Sunday, April 20, 2014

Eureka Dunes

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Death Valley National Park lie the Eureka Dunes, the largest sand dunes in California, and the second largest in North America.  Located in the Eureka Valley, these massive sand dunes are surrounded by the colorful limestone Last Chance Mountains and the Saline Range.  After talking about visiting the dunes for years, we finally took the opportunity to explore them.

We piled into the car and headed down 395, turning east on Highway 168 when we reached Big Pine.  After a few miles on 168, we turned right onto paved Death Valley Road.  We traveled slowly on the narrow and winding road, which gave us ample time to enjoy the Joshua trees and the many colorful wildflowers that lined the road.

The pavement ended after about 30 miles, but the road remained relatively smooth.  Dust billowed up behind our vehicle, and we imagined how unpleasant it might be to follow in another vehicle's dust cloud.  Fortunately, the road stretched on ahead with no other cars in sight.

After 7 miles of dirt, the pavement briefly returned.  We turned right onto the unpaved Eureka Valley Road shortly thereafter.  Our teeth chattered involuntarily as the car bumped, bounced, and jarred along the rugged washboards for 10 slow miles.  Finally we reached the campsites and parking area and piled out of the car in relief. 

Massive sand dunes towered above us, set against the colorful backdrop of the limestone Last Chance range.  We hiked across the flat Eureka Valley desert floor to the base of the sand dunes and began to climb.  And climb.  And climb. 

The dunes rise almost 700 feet above the valley floor, and progress was slow.  Our feet sunk into the soft sand, and for every foot we climbed, we slid back a few inches as the sand settled beneath our feet.

Even after we reached the ridge, forward progress remained slow as the sand continued to move and settle beneath our feet.  Small avalanches of sand occasionally released down the steep side slopes.  The soft hum of the "singing sand" filled the air as the the tiny sand particles rubbed against each other on their slow slide down the slope.

Reaching a high point on the ridge, Sierra chose the steepest slope and began her own slow slide down the dune.  Sand filled our shoes as we slowly slid our way down the ridge to meet her on the desert floor below.  Lower down on the dunes Sierra found another steep slope, which she repeatedly climbed and slid down while she waited.

Eureka Dunes offers a several primitive camping sites with picnic tables but no running water, and two small groups had set up camp by the time we returned to our car.  We sipped our warm water (we strongly recommend bringing a cooler with extra water and cold drinks), then piled back into the car to bounce along the washboard road on our way home.