The Kelso Dunes Experience



Story bMiles Furuichi

Under the scorching desert sun, I continued my arduous climb along the crest of the dunes. With each step up the slippery slope, I was reminded of a warning I had read before going on my trip. “Two steps forward, one step back.” I thought it was an exaggerated joke but was I wrong. My foolish ignorance was now catching up to me.

While it might seem like I took an expedition to the Sahara Desert, my trip to hike across dunes was much closer than you would expect.

The Kelso Dunes located in Mojave Desert, California are known by the National Park Service to be some of the tallest and longest dune fields in the United States. Formed over 25,000 years these dunes rise up to nearly 700 feet and cover 45 square miles.

Although Joshua Tree National Park is a beautiful and distinctive place in its own right, the Kelso Dunes are unlike anything else found in the California desert. . Upon first setting eyes on the dunes, all the eyes can see are small shrubs delicately placed among the pale gold sand. There are no huge rocks, no trees but rather one giant mound after another of dunes cascading across the desert landscape.

It is a sight to see but getting there takes time as it is three hours northeast of Los Angeles, but road trips are always great especially if others accompany you.

It’s a bit intimidating driving out of the big city and into such a desolate landscape as my friends and I discovered. After an hour of driving on the I-15 north, there was one final town, Barstow, lying on the cross roads of the I-15 and I-40. Once we passed that though, the only sign of human contact was a long strip of highway that wound its way through rocky hills. Of course we passed other cars on the highway but once we turned off towards the Kelso Dunes, dust and sun were all that was left.

Driving on a dirt road for what seemed like an hour, we finally arrived at a group of campsites near the foot of the dunes. Immediately our little crew rushed to get our tents set up. While the first was very easy to make, the second tent, which I was to sleep in, proved more of a challenge. All four of us offered our best shot but after a solid 40 minutes, the tent was left unfinished.

Grabbing all our gear we began our hike to the sand dunes and watched as clouds passed by giving some decent shade.

Of course, after climbing for a bit in the sand, things became much harder. I could feel as my shoes became heavier from the sand that seeped in. It was a stop-start climb all the way to the summit but once we reached it, the view was beyond imagining.

The sun began to set over the dunes and behind us, the light cast some amazing shadows on the storm clouds brewing to the east. Winds began to pick up and it felt amazing being on the crest of the dunes overlooking the immense desert around us.

As I looked around I noticed the wind picking up the sand and tossing it over the side of the dunes creating a floating blanket of sand. It was so thick that I could actually see my shadow in the sand.

Finally, the sun moved behind the dunes and our group started the trek back. We all started slow at first but as the slopes got steeper, we all ended up running and sometimes falling down the dunes. 

When our crew reached the campsite, we decided to light a fire. As our meals cooked over the fire, ice-cold Coronas and Blue Moon beers warmed us from the winds. Sadly, the wind was so fast that is caused our fire to burn faster than expected.

Our meals ended up getting sand all over them, it started to get a lot colder, and our fire burned out after two hours. It wasn’t the best outcome but at least we still had alcohol to keep us warm.

Once that was all gone, however, we decided it was just time to go to bed.

As I laid outside in my sleeping bag, with a chilly wind blowing around me, I actually felt comfortable as I listened to the sound of the wind and the silence of the desert.

I woke up later on in the night thinking that I heard something rustling in one of the bushes next to me. Terrified for my life, I tried to find my glasses only to realize it was just the sound of the wind against a tent. As I began to doze off again, I gazed into the sky.

Above me, the moon was setting, but had opened up a sea of stars. It was such a gorgeous sight and I quietly laid in my sleeping bag looking at the Milky Way galaxy and watched as shooting stars zipped through the night.

When we all woke up the next day, we packed up our gear and headed out. Although it was not the best trip in the world, the experience of being away from the bright lights and loud noises of the city reminded me of what it must have been like 25,000 years ago. I looked back at the Kelso Dunes one last time before we left and was happy to have been able to visit such an amazing place in Los Angeles’ own backyard.

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