Dune. Big Dune. Nope, it’s not something I made up. It is an actual place, and that’s its actual name. To me, the name sounds like something out a spaghetti western, or science fiction movie. The name is so simple, it is possible to imagine just about anything going on there; and who knows – just about anything might be going on there. I came across Big Dune when I was traveling from 20 Mule Team Canyon in Death Valley to Rhyolite, Nevada. Since I’m always game for an adventure, I decided that I would explore Big Dune after seeing if Rhyolite was really haunted; and this is what I learned on my visit:
Directions/How to Get There: Big Dune is located directly off of the I-95 in Southern Nevada, and depending on which direction you are heading, is either 7.6 miles North of the junction of Highway 373 and the I-95, or 19.5 miles South of Beatty, Nevada on the I-95. Trust me, the Amargosa Valley, while scenic, is not full of signs, roads, or other distractions, and you will be able to spot the turnout as it is well signed on both sides of the I-95. From the I-95, it is a five to seven mile drive on a dirt road to the base of Big Dune. The dirt road is maintained by the BLM, as Big Dune is on BLM land. Now, a quick word about the dirt road: at first, for the first two to three miles, it is graded, with a few soft spots. These first miles are definitely passable by a non-AWD/4WD vehicle in the summer. However, as you get closer to Big Dune itself, the terrain becomes soft and sandy, which is really not that shocking as you are headed to a giant star dune. At this point, if you are driving a non-AWD/4WD vehicle, use your best judgment, as you do not want to get stuck.
t 6 miles from the I-95, I was just starting to think about stopping, so I would not get stuck. As I had this thought, I immediately became stuck. But, since I’ve been stuck before, I didn’t panic, and after a couple of minutes I had my car unstuck and safely parked on solid terrain. This is a mistake you, the reader, do not want to make for a number of reasons. First, the Amargosa Valley is, in my mind, like a time capsule. Placing aside the geologic features that have been preserved, what the Amargosa Valley really reminds me of is old Nevada, and when I say old Nevada, I don’t mean mines, cowboys, and claim jumping. I mean 1950’s old Nevada with Bing, Frank, and the old style casinos of the past. I mean big cars, classic Americana, and long swathes of emptiness. While this may not be an accurate depiction of how life really is in the Amargosa Valley, that’s how it has felt to me when I’ve been there. It is remote. There are not many cars. There are not many towns. There are not many people. Cellular service, while present on the I-95, is sporadic, and vanishes within one to two miles once you leave the I-95. By Big Dune, there is no service.
What all of this means is that if you are going there, you should, as always, BE PREPARED. This means that you should have lots of water (I had two gallons in my car at the time I became stuck); and you should have all of the other essentials in case you need them. Even if you have a 4WD/AWD vehicle, do not venture into this area unprepared. I have seen such vehicles become stuck with just as high a frequency as regular cars either due to operator error, or mechanical failure. If you are venturing into the wild like this, especially the wild of the desert, you need to be prepared. While a six mile walk back to the I-95 would have been doable for me, especially with my supplies, I would not want to rely on someone picking me up in that area; and neither should you. Trust your instincts and your knowledge if you are heading out to this area, no matter what you are driving. If you think you should stop/turn around; chances are you are right. Having said all that, this is not dangerous terrain with hidden pitfalls that can break an axle; this is soft sand, and should you pay attention, you should be fine.
Hiking/Exploring. Once I had got my car unstuck and settled, I set out on foot to the base of the dune field. From my location, I could see the tallest of the dunes, and since I like to climb tall things, I set out to see if I could summit it. After all, it didn’t look that far away, and it certainly didn’t look that high. This, readers, is one of the tricks of traveling through dunes. Even though something may not appear “that high” or “that far away”, traveling through soft sand is arduous work, especially when you begin to slog uphill. I consider myself to be in fairly good shape; but by the time I reached the top of Big Dune, my heart was pounding, and sweat was pouring off of me in the early morning sun. I don’t know how far it was from my car to the top of Big Dune, but my altimeter stated that I had ascended just over five hundred feet. Since it took me an hour on foot, and as I keep a fairly brisk pace generally, I’d guess that it was approximately 1.5 miles from where I parked, one way, meaning that I walked three miles roundtrip.