Experiencing The Kelso Dunes At Night

The Kelso Dunes during the daytime.Photo by Osie Turner
The Kelso Dunes during the daytime.
Photo by Osie Turner

With summer close on our heels, and triple digit temperatures sure to come in the near future, now is a great time for one last outdoor adventure. We explored the history of the Kelso Train Depot a few months back, and the Kelso Dunes have been begging for a visit since then. Last weekend presented a prime opportunity to pack up and do just that.

Click here for a Custom Map showing the recommended route for this scenic trip.
(Map provided by RoadTripAmerica.com and built by Tom Herbertson.)

The journey began later than planned, which ended up with the arrival time being well past nightfall. It was to be an overnight camping trip anyway and the road there is easy to follow, so the setback was really not an issue. Surprisingly, the camping area was a beehive of activity, even though it was close to midnight; as it turned out, there was a group of middle schoolers on an extracurricular trip from Santa Clarita staying there that night.

The teacher in charge of the group, Mr. Johnson, explained that the students and their parents were instructed to meet at their school prepared to camp overnight and drive up to three and a half hours, but were not told where they would be going. This sounds like such a great idea to get kids and their parents involved in the living history around us; it would be great to see such programs organized in our own schools someday.

Lights from the middle school explorers
Lights from the middle school explorers running off of the dune.
Photo by Osie Turner

After setting up camp for the night, an impromptu hike up to the dunes ensued. The moonlight created a false illusion of closer proximity than turned out to be the case. The large sand dune never seemed to get any closer, yet the campsite drifted out of sight. It took close to an hour, but finally the ascent up the impressive mountain of sand began.

If you are familiar with the Kelso Dunes, you may already know that they are “booming sand dunes,” i.e. when walking, or better yet running, on the side of them a low booming or humming sound comes up out of the dune. The sound is magical; it has been described as sounding like something produced by a musical instrument.

Booming sand dunes are actually something of a rarity. There are only about thirty-five locations around the world where this phenomenon occurs. Interestingly, seven of these locations are very close to home for Las Vegans—besides the Kelso Dunes, eastern California also has the Eureka Dunes, Dumont Dunes, and Panamint Dunes; here in Nevada, we have the Crescent Dunes outside of Tonopah, Big Dune outside of Beatty, and Sand Mountain near Fallon. All of these locations have been known to sing and boom.

The phenomenon of the booming sand has been known to desert dwellers around the world for centuries, probably millenniums. Marco Polo wrote about it during his travels, and Middle Eastern writers mentioned it at least 1500 years ago. It has inspired and mystified people for ages.

The view from the side of the largest sand dune
The view from the side of the largest sand dune, looking northeast. The Providence Mountains can be seen in the distance.
Photo by Osie Turner

The usual explanation for the sound is that the moving top layer rubs against the lower unmoved layers of sand and the friction between the two produces the humming, booming, and singing. However, not all researchers are satisfied with that hypothesis; in a 2004 article by National Geographic, Why Sand Dunes Go Boom, Melany Hunt, a mechanical-engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, explained her theory. Hunt observed that the sound continues after all the sand has stopped moving, and that the sound varies depending on the season; therefore there must be something else at work. She came to the conclusion that the friction of moving sand grains reverberates deeper into the dune and bounces back off of a wet layer deeper in the dune. Smaller sand dunes do not have the wet layer for the sound to bounce off of and hence do not sing.

A view of the ridge of the dune
A view of the ridge of the dune with the starry night sky above.
Photo by Osie Turner

Hearing the music of the dunes for the first time, alone, in the middle of the night was a unique but, admittedly, frightening experience. Even knowing the cause of the sounds, it is unsettling to hear them directly underneath your feet. The booming sounded more like a low groan coming from the sand; the sound triggered the primal thought that you might sink all the way in and vanish into the sand. The cure to this irrational fear turned out to be to simply stop moving, sit down, and take in the astounding night scenery. It is easy to understand why the Saharan tribes of Africa believed that God spoke through the dunes in this way.

There was a very bright full moon that night that illuminated the entire valley well enough to see details on the mountains fairly well. The sand was cold but welcome after climbing up roughly six hundred feet of dune. The stars shone brightly in the clear night sky as well, and the campfires could be seen in the distance. Perhaps nighttime is the best time to experience the Kelso Dunes after all.

The Desert Evening Primrose flowers, or Oenothera deltoides, were blooming all over the sandy desert.Photo by Osie Turner
The Desert Evening Primrose flowers, or Oenothera deltoides, were blooming all over the sandy desert.
Photo by Osie Turner

The Kelso Dunes are about 100 miles to the south of Las Vegas, and about an hour and a half drive without traffic. There are two campsites at the dunes, one about a quarter miles past the trailhead on the south side of the road, and the second a little further down the road on the north side, near a large tree. Both are very basic and there are no amenities at either of them, but there are restrooms at the trailhead parking area. Visit roadtripamerica.com for more about the Mojave National Preserve.


2 responses on “Experiencing The Kelso Dunes At Night

  1. I’ve not been on the Kelso Dunes that late. But I did spend a magical sunset out there on a March evening in 1995. I absolutely loved the sensation of being able to run straight down a vertical face of sand with no danger of getting hurt. Closest to the feeling of jumping over a cornice on downhill skis (although the end result of sinking into deep sand and having the near-magical sound wash over me is a lot different than the rush of hitting a near-vertical slope of ice!)

    And it would be very different to be up there solo!

    The one caveat I would add to this article — climbing to the top of the Kelso Dunes can be exhausting! The sand is very soft and it takes extraordinary effort to keep slogging all of the way to the top. Always carry lots of water. The payoff of being able to run down is sublime.

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