Kelso Dunes

Visit Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve

The hike to the top of Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve is only 3 miles (out and back), but you’ll feel like you’ve hiked much farther by the time you’re done.

The word “trail” is used very loosely, because, like many dunes, there really isn’t much of one to follow. You just walk across the sand towards the top of the dunes. The path gradually climbs as you leave the parking lot and approach the big climb, giving you a small taste of what’s to come.

Sand accumulated here in the Kelso Dunes some 2400 to 9000 years ago when lakes dried up. The surrounding Granite and Providence Mountains create crosswinds and eddies, causing the sand to gather in the same place again and again, forming the dunes.

The Kelso Dunes are only one of seven known “booming” dune fields in North America! The booming is a deep rumbling sound you might get to hear as you climb the dunes if you displace a large quantity of sand, like a mini avalanche—the smooth and rounded moving sand grains produce the sounds.

When it’s time to start the big ascent, take the ridge on the right instead of attempting to go straight up, which is impossibly hard and much more strenuous than it needs to be. Even taking the ridge, it’ll still be a challenge: for every step forward you slide back half a step and can end up with shoes full of sand.

The trail climbs nearly 600 feet in elevation to reach the top of the dunes. You’ll definitely feel it. The last stretch is steep, but the views at the top are well worth the effort, especially if you’re lucky enough to catch a vivid desert sunset.

Return the way you came … and maybe try a little sand sledding as you do. Just don’t end up with pants full of sand … uncomfortable!

Kelso Dunes location. The dunes are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No fees or passes required. This is a remote area of the desert—be sure to have a full tank of gas before entering the preserve. Pit toilets available at the trailhead. *Do not embark on this hike in heat. Go during cooler seasons and carry plenty of water. No dogs.

Story and photos by Natalie Bates, @wanderwithnatalie

Trending Stories NorCal

View all Stories
  1. Taking the Stage: Tyler Ranch

    Hike the recently opened Tyler Ranch Staging Area in Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park, with 18 miles of new trails. This 6.5-mile loop up Sunol Peak is a challenge and rewards with exceptional views of seasonal iridescent hills.

    View
  2. Swing into Spring

    Swing into this 7.1-mile hike in the hills of Half Moon Bay! It’s got gorgeous views, fields of spring wildflowers, and a hidden rustic tree swing.

    View
  3. The Carson Show

    Carson Falls is ready for primetime. This three-tiered, 100-foot stunner is hidden back in a canyon outside of Fairfax and reached on a 3.25-mile (round-trip) hike.

    View
  4. woman kneeling and signing peak book at Mount Olympia in Mount Diablo State Park

    Double Up on Diablo

    Set the tone for 2024 with this twofer summit hike at Mount Diablo State Park. Embark on a 7-mile out-and-back up Mount Olympia and Diablo’s lesser-known summit, North Peak.

    View

Trending Stories SoCal

View all Stories
  1. Hiker overlooking Bear Gulch Reservoir at Pinnacles National Park near Monterey

    Pinnacles of Spring

    Why hike at Pinnacles National Park? Spring's a beautiful time of year here. And you might spy the magnificent California condor soaring while you gain soaring views from the High Peaks Trail.

    View
  2. Caves in Mojave

    No one expects to see caves when they visit the desert, and that’s part of what makes Mitchell Caverns in the Mojave Desert such an interesting place. Go on a two-hour guided adventure tour through Mitchell Caverns in Providence Mountains State Recreation Area.

    View
  3. Sponsored

    Port of Call

    Nestled by the sea on the majestic Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, Port Townsend is for travelers who treasure small town charm and natural beauty.

    View
  4. Lava Lava

    Once a land of volcanic activity, Mojave National Preserve shares plenty about its past via a quick yet adventurous hike to the Lava Tube in the Cima Dome Volcanic Field.

    View