with the sun and found that our water had frozen over! We spent breakfast chipping the ice and warming up in the sunlight, before getting ready to climb the dunes.
The hike to the top of the dunes is only a couple miles, but takes longer than one would expect due to the slippery and shifting sands underfoot. Each step taken sinks a few inches into the soft sand, and makes for slow going. As we neared the top the incline grew steeper and steeper, until we were crawling on our hands and knees to stay balanced! Reaching the summit with our chests heaving, we enjoyed an expansive view and were able to see over 30 miles across the Eureka Valley! If you come during the right time of year, you can hear the dunes "sing" as the shifting sands make noise as they move. Adventuring around the dunes is an otherworldly experience, and unlike anything else in North America. You almost forget that you are only a few hours away from Los Angeles and are not in fact in the Sahara Desert! This trip was truly wonderful and we were glad to be able to enjoy it with our friends as well.
See you in the wild!