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Sledding Down a Sand Dune in California (Or, What You Do for Fun When You Live in the Desert)

Question: What do you do for fun in the winter time when you live in the Mojave desert?

Answer:  Go sand sledding down a giant hill of sand, of course!

Ok, so not really. Most people who live in the Mojave desert probably don’t go sand sledding, but I’m fully convinced this is only because they’ve never heard of it.  Case in point: When I first told friends in Las Vegas I was planning on sliding down a giant sand dune, I was met with mostly blank stares.

“We have sand dunes here?” they asked. Seriously.

To be fair though, I hadn’t heard of these sand dunes either until last year. And it wasn’t until I stumbled upon this blog post review that I decided to add the Kelso Sand Dunes to the ‘ol bucket list.

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Here’s the Skinny On the Dunes:

They’re not located in Las Vegas, but in the Mojave National Preserve near Baker, California. The dune field is 45 square miles large and the tallest dune of the bunch is 650 feet tall. The dunes are some of the biggest in North America (according to this dude I met on top of the dune, the Kelso Dunes are the third largest in the US…but don’t quote me on that).

The coolest thing about them (besides the fact that they exist…because, seriously. Sand dunes? They’re awesome) is that these dunes sing. Yes, they sing! When you slide down them, the falling sand makes a booming sound that sounds like an airplane or motorcycle revving. It’s really strange and somewhat eerie, especially if you’re not expecting it. It’s like, “What the Hell is that sound? And where is it coming from?” And then you find out, “Oh. It’s just the sand singing. No biggie.”

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Driving to the sand dunes. Most of the road is paved, but the last bit of is dirt.
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Midway up!

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Can I point out here for a moment that hiking up a sand dune is hard work? The park ranger at the visitors center warned us that we’d “be crawling up the dune on our hands and knees” and he was right. These photos don’t accurately show just steep the dune was, but trust me,  if you go, you’ll be out of breathe by the time you get to the top.

But even though you’ll want to quit about midway up, don’t! It actually gets easier the higher you climb. The sand is easier to walk in (it’s more compact) along the path between the two dunes. So just keep going! The view alone is worth the work.

This is the part of the hike where I thought I would die:

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This part, too:

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Oh, and this part as well:

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I don’t recommend drinking an energy drink before you climb the dune. I did this, and two minutes into the hike, my heart was beating so fast, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. No joke.

Here’s a photo of my friend getting ready to slide down the dune in a plastic sled. Some people brought boogie boards,which also worked well.

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Here’s a video of me sledding down the hill. The reason I’m not going very fast is because

1. You don’t go as fast down a hill of sand as you do down a hill of snow

2. Right where I was supposed to pick up speed, I panicked and tried to use my feet to stop the sled. As you can see, that didn’t work very well.

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The view from the top!
Walking back towards our car

The Mojave National Preserve is also home to a forest of Joshua trees. You can’t see the trees well in these photos because the sun was setting on our drive through it, but it’s a fairly dense forest. Apparently there are as many – if not more – Joshua trees at the Mojave National Preserve than there are in Joshua Tree Park.

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A Few Tips If You’re Driving from Las Vegas…

Don’t listen to your GPS! It’ll tell you to take the 95 and the 40, but that route takes much longer (an hour longer according to one of the park rangers). Take the I-15 and get off at Cima road. There are three exits you can take (The preserve is HUGE!) and any of the three will take you to the Kelso Sand Dunes, but the Cima exit will take you through a Joshua tree forest. It’s a pretty drive and there’s a popular hike you can do from there.

Also, your GPS or MapQuest may tell you that it’s only an hour and 20 minutes from Las Vegas…and this is true if you’re just wanting to know the drive time from Vegas to the entrance of the park. But the dunes are located in the middle of the park and it takes at least 45 minutes to get there from the entrance. So you need to allot between 2 and 2.5 hours to get there. Then if you want to hike to the top of the dune, you’ll need another two to three hours. Don’t plan on hiking the dunes unless you have the whole day free.

Tips for Hiking/Sledding the Dunes:

  • Bring at least 2 litres of water. I brought one liter up to the top and drank the whole thing (and it wasn’t hot out). I left the other one in my car and drank it as soon as I got back. Trust me, you work up a sweat…even in the winter.
  • Wear sneakers or light-weight hiking shoes for the first part of the walk and then (if the sand isn’t hot) take your shoes off and walk the rest of the way barefoot. It’s easier! Don’t wear heavy hiking boots.
  • Bring a boogie board or a long sled. A circular toboggan, plastic lid or piece of card board won’t work (we tried). Sledding on sand is nothing like sledding on snow.
  • When you’re sledding, sit towards the back of the sled/board and lean back. If you’re on a boogie board, pull on the rope so that the board slants up a bit. You’ll get more speed that way.
  • Plan to stop by the visitor’s center (you’ll pass it on the way to the dunes if you take the I-15), because they have a cool exhibit, a gift shop and free maps. They don’t sell much in the way of food or drinks, so make sure to bring that in with you (there’s a gas station at the Cima road exit).
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3 thoughts on “Sledding Down a Sand Dune in California (Or, What You Do for Fun When You Live in the Desert)

  1. I love sand dunes but I haven’t been out to the Kelso Dunes in such a long time. I’d love to go again and I’ve always wanted to try sledding down a dune as well. I’d probably try to stop myself half way down as well… Haha Thanks for all your tips and insights! Are you planning a trip there again anytime soon?

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