If you play your cards right, you can follow the previous posts from a snowy 11,000 foot peak (Telescope Peak), past some unique structures (the Charcoal Kilns and Eureka Mine), through an ancient canyon with cracked granite blocks (Mosaic Canyon) down to rolling sand dunes (Mesquite Flat) all within a day. That alone should make Death Valley a “must-do” in anyone’s book – I personally can’t think of another place world-wide where you can traverse such a variety of terrain in a day or less. Granted, if you’re going to do all of those things in a day, you’re going to need to get an early start, and move quick, but it is indeed possible.
What I’d personally recommend, however, is that you spread out these things over a couple days – no need to rush these things. The park’s been shaped over several eons, so you’ll definitely be able to see most of these things the next day, or the day after that as well. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are one of several dune fields within Death Valley, but are the most accessible to the majority of park visitors. If hiking the Kelso Dunes (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/1/20/kelso-dunes-mojave-national-preserve.html) is like being an extra in Star Wars, hiking the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is a bit like being in the Sahara – surrounded by tall peaks, and in the path of trading caravans – or tourists. While the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes don’t speak and rumble like the Kelso Dunes do, and are usually full of tourists, they still have a fair amount of magic in their shifting grains of sand.
Directions:The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are three miles South of Stovepipe Wells, directly off of Highway 190 in Death Valley National Park. As of 2010, there is a nice new NPS parking lot, interpretive panels, bathroom, and signs directing visitors where to park. From the parking lot, it is a short walk into the dunes. Perhaps the most common complaint by hiking purists and other members of the backcountry community is that these dunes are too well-traveled and too busy. While it is more likely than not that you will encounter people within the first quarter mile of the parking area, once you enter into the dunes, the odds of encountering people decreases exponentially. While the dunes are not as remote as say, the Kelso Dunes, or the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park, plenty of opportunities still exist to enjoy these dunes on your own.
As you can see from my photos above, taken in 2009 and 2010, I was at the dunes by myself. However, as I noted regarding Mosaic Canyon, timing is everything in life. Will the Dunes be busy when you are there? In predicting this, my outcome is hazy, but I say this: forget about whether it’s busy or not. Whether you enjoy it, people or no people, is all in your mind.
Tips: There is no “approved” trail into the dunes or to the top of the tallest dune. From what I’ve heard and experienced, the average person will likely walk two miles around the area. But, that distance is up to you – it could be more, it could be less. If you really want to get away from it all, I’d say you’re probably going to walk more than two miles, especially if you want to explore. What do I like to do in these dunes? I like to head up to the summit of the tallest dune and stare at the alien and varied expanse of Death Valley. If I had a sled, I’d definitely go sledding, much as I do in the Kelso dunes. I also like to head out and around to other dunes, looking for the remnants of old desert lakebeds and other strange things. What I will always do is make sure to have a map; or keep a visual reference on my vehicle, or some other fixed point so that I won’t get lost; and, I always make sure to have plenty of water in the valley of one of the world’s hottest (and in this location, sandiest) deserts. Also, if you're going to take photos of the dunes, the best time is early morning - sunrise, or shortly thereafter.
See you in the sand!