How to Visit the Eureka Valley Sand Dunes (and hear them sing)

by on Sep.08, 2009, under Travel

Back in college, on full moons in summer, we would drive to the next valley down, take off all our clothes, and slide down the sand dunes to hear them sing.

I’ve returned to the dunes nearly every summer that I’ve lived in Los Angeles. It’s a long haul, but it’s awesome to introduce new visitors to the dunes. And the experience holds up in its own right.

The Eureka Valley Sand Dunes are good for a visit any time of day or year, with the caveat that in the winter, the rain may wash out the roads. This is my method…

Go as close as you can to the full moon, preferably in June, July, August or September. Before you go, check out the times of the moon’s rise and set.

From Los Angeles, it takes about four hours to get up to Big Pine. I’ve often gone with big groups; we’ve met at Owens Valley restaurants such as Imperial Palace in Bishop, the Still Life Cafe in Independence, or Rossi’s in Big Pine. A long dinner is nice for a group where people are meeting one another for the first time, and these restaurants all have a lot of local color, but now that I’m older I’m going to abandon the dinner stop in favor of getting out to the dunes earlier.

So — after some kind of snackage, get yourself to the Keough Hot Springs. Heading north of 395, turn left 7 miles north of Big Pine. There’s a road to your right just after the turn; ignore it, and take the second right (map). Park about 50 feet in, and find a pool. Clothing is optional. There’s a facility further up the road, but it’s probably closed by the time you get there. And I’m told the free, open pools are better.

Keep in mind the moon-set time as you relax/digest at the hot springs. The next part of the drive will take you more or less 90 minutes, depending on the quality of the roads.

Head back south on 395 to Hwy 168 and turn left. You’ll see a sign for Deep Springs Valley. After about 2 miles, you’ll see a sign for Death Valley Road — make a slight right turn off of 168.

The next 37 miles you’ll spend on Death Valley Road will not pass quickly. Hairpin turns abound. At Deep Springs, I learned two important rules of desert driving: don’t cut corners you can’t see around, and never swerve to avoid small animals. Rabbits and mice will cross the road suicidally in front of your vehicle. You might kill a few. That’s part of the deal.

After 30 miles on this road, the pavement ends, and you’re on a graded gravel road. If there’s been rain, you could get deep ridges, big rocks, or washouts. Take them carefully.

After 7 miles of dirt road, the pavement returns. About 150 feet later is the right turn onto Eureka Road. Then you’ve got 10 more miles of dirt, and finally, you’ll arrive at a simple campsite. Park…

…and strip! I like to leave a pair of flip-flops on until I’ve climbed the dunes past the scrub. If it’s cold, I might keep my clothes on for the first 100 yards or so. Then leave your shoes or clothes in a pile that you’ll be able to find later. If you’re worried about the moon setting, leave a flashlight sticking out of the sand.

The dunes rise 600 feet off the valley floor, almost the largest in North America. (Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes rise 750 feet.)  The next part is going to kick your ass. Find the ridge and walk up, up, up the dunes. It may be tempting to start sliding around as soon as you hear the hum (more on that later). But it’s worth getting some elevation.

The dunes tend to form a kind of L-shape — it changes all the time — so you’ll walk up and over to the right. Once you’ve found a nice steep slope, space out your group. Take a moment to listen to the voice of the desert, and then plunge down, everyone at once.

Your object is not speed but volume of sand moved. So swim down the dunes, wave your arms, make yourself a human sand blender. As you all tumble together, the sand you move will move against the sand beneath it. And you’ll hear the hum. It’s not like anything else.

You’ll also understand, if you were hesitant at first, why you’re best off naked. The sand is very soft (and the moonlight is forgiving). Clothes won’t keep it out, and will only trap it to irritate you. And it’s a very comfortable, supportive medium. For the sake of modesty or athletic support, dress as you need. But naked is the way to go.

After your run, clamber up — all fours works best — and do it again. And again, and again. It’s hard to slide all the way down and walk back around the base, because the scrub is murder on your feet. It’s worth it to keep climbing back to the ridge you walked up on and follow that back down.

There are two ways to camp for the night. The softest bed is back on the dunes; haul your blankets or bags back up there. If you want to sleep less comfortably but longer, camp in the shade of your vehicle. Standing in the campsite, facing the dunes, the sun rises on your left.

Returning to Big Pine in the morning, the Country Kitchen is always satisfying.

Picture by Antelope Balloo on Flickr

Dunescape 6 by Antelope Balloo on Flickr

My first year up from Los Angeles, I blew out a tire on a Nissan Sentra and went to pains to take a more rugged vehicle. This year we went in HJ’s Corolla and we were fine (though a Jeep did blow a tire). Check your tread; high clearance is preferable but not necessary (and a high car offers more shade in the morning).

Also, you’ll want to have plenty of water. I also like to pick up an energy drink and some Gatorade at the Mobil station in Big Pine before heading in.
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12 Comments for this entry

  • teofilo

    Cool. The part about the rabbits running suicidally in front of the car reminds me of Chaco.

  • Josh H. Pille

    You had me til “voice of the desert.”

  • Joshua Malbin

    It’s been too long since I’ve been to the dunes…over six years now. One thing you didn’t mention is that it is very hot in Eureka Valley during the day and quite cool at night, so that the sand a few inches below the surface is pleasantly warm as you slide through it.

    JHP: It’s better if you write the capitals as they’re supposed to be. The Voice of the Desert.

    Another fun nudist but completely impractical trip takes you down to the hippies around the Saline Valley Warm Springs, but I haven’t done that in oh, fourteen or fifteen years.

  • sandra742

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  • Josh K-sky

    When an eccentric industrialist named L.L. Nunn founded Deep Springs in 1917, he envisioned a cocoon, immune to the material and sensual decadence that winked in cities’ neon lights. “Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice,” Nunn addressed students in 1923. “You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things.”

    From Salon.

  • Treas

    Last week when down visiting the White Mtns, I noticed the road to the dunes off hwy 168 was closed. Does anyone know why and when it might reopen?

  • Josh K-sky

    Closed, schmosed. That sign was up when I went in. I think it just means that there’s some road damage that they haven’t got around to fixing. The roads were pretty bouncy, and there were a few small, navigable washouts. Like I said, one person got a flat. Caveat, um, coctor?

  • Joshua Malbin

    A small addendum based on my most recent trip: there is another road into and out of Eureka Valley, coming in from Scotty’s Castle at the edge of Death Valley. It is much worse maintained than the one from Big Pine, I discovered, so if you have the choice, avoid it.

  • Josh K-sky

    Ouch. Did the rental car make it in and out OK? Did your butts?

  • Joshua Malbin

    Yes and yes. But it was very slow. The washboards on the road to Scotty’s Castle are terrible, and there was one section of very soft road where I was afraid we would get stuck–we had high clearance but not 4WD.

  • Jeff Dunn

    Strictly speaking, the Park Service doesn’t allow camping on the dunes, only at the base. Not that there will be any enforcement…

  • larry


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