Singing Dunes Offer Solitude

There is something particularly appealing about sitting on the summit of a remote sand dune, especially at sunrise or sunset.

While there are many places in our desert southwest to do this, if you seek solitude, it is best to choose those that are closed to Off-Highway Vehicles, (OHVs), horses and sandboarders. The three that stand out to me lie within a day’s drive of Las Vegas, in Eastern California. They are Eureka and Panamint Dunes in Death Valley National Park, and Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve.

eureka dunes
A tough slog up Eureka Dunes is ultimately rewarding
Photo by Deborah Wall

Besides agreeable solitude, these are also “singing dunes,” or “booming dunes” as they are sometimes called. Singing dunes are found only in about 35 locations around the world. At these places, when the sand is very dry and avalanches down the complex’s steeper faces, it makes an unusual and sometimes loud noise. There is no expert consensus exactly how this noise occurs, but many theorize it comes from the friction of sand grains grinding against one another.

Some witnesses describe the sound as similar to that of an airplane passing close overhead. Others are reminded of a deep note from an organ. I thought it sounded like a distant freight train. I suppose it may vary depending on the rate sand is falling and where you are standing when you hear it.

Three Nevada locations also have singing dunes, but you’ll have to share them with OHVs. They are Big Dune in the Amargosa Valley, Sand Mountain near Fallon, and Crescent Dunes near Tonopah.

If you only visit one and want the greatest chance of solitude, Eureka Dunes is best. This National Natural Landmark is the tallest dune complex in the Great Basin, rising about 700 feet. The formation stretches about three miles north to south and is about a mile wide. In the extreme northern section of Death Valley National Park, the location is so remote you might be the only visitor, yet you will find official campsites at the base, available first come, first served.

Although mainly consisting of regular sand, Eureka Dunes has five species of endemic beetles, meaning they’ve not been found anywhere else. There are also three endemic plants — Eureka dunegrass, Eureka Dunes evening primrose, and shining milkvetch. So tread carefully especially at the base of the dunes, where the scarce species are most often found.

Directions to Eureka Dunes: From the Furnace Creek area of the park drive north on California 190 about 17 miles, then go right onto Scotty’s Castle Road. Follow for about 33 miles and go left onto Ubehebe Crater Road. Continue about 2.7 miles and go right onto Big Pine Road. Drive for about 34 miles on a gravel road and go left onto the Eureka Dunes Access road. Much of this gravel road is washboarded, but about 10 miles brings you to the dunes. For more information, check the Death Valley National Park site.

Deborah Wall

Deborah Wall

Deborah Wall is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in both adventure travel and family excursions. She is the author of "Base Camp Las Vegas: 101 Hikes in the Southwest (2017)." A lifelong hiker, she has been a ski racer and has taught skiing and sailing. A former television producer and news anchor, she also worked as a model for skiing and outdoor publications. Ms. Wall's other books include "Access for All: Touring the Southwest with Limited Mobility" (2014), "Base Camp Las Vegas", (2010), and "Great Hikes: A Cerca Country Guide" (2004). She has a Nevada Press Association award for excellence and writes periodic columns about little-known hiking routes in the Southwest and tips for taking fun and safe trips.

3 thoughts to “Singing Dunes Offer Solitude”

  1. Another great option for dune solitude, though about 11 hours’ drive from Vegas, is Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-central Colorado. Stunning! And surrounded by snow-capped Rocky Mountains.

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