Spotlight: Southern California's Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area
Windswept dunes offering solitude and thrills
What You’ll Find
The largest mass of sand dunes in California, the Imperial Sand Dunes are about 40 miles long and on average 5 miles wide. Known as a haven for off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts, the dunes offer dramatic scenery, rare plants and animals and a wilderness area.
The dunes are divided into three sections with the middle designated as the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness where only foot and horse traffic is allowed. Recreationists wanting to experience the dunes on four wheels will find the northern and southern sections the places to be with about two dozen campgrounds available! The Mammoth Wash is the smaller northern section and tends to be less crowded. The southern section is the more popular OHV destination.
You’ll find these impressive dunes north of the Mexican border, west from Phoenix and east from Los Angeles. For those living in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles or Phoenix, in about four hours you can be experiencing the vast solitude or off-highway vehicle thrills that these dunes have to offer. Locals and out-of-towners can find detailed directions online.
Make Sure You
Purchase a permit. A permit is required for the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area and may be purchased in advance, for a cost savings. Your fees help provide services like emergency medical and rescue services, restrooms, trash collection, road maintenance and education for the over one million visitors to the dunes each year.
Visit the Plank Road—where the dunes won! Part of the varied history of Imperial Sand Dunes includes the construction of the Plank Road, built in 1915 as an attempt to cross the imposing dunes which provided a formidable natural barrier for those migrating west. Today, only fragments of the Plank Road still exist and are deemed a California Historic Landmark and included in the National Register of Historic Places. Remnants of the Plank Road are protected and the fenced section may be viewed at the west end of Well Road by exiting Interstate 8 at Grays Well Road.
Don’t ForgetThese lands were once within or near the traditional lands of the Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Cocopah, Kamia, Kumeyaay, Mohave and Quechan peoples. The sand dunes are part of the sacred world for these contemporary tribes and contain burial and cremation areas and trail crossings. Be aware that these dunes are culturally significant and respect closed and sensitive areas.
Start your engines! But remember, safety first. Off-highway vehicle education and safety programs are available at both the north and south dunes. Check the website for a schedule of classes.
Did You Know?
Millions of years ago, tremendous earth upheavals elevated the area above the ocean and the constant action of erosional forces over the eons have all had a part in sculpting this vast region. Where Lake Cahuilla was once thought to have been, the dunes are now what may remain of its sandy beaches. Now blown by prevailing westerly and northwesterly winds to their present location, this process of erosion continues today, causing the dunes to migrate at a rate of approximately one foot per year.