Grains of sand skitter across the dunes, joining a mad dust devil dancing up the steep, sandy slopes. The great Eureka Dunes were created from such swirling dervishes eons ago.
The dunes are set like an island in the desert in the southern part of Eureka Valley in northern Inyo County and are the highest in California. Although the area they cover is only three square miles they rise to 680 feet above the valley floor.
As you bump your way out the washboard access road, the dunes look like a stretched out swan in flight. Up close they look — enormous.
Eureka Dunes is one of the newest additions to Death Valley National Park and one of the most remote. This is not a trip I would recommend in the summer, or even just in one car the rest of the year. Friends told me the dunes were well visited in the cooler months, but I would just as soon not be stranded out there with no cell phone coverage and no back-up ride to civilization.
The impressive limestone wall of the Last Chance Mountains lays just to the east in multicolor layers and provides stark contrast to the lighter colour dunes.
Climbing the dunes is exhausting work. For every step forward I slid a half-step back. As my hiking boots filled with grit I felt as if I were being sucked down and down. I was waiting for the enormous sand worm from Frank Herbert’s “Dune” to come and swallow me. Eventually the wind and the weight of the sand made me stop in my tracks and turn back.
The best time of day to climb the dunes is early morning to avoid the heat if you are going in warm weather. Winter months with low afternoon light can be spectacular on the dunes.
The ever-changing light accentuates contours, curves and ripples offering many creative photographic opportunities whether you are working in black and white or colour. Really protect your camera in this environment. I came home with a couple dust spots on my camera sensor.
Eureka’s dunes are “booming” or “singing” dunes — one of only 35 known places where the mysterious natural music can be heard.
Marco Polo in the 13th Century said the singing sands — which he ascribed to evil desert spirits — “at times fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms.”
Kelso Dunes, almost 300 miles away by car, are also singing dunes. I have heard and felt the low moaning rumble at Kelso, but not at Eureka. I didn’t go high enough and it wasn’t hot and dry enough.
Bruno Andreotti from the University of Paris-7 took equipment out to the Atlantic Sahara in Morocco to study the sonic phenomena. Wind forces sand to accumulate at the top of the dune until the angle of the slope reaches a tipping point of about 35 degrees. The eventual avalanche of sand produces the bellowing noise. The sand must be sufficiently dry for the singing to occur.
That means you cannot hear the dunes moan as if with grief if you are not high enough or are not on a steep enough incline.
CalTech researchers Melany Hunt and Nathalie M. Vriend found the dunes sing on their own when there is a naturally occurring slumping event or when sand is forced down the leeward face of a large dune. In the latter case, the dune will continue to boom and vibrate even after the sand has visibly stopped moving.”
Three unique species of plants call this wild place home:
• Eureka Dunegrass, Swallenia alexandrae, is often the only plant found on the higher slopes of the dunes. Its dense root system catches and holds drifting sand, forming stable hummocks. Stiff, spiny leaftips protect the plant from being disturbed by herbivores and careless hikers. It is federally listed as an endangered species.
• Eureka Dunes Evening Primrose, Oenothera avita eurekensis, has large, white, night-blooming flowers to take advantage of pollinators such as moths that avoid the heat of day. When the leafy flower shoot is covered by windblown sand, roots sprout from the sides and a new rosette of leaves forms at the tip. It is federally listed as an endangered species.
• Shining Milkvetch, Astragalus lentiginosus micans, reflects excess light and heat with a covering of silvery hairs to conserve moisture. This is a hummock -forming plant like the dune grass. Nodules on the roots gather nitrogen from the air, an important nutrient not available in the sand. It is a candidate for the Endangered Species List.
There are also five endemic species of beetles.
Just over the Last Chance Mountains via Hanging Rock Canyon is Crankshaft Junction, Ubehebe Crater and the Racetrack — another one of Death Valley’s more intriguing geologic mysteries.
Eureka Dunes are accessible by most standard vehicles via the Death Valley / Big Pine Road. From the Ubehebe Crater Road you must travel 44 miles of graded dirt to the dunes. From the town of Big Pine there are 28 miles of paved road and 21 miles of graded dirt to the dunes. The final 10 miles of both routes is the narrow South Eureka Road. Drive slowly to avoid making the ruts deeper.
I think the easiest way in is to go to Big Pine on Highway 395 and head east. The road is paved from Big Pine to the floor of Eureka Valley. About 1 to 2 miles from Big Pine take the road marked Death Valley Road going right. There is a sign with mileage to the main sites in Death Valley.
At Eureka Valley Road, turn right. You can see the dunes before you turn.
Getting there from the east: Travel 2.7 miles north of the Grapevine Entrance Station on Ubehebe Crater Road to the marked turnoff for the Eureka Dunes. Bear right. Here the pavement ends and a well-maintained graded dirt road begins. You’ll reach Crankshaft Junction in approximately 21 miles and begin a winding climb through the Last Chance Mountains and down Hanging Rock Canyon (the latter portion is partially paved). 33.4 miles from the initial turnoff you’ll reach another for the dunes – bear left 9.7 miles down a graded dirt road to the dune parking area.
Motorized vehicles, sand boards and horses are not allowed on the dunes. There is a primitive campground with concrete block vault toilets and not much else. There is no shade. What there is, is solitude. And when the dunes aren’t singing they are a cathedral of silence.
Sources and for more information