If you've been around California, you know that there's a few places where the sand talks. Yes, that's right: the sand talks. In certain places as the sand saltates against your legs you can hear the whispering plink plink plinks of it bouncing off of your body. In other places, when you're out in the deep mountains of sand, you can also hear the dunes speak you with a deep bass timbre, in rumbling chords that go booooom ssssssss booooom. One of the best places to experience this phenomena is the Kelso Dunes, in the Mojave National Preserve, or as some people call it, Tatooine. The Kelso Dunes were one of the locations where the original Star Wars was filmed; and if that wasn't enough of a reason to visit, it is also world-renown for the booms of its singing sand.
Directions: Head three light years past the Death Star - ha, ha, I tease. If you’re in the Mojave National Preserve, you’re going to want to find Kelbaker Road, which will take you to the graded gravel turnoff. And, actually, if you’re outside the park you’ll want to take the Kelbaker Road exits from the I-15 or the I-40 as well. If you’re coming from the North, you’ll pass through Kelso before you get to the Dunes. Do note that there is no gas within the entirety of the Mojave National Preserve, so be sure to fill up prior to entering the park to explore.
The Trail: Actually, there is no trail. Once you reach the parking area for the dunes, there is a pit toilet, some interpretive panels, and a short quarter mile segment heading due North into the dunes. From that point, it is every man, woman, and stormtrooper search party for themselves (and you thought I was done with the Star Wars references). It took me about an hour to reach the summit of what I perceived to be the highest dune from the parking lot.
While this may sound like an incredibly short distance; let me assure you that as you are headed uphill for almost the entirety of the hike/walk/desert trek/exploration, it is actually quite difficult and strenuous at times. Oh right, I forgot to mention why it is difficult: you are trekking uphill in sliding, slippery, shifting, foot sucking sand. Even if it is not hot when you are doing this, you will work up a sweat if you are headed to the top, I guarantee it. Should you not be headed to the top dune, you will also work up a sweat traveling around the dune field, as it is rigorous work at times. From the parking lot you can travel as short – or as long as you wish; however due note that dune travel can be disorienting, and should you head to a far far away dune, make sure you can orient yourself back.
Tips: If you’re going for photographs, I’d say the best times are either early in the day, when there are no footprints, or late in the day, when the light changes in the desert. My other tip is to get out there and enjoy the dunes. This is one of the few locations where off-roading is prohibited, so you can run, jump, slide, roll, and do just about anything down dune hills without the fear of being squashed by a vehicle. My suggestion: take a sled; old snowboard; lunch tray; inner tube; or anything that you can slide in; and head up part or all of the way up a dune and then slide down. And, if you don’t have a sliding object that you can use, head up, and slide down with just your feet.
Supplemental Tip: If you’re coming from the North a great stop is Kelso, where the National Park Service has renovated the old train station. It’s a great spot to learn more about the park, and experience some of the history of the region.