The right combination of wind and sand helped sculpt these wondrous landscapes.
By Lowell and Kaye Christie, F47246
Many people think of deserts as large areas of drifting sand, but actually only about two percent of North America’s deserts contain sand dunes. It takes a special combination of wind velocity and sand size to form the elegant ripples and waves of the dune fields seen in desert movies or on spectacular calendar photographs. Many dune areas are now state or national parks and monuments with easy access, but a few require travel on dirt roads. Always check locally before leaving the paved highways.
1. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Sand comes in many colors, but pure white gypsum sand is unusual. Gypsum is water-soluble and normally is washed away by rainfall. However, the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico has no outlet to the sea, so the white sand there has collected over the centuries. From the visitors center at White Sands National Monument, a 16-mile round-trip trek along Dunes Drive leads into the sand dune area, and four nature trails allow exploration on foot.
2. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah
Located 12 miles southwest of U.S. 89 near Kanab, Utah, the reddish sand comes from the eroding Navajo sandstone that surrounds the park. Winds forced between two local mountains create a Venturi effect, increasing the air speed enough to carry the sand grains. The colors become even more spectacular at sunrise and sunset.
3. Great Sand Dunes National Park And Preserve, Colorado
This national park contains the tallest dunes in North America, which rise more than 750 feet above the surrounding area. The sand was deposited by the Rio Grande system, picked up by westerly winds, and dropped when the winds lost speed before crossing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Streams flowing at the edge of the dune field undercut and wash away the sand, but the water soon disappears underground, leaving the sand at the surface. Then the wind picks up the sand and carries it back to the dunes.
4. Indiana Dunes State Park and Indian Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana
Located on Lake Michigan, the state park is surrounded by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The dunes began to form after the level of the lake dropped at the end of the last Ice Age. Winds from the lake picked up particles of sand along the shore and carried them inland where they were stopped by vegetation. The dune named Mount Baldy, in the National Lakeshore, stands 126 feet high, and the blowing winds continue to move it away from the lake at a rate of approximately 4 feet each year.
5. Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, California
This is part of the Algodones Dunes field, the largest dune ecosystem in the United States. At one time the dunes were a barrier to transportation through the area. So in 1915 a plank road was built to prove that cars could cross the dunes while traveling from Yuma, Arizona, to San Diego, California. It consisted of 13,000 planks and extended 6 1/2 miles across the sand. A section of the plank road still can be seen at the west end of Grays Well Road, a frontage road south of Interstate 8.
6. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
One of the more unusual types of dunes is called a cliff-top or perched dune. As the name suggests, these dunes form at the tops of cliffs. Some of the best examples occur on the Great Lakes, where the steep cliffs of glacial moraines were left by retreating ice. Waves from the lake erode the base of the cliff, and strong winds blow the resulting sand up the steep cliff face. The result is a sand dune sitting on top of a cliff as much as 360 feet above the current lake level.
7. Bruneau Dunes State Park, Idaho
Most sand dunes occur in groups, but the Bruneau Dunes has the largest freestanding sand dune in the United States, reaching 470 feet above an adjoining lake. The Bruneau Dunes are more or less stationary, since the prevailing winds alternate from southeast to northwest and prevent the dunes from moving.
8. Killpecker Dunes, Wyoming
Killpecker Sand Dunes is one of the largest active sand dune systems in North America, with dunes that stretch 150 miles to the east. Because of the elevation (6,000 to 8,000 feet), most precipitation falls as snow. This is covered by sand and turns to ice, which slowly melts to form ponds that attract herds of elk. Access to Killpecker Dunes is via a long dirt road. Check with the Rock Springs BLM office for road conditions (307-352-0256).
9. Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley, California
The Mesquite Flat Dunes, near Stovepipe Wells, is easily accessible and may be the most photographed area in Death Valley. These extensive dunes are almost entirely surrounded by mountains. Here you can see how the wind creates three different types of dunes: crescent, linear, and star-shaped.
10. Eureka Dunes, Death Valley, California
A recent addition to Death Valley National Park, this dune complex rises a steep 680 feet above the flat valley floor. Eureka Dunes is a “singing” or “booming” dune field. When the weather is dry, sand sliding down from the top of one of the dunes produces a sound like the bass note of an organ. Only dunes with finely rounded sand grains produce these sounds as the tightly packed surface grains slide over each other, with the deeper stationary sand acting as an amplifying soundboard. The Eureka Dunes are located at the end of a very long dirt road, so check conditions with the park before heading there. You also can hear booming dunes at the next two entries, Kelso and Sand Mountain.
11. Kelso Dunes, California
The Kelso Dunes of California’s Mojave National Preserve show how dune formations change over the centuries. When conditions are moist, vegetation protects the ground. In very dry periods, the wind blows bare soil onto the dune field. The Kelso Dunes are composed of five stacked sets of dunes, corresponding to climate changes that have occurred during the past 25,000 years. These dunes cover 45 square miles, and the tallest rise as high as 650 feet above the surrounding terrain.
12. Sand Mountain Recreation Area, Nevada
Sand Mountain, approximately 25 miles east of Fallon, Nevada, may be one of the best places to hear a booming dune. Sand Mountain has two dunes that stand approximately 600 feet above the desert floor. According to one whimsical legend, the sound is caused not by tiny avalanches of sand sliding down from the crest but by a lonesome dinosaur crying for its mate from hundreds of feet beneath the sand. A 2 1/2-mile dirt road leads from U.S. 50 toward the base of the dunes.
13. Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Oregon
The Oregon Dunes, found in the Siuslaw National Forest, are the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America, extending 40 miles along the Oregon coast and reaching almost 500 feet above the ocean. The sand in these dunes came from the Coast Mountain Range and was eroded by local rivers. Summer winds of 12 to 16 miles per hour blow the sand back toward the mountains, where it is dropped into the dune fields. Science fiction author Frank Herbert based his classic novel Dune on research he did along this Oregon coast.