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

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