Anyone that has driven north of Las Vegas along the US 95 highway through the Amargosa Valley has most likely noticed the sizable sand dune found in the desert a short distance off the road. The sign for the turnoff identifies this startling natural wonder as Big Dune. The name is about as self-explanatory as it gets and passers-by may have noticed ATV riders in the distance and maybe some hikers along the dune’s face, but most do not know much more about it than that. As it turns out, there is actually quite a bit more to Big Dune than just sand.
Few of the visitors to the sand dunes realize that this is actually a very sacred place to the Southern Paiute and Numic Speaking peoples that lived in the Mojave Desert. Big Dune featured prominently in their songs and legends. The Amargosa River passes underground near Big Dune and Paiutes used to follow the river’s path through the area between Pahrump and Beatty. Big Dune was directly along their path so it is not surprising that such a prominent natural feature would make an impact on them.
Sand dunes in general were considered living beings by the Paiutes because they move. While a person interpreting it through a purely materialistic lens would view it as simply sand being blown by dirt into a new spot, this is not the perspective through which native peoples viewed the same phenomenon. The movements of the dunes were a sign of awareness, just not in the same sense that humans are self-aware.
Another reason Big Dune was of particular reverence is that it is a “booming dune” much like the Kelso Dunes which we explored in Experiencing The Kelso Dunes At Night. In fact, it was believed that the booming dunes were able to communicate with each other through their own language. the booming sound was how these specific dunes spoke to each other and even to humans. The Crescent Dunes outside of Tonopah, Big Dune, Dumont Dunes, and the Kelso Dunes were all interlinked because they all “spoke,” they were sort of like a sand dune family.
One more reason Big Dune was especially important to the American Indians is that it is home to a few species of beetles not found anywhere else in the world. The Giuliani’s big dune scarab beetle (Pseudocotalpa giulianii) is listed as an endangered species, and the Big Dune aphodius scarab beetle (Aphodius sp.) is a “sensitive species,” meaning the species is not yet endangered but are in danger of becoming so. Two more rare species of beetle, the Large Aegialian Scarab Beetle (Aegialia magnifica) and Rulien’s miloderes weevil (Miloderes rulieni), are found there as well and are also considered sensitive species.
While the plant and shrubbery around the Big Dune area are not endangered, they are vital to the survival of the rare beetles that live there. The bushes provide the beetles with shelter and are a food source for them, but even more importantly shrubs are the beetle’s mating areas and nesting areas for beetle larvae. No mating, no baby beetles to keep the population alive so the plants and bushes are vital to the survival of these extraordinarily unique creatures.
The entire Big Dune Complex is a BLM designated Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) due to the beetle’s habitat. Off roading and ATV use are permitted at Bid Dune, it cannot be stressed enough to be mindful of they affect they have on the environment. If you are lucky enough to spot one of the rare beetles, look but don’t touch.
Big Dune is about an hour and half outside of Las Vegas, just south of Beatty. The road from the US 95 is unpaved, and although frequently traveled, not very easy driving. The road is rough but as long as you go slow most any vehicle should be able to handle it. There is a turnoff on the left once you get behind the dunes leading to what used to be an information sign, this area is great to park and hike in from. Do not try to drive any closer to the dunes than this because the sand becomes very soft and you can get stuck easily. There are no services or amenities at Big Dune, so bring plenty of water.
For more info on the American Indiana beliefs on Big Dune and many other locations in the Amargosa Valley area, an ethnological analysis report can be found at solareis.anl.gov.